Bosnia and Herzegovina – October 2015

Rapids below the mill at Stolac

Rapids below the mill at Stolac

Bosnia and Herzegovina has been in the limelight in the 20th century for, mostly, the wrong reasons; yet this is an extraordinary, beautiful and interesting country which Bosnians are doing their best to rebuild. Forbiddingly sparse in parts, lushly wooded in others; the trees in October were a riot of colour. For myself, the most remarkable feature are the fast flowing clear blue waters of its many rivers, “our richest resource” remarked one of Sarajevo’s defenders during the three year siege of the early nineties.

It is not just in the landscape but in the towns and villages too where, architecturally, Austria Hungary meets Ottoman Porte – concentrating the mind on the country’s seemingly unnecessarily tragic history.

Austro Hungary along the river

Austro-Hungarian architecture along the river

Sarajevo’s monument to mark the place of Princip’s assassination of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie has been smashed for a second time. A visit to this fatal (and unplanned) spot, just before the Latinska Cuprija bridge, brings home the narrow dimensions of the street. Sarajevo is surprisingly compact. The museum dedicated to the event is worth a visit. The houses lining the embankment of the river Miljacka could be anywhere in the 19th century Dual Monarchy. To capture a flavour of the wealthy both of the Moslem and the Orthodox inhabitants of the early 20th century, visit the Despic House of a family of Serbian merchants. (The owner has left one of the wisest letter of wishes you could wish to read.) Also view the picturesque Ottoman Syrzo’s house. The differences, yet similiarities, in the domestic arrangements make a most interesting comparison. Rebecca West, author of ‘Black Lamb and Grey Falcon’, was impressed by the Ottoman houses which she described as “simple and sensible… Western housewifery is sluttish compared to that aseptic order”.

Mounting an exhibition

Mounting an exhibition with Zlatan

Nearby is the Fine Art Academy, built as a huge neo-gothic Evangelical church, has around the corner, handily, a fine bar with a pre-war Paris atmosphere. Here our hosts, the sculptor, Fikret Libovac and theatre director Zlatan Smajlovic were hanging the latest exhibition. Both men withstood the siege and Zlatan directed theatre in the centre of Sarajevo throughout. Across the river in Bistrik is one of the two main synagogues; a resplendent brewery and a remarkable Franciscan church dedicated to St. Ante – there is a school in Herzegovina specialising in religious art. The interior out shines any ecclesiastical modern interior in the UK. The brewery, Sarajevska Pivara, has been restored and has a large pub inside, but the flats facing it are still pockmarked by bullets and grenades from the 1992-5 conflict between the Serbs and the Bosniaks. The Serbian guns were in the hills surrounding the city.

The Han

The Han

The old Town – the Bascarsija – is Ottoman, the fine Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque and Madrasa being founded in 1537. The whole is beautifully presented, the Madrasa has both film and small museum. The lanes are full of restaurants, coffee houses and shops selling carpets, metal work and recycled ammunition – recycled in the form of pens, etc. There is a Han, now selling mostly Turkish rugs and tat from India, but where a poet was reciting to a passing Saturday crowd.

Tombs at the Jewish Cemetery

Tombs at the Jewish Cemetery

The ancient synagogue has a history of the Jewish community and it is worth making a visit to the Jewish cemetery.

Unsurprisingly, there are memorials everywhere – the siege of Sarajevo is recounted in the History Museum. The massacre of Srebrenica has a remarkable exhibition to commemorate this atrocity in the Galerija 11/07/95. There are fine photographs and film. The gallery is next to the Catholic church where there is a new statue of Pope Francis to commemorate his visit in June. The Srebrenica memorial is a must for any visitor to Bosnia. Each institution, whether school wall, office or hospital has plaques with the names of the dead. I was corrected when I called it a civil war. It is the war. Elsewhere in the Balkans it is Tito’s war which is still mentioned as the war.

We, the European peacekeepers, don’t come out of this well, from the Bosnians point of view. From the ruins of Eugene of Savoy’s castle atop the hill of the city it is difficult not to wonder at the wisdom of the Dayton Accord seeing the canton border of the Serb Republika Srpsk. It did bring an end to the war. The Serbs also were given Srebrenica.

Inside the museum

Inside the museum with Fra Ivica

On the other hand the Franciscans come out of the whole thing bearing goodwill from all sides. A visit to Kresevo is a delight. The little town offers ancient Ottoman houses, a fine, contemporary Franciscan monastery and fresh trout for lunch from the blue clear waters of the Kresevka. Taken around by Fra Ivica, who changed into his habit to conduct us to the museum. This was set up by Fra Grga Martic in the early 20th century. I am interested in the medieval Hungarian and Bosnian Kings’ habit of inviting skilled craftsmen into their lands either to defend, cultivate or industrialise them. Here in Bosnia it was the ‘German’ miners as in Bohemia and Slovakia, who worked the rich deposits producing much of the gold and silver for the rest of Europe, before the discoveries in the New World. In the hills there are also onyx, crystal and citrine.

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Bosnian Catholics in 1899

The Monastery was turned into a childrens’ home and returned to the Order in 1954. There is much of interest here, including a photograph of 1899 with Bosnian Catholics surrounding a friar dressed, at first sight, as Bosnian Moslems in Ottoman clothes. Colour made the difference – black for Christians, red for Moslems and green for Orthodox.

A villager

A villager in Lukomir

A 4 x 4 is needed for the visit to Lukomir, a good three hours from Sarajevo. The 12 inhabitants (two families as opposed to the 50 of a few decades ago) remaining in this hamlet were about to travel down to the valley as the snows were coming. I found this interesting place rather sad. I also recommend a visit to the pyramids of Visoko. They are disputed but are of interest.

Steam train

Steam train

Trevnik has a pretty painted mosque, the same date as that in Tetova in Macedonia, and a fine steam train outside the museum made in Czechoslovakia. Jajce has far the best tourist office and a great castle with Ottoman houses around its base. We were planning to reach the mills on the Vrbas but the roads were up everywhere. However, we did see, through its protective grilled door, a fine Mitras figure in the remains of the Roman temple on the outskirts of the town.

Mostar bridge

Mostar bridge

In Mostar the fighting was even more difficult to rationalise than in Sarajevo. The Bosnian Croats on one bank of the beautiful Neretva, the Moslem community on the other. There is a film of the destruction of the bridge and its restoration amid much cheering. Along with international leaders involved, most notably the Turks, The Prince of Wales is to be seen as among the first users. I had previously made other attempts to get to Mostar so my expectations were high. Close to, it seems to lack the elegance seen in photographs of the original, but taken from a mosque further down the river the form appears in all its elegance.

Turkish house in Mostar

Turkish house in Mostar

The Turks are everywhere, touring their old Empire, but then so are the tourists shops selling old army gear. I wonder what they make of that. Mostar is lovely, especially when the tourists have gone. There is a fine Turkish house, still family owned, with a musuem, but, as with the the parador model, you can stay here too. Outside of the old town the avenues are tree lined and attractive.

The castle at Pocitelj

The castle at Pocitelj

Herzegovina has many delights. The town of Pocitelj where, under the initiative of Zlatan Smajlovic and his English actor wife, Gina Landor, MLAZ offers open-air performance (the stage built of bricks from bombed buildings) and exhibitions with literary events. The stage was built by Zlatan with bricks taken from bombed buildings. In the most picturesque setting, previously much war-damaged, things are happening again.

The Sufi Tekkie

The Sufi Tekki

Blagaj has a fine Sufi tekki at the fount of the Buna. The Dervishes, the hippies of the Moslem world, were closed down in the 50s but their tekki is unmissable. They carry out their mystic ‘Swirling’ on the 1st Saturday of May each year. Just before Stolac is a field of extraordinary tombs or stecci – pre-Cyrillic script, horses and strange naïve figures. In the town itself, the Moslem community are rebuilding. The river is beautiful and plumes of spray make the landscape hazy. Everyone is rebuilding their past and the arts are making inroads in the healing process. However, in Mostar, there is a Croate and a Bosniac University.

The back of a cigarette packet

The back of a cigarette packet

The cigarette packets have three warnings on them all identical in Bosnian, Croat and Serbian to take the place of Serbo-Croat.

One just wants all those wonderful, fast-flowing rivers to wash all the recent history away. Tourism here will really help and there is so much of interest and beauty to see. A great guide to Sarajevo is available to download at www.sarajevotraveler.com

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A Glance at the Life and Times of Miklos Banffy

Budapest and Transylvania
26th September to 3rd October 2015

Miklos Banffy at his desk

Miklos Banffy at his desk

“In a brown velvet jacket and wide trousers he walked a little self conscious from one desk to the other… ‘I am drawing here, am writing there, at the third one I read’… I have forgotten what he did at the fourth… ’Somehow it seems more comfortable this way – he apologised and also I am very disorderly…”

In this charming description of his working habits, Miklos Banffy is disarmingly modest. This self deprecation is made all the more poignant by our visits to a few of his haunts – revealing something of this gifted, multilingual and many facetted man. Our journey was half in Budapest and then in Cluj and, at a slower pace in a few Hungarian Transylvanian villages in the traditional Saxon area. We behaved as if we were taking part in the Budapest Season before the war in a hectic race from place to place. From Cluj to Sibiu the pace was more measured.

Nearly seven decades after his death in Budapest in 1950, Miklos Banffy, one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century is only now being recognised by the English-speaking world. Jaap Scholten, in his Comrade Baron, describes what happened to so many of Banffy’s generation of Hungarian Transylvanians under Communism. Banffy’s own fate was no better. He died penniless, unsung and unread except by Hungarians. Jaap spoke to us over dinner on our first evening in the comfort of the Art’otel beneath the castle of Buda, on the bank of the Danube.

National Museum Budapest

National Museum Budapest

Day two began with a tour through the capital, bringing home the majesty of the Danube and the spirit of the 19th century movers and shakers in Buda and in Pest. At this time, Transylvania was still linked to the Kingdom of Hungary but ruled from Vienna. A visit to the truly National Museum, conceived by Ferenc Szechenyi, houses wonderful Renaissance furnishings from Slovakia and Transylvania including the great tomb monument of Michael Apafy (d. 1635), from Malancrav, which was relevant as this Baroque monument was carved by an artist from Spis and was commissioned for Malancrav, in Saxon Transylvania, where our journey would end.

Michael Apafy's tomb in the national museum

Michael Apafy’s tomb in the national museum

The National Museum also houses the wonderous Coronation cope of 1031, repaired by Empress Sisi and her daughter. It is too fragile to be shown with the sacred regalia, including the Crown of St. Stephen, symbol of Hungarian Sovereignty, now in the Houses of Parliament. Alongside this is the chest designed for Charles IV and Empress Zita, designed by Miklos Banffy in 1916, once containing the Coronation gift of 100,000 gold crowns.

Here too are the wedding clothes of Louis Jagiello and his Habsburg wife, Mary (1522), whose defeat and death at the battle of Mohacs in 1526 caused the partition of the Kingdom between the Habsburgs and the Ottomans, creating the buffer state of Transylvania extant to the end of the 17th century, ruled by elected Princes and inhabited by a myriad of peoples. The Diet of this extraordinary country comprised the Hungarians, the Saxons and Szecklers who elected their own priests and judges, independent of Pope and King, unusual in a feudal age.

Inside the Parliament building

Inside the Parliament building

Against this background, the glitz of the Houses of Parliament (based on the British model) was completed at the beginning of the last century and restored after the siege of Buda in 1944/5. It was in these chambers that Balint/Banffy argued for cooperatives and better conditions for his Transylvanians including Romanians. Banffy, himself was member of Parliament from 1901-4 and from 1910 to 1918 had dual citizenship.

A delicious lunch at Pierrot near the castle, and then into the Coronation church, startling in its rich polychromed interior. Banffy was given the task to set the scene for the 1916 Coronation. “Fidgeting old Schulek knew no more than adorn it with those curlicues in bad taste.” Zsuzsa Szebeni explained ‘this bad taste’ was covered, by Banffy, in burgundy-coloured hangings so as to create a stage for the spectacle of Coronation. “My first task was to hide the restless motley inside of the church.” This was to be the last coronation of the Habsburgs.

Interior of the Coronation Church

Interior of the Coronation Church

Against the background of rich colour and pageant “the king advanced to the edge of the sanctuary were Tisza just stood. The royal cope on his shoulders. Before him the church crammed with people dressed in velvet, furs, silks, jewels and my men were summoned… there were maybe fifty of them with crutches, wooden legs, I did not dress them at all. Let them come as they were, let them come like straight from the trenches, in grey uniforms, brushed clean but dingy…” Banffy knew the effect of this reminder of war, the last day of December 1916, would have on those who were responsible for sending these men to the front. “I was a set and costume designer. How could I have desisted of such a dramatic effect?” Banffy was a soldier in 1914.

Outside, in the square, the restricted site of the King’s oath of loyalty to all the corners of his Kingdom. He raised his sword each time indicating these upon his turning and rearing horse. There is an early film of the event.

The Visitation, Hungarian National Gallery

The Visitation, Hungarian National Gallery

In taxis, we raced to the theatre museum, which at once stressed the importance of the stage in Budapest. It is in a fine villa outside the centre of the city. We later returned to the castle were Dr. Istvan Barkoczi led us around the highlights of the great collections of Budapest. He has just pointed out to me that the huge room of medieval altarpieces were collected in the 1870s for national identity and the rediscovery of the Trecento.

Banffy's bust in the Opera House

Banffy’s bust in the Opera House

The international collection is fine and bought from the Esterhazys in 1870. The canvasses are housed temporarily in galleries in the castle. The Habsburg palace was destroyed in the last war. A war in which Banffy was himself destroyed, in attempting to halt. The post-war architecture belongs to one of the dreariest periods of European design. Apart from Old Masters the museum has good Hungarian 20th century art which is not generally on the tourist route.

The Danube

The Danube

The funicular returned us to the banks of the Danube. And then across to Pest for a splendid party to meet cognoscenti of Miklos Banffy and conversation ranged from restitution to Transylvanian forests and contemporary art before dinner at Gerloczy in very evocative surroundings…

The Park Club exterior

The Park Club exterior

Day three, in the small hotel conference room, Janos Matyasfalvi performed the most skilled presentation on the intricacies of Hungarian social life in Budapest covering the period of Banffy’s novels (1870s to 1914). We saw, first hand, the splendour of the Park Club where Abady attends the ball following the ‘King’s Cup’ in the presence of the Emperor and Empress. The Club was founded in 1893 to “popularize sports and to assure a pleasant and elite atmosphere for intellectual people excluding any kind of political activity”. Judging from the trilogy, this rule was ignored. Women were also members. All the furniture was imported from London. The Club was steam heated and had electric light. Alas, the garden and the artificial grotto have gone, as have the tennis courts, bowling greens and archery field.

Interior of the Casino

Interior of the Casino

The Casinos were created as meeting places, not necessarily just for playing for high stakes that were the ruin of Laszlo Gyeroffy. There were three. That for the Aristocracy, the Nemzeli, was destroyed in the last war. The Orszagos for the Landed Gentry, does exist in part as does that for the Jewish community, Liborvrosi.

One of Banffy's stage set designs

One of Banffy’s stage set designs

 

 

 

 

 

Opera house boxes

Opera house boxes

After lunch at the Callas restaurant we visited Budapest Opera House, one of the most lavish in Europe. Here Banffy was stage set designer. There is another lovely description of Banffy by Illes Endre. “At his drawing desk huge bunches of what seemed flowers stood in transylvanian painted pottery. Strange flowers with black stems, their petals brown or black unknown blooms, only from very close did they become familiar: they were brushes.”

Banffy's designs for Blue Beard

Banffy’s designs for Bela Bartok’s ‘Blue Beard’s Castle’

A private visit to the Raday Library followed to look at Banffy’s designs for costume and stage. This is the archive of the Protestant Church and the smell of archive filled the small room where we sat as the boxes containing his sketches were unpacked. With the designs in our memories we taxied to the exhibition at the Magyarsag House curated by Zsuzsa Szebeni. Being a Monday we had the building to ourselves.

Fot Palace

Fot Palace

In the evening we had been invited to Fot, the great neo-classical country house of the Karolyis. The left-wing politics of Mihaly Karolyi, a cousin of Banffy, is mentioned in Phoenix Land. Countess Karolyi, who lives in an apartment in Fot, (still state owned and a childrens’ home), can recall her mother telling her who all the characters really were in the trilogy but she can no longer remember who was who. Fot has taken in refugees in the recent crisis. Some are young men in their teens and are daunting.

Stained glass windows Targu Mures

Stained glass windows Targu Mures

Day four and Godollo was the perfect last visit in Hungary. As an important centre of the Arts and Crafts, the products would come alive in the stained glass of the Palace of Culture in Targu Mures. It was in Godollo that was Empress Sisi was happiest with her English and Irish grooms and hunting with Bay Middleton. Here, too, is the arts and crafts painting of Sisi mending the Coronation Cope with her daughter. The great house is as a shrine to the Empress but continues the history of the war years, the last gallery ending with a fine de Lazslo painting of the war time leader, Horthy. He and Banffy had known each other before 1914.

It is strange how difficult it is to get from Budapest to Cluj, after all, part of the Kingdom of Hungary until 1920. Banffy would no doubt have taken the train or driven the five hours through the Banat, given time to acclimatise through the Great Plain to the woods of Erdely, the Hungarian for Transylvania. Wizzair, the only airline flying the route, is Hungarian owned with one flight a week. We were on it.

Bontida Castle

Bontida Castle

Bontida, the ‘Versailles of Transylvania’, is the airport side of Cluj/Kolozsvar. However the parallel with Versailles is not apt. Bontida has more the patchwork quality of an English country house. In retribution for Banffy’s attempts to get Romania to join with the Allies in 1943, the Germans destroyed this great house and, according to Hugh Thomas, the Allies bombed the furnishings and artwork awaiting removal by the Nazis. The Soviets followed in quick succession to act against this great parliamentarian and man of letters, destroying yet more. The Romanians achieved the rest. The amount of venom shown to Banffy by his enemies tells much of the qualities of the man.

Banffy describes Abady’s Denestoya/Bontida. “Here Count Denes Abady built a horseshoe-shaped forecourt on the right of which he erected stables for 32 horses while on the left there was a covered riding school. Balint Abady’s maternal grandfather had added a Gothic Revival veranda to the western side of the mediaeval walls from which he could enjoy the truly majestic view…”

David Baxter, the director of the Heritage Conservation Training Centre, spoke of the future plans, well underway with a 50-year lease now arranged with the Banffy family who had restitution in 2008. Under this remarkable scheme the house is being pieced together.

Banffy's town house in Cluj

Banffy’s town house in Cluj

Day five finds us in the centre of Cluj. In the main square, facing the cathedral, is the delicate neo-classical façade of Miklos Banffy’s town house by Blaumann. It is now the Art Gallery. Again, amongst the life of the city and university town, we can imagine ourselves in the busy winter season with its balls and parties and casino.

Detail designed by Karoly Kos

Detail designed by Karoly Kos

The Enthnographical museum is excellent and a reminder of the importance to early 20th century nationalism portrayed in forms taken from peasant crafts translated by MacIntosh, Mucha and Kos. Kos worked with Banffy. The Calvinist church of 1913, one year before the World War, was designed by Karoly Kos. His ‘Transylvania’, was published by the Transylvanian Artists’ Guild launched in 1924. The chairman was Miklos Banffy and thanks to his connections at the Romanian Court the new government did not obstruct the publishing of books in Hungarian.

Banffy's final resting place, Cluj

Banffy’s final resting place, Cluj

At the top of the hill, within the city cemetery, stands the Banffy mausoleum. Banffy died in Budapest but is buried finally alongside his grandfather and father. Nearby is the Reform church of the Transylvanian Calvinist aristocracy, now fully restored with rows of 19th century armorials of the Transylvanian nobility who feature in the Trilogy and indeed played a part, beneficial or not, in the future of Hungary and Romania.

Rhedey's family armorial, Cluj

Rhedey’s family armorial, Cluj

The grave of Michael Apafy (d. 1690) last Prince of Transylvania is here, designed by Karoly Kos in 1942. Our Queen’s ancestors the Rhedeys appear too. At the west door stands a bronze of St. George, a copy of that made in Cluj in 1373 for Prague Castle, a feat of casting for its time.

Taegu Mures Palace of Culture

Taegu Mures Palace of Culture

Day six is the journey to Targu Mures, through some of the first of the foothills of the Carpathians, and past some fine ‘gypsy palaces’. There are remains of great houses along the route and the salt town of Turda is worth a visit. The centre of Targu Mures is marvellous. Private patronage and civic pride make it so. The Teleki library, founded and opened by Samuel Teleki in 1802, houses books on every important subject of the ‘Age of Reason’. Teleki collected and gave the entire library to the town. Here is a first edition of Banffy’s trilogy. At the bottom of the beautiful square is the fine Town Hall and the Palace of Culture, a completely Central European set up, with meeting places, tea rooms and concert hall. The architecture reflects a successful jumble of forms from the history of Transylvania. Whilst we were there, a Dvorak symphony was being rehearsed under the great chandelier made, at a guess, in Bohemia.

Lunch was in a grimly-restored country house, once belonging to the Hallers. We travelled through patches of their estates, across the Tarnava Mica and south through some lovely wooded hills, just beginning to show autumn colour, to the Tarnava Mare and Dumbraveni where the Apafis welcomed Armenian refugees in the mid 17th century. This was much to everyone’s benefit. The Armenians were appreciated and thanks to the Habsburgs from Charles VI, they paid no taxes, were subject to no military duties and much trade was brought into Apafy lands. The last Apafy died in Vienna in 1713. Maria Teresa started a powerful Counter Reformation and encouraged the building of vast Cathedrals in Transylvania to house the Catholic, the Catholic/Armenians or the Uniate – Catholic Orthodox – faiths. Dumbraveni’s great church was built by the Armenians of the Western rite in the 1770s.

Tower in Sighisoara

Tower in Sighisoara

1683 saw the Ottomans repelled from Vienna with an Hungarian force waiting in the wings to help the Turks. Just how much the Hungarians hated the Habsburgs was too well illustrated in 1848 and 1849. In Transylvania this civil war was fought over a tiny area. The Armenians of Dumbraveni supported Hungarian Independence and at the battle of Sighisoara, eight miles up the road, the Hungarian nationalist poet, Petofi, was killed as the Russians leapt to the aid of the Austrians. Meanwhile in Medias, again within walking distance down the valley, the Saxons and the Romanians supported the Habsburgs. Most of the Armenian population left Transylvania after the events of 1849.

Detail from winged altarpiece at Malancrav church - archangel Michael

Detail from winged altarpiece at Malancrav church – archangel Michael

Malancrav, too, is a perfect place from which to visit the fortified churches of Sighisoara, Biertan and Richis. Biertan is superb, partly as the result of standing in a rich wine growing valley which attracted, before the Reformation, well-educated priests and post Reformation, it became the seat of the Lutheran Bishop.

Day seven and departure from Sibiu. The Habsburgs set their stamp on this capital of the Saxon Siebenburgen. The Jesuit church stands in the main square adjacent to Samuel Bruckenthal’s great palace, built by the same architect as that of the Banffy town house in Cluj. Brukenthal, after representing Maria Teresa from 1777, was sidelined, being thought too close to his native Saxons. He left his fine collections to Transylvania. Sibiu now is the seat of the Lutheran Bishop and the church is fine. Not much trace of Banffy here although he would not have been surprised to see the great neo-baroque bank, which once belonged to the farmers, standing between Bruckenthal’s palace and the Jesuits. It is now the Tourist Office.

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Krakow and Lviv – September 2014

1920s architecture in Krakow

1920s architecture in Krakow

Until 1919, Krakow and Lviv (Lemburg) were Polish and part of Austro Hungary’s province of Galicia since the partition of Poland in 1772. Lemburg was the capital. Now Polish Krakow is in Nato and the EU and Lemburg (Lvov/Lviv) is in the Ukraine. Their common roots are easy to see from churches to coffee houses. All too apparently Austro-Hungary permitted the Poles their national identity in the arts and this paid off with wonderful Art Nouveau and Art Deco in both cities. In the case of the other two partitioners, Prussia and Russia, this was not so.

Jesuit seminary, Krakow

Jesuit seminary, Krakow

Trade routes of amber and salt, in the later Middle Ages, bought fine universities, exquisite architecture, open squares, collections of art and a polyglot population of Jews, Armenians, Poles, Germans Ukrainians and others. These two beautiful cities were a hub of Central Europe.

Krakow is now firmly on the tourist route and no surprise. I had last been there 40 years ago. I remembered the magnificent Renaissance architecture which even the greyness of Communism could not blunt. The Kazimierz founded by King Kazimierz the great in the 1330s, for the Jews, is now lively and full of small trendy shops. I remember it as a blackened grimness and one or two sad inhabitants.

Wawel Castle

Wawel Castle

The Wawel Castle is a must, with the Cathedral its greatest building. The monuments alone are worth a good hour. The State Rooms have been reconstituted to a high standard and fine Polish craftsmanship is everywhere. Go to the Oriental museum to see trophies from the Turkish wars to really put this part of the world in context. Danger always came from the East. At present the great Leonardo ‘Lady with an Ermine’ is shown here as the Czartorsky Museum is presently closed.

Jesuit church in Krakow

Jesuit church in Krakow

The churches are richly diverse and visits to as many as possible are advisable. Faith is still strong here and many are full of religious and lay congregations. A few ‘must sees’: St. Mary’s, of course, with the stunning Viet Stoss Altar; the Franciscans’ church frescoed by Stanislaw Wyspianski, one of the greatest of Poland’s 20th century painters. His too are the stained glass windows. The Poor Clares were singing out of sight when we visited. Through the screen is one of two remarkable boat pulpits – an apparent reference to St Peter. However, one of the most beautiful of the Baroque interiors is the University Church of St. Anne, the favourite of Pope John Paul. He was a graduate of the university and the admiration for this brave devout man is everywhere in the city.

Stained glass in a coffee house

Stained glass in a coffee house

For all the sophistication of good restaurants and cafes, look out too for the wealth of traditional crafts, in small shops in and around the Cloth Hall and elsewhere. A welcome feature of the Austro-Hungarian regime are the coffee houses, many with original interiors to say nothing of the quality of the cakes.

Enroute for the border I suggest a halt in Tarnow. The church has magnificent tombs and in one of the Canons’ houses is the little Church Museum. Close by is a rare museum of Enthnography dedicated to the Roma and the Jews.

Lancut

Lancut

Our main visit, along this new excellent road to the border, is the Castle of Lancut belonging until the end of the war to the Potacki family, whose town house is in Lviv and now houses that city’s art gallery.

The family managed to remove many valuables before the advancing Soviet army. There are rumours that the family are trying to get Lancut back. It is wonderful inside with genuine Rococo rooms alongside their 19th century counterparts. Especially fine is the sculpture gallery, not so much for the marbles themselves – although Canova’s statue of the ‘adopted son’ of Isabella Potacki causes a stir – but for the wonderful decorations of faux ruins on the walls. There is a perfectly good tape in English but you must be there by 15.00 at the latest.

Leave 1 to 2 hours to get through the border. Our journey was fraught, as the civil war in the East, over one thousand kilometres away, was rumbling on. Our Ukrainian driver came from Lviv to pick us up, on time, at the Stary hotel at 9 a.m. and then we drove back towards the border to find it closed. A WWII bomb had been found and it had to be defused. Was this true or was it the NATO exercises on the other side of the border? We will never really know but the area had been fought over by the Soviets, the Nazis and the Soviets again between 1939 and 1944. Our detour took several hours.

Both cities were physically undamaged in the last war. In 1939, in Lviv (Lvov), 10,000 ‘enemies of the people’ were killed by the Soviets. The Nazis decimated the Jews. Lviv’s remaining Poles, in 1945, refusing to become Ukrainian, decamped in open trucks in winter to bombed out Wraclaw (Breslau) complete with university professors and library.

Side of the marketplace, Lviv

Side of the marketplace, Lviv

There is a buzz in Lviv, the streets are busy, live music is played from many corners, and groups play chess and dominoes in the sun. The cafes, with their famous patisseries, are full but here and there are collecting centres for the war. Volunteers, young and old, are being sent with the most basic training to fight the separatists in the east of the country who are well supplied by Russia. There was shock when Putin took the Crimea on a fudged referendum. “Scotland did not have soldiers with guns in the voting booths” it was pointed out to me. His propaganda machine is in full swing.

Putin needs a corridor to the Crimea which otherwise is difficult to sustain. East Ukraine is a land grab with emotional baggage. The Russians have not enjoyed losing their empire and the West has been slow to realise this. Meanwhile the Ukrainians, who are often linked by family and linguistic ties to Russia, also fear its encroachment. “I think the East should be allowed devolution as long as Russia does not take more land.” Another whispered in the Art Gallery “all we want is peace”.

Fresh burials from the fighting in the East

Fresh burials from the fighting in the East

The 18th century cemetery on the outskirts of the town is, not only the burial place for those who contributed to Lviv’s rich heritage (there are 13 languages involved on the inscriptions) but, also the war memorial. Poles, Ukrainians (civil war for 1919/20) as well as those killed fighting on the Austrian side as Galicians in 1914-18, again in WWII – row upon row all ordered and dignified. There were a group of Polish children being taken around. It was not always so – in 1971 Brezhnev ordered its destruction and rubbish filled the space. No one was allowed in. There was a hole in the fence and gradually the rubbish was removed bag by bag. The whole was restored in the 1990s after Ukraine broke away from the Soviet Union. Now there are fresh graves of those that were killed in the recent protests in Maiden Square in Kiev and more of those recent deaths in the East. To understand the difference between East and West Ukraine look at the neighbours. Lviv remains one of the most enchanting of cities. Visit when you can.

Krakow
Hotel – The Stary
Restaurants – Pod Aniolami
Guides – Christine Rickards Rostworowska

 

Lancut
Restaurant – Zamkowa

 

Lviv
Hotel – Astoria
Restaurants – Seven Piggies (wonderful musicians) and Mons Puis (Armenian – delicious)
Guides – Galyna Zadorovska – arranged by Marina Kondokova of New Logic Company

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The Lofoten Islands, Norway

Everyone has their favourite coastline that causes wonder and longing. For what it is worth, mine are the coasts of North West Scotland and Albania. Or rather were. The Lofoten Islands have surplanted all.

The dramatic Lofotens

The dramatic Lofotens

They are an intense scattering of islands in the Artic sea, off the west coast of Norway, whose nearest neighbours are Finland and Russia. The islands are linked by a dark, sharply splintered ridge of mountains and, since the sixties, by an engineeringly-inspired series of tunnels and bridges. This massive government investment has most certainly kept the small population on the islands and ensured a healthy economy in dried cod – stockfish – and tourism.

We had one week only. I am an art historian who specializes in Central Europe, my husband is an industrialist, we are not walkers but foodies and keen on contemporary art. Taber Holidays took all this on board with great intelligence and imagination.

Cod drying racks

Cod drying racks

We came at the end of the season in the second half of August, after ‘the midnight sun’, and before the start of the Northern Lights. Much was closed after the 15th of August. The days were warm, sometimes hot, even in the early evening. The weather is as variable as the landscape of farms and wetlands on the numerous islands. Many of the great crags still had snow in their crevasses. However, the farmers were cutting their second harvest of silage. The cattle were sunbathing in many of the sandy coves.

We hired a car although there are buses, judging by the interesting mix of bus stops, and there are heaps of bikers and hikers all looking wiry and bronzed.

Kjerringjoy

Kjerringjoy

Bodo was the starting point. Taber Holidays chose a hotel on the harbor and booked us the excellent Restaurant Bjork for the first evening. We learnt fast that at £9 a glass, this was to be a wine-free hol. Practically food free too, although my miniscule half langustine with ginger and beans at £11 was very good. The next morning we headed to the maelstrom at Saltstraumen, the strongest in the world. The local newspaper has the tide times. Our luck was out, the narrows were calm. Beyond lay Kjerringoy, a trading outpost since the 18th century. It might be Virginia or Georgia with painted clapboard houses and turfed roofs, the main house, very Swedish, with simple, elegant swags over the windows. We had a rather disgusting open sandwich in the museum café as there was a huge group of OAPs who had to be fed ahead of us. Curator apologetic and charming.

The ferry

The ferry

The road to Kjerringoy was partly by a surprise ferry and they were road widening too – blasting the rock. I had not bothered to read the joining instructions for the ferry to the Lofotens and only arrived in the nick of time especially after queuing for the wrong ship. We were cheerily welcomed and the car dealt with. We had been efficiently booked in for first sitting at 18.30. Waitresses charming but food and system as school. The possible cruise on this famous Hurtigruten line (founded in the 1890s with a museum to itself in Stokmarknes) can continue for 11 days up and beyond the Artic Circle. Not for me but perfect for travel north and south of this amazing coastline.

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Svolvaer

We disembarked at nine and made our way into Svolvaer and across onto the little island holding our hotel and other rorbus – fishermans huts. These are prevalent throughout the islands; they are painted the colour of old British Rail red and are frequently built on wooden stilts over the rocks. We were in a modern house, again clapboard, perched high over the village. The views from our balcony were wonderful. Our host owns the entire island, the restaurant was the old store and is beautifully done. His grandfather was a painter. The Lofotens have attracted artists for decades, sadly we only succeeded in getting into couple of galleries and the sculpture trail around the islands passed us by.

Church at Hadsel

Church at Hadsel

Many galleries were closed and the churches all completely unvisitable with no handy telephone number to find the key. Expect to get lost, Norwegian signage is terrible. At Kabelvag some of the houses were lovely but there is an unkept feel to the centre of the little town that we did not find elsewhere. Nearby, is the old trading station of Vagar complete with manor house and outbuildings. The most interesting exhibit was a film on the lighthouses and lighthouse keepers and their families. Some families had their own governesses – just imagine that life.

We dined two nights running in the restaurant which was a mistake as the menu is the same each night with stock fish which, to my taste buds is akin to woolly sock and the lamb at £35 was the same consistency. The local lamb should have been delicious. With a garnish of red onion and courgettes piled high in the middle, the ingredients are wonderful but the presentation was too fancy. The staff were charming and largely Romanian.

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Bridge to Svinoya

The journey down the Southern Lofotens to the tempting Å at the bottom and back to Svolvaer took all day. The bridges and tunnels linking tiny communities are of great beauty. Fearsome mountains, white beaches, broad valleys where every inch is farmed and the farmhouses all painted the most lovely colours. Some parts were like Glencoe others as if trolls had chucked down slabs of granite. The stop offs were fascinating. The Viking Long House at Borg is accompanied by filmed interviews of the archeologists involved. Earphones with a sophisticated point and play which was fun to use. The filmed story of the site was Thomas Hardy meets Eastenders but who cares. The church built since the last blew down in the eighties was again firmly shut contrary to the notice on the door. I walked down to the site where the long boats had been found. The Viking owner had gone to Iceland in the 10th century.

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Nusfjord

Onto Nusfjord which is a UNESCO site as one of the best preserved fishing villages. It is terrific. All settlements retained a cod liver oil processing plant. I wanted to know about my school daily dose but no explanations to this process, which closed here in the early 1990s. Avoid eating a fish burger in the otherwise excellent Restaurant Christiana. There is a modern art gallery in the old Caviar factory, with a good shop selling non-machine made Norwegian and Danish things. There is also a good craft shop which embraces a glass blowing studio. The best visit of all was to the Art Gallery. It has a powerpoint of the history of the Lofotens and is a tourist puff. The collection of paintings are fine and a reminder, if you visit in summer, of how the winter must effect these small communities. The gallery has 70,000 visitors a year, a huge percentage of these off the cruise ships. These monsters of mass tourism are killing Venice but they are bringing welcome income to these remote islands.

Reine

Reine

Next was the very attractive Reine. We attempted to visit the Gallery Eva Harr but it is only open from 11 to 15.00.

Å

Å

Finally, the last stretch to Å. Again with cod liver oil plant, the huge warehouse showing the history of the town was closed, all else was closing. However, luckily there was a fine warehouse open filled to the brim with boats, nets and all fishy things.

I am the child of a sixth generation net maker. I just longed for my father – the last of his business line – to bore me silly about knots, materials and mesh size. Returning on the E10 was a pleasure as everything looked different and, as we were not stopping, it allowed the perception of the change of landscape and usage and, of course, seascape.

On our third and last day we headed north again on the ferry and the E10. The ferries are so efficient. Our attempt to visit the beautiful-looking manor and courtyard failed in Melbu and, by happy accident, we first took the country road on the west of the island. More lovely farms with huge tractors cutting silage for the winter. White beaches where I managed to dip a toe in the Artic.

Hurtigruten Museum

Hurtigruten Museum

On up to the Hurtigruten Museum before the fresh crowds off the cruise ships. The line suffered badly in the war as did the whole of Northern Norway. The retreating Germans had a burnt earth policy in front of the advancing Russians. What a transformation now with help of oil money I would guess. Mind goes to Palermo where so much of importance has been kept in war time ruins. Handy pub next door giving too large helpings. One pizza will do two. Then back via Hadsel Kirke of the early 1800s with an interesting altarpiece of 1520 only to be glimpsed through a window. Why don’t the clergy put up a number for key hunting like everyone else?

Back to Svolvaer and disaster struck. David found he has lost his camera. We retraced our steps to the War Museum when we were checking time of entry – rather odd 11.00 to 14.30 and 18.30 to 20.00. Nothing. Downcast – that photo of me paddling in the Artic for instance. We went on to book dinner in the Kjokkenet on Lamholmen Island… and returned to our billet for a stiff gin.

A mixture of uniforms at the war museum

A mixture of uniforms at the war museum

We walked across the bridge into the centre of town to the War Museum which is unlike any other. One man’s passion for collecting everything to do with the Lofotens and the Second war. The Gestapo in Svolvaer and the whole set up of the SS and the German army, the Resistance, the Polar campaign. There were many British uniforms and bits from the Tirpitz, amazing things dealing with all facets including a German padres kit. It is a must. Onto dinner and soon as we sat down a charming girl came up and asked if we had lost a camera outside the museum! She and her boyfriend, coming into work in the restaurant, had picked it up looked at the last photo to see if the camera was working. The last snap was of me. She was Czech. Norway takes their share of immigrants as the tiny school children prove. The food was delicious carpaccio of whale (only minke was allowed). This was followed by mounds of sea food.

Hamsun museum

Hamsun museum

Our last day, we take the ferry to Skutvik on Hamaroy and drive south. It was a Sunday and nothing seemed open apart from a rather good contemporary building on the side of the road. It proved to be the museum to the life of Knut Hamsun, Norway’s major writer. I knew nothing about him but learnt about his dedication all his life to the Nazi cause. He even wrote in praise of Hitler after his suicide. Despite this, I recommend ‘Growth of the Soil’ and a visit. There is a pleasant café.

A few miles on, the Kobblev Vertshus is no ordinary motel – on the edge of a lake by a waterfall and with very good food. The owner, who is charming, has a bookshelf of childrens’ books in the dining room – so civilized. On the beach below there is the entrance to the Polar railway and nearby a generating plant built with slaves as part of the German defense against the Russians. Thousands of war prisoners died here.

Air Museum

Air Museum

Back to Bodo via the Aircraft Museum, again, a must see. Tracing the early days, the two World wars – the Norwegians just before they were invaded in April 1940 had swopped four aircraft made in Italy for dried cod. They had been neutral but their closeness to Britain made them an important attack base for the Germans.

This is an incredibly sympathetic and beautiful country to visit and we have much history in common. And I still think the Lofotens will remain my favourite coastline. The itinerary was made even more special by the timings and choice of hotels by Taber Holidays.

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Kosovo

It is but a short drive from Skopje into the ‘new’ country of Kosovo, now recognised by most countries. Their recent history is off putting. Indeed it was only 10 years ago that ‘people from outside’ attacked Prizren, long a multi-faith and multi-lingual town with Turkish, Serbian and Albanian in common discourse. The locals were critical of the German KFOR troops for not managing to stop the burning of Serbian houses and churches. Previous to that, the Serbs had been the aggressors. Now the new flag of Kosovo is everywhere along with the striking red and black Albanian flag. The country uses the Euro.

The tower at the Kosovo battlefields

Kosovo battlefields tower

However the Serbians feel under siege. It is their heartland in myth and legend. The battle of Kosovo ‘of the Black birds’ is presented as a triumph when it was, in fact, a defeat by the Ottomans. The leaders of both sides were killed. Lazar, the leader of the Christian forces, was made into a Serbian Orthodox saint. Slobodan Milosevic was only too happy to take on the mantle when he spoke on the battlefield in 1989. There was another battle in the 1440s, which ensured (as Mohacs in western Hungary, where the young King of Hungary and Bohemia died) Ottoman possession of the whole landmass until the early 20th century.

Go to Pristina. Little to see of the Ottoman past but good book stalls line the wide, rather Soviet, streets. The food is delicious. I recommend the local beer and the strangely named, Stone Castle, wines. Avoid the museum with the history of the troubles which will only serve to perpetuate them. Instead, see the Emin Gjiku Complex. home of the Gjiolli family, rich Albanian traders. The Communists took the house in the 50s.

Gracanica monastery

Grancanica monastery

Grancanica Monastery, now with nuns, is considered one of the most important architectural monuments in the Balkans. The exterior does not prepare for the soaring architecture and complexity of the interior. On the first visit, four years ago, I noted “wonderful with an aged nun speaking hesitating educated English”. This time a combination of ‘no photos’ and a lady with hoover plus mop pursuing us, the only visitors, almost spoilt the morning. The churches are tiny, even if by royal command as was the case in many through Macedonia and Serbia, but need concentration and no hoovers. Stand in the middle and wait until the frescoed surfaces and the architecture become clear. Usually the story and the positioning is the same, which is helpful. How different to great Cathedrals in the West. Salisbury can be taken in at a glance so too really Westminster Abbey, even Durham Cathedral. A different mystery.

So under siege the community felt, I was not allowed to know how many nuns were there.

The Stone Bridge, Prizren

The Stone Bridge, Prizren

Prizren has changed in four years since I last visited. The potholes are filled and hotels are plentiful and there are new roads planned to the city. It is charming in spite of the destruction of houses and churches a mere 10 years ago. At the time the German KFOR troops were much criticised for not doing more to stop the destruction.

 

 

Patriarchate of Pecs

Patriarchate of Pecs

Just under an hour’s drive from Prizren lies Pec in the beautiful Rugova Gorge. This, built by priests, was the seat of the Patriarchate, the centre of the Serbian Orthodox faith. It consists of 4 small churches adjoined. Each church a donation from an archbishop. Small and difficult to read at first, but a must visit. We were made welcome by a novice from Montenegro. There are remnants of the early foundations, now surrounded by rosebeds.

It is about 20 minutes to the Decani monastery. Unlike Pec, this was a kingly foundation. It has the relics of King Stefan Uros 111 d. 1331 His relics lie in the naos. The shrine is opened every Thursday evening at 19.00 for the service. His body, remarkably preserved, is now covered with glass. However, last Thursday, the glass came off for a visiting monk form Mount Athos. A sweet perfume came from thence Father Peter remarked.

Decani Monastery

Decani Monastery

We visited the monastery in the afternoon through the Italian army checkpoints and razor wire. There were Albanians mending the entry arch. The monastery lies in a rich valley farmed by the monks. The exterior, newly cleaned, is of striated marbles. Wonderful. The sculptural decoration could be from Brindisi and is stylistically archaic for the early 14th century. It seems solid and quietly rich. The interior is ethereal. The frescoes were painted by masters, the floor once, in part, inlaid with gold. The stark, white marble columns were painted too. But the richness of colour and the iconography take over. We were guided around by Father Peter again from Montenegro. With his encouragement we returned that evening for the service, which started sharp at 7 p.m. Women to the left. The monks in the naos were singing from a 19th century printed book given by the Czar of Russia. This ritual to venerate the saint had gone on for 700 years in spite of the Turks and an attack from the KLA in 2004. Edith Durham, in 1904, described the monastry as lying ‘precariously on the bloody edge of things’. The monks’ polyphony sounded at times like a sea shanty and then changed to a slower tempo before re charging again. Much crossing. But as the light faded all I could see were the figures painted in the top of the dome. Incense followed. At the end of this remarkable evening we lined up to kiss the relic of the King. I decided to follow suit – I am a Scottie Prottie but the belief was so genuine and with the beauty of the architecture, frescoes and singing it would have been churlish not to venerate this saint. Father Peter marking a cross on my forehead with holy oil spoke of body and soul. The priest joined us later and spoke of his work there in Decani and that he was not frightened of dying. I believe him. I felt that the situation was not so threatening than even four years ago. But you can never tell. Our service, so regular, so remarkable, so beautiful, in the aetheistic 21st century is extraordinary. We thumbed through the visitors’ book for the late 20s to 30s hoping to see Paddy Leigh Fermor’s signature. Russian Czar supported the monastery and is considered a martyr. The also had a relic of the True Cross on the altar. The only icon we saw outside the church had been made recently and the gilding done by our guide ‘as his hobby’.

I wish there was a book, in English, with good photographs on the patronage of King Milutan who built and decorated over 40 monasteries throughout old Serbia, encouraging some of the greatest fresco painters in these fine buildings. Innovative iconography set alive with elegant elongated figures echoing western painting in the early 14th century. It was all paid for out of the silver mines in his Serbian Kingdom. A few years later Charles IV of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor was commissioning the most remarkable art of the 14th century in the West and again with wealth from silver mines. For both kings it was the ‘Saxon’ miners who came and did the dirty work.

Hotels

  • Hotel Prishtina, Str. “Pashko Vasa” no.20-Qyteza Pejton 10000 Prishtina  +381 38 22 32 84
  • Hotel Centrum, C-4, Rr. Bujtinat, tel. +377 44 15 33 45

Restaurants

  • Vila Gërmia Gërmia Park, tel. +381 38 51 77 41 http://www.vilagermia.com.
    Just outside Pristina with views over fields and forests and a wonderful atmosphere. The house specials include steak and mixed grill, but there’s also fish, pizza and local fare.
  • Besimi Beska, Rr Shadervanit 56Prizren + 381 29 233 668
    Delicious food in a centrally located restaurant where you can watch the ducks swimming in the inner garden while you eat.

Agents

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Skopje – June 2014

Skopje 2014 new bridge

Skopje 2014

There are many reasons to go to Skopje, capital of Macedonia. I would put on the list the Byzantine churches, the Ottoman architecture, a rich collection of costumes in the National Museum, the unique donations of both buildings and art from the international community after the earthquake of 1963, the food, the buzz, the Stone Bridge and people watching.

Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great

However, the fruits of a new development project ‘Skopje 2014’ make you feel a voyeur, looking at the seamy side of a life you have much admired but you now see as flawed. The actual plans for this pop-up display had been around for some time when Macedonia was part of Yugoslavia.

It is the Vegas effect of these new buildings which makes you want to shield your eyes. Along the River Vardar vast white palaces, triumphal arches and fountains have risen over the last four years. It is the embellishments, the sculpture and the iron work, that are so grippingly bad. Not one but two bridges, covered in bronze muscular men going nowhere, run parallel to the splendid old Stone Bridge. Alexander and Philip of Macedon rise above you – every one on steroids including Bucephalus. There is not one but three cement schooners in the river to set sail and, one presumes, attack Greece. Did the idea come from the Ukraine? The people must love it all as they have just re-elected Nikola Gruevski, the instigator of all this nonsense. Bet Alex Salmond is jealous.

Lamentation - St Pantelejmon

Lamentation – St Pantelejmon

Two of the most beautiful churches in Macedonia are a taxi ride away from the city centre. Indeed St. Pantelejmon at Nerezi has frescoes of such beauty and piercing emotion they are unmatched in the 12th century. This was an Imperial commission. Regal too is the tiny, 14th century, S. Andrea, on the edge of the Matka Gorge. The settings here are lovely. There is a good restaurant with delicious local wine next door to the church.

Matka Gorge and reservoir

Matka Gorge and reservoir

 

The ‘old’ town of Skopje was hardly touched by the 1963 earthquake. Those Turks knew a thing or two, although General Piccolomini in 1689 did his best to be destructive. There is the bazaar where you can buy the famous filigree silver and finely wrought leather slippers or a wedding dress covered in glitter. As a country on vital trading routes, hans, hammams, mosques and baths, which the Turkish government has done much to support, are plentiful.

 

Contemporary Art Museum

Contemporary Art Museum

 

Go also for the post-earthquake city designed by the Japanese architect, Kenzo Tange, whose fine schemes are now hidden by this recent work. Look at the prefab timber houses sent by Finland. Britain donated a theatre and three Polish architects designed the Museum of Contemporary Art. For this, 1800 painters and sculptors, including Picasso, Calder and Moore, donated work. They came from 65 countries. I am not aware of another such donation. There are only NGOs now. How the young Macedonian architects and sculptors of today must wish they had been given a chance to show their skills for project ‘Skopje 2014’.

Hotels

  • The Best Western, Gjuro Strugar Street11, Skopje 1000  +389 2 3289111
    Has the advantage of being central but don’t eat there.

Restaurants

  • Pivnica An set inside the old Turkish inn of Kapan
    Very good mix of Macedonian food.
  • Old City House, St. Pajko Maalo 14, Skopje +389 23131376
    Wonderful food in old Ottoman house.
  • Restaurant Kanjon in Matka Gorge.
    Fresh trout and light crisp dry white wine.

Agents

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Cuba

Those who know the island urge “go before it is spoilt”. What is it about our fascination with failed states that have kept their people in poverty and fear? It is a sort of voyage voyeurism. What indeed will happen after the bullying Castro brothers depart? Possibly more of the same. Such power is self-perpetuating. For the same reasons Zimbabwe won’t see much of a change after Mugabe. But then Zimbabwe does not have Key West 70 kilometres away.

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The Prado, Habana

That said, the sheer joyous generosity of the Cubans, under their beautiful skies, will be difficult to change. They have had to be resilient and resourceful in spite of a dependency on remittance money. Beyond salsa and mojitos, the grandeur of their now shabby buildings and fine townscapes is evident. The surprise comes in the countryside. Here, mountain and plain might have been painted by Edward Lear. The elegance of the colonial towns is not just reflected in the town houses of the sugar barons but the buildings that demonstrate a respect for culture and human scale. Fine memorial sculpture is not reserved for the interesting cemeteries but it is the street furniture too. It is easy to get a sense of the sheer quality of their contemporary art and music making.

We booked late and therefore were not privy to a cheap option on Virgin but flew Air France via Paris; this was also the reason that our first four nights were in different towns. Havana, Santa Clara, Cienfuegos and Trinidad, before two days bone fishing with a fly rod in the sea at Cayo Coco before returning to the capital.

The drive to Santa Clara took over four hours, the taxi was late and the driver brought along his girlfriend. I don’t blame her. Transport between the towns is scarce. Occasional trains, the odd bus and sinister-looking covered lorries which act as privatised buses crammed to their canvas roofs with customers. The roads are otherwise empty. Yes, the famed, wonderful fifties cars and motorbikes with side cars abound, but for locals on an average of €23 a month, petrol even when subsidised from Venezuela, is impossible. The oil comes in to be refined in Cuba in exchange for their doctors, engineers and teachers.

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Brahmin cattle

Raul Castro has permitted some individuals to lease land. They call it privatized but the government still own it. Sugar cane, Brahmin cattle, goats, horses and mangos seem the main crops in central Cuba. Our Habana guide could not believe reports of the gleaming cattle. Meat is on ration as are sanitary towels.

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The main square, Santa Clara

Santa Clara had seen fierce fighting in 1958 between Batista’s forces and those of Che Guevara. The lady who let us into the Cultural Institute was 11 when it happened. – These civilized buildings seem a common feature in the towns based on sugar bonanza in the 1880s grand staircase and gilded neo baroque.

Dance class

Dance class

Dance classes for the new Carlos Acostas were happening in every corner of the building. The church was arising from ruin with a new vault and a service going on in a side chapel. Horse buses (max weight 500 kilos) a common feature.

 

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Monument to Che Guevara

The memorial to Che was just outside the town. Rather good. The exhibit was dreary, his Parker pen and doctor’s white coat, guns, etc. Our hotel was near. It comprised lodges, groupie with poor food. It had some lovely hens scratching around the gardens. Eggs are rationed too. However, the fashion show by the pool in the evening was sheer delight. Beautiful models showing the fine mix of races that makes up Cubans. The clothes too, made and designed in Santa Clara were irresistible. I met the designer, Nedel Aguilaro Alba The harmony seems complete among Spanish, Creole and Negro.

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The cemetery

Cienfuegos was less poor and on the sea. Its squares and public spaces filled with beautifully carved busts of local benefactors, as was Santa Clara. The same refined white marble sculpture is in the Cementerio de Reina. Its church has a bramantesque dome, a stunning theatre, good art galleries and another Cultural centre for dance and music, good little museums in old town houses belonging to past plantation owners.

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The theatre ceiling

There must have been European agents to these families supplying Czech glass, their own Cuban mahogany furniture, French glass and heaps of English Spode. What an elegant and civilized life for sugar barons. What a grim life for the slaves who until the 1880s still worked the plantations. Everything is small scale including the naval base in pink gothick. All museum entrances seem to be 2 CUC (tourist peso).

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View from the pool

The hotel had a lovely pool overlooking the sea and we ate in a paladar, Ache nearby. There were other places in town, including Bouyon 1825, which looked charming. The vast concrete hotel has been built in the grounds of the extraordinary Arabian Villa Valle with alabaster staircase.

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Villa Valle interior

It now has a roof bar and you can eat there. The great villas faced the sea and echoed those of 20th Habana.

 

 

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Valle de los Ingenios

Leaving Cienfuegos a reminder of the source of the wealth is seen in the Valle de los Ingenios. And the tower belonging to the Iznaga family for watching their slaves.

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The Tower

Near, are the Botanical Gardens, founded in 1919 by a local landowner. In the spirit of enquiry and agricultural improvement now run down but worth a visit.

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The Botanical Gardens

There were no guidebooks. Call ahead to book a guide Cienfuegos 545115.

 

Trinidad was as stunning as expected and exotic. The church faces down into the little town, with enticing alleys leading off the main square.

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The church, Trinidad

The square is a formal garden surrounded by plantation town houses. Ceramic urns made in the still functioning pottery decorate the allees. It did not look so different from the 1830s painting in the Museo de Belles Artes in Habana. Rich and grand living, yet modest too. In the former town houses are museums of Romantism, Architecture and Contemporary Art. Interesting cross beams carved like an Arabian interior in geometric forms.

Art gallery, Trinidad

Art gallery, Trinidad

Our hotel like a pioneers camp in the 50s but its grimness was relieved by Mike the porter who took us in a taxi to one of the best restaurants in the town, where Darling sang to us (her father was a teacher of geography and fascinated by the Australian River). The owner, a sommelier, the symbol of his trade tattooed onto his arm, brought us home via Mike’s house so we could confirm the meal’s quality. His family were playing dominoes in the street. The embroidery here is wonderful, both drawn work in linen and cotton is being handmade everywhere by the women.

House museum

House museum

Three hours on via delightful Sancti Spiritus. This is worth a stop for a visit to the church and the colonial museum and lunch. They are restoring the gardens in the main square and we ate behind the now familiar grilled windows without glass. We drove north and over the remarkable causeway started in 1988 to the fan of islands off the coast. The Caribbean is barely tidal, here we were to bone fish. New fly rod and flies, sun proof clothes and the wrong foot wear. I had longed to do this for years imagining myself the Bond Girl in bikini. Nothing could have been further in reality. It was difficult for the untrained eye to see the fish coming. One poor cast and they were off. Barracudas and Cowfish were also around as we waded up to the thigh in the warm water for five hours eating our picnic on the hoof. Sitting was not an option. Bond Girl’s casting was not up to scratch so I went bird watching the next day across the Hemingway Bridge onto the next island. It is worth it and there is a professional guide to book ahead, Paulino Lopez.

Flamingos by the Hemingway Bridge

Flamingos by the Hemingway Bridge

As for our fishing guides, they were vital, one Julio Cesar is the head waiter in the hotel’s Oriental restaurant, quite the best of 4 there in the Spanish-run hotel. One of our drivers said that the Cayos are not really Cuba. But it is really, everyone is out to help you. Castro has been clever with the islands. There is another huge complex going up. It is really Cuba’s Sharm El Sheikh. Buildings are height restricted and not allowed on the shoreline. Even utility wires are underground. There are the remains of one old aerodrome. I fondly imagined Hemingway arriving.

Hemingway Bridge

Hemingway Bridge

In our hotel we were given hospital type wristbands for ‘free’ drinks and meals. The hotel was huge and full of Canadian youth – for once they were not Brits behaving badly. The throbbing music started at 10 a.m. We moved rooms to the quiet area with lovely sea views. Everywhere in Cuba is clean and here the beaches were spotless – fine white sand and safe sea.

The Aeropuerto

The Aeropuento

We flew back to the buzz of Habana via a domestic flight to a tiny aerodrome to the west of the city and we drove into the old town via Miramar, past the socialist Realism of the Soviet Embassy through the elegance of Vedado and the great Malecon promenade skirting the sea to the Nacional Hotel, the haunt of Hemingway. It is worth taking a taxi to his house although you can only look through the windows. But drink fresh cane and pineapple juice while you are there and think about the visits of Cary Grant and Rita Hayworth. We stayed at the Sevilla next to the Museo Belles Artes and the relic of Castro’s landing craft, Granma (this was guarded). There are bookshops and stalls galore. A bibliophile’s paradise.

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The Green Park

Habana is glamour and slum, shoulder to shoulder, along with noise, music and hustlers. If you want to have peace, go to the cemetery ‘to look not to stay’ as the man at the desk said. Or to the green park on the edge of China Town – all the Chinese left in 1960 when Castro nationalised their businesses. The old town is late Baroque with fortress architecture to repel the pirates; Vedado has the same fine villa architecture as Cienfuegos. The middle years of the 20th century added the brutalism of the Russian Embassy, lots of quickie concrete flats and the Revolution Square column started under Batista and finished by Castro. Down the middle of this huge space is a double yellow line over which only tourists may go. One émigré drove his car there and set it on fire so that Castro would not get his hands on it.

A Fairland 500

A Fairland 500

I recommend all forms of transport here although just gently ambling or drinking and watching the world go by. As the guidebooks tell you of two-tier cash the CUC and the CUP (local peso). The local currency is 24 CUP to 1 CUC and you can spend it in the markets. Cuba is a must and the Cubans won’t change. Their living standards can only improve and their fine buildings will be restored – visitors can only salute that.

Hotels
Habana – Hotel Sevilla Calle Trocadero in the Old Town
Very good Mojitos the huge roof garden restaurant is worth a visit but it is empty. Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana is set there. No one seems to have read Greene here, they obsess about Hemingway.
We ate in Casa de la Moneda Cubana near the Cathedral so lovely walk back to the hotel. Also at 21.00 the curfew gun goes off near the restaurant which is colourful.
Our best meal was El Balcon de Obispo in Obispo 415 and Aguacate.
Best cocktail was in the El Floridita Calle Obispo blessed by the former regular Ernest Hemingway. The Hotel Nacional is well worth a visit too.
Sta Clara – Los Caneyes out of town but taxis are easy, Taino style thatched cabins.Better to eat out of the hotel. Lots of large groups.
Cienfuegos – Hotel Jagua in the gardens of the Villa Valle. Lovely pool. East out.
Trinidad – Hotel Las Cuevas – with a bit of imagination this could be much more attractive. Eat out in Vista Gourmet. Good music and food and wine. Much better to find a small private pension in town to stay. There were many.
Cayo Coco – Hotel Tryp Cayo Coco Ask for a quiet room and a sea view.

Havana Town Guide – Julio César Acosta Valle
Fishing Guides – Julio Cesar and Jordan Rodrigues through the hotel.
Cuban Fly Fishers – Michael Mirecki E. mikemirecki@gmail.com
Bird Guide – Paulino Lopez email: paulino.nature@nauta.cu
Bird Book – Aves de Cuba por Orlando H Carrido and Arturo Kirkconnell. This must be found in English but more fun to find in one of the many good book shops in Habana.

Bookings made through Havanatour – the government-run tourist agency

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