By continuing your visit to this site, you accept the use of cookies. These ensure the smooth running of our services. Learn more.


  • A week in Istanbul's Marigold Hotel


    Some pictorial highlights from a recent week in snow-bound Istanbul.

    It was my third visit to the old city, a busy and fascinating place where the past crowds in at every chaotic corner.

    Turkish taxi drivers seem universally to have passed a compulsory exam in cartographic ignorance. We disturbed ours from slumber and for the entire journey his brain seemed more than a little befuddled. We arrived at the hotel by an astonishingly devious route that involved consultation with four or more equally oblivious colleagues. It's located in Beyoglu, the up-and-coming former Genoese quarter, just across the Golden Horn from the heart of the city.

    Our eight bedroom 'butik' hotel was undergoing something of a transition. A criminally-minded former manager liked by none had just upped and left, leaving bad debts and a huge problem for the part-English developer that had converted the building almost a decade before.

    When he'd run it before he had demonstrated a distinct lack of hotel-keeping acumen: on arrival visitors are greeted by his extensive collection of Turkish lavatory bases, and by poorly maintained rooms in a variety of exotic colours that were furnished in a style only hinted at by place's previous name: 'The Eklektik'.

    Perhaps unsurprisingly for most of the week we were the only guests, with the hotel being run by an 20-something called Berker who made up for in charm what he lacked in experience. His parents were planning to buy it for him later in the year. His mother made our quite lavish breakfast even if it was at lunchtime. We chatted gamely to her in broken German, shared a pizza meal with her son and discovered we could help ourselves to tea whenever we wanted.

    We didn't manage a hamam but saw several dazzling mosques, where Arabic lettering, stained glass and red-blue Iznik tilework unite in sinuous praise of their creator. At the Sabanci museum were half of the Marmottan's Giverny paintings and some very fine korans. In the spice market were hazelnuts and lokum by the lorry load. At the Chora church there was a chance to take photos of the stunning 14th century mosaics I'd so admired almost a decade ago.



    Topkapi Palace and the Agia Sophia looked surreal in the blizzard which followed us back to the UK. But at least the freezing temperatures made for some interesting images.

    Another trip seems likely, if not necessarily to Istanbul's very own Marigold Hotel...


    In this street designer boutiques sit next to decaying ruins, and fresh pomegranate juice is £1 a glass.


    A window in the Yeni mosque.

    Vendor in the spice market.

    Tilework in Rustem Pasha mosque, recognised as containing the best 17th century Iznik work in Istanbul.

    Inside Eyup mosque, which seemed to be a particularly holy place. A shrine nearby is said to contain remains of one of the companions of the prophet. A cleaning lady at our hotel said that her burden lifted at every visit.

    The Kariye (or Chora) museum. Superb 14th cent. mosaics in 11th cent. church.


    18th cent Küthaya vase at Pera Museum celebrates friendship between Muslim and Christian priests.

    Posing for Turkey at Blue Mosque.


  • In the light at St Ives


    Ivo (or Yves or Ives) of Kermartin, the patron saint of lawyers and abandoned children, is said to have been commemorated with the inscription "St Ives was Breton/ A lawyer and not a thief/ Marvelous thing to the people." It's somehow reassuring to know that lawyers were mistrusted even in the 12th century, and that there was at least one that broke with convention.

    f3573580925b5e3b03212fcd7dabded3.jpgHowever, that St Ives has nothing whatever to do with the Cornish town of St Ives, which is named after a notoriously tardy 5th century Irishwoman who literally missed the boat that was supposed to take her to Cornwall with her chums St Erth (patron saint of gardeners and electricians) and St Uny. St Ia gamely made her own way across the Atlantic in a coracle, an act of such monumental foolishness that the townsfolk of St Ives decided to name the place after her.

    Cornish people still honour her when they say they'll do something "d'reckly" - meaning at some vague time in the future, when they feel like it. Two days in St Ives this April converted me (again) to the relaxed ways of the place. People take the trouble to say hello just because they saw you out walking the day before; the staff at the Barbara Hepworth Gallery are happy to chat; and even the man who sold me tea took extra trouble to make sure it was just so.

    1413bfdabc3017a27ab6ba81b5404e16.jpgHepworth picked up on it when she wrote "St Ives has absolutely enraptured me, not merely for its beauty, but the naturalness of life". She loved the sense of community as well as the:

    "remarkable pagan landscape...which has a very deep effect on me, developing all my ideas about the relationship of the human figure in the landscape - sculpture in landscape and the essential quality of light"

    6bfd0b7f2eb51c4dcd805c446591d733.jpgIn the mid 20th century these key ideas - about connection to the land, community, and light, drew dozens of artists to St Ives. Nicholson, Garbo, Frost, Heron and the patron saint of British pottery, Bernard Leach, were the most notable, but you don't have to be a painter to appreciate the light in St Ives. It has a remarkable clarity - a sharpness that dazzles. Spoil from tin-mining and powdered granite in the dazzling sand are the prosaic explanation.

    52681678e60f1c65158dd5bc8270a00a.jpgThat light, the fresh sea air, the art, and the friendliness of the locals make St Ives just perfect for a break away from it all. We watched the surfers, walked the coast, visited the Tate St Ives and stayed in the Ped'n Olva hotel, on a rocky promontory with wonderful views of Porthminister beach and the harbour. The train from the London and the Thames Valley takes around 6 hours and costs as little as £30 return, including a trip on one of the loveliest branch lines in the country.

  • Four days in Vienna


    “If you start to take Vienna - take Vienna” said Napoleon. A tall order for the art-lover with just four days in which to attempt to do justice to the major sites. The Kunsthistorisches, the Albertina, the Belvedere, the Imperial Library, the Ephesus and the Musical Instrument collections, the Hofburg, the Schönbrunn. The Cathedral, the Karlskirche or the Peterskirche? Canova, Dürer, Caravaggio or Vermeer? Baroque or Secession?

    60bdf2960e72e3a2047ec0fb346ec6bd.jpgAll the booty of empire gathered within the 4km ring, lined with palaces cascading with statuesque caryatids and writhing atlantes. Churches with walls coated with plaster angels forever tumbling into the inferno. A Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven or Strauss commemoration on every corner. And the cakes!


    Vienna oozes history and its unconcerned citizens embody a favourite word of Queen Victoria's. They and their city are 'Gemütlichkeit' - contentedly belonging, polite and unhurried. On the plane a Viennese offered tips on getting the best from his home town. In the Graben, the city's busiest shopping street, half a dozen people stopped and waited while I pointed my camera up at a building across the street. At junctions cars halt and pedestrains are waved across. Gentlemen of a certain age wear hats. Their ladies are impeccably (and somewhat conservatively) dressed. Even the frock-coated touts for Strauss concerts are polite in their salesmanship.


    We marvelled at the Prunksaal of the Imperial Library with its ravishing ceiling decorations and perfect proportions, justifying the claim that it is the finest library hall in Europe.

    1e3e629d5080049ce6821cdd1e3df49a.jpgMohr in Hemd (chocolate pudding) or Kokosbusserln (Coconut Kisses)? The cakes are as elegantly refined as the Viennese. We ate Sacher torte in a relaxed and splendidly old-fashioned café by the rear entrance of the Hofburg Palace. A Secession facade there so offended the emperor with its 'plainness' that he reputedly never passed it again. 

    We resisted other temptations including the discrete entrance of the exotically Turkish Centralbad which was a haunt of the Archduke Ludwig Victor, a brother of the emperor Franz Josef I, who 'was famous for his love for beauty'.

    1a20cdd77bf2f9547461e047d29a5807.jpgWe admired Canova's tomb for Maria Christina at the Augustinerkirche. It was such a success that Canova himself was buried in a copy in the Frari in Venice. In the Kunsthistorisches we ate more cake and lost hours in the galleries. Not one but three Rembrandt self-portraits. Exquisite Roman cameos and gold jewellery quite unlike anything I had ever seen. 

    An incredibly myopic Jehovah's Witness seemed to be stalking us in the clock museum. All three floors are choc-a-bloc with chiming timepieces. He was a museum warden and seems to spend his days reading scripture, held at about 2" from his nose. In the museum of musical instruments (rooms of shawms, serpents and Beethoven and Chopin's pianos) another warden was nervously writing who knows what never to be published masterpiece on scraps he carried round with him.

    941db47bcf3215126085c80aa39c32dc.jpg43748f4450fa44270df33a5722056cfd.jpgAustrian Art Nouveau toyed with plainness but finally embraced ornament with relish. We admired Otto Wagner's Majolica House which is a riot of coloured tiles and ornamental balconies. The secession building has a glorious gilded dome of glittering laurel leaves. More pictures here.

  • A Ravello cosmology

    d90bdef7d7adb48f05426defcccb2f3b.jpgViolet Trefusis urged: 'be wicked, be brave, be drunk, be reckless, be dissolute, be despotic, be an anarchist, be a religious fanatic, be a suffragette, be anything you like, but live the gamut of human experiences: build, destroy, build up again! Let's live as none ever lived before, let's tread fearlessly where even the most intrepid have faltered and held back'

    Some of her wickedest and most intrepid moments may have been at the Villa Cimbrone in Ravello on the Italian Amalfi coast, where I took a recent holiday.

    Trefusis (1894-1972) partied there with her lover Vita Sackville-West. Other guests in this medieval fantasy villa were Forster, Strachey, Keynes, Woolf, Lawrence, Henry Moore and TS Elliot - and even Garbo conducted an affair here. The marvellous garden is thought to be partly Sackville-West's work. Villa Cimbrone was built in 1905 by Ernest Beckett, 2nd Lord Grimthorpe, with the help of his tailor and valet, Nicola Mansi, who went on to become the village's mayor.

    d1de9a92f007692ce367b899482206e4.jpg Gide said Ravello was 'closer to the sky than the sea'. The centre of the village is perched on a ridge of volcanic tufa which rises 335m above the sea. Inside the duomo we saw a phial of St Pantaleone's blood. In a letter Cadinal Newman wrote in amazement that "the blood of St. Pantaloon... is not touched—but on his feast in June it liquefies. And more, there is an excommunication against those who bring portions of the True Cross into the Church. Why? Because the blood liquefies, whenever it is brought". In the garden at the Villa Cimbrone we took a long walk through tall umbrella pines - the 'Alleé of Immensity' - to the 'Belvedere of Infinity': a stone parapet with white statues and a dazzling view of the entire bay of Salerno. In 1917 Grimthorpe was buried close by, beneath the temple of Bacchus he created.

    Celebrity connections with Ravello don't stop at the Villa Cimbrone. On an inaccessible ridge directly below it is La Rondinaia, built in 1930 by Mansi for Grimthorpe's second daughter. Until infirmity forced him to move back to the US, it was Gore Vidal's home. A local told us how he used to sit in his wheelchair in Ravello's main square, entertaining visitors with his wisecracks and belying his local reputation for cantankerousness.

    5b4a0aa366df70d6ef113767404b5fa1.jpgWe ate lunch in the garden of the Villa Maria, one of three hotels owned by Vicenzo Palumbo. The patron himself was in orange trousers, idly tending flowers while his staff ran the place for him. With two others he has bought La Rondinaia, reputedly for more than £10m, and plans to turn it into a Vidal museum and luxury hotel.

    Set below La Rondinaia is a church dedicated to the twin saints Cosmas & Damian. We visited on a long walk from Amalfi. I took no photos inside, since this was so evidently a living church: we passed two frail women walking with difficulty up the steps to the church for the evening service.

    Cosmas & Damian practised as doctors in Asia Minor in the third century, and taking no money for their cures, drew many to the faith. During Diocletian's persecutions they were tortured to death. Their relics became popular with pilgrims and in Ravello many have left ex-voto offerings in gratitude for medical cures attributed to the patron saints of medicine.

    e9f3ebaeac0ac4df25b61c2a63ccffe5.jpgHundreds of silver plaques represent every part of the body thought to have been healed by the saints: legs, and arms, teeth, and breasts, hearts and brains all cut out in silver and hanging on red silk in glass cases.

    Besides the Villa Cimbrone, Ravello's other jewel is the Villa Rufolo, also with gardens designed by a Briton. Rufolo is a half-ruined 13th-century palazzo, the venue for highly successful arts festivals. The garden inspired Wagner's dream of a magical garden in Parsifal.

    On our last night on the Amalfi coast we heard a clarinet and piano recital at the Villa before walking down the hillside to our accommodation in Minori, right by the sea. The twisting path took us down steps through lemon and olive groves, across the echoing porchways of several ancient churches and finally past Minori's necropolis, glimpsed through high gates, each decorated with skull and cross-bones.

    563082b9cbdfb6a7ea4df493b4ba66ff.jpgThe walled cemetery was bathed in blue light. Three terraces, one stone slab set into the wall for each family, lines of slabs stacked so high that a ladder is needed to look after the photos and flowers and the little electric light that burns night and day on each. With the scent of ripe figs and the tufa grey soil in the air we descended happily to the moonlit sea.

    One evening just before dusk I walked down to the beach at Minori. The passegiata would soon be in full swing: that special time in the evening when ordinary Italians dress up and go out for a stroll and to chat. On the beach a few kids kicked a football about, but I was the only swimmer. The sea was warm, the surface calm. I swam out 100 metres or more from the shore. Just above the town a blue neon cross marked the cemetery and beyond I saw the line of white lights - like a string of twinkling pearls - marking the path all the way up to Ravello. Higher up there were lights at SS Cosmas & Damiano, too - an orange glow that floodlit the cliff above. Higher still I could even see La Rondinaia - floodlit with a steady bright white light - and thought I caught a glimpse of the fabulous belvedere at the Villa Cimbrone.

    82cab754f31585c33b9a9565686f42c9.jpg On the beach, feeling a cool breeze, I showered and changed. Someone asked me if the water was cold. 'Not at all - it's warm!'. Feeling content, I suddenly remembered Homer's magical line about the 'wine-dark sea' and watched an almost full moon shimmering silver on its surface.

  • A castle in Provence

    fce4459d9be1719e7e3abcdec9432158.jpgThe heat fills the Provençal landscape. It is a tangible thing that sets the distant rocky ridge shimmering, across a deep valley from the terrace of the Château de Gourdon, high in the hills above Grasse. Inside the seventeenth century castle is a fabulous private collection of art deco treasures. Room after room pay homage to the greats of French design of the thirties to fifties: not just a Le Corbusier chair but the Le Corbusier chair: the original factory prototype. The dressing table Eileen Gray made for her own use; astonishing decorated lacquer furniture by Jean Dunand.

    On the château's 'Terrasse d'Honneur' lines of curving and swelling box seem to jostle one another. Their soft, rich greenness is a perfect contrast to the dazzling brightness of the limestone walls. Across the gardens and at a lower level, a Vivaldi recorder concerto sounds out from beside a large pool, just visible behind tall cypresses. Distant shouts from children playing by the water, as a gardener with a ponytail lackadaisically pulls weeds from a flower bed. From a little seat set into the wall I can look down on a private terrace. At the end of the terrace is a belvedere giving views on to the steep rocky valley below. On the stone table inside the belvedere there is water. Two youngish men sit at the table. One is tall, with longish dark hair, dressed all in white, the other shorter with light brown hair. In the sultry afternoon heat, a word or two of their gentle conversation drifts towards me.

    When the castle visit is over, I sit for a while on the low wall of the roadway that leads down to the village. The two young men appear outside high double gates which hide the castle's private gardens. The taller man has aquiline features, his complexion is clear and pale, his hair quite black; his friend has a rounder, more sunburnt face. They are still chatting. Both have an almost aristocratic air.

    Suddenly the taller man seems to catch sight of someone in my direction. He walks purposefully towards me - but stops halfway across the roadway beside a short and frail-looking woman with ginger-coloured hair. He gracefully kisses her on both cheeks. She seems pleasantly surprised at this unexpected compliment. The old lady and young man exchange a few words and he returns to his friend at the garden gate of the castle.

    The two of them now stand for a while, until I am certain the taller of the pair is looking directly towards me for a second time - and in that moment a look of understanding passes between us. Then the friends turn and close the castle gates behind them.

  • Glittering like gold on the Riviera

    26c2b84ee0429fce4028d019f0b9ffc9.jpg After a ferry crossing to Calais that threatened storms but turned out calm, then a short onward journey by train, Lille station was dimly lit and cavernous.

    The crowd clustered round the barrier waiting to board the overnight sleeper to Cannes. Like a guard of honour, the train crew lined up before us. Inside the sixties-built first class sleeper carriage it was dark. With a four person compartment to ouselves, we took a sleeping bag and pillow, a bottle of water, earplugs and other necessities, pulled down the blinds and made ourselves as comfortable as we could. As we lay on our bunks the train seemed to ride the track lightly, bucking and flexing over the steel rails beneath it. The carriages swayed rythmically over the tracks - as if the train was being rocked to sleep by the rails - then suddenly rattled on with a great thundrous clanging. On the doorway and panel above, luminous controls glowed in the half-light. I slept lightly until we arrived in bright sunshine at 10.15 in Cannes, 24 hours after my journey began.

    Prematurely sun-aged women in gold shoes and fussy peasant style white dresses, designer shops and gay boys sashaying it to the beach. Determined pleasure-seeking everywhere. After a confusing drive through twisting lanes we found our 'bastide' – once a grand Provençal farmhouse and now the holiday home of one of the City's most successful young investment bankers. Several dusty acres of what was once productive terracing lie behind a high fence and even higher electric gates. A long lavender-lined drive sweeps to improbably lush lawns at the foot of a lovely 3-storey cream building, with a grand balcony off the master bedroom and inside vast cool rough-tiled echoing corridors, a black Murano glass chandelier and a staircase sweeping to our rooms.

    A grand Empire style bed and a bathroom with an almost Moorish shower enclosure and a freestanding claw-footed bath. Stunning views over the countryside towards the sea. A deep 'L' shaped pool with the warmest, barely chlorinated water where I swam without a costume in the hot afternoon sunshine.

    Tonight we walked for 20 minutes past other impressively protected properties, to the centre of Mougins on the hilltop, where water rushes down a narrow channel from the door of the recently designer re-decorated church. The shops are either galleries, restaurants or estate agents. The well-heeled French are all around us, with the best shod of all at the 'Moulin de Mougins' – one of the best restaurants in France.

    Tomorrow perhaps a trip to Grasse, where visitors learn how to blend their own perfume, or more rest and idleness in the shade by the pool. It is strange being in such a marvelously wicked place without a lover.

  • Skinny-dipping at the West Blockhouse

    Undiscovered Pembrokeshire and the Landmark Trust's stunning West Blockhouse provided a terrific location for a holiday during the hottest week of July. Built in 1857 to defend Milford Haven, the second largest natural harbour in the world (the other is in New York), the fort is built from great slabs of impeccably jointed marble and limestone. A moat and narrow drawbridge protect it from attack.

    Six of us walked the coast and swam from deserted coves. We sat about reading and played each other music, cooking huge meals in the fort's panelled rooms, impeccably furnished in period and hung with military prints and portraits of vaguely disapproving military gents. The last soldiers left at the end of the Second World War. One officer loved the place so much he told his men they should be paying to stay there. On arrival we ran like delighted children from room to room, breathing in the smell of beeswax and lavender polish, catching new vistas of sparkling sea from every narrow window.

    medium_pict0361.jpgThe views out across the water are stunning. Three distant oil refineries flare at night. Three giant radio beacons above the fort guide in the huge tankers which pass close enough for one group of Norwegian mariners to wave at us. Some of the rocks still bear the traces of the catastrophic oil spill from the wreck of the Sea Empress in 1996. The nearby islands of Skomer, Grassholm and Ramsey provide havens for wildlife including the seals we looked so hard for but never spotted. Along the coast-paths, soil banks built to protect the fields were like a carefully planted rock garden, with bee orchids, daisies and willow herb in full bloom.

    medium_pict0326.jpgThe roof of the fort was a scorching sun trap where we flew the Union Flag each morning. One night I walked down to Watwick Bay just ten minutes away. Steep steps lead to soft white sand, the lapping waves and the musk smell of wild honeysuckle. I swam alone and walked back close to midnight, still undressed in the warm night air.

  • Street life and the ambassadors in Marrakech

    medium_pict0004.jpgA riad in the heart of the medina where purple bourganvillea trails from a roof garden to a cool tiled courtyard. Street cries heard from our room: the man with fresh sardines, silver and shining on the back of his bike pushed through 30 degrees of heat, another calling to collect old bread, someone else collecting rags. Rich smells catch in the nostrils from a spice store nearby. Scarlet-costumed water sellers and story tellers in the Djamaa el Fna, clouds of dust and smoke from braziers rising upwards with the shrieking of the snake charmers' pipes and the rattle of drums. A twisting maze of narrow streets with a tout on every corner. Stalls piled with spices, carvings, pottery and brasswork in the labyrinthine souk. A baker and a hammam in each district and five times a day the amplified wail of half a dozen competing muzzein. Where else but Marrakech, still medieval for all its internet cafés, thronging with colour and life from dawn to long after dusk.

  • 'What is the point in being a conventional person?'

    medium_dvd_room07.3.jpgSo said film-maker Ismail Merchant, who died on 25 May aged 68. His belief 'in doing things in the most unorthodox manner' made him a genius at raising funds for films like his favourite 'A room with a view', and for 'Howards End' and 'Maurice'. Often derided, 'costume drama' is nowadays a term of abuse, apparently signifying overly lavish sets, the rustle of crinoline and limp romanticism. But for me there is a joyfulness about some Merchant Ivory productions that is out of sync with our predilection for gloom and complaint. Helena Bonham-Carter's Lucy has a passion for life, for Italy and for love itself that puts her at odds with convention.

    medium_pict0013-bruges.jpgI was in Bruges for a friend's birthday last weekend. After showers we enjoyed the medieval townscape in the just-washed clarity of bright Spring sunshine. Lovers seemd to be everywhere and in the glorious Orangerie it was a little like a Merchant Ivory production. Champagne and smoked salmon from the buffet for breakfast, with a view over the sparkling canal from a richly furnished room in a former convent. Tea from a Georgian silver pot, linen napkins, fresh strawberry and pineapple and little cakes made from the richest Belgian chocolate.

    medium_pict0010-magritte.jpgAt the Musée Royaux des Beaux Arts, Brussels I loved the loose brushwork and lightness of this painting by Magritte. In the Arentshuis museum in Bruges are paintings and prints by Sir Frank Brangwyn (1867-1956) – one of those artists whose work seems due for re-evaluation. His painted work is almost frivolously sunny and optimistic, while his prints are wonderfully dark and brooding. Anglo-Saxon dourness and mistrust of the unfamiliar probably lay behind the rejection of his sumptuous 'British Empire Panels' intended for the House of Lords and finally displayed in the Brangwyn Hall in Swansea. A similar dourness and disapproval of anything arty must be the reason why a relative of mine burnt some of Brangwyn's original drawings, given to a family member who was Brangwyn's chauffeur and one of the first licensed drivers in London.medium_pict0016-burges-brang.jpg

    One the train home, two young American men with close-cropped hair gazed at each other and kissed and canoodled. Long live unconventionality.

    Telegraph obituary for Ismail Merchant
    IMDB filmography for Merchant

  • La Gomera 2

    The full moon glittered silver on the water as we gazed out to sea from the Santiago shore. Waves crashed in on the shingle, tumbling white foam and surging towards us. The Atlantic pulled back, sucking the water fast down shore, drawing back the rolling shingle, sending it racing downwards to the sea. Way above the horizon and out beyond the rough red cliffs we thought we could still make out snow on the peak of Mount Teide, across the sea on Tenerife. The wind that at sunset had torn at the date palms was gone and the scent of orange blossom floated in the warm night air.


    Here on Gomera in the Canaries we have walked in easy companionship together. Once to the Guro waterfall, reached along a narrow gorge where a cat twitched its tail on a ledge high on the far gorge wall.

    On a 6-hour trek we climbed 900m from the sea at Hermigua up the Cedro stream and past a reservoir with golden carp that tempted me to swim. Some islanders had lugged a cultivator up there to turn over the dusty soil. Even the remotest spot is turned to productive earth by the building of narrow terraces, irrigated from tanks of carefully stored water.

    At the head of the valley, arum lilies grew along the stream banks. Tame goats gently butted us and a man emerging from his tent waved as we walked through the camp site for tea and ice cream.


    We visited the island's only dragon tree, the blood red sap of which was collected because when hardened it could be used to make jewellery.

    We picked our way through prickly pears once grown for cochineal beetles, and took shelter from the sun under Canary palms tapped for their syrupy sap. We walked in a sub-tropical rain forest of wax myrtle hung with moss. Agave, artemisia, asphodel, spurge, tree heather, cystus, small copper and brimstone: we learnt a new flora and fauna and began to appreciate the changing scents of the landscape. La Gomera, named after a grandson of Noah and visited by Columbus, claims more of its own species for each of its 378 sq km than anywhere else in Europe.

    The Guanche were the island's indigenous people. Having long-forgotten the ways of the sea, they were powerless to stop the Spanish when they invaded. It is thought they retreated to the heights of Mount Garajonay. Close to the summit a few rocks remain of a religious site that faced out to the peak of Mount Teide on Tenerife, floating like some mystic, unattainable realm above cloud, far away across the sea.

    We heard not a note of silbo, the Gomerans' unique whistling language that apparently allows them to communicate over kilometres. Under UN sponsorship it has been revived in the schools.

    At dusk I swam in a man-made cold sea pool below great, grey cliffs at Hermigua. A man came took the trouble to walk down to warn me of high waves that would overtop the pool walls at any moment and risked carrying away my things.

    We picnicked on Palma ham and quince jam sandwiches and in the evenings made meals for each other to Ella Fitzgerald at the cool, dark house we hired 1000m up on the edge of the national park. By the sea in Valle Grand Rey we ate out on fresh tuna, and at Lago Grande in Garajonay I devoured wild rabbit with red and green mojo sauce: one spicy, the other cooling. We covered ourselves in factor 60 because even in the breezes the sun still burnt.

    On a barranco high above Vallehermoso we talked to an English couple that dreamed of making a tropical garden. They harvested cancer-beating berries from scrubby bushes in their garden and wondered if they had made the right decision leaving behind a farm in Sussex.

    At the end of our holiday, late in the afternoon at the Playa del Ingles on the edge of Valle Grand Rey, we sat apart from each other for a while. A fierce wind blew as we watched 40 foot high waves breaking time after time against the sharp black basalt rocks.

    On our last evening I picked an orange from the garden and Dona Efigenia gave us Gomeran bananas and bread for the journey home. At the airport on Tenerife a tall man in a cream suit lay dying on the terminal floor. His head lolled uselessly towards me as a paramedic pushed at his chest again and again and again.

    Perhaps because of his death we missed the connection in Madrid. At dusk there I opened the triple-glazed window of the airport hotel and in the warm night air there was birdsong.

  • La Gomera 1

    Happy I certainly am here on La Gomera, one of the smallest and greenest of the Canary islands. William, Marc, David and I have hired a traditional Gomeran house 1000m up from the sea called Cañada del Hoyito.
    It really is a lovely place. Dona Efigenia, who let it to us, decribed it with good reason as 'muy preciosa' : wood and stone, high ceilings and simple furniture with terraces growing orange trees and sweet almonds in blossom. In the evening the scents are lovely and the stars dot the gaps between the densely growing circle of old palm trees just before the house. Tree frogs make up a chorus with the rattle of goats bells, the goats' bleating cries and the sound of distant dogs.

    Efigenia herself is something of a phenomenon, specialising in parting tourists from their cash for peasant food at upmarket prices, where the poor punters pay through the nose for three hours of something one guide book euphemistically calls 'restaurant theatre'.
    Yesterday was our first and we walked a great arc around this village, down steeply terraced green valleys [barrancos] heavy with the scent of white broom. After the rainiest winter for years Gomera is truly in bloom. We climbed up to the Garajonay national park which is divided between different parishes and is at the heart of the island. It's sub-tropical forest where mist billows suddenly into sunlit glades and the myrtle trees hang heavy with thick lichen fronds.

    I swam afterwards at Valle Gran Rey after leaving my things next to a dark-eyed and ringletted Spaniard and his elfin girlfriend. Great breakers were running in on the main beach (we watched as the sun went down). From a restaurant in the port I saw a handsome curly haired man in nautical uniform put his arm around a friend's neck in an easy sensual gesture the intimacy of which seemed at odds with his excited talk.

    Today has been a far longer walk from Chipude where we watched effigies of St Veronica and the Virgin being prepared for their tour of the village on Good Friday. We scrambled up La Fortaleza, a sheer wall of jagged rock and the second highest peak on La Gomera. On the flat top asphodel bloomed, elegant stems of flower among the scrub. A mysterious great spiral of low stones led to a circular cairn and beyond other delicately balanced rock piles made me think of Brancusi.

    Climbing the last barranco to the highest village on the island we saw a woman on the opposite side of the valley. She carried a tall stick and with whistles and coaxing cries was herding goats home. Later this cocoa brown Miriam Margoyles offered directions and filled our bottle with crystal clear, goaty tasting water.

    We missed the very peak of Garajonay, over 1400m, and walked back to a meal of cuttlefish and spicy sausages in the village café. Tomorrow should include a walk to a waterfall and more swimming.

  • Stockholm July 2001


    Bright sunlight, clean streets, smiles, the palest of blue eyes - everyone was so unfailingly polite and helpful it almost began to feel like 'The Truman Show'. Even the tray rack in the National Museum thanked us for returning our dishes. But the lady at SAS check-in was a bit uncertain. "Nacka? Why go there?" Because William's friend had an empty flat there, and it's only 20 minutes from Stockholm. Could we swim there? "Oh yes, there's a lake and you can swim from the royal palace steps if you want!"

    Stockholm almost deserves the daft label 'Venice of the North': it's part of an archipelago of over 24,000 islands and its historic centre, Gamla Stan, is the boundary between fresh water and the Baltic. Lugging our bags, we wandered across the island at dusk. Four-square 18th century grey and cream public buildings on the waterfronts and narrower streets twisting upwards to the cathedral and royal palace beyond.

    Saturday morning and I swam in the Nacka lake. Hot sun, warm water, water-lilies, birch trees and conifers, and great flat rocks to swim from, with just a few mallards for company. Discrete purification equipment kept the water clean. When I came out, even the two small black leeches on my leg were too polite to attach themselves.


    They were changing the guard (at the palace). Ripples of applause for each new tune from the mounted bandsmen. Mirror-shiny spiked helmets and much marching about. One alarmed looking youth in glasses clung to his mount while he struggled with a tuba that seemed several sizes too large for him. The palace is vast: apparently just one room less than the one in London. Tessin built it and is commemorated in a sculpture in the cathedral. He perches awkwardly half-way up a column, as if he would slide off at any moment.

    The royal family have long since shifted to their summer palace on the green island of Drottningholm: but there didn't seem to be anyone at home when we visited. We took a steamship out past Södermalm, Langholm and Stora Essingen, following the Björnholmen into a still reach where the palace basked in the afternoon sun. Its understated classical architecture by Tessin the elder marks the start of the Swedish 'Golden Age'. Gorgeously scented box hedges and water jetting from statues with mythological subjects. A pavilion in faux Chinese style was a present for Queen Louisa Ulrika's birthday. The theatre opened in her honour in 1766 and is the island's masterpiece.

    We took a tour of the theatre and were amazed. All the stage machinery is in place and working. Dei ex machina galore fly down on clouds. Candelabra and footlights hardly pierce the atmospheric gloom. Ten men turn a great capstan and the scenery changes, sliding in on tracks in the floor. Copies of the original scenery are still in use. The mouldings may be papier mâché and the marble trompe l'oeuil but the theatre is an incredible survival. As we toured, I imagined members of the court taking part in their own productions, the palace servants filling the benches at the back, the royal family in their own chairs on a blue Persian carpet at the front. I asked if there was any chance of tickets for Così fan tutti that afternoon but was told there was no chance: it was sold out ages ago.


    In the museum shop someone has mysteriously heard I'm after tickets: "look out for a man in a pink shirt". The box office opens an hour before and I wait on the grass. Another staff member walks deliberately out across the grass to tell me "there may be a few tickets - make sure you're first in the queue!". So I sit on the step in the sun and wonder. A German in dark suit and waistcoat bought his tickets when booking opened in March. A man in a pink shirt appears. Yes! he has tickets to sell. So I used all my cash to buy one ticket, and hope to get one at the box office when it opens. At last a liveried and periwigged palace servant opens the door. One by one those who are collecting advance tickets are admitted and finally I am called to a little desk inside. Quietly I'm told "we do have the chairs:the people that usually have them aren't coming this evening". Wonder of wonders - these are the royal seats right at the front, and after swapping back the pink-shirted man's ticket I managed to get two of them for William and I!

    A great stick thumped down on the stage to bring the crowd to silence and the overture began. The performance was quite matchless. The orchestra and singers were like a musical time machine, taking us back to the golden age and the audience's excitement at the spectacle was almost tangible. To gasps the cast showed off the marvels of the theatre. Their singing was lively and completely involving. The applause at the end brought the performers back again and again.

    Where else could you swim in beautiful clear water in front of a royal palace after a performance like the one we had just seen? Slipping into the warm water as the sun's rays lengthened was a wonderful end to the afternoon.


    We swam again the next day, after visiting the royal warship 'Vasa'.

    Forget the Mary Rose! The 'Vasa' is vast and was recovered in astonishingly good condition almost 350 years after it capsized on its 1628 maiden voyage. There was a rich smell of old timber in the huge, dark and cool museum. The crowd was buzzing enthusiasm, swarming round the great timber hull. Hundreds of twisting carvings in the darkest oak seemed to writhe on its surface. There were monsters and savages and emperors - all to glorify king and country and terrify their enemies. We saw the ship's carpenter's timber chest with its untouched brace & bit, leather hats and shoes and gazed and gazed at all the interpretative exhibits.

    The 'Vasa' really was over the top: 69 metres in length, with less than 5m of the hull in the water and more than 15 above. The king was fighting in Poland the day crew men rushed from side to side as the warship was moored before the palace. If he had been there he would have seen its swaying instability. 50 of the crew of 450 lost their lives when a wave hit just out of harbour on its maiden voyage.


    What else to do but swim again? We took the Stockholm Metro (the T) to Langholmen. Once a prison island, now green, with paths leading past allotment gardens to a popular beach. Around 7pm we walked right to the very western end of the island. Like mermen, with fleshy Caravaggio faces and long blonde hair streaming out in the water, three people played in the water: diving for rocks and laughing in the sunshine. A latter-day Byron, William breasted the choppy water, crossing the sound and waving at me from the shore. Silent now, the three mermen rested in a willow tree which jutted out low over the water.

    On our last day we had time to walk Södermalm, south of Gamla Stan. There are wonderful views of the city, the Katerina Kyrka restored to stunning pristine whiteness after a fire, and picturesque streets with red-painted timber and stone houses.

    Three and a half days and we'd hardly begun to discover Stockholm.
    I hope to go back and can recommend it.

    We also went to:

    The Riddarholmskrykanburial place of kings

    The Modern Art Museet on Skeppsholmen (impressive new building by Spanish architect, works by Picasso, Mondrian, Chagall, photographic collections and large special exhibition space: wonderful views from restaurant)

    The National Museum (Rembrandt, vast murals, print collections)

    The Far Eastern Museum (stunning bronze Shiva, Chinese scroll painting, porcelain including beautiful, simple celadon ware)




    Byron: http://www.turkishodyssey.com/places/marmara/marmara8.htm