Monday, 8 August 2022

Kursk

 


Way back in 2012, I visited Murmansk in the far North of Russia.  The Russian submarine Kursk, you may remember, suffered a catastrophic explosion in August 2000 and sank with all hands.  I went to the Museum of the Russian Northern Fleet to pay my respects to our old adversary.  There was an outdoor memorial to the men who lost their lives constructed from the recovered bridge fin of the submarine.

There were other exhibits inside.  Not all of the crew died immediately.  A small group survived for a time in the after compartment of the boat.  I spent quite some time gazing at the very note on which they had written their names in the darkness.

The note stayed with me and I have written a very short (101 words) story about it.  The story has been published online and here is the link. Kursk


Saturday, 16 July 2022

The Enkhuizer Almanak

 



Photo Kevin Hoggett



A fat, dense, little book sits in my hand.  It has a scarlet bookmark ribbon.  The cover shows a simple woodblock picture in red on a pale background.  The picture is of old man in traditional Dutch fisherman’s clothes, smoking a pipe. There is a Dutch barge and a windmill in the background.  The fisherman is, himself, holding a copy of the little book and so the picture is an infinite regression. Later, I learn that this is called the Droste effect after a 1904 advertisement for a brand of Dutch cocoa. There is something very pleasing about the look and heft of this book.



I am in the railway station at Hoorn in the Netherlands.  I shall shortly depart by steam train to Medemblik, from where I shall travel by the vintage motor ship Friesland to the small town of Enkhuizen.

In the station souvenir shop, the book is on sale for just one Euro.  I can see why; the book’s title is Enkhuizer Almanak 2019 and it is three years out of date but it has something to do with Enkhuizen. I happily part with a Euro.  On the train, I settle down to explore my new purchase.  It has 288 pages all in Dutch so it is going to take some enjoyable effort to work it all out.

I quickly recognise tide tables for Harlingen, Den Helder, Tershchelling, Rotterdam and Hook of Holland; names that take my mind to shipping forecasts, ferry timetables and small craft warfare in World War 2. 

There is a heavy-handed joke about Facebook on page 200 which is not improved by Google translate and on page 150, a sketch of rather a cheeky mermaid.



There is something else on the cover: “424ste Jaargang” which must mean 424th annual edition; this book has history.  It may have first been published in 1595 when Queen Elizabeth I was on the throne of England and Sir Francis Drake set off on his final voyage. In Holland, the first Dutch expedition to the East Indies set off.  I later learn that the oldest surviving copy of the Enkhuizer Almanak was printed in the town in 1680.  What a splendid and remarkable achievement it is to keep this small book in publication for so long. I continue to explore and find the dates for the sheep market in Oldebrook and the Pentecost market in Brummen Easte, events I didn’t know I had missed.  One of many household hints tells me that candles last longer if they have been put in the freezer before use.  I can even check on the regulations for the flying of flags. What a store of esoteric knowledge.

I have arrived in Enkhuizen, a charming small port with canals.  My wife Adrienne is lost in a haze of fantasy house buying.  She tells me she wants to retire to Enkhuizen.  I fear that I am not included and that she plans to retire from being my wife. 

Photo by Adrienne Higham


The Almanak has its own museum.  It is the old cold store for the fish market.  It is small like the Almanak and closed on the day of my visit but I discover that there is a website, which I shall explore later.  In the meantime, we enjoy dinner in Schipperscafe ‘t Ankertje (Skippers’ Pub at the Little Anchor).


When I get home, I open up the website.  The Almanak has its own weather forecasting system, supported by its own corps of weather observers.  It works on the principal of reversal days that divide weather into decades of 10 days about which weather changes.  I would tell you more but the full explanation is in Dutch.

I still keep the Enkhuizer Almanak on my desk more as a paperweight than a reference resource.  I just like it.

 Notes:

  1. Hoorn Medemblik Stoomtram
  2. The Enkhuizer Almnak and its Museum
  3. Schipperscafe t'ankertje
  4. I travelled with the excellent PTG Tours

Monday, 13 June 2022

The Best Little Hat Shop in Utrecht


 

  Unusually, I had not planned our visit to Utrecht so I did not know what I might find.  I certainly did not expect to find a very fine hatter or, in Dutch, Hoedenzaak.  It was the establishment of Mr Jos van Dijck and Mr van Dijck knows the business of hatting.  Above his shop, at number 12 Bakkerstraat, was an elegant, metal, cutout sign showing the name of his business and three classic hats. His brightly lit window displayed a cascade of fine hats for both men and women.


Of course I did not need to buy a hat so we went in just for a look. Mr van Dijck was busy with a customer, a young man of fastidious fashion sense who was taking a long time to decide between two Panama hats.  One was a classic Panama and the other had a chequered pattern.  The latter was the sort of hat at which, had Bertie Wooster tried it on, Jeeves would have raised an eyebrow.  I thought better of stepping in to give advice even though I feel I know a bit about Panama hats. See my article: The Panama Hat Story

Still determined not to buy, I now had time to look around.  There were a lot of hats.  There was not much in the way of millinery.  The women's’ hats were classic and unfussy.  The Queen could find a hat here.  It was, thanks be, no place to buy a fascinator,  For both men and women there were Panamas, trilbies, fedoras, boaters and bowlers, caps and cloches, in all fabrics and colours.  However you walked into that shop, you could walk out in style. 

My eye fell upon a natty paperboy cap in woven sea grass. Its open weave would be cool in summer.  I tried it on — too small.  Noticing my interest, Mr van Dijck left the young man still with a hat in each hand to attend to me.  He agreed it was too small.

‘Too much hair,’ I said.

‘Too much brain,’ he said, recycling a joke as old and threadbare as a well-loved flat cap.

He was not sure if he had it in a bigger size.  He went downstairs to look but came back shaking his head.  He checked that the young man had not yet made a decision and sat down at his computer and tapped at the keys for about a minute, his face glum.

‘Sorry, I don’t have a bigger one in stock.  It seems I do not even have that one.’

Notes:

I was travelling with the excellent PTG Tours

 

Sunday, 5 June 2022

Riding a Renegade Tram in Rotterdam

Clang, clang, clang went the trolley

Ding, ding, ding went the bell

Zing, zing, zing went my heart strings

From the moment I saw him I fell

Chug, chug, chug went the motor

Bump, bump, bump went the brake…

 

Judy Garland’s Trolley Song has been an earworm since my tram ride round Rotterdam.  The Trolley Song

Rotterdam’s Tram Museum is just by the Kootskade tram stop on the No. 4 or 8 lines. As I walked into this old tram shed, I smelled the warm aroma of lubricating oil.  It was good and I inhaled.  Enthusiastic volunteers run the Museum and care for its many trams.  There are plenty of trams of all ages to climb in and out of.  Two volunteers looked after our small group.  They disappeared for a few minutes and returned splendidly dressed in proper tram driver and conductor uniforms. 



We boarded a 90-year-old tramcar.  'Ding, ding, ding,' went the bell.  The tram clanged and, with a screech of steel wheel on steel rail, we sped out of the shed onto a side street.  In a hundred yards we stopped, with a bump of the brakes, at a junction with Rotterdam’s main tram system.  Having checked, the way was clear we accelerated onto the main track and headed towards the centre of Rotterdam.

Our driver had told us that he had had a year of training to qualify.  He and we now had the run of the city’s tramlines; he took us wherever he wanted.  All he had to do was to avoid disturbing the routine trams.  We stopped for a photo shoot but, suddenly, he hurried us back aboard, “There’s a No. 24 coming up behind us!”

Indeed there was. We sped away. 




On some of the outer reaches of the system, we did U-turns on loops at the end of lines, where our conductor had to get out and change points.


For about 90 minutes, we enjoyed a swaying, squealing, clanging tour of the fine city of Rotterdam. 'Zing, zing, zing' went my heartstrings.

 


 

Information

 The Trolley Museum has limited opening hours.  Vintage tram rides are by charter or a hop-on-off from May to October Thursday to Sunday only.

Rotterdam Tram Museum

Tram Line 10

I travelled with the excellent PTG Tours PTG Tours

Photo credits: Kevin Hogget

Trolley Song written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane

Friday, 27 May 2022

The Stone Axe-Head — a Long Journey in Time

 



 

In the British Museum’s stunning exhibition Stonehenge[1], is a beautiful and remarkable object. It is a stone axe-head and it has a story, a long story.

In 1942 BCE (that is 4,000 years ago) in what is now Germany, a family buried their father, a man whose name we do not know.  With him, they buried the stone axe-head that I gazed at and revisited at the British Museum.

The axe-head is about the length and girth of a boy’s forearm from elbow to wrist.  It is symmetrical in two planes and pierced at its heavier end by a precisely circular hole for the haft.  The colour of the stone is elusive. At first glance, it is dark grey, just short of black. As you look at it, the darkness varies; there is a hint of green.  Someone has polished the surface to a deep shine.  There are flecks and hints of red, blue and green appear.  One end comes to a rounded chisel tip.  The other, the haft end, is thicker and blunt like a hammer All its edges are pleasingly rounded.  If I could have picked it up, it would have had heft.

The axe-head is ornamental far beyond utility.  A rougher piece of rock would do just as well at cracking a skull.

This object is a masterpiece of Stone Age art and artisanship.  Someone working with stones, sand and animal hide spent weeks making it.

The man it was buried with lived at a time when, in Europe, the Stone Age was giving way, after 1.3 million years, to the Bronze Age.  The man’s sons may have wondered at their father’s attachment to old technology before laying it in his grave.  The British Museum describes the axe as a symbol of power.  It requires no greater speculation to think they placed it in the grave as a mark of respect.

The man lived long before Homer. He was a near contemporary of Abraham.

But it is the axe-head that has the story.  By the time it was buried with him, it was already 2,500 years old.  We can never know the name of the Stone Age Artisan who perfected this object 6,500 years ago, when the Sahara was green and work would not start on Stonehenge for another two millennia. What is truly extraordinary is people revered and cherished this work of art for 120 generations before they buried it with its last owner.

Sunday, 15 May 2022

Phoney Portofino and Congenial Camogli

 

Portofino 





The ferry from Santa Margherita disgorged about 150 of us onto the quay.  Another ferry was close behind.  At the top end of the tiny town, buses were unloading 50 tourists at a time.  We were not alone in making a day trip to Portofino. Every holiday brochure for the Italian Riviera shows a picture of Portofino.

Portofino is said to have permanent population of just 450.  There was five times that number jamming its only street.  Portofino is a fake.  Its appearance is fake; its charm is fake.  It is a celebrity of a destination, famous for being famous because famous people have made it so. Its buildings are painted in trompe-l’oeil to make them appear stone built with elegant arches and folderol.  The variation in colours comes from a palette determined by the local commune drawing on some long-forgotten tradition.

Over a century ago, in the days when it was an unspoiled fishing village, rich and famous people built gorgeous villas above the town.

New generations of the rich and famous discovered this rich man’s hideaway. They bought up or rented the villas and moored their gigantic yachts in the little harbour.

And so, the day-trippers, me, included come to see this celebrity enclave.  The town has developed to welcome us.  Restaurants line the streets and their tables surge out onto the town square and the quay. In between there are smart shops; I spotted Dior and Balenciaga.  A few local clothes boutiques offer classy summer wear at a price. Then there are cheap pizza takeaways and tacky souvenir shops for the rest of us.  There is still money on show.  In the restaurants were high maintenance people who would not look out of place at Henley or in Sloane Square.  If you had that sort of money, why would you choose to eat your zuppa de pesce inches from the great international public shuffling past your table gawping at you?

In the harbour were three suspiciously picturesque fishing boats.  They would be entirely inadequate to supply the industrial quantities of seafood consumed in Portofino’s restaurants.  There are only about thirteen fish left in the grossly over-exploited Mediterranean Sea.  Italy imports 5.5 billion Euros worth of fish each year.  Portofino’s catch of the day arrives in a lorry.

Finally, no visitor to Portofino should miss the sad little sculpture park guarded by six nail-varnish pink meerkats.

One good reason for visiting Portofino is that there is a boat from there to the Abbey of San Fruttuoso and its submerged statue, Christ of the Abyss.  I am told that this is well worth a visit but on the day we were there, it was too rough for the boat to make the trip, which probably added to the congestion in Portofino.  You can also reach the Abbey by boat from the charming and unspoilt town of Camogli, a few kilometres north of Portofino and accessible by train.

 Camogli


 

Camogli is a small town with a small harbour. While not exactly off the tourist trail, it has a character of its own, feels properly Italian and we spent a very good day there.  There is a descent from the railway station to this small town.  If you take the steps, you will find yourself at Camogli’s intriguing Maritime Museum. It closes at midday on weekdays.  Please check the website for opening hours. Camogli Maritime Museum  The museum looks as it has had some money spent on it. It is fascinating for those of us with an interest in ships and the sea and there is a lot to interest the more casual visitor.  I particularly liked the portraits of ships.  Some of the sailing ship pictures had sails made in fabric that billowed in 3D. They have a digital archive and they showed me a 19th century Lloyds of London insurance contract written in Italian. I have seen plenty of ships in bottles but here they have an entire harbour with ships in a bottle.



It doesn’t take long to walk to the harbour and the main street of the town.  The street is lined with cafes and gelateria.  The harbour itself has the shape of a crab’s claw.  The outer curved wall makes for a nice walk and there are two whale tails made of blue metal netting that make for a dramatic view.

In the town, there is a church that is worth visiting.  It was closed the day we were there. 

I also noticed a bookbinding and bookshop.  It is closed on Thursday. That probably saved me money as, peering through the window, I could see beautifully bound notebooks and journals.

If I have given the impression of a rather closed sort of place, that is wrong.  The town is quiet and unassuming but it is charming in a non-touristy way.

By the inner wall of the harbour is the ticket office for boat trips to San Fruttuoso.  I did not have time to make the trip that day though with a bit of forward planning, I could have done.  Camogli is a better place to embark on your trip to the Abbey.

It was time for lunch. At the very end of the inner wall of the harbour, we found a small café called I tre merli, the three blackbirds.  We sat outside enjoying bruschetti and then it seemed necessary to have gelati and then coffee and limoncello.  An hour or so passed as we watched the comings and goings in the harbour.  A perfect interlude.  I tre merli looked and felt like a small family run place.  They also offered a locanda or rooms to let. But no ordinary rooms to let; the brochure shows that each room has a sensational view of the harbour and there is a spa, whose delights have been translated into English as “cuddle yourself in the SPA” and why not indeed?



There was a surprise on their business card that came with a very modest bill.  I tre merli establishments can also be found in Genova and there are four in New York. It has  quite a story that you can read n its website.  I Tre Merli

The gloss of Portofino or the charm of Camogli?  Camogli every time for me.

Friday, 6 May 2022

Writing My Travel Journal Again

After a long spell of not travelling and not travel writing it has been good to get back to it by way of a train journey to Italy and back.  I still find it a marvel that one can get from London to Nice or Turin in twelve hours of sitting in a comfortable chair, reading, listening, writing or just enjoying the view, while someone else  does the driving.

Writing my journal in Turin's most fashionable café (very expensive but delicious chocolate cake) or,


At Baratti & Milano Torino

Writing my journal on a stone bench by the banks of the River Po, with graffiti for inspiration (very cheap).


Photo Credit: Adrienne Higham

While travelling, I very much enjoyed reading Italian Ways by Tim Parks.  Parks has lived and worked in Italy for more than 30 years.  He knows and loves the country.  Basing his book on the idiosyncrasies of Italian Railways, he shares many aspects of life in Italy with the reader.  Ideal reading for an Italian train.  I also took D H Lawrence's Twilight in Italy but found it very hard going and abandoned it. 

It's good to be back.  More writing to follow.

We travelled with the excellent Great Rail Journeys