Thursday 2 November 2023

Podgorica, Montenegro: The Smell Of Freedom


Cue Hotel, Podgorica (from the hotel website)

It was unmistakable. As I stepped into the stylishly modern lobby of the Cue Hotel in Podgorica, my nose twitched at the sophisticated fragrance of cigar smoke.

I turned to see a cigar lounge complete with leather Chesterfields, ashtrays and a splendid humidor displaying true Havana cigars, some the size of torpedoes, right down to delicate cheroots. It was right there open to the lobby and evidently well used. The smell was of quiet enjoyment, hedonism and but more than that, the smell of freedom.

Look, I know, smoking is a filthy malodorous habit. It is bad for smokers and all those around them. There are a million reasons not just to ban it but to abolish it altogether. Yet it is another freedom lost — its odour to be replaced by the sweet, cloying, artificial pong of vapes – until they ban those to be superseded by who knows what new horror?

I do not know what the laws are in Montenegro. People seemed not to smoke in public indoor spaces except for the Cue Hotel cigar lounge, but they certainly smoke at outside tables. That evening, I watched four men at an outside table of the Cue. A bottle of wine rested in an ice bucket. All four men sat back in the evening light smoking fragrant cigars. I could see that the conversation was calm and sporadic. Just four men enjoying a proper smoke and companionship.

Montenegro is applying to join the European Union. It will adopt new values that will extinguish such blatant hedonism. It is their choice and they will have much to gain but something will be lost.

I was travelling with the excellent PTG Tours

Sunday 22 October 2023

On the Origin of Holy Relics

 Over the years, I have travelled with Adrienne to many countries in the Levant and the Balkans.  I have been struck by the numbers of churches dedicated to St George.  Many of them are guardians of bones; precious and plentiful relics of the saint. St. George is the patron saint of England an many other countries and causes.  This prompted me to write a piece of short fiction from the point of view of his famous adversary, the dragon.  I hope you like it.

Postcard from St. George's Church, Adaba, Jordan

On The Origin Of Holy Relics

With just one roar, I made my toast, seared my bacon and heated my coffee. Life’s good when I can generate that much dragon fuel in a night. Talking of knights, what is going on? Every day for the last fortnight there’s been another one of the blighters. They all look the same: horse, lance, chain mail, white tabard, red cross. Every man jack of them calls himself Saint George.

I can’t remember half of them. There was one, patron saint of Portugal. I saw him off and when I say I saw him off I mean that, having given him a good grilling, I sawed off his leg and ate it. I sold the leg bones. I have a trusty man in Aleppo.  He can get me a good price for relics of St George.

On Thursday, it was another George claiming to be the patron saint of Lithuania. He was easy. Sold off a jawbone and an arm.

Then there was the one with the fancy saddle. Said he was patron saint of saddle makers. Sold off his Ischial Tuberosity — that’s bum bones for the uneducated — talk about saddle sore. Mind you, I didn’t get much of a price for them. They don’t make for a dignified relic.

And the George who said he was the patron saint of syphilis? I just incinerated him. Best to be on the safe side.

My man in Aleppo passed me a special order today. Some geezer called Robert of Jerusalem wants a whole arm, shoulder and ribcage of St. George. He will pay a tidy price. I don’t need a fight. I can find that lot in the spare bones at the back of my cave. Some of them may even be human.  He won’t know the difference.


Thursday 31 August 2023

Seeing the World for the First Time


Geocarta Nautica Universale (Color) Public Domain

In 1523, in Spain, two men set about making a map of the world. They were well equipped for the task. One was Giovanni Vespucci, cartographer to the King of Spain and nephew of the great Amerigo. The other, Captain Juan Elcano, had returned the previous year after completing the first ever circumnavigation of the world. He had been second-in-command of Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition. Magellan himself lost his life in the Spice Islands. The expedition had taken nearly three years and was a feat of navigation no less intrepid than the Apollo 8 mission that first rounded the far side of the moon.

I am in the dimly lit basement of the Royal Library at Turin, looking at the very map. It is exquisitely drawn and coloured on 12 sheets of cotton canvas. It is nearly twice as wide as my arm span. It looks a bit like a modern Mercator projection, but it is not. Mercator was only eleven years old. Navigators in the 16th century knew that the Earth was round and had a fair idea of its circumference.   They knew of the Americas but not what lay beyond or whether they could get through or round them to Asia. They found the way and what did lie beyond was the Pacific Ocean taking up a third of the map, and demonstrated for the first time in history.

But what of the world that the map reveals? Europe, the Mediterranean and Black seas were well known and accurately drawn. North Cape and the Arctic Ocean had yet to be properly explored. The Caribbean and Central America, already discovered by Columbus, appear in detail. The rest of the eastern seaboard of North America is still unknown, except for a ghostly, detached sketch of Florida.

The east coast of South America for is shown in detail, right down to the first ever representation of Cape Horn. Magellan rounded the Horn, through what we now call the Magellan Strait. He did not know how close he had passed to the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. The great continent of Antarctica does not feature on the map. It was not the only continent that he would miss.

From Cape Horn, Magellan set off west to find Asia. The west coast of South America and almost the whole of North America are missing. But then, the map shows the great expanse of the Pacific Ocean stretching to the West. The idea of longitude had yet to be conceived. It was easy enough in those days to know how far north or south a ship was but east and west could not be accurately measured. Day after day, they had travelled westwards hoping they were on the right latitude to make landfall on the Spice Islands (the Moluccas). They were. The Moluccas are shown, as are the great islands of Java and Sumatra. China and eastern Asia are only roughly sketched in. India is shown in detail as is the Arabian Peninsula and Madagascar. They missed the continent of Australia. Africa is about right as the expedition, now under the command of Elcano rounded the continent. The mountains of the moon, legendary source of the Nile, and the Atlas Mountains appear as coloured sketches.

500 years on, this map is a gorgeous and spellbinding work of art. There is much missing but our minds fill in the gaps. I am looking at the world we know drawn for the first time.

I travelled with the excellent PTG Tours

Tuesday 29 August 2023

Travelling with Ibn Battutah

Recently, my travelling companion has been the great Arab traveller and anecdotal historian, Ibn Battutah (IB). Not literally, he travelled in the 14th century (1325 to 1354). The Travels of Ibn Battutah edited by Tim McIntosh-Smith in the beautiful Macmillan Collector’s Library edition fitted into my pocket and its silk ribbon marked my progress through its gilt-edged pages and IB’s 29-year journey

IB was a Qadi, a judge and expert in Islamic jurisprudence. He was a contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer. IB set out from his home in Tangier towards Mecca but travelled north to the Volga, east to China and south as far as modern Tanzania, or so he says. IB is an unreliable narrator. He is known to exaggerate and he probably presented other travellers’ tales as his own.

IB was a learned and devout Muslim. He takes a puritanical view of licentiousness in others, though he expects it of infidels. Wherever he goes, he seeks out fellow Muslim scholars. He also seeks out wealthy rulers. For them he is not just a scholar and Qadi but a man with interesting tales to tell.

Given that we cannot necessarily rely on his stories, I grew interested in the logistics of his travels and what little he tells us about his personal relationships. At times, IB appears to travel alone and at others, he had a large retinue. He speaks occasionally of companions but never names them. Late in his travels, he does mention that one of his companions dies, which causes him some inconvenience.

I do not think he ever travelled light, which brings me to the question of how he financed his travels. He sets out with a supply of silver dirhams that would have been good tender throughout the Islamic world. On arrival in a new city, IB would seek out the Sultan. Sultans usually lavished gifts upon him. Sometimes it was coin but often less convertible items such as grain, live animals and fabrics. On occasions, he had to hire camels to transport his goods. I imagine he sold some gifts to raise cash.

IB’s attitude to slavery slowly shows itself. He never agonises over it. It is part of the way of his world.

IB travels through Turkey, a journey of some weeks. He says matter-of-factly that he travelled in an oxcart accompanied only by three slave girls. In a later episode, he is caused some inconvenience when a slave girl gets pregnant and gives birth. IB does not reveal who the father is.

At one point, he arranges a voyage to China in a junk. He insists that he must hire one of the merchants’ suites, a series of private rooms. He needs them so he can take with him his slave girls and wives (in that order). It is his habit never to travel without slave girls. The arrangements are made but, while IB is ashore making his final preparations, a storm blows up and the junk with all his possessions including slave girls and wives sails away, leaving him behind. He never sees them again.

IB finds himself in the Maldives, his fortunes restored. Here, we get the only insight into IB’s sex life. He writes that the inhabitants live on fish and the fruit of the coco palm which has ‘an amazing and unparalleled effect in sexual intercourse. I had myself there four wives and concubines as well. I used to visit them all every day and pass the night with the wife whose turn it was.’ He left after a year and a half, leaving the wives and concubines behind.

There is little mention of slaves as labourers; rather, they appear to be owned by sultans as status symbols. On several occasions, IB writes that he has given or been given a white slave girl as a gift.

I enjoyed having Ibn Battutah as the travelling companion in my pocket but I would not have wanted to travel with him.

Tuesday 16 May 2023

The Armoury at the Musei Reali Torino

 Armoury Picture

A visit to the Royal Palace Museum in Turin. I am unmoved by Baroque palaces. Every grand room leads into another. The rooms are over-decorated stage sets of rooms. We pass through quickly. 

But oh, the Armoury. We step over a threshold from the magnificent but dull on to a chequered floor. We are pawns in a giant fantasy chessboard. This is not a functioning armoury but the best display of armour I have seen anywhere. A great Baroque painted ceiling flies over a long, broad gallery lit by tall windows. The eyes are taken down between lines of armoured and caparisoned, fully spurred and armoured knights on realistic-looking and armoured horses. Between the mounted knights are displays of more weapons and armour. Many are marvellously engraved, carved or covered with intricate marquetry. Never mind the history, spectacle itself is thing.

I was travelling with the excellent PTG Tours

Thursday 23 March 2023

Sandcastles and Stories


Eight strangers were clustered around the campfire of the distant caravanserai —silhouetted, ragged, and ripened by adventure. As the flames licked the darkness, sparks spitting up into the desert's nocturnal firmament, the traveller dressed in indigo cleared his throat and told his tale.

Opening lines from The Caravanserai Stories by Tahir Shah (Secretum Mundi Publishing Ltd)

 Leaving Amman, we join the old Hajj road that leads from Istanbul to Mecca.  It is now a tarmac road, smooth in places.  In the glory days of camel caravans travelling the Silk Roads, it would have been a foot-beaten path of sand cutting through the stony black and ochre surface of the Jordanian desert. Standing solidly in the desert, visible by its stark square shape rather than its colour is the Qasr al Kharaneh.  Its tall square walls with what seem to be arrow slits and its turrets make it look like a fort or castle (Arabic: Qasr). Al Kharaneh is not a fort designed to control an area; rather it is a place of safety and hospitality for pilgrims and travellers following the old silk roads and pilgrimage routes.  It is a caravanserai.

The Qasr’s only door is huge to allow horses and loaded camels into the open courtyard.  Around the courtyard, there are 61 rooms for weary travellers. There is little light from outside, only the narrow, arrow-slit windows.  Once in here, the traveller is safe from the desert.  The courtyard is open to the stars. Water is given, food and fodder provided and fires are lit. Travellers from all directions exchange goods, ideas and, above all, stories.  The great Berber traveller, Ibn Battuta would have stayed in caravanserais such as this one and his tales still survive.  A few decades later, Geoffrey Chaucer recorded the tales of pilgrims going to Canterbury told in the roadside inns of England.  The English and Arab travellers, had they ever met, would have recognised each other’s experiences.

Today, the Qasr al Kharaneh sits in empty desert. In its glory days, the climate was softer.  Well-irrigated fields and date palms would have surrounded it. Al Kharaneh would have been sociable and lively but the accommodation would have been simple to the point of stark. The next Qasr could not be more different.

Qasr al Amra also sits isolated in the desert.  It is on a smaller scale, more intimate.  It is less harshly square and even has a couple of domes.  I have seen domes like this before in Turkish baths (hammams).  Surely not here?  But that is exactly what it is. If you had been a merchant trekking for a couple of weeks across the desert with only a camel for a friend, you might have liked the idea of a good wash and a massage with scented oils in a hammam.  You would have been out of luck. Caravanserais were also places for Sultans to rest as they travelled their lands.  This one was probably built for the Umayyad caliph al-Walid I (705-715).  We could still see some of the frescoes of hunting and bathing scenes that border on the lascivious.

There are Qasrs like al Kharaneh scattered all over the Jordanian desert marking out old trade and pilgrimage routes. 

On one night among many over the centuries, the Sun has set and fires and braziers light the central courtyard.  Strangers sit round these fires with coffee and dates and water pipes. People start to tell stories of their recent travels, their experience of Mecca, and their trading successes. They share stories of merchants and places to avoid.

They tell new stories of Richard Coeur de Lion and Salah ad-Din.  They tell older, well-loved stories of Scheherazade garnered into Arab literature from ancient Sanskrit and Persian tales.  They tell Bronze Age stories from The Book; stories of Ibrahim and Ishmael and of Moses.

A traveller from the very furthest North of the known world tells a story of Lief Eriksson. The story is too outlandish to be believed. 

A traveller from Egypt relates the tale of Rhodopis.  She is a beautiful slave girl.  While washing her feet in the Nile, an eagle swoops and takes one of her shoes.  The eagle drops it into the lap of the King of Egypt, who is so entranced by the delicate shape of the shoe that he sends out his servants to find the woman whose foot fits it.  They find Rhodopis and she marries the King.

The stories drift up into the desert sky and join the literary heritage of the World.

I was travelling with the excellent Jules Verne Tours 

Wednesday 22 March 2023

Photographing People in Vietnam

 Here is a piece I found in my journal from a trip to Halong Bay and the Red River in Vietnam in 2018.  It gives me a good excuse for publishing some lovely photographs.  I hope you enjoy the post and the pictures. Please let me know.


There is an etiquette to taking photographs of people in Vietnam — always ask, always show the result.

People turned me down about half the time. Children, surprisingly, were not the most willing subjects. The boys were keen enough; the girls were shy. But how hard it was to get natural shots. They have somehow learned always to pose with their fingers making a V in the way that every selfie-taker uses nowadays.

The best and keenest subjects were old women. They hunt in packs and descend on tourists. They are keen to talk and do not mind a bit that we do not understand Vietnamese. It is a tonal language and hard to pick up. Nor do they mind that they do understand a word of English.

With help from our guide, I learnt that after saying “Hello”, the very first question is always,  “How old are you?” I learnt to recognise the sound pattern of this question. In Vietnam, it is an important and polite question. The second person pronoun varies in Vietnamese depending on whether you are speaking to someone older, much older or younger than yourself. The follow-up comments to my answer caused our guide to laugh with embarrassment when translating.

“I am 74.”

“No wonder your hair is so grey.” or,

“You look it.”

Occasionally the answer was flattering, “You look much younger.” Those conical straw hats cover lively and inquisitive minds.

A visit to a Roman Catholic Cathedral on a Sunday morning was fun. On partition, nearly 1 million people, mostly Roman Catholics, fled south away from the Communist regime. Religion was not encouraged. There are still huge cathedrals and the one we saw had a big congregation. Religion seems to be thriving. This cathedral had many children in it all wearing Boy Scout style uniforms. The cathedral had open arches at the side. During the service, children kept leaking out to seek adventures such as being photographed.

Two elderly men with whom I shared a cigar volunteered to be photographed and stood stiffly and proudly for their portraits

The best of the laughing faces was the girl in the ceramic-making village, who accidentally spilled water over our feet.  Her fit of giggles that went on for a good five minutes provided me with some wonderful photographs.

The children were fun, the workers serious and the old women full of character. The young women were just enjoying being young and beautiful.

I was travelling with the excellent Jules Verne Tours




Monday 13 March 2023

A Pot Noodle Lunch with Jack Sparrow at the Summit of Jebel Attuf

Jebel Attuf with Petra below

 The Naboteans, on whose city I am trampling called it Raqmu. We call it Petra. I am to climb 900 steps up to “The Place of High Sacrifice”. The name is a modern fancy. I prefer the Arab name for the bluff of red sandstone towering above me: Jebel Attuf.

In truth, what I can see above me is the original ground level of a sandstone plateau.  The City of Petra is at the bottom of a deep wadi (gorge) cut out of the rock by water and air over aeons.

At the stall at the foot of the first steps, I sit and drink a Turkish coffee (2 Dinars) to fortify myself for the climb. 

The trail I am following is an invention for tourists. Some of the 900 steps are old, some are modern. I start on worn, shallow sandstone steps. They are extraordinary. Many feet have worn the stone into shallow depressions that feather the millimetre thick geological layers into rings of red, ochre, brown, yellow and black.  I am walking on a petrified Arabian carpet.

At the first turn, an elderly Bedouin woman plays a few notes on a tin whistle.  She stops, “I walk here every day. My husband died.” I part with a Dinar; it is expected.  One of my companions is having trouble with the steps.  The old woman takes my companion’s arm and uses her hidden strength to help her up the next flight.  There is an Arab saying, “Give without remembering, take without forgetting.” 

I am halfway up. I take it steadily.  I start to think about the 900 steps down on the other side. I feel a bit daunted.  Just at that moment, I have to move aside to let a man past who is sprinting up the steps. He has plenty of breath to say, “Merci”.  A Frenchman. Of course he’s a Frenchman. I plod on.

The steps vary in height and depth; it is hard going. Slowly I rise from the valley floor towards the sky and the top level of the plateau.  Near the top is a small Crusader lookout post.  It is built with solid, square cut blocks of sandstone that do not match the surrounding rock.  Did they carry the castle up here block by block?

Finally, I reach the summit.  A young Bedouin man is selling souvenirs and coffee in a black and red tent made of camelhair rugs. The souvenirs are the same as they are in almost every stall in Petra. The Bedouin inhabitants were persuaded to move out of their cave dwellings into a village built for them outside the site.  In return, they have a monopoly on selling and working in what is now a UNESCO protected site.  I order a Turkish coffee. It is only one and a half Dinars despite the fact that everything including the water has to be lugged up to the top.

I ask if I can join him as he sits under the sky on top of a red and ochre plateau of rock that might be on Mars.  He motions me to sit so I sip my coffee as he enjoys his lunch of pot noodles.

Photo credit Jonathan Baltesz, thank you.

Since time immemorial, Bedouin men have applied deep black kohl round their eyes.  It is a protection against the desert sun but they are not unaware that it gives them a dashing and exotic air. They also enjoy thick, lustrous jet-black hair that is naturally wavy.  In a sort of competitive evolution, many of the younger Bedouin now dress to look like Jack Sparrow, Johnny Depp’s character in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.  The kohl is now drawn into fantastic shapes. Whether the look works some magic on susceptible backpackers from Akron, Ohio, I did not dare ask.

We have a go at conversation.  I have only a few words of Arabic and my accent is so bad that he does not recognise that I am speaking his language.  He tells me he sleeps up here at the top.  He has seven brothers and sisters and that he has a girlfriend in the village.  I realise that these are a few stock phrases of English that he has learnt. We have a companionable ten minutes but no real conversation.  I wish him “Marsalamah” (this he recognises) and I set off down the other side of the bluff.

There are more of the modern steps on the way down. Some are cut into the side of the cliff and turn corners with no railings inside or on the outside of the turn.  I am nervous of heights. Older steps have been worn by water and feet into a sort of slippery cascade.  The walk down is more exciting than the climb up.

The geological layers are now beyond my understanding.  What possible geological process has laid down an inches thick layer of bright yellow stone with a black layer and then another yellow layer above it?  It looks like a Liquorice Allsort, inserted into the prevailing ochre.  Nabotean caves reveal more layers like tapestries.  There are horizontal and vertical layers within feet of each other.  I need to go home, take a degree in Geology and return. I reach the lowest level and find a cool, dark man-made cave.  Inside, two-Dinar coffee is on offer.

I was travelling with the excellent Jules Verne Tours

Photo Adrienne Higham

Monday 6 March 2023

Three Tales from the Book


Three Tales from the Book

 Jordan — Mount Nebo

 Standing on top of Mount Nebo in Jordan I can see over the plain of the valley of Jericho, over the Jordan Valley to Palestine and the lands of Judah unto the uttermost sea.  If God did show Moses the promised land (Deuteronomy Chapter 34 verses 1 and 2), this is the spot where he would have got the best view. I could well be standing where Moses stood 34 centuries ago. There is a modern monument here dedicated to Moses and the ideas that unite the three great Abrahamic religions: the People of the Book.

While there is no archaeological evidence to show that Moses existed, the story is an ancient one and these stories do not appear from nowhere.  There will be an origin.  For now, it is enough that the story is sanctified by centuries of belief.

Photo Adrienne Higham

 River JordanBethany

 The River Jordan here is a green stream about 20 feet wide flowing slowly south towards the Dead Sea. On each side of the river, wooden platforms are set into the reeds. The river and desert are silent but there is a low hum of voices from the opposite bank.  A man and a woman in white cotton robes immerse themselves completely in the holy water of the River Jordan.  They emerge, holding hands and looking into each other’s eyes. They have undergone a profound and joyful experience.  They believe they have been baptised in the very place that John the Baptist baptised Jesus of Nazareth (Luke 3 vv 21-23).

Photo Adrienne Higham

The remains of a first century Christian church have been found here.  Jesus was thirty when John baptised him.  An early Christian seeking the site in the first century could have visited this place within living memory of John the Baptist’s mission as described in Luke’s Gospel.  It is plausible that this is the right spot.

 Baggage Carousel 2 — London Heathrow Airport, Terminal 3

 We have shared our return flight with pilgrims returning from the Hajj.  The luggage carousel carries white box after white box marked ZamZam Water.  I ask and I am told that this is water, holy to Muslims, from the well at Mecca.  It has physical and spiritual healing properties and they will share it with their family and friends.

The story of ZamZam water is even older than that of Moses. In the Genesis story, Abraham (Ibrahim) has a child, Ishmael, by Hagar (Hajar) the slave of his wife Sara. At Sara’s bidding, Abraham abandons Hagar in the desert, where according to Genesis Chapter 16 Verse 7 …the angel of the LORD [Gabriel or Jibreel] found her by the fountain of water in the wilderness…

Muslims trace their descent and the descent of the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) from Ibrahim by Ishmael’s line. 

The Islamic traditional story (there is more than one version) has it that Hajar walked between two hills in the desert seven times looking for water and help.  The angel Jibreel came down and created a spring.  Hajar, seeing the water going to waste cried out “Zam, zam!” [Stop, stop], hence the name of the well, which is sited close to the Kaaba at Mecca. That Hajar, a slave, should be so horrified by water going to waste that she dared shout “Stop!” at the angel Gabriel feels like the authentic voice of a true desert dweller.  It was in this place that Mecca was founded.

Muslim pilgrims recreate Hajar’s walk between the two hills as sanctioned by the Holy Qur’an at Sura 2: Safa and Marwa [the two hills] are among the rites of God. Whoever makes the Pilgrimage to the House, as performs the Umrah, commits no error by circulating between them…

Three tales from the Book and a common reverence for water show that we all base much of our culture and beliefs on a small set of very old stories.

 I was travelling with the excellent Jules Verne

Tuesday 17 January 2023

The Man in the Piazza at Santa Margherita Ligure

 I am pleased to say that one of my travel pieces has been published by the excellent travel journal, Scrawl Place.

You can read it here:

Scrawl Place

I hope you enjoy it.


The Ancient Traveller