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    • Climate change / Discussion / 130 Readings / 110 Ratings
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      10.02.2014 22:47
      Very helpful



      A brief overview of what humanity isn't doing to meet its greatest challenge

      Having recently read the latest report* by the Intergovernmental Committee on Climate Change, I am more than ever convinced that the findings will fall on deaf ears, or at least on ears that might as well be deaf for all the action their owners will take as a result of listening. My own ears, in case you're wondering, fall into the latter category. If we as mankind were capable of listening, or, having listened, of taking the requisite action, we would surely already have done so. And we have not.

      This is, after all, the fifth such report from the most authoritative of scientific bodies studying the subject, and the findings broadly confirm those of the previous four, as well as those of countless other studies by reputable researchers. Just in case you're fortunate enough to have been living on another planet and are unaware of them, the salient findings from all those studies are:

      1. That, irrespective of any recent slowing** in the rate of increase, global temperatures have risen at an unprecedented rate in recent decades and look likely to continue to do so.

      2. That, irrespective of the many other factors which influence climate, man's activities have made a decisive contribution to that increase and look likely to continue to do so.

      3. That unless a way can found to restrain that increase and ultimately to stabilise global temperatures, the outlook for the global environment on which we all rely for life and livelihood is dire.

      These findings are presented in the least hysterical possible tone, with due weight being given to all the inevitable uncertainties, and are supported by an exhaustive body of evidence. I am not going to reiterate all that evidence here; the website reference for the report is below for those who want to study it in detail and acquaint themselves with the facts, together with the reference for a synopsis of the main findings.

      * What our leaders are doing to respond *

      The IPCC report made little splash in the serious media in this country, and none at all in the tabloids. Politicians largely forbore to comment. One minister with relevant responsibilities, Owen Paterson, let drop some obtuse observations that suggested he either hadn't read the report or hadn't understood it. Probably both. His is, after all, the same enlightened intellect that, in another sphere, accused badgers of having "moved the goalposts" because official gunmen had failed to find the expected number of the creatures to cull. Or maybe, in the case of climate change, he simply made the miserable pragmatic calculation that trying to take the requisite action is beyond his capabilities, so he'd be better off denying the need to act in the hope that he'd thus avoid looking incapable. Still, his was a dispiriting departure from previous official pronouncements, in which governments have tended to pay lip service to the principle that something must be done, while failing to do anything of substance in practice. This government, which entered office promising to be the greenest ever, should be especially ashamed of its blinkered inaction.

      Much the same applies at international level, where the United Nations Climate Change Conference in November, although acknowledging the severity of the threat, undertook no meaningful new initiatives to combat it. This is in line with established practice, whereby senior politicians from around the world meet up every few years and let off a lot of hot air, committing themselves to pious intentions for the longer term but to no specific programmes. Even such flimsy commitments as they do make are seldom fulfilled. It is worth wondering why not, when their scientific advisors must unquestionably be telling them that the problems are serious, urgent and potentially catastrophic for all humanity.

      There are, I would suggest, several likely explanations for official inertia: -

      1. Politically, taking action is too challenging. In democratic societies politicians don't believe that their voters are far-sighted enough to support the expense of action now to avert the much greater, maybe ruinous, expense later. They know that large numbers of people remain to be convinced, and that powerful industrial interests are more than happy to keep them that way. Often those same interests are contributing to political parties' coffers. Even in non-democratic societies rulers have to take some account of popular opinion, and probably see no benefit to themselves in taking what might be an unpopular lead. They also probably hope that in their privileged position they will individually be insulated from the worst consequences of their negligence. In either case, trying to educate the public to face the ominous facts is probably perceived as a dauntingly uphill struggle.

      2. Technically, it's too challenging. No one quite knows the best way to tackle climate change, whilst huge investments might need to be made with their pay-off uncertain. More focus on alternative energy sources, yes, but deciding which of them to go for is complex and controversial. Can nuclear energy be regarded as environmentally-friendly, when there are arguments both ways? Or bio-fuels, where again there are arguments both ways? What about GM crops, ditto? Carbon trading, ditto? What about the role of population growth, any attempt to discourage which would meet with widespread resistance?

      3. Practically, it's too challenging. Even if statesmen could agree on a unified policy and course of action, enforcing it would present almost insuperable problems, across over 200 national jurisdictions in many of which central government writ does not effectively run. How do you prevent deforestation amid the civil war and chaos of the Congo, or in the remoter parts of Indonesia or the Amazon basin? How do you change agricultural practices that degrade the soil, or patterns of fuel usage that pollute? Regional authorities are often weak, often corrupt. Setting rules, even if rules could be agreed, does not mean that anyone will abide by them, or that they can be forced to do so. Such accords as have been entered into so far have been routinely broken.

      4. Diplomatically, it's too challenging. Many of the environmental threats mankind faces can only be tackled at the international level. Yet all attempts to forge an international consensus for action tend to falter in the face of conflicting perceptions of priorities, conflicting national interests, and the conflicting political imperatives driving the main players. There is always a game-playing, beggar-my-neighbour aspect to such matters. Any action comes at a cost of both financial and political capital, and no country wants to bear more of that cost than they have to. Even if they were prepared to bear their fair share, whatever that might be, they would suspect that others would try to avoid bearing theirs, and be accordingly cautious. No wonder international conferences on climate change are always so inconsequential.

      Given the difficulties, I don't actually blame politicians and statesmen too much for their failure to do anything meaningful. In many ways, they are in any case only reflecting on a national and international scale the contradictions and conflicts of interest that occur among individuals. And within individuals too.

      * What we as people are doing to respond *

      Not a lot, when it comes down to it. Of course, even in developed countries some individuals lead exemplary environmentally-friendly lives, but, however admirable their example, they are far too few to make much difference to the world's overall prospects. There are larger numbers of people in the undeveloped world who also do little to pollute and emit few greenhouse gases simply because they are too poor to do so; however, they mostly want to increase their wealth and consumption (and therefore their pollution and emissions) as quickly as they can. They cannot be blamed for this understandable ambition, but blamelessness will do nothing to change its inconvenient consequences if their ambitions are fulfilled.

      Meanwhile, still vaster numbers of people make little or no effort to restrain their impact on the environment at all. There are all sorts of reasons for this, not many of them good reasons, but very human reasons all the same. Why most people make little effort seems to be because: -

      1. In many cases, they simply don't believe it's necessary. This may be because of ignorance; let us remember that in many parts of the world the environmental message may simply not have been widely heard, either because of poor communications or official censorship. Where it has been heard, some discount it because they have fallen for the 'sceptic' propaganda that seeks to deny the reality and disparage the scientists who report the evidence. Denial sometimes stems from religious conviction; either "god will provide" or "if the lord hadn't intended us to drive gas-guzzlers he wouldn't have given us freeways" or "my faith tells me to have many children" irrespective of the effects of over-population. Or it may be from another kind of faith, faith in the capability of human ingenuity to solve any problem and of human initiative to overcome any obstacle. Whatever their rationale, these people are neither going to take much action themselves nor press for government to take it on their behalf. Indeed, they are likely to resist any official encouragement of that kind.

      2. In many cases, people recognise that it's desirable, but don't know how to go about it. They tend to settle for a bit of token energy-saving and recycling and assume that's a sufficient contribution, though in fact it is likely to make little difference to prospects on a global scale. The more significant steps they might take are all much more disruptive to a developed-world lifestyle: e.g. reducing (or eliminating) air travel, driving a low-emission hybrid car (or none), moving to a smaller more energy-efficient home. Such steps all come at a cost in money, effort or convenience. And at each step you are bound to ask yourself whether it's worth it, either to yourself individually or to humanity as a whole. The answer may well find you numbering yourself in the next category:

      3. In many cases, people recognise that collective action is necessary, but don't believe that their individual actions would make any material difference. I am well-acquainted with the psychology of this group, since I happen to be numbered among them. Like, I suspect, many others, I would gladly tighten my belt and restrain my own ecological footprint if I truly believed that enough of my fellow-humans would do the same. But I do not. On the contrary, for all the reasons stated above, I believe that all too many will continue to be profligate with the world's resources and take little heed of their impact on the world's eco-systems. Which leaves me with scant incentive to take an individual stand, when its effect would be insignificant. I don't offer this as a particularly ethical, let alone admirable, viewpoint. Rather the opposite. But in a world in which others are taking the same view, or worse, many like me are bound to feel it makes sense.

      In aggregate such individual calculations add up to potential disaster, which is precisely why we need governments and international bodies to take a decisive lead, but we have already seen in the previous section of this review why they are unlikely to do so.

      * So what is likely to happen? *

      In the circumstances it seems to me almost certain that nothing of substance will be done in time to head off whatever disaster awaits us. For as long as I can remember, people alert to the dangers have been shouting "the time to act is now" and, although they were right, they have been largely ignored. The time to act was yesterday, by which I do not mean that it is necessarily too late to do anything, but that the fact that we have already missed our best chances to do something suggests that we are likely to miss also the lesser chances still open to us.

      Among the optimists, those who have the best chance of being right are those who put their faith in human ingenuity and human initiative. Some technological solutions will probably be found for some of the problems. But the problems already appear to be too many, too complicated, too intertwined and too intractable for solutions to be found for all of them. And, if mankind runs to form, as soon as one problem is solved complacency will take over and other ones created in its place. We look likely to go on putting higher and higher hurdles in our path until we finally trip over one with fatal consequences.

      Human progress since the industrial revolution two or three centuries ago has been predicated on plundering the earth's resources accumulated over hundreds of millions of years. This plunder has allowed us to multiply to unprecedented numbers, living longer and in more luxury than at any time in history. But now we are, on the one hand, running out of resources to plunder, while on the other the pollution we excrete from the plunder is threatening to make our world unliveable for the billions who already exist, let alone the billions more that will exist if we continue to breed at our current rate (unless, of course, an ecological or other catastrophe intervenes to reduce our numbers).

      In the meantime, the probable outcome is continued global warming, changing weather patterns as exemplified by extreme storms in some places, drought and desertification in others, including some of the world's most productive arable areas, further deforestation and soil erosion, a rise in ocean temperatures and, of course, sea levels - all developments that will make the world a less and less hospitable place for human habitation. Likely repercussions include mass migration from affected areas, widespread famine and wars over dwindling resources. What's more, there are reasons to believe that many of these developments will themselves accelerate the rate of global warming, so the situation could well become unmanageable even more quickly than is currently anticipated.

      It is, of course, a tragedy, a tragedy in the true classical sense that a self-inflicted disaster that should and could be avoided will not be avoided because of the innate character of those inflicting it on themselves. One thing seems certain: future generations will curse ours, which could have done something to avert disaster and did not. I almost couched this piece as a letter of apology to my grand-daughter, but found it too maudlin an exercise; I can't think of any reason for her and her generation to forgive me and mine anyway.

      Let me surprise you. It is customary for tracts like this to conclude with an impassioned plea for the world to wake up and take action while there's still time, if indeed there is still time, but I don't think I'll bother. If the world isn't listening to the IPCC, why would you listen to me, especially when I've already confessed to my own irresponsibility? I could, perhaps, conclude by asking you whether you'd bet on a safe future for humanity in the face of all the damage we're doing to our habitat, but, actually, it doesn't matter whether you, individually, would or not, because we as a species already have. And it's a bet we look likely to lose.

      But, of course, I hope I'm wrong.

      © Also published under the name torr on Ciao UK 2014

      * Climate Change 2013, published by the Intergovernmental Committee on Climate Change, can be found via http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/. A synopsis detailing the main findings can be found at http://www.climatechange2013.org/images/uploads/WG1AR5_Headlines.pdf.

      ** Further research by British and Canadian scientists published since the IPCC report suggests that there has not been a recent slowing in the rate of increase in any case. See:
      http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2013/11/ global-warming-since-1997-underestimated-by-half/


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      • Chinese New Year / More Travel / 118 Readings / 112 Ratings
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        31.01.2014 12:03
        Very helpful



        A bemused look at the Chinese New Year

        What better occasion than the Chinese New Year for me admit to being a dyed-in-the wool sceptic where horoscopes are concerned - or a horosceptic, as we should perhaps be called? This applies to the western star-sign system, where the most cursory examination of friends and acquaintances will confirm that those born under the same sign do not always - or even often - share characteristics. It also applies to the Chinese animal-annual one, which to a westerner like me does not even offer the illusory coherence lent by long familiarity. Or maybe I just don't get it.


        The Chinese may well think me a dope
        To be phased by their strange horoscope:
        I know each New Year's feast
        Is assigned to a beast,
        But beyond that I simply can't cope.

        We've just finished the Year of the Snake,
        A notion of which I could make
        Neither head nor yet tail -
        Such a dumb way to fail
        Since that's all that there is to a snake.

        The Year of the Horse is now here
        Which again seems a little bit queer.
        For, fine steed though the horse is
        When run on racecourses,
        What's that got to do with a year?

        Next up is the Sheep, it turns out;
        Which does nothing to banish my doubt,
        After Sheep comes the Monkey
        Who sounds kind of funky,
        But really, what's that all about?

        There's the Rooster, the Dog and the Pig,
        (Though, sorry, I still just don't twig);
        After them comes the Rat,
        But it seems there's no Cat -
        Maybe Cats judged it all infra dig.

        There's the Ox and the Tiger and Rabbit.
        If you give me a clue then I'll grab it
        As to how to construe
        This oracular zoo
        (Or whatever abode they inhabit).

        The Dragon comes next - indisputable,
        But was ever a beast more inscrutable?
        Such a mythical brute
        Surely no one could scrute,
        So I can't think of anything suitable.

        Then at last will the Snake re-appear;
        Yes, the end of this rhyme is now near,
        Though I've just time to say
        "Xin nián kuài lè"
        Or more scrutably: "Happy New Year."

        © Also published under the name torr on Ciao UK, 2014


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        • More +
          10.01.2014 14:12
          Very helpful



          A realistic and readable memoir of the experience of breast cancer

          "I have never understood people who claim that their cancer was the best thing that ever happened to them. What on earth were their lives like before?"

          This passage caught my eye as I browsed 'It's Not Like That, Actually' in a second-hand bookshop, persuading me to pick it up for my wife. Buying such books for her is something I do with some hesitation. Having been living with breast cancer herself for six years now, she has firm views on what is, and what is not, helpful in discussion of the disease. Anything self-pitying, euphemistic or evasive would have gone down badly, anything that suggested putting one's faith in miracle cures - diets, herbal remedies, mysticism, whatever - worse still. And anything preachy, exhorting sufferers to accentuate the Positive (the P word, in my wife's dismissive vocabulary) worst of all. Confronted with a menacing reality, her response has always been to face up to it squarely and steadfastly. So, in this book, is Kate Carr's.

          As a result it chimed with my wife as few other 'cancer books' have. She found it engaging to read, easy to empathise with and even useful in relation to her own situation. She also thought, as I had hoped she might, that it would be useful to those close to cancer patients in helping them understand the viewpoint of the person with the disease, and to differentiate between what was truly supportive and what might, however well-intentioned, annoy or even undermine. Which is why I thought it worth writing this review.

          "Cancer is a common experience made difficult by the myths and taboos we have about it in our society." There are, of course, other things that make the experience difficult, as anyone can imagine and as Carr relates, but this statement exemplifies her determination to be candid and direct, to counter the myths and taboos. The experience she found to be nothing like what she would have expected or what other people seemed to imagine it to be. "As I write this, I am a cancer survivor, a survivor of the disease, but also a survivor of cancer's clunky nomenclature, of the shedloads of absolute rubbish that is talked.... which has made my journey harder than it need be." Hence the title of the book. "It's what I have found myself saying repeatedly over the years."

          Carr approaches the myth-dispelling task by describing her own progression from pre-cancer ignorance through symptoms, diagnosis, surgery, chemo- and radio-therapy to remission. Some readers may find it difficult to relate to her pre-diagnosis 'having it all' lifestyle: high-flying journalistic job on a national newspaper; fellow-yuppie partner (Simon); dual homes (South Kensington and Shropshire); nanny for dual kids (Lucian and Cosima). But cancer is just as much a disaster for a yummy mummy as for anyone else. Indeed, you could say cancer is even more of a disaster for someone in mid-career with young children than for someone later on in life, and I found myself quickly putting aside any prejudices I might initially have harboured. Meanwhile her journalistic training and flair make this a highly readable, even entertaining, book, despite its grim subject-matter.

          Carr is evocative in conveying the initial shock, near disbelief, of diagnosis and the rush into surgery, followed by the gradual coming to terms with the reality as the gruesome grind of chemotherapy, of which she endured a particularly radical kind, follows. It was during chemo that she learned to accept the irrevocability of her situation: that cancer is not 'cured' and that the best she could hope for was an indefinite 'remission' during which it would not return. With luck this might go on for decades until she eventually died of something else; without luck, the seemingly healthy interlude might be a brief one. In common with many sufferers, she does not much like the word 'remission', which sounds clinical and seems to imply that return is certain. In point of fact, however, there is no likeable expression for it. 'Living with cancer', which is what she settled for, can sound awkward, contrived, even attention-seeking. But 'sufferer', 'patient', 'victim' and 'survivor' all have their drawbacks too. In practice, one tries, and fails, to avoid any particular form of words, for that very reason.

          Emerging from treatment into an uncertain future, Carr tellingly describes the sense of disorientation that makes it difficult to re-adapt to everyday life, although there is no practical alternative to doing so. She underwent a course of psychotherapy to help her cope, which would not be everyone's choice, but coping with cancer is a very personal challenge to which each individual responds in their own way. It's a 'whatever works for you' decision, the hope being that you'll find something that will. She also left full-time journalism to run a cancer-related charity. In this, she denies any altruistic motive - it was simply an initiative that caught her interest and enthused her - though it is unlikely she would have become involved without her experience of the disease. And she dwells in some detail on the steps she took to prepare her children for the possibility that she might not be with them throughout their growing up. This is the only point at which the book verges on the sentimental, something for which a parent can perhaps be forgiven.

          Utterly unsentimental, and all the more evocative for it, were those passages that relate the nervous tension of living from check-up to check-up, not knowing how large a ration of hope to allow oneself. "I did ask, repeatedly, if I was going to be okay. I repeatedly got the answer I expected: 'we don't know.'" Always, one has to be satisfied with being found to be okay so far, but not necessarily any further, though this is hardly satisfying. The absence of renewed symptoms means a temporary reprieve, a stay of execution, rather than a permanent pardon, and an occasion for relief rather than rejoicing, since one never knows what lies ahead. What's more, cancer patients often come into contact with, and become friends with, other patients and not all of these will be reprieved, even temporarily. Accepting the theoretical inevitability of a certain rate of attrition makes it no easier to accept the individual attrition of a friend suffering spread or recurrence, consequent decline and quite likely death. It is akin to surviving on a battlefield as comrades fall, and provokes a strangely bitter-sweet feeling, compounded partly of sorrow and partly of relief at one's continuing survival, difficult for non-combatants to share.

          The battlefield analogy should not be taken too far. Carr rejects, as does my wife and as would I, the concept of a patient's 'battle against cancer' with its attendant martial metaphors and its calls upon the sufferer's courage. "I had endured the treatment rather than been in a fight or battle, and it had required a certain old-fashioned fortitude from me rather than a gung-ho, nuke-the-bastards approach." She puts the fighting language down to the threat that cancer represents, causing it to be regarded as more than just another disease: "it is invested with such strength that it seems imperative to talk big back. It's big willy talk, ridiculous and it makes anyone with cancer feel much worse than they need to." Moreover, such talk - which almost always comes from non-sufferers, not from doctors or fellow-patients - carries an implicit recriminatory message to the faint-hearted, which, to be fair, I think she over-states, though one understands why she feels as she does: "What is made clear is that if you don't fight, you will die and it will be your fault, just as it was probably your fault you got it in the first place."

          Ah, fault. Some people seem to have an unedifying inclination - or perhaps it's a psychological self-defence mechanism - to blame the victim, implicitly or otherwise. "Those who couldn't bear to contemplate the fact that it was simply bad luck that I had cancer tried to find a very specific reason why I had it and, therefore, why they wouldn't get it." In the cases of successful career women like Carr and my wife the disease is often attributed by the ignorant to the sufferer's 'stressful lifestyle'. Stress can be detrimental to health in other ways, but no evidence whatsoever exists that stress is carcinogenic, stressful though it is to hear such nonsense talked. Carr's response is simultaneously witty and trenchant: "It's another version of she-shouldn't-have-gone-out-in-that-short-skirt." And finally, eloquently: "the most trying line was 'you've been suppressing your anger.' I was sorely tempted to prove them wrong with a swift headbutt."

          She is also teeth-on-edge expressive about the other things cancer sufferers hate to have said to them, such as "have you been given the All Clear yet?" (there's no such thing as the All Clear where cancer's concerned) and, above all, "I just know you're going to be all right". You never hear this from doctors, and for a good reason. No one knows whether a cancer sufferer is going to be all right and, what's more, the cancer sufferer knows that no one knows whether they're going to be all right. To pretend otherwise is anything but helpful.

          Talking of which, shortly after finishing this book and seven years after her original diagnosis and treatment, Kate Carr was found to have secondary cancers in her bones and liver. She died a few months later.

          All too often, that's what it's like.


          'It's Not Like That, Actually' by Kate Carr is published by the Vermillion imprint of Random House, the paperback edition being priced at £10.99, though you can of course find it more cheaply by shopping around.

          If you are living with cancer, will this book help you get through? Probably not in terms of any advice contained in its pages, but it might provide you with something to which you can relate. Will it help family and friends relate more helpfully to you? Yes, I believe it will.

          For that reason I would recommend it strongly to anyone who has a close (or simply friendly) relationship with cancer patients, especially those in the early stages of the disease when everyone is trying to come to terms with it and doesn't quite know how to behave, more cautiously to the general public; informative and engaging though it is, it wouldn't be everyone's choice of reading matter. And decidedly cautiously to patients themselves. Whilst some, like my wife, may find it tallies closely with their own experience and attitude, others may view it differently. I hope my description may enable them to judge before reading.

          © Also published under the name torr on Ciao UK, 2013

          For more information on breast cancer, see: http://www.dooyoo.co.uk/discussion/breast-cancer/1065652/


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          • More +
            04.10.2013 14:59
            Very helpful



            Charming small hotel en route to Southern France or Switzerland

            Planning a recent journey south to Provence, my wife and I scanned the web and picked the Sarrasine as a suitable stopover according to our own well-worn criteria: it was a little off the autoroute, but not too far off; it was not in a town centre where safe parking might be difficult; it was not too large, nor part of a chain; it offered a swimming-pool and its own restaurant; and it had about it just a hint of the unusual. These criteria do not always produce the desired result, but generally they have a good record, and just occasionally they truly come up trumps, as they did in the case of the Sarrasine.

            * The Sarrasine...

            ...is a small hotel (just seven bedrooms), converted from a 17th century farmhouse built in local style, including the distinctive capped chimney-stacks known as sarrasines, from which it takes its name. The locality in question, known as Bresse, lies between Burgundy and the Swiss border, though the Sarrasine's nearest town of substance is Macon, just three kilometres away over the river Saone and indisputably in Burgundy.

            The hotel is enclosed in its own lush garden, which shields it from the road that passes by the gates. We were not disturbed by passing traffic overnight. The bedrooms are arranged in a wing, maybe an extension, to the main building, those on the ground floor having doors opening onto the garden with their own sitting area outside. Concealed behind further trees and shrubbery is the swimming pool. Much of the extension is clad with ivy, and there are potted plants and hanging-flower baskets everywhere, creating a green and rustic ambience. Chickens peck around the edges of the lawn.

            * On arrival...

            ...at the Sarrasine we were immediately struck by the traditional style of the décor and furnishings. Some of it is tasteful, some of it is of good solid antique quality, but these are not the defining characteristics, since some of it is neither of those things. What unifies and justifies the eclectic ensemble is that it is all supremely and archetypically French. Staying at the Sarrasine was sometimes like replaying a slide-show of memories from four decades' experience of French hotels, or of the more congenial ones among them anyway.

            From behind the heavy wooden reception desk, we were warmly welcomed by Madame. As in many family-run hotels in France, the kitchen at the Sarrasine seems to be the husband's domain, 'front of house' the wife's, though here the roles are at least to some extent interchangeable, perhaps because there is little in the way of supporting staff. She pays our French (or, at least, my wife's French) the compliment of conversing in that language, though it later transpires that she also speaks excellent English (and perfect German, unsurprisingly, since she is German by birth, the only non-French aspect of the hotel!)

            She shows us to our...

            * Bedroom...

            ...which is spacious, big enough to include an extra bed, on which we park our luggage, in an alcove under an oak beam. It's just as well that there is plenty of space, since much of it is filled with furniture, in the same style - or melange of styles - as that in the main reception rooms. There are two leather-covered armchairs, a carved wood wardrobe, a matching cabinet concealing a mini-bar, a desk and chair, more chairs, a chest of drawers, bedside tables and reading lights. The double-bed is surmounted by a rather magnificent headboard, mahogany inset with a tapestry panel displaying a courtly 18th-century scene. The wallpaper, by contrast, displays a rather ordinary floral pattern, but is offset by a mirror with an ornate gilt surround and further embroidered pictures. The room is carpeted, and curtained in some semi-transparent patterned material, with shutters to exclude the light.

            Finally and seemingly entirely out of character with the rest of the décor is a large modern flat-screen TV, which proved to provide excellent reception across a range of satellite channels including BBC World. Similarly, the free WiFi on offer worked smoothly throughout our stay, something that is not always the case in French hotels, whatever they promise.

            * En Suite...

            ...is the bathroom, clad in two contrasting patterns of bluish tiles, with a blue double basin, bidet and bath set. Another gilt-framed mirror hangs above the basin. The bath has a curtain to guard against splashing from the built-in shower. For the windows, there are not just one but two sets of curtains, as well as the inevitable shutters. It would be misleading to say that the overall effect is stylish, let alone chic, but it certainly creates an atmosphere, and in terms of function, everything works. Ditto the loo, which has its own separate cubicle. Soap, shower gel and shampoo were of good quality. The towels were soft and amply sized, including the extra towels on hand for use at the swimming pool.

            * Before dinner...

            ...we took an aperitif on the terrace overlooking the garden, a pleasant setting in which to recover from the day's travelling. My wife has a penchant for fizzy wine before a meal, and I would be the last to question her preference, though I have some sympathy for small hotels/restaurants that are faced with it. Once opened, a bottle of fizzy wine does not keep well and if they have no further demand for it that evening, a glassful will not represent a very profitable sale. On both of our stays at the Sarrasine (yes, we changed our original plans to stop there again on our return north) a fresh bottle of Crèmante de Bourgogne was unhesitatingly opened for her, and very tasty it was. I can vouch for this, since on the second occasion I switched to it from my usual beer and did not regret doing so.
            With the aperitif was served a copious plate of varied and tasty amuses bouches, which we restrained ourselves from finishing, reserving our appetites for the meal.

            * Dinner...

            ...is served in one of those French dining rooms where everything seems contrived to put you at your ease and focus your attention on the food. Discreetly low-lit, though with plenty of illumination falling where it matters, on the table-tops (having lots of lamps but none of them excessively bright seems to be a feature throughout the Sarrasine); comfy chairs; pink damask table-clothes and napkins; good quality tableware. There are only ten or a dozen tables, and they are well-spaced out so conversations remain private. The centre of the room is dominated by a long, narrow serving-table, which is in turn dominated by an enormous vase of artificial, but tastefully artificial, flowers. Tout à fait français.

            Typically for France, the dinner menu offers a limited range of set-piece 'formules', or à la carte. The featured Formule Terroir (regional selection) at 34Euro comprises Escargots de Bourgogne to start, Poulet de Bresse as a main course, with either local cheeses or a (rather un-local) Tarte Tatin to follow. A limited selection? In theory but not in practice, since we found that equivalent dishes could be substituted from the à la carte range for the same set price. If you had a truly vast appetite and wanted to be more elaborate, you could opt for the fancy five course gourmet menu at 49Euro. Alternatively, there is a vegetarian/organic Formule Bio at 29Euro, a simplified Formule Expresse at 22Euro, and a child's menu at 15Euro.

            I've never been keen on snails and arranged to have melon with port (a whole charentais melon, perfectly ripe) as a starter instead, while my wife had a green salad with walnuts, which she judged excellent. The Bresse region is noted for its poulet, and we had already seen from the trophies and certificates displayed that the Sarrasine had won prizes for its interpretation, so we went for that, and very delicious it was, reminding one of the days when even in Britain chicken used to have a distinctive flavour of its own rather than being mass-produced white meat. Equally delicious Lyonnais potatoes, cauliflower, tomato and salad provided an ideal accompaniment. Other mains, had we so chosen from the à la carte, were local fillet steak, which looked superb, or scallops flambéed in cognac. Tempted though I was by the cheese-board, the Tarte Tatin seemed a lighter way to round off the meal. Well, perhaps just a shade lighter, though it came garnished with ice-cream, Crème Chantilly and fruit.

            From a list focussed on local wines (and what better locality on which to focus?) we chose a Beaujolais Rosé at 22Euro, primarily because in a lifetime of Beaujolais drinking we'd never come across the rosé version before, and found it very palatable and a good accompaniment for the chicken, though another time we'd probably revert to red.

            * Breakfast...

            ...is served in a separate breakfast room adjacent to reception and sporting similar décor. As with dinner, a healthy appetite is needed to do it justice. To start: squeezed-to-order fruit juice, or just the fruit if you prefer, or both, cereal if you want it, a range of yoghurts, flavoured or au natur. Bread: two types of home-baked as well as baker's baguette, with butter, cheese and a range of honeys and jams to accompany - a range so extensive that it is brought over on a separate trolley to avoid cluttering the table. Something more substantial? Eggs prepared to order, which on our second visit I declined, and was offered 'some ham' as an alternative. This I accepted and was brought a plate loaded not just with ham but varied charcuterie that probably would have sustained both of us for a picnic lunch. Something sweet to round off? A basket of fresh viennoisserie - croissants, pains au chocolat, pains au raisins, brioche - all apparently in perfect condition, though we didn't manage to sample them all. And, needless to say, strong piquant coffee, piping hot. A marvellous breakfast, and well worth 14.50Euro.

            * Location

            The Sarrasine is in the village of Replonges, which puts it on the wrong side of the river Saone from the main A6 autoroute south, but it can easily be reached by diverting just one junction's worth onto the A40 heading towards Geneva, or by driving through the interesting old town of Macon itself, which is worth an hour or two of anyone's time to look around. There are other sights worth seeing in the vicinity, but I suspect most visitors will stop here, as we did, en route to somewhere else.

            * Value for money...

            ...is sometimes a tricky thing to gauge. The room-rate we paid (in July, high season) was 115Euro. Add in the meals and you'll readily see that the bill ended up at over 200Euro on each occasion. For a stopover on the long trek through France we could certainly have found somewhere adequate more cheaply. Equally, we could have paid more for somewhere fancier, and had no better, very probably worse, an experience. We could well understand why a hotel of the Sarrasine's size could not cheaply maintain its high standards in the things that mattered to us - quality of food, comfort, character - and were happy to be paying for those things rather than for posh pretension or trendy modernity.

            That, though, is a matter of personal taste, and our taste may be eccentric or outdated. Having just had a look on Tripadvisor, I find mixed opinions on the Sarrasine - some like mine extolling it as a genuine find, but one or two judging it limited and over-priced for what it has to offer. Perhaps they just don't "get it", or perhaps I don't. But I can only offer my own opinion, which is that for charm, warmth of welcome, attentiveness, quiet efficiency and tasty fare in pleasant surroundings, the Sarrasine is a quintessential example of all that makes the best family-run French hotels so well worth staying at, and worth paying the requisite rate to help preserve.

            © Also published with photos on Ciao UK under the name torr, 2013


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              07.06.2013 11:10
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              Science Fiction at its best

              News of the death last week of Jack Vance put me in mind of this review, written for another site some years ago.

              We all do it when we meet people, don't we? Drop names or references into the conversation, just to see how the other person will react. On those all too rare occasions when I find discussion turning to science fiction, I ask neutrally: "What do you think of Jack Vance?" Generally people respond in one of three ways:

              1. If they say "Never really got on with him," I know I'll never really get on with them either.

              2. If they say "Who?" I take it as a sign that (i) they don't really know much about SF and (ii) they are giving me an opportunity to display my virtuosity as a bore.

              3. If they say "Oh yes, he's great," I know I have found a soulmate and that the ensuing exchange of enthusiasm will run and run and run.
              So take your choice now in deciding whether to read on.


              What makes Vance special?

              1. He is extraordinarily imaginative. More than any other writer in the genre, Vance gives the impression of having chosen science fiction because the familiar world is simply too limited to allow his imagination to range over its full scope. The worlds that fill Vance's universe are predominantly human worlds, but all with their own ecologies, laws (or the lack of them), costumes and languages, wonderfully contrived and logically cohesive.

              2. He is extraordinarily original. Many SF writers seem to inhabit the same universes as each other. Vance's is his own, except to the extent that others writers have copied or been influenced by him.

              3. He is extraordinarily enthralling. Many of Vance's novels are essentially adventure stories. There are heroes and villains, triumphs and near-disasters. The action is fast and furious, gripping the readers with each twist and turn of the plot.

              4. He is extraordinarily readable. Vance's style is crisp and clear, with occasional flashes of vivid description or sardonic humour. One criticism could be that the dialogue is too studied, arguably even stilted, but it is also clever and purposeful. Given that the stories are set in unfamiliar worlds, its occasional awkwardness doesn't jar, and once on Vance's wavelength the reader will find it easy to recognise the underlying wit. I find Vance a very funny as well as an exciting read.

              5. He is extraordinarily prolific. Having just printed off a bibliography from the web (isfdb.tamu.edu/ea.cgi?Jack _Vance), I count more than 40 SF novels, plus short stories, essays and mystery fiction, in which he also works. Once started on Vance, you won't run short of reading matter in a hurry.


              Given that I can't attempt to review all 40+ here, I've picked out the Quintet of SF novels known as The Demon Princes to serve as an exemplar of Vance's work. It would certainly serve as an ideal introduction to Vance for anyone who wanted to sample him.

              The five Demon Princes books are unashamed adventure stories, and, more specifically, stories of revenge. The protagonist is a young man called Kirth Gersen. As a boy Gersen has been one of only two survivors when his home world - a pioneering settlement on the fringes of the inhabited universe - is ransacked by five intergalactic criminals who have ganged up for the purpose. The other survivor is his grandfather, who devotes the rest of his life to preparing Gersen to wreak vengeance on those who have killed his family and despoiled his home.

              Each of the books relates how he tracks down and destroys a particular villain. Since all of them are concealed behind ostensibly respectable fronts in different quarters of the universe, this is no easy task, and the pursuit affords plenty of opportunity for thrills, spills, intrigue, reverses and romance.


              So far, you may be thinking, so conventional. What sets The Demon Princes apart is the inventiveness that Vance brings both to the scene-setting for Gersen's quest and to its execution.
              The series is set some 1500 years or so into the future. Easy intergalactic travel is a given. Vance does not concern himself with the "science" of science fiction; such technological advances as are necessary for the enactment of the plot are assumed rather than described; there is little if any techno-wizardry for its own sake. The universe is roughly divided into the Oikumene - more or less civilised, with numerous worlds, each with its own politics and customs, associated in a loose confederacy - and Beyond (infinitely varied, anarchic and barely explored).

              The action takes place in both the Oikumene and Beyond. Alien life-forms, both animal and vegetable, abound and their nature is often important to the plot, but the active characters are mostly human, with the notable exception of one of the villains, that in the first novel, Star King.


              Star King finds Gersen on the track of Attel Malagate, whose thirst for new worlds to exploit and enslave is the fatal weakness that ultimately undoes him. Having come into possession of the details of an apparently idyllic planet recently discovered, Gersen uses it as bait to lure three possible suspects on a journey of discovery into Beyond. Trickery, bluff and counter-bluff all play their part as the story unfolds. Gersen suffers setbacks, but having outmanoeuvred Malagate's accomplices (the scene in which he turns the tables on the would-be assassin from the poisoners' planet of Sarkovy is particularly memorable), he is eventually able to use a logical sequence of deductions to identify his quarry, and the unique ecology of the planet to despatch him. As in each of the books, the manner of the villain's demise is as ironic as it is ingenious.

              Unlike Malagate, Kokor Hekkus, villain of the second book The Killing Machine, is human, though of a particular type known as a hormagaunt, only found on the quasi-mythical planet of Thamber. What exactly is a hormagaunt? I think I must leave you to read the book to discover, or I shall give too much away. In The Killing Machine we are also introduced to the institution of Interchange, an intergalactic clearing-house where kidnap victims and the like are held until their ransoms are paid. Hekkus is flushed from cover by his desire to possess a certain princess of Thamber who has taken refuge at Interchange by "kidnapping herself" and setting a vast ransom on her own head. By devious means, Gersen raises the ransom before Hekkus can do so and the chase is on, to arrive at its inevitable conclusion only after myriad intricate and imaginative adventures.

              The third book, The Palace of Love, takes us to Old Earth, in pursuit of the hedonistic monomaniac Viole Falushe. In a part-familiar, part-futuristic Netherlands, Gersen unravels the threads of the villain's childhood, and weaves a net for Falushe's entrapment from two loose strands - the poet-mentor Navarth and the much-replicated love-object Jheral Tinzy. The net cannot be cast or reeled in, however, until Falushe has been stalked across the galaxy and tracked down by subterfuge to his "Palace of Love" on the planet Sogdian which he has contrived to subjugate.

              Next up - in The Face - is Lens Larque, a grim and ugly native of the grim and ugly planet Dar Sai. This unappealing and almost uninhabitable world is of interest only because of its mineral deposits, over which Larque has cunningly cornered the market. The plot is complicated by relations with the effete and supercilious snobs of the neighbouring world, Methel, with whom Larque is conducting a surreptitious feud. In a delightful denouement, Gersen outwits, unmasks and concludes his business with Larque whilst simultaneously allowing Larque to exact his own prankish revenge on the insufferable Methlen.

              Finally, in The Book of Dreams, we are introduced to another intergalactic institution - the part-academic, part-political Institute, and the illicit attempts to dominate it by the elusive fantasist Howard Treesong. With his customary inventive scheming, Gersen uncovers the plot and identifies Treesong by tracking him back to his puritanical homeland on the planet Moudervelt. Here his betrayal of a boyhood friend and his schizoid teenage ramblings in his private Book or Dreams are unearthed, enabling him to be finally trapped in an apotheosis of fitting punishment.


              Reading through these brief synopses I see at once that I haven't begun to do justice to Vance's originality. But, short of quoting long passages from all five novels here - which space forbids - I don't know how I can. Compressing the plots inevitably rubs off their complex decoration, the unexpected links and twists that sustain interest, suspend disbelief and intensify involvement.

              The books are held together (and the wilder flights of fancy given credibility) by frequent "quotations" from coeval "sources" - allegedly travel guides, newspaper features, memoirs, encyclopaedias, learned treatises. These are often gently humorous, for example, the following excerpt from "The Tourist's Guide to Dar Sai":

              "In regard to Darsh food, the less said the better. The traveller must adjust himself to a Darsh meal as he would to a natural catastrophe. It avails nothing to pretend relish; the Darsh themselves know their food is repulsive, and apparently derive a perverse pride in their ability to eat it regularly."

              Or from "The Chronicles of Navarth":

              "These are faded times. Wisdom and innocence were once allied and noble songs were sung. I recall a couplet, by no means sublime - quaint rather - succinct, yet reverberating a thousand meanings: -
              A farting horse will never tire.
              A farting man's the man to hire."

              Similarly there are numerous footnotes, ostensibly explaining obscure terms, that also add extraneous colour to an already vividly-painted landscape (or should I say spacescape?), e.g.:

              "Fust - an odour exuded by Darsh men.

              Voitch - a single organism, comparable to a giant lichen, which supports a black mat on tawny or pale grey stalks fifty feet tall. Certain growths are poisonous, others predatory and carnivorous.

              Stelt - a decorative building material mined from the surface of burnt-out stars.

              Murst - the meaning of this word, like others in The Book of Dreams, can only be conjectured."

              The cumulative result of such detail is to give coherence to Vance's bizarre and chaotic universe, and to render the incredible credible, at least for the purposes of enjoying the tales.


              Although Vance's output was prodigious, he did not produce in a steady even flow. The first three volumes of The Demon Princes all appeared between 1964 and 1967, but the final two after a gap of about a dozen years, with other works having been produced in the interim.

              There is certainly a difference in tone between the first three and the final two. The Face and The Book of Dreams are less hectic, less all-action, more subtle and reflective than the earlier works. As his pursuit nears its conclusion Gersen's obsessive dedication begins to evaporate, leaving him hollow and purposeless. In the final lines to The Book of Dreams Gersen, asked if he is well, replies: "Quite well. Deflated perhaps. I have been deserted by my enemies. The affair is over. I am done."

              It is the nearest the books come to philosophical reflection, perhaps not very near, but to me "I have been deserted by my enemies" put into the mouth of one who has defeated them, will always be a memorable line.


              A quick check on Amazon shows me that The Demon Princes series does not seem to be currently in print from any UK publisher. However, numerous copies both new and second-hand can be found through dealers and private sellers. One can only hope that Vance's death may prompt some publisher into reissuing his work.


              Jack Vance's prodigious output (he also wrote crime fiction under the pseudonym Ellery Queen) tailed off in his declining years. Nevertheless, he was still writing well into his eighties, and inevitably some of his later work showed signs of losing its vigour and brilliance.

              But The Demon Princes quintet was written at the height of his powers. I would urge you to read it - for excitement, for its imagination-stretching ingenuity, for its sheer entertainment value. Even if you are not customarily a fan of science fiction I would urge you to read it, as an introduction to the widely under-rated genre.

              And having read it, you will still have his other thirty-something books to look forward to.

              © Originally published under the name torr on Ciao UK 2004


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                24.03.2013 11:54
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                Intriguingly decrepit Sicilian stately home

                When, approaching on the road from the south, I first glimpsed the Castello di Donnafugata, I wasn't sure whether what I was looking at was the original Castello or the modern 'golf resort and spa' that has been built nearby.

                A huge structure, certainly, sitting self-confidently on a hillside, but from a distance it looked too new and too plain for the castle's ancient origins and supposedly neo-Gothic style, whilst its creamy colouring could as easily have been concrete as stone. The uncertainty was soon resolved as I drew closer and was able to discern the decorative detail, but a sense of disorientation lingered, since the last thing one expects of the Castello di Donnafugata is that it could be in any way mistaken for modernity.

                * What it's not, and wasn't *

                This isn't the same Donnafugata that features in The Leopard, Giuseppe di Lampedusa's classic novel about the decline of the Sicilian aristocracy, as everyone is at pains to point out. Why they should be at such pains to exercise such seemingly unSicilian candour is a puzzle, since Lampedusa's Donnafugata is in any case fictional, and as an example of a Sicilian stately home this is as good as any to be found. Perhaps it is because Baron Corrado Arezzo de Spuches, who updated the originally 14th and 17th century Donnafugata to his own taste in the mid-19th century, seems to have been a lively and progressive character, unlike the proud but passive protagonist of the novel, who would have been unlikely to update anything.

                Nor, on inspection, is it properly neo-Gothic. Rather it is built in an eclectic mixture of styles, defying easy categorisation, more neo-classical in outline, but decorated with a raised loggia, turrets, crenellations and arched windows. The façade would not be out of place fronting onto the Grand Canal in Venice, whilst from some angles one can almost imagine it as a Moorish fortress, protecting its own palmy oasis in defiance of the hostile desert beyond. Not that it could ever have served a serious military purpose; the turrets and crenellations are purely for show. So it isn't even a castle, strictly speaking, either.
                Finally, intriguing though the thought might be, the castle's name has nothing to do with fugitive or escaping ladies, but is apparently a corruption - via Sicilian dialect - of an Arabic phrase meaning 'Fountain of Health' in reference to the spring on the site. The Arabic origins suggest that Donnafugata's history may go back earlier than the 14th century, even if far less romantic stories are conjured up by the literal translation of the name.

                * What it was *

                Little is known about its early history, but in its heyday under Baron Corrado Arezzo, Donnafugata was a family estate, a country retreat, a self-indulgence almost to the point of being a folly and a diversion from the serious business of politics in Palermo to which he devoted much of his time. Here he held house parties and entertained friends and relatives. It would be easy to imagine that he also relaxed, though it is hard to see how much relaxation would have been possible when the house and gardens seem to have been subject to a continuous programme of redesign, rebuilding and re-embellishment.

                Fortunately or unfortunately, his successors were more relaxed, or maybe simply poorer or lazier, and little further work was undertaken after his death in 1895. Remarkably, the interior survived being used as officers' quarters by the Luftwaffe during the Second World War when Sicily was a base for bombing Malta and allied shipping in the Mediterranean. Perhaps charmed by the baronial décor, the Germans left it largely unaltered, although legend has it that 'the friar's joke', a diverting device whereby visitors to the house were embraced by the robotic figure in clerical garb on entry, was shot to pieces by one officer taken by surprise.

                In 1982, the Arezzo line died out and ownership of Donnafugata passed to the local authority, the provincial government of Ragusa. After some repair and restoration work, it was opened to the public in 2002. The repairs seem to have been mainly structural. Decoratively, the century-old tradition of neglect has been continued. The benefit is that the interior remains a period piece; the drawback is that it is not in a great state of maintenance. The same applies to the gardens, only more so.

                * What it is - the house *

                Run down, atmospheric, shabby-sumptuous, imagination-stirring. Donnafugata is all these things and probably more. You enter the edifice through the main doorway beneath the loggia and cross a courtyard to reach the body of the house. Here, at the base of a black marble staircase, can be seen a table-top scale model and an information board with a brief outline of the castle's history and design.

                Of the 122 rooms, only 28 can be visited. Perhaps this doesn't matter. After all, as Lampedusa himself put it: "a house of which one knew every room wasn't worth living in". Besides, the part open to the visitor comprises the heart of the 'piano nobile', the main living and reception rooms used by the baronial family. These are all located on the first floor, and an approved route leads you through them in a sequence that makes sense in terms of being the shortest way round, but not in terms of conveying a feeling for how life was lived here. Thus, you start with a cluster of reception rooms (waiting room, music room, ladies' drawing room, smoking room), then through a series of guest rooms and suites, before seeing more reception rooms (two main halls, dining room, billiards room, library) and finishing with the Countess's private apartment. Spasmodic signage does provide some explanation of what you are seeing, but little coherent narrative, so far as I can remember. I have to rely on memory because photography is forbidden in this part of the house, nullifying my usual practice of snapping the signs to act as aides-memoire later.

                Not all the rooms are memorable. The guest bedrooms in particular, although furnished with some decent period pieces, are hardly luxurious. Apart from some engaging murals and a most characterful portrait of the baron himself, the art on the walls is nothing special. Nevertheless, a few of the main reception rooms are magnificent: ~

                ~ The Salone degli Specchi - the hall of mirrors - has something in common with the Salle des Glaces at Versailles, albeit it on a smaller scale, with intricate rococo plasterwork picked out in gilt on pillars and ceiling. The hall is illuminated by an elaborate crystal chandelier with many mirrors (or course) to reflect and multiply its light.

                ~ The Salone degli Stemmi - the 'Coats of Arms' hall - a long sombre space adorned with the emblems of many of Sicily's noble families, pride of place naturally going to the Arezzo home team. An unusual choice of heraldic beast, their coat of arms is dominated by the hedgehog, which seemed oddly timid beside the lions (or leopards?), eagles and bears, but how many of those more fiercely represented dynasties have, one wondered, survived?

                ~ The Sala della Musica - the Music Room - a charming chamber decorated with frescos depicting a range of fine arts and pastimes, as well as music.
                Even in these fine state rooms, though, the impression lingers of decay around the edges. In others, it is wholly palpable: damp spots on ceilings, even to the point of obscuring the frescos; frayed fabrics in the curtains and soft furnishings. Curiously, the effect is to enhance rather than to nullify the ambience. Far more than in those historic houses spruced up and studiously explained for visitors, the makeshift, amateurish presentation adds to the impression of this as a Marie Celeste of a house, suddenly and mysteriously vacated and left to decay gradually from the moment of its evacuation, but retaining the character of its past inhabitants. One can almost hear their ghostly voices echoing faintly down the corridors.

                From the inward-looking, dusty interior it comes literally as a breath of fresh air to step out onto the loggia and see the surrounding views. To the south-east, the immediate view is of the former stables, servants' and workmen's accommodation (most of which was in outhouses, some now in ruins, some now converted to restaurant, bars and souvenir shop. It is a regrettable limitation that what is on show at Donnafugata does not include any of the 'below stairs' aspects of the household; one sees only how the nobility lived, not the army of humble retainers that must have been needed to support that way of life. To the south-west, the vista stretches out over the countryside to the sea ten miles or so away. And over the gardens and grounds.

                * The gardens... *

                ...are overgrown, atmospheric and downright derelict in places. Of the once vast estate, only 8 hectares (20 acres) immediately around the house remain, though this is of course a big area for a garden by most standards. I don't know how many full-time gardeners it would take to keep such a spread in good order, probably more than would be financially feasible in any case, but what seems clear is that the unequal struggle has been abandoned. This is a pity in a way, since there is much that would be of great interest if it were maintained, is indeed of interest even though it is not.

                The gardens are pleasantly and shadily planted with carobs and palms, laurels and myrtles, olives and citrus trees amid many others. My wife was able to spot numerous exotic examples, but many of them were being stifled or overrun amid the ill-kempt clumps of greenery. She was deeply critical of the hard-pruning of the lavender, and almost distraught at the neglect of the former vegetable garden, now a patch of weeds run wild around, and within, a dilapidated fountain.

                Many of the garden's man-made features - pavilions, grottoes, statues and urns - are in poor repair. You wander among them bemused, noting them more as vantage points for views back to the house or across the countryside than for their individual characteristics. Only the stone maze, which it would require more than mere neglect to dilapidate, detains the visitor for long. Beware, though, if you ever take it on. Finding our way round did not prove too challenging, and I was just priding myself on a superior sense of direction to those lost challengers who resorted to clambering over the walls, when I slipped in a puddle and had to endure the remainder of the visit displaying a muddy stain down the rear of my trousers. I rather suspect that the baron, perpetrator of the "Friar's Joke", would have had a good laugh at my embarrassment.

                * Visiting *

                Despite - or maybe because of - having so many historical monuments, Italy tends not to promote or present them very well, and Sicily takes this Italian tendency to extremes, as it does with other Italian tendencies. Although we had read of Donnafugata in guidebooks, my wife and I could find little local indication on how to find it or when it would be open. Eventually we tracked it down on the Ragusa website (it does not have one of its own), which gives a general description but little practical information. Since coming home I have located a website (www.icastelli.it) that does give details, though the latest update seems to refer to 2009-2010!

                For what it's worth, this shows the Castello to be open daily, 9.00 -14.00. You'd want to be there well before 14.00, not just to give yourself time to look round but to be sure of entry at all. The doors were already closed when we left not long after 13.30.

                The price of entry is Euro8.00 for house and gardens, Euro6.00 for the house only and Euro4.00 for the gardens only, half-price for pensioners, students and children (under six, free).

                It would, I think, be fair to say that the Castello tolerates rather than welcomes visitors. The lady in the ticket office was noticeably offhand, and the only attendant indoors seemed more concerned with supervising those going round than with assisting them. No printed leaflets, maps or similar information is offered and the signage is minimal. Somehow, though, this indifference suits the place: what true Sicilian baron, even the progressive and ebullient Corrado Arezzo, would truly have cared about the impression being made on mere tourists?

                * Facilities *

                Minimal facilities only are to be found inside the house and grounds, and visitors are best advised to avail themselves of those in the two or three cafés in the former outhouses on road approaching the entrance. I am not sure whether these are part of the estate or separately owned, but we had a drink in one of them which seemed quite comfortable and reasonably priced. The food we saw being served looked good too.

                So far as I could see, no special provision is made for the disabled. This could pose significant problems in the house, where most of what is to be seen is upstairs.

                There is no car park. Parking was available ad hoc along the approach road with no charge, but space might run out in the high season. Visiting in mid-March we had no difficulty (and enjoyed mild weather; I'd hate to return to a hot car, not to mention go round the site, at the height of a Sicilian summer). Donnafugata can also be reached by train, since it has its own stop on the Palermo to Ragusa line, but the service is very slow and infrequent.

                * Recommendation *

                As you may have gathered, I was rather beguiled by the Castello di Donnafugata. Neglected, and neglectful of its visitors, it now exudes a languid, sultry air, but you can still imagine its former exuberance. The very neglect somehow serves to heighten one's awareness of the bygone sybaritic splendour. What you do see no longer pretends to be the capriciously contrived playground in which the baron and his favoured companions took their leisure, something impossible to preserve in any case. So it is to the place's credit that it avoids being a modern pastiche of the original. The decay implicitly reminds us that the past is the past, of which only the most ethereal of time-worn traces can ever linger. Paradoxically, you can imagine all the better what life was like when no attempt is made to recreate it.

                To anyone who feels they might be equally easily beguiled, I would recommend it.

                © Also published under the name torr on Ciao UK 2013


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                • Christmas Eve / Discussion / 208 Readings / 196 Ratings
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                  20.12.2012 15:35
                  Very helpful



                  Trouble at t'Lapland Mill

                  Like Santa's little helpers in this seasonal tale, words aren't always the obedient servants we would wish them to be. Sometimes, they take on a will of their own and gallop away in their own chosen direction like rebellious reindeer. When this happens, especially in verse, one really has no choice but to leave one's own opinions behind and follow where they lead, as I did in this case.


                  'Twas the night before Christmas, and what have we here?
                  Not a creature was stirring, no, not the reindeer,
                  And therefore not me, who you know of as Santa
                  (I'll have heard it before, so just spare me the banter).

                  The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
                  Gave a perfect excuse for the team not to go
                  Out delivering in such 'unacceptable' weather:
                  "One slip and we'll all come a cropper together."

                  "Just think what might happen if our harness froze,"
                  Said the ring-leader (politics red as his nose),
                  But the rest were all nodding - he'd got them onside -
                  And I knew, once committed, they wouldn't backslide.

                  And the packers and loaders had all gone on strike
                  Before risking their elf and their safety alike;
                  I reckon the blighters were having a laugh,
                  They'd be ready to work given time-and-a-half.

                  But I'd had enough, and I told 'em to shove it,
                  (The look on their faces, you'd just gotta love it)
                  "Sod this for a game of military men;
                  You've all had your chance and it won't come again."

                  "I don't give a stuff if you threaten and shout;
                  The new rule round here is: one strike and you're out.
                  Well you've just had your strike and you're having no more,
                  So step over here and I'll show you the door."

                  "You can call me a bastard, a shit, a c...vagina,
                  But I've made up my mind, I'm outsourcing to China.
                  They'll churn out the pressies for pennies, those chinks,
                  While I just laze back and enjoy forty winks."

                  "Deliveries? The contract's now with DHL,
                  They baulked at the chimneys; I said 'What the hell,
                  Dump the stuff in the doorway or just leave a note,
                  Saying 'Collect from the Depot however remote.' "

                  "I don't care if the parents decide that it's shocking
                  Or the kids are unhappy there's nought in their stocking;
                  If the punters don't like it, let 'em phone to complain,
                  I've a premium-rate line that will drive them insane..."

                  "...introductory music, a lengthy preamble;
                  The script? Let's just say that it doesn't half ramble
                  Before they press buttons for options galore -
                  Only then can they speak to (guess where) Bangalore."

                  My eyes - how they twinkled! My dimples how merry!
                  Quite soon they'd be gone and I'd start on the sherry;
                  They showed no sign of shifting but what did I care?
                  I'd call in Security, give them a scare.

                  But just as I started to reach for my whistle
                  I heard a voice soft as the down of a thistle:
                  "Not so fast, Mr Santa," 'Twas Rudolf who spoke.
                  "And listen up sharp, for this isn't a joke."

                  "To the brand-name of Santa you may have the right,
                  But your hold on the rest of the business is shite;
                  We've registered Christmas and Noël and Yule
                  (And Thanksgiving and Easter and - yes! - April Fool)."

                  "We're the Christmas Co-operative. You'd better learn soon
                  We'll be paying the piper and calling the tune;
                  We'll have flexible working and full profit share
                  With a workers' committee to see that it's fair."

                  "So blow on your whistle, we couldn't care less:
                  The security men know you've signed G4S,
                  They feel you've taken them all for a ride,
                  And their jobs would be gone if they stayed on your side."

                  "So chew upon that, but get out of our way;
                  We've gifts to deliver - it's nigh Christmas Day.
                  Now Dasher, now Dancer, now Prancer and Vixen
                  We've got to get started, the schedule needs fixin'.

                  As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
                  When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky,
                  So out of the warehouse the coursers they flew,
                  With the sleigh full of toys, and what could I do...

                  ...except stand there and give them a shake of my fist?
                  I was mightily '...off' in addition to 'pissed...'
                  When I heard them exclaim as they drove out of sight:
                  "It's Happy Christmas to all when the workers unite."

                  © Also published under the name torr on Ciao UK2012 (with apologies to Clement C Moore)


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                  • Poetry / Discussion / 174 Readings / 163 Ratings
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                    21.08.2012 18:27
                    Very helpful



                    Re-versed verse

                    If you have read Malu's latest review, you will see that she is reviving a challenge, first issued by Ciao's Kirsty1 some years ago, in which the idea is to re-write one or more famous poems adapting them to one's own whim.

                    As examples of possible candidates for this treatment, Kirsty suggested ten well-known poems, and being unimaginative, I took her at her word and had a go at excerpts from all of them. The originals are quoted to facilitate comparison. It struck me that the originals had in common the fact that they were all written in the past, and were therefore out of date.

                    This was not the poets' fault, of course. The fact that they lived, and wrote, in the past was just bad luck, of the sort that might happen to anyone. Nevertheless, their work was obviously ripe, indeed overdue, for modernisation. Sympathetic modernisation, naturally, but one can't stand in the way of the march of progress.

                    * * *

                    1. Kipling's "If" was written as advice to his son about how to handle himself in the world, but in an era that predates the emancipation of women. Since then huge strides towards equality have been made, even in spheres such as sport where men might be thought to have an inbuilt physical advantage. One thinks of the sterling efforts of, for example, scientists in the former Soviet bloc to level the playing field and enable female athletes to realise their full potential.

                    1a) Old male-oriented version, final stanza:

                    "If you can fill the unforgiving minute
                    With sixty seconds worth of distance run,
                    Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
                    And which is more you'll be a Man, my son!"

                    1b) Modern equal-opportunity version:

                    If you can run in one forgiving minute
                    Further than nature thought a woman oughtta,
                    Steroids and hormones will have helped you win it,
                    And - here's the flaw - you'll be a Man, my daughter!


                    2. Scholars have long speculated about the location of the fabled city of Camelot, as described by Tennyson in The Lady of Shallot. But the "many-tower'd" gives the game away, doesn't it?

                    2a) Version ripe for development:

                    "On either side the river lie
                    Long fields of barley and of rye,
                    That clothe the wold and meet the sky;
                    And thro' the field the road runs by
                    To many-tower'd Camelot;
                    And up and down the people go,
                    Gazing where the lilies blow
                    Round an island there below,
                    The island of Shallott."

                    2b) Redeveloped version:

                    On either side the river lie
                    Tall shards of concrete jutting high
                    That pierce the smog and meet the sky
                    Above the roundabouts' radii
                    That web the reclaimed bogs;
                    And up and down the people go
                    In elevators; to and fro
                    The Jubilee Line runs below
                    The island known as Dogs.


                    3. Holidays aren't what they were in Stevie Smith's time, and neither is sea-bathing. No chance of floundering fatally with all those Baywatch characters on duty. The time and place to get out of one's depth is clubbing in the evening:

                    3a) Offshore version:

                    "Nobody heard him, the dead man,
                    But still he lay moaning:
                    I was much further out than you thought
                    And not waving but drowning."

                    3b) Far out version:

                    Everybody saw him, the dead drunk man,
                    But still he lay mooning;
                    I was much further out of my head than you thought
                    And not raving but swooning.


                    4. Thinking about Wordsworth's lakeland, my initial inclination was to assume it would nowadays be just an enormous film-set for blockbuster epics and costume drama ("...a host of Cecil B de Milles"?). But then the proximity of Sellafield provided the necessary critical mass:

                    4a) Pastoral option:

                    "I wandered lonely as a cloud
                    That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
                    When all at once I saw a crowd,
                    A host of golden daffodils;
                    Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
                    Fluttering and dancing in the breeze."

                    4b) Nuclear option:

                    I wandered lonely as a cloud
                    That carries dust from Chernobyls,
                    When all at once I saw a crowd,
                    A host of toxic overspills
                    Within the lakes, the streams, the seas -
                    The seeds of cancerous disease.


                    5. By whatever insidious accident lakeland might be kept safe from the cameras, it's unthinkable that Yeats' Innisfree could have survived as well:

                    5a) Get-away-from-it-all version:

                    "I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
                    And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
                    Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
                    And live alone in the bee-loud glade."

                    5b) Get-me-out-of-here version:

                    I will arise and go now, in the limelight of TV,
                    For a cabin has been built, wherein a series will be made;
                    Nine others will compete there, each a C-lebrity,
                    Till one's left alone with a B-list grade.


                    6. Remember Christina Rossetti's "Remember"? -

                    "Remember me when I am gone away,
                    Gone far away into the silent land;
                    When you can no more hold me by the hand,
                    Nor I half turn to go, yet turning stay."

                    No one can modernise that. Forget about it. The sentiment is timeless, as is the probable response:
                    'Sure, Chrissie babe, sure. Remember you? You bet. You got it. How could I not remember you? Trust me, I'm with you all the way, holding your hand just like you said. In spirit, sweetheart, in spirit. Look, when you get back from...wherever...the silent land, give us a bell and we'll see what gives, huh? Till then, gotta love you and leave you, babe. Got another call coming in. Luvya loads...'


                    7. The countryside in W H Davies' time would seem to have been a safe environment for the pursuit of Leisure, as advocated in his poem of that name. But today?

                    7a) Leisured version:

                    "What is this life if, full of care,
                    We have no time to stand and stare?
                    No time to stand beneath the boughs,
                    And stare as long as sheep and cows."

                    7b) Lesioned version:

                    What is life in Intensive Care,
                    Too bruised to stand; too dazed to stare?
                    I stood and stared beneath the bough,
                    A chainsaw buzzed and I'm here now.


                    8. Coy? Does anyone do Coy nowadays? From all one hears, it seems unlikely that a modern-day Marvell would have needed to reproach a prospective mistress for slowness to respond:

                    8a) Ladylike version:

                    "Had we but world enough, and time,
                    This coyness, Lady, were no crime
                    We would sit down and think which way
                    To walk and pass our long love's day."

                    8b) Ladettelike version

                    Had we but world enough and time
                    Then back into your bed we'd climb,
                    But we're both due on other dates;
                    Thank goodness we've stocked up with Mates.


                    9. Remember tigers? Magnificent beasts, though a tad fearsome. You still see a few forlorn specimens in zoos, but they're dying out in the wilds as their natural habitat is tamed by man, their future more bleak than Blake. No matter; I'm sure cyber-science will soon come up with a wholly satisfactory virtual replication:

                    9a) Dangerous version:

                    "Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
                    In the forests of the night,
                    What immortal hand or eye
                    Could frame thy fearful symmetry?"

                    9b) Endangered version:

                    Tiger, Tiger, fading fast
                    In the forests you're the last
                    Not immortal; when you die
                    We'll give a Tiger Sim a try.


                    10. Rupert Brooke's sacrificial patriotism is a bit passé, don't you think? The professional modern soldier's objective, in the words of George Patton, "is not to die for your country but make some other bastard die for his". For true unqualified death-wish flag-flying these days, one must look elsewhere:

                    10a) The Soldier:

                    "If I should die, think only this of me;
                    That there's some corner of a foreign field
                    That is for ever England. There shall be
                    In that rich earth a richer earth concealed;
                    A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
                    Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
                    A body of England's breathing English air,
                    Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home."

                    10b) The Supporter:

                    "If I should die, think only this of me;
                    That there's some corner of a football ground
                    That is for ever England. There shall be
                    On that rich earth a Rooney jersey found;
                    A jersey England wove, shaped, made to wear,
                    Sold, once, for fans to sport, away or home
                    Their bodies England's, topped with skin not hair
                    Saint George's cross tattooed across the dome."

                    * * *

                    O Brave New World, that has such people in't. Don't worry, folks. Things can only get bitter. Luvya loads...

                    © Originally published under the name torr on Ciao UK, 2004


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                    • More +
                      13.08.2012 18:45
                      Very helpful



                      Exploring the eastern end of Dorset's 'Jurassic Coast'

                      The chains clank as the Sandbanks ferry tugs itself across the narrow mouth of Poole Harbour, and already the air tastes fresher. We are leaving behind us the overpriced peninsula of Sandbanks and the stuffy retirement resort of Bournemouth, of which it is a suburb. Ahead of us a wilder world awaits invitingly: rough heathland to the right, a barrier of bare-topped hills looming in the middle distance, and to the left, a crescent of sandy beach.

                      It is onto the beach we stride, passing the notice-board that marks the beginning of the South West Coast Path. Never fear, I'm not going to ask you to walk the full 630 miles, nor even the full length of the 'Jurassic Coast', which we shall soon reach, just the first 30 or so around the shores of the 'Isle' of Purbeck, which is an island in name and spirit only, not geography. On foot the hike might take us two or three days, and would be worth it, but here a few minutes will, I hope, suffice to give you an impression of what is to be seen on this most varied and scenic stretch of coastline.

                      * Sandbanks Ferry to Swanage *

                      For the first few miles we will be on the beaches of Shell Bay and Studland Bay. Those of you with long memories may recall the opening credit sequence of Monty Python, in which Michael Palin rises from the waves - this was filmed at Shell Bay, with Bournemouth in the background. Once we turn south onto Studland Beach, though, that backdrop is behind us. We are now also out of earshot of the road, which will not impinge again until we reach Swanage. On our shoreward side are the dunes and scrubland of a Nature Reserve. This bit of the beach is also something of a naturist reserve, although mostly they bask among the dunes rather than on the shore itself and are a nuisance to nobody. Here we are treading a long sweep of soft sand, oyster-catchers dodging our footsteps at the sea's edge, and gulls calling overhead. Towards the southern end, the National Trust, which owns Studland Beach, has built a visitor centre and car park discreetly set back from the shore, as are a number of adjacent beach-huts. In this area you find more families picnicking or playing in the sand, but even in high summer it is barely crowded by the standards of British beaches; moreover it is Blue Flag clean, and safe for swimming.

                      Where the beach ends, we ascend a rocky headland and continue past another, more secluded, beach, then turn east with the path towards the point known as Old Harry Rocks. Out to sea, on a clear day, you can see the sunlight glowing on the Needles of the Isle of Wight, as it does on the mirror-image chalk spike of Old Harry himself, who rises from the sea to stand sentinel at the tip of the foreland. Until a few years ago, Old Harry enjoyed the company of another chalk column known as Old Harry's Wife, but she has now been washed away and Harry is a widower. The chalk here erodes quickly, and it cannot be long before he joins his spouse. Only a few million years ago, Purbeck and Wight were one, sharing a continuous chalk ridge; now they are separated by twenty miles or more of open sea. Nevertheless, either Old Harry or his successors will last out our lifetimes, and while they last this is an exhilarating headland to walk around, despite the buffeting of the breeze as we breast the next rise in the cliff path and see Swanage nestling in its bay below.

                      * Swanage and round Durleston Head *

                      Swanage is the only town we will come to on the Purbeck coast, indeed the only human settlement of any substance. Originally a fishing village and port for the shipping of Purbeck Stone, Swanage became a seaside resort in Victorian times. A modest example of such places, its resorty attractions are on a muted scale. It offers a front to walk along behind a sandy beach, complete with deckchairs for hire and a Punch-and-Judy show in summer; a park with bandstand and crazy golf; a railway station now disconnected from the national network but home to the enthusiast-run Swanage Steam Railway; and a pier, its attractive ironwork also restored by local enthusiasts, who partly finance the maintenance by selling brass plaques bearing well-wishers' messages that are inset into the underfoot boards. When this practice started, perhaps fifteen or twenty years ago, only a few were taken, but the idea has caught on and now hundreds, perhaps even thousands, cram the space available; better hurry if you want your support commemorated in this way. A reminder of the fate this pier might have suffered may be seen in the rotting timbers of another, which jut up from the waves between it and the quay.

                      Already we are at the southern side of Swanage Bay and are leaving town uphill to a little park on Peveril Point. This is a fine place to catch our breath and survey the view back over Swanage from a different angle. Once around the Point, the path is eroded and we must divert inland for a quarter of a mile or so, before finding our way back to the clifftops within the grounds of Durlston Country Park, with only glimpses of the sea visible through its lush vegetation. Durlston 'Castle', at the peak of the park, is a castle in outward appearance only, having been built as a Victorian folly, and recently converted to house an art gallery and exhibition centre. On its seaward side, reached by steep stone steps, is sited an enormous stone globe erected at the same time as the castle, depicting the world as it was then understood to be, a history lesson in itself. On the landward side, a much more modern feature is a walkway representing the timeline from the world's origins to the present day, scaled for geological, botanical and human history - the latter of course occupying only the last few inches. Perhaps the idea of this timeline was inspired by the fact that we in the World Heritage Site known as the Jurassic Coast, which extends all the way west into Devon. Indeed, we entered the Jurassic Coast back at Old Harry, although his chalk is strictly speaking Cretaceous.

                      * Durleston Head to St Aldhelm's Head *

                      In fact, calling this the Jurassic Coast was clever branding but dubious geology, since three distinct periods are represented. However the limestone over which we are walking after rounding Durleston Head is the genuine Jurassic stuff. The local stone is prized as a superior building material, and is quarried right along the southern side of Purbeck, in places out of the cliffs themselves. One of these coastal quarries is soon reached, the so-called Tilly Whim Caves, where you can still see the cave-like shafts cut horizontally into the cliff-face. 'Whim' in this context refers to a specially built crane and pulley system, traditionally used hereabouts to winch the chunks of stone out to be loaded into boats below. Since a roof collapse some years ago we are no longer allowed to venture into Tilly Whim caves; no matter, if we feel daring we will be able to explore the similar ones a few miles further west at Winspit, despite those having also suffered a recent rockfall.

                      The other consequence of the underlying limestone is that rainfall drains quickly and the clifftop vegetation is sparse, mostly open grassland, allowing uninterrupted views. Once we have passed the lighthouse-topped promontory known as Anvil Point, these become spectacular, straight up the coast for half a dozen miles to where it curves and rises to St Aldhelm's Head. Not quite as straight as first appears, however, since several deep coves and disused quarries indent the cliffs, notably at Dancing Ledge, so-called because the removal of whole strata of stone has left a flat area as big as a dance-floor over which the tides wash. They have pitted and scarred its surface, exposing some fascinating ammonite fossils, but, just in case anyone was tempted, rendering it most impractical for dancing. By contrast, the old workings further along at Winspit come complete with horizontal shafts, or 'galleries', which my sons always used to insist were smugglers' caves. Who knows? The galleries might have served this purpose too, since these shores certainly saw their share of smuggling. Even whim-assisted, though, it would have taken remarkable skill and courage to bring a clandestine cargo ashore amid the raging surf and jumbled rocks of Winspit.

                      On we go, making our way up to the top of St Aldhelm's Head, from which we catch our first clear views of Portland Bill looming like a semi-submerged sea-creature in the western distance. Along the clifftop we pass a monument erected to the developers of radar in WW2, who were based at nearby Worth Matravers, then a coastguard station, and finally an ancient stone chapel in which to take shelter from the wind. 'What if there is no wind?' you may be wondering. Ah, but there is always wind on St Aldhelm's Head.

                      * St Aldhelm's Head to Kimmeridge *

                      Had we been walking this route twenty-five years or so ago, we would now have descended in the shadow of the cliffs to the elegantly symmetrical semi-circular pebble beach at Chapman's Pool, but the path down now seems to have been closed. Instead, we keep to the cliff-top, passing a memorial garden dedicated to the Royal Marines killed in an IRA attack on their barracks at Deal in 1989, and in other conflicts. It is sited here because the marines use these shores for training exercises. The clifftop is a spectacular setting; I can imagine that the notes of the Last Post played by a bugler once a year echo hauntingly out over the cove below.

                      The main path now circumvents Chapman's Pool. We could still find our way down to see its abandoned Lifeboat Station, but then we would also find our way back up, and we are about to be faced with a steep climb up Houns-tout cliff in any case. Pausing at the top to catch our breath, we are equally rewarded with wonderful views to westward and threatened with the distant prospect of several equally exhausting climbs that await us in that direction. Once we are down from Houns-tout, though, the next few miles along lower-lying cliff-tops are not overly demanding, except in the odd instance where coastal erosion has undermined the path. The geology is changing. Although there are still underlying limestone spurs which in places can be seen sticking out to sea, the cliff-faces increasingly display grey layers of crumbly clay and shale, and falls are frequent. The path has been rerouted in several places over recent years.

                      Up ahead we can see a round tower atop a hill. This is Clavell Tower, a noted local landmark, originally built by a landowner of that name in 1830 as an observatory from which he could view the coast, especially that part of it that fell within the bounds of his estate. For many years it was not only a ruin but in danger of toppling into the sea as the cliff on which it stood eroded, but it has now been painstakingly rebuilt further inland by the Landmark Trust, which specialises in restoring old buildings of architectural interest for holiday lets. Although I have a family base at which to stay only a few miles away, I have to admit that I am tempted.

                      Descending from Clavell Tower to Kimmeridge Bay, we notice that the rocky outcrops are darker and more friable than ever. This is oil shale, rich in fossilised sea life - and the occasional relic of dinosaurs. You are not allowed to dig, but erosion releases the fossils in any case and they can often be picked up on the beach after a storm. A local man, Steve Etches by name, has built up a notable collection of specimens over the years, which can be viewed by appointment, and there is currently a project afoot to build a museum in which to display them more widely. I wish it success. The oil in the soil here has also attracted another kind of interest, and exploratory wells have been sunk from time to time. As long ago as 1848, the streets of the nearby town of Wareham were lit by 130 lamps fuelled by gas from Kimmeridge shale, which was also used as an industrial raw material. One hopes that the current fad for shale gas extraction doesn't result in a revived exploitation of the area.

                      * Kimmeridge to Flowers Barrow *

                      Before continuing along the coast path, we need to watch out for red flags. If they are flying, it means the army's firing ranges are in use and walkers can proceed no further. Since we have planned this walk in advance and would not want to abort it two-thirds of the way round, we will have already checked by phone or online, but we will watch out for red flags in any case, just to be on the safe side. One wouldn't want to be blown off course by unexpected artillery. Just inland from here is the ghost village of Tyneham, requisitioned by the army during WW2 and never returned to its inhabitants. Treading its streets and peering into its remaining dwellings is like returning to the past through a time-warp, and well worth the short diversion.

                      Along the coast here we must keep to the cliff-tops since the beaches are out of bounds. This is a pity, since the one at Brandy Bay - a name redolent of its smuggling past - looks worth exploring, shingly and even sandy in places, but also criss-crossed by broken ledges and rock pools. Gad Cliff, up which we are now climbing, is another wearying ascent, jutting dramatically upwards over the rocky shores, but again repays the effort in the views from the top. And there is an incidental benefit, or compensation at least, to this stretch having been sequestered by the military. Free from farming, it is an accidental haven for all kinds of wild flower - scabious, milkwort and bee orchids, for example - that flourish in great profusion.
                      The further we go along the clifftop here, the more the path slopes downwards and the more clearly the promontory at its end comes into view. Warbarrow Tout by name, from this angle it always reminds me of a crouching toad, seen from the rear. As with most fanciful interpretations, this one grows less and less tenable as one draws nearer and the more prosaic detail becomes visible. We see it is formed of steeply sloping strata, the relic of some ancient upheaval, and has survived as a headland because it is of harder stone than the bay beyond, which has chalk cliffs behind a shingle beach - the pebbles graded by the tide around the curve of the shoreline, almost like Chesil Bank on a smaller scale. Again, though, this is designated a danger area and we cannot go down to explore. Instead, we face another demanding climb up to the peak of the clifftop, the site of an Iron Age fort known as Flowers Barrow.

                      * Flowers Barrow to Durdle Door *

                      Little trace of the prehistoric fort remains. Part has already slipped down the cliff, the rest become overgrown with the passing of time, but explanatory boards help you to imagine how it must have been. Flowers Barrow does, in any case, command perhaps the best variety of views along the whole of this scenic coastline: back east over the way we have come; north, inland, over the tank-scarred heathland of the Royal Armoured Corps' practice ranges; and west towards yet another high chalk cliff overlooking the crescent of Mupe Bay. It is a mile or two distant, but we are now into our stride and are quickly round to the further headland. Somewhere hidden amid the jumble of rocks below lies Bacon Hole, an authenticated smugglers' cave, but one which has reportedly suffered a collapse and can no longer be visited.

                      No matter, a sight of even greater interest awaits just round the corner: the Fossil Forest. Perched on a long ledge below the cliff-top, this is exactly what it says on the label: the fossilised remains of a forest of some 150 million years ago. Walking through it is rather like visiting an open-air sculpture park, and one could stay musing for a long time as one tries to make sense of the strange shapes to be seen there. Resisting the temptation to linger, we go on to Lulworth Cove. The cove is notoriously pretty, the blue pool of its anchorage almost enclosed by the two encircling pincers of rock that seem to threaten to deny it exit to the sea. For visitors, it boasts a shingle beach with a beachside café, a Heritage Centre and a car park only a few hundred yards away. After the previous unspoiled twenty miles, it takes a momentary effort to recognise that, by most English standards, Lulworth Cove is only mildly spoiled, and is indeed remarkably beautiful.

                      Nevertheless, from here on over to Durdle Door we will find ourselves accompanied by many walkers, whereas before we encountered only a few along the way. But Durdle Door does, as they say, have to be seen, and the scenery en route should not be neglected either: the deep, crinkly hollow of Stair Hole, and the ribs of rock like dinosaurs' bones that poke up through the waves at low tide in the lee of the Durdle Door headland. Pictures of the limestone arch itself are so frequently to be seen in articles and documentaries about the area - and I notice on Dooyoo too, at the head of this page - that I hardly feel the need to describe it. It can, at present, be explored on foot, but idiots have put this freedom in jeopardy by 'tombstoning' from the apex of the arch, some being seriously injured in the process. Or perhaps I should more accurately say that officious busybodies are putting this freedom in jeopardy by demanding that idiots should be prevented from endangering themselves.

                      Beyond Durdle Door the coast path leaves Purbeck - the limit of my ambitions at present - and we will leave the remainder of the Jurassic Coast to hardier pilgrims. Lovers of rustic place-names and cinema history alike, however, might wish to persevere just half a mile further to Scratchy Bottom. This dry valley was used as the location for the scene in the film of Far From the Madding Crowd in which a herd of sheep is driven over the cliff edge, a fittingly Hardyesque conclusion to a Dorset journey.

                      * The practicalities *

                      For anyone who feels inclined to undertake this walk in reality, a few practical pointers may be helpful. The starting point at Sandbanks can be reached easily by bus from either Bournemouth or Poole. If you are lucky in the summer months the bus might be an open-topped Purbeck Breezer, in which case stay on it across the Sandbanks Ferry and alight on the other side. Otherwise, the ferry will cost you £1 as a pedestrian; it crosses every 20 minutes.

                      At the other end, escaping from Lulworth Cove by public transport is more difficult, as buses are few and far between. So far as I have been able to discover, the last bus leaves at 17.45 on weekdays, 16.25 on Sundays and Bank Holidays. This makes doing the walk in two days very rushed if you're relying on public transport, impractically so on Sundays or Bank Holidays; you couldn't reach West Lulworth from any feasible overnight stopping-place to the east by that deadline if you are to see the sights along the way. But you'd probably want to do the latter part of the walk at a weekend, since the army range routes are usually then open, often not the case on weekdays. To check opening times, phone the MoD helpline (01929 404819) or visit their website.

                      Assuming you could be at Sandbanks early to begin the walk, you could reasonably aim to reach Worth Matravers (just inland from Winspit), where there are one or two B&Bs, on the first night; then on to West Lulworth, which has several places to stay, for the second; on the third day, see Durdle Door in the morning and be back at West Lulworth in time to catch the bus. If you can't reach Sandbanks early, take three nights: the first in Swanage, then at one of the B&Bs around Kimmeridge, and finally at West Lulworth.

                      * Wild about Purbeck *

                      As wild coasts go - Patagonia perhaps, Papua New Guinea, Pitcairn Island - it must be admitted that Purbeck is decidedly on the tame side. Nevertheless, once you have left Swanage behind, it is about as wild as you'll find in England. It is also as beautiful as you'll find, and full of geological, historical and botanical interest. It has benefited enormously from being accessible only by foot for most of its length, and from being barely accessible at all in some stretches, the silver lining to the cloud of the army's high-handed behaviour. For connoisseurs of coastlines, it is a treat that has to be experienced.

                      © Also published under the name torr on Ciao UK, 2012

                      Note: I regret that this review does not cover the full length of the Jurassic Coast; I know the western end only in places and couldn't do it justice. In the fullness of time, I shall try to walk the full length and update the review. Those interested in the geology of the Jurassic Coast, incidentally, should seek out the series of websites compiled by Dr Ian West of Southampton University, in which he presents not only some illuminating science but many evocative photographs of the coastline.  


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                        21.07.2012 12:48
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                        Over-hyped, disruptive waste of public money

                        "Winner's Curse" - defined as the tendency for the winning bid in an auction to exceed the intrinsic value of the item purchased.

                        For the past few years, ever since London secured the nomination to stage them, I have been trying my hardest to 'get' the Olympic Games, that is, to understand why so many of my fellow countrymen and women seem pleased that they are to be held here. The supposed benefits have always eluded me, whilst the prospective costs were all too apparent: that the Games would cost a fortune to stage, a vastly larger fortune than had been budgeted; that this expense would be recouped neither by direct revenue nor by any indirect economic uplift; that the powers-that-be would use the Games as an excuse for all kinds of unnecessary and unwelcome measures; and that life in the capital during the games would be even less bearable than usual for ordinary citizens, who would be unlikely to be able to obtain tickets for any of the interesting bits. Meanwhile, to average ticketless sports fans, such as me, who would be watching from our sofas in any case, it would matter not a jot whence the televisual coverage originated. It would have been better to have it coming from Paris than London, I said, bearing in mind that the city on the Seine had been runner-up in the bidding process. We should have let them win and bear the consequences, the winner's curse. The French deserve no better.

                        So the years of waiting have passed and the games are now imminent. Arguably it is still too early to judge them, since they have not yet happened, but there is, on another opinionating website, a debating topic - 'Will the games be a success?' - couched in the future tense, for which this piece was originally written. It represents my best stab at an answer to that question, noting that the question does not define what 'success' is intended to mean. To my mind, any valid definition of 'success' would imply an outcome in which the value of the benefits exceeded the costs, so that is the basis on which I shall attempt my assessment.

                        * The benefits *

                        Advocates for the games argue that they will bring benefits to London, and to Britain generally, both tangible and intangible. They claim tangible benefits that would include increased revenue from tourism, the economic boost provided by building the facilities and infrastructure, other hazier 'business opportunities', and the regeneration of the area around the sporting sites. The intangible benefits would be derived from the international prestige that goes with hosting such a high-profile event, and from the 'feel-good factor' - a supposed enhancement to national morale. Intangible benefits by their nature cannot be quantified and will be considered later, but in the case of the tangible benefits a monetary evaluation can at least be attempted:

                        ~ Tourism. The planners originally envisaged increased revenue from tourism of over £2bn, both from higher numbers of visitors and higher spend per head. It is unclear how this figure was arrived at, other than by wildly optimistic guesswork, since it is contrary to all recent Olympic experience to expect any increase at all. Typically, the pattern has been from the small rise in numbers actually attending the games to be more than offset by a fall in numbers among those deliberately avoiding the host city, fearing overcrowding and inflated prices. When Athens was the venue for the games in 2004, tourism not only declined that year, but took two further years to return to its pre-games levels; any subsequent growth after such an interval cannot be clearly attributed to the Olympics. Current feedback from Britain's tourist industry suggests that, so far, London is doing no better. Hotels are far from full and room-rates for August on the hotel-booking sites have been falling, suggesting that they are having difficulty filling capacity. Arrivals at London's airports are coming in below expectations. Meanwhile, other London tourist facilities are having a hard time; for example, Andrew Lloyd Webber is on record as predicting a downturn for theatres and shows during the period. All told, there is no good reason to expect any net benefit to our tourist industries accruing at all; indeed, there might well be a net cost.

                        ~ Facilities and infrastructure. Proponents argue that the £5.3bn being spent on the sports stadia, Olympic 'village', sprucing up the surrounding area and upgrading transport links is not so much expenditure as an investment that will provide economic benefits. Of course, it has provided some contracts for local firms and some employment during the course of the build, but nearly all of it has been government funded, so it simply represents either an increase in overall public spending or a diversion of public funds from other purposes. Was spending on the Olympics more productive as an investment than those other purposes would have been? It's unlikely, to say the least. The provision of facilities for a two-week event is a weirdly wrong-headed way to go about planning long-term investment. A scaled-down version of the Olympic stadium itself will remain and be leased to a football club; I haven't managed to discover precisely how the finances of the arrangement will work, but it seems improbable that they will repay the investment any time soon, or indeed on any foreseeable time-scale whatsoever. Some expensive facilities - such as the basketball arena and the water polo venue - are simply scheduled to be demolished; others - if the experience of previous host cities means anything - will be under-utilised and only maintainable at a loss. The Olympic village is to be sold on to the Qatari royal family and associated private developers for £557m, compared with a building cost of over £1bn, so the taxpayer will take a big hit there - and who knows what the buyers will do with the site? There's no reason to believe it will be to any public benefit. Transport? Yes, there will be improvements, but many of those would have happened anyway, and as for the ones that would not, again, arranging to deliver large numbers of spectators to particular venues for a fortnight is a ludicrous basis for permanent planning. It looks to me as if most of the money should be written off as a sunk cost, rather than regarded as an investment generating on-going returns.

                        ~ 'Business Opportunities.' Official statements have claimed that billions will be generated by 'additional sales by British companies, high-value opportunities, and foreign direct investment'. Frankly, this all sounds like pie-in-the-sky to me, and I write as the former marketing director of a British-based plc with international affiliates. From my experience, I find it impossible to believe that any hard-headed foreign businessman would buy more from Britain, or invest more in Britain, simply because the Olympic Games happen to be staged here. Even if there were a commercial advantage to be gained from association with the games, the vast majority of British firms will be legally barred from taking it, since only sponsors - most of them multi-nationals based outside the UK - are allowed to refer to the games in their advertising or branding. Indeed, lots of British businesses are having their normal activities drastically restricted as rules to this effect are enforced to please those sponsors. Apparently, the government, fronted by the prime minister, is to host a global investment conference timed to coincide with the games, and has great expectations as to its outcome. Again, a sceptical shrug seems the only realistic response. If such conferences bring any benefits at all - and I sincerely doubt it - their benefits would not be contingent on their being timed to coincide with a separate sporting occasion.

                        ~ Urban regeneration. 'The lower Lea Valley', as officialdom insists on referring to the area of east London that will constitute the main focus of the games, was indeed a run-down and neglected area.

                        Whether it would have remained so left to itself is a moot question. It is not much further out from the centre than other areas - Hackney, Bow, Stepney, Poplar - that have 'come up' by leaps and bounds because of their proximity to the City and new business centres in docklands. Very probably, it would have been regenerated piecemeal by market forces in due course without intervention. Instead, it has been forcibly redesigned on a grand scale for the purpose of the Olympics, plus the new shopping centre at Westfield. Man shall not live by shopping centres alone, as any economist will tell you, and it is hard to see this one providing enough local economic enhancement for the future after the games have gone. Curiously, the authorities turned down an offer by the Wellcome Trust, which wanted to spend £1bn buying the Olympic Park to redevelop as a scientific research hub, surely a much more sustainable project, and one of the few genuine 'business opportunities' that the games have generated. As it is, the outcome will enjoy neither the merits of ad hoc free market redevelopment, nor of the centrally planned variety, only the demerits of both. As ever, if one wanted to arrive at optimal long-term regeneration, one wouldn't start with designing a short-term sports venue. It's hard to see any quantifiable public benefit in what is being done.

                        What, you may be wondering, about revenue from ticket sales, broadcasting rights, or sponsorship? That goes to LOCOG, a private company that organises the event, and to the International Olympic Committee, not to the taxpayer. Didn't anyone tell you?

                        * The costs *

                        Staging the London bid for the Olympics was originally budgeted to cost £2.37bn. I don't know whether anyone ever believed costs could be kept to that level, even those who kept straight faces while presenting it to the IOC and to the nation at home. But it came as no surprise to most of us when it began escalating almost as soon as the powerpoint slide had faded from the screen. Officially, that escalation peaked and plateaued at £9.3bn - almost four times the original estimate - and those masters of the straight face now assure us if it comes in at this figure it will be 'on budget'. A bit like a builder who has priced a job at £2370 presenting you with a bill for £9300 while blandly assuring you it's in line with his quotation.

                        Even then, though, there are plenty of reasons to suspect that some imaginative accounting has been used to keep the total down to the £9.3bn. Investigations by a number of media reporters have pitched the real prospective figure at various levels all the way up to £24bn (Sky News), which would be ten times the original estimate. And, whilst the more extreme of these might err on the side of sensationalism, as unsensational a body as the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee is of the view that costs are "heading for around £11bn".

                        It doesn't help, of course, that so much of the expenditure seems gratuitously wasteful. The bill for 'security', well over £1bn, defies belief, and can only be predicated on the assumption that the authorities are expecting a full-scale invasion or insurrection, or are using it as practice for - as The Guardian recently opined - "a repression-ready security state". Even the frivolous details, given our severely straitened times, make the wallet wince just to contemplate, like the steelwork sculpture of surpassing ugliness that has cost us nearly £20m, and its baby cousin, the absurd arrangement of stones on stilts at the yachting centre at Weymouth. For some reason my hometown, like many others around the country, is festooned with banners proclaiming 'London 2012', presumably put up at public expense. Why? What conceivable public good is served by them?

                        * The reckoning *

                        Before we come to the unquantifiable benefits claimed for the London Olympics, let's balance out the quantifiable ones against costs to see how much, net, we'll be paying. What seems to me apparent from the analysis above that it's difficult to identify any clear-cut quantifiable benefit at all, whilst the costs are going to come in at somewhere upward of £9.3bn. But let's be generous to officialdom and imagine that I've underestimated the business benefits and they might amount to, say, £2bn. Let us also generously imagine that approaching half - say, £3bn - of the investment in facilities and infrastructure will result in legitimate long-lasting improvements and will pay for itself in due course. For the other, cost, side of the equation, let's take the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee figure of £11bn. Subtracting one from the other we arrive at a net cost to the taxpayer of £6bn. That's £100 for every man, woman and child in the UK. So the question is: will every man, woman and child in the UK derive £100 of intangible value from having the Games staged here rather than somewhere else?

                        What were those intangibles again? National prestige was one. I have to say I personally find this very unpersuasive. Did I think better of Beijing - or China generally - because that city hosted the Olympics a few years ago? Or Athens, and Greece? In both cases, absolutely not. Did you? If not, may I invite you to wonder why should anyone else think better of London, or of Britain generally? There is vague talk of 'putting London on the map'. This is nonsense; it's already 'on the map' of international awareness. Frankly, cities that aren't already on the map of the world's awareness don't get to be hosts in the first place. Will foreigners gain a better impression of London than their existing one, because they happen to see on television a few sporting events being contested here? I can't imagine how, whereas there is a huge potential for bad publicity if anything goes wrong. Personally, I wouldn't value the prospective boost to our national prestige at 10p of my own money, let alone £100.

                        Then there's the so-called 'feel-good' factor. Do you feel any better as a result of London hosting the games? Personally I feel worse, but, obviously, whether you feel any better is something I must leave to your own evaluation. If you do, then what I would ask you to consider further is whether you feel £100-worth better for every member of your family, or whether you would rather have spent the money at your own discretion in some other way, or simply saved it. If you feel less than £100-worth better, the games are not giving you good value.

                        Then there's allegedly a benefit to sport in Britain, 'Inspiring a generation' as the vapid slogan of the Games would have it. Conceivably, British success in some events might inspire the young in our country to attempt imitation, though one has to ask whether they would not have been equally inspired by British success on a foreign field rather than our own. But inspiration is only a small part of what is needed if sport is to be encouraged. Also needed are sporting facilities - public pitches and courts, school playing fields - of the kind that have been disappearing for decades, and are now disappearing ever more quickly under the pressure of public spending cuts. A more productive, and probably much more economical, use of funds would have been to devote them to reversing this decline, rather than to staging the Olympics.

                        Finally, before we leave the unquantifiables, let us remember that many of them appear in the debit column too. Greenwich Park, previously one of London's loveliest, has been ruined for a transitory equestrian competition. Parts of Weymouth have been transformed too, and not for the better. During the games, Londoners will be treated as second-class citizens in their own city, warned off their already overstretched transport system (I understand from commuting friends that a 'rehearsal' on July 10th was excruciatingly chaotic), lanes in their streets sequestered for Olympic traffic, and subject to heavy-handed security intervention if they stray into the 'wrong' areas. In effect, areas of our country will be under martial law. Security, after the latest shambles involving G4S, looks like a disaster that can barely wait to happen.

                        * The sour smell of success *

                        Looking back on the way in which we were saddled with this over-priced extravaganza, the questionable prize for winning the nomination, it seems typical that London's bid was championed by the then prime minister Tony Blair. It's a quintessentially Blairite initiative: flashy and vainglorious. It's a national vanity project, and whether or not it's judged a 'success' by commenters dazzled by feats of athletic prowess, our vanity in hosting it will cost us dearly. I begrudge no one whatever pleasure they may be able to derive from the occasion; indeed, the more pleasure that people can derive the better. But I would ask them to remember that their pleasure comes at a heavy price to every taxpayer. Once the fortnight's froth has subsided, we'll be left with the expense of dismantling some of the venues, and of maintaining others which will be unable to pay their way. We'll be lumbered with the ill-conceived aftermath of planning for a one-off event rather than for the longer future. And of paying the interest on the money that was borrowed to finance it all in the first place.


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                          12.07.2012 11:22
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                          A hilltop hotel of character and charm

                          You can see the Levant Hotel from a long way off, if you know where to look for it. My wife and I knew from our Inntravel walking notes: 'ahead along the coast watch out for a village clustering just below the summit of a conical hill. Right at the very top is a small white dot. The village is Pelekas; the dot is the Levant Hotel.' Our first sighting was from about fifteen kilometres to the south, but I dare say it can be similarly sighted from the east or north, or from out to sea in the west for that matter, since the hilltop on which it is perched is the highest in the vicinity. The only puzzling aspect is that, whilst it appears white or grey from a distance, closer inspection reveals it to be painted deep mustard yellow.

                          We discovered this when we finally trudged up the final hairpin bends to the entrance, at the same time discovering the beneficial corollary of being so visible: that there are great views in all directions from the Levant. Admittedly, for the full panorama including the north-east one has to walk a few extra yards beyond a clump of trees to a viewing platform known as 'the Kaiser's throne', but the eye has plenty to feast on whether from the hotel's south-east frontage or from the mostly westward-facing bar, restaurant and terraces. Perhaps the landscape-dominating location, together what we had read about the hotel in the Inntravel notes, plus the association with Kaiser Wilhelm II and other royalty who apparently enjoyed holidays here a century or so ago, raised our expectations as high as the hill-top, unrealistically high, and some degree of disappointment was bound to ensue.

                          * First impressions...*

                          ...were, it has to be said, mixed. We liked the appearance of its two-storey neo-classical exterior, its location, and the ambience of the reception area, uncluttered but tastefully traditional in its décor and furnishings. However, there was no one at the desk or responding to the bell there, so eventually I had to track down the barman - apparently the only member of staff on duty - and persuade him to attend to us, which he consented to do with something less than a good grace. On other occasions, we later found, he proved to be helpful and friendly, as were the other staff, so perhaps our arrival just caught him at a bad moment. One positive sign was that our luggage had already been taken to our room. Readers of my review of Corfu's West Coast* will know that we were on a walking holiday, the organisers of which (Inntravel) arrange for luggage to be transported between stopping points so the walkers are not encumbered. Where the luggage is found on arrival always reveals something about a hotel: in a heap by the front door - bad; neatly stored behind reception - okay; in the bedroom - good. So the Levant earned points for that.

                          * Our bedroom...*

                          ...proved to be well-furnished enough, though hardly luxurious. Pale blue emulsion walls, white paintwork, chintzy curtains, their pattern matched on the headboards of the bed, a double bed of the kind that reverts to twin beds at the adjustment of a bolt or two, made up with sheets and blankets under a coverlet. Just one pillow per side, but after harassing Reception a few times my wife eventually drummed up two more. A pair of curtains of fine mesh formed a kind of canopy over the bedhead and tucked behind the wall-mounted reading lights to either side; decorative but impractical, being not voluminous enough for use as mosquito nets, but looking alarmingly like a fire hazard where they touched the lights. A wooden floor, not quite even-patterned or highly-polished enough to be properly called parquet, and scratched where the not-quite fitting French windows opened inwards for access to a tiny balcony, its elegant marble-paved base and wrought-iron railings an incongruous contrast with its wobbly folding table and pressed plastic chairs. Still the view, straight out to sea and up the coast, was sensational.

                          The room also offered a built-in wardrobe, a rather uncomfortable armchair and even less comfortable upright chair clad in a white dust-cover, bedside tables, and a mini-bar empty except for a couple of bottles of water, which suited us very well since we only ever use hotel mini-bars for keeping our own shop-bought booze chilled. High in one corner was mounted a TV showing a range of channels, but on a small screen and slightly dodgy reception; if we'd really wanted to watch Greek television we would have been better off going down to the lounge which has a big modern flat-screen set. Similarly wall-mounted was one of those retro-fitted air conditioning units that I can never persuade to work properly, my fault probably, but in any case my wife finds them too noisy and prefers to leave the window open, the drawback of her policy being that it lets insects in. So it was slightly irritating to find that, although one of those plug-in mosquito-repellent devices was provided, there were no pellets to fuel it.

                          * The en suite bathroom...*

                          ...was clean and well-equipped, with everything working: bath with in-built shower, loo, wash-basin set into a broad marble-topped surface, with plenty of room for sponge-bags, tooth-mugs and so forth, and for our travelling-kettle tea-point. A basket of complementary shampoos and bath-gels was provided. The towels provided were adequate, though we had a bit of trouble obtaining extra towels for use at...

                          *...the swimming-pool (and outdoor facilities) *

                          The pool is set into the hill-side just below the hotel, surrounded by a rough-mown lawn and shrubbery. The shrubbery provides not just seclusion but plenty of shade under with to lounge on the loungers provided, though for most of the day you could find sunny spots if you were hell-bent on sun-bathing. The pool is about 20 metres long, and thus suitable for serious swimming as practised by my wife, though a little narrow; if the hotel were full it might become too crowded with less serious bathers such as me who are content to splash around a bit and get in the way of those counting out their lengths. The water appeared at first sight clean enough, but there were some stains on the bottom that proved to rub off on the feet, from which they could be cleaned off easily in turn, but this aspect of the experience was a touch unsettling. Also in the pool area were a jacuzzi and a treadmill exercise machine, neither of which appeared to be working - not that I tried very hard to persuade them to do so.

                          Mostly, for me, the pool area was a pleasant place to loiter on a lounger, relaxing, reading and watching the swallows diving down to skim the surface of the water. One of the hotel cats - of which there are four or five - would come down too, to take a drink from the pool and keep us company.

                          * Bar, lounge and restaurant...*

                          ...are all comfortably furnished and more than adequate for their purposes. Possibly, in adverse weather, one might want to make use of them, but unless it's freezing or pouring with rain the whole idea is to be outside enjoying the views from the terraces. Dinner in particular should be eaten al fresco to derive full benefit from the sunset which, when we were there in May, descended behind the hills to the north-west rather than directly out to sea, but was possibly all the more interesting for it. We would occupy a ringside seat throughout the evening, enjoying first a leisurely game of cards and pre-dinner drink. A full-flavoured lager called Kaiser - clearly chosen to be in keeping with the branding of the hotel - is served here, which I saw nowhere else on Corfu. On the first evening my wife asked if fizzy wine was available by the glass and was told they had run out, something about which we were slightly sceptical, since we know bars don't like to offer it by the glass in case the remainder goes flat before it is can be used. But on the second night they assured her that a fresh supply had come in, and showed no hesitation in opening a bottle to pour a glass for her. Nor was it expensively priced. To accompany the meals we drank the hotel's own home-grown house white, which was very palatable and inexpensive at 7Euro the half-litre carafe.

                          The menu was á la carte and included a good range of mainly Greek dishes. Portions were very plentiful and on neither night did we need more than two courses, especially as the meal proved to be preceded by a buckshee amuse-bouche in the form of bruschetta (or the Greek equivalent). Starters and puds alike were priced in single figures of euros, main courses in the teens; you could thus order a filling meal for about 20Euro a head. On the first night we started with salads and went on to souvlaki (pork kebabs), which were delicious, enormous and amply accompanied with well-cooked vegetables. On the second we were quite satisfied with large meze starters, from which we went straight on to baklava for pudding - very good baklava they were too, nutty and dripping with honey.

                          * The buffet breakfast...*

                          ...looked a magnificent spread when we first entered the breakfast room, but didn't quite stand up to closer scrutiny. For a continental style breakfast there were any number of breads, rolls, croissants and cakes - most of which were fresh, tasty and went well with the honey and home-made jam on offer. There was also yoghurt, cereal, cheese and ham. But fruit and fruit juice were in short supply. So were cooked options. Possibly we could have tracked down a member of staff to ask for something cooked, but we don't generally like a cooked breakfast, so we never found out whether those who do would be disappointed. Coffee from a heated urn was rather on the thin side for those like me who need a serious dose of caffeine to kick-start their morning.

                          Seating in the breakfast room also looked a little cramped, though needless to say we took ours out on the adjacent terrace, where were kept company by two of the hotel cats, the placid black female that we had met at the swimming-pool and a roguish young white-and-tabby tom both of whom in their different ways charmed my wife into feeding them scraps.

                          * The village and environs *

                          If you didn't want to eat in the hotel, the village of Pelekas that clings to the hillside below offers several other options. We walked down to inspect them during the day we were there, but decided that none was likely to improve on what was available at the Levant. It's a characteristically Corfiot village, with some quaint and charming narrow alleys, two Orthodox churches, and some neglected, garish and half-finished buildings. One or two of these have obviously been intended for tourist accommodation or entertainment, and not quite made the grade. The Levant seems all the more attractive and luxurious by contrast.
                          As the crow flies, the sea is only a kilometre or so away, but it's an exceedingly steep kilometre, with over 350 metres of arduous ascent to find your way back up again. Easy by car, of course, though I don't know what the parking at the beach is like. In the high season, I understand, there's a shuttle service to take guests down and bring them up again, but we saw no sign of that during our Spring visit.

                          * Rating and value *

                          Officially, the Levant seems to be rated 4-star (out of 5 possible), but I'm never very sure how much such star ratings mean, since the associated standards can vary widely in different places. In one of the reception rooms at the Levant we found a French travel guidebook to Corfu; listed in it were local hotels, classified into the inimitably French categories of: 'Prix Moyens' (average prices); 'Chic' (stylish); 'Plus Chic' (more stylish); and 'Encore Plus Chic' (even more stylish still). Presumably hotels of below 'Prix Moyens' standard were considered unworthy of inclusion. The Levant itself was rated as 'Plus Chic', so pretty highly, a rating that it lived up to in many ways but for which it still might be considered just a touch shabby around the edges. Its mistake, perhaps, is to present itself as 'Encore Plus Chic' without living up to the expectations that arouses.

                          On the other hand, for a hotel of its class it's very good value. We were there on an inclusive package so I don't know exactly what we paid, but a quick look on the internet hotel booking sites suggests a nightly rate for a double room of £45-70, depending on season. You could easily pay much more than that for a less interesting and pleasant stay in many places I could mention. The restaurant is also very good value, considering the quality of the food and the splendid location. Finally, the hotel is independently owned and reassuringly small - just 25 rooms - which always helps a place to retain an individual touch and is much to be preferred to being processed through some outsize identikit chain monolith.

                          * Overall assessment *

                          In many ways we really liked the Levant Hotel. Let me count the ways: location, style, cuisine, charm, resident cats. For the most part, we liked the facilities and the service too, though in both cases the hotel let itself down on trivial, unnecessary details. Perhaps in this respect it is simply typically Greek; I do not have enough experience of Greece to say this for certain, though the suspicion did grow on me during the course of our holiday. If one wanted to nit-pick - as I may well have done in this review - it's easy to find nits to pick, but the overall experience is enjoyable enough to make it equally easy, and much more congenial, to overlook them. That, and the excellent value for money, makes me give the Levant the benefit of the doubt. And the views really are wonderful

                          © Also published with photographs under the name torr on Ciao UK, 2012

                          * For a review of Corfu's west coast generally, see:
                          www.dooyoo.co.uk/ destinations-international/corfu-west-coast-corfu-greece/1642195/


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                            04.07.2012 11:19
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                            Rhymed reflections on Britain's independence from the USA

                            American Independence Day!
                            If George the Third had had his way
                            There would of course be no such thing,
                            But he was quite a silly King,
                            His grasp of real life so skittish
                            He blew the chance to keep as British
                            The colonies across the pond.
                            When told they wanted to abscond
                            Because they loathed the tax on tea
                            He could have said: "Leave it to me;
                            I'll get that lousy impost lifted
                            Or anyway to coffee shifted
                            (Right now you might not think that sucks -
                            Just wait until they found Starbucks).

                            "Next thing, I understand you want,
                            From Georgia right up to Vermont*,
                            And all the land mass in between
                            On the Atlantic-seaboard scene -
                            The Carolinas North and South,
                            The mess around the Hudson's mouth -
                            Is to be fully represented
                            Your lack of MPs being resented.
                            Okay, sure thing, no sweat, you've got it
                            (Though look ahead and you may spot it
                            Isn't always such a boon
                            To have some pompous old buffoon
                            Spouting self-important speeches
                            With hand in till; who needs such leeches?)

                            "But if you want it, that's resolved
                            And thereby all our problems solved;
                            Henceforth, with no more aggravation
                            We'll go on as a single nation."
                            Such words, they might have turned the tide
                            And kept the colonists onside,
                            But being of less than nimble mind
                            Old George said nothing of the kind.
                            Alas, he was a silly king;
                            Forget the crown and all that bling,
                            The sceptre, orb and sparkly stuff
                            Between them are not quite enough
                            To hide the truth or to disguise
                            When he who wears them isn't wise.

                            In truth his subjects thought he'd lost it
                            And seemingly at massive cost. It
                            Didn't help that he was quite
                            Eccentric and, whilst being polite,
                            Conversed with some unusual friends
                            Including trees. 'Where will this end?'
                            The senior courtiers scratched their heads
                            And had his scratched, and had him bled
                            And purged and blistered by the quacks.
                            In those days medicine was lax,
                            And remedies were wont to fail,
                            So it was all to no avail.
                            While he was banished to the wings
                            His regent son pulled all the strings.


                            Eleven score and sixteen years
                            Ago poor George's darkest fears
                            Were realised and, to his frustration,
                            The USA became a nation.
                            Maybe the time's now ripe to wonder
                            If that was really such a blunder.
                            The minuses are well rehearsed
                            The pluses are too seldom versed.
                            It's true the colonies have thrived;
                            Our fortunes, when compared, have dived,
                            And, whilst it doesn't do to bitch,
                            One has to grant they're rather rich
                            And powerful beyond all reason,
                            For such are the rewards of treason.

                            But they'd have thrived in any case,
                            A continent their living-space,
                            Against our isle, they'd room to grow
                            And tap the benefits that flow
                            From all that teeming natural wealth,
                            Their populace in rudest health
                            Multiplying many fold,
                            New world outnumbering the old.
                            The upshot would be role reversal;
                            (I fear the rule is universal)
                            Their tail would soon have wagged our dog
                            In their machine we'd be a cog.
                            Perhaps, in terms of future powers,
                            The independence won was ours.

                            For we were spared their civil war
                            And slavery, which went before,
                            And all the racial strife that followed,
                            Those like the Ku Klux Klan who wallowed
                            In terrorism, cruelty, lynching,
                            While way out west their like were pinching
                            The prairies from the native nations.
                            I know they now have reservations,
                            The land for native tribes reserved
                            Being rather less than was deserved
                            And which did little to restore
                            The way of life that went before.
                            (Whilst reservations, qua misgivings,
                            May not suffice to earn forgiving.)

                            They've Nixon, Bush and Al Capone -
                            We may have villains of our own
                            But none that truly measure up
                            The length of spoon you'd need to sup
                            With Thatcher, Blair or brothers Kray
                            Would be far shorter. Anyway,
                            This talk of supping brings to mind
                            Another axe I have to grind:
                            Their food, like peanut butter spread
                            Inch-thick on pappy tasteless bread,
                            Cheese fit for nothing but to spray on
                            Burgers, bright as yellow crayon,
                            While many tastebuds bear the scars
                            That come from eating Hershey bars.

                            Americans, don't get me wrong;
                            Your nation - free and rich and strong -
                            In many ways must be admired;
                            I'll bet that you're still glad you fired
                            Old Georgie from his role as king,
                            Whilst here the wound has ceased to sting
                            Two centuries past, and we're content
                            Your founding fathers were so bent
                            On independence. For these days
                            We are so different in our ways
                            (That's different from, not different than -
                            As bum from butt, as tin from can)
                            We won't mind if you, with a cuss,
                            Decide that you're well shot of us.

                            But what is silly, what is wise?
                            Those traits so easy to despise -
                            A tendency to talk to trees
                            Or lose one's grip on colonies -
                            May have served Georgie rather well;
                            By bidding thirteen states farewell
                            He saved us from a murky fate
                            Obscure, but hard to contemplate.
                            Who'd say his faculties were failin'
                            In keeping us from Sarah Palin?
                            This king who, lest it be be forgotten,
                            Preserved our 'got' from being 'gotten'
                            And saved our 'autumn' from their 'fall'
                            Was not so silly after all.

                            * Note:
                            (I know Vermont was yet to be
                            But couldn't wait for that, you see,
                            And snatched it from a future time
                            Because New Hampshire wouldn't rhyme)

                            © First published on Ciao UK under the name torr, July 2011


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                              21.06.2012 11:28
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                              Controversial WW2 novel related from an SS viewpoint

                              Now here's a book of substance. Not just in its length - nearly 1000 pages - or just the scope of its narrative, or the scale of its ambition, but also in its capacity to provoke thought in the reader. Not all the thoughts it has provoked among critics have been admiring, but reading it is an experience from which it is impossible to emerge indifferent. Love it or hate it, you will find its impact memorable. Personally, I emerged impressed and even slightly shaken, though conscious that as a work of fiction it has weaknesses as well as strengths.

                              The Kindly Ones impresses, first of all, in achieving the seemingly impossible feat of casting new light from a new perspective on that most over-exposed and hackneyed of all modern topics: Nazi Germany in the Second World War. It is impressive too, though less original, in the research that has been devoted to recreating that environment with accurate plausibility, and weaving real events and historical personages into the story. And it is impressive, if not always convincing, in trying to extract new lessons and new philosophical insights from the experience.

                              * To Stalingrad and back *

                              The Kindly Ones recounts, autobiographically, the life of its fictional protagonist Dr Max Aue between the German invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941 and the fall of Berlin in the spring of 1945. Aue is an officer in the SD (the security arm of the SS), a dedicated Nazi though one of an unusually intellectual disposition. His family background is a troubled one: his German father saw distinguished service in the First World War but disappeared shortly afterwards leaving him and his twin sister in the care of their mother, who is Alsatian (i.e. borderline French). She remarries a Frenchman and moves the family to France. Incestuous childhood games with his sister lead him to be sent away to a Catholic boarding school, where he is bullied and sexually abused. He emerges with emotional baggage aplenty: resenting his mother, hating his stepfather, obsessed with his sister and a closet homosexual. His energies are channelled into helping build the new Germany, and he responds enthusiastically to being assigned an active role in 'cleansing' the conquered territories of proscribed racial and political 'enemies'. At first shocked and nauseated by what this involves in practice, he hardens his heart and carries on, participating in extermination operations in Ukraine and the Caucasus.

                              A turning-point comes when he is assigned to Stalingrad and suffers a near-fatal head wound. Luck and the intervention of his friend Thomas, another SS officer and an astute political opportunist, come to his rescue. He is evacuated, decorated and on recovery promoted to Himmler's staff, where he is more closely than ever involved in the grisly business of the final solution. Meanwhile, during his convalescence he has visited France, where his mother and stepfather are subsequently discovered to have been brutally murdered. The police suspect him of the crime, but are kept at bay by his influential SS connections. While he continues to rise in the hierarchy, his world contrapuntally begins to collapse around him: the tide of war turns and the Nazi machine falters under the blows of Russian advances in the east and allied bombing from the west. His ability to perform his job and his emotional state both become ever more erratic until, amid the chaotic collapse of the Reich in early 1945, we find him first acting out erotic fantasies at his sister's house in Pomerania, then once more rescued by Thomas to escape through the vengeful Red Army lines, and finally losing his self-control while being awarded yet another medal by Hitler in person.

                              Yet through all this we know - because he has told us so at the outset - that he will survive to live the life of a respectable French businessman and family man for decades afterwards.

                              * Telling the story *

                              Nearly 1000 pages of first person narration is a lot, even for a story of such wide-ranging action, and it does occasionally seem a bit interminable. In places, Littell allows himself to become bogged down in detail. However meticulously researched the background may be, the reader doesn't really need to know all about internal disputes in the Nazi ranks as to whether or not certain ethnic groups in the Caucasus could be classified as Jews, or about the relative emphasis to be placed on extracting work from concentration camp inmates or on liquidating them. Historically these may be interesting, and also illustrative of the totalitarian mindset, but they slow down the story. Nor is the ease of reading facilitated by the cumbersome arrangement of the text: lengthy chapters, constructed from paragraphs that are prolonged for pages, incorporating dialogue within them rather than separating it out so that the reader can more readily identify which character is speaking at any given time. However, for me these were irritants rather than deterrents. The meaning was easy enough to extract, the main thread of the story was engaging and its pace never slowed to the point of flagging, whilst in places - Stalingrad, the fall of Berlin - it positively zips along, with some sharply observed action writing.

                              Above all, the story-telling works because is essentially plausible. One can easily imagine Aue and the other leading characters acting as portrayed, given their nature and the circumstances. Only once or twice does Littell lay it on a little too thick, for example in inventing a sinister financier, Dr Mandelbrod, grotesquely obese but loyally served by a retinue of fanatical flaxen-haired frauleins. Whilst Nazi Germany was not short of grotesque and sinister characters, Mandelbrod seems to have been imported from more imaginary territory, and would be less out of place as the villain in a Bond film. But he is an exception, and as a rule the characterisation convinces, including that of historical personages like Himmler, Speer or Eichmann, sustaining the credibility of a narrative that might otherwise test our credence.

                              Where style is concerned, I should make clear that I am commenting here on the English translation by Charlotte Mandel. The original was written in... no, not German but French. Although Littell is an American, he was largely educated in France and prefers to write in the language of that country. It does seem a little mysterious, though, that he has delegated the task of translating his novel into his own native tongue. So far as I can tell, not having read the French version, Mandel has done a good job. Though dense in places, the written style cleverly avoids becoming ponderous. Rather it is fluent, and often graphic. Just occasionally, it becomes too graphic for the reader's comfort, or its own. As well as prestigious literary prizes - the Prix Goncourt and the Prix du Roman de l'Académie Française - it has also received a 'Bad Sex Award' for some of the fantasy-incest sequences.

                              * The medium and the message *

                              For the most part, The Kindly Ones tells a story rather than pleads a case. The exception is at the outset, consisting of a preliminary chapter of self-justification on the part of its narrator. There are two main strands to his argument: the first being that the holocaust represents an insignificant proportion of the sum total of death and suffering inflicted on man by man, much of which has gone unpunished and even uncensured, and its perpetrators should not therefore be subjected to disproportionate condemnation; the second that he did only what anyone might have done in the circumstances. "I am a man like other men," he concludes. "I tell you I am just like you!"

                              It is unclear to what extent the reader is expected to take this apologia seriously, and to what extent simply as offering an ironic insight into the character of the protagonist and those like him. My own guess would be that the first part is intended as essentially as character-illustration (it is, after all, too easy to counter along the lines of "the existence of many crimes doesn't make the perpetrators of any one crime less culpable" for as intelligent a writer as Littell to have meant it to be taken at face value), but the second is intended to ring a bell in all our consciences and set us a challenge of self-scrutiny. Would we, in the same circumstances, have behaved very differently?

                              Unfortunately - unfortunate from the artistic viewpoint, that is, rather than the personal one - Littell gives the reader too easy an escape from this challenge too. Aue is just a little too much of an oddball for many people to readily identify with him. His traumatic upbringing may help explain why he has become what is, but most of us do not share that background and can therefore dissociate ourselves from its outcome. When Aue claims to be "just like you" you feel justified in doubting it, or at least I did. I especially felt justified in doubting whether I would ever have become a committed Nazi, let alone an SS Officer, in the first place. No doubt life in a totalitarian society induces people to compromise their personal principles, profess beliefs they do not have and turn a blind eye to all kinds of official excess. But that is different from being an enthusiastic participant in the excesses. Let me be clear: I found this an unsettling, even disturbing, book to read, because of the insight it offers into how man's inhumanity to man originates and is enacted, but not nearly as unsettling as it would have been if I had been persuaded by the protagonist's claim to be just like me. I suspect most readers will feel similarly.

                              For that reason, The Kindly Ones seems to me to fall just a little short of fulfilling its highest ambition, and just a little short of being a great novel, considerable literary achievement though it is. Its other shortcoming, in my opinion, is a tendency to excessive intellectualisation. The title, for example, is a reference to the Furies of Greek mythology, called 'Kindly Ones' by Aeschylus as a gesture of propitiatory irony. The two policemen who pursue Aue for the murder of his mother are presumably to be regarded as fulfilling this role, and their inclusion a sign of Littell's view that the whole Nazi episode is best interpreted in the light of the classical Greek concept of tragedy rather than that of the post-Enlightenment west. Another embellishment is the chapter titles, each referring (apparently) to Baroque musical styles; the underlying import of this, I have to admit, escaped me. Such stuff may well have helped The Kindly Ones to achieve acclaim in France, where they like a layer or two of highbrow icing on their gateau, but as a perhaps Philistine Englishman I would have preferred it uniced. There is quite enough for readers to get their teeth into without it.

                              * Shoah to please? *

                              Unsurprisingly, for a book on such a subject featuring such a protagonist, The Kindly Ones has met with its fair share of controversy. Some critics have dismissed it as "Holocaust porn", while others have interpreted it as an attempted justification for Nazi atrocities and have been outraged accordingly. Personally, I think the latter interpretation is wide of the mark; Aue is too unsympathetic a character and his self-serving arguments too unconvincing for that, and I'm sure Littell could have made a more considered case if such was his intention. Rather, the book is an attempt to understand what might prompt an intelligent, sensitive man to play a role in such monstrous crimes. After all, there must be such people active in all totalitarian regimes, as well as the usual suspects - the sadistic bullies and the desensitised bureaucrats - or the regimes would not function as efficiently as they do. Perhaps that is an uncomfortable truth of which those critics don't wish to be reminded. Nevertheless, my criticism would be the opposite of theirs: that Aue is not made human and sympathetic enough to really jolt us out of our complacency and make us think 'there but for the luck of the draw go I'.

                              * Standard stuff *

                              The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell, translated into English by Charlotte Mandel, is published in paperback in the UK by Chatto and Windus, an imprint of Random House, 992 pages at a cover price £12.99. You can of course find it more cheaply on the internet.

                              * Recommendation *

                              After all that I hardly need say that The Kindly Ones does not make for light and carefree reading, and if that's what you're looking for it won't be you. If, on the other hand, you like a novel of depth and subtlety that makes you think as you read and keeps you pondering for some time after you've finished, it might well be. And if you're interested in the history of Nazi Germany but thought there was nothing new to be said on the subject, it's worth reading to discover that you were mistaken.

                              © Also published under the name torr on Ciao UK 2012

                              Product rating: The Kindly Ones is a significant book and as such can hardly be awarded fewer than five stars, despite its shortcomings.


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                                31.05.2012 19:17
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                                Corfu shows its more appealing side

                                "You won't see the Olympic torch relay in Corfu or Crete," or so the chirpy voice-over in the ad for the British Tourist Board (or whatever they call themselves these days) assured me, instantly reigniting my interest in visiting the Greek islands. Having already been to Crete, I was naturally - choosing just between the two to which my attention had been drawn - more inclined towards Corfu and started planning on that basis, although of course there are many others that might have been considered. It all goes to show the power of advertising.

                                The only question was: whereabouts in Corfu to go? Corfu town, the capital, clearly had some features of interest and deserved a few days in its own right, but hardly a whole holiday. The seaside resorts, especially those dotted around the north-east coast, sounded rather too resorty for my liking, and possibly their own. My wife and I were toying with the idea of hiring a car - though with some trepidation about the driving conditions to be found on the island - when this year's Inntravel brochure came to the rescue. Inntravel is a company that specialises in arranging holidays for walkers, providing itineraries and maps, booking their customers into a sequence of hotels and arranging the transportation of luggage between them. This year, for the first time, they had added a walk along Corfu's West Coast to their repertoire. So we decided to give it a try.

                                * The coast in outline *

                                Although not huge in area, Corfu is a long thin island and the full length of the west coast from Cape Asprokavos at the southern tip to Cape Drastis in the north as the seagull flies is about 60 kilometres. No walker can match a seagull for directness, however, and our itinerary was not in any case designed to do. We ended up walking quite a bit more than this even though we began our northward journey from about a third of the way up the coast at Paramonas. The southern tip is said to be relatively flat and scenically uninteresting, and certainly appeared so viewed from the summit of Agios Mattheos, the southernmost of Corfu's mountains. Even such oddities as the natural lagoon of Lake Korission tend to look more exciting seen from above than from ground level. Mostly, Corfu is a hilly island, as our knees and thigh muscles came to understand almost as much as our view-appreciating eyes, though to the linguistically aware the clue would have already been clear from the name Corfu, which derives from a Greek word meaning "peaks".

                                After two nights at Paramonas we walked on to Pelekas, a village set back from the coast up another steep hill, with sensational aspects in all directions. From there our route took a tack inland to a rural retreat near Liapades, before rejoining the coast and following it north round to the resort of Agios Georgios and then on to Peroulades in the north-western corner. Each stage and stopping-place had its own points of interest, but there were also features in common. Most notable was the green landscape, a contrast to the desiccated terrain to be found in many parts of Greece. Only the highest peaks on Corfu are bare. To a remarkable extent the rest is uniformly planted with olives, a legacy from the days when the island was a Venetian colony and its overlords' preferred source of olive oil. Since this was several centuries ago, the trees are now tall, twisted and deeply gnarled, but they are still the predominant vegetation. To add variety, through the silvery-green canopy of olive foliage jut pointy dark-green spears of cypress, a most attractive contrast. At lower level, seen close to, a wide range of shrubs and wild flowers - broom, lavender, rock-rose, poppies, sweet-smelling honeysuckle growing wild - are to be seen, many of them in full bloom and scent when we were there in the middle of May.

                                * In and around Paramonas *

                                Arriving in Paramonas in the afternoon, we didn't find much to do in the village itself, which consists of little more than the hotel, a couple of basic bars and a scattering of houses behind a pebbly, seaweed-strewn - albeit delightfully uncrowded - beach. So we decided to limber up by walking a few miles south to the castle at Gardiki, which is said to be an attraction. Maybe we came too early in the season, or maybe it was simply closed for a siesta, or maybe we were simply being dense, but we couldn't find a way in and went away again without seeing inside. Apart from that disappointment the most memorable feature of the stroll was finding two snake corpses on the roadway. We were uncertain as to whether they were the venomous horn-nosed viper that can be found here, but they certainly looked alarming and made us wonder what we would encounter later. In the event, we had no definite sightings, though on a couple of occasions we only half-saw, but distinctly heard, snakes slithering off into the undergrowth as we went by.

                                The next day we practised our hill-climbing by ascending Agios Mattheos, a steep unrelieved 465 metres from the shore. As well as panoramic views all round, there is an intriguing little monastery to be seen at the top, though you would be lucky - we were not - to find it open to visitors. Nevertheless I like to think that reaching the peak was worth the slog; it seemed so, if not exactly at the time at least once it was over. The village of the same name, where we stopped on the way down, was also well worth a visit, for timeless atmosphere of typically Greek contrast, charming, even pretty in places, slovenly in others. A contrast too between the age-old rustic ambience and an entirely contemporary lament on the Greece's current economic travails from the owner of the taverna where we ate. She sold us a very tasty inexpensive lunch, though, and I'm sorry I failed to note the name of her establishment, located on a corner on the west side of the main street.

                                * Paramonas to Pelekas *

                                Another demanding climb in the morning, up through terraced olive groves. The olives in Corfu are not harvested from the trees, but are allowed to ripen until they drop, with nets being laid out on the grass or hung beneath the branches to catch them. You need to be careful not to tread on the nets and crush the crop, though it is impossible to avoid all those that spill over to litter the path. On a hot day the groves provide some welcome shade, though at the expense of obscuring the views. At last we emerge onto an open hillside a vast vista opening up ahead to the north, a great sweep of bay beyond the craggy headlands in the foreground showing us that there are more green hills to come. From here we enjoy an easy descent to the village of Pentati, to restore ourselves with a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and a fine outlook from the terrace of Chri's café.

                                Having edged our way round the precipitous rocks of the next headland, we descended again, to the beach of Agios Gordios, which is crammed with sun-loungers and their occupants, spilling over from a hotel overshadowing the shore. Quickly, we found our way back into town, but our first impressions were confirmed: this is the nearest thing to a purpose-built package hols resort on the west coast, and consequently the place we least liked. It even boasts - or perhaps I should say, confesses to - the pinkest of pink hotels, doubtless complete with boutique and swinging hot spot, as in the Joni Mitchell song. Allegedly, this is one of the few man-made structures that can be seen from outer space, no doubt on account of its lurid paintwork. The aliens deserve better.

                                We hurry past, climbing again to vantage points over dramatic scenery up and down the coast, which I shall not describe in detail for fear of repetition, until a final ascent brings us to the village of Pelekas and much-needed cold drink on the terrace of the Levant Hotel. A century ago, this was a favourite holiday spot for Kaiser Wilhelm II, and a nearby viewing platform is still known as 'The Kaiser's Throne'; whatever his short-comings as a human being in other ways, he evidently had good taste in views.

                                * Pelekas to Liapades *

                                The next day we consider the option of descending to the coast to bask on the beaches, but it is a Sunday and we are told they will be crowded with locals. Apparently, Greeks are more than ever inclined to do this, perhaps as a form of escapism from their economic plight. So we content ourselves with a little local circuit and a bask beside the pool instead, watching falcons soar above and Corfiot swallows dive to dip into the water, their pale undersides reflecting turquoise as they rise, making them momentarily look like kingfishers.

                                Batteries recharged, the following morning on we go. First to the beach at Miriotissas, prettily situated in a cliff-girt cove and pleasingly deserted; clearly Greek escapism does not extend to cloudy Monday mornings. At least the cooler weather makes the ascent up the further side less strenuous, though we are ready for refreshment when we pause at Spiro's Café in the village of Kelia. Here we fall into conversation with a British ex-pat who expatiates at length about the benefits of retirement on Corfu, the cheap beer he is consuming being only one of them, but also warns us that a thunder-storm is expected that evening. Unfortunately, although the main performance is indeed in the evening, the rain-clouds rehearse all afternoon, and we are rather too wet and wind-swept to appreciate fully the more pastoral landscape we pass through in the Ropa Valley. I do remember - or at least jottings on my soggy walking notes remember - clouds of butterflies rising from bushes to be picked off by swooping swallows, and a solitary goatherd, almost invisible among his flock beneath umbrella and boughs, conversing incongruously on a mobile phone and (most unusual in Corfu) not responding to our "kalispera" as we pass. At last, the sky growing ever inkier, we reach the Fundana Villa for the night.

                                The low-lying land east of the Fundana is normally pitted with natural ponds, but even the night's downpour proves insufficient to restore their depleted levels after an unusually dry winter. Nevertheless the rain had swamped the surrounding water-meadows, which prove to be as much water as meadow when we attempt a circuit around them the next day, with the result that we never do find a way through to visit to the distillery where they brew Corfu's distinctive kumquat-based liqueur. Even if we had reached it, I don't know whether, after free tastings, we would have found our way back.

                                * Liapades to Peroulades and Cape Drastis *

                                Once more down to the sea, this time by dint of losing our way to arrive at Rovinia beach, where we only have to share the soft sand and azure shallows with two other people, rather than the intended Liapades beach, which we later find to be much busier and less appealing. The village of Liapades itself, though, perched up on a nearby hill-top is a fine example of its traditional type, a pleasant place to sit at a café and sip a drink while watching life pass by. Certainly many men seemed to be doing so, not always bothering with the drink, though no women except my wife, of course. Well, I did say it was traditional.

                                Beyond Liapades, another steep climb brings us to Lakones, a less attractive village strung out along a busy main road, beset by coaches and cars. This road follows the contours above the coast - it would be called a corniche on the Cote d'Azur - and is oversubscribed with traffic because it commands one of the best views on the island, out over the resort of Paleokastritsa to the sea. It is indeed a good view, arguably a shade better than most hereabouts, but the rush to see it diminishes its appeal. In the Bella Vista café whole coachloads of tourists are all taking their identical pictures and patronising the adjacent souvenir stalls. So we hurry past, diverging at last from the unavoidable road to find our way along a track that leads us finally through a gap in the rocky escarpment, to descend in a series of exhilarating hairpins to meet the sea again at Agios Georgios. This resort seemed much more likeable than its near-namesake Gordios, with a refreshing absence of pink hotels, but we have no time to explore it, since we are only just in time to catch our transfer to our next stopping-place at Peroulades.

                                Presumably Inntravel couldn't find a suitable hotel around Agios Georgios, since the idea is that customers can be transferred back there to complete the route-march the next day. In the event, faced with a forecast threat of rain, we decide that wimping out is the better part of discretion, and opt instead for a shorter local walk that takes us to dramatic Cape Drastis, a headland with islet offshoots of most unusual geology. From a distance it looks like chalk, but closer inspection makes clear that it is built up from strata, apparently of compacted kaolin clay. Whatever, it is certainly startling, and worth the visit, even if it can be seen on countless postcards. And the views from the nearby clifftops across to outer islands and the towering mountains of the Albanian mainland are characteristically magnificent - a fitting conclusion to our trek.

                                * Walking in Corfu *

                                'There is,' accordingly to the Inntravel notes, 'no tradition of walking in Greece', a truly astounding statement. One can only assume that they solely mean walking for pleasure, in which case it may well be true, and the company has done well to devise a coherent and mostly scenic route. For some of the distance it follows stretches of the Corfu Trail, Corfu's only officially recognised and waymarked footpath, which wends its circuitous 220 kilometre way around all the main sights and attractions; I'm glad we didn't do the full distance. The advantage of the Corfu Trail is that it is relatively (only relatively) easy to find your way, whilst the disadvantage is that you are more likely to meet other walkers. Even on the Corfu Trail, you will probably not meet many, although on one of the days we found our footsteps dogged by a platoon of Germans, whom we tried to dodge to no avail. Other stretches rely on tracks, a few of them partially-cobbled mule-tracks (known as kaldererimia), lanes and, where there is no other option, roads. The locals one meets are characteristically friendly - the odd goatherd excepted - provided one takes care where paths cross their property, though their dogs are not always so amiable.

                                * Where we stayed *

                                The four hotels chosen by Inntravel - a company that generally excels at finding interesting places to stay - all have characteristics worth mentioning. They are:

                                1. The Paramonas Beach Hotel, which has the virtue of being the only hotel of substance beside its beach, with a superb westerly outlook from its aptly named Sunset bar-restaurant. Facilities are slightly basic, and the buffet breakfast more so, but our room was perfectly functional with a large sea-facing balcony.

                                2. The Levant Hotel, Pelekas, which has a certain period style, the period being late 19th century. We were a little disappointed at first that it didn't quite live up to the luxury billing, but the food is excellent, the setting spectacular, the welcome warm, and we were quickly converted. A separate review may well follow.

                                3. The Fundana Villa, near Liapades. This too may be the subject of a separate review, though for different reasons. Our first assessment - "Dracula's Castle meets the Bates Motel" - was unduly harsh, perhaps unfairly influenced by our arriving as the lone guests in a thunderstorm, but the initial impression was never quite dispelled.

                                4. Villa de Loulia, Peroulades. An Italianate villa over 200 years old, tastefully converted to incorporate modern facilities and an outdoor pool. Our room was large and well-furnished in antique style, but we were glad we were not paying the rack-rate shown on the card behind the door. The food was also good, but accompanying drinks were very fully priced.

                                Also worth mentioning is the Siorra Vittoria in Corfu Town, where we stayed before embarking on the walk. If it is possible to imagine a hotel both traditional and boutiquey, this is it; we found it friendly, comfortable and quiet (hard to find in Corfu Town), with a tranquil garden for al fresco breakfast, drink or game of cards. Don't book it through Inntravel, though; we secured a much better rate via the hotel's own website.

                                * Food and drink *

                                In many ways Corfiot cuisine could be described as typically Greek, but there are some subtle differences. With the other Ionian islands, it was the only part of Greece never to come under Turkish rule, and there is less emphasis here on the dishes that most of Greece shares - much as Greeks might wish to forget the connection - with other parts of the former Ottoman Empire, such as hummus, kebabs, baklava. Having said that we ate both a delicious souvlaki (pork kebab) and baklava at the Hotel Levant. We also enjoyed stifado (beef stew), soutzoukakia (meatballs), moussaka and grilled fish in various places. Plus Greek Salads with feta cheese ad nauseam, and a Corfiot speciality: pie, usually as a starter, consisting of various fillings sandwiched between flaky filo pastry crisply baked. Oh, and if you ever find yourself dining at Elizabeth's taverna in Doukades, be sure to order the kleftiko (slow-baked lamb); we did and, having been told that there was only one portion left, settled for that and found it more than ample for both of us, as well as very tasty. Finally, the bread - thick-crusted stone-baked bread, with soft olive-oil-bound crumb within - was often wonderful.

                                The local wine is, frankly, rather ordinary at best, though we managed in most places just drinking the house white, which tended to be nondescript but without the resinous flavour of some Greek wines. The reds are rawer. Beer from Corfu's own micro-brewery proved something of a disappointment - the bitter like a thin porter, the lager leaving a mouldy aftertaste - but the national brands Fix and Mythos are both palatable enough, and thirst-quenching.

                                * When to go *

                                Our walk started on May 10th, after which date the Inntravel notes assured us the weather could be relied on to be sunny. Just as well we didn't take this too literally, since it was pouring three days later. Still, I suspect May is generally a good time to go, both for weather and for spring flora. Or any time in spring. Or early autumn, though once winter approaches the weather can be quite cold. On the other hand, I would definitely avoid mid-summer unless you want to do no more than lie on a beach; in fact, personally, I'd avoid it even then.

                                As it happened, for all our efforts to evade it, the Olympic torch turned out to be being lit in some absurd ceremony while we were in Greece, and was heavily featured on television there. Some fates, it seems, are unavoidable, as Greek tragedians have been pointing out ever since Aeschylus. Ah well.

                                * Recommendation *

                                I liked Corfu, and I also like to think the west coast was a good choice, for variety and authenticity, as well as for the relative absence of over-developed resorts. Agios Gordios was the only really black - or maybe I should say pink - spot from that viewpoint. If you visit, it is definitely worth being ready and equipped to move around rather than just staying in one place, though you might not want to do it quite so arduously as we did. The walking, though enjoyable taken in the round and especially in retrospect, was certainly tough going in places. Maybe a hire car wouldn't have been quite such a bad idea after all.

                                © Also published with photos under the name torr on Ciao UK, 2012


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                                  22.05.2012 17:00
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                                  Always join in local festivities if you are lucky enough to coincide with them on holiday

                                  Did I describe the Sierra de Aracena in my recent review* as quiet, peaceful, even sleepy? Well, as a rule it is, but perhaps Thurber was right when he said that there is no exception to the rule that every rule has its exception. After two days of wandering in the mountains and hearing little but the rustle of breeze in trees, the splashing of streams and the lowing of livestock, it was something of a rude awakening on the third day to do so accompanied by the thumping beat of 1980s disco music.

                                  Although the source of the sound could not be seen as my wife and I set out on the footpath from Galaroza, we had a fair idea where it was coming from. Having read about the Cocido ('Stew-up') at Jabugo - by luck, that very morning - we had rearranged the route for the day's walk with a view to dropping by, sampling the fare on offer and observing the festivities. But we hadn't quite expected it to be audible through the intervening hills from distance of two or three miles. At least the beacon of sound left us in little doubt as to the direction in which we should be headed.

                                  We were in even less doubt when we reached the outskirts of Jabugo. All the roads leading to the town's football ground, where the event was taking place, were closed to traffic for the occasion, but groups of pedestrians were making their way purposefully in the right direction - just as they might for a football match in fact, though I rather suspect that attendance at the Cocido was a lot higher than for any local football match. 6,000 portions of stew were being cooked, and all were expected to be eaten during the course of the day, although the total population of Jabugo numbers fewer than 2,500. Clearly, hungry participants were being attracted from neighbouring towns and outlying villages.

                                  Six thousand is a lot of portions, and cooking them requires a lot of ingredients. The stew was prepared to a traditional recipe, with the meat content being entirely pork of one kind or another. This was hardly a surprise, given that Jabugo is the centre of ham production in the area, with the characteristic Black Iberian pigs being reared on every other farm or small-holding you pass. Not that any of the best Jabugo ham was going into the stew, of course; it is far too precious for that, both financially and gastronomically. It is eaten, or rather savoured, in wafer-thin slices, with nothing but bread and reverence. By contrast, much of the meat content for the stew reads more like what might be left after all the prime cuts had already been taken: 125 kilos of salted backbone, 125 of matured pork fat, 125 kilos of salted pork ribs and 300 kilos of head and neck, plus 50 kilos of bacon, and 220 kilos of various kinds of sausage, including a chorizo and a morcilla each measuring 30 metres long - presumably they are sliced into segments before being added to the stew. This list is taken from an article in a magazine produced by the regional tourist office, mainly in Spanish, with only an English synopsis. In the Spanish version, an additional item reads: "1 cochino de 20 arrobas". The arroba is an ancient measure equating to eleven kilos, so this would mean "one pig of 220 kilos" - presumably on top of all the rest. As with the chorizo and morcilla, one rather hopes they don't put the pig in whole.

                                  This may sound like a huge amount of meat, but if you do the sums you'll find that, depending on the extra pig, it adds up to either 157 or 194 grams a portion, approximately five-and-a-half or seven ounces. A fair whack either way, but robust rural appetites are going to demand a little more sustenance than that, and the other ingredients of the recipe duly provide it, 500 kilos of chickpeas, 190 kilos of potatoes, and 125 kilos of pumpkin being, apparently, the main ones. Add some stock and seasoning and it's all set to go. In fact, it needs to be all set to go some time in advance, since it takes several days to prepare. The cooking takes place in an enormous stainless steel cauldron, heated by a wood fire from below, with steel step-ladders on either side to enable the chefs to stir, taste, adjust the seasoning and generally supervise the concoction's progress. By the time we arrived the fire had died down to ashes, but the scent of wood smoke still hung in the air, mingling with many others.

                                  We were unsure at what time the stew was scheduled to be ready - the advance publicity we had seen had omitted this rather pertinent detail - and turned up quite late even for a Spanish lunch-time, at about 3.00 in the afternoon. By then the event had clearly been in full swing for some hours, as I suppose we could have guessed from the raucous music that had helped guide us to the venue. Not that there was any shortage of the stew itself. The entry tickets (6 euros for adults; 3 euros for children) entitle attendees to a portion of stew, a hunk of bread and three drinks each, and the portions were ample. We had to queue for only a few moments before making our selection from a set of sizzling trays of the various meats and a big vat of the stewed vegetables. This mode of presentation we found slightly puzzling, since we had envisaged a stew as being cooked all mixed together, but maybe this in not quite how it is done in Andalucía; unfortunately my Spanish was not up to asking for clarification from the servers. In any case, we rather liked it being arranged this way, since it meant we could avoid the fattiest pieces. Even without them, we received plentiful helpings of meat and sausage in the base of the polystyrene bowls provided, which were then topped off with the chickpea and mixed veg mush.

                                  Despite the crowds, it wasn't difficult to find a place to sit at one of the long trestle tables under the marquee-like awnings. Rather more difficult was clearing space for our food among the debris of empty bowls, disposable cutlery, polythene bags, paper napkins and crumpled cardboard cups. It has to be admitted that the Cocido is not the most refined or elegant of eating occasions. Similarly, I cannot pretend that Jabugo football ground is a venue of any notable elegance either. Although at one end only a high chicken-wire barrier separates the pitch from the splendid scenery of the Sierra, it was at that same end that the disco stage had been installed, from which the deafening music blared incessantly. To conduct any kind of conversation one had to be at the opposite end, in the shadow of an ugly brick-and-breezeblock building, perhaps unfinished, or perhaps one of the industrial units in which hams are stored to cure and dry. The ground beneath our feet was gritty and almost bare of grass; I would hate to play football on such a surface.

                                  The stew proved to be both filling and tasty, and was pleasantly washed down with one of the three beers included in the price of the meal. The selection of drinks available under the terms of this deal was limited, however: beer, either regular or low alcohol, or Pepsi; no wine, rather surprisingly, nor even mosto, the semi-fermented grape juice much favoured in the region. A wider range of beverages could be bought, though, at stalls dotted around the field. A wider range of foods too, both to eat there or simply to buy, the latter including some superior produce: the famous hams, artisanal cheeses from the Sierra (the goat is particularly good), honeys and similar specialities. Most of these food stalls were offering free samples, which certainly enhanced the enjoyment to be had from circulating to inspect their wares. Other stalls were hosting prize draws or tombolas, and drumming up a fair amount of custom. Meanwhile, at one end of the ground dozens of the young (and some of the no-longer-quite-so-young), danced to the throbbing music, while at the other the younger-still bounced on inflated rubber 'castle' and slide. This is very much a family occasion, with every age-group represented and catered for.

                                  In all, the atmosphere combined those of fairground, playground, feast, fine food fair, open-air disco and village fete. I suppose the last of these would be the nearest equivalent to be found in Britain, but I have most certainly never been to a British village fete where people were enjoying themselves in such numbers, nor with such boisterous exuberance. The stew, in a sense, is merely an excuse for a knees-up and get-together, but, of course, it is an excuse that gives the event a focus and character that might otherwise be lacking. And it certainly helps with the publicity. The magazine from which I quoted the recipe above makes much of the Jabugo Cocido appearing in the Guinness Book of Records as the world's largest stew. At the risk of appearing sceptical, I checked the Guinness Book's website, and found that the largest meat stew now seems to be attributed to Badajoz, in nearby Extremadura, which cooks one using over 1000 kilos of lamb. Evidently, culinary rivalries are fiercely contested in this part of Spain, and Jabugo must look to its laurels, though it faces an uphill struggle since Badajoz is a provincial capital with over fifty times Jabugo's population. Appetites really would need to be gargantuan to compete. Maybe the village will have to content itself with claiming the largest stew based on pork products.

                                  One would like to imagine that the Cocido was an ancient tradition dating back to mediaeval, even prehistoric, times, but in point of fact it seems to be a modern innovation. A cynic might be tempted to suspect it of being devised as a gimmick to attract tourists, but the vast majority of the attendees we saw were unquestionably Spanish, mostly in groups of family or friends and seemingly local. The only foreign voices we heard were our own. Moreover, people were definitely having a good time. With so little entertainment to be found in this poor, remote region, probably any such occasion is to be welcomed, and many villages hereabouts hold similar festivities* celebrating their particular produce. I would recommend attendance to anyone visiting the area at the appropriate time; apart from any other consideration, where else are you likely to find a bowl of tasty stew, bread and a litre of beer for just 6 euros? As a stranger, it was fun to try to enter into the spirit of the thing, though I fear I shall never be an aficionado of 1980s disco music in any language, least of all as a reverberating accompaniment to a hike through otherwise tranquil mountain scenery.

                                  © Also published, with photos, under the name torr on Ciao UK, 2012

                                  * For a general review of the Sierra de Aracena, including mention of several other local food festivals, see:
                                  www.dooyoo.co.uk/national-parks-international/ sierra-de-aracena-nature-park-andalucia-spain/1634699/


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