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"Contentment is, after all, simply refined indolence." (Thomas Haliburton)

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since 29/08/2002


Lokrum Island, Dubrovnik 16/10/2016

Harmonious haven

Lokrum Island, Dubrovnik There comes a time when even the most enthusiastic visitor to Dubrovnik needs a break from the hubbub of the old walled city. Magnificent though it is, the crowds that surge around the main sights take their toll on both nerves and patience, even late in September, when I was there. What it must be like in the heat of high summer, I dread to think. Fortunately, there is a peaceful refuge to be found just a quarter-of-an-hour’s boat-ride away. You can see it from Dubrovnik’s harbour, or from atop the city’s walls, all wooded green and seemingly empty and inviting, less than a kilometre out into the azure Adriatic. It is the offshore island of Lokrum, and it is not only peaceful but rather beautiful as well as having historic interest of its own. Past caring Lokrum has for over a thousand years offered sanctuary, though not generally from the travails of tourism. Benedictine monks settled there as a retreat from worldly preoccupations around 913 AD, and by 1023 a monastery had been founded, which later – if legend is to be believed – gave shelter to Richard the Lionheart when he was shipwrecked on his way home from the crusades. A Lazaret – a quarantine hospital for passing travellers – was erected on the island in the 16th century, though little used. Finally, in 1859 a Hapsburg archduke, Maximilian Ferdinand by name, chose Lokrum as the site for his country mansion, based on the remains of the monastery, and laid out some elegant gardens to complement it. In between ...

Zagreb (Croatia) 07/10/2016

Croatian crossroads

Zagreb (Croatia) The first time I saw Zagreb I hardly saw it at all. After a hectic, exhausting drive from London, my wife and I and the friends with whom we were travelling paused just long enough to enjoy an overnight stay before moving on to explore elsewhere in – as it was then - Jugoslavia. Mind you, that was over forty years ago, and the city was still in sombrely socialist mood, seemingly grey and nondescript, under a regime that was benign only by the undemanding standards of the rest of Eastern Europe. We thought of it as Eastern Europe then, more a political than a geographical description, since a glance at the map shows that more of Europe lies to the east of Zagreb’s longitude than to the west. The concept of an intermediate Central Europe was forgotten at the time, buried beneath the Iron Curtain, and this perception applied to Jugoslavia too, despite its stalwart show of independence from the Soviet Union. Now, Zagreb’s Central European attributes are above all what the visitor notices in a lively and self-confident city, exactly a quarter of a century tomorrow into its role as the capital of an independent Croatia. In this, it offers a distinct contrast to the former Jugoslav, now solely Serbian, capital of Belgrade, which still feels Eastern – and dour with it – reminding one that for centuries the two fell on different sides of a boundary far longer-lasting than the Iron Curtain, that between the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. From A to Z Although dating back ... 19/09/2016

You've got to laugh As our world grows more ridiculous – and more sinister – by the day, satirising it becomes increasingly difficult. Sometimes even the most discerning student of human behaviour will be unsure where reality ends and a grotesque parody of it begins. Of current events I’m tempted to say “you couldn’t make it up,” but that scarcely does justice to their awful absurdity. You could make it up, of course you could, but however imaginative your invention it could hardly be more bizarre than the truth, or even that version of the truth passed onto us by the media. Examples abound of this phenomenon, Donald Trump to name but a few. All the more credit, therefore, to those who pit their wits against ever steeper odds to raise a laugh and a scowl by dint of satire. In the UK these include some venerably battle-scarred veterans that still do sterling work – Private Eye*, as always, deserves an especially honourable mention – but it has been heartening to see a new generation of disrespectful 21st century stirrers join the fray since the turn of the millennium. Generation why? Being a new generation, they have a healthy distaste for the world their elders have bequeathed them. And in questioning and poking fun at the mess with which they are confronted they use the media they have grown up with: not fusty print, nor even corporate-controlled broadcast, but the net. And they use a language and format to match: short, simple, easy to view, read and assimilate, even within the limits of ...

The 10 Year aniversary of September 11 11/09/2016

Unhappy Anniversary

The 10 Year aniversary of September 11 In case you're wondering about the topic, today is, of course, the tenth anniversary of September 11, as it is on September 11 every year (and yes, it's also the first and second anniversary, or any other number you care to mention). The most notorious September 11 may have been that of 2001, now 15 years ago, but it is by no means the only ill-fated September 11 known to history. The little verse below commemorates examples from 1297, 1885, 1758, 1814, 1939, 1968, 1922, 1958, 1966, 1969, 1983, 1986, 1541, 1973, 1609, 2001 and 1960 respectively. If anyone knows of other instances, I'd be most interested to learn of them - please leave a comment below. * In general I'm not superstitious I can shrug off the 13th for fun, Even on Fridays, but quite inauspicious I find numbers that end in one-one. Above all there’s September Eleven That’s a terrible day, so I fear, Not only its 1-1 (so hateful to heaven) It leaves 1-1-1 left in the year. On this day at the battle of Stirling The English succumbed to the Scot And we’ve also lost fights with the dervishes (whirling), The French and the Yanks. Poor show, what! A poorer show still, truly dire Not of battles but cock-ups the mother, Or maybe the grandma of all friendly fire: One Brit sub torpedoed another. It’s a day for battles and clashes – On that list we have hardly begun – And also a day for disasters and crashes, (For example, Flight 1-6-1-1). Our mandate of Palestine started; And we ...

Lyonesse - Jack Vance 28/08/2016


Lyonesse - Jack Vance Had he lived to see it, Jack Vance would today have celebrated his 100th birthday. Somehow this seems yet another reason to remember his work – on top of his boundless imagination, captivating style and prodigious output. He wrote at least 60 books, probably more, depending on how you count them. Some may be lost or unattributed to him, since he toyed with numerous pseudonyms, especially for his crime mysteries. Under his own name he wrote mainly Science Fiction and Fantasy, or in the grey area between the two genres (in Vance’s case not such a grey area; all the colours of the rainbow are to be found there, plus others that the rainbow can only envy). Lyonesse is his best-known work of pure Fantasy, but even then the question arises of whether it is one work or three. The first novel published as Lyonesse was later supplemented by two sequels and tends now to be referred to by its sub-title, Suldrun’s Garden, whilst they are called The Green Pearl and Madouc respectively, with the name Lyonesse being used for the trilogy as a whole. Just to be clear: it is solely the original Lyonesse, aka Suldrun's Garden, that I am reviewing here. The trilogy is listed separately on Ciao as The Complete Lyonesse. Sting in the tale From her birth Suldrun was a disappointment to her father Casmir, king of Lyonesse. Not content with being born a girl when he had ordered a male heir, she compounds the felony by a wilful disregard for her education in the accomplishments required of a ...

What do you think of the Olympic Games 2016? 19/08/2016

It doesn't bear thinking about

What do you think of the Olympic Games 2016? What do I think of the Olympic Games? My first thought is that ‘think’ and ‘Olympic Games’ have no business sharing the same sentence. Surely, the whole purpose of the Olympic Games is to relieve us of the need to think. Instead, for two weeks every four years we can switch off our brains and watch wall-to-wall coverage of sports in which most of us are not usually in the least bit interested, accompanied by mind-numbing commentary interspersed with predictably platitudinous interviews with the competitors, whose blinkered dedication to their disciplines seems to have relieved them too of any time or need to think. And all this coverage endlessly repeated until it blanks out any cogitative process in white noise. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a sports fan. I always have been and I’ve always assumed I always would be, my addiction so ingrained as to withstand any corrective treatment, even the aversion shock-therapy of an overdose of exposure to the Olympics on TV. But, I fear, the BBC seems to be coming up with more potent formulations every time, so potent that that my addiction is beginning to quake in its trainers, wondering if it can stay the course. Absence of thought I was prepared for, even prepared to welcome, but this is beginning to feel uncomfortably close to brain-washing. I am somehow reminded of The Clockwork Orange, in which the protagonist is counter-productively ‘cured’ of his love for Beethoven. Mugs’ Games Personally, I blame London 2012, when two ...

Ventimiglia Outdoor Market, Ventimiglia 12/08/2016

Bargain basement on the Italian Riviera

Ventimiglia Outdoor Market, Ventimiglia "Welcome to Italy, where beauty has no limits" proclaims the slogan atop Ventimiglia’s municipal website, bringing a smile to my lips. Many places in Italy are indeed beautiful, but Ventimiglia is not – to my mind at least – among them. This is not to say it is without interest. The old town, Ventimiglia Alta, perched on its hilltop above the Roia River, dates back to Roman times and retains many mediaeval features, but is neglected and even shabby in places. The modern town on the far side of the river shares only the shabbiness, being flat, architecturally uninspiring and fringed by a gravelly shoreline where it faces the Mediterranean. Only the inland backdrop of mountains makes it in any way beautiful, but every town along this coast shares that backdrop and many offer more appealing foregrounds too. The Italian Riviera has always been less pricy and pretentious than its French counterpart, but Ventimiglia takes the contrast to the limit. Booking websites reveal that it is characteristically cheaper to stay in Ventimiglia than in the nearby Italian resorts of San Remo and Bordighera, let alone in Menton across the border into France, and there is a reason for this relative cheapness. Every Friday, though, even in the depths of winter, you will find the front at Ventimiglia heaving with throngs of visitors. What attracts them is not the gritty beach and uninviting sea, but the Outdoor Market that extends a good kilometre along the lungomare (promenade). It is a byword ...

Open Garden Squares, London 04/08/2016

The semi-secret gardens of London

Open Garden Squares, London London is among the world’s most rewarding cities to wander round, as any Londoner – and even some visitors – will tell you. Partly this is because it has so many overlapping but distinctly different districts, each with its own individual character, history and architecture. Partly because it is mostly accessible and safe for pedestrians, but with plenty of public transport on hand when needed. And partly because it is one of the greenest of cities, replete with parks and gardens. Of course, not all the gardens are open to the public, or at least not often. Particularly frustrating to the casual wanderer are the tantalising green spaces at the heart of so many of the elegant squares scattered around the capital, which look ideal for a short sit, respite and reflection – but which turn out to be barred to all but a few privileged residents. I’ve heard them called ‘secret gardens’, but this is a misnomer, since they are visible to anyone from the outside, though not from within. Some, alas, remain ever inaccessible, but with many others there is an exception: the annual weekend in mid-June that is designated London Open Garden Squares Weekend (referred to as OGSW from here on). Fair and square Initiated in 1988, the OGSW scheme will complete its twentieth season next year. During that time it has grown to encompass over 200 gardens across the capital. These are mostly close to the centre – the organisers recognise 13 different clusters, almost all in Inner London – but ...

Brexit: what's next? 06/07/2016

When the Brexit hits the fan

Brexit: what's next? In two months’ time we shall have a new Prime Minister, whose most pressing and difficult task will be to pilot our nation through the uncharted waters of separation from the European Union. As I write it looks unlikely that this Prime Minister will be one of those who were at the forefront of the Brexit campaign. If so, this would in one way be a pity, since they will not therefore have to take responsibility for clearing up the mess they have created. In another, it would be a relief to see none of them rewarded with high office for the irresponsible dishonesty with which they campaigned. Whoever the new PM proves to be, the prospects facing them will be daunting. So far as we have been told, no plan exists for disengagement from the EU, or for mitigating the collateral damage that will result. Even the Leavers had no plan recognisable as such. The “Action Plan” they published was nothing of the kind, but a flimsy farrago of wishful thinking – shorter and less detailed even than this review. Let’s hope that Cameron’s government had a contingency plan for what to do if they lost, and that the new government will inherit it as a basis for developing their own. If not, our future looks as incoherent as it is dire, but let’s hope so anyway. And, while we’re hoping, let’s try to formulate what a good plan might look like for navigating our way through the swamp into which we have been steered. The divorce settlement First on the agenda will be negotiating the terms of our ...

How will you vote in the European Referendum? 21/06/2016

Trade talks

How will you vote in the European Referendum? Glad to see this topic is now listed. How shall I be voting in the referendum? REMAIN, in the hope that nothing like what follows ever actually takes place. “Good morning, Chancellor Merkel. Boris Johnson here, you know, the new British Prime Minister.” “Good morning, Mr Johnson, and congratulations on your appointment.” “Thank you. But do call me Boris. And may I call you Angela? I hope we’re going to be friends.” “For now, I think it is better if we keep to the formalities.” “But you were on first name terms with Cameron, weren’t you?” “Yes, but then David and I were colleagues, working together as heads of government within the European Union. Since you will be taking your country out of the EU, that will not be the case with us.” “Yes, well, that’s rather what I wanted to talk to you about. You know, arrangements between Britain and the EU after we’ve left. Trade and all that sort of thing. I’m hoping we’re going to be able to work out a super-duper deal, best thing for everyone.” “Your hopes, Mr Johnson, are not my concern. And it is not the correct protocol to speak with me about this. You should be addressing the Commission in Brussels.” “Well, yes, I understand all that. But it seemed worth having a quick word with you first, just the two of us. After all, everyone knows that it’s you Germans who really pull the strings around Europe, so if you and I can see eye to eye on what needs to be done, I’ve every confidence you could get the rest to fall into ...

If we were given a referendum on the European Union would you vote for the UK to stay in or come out? 07/06/2016

The mourning after

If we were given a referendum on the European Union would you vote for the UK to stay in or come out? Having tried, and failed, to persuade Ciao to list "the advantages and disadvantages of EU membership" as a current debating topic, I’m posting this piece under the most relevant, if outdated, existing heading. Obviously, we do have a referendum, and therefore still time to vote to avoid what follows. 24th June 2016. Grey and drizzly, a typically British day dawns over Downing Street, where you, David Cameron, reluctantly stir into wakefulness. You’d hoped and believed that it wasn’t going to happen, but it has. Your referendum gamble has failed, and in a typically British display of wilful contrariness, the electorate has voted to leave the European Union. Sickening to reflect that a cynical campaign based on distortion, half-truths and the odd blatant untruth has prevailed. But you, David Cameron, can’t even legitimately complain about that, considering the tactics you’ve been party to in previous campaigns, perhaps nothing quite so downright dishonest, but dishonest enough just the same. In any case, faux-patriotic fantasy has won the day, and as your punishment for defeat you find yourself still stuck in the real world and saddled with the task of picking up the pieces. You could, of course, resign and leave the mess to someone else, but to whom? Discredited by defeat, you will no longer have much influence and, in its current mood, the Tory Party would probably insist on plumping for one of the triumphant Brexiters. With Michael Gove lacking popular appeal, the ...

What are your favourite bank holiday activities? 06/06/2016

Ducking out

What are your favourite bank holiday activities? “The trouble with retirement is that you never get a day off,” or so said American basketball coach Abe Lemons, and I have come to share his feelings on the matter. Without the pressure of going to work, every day becomes much like every other, pleasantly relaxed but unexceptional. If you want to stay at home and do nothing, that’s fine. If you want to go on an outing – to the seaside, perhaps, or a museum or a stately home or even an amusement park – that’s usually fine too. Usually, but not quite always. For just occasionally you will set off on such an outing to find the roads to the relevant attraction jammed, the carpark packed and the place itself filled to overflowing with competing visitors. Only then do you realise that your plans have had the misfortune to coincide with a bank holiday, and that you should have stayed at home. Having been paying uncharacteristically close attention to the calendar lately, I notice that tomorrow is a bank holiday. I have to confess that as I have grown older my attitude towards bank holidays has changed. There was a time, not so long ago, when I was unreservedly in favour of them, and the more the better. A fine-tooth trawl through my reviews here on Ciao would reveal that I have not only welcomed the celebration of those that already exist but have suggested that extra ones should be scheduled as follows: every April to perpetuate the one introduced for the royal wedding five years ago; at the End of Spring (formerly known as ...

Côte d´Azur (France) 04/04/2016

Côte of many colours

Côte d´Azur (France) The older I grow, the less clear-cut are my opinions. So equivocal have I become that I’m not even sure whether to interpret this as a symptom of (i) early-onset senility, the brain gradually turning to mush, or (ii) late-onset wisdom, or sense of proportion at least. Is it possible to have a sense of proportion about the Côte d’Azur? When I first wrote about the region, thirteen years ago, I thought not: “You either love or loathe the Côte d’Azur. There is no middle way. Like all places that are extremes of their kind, it excites extreme responses, both for and against. “Take Cannes for example. Five minutes on La Croisette – the promenade – at Cannes is enough to confirm me in my life membership of the loathers. The place is so insufferably pleased with itself. The swanky hotels, each with its private parasoled stretch of beach across the palmy boulevard, down which red Ferraris and black-glassed Mercedes cruise, their numbers swelled by stretch limos during the Film Festival. The posh apartment blocks that blister the leafy hill behind the town – ‘Californie’ as it is locally known. The ostentatious white yachts in the harbour with their ostentatious bronzed owners noisily treating cronies to champagne. The fur-clad widows escorting their fur-clad poodles for a promenade and a coiffure. What’s not to dislike? “To me, Cannes reeks of having been fashionable for far too long; indeed, of having reached a point where it can regard itself as above fashion and able to look ...

A Braijade Meridiounale, Menton 23/03/2016

Off the eaten track

A Braijade Meridiounale, Menton Menton, as you might expect for a resort on the French Riviera, is packed with eateries, including some swish fine-dining establishments priced to match. Personally, I’m no keener on swish fine-dining establishments than I am on the swisher resorts on the French Riviera, especially when they’re priced to match, so I always try to sniff out some swish-free value off the beaten track. And in Menton you don’t need to go too far off the beaten track to find it. In fact it can be found just a hundred metres or so along the main street of the old town, so you’d imagine many diners would discover it – but few appear to do so. Peering down the narrow Rue Longue from the gateway to the old town, you can’t actually see A Braijade Meridiounale or any other café, shop or restaurant. It lies just out of sight round a bend in the road. At night, the whole area falls eerily silent and its ill-lit alleys are peopled by shadows, so perhaps it’s not so surprising that prospective diners find the prospect forbidding and are deterred. Instead, they keep to the bright lights and hubbub of the newer, more resorty part of town. If so, that’s their loss, and, alas, the restaurant’s, even if it does make it easier for those who do find their way to the Braijade (as I shall refer to it from here on) to secure a table. Ambience and decor The restaurant fronts onto the Rue Longue, with three or four tables outside, doubtless a pleasant place to sit in summer, since the street is pedestrianised, but ...

Menton 12/03/2016

The likeable face of the Côte d'Azur

Menton When I wrote the original version of this review, some thirteen years ago, I knew exactly how I felt about Menton. It was the one place on the Côte d’Azur that I liked, unequivocally. Compared with glitzy Cannes, bustling Nice, money-mad Monte Carlo – or any of the other resorts along this overdeveloped, over-priced, too-long-fashionable coast – Menton held an altogether subtler and more powerful appeal. “Why?” I asked myself. “What’s so different? There are big hotels in Menton too, some with pretensions to swankiness, and apartment blocks, and yachts in the harbour, and pricey restaurants. There are widows with rinces d’azur, fur coats, gold jewellery and poodles in such numbers that one has to wonder what they’ve all done to attain such widespread widowhood. There are even specimens of la jeunesse dorée, although they look slightly lost, as if on their way to Saint-Tropez they somehow pointed their Porsches at the wrong slip road off the autoroute. “Subtly, though, the entire ambience is different, and induces a different mood. Menton is not flashy, nor even assertive. It is calm, relaxed, at ease with itself. Rather than being arrogantly above fashion, the town simply seems so self-possessed as to be impervious to it. You sense it has a long and comfortable history as a place of peaceful pleasure, and is content to remain just that, adapting to the ebb and flow of the times as necessary but never really altering.” Plus ça change All of which made it slightly ...
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