Sunday, November 3, 2019

From ‘Vroom by the Sea’ by Peter Moore

It is not the done thing to directly confront people in Italy. The concept of saving face is as strong there as it is in Asia.

……the Rally 200 marked the moment when Piaggio abandoned Italian families and went after the burgeoning youth market instead.
It was a move driven by financial necessity. By the end of the 1960s Italy’s standard of living was high enough for people to consider buying a car as the family vehicle rather than a Vespa. Indeed scooters became an unnecessary reminder of the tough times after the war. They were hidden in barns or shoved at the back of the garage, making way for the shiny new Fiat or Lancia.

Italy has one of the highest levels of organically grown crops in Europe………wasn’t just for environmental reasons….chemicals were expensive.

Elba is the third largest island in Italy after Sicily and Sardinia. It is a distant third – the island is only 28 kilometres long and 19 kilometres wide – but its mountainous, heavily wooded interior and stunning white sandy beaches make it one of the most beautiful. Legend has it that Venus the goddess of love, was strolling through the Tyrrhenian Sea one day and accidentally lost a precious jewel from the necklace she was wearing. The stone fell into the water and became Elba. ……..the highest point of the town was crowned by Villa dei Mulini, Napoleon’s residence when he was exiled to Elba in 1814. ……….Iron ore was mined here until the Second World War. And the Romans were partial to the wines that were produced there. But the regularity with which control of the island passed between Pisa and Genoa, then the Medici, Spain, Turkey and France, seems to suggest that no one was really bothered if they kept it or not.
Napoleon only stayed on Elba for nine months but in that time he revamped the legal and education system, modernized the economy and built a network of roads……..According to legend the first thing Napoleon noticed was about Portoferraio was the stench. On Elba the locals still emptied their chamberpots straight into the streets. One of Napoleon’s first acts as sovereign of his new domain was to build latrines, employ refuse collectors and institute large fines for people who continued to soil the streets.

He was an embalmer………It turned out that the worst part of being an embalmer wasn’t sticking your hand up the orifices of a corpse as I had guessed. It was coming home smelling of embalming fluids.

……first sight of Sardinia….looking craggy, wild and empty. Elsewhere in Italy a stretch of coastline like this would be crammed with lidos, apartments, gelataria and pizzerias. Here, on the north-east coast of the second-biggest island in the Mediterranean, there wasn’t a single sign of human habitation.
Sardinia has always been a world apart. D.H.Lawrence described it as ‘lost between Europe and Africa and belonging to nowhere’. The Phoenician, Carthaginians, Romans, Pisans, Genoans, Spanish and Austrians all tried to get a foothold before abandoning the island to malaria and the fiercely independent locals who lived in the mountainous interior. Its been part of a unified Italy since 1861. Indeed Giuseppe Garibaldi used it as a base for his military campaigns. But it has steadfastly retained its own dialect, costumes, cuisine and tendency to resolve differences with the odd blood vendetta or two.

Italians, it seems, invest their holidays with the same manic energy that they do all other aspects of their lives.

……..Porto Cervo, the town at the northernmost tip of Costa Smeralda (Emerald Coast), a 10-kilometre stretch of pristine coastline that is one of the most exclusive in the Mediterranean. Originally uncultivable farmland, the entire region was purchased in 1962 by a business consortium headed by the Aga Khan. Back then the local farmers were glad to sell. It was back-breaking work just to scratch an existence from it. Now it is home to some of the most expensive properties in Italy and the tiny bars in the hinterland are propped up by grizzled, bitter shepherds who claim they were duped out of their land…….the marina in Porto Cervo is regarded as the best in Sardinia, with berths for 650 vessels.

Italy table service can double, even triple, the price of a cup of coffee.

……..La Maddalena……a waterfront avenue lined with date palms, but the island’s charm lay in the little rocky coves that decorated the coastline, each with white sand beaches and turquoise waters so bright, so perfect, that they looked like they had been touched up by using Photoshop……..La Maddalena was one of the most beautiful places I had ever been to………

Santissima Trinita di Saccargia is a stunning Pisan church that sits alone in a pretty valley 15 kilometres south-east of Sassari. Built in 1116, its zebra-striped façade and belltower are all the more striking for being set in such splendid isolation.

The Nuraghi were a society of builders, metallurgists, shepherds, farmers and fishermen and their culture was the predominant one in Sardinia from 1800 BC until the Phoenicians and Carthaginians started sniffing around in 900 BC.
Nuraghic settlements were always set around a nuraghe, a distinctive circular tower made from the square basalt blocks that gave the culture its name. The nuraghe at Santu Antine is considered the most technically perfect of all the nuraghi on Sardinia, set in a triangular bastion with smaller towers on each point. Archaeological finds suggest that it might have been a royal palace. It sits alone now, but in its heyday it would have been surrounded by the hundreds of homes, stables and workshops of a thriving community.

When Alghero was captured by the Spanish in 1353 they dispersed the local population to nearby Villanova and replaced them with Catalan settlers.…..Date palms were planted along the avenues. And new immigrants traded directly with Catalonia rather than other parts of the island. ……Alghero became known as Barcelonetta – Little Barcelona. It retains much of that Catalan character today.

…….in Alghero……I was particularly taken by the old town, a jumble of cobbled lanes, stone buildings and terracotta roofs……. The Spanish influence was never far from here.

The bay at Porto Conte is one of the most beautiful places in Sardinia.

Bosa sits 3 kilometres inland on the banks of the Temo River, Sardinia’s only navigable river of any length. It is encircled by mountains and its tight, narrow streets press against a hill crowned by the atmospheric ruins of Malaspina Castle.

……the only thing that set Nuoro apart from any other Italian town of its size was its setting. Monte (Mount) Ortobene sits on its north-east corner, and beyond that the Sopramonte massif, a sheer wall of granite that looked positively otherworldly.

…….Sardinia……the island is as close to Africa as it is to Italy.
‘Masks are a very important part of Sardinian life,’ explained Mario. ‘They allow the ordinary peasant to aspire to something more mystical and extraordinary than their dreary, everyday life.’

I headed south from Nuoro through the wild mountains of Barbagia……..its legendary ‘dark heart.’……They were the only region of Sardinia that had never been subdued by foreign conquerors. And the fiercely independent locals still liked to indulge in a bit of petty banditry and the odd blood vendetta.

……..Cagliari is actually quite a pretty town…..set on a wide sweep of a bay, backed by mountains, and flanked by lagoons dotted with migrating flamingos from Africa. And beyond that, a stunning coastline dotted with some of the most beautiful beaches in Sardinia.

A gallery of locals watched from the balconies and windows of their home overlooking the square. This being Italy, each one of them had an opinion on what should be done and weren’t afraid of expressing it.

Palermo’s golden age began in 831 AD when it fell under Arab rule. For the next 200 years, and then under the Normans who followed, it was regarded as one of Europe’s greatest metropolises. It rivalled Cairo and Cordoba in beauty and its educational institutions were considered the greatest of the era. The Arabic influence is still apparent in the architecture of the churches and in the palm trees that grace the parks and streets.
The city again flourished in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, during the Baroque period……..
Palermo’s strategic position in the middle of the Mediterranean saw it bombed heavily during the Second World War. Only pockets of its former glory remain and the rest of the city was rebuilt quickly and shoddily. The funds that had been earmarked to rebuild it were siphoned off by the Mafia. Now, 60 years later, people were still living in their patched-together homes next to the craters created by Allied bombing over half a century before.

‘People here think of themselves as Sicilians first,’ explained Sergio. ‘We are also very suspicious of outsiders.’

Most of the houses remained half built with rusty reinforcement rods sticking out of the top for extra storeys that would never be built. Sergio had told me that as long as a house remained unfinished  in Sicily the owners didn’t have to pay tax on it.

In that way, the Sicilians weren’t any different from other Italians. They’d use any excuse to take a break and have a drink.

I backtracked … Erice, an ancient stone town that crowns the mountain that towers over Trapani and the bay. Known in the ancient world as Eryx, it was the site of a temple dedicated first to Aphrodite, then Venus under the Romans. Some say the temple was home to sacred prostitutes who carried out sacred prostitution. And it is interesting to note that it was left to its own devices by every invader who took the town. The Romans actually stationed 200 soldiers to protect it.

I ….wanted to visit Segesta and a Doric temple that many believe is the most magnificent in Sicily…….The Elymians started building the temple of Segesta in 430 BC and, it has to be said, they knew how to pick a building site. The temple enjoys a setting as dramatic as Erice, one of their earlier projects. It sits beside a deep canyon…..

…….headed….up… the remains of the Temple of Hercules. In its day it was regarded as one of the most beautiful temples of antiquity. Now all that remains are eight broken columns of different heights put back in place by the Englishman Sir Alexander Hardcastle in 1924.

I’d come to Piazza Armerina especially to see the mosaics in Villa del Casale. Set in the hills 3 kilometres south-west of Piazza Armerina, the villa was at the heart of an immense Roman rural holding and built some time between the third and fifth centuries AD. Its fame – and UNESCO listing – comes from the mosaic that decorate every one of the 62 rooms. They are regarded as the most outstanding Roman mosaics in the world and were preserved thanks to a flood that buried them in mud in the twelfth century. They were discovered again in 1950………..The level of detail is so extraordinary, archaeologists have built careers around analyzing the footwear, hairstyle and clothes depicted. ………
Perhaps the most famous room is the Hall of Female Gymnasts in Bikinis. It features a mosaic of female gymnasts in bikinis. Archaeologists claim it is a ‘rare and precious record of fashions at the time’.

Caltagirone has always produced ceramics. Farmers constantly unearth prehistoric pots as they plough fields ……The Arab name for the town, Cal’at Ghiran, can be translated as Castle of the Vases.
The city is famous for its distinctive polychromatic colours introduced to the local craftsmen with the arrival of the Arabs. The blues and yellows are particularly vivid………
The city’s most famous landmark is La Scala, the stone staircase built in 1608 to link Santa Maria del Monte cathedral at the top of the hill with the Palazzo Senatorio below. The risers on each of the 142 steps are decorated with hand-painted tiles, no two of which are the same.

Most Italian women seemed to have husky voices.

Ortygia has always been the focal point of Syracuse. Two and a half thousand years of history are crammed into a medieval maze less than 1 kilometre long and 500 metres wide. You’ll find the city’s most impressive buildings there, like the sixth-century Temple of Apollo and the stunning Baroque Duomo.

Italians visit pubs in packs. They laugh and joke raucously among themselves. And they use their mobile phones to coordinate their arrival en masse so that no one endures the shame of being alone.

…..the Aeolian Islands, a chain of volcanic islands sprinkled off the north-east tip of Sicily. They took their name from Aeolus, the ruler of the winds and master of navigation. Ancient poets described them as ‘rocky jewels set in an azure sea’ and the entire archipelago is a designated World Heritage Area.

………Mount Etna, Europe’s most active volcano; a day rarely passes without a shot of steam and ash or a rumble underfoot……..Mushrooms grow wild on the slopes of Mount Etna. The locals have their own secret spots where they find the plumpest and juiciest specimens……The slopes of Mount Etna were home to some of the most fertile farmland in Italy. The rich volcanic soil was what gave the mushrooms served in the restaurant their distinctive flavor.

Panarea is the smallest and prettiest of the Aeolian Islands…….Stromboli is the quintessential volcanic island. It is a perfect cone, 924 metres above sea level, and one of the most active volcanoes in the world, erupting continuously for over 2000 years.

The rest of Italy rarely has a good word to say about Naples. They regard it as a lawless and lazy city, full of people living off state funds paid for by their taxes. (Even if many of them avoid paying taxes themselves.)

………….Neapolitans are among the most fervent Catholics in Italy. …….their Catholicism isn’t the most traditional form of the religion. Miraculous cults have always been popular here and in the seventeenth century there was a brief obsession with worshipping the dead……….This populist approach to religion means that the churches are always full. Its as though the street life of Naples spills into the church. People continue conversations and even arguments as they enter, dipping their hands into holy water and then wagging them to  continue making their point.

Pizza was originally a peasant dish, made simply from dough, olive oil and tomato. It was sold from stalls on the street and was eaten at any time, day or night.
Pizza is inextricably linked to Naples that its surprising to learn that it was first introduced in the 1800s.

……Amalfi Coast …….the famous stretch of road just north of Salerno…………..The road easily lives up to its billing as the most beautiful road in Europe. …….Less than a century ago it was little more than a donkey track. It winds its way along the side of the mountains, following every indentation and crevice, the ocean a sheer drop of a couple of hundred metres below. ….so narrow and treacherous in places……….The road stretches 50 kilometres from Salerno in the south to Sorrento in the north.

………Positano. It was love at first sight………John Steinbeck ….wrote that ‘nearly always when you find a place as beautiful as Positano your impulse is to conceal it.’

Villa Cimbrone was built in the late 1800s by an Englishman by the name of Lord Grimthorpe. It is set on the furthest tip of Ravello’s ridge and boasts a clifftop belvedere that offers arguably the best view on the coast. It is known as the Terrace of Infinity, and sits suspended over the valley below.

……..The Blue Grotto…..a pool glowing the most astounding shade of blue.
The incredible colour and freaky glow are caused by the concurrence of two natural phenomena. The sun beams in through a large underwater entrance below that effectively filters out any reed tones. Then the limestone bottom of the cave reflects the light directly up.

San Giovanni Rotondo … the burial place of one of Catholicism’s newest saints – Padre Pio. ……….Padre Pio is one of the most popular saints in Italy. ……Seven million pilgrims visit the town each year, making it the most visited pilgrimage site in the world after Lourdes.

Sergio had told me that Italians make quite a big show of being religious but then instantly forget about it.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

From ‘Eastern Horizons. Hitchhiking the silk road’ by Levison Wood

I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move ….to come down off this featherbed of civilization and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints …. [It] is no great industry, but it is one that serves to occupy and compose the mind. And when the present is so exacting, who can annoy himself about the future?
-          Robert Louis Stevenson

Moscow has none of the European splendor of St Petersburg, but it has a baser charm. The smell and feel of raw humanity was everywhere.

The Georgian Military Highway crosses the Caucasus mountains, linking Vladikavkaz with Tbilisi, some one hundred and fifty miles to the south. It was built by the Imperial Russian Army in 1799 to assist the conquest of the Caucasus. It follows the traditional invaders’ route some two hundred kilometres through the Terek valley and the Darial Gorge, passing the jagged Mount Kazbek and creeping over the high Jvari Pass. It has been the scene of battles both ancient and modern and is littered with the debris of medieval forts and Soviet tanks.

The atmosphere was totally different on the boat than amongst any group of Russians I had met. For a start, these Georgians were smiling. More than that, they were laughing and joking amongst themselves.

…….I had always assumed that the Caucasus Mountains had formed the border with Europe and Asia, just as the Ural Mountains do in Russia.
‘Asia? Please, no,’ Lasha [Georgian] implored. ‘We are a European country. We are Christians, our heritage is Greek. We are certainly a lot more European than Turkey.’

I felt grateful that I wasn’t born in Georgia. The standard of living in Poti was low. Few people had electricity or gas, almost none had running water. Whole families lived in single rooms that served many purposes. Even televisions were scarce, so the people had to make their own entertainment. It was curiously Victorian; …..families gathered round a piano and sang happy folk songs that reminded them of better times.
Still, I didn’t hear anyone complain. The smiles were genuine and hospitality unequalled. I had been plied with coffee, wine and vodka. Sweets and cake were brought out, even though they were a luxury and had probably been saved for a special occasion. Like simple poor folk around the world, they stuck together as families and looked after not only each other, but anyone passing through who happened to be in need.

Caucasian girls have long been admired for their exquisite good looks. The famed Circassians of the North Caucasus gave rise to the nineteenth-century legend of the ‘Circassian beauty’. ……… Voltaire observes: ‘The Circassians are poor, and their daughters are beautiful, and indeed it is in them they chiefly trade.’
Circassian beauty brought its own problems. Females from the region had for centuries been objects of desire for lustful Turkish Sultans, and the acquisition of a Caucasian slave girl became a status symbol of some significance. During the days of the Ottoman Empire, Circassian girls formed the upper echelons of the imperial harem.

…….the snow-capped twin peaks of Mount Ararat………At over five thousand metres high, the mountain stands alone, rising inexplicably from the Armenian plain as if it were being sucked into the atmosphere……. ‘You know it is the final resting place of the ark of Noah?’ said a young Kurdish man proudly …….Ararat is the highest peak in the area and since it isn’t part of a mountain range, in the event of a huge flood it would have been the only area of dry land for over a hundred kilometres, so it could have made an obvious stopping point.

It [Iran] wasn’t all that different from Eastern Turkey or Northern Iraq, except one thing stood out. The cleanliness of the place……..I noticed how spotless and orderly things were. The villages were impeccably tidy, the roads were excellent and there seemed to be an almost manicured perfection to the infrastructure. It was unlike anywhere I had seen in the Middle East.

‘Just arrived?’ asked David, in an arrogant drawl that only the French can achieve with such perfection.

In its heyday, virtually all of the goods coming from China and India passed through the bazaars of Tabriz on their overland journey to the markets of Constantinople and Venice. It was where the northern and southern routes converged after avoiding the great Karakum desert, before splitting again to wind westward through Anatolia or south to Baghdad and the Levant…….
The bazaar still stands. It is one of the oldest covered markets in the region and allegedly the largest in the world.

I was beginning to see a commonality in many of the Iranians, who were keen to show how liberal their country was supposed to be, but only in private. ……..The chador reigned supreme in the over-forties and the women kept a deferential few paces behind their husbands. The younger women were cautious and the men frustrated…….how the hypocrisy governed with absolute clarity here. There was a way that you should behave, which was binding and universal, but then there was another way – the reality – in which individuals actually carried on their daily lives, and in it contained the beliefs, the desires and the taboos of this subdued people. Iranians did smoke, they did drink alcohol, even during Ramadan, and they did have sex (a lot) outside of marriage.

I had expected Tehran to be a smog-ridden, third-world mess like Cairo, but it was a relief to discover a rather pleasant city. Yes, the traffic was chaotic and crossing the road was a perilous undertaking, but amidst the normal bustle that you come to expect in the Middle East, the people were smart and the streets were clean. More so than in Tabriz, the women seemed at ease; I noticed far fewer full-body chadors and most of the young women wore only a loose scarf barely covering their head. Many of the girls wore fancy gold earrings and glossy lipstick…..

Farengi is one of those odd misnomers that have taken hold as a result of some ancient slang. It comes from a mispronunciation of the medieval name Frank and dates back to the time of the crusades, when the Germanic Frankish kings were dominant figures in European politics – they gave their name to both France and Frankfurt. When the crusaders invaded the Near East, the local Muslims decided they all looked and sounded the same and forevermore, Europeans became known collectively as the Franks. The name spread throughout the Islamic world, and to this day it is the common term used for white Europeans everywhere from Bosnia to Malaysia in all its regional variations, franj, afraji, ferenghi, barang, farang.

There is an old Persian proverb, Esfahan nesf-e jahan ast; it means ‘Esfahan is half of the world’.

Iran aroused in me a mixture of emotions. In some ways, I found its culture fascinating and its mystique alluring. Its people were friendly, but they were also very suspicious, often hypocritical and scared. The cities varied between sterile and dull and tranquil, but if I was brutally honest, I was getting tired of it all. I found myself longing for the wilderness of the mountains and in them, the unabashed self-confidence of the hill people.

Mashhad is a place of graves. Twelve hundred years ago, the greatest of the Abbasid caliphs ………Harun al-Rashid…….fell ill of dysentery ……and his men buried him there. …….Shah Abbas the Great………wanted to promote Mashhad as a site of pilgrimage to equal the great Sunni shrines of Saudi Arabia……..the popular rumour spread by Abbas that one pilgrimage to Mashhad was worth seventy thousand pilgrimages to Mecca.

On his head was a pakul, a pancake-shaped brown woolen cap that was almost identical to the headdress worn by Alexander’s Macedonians over two thousand years ago.

There are three main tribes in Afghanistan. The Pashtun are the most numerous and are dispersed across the south and east of the country. The Tajiks are the second largest and make up the population of Herat, the western desert regions, and some parts of the central highlands and the Transoxiana. They are of old Persian stock and speak Dari. The rest of the centre of the country is made up of Hazara, flat-faced descendants of the Mongol horsemen. The majority of them are Shia Muslims in a predominantly Sunni country.
Then of course in the north, things get even more complicated. There are the warrior Turkmen, the beardless Uzbek herders and silversmiths, nomadic Kirghiz, Ismaili Wakhis, Nuristani mountainmen, not to mention the diaspora Arabs, Baluch, Qizilbashi, Brahui, and the Jat.
But now we were in the land of the Aimaq, a semi-nomadic, historically loose entity related to both the Tajik and the Hazara. Both groups inhabited the wild central mountains and because of their ancient enmity with the Pashtuns, were generally against the Taliban…….

When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
An’ the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll on your rifle an’ blow out your brains,
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier

Kabul is an odd place. At almost two thousand metres it is a high city, and was the only place of any real development in the whole country. The Kabul river runs through its heart, winding its way between the town’s high-rise tower blocks, low mud shacks, Chinese-style villas and bustling bazaar. Above it all is the ancient Bala Hissar fortress and a ring of mountain peaks…..
Historically, Kabul dates back almost four thousand years, when it was the main centre of both Zoroastrianism and later Buddhism. The Persians settled in the region around 400 BC, before Alexander arrived during his conquests some seventy years later. The Greco-Bactrians and Indo-Greeks ruled the city for two hundred years until the Kushan empire wrested it from them, taking charge until the third century AD. Then followed the Sassanids, the Kidarites, the Hephthalites, and the Turkic Shahi. In 674, Islamic invaders from the west arrived in Afghanistan, but met fierce resistance from the Hindu-Shahi occupants. The kingdom of Kabul was not fully converted to Islam for another two hundred years…..

In his famous novel Kim, Kipling’s character – the paternal Mahbub Ali – warns his boy protégé to ‘trust a Brahmin before a snake, and a snake before a harlot, and a harlot before a Pathan.’

…the infamous Khyber Pass – the main corridor connecting Afghanistan and the Indian subcontinent; it has hosted invading armies and trade caravans alike……..Kipling called it ‘a sword cut through the mountains’ because of its bloody history, and it was a famous soldiers’ saying that ‘every stone has been soaked in blood’.
In reality, it is not one but a series of winding passes served by a narrow road that stretches almost fifty miles through the Safed Koh mountains of the Hindu Kush and its summit is just over three miles inside Pakistani territory at the hill fort of Landi Kotal. The Afridi and Shinwari tribes that inhabit the pass have been its traditional guardians throughout the centuries………

Look! Brahmins and chumars, bankers and tinkers, barbers and bunnias, pilgrims – and potters – all the world going and coming………….And truly the Grand Trunk Road is a wonderful spectacle. It runs straight, bearing without crowding India’s traffic for fifteen hundred miles – such a river of life as nowhere else exists

What made the bus journey more exhausting was the Pakistani passengers’ almost perfect command of English and their natural curiosity. I should have been glad of the familiar language and the friendly interest, but the questions were relentless.

At the Jaulian temple (named after the Roman governor Julian, who converted to Buddhism), ornate Ionic columns rose from the Punjabi plain. They were exact replicas of a style that would not be out of place in the Forum or the Parthenon: the ruins had porticoed and pedimented fronts……all were built in a style immediately recognizable as Classical Greek; yet these were Buddhist monuments, twenty miles from the Pakistani capital, and they dated from the early centuries of the Christian era, long after the demise of the Classical civilization in Europe.

………the autumn of 327 BC, when Alexander the Great swept into the Punjab………..On the return journey Alexanded died………his empire fractured into pieces.
In the anarchy that followed, the Greek garrisons of India and Afghanistan were cut off from their homeland. They had no choice but to stay on in Asia, intermingling with the local peoples, and joining Indian learning with Greek philosophy and classical ideas. Over the following thousand years, further cross-fertilisation occurred, as Central Asian influences were brought in by the conquering Kushans, an astounding civilization that grew up in the fastness of the Chinese Karakorums and built the third and last of Taxila’s cities, calling it Sirsukh.
These Scythian-Greek-Chinese were Buddhist in religion, though they worshipped an extensive myriad of Zoroastrian, Greek, Roman, Hindu and Buddhist deities – Gandhara’s principal icon being a meditating skinny Buddha draped in a Greek toga.

……[Golden Temple] ‘……….Ours is a very open religion, you can stay if you like?’
I wasn’t expecting to be offered a bed, but it seemed that Sikh hospitality was a rival to the Afghan’s code of generosity.

Despite the renowned crowdedness and bustle and aversion to personal space that is associated with India, I had never felt more at peace in my life.

From ‘The Amazing story of the man who cycled from india to europe for love’ by Per J Andersson. Translated by Anna Holmwood

‘Can you name one single Brahmin who treated anyone outside their own caste with even a shred of respect or dignity?’ his grandfather would ask. ‘Have any of them ever done anything to benefit the lower castes? No, exactly! But the British did, all the time. They acted on behalf of everyone and never discriminated against us untouchables.’

………British rule changed the power dynamics within the villages for the first time. They did not understand the caste system, at least not in the way the Brahmins wanted them to. The British hired untouchables to work in the post office, the civil service and on the railways. And anyone who wanted to could attend Victoria Vernacular School.
‘No, the British have nothing to be ashamed of,’ was Grandpa’s opinion.

Grandpa used to tell PK how much he liked the British.
‘They keep their promises; they are good people. Unlike the Brahmins, they shake hands with us. They don’t mind touching us,’ he said. ‘Stay away from Brahmins,’ he continued …….

PK was careful to let them know he was untouchable…….. ‘We don’t care about stuff like that!’ said one of the lion tamers.
‘We’re Muslims, we understand you. They treat us as if we’re untouchables too,’ said a juggler.

Afghanistan feels both modern and ancient at the same time. The roads are neat and straight, something he had never seen in India before………He sees almost only men out on the streets, and the women who do venture out are hidden underneath a thick layer of material………..the people of rural Afghanistan are extremely hospitable……..They invite him in for tea and food, and often offer him a bed to sleep in. Of course they can provide shelter for the night. He is welcomed without reservation. He does not even have to draw in exchange for something to eat.

In Iran the hospitality continues. He sleeps less and less outside and after leaving the Caspian Sea, he is almost never alone or hungry. He receives water, dried fish, apples, oranges and dates along the way. He sleeps every night in a bed without having to pay a single rial. His ticket to the bountiful Promised Land is the fact that he is Indian.
‘Oh, India,’ they say. ‘A very good country.’……..
Until his recent death, the Indian President was a Muslim by the name of Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed. Iranian newspapers devoted pages to his obituary, the Muslim who reached the top in a Hindu country.
People repeat the same speech he has heard so many times since he crossed the border. So generous of the Hindus to make a Muslim president, they say. PK does not see it in terms of generosity. In truth, it was a way to appease the country’s minorities, a clever gesture that involved no real sacrifice. The office of president was largely meaningless; the Prime Minister was really the one in charge.
But the Iranians are impressed nonetheless. Muslims in PK’s country have the same rights as everyone else, they say. And yes, it is true, on paper at least.

…….everything about Iran is rich and orderly; the change was noticeable as soon as he crossed the border. The Afghan border guards were dressed in dirty, worn uniforms, their border stations dilapidated. On the Iranian side, everything is new and clean, the people are better dressed and look healthier, the cars are modern, roadside stops are equipped with luxurious sofas and vending machines delivering cold, clean water for free.

The Turkish people love to laugh. He receives invitations to their homes, where he draws in return for shelter and something to eat.

Sylvia tells PK about Europe …….She wants him to develop thick skin, to be prepared, not to be so naïve.
‘People aren’t as friendly here, not like in Asia. Europeans are individualists and think only of themselves, she says, adding that kind, gullible people get into trouble in Europe.’
‘Watch out, Europeans are racists. You can get beaten at any moment just because you have dark skin……..’

In Europe, rules not feelings prevail, he learns from these friends. Europeans are less humane than the rest of the world – is that what they mean? He struggles to comprehend it. …..
‘PK,’ they say,‘………In Europe, empathy is dying out. Fear is what drives people, not love.’

Boras is a world away from the cities he has cycled through………..He likes the silence: it gives him a sense of peace. But sometimes it is too much of a good thing, and he shudders. Everyone on the bus, for example, looks away. When he ventures a few words to his fellow passengers they answer politely, cordially even. But no one initiates contact. They sit shoulder to shoulder, and yet each is encased in his own refrigerator, always cold.
………..Sweden is emotionally cool and physically comfortable at the same time …………But he will get used to it.

Sweden is a strange country. People go round thanking each other for nothing. Not to mention the constant meaningless phrases, like ‘What nice weather we’re having.’ Why bother saying it? All you have to do is look up at the sky to see for yourself if the weather is good or not.

People think their love will never last. He will find it too hard to adapt. The darkness, the cold, the growing racism, even the way the Swedes socialize, it will all break him sooner or later, they say……….But PK never longs to return to India. ‘Mentally, I have escaped India entirely,’ he writes……..

Sunday, July 21, 2019

From ‘In the Valley of Mist. One Family’s extraordinary story from peace to war in Kashmir. As read on BBC Radio 4’ by Justine Hardy

The artisan traditions of Kashmir are customarily male; another vestige from another empire, the Mughals.

Kashmir’s beauty is the stuff of eulogy and big movies: a great sage who begged a god to strike a cleft in the Valley so that a demon could be slain. It was done, they say, and most of the water drained away leaving a fertile land, a soft green place in the midst of the world’s youngest and crudest mountain range, lunatic peaks ……

…….a potent expression that implied a sense of kinship and togetherness that transcended the parameters of differing religions and rituals – Kashmiriyat. ……… Kashmiriyat had barely been in use before 1947

The houseboat next door…….was going to be unseasonably full, with four couples flying in from Gujarat ……….. ‘They make so much mess, these Indians. All they do is eat fried dhal all the time, and sit in front of TV. They cannot even notice when they drop it……….When you are staying I don’t have to clean the boat so much. When Indians staying I have to clean the whole boat every day, maybe sometimes two times.’
‘But there’s only one of me,’ I said. ……….They are grateful for the business. Without the domestic tourists who have come in dribs and drabs over the past twenty years many of the houseboat owners would have had no business at all.…………
Caricatures are so easily created, and these then become the received version, repeated enough times to become accepted knowledge. In private many houseboat owners and their workers portray the Indian guests as loud, rude, heavy-drinking idol-worshippers who do not understand the meaning of silence and prayer, who come to Kashmir and crash around as though they own it. But then many Kashmiris, even the educated, believe unwaveringly that the attacks on America in September 2001 were a Jewish conspiracy, that all the Jews who worked at the World Trade Centre had been warned to stay at home on September 11 ………Caricature and urban myth are usually best left alone by the outsider…….

The school journey in the mornings was once one of the enchanting sights of the lakes: scrubbed children paddled in small shikaras, laughing or squabbling, sometimes splashing each other with their paddles as their parents shouted from the bank, telling them to stop, to hurry to school

‘……….We are all so tired of it, you cant imagine how tired. It is a malaise that all the young people have ………What can the government have expected? They gave us all that education, lots of degrees on pieces of paper, but nothing to back it up, no experience to find jobs, no jobs to find. Why were they surprised when young people joined the militancy? It wasn’t about being martyrs, it was about earning bucks.’

On Martyrs’ Day each July it is mostly women who gather at the graveyards. Many of them have no graves over which to mourn. These are the mothers, wives and sisters of ‘the disappeared’. They cannot grieve fully because they do not know what has happened to those they want to be allowed to mourn. In almost all cases the security forces picked up their men during crackdowns or house searches. Some off those taken were involved in the militancy; some were taken because of mistaken identity; some because a quota of arrests had to be met in order for a police or paramilitary officer to achieve promotion, or a financial bonus.....are referred-to as half-widows…….They have no status. They cannot remarry or receive the government compensation given to women whose husbands have been killed in the conflict……..In desperation some of these people put their trust, and money that they had begged and borrowed, into the hands of mukhbirs (police informers). These parasitic middlemen always promise to find the whereabouts of ‘disappeared’ family members, charging high prices up front, and then dangling only bitter hope and red herrings in exchange, or simply disappearing as soon as they have the money.
It is just one of the many ugly little businesses that have grown out of the insurgency.

Among ordinary Kashmiris the world of women starts with the family they are born into, and then becomes the family that they marry into. Female friendship is confined within the family structure, except when the girls are younger, and if they have the chance to go to school and make friends there. The conflict has brutalized women but they do not turn to each other in their pain. They turn inwards, into silence, and away from the calls for their men to pick up the gun; from the sounds of rifle butts against their door demanding entry; from the cry of a neighbor telling them that their boy has gone; from the extremist throwing acid in their face for not wearing the veil…………until they cannot take any more. Then the sad journey is made to Room 19 [psychiatry clinic] at the Shri Maharajah Hari Singh Hospital.
The women of Kashmir are not like other women. They do not come together, seeking to share their pain with other women. They turn away.

……….night of Friday, 22 February 1991……soldiers rounded up the men of Kunan Poshpura……..soldiers then ransacked each house they searched, and they raped indiscriminately……..At first the Government of India and the army denied the reports………A fact-finding group was sent. It was reported that the group spent just half an hour in Kunan Poshpura. A 300-page report was produced from the visit that concluded that all the women in the village had lied.
Two years after the mass rape the village was divided: many of the women had been deserted by their husbands and families; young girls could not find husbands, regardless of whether they had been raped or not; one seventy-year-old woman had been thrown out by her son for bringing ill fortune on her family because of her rape. Young girls told visitors that they were taunted by the men of the village: ‘Did you enjoy it, do you want some more?’ it appeared that the men of Kunan Poshpura seemed united in their condemnation of the women for having brought this brutality to their village.
Seventeen years latere Kunan Poshpura is still referred to as the raped village.

Village women have never travelled too much around the Valley, and since the beginning of the insurgency it has been even less.

So many of the deaths in Kashmir have not been the result of a planned attack, or at a given command, but because of the terrified jabbing of a shaking finger on a trigger made slippery with the sweat of fear.

His generation were the first to take up arms when the insurgency began, the separatist dream their fuel. Their children inherited the damage of those early years, the fighting, crackdowns, intimidation, curfews, their fathers, brothers and cousins taken during searches, many never to return. The anger was passed on with no economic buffer to soften it. There were no new jobs for the next generation to go into. Militancy was the main employer through the 1990s. The Jammu and Kashmir Police recruited from the local people too, but it was not a job that most wanted, almost to be part of the great booted occupying force as it was seen – unpatriotic to many, un-Kashmiri.

During the first few years of easy recruitment to the insurgency, up until the mid-1990s, boys would just stick their hands in the air at the end of a meeting outside a mosque, or after a speech at one of the militant group’s safe houses. They had not necessarily planned to volunteer, or even thought about it. They just saw their friends sticking up their hands to volunteer, and so they did the same.

Like most of the villagers of the Valley he was a man who was not comfortable in the company of women he was not related to.

Penetration in sodomy is not regarded by some as being a homosexual act in parts of North India and Pakistan. But the one who is penetrated is derided as a ‘donkey boy’, the one who is ridden, subjugated, humiliated.

From ‘The Saint of Gondawali. The Life and Sayings of Shri Brahmachaitanya’ by K V Belsare

Reality is Ananda. Ananda is the experience of supreme harmony. It corresponds with the highest degree of integration of self. It produces equanimity and brings profound peace…..Divine experience cannot be communicated in the form of neat logical propositions. It is conveyed through symbols, myths and parables. Shankaracharya calls it Samyak Jnana, i.e. Perfect Knowledge. Spinoza calls it Scientia Intuitiva i.e. Intuitive Knowledge.

Introversion means a turning of the mind inwards……involves a gathering together of the senses from the world of sensory objects. Manana or meditation and Manas Puja or Inward worship are a great help in introversion. However, it needs an untiring and strong effort of the will. Many seekers fail in this first step of contemplative life……the state of vacancy or stillness in the mind. It is the consequence of success in introversion. ……..The self……can withdraw herself completely from the noise of the flesh for some time………The self has to move out of the ease and quiet of the second stage…..She has ….to become afire with a longing to see God……..She must open herself through complete surrender and wait silently for an influx of divine love. This period of suspense is hard to bear and so it is called the Dark Night of the soul. …….When the longing for God becomes consuming enough, there is the moment of total surrender…..When the contemplation comes to stay, the mystic becomes one with God for all time. He becomes a free person in every sense. He is a Jivanmukta. …..It is the state of Moksha or Liberation. Such a man lives in an inward poise and remains undisturbed among the ups and downs of life……Such a man who enjoys Freedom and Beatitude is called a saint.

The Master answered, “Desire is the cause of birth. Desire again becomes the cause of death. When a child is born, it comes to satisfy some desire. The common man does not know who comes to him as a son or a daughter. The saints know it. Sometimes it happens that some spiritually advanced souls fall a prey to some petty desire. This desire dominates at the time of death during the previous birth. Then it forces them to be born again preferably in the family of a seeker or a saint. They satisfy the desire and soon depart from this world. That is why many gifted children die young.”

The common man is conscious of the words he speaks. He becomes the knower who knows the object which is the known. But there is a state of super-consciousness in which the knower becomes one with the known and knows it by identity. The man who attains that state is called a Rishi or a seer. The Rishis are…. So deeply united with God that sacred hymns flow out of them. They honestly and truly believe that God composes the hymn and they become merely the channel for its expression. In this sense the Vedas and the Upanishads are called Shruti, i.e. what the Rishis heard from God.

Nanasaheb Peshwa was one of the leaders of the Indian Revolution of 1857. The Master had met him before. After the British viceroy, the Indian leaders sought refuge in various unknown quarters. Nanasaheb became a Bairagi and entered the Nepal territory. The Master advised him to stay in the dense forests called Nimisha Aranya at the foot of the Himalayas……..The Master convinced him of the great changes which had come about in the political situation in the country and pointed out that the political role of kings was receding in the background. He initiated the ex-King into the mysteries of the Divine Name and …..promised him to be by his side in his last moments. …………Nanasaheb had an attack of influenza. His lungs were badly affected. …….Nanasaheb breathed his last in the Master’s arms.

“….Of all the animals, the cow is the only one which possesses human emotions.”

Monday, January 21, 2019

From ‘Travels in a Dervish Cloak. Adventures in Pakistan’ by Isambard Wilkinson

…..Islamabad …..the expatriate cliché was that the city was ‘twelve miles from Pakistan’, the distance to the nearest ‘real’ city, Rawalpindi ….. ‘half the size of Arlington cemetery but twice as dead’ was another witticism….

…Pakistan ….For although a Muslim state, it was riven by the Hindu caste system its inhabitants disavowed; thus Rajput looked down on barber and barber on the darker-skinned Christian and lower-caste Hindus, who were traditionally ‘sweepers’, street cleaners. The North-West Frontier and Baluchistan were overtly tribal with most matters settled by councils rather than the courts and administration inherited from the British. Even the feudal, plain provinces of Punjab and Sindh ran along the lines of tribe and caste. The writ of the government was feeble in most of the country, which hung together loosely on a dog-eared colonial structure of cantonments, district commissioners, railway signalmen and post office clerks. It also seemed to adhere to the empire’s old prejudices as laid down in its gazetteers………where ethnic groups and peoples were classified in such categories as ‘Criminal Tribes’.

The Nawab [of Bugti] had regaled us with tales of the Baluch, a warrior race who, with the Kurds, he said, traced their origins back two thousand years to Aleppo in Syria.

Balaach, the greatest medieval Baluch warrior hero, held that ‘War is looked upon as the first business of a gentleman and all Baluch are gentlemen.’

…….Punjabi is a language that lapses into profanity regularly….

….Partition ……..A Pakistani poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, wrote, ‘This leprous daybreak, dawn night’s fangs have mangled, this is not that long-looked-for break of day’.

Much of the country’s officialdom runs on Johnny Walker Blue Label, despite Pakistan’s law, which forbids the Muslim population to drink alcohol……….The least remarkable thing about Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the Quaid-i-Azam (‘Great Leader’), once one accepts that much of the Muslim world runs on Johnny Walker, is that he ate pork, drank whisky and smoked fifty Craven A a day. More notable is that through sheer bloody-mindedness he created a nation-state. ….He was born to a middle-class Gujarati-speaking family of provincial merchants from the Shia Khoja minority. ……..Although Islamists had always hated him because of his moderation and secularism, most Pakistanis saw him as a sainted figure, blessed with the sort of virtues that are praiseworthy in others but undesirable for oneself…….he was a modern, liberal, stiff, secular, not very religious type of Muslim of Shia origin and his creation was a feisty, backward Sunni Muslim state dominated by Punjabis and Islamists.

Pakistanis lionize Akbar as a great Muslim leader, but in truth his legacy is unpalatable to Pakistanis official view of itself as an orthodox Sunni state…….there is some doubt whether he even died a Muslim ………he didn’t believe in the existence of Satan; he found Arabic religious commentaries on Islam muddled and contradictory; and he questioned the story of Koran’s genesis, doubting its heavenly origin and treating it as a historic document in a way that Islamic scholars five centuries later are only beginning to dare to consider.

The evening bore the usual hallmarks of a decadent Pakistani gathering. Vast joints of hashish were rolled; vast joints of hashish were rolled; vats of whisky sloshed down throats; and plans made for a journey that never took place.
There was much bragging, servility and sycophancy. ………And small, largely fabricated …….victories were celebrated.

Ghalib………whom many Pakistanis recite with passion and at length:
Na karda gunah ki bhi hasrat ki milay dad
Ya Rab agar un karda gunahon ki saza hai

Do give me praise for regrets of sins uncommitted
If there is to be punishment O Lord for sins committed

…Punjab …..a wheat basket divided by the bloodiest events of Partition; home to beefy backslapping ploughmen and the supplier of soldiers to armies for centuries. In spirit, it is earthy, humorous, with a firm grasp of realpolitik. ‘Don’t eat shit with a spoon, eat it with a spade,’ Punjabis say.
The country’s most affluent province, due to its agriculture and textile industry, is in many places as backward as any part of the country.

Multan ……its old reputation: a city of heat, dust, beggars and graves. …….the city’s two main saints’ shrines ……Rukn-i-Alam ……and ……..Bahawal Haq…….
The tomb of Bahawal Haq (also known as Bahauddin Zakariya) is an immense bastion of fired bricks……Haq’s tomb was erected near an ancient fire temple built by Hindus. It had once been home to a golden statue of a sun god which had been smashed by various invaders, several times repaired, and finally destroyed by the Emperor Aurangzeb in the 17th century. The fire temple itself was destroyed again and again over successive centuries. Its last remains were finally extirpated in revenge for the destruction by a Hindu mob of the Babri Mosque in India in 1992.
……..Even 800 years after his death in 1262, Haq’s direct descendants own thousands of acres and wield considerable political power locally and nationally, his sainthood having been handed down from father to eldest son.

……Haq was benevolent as well as powerful. ‘If you give something to somebody,’ he once said, ‘you should give it with a flourish.’ It’s that flourish that you see all about you in Pakistan. It is in the salute to a stranger from a man working in a field; the hand that offers a stranger a seat or some food on a bus or train … or in the thwack that a minion gives to a fellow underdog to impress a new master.

Manners, charade, theatre, acting our roles with due aplomb; in Pakistan these things are as important as water, or more prized than the truth.
The magnificent dome covering the tomb of Rukn-ud-Din Abul Fath, known as Rukn-i-Alam, ‘pillar of the world’, gleamed like a white prayer skullcap. Supported by a brown brick octagonal drum that rests on a colossal, wider octagonal bastion, all ringed with strata of blue tiles, it is perhaps the fourth largest dome in the pre-modern world after Hagia Sofia, St Peter’s and Gol Gumbaz……….

In Pakistan the local name for Alexander, Sikander, is never far from people’s lips.

………I changed the subject by canvassing his views on politics………It was a game I often played in cities, asking for opinions about politicians, partly because I was always surprised by the forthrightness of the replies, and partly for the pleasure in seeing that the urban masses were under no illusions about their leader. In the countryside, where feudals exerted influence on every aspect of life, people were more circumspect……

He was the master of the Pakistani florid introduction………..

When he’d finished eating, he stood up to leave for some midnight appointment – here people work at all hours except the morning. Everybody instantly dropped their bowls, plates and forks ……and followed…….A scene that could have played out at Louis XIV’s court, it revolved around the Punjabi worship of power – nobody wanted to appear less than the most loyal of fawning disciples, nor to miss out on a morsel of favour that might fall from their lord’s hand.

…..the village. It was the usual Punjabi contrast of immaculate interiors and exterior squalor…..

Millions of Pakistanis were living in a state of medieval superstition, ripe for manipulation by mullahs, politicians and bogus holy men.

…..gouging one of his ears with a car key, as many Pakistani drivers like to do.

….the disregard with which well-educated

….the disregard with which well-educated Pakistanis so often treat their poorer compatriots.

…the old mixed culture of Pakistan, whose tolerance of heterodoxy was particularly strong in Sindh, a place suffused with Sufi spirit, where the lines between Sunni and Shia, Muslim and non-Muslim blurred.

….Chitral falls within the Pathan-dominated North-West Frontier Province …….the locals, ethnically , were Kho, speakers of Khowari. Known as Agha Khanis, they belonged to the Aga Khan’s Nizari Ishmaeli Shia Muslim sect, which here had adopted some of the ancient shamanism and ritual of the Hindu Kush and become a faith apart. Locals viewed both Shia and Sunni with some ambivalence. They believed in the transmigration of souls and they had their own mystical, ethical and metaphysical books (mostly written by their mystic, Khusro). Any elder could perform a marriage ceremony; people freely drank wine; and they were not fussed about the manner of slaughtering animals. ……now, Siraj said, an increasing number of Pathans were migrating to Chitral, raising fears that they would bring their violence with them.

…..the fairy-abode mountain of Tirich Mir stood centre-stage, a reference point for all Chitral. It was the stunning tower of rock ……The British traveler Wilfred Thesiger, recalling a landscape visible from its peak, of grassland, brown patches of bog and glittering water, wrote not long before he died .

The vast majority of the twelve million or so Christians in Pakistan traced their ancestry to the ‘untouchable’ Hindu Chuhra caste from Sialkot, Punjab, where mass conversions took place during the 19th century under British rule.

Its never long before a visitor to Pakistan is regaled with the following stanza, which is sometimes, probably erroneously, attributed to Khushal Khan, a great Mughal-era Pathan poet and warrior: There is a boy across the river/whose arse cheeks are like the pomegranates of Kabul in spring/alas, the river is wide and I cannot swim.

In his The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1905), the British soldier-turned-yogi Francis Yeats-Brown ……..noted while serving on the frontier in Waziristan, that ‘Sex life is more necessary in a hot country. The hysteria which seems to hang in the air of India is aggravated by severe continence of any kind. At the end of Ramadan, for instance, my fasting squadron used to become as lively as a basket of rattlesnakes.’

…..a Graham Greene line: ‘Scruples of cleanliness grew with loneliness like the hairs on a corpse.’

I set off …….to the shrine at Buner on the edge of Swat, the resting place of Pir Baba, a saint madly popular among the Pathans. ……..taking refuge in the fabulous gurdwara at Hasan Abdal ………shrine of Pir Baba ………The saint’s history is obscure…now Pir Baba is revered as a cave-dwelling philanthropist and mystic who had set up a leper colony in these hills….when the militants arrived ……They had driven out the area’s Sikhs and Hindus, who till recently had united with Muslims in gatherings, which included women of all those faiths, to worship here through the night in bewitched vigils of chanting and devotion.

From ‘Grand Tour of Europe’ by Kevin McCloud

[ - The term "Grand Tour" refers to the 17th- and 18th-century custom of a traditional trip of Europe undertaken by upper-class young European men of sufficient means and rank (typically accompanied by a chaperon, such as a family member) when they had come of age (about 21 years old). …….. the Grand Tour was primarily associated with the British nobility and wealthy landed gentry……]

Historically, visitor’s didn’t even come to France for the food: it was oily, garlicky, over-spiced and over-sauced and frog’s legs were viewed as a poor substitute for good, honest Protestant roast beef. They came instead for a crash course in Continental culture at the first stop on foreign soil and an opportunity to acquire the requisite manners and appearance for entry into foreign courts.

Built by Henri IV from 1605 to 1612 to designs probably by Baptiste du Cerceau, the Place des Vosges represented a concerted effort to create coherent cosmopolitan splendor in a city that was generally claustrophobic, chaotic and cramped. This was the first formal square as we know it with terraces of identical houses on four sides. It was built for the Parisian nobility, who had always resided in country chateaux or ‘hotels’ (private houses) scattered throughout the city ……In a radical departure from the norm the thirty-eight houses were all built to the same design ……..the Place …..architecturally it put Paris on the map. ……..the square ……it is a true square – represents the city’s first real attempt at town planning and was the prototype for countless city squares across Europe…the square’s uncanny resemblance to Covent Garden Plaza…..

…… Parmesan cheese, which is one of the world’s finest ……Parmezan, as it is known – or Parmigiano Reggiano – is the pride of Parma and the surrounding area. …..In the medieval allegorical work The Decameron, thought to have been written between 1350 and 1353, the Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio dreams of ‘a mountain of grated Parmesan cheese on top of which there were people who did nothing but make macaroni and ravioli’. The playwright Moliere begged for a chunk of it on his deathbed. Napoleon was a big fan and Samuel Pepys famously buried his Parmesan in the garden to protect it from the Great Fire of London……it was a costly indulgence for English gourmands.
Its appeal lies in its unique flavor – deemed to embody ‘umami’, the so-called fifth or ‘savoury’ taste……..It is also pretty unique among cheeses as one that consumes all the lactose from the curds and so its acceptable to those with lactose-intolerant stomachs.

……..Vicenza, an extraordinary city……..

Venice was variously described by visitors as ‘a stinkpot, charged with the very virus of hell’, ‘more noisome than a pigstye’ and ‘cursed by nauseous air’. The dirt and stench was overwhelming – the shit, piss, cooked food and dead animals were not collected by night soil men but dumped in the canal to be hopefully swept out to sea or collected by inland farmers for fertilizer. But to most British tourists the real source of astonishment was the air of moral abandonment and casual depravity.
In 1358 the Great Council of Venice declared prostitution to be ‘absolutely indispensable to the world’……..Thomas Coryat put the number of courtesans there in the early seventeenth century at 20,000…….

Florence, Firenze, the flowering city, may be the cradle of all that is noble and cultured in the Western world, but only because it was one of the world’s great capitalist cities. …… Grand Tourist could fail to be amazed by one building in Florence – one towering structure that dwarfs all others and still dominates the city – the dome of the cathedral. The Duomo Santa Maria del Fiore (St Mary of the Flower) was begun in the thirteenth century by city fathers ………At the time they were confident that someone would develop the technology to span the huge hole in the roof, but by 1400 nobody had – until Filippo Brunelleschi stepped up to the challenge…….It is still the largest masonry dome ever built …….It delivered an engineering masterpiece which was to inspire both Michaelangelo’s St Peter’s and Sir Christopher Wren’s St Paul’s. …… Brunelleschi’s dome was not just a technological wonder; its size and height make it visible for miles, even from surrounding cities. …..the Duomo’s superdome gave Florence a giant personality. Almost a century later…… was Michaelangelo who defined the essence of contemporary Florence. Firstly with his statue of David – a High-Renaissance hero on a truly colossal scale – and then with the Medici Chapel…..Commissioned at the end of the 1400s by the Medici family, the wealthiest and most powerful of the wealthy bankers who climbed out of the Florence power-cradle to become rulers and popes, the Medici Chapel is extraordinary, both architecturally and as a statement of power. ….. Where Brunelleschi’s dome was a symbol of Church and State, the Medici dome was all about the enforcement of a dynasty and unabashed personal power. And there are many that have found and continue to find such personal architectural statements offensive.

…….most Grand Tourists were simply smelly. After weeks spent travelling in a crowded carriage in the summer heat the baths must have been a godsend. This was before the days of deodorant, and opportunities to bathe en route were few and far between. Travelers had to resort to wiping their armpits, groin and teeth with a coarse linen cloth doused in vinegar – the antiseptic of yesteryear…..

Rome …….Pope Sixtus V and his architect Carlo Fontana had laid out streets and boulevards in the 1580s…….In the 1530s just 30,000 people inhabited a city built for a million, leaving space aplenty for the popes to implement their extraordinary vision for a new Papal City on an epic scale………..If you want to remodel a city, a fire that destroy’s 13,000 buildings clearly isn’t enough. You need a city which is empty, as Rome was. It also helps if you’ve got a despotic monarch or emperor as Paris has had in its time. Or best of all, a pope. We hardly ever got it right in Britain because our cities weren’t laid out by despots – and they hadn’t been laid aside to crumble for a thousand years. They were busy vital places that had grown from villages and towns and it was hard to reinvent them in any other than their sprawling form, grown as they had on principles of the free market and freehold ownership. The only real exceptions are Bath and Edinburgh – eighteenth century model towns laid out on a truly grand scale and done so on huge speculative scales.  ……..Presiding over all this papal splendor were two magnificent epic domes – the Pantheon and St Peter’s – and the tiny, but equally perfect, Tempietto.

Although the Pantheon, the most famous dome in the world, has been converted into a church, no amount of Christianizing it can hide the fact that it is powerful, primal, and pagan – and does anything but make one feel virtuous. It is gigantic and mysterious, like it was created by devils – and was indeed known as the House of Devils at the height of the Grand Tour. Renaissance thinkers believed it had been constructed by demons, not humans, such is its scale. ……The oculus – the hole in the Pantheon’s roof – is as wide as a three-storey house is high. ……the tiny but famous tin-pot Tempietto, built by Bramante, the first architect of St Peter’s in the early sixteenth century. It has been called the most perfect building in the world.

……….the Temple of Vesta, an unusual (at least to the eighteenth century eye) circular building composed of columns.
The temple sits above the wide plain of the Campagna, beyond Rome, a plain with a rich history…….The temple itself is an exquisite Corinthian edifice and it seduced and inspired countless visitors…..the celebrated view of the Temple of Vesta was (and still is) magnificent…..

…….remodelling swathes of British landscape, is exactly what inspired young aristos like Henry Hoare II, the son of a wealthy banker, who ……..created in the 1740s one of the most idyllic landscapes in the world on his family estate at Stourhead…..created a 100-acre fictional paradise. He damned the River Stout to form a great lake, directed his gardeners in the art of ‘painterly’ landscaping, and generally proved just how much effort was needed to get the natural look……..It is still there, the first English attempt at a 3-D reproduction of a Claude painting, replete with temples, a bridge, grottoes and a lake. Every device needed for a re-enactment of any scene from classical mythology, and still today, in my view, one of the most exquisite pieces of landscape design ever carried out.

Hadrian’s Villa is perhaps the greatest rural palace of Antiquity. Built between AD 118 and 128 by the Emperor Hadrian, it was a dazzling assortment of thirty or more buildings on a 300-acre site, with the hills of Tivoli as a scenic backdrop. Much of the architecture was inspired by monuments elsewhere in Hadrian’s vast empire, particularly in Egypt and Greece. It was constructed and staffed by thousands of slaves.

Robert Adam….found perhaps the most useful and inspirational ideas at Hadrian’s Villa. Here, as at the Emperor Diocletian’s Palace at Split, which he visited ………are the expressive ideas that he was able to import to Britain, market and promote to huge success …….Adam hoovered these ideas up and presented them in a new coherent style of design and decoration that we still marvel at today and associate, more than any other style of building, with the great English Country House.

The area around the Bay of Naples has been a magnet for the rich and famous since the days of Ancient Rome…….As you might expect from a population which has spent thousands of years at the mercy of a capricious volcano, the inhabitants of Naples were, and are, astonishingly superstitious…….many Neapolitans lived – and still live – in abject poverty. In the eighteenth century, of a total population of 300,000 an estimated 40,000 were lazzari – a tight-knit class of paupers who survived on the streets, picking pockets for a living…….

Until the mid-eighteenth century almost nobody went to Greece. It was part of the Ottoman Empire and was not an easy and safe place for the Western traveler……….

Lord Elgin’s misdemeanours. His most audacious act, the ‘liberation’ of the Elgin marbles……..Elgin oversaw the removal of countless Antique treasures, including around half of the surviving sculptures in the Parthenon. And he destroyed parts of the building in the process………Elgin claimed the moral high ground, arguing that his actions were designed to preserve the ruins from mismanagement by the Turks and to ‘improve British taste’…….The legality – and moral probity – of Elgin’s actions remains in dispute. The New Acropolis Museum contains an empty room awaiting their eventual return. …….

Greece is cursed with few forests and blessed with much good marble.

Set in verdant pinewoods with commanding views of the sea, the Temple of Aphaia exemplified the Greek approach to the site. Where Roman architecture was more urban, its external expression often amounting to little more than a single façade, the Greeks conceived their temples as three-dimensional objects in the landscape. Imposing from every angle, they were placed on mountain tops, between symmetrical hills, in valleys, and on mounds, depending on which god or goddesses they represented.

The cave on Antiparos in the Cyclades Islands in the middle of the Aegean Sea was one of many natural wonders ……….a truly astonishing site. The oldest stalagmite in Europe, thought to be 45 million years old, marked the entrance to a cave which burrowed down into the rock for a 100 metres or so, leading to an underworld fairyland of rock formations and stalactites……the cave had, in fact, been famous for over two millennia…….

The inevitable and dreaded part of every Grand Tour involved crossing the Alps, via any one of a number of high passes: the French Petit or Grand St Bernard Pass, the pass via Mont Cenis or a variety of routes through Switzerland………Chamonix opened its first guest house in 1770 and by 1783 it was receiving around 1,500 visitors each summer…….the first luxury hotel was built in 1816….

……..St Gotthard’s Pass. One of the most famous and dramatic of the Alpine passes…..English mineralogist Edward Daniel Clarke….tourists were still a rarity when he took the Gotthard route from Basel to Turin in 1793.

Wordsworth……..his description of crossing the Simplon Pass, which appears in Book VI of his autobiographical magnum opus The Prelude, is one of the finest things he wrote.

….the construction of Europe’s first mountain railway, from Vitznau to Rigi, in 1871, followed by the Arth to Rigi railway in 1875, transformed Alpine tourism……..

….the legendary Mount rigi sunrise, which was – and remains – the highlight of Thomas Cook’s Alpine tours.

……St Pancras Station: a cathedral of steel attached to a masterpiece of Gothic architecture……..constructed in 1868 by the engineer William Henry Barlow, the train-shed boasted the largest single-span structure to have been built at the time, and was a miracle of Victorian engineering.

……… of the most exciting and influential buildings of the eighteenth century turned out to be James Gibbs’ Gothic Pavilion at Stowe…………

From ‘Mappillai ….an Italian son-in-law in India’ by Carlo Pizzati

Italians ……..saying……. ogni mancata è persa. In romance, every missed opportunity is a lost one.

………Tamil Nadu, where aggression, like sexuality, is kept mostly where it belongs: repressed.

……Chennai has the worst traffic in India…..Driving in Chennai is one sure cure to its main defect: it’s a boring city, unless you work for organized crime and political parties, which is often the same thing ………

The international investors or businessmen I met………when asked what its like for them to do business with India have inevitably replied: ‘Difficult’.
India is no doubt amongst the most unethical places to do business in the world today. …….Legal agreements are not truly binding, thanks to the connivance of authorities and a court system that is often reliably for sale.

In Italian fare l’Indiano, to act like an Indian means to feign total indifference.

‘Oooo, I’d love to go to In-di-aaah, but I’m so scarrrd…’
How often do I hear this phrase in Italy?

Increasing waves of migration from Asia and Africa have brought out the old fascist and racist spirit in the land of pizza/pasta.

……actor and all round wonderful guy Kabir Bedi played a courageous, egalitarian Malaysian pirate in a majorly successful TV series in the ‘70s. Wherever he shows up in Italy he’s still greeted by 40 to 50-somethings who sing to the top of their lungs the refrain of the opening credits song of Sandokan, an Italian six-part television series ………..He achieved more with that TV hit, than 70 years of diplomatic relationships between the two countries.

………Tamil, one of the most symmetrical and smooth skinned people you will find in this planet………

That touch of humanity I’ve experienced even with the busiest doctors in Chennai is central to the cure, maybe not as central as competence in your specialization but I’m convinced it contributes to healing.

People living in immigration-based countries like the US, Canada or Australia naturally smile more. These frontier societies, where initially there was more anarchy due to little presence of state authorities, developed the need to quickly signal to strangers the message: ‘I am a friend (Please don’t shoot me!)’
And that is why there’s such a thing as the appropriately named ‘Pan-American Smile’, the forced-polite wince of flight attendants – deadpan eyes………..Then there’s what could be called the Asian smile, with wide differences within that category………….
In many non-immigrant based countries, like Russia, China or Japan, smile is often only for friends, not strangers…..Many Russians are averse to smiling in public. As Maxim Gorky famously stated: ‘The main thing you see in an American is teeth.’ …….the notoriously morose Russian border guards are instructed to smile more. And so are the famously unfriendly French tourist authorities. …….Koreans say ‘He who smiles a lot is not a real man.’ Ancient Romans said laughter abounds in the mouth of a fool.

Indian brides are not supposed to smile as much as Western brides, it is believed, as Indian macho culture values female shyness, and a more serious expression is expected…….Outspokenness and an extrovert attitude have not historically been very appreciated or rewarded in traditional Indian culture and public speaking and communications skills have not been extremely encouraged either……..

In fact, India, Argentina and the Maldives associate public smiling to dishonesty more than other cultures, according to the Polish Academy of Science, and Japan, India and South Korea also associate happy smiling with less intelligent people.
Personally, I see a lot of smiles in the land of the Dravidians. I am actually impressed by the serenity and availability of smiles in South India, compared to the more challenged Indo-Aryan North.

From ‘ScoopWallah. Life on a Delhi Daily’ by Justine Hardy

India ……..Much of its survival is amidst apparent chaos and regional anarchy is perhaps due to the cultural shrug summed up in the Hindi expression jo hona hai hoga …….a smiley acceptance of everything, from the deeply sublime to the utterly ridiculous.

Perhaps I felt a little as Kipling did when he wrote to a friend in 1883: ‘I am in love with the Country and would sooner write about her than anything else. Wherefore let us depart our several ways in amity. You to Fleet Street …..and I to my own place, where I find heat and smells and oils and spices, and puffs of temple incense, and sweat and darkness, and dirt and lust and cruelty, and above all, things wonderful and fascinating innumerable.’

………Lhasa Tibetan, a gunfire language from the people of peace.