1. Make sure your wardrobe is up to it. If you happen to be nabbed in the Sahara, for example, think silk and linen to combat those sun-baked temperatures and impress your captors. Get the crumpled look going early on. Chances are you aren’t going to be changing your clothes much over the next few weeks anyway. As far as sensible footwear is concerned, I find carpincho loafers work well in North Africa. Crocodile loafers are likely to chafe with all that sand. A panama in the desert is a bit Little Englander. Go native with a pristine white shish, which can double up as scarf, handkerchief and sheet (see 2 below). Cold-weather kidnappings can pose more of a challenge sartorially. If you’re heading into freezing climes, pack some fur. It doesn’t hurt to cut a dash.
2. Don’t expect too much in the way of decent bed-linens. It’s unlikely your new hosts will be able to offer you vintage metis linen sheets, rinsed in lavender water, from Provence. Although this can be a cruel blow, lower your expectations and you may be pleasantly surprised. The damp quilt I had the good fortune to be lent during my recent, all too brief stay with the Touareg tribesmen of southern Libya did the job admirably. I took pleasure in the homemade patchwork and wayward stitching.
3. Be polite but firm. By all means suck up to your captors – but only up to a point. No one likes a toady. You don’t want to let the miserable people who have dared to capture you know that you are worth squillions – and therefore a stupendously large ransom. Nor, however, should you be so self-effacing that you come across as a feeble little nothingburger. They may just slit your throat and be done with it.
4. Travel light. Although I rarely like to be separated from my Globetrotter suitcase, life is a lot simpler if you don’t have too much on you when the hijackers jump into the road waving AK-47s in your face. They’re only going to steal it anyway.
5. Think about an escape. Initially I felt rather pathetic not taking my captors on, mowing them all down with a machine-gun and hightailing it back to Tripoli for a restorative cup of tea and apple-flavoured shisha. A growling Sir Wilfred Thesiger would surely disapprove of such inaction, I thought. Then I thought about it again. Sixteen armed young men with Kalashnikovs, who knew the desert like the back of their hands versus one Brit and his fortysomething Libyan friend, accompanied by wife and two-year-old son, who hadn’t got a clue where they were. The conclusion led to 6 below.
6. Enjoy the hospitality. Some people would pay extremely good money for an adventure like this. You’re getting all this for free. Soak it all in. Remember that unrepeatable sunset in the sand-dunes, that image of a crescent moon swinging into a star-filled sky. Join your new friends around the campfire, swap a few war stories and tell a few jokes to lighten the atmosphere. This could be your only kidnapping. Treat it as though it’s your last.
7. Ask your kidnappers if you can take notes – insist on it – and make sure you have a decent pen and writing paper to hand. A Moleskine notebook will do the trick. Fountain pens are preferable but will require a decent supply of ink that may not be forthcoming. Turn the whole thing into an extended interview. Think experience of a lifetime. Think life-enhancing adventure. Think book deal, talk shows and shameless publicity.
8. Get a good agent. See 7 above.
9. Learn some Horace. If you can reel off a few stanzas in Latin, you’ll bamboozle your captors and/or impress them beyond reason. Remember that lovely moment on 26 April, 1944 when the great warrior-writer Major Patrick Leigh Fermor kidnapped the German General Heinrich Kreipe on Crete. During the 18-day manhunt that followed, the general started murmuring his way through an ode by Horace. Paddy cut in and reeled off the remaining stanzas – in Latin. “We had both drunk at the same fountains long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.” Quite so.
10. Take a tip from Islam and come to terms with the fact that you are no longer master of your own destiny, if you ever were. It’s a liberating discovery. Your life is now in the hands of almighty Allah. He may let you off. He may not. You may be returned to your loved ones before you can say, “Call that a kidnapping? Is that it?” Equally, you may be for the cosh, in which case if you are male 72 doe-eyed virgins will soon be consoling you for your loss of life. It could be worse.
Justin Marozzi was briefly hosted by the Touareg in southern Libya. He is the author of South from Barbary: Along the Slave Routes of the Libyan Sahara. His most recent book is The Man Who Invented History: Travels with Herodotus. He is writing a history of Baghdad for Penguin. www.justinmarozzi.com; Follow him @justinmarozzi
[ Read more… ]» A High Time in Kyrgyzstan – Sunday Times travel
It’s jam on arrival in Bishkek. Apricot jam. Strawberry jam. Raspberry jam. Apple jam. Pear jam. Cherry jam. Blackcurrant jam. There’s even something called sea-buckthorn jam (no, I hadn’t, either). This is in addition to a large bowl of porridge, yoghurt, smoked sausage and fried egg, cheese, apples and grapes, pancakes and coffee. This is the Full Kyrgyz Breakfast. Such a homely introduction comes as a surprise in a country better known — to the extent that it is known, which it isn’t, really — for wild, yurt-filled landscapes peopled with moustachioed Genghis Khan lookalikes hunting on horseback with eagles amid the snow-ravaged peaks of Central Asia.
Yet this is only the capital, a small, Soviet affair in an obscure corner of a murky part of the world where British travellers are noticeable only by their absence.
While many former Soviet republics have long ditched Lenin, the bald, finger-wagging ideologue remains one of the most common sights in Kyrgyzstan. True, since independence in 1991 he has been demoted from the plinth in the main square that used to bear his name — now renamed Ala-Too, after the crinkly, snow-topped mountains hung up against a pale blue sky to the south of the city — but he hasn’t moved far. Having loomed large in front of the State Historical Museum, he now lurks in a square immediately behind it, a stone’s throw from a cosy statue of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in animated conversation on a park bench. Who said the Soviets were dead and buried? And who guessed that many Kyrgyz earnestly wish they were back?
Bishkek is a tranquil little city of wide boulevards, tree-lined avenues and pleasant parks of oak, maple, silver birch, walnut, pine and fir. There are one or two antiques shops to interest those in search of Soviet memorabilia, and the vibrant Osh Bazaar, with its pretty pyramids of many-coloured spices, but this is not the reason most travellers come to Kyrgyzstan.
This easternmost of the “Stans” is a land of mountains, rising to almost 25,000ft in the far southeast. It’s a place of wide horizons and sun-warmed steppes, crashing rivers and steep-sided valleys, the home of white-tailed eagles, yaks, curly-horned Marco Polo sheep and ibex, and the elusive snow leopard. It is, in other words, an adventurer’s playground, the place to hire a horse and unleash your inner Mongol warlord.
All roads for this line of things lead east to Karakol, a quaint town of crumbling Russian gingerbread houses in the Tien Shan, the Celestial Mountains of Chinese folklore. To get there you must follow the shores of Lake Issyk-Kul (Warm Lake), the world’s second largest alpine lake, an alternately serene and stormy stretch of water. This is the territory once known to both the Mongol world conqueror Genghis Khan, Scourge of God, and his 14th-century reincarnation Tamerlane, Sword of Islam and Lord of the Fortunate Conjunction. Both men ran amok in Central Asia and spilt enough blood — metaphorically speaking — to fill the lake.
After another prodigious, jam-filled breakfast one morning, I have an appointment with Almas, a diminutive, latter-day Genghis with piercing eyes and a dark smudge of a moustache. Taking advantage of the rising number of visitors to Kyrgyzstan in recent years, Almas has built up a stable of horses. Some are for riding, the mares are kept to make kumis, the mildly alcoholic fermented milk, which is, alas, out of season during my visit.
To an untrained eye, Makiza, the slender, seven-year-old chestnut gelding Almas assigns to me, appears rather too slight an animal to cope with hauling 15st of hapless rider up to 13,000ft. Needless to say, I am completely wrong. Though resolutely unimpressed by affectionate patting and verbal encouragement to keep up a respectable pace, he proves a robust and steady fellow as we climb out of Karakol, past the industrial squalor of Ak-Suu village. Almas is also less than impressed by my reluctance to use the whip with meaning. Nikolai Mikhailovich Przhevalsky, the fearless 19th-century Russian explorer during the Great Game (as the rivalry between Britain and Russia there was called), would no doubt have taken a tougher line on his mount. He was convinced, as he wrote in one of his travelogues, that “three things are necessary for the success of long and dangerous journeys in Central Asia — money, a gun and a whip”. Horses for courses, perhaps.
There is a wild splendour to the landscape as we take the rough track up the Altyn Arashan (Golden Spa) valley. The blue-blurred river flows fast over giant, copper-coloured boulders alongside the shocking yellow and rusting orange of silver birch and apricot trees in autumnal decay. A day’s ride takes us steeply up into the mountains, through fir forests to a romantically decrepit wooden cabin presided over by Valentin, a vodka-quaffing Ukrainian whose parents were deported to Kyrgyzstan by Stalin.
Over the next few days the Kyrgyz weather throws everything it can at us. One day, cerulean skies and gentle zephyrs, the next, swirling snowstorms and blinding white-out. Leaving the shivering horses and Almas behind one morning, I strike out alone towards Ala-Kul Pass, which rises starkly above us. A steep ascent, it is said to command fabulous views over the lake of the same name. The weather has other ideas. A bullying wind whips up and driving snow reduces visibility to a few yards. For a brief moment, the brute face of the final climb is tantalisingly revealed, a near-vertical, dread-inducing approach to the pass, then the sky darkens again, snow is flying in all directions and everything is lost to sight, forcing an ignominious, scrambling retreat. On a particularly steep and slippery section, I come a cropper, flying into the air and landing expertly on my coccyx. At 41, I no longer bounce. Consolation comes below in the form of a muscle-soothing soak in the guesthouse’s hot spring, followed by a restorative volley of vodka shots with a boisterous party of locals and high tea with pots and pots of fresh jam.
After descending to Karakol, there is time to visit the astonishing site of San Tash (Counting Stones), where legend has it that, ahead of a military campaign in the east in the late 14th century, Tamerlane ordered every one of his soldiers to deposit a stone in a pile. On their return, each soldier was required to remove a stone. Each boulder in the vast cairn that remains is a monument to one man’s death. Other ancient voices echo in the catacombs of Svetly Mys, a charming, poplar-lined hamlet that has the unique distinction of being the possible burial place of St Matthew on the one hand, and the origin of the Black Death on the other: an apocryphal apocalypse, if you like.
A final, monumental breakfast awaits. Among the piles of bread and fruit, cheese and meat, once again there is enough jam to defeat a Mongol army. Apart from the hospitality of its people, as boundless as its steppes and mountains, this, surely, is the essence of Kyrgyzstan. As the late, great writer and war hero Paddy Leigh Fermor once said of a particularly glowing review of one of his books: “It’s jam all the way through.”
Justin Marozzi travelled as a guest of Steppes Travel (01285 880980,steppestravel.co.uk). For packages, see over
CENTRAL ASIA: A GUIDE
In the late 19th century, the high passes and ancient cities of Central Asia were the exotic setting for the Great Game between Russia and Britain, with dashing officers and explorers such as Nikolai Mikhailovich Przhevalsky and Alexander “Bukhara” Burnes competing for influence on behalf of their country’s respective empires. There is no better or more gripping introduction to this period of history than Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game, published in 1990. Today’s visitor to Central Asia no longer runs the very real risk of having his or her throat slit or head lopped off by some maniacal ruler, yet the Stans, as they are known, offer the adventurous and historically minded traveller mesmerising possibilities.
THE OTHER STANS
For those in search of magnificent monuments, it is hard to beat Uzbekistan, home to the cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. Samarkand, Tamerlane’s blue-domed imperial capital, made a profound impression on George Curzon, the Tory MP and future viceroy of India, in 1888. “The Registan of Samarkand was originally, and is still even in its ruin, the noblest public square in the world,” he wrote. “I know of nothing in the East approaching it in massive simplicity and grandeur; and nothing in Europe… which can even aspire to enter the competition.” Then there’s Bukhara, my favourite, a medieval warren of mosques, madrasahs and minarets, still ponds, or hauzes, and teahouses. Khiva, a World Heritage Site and home to an open-air museum, is an extraordinary city, albeit too glitzily restored for some tastes.
Desert explorers will thrill to the wide spaces of Turkmenistan, plaything of the dictator Saparmurat Niyazov from 1990-2006, a place of pilgrimage and pre-Islamic mysticism, home to the Karakum Desert and the Silk Road city of Merv, which has a cameo role in A Thousand and One Nights.
While Kyrgyzstan has the Tien Shan mountains, Tajikistan boasts the marginally higher Pamirs. Few road trips can compete with the Pamir Highway for roof- of-the-world exhilaration. The Wakhan Valley, which Tajikistan shares with Afghanistan, is a wilderness scattered with Buddhist ruins and Silk Road fortresses within sight of the mighty Hindu Kush.
Oil-rich Kazakhstan, one of the world’s largest countries, combines the modern, limousine-filled cities of Almaty and Astana with endless steppes and horse-riding opportunities galore.
For all these countries, make sure your rucksack contains Colin Thubron’s The Lost Heart of Asia, a plangent memoir of Central Asia in the wake of the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
WHEN TO GO
For much of the region, spring (April to June) and autumn (September to November) are the best times to travel. July and August are very hot and dry in Uzbekistan, but are the ideal time to visit mountainous Kyrgyzstan before temperatures plummet. Winters (December to February) can be extremely cold.
Kyrgyzstan, the most straightforward country to visit, does not require a visa for a stay of 60 days. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan both require visas. Turkmenistan requires a visa and a letter of invitation from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Tajikistan requires a visa and a GBAO (Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast) permit if going through the Pamirs.
Travel in Central Asia inevitably involves expeditions to remote, sometimes inhospitable places that are often far from creature comforts and modern hospitals. Security, however, is generally excellent. As a rule, terrorism is less of a threat than theft and pickpocketing. The latest advice on all countries is available from the Foreign Office (fco.gov.uk), which tends to err on the side of caution. Your biggest risk may be falling off a horse.
For western visitors, at least, not to mention local dissidents, activists and opposition figures, human rights in Central Asia are not what they could be. Uzbekistan, whose grey-faced President Islam Karimov has clung grimly to power since 1990, is surely governed by the region’s most unpleasant regime, with a penchant for boiling dissidents to death. Torture and forced child labour are endemic. As Human Rights Watch succinctly puts it: “Uzbekistan’s human-rights record
remains appalling.” Kyrgyzstan also has a recent record of torture.
PACKAGE OR INDEPENDENT?
The Stans are a region where — depending on your Russian-language skills and willingness to rough it — you may find it sensible to travel with a specialist tour operator rather than go it alone. Steppes recommends a package, but also advises that “independent travel is a possibility in all Stans except Turkmenistan, where a guide must be provided. Some travellers prefer to do their own sightseeing in towns such as Bukhara, Samarkand, Bishkek, Almaty, Astana and Dushanbe, where it is quite easy to do so independently”. Some visitors may strike a compromise, using a tour operator to plan the bare bones of a visit and improvising on the ground as the fancy takes them.
[ Read more… ]» Post-revolution Libya finds Tripoli in high spirits
Trabulus. Ar Roz al Bahr. Bride of the Sea. Roman Oea. The White City. The Havana of North Africa. Whatever its name, Tripoli has been delighting travellers for centuries. Libya is a land of peerless hospitality and greetings that last for minutes; its capital’s architecture encompasses imperial Roman, traditional Islamic, shabby-chic Ottoman, Italian grandeur and oil-boom dictator kitsch.
Set against Libya’s unfathomable history, the four decades from 1969 to 2011, when Libyans had the great misfortune to be ruled by Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, seem the merest blip in the long life of this resilient nation. Yet with Qaddafi gone, the delight of Libyans on the streets of Tripoli is palpable and affecting. There is a special joy in travelling to this bewitching country after its liberation. “Libya hurra! Free Libya!” is a refrain you’ll hear on the streets, where entrepreneurial enthusiasts peddle bracelets, brooches and badges, T-shirts, mugs and tracksuits emblazoned with the old-new national tricolour of red, black and green.
In spite of a declaration of autonomy by eastern tribal leaders earlier this month and reports of sporadic violence, tourists are making a tentative return sooner than expected. Airlines, crucially, have been voting with their wings. Tripoli was Etihad Airways’ first new destination in 2012. Qatar Airways, Royal Jordanian, Lufthansa, Air France and Alitalia are five of a number of international airlines that are now flying to Libya, with British Airways soon to join them. I have travelled to Libya four times in the last 12 months, twice during the revolution and twice in its aftermath, and already I’m suffering from withdrawal symptoms.
While western governments including the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office are advising against all but essential travel to the capital, some tour operators are more sanguine. “We’ve had absolutely zero problems in terms of security,” says Nicholas Wood, director of Political Tours, which has just led a debut trip to Libya. “I do think things have significantly improved since we were last here in October. None of our group felt threatened at any moment. It’s definitely not the war zone people make it out to be, but you have to be self reliant and plan carefully.”
The last time I was in Tripoli, back in the autumn, was a few days after the Qaddafi regime had fallen.
Foreign correspondents were combing government buildings and hopping over foreign embassy walls for incriminating documents. There was no running water in either the Mehari or the Corinthian, the two main hotels in the city. One of the most memorable evenings during the post-Qaddafi euphoria sweeping the city was a high-spirited evening spent swapping stories with the late, great war reporter Marie Colvin – hers were the best. She was having a ball in Libya and had been reporting as courageously as ever from the frontline in Misrata.
Then, Martyrs’ Square was eerily empty at night. It took another few days for the crowds to pour out and fill the capital’s most important public space. “We were too scared to come out,” said Yusra al Massoudi, an effervescent civil engineer who couldn’t stop smiling. “We didn’t dare believe we were free.” Now fear has been replaced with pride. “All of my life I never felt this was my country. Libya was like Qaddafi’s farm. Now, only now, for the first time in my life, I feel proud to be Libyan. This is my country.”
After the revolutionary tension and torpor, the highly atmospheric medina or Old City, one of Tripoli’s great, hassle-free attractions, has come back to life. Start off in Martyr’s Square beneath the massive walls of the castle that stares out impassively towards the southern shores of Sicily, silent witness to 1,000 years of wars and intrigues between marauding corsairs, pirates, Spaniards, Italians, Englishmen, Arabs and Turks. Just south of it is the entrance to the venerable Suq al Mushir, which plunges you instantly into a maelstrom of sights, sounds and smells, not least gold-filled jewellers’ windows by the score. Does anyone love gold as much as Libyans? Sharp-elbowed little old ladies in their white farashiya wraps, the traditional costumes worn by their forebears for centuries, jostle with street-chic young men in tight black shirts and spray-on jeans, perhaps a Kangol beret worn rakishly back to front. The old and new collide.
After all your exertions in the labyrinthine medina, all those purchases in Suq al Turk, Suk al Attara and Suq al Harrara, cool your heels with an ice-cool frappé latté in Casa, a thoroughly modern cafe opposite the freshly painted Ottoman clock tower. A stone’s throw away, immediately recognisable by its octagonal minaret that surges above street level, is the many-domed (30) Ahmed Pasha Karamanli Mosque that dates back to the late 1730s. Awash with intricate floral patterns and bold Moorish designs, this is the largest and most highly decorated mosque in Tripoli.
If frappucinos smack of the inauthentic, delve deeper into the medina until you find one of several more evocative – perhaps downright dilapidated – cafes, and take your place on an old bench alongside men playing cards or backgammon over a steaming glass of mint tea. Navigationally challenged from birth, I have lost count of the number times I have got lost in the medina over the years, and I do it again now. It never matters. You can always plot a way out over an apple tobacco-filled shisha. The golden rule, too often forgotten where I come from: take your time.
Revolutions happen, foreign powers invade and colonise, dictators come and go; the insouciant Tripoline has seen it all before. Perhaps little has changed since 1845, when James Richardson, the British explorer and campaigner against the slave trade, arrived in Tripoli and was struck by the city’s relaxed way of life. “Whether the extraordinary indolence of the people proceeds from the climate, or want of occupation, I know not,” the magnificently moustachioed Colonel Hanmer Warrington, the British consul, harrumphed. “But they are in an horizontal position twenty hours out of the twenty-four, sleeping in the open air.”
In fact, Tripoli is getting busier by the year. New shops, hotels and restaurants are springing up all the time. More adventurous travellers are already making a beeline for a country that has been neglected for decades. In Zumit, a former caravansaray built in 1816 for travelling merchants returning from or embarking on perilous expeditions across the Sahara, now converted into a charming boutique hotel next to the second-century AD Arch of Marcus Aurelius, I bump into Robert and Sarah, two middle-aged Britons. They’re raving about Libya and Libyans.
“We’ve wanted to come to Libya for years and now seemed the right time,” says Robert. “The people are fantastic,” adds Sarah. “I can’t get over how friendly and welcoming they are. We’ll definitely be back.” We compare notes on our respective gluttony in Tripoli. We have all made the gastronomic pilgrimage to Tajura just along the coast, an opulent dinner of fresh fish at Barracuda I, one of several restaurants strung along the seafront.
Huda Abuzeid, a friend from revolutionary reporting days, is a Libyan film-maker who returned to Libya for the first time in 2011 to help the anti-Qaddafi opposition. She’s now making Tripoli her home and is setting up the Rashad Foundation to help rebuild civil society. “Libya has a Mediterranean climate with a Mediterranean culture, we’ve got a beautiful sea, lovely ruins, masses of pristine desert and mountains that rival Tuscany,” she says. “But perhaps the most exciting thing, now that Qaddafi has gone, is that visitors now mix freely with Libyans, engaging with people who after years of isolation are really excited to interact with the outside world.” She’s right. This is why people stop you in the streets and thank you for visiting.
Tripoli is also an ideal base for quickfire expeditions to satisfy history buffs and desert adventurers alike. About 60km to the west is Sabratha, westernmost of the three ancient settlements that with Oea (modern Tripoli) and imperial Leptis Magna made the Roman provincia Tripolitania, province of the three cities. Intimate, invariably deserted and with one of the world’s most dramatically sited theatres only yards from the turquoise Mediterranean, this is a site so fabulous it’s little short of lunacy to miss it. It is hard to beat a Mediterranean sunset dip in the ancient port, tumbledown columns and peristyles visible in the clear water below, swimming against this ancient backdrop as the Romans did 2,000 years ago.
Then, 128km to the east of the capital, there’s Leptis, Lebda to Arabs, Lepcis to purists and pedants. Where Sabratha is compact and elegant, Leptis is vast on a scale that is never less than imperial. I only have a day, but you could spend several days wandering the site without repeating yourself, marvelling at the tons of marble deposited across the city by Septimius Severus, the original African Roman emperor done good. The only other foreign visitors are a couple of journalists. Then there is the odd family of husband, wife and squadron of small children weaving through the ruins, and the occasional militiaman cutting an eccentric figure.
Born in Leptis, then a remote corner of the empire, Severus rose to the highest office in 193 AD and showered his hometown with riches in what must rank as one of history’s greatest property and construction booms. Leptis is monumental, extravagant beyond a 21st-century tyrant’s wildest dreams, the tone set by the massive Arch of Septimius Severus, built in 203 to commemorate the emperor’s visit to his birthplace and celebrate the power of imperial Rome – hence the marble reliefs of triumphal processions, winged Victories, captive barbarians and a united imperial family. Subtlety was not the architect’s strongest suit. In the words of the art historian Bernard Berenson, writing of the ruins of Leptis to his wife in 1935: “In their present state they are evocative and romantic to a degree that it would be hard to exaggerate.” If anything, after continued disregard by the last regime, they are even more so today. In almost 25 years of travelling to Libya, I have barely seen other tourists at either Sabratha or Leptis. It is one of the most extraordinary treats, and you have to wonder how long it will last.
A final word on security. Although Tripoli is still home to a number of armed militias who keep the peace in their respective neighbourhoods, the security situation is almost entirely benign in the capital, as responsible western security companies advise. Visitors can wander through the Old City alone at night without so much as a raised eyebrow from Tripoli’s famously courteous and welcoming inhabitants. While Benghazi and the great Roman sites of Sabratha and Leptis are also safe to visit, Ghadames and much of the south are a little too hairy for tourism as security is sketchy. My wife reminds me to mention I was (briefly) kidnapped by armed Touareg on the road to Ghadames last September. Accidents happen. Ghadames and the south more broadly will come back.
For those of a more timorous disposition, who, perhaps, blanche at the sight of an AK-47 outside strictly government hands, it is still probably a little early to visit. Libyans report that just as tourism was starting to grow again, the revolution stopped it in its tracks. But that won’t last too long and there’s little doubt that Libya will be back on the map again. Those travellers who relish something a little different, who fancy a rewarding adventure in a newly liberated country, would be hard pushed to find a better place to visit.
Justin Marozzi is the author of South from Barbary, the story of a 1,930km journey by camel along the slave routes of the Libyan Sahara. He is a senior advisor at Albany Associates, which has worked with the National Transitional Council in Tripoli, and is a Trustee of the Royal Geographical Society (www.justinmarozzi.com).
[ Read more… ]» Where no man has gone before: The expedition across the Darwin Cordillera in South America continues a great tradition of discovery
Who didn’t experience a frisson of excitement at the news on Wednesday that a French military expedition had achieved what none before had managed – a crossing of the Darwin Cordillera, the famously inhospitable mountain range in southern Chile? Notwithstanding the soupçon of disappointment that this stirring feat of exploration was French rather than British, it was one of those moments that bound us together in a celebration of what humans can, and invariably must, do. As a species, we are born to explore.
It is no criticism of the French expedition to observe that it is unlikely to have elicited discoveries of scientific value. That was not its point. Adventurous, death-defying missions like this serve a different purpose, inspiring a new generation of explorers and scientists to take to the field, driven by curiosity and the desire to feel snow, rain, wind, sand and sun on their faces. For the Frenchmen, it was a case of ducking into the blinding snow and roaring winds of the Furious Fifties while avoiding falling seracs, avalanches and hidden crevasses, all of this while pulling 165lb loads on sleds.
Contrary to popular belief, there is no shortage of terra incognita for Homo sapiens to explore, study and understand. All the digital mapping in the universe, all the most brilliant techniques of geospatial information systems will never remove the need for inquisitive men and women to take to the field and make discoveries that are critical to our survival, and that of untold species and environments threatened by our activities.
As Jamie Buchanan-Dunlop, director of Digital Explorer, an educational programme that brings expeditions into the classroom, puts it: “The notion that there’s no longer a need to go out into the field and explore because of modern marvels like Google Earth is a misapprehension. We have wonderful images of swaths of rainforest canopy, but we still need people to find out what’s underneath. We have satellite images of the great expanses of ocean ice, but we still send explorers out there with old-fashioned technologies like ice-core samplers. And in terms of the rapid changes occurring to habitats across the world, you simply can’t investigate what’s going on from outer space.”
The oceans, which cover more than 70 per cent of the planet, still contain innumerable mysteries. The American explorer Bob Ballard, better known for finding the Titanic, argues that his greatest achievement was the discovery in 1977 of hydrothermal vents off the Galapagos Islands. Deep in these dark waters, more than 2,000 metres beneath the surface, lived previously unknown chemosynthetic animals, part of the first major ecosystem that did not live off solar energy but the energy of the earth. It challenged the received wisdom about the potential for life on other planets.
Confronted by climate change, greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, biodiversity, desertification, growing populations, poor water supply, the forced migration of species and a host of other unknowns, we still have a huge amount to learn about our planet. According to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, estimates of the number of species on Earth range from five million to 30 million. Of these, only 1.75 million have been formally described. The same study found that more than 60 per cent of the ecosystem services examined, including fresh water and fisheries, were being degraded or used unsustainably, resulting in “a substantial and largely irreversible loss in the diversity of life on Earth”.
We are only just starting to understand some of the innermost secrets of the world’s rainforests. Of the insects recovered from the canopy, inaccessible until recent years, an estimated 80 per cent are unknown to science. Andrew Mitchell, founder and director of the Global Canopy Programme, says this is the “richest, least known, most threatened habitat on Earth”. Satellites supplement, rather than substitute for, the work of explorers and scientists on the ground. Thus in 2009, aided by the latest in infrared recording, the BBC Natural History Unit discovered a new species of giant rat 1,000 metres up in the remote jungle of Papua New Guinea.
“Understanding and managing our changing planet requires continual and massive scientific scrutiny,” says Nigel Winser, executive director of Earthwatch Institute, the international environmental charity. “At one end we are all explorers now – app in hand, recording change from ‘bud-break’ to ‘climate-watch’. At the other end, the complexity of climate change, our ecosystems and how they serve the seven billion of us, water security – and of course the enormity of coastal ecosystems, all require global programmes, led locally and harnessing the best information systems and software.”
Responding to these challenges, the Royal Geographical Society will soon be returning to the field with its own research and scientific expeditions. The august body that sent Scott to the South Pole, Livingstone to Africa and Hillary to Mount Everest plans to launch five partnership projects over the next 10 years.
We should salute the doughty French climbers for this latest achievement in the annals of exploration. The “white hell” they battled against in the Chilean mountains is a reminder of the lines from James Elroy Flecker’s The Golden Journey to Samarkand (a poem beloved by the SAS):
… we shall go
Always a little further: it may be
Beyond that last blue mountain barred with snow,
Across that angry or that glimmering sea…
This is the spirit that has always driven, and will always drive, the discoveries in our tiny corner of the universe. And it is a story that is still incomplete.
Justin Marozzi is a councillor of the Royal Geographical Society; www.justinmarozzi.com
[ Read more… ]» Traveling the Globe Page by Page – Newsweek
Critics have been forecasting the demise of travel writing for decades. Yet the genre shows no signs whatsoever of slowing down, as evidenced by Newsweek’s list of the greatest travel writers of our time.
By Justin Marozzi
Freya Stark (1893–1993)
A fearless English traveller, Stark launched her writing career in the 1930s with a series of extraordinary expeditions to the remotest corners of Arabia and the Middle East, still largely unseen by Western eyes. As a multilingual female traveller in one of the most conservative and patriarchal regions of the world, her pioneering achievements still strike the modern reader as fiercely triumphant, with every moment recorded and relished in exceptional prose. The writer Lawrence Durrell rightly hailed her as a “poet of travel”.
Best book: The Southern Gates of Arabia: A Journey in the Hadhramaut (1936)
Martha Gellhorn (1908-1998)
Described by the New Yorker as “one of the most eloquent witnesses of the 20th century”, the American writer Gellhorn was a hard-as-nails yet deeply compassionate war reporter who covered conflicts all over the world—most notably the Second World War, where she was one of the first journalists to report from a liberated Dachau. During the D-Day landings of June 1944 she scooped her then-husband Ernest Hemingway, to whom she was married for five turbulent years. Later, she covered the war in Vietnam, the Six-Day War in the Middle East and civil wars in Central America.
Best book: Travels with Myself and Another (1978)
Norman Lewis (1908-2003)
Unassuming in person, Lewis was unforgettable in print, a writer’s writer revered by fellow Englishman Graham Greene as “one of our best writers, not of any particular decade but of our century”. The Lewis classics include Naples ’44, in which he recreated the Dantean hell of a shattered wartime city, The Honoured Society, a simultaneously chilling and darkly humorous study of the Mafia, and Golden Earth, a portrait of Burma, a country where “the condition of the soul replaces that of the stock market as a topic for polite conversation”. Reading Lewis is a joyful journey that drifts easily from limpid prose bordering on magical realism to hard-hitting campaigning journalism.
Best book: A Dragon Apparent: Travels in Indo-China (1951)
Ryszard Kapuściński (1932-2007)
Doyen of foreign correspondents, the Polish writer Kapuściński kept the best material from his reporter’s notebooks for the works of literature that many ardent fans hoped would win him the Nobel Prize. His insatiable thirst for travel, for meeting fellow men and women in exceptional circumstances around the world–including at least 27 African wars, revolutions and coups over four decades– was prompted by an inspired gift from his editor: a copy of Herodotus’ Histories. Kapuscinski’s Emperor told the mesmerising story of Haile Selassie’s downfall in Ethiopia; Shah of Shahs, the last days of the Persian monarch. Both exemplified his flair for what he called “literary reportage”.
Best book: Another Day of Life (1987)
Dervla Murphy (1931- )
The Irishwoman’s first book, published in 1965, was entitled Full Tilt, the pithiest description of how Murphy has always lived her life. Over the years, and in the course of 24 books, she has thrown herself at challenges that would leave lesser men and women– and that is almost all of us– quivering in her wake. Many of these journeys were made by bicycle, Murphy’s favourite mode of travel; others by train, boat, pony or mule to far-flung corners of the globe from Congo to Siberia. Her writings reflect her style of travel: courageous, uncompromising and completely original, brimming with raw energy and righteous anger.
Best book: Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle (1965)
Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-)
What life has been lived with more élan? At the age of 18, Leigh Fermor walked from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople– never ‘Istanbul’ to this irrepressible philhellene– a serendipitous, marathon journey immortalised half a century later in the refulgent prose of A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. He has secluded himself silently with Trappist monks, fallen in love and run away with a princess, fought for his country, kidnapped a German general, joined a Greek cavalry charge and swum the Hellespont. The Financial Times considered Mani, his celebrated travelogue on the southern Peloponnese, and Roumeli, its counterpart on northern Greece, “two of the best travel books of the century”.
Best book: A Time of Gifts: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube (1977)
Jan Morris (1926-)
While many authors in this list have been stirred by the irresistible call of the wild and remote, the Welsh writer Jan Morris has devoted her literary career to a celebration of civilisation’s greatest achievement: the city. Among her many books, the portraits of Venice, Oxford, Hong Kong, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere and Manhattan ’45 stand out as timeless hymns to these great urban centres. She has enjoyed a six-decade love affair with the ultimate city, New York, which dates back to her heady first glimpse of it in the 1950s, a passion undimmed by the narcissism and neuroses of this roaring megapolis.
Best book: Venice (1955)
V. S. Naipaul (1932-)
Winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize for Literature, together with numerous other literary awards, Trinidadian-British Naipaul has been called the greatest living writer of English prose. Celebrated as a novelist who explores the haunting legacy of British colonialism, he is also admired as a consummate travel writer, author of the controversial 1981 classic Among the Believers, an early study of Islam in Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia. Naipaul’s travel books reflect his interests as a novelist, roving across the vestiges of empire in the Caribbean, India and Africa, bristling with pugnacious opinion and coruscating observation leavened by humane doses of empathy.
Best book: An Area of Darkness: His Discovery of India (1964)
Cees Nooteboom (1933-)
Better known as a novelist than travel writer in his native Holland, Nooteboom is the ultimate stylist of the genre. Highly introspective and self-conscious, witty and whimsical, he observes people and places, and his reactions to them, with an originality that is totally arresting–and all without sounding remotely precious. For those yet to discover the glories of Nooteboom in translation, the best introduction is Nomad’s Hotel, a collection of travel writings from Venice, Munich, Mali, Ireland and beyond. On a boat trip up the Gambia, he encounters a young Peace Corps idealist who “resembles the beginning of a novel which is destined to have an unhappy ending”. Sparkling sentences abound in his works.
Best book: Roads to Santiago (1997)
Colin Thubron (1939-)
One of Britain’s most civilised and civilising writers, Thubron is the elder statesman of British travel literature–an unofficial status given more formal footing with his presidency of the Royal Society of Literature. He shrugs off any attempt at geographical classification, having written beautifully about the Middle East, the former Soviet Union, Europe and China, in addition to his half a dozen novels. His most recent book, To a Mountain in Tibet, published earlier this year, shows Thubron still at his poetic best, enduring a lung-shredding trek to holy Mount Kailas. Perhaps the only writer alive who can write page after page about rock formations without writing a single sentence that is less than brilliant.
Best book: Among the Russians: From the Baltic to the Caucasus (1983)
Paul Theroux (1941-)
America’s most successful literary travel writer of recent times, Theroux surfed the travel genre renaissance wave from the mid-Seventies, delighting readers with his bestselling debut The Great Railway Bazaar, an eclectic mix of exotic tales from a four-month journey by train across Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Trains and railways have long fascinated him. The Old Patagonian Express tells the alternately hilarious and horrifying story of his travels from Boston to Patagonia. The trademark Theroux style is richly descriptive prose suffused with sharp irony, exemplified in Dark Star Safari, the account of his overland journey from Cairo to Cape Town.
Best book: The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train through Asia (1975)
Tim Mackintosh-Smith (1961-)
Perhaps only a Brit possessed of greater-than-average eccentricity would take it upon himself to spend a decade travelling in the footsteps– or footnotes, as Mackintosh-Smith would prefer–of a fourteenth-century Arab traveller. On the road, he and his literary hero, Ibn Battutah, make the perfect duo. Mackintosh-Smith, a bookworm and Arabist who has lived in Yemen for almost 30 years, is a consistently entertaining guide on his travels, and those of “IB”, across North Africa, the Middle East, India, Africa and Europe. Irreverent, erudite, occasionally bawdy, he is entertaining proof that there is plenty of life left in the travel writing genre.
Best book: Travels with a Tangerine: In the Footnotes of Ibn Battutah (2001)
Justin Marozzi is a travel writer and historian. His most recent book is The Way of Herodotus: Travels with the Man Who Invented History. Follow him on Twitter @justinmarozzi
[ Read more… ]» Defiance shows itself in its true colours; Mogadishu Notebook
There’s bravery wherever you look in Mogadishu. One afternoon 38 women in brightly coloured robes are launching the Somali Women’s Association under the big blue sky and on the sandy beaches at the headquarters of the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom).
Those from the ten city districts held by al-Shebab, aka al-Kebab, the delusional al-Qaeda-allied Islamists, are risking their lives to be here. The dresses are deliberate defiance towards the women-fearing Islamists who demand that they wear heavy shrouds on pain of whipping.
Asha Omar Geesdir, the charismatic chairwoman, says they will open a free school, offer adult literacy classes, loans and free medicine. A generation has missed out on schooling and Islamist education consists of teaching people how to blow themselves up.
“Al-Shebab talk about women as if we are already dead,” Geesdir says. “We want to live, but all they talk about is paradise after death. They rape, kill, torture and take women they think are beautiful by force.”
My theory about Islamists is that they’re very cross because they don’t get enough sex. In fact, I don’t think they’re very good with the ladies at all. They should take lessons from Sheikh Ahmed Mursal Adam, the 75-year-old presidential gardener, who has had 27 wives and has 200 children and grandchildren. Beat that, beardies.
Inner city blues If you think Boris Johnson has a lot on his plate, spare a thought for Mohammed Ahmed Nur, the new mayor of Mogadishu. Much of the city looks like postwar Dresden, and is in the hands of an enemy whose concept of public services is limited to beheading, flogging and stoning. Nur, a Somali Brit, is undaunted. First on his agenda is rubbish collection. The streets haven’t been cleaned since 2006. The mayor is getting fuel on credit and borrowing trucks. Perhaps Boris could lend a hand.
His approach must make him a marked man. The mayor of Mog fixes me with a steely look. “My death is already determined,” he replies.
I head back to my campsite at the airport in time for a magnificent sunset. In the background the rat-a-tat-tat of machinegun fire. How many capital cities are there where you can go for a jog along a runway dodging mortars? In my cabin is a Bomb Threat Checklist. Among the questions I must ask a caller: when is the bomb going to explode? What does it look like? Did you place it? Why? What is your address? Kebabed On the frontline I observe fighting between Amisom and al-Kebab. Al-Uruba Hotel, once Mogadishu’s premier holiday spot, with fabulous views across the wind-ruffled Indian Ocean, is now a shell.
Rubble lines the corridors, sandbags have replaced windowpanes. The beardies, holed up in another shell, are attacking an Amisom position, not to mention a US warship, so it’s time to flush them out.
Somali troops scurry forward.
A Ugandan colonel orders the tanks in and a flurry of rockets slams into the block a few hundred yards away. Smoke drifts lazily into the skyline, then silence. “I think they’ve gone now,” says Major Ba-Hoku Barigye, Amisom’s ebullient spokesman.
Biting remarks The preferred form of transport for non-al-Qaeda visitors here is the Casspir, a robust South African armoured personnel carrier. Ugandan troops ferry me across town in one for a meeting with the portly Prime Minister, Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke, the son of a former prime minister who was assassinated in 1969.
As a boy Sharmarke remembers a giraffe wandering around the ruler’s compound and a crocodile in the pond. These days he’s more interested in the predators outside. The international community is pouring billions into Afghanistan, but al-Qaeda have moved on and like the look of Somalia. We’re fiddling while Mogadishu burns.
Sharmarke has a stark warning: “Give al-Qaeda the space, and they’ll come back and bite you.”
My treat There isn’t much time for social life in Mogadishu and the dining options are limited, so I have to wait to return to Nairobi before tucking into Somali treats of broiled camel, fried goat and sweet-sour camel’s milk. Like Mogadishu, not for those of a sensitive disposition.
Justin Marozzi is author of The Man Who Invented History: Travels with Herodotus (John Murray)
[ Read more… ]» A wine-soaked odyssey
This is the most classical expression of the Muscat grape,” says Yiannis, my host from the Union of Wine-Making Cooperatives of Samos – a northern Greek island – and he is probably right.
My mind, though, is elsewhere. I’m thinking about one of the finest drinking sequences in English literature.
In Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese (1958), his masterpiece about Greece, Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor tracked down a fisherman in Kardamyli called Evstratios Mourtzinos, whose family name suggested possible descent from the last Byzantine dynasty. The fisherman welcomed the Englishman with a brimming glass of ouzo, and Leigh Fermor embarked on a once-upon-a-time daydream that saw the Turks returning the Byzantine empire to the Greeks. Suddenly there was a vacancy on the emperor’s throne and the search for an heir began.
Unaware of his English guest’s wild imaginings, Mourtzinos wittered on about grey mullets while his wife chopped up an octopus tentacle. Leigh Fermor, swept along by a third ouzo, saw doubtful claimants to the Byzantine throne rejected one by one: the Cantacuzeni, the Stephanopoli de Comnene of Corsica, the Melissino-Comnenes of Athens…
I am welcomed, after the acclimatising vin doux, with a brimming tumbler of the Grand Cru. “You’ll find this less sweet,” says Yiannis. “We send it to the Vatican.” Bright topaz glows before me, then disappears in a warm haze.
“Now you must try the Anthemis,” Yiannis says firmly to me, pouring another tumbler of chestnut blonde wine aged in oak barrels for five years. “This is our champion wine.” And so it tastes.
More ouzo, meanwhile, for Leigh Fermor. After his fourth glass, everything was clear. The humble fisherman from Kardamyli was the rightful claimant to the throne. Preparations were made for his coronation, simple clothes were exchanged for cloth-of-gold dalmatics, diamond-studded girdles and purple cloaks.
“The fifth ouzo carried us, in a ruffle of white foam, across the Aegean archipelago and at every island a score of vessels joined the convoy.” But Leigh Fermor, reeling after a sixth ouzo, was oblivious to the fisherman’s stories of storm-tossed seas. “Loud with bells and gongs, with cannon flashing from the walls and a cloud-borne fleet firing long crimson radii of Greek-fire, the entire visionary city, turning in faster and faster spirals, sailed to a blinding and unconjecturable zenith.”
The ouzo bottle was empty. The briefly crowned emperor was a storm-stranded fisherman again. The impromptu drinking bout, and with it the dream, was over. “We stepped out into the sobering glare of noon,” wrote Leigh Fermor.
I later stumble out of the Union of Wine-Making Cooperatives, squinting in similarly chastening sunlight, struggling to put a hard morning’s work behind me.
What a wonderful island is Samos, far from the sun-seeking hordes of the Cyclades, the Sporades and the Dodecanese. How clever of Zeus and Hera, Antony and Cleopatra to seek out this quiet corner of the Aegean – a temperate, mountainous island of pines, vines and olives – for their romantic dalliances.
Ahead of me on this wine-soaked itinerary lie the silent ruins of the Temple of Hera on Samos, a sole upright column – all that is left standing of what was once the finest temple in the Aegean. To the east and underground is one of the more remarkable and least celebrated monuments of ancient Greece, the Eupalinos Tunnel, designed to bring water from the Ayades spring to the walled city.
After the wine-tasting, I feel I have earned a few days of sybaritic laziness in Marnei Mare, a destination of luxurious secrecy on the west coast of the island. Samos has not yet been overrun by tourists, with the partial exception of the resort towns of Pythagorio and Kokkari, but you would be hard-pressed to find more agreeable seclusion, down to your own magnificently wild, private beach.
You can fly to and from Samos, but what’s the rush? Boats ply these gentle waters as they have done for millennia. Why blaze across the sky when you can slide smoothly through the sea? I am bound for the north. So slowly, in fact, that it takes the best part of 24 hours, surrounded by chain-smoking Greek passengers, staff and skipper, to reach the amphitheatrical port town of Kavala.
Until fairly recently, few visitors to Greece would bother venturing this far north. Athens, the islands and the Peloponnese are all well-trodden ground to the undeserved neglect of the northern mainland. Macedonia and Thrace tend to be left to scholars, archaeologists and only the most ardent ruin-hunters.
Over the years I have had my fill of fallen piles of stone in Athens, Samos and the Peloponnese, not to mention the obligatory diversions to Delphi and Thessaloniki. But, leaving Samos, there is still time for a pilgrimage to a place in Kavala that will satisfy historians as happily as it does hotel connoisseurs.
Imaret is as much a monument and museum as a grand hotel. Built in 1817 by Mohammed Ali, founder of the modern Egyptian state, who was born in Kavala, it was once a school, hammam, offices, prayer hall and soup kitchen. Today it is the only hotel in Greece operating inside a historical building, the madrassah students’ cells exquisitely restored into rooms of unspeakable refinement in courtyards lined with orange trees. A few years ago, it was rotting on the hillside of Panagia, bleakly overlooking the sea and a rugged congregation of hills.
Then along came Anna Missirian, a woman with deep pockets and a passion for Egypt. Seven million euros later, and one of the finest restorations you are ever likely to see has transformed the place beyond recognition. Come here for a weekend and you’ll be tempted to stay a week.
In between endless volleys of cigarettes, the elegant Missirian, bristling with diamonds the size of pearls, keeps a beady eye on her guests. Tales abound of plutocratic visitors sent packing for failing to show due reverence.
“The Imaret isn’t a hotel,” she says. “It’s a monument. And everyone who comes here has got to remember that and treat it with respect.”
I’m in no position to argue. Now Samos is a distant memory but the drinks, once again, are flowing fast. “We have the finest selection of malt whiskies in Greece,” Missirian purrs, pushing one my way. This country has honed hospitality into a fine art. The candlelight flashes upon brilliant crystal, diamonds sparkle, glasses clink and I settle in for a long night.
Marnei Mare, Samos, tel: +30 2273 030830 www.marneimare.gr, firstname.lastname@example.org
Imaret, Kavala, tel: +30 2510 620151 www.imaret.gr, email@example.com
Samos wines: www.samoswine.gr
Strangers in paradise
If you’ve never heard the word philoxenia before going to Greece, by the time you return home, you’ll know what it means. Not so much because there are any number of hotels, restaurants and travel agencies that rather unimaginatively use the name, but because Greek hospitality hits you from the moment you enter the country.
“Known as filoxenia (literally love of the stranger or guest)”, writes Sofka Zinovieff in Eurydice Street, her lovely memoir of relocating her family to Greece, “hospitality is still considered a national characteristic of the Greeks”, one that can be traced back several millennia to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.
In the Middle East, one almost comes to expect it: the constantly humbling invitations to break bread with a family that can barely afford to feed itself. In Europe, you might think such kindness to strangers had, in the 21st century, gone out of fashion. As a rule it has, yet Greece remains the delightful exception.
Roaming around the country for a month, I had to fight to pay for drinks, dinners or lunches. After one particularly riotous dinner in Athens, where the retsina flowed with abandon over several hours, I remonstrated with my companions – a group of bibulous students and academics – to pay my share. “Xenos!” came the emphatic reply. The foreigner was not allowed to pay. And as for inviting someone to dinner, forget it. You may as well tell a Greek the Elgin Marbles belong in London.
[ Read more… ]» Ridge walks in the Lake District
I’m not going up that!” Our eyes rise towards the glistening rock of Striding Edge, the most famous – and infamous – ridge walk in Britain. Admittedly, it looks pretty fearful from down here, two-thirds up Helvellyn, the third-highest mountain in England at 3,118ft. Helvellyn is one of the most popular climbs in the Lake District for walkers of all ages. Above us, black fangs sink their teeth into a lifeless sky, dark jaws plunging sharply thousands of feet into the abyss. To call it vertiginous scarcely does it justice. And my wife suffers from vertigo.
Having been married several years, I have learnt that remarks such as, “I’m not going up that!” really mean, “I am going up that but only after kicking up a huge fuss about it.” It was like this the day before on Helm Crag (1,299ft), our diminutive debut climb on this outing to the Lakes.
Clementine, 12, galvanised by the sight of a ridge I had been hyping relentlessly for the past fortnight, speeds ahead. This is her first time in the Lake District and she can’t wait. A few minutes later, Striding Edge announces itself in a tableau of rock with nothing but sudden sky all around. I have been playing down this stretch of the walk to my wife as assiduously as I have been exaggerating it to our daughter. I read out the words of legendary Cumbrian walking guru Alfred Wainwright to calm her fears, glossing over the preamble about how “early writers regarded Striding Edge as a place of terror,” in favour of, “contemporary writers … are inclined to dismiss it as of little account. In fact, Striding Edge is the finest ridge there is in Lakeland for walkers … always an exhilarating adventure … can be made easy or difficult according to choice.”
Now the drama of the place is immediate and inescapable. With lowering cloud, we appear to be stepping into nothingness, not so much striding as teetering. Not ideal, I have to admit, for someone with vertigo. “I’m not going across that!” my wife gasps.
The next 900ft are a touch-and-go scrape. Yelps, tears, threatened U-turns. We are overtaken by seven-year-olds and by neatly trotting Labradors. Generous-spirited walkers help us along in tight spots. At last, in a flurry of vertical drops, the knife-edged arête comes to a close and from there it is a hop, skip and slog to the summit, a perennially freezing, wind-whipped vastness. It is too cold – despite the shivering summiteers munching away on Kendal mint cake – to stop for lunch. The classic descent to Patter-dale via Swirral Edge elicits a few more heart-stopping moments, not to mention knee-throbbing jolts and a volley of complaints (“I’m not going down that! You never said there would be another ridge like that …”).
Clementine reverently records her first big climb in the log at the back of our much-thumbed Wainwright. “Mummy was brave on my favourite bit, Striding Edge. Scary but very exciting.” Her understatement of “a bit of a climb in places”, to describe a walk that was steep enough to shred my lungs, warms the cockles of my heart.
Just as welcome is the sight of our temporary home. The Masons Arms, tucked away in the lonely Winster Valley east of Windermere, is a superb place to put up for a few days. Log fires, flagstone floor and a menu designed for famished walkers with monstrous portions of hearty fare. Beef and Hawkshead ale cobbler with horseradish dumplings becomes a staple over the week, with occasional forays into lamb Cartmel, half a beast submerged in rosemary-infused gravy. All the calories so painfully burned off during the day are replaced quicker than you can say, “A pint of Hawkshead, please.”
After the drama of Striding Edge and Helvellyn, we pencil in an easy walk for the following day. We are bound for Catbells, 1,481ft, which Wainwright records, unpromisingly for altitude fetishists, as “a family fell where grandmothers and infants can climb the heights together”. As short walks go, it is a great success. The sky is cornflower blue. From the domed summit the view extends beyond the mirrored calm of Derwentwater north towards the smooth slopes of Skiddaw, England’s fourth-highest mountain (3,053ft). The lovely Borrowdale valley rolls away far beneath us and somewhere down there, I can’t help thinking, must be a pub or an inn.
The Langstrath Country Inn in Stonethwaite fits the bill perfectly. After our meagre exertions, a bowl of spicy parsnip soup is enough for lunch. A plaque on the outside of the inn – “In loving memory of a sunny day in Borrowdale” – reminds us we have been lucky with the weather, always a likely bugbear on a walking holiday in the Lakes.
As a trio we are starting to get into our stride now. Aches and stiffness have been banished. Fell walking has become a daily fix, at least for the adults. We need another hit. After outings to Helm Crag, Helvellyn and Catbells, thoughts turn to Haystacks (1,958ft), another all-time Wainwright favourite, the mountain he loved so much he asked for his ashes to be scattered near the summit.
“I thought we were having a day off,” says Clementine irritably. A shopping expedition to Windermere and a visit to Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage in Grasmere have been mooted and just as quickly dismissed. We are Coleridge fans. “Get your boots on.” The years of total parental control are fast running out. We must enjoy them while we can.
Haystacks is a treat. Under another cloudless sky we hike past tracts of burnt-tobacco ferns and subdued heather to the head of Warnscale Bottom, then sharply up towards a time-shattered slate quarry, the view behind us opening up magnificently with every step we take away from the valley floor.
Dwarfed by its neighbours, Haystacks somehow manages to eclipse the lot of them with its ragged twists and turns, its scruffy charm and a series of tors and tarns that continue right up to the summit. You would be hard pushed to find a more exquisite place to down your rucksack and stop for a picnic lunch, overlooked by mighty Great Gable, Pillar and a clutch of other sombre peaks. Striking a rare note of consensus over pork pies, sandwiches, chocolate and tea, we judge it our favourite climb.
Only a day to go. It has to be High Street (2,718ft) to finish with heft and a flourish of historical interest. The route was once marched along by Roman cohorts travelling between their garrisons at Ambleside and Brougham. Shepherds and farmers once flocked to the vast flat summit for annual summer fairs and horse races until well into the 19th century. Clementine is unimpressed.
“You said we were having a day off,” she says in a fit of pre-teen pique.
“Come on, it’s our last day and our last walk. We won’t be coming back for ages.”
“I’m not coming.”
“In the car.”
Rising above oily-black Haweswater reservoir, as sinister a body of water as you’ll find in the Lakes, High Street is all savage splendour, culminating in the ancient remnants of the Roman road on the wind-chilled, wide-skirted summit that Clementine, recovering from an initial sulk, is the first to reach.
On the way back to London, while we are gridlocked in stop-start traffic, a voice from the back seat pipes up.
“Can we come to the Lakes every year?”
Justin Marozzi’s ‘The Man Who Invented History: Travels with Herodotus’ is published by John Murray
The Masons Arms, tel: +44 (0)1539 568 486; www.masonsarmsstrawberrybank.co.uk
The Langstrath Country Inn, tel: +44 (0)1768 777 239;
[ Read more… ]» History Lives On
FROM ONE MARVEL OF THE ANCIENT WORLD TO ANOTHER, HE CAME, HE SAW, HE CHRONICLED. IT’S NO WONDER THAT HERODOTUS ENDURES
I never thought traveling with a dead man could be so much fun. Certainly not for the best part of five years mooning about the Mediterranean, North Africa, the Aegean and the Middle East.
True, there were some pragmatic, perhaps selfish, attractions about a journey with Herodotus, the 5th-century-B.C. Greek who is generally considered the Father of History (or Father of Lies, if you prefer Plutarch’s acid put-down). There would never be any arguments, none of the tedious irritations that come from spending too much time on the road with one person. I wouldn’t come to blows with him for pinching the aisle seat on a cramped bus in Greece. His ham-fisted attempts to speak Arabic, or perhaps his linguistic brilliance, couldn’t annoy me. I wouldn’t have to lend him money, he wouldn’t keep the lights on after I wanted to go to sleep and he would never embarrass me in front of a pretty girl.
All that was a given. Yet I didn’t expect to become such good friends with someone who died almost 2,500 years ago. It didn’t seem possible or plausible. The thing is, Herodotus is a tremendously engaging companion, even from beyond the grave. He’s not only a historian. He’s an anthropologist, a foreign correspondent and investigative reporter, an explorer and traveler and the consummate travel writer. Above all, he’s an irrepressible, effervescent storyteller, and who doesn’t like a good story?
“The Histories,” his only book, would have to be my guide. Ostensibly it tells the story of the cataclysmic Persian Wars with the Greeks, the decisive encounter between fledgling East and West, from the early battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. through the adrenaline-charged heroics of King Leonidas’s Spartans at Thermopylae (think Zack Snyder’s violent film “300”) to the tumultuous finale at Plataea in 479 B.C., when the Greeks emerged triumphant. But “The Histories” is much more than that. It is one of the most digressive, wide-ranging books in Western literature.
Traveling through much of the then-known world in a spirit of roving wonder, Herodotus writes about the weird and the wonderful. He tells us of gold-digging ants and dog-headed men, the flying snakes of Arabia and self-immolating cats in Egypt. This is a world in which a dolphin can rescue a shipwrecked musician. Mad about monuments, as we shall see, he notes the architectural heritage of the places he visits, from the temples of Greece to the pyramids of Egypt. He has an eye for sex, too, recording the exotic customs of the Babylonians (husbands and wives fumigate their genitals after lovemaking), examples of necrophilia and bestiality in Egypt, and the predatory promiscuity of the Massagetae tribe of the Caspian Sea region (“If a man wants a woman, all he does is to hang up his quiver in front of her wagon and then enjoy her without misgiving”).
Plenty to go on, in other words. A journey in the spirit and slipstream of the man who invented history. We kick off the Herodotean itinerary, appropriately enough, in his hometown on Turkey’s Aegean coast, the vulgar-chic resort of Bodrum that was the Halicarnassus of old.
Bodrum is a curious place. Somehow it just about manages to play host simultaneously to high-end tourism (expensive frolicking on the water in sleek yachts called gulets) and the bottom end of the market (shaven-headed, beer- and sex-seeking Brits) without inconveniencing either group.
Although nothing survives from Herodotus’s time — a constant refrain for the next five years of our trip — Bodrum still does a nice line in history. It is home to the tumbledown ruins of the Mausoleum, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, a monument so hubristically horizon-dominating in its time that its royal sponsor, King Mausolus, gave his name ever after to this grandest form of funerary architecture. Bodrum also has the splendid, 16th-century Castle of St. Peter, which protrudes into the harbor, a reminder of the old fault line that runs through these waters and divides Muslim East from Christian West in the form of ever-squabbling Turkey and Greece. (My Turkish guide in Bodrum: “Everyone thinks Herodotus was a Greek. He wasn’t.” A Greek in Athens: “He was Greek, of course, but they [the Turks] can never admit that.”) This coastline is riddled with history. The ancient sites of Ephesus, Priene and Miletus are close at hand for those history buffs who quickly tire of the turquoise waters.
From Turkey, we head south to Egypt, the country that most impressed our itinerant Greek. In fact, to say he was impressed is a gross understatement. He was positively wowed by it. In his own (translated) words: “About Egypt I shall have a great deal more to relate because of the number of remarkable things which the country contains, and because of the fact that more monuments which beggar description are to be found there than anywhere else in the world.” He got so carried away by the place that he ended up devoting a whole third of “The Histories” to it: a masterful survey of the country’s history, geography, religion, politics, culture and customs, flora and fauna, architecture, agriculture, burial and sacrificial rituals, diet, mummification and, inevitably because this is Herodotus we’re talking about, sex. Breezy as it was, the store of information he brought back about Egypt was unsurpassed until the 19th century.
When he came to the country’s most magical monuments, the pyramids, he couldn’t resist another tall story. The pharaoh Cheops (or Khufu, as he’s also known) ran out of money during the Great Pyramid’s construction, he reported. To replenish the royal coffers, Cheops sent his daughter to a brothel and put her to work. The unfortunate woman decided to do some business on the side to raise her own pyramid, charging each satisfied customer a 2.5-ton block of limestone. Entertaining nonsense, you might think, but be careful about mentioning the story to Egyptians. They consider it blasphemous.
One afternoon in Cairo, having returned from trips to Memphis and Luxor and a foray into the Western Desert to visit the ancient oasis of Siwa, whose Oracle of Ammon was consulted by Alexander the Great in 331 B.C., my guide and I drive to the pyramids to search for our own tall stories. These days the most improbable tend to have a ring of truth about them. And it is the Egyptian guides, rather than foreign tourists, who tell them with a sense of wonder bordering on disbelief. One of them is about how sun-worshiping New Agers descend on Giza once a year, dressed in white, holding hands in a circle and praying before slipping into the Great Pyramid at midnight (thanks to some baksheesh) to make their pilgrimage through the granite darkness of the Great Gallery to the millennial stillness of the King’s Chamber for a bout of soul-searching and exploration of their consciousness.
Suddenly, as I’m standing there listening, the atmosphere turns poisonous. One moment, the tourist touts have been offering me rides on camels and horses, “rare” (mass-produced) papyri, undiscovered royal tombs, forgotten treasures and prostitutes; the next they are struck with fear and suspicion, which turns suddenly to outright hostility. The sight of my notebook has proved fatal.
“Don’t talk to him,” one of them warns a younger man approaching us. “He’s recording us.” Moments later my guide and I are engulfed in a scrum of glinting-eyed Giza mafiosi. I am a spy, a foreign investigator compiling evidence of guides behaving badly, I’m going to report them to the police, get him out of here. I’m persona non grata at the pyramids. A tourist policeman on a threadbare camel trots over to find out what’s going on. Voices are raised. Some pushing around. A scuffle. My guide is becoming frightened. The men pressing around us in an intimidating circle are making nasty threats. The blood-red sky darkens. It’s time to leave.
The journey with Herodotus must end in his homeland of Greece, which offers a bewildering number of places and possibilities. We don’t know exactly where he went, or lived, or traveled, but he writes so much about this sun-kissed mainland and archipelago that the opportunities are endless.
From the pages of my atlas rise the splintering backbone of the Taygetus mountains in the southern Peloponnese, jaded Sparta, faded Olympia, the fallen columns of Corinth, divine Delphi and dreamlike Athens. To the east, across the tepid Aegean, lie the ancient city of Samos (now called Pythagorio) and the trio of architectural treasures — more precisely, engineering feats — that caught Herodotus’s eye: the Tunnel of Eupalinos, an aqueduct that was dug out of a mountain from both ends simultaneously; the breakwater; and the Temple of Hera, the largest known temple in Herodotus’s time, only one column of which remains.
After a conference in Athens on cross-cultural encounters between ancient Persians and Greeks (insufficiently cross-cultural to include a glass of wine during evening refreshments) and the obligatory pilgrimage to the Parthenon, timeworn symbol of the birth of democracy, I sail off to the whale-shaped island of Samos, as much to investigate its world-famous wine as to see the monuments Herodotus found on it.
“Fill high the bowl with Samian wine!” said the epicurean poet Byron, so I do. Or at least so does Yiannis, my host from the Union of Wine-Making Co-operatives of Samos. It’s a generous glass of vin doux, an entry-level dessert wine to limber up the palate. It glimmers seductively in my glass. And then, whoosh, down it goes. A perfect start to the morning.
“This is the most classical expression of the muscat grape,” Yiannis explains. I am welcomed, after the acclimatizing vin doux, with a brimming tumbler of the grand cru. “You’ll find this less sweet,” says Yiannis. “We send it to the Vatican.” Bright topaz glows before me, then disappears in a warm haze.
Next up is Phyllas, an organic dessert wine, yellow-tinged and without the treacly dreaminess of vin doux. I’m not sure whether this is one of Yiannis’s favorites, though it seems to me he is pouring deliciously, irresponsibly large glasses of the stuff. “Dash down yon cup of Samian wine!” Byron commanded, so I drain another glass.
“Now you must try the Anthemis,” says Yiannis firmly, pouring another tumbler of chestnut blond wine aged in oak barrels for five years. “This is our champion wine.” And so it tastes.
I am ready to leave, but Yiannis won’t hear of it. “You must try our most magnificent sweet wine,” he says grandly. “Nectar.” It is, a powerfully condensed elixir with a dark, raisiny finish. I am feeling fairly finished, too. I stumble out of the tasting room, squinting in a chastening blaze of sunlight, struggling to put a hard morning’s work behind me.
After the teetotal rigors of a month in Egypt (not to mention an alcohol-free year in Iraq, partly on the Herodotus trail to Babylon), a wine-soaked itinerary in Greece is the perfect tonic. Amid the scattered columns and pedestals of Delphi, I discuss Herodotus with Antigoni, an argumentative academic friend, over a bottle of agreeably pine-tinged retsina. There is more retsina over a memorable lunch in the Peloponnese fishing village of Kardmayli with Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, life-enhancing war hero and travel writer without equal.
Later, in the northern port town of Kavala, I stay at the fabulous Imaret, more of a monument than a hotel, an inspired conversion of a 19th-century madrassa (religious school) complex built by Mohammed Ali Pasha, founder of the modern Egyptian state and a Kavala native. My hostess, Anna, mastermind of the renovation, welcomes me with repeated large glasses of fine malt whiskey that shoot to my head like tracer bullets.
Anna is a formidable woman who tells me she once threw out a vastly rich Russian who made repeated complaints about the service and then compounded his errors by opening his door naked, much to the shock, if not the awe, of the chambermaid. He was ejected in ignominy minutes later (a Herodotean tale of hubris leading to nemesis, you could say).
“Ohhh, I looove Herodotus!” she purrs, clinking our crystal glasses. “He’s the world’s first cosmopolitan.”
I am beginning to think I have had my fill of Herodotus for the day, primarily because I have had my fill of whiskey and Virginia tobacco. The elegant bar of the Imaret is swaying before me, in time with Anna’s talismanic diamond earrings and the alternately rising and dipping, dripping cut-glass chandeliers.
I seem to have been surveying this scene through the bottom of a crystal tumbler all evening, but it is quickening now. Curtains billow around the windows like phantoms. The Oriental rugs on the wooden floor are taking on a life of their own, rolling up, up and away, borne off on a magic-carpet zephyr that picks up my floating head and carries it off into the swimming night. My limbs are alternately weightless, skimming across this star-filled sky, and drowsily heavy inside the revolving bar.
The crackling fire is spitting sparks and Anna is talking away a dime to the dozen, but I can’t make out any of it now. She’s spinning away into a spiral of Egypt and Turkey, candlelight and the English poet Cafavy, golden Greece, Orphean mysteries, Alexandria and diamonds, and somewhere out there, lost in this seething maelstrom, Herodotus is telling me it is time to go to bed.
Justin Marozzi is the author of “The Way of Herodotus: Travels With the Man Who Invented History,” published this month by Da Capo Press.
[ Read more… ]» A Classical Grand Tour with Herodotus
So, you thought the Grand Tour was an 18th-century phenomenon? The preserve of languid young aristocrats milording it through Europe, swanning across Paris and Geneva, cutting a dash in Turin, Florence, Rome and Venice, before hightailing it to Innsbruck, Heidelberg and Potsdam? Think again.
The Greeks were at it well before that. Two millennia, in fact. And you’d struggle to find a better, more dashing Grand Tourer than Herodotus, the fifth-century father of history, whose gallivanting expeditions across North Africa, the Aegean and the Middle East form the perfect itinerary for the traveller of today. He did it over the course of a lifetime, admittedly, but it’s perfectly possible to squeeze the highlights into two or three weeks. Much as we’d love to visit Babylon, we’ll leave Iraq to one side for now and concentrate on Turkey, Egypt and Greece.
Let’s begin in the resort town of Bodrum, Herodotus’s home town of Halicarnassus on Turkey’s Aegean coast. There’s little left of the Mausoleum, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, but the 16th-century Castle of St Peter is magnificent and the sailing in island-studded turquoise seas is superb. History buffs can immerse themselves in the faded glory of Ephesus, Priene and Pergamum, leaving the dedicated clubbers to enjoy Halikarnas, which describes itself as the most beautiful disco in the world.
From the ruins of Turkey, it’s off to Egypt, which completely mesmerised our Greek traveller. As he wrote in The Histories, his one-volume masterpiece, “more monuments which beggar description are to be found there than anywhere else in the world”. No surprise to find the sky-grazing pyramids on the itinerary. No Egyptian monument is quite as magical, especially at dawn and dusk, when the crowds have disappeared. Guides told Herodotus no end of nonsense about the pyramids. Someone told him that the pharaoh Cheops, running out of money while he was building the Great Pyramid, decided to send his daughter to a brothel, where she charged her customers one block of stone – think 2.5 tons of limestone – per romp.
Next we take to the Nile to visit many-templed Luxor, the Thebes of old, where monumental overload is a distinct possibility. Apart from the sublime Temple of Hatshepsut, my own favourite, a stone’s throw from the rather impersonal royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings, are the deliciously informal – and much less visited – Tombs of the Nobles, a riot of colour, everyday life and romance. Then we’re off again further south to Aswan – a spot of luxury at the Old Cataract Hotel never hurt anyone – and Kom Ombo where the ancient Egyptians once worshipped the snout-faced crocodile-god Sobek.
When you’ve had enough of the Nile, the Sahara beckons, and there are few more evocative spots amid its sandy wastes than the oasis of Siwa, which Herodotus visited a century before Alexander the Great arrived in February 331BC to consult the famous oracle of Ammon. Standing in Alexander’s footsteps in the crumbling ruins of the temple is an unforgettable experience not to be missed. To the north, the sun-singed escarpment of limestone, folded in shadow; to the east, the flashing jewel of Lake Aghurmi; Jebel al-Mawta, mountain of the dead, to the west and, beyond it, the incomprehensibly vast mirror of Lake Siwa; to the south, the snub-nosed mountain Jebel Dakrur, the whole panorama overwhelmed by a floating sea of feathery palms that melt eventually into the crashing ocean of dunes, wave upon glittering wave, of the Great Sand Sea.
Where else but Greece should our Herodotean odyssey end. In Athens we must make the obligatory pilgrimage to the Parthenon, beacon of democracy and pinnacle of Greek classical art. Impossible to miss the Archaeological Museum, even if museums aren’t your thing. This is one of the world’s greatest. We leave the city on a day trip to the sacred site of Delphi, scattered across terraces beneath twin fangs of rock and the lower slopes of Mount Parnassus. The setting of the Pleistos Valley, studded with olive trees and cypresses, is preternaturally beautiful – precisely why the Greeks chose it as a place in which to honour Apollo and Dionysus and consult the Oracle.
Then, with a final flourish, it’s off the beaten track to Samos, a wonderful, whale-shaped island perched off Turkey’s Aegean coast. Herodotus was wowed by three spectacular monuments on the island, and if the Temple of Hera and the Polycrates harbour breakwater don’t do it for you, you’ll still be captivated by the most exciting of the trio, the sixth-century BC Eupalinos Tunnel that slices through Mount Kastro with aplomb. Failing that, tuck into large quantities of the sweet Samian wine that Byron, among others, recommended.
By now, you’re probably reeling from all these tumbledown tombs and temples. You’ve had your fill of sylvan groves and scattered columns and pyramids, and you just want to kick back with a sundowner. So, without further ado, we sail overnight from Samos to Thessaloniki and hotfoot it to Kavala to stay in the incomparable Imaret, which is as much monument as unspeakably magnificent hotel – an award-winning conversion of a 19th-century school, baths, prayer hall and soup kitchen.
Enjoy the luxury. Herodotus would have approved.
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