kenny hodgart

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Laying low in Ho Chi Minh City’s red light district

This article can also be read at Asia Times

I’ve stopped by one of the roadside bars on Bui Vien Street, where Steve, a proud Western Australian, is telling me what makes the girls in this part of Saigon so special. His mate has just nicked his scooter and driven off home on it, leaving Steve bereft of company. The girls, though. See, the thing is, they do everything, he says. Everything: they even kiss you.

Steve is feeling a bit emotional, as it happens. He has had to leave his girlfriend – on account of his wife, who is back home in Perth, not liking her. They would have split anyway, he confides, ruefully casting his cigarette end in the direction of a passing tide of bedraggled American youths. She was getting on a bit and he refused to give her what she wanted: a child.

Steve looks about 68, at a conservative estimate. It is with boyish delight, however, that he shows me the Zippo lighter gifted him by a stranger earlier in the day. “Exceptionally rare,” he remarks, allowing me to feel its weight. “Made in 1958.” I nudge the cap off, thumb the wheel and a flame licks the air between us. Steve looks positively touched. I drink my beer.

I hadn’t planned on hanging my hat in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 1, which my belated inquiries (Google search) reveal to be “notorious.” Motivated vaguely by nostalgia (for what, I’m not quite sure; when I was of backpacking age I stayed home like most people with no money), I’d simply wanted to slum it a bit after staying in a posh place in Hoi An at someone else’s expense the night before. Easier said than done.

I thought I knew what I was looking for on – no rat-holes, nothing dirt-cheap, just somewhere spartan but characterful, with a touch of woodiness and that air of respectability that used to attach itself to all guesthouses in the lower arrondissements of Paris (an air that almost certainly concealed some far less decorous unknown). It seems you have to really lower the price bar for that kind of thing in modern-day Saigon, though: luxury accommodation starts at about US$40 a night. Spend a fraction more and you’re into Kubla Khan territory.

The room I have settled for, at US$15, is immaculate. Everything in it is brand new and of the sternest good quality. Cavernous ensuite bathroom included, it is about the size of my apartment in Hong Kong.

At check-in, I’d chatted to the owners’ daughter, an elfish, handsome girl of about 21. What sort of things would I be doing while in Ho Chi Minh City, she had asked me. As I was flying out the following evening and hadn’t done any research I supposed I would probably just wander around, I’d said, adding – a propos of her dubious silence – that my editor had instructed me to go and look at the War Remnants Museum.

Showing me how to get there on the map, she’d explained that the museum is a bit boring and that people of her generation never talk amongst themselves about the war, nor indeed of its remnants. Do older people never get upset about this lack of interest? Oh no, she’d insisted: they’re just delighted that Vietnam has so many young people – post-war baby-boomers – to do everything for them.

Where I come from, in Britain, I’d said, it’s the opposite; in fact, there are so many old British people that, to keep ourselves amused, we give them unlimited free bus travel then place bets on how many days it will take them to get home. Her look of reproach seemed laden with the suggestion that one must be more respectful of one’s elders, whatever their provenance.

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Ode to a Venetian sojourn

A version of this article appeared in Gafencu magazine

In 1963, aged 15, my dad was taken to Venice on a school holiday. It was the first time he had been abroad. For a boy who had grown up in Ayrshire, Scotland – then a place of cows, coal and Calvinism – it was a kind of spiritual awakening: into a world of art and architecture, sunlight and marble, operetta and open-hearted Southern European sorts.

The Venice of today is substantially the same as that of half a century ago – just as the city my dad experienced would have been entirely recognisable to, say, Giacomo Casanova, its most representative 18th Century citizen. Okay, sure, there are probably more American tour groups nowadays, muting the colour scheme with their pastels; and, of course, the African chaps selling you fake Gucci stuff are relatively new. And there aren’t prostitutes everywhere, like in old Gio’s time (I forgot to ask my dad about the ragazze in ’63). But generally speaking (and as you might expect of a World Heritage site), this most visited of cities has been preserved, the patina of its history deferred to and respected. The prospect that blindsides the pilgrim, arriving vaporetto-borne on the Grand Canal – of the Byzantine Basilica di San Marco and Palazzo Ducale, around which cluster several others of the most magnificent Medieval and Renaissance buildings on the planet – is the very same prospect that has been doing so for centuries.

For all that Venice may seem immutable to the outsider, though, immutability is not the story for the 21st Century. See, Venice is in need of saving – for some decades, people who know about these things have been warning that it is done for. The acqua alta (seasonal high tides that account for the huge puddles of seawater often to be found lolling about in St Mark’s Square like fallen Italian footballers hoping for a penalty) has been a feature of Venetian life since time immemorial, but a combination of rising sea levels and the fact that much of the city is slowly sinking into the mud on which it is built, has seen flooding become increasingly frequent and severe. Due to rising waters, the lower floors in some buildings are already uninhabitable; at the crypt of San Zaccaria, where some of the earliest doges (the city’s rulers when it was a republic) are buried, the tombs almost seem to float; belltowers lean; and everywhere the salt water that has got into brickwork is causing it to decay.

A controversial and costly project involving a series of mobile gates that will be able to temporarily isolate the Venetian Lagoon from the Adriatic Sea during high tides may partly save the day and is nearing completion (or at least they’ve reached that stage of things in Italy where the mayor has had to resign after being arrested on charges of taking bribes from the construction company). But the city’s problems don’t end there. Even if Venice survives, Venetians may not: it now has only 70,000 permanent residents, as families have sold up and moved to more affordable places on the “mainland” where they can still find a plumber in the Yellow Pages. Venice ceased being any kind of commercial or political centre about 200 years ago. Now it welcomes some 20 million tourists every year – it has rightly been called an “urban theme park”; history is at its end-point.

What a history, though. Settled by refugees from Roman cities fleeing Attila the Hun, the early Venetians were traders who fished and made salt and worked out that if they drove enormous wooden piles far enough into the mudflats they could then slap a layer of marble on top of the crossbeams and build dry habitations on a lagoon. And so they built – a city-state that would become a hub for the silk, grain, spice and pigment trades, and a staging post for the Crusades. By the end of the 13th Century it was the most prosperous city in all of Europe and it would remain the region’s dominant maritime power into the 16th Century. Its unique system of democracy instilled civic pride and traders plundered the Mediterranean to burnish the imperial city’s might: trophies from east and west speckle Venice indoors and out, perhaps most famously in and around the Basilica di San Marco (the four bronze horses situated above the church’s main doorway, for example, came from Constantinople, while another party relieved the cathedral in Alexandria of the supposed remains of St Mark himself). Building, printing and the arts – painting, sculpture, opera – flourished, and even after the Turks weakened Venice in the late 15th Century, setting it on a path of slow decline, it remained a major cultural capital. In the 18th Century it became a required stop-off on any young European aristocrat’s Grand Tour. And, indeed, his bordello.

FOR A REAL taste of all that historical stuff – and if you’ve bought the idea that Venice might soon disappear and just can’t bear the thought of missing out – you might as well check yourself in at a palazzo. The Hotel Danieli, centred around the 14th Century Palazzo Dandolo on the Grand Canal, should serve the purpose. Rooms start at €750 (HK$7,568 – pollo alimentazione!) a night, but if you feel that’s just not flexing your finances enough, you can stay in the Doge Dandalo Royal Suite, for €12,000 a night.

Built by the Dandalo family, who in fact produced several doges, the original palazzo – around which are annexed a 19th Century palace and a marble-fronted addition put up after World War II – is truly, ornately, stunningly, brazenly beautiful. Its pink facade, marble sills, white turrets and balconies are as a gift box for what’s inside: stuccoes and frescoes from the 16th and 17th Centuries, antique portraits, furniture and Murano mirrors, wooden mosaic floors and Sansovino ceiling beams. The highlight, though, is the four-storeyed courtyard, with its scala d’oro (golden stairs) and its natural light beaming in through Venetian Gothic-style pointed arches.

In imperial times, emperors, kings, princes and ambassadors all lodged at the Dandalo; after it became a hotel, in the mid-19th Century, its guests included Goethe, Wagner, Dickens, Proust and Balzac. Make no mistake: few places in Venice afford a more authentic glimpse of the city of Vivaldi and Byron, Greta Garbo (she has a suite) and, um, James Bond (watch Casino Royal or Moonraker again). Or of the city of John Ruskin, the English art critic and thinker who panegyrized the Gothic in architecture and who stayed here with his wife Effie (and, it’s claimed, encouraged her to have an affair with an Austrian army officer as an excuse to leave her).

The management’s approach seems to involve a combination of conservation (a number of the suites were recently restored by Pierre Yves Rochon and the Academy of Fine Arts in Venice), and light-touch modernisation. The rooftop Restaurant Terrazza Danieli, which offers unparalleled views of the Adriatic, has a contemporary feel and offers a menu inspired by the city’s “historic role as a crossroad between East and West”, which I think means they use a bit of saffron.

A short stroll from the Danieli is the Palazzo Ducale, or Doge’s Palace, which with its intricately carved marble facade, lancet arches and Byzantine and Moorish influences represents the very apogee of Venetian architectural self-confidence. You could spend days on end here taking in its decorative brilliance and the paintings and frescoes that fill its rooms – but you probably won’t, because you’ll fall victim to sensory over-stimulation and end up jumping off the Rialto bridge and embarrassing yourself, or you’ll strain your neck admiring the gilt ceilings, or get thrown out for trying to pat one of the dogs in a Tiepolo canvas.

Worth taking is a tour of the Palazzo’s hidden passages, prison cells and torture chambers. You’ll see the cell Casanova (dandy, philosopher, cabalist, lawyer, clergyman, sexual adventurist, diplomat, inveterate gambler) broke out of on his way to fleeing charges of blasphemy, and get a glimpse of a grimmer Venice quite different to the idealised City of Light that seduces Henry James characters and Americans seized by an Oedipal yearning for a mythical civilised Europe.

Not that it’s all that hard to discover, this “other” Venice – a city of dark secrets, and spies, and the ghosts of medieval plagues. It’s the Venice you get in the Gothic horror of Nicholas Roeg’s 1973 movie Don’t Look Now (itself based on a Daphne du Maurier novella) and Thomas Mann’s funereal Death in Venice, which is all about disappointed idealism, excess and decay. And it’s there in the bocche di leone, the postboxes adorned with scowling lions – into whose mouths citizens were encouraged to dispatch anonymous denunciations of their neighbours – that can still be found dotted around (although Napoleon had most of them smashed to show that French law held sway); and in the crumbling, overgrown necropolis Boney had established on San Michele to keep the odours of death away from more populous islands; and the slightly fetid smell of the canals; and the eerie fog that seems to settle over them at nightfall.

There’s also the Jewish Ghetto, in the Cannaregio district, from which all other ghettoes derive: there was once a foundry here and the word comes from “gettare”, meaning “to cast in metal”. In the 16th Century, all Jews were ordered to live within the area’s boundaries – hardly the model of religious freedom, then, but in reality few states in Europe at the time tolerated Judaism at all.

Needless to say, elsewhere in the city the saints take centre, left and right stage. If you are so inclined, you might hump around Ruskin’s three-volume The Stones of Venice, with its detailed descriptions of over 80 churches, as a guide; alternatively, you could just walk in any direction, or jump on the vaporetto, and discover things for yourself.

Over on the island of Giudecca, Andrea Palladio’s splendid Chiesa del Santissimo Redentore boasts pictures by Tintoretto and Veronese – not a bad strike rate, although in Venice it must be rare to be more than spitting range from something by one of the “big three” (those two plus Titian), or at the very least a Bellini or a Canaletto. Meanwhile, down in Castello, you’ll come across San Lorenzo, the church where Marco Polo (fun fact: he has a type of sheep named after him in Afghanistan) was buried in 1324, only for his bones to get “lost” when they tore it down and rebuilt it in the 16th Century.

Maybe the dead explorer knew what he was about: “lost” is not a bad way to be in Venice. It’s not like you can wander into a bad neighbourhood, and you’ll always find your way eventually. Just don’t bet on finding the same restaurant twice. I did, incidentally, mean to tell you about What I Ate On My Holidays, but I’ve drifted off-course. All you really need to know is that it’s Italy so everything is brilliant; that you’ll get ripped off at some point, so be thankful when you’re not; and that even though Casanova claimed eating fish inflamed his eyes, the seafood is safe. May the Saints be with you.

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On the (Great Ocean) Road

A version of this article appeared in the South China Morning Post’s Post Magazine

There is only one way to see Australia. Actually, come to think of it there are several, but I’d recommend driving unless you can get a hold of a private plane, and even then you’d miss out on the spectacular minutiae of that stretch of coastline, an hour and a half south-west of Melbourne, that they call the Great Ocean Road.

They take their freedoms seriously, the Aussies, and there can be few greater freedoms than that of the open highway between Torquay, south of Geelong, and Warrnambool, 150 miles to the west. In consort with the coastal formations it skirts, the road soars and plunges, here winding along cliff tops and promontories that look out on to the Bass Strait and Southern Ocean, there dropping away from eucalyptus-covered hills to the edge of some deserted beach, now slicing inland through lush rainforest or gentle pastureland. And nary the sign of a speed camera.

If that’s not how they describe it in the books, then maybe they should hire me to write them. An ex-pat friend told me before I left Melbourne that the GOR wouldn’t seem “all that” if I’d driven round Scotland. I ignored him, called the blonde (well, she used to be blonde; since venturing to the Antipodes on a working holiday visa she has gone an indeterminate ginger colour) and told her I’d pick her up in an old MG. They gave me a Mitsubishi but she got in anyway.

And so we were off, the steel, glass and bohemian chic of Melbourne behind us, beforeus the promise of rock stacks and waterfalls, sea air and summer skies stretching out beyond an absent ozone layer, wildlife and woodlands and National Parks. Everything seemed to us amenable: well-kept roads; cheap fuel; Springsteen on the iPod.

But the Great Ocean Road is of that order of things that should give pause. It’s easy now to pitch up in a Winnebago, get a few snaps of the wife standing in front of some limestone cliffs then hit the road again; or to wander the beachfront at Lorne admiring the holiday homes that cluster the hillsides and think how perfectly genteel everything looks. How soon man forgets the travails of his ancestors, or the triumph of their genius. A century ago, these coastal communities and their idyllic surrounds were isolated and unattainable except via rough coach tracks through dense bush.

That all changed when civic-minded men decided to get up a fund to finance the building of a new road, partly as a way of ensuring soldiers returning from the First World War had employment, but also to serve as a permanent monument to Australians who had been killed in the conflict. The money was raised through private subscription and borrowing and was to be repaid by charging drivers a toll until the debt was cleared, after which the road would be gifted to the state.

Work began in August 1918 and was finally completed in 1932. The soldiers were paid 10 shillings and sixpence for eight hours’ work per day and lived in tents. They had access to a piano, a gramophone, games and newspapers and when, in 1924, a steamboat casino hit a reef near Cape Patton and had to jettison 500 barrels of beer and 120 cases of spirits, they obtained the cargo, laid down their tools and enjoyed an unscheduled two-week drinking holiday. It is sobering, however, to think of what they gave of themselves: construction was done by hand – using explosives, picks, shovels and wheelbarrows – and several men were killed on the job.

You would be pushed to think of a finer monument to the bravery and spirit of ordinary soldiers anywhere in the world, but surprisingly there is no museum about the road itself. What you will find is a museum about surfing at Torquay, and, at Warrambool, some rather lurid divertissements on the theme of shipwrecks. The treacherous stretch of coastline from Moonlight Head and Port Fairy, it is said, claimed more than 180 ships in the days before radar, but one wreck in particular, which gave its name to Loch Ard Gorge, seems to have spawned quite an industry all of its own, quite why I’m not sure. Shipwrecked, I learn, is “a multi-million dollar sound and laser show that brings to life the tragic story of the Loch Ard disaster in a uniquely entertaining presentation.” Gulp on that, all ye drowned folk.

Not far from the Loch Ard Gorge itself is perhaps the whole coastline’s most stupefying attraction. The Twelve Apostles are enormous limestone rock stacks created by erosion from the sea, the wind and the rain; one of them disappeared by the same method in 2005, leaving only eight – the other three never existed but who ever heard of the nine apostles? Centuries in the making, they are bits of the mainland that have become separated from it. Years from now, of course, the viewing areas and boardwalks on which visitors currently sport themselves – in their multitudes: it’s like stumbling on a religious convention in the desert – will also have become detached or washed away. The risk is worth running for now, though: brilliant yellow in the vapoury sunshine, the Apostles are like great gods of the sea; at sunrise or sunset, I’m told, they loom in towards you, dark and foreboding.

And if the car park and visitors’ centre feels like Times Square, the peace and tranquillity of nearby Port Campbell is little short of incredible. Where do they go, the busloads? Built around the comeliest of coves, hemmed in by two extruding headlands, the “port” is a place of changing light and quietude and its several decent restaurants and thriving fishing harbour belie its sense of remoteness. We spent a night there and I would have stayed longer but for the necessity of going back to Melbourne to visit more smug ex-pat friends.

Lorne, where we spent our other night on the road, and where – a few months earlier – the blonde fell head over heels for a surfer named Jesus – isn’t as sleepy, but nor is it Ayia Nappa. Jesus, I am told, was a very handsome man, and everything else about Lorne is immaculate, too; immaculate, but not in an unwelcoming way. An abundance of cafes and restaurants serve local seafood at reasonable prices and their hospitality generally extends to visitors in flip flops.

The coastline near Lorne may not be as sheer as the Shipwreck Coast, but it has its own lookouts on sandy bays and creeks spilling into coves and the glistening seas that stretch out to New Zealand and the Pacific in one direction, to Antarctica in the other. A detour a few miles inland brings you to Erskine Falls, a stunning 90ft waterfall set within ancient rainforest in Great Otway National Park. I was quite happy swimming in its plunge pool until the blonde started going on about snakes.

Besides Erskine Falls, Lorne and Torquay there is an Angelsea and a Peterborough on the Great Ocean Road, and a Portland. There is even a rock formation named after London Bridge. It may be a hackneyed observation that place names in Australia often refer back to somewhere in old Blighty; but after three days on the road I began to think my old chum in Melbourne might have had a point about there being echoes, not just of Scotland but of the whole British landscape: this part of Victoria seems almost like the British Isles in miniature, or at any rate an exaggerated, romanticised version of them, as though translated via the easel of a Constable or a Turner or a Horatio McCulloch. All of which is to say that, unlike many other great swathes of Australia, the Great Ocean Road throws up an astounding diversity of vivid, painterly landscapes: those rugged coasts, the wet pine forests and fern glades that might at some time have reminded settlers of the Highlands, and the verdant river estuaries and rolling hills that hit you foursquare with all the force of an English pastoral idyll.

Of course, there are crucial differences. Where in Britain can you go canoeing in search of that 100 million year-old egg-laying mammal the platypus – as tour guides will assist you in so doing on Lake Elizabeth, deep in the Otways – for example? Or eat in a winery restaurant, still far less drink decent wine from the cellars of its producers? But then not even the Aussies were doing that 30 years ago, never mind a century ago when the Great Ocean Road was still but a pipedream. Forget the ex-pats: the whole state of Victoria probably has a right to feel smug.

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Poetry, war and bicycles

This article appeared in the magazine Metropolitan

It is the first Sunday in April, 2009, and my train has chuntered out of Brussels, bound for East Flanders. Ghent, famed for its immaculately-preserved medieval architecture, is less than an hour to the north, but my destination is the lesser-known hilly area to the south of the region – the Flemish Ardennes – home to the “hellingen” which provide the dramatic setting for the cobbled classic cycle races run in Flanders each Spring.

In professional cycling, cobbles are to these “Classics” what the high mountain passes of the Pyrenees and the Alps are to the Tour de France. It is on these sections of the course that the ambitions of the few are realised, the hopes of many are crushed and, in such short, steep climbs as the famous Koppenberg, near the town of Oudenaarde, that thousands fervently line the route to experience the thrill of the race as it hurtles past.

Where the colour, celebrity and scale of the Tour de France lend it a glorious, epic glamour, the grittiness of the so-called “northern” Classics has a fascination all of its own. The Paris-Roubaix race – run over an unrelenting series of punishing cobbled farm tracks in northern France – is considered the “Queen of the Classics”, but is preceded in late March and early April each year by the Vlaamse Wielerweek (Flemish cycling week).

This festival of racing includes the Classic Ghent-Wevelgem, which features the ascent and terrifying descent of the famous Kemmelberg climb, and the “Three Days of De Panne” stage race in West Flanders. But the highlight, and the race which brings all of Flanders to a standstill, is the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders).

“You can either ride the cobbles or you can’t”, says Barry Hoban, an Englishman whose successes in the 1960s and 70s endeared him to Flandrians to such an extent that he became known as The Gent of Ghent. “Some guys are terrified of them. You have to ride them hard and fast and take whatever the weather throws at you. I’ve ridden Paris-Roubaix in snowstorms and I’ve ridden it in a heatwave. And when it’s hot and dry it’s worse because the dust gets up and your eyes are red for about three days afterwards.”

As someone who “hit the north” as an outsider, Hoban – whose results included victory in Gent-Wevelgem, third in Paris-Roubaix and fifth in the Ronde – is well-placed to comment on what distinguishes the culture of cycling there. “As a young man, I left West Yorkshire – a hard-grafting, coal-mining area – and moved to northern France and lived among hard-grafting, coal-mining people there,” recalls the 71-year-old.

“The only difference was the language and the fact that they loved cycling, because the people were exactly the same. I lived first in Bethune (in France) and later in Ghent, and at that time there were very few English-speaking riders. But I didn’t feel out of place. I learned French and Flemish and just immersed myself in it. People took me to their hearts as one of their own.”

Hoban describes his Ghent-Wevelgem win in 1974 as being as special as his Tour de France stage wins. “In that race I beat everyone, all of the guys from that great generation of Belgian cyclists: Eddy Merckx was second, Roger de Vlaeminck was third. [Walter] Godefroot, Freddy Maertens were both there. I beat them all, I beat the hierarchy of Belgium. It was good.”

He also remembers losing out against Merckx, probably the greatest cyclist of all time, when they hit the “muur” together in the 1969 Ronde. Muur means “wall” in Dutch, and the Muur van Geraardsbergen, with its half-kilometre cobbled section, scaling upwards at a gradient of up to 20% to the iconic Chapel of Our Lady at its summit, often proves the decisive battleground at the head of the race. The latter half of the Ronde features more than a dozen similar hellingen, but because the Muur comes after 250km of racing – only 17km from the finish in Ninove – those not reaching the chapel with the leaders have no chance of contesting the win.

My train into Geraardsbergen – one of the oldest “cities” in Europe, but now a modestly-sized municipality – is not busy. Few, it seems, travel from metropolitan, cosmopolitan Brussels to watch this race. But as I reach the main street leading up to the town square, I realise the party is already in full swing. It is a bright, sunny day, warm for April, and old and young mingle together in the square’s packed bars and restaurants.

The race passes through the square and it is just before it that the Muur begins in earnest, albeit the cobbled section isn’t for another half kilometre. Past the square the road swings upwards and left, and several thousand fans are packed in along the wide boulevard.

The riders are still more than 40 minutes away, but already a decisive break has formed. The biggest name in Belgian cycling, and two-time winner of the race, Tom Boonen, has missed it, but last year’s winner, the Flandrian Stijn Devolder, is present. There are black and yellow Lion of Flanders flags everywhere.

I head further on up the hill. At the end of Oudebergstraate a cobbled lane narrows and steepens, making its way up through a wooded section and round a hairpin bend which kicks up again to the Chapel at the top. This is the heart of the Muur, where the toughest riders create the fractional gaps that can quickly lengthen into decisive ten or 20 second leads. All the way up, on both sides of the road, people are tucked into the embankment, holding on to the branches of trees to stop themselves falling on to the road. Some have been there for hours, waiting like snipers for a Boonen, Devolder or Lief Hoste to pass by inches in front of them. Waiting, I discover, to unleash their noise on the Ronde.

Among the crowd the orange of visiting Dutch fans is visible; a few English voices can be heard; and a fan club of Italians is vocalising its support for the young up-and-coming Italian rider Marco Bandiera. But though the appeal of the race is international, its identity is distinctly Flandrian: the majority of the spectators are behind the local riders and chants of “Sti -jn – Devolder” ring out.

“When you’re a kid and you take up cycling you dream of making it to the Muur van Geraardsbergen in first place,” is how Boonen, a native Flandrian, explains the passion and frenzy. “Belgians grow up with cycling in their hearts. It’s ingrained in our culture like football in Italy or skiing in Austria. [The Ronde] has always been part of my life, ever since I was a kid and would watch the race on television. It’s my country’s race and it’s where I had my first great victory in a Classic [in 2005]. It was an unforgettable moment. When I crossed the finish line in front of thousands of supporters screaming my name it was like living a dream.”

As I squeeze into a spot just below the chapel, the scene is a flurry of nervous activity. Some have radios pressed to their ears and I catch the names Devolder, Boonen, Gilbert and Chavanel at various intervals. A man, fuelled by strong beer and sensing a captive audience, decides to break the tension by performing a dance with his trousers at his ankles, much to the delight of his peers.

And then the television helicopter is sighted overhead. A new expectation fills the air: the race is near, the distant roar of crowds further down the road can be heard, and as the volume increases men, women, children, even dogs strain their eyes on the road. People know Devolder and the Frenchman Chavanel are up there, and they know that Boonen hasn’t made it. A flash of colour is sighted through a chicane in the road, and the crowd slowly recognises it is one rider on his own. It is Devolder.

An ecstasy fills the air. Men roar and women shriek as he rounds the bend at the top of the Muur in a flash, sweat glistening over his muscles in the sunlight, a grimace of pain etched on his face. And his effort is not in vain: he crests the summit with a gap of some ten seconds on his pursuers and by the time he reaches Ninove it is almost a minute.

I eventually make my way back to the square, where a full-scale celebration is underway. Assuming it to be a Flandrian beer, I order an Orval, and am chided for it by a local man, who explains to me that it is, in fact, from the French-speaking Walloonian south. And maybe he is right to chide: maybe the passion and parochiality of Vlaamse Wielerweek is what gives it its distinctiveness, its enduring appeal in a world in which sport is becoming ever-more globalised and commercialised. “It’s poetry and war at the same time,” Boonen tells me. “This sport is like religion to us.”

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An Highland fling

This article appeared in the Sunday Herald

It was a beautiful morning in Dingwall yesterday, the kind of morning that sends city dwellers scarpering up mountains and the like in pursuit of solitude and unspoilt vistas.

And after about 9am it will have been quiet, too – quieter probably than at any time, not counting Sabbath days, since the old king chucked it. The Scottish Cup final kicked off in Glasgow at 3pm, but an exodus of military efficacy had been put in train on Friday with a bag-piped send-off for the players of Ross County that would have done the region’s martial ancestors proud.

Their mission ultimately failed, but few from the Ross-shire town were ever likely to miss the occasion for all the Highland sunshine of a dozen summers. It is no exaggeration to suggest that almost an entire community made for Hampden Park yesterday: the population of Dingwall is about 5000, but more than 18,000 “Staggies” – young and old, very young and not-so-very old – found their way to the south side of Glasgow.

In Dundee United, First Division County were up against a team who, by dint of not being one of the Old Firm pair, would ordinarily be underdogs themselves at a cup final. As I mixed with the County fans, I was reminded of that great novel about Scottish football by Robin Jenkins, The Thistle and the Grail, in which a small-town Lanarkshire club makes it to Hampden, uniting rich and poor, friend and foe along the way. But this was the fairytale romance of the cup made real and updated for the 21st century – Ross County diehards are as likely to be women as they are men with war-wounds and bad chests from smoking roll-ups.

There was a buzz in Dingwall – a buzz eagerly stoked and taken measure of by local and national media – that built to a crescendo all last week but which began the moment County knocked Celtic out of the tournament in last month’s semi-finals.

The May 6 general election and its aftermath didn’t get a look in: the town had special pies and cakes to bake, shop windows to dress, processions to organise. There was also a record out, a version of a Proclaimers song by a local band called Torridon. It was a missed opportunity for someone to form a duo called Ross and Cromarty – along Flanders and Swann lines – and shut the Reid twins up for good.

Cakes and pies are thrust in front of television cameras whenever a provincial club achieves any degree of success in the cup, but there’s nothing stage-managed or fake about Ross County. “It’s a community club, a family club, all the way,” according to Lynn Lonnen, a supporter I met on Friday night in the Mallard, a pub on the very platform of Dingwall Railway Station. “We’re a small town, people know one another, we don’t lock our doors. You see the chairman about town, or the players, and they’ll speak to you.”

County, in other words, are a nice football club, the antithesis of, say, a Millwall. They can’t not be nice even when they try: one of the songs in the fans’ repertoire makes it clear to opponents that they will be left “crying in their mammy’s soup”.

They even have an amicable relationship with their local rivals, Inverness Caley Thistle, who yesterday hung out a banner emblazoned with the words “ICT wishes Ross County all the best”. “There’s very occasionally fisticuffs with some of the younger supporters, but usually it’s because of the drink,” Arnie, Lynn’s husband, told me.

He also told me County play “probably the best football in Scotland”, and it’s true that in 2007 they did – despite topping Division Two at the time – get rid of Dick Campbell as manager because the football his team were playing was insufficiently attractive.

Sadly, yesterday they had an off-day in a game that never really sparked to life as a contest. Maybe the supporters were too nice about their team’s failings – certainly, the accustomed choruses of disapproval at misplaced places were conspicuously absent from the West Stand.

It was for the “buzz” and the much-vaunted Highland hospitality – the drink, essentially – that I was in Dingwall. Unfortunately the drinkers seemed to have been headed in the other direction as I journeyed north.

I know this because I saw what a Friday night out in Glasgow had done to them as I made my way to the National Stadium before kick-off. Our rigid laws against drinking on supporters’ buses meant, on the other hand, that there was no-one making a proper fool of himself to be amused at on the road down.

It is reassuring to report, nevertheless, that the feeling in the aftermath of defeat was that the party simply had to go on. County’s manager, Derek Adams, and their director of football, his father George, are tee-total for religious reasons and the local Wee Frees had decreed that an open-top bus parade in the event of victory wasn’t to go ahead until Monday (this in an area of the country that elects the renowned toper Charles Kennedy as its MP), but celebrations planned for last night were not being cancelled.

One woman from Dingwall told me before the game that if County won, “the town won’t sleep for a week”. Afterwards, a man confided he was merely planning on “a wee dram.” Katie MacKenzie and Jilly Murray were unwavering in their intentions, however: “We’re staying out in Glasgow tonight, without a doubt”, said Katie, with a grin that sadly I hadn’t the chance to misinterpret as an invitation. For with that, they were off into the dusk, “family final” done and dusted and mammy’s soup not even on the menu.

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Faking it in Chicago

This article appeared in the Sunday Herald magazine

Five letters, starting with a big old O, proclaim Chicago’s most exalted living scion. The very name warms hearts from pole to melting pole, kindles faith in improvement and leaves millions of Americans moist about their peepers.

Saviour of the world though he may be, we’re not talking about President Obama here. No no. Chicago is Oprah’s town. Somewhere along the line she wrestled Al Capone’s heirs off the throne, and nowadays she gets to do what she wants, with Mayor Richard M Daley’s blessing: on our visit half of Michigan Avenue, one of the city’s main arteries, was closed off for two days while Oprah partied with her celebrity friends to mark the start of her 24th “season” on television. Most Chicagoans, shuddering to think what she has planned for her 25th, went about their business; a teeming minority lapped it up, happy to hold aloft polystyrene clappy hands, ogle the slebs and stuff their faces.

Oprah, queen of empathy and psychobabble, “made it” in Chicago. The city, we are told, “made” Obama. There is, I’m sure of it, something about the place that revels in the containment of such dual narratives: tabloid talk host and self-help wet nurse on the one hand, cerebral politician and civil rights attorney on the other. Indeed, the president may have drawn up his ideological map living and working in Chicago’s South Side, a place steeped in social activism and blue collar pride, but where would his campaign have been without its populism, its implacable showbiz optimism and the saccharine “yes we can”? Oprah’s endorsement of Obama, incidentally, is estimated to have delivered him over a million votes.

There isn’t, as yet, an official Obama-lover’s tour of Chicago, although guides will point out the president’s mock-Georgian mansion (surrounded by Secret Service goons), the church he used to attend before his pastor said unhelpful things about whites and the basketball court on which he won permission to date Michelle after impressing her brother with his dribbling. Much more visible around town is the insignia of Mayor Daley, who famously responded to Chicago topping the US murder league table in 2001 by insisting that the 9/11 deaths should have been included in New York’s figures.

Given the historic scourges of gangsterism and corruption in Chicago, you can just about follow the PR logic. But Daley, whose father – also mayor – died in office in 1976 having served just a bit longer than the current incumbent’s two decades, has never been entirely free from the suspicion of corruption himself, a suspicion that is wont to linger around most political dynasties but particularly around those in cities where politics, big business and the unions have always been close.

The upside of such fellowship is, perhaps, that, in Chicago, things get done: buildings go up, people get paid, the streets are clean and civic-mindedness thrives. The city’s parks cover a total of 30 km²; one of them, Grant Park, hosts an excellent free Jazz Festival every year; and the Art Institute of Chicago houses some of the finest collections of art – European, American, Asian – anywhere in the world. The vibrancy and positivity that helps young Senators into the White House is not, indeed, hard to seek: it is there in the built environment, in the sports-mad citizenry whose baseball team never wins and in the nightlife that, according to Sinatra, not even the preacher Billy Sunday could shackle.

Chicago is, absolutely, the prototype of the modern metropolis. Razed to the ground by fire in 1871, it was rebuilt, skywards, round about the same time that it found itself at the intersection of the railroads from California to the North Atlantic and a shipping route that connected the cities of the north to New Orleans in the south. In 1900 the city’s engineers reversed the flow of the Chicago River, a feat that made the Mississippi navigable from Lake Michigan. And so a town built on swampland became a major industrial player, not least – courtesy of the Refrigerated Railcart – as the nation’s meatpacking hub. Yes we can, indeed.

Today, the vertical building styles of the last century and a half collide and caress on Chicago’s street grid, a checkerboard designed by Daniel Burnham, the great American architect and urban planner who tried to put his vision of “the city beautiful” into practice in The Plan of Chicago. The neo-classical and the neo-Gothic are everywhere at street level; stretch your neck and you’ll find elegant art deco skyscrapers, among the oldest in the world, and the bombastic modernist creations, all steel and glass, of Mies van der Rohe and his acolytes. Van der Rohe wanted to strip architecture of all historical peculiarities, but his buildings have a theatricality about them in-keeping with the majesty of the 20th Century American cityscape, which is to say a skyline suggestive of endless possibilities rather than of social engineering.

Chicago’s buildings are also more visionary than those of New York, the city to which Chicagoans most frequently compare their own and occasionally find it wanting. In reality, there is little reason for them to feel in any way second best: Chicago doesn’t share Manhattan’s anger or its snobbery, it’s cleaner and less frantic, and just about everything that’s world-class in New York is as good in Chicago. Its theatre audiences can stomach more than just musicals, it gave the blues a home and invented house music and it sits right bang on a freshwater lake that’s bigger than Wales.

The city that reversed a river also gave the world McDonald’s, Playboy, rollerskates and Wrigley’s, and, courtesy of the Chicago School of Economics, the free-market ideology some reckon brought last year’s crash. Were he alive Milton Friedman might have stuck up for himself by pointing the finger at those who encouraged banks to make credit so easily available, ie governments. But as laissez-faire capitalists and Democratic Party machine politicians alike know, it’ll take something more than the laws of boom and bust to bring Chicago down.

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Brochs and boozing in Orkney

IT’S all starting to go in one ear and out the other. Not the whisky, which is going down the right place rather well, but the stuff Russell Anderson, distillery manager at Highland Park in Orkney, is telling us about it. The ears aren’t all that important in the tasting of good whisky. Alas, the nose most certainly is, and my nostrils are about as functioning and sensitive as a sniffer dog’s; one that’s just come through a bad accident with a fire-work.

We’re in the tasting room at Highland Park’s five-star visitor centre and Russell has put seven different malts in front of me and told me not to get pissed. He’s very good at explaining what are essentially industrial processes in ways that make you go “aah”, but I’m still not picking up Turkish Delight off the 25-year-old. What I can say is that Highland Park has a finer balance between sweet and smoky flavours than any other whisky I’ve tasted.

That, see, is the happy result of a combination of natural and human factors, not least the trace of heathery sweetness left by Orkney’s distinctive, aromatic peat, the judicious use of Spanish oak casks that have previously held sherry, and the gentle maturation process afforded by Orkney’s relatively constant temperatures. According to F Paul Pacult, an American expert past whose nose, presumably, nothing escapes, the 18-year-old is simply “the best spirit in the world.” When tasting, he says, the tongue should tingle and the mouth sweeten; it’ll then go dry, but water again three or four seconds later. Amazingly, it’s all true. The 18 is a marvellous whisky, but the alchemies of the barrels are equally to be savoured in the 25, 30 and 40 year-old malts.

Forty years, even the 211 during which whisky has been made at Highland Park, is as the life of a dram sipped in a peaceful moment to the long sleep of Orkney’s living yet unknowable past, the 5,000 years of civilisation that have so richly left their mark on the place; and yet the distillery has about it a sort of time-honoured purity of spirit and purpose that to this outsider at least is the very stamp of these islands.

A greater sense of being out of time, of the past resonating in the present, is made mainfest by the Neolithic remains that dot the landscape: houses, tombs and – great monuments to who knows what? – standing stones. Skara Brae is Europe’s best-preserved Neolithic settlement; viewed by visitors from above its neat warren-like, dollhouse layout seems tactile, familiar. All of a sudden, prehistory is no longer recondite: it is near. And near at hand, too, with their brochs, are the Picts, who farmed and fished for centuries before the Vikings arrived in 875 and annexed the joint.

Norse Earls ruled Orkney until 1472. One of them, Magnus, was made a saint, primarily because he hadn’t the stomach for a fight, preferring to stay on board his ship singing psalms during a Viking raid on Wales. His pacifism didn’t do him much good when his cousin Haakon, who disputed Magnus’s claim to the earldom, made his cook Lifolf split Magnus’s head with an axe in 1114, but the cathedral built in his honour, in Kirkwall, at least provided somewhere for his bones to lie undisturbed until 1917, around about the same time as Orkney was again playing its part in Albion’s “island story”.

Scapa Flow, a sheltered body of water just south of the Orcadian mainland, was used as a Royal Navy base in both world wars. The German High Seas Fleet was transferred there during peace talks in 1918, but the defeated Boche decided to open their sea-cocks and scuttle their ships. Another wreck, that of HMS Royal Oak, dates from 1939, just weeks into the World War II, when a German U-Boat passed into Scapa Flow and 833 men were killed. As a result, Churchill tasked Italian prisoners of war with constructing the Churchill Barriers, causeways that closed off most of the access channels and had the added benefit of joining up some of the islands; and the Italians were also responsible for another Orkney attraction, the ornate baroque chapel they built out of leftover concrete, wrought iron and no little ingenuity.

To varying degrees, people on Orkney feel Scottish or British. First and foremost, however, they feel Orcadian. Orkney and Shetland were pledged to Scotland by Christian I of Norway as security against the payment of a dowry on the marriage of his daughter Margaret to James III. A clause in the contract gave Norway the right to redeem the islands for a fixed sum , but later attempts to do so were rebuffed. Norn, a kind of Norse dialect, died out some 200 years ago; but still islanders guard their distinctiveness jealously. Their culture is emphatically not the same as Highland culture, with its clans and tartan and sad songs.

In 1987, the Orkney Movement, a political party that supported devolution for Orkney, contested the constituency in the general election, its candidate polling 14.5% of the vote. Given the extent to which the islands are said to rely on subsidy, it may be legitimate to wonder how much thought was given to the idea. It did recently come to light that the Labour government of the 1970s, desperate to counter economic arguments for Scottish independence, calculated that should Orkney and Shetland be regarded as separate from Scotland, they would own 53 per cent of oil reserves in the North Sea; but regardless of whose oil it is, or was, it is probably worth remembering what it is we subsidise – an older way of life, a community not blighted by crime and social breakdown, custodianship of World Heritage and conservation sites.

This being my first visit to Orkney, I wondered whether a place I had read about in the works of George Mackay Brown and others would match up to the unreasonably fanciful ideas I had formed of it: an archipelago whose islands – Westray, Shapinsay, Stronsay, Ronaldsay – sounded like they existed in a song, and where strong-limbed men and women went about rearing cattle, knitting jumpers, leaving their doors open and telling their children stories about sea monsters. Conversely, I wondered whether if I lived in Orkney I would eventually find it boring. Remote places where not much happens can depress the life out of some people. Having been, I am now convinced Orkney would not make that remoteness felt negatively; that to belong there would be to feel blessed.

That is not to say that its way of life is invulnerable: islanders think long and hard about the impact on landscape and ecosystems of developments like windfarms; public services are stretched; farmers resent being told by the RSPB that they’re not allowed to thin out the flocks of geese that wrack their grass. In Kirkwall, the demise of Woolworths has been felt sharply, and local shops and businesses fear the impact of a planned new Tesco superstore.

But other shops and new entertainments have grown up in Orkney in recent times – a cinema, theatre and leisure centre, a thriving arts and crafts industry, a programme of music festivals, not the least of which, the St Magnus Festival in midsummer, attracts musicians and premieres of genuine global standing.

What’s more, that much-vaunted sense of community is palpable, and there is next to no crime. At the airport shop there is an ‘honesty basket’ in which you are asked to leave the right money when there’s no-one about to serve you. The court reports in The Orcadian tell of one young man being ordered to “grow up” after giving his girlfriend a hard time, and another who simply “entered a house and stared at a woman.” Reading between the lines, he would have been down as the local idiot a generation ago. Still, doors go proudly unlocked, apart from during Christmas week, when, in Kirkwall, they are barricaded against intrusion from the ba’ game. An obscure tradition that frequently results in mass brawling, it is contested between two groups of men who live either side of an arbitrary dividing line. One team, the Doonies, must strive to put the ba’ into the harbour and stop the Uppies from touching it against a wall at the other end of town. What greater purity of purpose can you ask of a place?

This article appeared in the Sunday Herald

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A day in Grantchester

This article appeared in the Sunday Herald magazine

If all you knew of England was gleaned from BBC news or the tabloids you’d probably think it an over-developed, pissed-up dump full of people like Karen Matthews and Russell Brand. It’s almost as though its traditions, its neighbourliness and tolerance, and above all its natural beauty, were things to be bashful and apologetic about. Perhaps John Major’s speech about warm beer and old maids really did do for pride in English heritage, but great pockets of William Blake’s “green and pleasant land” remain still undivested of their come-hither fecundity.

Nowhere is this ineffable sorcery more alluring than in Grantchester, a village some two miles south-west of Cambridge that is as old as the Domesday Book. It is often said that the south remoulds and anglicises the mindset and manners of people not from there, but so long as you realise that on entering you are enjoined to scarper on a sliding scale of eccentricity, Cambridge seems to take no interest in redress. And Grantchester – idyllic, Arcadian, a place where time stands still and whose pubs do not sell lager – is where they go, tourists and chattering eccentrics alike, to escape the droves on the college backs and the world of cars, gymnasiums and Wagamama restaurants.

In doing so they follow in the footsteps of many of the country’s finest minds. Jeffrey Archer, “probably the best storyteller in the world” according to the Daily Mail, lives there now with his wife Mary Archer, the scientist; while past denizens include the poets Rupert Brooke and Sylvia Plath and the mathematician Bertrand Russell. And the list of others to have taken tea or fallen off punts there includes Newton, Darwin, Milton, Coleridge, Byron, Keats, Tennyson, Wittgenstein, Keynes and the Stephens Fry and Hawking.

It was out walking on Grantchester Meadows – the pasture land along the River Cam that separates the village from Cambridge -that Alan Turing first came up with the idea of artificial intelligence. Turing, you may remember, cracked the German Enigma code during World War II. He later lived in Manchester, where, in the 50s he was prosecuted for being homosexual and subsequently killed himself. I was glad when John – my host – corrected my misapprehension that we were about to cycle to Manchester. Grantchester, he informed me, would be a less taxing journey. And so, he on his own bike, I on a borrowed girl’s one, we set off across the Granchester Grind, the path that crosses the meadows.

It would be difficult to prove, but I am convinced there are more bicycles in Cambridge than people. They’re like free newspapers: if someone nicks yours you can always find a spare one lying around. It’s all very well pedalling your library books and your corduroy around the city, though; a different story negotiating the Grind. No sooner had we set wheel on gravel than briar thorns gave notice of their views on two-wheeled gender-bending. Mindful of admonitions regarding health and safety in old films about the Countryside Code, I wheeled my punctured steed along by hand towards our destination, where I managed to get it patched up and we ourselves repaired to The Orchard Tea Garden.

To sit out in the sun drinking tea under the ripening apples there is to feel the ghosts around you, here Lord Byron expostulating grandiloquently, there Keats, half-demented, agonising over his verse in some shady bower. Just a little further upstream is Byron’s Pool, a former mill pond, where the poet used to swim. The mill itself receives mention in Chaucer’s Reeve’s Tale. No swimming for us – instead we admire the enormous cows grazing on the river’s banks. It’s a scene that could have been painted by Constable and one that managed to charm even that grim poetess of death, Sylvia Plath. She indeed wrote from Grantchester to her mother of an occasion on which she recited Chaucer to a captive bovine audience, and the episode is recalled in verse by her husband Ted Hughes: “Your voice went over the fields towards Grantchester. It must have sounded lost. But the cows Watched, then approached: they appreciated Chaucer.”

Having had enough of jam and clotted cream, John explains to me how the Romantic poets, contrary to what you will hear said of them, were bothered deeply by the cruel degradations of the industrial revolution. They feared “the dark Satanic mills” of places like Manchester but it was because they distrusted the new capitalism, and their fight was for the soul of England and its people. John is learned, so I don’t argue, but there is no doubting the poet most associated with Grantchester, Brooke, is unreservedly and unapologetically nostalgic.

Homesick in Berlin in 1912, Brooke, who lodged at Grantchester between 1909 and 1911, first at the Orchard House and later at the Old Vicarage – now the Archers’ gaff – wrote: “I only know that you may lie Day long and watch the Cambridge sky, And, flower-lulled in sleepy grass, Hear the cool lapse of hours pass, Until the centuries blend and blur In Grantchester, in Grantchester.” He ends the poem with the famous line: “Stands the church clock at ten-to-three And is there honey still for tea?” During much of 1911, the hands of the clock on the tower of the church were stuck not at 2.50 but 3.30; to this day, however, it is always ten-to-three in the dining room of the Rupert Brooke Inn, formerly the Rose and Crown.

Brooke moved to the village hoping to escape a hectic Cambridge social life, but instead he became the lodestar of the Grantchester Group, a circle of friends that included Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Virginia Woolf, EM Forster, Keynes and the painter Augustus John. Woolf dubbed them the ‘neo-pagans’: contemptuous of the religious stuffiness of the mid-Victorians and later held to be symbolic of a doomed novocento optimism and innocence, they would go barefoot in the village, hike for miles around and travel to Cambridge by canoe. On one occasion Brooke and Woolf skinny-dipped together by moonlight, although it is not believed that they were lovers.

Russell lived for ten years at the Mill House writing his Principia Mathematica, the manuscripts of which were so heavy that he had to transport them to Cambridge in a four-wheeled barrow, while John, the outright bohemian, lived for a time in a gypsy caravan on the meadows with his two wives and seven children, all male, whose game it was to run around the place naked.

Yet for all he embodied the spirit of his time and place, and the timelessness of that place, posterity has not been kind to Brooke’s reputation, mainly because the sonnets he wrote shortly before his death in 1915 celebrate the dream of dying for a noble cause. They are the poems of a man who never saw battle: he died of septicemia on the Greek island of Skyros while waiting to land in Gallipoli. Locally, though, he’s still a hero – along with Brooke’s and 16 other names, the war memorial in the churchyard bears the inscription “Men With Splendid Hearts”, a line from his Grantchester poem.

The church itself is a magnificent old edifice, its nave dating back to the early 12th Century. We were happy sitting Betjeman-like in its cool stillness thinking ourselves the proper aesthetes; though happier still drinking pints of real ale (Adnams) in The Blue Ball Inn, one of four pubs in the village, all of which date back centuries. The Blue Ball is where the locals drink now; The Green Man – which Brooke tended to frequent and where John (Augustus, not my companion) once laid a man clean out after a quarrel – has fallen on hard times, its Scottish owner having gone bankrupt and then been arrested while breaking into his former property to find out what the bailiffs had left.

The Rupert Brooke, which has a fifty-cover restaurant, and where if you’re lucky you might hear Pink Floyd’s wonderfully bucolic Grantchester Meadows playing on the stereo, is also worth a visit. Or so I’m told: dinner was with friends at Wagamama that night and neither of us could remember what the Countryside Code had to say about cycling drunk. So we opted to play the peaceable Scots, scrapped the idea of paying a call on the Archers and rode back out across the Grind convinced eccentrics these days aren’t quite up to the old mark.

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Postcard from Poznan

This article appeared in The Herald Magazine

It is Poland’s age-old quandary: what to do about the past. Only pragmatism, Poles say, prevented Poznan’s Zamek Cesarski, the Prussian imperial castle built by Kaiser Wilhelm II at the beginning of the last century, from being demolished after 1945. When Poland, having regained its independence in 1918, was invaded by the Nazis and the area around Poznan became a part of the Third Reich – most of the rest of the country was simply German-administered – Hitler had the castle’s western wing and tower redesigned to mirror, exactly, his headquarters just a short trip down the road in Berlin.

Most buildings of its kind in Germany itself having been blitzed by the British, the place has lent its mise-en-scene to the odd film-maker down the years. The communists didn’t do very much with it – that it stood as a symbol of authoritarian rule was perhaps enough for them – but while it is now a cultural centre, housing a dance school, galleries and a cinema space, it still feels somehow empty, more strange fairytale palace than museum.

We are used to Germans treading on eggshells when talk turns to the years 1933-45, but the ethical equation is different in Poland. The Nazis killed around five million Poles. Anyone wondering whether it would be right or proper of a geared-up Polish tourist industry to hitch its wagon to some sort of Adolf Trail, will, therefore, find no easy answers. You’re not meant to feel prurient about Hitler. Pace his chambers and you just might.

All its sad, bloody, violent history has given Poland something few European countries enjoy: perhaps not so much a single idea of what it is but a definite sense of what it is not. Partitioned by the Prussians, Russians and Austro-Hungarians, invaded by the Swedes and the Ottomans, subjugated by the Nazis then by the Soviets, its sense of nationhood is inseparable from its struggle for survival. The Prussians were Protestant, the Russians Orthodox Christians. Of the five million killed by the Nazis, three million were Jewish; only a few thousand Jews survived. Catholicism – not exactly the default religion in northern Europe – makes sense. For centuries the church bolstered Polish national identity; in turn Poles have remained faithful. Religion and patriotism – an endearingly uncomplicated patriotism – go hand in hand, or at least that’s the impression. Religious attendance remains sky-high; in Poznan there’s a church everywhere you look.

The Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul has particular significance, having been founded in the year 968 by Mieszko I, the first ruler of Poland. In the shade of its Gothic silhouette – the original Romanesque cathedral was sacked centuries ago – a statue of Pope John Paul II welcomes parishioners to prayer. Old Karol Jozef declared the site to have been the birthplace of the Polish nation, and besides being a pontiff he wasn’t from Poznan but a place near Krakow, so he probably wasn’t lying.

The Prussians tried, and failed, to suppress Polish culture and language. The communists tried, and failed, to reduce the influence of the church. In Poznan the commies even “moved” the River Warta off its natural meandering course around the cathedral, for no other apparent reason than to let the Catholics know who was in charge.

Now that the Poles are self-determining, all that suppressed culture and heritage has come into its own, while the revolts and uprisings of 1918, 1956, 1970, 1980 and too many other years to mention are everywhere commemorated. Not that everyone is dancing the polka, debating folk art or pining for the days of Solidarity. Western-style consumerism caught on a while back and Poznan is proud to have the “best medium-sized shopping mall” in the world, a fairly impressive piece of modern architecture that brings everyone from Zara to Barbour, Van Graaf and Mothercare under one roof. Let it slip that you’re from Scotland and as well as telling you about friends and family who live and work there, Poles – in common with everyone else in the world who watches Hollywood films – will mention Braveheart. Having grasped their own freedom, they can’t understand why we’re so phlegmatic about ours.

It may be the ultimate endorsement of their patriotism that many of the thousands of young Poles to have sought work abroad since the country joined the EU in 2004, are now going home. In Poland low levels of home ownership should ensure a degree of protection against the credit crunch. The Polish economy is actually growing right now, fuelled partly by a construction boom, while the zloty has been getting stronger and salaries higher for some time. Paradoxically, meanwhile, for a nation that puts such store in its independence, the EU remains almost universally popular, the Common Agricultural Policy notwithstanding.

Poznan, at least, exhibits many of the signs of a city in which business is thriving. It is said that people here are even more prudent than the Scots. National stereotypes aside, the region was historically more economically progressive than other parts of Poland and in the 21st Century has become something of a financial, industrial and scientific hub. The Poznan International Fair attracts some 350,000 visitors a year to the city and in December the great and the good clocked up the air miles to fly in and discuss how to get more investment from their respective exchequers for biofuels, and other topics, at the UN Climate Change Conference.

Polish farmers might well have taken an interest. Food shortages are no distant memory, while the national diet is still very much based on staples, not least in Poznan, whose citizens are referred to in other regions as “pyry” (potatoes) – rather like Liverpudlians are named for their consumption of lobscouse, and not always affectionately. In Poznan you will discover any number of delicacies involving potato: pyry z gzikiem, potatoes cooked in their skins and served with cottage cheese; szagowki, potato dumplings cooked with flour and, um, cottage cheese; and koptyka, potato mixed with egg, wheat, and (why not?) potato flour. Everything is served with red cabbage, but if you want fleshing out a bit other traditional dishes involve lamb, wild boar and herring. It’s prosaic cuisine, but rather healthy, and no-one under 30 seems to be fat. The women are stylish and beautiful, all lustrous eyes and Slavonic cheekbones. Moreover, the absence of joggers from the city’s streets is surely a sign of rude health, not to mention the absence of corporeal guilt.

The men, you might reasonably conclude, prefer drinking and smoking to anything remotely as tiresome, but while Poznan boasts a breath-taking concentration of bars and nightclubs around its market square – the city’s universities house 130,000 students – it doesn’t feel either debauched or decadent. Apart from Polish barbers having a precipitous knack for reproducing the very worst footballers’ haircuts, modesty reigns. People are hospitable if not demonstrative, cheerful if not exuberant, and strikingly well-informed.

The market square itself, Stary Rynek, has a typically northern European toy-town quality to it, with the sort of gabled, ornamental skylines you find everywhere from the Baltic to the east of Scotland; although its centre-piece is an elegant town hall designed by the Italian Renaissance architect Giovanni Battista di Quadro. A short walk from there throws up the Baroque of St Stanislav’s Parish Church – gaudy, vulgar, exhilarating. Head west and you’ll find the German-built opera house and Teutonic, faux-medieval castle vying for prominence with Polish libraries, theatres and an excellent National Museum. All of which points to the obvious contradiction that while Poznanians just love being Polish, it’s the juxtaposition of the foreign, colonial and native that makes their city so physically appealing.

People here can be punctilious, which is possibly a German influence. They’re also fairly hidebound about rules such as forbid photography inside communist-era civic buildings and will happily stand for aeons at empty crossroads waiting for the lights to change. If this is to their detriment, at least they’re organised enough to have their new football stadium for the 2012 European Championships well underway, while those in other parts of Poland are in danger of not being ready in time. A city of spuds? One thinks not.