I love photographic themes. When I travel, as secondary photographic travel narrative, I choose a theme. On my visit to the Baltic States, I chose wind vanes as a theme. Other themes have included Pub signs in London, detail on Art Nouveau buildings in Riga, Door knockers in Rome and Paris, and Georgian doors in Dublin – the least original theme ever.
Images from previous travel themes.
London Pub Signs
Art Nouveau Detail on Riga Buildings
Door knockers in Paris and Rome
Wind/weather/weathercock vanes have been around for a long time. Apparently they were independently invented in Greece and China around 2BC (though the dates vary considerably).
The Huainanzi, a guide to the theory of practice of government in early Han China (2CBE), describes a wind observing fan.
The Greek astronomer Andronicus is said to have created the first recorded weather vane. It was on top of the Tower of the Winds, in the ancient Agora, and was a tribute to Neptune. The octagonal Tower of the Winds was named for the eight Greek gods of the wind. It still stands, minus the original weather vane.
In the 9AD a pope decreed that every church should be topped with a cock shaped wind vane, as a reminder of the prophecy that the cock would not crow the morning after the last supper, referencing Peter’s betrayal of Jesus.
Weather vanes were often found on the front of viking ships – bronze weather viking vanes have been discovered from the 9th century.
In the middle ages, public buildings in Europe were adorned with weather/wind vanes which took the shape of an arrow or pennant.
The Baltic States have a huge variety of wind vanes.
The wind vanes on the Curonian Spit in Lithuania were quite different. They were introduced in 1844 by fishing authorities and were affixed to all sailing boats permitted to fish in the Curonian Lagoon. It made for easy identification of every boat, and where it came from.
In Nida today, there can been seen numerous examples of these wind vanes. They are made of wood, and people now use them as decoration to their homes, and in public places as a display.
In choosing wind vanes for my theme in the Baltic States, I inadvertently discovered the fascinating history of them.
In choosing future themes, I shall look for objects which also have an interesting history. Clock faces come to mind especially astronomical clocks, such as the Prague Orloj.
Travelling in a very small part of the Cradle of Civilisation – South Eastern Turkey.
Crossing the bridge beside the Malabadi Bridge, over the Batman Creek near the town of Silvan in southern Turkey, I arrived in Mesopotamia.
The Malabadi Bridge is a beautiful structure. A masterpiece architecturally dating from the 12th century. It is a spanned stone arch bridge, with a height of approximately 24m and length of just over 281 metres.
Mesopotamia (from the Greek, meaning two rivers) is referred to as the cradle of civilization. The world’s oldest civilisations inhabited this region, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and it was here that people began to read and write, create laws and live in cities. Today, most of Mesopotamia is in Iraq, but parts are in modern day Turkey, Iran and Syria.
Many empires, rulers and dynasties occupied Mesopotamia, from ancient times until today. The architecture, art and literature bears witness to the diversity of the history.
My travels were only in Upper Mesopotamia, now south eastern Turkey. I suspect I have left it too late to visit Iraq and Syria. Having looked out over both countries from the Turkish border towns will probably be the closest I will get.
Hasankeyf (ancient Assyrian name Castrum Kefa – castle of the rock), is being sacrificed to “progress”. The town has been flooded by the reservoir for the Ilisu dam on the Tigris River. On 5 July 2020, an article by Carlotta Gall appeared in the New York Times titled “An Ancient Valley lost to ‘Progress'”, (nytimes.com/2020/07/05/world/middleeast) which is well worth reading.
The Hasankeyf I visited is no more. This 12,000 year old settlement was once an important commercial centre along the silk road. Approaching the town, we passed cliffs, honeycombed with caves, which had been inhabited since Neolithic times.
Just prior to crossing the Tigris to enter Hasankeyf, the ruins of a 12th century bridge, which Alexander the Great may have crossed, came into view. I am sad to think that the ruins are now under water. No one will now experience standing on the banks of the Tigris looking at the piers of that bridge. Perhaps a generation who never experienced the wonder of that view will be content with an underwater view.
Hasankeyf stood on a rock, high above the river. It is hard to visualise the scene now. To sacrifice such a historically significant medieval site, with its palace, city walls, elegant houses and several mosques, including the Great Mosque, which was well preserved, is cultural vandalism. Some of the people who were displaced were the last of several generations of their family who lived there – some had even been born in one of the caves in the cliff.
Mardin, (known as Marida – of antiquity, Mardia by the Byzantines, Merde-Merdo-Merdi by the Syriac and Marde – Persian) where we were staying the night, is built on the slope of a hill, looking south over the great Mesopotamian Plain to Syria and Iraq. If we had telephoto eyes, it would have been possible to see the Persian Gulf.
Mardin has a very large number of Syrian refugees living in the city, in part because of the proximity of Mardin to the Syrian border. There has been a huge influx of Syrian refugees since 2011, and an escalation of the refugee crisis in 2014 meant a lot more Syrians were trying to leave their country. In October 2019 there were 88,000 registered Syrian refugees in Mardin – nearly 11% of the population.
Mardin is an architectural gem, with its ancient citadel and 14th and 15th century Islamic buildings – there are 14 historically important mosques in the city. The citadel, above the city was first built in 975.
The city has a medieval feel to it, with its narrow lanes and vaulted passageways under the upper storeys of houses. The old mansions are built of stone, decorated with carved stone fruit, flowers and animals. While strolling through this part of the city, people on their balconies invited us into their homes to taste their wine.
The most historically important mosque in Mardin is the Ulu Cami (Grand Mosque). Construction of this mosque began in 1184AD and was completed in 1204AD. I love the minbars, and the one in Ulu Cami, while not as impressive as many I have seen, was nevertheless attractive.
The refugee issue became apparent when we visited Deyr-az Zaferan, a Syriac-Jacobite monastery, 7km from Mardin. Although the monastery is open to the public, when we visited we were limited to a very small part. We were told that because the monastery was sheltering a large number of Syrian refugees.
The foundations were laid in the 4th century AD. There is an earlier underground chamber which is said to have been used by sun worshippers, as long ago as 2000BC.
The monks were nowhere to be seen. They apparently speak Aramaic – the language of Jesus. It would have been interesting to hear the language of Jesus spoken. I did hear Aramaic spoken a few months later in Ethiopia, so all was not lost.
I fell in love with the replica of Al-Jazari’s Elephant Clock in the Kasimiye Medrese in Mardin. Al-Jazari (1136-1206) was an Islamic scholar, mechanical engineer and inventor. He wrote a book, in 1206 “The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices. The Elephant clock is a splendid example of an Ingenious Mechanical device. It is a weight powered water clock, and stands 22ft high. The timing mechanism is in a water filled basin inside the elephant. The serpents play a part in the moving of the water.
Different cultures are represented on the elephant clock. The elephant is Asian, representing India, dragon like serpent represents China, phoenix on the top represents Egypt and the turbaned figure represents muslim cultures.
I really covet that clock.
The market in Mardin was excellent. I rarely enjoy markets, and unlike other people, have never found a treasure or a bargain in the many markets I have visited. This market was very clean and tidy, with the usual wonderful array of food. The silk scarves were the loveliest I have seen in markets. There was also a lot of soap, made by the Syrian refugees.
Harran (ancient Carrhae), now a village near the Syrian border, was an ancient city of strategic importance situated on the road from Nineveh to Carchemis. It was mentioned in the bible, (Patriarch Abraham’s family settled there – Genesis), but it was in existence long before biblical times. Ruins date back to the 3rd millenium BCE. Arriving in Harran, seeing the kumbets (mud brick houses, constructed without wood, which resemble beehives) and the ruins, transported me back to antiquity.
Local people no longer live in the beehive houses in Harran, but that did not diminish the feeling of antiquity. One of the houses is set up as if people live there. I loved the carpets and cushions.
I thought Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids were pretty old. Well, they are, but not as old as Gobekli Tepe, in north western Mesopotamia, about 20km from Urfa. Dating from around 9,500BC, the standing stones/T shaped pillars are 5,500 years older than the first cities of Mesopotamia, and are about 7,000 years older than Stonehenge and are from the neolithic period. Some of the pillars are plain, others have high and low relief stone carvings decorating them. The site is thought to be the first human built holy place. I have visited a lot of standing stones over the years. I am over awed by all of them, but I was blown away by those at Gobekli Tepe.
Urfa (Sanliurfa, Edessa, Adme) is in upper Mesopotamia, and is said to be where the prophet Abraham was born. He was born in Ur, but where is Ur. Ur of the Chaldeans is in southern Iraq, whereas Urfa is in northern Mesopotamia. The arguments for and against are fascinating, but I think I shall go with Urfa. I visited his birthplace in Urfa – a cave), saw the castle from which he was thrown by Nimrod, and dipped my finger into the sacred lake which Allah formed in place of the flames into which Abraham was to land. The burning logs were turned into fish. The lake is full of fish – descendants of the burning logs perhaps. The cave was pretty nondescript, but watching the devout pay their respects was quite fascinating. Kneeling and praying, and then, still on their knees, moving backwards out of the cave, to show respect.
After a busy day following Abraham, I retired to the roof terrace of my hotel with a glass of wine. Enjoying the views, and contemplating watching the sun go down, I was attended on by hotel staff. Madam cannot drink alcohol on the roof terrace, as it overlooked a mosque. Madam retired to her room without a view, so as not to offend.
The large noisy market in Urfa was as good as that in Mardin. I am always drawn to the spice stalls by the aroma, and the beautiful colours.
Driving to Kahta, I had my final view of the Euphrates, and drove out of Mesopotamia.
It was not my last view of Mesopotamia. From Kahta we journeyed up into the hills to climb Nemrut Dagh to visit the surreal setting of a handmade terrace, on which sat monstrous seated statues of different gods. I have written about my visit to Nemrut Dagh in “A Recent Journey into the Distant Past” (24 July 2017). If you are interested, you can scroll down to my very first post.
From Nemrut Dagh, there is a spectacular view across the Euphrates Valley, deep into Mesopotamia. A perfect place from which to farewell Mesopotamia.
I grew up in a country where, because of foreign exchange restrictions, new cars were impossible to acquire unless one had funds overseas, preferably sterling. The person with sterling could obtain a new car, sell it after a couple of years for as much, if not more than they paid for the new car. As a consequence, even old second hand cars were relatively expensive.
I had no access to foreign funds, and I had 100 pounds to spend.
For my 100 pounds, I acquired a 1937 “Big Austin”. Big was clearly an aspirational description. It had 4 doors, a windscreen wiper on the driver’s side only, and the turning indicators were little arms, which were switched on and off. No heater or air conditioner. A hot water bottle was useful in the winter. It was many years before I acquired a car with a radio.
To enable me to see over the steering wheel, I needed to sit on a cushion. To reach the pedals, I needed a cushion at my back. A tall person, on the other hand, almost had their knees under their chin.
The gearbox was unsynchronised, so gear changes involved a double clutch. I had learned to drive in my parent’s Zephyr 6, which did have a synchronised gearbox. I had to learn to change gears all over again.
Most of my driving lessons were on the local football field. Driving round and round a football field in no way prepared me for driving on the road, but at least I could change gears. Venturing out onto the road with my father as instructor was stressful. Scraping against the curb elicited the response “well that was six months wear off the tyres”.
The double clutch procedure accomplished, it was time to get my driving licence. The tester was tall. Sitting in the passenger seat with his knees tucked up underneath his chin, he was not comfortable. I credit my very short driving test to his discomfort. Hill start – I didn’t need the handbrake for the hill he chose. Reverse park – reverse into the fire station driveway, which was three fire engines wide. Once around the block, and back to the station. I had passed in all of about 5 minutes.
Glowing with confidence, I did a U turn outside the police station, which was on a State Highway. Bearing down, at some speed, was a huge timber truck with a full load of logs. Due to the timber truck driver’s skill, my early death was avoided. I had to pull over to the side of the road to recover.
My parents would not let me drive on my own until I had mastered changing a wheel and had some basic knowledge of how the engine worked. Engines were pretty simple in those days. I accomplished these skills pretty quickly.
We lived in a country village. There was no such thing as 7 days a week petrol stations. I always had a gallon of petrol in the car. I ran out of petrol one morning on my way to work – not a problem. Well, actually it was. I could not get the lid off the can. I wore stiletto heels in those days. I tried to punch a hole in the top of the petrol can with the heel of my shoe, to no avail. Arriving late for work resulted in a deduction in my pay. As I only earned Twelve pounds ten and tuppence a fortnight, this was drastic.
Luckily a truck driver stopped, opened the can and I was on my way.
I sold my Big Austin a couple of years later for 100 pounds. Over the years I have owned numerous cars, but have never sold one for anywhere near the price I paid.
Many years later, having owned a couple of different models of Datsun, Fords, including a little Ford Prefect, several Toyotas, a Renault, several Mazdas, a Mini Cooper, a Honda, a Hyundai and a Subaru, I acquired a BMW.
I no longer have to check oil and water levels. Nor do I have to check tyre pressure. I have an on board computer which tells me everything I need to know. I have “runflat” tyres, which will get me to a tyre repair place – no need to change a wheel. In fact, I don’t actually have a spare wheel.
I have a built in GPS system. To be fair, when I acquired the Big Austin, I did not even require paper maps to get around my country.
No more cushions to enable me to see over the steering wheel. With the touch of a button, my seat can be raised, lowered, moved forward or moved backwards. Even better, my seat preference can be set on my “key”, so if someone uses the car with the spare key, and changes the seat configurations, the minute I insert my key, my seat returns to my settings.
I am able to drive in comfort no matter what the weather is. Warm in the winter, cool in the summer. I can listen to whatever I wish – music via spotify, blue tooth from my phone or radio.
It has been an exciting ride from my first car to my current car. When the time comes to replace the BMW I may not need a car anymore. Excellent public transport (ahem) may obviate the need for a car, as it did when I lived in London. Alternatively, a hybrid or a fully electric car may replace the BMW.
Will it be as exciting as my journey from my 1937 Big Austin to my BMW? I doubt it. It certainly will be a shorter journey.
I am attracted to the memorials of the dead writers who have had an impact on me.
Monuments, which do not claim any personal presence of the dead writer, can be very moving, or can make the visitor feel that the monument is less a memorial to the dead writer, lucrative as that may be, but merely a site to generate income, without a meaningful association to the dead writer. The latter for example might be a house where the dead writer had the slightest of links.
Iran has produced many inspiring poets, and the tombs of many of the Persian poets are considered holy by Iranians. In fact Iran is said to be the Land of Poetry.
I was fortunate to have the opportunity to visit several of the dead poet’s tombs in Iran.
Saadi was born in Shiraz , and died there in 1291. Saadi is said to be one of the greatest poets of the classical Iranian tradition. Gulistan and Bustan are among his most notable works. When I visited, people were reading his poetry at the tomb. Restoration of the tomb was completed in 1952.
A carpet, bearing a poem from Gulistan, Bani Adam, can be found at the entrance to the UN in New York.
Hafez was born in 1315 and died in Shiraz in 1389. He was a prolific poet and a religious scholar. Apparently his collected works, The Divan, are said to be found in most Iranian homes. People were reading his poetry at the tomb. His marble tomb is engraved with versus including “On the day of my death, give me a minutes time to set eyes on thee, Then from this world and life I shall be set free”. I wish I felt as philosophical about death.
The longest epic poem written by one person is the Shahnameh – the Book of Kings. It was written by Ferdowsi over a period of 30 years. Ferdowsi was born in 940AD and died around 1020, in Tus, near Mashad. His current tomb was built between 1928 and 1934 and remodelled in 1969.
My favourite part of the tomb is a frieze of life size sculptures depicting scenes from the Shanameh. I was contemplating, with revulsion, a depiction of Zahhak (a bad king) who had serpents growing out of his shoulders. To keep the serpents calm they had to be fed children’s brains. At this point, the Iranian guide, with a straight face, said “of course there was quite a brain drain during this period”. Of course there was.
Omar Khayyam was born in 1048 and died in 1131. His mausoleum is in Nishapur, about 40 miles west of Mashad. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is a collection of hundreds of quatrains. It was first translated from Farsi to English in 1859. There are numerous quotes which I love, but with Covid-19 raging, “Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life” is one which resonates with me.
I was hissed at in the garden near the mausoleum. A group of elderly men took exception to something about me – maybe my headscarf was too far back. The rest of me, other than my hands and face were totally covered. I was hissed at once before at the Siwa Oasis in Egypt by a group of young men, when I inadvertently took my jacket off, and exposed my arms from the elbow down, so at least I knew what the hissing was about.
Russia has many famous writers. The memorials I visited were not architectural or artistic gems such as those in Iran, but I was very moved by most of them. I have enjoyed reading Russian literature for a long time and visits to the places where some of the books and poems I love were written were very meaningful.
Anna Akhmatova lived in rooms of the former Sheremetev Palace, in St Petersburg. These rooms now form her memorial by way of a museum. She documented the suffering and hardship of the Stalin terror and the Second World War. I felt the cold terror of a dawn knock on the door when coming up the stairs, I saw the candle holder, which would have illuminated the Mother of God Icon, and the icon. A couple of lines from her poem, Requiem came to mind “He was taken away at dawn, a candle flares, illuminating the Mother of God.”
After the visit, a friend recited the Requiem in the courtyard, which bought tears to my eyes.
Alexander Pushkin was born in Moscow in 1799 and died in St Petersburg in 1837.
There is a Museum and memorial apartment in St Petersburg, honouring Alexander Pushkin. I did not find the museum particularly inspiring. Pushkin only lived in the apartment in 1836-37 until his untimely death in a duel. The apartment is apparently an example of a nobleman’s residence of the 1830’s. I did not feel Eugene Onegin or the Queen of Spades. I did like his monument in the Square of Arts.
Pushkin married in Moscow in 1831, and took an apartment at No 53, the Arbat. There is a memorial Apartment at no. 53, but as he only lived there for around 3 months, I did not venture in. Arbat Street is one of the oldest streets in Moscow, and was home to writers such as Tolstoy and Gogol. It was the subject of a novel, Children of the Arbat by Anatoli Rybakov which is set in 1934, the period just prior to Stalin’s great purges. I found the novel chilling, dark and depressing, but essential reading to help understand the time. In the novel Arbat Street is the intellectual and artistic centre of Moscow.
Yasnaya Polyana is now a house museum, and a memorial to Tolstoy. It is in the Tula Region, around 200km from Moscow. Tolstoy was born there in 1828 and died there in 1910. His 13 children were all born there. Tolstoy’s unmarked grave is in a pretty glade, a short walk from the house through woods.
War and Peace and Anna Karenina are long time favourites. Bald Hills Estate in War and Peace was modelled on Yasnaya Polyana. A visit to the estate, where those two novels were written between 1862 and 1869 was a moving experience. The simply furnished house, the huge library, and the idyllic park bought his books to life for me.
Peredelkino Writer’s Colony is about 15km from Moscow. It is set among the most glorious silver birch forests and contains the house museum of Boris Pasternak. Pasternak died there in 1960. Most of Dr Zhivago was written at Peredelinko. The soviet authorities did not approve, and Dr Zhivago was not published in Russia until 1988. The novel was first published in Italy in 1957 and won a Nobel Prize for literature in 1958, which Pasternak was required to decline. Pasternak was “rehabilitated” in 1987, and his son accepted the Nobel Prize in 1989. While visiting the house, the first two lines of Lara’s Theme “Somewhere my love there will be songs to sing/Although the snow covers the hope of Spring”, came to mind, and reflected the history of the book. Sad that Pasternak died before the spring.
I shocked myself for being knocked out by Bulgakov’s novel, The Master and Margarita, written between 1928-1940, during Stalin’s regime. Bulgakov was born in 1891 and died in 1940. The Master and Margarita was not published as a book until 1967, in Paris, although a censored version was published in a Moscow magazine in 1966-67.
A memorial to him in Moscow is the Bulgakov House Museum, in an apartment in which he lived for a period. There is a mural of him, and the cat on a side wall of the apartment, and a couple of interesting sculptures at the entrance. It was closed when I visited.
Why was I shocked to be totally enthralled by the novel? The various genres have been described as satire, romance novel, farce, fantasy fiction and occult fiction, all of which I generally avoid. Thank goodness I did not avoid The Master and Margarita.
Who could not be knocked out by the description of Berlioz slipping onto the tram line “the tram car went over Berlioz, and a round dark object was thrown up on the cobbled slope…..it went bouncing along the cobblestones of the street. It was the severed head of Berlioz.”
Bulgakov was buried in the Novodevichy cemetery in Moscow.
I planned an extra day in St Petersburg in order to visit Novgorod, which is around 180km south east of St Petersburg. The train took just under 3 hours each way, so it made for a long day. As I was visiting during the White Nights season, the atmospheric phenomenon during which the sun goes down just after midnight, and rises again two hours later the whole trip was done in sunlight.
The countryside between St Petersburg and Novgorod was mostly flat, low lying and beautifully green, with splashes of yellow wildflowers along the way.
Novgorod is the oldest city in Russia. Prince Rurik proclaimed the modern Russian State there in 862AD. The historic centre is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
St Sophia Cathedral was founded by Prince Yaroslav in around the 11th century AD, and is housed within the walls of the Novgorod Kremlin. There are still some portions remaining from 1045-52.
My favourite part of this cathedral are the bronze Magdeburg Gates, decorated with biblical and evangelical scenes – a war trophy from Sweden in the 12th century.
The monument of the millennium of Russia, erected to commemorate the 1000th anniversary of Russia, is a bronze monument built in 1862 and is in the Novgorod Kremlin. Other than the angel and kneeling women at the top (depicting Mother Russia) only 2 other sculptures are of women, and they are in the bottom row – Catherine the Great and Marfa Boretskaia. Marfa’s claim to fame is that she led the final stages of Novgorod opposition to Moscow.
The middle row of sculptures depict scenes of Russian History – not a woman among them. Reminded me of the Pantheon in Paris – I think Marie Curie was the only woman celebrated there in her own right.
It is always pleasant to visit places outside a city. It is a short taxi ride from the centre of Novgorod to the Vitoslavlitsy Open Air Wooden Architecture Museum, which gives visitors an idea of what an old Russian Village looked like, and how people lived. The museum is in Jurievo Village, beside a lake, set in beautiful woods. All of the structures are made with wood, without the use of nails. When I was there, there was the added bonus of fields of wildflowers.
The Yuriev (St George) Monastery complex is also in Jurievo Village, and is among one of the oldest Monasteries in Russia, having been founded in 1030. It was extensively damaged after the revolution, and was not returned to the Russian Orthodox Church until 1991.
The entry to the monastery is surrounded by a wall, and entry is through a 160ft belltower. The belltower is visible from the Novgorod Kremlin, some miles away. Lawns and gardens line the paths to the various buildings in the complex.
The Church of St George was built in 1119. It is a tall imposing white stone building with 3 silver domes. Only remnants of the original frescoes remain. These can be seen only in the window slants and upper part of the ladder tower. The frescoes we see today were created in 1902.
The complex also contains The Church of the Exaltation of the Cross , built in the 18th century. It has five blue domes, with gold stars painted on them.
The landscape around the museum and monastery complex is mostly marsh and lakeland, with the Volkhov River running alongside, and here and there some woods, and a couple of picturesque wooden windmills.
Novgorod is on the Volkhov River. Crossing the river to visit the Novgorod Kremlin, white arcades can be seen in a garden in which the old market was founded.
A Byzantine legacy is the number of medieval churches around the city, including several small churches. None of them were open.
It was still broad daylight when I arrived back in St Petersburg at around 9pm. The parks were full, with families enjoying the long days of summer.
Sipping a vodka in the rooftop bar of my hotel, and nibbling on blini and caviar, I was very pleased to have been able to visit midsummer. A day trip to Novgorod in winter would be less pleasant.
Icelandic Sagas are enthralling. Dark and violent, vengeful. Myths and legends, or true stories of the Viking families who settled Iceland in the middle ages? They have been known as fiction, superstition and fantasy. It is said that truth can be found in the Sagas – that is Sagas were based on reality, but with mythical elements woven in to the stories.
Gma and Lolly Girl were idling about in London, Gma at Primrose Hill and Lolly Girl at Richmond. Iceland had been on our travel radar, and was far more accessible from London than from our antipodean homes. We were interested in the Sagas’, and were both reading a book written by Richard Fidler and Kari Gislason “Saga Land – the island of stories at the edge of the world.” The discussions of the Sagas, Icelandic history and the travel by the authors described in this book had us very motivated to visit Iceland.
Lets do it we said – so we did. Our only regret is that a week is not enough to do more than explore Reykjavic and areas close enough to visit on a day trip from Reykjavic.
Gma had booked a serviced apartment in the centre of Reykjavic, and was somewhat startled to find the city mapper app seemed to be taking us in a different direction than anticipated. Turned out that what I thought I had booked was not actually what I booked. The apartment was shabby, in a basement, smelt of cigarette smoke, and was basically a shabby room with a corner bricked off to accommodate a bathroom. A hovel in fact.
Lolly Girl was very good humoured, and didn’t seem too bothered, so after a minor tantrum on my part, and a good spray of french perfume around the hovel by Lolly Girl, we congratulated ourselves on saving so much money on accommodation by staying in a hovel, and set off to explore Reykjavic.
The architecture is varied. The buildings are constructed with reinforced concrete, wood or corrugated iron. My preference was for the corrugated iron. I loved the houses and shops in the central part of the city – bright and cheerful, some even sporting a turf roof.
The Harpa Concert Hall, designed by Iceland artist, Olafur Eliasson sits on the waterfront – a vision splendid, looking like a huge crystal sculpture, with its coloured glass facade. Sipping champagne at the bar, watching the light dancing on the glass panels and changing colour in different lights made me feel as if I was in a giant kaleidoscope. So entrancing was the view, more champagne was required before we were ready to leave.
A big disadvantage of staying in a hovel, is that we didn’t want to spend any time in it even to eat, which meant we were out hunting and gathering quite early for breakfast. An early morning coffee was elusive, even in Laugavegur, the main Street of Reykjavic. One establishment took our order, then we were told they didn’t open for another hour. It was not amusing. For a brief moment, I had a vision of seeking vengeance, Saga style, but I didn’t have access to an axe.
If we had turned left into Laugavegur instead of right, we would have discovered the most perfect breakfast place two shops down.
The hovel was just down the hill from the Hallgrimskirkja Church, which made it easy to visit whenever we wished – and to frequent the hot dog stand nearby. Lutheran churches have always felt quite austere and grey to me. Hallgrimskirkja was no different, but with soaring ceilings, long slim beautifully proportioned windows and a huge organ, the simplistic minimalism created a serenity often absent from the more ornate cathedrals and churches. The building is said to echo the shapes of cooling lava, and inspired by the basalt columns at the black sand beach at Reynisfjara, on the south coast.
There are a lot of waterfalls in Iceland. We managed to visit a very small number on day trips around the Golden Circle and the South Coast. They were awesome.
Although both Lolly Girl and Gma have spent many happy hours in thermal pools in New Zealand, we thought we should experience an Icelandic thermal pool. The New Zealand experience did not quite prepare us for our visit to the secret lagoon – Gamla Laugin. Clearly not a secret anymore judging by the number of people frolicking in the warm soothing water.
No hot pool we had visited in NZ required us to shower, totally naked, in a communal area. Deep breath, suck in stomach and go for it.
Lolly Girl escapes the naked scene before Gma. Gma emerges and collects a couple of noodles from the box beside the pool. Lolly Girl has a noodle, and is in deep conversation with a male swimmer. Male swimmer melts into the background when Gma arrives with noodles. Turns out that Lolly Girl had not noticed the huge box of noodles by the pool, and had approached the male swimmer with the line “oh, I say, do you need both noodles”. He clearly thought he was on to a good thing till Gma arrived.
The area around the Golden Circle and the South Coast contain most beautiful landscapes and are quite surreal in parts. Mountains, waterfalls, glaciers, lakes, spectacular beaches, historical sites, geysirs and boiling mud pools, crater lakes, wildflowers and birds. There were even trees here and there.
On the south coast drive, the most easterly point we visited was Reynisfjara, a black sand beach, with lava rock columns in the sea, caves and basalt columns. The Atlantic looked quite benign, although I felt it was treacherous, benign looking or not. Having read about people getting washed out to sea, I only timidly put a foot in the water. I had been particularly spooked by a story of a tourist, posing on a large piece of ice, shaped like an armchair, who got washed off the beach, floating away on the ice armchair.
The glaciers, as with other glaciers around the world, are receding. It was quite sobering to see how far the Solheimajokull glacier has receded over the past ten years. Little icebergs were floating on the glacier lake, and looked beautiful reflected in the water. An astonishing number of plants were growing in the barren landscape. A glacier hike was in progress, and 4WD trips on the glacier are available. A huge glacier could be seen from the road, behind a range of mountains – it looked like a cloud bank, rather than a glacier.
One of the highlights for me on the Golden Circle trip, was the visit to Thingvellir National Park. Thingvellir was the place where the Althing was established in 930AD. The Althing is the National Parliament of Iceland and is one of the oldest parliaments in the world. At Thingvellir, the Althing was an open air assembly representing all of Iceland, and assemblies continued there until 1798
The Althing, at Thingvellir plays a role in many of the Sagas, where details of the Assemblies, laws and legal procedures are discussed, and I was very interested to see the landscape referred to in these Sagas.
Very little remains of the Althing. However the Thingvellir National park is an area of outstanding beauty, circled on three sides by mountains, and it was easy to imagine the characters in the Sagas riding through this landscape to attend the Althing.
The park contains a rift valley, where the Eurasian tectonic plate meets with the North American tectonic plate, providing the unique opportunity to walk between two continents. Dramatic fissures and cliffs, rocky rivers, waterfalls and a lake add to the natural beauty of the area.
On our final day in Reykjavic we decided to hunt for puffins. To do this we had to catch a small boat, which takes its passengers out of the harbour across to some small islands, where hundreds, if not thousands of puffins would be seen.
The boat trip was not for the faint hearted. Along with our tickets, we were given anti seasick tablets. The sea was very rough and it turned out that all trips after ours were cancelled. The boat was broadside to heavy swell, so we were rolling about rather alarmingly – thank goodness for the tablets.
The puffin lady was very passionate about puffins, and showed us numerous photos of these beautiful birds on our way to the islands. Luckily she did. The only puffins we saw were a few landing on the water some distance away. The puffins landing were fun to watch – they can’t glide due to body size and small wings, so they belly flop onto the water, but we couldn’t see them in great detail. There were large numbers of birds nesting on the island, none of which were puffins.
A final walk along the waterfront, champagne at the Harpa, and dinner involving lobster, Icelandic lamb – the very best lamb I have tasted – and wine, we ambled back to the hovel, well satisfied with our experiences in Iceland.
Iceland proved to be a most interesting and exciting place to visit. A return visit is necessary, to visit more remote places. The captain of the Christina told us that in the summer he slept for only four hours a night, whereas in winter he sleeps eighteen hours a day. I feel that to properly experience Iceland, I should visit in winter. Then it wouldn’t matter if my accommodation turned out to be a hovel.
Christian, Muslim, Orthodox, Buddhist, Hindu and Egyptian artists, among others, have been creating images of Last Judgments for many centuries. It is fascinating to compare not only the different faith’s interpretations of what the judgment day will look like but also the different interpretations of heaven and hell over the centuries. For example, the torments for those bound for hell often reflect the society’s punishments prevalent at the time. In some centuries, god is stern and vengeful, in others benevolent.
Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, Rome is probably the most viewed and commented on work of art dealing with the judgment day, and was inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy. Michelangelo created this fresco along the whole length of the alter wall. His work is of the Italian Renaissance period, and was created around 1536-41. He depicted himself as St Bartholomew. The gates of hell, bottom left, appears to be the mouth of a cave.
I was suprised to find an Armenian quarter in Isfahan, Iran, which was established in 1606. The Vank Cathedral is an Armenian Church, built in Safavid style, with an Islamic dome. The Cathedral was completed in 1664 and contains a medieval depiction of the Last Judgment, called “Heaven, earth and hell.” Note the gates of hell in this painting, lower left. Quite a number of last judgments gates of hell are monsters, with the damned being fed into its mouth.
A Russian Orthodox Icon of the Last Judgment can be found in the Dormiton Cathedral, in the Kremlin in Moscow, and is dated around 1408. The torments of hell are more gentle than usual, although the beast on the left, and the numerous devil figures are menacing enough.
Driving through Southern France, I came across one of the oldest Last Judgments I have seen. I was visiting Conques, which was a major stop on the St-Jacques de Compostela Pilgrimage route from Puy En Velay.
The Church of Sainte-Foy (1050-1130CE) has a stone carved relief on the tympanum of the Judgment day. God is depicted in the centre, and by the look of the torments of hell, he was not a benevolent god.
Angkor Wat in Cambodia is a Buddhist temple complex, originally built as a Hindu Temple. The Judgment by Yama is a 12th Century bas relief, and is a 60 metre long panel dedicated to the Judgment of Yama. Yama, in Buddhist mythology is a wrathful god, and is based on Yama of the Hindu Veda.
The panel is in two tiers depicting heaven and hell. There are 37 heavens and 32 hells. Each level of hell contains a spot where those not good enough for the first level get tipped down to the next, and so on. It is very difficult to photograph, so I only have a couple of images of the detail.
I loved the religious art in the Ethiopian Orthordox Churches, and was very pleased to find a Last Judgment in St Georges Cathedral, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. It was created by Maitre Afewerk Tekle in 1958.
When visiting the Reza Abbasi Museum in Teheran, I came across a late 19th century Muslim last judgment, by Mohammed Modabber. Titled “Day of the last Judgment” it has a monster on either side at the foot of the painting. It seems that the one at the right would be the gates of hell, as tormented souls are entering the mouth of that monster.
When visiting tombs in Egypt, I was always drawn to images of the weighing of the heart ceremonies. The Ancient Egyptians had a complex journey after death. The heart was kept in the body so that it could travel with the deceased to the underworld. The deceased finally reaches the Hall of Final judgment. The final part of the judgment was the ceremony where Anubis the god of the dead weighed the heart, which contained a record of the deceased’s actions in life. The heart was weighed against the feather of the Goddess Ma’at. Souls heavier than the feather would be devoured by Ammut. Those with lighter souls would ascend to a heavenly existence. Ammut’s mouth could be compared to the depictions of monster’s mouths in various christian images.
I have not seen any one image which captures the entire journey. The most graphic images are those of the heart weighing ceremony.
On the journey to heaven, the dead sailed in solar boats. If ancient Egyptian Last Judgment images included the entire day in one image, the journey through the underworld, the heart weighing ceremony, the 12 chambers of hell and the solar boats would all appear in one image rather than as a scroll, reading from left to right (as depicted in Books of the Dead).
My absolute all time favourite Last Judgment is Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly delights. That painting is the feature image above. It is a triptych oil painting, created between 1490 and 1510. The torments of hell are among the more hideous warnings to sinners of the fate that awaits them if they do not repent. Seeing this painting was the highlight of my visit to the Museo de Prado, in Madrid.
For the very best Gates of Hell, you need look no further than Auguste Rodin’s sculpture of the Gates of Hell, depicting a scene from the Inferno, from Dante’s Divine Comedy. The sculpture was begun in 1880 and took 37 years to complete.
The last judgments featured are but a very small example of the many last judgments I have seen. Wassily Kandinsky painted a last judgment in 1912. Unfortunately I have only seen reproductions, as the original is in private hands.
Future travels will involve tracking down modern images of Last Judgments.
I have been a regular visitor over many years. No visit to London is complete without at least one day at Kew. When I lived in London, I visited Kew almost monthly, so have enjoyed its splendour over all seasons.
What can be more uplifting than a visit to Kew when the snowdrops and crocus appear, to signal that spring is coming. Daffodil and bluebell time provide glorious sweeps of yellow and blue. Cherry blossom time is divine. Every season provides a smorgasbord of beauty.
Dale Chihuly is a Sculptor, working in the medium of glass. I first became aware of Chihuly in 2005, when an exhibition of his work went on display at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. The exhibition was “Gardens of Glass”, and it is true to say that I had never before seen such idiosyncratic beautiful glass art. The riot of colour and the shapes of the various installations transported me to wild places in my imagination.
My favourite installation was the “Thames Skiff” which was floating in the pond in front of the Palm House. It was described as a “19th century type vessel, refashioned into a raucous, drunken boat full of abstract passengers.” I have added this image to my collection of The Ship of Fools.
It was with great excitement I discovered Chihuly was mounting an exhibition, “Reflections on Nature” in Kew Gardens in 2019.
Reflections on Nature was as original and innovative as Gardens in Glass. It was difficult to choose a favourite, although the waterlilies were up there.
The temperate house had many wonderful installations, but my favourite would have to be Temperate House Persians, a 9metre sculpture, predominantly blue glass – blue glass being my favourite.
The installation around the flowering cherries, among the tulips was quite spectacular.
Reflections on Nature included some monumental outdoor installations.
The installation, based on seashells, which was indoors, was exquisite. It was very easy to see the seashells in these beautiful glass sculptures.
There were so many more installations which gave me great pleasure, incited my imagination and gave me hope that creativity and beauty will prevail. Dale Chihuly, long may you live to create such beauty.
Skara Brae, a stone built Neolithic village on the Orkney Mainland, had been on my must see list for nearly 20 years.
I first became aware of Skara Brae when I viewed Simon Schama’s “A History of Britain” in the early 1990’s. Part of the village had been unearthed in 1850 when a storm battered Orkney, causing the sand which had covered the village to be stripped.
Lolly girl was up for a trip, and was happy to increase her knowledge of Neolithic civilisation, and as it turned out we learnt a lot more about the Vikings as well.
Flying in to Kirkwell, the main town on the Mainland we could see the causeways built between the Main Island, Burray and South Ronaldsy Islands – white ribbons threading across the blue sea. Approaching Kirkwall the patchwork of fields and rolling hills provided a taste of the beauty of the Orkney Islands.
Locating our apartment in Finstown, 6 miles northwest of Kirkwell, was a challenge. We were looking out for “a narrow driveway on our right, white house on one side and grey house on the other, and if you get to the cemetery, you have gone too far”. We got to the cemetery. To describe the narrow alleyway between the two houses as a driveway was a leap of faith.
The apartment had a changing view across the Bay of Firth, depending on the weather. On calm sunny days, the bay was like a mirror reflecting the buildings and trees. Other days, it was moody grey and rough with whitecaps whipping across the surface.
The drive from Finstown to Skara Brae required great self discipline. There seemed to be something that must be explored around every corner.
Skara Brae was inhabited between around 3100BC and 2500BC.
There are nine surviving Neolithic houses, which were connected and consisted of one room. They still contain stone dressers and box-beds. These beds would possibly have been lined with fur, straw or maybe dried seaweed. One of the houses, house eight, is different to the others. It does not contain beds or dressers, and is not connected to other structures. Schaama suggested it may have been the equivalent of the local pub. This suggestion was met with scorn by a scholar friend, and refusal to watch any more of the Schaama series, on the basis he was trivialising history. I tended to the view that he was making it accessible and interesting to an audience other than scholars.
Archaeologists are unsure of the use to which this structure was put, but there is a view that it may have been a workshop. There is also speculation that it may have been a later addition.
There was a great deal more than Skara Brae to explore. The Orkney Islands have been inhabited for about 8,500 years, originally by Mesolithic and Neolithic tribes, then Picts. They were annexed by Norway in the early 8th and 9th centuries, and settled by the Vikings. The Orkneys became part of Scotland, when James III of Scotland received them from Christian I, King of Denmark, Norway and Sweden in lieu of a dowry.
Skara Brae was probably part of a group of Neolithic Monuments in the area. The Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar, both ceremonial stone circles are within a few miles of Skara Brae and the Stones of Stenness can be seen from the chambered Cairn at Maeshowe. There are numerous standing stones between the sites, which suggest some kind of ceremonial walkway.
Standing stones can be found in numerous parts of the world. Gma and Lolly girl track them down with the tenacity of hounds on the scent (of standing stones). There is a lot of debate about their purpose. A place of rituals and other ceremonies is a prevalent theory. Another theory is that they could have been astronomical sites. I visited an ancient stelae field of carved standing stones in Tiya, Ethiopia. Those stones appear to be grave markers.
We were accompanied on our visit to the Stones of Stenness by a group of fat woolly sheep, one of whom used a stone as a back scratcher. There are only four stones still standing, on a flat grassy site overlooking the Loch of Stenness. The site dates from around 3100BC, and is one of the earliest stone circles in Britain.
The Ring of Brogdar is a candidate for the theory that stone circles were used as astronomical observatories. Another theory suggests that due to its size, it was built to accommodate a larger number of people than Stenness. The theories are almost as fascinating as the stones themselves.
Lolly Girl is a keen birdwatcher. While Gma is content to photograph the birds, Lolly Girl is more interested in identifying them. The Orkney Islands are an ornithologists heaven. There are hides around, which anyone can use. There is generally a list of birds recently spotted, and one we entered had numerous bird books. Although the puffins proved to be elusive when we visited the Brough of Birsay, we did see some Auks
One evening in Kirkwall, the peace was shattered by the most ear shattering din. A dilapidated old truck came careering down the street, carrying a very strange assortment of people on the tray, including a man wearing few clothes, tied up and with a gooey looking black paste on his face and body and feathers everywhere. Other people had feathers in their hair, or very weird wigs on their head. There was much shouting, screaming, jumping up and down, beating of drums, and whistle blowing. Several people were banging the side of the truck with sticks. Wine was involved – lots of it, generally drunk from the bottle.
The truck did several circuits of the town. I was expecting the police to arrive, to at least restrain people from jumping on and off the truck.
We later discovered this was a “Wedding Blackening”, and is a tradition. Hence the police don’t view it as a breach of the peace, and let them be. The man stripped, tied up and covered in black goo (treacle, flour and feathers) is the groom to be. He is then paraded about on the back of a truck, and can end up in the sea.
We had seen strange sign in the public toilets earlier in the day, saying no to lasses clarted in molasses. After witnessing the wedding blackening, we realised the sign was forbidding people from cleaning up in the public toilets after a blackening.
There are several sites of interest in Kirkwall. St Magnus Cathedral was founded in 1137 by the Viking Earl Rognvald, in honour of his Uncle, St Magnus who was martyred in the Orkneys. The stained glass windows are beautiful, and when the sun shines through them, they cast an intricate mosaic like pattern on the wall. The window’s are relatively new, having been installed between 1913 and 1930.
St Magnus Cathedral
I loved the numerous gravestones on the walls, a number featuring skulls and crossbones. The medieval collection of stones with the symbols of death – bones and coffins are among the best I have seen.
The gravestone of a merchant in Kirkwall, who died in 1673 was possibly my favourite. The detail below shows death dancing and piercing an urn with a dart. A cherub is blowing into a long trumpet.
In contrast to medieval stones was a modern painting commemorating the 900th anniversary of the Martyrdom of St Magnus by Norwegian artist Hakon Gullvag. I enjoyed this painting so much, it inspired me to search out more of his art. I loved his Biblical Cycle, particularly the Tower of Babel and Noahs Ark.
A little fortification was required before exploring the Bishop’s Palace and the Earl’s Palace. Lolly Girl is partial to a drop of fine whisky, and was keen to visit the Highland Park Whisky distillery. Gma wanted to compare a local gin to her current favourites. Highland Park was full of tourists, so Lolly Girl made do with a miniature bottle of 20 year whisky to take home. The gin distillery did not have any gin to taste. Neither did they have any small bottles. Fortification by way of a less than sublime coffee didn’t quite put us in a nice floaty place.
I prefer my Palaces to be in ruins. The Bishop’s Palace and the Earl’s Palace were entirely to my taste. The Bishop’s Palace is a medieval 12th Century palace, originally built for the first Bishop, William the Old. In the early 1600’s the Bishop’s Palace was incorporated into a Renaissance Palace – the Earl’s Palace. The buildings are no longer co-joined.
A lot of cruise ships spend a day at Kirkwell or Stromness. We chose a non cruise ship day to visit Stromness. Wise choice. We almost had the place to ourselves. Even so, driving through the village was a challenge. The streets are mainly only wide enough for one car, but are not one way. We had to back up to wider spots several times to allow another car through.
It was a grey damp day, but the boats and their reflections in the still harbour were far from grey.
Stromness, around the harbour, is very quaint and picturesque. After wandering around the narrow little streets, devoid of people we had a splendid lobster lunch at a pub on the waterfront. Seafood is exceptionally good in this part of the world.
Lolly Girl decided to compile an album of images of ruined cottages. There was no shortage of subjects, and she built up a most impressive collection. I tended to favour ruined palaces. The site of the Earl’s Palace at the Brough of Birsay contained excellent ruins. The Palace was built between 1569 and 1579 and was the residence of Robert Stewart, 1st Earl of Orkney, a half brother of Mary Queen of Scots. Robert was apparently a harsh earl, with royal pretensions who oppressed the people of Orkney. His son Patrick Stewart, the 2nd Earl of Orkney was apparently even less likeable than Robert.
Above – Earl’s Palace, Birsay.
We had been very keen to visit Maeshowe, a neolithic chambered cairn which had been built some 5000 years ago. The Cairn looks like a mound in the field until the entrance comes into view.
The low entrance passage is aligned with the setting of the midwinter sun, which allows light to illuminate the interior. Entering the tomb from the entry passage we emerged into the large central chamber. There were too many people in the group for us to really get a feel for the site, but the structure was most impressive.
Vikings broke into the Cairn through the roof in the mid 1100’s. They left graffiti, carved in runes. It was impossible for most people see this graffiti while the guide explained it. A quick single file view later was less than satisfactory.
The Tomb of the Eagles is on South Ronaldsay, and is another example of a stone age chambered cairn. The long entrance tunnel had to be negotiated by lying flat on what appeared to be a large skateboard, and pulling yourself along by a rope on the ceiling. A panic attack would have overwhelmed me if I tried to enter the cairn. Lolly Girl decided she would have a go. She lasted for all of 20 seconds.
The walk to the site more than made up for our cowardice. The sheer cliffs dropping to the sea below were inhabited by dozens of seabirds nesting. Wildflowers carpeted some areas, and all had identification tags. Coming across a field of pink, or white, or purple was a vision splendid.
We stopped off at a most extraordinary Chapel on Lamb Holm on our way back from South Ronaldsay. The Italian Chapel was constructed by Italian Prisoners of War during the Second World War. The Italian POWs had been sent to Lamb Holm to construct the causeways to protect the British fleet in the Skapa Flow. The Chapel was created with two nissen huts. Italians with the requisite skills created the interior. It was a most moving experience to stand in this Chapel, seeing that even the chaos of war, such beauty was created from very little.
We decided to spend a day visiting two more Viking sites. The archaeological remains of Earl’s Bu and Church at Ophir consist of the foundations of a large drinking hall, a romanesque round church and the remains of a horizontal water mill. The Orkneyinga Saga, which is the story of the Earls of Orkney, refers to a feast given by Earl Paul in Ophir – and describes a large drinking hall and a magnificent church. The Orkneyinga Saga Centre is situated alongside this site. A video, and paintings around the walls tell the story of the Norse Earls of Orkney. As there is so little left on the site, it was useful to visit this centre to gain a better understanding of what we were seeing.
The Brough of Birsay is an island, connected to the Orkney Mainland by a causeway. Access is limited to a couple of hours either side of low tide. The Picts were there before the Vikings, but there is little visible of the Picts settlement -600 -700AD.
The Norse settled on the Brough of Birsay during the ninth century AD. The archaeological site quite clearly identifies a church, with a rectangular nave, chancel and apse. The remains of long houses are also visible.
The art and craft scene in the Orkney Islands is very vibrant, innovative and creative. From exquisite, interesting jewellery, yarn crafts to art print and photography, and much more, there is so much to view.
Hoxta Tapestry Gallery at St Margaret’s Hope, South Ronaldsay was my favourite. A local Orkney artist, Leila Thomson creates unique large woven tapestries. Her work “is inspired by the rhythm of life and landscape of Orkney”. (https://hoxtatapestrygallery.co.uk) As well as tapestries, art prints are created. Printed images are photographic taken from the original art work and are hand signed.
I could have acquired numerous art prints. I finally chose “Ribbon of Life”. The tapestry itself is huge, and apparently hangs at the top of a stairway in a stately home. My art print brings the Orkneys into my less than stately home, and is much loved and commented on.
Lolly girl and I barely touched the surface of the Orkney Islands. We are planning another trip to explore other islands, and to learn more of the history of the Orkneys. We shall go in Puffin season.