Thursday, 27 October 2016

Homage to Barcelona

Let me try the impossible -  to summarise  personal impressions of Barcelona in a couple of pages.  The opinions are based on two visits there in six years.

“Barcelo-o-na,” as sung so exuberantly and with such emphatic national fervour by the Catalonian capital’s operatic diva Monserrat Caballé in a duet with Freddie Mercury. 
This was my modernist operatic image of the city that hosted the 1992 Olympics, when BBC television adopted the Queen song to introduce its coverage.  
The exhilaration of the musical theme heightened my anticipation of our first visit in early autumn 2010.

Emerging from our nearby hotel, helpfully located only about 100 metres off the city's main throughfare, my first surprise was to encounter Las Ramblas heaving with people.  This, after all was a midweek in October.   
After viewing the city from the nearby portside Columbus Monument, an American tourist informed me that today was a public holiday marking the discovery of America.  
I had begun to wonder that if these crowds are typical of autumn, what must the peak of summer be like.

Las Ramblas has the air of a permanent carnival.  There are countless stands and kiosks, some selling exotic flowers, others selling assorted fluffy pets.  “Living sculptures” abound. Barcelona takes mime artistry to a sublime level.  

Not content with standing statuesquely and faces painted to match elaborate and colourful outfits, most of the city’s street artists play for laughs and obligingly pose for photographs. One had squeezed herself into a baby’s stroller making jocular squeaking noises, another hid beneath a table from which three heads - only one of which was his (or hers) - protruded like grotesque gargoyles.

The Picasso museum comprehensively traces the development of the artist’s style ranging from conventional art of his youth to the more abstract style of his later years.  
I loved the use of photographic technology to demonstrate his reworking of the Velazquez masterpiece Las Meninas.  Zooming in, section by section, the slideshow superimposed Picasso’s swishing brushstrokes over the classic original, much to everybody’s amusement.

We go to see Bizet’s Carmen in the Liceu Opera House.  The renowned tenor, Roberto Alagna is the leading male in a modern and risqué production.  It includes 11 Mercedes cars; a naked male singer grabs our attention; and a voluptuous Carmen unzips the leading man’s trousers.  All done in the best possible taste as sleek contemporary style meets classical genius.

Gaudi is the pervading influence.  In bright autumnal sunshine, we tour the city on an open top bus.  
His “expiatory” cathedral, the Sagrada Familia, is a hectic building site (and still is when we return in September 2016).  

Sparks fly from celestial heights as teams of artisans work furiously.  A Papal visit beckons.

A century ago, Gaudi steadfastly refused to give a deadline because (and I love this quotation), “my client is not in a hurry.”  Mi Dios.

Park Guell sees Gaudi’s riotous imagination at its creative best - buildings eschewing straight lines and features embellished with fairyland ornamentation. The very entrance pavilions look like wholesome and tasty gingerbread concoctions.

It is only after the event that the impact of our visit sinks in.   
My impression is that Barcelona likes to shock to impress.  Gaudi’s architecture, the development of Picasso’s art, the radical production of Carmen, the Ramblas entertainers - all break the rules and conventions.
Perhaps Barcelona is motivated by an unstoppable urge to emphasise its own identity and to differentiate itself from Castilian Spain.  The result is fantastical creativity, innovation, and joy for cultural tourists.
Five days is too little time but it gave my wife and I a good excuse to return.
In 2010, our accommodation was a boutique hotel on a side street off Las Ramblas.  In 2016, we were self-catering in an apartment[i] which overlooked the Sagrada Familia Cathedral. You could almost reach out from the balcony and touch the Cathedral's spires.

On this second visit, we were accompanied by our youngest daughter, her husband and their two-year-old son.  A wedding reception in an edge-of-city historic house awaited.

Despite the proximity to the always-popular cathedral, it is reassuring to know that dining out in such a locality is not always dominated by tourists.  We found two top-quality[ii] and good-value restaurants[iii] serving Catalonian cuisine, frequented by local people and located very close to our apartment.

I would recommend one book.  
The award-winning author of bestselling novels like Nora Webster, The Testament of Mary, and Brooklyn is Colm Tóibín.  He has also written what is, arguably, the definitive book about the city and region, “Homage to Barcelona.”

©Michael McSorley 2016


Wednesday, 29 June 2016

The Algarve


“Portugal – it’s like Donegal, only with sunshine.”

I recall this quip from a work-mate, a description of his favourite golfing destination when I told him about my impending first trip there back in the 1970’s.  And it is indeed accurate, in a couple of senses.
Just as the Irish county is bolted onto Northern Ireland providing Ulster’s western seaboard, Portugal reveals itself as an appendage to the Iberian peninsula, almost in the shadow of its larger Spanish neighbour.  But the most striking parallel is that both places contain some of Europe’s most beautiful and inviting beaches.

That was why the Portugal was this family’s preferred holiday destination when our children were growing up.  One or two trips were made to the country’s west coast near Setubal; but most of those idyllic holidays were spent on the south coast, the Algarve.

This year, like a new awakening, it dawned on us that it had been more than 20 years since visiting Portugal (apart from one trip to Madeira).  To prove our resolve, an immediate decision was reached to remedy the shameful deficiency.  But rather than return to earlier haunts like Alvor, Portimao and Albufeira, we decided that the priority this time would be to explore the eastern Algarve.


From Ireland, there are two principal options for flying to the region’s airport at Faro.  One is Belfast, the other is Dublin.  The former entails a very early start to meet a 6 a.m. flight departure; whereas the latter offers a late afternoon departure and a mid-morning return flight.  For that reason, as well as the benefit of free transport direct to the front door of the airport terminal (using the senior citizens bus-pass), we booked Aer Lingus flights from Dublin to Faro.


One attraction for holiday-makers to Portugal is its range of good quality accommodation in restored buildings of architectural and historic interest.  
Pousadas describe themselves as small luxury hotels and are spread over the country[i].  Only three are located in the Algarve.  One sits in the village of Estoi which is just north of Faro.  It was temptingly described by one travel writer[ii] as

“for style and luxury combined with Portuguese panache, base yourself in this Neo-Rococo palace with chandeliers, mirrors, impressive stucco work...”

Evidence which is hard to resist.

Arriving in the early evening, this was a good choice for us being a short drive from the airport.  The late 18th century Pousada do Palacio de Estoi is a spacious modernised property in a grand baroque building with Versailles-style gardens.  It has 45 double bedrooms, 15 superior rooms and three suites.  Its facilities include outdoor and indoor swimming pools, spa, and wifi.

Venturing out without ambling too far beyond the confines of the village, our first discovery was the Algarve's premier Roman site at Milreu.  This is the location of a Roman villa and a range of associated structures, whose most impressive feature was a series of beautiful mosaics. 

It appears that the affluent Romans built villas with facilities that are still regarded today as the the essence of luxurious living, such as a spa.  Very civilised.

One joy of discovering this area in late spring is the abundance of all sorts of wildflowers.  Poppies thrive. Nature is winning.


We visited two of the most beautiful beaches anybody could wish for, both accessible (almost tantalisingly) only by boat.

The first was the aptly-named Ilha Deserta.   
We took a boat from the Porta Nova just outside the walls of Faro’s old town, a trip of about 20 minutes.  You sail along shimmering channels between sandy islets through the Ria Formosa Natural Park wetlands, emerging onto what appears like the most expansive and deserted sandy beach ever.  After an hour or more of relaxing with a good novel and some swimming, there is time for a late lunch in the island’s single restaurant before a return trip back to Faro.

The other magnificent beach was thirty kilometres further east, off the pretty town of Tavira.  The ferry-boat to the Ilha Tavira leaves from a spot close to the town centre at the estuary of the Rio Gilao.  The distance and time to get there is similar to that for Faro’s deserted island.  

One difference is that this island is populated with an array of restaurants, all grouped together and offering a range of prices.  Another difference was that there were more visitors than on the Ilha Deserta.  That said, however, walking for no more than five minutes up the expansive sands and it was easy to find privacy away from the madding crowd.  Gorgeous sand and crystal clear water once more.  Bliss.

Faro, the old town

A couple of years ago we spent a week discovering Malaga, through which most tourists pass through from the airport and head to the costas.  That trip was a revelation, partly because Malaga is a fascinating city with many cultural assets and one that is not dominated by tourism.  In such resorts, one feels more like a local than a visitor.  The same applies to Faro.

We travelled from Estoi into Faro on the local modern bus, offering the opportunity to gaze at the verdant countryside and its fertile fields displaying a wide range of horticultural produce including olive groves, orange trees, and grapevines.  The 8 kilometre journey took less than half an hour.

One of the most eye-catching sights of Faro is storks and their nests.  These tall skinny-legged birds build the most enormous nests sited precariously on top of some of the city’s most prominent buildings.   
Storks' nests (4) on Arco da Vila
I observed as tourists risked getting knocked down attempting to get the impossible photo of these elegant creatures landing and taking off.  What a tribute to Faro’s green credentials and its citizens that they allow nature to co-exist rather than, as might happen elsewhere, relocate the nests.

Entering the old town at the 19th century Arco da Vila gateway and its bell tower adorned with storks nests, we visited the majestic Santa Maria Church, Faro Cathedral.  This is the centrepiece of the historic quarter.  The Cathedral accommodates eleven or more chapels, replete with enough religious art and sculptures to keep a saintly person going for at least a lifetime.  
                                    And what a view from above.
View over Faro from the Cathedral

Outside the old town, we visited another large church, the Igreja do Carmo, again full of elaborately decorated altars, a place for quiet reflection.  Its chief draw for visitors, however, was the almost ghoulish Capela dos Ossos, or Bones Chapel.  
Apparently, to accommodate an extension to the mother church, the skeletons of many monks were disinterred from the adjacent cemetery and to this day their skulls and bones form the neat interior of this chapel.

This being a holiday, more earthly pleasures merit space.  While waiting for our return bus to Estoi, we stopped at a cafe across the street from central station for coffee and cakes.  I ordered a triple pancake smothered in cream, ice cream, strawberries all covered in a Chantilly and chocolate sauce.  
A mid afternoon snack like this combined with pleasant sunshine creates quite a soporific effect.  I suspect this is why I slept most the way back to the Pousada.


Before setting out on this visit to the Algarve, a friend at home had recommended a visit to Tavira as the most pleasant place to visit, unspoilt by mass tourism.  It lies about 30 kilometres east of Faro, an easy drive for us from Estoi.   
The Ilha Tavira ferry
Apart from the beach on the Ilha Tavira, the town’s riverfront was recommended by our guidebook[iii] as the best place for a wander.  It leads up to the town’s central square, the Praca da Republica, where we were met by the magnificent strains of the best busking jazz band I have ever heard.  Not unlike the Buena Vista Social Club in tone and quality.


When we visited in mid-May, apart from some cloud on the first two days, the weather was mostly very pleasant with temperatures in the low 20's C. Sea temperatures were perfectly acceptable for swimming.  
All in all, our next visit to Portugal will not take twenty years to organise.

©Michael McSorley 2016

[ii] Belfast Telegraph Weekend 2 June 2014 Harriet O’Brien 48 Hours in Faro
[iii] The Rough Guide to Portugal Jan 2014

Friday, 29 January 2016

Enigmatic Russia

Russia is never out of the public consciousness.

As a friend in England reminded me after reading last month’s article[i], Churchill described Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

Perhaps this explains why it features so regularly in current affairs news reporting and likewise commands our continuing attention in the cultural media.

Russian News

Last year (and the year before that), for example, we heard all about the unrest in the east of Ukraine and consequent criticism about Russia’s intentions; we witnessed the concern in Europe as Russia annexed Crimea; in total contrast, international sympathy for Russia was aroused last autumn when a jet carrying Russian tourists over the Sinai in Egypt was destroyed by a bomb; the UK Prime Minister and others criticised Russian airstrikes in Syria, criticism which continues; suspicions harking back to the Communist era were evoked when Russian athletes were suspended from international competition following a report produced by the sport’s world drugs body about global athletics; and the fall-out from the death almost a decade ago of the former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko continues with a public inquiry concluding recently that President Putin “probably” approved of his murder; which story has been followed by a row over accusations on BBC Panorama[ii] by the US Treasury about President Putin’s “secret wealth.”
And so it goes on.

Russia’s televisual portrayal

This year, Russia has been given a fantastic public relations introduction, at least in the UK.  Thanks to the BBC, Russian history and culture have been portrayed in their finest light with a series of superb documentaries and also by the dramatization of its greatest novel written by its greatest author.

On 3 January, a lavish 6-part interpretation of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace[iii]” got 2016 off to a beautiful start for Russophiles and lovers of costume drama alike.  Reviews of the series have been overwhelmingly positive, and deservedly so.

Where our national broadcaster also excels is in the non-fictional world of documentary-making.  Early January was lit up brightly by two one-off programmes about classical music.   
Receiving more publicity was a third documentary which is about the Tsars.  The eminent historian Lucy Worsley has been explaining in three one-hour programmes entitled “Empire of the Tsars” the story of the Russian royal family, the Romanovs, and its 300 years of history.  
Essential background that helps us understand the influential country we know today[iv].

Having referred last month to Sarah Quigley’s superb novel (“The Conductor”) about the siege of Leningrad and Shostakovich’s composition of his seventh symphony, the broadcast on 1 January of “Leningrad: the orchestra that defied Hitler” told the same story factually.   
Just like the novel, the documentary was as thorough as it was realistically upsetting, meticulous and hard-hitting.[v]  
It included some persuasive eye-witness accounts from the St Petersburg concert recounting their version of half-starved musicians grappling with a complex score.  
Archive footage of the composer and of the city’s horrendous suffering under siege were also presented.  
I hope that the presenters, Tom Service and Amanda Vickery, are recognised for the diligence of their research.

The other documentary was “The Joy of Rachmaninoff,” a recounting of the compositional life of this great Romantic composer[vi] and presented by Tom Service.  Having referred in last month’s article to the Rachmaninov Vespers and the performance in Omagh by the Mariinsky Chorus under Valery Gergiev’s baton in 2000, one revelation resonated with me.  This was the last Church music that was written and performed before the Bolsheviks and Lenin took brutal charge of Mother Russia, banning religion and the composition of sacred music.

Russia in recent books

Having emphasised last month the role of fiction in communicating the horrors of despotism and the wonderful novel “Child 44,” the publication of “On Stalin’s Team: The Years of Living Dangerously in Soviet Politics” sounds like a factual account of the same issue, namely the Stalinist purges.  The author is Sheila Fitzpatrick.   
The review which caught my attention[vii] listed it as Book of the week.  Aaronovitch explains that this book sets the record straight, contradicting the official account following Stalin’s death.  It reveals that Stalin’s inner circle did in fact play a significant role in the purges, the arrests and imprisonment of two million people.  This together with the execution of 688,503 people between 1935 and 40 was not the work of Stalin alone.  So many victims, so much horror.

Another recent non-fiction book that stands out is “Winter is coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must be Stopped” written by Garry Kasparov, the chess grandmaster.   
The review which grabbed my attention[viii] on this occasion calls it “this brave, trenchant and convincing book.”  Its message seems to chime with the current row over the Alexander Litvinenko murder.  Kasparov rails against what the author describes as the cowardly West which refuses to stop the dangerous regime that currently misrules Russia.

Finally and returning to fiction, I cannot wait to receive the latest novel written by the UK Man Booker prize winner (in 2011) Julian Barnes.  The Noise of Time” has a publication date of 28 January 2016.   
It has been previewed with effusive praise by one critic[ix] as “fictional biography... this is a great novel...a novel that is powerfully affecting, a condensed masterpiece that traces the lifelong battle of one man’s conscience, one man’s art, with the insupportable exigencies of totalitarianism.”   
The subject, of course, is Shostakovich. 

Russia together with its woes and its beauty is a never-ending saga, an enigma indeed.

Postscript: My copy of "The Noise of Time" arrived two days after its publication date.  
Alex Preston's review is uncannily accurate - powerfully affecting, a masterpiece.  
Just as the novel "Child 44" recreates the horror endured by ordinary citizens during Stalin's purges, Julian Barnes puts the reader in the shoes of the great composer to convey the impact of tyranny on creative genius. (MMcS 03202016).