There is something majestic in the bad taste of Italy; it is not the bad taste of a country which knows no better; it has not the nervous vulgarity of England or the blinded vulgarity of Germany. It observes beauty and chooses to pass it by. But it attains to beauty’s confidence.
We went to Liguria in April—that bit of the Italian coast just east of the French border, sometimes called the Italian Riviera, which traps the Ligurian Sea in its curve. When I was at school, the first syllable was pronounced to rhyme with fly, and the second vowel was like the “u” in furious—laɪˈɡjʊərɪə. Nowadays these eccentric British pronunciations are disappearing, and it seems to have crept closer to the Italian, with the first syllable rhyming with fig, and the second vowel like the “oo” in Moorish—lɪˈɡʊərɪə.
In climate, it’s a lot like the Côte d’Azur. But the landscape is very different, with steep hills and cliffs falling straight into the sea, stranding small villages in rocky clefts here and there along the exposed coastline.
There are interesting walking trails here—well waymarked and … well … reasonably well mapped, by Italian standards. The trails generally have three sections—the steep ascent from the village, the stroll through olive groves, and the steep descent to the next village. Many of them are nicely surfaced, and the reason for that becomes obvious, after a while—the locals drive up and down them on scooters, in tiny cars, and even in Tuk Tuk trucks. On one occasion, the Boon Companion and I were negotiating a blind corner and had to step quickly into a church doorway, to avoid a Fiat 500 which was being driven one-handed by a young woman who was talking animatedly into her smart-phone, held horizontally in front of her face. A short distance up the path she failed to make the turn at a Y-junction, and crunched head-on into a gate-post. As we watched, awe-stricken, she wrestled the Fiat into reverse gear, pulled back by a car length, and then accelerated off up the hill, her wing-mirrors clipping the hedges on either side. I could see her male front-seat passenger conducting a slow hand-clap throughout this process, and had to wonder how long that relationship was going to last (if not cut short in the meantime by a tragic motoring accident, of course).
And one day, just outside Riomaggiore, we ran into this odd object, adhering to a lamppost:
Out of curiosity I scanned the QR code, which took me to the website mentioned on the sticker, which then demanded that I allow my phone to share its location data. Since my phone has no more idea of its location than my shoes do, we reached an impasse at that point. But as we carried on up the hill, I pondered the state of outdoor navigation these days. A “You Are Here” sign that asks your phone where you are and then tells you where you are? What on earth is that about?
We started in Porto Venere, near the five coastal villages called the Cinque Terre, and then moved to Portofino.
Both areas are well served by water buses that stop off at the various coastal towns and villages nearby, making a boat out and a walk back an appealing possibility. Some of the landing stages are surprisingly precarious in a high sea—but Italian sailors cheerfully chuck elderly Japanese ladies in inappropriate footgear on and off the boat, so all is well.
In Portofino, something happened that hasn’t happened to us before—we got a room upgrade. So we found ourselves installed in something like a marble aircraft hangar with soft furnishings and a view of the harbour, in which we wandered endlessly, trying to remember where we’d put our reading glasses.
Portofino, the guidebooks say, is a place to “see and be seen”. It was certainly full of the sort of shops that sell only a single colour of linen scarf, staffed by exquisite creatures who sat tapping languidly on their mobile phones all day, and who responded with ill humour (a single, tiny vertical crease appearing between their rectangular eyebrows) if anyone actually came into the shop. The Boon Companion, of course, took to this like a duck to water, happily cutting la bella figura along the waterfront. Your correspondent meanwhile shambled in her wake, more brutta than bella.
It was up for sale for $300 million last year, but presumably Melnichenko is still struggling on with its limited accommodation while waiting for his even grander Sailing Yacht A to complete sea trials.
Selfie sticks were blessedly less evident than they were when I reported from Venice, but their users made up in persistence what they lacked in numbers—we sat over coffee at the harbour one day and watched a young woman spend twenty minutes finding the perfect combination of head tilt, pout, V-sign and backdrop. Twenty minutes. And they say that the internet has reduced people’s attention span.
So we sipped prosecco in the spring sunshine, ate pasta, seafood and gelati, and watched the passing show. What could be better?
A couple of days in Madeira, just to remind ourselves what sunshine looks like.
Madeira seems like it should be a marvellously easy and unstressful foreign place to visit—written Portuguese is often pretty easy to puzzle out, if you’ve already encountered a few Romance languages; much of the signage is helpfully multilingual; almost everyone seems to speak English anyway; and the place is thoroughly geared up as a tourist destination. Added to that, the Madeiran people seem to be extraordinarily laid-back, helpful and generous with their time.
Maybe that’s what makes it so popular with English people. All along the pretty promenade in Funchal, the main language to be heard was English. In the busy restaurants and cafés, English voices were all around, punctuated by the occasional low mutter of German.
Our hotel seemed to be entirely populated by elderly couples from the Home Counties, who operated on a toxic overdrive of disorganization, anxiety and demanding behaviour—so the public areas rang to the sound of loud peremptory instructions being issued in plummy Received Pronunciation to the heroically indulgent staff.
Funchal waterfront, with its spiffy new gardens, public statuary and promenade, is a nice place to stroll or sit, but the huge new liner pier means that one or two cruise ships disgorge into the area every day, and you can find yourself suddenly mixed up in a crowd of name-badged people, being shepherded on to a tour bus.
A lot of people enjoy the plants and flowers along the shore, but I was drawn to the new erosion defences—giant interlocking concrete blocks called tetrapods, each one weighing multiple tons. I’d have paid good money to see how they put them in place.
The main thing about Madeira is that it is mountainous. Really mountainous, everywhere. Big green mountains, often cloud-capped, push up to well over 1500m, right behind Funchal. Every road seems to be strung together from steep ascents, sudden curves, abrupt drop-offs and unexpected tunnels. The international airport is sandwiched into a thin strip of coast, with its runway poking out into the sea on stilts, as you can see in this video from an Airbus on finals:
We’d decided to avoid the coastal strip of mega-hotels and had booked into a smaller place in the Funchal hinterland, about fifteen minutes’ walk from the waterfront. The fifteen minutes proved to be on roads that could be described as “intermittently precipitous”, and which were often too narrow to provide dedicated space for pedestrians. So each trip into town turned into a game of “dodge the traffic”—leaping into doorways or between parked cars as the local drivers hurtled past. (Though it has to be said that the Madeiran pedestrians simply ignored the traffic, occasionally deigning to move their shopping bags out of the way as a car whisked past an inch from their elbow.)
Madeira is the only place in the world I’ve ever become travel sick during a five-minute trip in the back of a taxi—there’s something about the extra plane of movement afforded by Madeiran roads (pitch-up and pitch-down as well as turn-left and turn-right) that plays merry hell with my vestibular system.
Another product of Madeira’s hilly terrain are the carros de cestos, the wicker toboggans that run down the hillside from the village of Monte to the outskirts of Funchal, piloted (if that’s the word) by two carrieros wearing straw boaters. Our guide assured us that these had been invented by an Englishman, but I’ve been unable to find any confirmation of that. They used to run for six kilometres over steep cobbled streets, but now the descent is a more modest two kilometres on tarmac. Here’s some action video shot by an intrepid traveller:
You’ll notice, from the road markings, parked cars and cross-streets that the carros share the tarmac with more conventional vehicles. However, there’s no truth in the rumour that carro de cesto is Portuguese for “really embarrassing way to die”.
Madeirans gave the impression of being cheerfully but constantly at war with their own island. The landslides, the flash floods in narrow ravines, the forest fires—everywhere, there are scars on the landscape and massive engineering projects designed to protect Madeira’s cluttered infrastructure.
In fact, the landscape made me slightly headachy with its complicated interplay of the human and the natural—in the midst of exuberant vegetation, it seems that every horizontal surface contains a building, a garden, a plantation or a graveyard, and every slope that’s not entirely vertical is crossed by a system of poio farm terracing or one of the old levada irrigation systems. I was left anxiously wondering if there was any place on the island from which it would be possible to have a view that didn’t feature a clutter of pantile roofs and and steeply terraced fields.
So that was our (very limited) encounter with Madeira. We liked the relaxed, friendly café culture, but were a little oppressed by the cluttered environment and the bus parties. And at times I got the very strong sense that I might have fallen into Dave Hutchinson’s fictional “Community”—a parallel Europe that had been entirely colonized by English people.
The Nile was a highly specific route—following the river from source to sea; the Himalayas were more diffuse, offering Wood a range of route options, so that he could string together a series of particularly interesting locations; the “Americas” starts with broad choice in the north, and narrows down to some severely limited options in the south.
Wood walks through the historical core of the Americas—Central America. For start and finish points that allow a complete traverse of this isthmus, he chooses two events from the Spanish conquest of the region—the landing of Hernán Cortés on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula in 1519, and Vasco Núñez de Balboa‘s journey across the Isthmus of Panama at Darién in 1513, during which his party became the first Europeans to see the Pacific Ocean. As Wood points out, these two men are forever united by a historical inaccuracy in John Keats’s poem On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer, which ends:
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
Cortés never visited the Darién colony, and Keats clearly conflated his adventures with those of Balboa. (The story goes that, when informed of the error, he left it in so as to preserve the scansion of the poem. That’s poets for you, that is.) Despite the neatness of this poetic link to the geography of the region, it seems logistically more likely that Wood chose his starting point in Yucatán simply because that’s where his walking companion, the photographer Alberto Cáceres, lives. And his destination is clearly dictated by the shape of the isthmus, which has a definite southern endpoint where it joins the continent of South America just beyond the jungles of Darién. Between these two points, he walked 1,800 miles over the course of four months.
In contrast to companions on Wood’s two previous journeys, Cáceres is able to stay with him throughout the trip, and it’s evident that he’s an invaluable asset—aimiable, upbeat and possessed of an apparently infallible ability to charm Spanish-speaking officialdom.
Wood also seems to be blessed with an easy sociability that stands him in good stead—chatting cheerfully to border guards, drug dealers, gang members, child refugees and pretty much anyone else he meets along the way. I think he describes his approach well when discussing photography, early in the book:
You need to speak to people and get them to relax. You need to spend an hour or so chatting about their life, their passions, their wants and needs, before you even get your camera out. They must trust you, and that cannot be forced. They must like you, and you can’t force that either.
Wood’s impulse to chat only betrays him once, when he and his companion are treated to lunch (in a manner that can’t be refused) by a group of men they believe to be drug dealers. He works very hard to make it clear he is simply a traveller and writer (not a police informant), and then has to work hard again to be sure they understand he is not a rich writer (so not worth kidnapping for ransom). Presumably exhausted by this gruelling process and beginning to relax slightly, he then asks brightly, “So, what do you do?”
After a tense silence that gives Wood ample time to regret his curiosity, he is told that they “grow beans and corn.”
As with previous volumes, the book is a useful companion to the television series. The memorable moments from the series are all here—diving in a cenote used for human sacrifice; walking to the rim of an active volcano; climbing Cerro Chirripó, the highest mountain in Costa Rica, to see the sunrise; walking edgily through gang territories in San Pedro Sula; and the final slog through the jungle of the Darién Gap. But there’s also much background information on the history of the area, and a lot of moments that never made it to the TV screen—a hilarous consultation with the elderly and eccentric explorer John Blashford-Snell (during which Wood develops a sort of explorer envy because he won’t be able to take a gunboat with him into Darién); the apology he receives from the gang leaders through whose territory he passes, who say that they would have tidied up the graffiti if they’d had more warning of his arrival; the enthusiastic but seriously underequipped and ultimately ill-fated Belgian travellers who are planning to cross Darién before Wood gets there, and who have the potential to blight his carefully negotiated arrangements in that sensitive region; and a poignant visit to Puerto Escosés, the site of Scotland’s failed colony in the New World, and the focus of the seventeenth-century Darien Scheme, a financial venture that ultimately bankrupted Scotland and ended its existence as an independent nation.
And there are snakes, spiders, vampire bats, river crossings, unpleasant injuries, quicksand … and a moment when they get lost and turn up as unwelcome trespassers in someone’s garden.
Within 500m I was stopped by an Army patrol. To cut a long story short, I was stopped three more times by the Army and twice by the Police in the space of the next hour. I fobbed them off each time. Two policemen followed me back to the hotel. My local guide Menpong arrived the next morning and I was glad to get out of town and heading to the mountains but I wasn’t too confident that my troubles would stop there.
I’ve written about Ginge Fullen, and my involvement in his Africa’s Highest Challenge expedition, in my post about his previous book, Finding Bikku Bitti. That one described the gruelling conclusion of Africa’s Highest Challenge, when Ginge managed to climb Bikku Bitti, the highest point in Libya—having already spent five years climbing the highest point in every other African country. Conquering Bikku Bitti took three separate Sahara expeditions, during the second of which Ginge almost died.
This book is an altogether more sedate affair, describing his quest to climb the highest point in Bangladesh. Like Bikku Bitti, it required three separate attempts—but this time because there was so much disagreement about where the highest point in Bangladesh actually was.
I not only get a mention in Sic Diximus, my name’s on the cover, along with that of Ginge’s local guide, Menpong. That’s typical of Ginge’s generosity—I’ve mentioned before that he tends to downplay his own achievements while punctiliously acknowledging the contributions of those around him. But I certainly don’t deserve to appear as an author on this one—the adventure is Ginge’s, the story is Ginge’s, the words are Ginge’s, and the (often beautiful) photographs are Ginge’s.
My involvement started back in 1996, when I was compiling a set of tables called World Tops and Bottoms for Dave Hewitt’s TACit Press, listing the highest and lowest points of every country and dependency in the world. There were various “problem countries”, and Bangladesh was one of those—no-one seemed to be entirely sure what the highest mountain in Bangladesh was, where it was, or how high it was. One frequently mentioned name was Keokradong, but that name was associated with at least three different hills in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, and with a variety of altitudes from 927m to 1230m. Another was Reng Tlāng, on the border between Bangladesh and India, with quoted heights from 957m to 1003m. I couldn’t lay my hands on any useful national mapping, so checked the 1:500,000 Tactical Pilotage Chart of the area—which showed absolute nothing over 1000m in eastern Bangladesh, except for an unnamed point of 3454ft (1053m) on the border with Myanmar, far from Reng Tlāng and any of the Keokradongs. That point therefore found its way into World Tops and Bottoms— rather dubiously associated with the name “Mowdok”, which seemed more likely to be the name of the whole border range, rather than the specific highest point.
Now we roll forward to 2005, when Ginge was interested in knocking off the highest point in Bangladesh. By that time, a Survey of Bangladesh photogrammetric survey of the region in 2003 had brought up a new name, or rather several new names for one new hill—Tazing Dong, Tajingdong or Bijoy had been announced (with some fanfare in the Bangladeshi press) as Bangladesh’s real highest point, with a height of 987m. (This was almost immediately inflated to over 1000m in popular accounts—Banglapedia briefly topped out at 1280m.) By this time I was in contact with Jonathan de Ferranti, another mountain data-cruncher, who had given me a copy of an early version of the data from the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM), and who had checked the Russian 1:200,000 military topographic maps of the area. We were still seeing no ground over 1000m anywhere in eastern Bangladesh except for the 1053m point marked on the Tactical Pilotage Chart, which corresponded to a spot height of 1052m on the Russian topo map and a highest cell of 1049m in the SRTM dataset. It all looked pretty solid, but no-one seemed to be seeing it but us.
Got all that? Good. So, at this point, enter Ginge, who just wanted to climb the right mountain. The folks at Guinness World Records were telling him he needed to climb Keokradong *. The Survey of Bangladesh (and surely they should know) were telling him he needed to go up Tazing Dong. And two increasingly irritated cartophiles in Scotland were telling him needed to hop over to the Myanmar border to climb something without a discernible name.
Being Ginge, he climbed all three. And that’s what this book is about—Ginge sitting down for tea with Aung Shwe Prue Chowdhury, Rajah of the Chittagong Hill Tracts; Ginge blagging his way past a military checkpoint and browbeating a Bangladeshi general into giving him a lift; Ginge pitching up at the Survey of Bangladesh head office to tell them they’ve got it all wrong; Ginge betting the army major who conducted the photogrammetric survey that he’d missed a higher mountain … and Ginge nearly dying again, but this time from a dodgy chicken curry.
Climbing Keokradong turned out to be relatively easy—the other two summits required machete work on the way up, and to clear enough space on the summit for a good GPS reading. I’m probably not giving too much away if I tell you that the 1053m point on the Myanmar border turned out to be the highest. For a while after Ginge established “ground truth”, it even seemed as if he might get the chance to name the mountain. We gleefully came up with Sic Diximus, as close as we could get to “We told you so!” in Latin. (The translation came courtesy of my brother-in-law George, who is freakishly still able to speak Latin more than four decades after studying it at school.)
But it wasn’t to be. Unsurprisingly, the Tripura people who live in the remote valley below the mountain did have a name for it—Saka Haphong, meaning “Peak of the East”. And, in true Bangladeshi style, there’s at least one other name, too—topographic maps prepared in British India in the 1930s and 1940s label it as Mowdok Taung.
Since Ginge blazed the way in 2006, the way to Saka Haphong has turned into a popular trekking route, and the summit area is now kept clear by the feet of frequent visitors. Here’s a video impression of what the area looks like nowadays:
It’s a remarkable story. As with his previous book, it’s copiously illustrated with photographs clearly printed on good quality paper. You can have a look at the first few pages (which include a photography of yours truly) on the Blurb site at blurb.co.uk and blurb.com.
* This sort of out-of-date advice was a recurring theme with Guinness during Africa’s Highest Challenge—their alleged experts seemed just to be pulling up the CIA World Factbook on their computers, rather than looking at, you know, a map or anything. I’m sure (well, I hope) the CIA World Factbook is just chock-full of actual facts when it comes to important geopolitical matters. But among people who are interested in the highest points of countries (and yes, actually, there are several of us) it is wearily referred to as the CIA World “Fact” Book.
So, back to the Côte d’Azur for one last blink of sunshine and warmth, before the long dreary descent into Scottish winter. Not much to add, really, to my previous report from the same area in the spring of this year.
That was back in the day when the Côte d’Azur was an impossibly exotic location. But during our visit Juan-les-Pins seemed quiet and lazy, a little superannuated, distinctly unfashionable and well beyond its peak season. So we fitted right in.
We stayed in a hotel that used to be a villa owned by the novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda. So we did our best to act like Scott and Zelda as we strolled Juan-les-Pins’s beach front—except without the affairs, arguments, attention-seeking behaviour and the final descent into alcoholism and madness, obviously. We largely succeeded.
Then on to Cap Ferrat. We were handily located at the neck of the peninsula, roughly equidistant from Villefranche-sur-Mer, Beaulieu-sur-Mer and Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. So it was an easy stroll almost every day for a baguette or a salad for lunch, and then a local restaurant for dinner. (Isn’t it nice when the humblest pizza place also does a decent glass of champagne?)
And the weather was unseasonably fine—shirtsleeves almost every day for two hardy Scots, and only one day of rain. I was pleased to see that French men are still wearing their sweaters tied around their necks by the sleeves, just the way Charles Aznavour was doing it in the 1960s. It’s good to see that an otherwise stylish nation is still keeping one deeply naff sartorial trope alive.
British Airways managed to wreck the relaxed ambience by cancelling our flight home and sending us an urgent text message to say that we had to get to the airport pronto if we weren’t to miss their alternate routing. So we were tumbled back into Scottish darkness, drizzle and single-figure temperatures feeling slightly frazzled, with a vague impression that it might all have been a dream.
In my first post about this trip, I described how we got to the Siberian port of Anadyr. In my second post, I described our stay at Wrangel Island, in the Russian Arctic. This post is about what we did between Anadyr and Wrangel (and between Wrangel and Anadyr), as we sailed along the coast of the Chukchi Peninsula.
I’m going for a set of themes again:
We saw whales blowing in the distance almost every day we were at sea—mainly grey whales, occasional humpbacks, and a couple of rare bowheads.
Our first close encounter took place between Itygran Island and the outlying bird cliffs of Nuneangan Island. (Itygran is also spelled Ittygran, Yttigran and Yttygran—one of the hazards of transliterating between the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets.) We were in small boats, returning to the ship, when we found ourselves in the middle of a group of feeding grey whales. With the engine turned off, we bobbed in the gentle swell for twenty minutes or so, as these big creatures surfaced, breathed and dived all around us.
The textbooks say that grey whales don’t breach (leap almost entirely out of the water) like humpbacks. Our grey whales hadn’t read the textbooks, though.
Later, as we sailed past the remote town of Uelen, on the north coast of Cape Dezhnev, the ship moved into an area where greys were feeding. For a while, there wasn’t a direction you could look in without seeing the haze from two or three blows hovering above the water, or the fluke of a whale rising smoothly into the air as it dived deep.
Huge walrus haul-outs used to be common on Wrangel, but the walrus seem to have shifted their activities to the Siberian coast in recent years. Our best walrus encounter was along the cliffs of Kolyuchin Island, where they lay heaped on the sharp rocks in large numbers. They’re curious creatures, and once they’d caught sight of the boats, several came out to take a look at us.
On Itygran Island, we found ourselves a vantage point between a scree slope and some ground squirrel burrows on the open tundra, and settled down to wait. The ground squirrels never put in an appearance, but after we’d sat quietly for a while, a pika came out and started to go about its frantic autumnal business of laying in food for the winter. These little fellows have quite the most remarkable alarm call, shrieking out a high-pitched yelp that sounds as if it comes from something ten times their size.
We saw ground squirrels on several occasions later, but they’re maddening creatures to photograph—standing at attention in plain view for minutes on end, and then legging it as soon as a camera lens is rotated towards them.
I also came close to treading on numerous tundra voles at Cape Dezhnev. They’re also impossibly fleet for photography, but they create characteristic runways in the surface vegetation to show that they’re around. Here’s a runway at Belyaka Spit.
The landscape is stunning. Farther south than Wrangel there was correspondingly more vegetation, and the ground was awash in autumn colours.
We had clear skies most nights, and were close enough to the equinox that it got properly dark. There were good auroral displays for six nights in succession, one of the best being as we sailed up Kolyuchin Inlet, with the sea so calm that the ship was an (almost) steady platform for photography.
From Wrangel, we sailed 70 kilometres eastwards to Herald Island. Herald is not much more than a ridge of rock rising from the sea, surrounded by steep cliffs and lumpy scree slopes along its whole nine-kilometre length.
There’s a small beach at its southeast end, from which I’m pretty sure you could access the spine of the island with just a bit of scrambling. At the northwest end, there’s a shore-line boulder-field on which four of the Karluk castaways found their way ashore from the pack ice in 1914, only to die under mysterious circumstances, their camp still full of food, their guns still provided with ammunition. So remote and inaccessible is this place, their bodies weren’t discovered for a decade. (I previously wrote about the Karluk shipwreck when I reported on our stay at Wrangel Island.)
We cruised in boats through sea ice to the south end of the island, and counted polar bears. At one point, there were more than thirty bears visible from our position just off the coast—clambering the scree, walking the ridge, snoozing on patches of snow. Herald is a great denning site for overwintering bears, but at this time of year they’ve got nothing much to do except wait for the sea-ice and the seals to return.
And we went ashore on the scrap of beach. There’s not much reason to land on Herald (unless you’re shipwrecked, of course). We landed because it’s something not many people get to do (far fewer people have set foot on Herald than on the summit of Everest) and also because it was freezing cold sitting in a boat under Herald’s cap of cloud and in the shadow of its cliffs, so it was nice to have a chance to jog around a bit to warm up.
The Diomede Islands sit in the Bering Strait between the easternmost point of the Russian mainland (Cape Dezhnev) and the westernmost point of the American mainland (Cape Prince of Wales). They’re about forty kilometres from both mainlands, and less than four kilometres apart. But they’re separated not just by an international border, but the Date Line as well—those meagre four kilometres bring not just a change of government, but a shift of four time zones and a change of date too, so that anyone who made the crossing would need to shift their watch by twenty hours.
Not many make the crossing, though. The Soviets relocated the Yupik residents of Big Diomede to the mainland, set up a Border Guard post at the north end of the island, and closed the border—disrupting what had until then been a trans-Bering Inuit community. On Little Diomede, a tiny community remains in the village of Diomede, with 200 inhabitants.
We weren’t permitted to land on Big Diomede (which the Russians call Ratmanov), or to cross the border to Little Diomede. We were permitted to cruise the boats along the north coast of the island, so long as we didn’t move out of sight of a Border Guard standing on an observation platform next to the station. Like anywhere in Russia, we weren’t allowed to take a photograph of the government buildings of the station (though you can find them easily enough on Google Earth). But we did give a yell and a wave to the little group of (presumably off-duty) men who came out to take a look at us, and got a yell and a wave back.
Every now and then, of course, as we dipped in and out of various inlets along the bird cliffs, we did move out of sight of the guard. We framed elaborate (and entirely theoretical) plans of how we could get someone ashore in those moments, replacing them with an inflatable dummy in the boat to keep the head-count correct. We weren’t sure what the point of that would be, but we’d all read too many Cold War spy thrillers not to consider it desirable as an end in itself. Thwarted on the espionage front, I contented myself with leaning out of the boat and slapping a Big Diomede rock in passing. Next best thing to a landing, really.
On Itygran Island we visited Whalebone Alley, a 600-year-old site in which whale bones are arrayed in a linear pattern extending for over half a kilometre along the shore, with ribs and jaw bones set up on end in the tundra. It’s clearly a ritual site of some kind, but no-one seems very sure of its significance.
At Cape Dezhnev, we walked through the atmospheric ruins of Naukan, an abandoned Yupik settlement. People lived here for centuries, on a tilted plateau perched above a gravel beach looking out on the chilly Bering Sea where they hunted for sea mammals. But the Naukan people were forcibly relocated by the Soviets in 1958, who pronounced their village “uninhabitable”, in the teeth of the evidence to the contrary. In the museum in Lavrentiya, we met a Yupik woman who had lived in Naukan as a small child, and still missed it.
In Lavrentiya, we found ourselves being photographed by the locals almost as much as we were photographing them, which was an interesting experience. In Lavrentiya, too, I heard unmistakable sounds from overhead, and stopped in the middle of the street to gaze up at a skein of migrating sandhill cranes passed overhead on their way to spend the winter somewhere near Mexico. Have a listen to their flight calls:
The flight home from Keflavik to Glasgow had one more holiday treat to offer. The flight path slants across the Hebrides of Scotland, and for the first time we had clear weather.
The show started when I caught sight of the Flannan Islands (location of a famous mystery disappearance) from my seat on the left of the plane. Craning to look ahead, I could see the whole of Lewis laid out ahead of me. Then we flew past Harris, looking down on Luskentyre Beach and Scarista Beach, where we’d walked earlier this year, then down the west coast of Skye, over Rum and Eigg, and then between Ardnamurchan and the Isle of Mull.
The cloud eventually close below us as we passed Ben Cruachan. Show over, and back to rainy Glasgow.
The Khromov is an Akademik Shuleykin Class ice-strengthened ship. She was built in 1983 in Finland, as a polar research vessel for the USSR. Along with several of her sister ships, she was sold off in the early 1990s during the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and converted for tourism. She is owned and operated (sometimes under the name Spirit of Enderby) by a New Zealand company, Heritage Expeditions.
Aboard her, we were heading to Wrangel Island, north of the Chukchi Peninsula:
This sort of trip is called expedition cruising. Exactly where you end up depends on the weather, and the sea and ice conditions encountered. Just the process of getting ashore is something of an adventure, often involving a wet beach landing from a Rigid Inflatable Boat.
If the surf is a little higher, then sometimes a stern landing is required (the bow of the RIB floats high and prevents waves breaking into the boat).
Or sometimes you can just cruise around somewhere that would otherwise be inaccessible:
Getting to Wrangel involved sailing around the Chukchi Peninsula and through the Bering Strait into the Chukchi Sea. What we did and saw during that time (and during the return journey) is the topic for my next post. Here, I’m going to concentrate on the six days we spent circumnavigating Wrangel itself. As you’ll see from the pictures above, we were blessed with freakishly good weather—there was stable high pressure in the Chukchi Sea almost throughout our time there, and the only problem we had was the occasional sea fog, and a little light snow on the last day.
Wrangel is a big place—125 kilometres from west to east, with rolling central hills that rise to 1000 metres. The coast alternates between cliffs and lagoon-trapping sand-spits. It was inhabited at one time by the ancestors of the modern Inuit (whose settlement dates, 4000 years ago, corresponds suspiciously with the extinction of Wrangel’s dwarf mammoths, the last survivors of that breed). But even the Inuit withdrew from this remote spot, and by the nineteenth century, when Russian explorers were expressing an interest in the north Siberian coastline, Wrangel was no more than a working hypothesis for the Chukchi and Yupik people on the mainland—an explanation for where migratory birds and reindeer were heading, when they travelled northwards across the sea ice.
The island was claimed by America in 1881, by Russia in 1911, and sorta-kinda by Canada in 1921, during a doomed colonization attempt. In 1926, Russia set up semi-permanent camp there—two villages, Ushakovskoye and Zvëzdnyy, were established on the south coast, with Yupik and Chukchi people being translocated from the mainland to live there. But the island became a Federal Nature Reserve in 1976, and the population dwindled to a group of wardens and visiting scientists. And it might have stayed like that, but it has since developed an unfortunate geopolitical importance. It’s situated at the east end of the Northeast Passage along Russia’s Arctic coast, and as that route has become increasingly navigable (because of the retreating pack ice), the Russian navy has become increasingly interested in maintaining a presence there. In 2014, they started constructing a naval base on the site of Ushakovskoye. The National Park wardens are based in a couple of buildings at Zvëzdnyy.
So here, in no particular order, are the broad themes of our visit to Wrangel:
There’s a beautiful simplicity to a tundra landscape (albeit an appearance that’s belied if you get down on your hands and knees and examine the complicated plant community). We got to see it in its autumn colours and never got tired of wandering through it.
The ranger station at Zvëzdnyy (on a site known to American whalers by the splendidly evocative name of Doubtful Harbour) stands amid the remains of the shortlived community there. It’s a bleakly picturesque place, all the more so when a sea fog rolls in. The rangers have been slowly clearing the remains of human occupation from the hinterland, so the decaying buildings are surrounded by a sea of rusting oil drums and discarded machinery parts. Some day, perhaps, this stuff will be moved off the island entirely. Apparently there’s a functioning drum crusher on the building site at Ushakovskoye—so there’s a possibility that the new military invasion might actually benefit the rest of the island.
There’s also the story of the Karluk survivors to think about. An ill-conceived Arctic expedition ended in 1914 with their ship, the Karluk, crushed in the pack ice. Crew and scientists trekked across the ice to take a sort of refuge on Wrangel Island. Their captain, Bob Bartlett, set off on foot across the sea ice to the Siberian mainland, supported by an Inuit hunter named Kataktovik. While Bartlett and Kataktovik completed an epic thousand-kilometre trek to summon a rescue party, the remaining personnel quarrelled their way through the Arctic summer, gradually falling victim to malnutrition before Bartlett’s rescue ship arrived at the eleventh hour.
Several of the survivors published accounts of the experience (including Ernest Chafe, whose opinion of Wrangel Island introduces this post). Jennifer Niven drew together all these narratives (and some unpublished diaries) to produce her book, The Ice Master (2000), which tells the story in detail. But I took William Laird McKinlay’s Karluk with me to read on this trip. McKinlay was one of the Karluk survivors, who eventually published his own account of the disaster in 1976, when he was in his eighties. The opening sentence of the summary on the back cover of my edition pretty much says it all:
High above the Arctic Circle, two men lie huddled in a blizzard-blown tent, with the decaying corpse of a comrade they haven’t had the heart to drag outside for the foxes to eat.
That image becomes all the more compelling when you’ve stood on the site of one of the bleak Karluk camps:
These photos are of the Dragi Bay camp site, on the east of the island. In the survivor accounts it’s always referred to as the “Cape Waring” camp—a reference to the rocky promontory on the south side of the bay. There were also camps at Icy Spit (one of the long gravel spits that run along the northeast coast), at Skeleton Island (at the mouth of the Klark River) and at Rodger’s Harbour in the south, where Ushakovskoye would later be built. The split camps were conceived as a way of maintaining adequate hunting—small groups, widely scattered, would put less of a load on the scant resources of the island—but they quickly turned into a way of keeping men apart who had grown to hate each other.
There’s a Karluk memorial on the Dragi Bay site:
The name of the ship is misspelled, and the date is wrong—this camp wasn’t established until June 1914. But I’m rather charmed by the notion of the ship being “squashed” rather than “crushed”. It sounds like it might, just possibly, have sprung back into shape again once the ice pressure had relented.
Wrangel has the highest density of polar bear den sites anywhere in the world. Polar bears are everywhere—on the tundra, up the mountains, on the beach, on the scree slopes, in the water and on the sea ice. And although we’ve seen plenty of polar bears, we’d never seen them en masse in the way we did at Wrangel. Watching the social behaviour of what we’d come to imagine to be solitary creatures was fascinating.
Another fascinating thing was the difference in “polar bear management style” between the Russian Arctic and other parts of the Arctic we’ve visited. In Svalbard and Greenland, the “correct” behaviour is to carry a gun but to retreat early and avoid confrontation. On Wrangel, the rules are exactly the opposite—no guns, never retreat (you’ll trigger hunting behaviour) and if necessary make a vigorous movement towards the bear to frighten it away. It’s guidance based on the long experience of Nikita Ovsyanikov, a polar bear researcher who has spent a lot of time on Wrangel. Here he is, in action:
The other big land mammals we got to see on Wrangel were musk oxen. Picture, if you will, one steely Russian warden walking slowly towards a little group of musk oxen, who are watching his every move. Behind him follows a little huddle of brightly coloured and overexcited photographers. Every now and then the guide stops; the photographers bunch up and click their shutters; the oxen swing their heads a little and then settle down again; the guide advances again; the process repeats. And then, finally, the musk oxen decide they’ve had enough and walk away from us. Show over.
This tilted slab of rock at Dream Head was just the right height for a musk ox to scratch against:
And here’s the close-up to prove it:
We were too late in the season for many birds, unfortunately. We did see a solitary snow goose, which seemed to be scanning the horizon anxiously, wondering where its thousands of buddies had disappeared to. Both species of Pacific puffin were still around in large numbers, and just as charming as their Atlantic cousin. (Few experiences can match that of sitting under a towering bird cliff with hundreds of puffins coming and going overhead, like bees from a giant beehive.) Kittiwakes were noisily omnipresent. There were lots of phalaropes, too, scooting around madly on the water like little wind-up toys, but difficult to identify precisely (for me, at least) in their drab eclipse plumage. And flocks of snow buntings swirled around us everywhere as we walked. Rarer sightings include snowy owls, long-tailed ducks and peregrine falcons.
AND FINALLY …
Wrangel happens to straddle the 180º meridian, exactly opposite the Prime Meridian, which runs through the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, England. Unlike the Prime Meridian, there aren’t many places you can go to stand on the Antimeridian, because it runs mainly through ocean. It crosses land at Wrangel, the Chukchi Peninsula immediately to the south, and then just three Fijian islands before it reaches Antarctica. On Wrangel, there’s a handy bilingual marker on the beach at Krasin Bay, although it’s in slightly the wrong position:
And that’s it for now. The next (and final) installment will be about the rest of our journey, from Anadyr to Wrangel, and from Wrangel back to Anadyr. More animals! More landscapes! Some geophysics! And a bit of culture!
* The phrase doesn’t appear in Chafe’s published memoir, The Voyage Of The “Karluk,” And Its Tragic Ending (The Geographical Journal 1918, pp 307-16). Jennifer Niven quotes it in The Ice Master, from unpublished material held by the Maritime Museum of British Columbia.
So—there’s been a bit of negative feedback on the Travel section of this blog, from those who know us. Apparently everything so far has been a little bit tame by the standard that people have come to expect from our previous travel destinations.
So this one should redress the balance a little. We’ve just returned from the Chukchi Peninsula, in the extreme east of Siberia—so far east it’s west, in fact; it protrudes east of 180º longitude, forcing the International Date Line to make a bend around it so that it can pass cleanly through the Bering Strait between Russia and Alaska. Why we went there is the subject for a later post—just getting there is enough of a story for this one.
We were travelling to join a ship at the Siberian port of Anadyr, a town of about 15,000 people on the Bering Sea. Anadyr lies just south of the Arctic Circle, at 64º44´N, and just west of 180º longitude, at 177º31´E. That puts it almost precisely on the opposite meridian from our home town, Dundee—the shortest line from Dundee to Anadyr goes almost straight over the north pole, passing just a few kilometres from the pole itself.
But, of course, there are no direct flights. The choice is between going west-about or east-about. Heading east requires a trip south from Scotland to some large European city (London, Paris, Frankfurt, Brussels), to pick up a flight to Moscow and then a connection to Anadyr. Going west takes you to Keflavik in Iceland, on to Anchorage and then Nome in Alaska, and then by charter flight to Anadyr. Because the western route avoids a southerly excursion, it turns out to be slightly shorter. It has other things to commend it, too—the comforts of Icelandair contrasted with those of a Russian budget airline; the fact that the journey could be broken for a few days in Alaska, to acclimatize to an initial nine-time-zone transition, before heading on to Anadyr; and the fact we’d get to see the legendary gold-rush town of Nome, which isn’t really on the way to many other places.
So west it was. After a short hop from Glasgow to Iceland, we decided to overnight in the little port of Keflavik, right next to the airport, instead of travelling back and forth to Reykjavik. Keflavik airport has certainly come a long way since we were first there in the early 1980s, when it was essentially a large NATO military airfield, cluttered with AWACS planes, at the side of which huddled a sort of glorified shed that housed the civil terminal. Luggage was offloaded on to a single roller ramp, and if you weren’t quick enough to grab your suitcase it would shoot off the end and fall on the floor. Nowadays there’s a big, shiny, sprawling terminal building named after Leif Erikson.
Keflavik is a pretty little place, with a small boat harbour, a few small comfortable hotels and pleasant restaurants, and the usual Icelandic selection of interesting public sculpture. Being there on a bright late-summer day certainly helped, too.
The following afternoon, we flew across Greenland and Arctic Canada to Anchorage. There was the usual delay finding a taxi at the North Terminal—they mostly sit outside the South Terminal, and the occasional influx of international passengers at the North seems to catch them on the hop every single time.
A couple of days in Anchorage let us do our favourite stuff—wander along the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail as far as Westchester Lagoon, to watch the ducks and kingfishers; pay Captain Cook a visit at Resolution Park and look out for beluga whales in the Knik Arm (no luck, again); and eat at the Snow Goose Restaurant (which has morphed into the 49th State Brewing Company since our last visit).
Then on to Nome (population 4,000), in an Alaska Airlines plane that had no seats forward of row 18—just a blank bulkhead with cargo space beyond. The Alaska terminal in Nome was reminiscent of 1980s Keflavik—a large shed in which luggage thudded on to a sloping rack after having been pushed through a sort of glorified catflap from the outside world. The car-park was unsurfaced, the taxi was a dusty old people-mover, and the driver steered with one hand while sipping from a coffee mug held in the other. On a hill behind the town languish the remains of the Anvil Mountain White Alice Communications System, a Cold-War era Distant Early Warning installation.
You can’t get to Nome by road—its road network peters out in the wilderness of the Seward Peninsula. You fly in, or you arrive by ship, or (in the winter) you come in by dog sled. The Iditarod Trail sled dog race ends here, 1000 miles from its starting point in Anchorage. The dog teams sweep in off the sea ice, and then along Front Street to the finishing line.
Apart from the Iditarod, Nome is famous for its 1899 gold rush, when gold was discovered mingled with the sand on its Bering Sea beaches. The town is still cluttered with gold-rush memories—the local newspaper is the Nome Nugget, there are statues of gold panners dotted around the town, and old dredge buckets have been repurposed as flower pots in the public spaces.
After a day in Nome, we presented ourselves at the Bering Air terminal for our flight to Anadyr. All our fellow passengers were bound for the same ship we were joining. We were weighed along with our luggage, and then we sat about in the hangar telling travel stories while we waited for news that the runway in Anadyr was clear of fog. When the news came, we piled into a nineteen-seater twin-engine Beechcraft 1900, and set off. Two hours later we touched down in Anadyr, and wound our watches forward by twenty hours—there can’t be many two-hour flights in the world that shift you by four time zones and take you across the Date Line.
I took an hour to get into Russia. Travel into Chukotka requires not just a visa but an invitation from a Russian organization—we had a piece of text in Cyrillic to show the border guards, but that precipitated a Great Vanishing from the passport control area while they went off to check that it was all true. Then our luggage was weighed (I have no idea why) and we walked out into Anadyr.
Or rather, we didn’t. Anadyr stands on the west side of the estuary of the Anadyr River, and the airport is on the east side. In the summer, a ferry crosses the estuary; in the winter, an ice road; and in spring and autumn, when the ice is thawing or freezing, the airport is just plain tricky to get to. Like Nome, Anadyr’s road system peters out in the back country—you can’t drive there from the rest of Russia.
Our Russian minders drove us down to the ferry, in a vehicle with a dashboard video screen that was blasting out music videos. We joined the alarming crowds on the ferry deck, and twenty minutes later we walked off in Anadyr. Our luggage had disappeared in a truck, but we were given to understand that our ship was not ready to receive us, so we were going to take a walking tour of Anadyr to keep us occupied for a couple of hours.
There may well be enough to see and do in Anadyr to distract a visitor for two hours, but our guide, Alexei, didn’t seem to know about it. We visited a very beautiful wooden church, the Trinity Cathedral, that stands on high ground above the estuary, and a huge statue of St Nicholas issuing a blessing to the Anadyr waterfront. Above the docks, there’s a lonely and atmospheric memorial to Anadyr’s First Revolutionary Committee—a larger-than-life sculpture of a little huddle of men with Chukchi faces, standing together anxiously but defiantly, as if they were about to be shot for their deeply held beliefs. Which is exactly what happened to them.
But otherwise we mainly marched up and down streets of brightly painted flat blocks, being intermittently knifed on the street corners by the Siberian wind. (There seems to be a general rule that, the farther north the town, the more brightly painted will be its buildings. Drab little Nome is an unfortunate exception.)
Finally, Alexei announced that everything was now ready for us to be ferried to our ship, the Professor Khromov, which was at anchor in the estuary. We were led to a shingle beach, and introduced to the good ship Neva—something that appeared to be the hellish offspring of an assault landing craft and a car ferry.
Thirteen of us piled inauspiciously into its capacious open hold, and we set off. Once out of the shelter of the harbour, we ran into a choppy sea and biting wind, forcing us to cling to the rails and lean against the chilly metal walls to keep our balance. After quarter of an hour, we came alongside the Khromov. With the choppy sea conditions, there was—ahem—a bit of mutual movement between the two vessels. They pitched up and down relative to each other by more than a metre, and once they were drawn together by ropes the occasional roll brought them into contact with a clanging impact that set the Neva ringing like a gong, and took chunks of paintwork out of the Khromov’s sides. The Khromov tried to create a bit of a calm lee using its side thrusters, but to no avail. After a couple of attempts to come together safely, punctuated by multiple mutual impacts, the Neva turned around and headed back towards the shore.
We staggered out (with some relief) on to the Anadyr shingle, to be met by a fleet of taxis that whisked us off to the reception area of a local hotel. What now? Well, the same thing again, as it turned out. We’d sat and speculated for no more than ten minutes before Alexei returned and announced that “we” (not including him, by the way) were all going to try it again. (He said this as if it was a Good Thing.)
As it turned out, it all made sense. An onshore wind and ebbing tide had created the chop in the estuary, and with the tide now slack the sea conditions were hugely better for our rendezvous. The Neva tied alongside the Khromov with minimal mutual movement this time, and we simply climbed a ladder and stepped across on to the deck of the Khromov.
We had arrived. The adventure could now begin. More on that in another post.
Getting back to the Hebrides is always a joy. This was a short, two-centre Hebridean sampler—one Outer, one Inner.
We drove up and stayed in Portree, Skye, overnight, before heading to the ferry port at Uig for a crossing to Tarbert, in Harris. There are lots of Tarberts in Scotland, and they all have some association with a narrow isthmus. The modern Gaelic an tairbeart derives from older words meaning something like “across-carry”. These were places where the old Scots seafarers could drag their boats across from one body of water to another.
South Harris is a chewed-up piece of ancient land, dotted with lochans and bogs, and with a definite east-west divide. The east side has a contorted rocky coastline, whereas the Atlantic coast is a succession of pale cockle-shell beaches fringed by azure shallows that would do credit to the Caribbean. So there’s a magical moment as you drive westwards across the moors from Tarbert on a sunny day, when a little notch of improbable beach appears between the grey hills in the distance.
The weather was typically mixed—on occasion everything from sleet to sunshine would pass through on an hourly cycle. Fortunately, you can spend an entire rainy day just visiting the galleries of various local artists. With the result, we came home with a painting (which is not done justice by the wee image below).
So if you’re ever in South Harris, drop in on the splendidly named settlement of Geocrab, and visit the Skoon Art Cafe. You can eat tasty food, listen to traditional music, and look at the landscape paintings by Andrew John Craig. Craig distils down the landscape and constantly shifting light of Harris into gorgeous, almost abstract bands of horizontal colour.
In fair weather, it’s good strolling country—not just those long, almost unpopulated beaches, but also marked trails winding across the moorland and among the ancient rocks of the east coast.
Then back to Skye. Our route was a little circuitous, because the Saturday ferry from Tarbert to Uig was full by the time we came to make our booking. So it was south to Leverburgh to cross the Sound of Harris to North Uist, and then back to Uig on the ferry from Lochmaddy. The Leverburgh ferry shifts its sailing times to avoid low spring tides, and you can see why once you’re out among the islands in the Sound—more than once I could look over the side of the ship and see the rocks and sand of the sea-bed. The shallow water and multiple islands make it a good crossing for wildlife-viewing, too—at one point I could see the heads of six seals bobbing out of the water to take a look at us. Gannets and cormorants dived next to the ship, and a Great Northern Diver in full breeding plumage calmly watched us go by while I became briefly hysterical with delight.
It had been a damp morning, but the day brightened up for the evening drive south from Uig to Sleat, and we were nearly late for dinner at our hotel because we kept stopping to admire the Skye scenery on the way.
Sleat’s a slightly unfashionable corner of Skye, lacking the mad, Lord-of-the-Rings scenery of the Cuillin or Trotternish. But it has gorgeous views of its own—across the Sound of Sleat into the wilds of Knoydart on the mainland, or (from the tip of the peninsula) out to the islands of Rum and Eigg. Good strolling country again, with the added bonus of a selection of good hotels and restaurants strung out along its length.
On our last day, the promise of good visibility sent us scuttling over to Elgol, which has a harbour in one of the most beautiful settings in the world, with a long view up Loch Scavaig into the inner curve of the Cuillin Ridge.
I do believe I could spend a whole day just looking at that view.
A little blink of sunshine on the Côte d’Azur was much enhanced by the knowledge that, in our absence, Scotland was enduring overcast skies and single-digit temperatures. I was reminded of Iris Murdoch‘s line (nodding to La Rochefoucauld):
Some clever writer (probably a Frenchman) has said: It is not enough to succeed; others must fail.
So we gloated quietly as we checked the Scottish weather on the free wifi, while sampling the French Way of Lunch—outdoors, slowly, with wine.
We had a few days at Cap Ferrat, where the weather was shirt-sleeves mild for Scottish folk—although the locals were all still rushing around in their stylish quilted gilets, and the ubiquitous little dogs all had cozy coats on, for fear they would die of hypothermia on the way to the boulangerie.
Cap Ferrat’s nice—it’s set a little back from the main drag of big hotels along the coast, but if you like that big-resort thing you can catch a bus from the neck of the peninsula that’ll take you west to Nice, or east to Monaco. You can walk easily into the villages of Beaulieu-sur-Mer and Villefranche-sur-Mer. (The latter does involve a short, noisy march on narrow pavements beside the main coastal road, but it provides beautiful views down into the bay.)
Or you can stay on the peninsula and wander along the coastal path, which gets you to the marina at Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. (Last time we were there, a chunk of the path had fallen into the sea, but that section has now been replaced by an aluminium walkway. It’s not clear if they’re ever going to manage to rebuild the missing section.)
Fortified by a glass of Provençale rosé and a bowl of salade Niçoise from one of the restaurants on the harbour, you can then follow some more coastal paths—either around the tip of Cap Ferrat itself, or around the little subsidiary peninsula of the Pointe de Sainte-Hospice. (If you are some sort of insane overachiever, I suppose you might do both in one go, but that wouldn’t really be entering into the lackadaisical spirit of things.)
Another option is to take a walk up to the slightly bonkers Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, where you can tour the Rothschild’s baroque villa, admire the views to either side of the peninsula, gawp at the themed gardens, and thrill to the dancing musical fountains—performances every 20 minutes, and though I sneer to maintain appearances, I am secretly captivated. Then you can finish it off with a very nice Provençale rosé and a bowl of salade Niçoise in the garden restaurant. By which time it’s undoubtedly time for a snooze.
Then we moved to Mougins, which is one of those tiny hilltop villages that are a Provençale specialty. Mougins is a jewel among them, with a view of the Alps and the sea, a fine crop of restaurants, some nifty public art, and at least two little museums that are worth a visit. The Musée d’Art Classique is a lovely assembly of Egyptian, Greek and Roman works, juxtaposed with modern pieces by artists as varied as Marc Chagall and Damien Hirst. The Musée de la Photographie André Villers combines portraits of artists and writers with displays of photojournalism and some very eccentric sculpture built out of old cameras.
And the hill of old Mougins is embedded in forest—it was nice to be surrounded by birdsong on the hotel terrace, and to see red squirrels clattering around the branches.
In fact, the whole thing was a bit of an idyll, marred only by France’s single negative contribution to gastronomy—the Michelin star system.
You would think (would you not?) that the correlation between how much you pay for a meal and the quality of the experience (taste, presentation, ambience, service) would look a bit like this:A process of diminishing returns sets in, so that there is some plateau of dining pleasure beyond which additional cost is simply an informal tax on the gullible.
But it’s worse than that. What the Michelin star system seems to have done is produce an actual downturn at the top end of the graph:
Not only is the Michelin award often interpreted as a licence to double the prices, you’re moderately likely to find yourself spending this large amount of money in order to eat novelty items off eccentric tableware, using vaguely inappropriate cutlery, while indulging in a battle of wills with passive-aggressive waiting staff.
Or you can take the price of your Michelin-starred apéritifs, carry it down the road to somewhere with a chalkboard menu and chequered table cloths, and buy yourself a proper meal from some nice people who actually care about your enjoyment.