Category Archives: Travel

Ginge Fullen: Finding Bikku Bitti

Front cover of Finding Bikku BittiThe dangers this year were pretty much the same as the last attempt. Landmines were still in the ground, the area was still off limits, there was a possibility of being robbed by bandits, a slight possibility of being taken hostage by rebels and an even slighter possibility of meeting a Libyan military patrol while in the mountains. Given the long odds of any of them happening I thought it was quite good odds really.

I should confess to a certain bias, here—I get a mention in this one.

I first met Ginge Fullen back in the late ’90s, when he was climbing the highest point of every country in Europe. I had just compiled a volume for TACit Tables entitled World Tops And Bottoms: High And Low Points Of All Countries And Their Dependencies. (It’s now both out of print and out of date.) He got in contact after he saw my tables, with some questions and some comments. After that, I found myself drawn into his Africa’s Highest Challenge project, in which he set out to climb the highest point of all 53 countries in Africa. It took him almost exactly five years, between December 2000 and December 2005.

Back then, we had very little information about the highest points in many of these countries—surveys were poor or non-existent, quoted heights were usually wrong and usually overestimates, and very few locals knew or cared what the highest point in their country was.

My role was to dig out and compare topographic maps, to extract  heights from the newly available Shuttle Radar Topography Mission data, and to work out where the borders ran relative to the mountains. Then I’d send an e-mail telling Ginge what I thought, and he would disappear off into the bush/desert/jungle for a few weeks, to return with a GPS reading and a tale to tell. Given how baroquely inaccessible and sometimes dangerous many of these places happened to be, you can probably imagine that I often felt a certain moral pressure to get my facts right.

Bikku Bitti, in Libya, was one of those places. It was the final peak in Africa’s Highest Challenge—smack dab in the middle of the Libyan Desert, hard against the disputed border with Chad, surrounded by minefields, discarded ordnance, border guards, smugglers, bandits and reputedly unwelcoming locals. I had tapped a finger on a computer screen and confirmed to Ginge that I was pretty sure the highest point in all that desert seemed to be a conical mountain just north of the Chad border … and he went off to climb it.

SRTM data for Bikku Bitti
Bikku Bitti in SRTM data, Chad-Libya border marked in red

Finding Bikku Bitti tells the story of Ginge’s two failed attempts to get to this mountain, across 400 kilometres of desert (he almost died during the second expedition), and his final successful ascent (the first recorded) on 4th December 2005.

It’s a slim volume—just 54 pages—and mainly pictorial. The pictures are bright and nicely reproduced. You can leaf through some sample pages online at the book’s webpage on blurb.co.uk and blurb.com. Ginge uses a nom de plume given to him by the local Toubou people—Korra Kala, “short and strong”—and credits his Toubou guide, Kosseya Barda, as a coauthor. I doubt if Barda wrote a word for the book, but he was certainly a coauthor of the successful expedition, and it’s typical of Ginge to give generous credit and acknowledgement in this way.

The text tells the story in laconic style (the quotation at the head of this post is typical). Scattered among the pages are a copy of a congratulatory letter from HRH Prince Charles, a scan of Ginge’s entry in the Guinness Book of Records, and a reproduction of a letter written by one of Ginge’s friends, attempting to put a bet on his death in the desert during the third attempt. (William Hill declined to give odds.)

The photographs show the madly rough terrain he encountered, while the text describes the endless casting around for a route through to the chosen mountain, as water supplies ticked down towards the point of no return.

If I have a complaint, it’s that the story of the third, successful attempt is reduced to some photographs of the people and locations involved, a summit group picture, and a copy of the e-mail exchange that confirmed success. Again I think it’s typical of Ginge that, at the critical moment when he could have describe a personal triumph, he instead chose to feature those who helped him along the way.

And, actually, probably the best way to summarize this book is just to show you the photograph of the authors on the back cover:Back cover of Finding Bikku Bitti


Note: I’ve now reviewed the next book Ginge has written, concerning his improbable search for the highest point in Bangladesh. You can find that review here.

Caribbean

Evening on board, sails set
Click to enlarge
© The Boon Companion, 2016

There is little Man has made that approaches anything in Nature, but a sailing ship does.

Alan Villiers

The Caribbean, in February, on a ship.

We’re neither of us beach people. (We had a beach holiday in the Maldives once, in 1982, and were homicidal with boredom by the third day). And we’d never been to the Caribbean, though the scenery and wildlife seemed to be crying out for a visit—so we were looking for a way to swan around the Caribbean looking at stuff, but which didn’t involve a beach resort, didn’t involve multiple visits to airports, and didn’t involve a huge floating city pretending to be a cruise ship.

We ended up on a three-masted barque-rigged sailing ship, travelling up the island chain of the Lesser Antilles. Barbados, Grenada, St Vincent and the Grenadines, St Lucia, Martinique, Dominica,  Guadeloupe, St Kitts & Nevis, the British Virgin Islands, Anguilla, Saint-Barthélemy, Antigua: seven countries, two British overseas territories, two French overseas departments and one collectivité territoriale.

Lesser Antilles showing route
Click to enlarge
Derived from this source

So a bit like one of those notorious old American bus tours of Europe—If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium. Except with dolphins and pelicans. And no bus.

Trying to write about it in chronological order would very quickly become tedious for all involved, so here are some major themes, more or less in the order they occur to me:

IT’S A SAILING SHIP!

That was a big initial attraction for me, at least. And it quickly turned into one for the Boon Companion, too, once she spotted what a photogenic object a sailing ship is.

Approaching shore
Click to enlarge
© The Boon Companion, 2016

Having spent a lot of my formative years reading the naval novels of C.S. Forester, Patrick O’Brian, Alexander Kent and Dudley Pope, it was nice for me to get to see a proper three-master at work. But any vague hopes I might have had that we’d soon be heaving-to under tightly reefed topsails, or clubhauling her on to a new tack against a dangerous lee, were soon dispelled by the relatively leisurely rhythm of sail-handling on this ship. Nowadays, you just can’t man the masts with the sort of large crew Nelson’s navy commanded. It takes time to set and furl sails. And we had an engine, a schedule to keep, and Health and Safety regulations to comply with. And most disappointingly, no-one ever shouted from aloft, “Deck there! Sail on the port beam! And a Frenchie, by the rig of her spanker!”

Rigging
Click to enlarge
© The Boon Companion, 2016

We sailed with the wind behind us, with plenty of sea-room, and never at night. Sometimes we’d actually motor over to get ourselves in the right position to sail directly down on our destination. So it was a rather theme-parked version of the original; but a fine thing nonetheless—and still hard manual work for the crew, despite the prevalence of powered capstans on deck.

Manning the masts
Click to enlarge
© The Boon Companion, 2016
 NATURE

Bottlenose dolphin spent less time flirting with the ship than I had imagined they would, although the Boon Companion had a chance encounter with a fin going past directly below our porthole one afternoon. Flying fish, instead of flopping helplessly on deck for the cook to gather up, like something out of the Kon-Tiki expedition, were visible only as rapidly retreating silver streaks against the waves.

Brown boobies dynamic soaring
Brown boobies dynamic soaring (click to enlarge)
© The Oikofuge, 2016

But the birds were a joy. At sea, boobies hung around the windward side of the ship, using the updraft for some efficient dynamic soaring. Frigate birds were a feature of every harbour along the way, patrolling the shoreline to prey on other seabirds. And in the northern part of our journey, pelicans dived around the ship in harbour, looking very much in danger of breaking their necks with every plummet.

Magnificent Frigatebird
Magnificent Frigatebird (click to enlarge)
© The Boon Companion, 2016

On shore, there were multiple species of humming-bird (infuriatingly difficult to photograph) and lovely little bananaquits patrolling the flowering trees and bushes. Grackles strutted around noisily as if they owned the place, trying to steal food at every opportunity. We were told of a hotel in the Grenadines that supplies diners in its terrace restaurant with water-pistols, to keep the grackles at bay.

Bananaquit
Bananaquit (click to enlarge)
© The Boon Companion, 2016
Purple-Throated Carib
Purple-Throated Carib (click to enlarge)
© The Boon Companion, 2016
Carib Grackle
Carib Grackle (click to enlarge)
© The Oikofuge, 2016

And then there were the fish-eating bats.

I’m just going to write that again: FISH-EATING BATS. Bats that eat fish. I thought it was a joke. How on Earth could a bat in the air echolocate fish in the water, when the abrupt density change at the water surface is strongly reflective of sound? It turns out they look for the particular sort of ripples on the surface that are generated by fish, and then swoop down to drag their feet through the water at that location. Whenever the ship was anchored, attracting fish to its lights, Greater Bulldog Bats would flit around us at the edge of visibility.

Green Iguana
Green Iguana (click to enlarge)
© The Boon Companion, 2016
SCENERY
St Eustatius
St Eustatius (click to enlarge)
© The Boon Companion, 2016

Many of these islands are volcanic in origin, so there are volcanic landscapes all around—from big cones sticking up into the sky to jagged remnants of old calderas. And we’re in the coral latitudes, so there are reefs everywhere, with their associated white beaches and shallow blue lagoons. The big mountains catch the clouds, producing high rain forests and fertile lower slopes, so there’s a lot of greenery. It’s all very … um … well, Caribbean. You know what it looks like. I’ll move on.

The Pitons, St Lucia
The Pitons, St Lucia (click to enlarge)
© The Boon Companion, 2016
Beach and ship
Click to enlarge
© The Boon Companion, 2016
HISTORY

The history is simultaneously complicated and simple. Complicated, because these poor islands were handed off endlessly between various colonial empires—St Lucia changed hands 14 times between the British and the French, for instance. Simple, because there were two dominant themes almost everywhere—slavery and sugar. (In a previous post, I’ve already reviewed Carrie Gibson’s Empire’s Crossroads, which is a compact history of the region. It does the big themes well, but tends to concentrate on the detail of only the larger islands.)

Everywhere you go by ship, the naval history of the region is on display—there doesn’t seem to be a harbour anywhere without the ruin of a fort, gun emplacement or signal station on the skyline.

Saba from Brimstone Hill Fortress, St Kitts
St Eustatius from Brimstone Hill Fortress, St Kitts (click to enlarge)
© The Boon Companion, 2016
English Harbour, Antigua
English Harbour, Antigua, from Shirley Heights fortification (click to enlarge)
© The Boon Companion, 2016

And then there’s HMS Diamond Rock—a 175-metre-high sea-stack, garrisoned by the Royal Navy in 1804, and armed with several batteries of cannon to control the sea approaches to the French island of Martinique. For the purposes of supply and pay the navy had to administer it as if it were a ship, so they commissioned the rock as a sloop-of-war.

Diamond Rock
Diamond Rock (click to enlarge)
© The Boon Companion, 2016
SUNSETS
Dusk on deck
Click to enlarge
© The Boon Companion, 2016

Sunset is a marvellous time in the Caribbean. The long streets of fairweather cumulus that form during the day are at their most active, visibility is often good, and a western sea horizon is usually easy to find. The Boon Companion and I quickly evolved a private sunset ritual—we’d find ourselves a convenient vantage point at the ship’s rail, drag up a couple of chairs and a small table, position the necessary equipment easily to hand (a camera and a Kir Royale for her, a pair of binoculars and a Pisco Sour for me), tip back our chairs, put up our feet … and watch the show.

Caribbean sunset
Click to enlarge
© The Boon Companion, 2016

I’ve already posted about the waterspout that appeared one evening. We had a good supply of crepuscular rays most days, and in ten days with a good sea horizon, I saw a green flash on six occasions. And there were often homeward-bound seabirds passing over the ship on their way to land. On one evening we had a satisfying fly-past of tropicbirds—lovely white creatures with long tail streamers.

SMORGAPHOBIA

Niles: It’s cruise season. She never partakes. She has an absolute terror of buffets.
Frasier: Oh, yes, her legendary “smorgaphobia.”

Frasier, Season 4 Episode 15

Ah well, the food. Breakfast and lunch aboard were buffets, with occasional evening buffets as well. Although the Boon Companion and I have travelled by ship before, it has always been on an “expedition cruising” model—a couple of fixed courses plonked down on a plate in front of you. This was our first encounter with the “endless grazing” approach popular on cruise ships. Which is how I discovered that I suffer from smorgaphobia. *

Wansink and Payne (Obesity 2008; 16(8):1957-60) have established that obese diners tend to sit facing the buffet, and to immediately start serving themselves rather than first surveying what’s available and making a choice. In contrast, my smorgaphobia involves sitting as far away from the buffet as possible, looking steadfastly in the other direction, and only grudgingly approaching it after the initial feeding frenzy has died away. The larger the quantity of food on display, the less hungry I feel. This loss of appetite is compounded by: 1) People who stand around waiting to photograph the food as soon as the buffet display is completed, 2) Long, jostling, plate-clutching queues that form immediately the serving bell rings, 3) People returning from the buffet bearing huge conical mounds of food built from a large serving of everything on display. Sadly, our Caribbean trip was a perfect storm of off-putting buffet behaviour for me, so I was often reduced to nibbling a bit of cheese while gazing out over the rail, “admiring the view” and assuring fellow passengers that I’d be having something else to eat in just a minute. I must be one of the few people ever to have come back from one of these trips a couple of kilograms lighter.

Anyway, our most enjoyable meals were taken when we jumped ship and found a restaurant ashore. In particular, it’s possible that La Creperie in Gustavia saved me from staging a psychotic rampage during the lunch buffet, overturning tables and screaming, “No-one needs this much food!”

So, with a nod to the writers of Frasier, I’d like to propose a word for the sort of gluttony that seems to be induced in some people by the mere sight of a stuffed buffet: a smörgasm.


* You’ll probably have spotted that the word derives from Swedish smörgåsbord, which seems to have rather fallen out of use as a word for buffet meals, and instead found a job as a metaphor for “a wide range of nice options”.

Levison Wood: Walking The Himalayas

Walking The Himalayas cover“You come all this way to see the views and get out of breath? What a strange people you are.”

This is the successor volume to Levison Wood‘s Walking The Nile, which recorded his journey on foot from the source of the Nile to the Mediterranean. It’s a companion to his TV series of the same name on Channel 4.

Walking the Himalayas was always going to be a more nebulous undertaking than walking the Nile. There’s no definite start and end point to the Himalayan range, and no unique line of travel. Wood’s route takes him well south of the mountaineering traverse carried out by Graeme Dingle & Peter Hillary in 1981 (detailed in their book First Across The Roof Of The World, which I’ve reviewed here). Dingle & Hillary’s route linked Kanchenjunga in Sikkim to K2 in Pakistan. Wood covers more of the range, from the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan to Gankhar Puensum in Bhutan, but by travelling at a lower level he avoids much weaving to-and-fro, so he actually covers less distance than Dingle and Hillary—a “mere” 1,700 miles compared to their 3,200 miles.

The book makes a fine companion to the television series. It records much that didn’t make it past the editing process for television, as well as providing space for Wood to give us a little history of the region, as well as some personal reminiscences. If I have a grumble, it’s the way the narrative blithely edits out the intermittent presence of a film crew, and indeed proceeds as if there’s no TV documentary involved at all. For instance, it’s difficult to believe that the “spontaneous” decision to hire a helicopter and fly off to look at Mount Everest didn’t have something to do with the involvement of a film director and producer lurking in the background. But Wood isn’t alone in this sort of thing—Gus Casely-Hayford managed to get right through his book, The Lost Kingdoms Of Africa, without ever mentioning the documentary film crew who were travelling with him.

Wood’s book, in contrast to Dingle and Hillary’s, isn’t really about the mountains at all. Apart from a high col at the start of the journey, and a nameless ridge at the end, he doesn’t do much deliberate  mountain climbing; he walks on roads a lot of the time. Instead, he’s much more interested in the people he meets and the cultures he encounters along the way.

The book gives us all the major incidents that turned up on television—crossing wonky bridges and eroded paths, dealing with tense border guards, wading through crocodile-infested rivers, losing the route on rough ground at nightfall, trekking through the monsoon, evacuating a rapidly flooding camp at dead of night, and of course the near-fatal car crash that interrupted (and very nearly ended) the journey. But we also get to read about Wood’s anxious stay in Kabul before the journey started, holed up in a fortified safe-house under the care of a security consultant. Then there’s his audience with the Dalai Lama, in which the wily old sage quickly identified Wood’s journey as potentially good publicity for the Tibetan cause; and his meeting with the Hindu holy man Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji, whose PA reminded Wood, “Don’t forget to like us on Facebook.” We also get to hear a great deal more about Wood’s longstanding friendship with his Nepali walking companion and guide, Binod Pariyar.

Through it all, Wood comes across as the same cheerful, calm, reasonable person that he seems to be on television. There’s a suggestion in the book that he might have had enough of long-distance walking—but then, there was a suggestion at the start of the book that he’d had enough of long-distance walking. So watch this space, I think.

(Added March 2017: And so it turned out. I’ve now reviewed Wood’s next book, Walking the Americas. Here’s a link to the relevant post.)


Note: For interest, I’ve prepared the map below comparing the route taken by Wood with the earlier traverse by Dingle & Hillary. (Both routes were interrupted by problems with direct border crossings, necessitating detours to official crossing points, but Dingle & Hillary incurred a much bigger gap at the Kashmiri Line of Control.)

Comparison of Himalayan traverses
Comparison of Himalayan traverses by Wood (2015) and Dingle & Hillary (1981)
Click to enlarge
(Original base map)
(Be the first)

Graeme Dingle & Peter Hillary: First Across The Roof Of The World

Cover of First Across the Roof of the WorldWe’ve been watching Levison Wood‘s Channel 4 series Walking the Himalayas. (And I’ve now reviewed his book of the series here.) The Boon Companion and I had to fight down a wave of nostalgia during the second episode, having spent a happy couple of weeks in Kashmir back in the early 80s, albeit followed by a brief admission to an Infectious Diseases hospital for The Oikofuge.

Anyway, Wood’s Himalayan traverse has prompted me to reread an account of the first such expedition. In 1981, mountaineers Graeme Dingle and Peter Hillary followed a rather free-style 5000-kilometre route from Kanchenjunga to K2. They did this “Alpine style”—travelling light and fast, after the fashion of Alpine mountaineers, rather than using the major-expedition style of classic Himalayan mountaineering. It was extremely Alpine-style: they carried only a tent fly-sheet for shelter, bought their food along the way, and generally walked in Adidas trainers (including during many of their glacier ascents and high col crossings). They only dug out the mountaineering kit when they had to venture over 17,000 feet in eastern Nepal. They walked usually with just one companion, and only occasionally hired porters if they were setting off with a large load of newly purchased food. At widely spaced intervals, where there was road access to the route, friends would bring in additional supplies.

Sometimes they ran out of food. Occasionally their trainers fell apart at inconvenient moments. They didn’t have very good maps, and the directions they got from locals were sometimes of poor quality. They tried to stick as close as possible to the spine of the Himalayas without climbing any peaks, so the journey was an endless up-and-down trek across the southern spurs of the big summits, crossing cols between 16,000 and 20,000 feet high. In 300 days of walking, they racked up a jaw-dropping 1.5 million feet of ascent. Their journey was not quite continuous—they couldn’t make legal border crossings in the high mountains between Sikkim and Nepal, or cross the Line of Control in Kashmir, and so were obliged to make detours by bus to official crossing points, and then take up the journey again as close as possible to the other side of the border. (Levison Wood had the same problem.)

It’s pretty clear that they hated each other for most of the journey, often walking separately for long periods, which must have been immense fun for their single travelling companion, a Nepalese-Tibetan mountaineer called Chewang Tashi. They wrote alternate chapters of this book, each apparently making some effort to spare the other’s feelings, so it’s difficult to know quite why there was so much animosity from so early in the journey. At one point Dingle describes some sort of near-mutiny, in which the support team members demand that Hillary step down as overall leader in favour of Dingle, but Hillary makes no reference to this.

Neither is a great stylist, it has to be said—they both overuse the word “mighty” (mighty peaks, mighty rivers, mighty cliffs); some of the “amusing” anecdotes are simply impenetrable; and neither of them can make up his mind whether they are traversing “the Himalaya” or “the Himalayas”. Only one phrase stood out for me in the whole book, and that was Dingle describing the disappointment of being drunk when everyone else is sober: “Unfortunately, the whisky I drank did little to cheer up those that didn’t drink it”. Even more unfortunately, this led him to try cheering everyone up by pretending to be a blind man falling over a cliff. At which point he … um … actually fell over a cliff. The resulting dislocated shoulder and fractured collar-bone put a bit of crimp in his style for the next few weeks.

But it’s a steady narrative that gets you from A to B. There’s unfortunately only so much that can be said about yet another col, another valley, another river—so the story mainly comes alive during encounters with other people; some friendly, some hostile, some local, some foreign.

Hodder & Stoughton produced a lovely hardback for them—it’s well laid out, with plenty of photographs nicely reproduced. For me, Colin Maclaren’s sketch maps should have been printed a bit larger, by turning them sideways on the page, but that’s probably a side-effect of my worsening presbyopia and the low winter sun at this reading. I don’t remember having the slightest problem with the maps when I first read this book in 1982!

So my only real complaint is the alleged typeface on the cover. I know the 70s and 80s weren’t great decades for typography on book covers, but this one really takes the biscuit:

Typeface from First Across The Roof Of The World
A crime against typography

Doesn’t that look more like a ransom note than an effort to produce a “set of glyphs that share common design features”?


Note: For interest, I’ve prepared the map below comparing the route taken by Dingle & Hillary with the later traverse by Wood. (Both routes were interrupted by problems with direct border crossings, necessitating detours to official crossing points, but Dingle & Hillary incurred a much bigger gap at the Kashmiri Line of Control.)

Comparison of Himalayan traverses by Wood and Dingle & Hillary
Comparison of Himalayan traverses by Wood (2015) and Dingle & Hillary (1981)
Click to enlarge
(Original base map)
(Be the first)

Venice

It is a quality of Venice that everybody who sets foot there is impelled to share their experience either by writing about or making pictures of the city.

J.G. Links, Venice For Pleasure

To Venice, in November. Nice time of year for it—the streets are pretty quiet, and that strange pearlescent Venetian light is very noticeable. The poor Venetians were so cold they had been forced to wear outdoor scarves on top of their indoor scarves, to the great detriment of eleganza, but by Scottish standards the weather was somewhere between cool and crisp.

San Giorgio Maggiore
San Giorgio Maggiore
© 2015 The Boon Companion

However, the Boon Companion and I were both nursing stuffy colds and hacking coughs, so we crept around the misty canals as if re-enacting a scene from Death in Venice (but without the runny hair dye and the strangely beautiful boy, obviously).

I’m pleased to report that Venice retains its status as World Capital of People Who Aren’t Looking Where They’re Bloody Going; and, from personal observation, its bid to become Selfie-Stick City of the Year for 2016 looks secure. A determined person equipped with bolt-cutters could do a great deal of good in the area around St Mark’s Square. To paraphrase the well-known Klingon proverb: Four thousand selfie sticks may be cut in a single night, by a man who runs. *

Santa Maria della Salute
Santa Maria della Salute
© 2015 The Boon Companion

Our visit coincided with the Festa della Madonna della Salute on 21 November, so we had the chance to stroll across the temporary pontoon bridge that crosses the south end of the Grand Canal for just four days a year, allowing the procession from St Mark’s Basilica to the Salute to take a short-cut. The proprietors of the Gritti Palace hotel are presumably a little disgruntled about all the people who can peer down into their otherwise secluded canal-side terrace.

Grand Canal
Grand Canal
© 2015 The Boon Companion

Culturally, we almost managed a painting-free visit. We emerged untainted by Tintoretto, unblemished by Bellini, uncontaminated by Canaletto and … um … unassailed by arsy alliteration. Only a pair of tickets for the Peggy Guggenheim Collection prevented us making a clean getaway.

Now, I’m not averse to a bit of Magritte or Giacometti, and there was a rather lovely black granite sculpture by Anish Kapoor, polished to form a couple of concave mirrors:

Anish Kapoor: Untitled, 2007
Anish Kapoor: Untitled, 2007
© 2015 The Boon Companion

But am I the only person who wonders if Mark Rothko wasn’t just having a laugh?

Mark Rothko "Red" 1968
Mark Rothko: “Red”, 1968.
Transcendence of the individual, or having a laugh?

Our other cultural event was a trip to Musica a Palazzo, a three-handed performance of La Traviata taking place in three rooms in the decaying splendour (well, more like decaying decay) of the Palazzo Barbarigo Minotto. After an unpromising start—we walked down a dark alley and were hailed from a lighted courtyard by a young man who hissed “Psst! Signore? Opera?”—this turned out to be immensely good fun. It’s not often you get to be right amongst the performers at an opera.

Burano
Burano
© 2015 The Boon Companion

But mainly we just wandered around. There’s no place like Venice for just wandering around. It’s impossible to be lost for long, given that it’s a small place surrounded by seawater and split by a stonking great canal, and by its very (expensive) nature, there aren’t really any rough neighbourhoods to wander into. Every twist in the street seems to produce a new improbable vista, a decent place to eat, and a building of historical significance.

Torcello
Torcello
© 2015 The Boon Companion

Finally, a puzzle. What is strange about this view of St Mark’s Square?St Mark's Square, 1902


* I need hardly add that the original Klingon is qaStaHvIS wa’ ram loSSaD Hugh SIjlaH qetbogh loD (“Four thousand throats may be cut in a single night, by a man who runs”). There is no Klingon word for “selfie stick”, for obvious reasons.

(Be the first)

J.G. Links: Venice for Pleasure

Front cover of Venice For PleasureNot only the best guide-book to that city ever written, but the best guide-book to any city ever written.

Bernard Levin in The Times

Joseph Gluckstein Links (1904-1997) wrote Venice for Pleasure in 1966, and it is now in its ninth edition. Venice being the city it is, and Links’s interests being what they are, the book doesn’t need much revision from edition to edition, though (as with other Venice guide-books) you’re well advised to ignore any information about vaporetto routes, which change on a yearly, if not seasonal, basis.

Links was an interesting man: a self-taught expert on the artist Canaletto and the history of Venice, he was also  the Queen’s Furrier (who knew there was such a job?), a Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, a regular competitor on the Cresta Run, and once collaborated with Dennis Wheatley in the writing of a popular set of “crime dossier” murder mysteries.

What makes Venice for Pleasure such a rare joy is how lightly Links wears his erudition. Reading the book is like wandering slowly around Venice in the company of a knowledgeable, droll, elderly raconteur. At one moment some piece of art history is being wittily imparted; at the next, we’re being urged to take a seat and have a cup of coffee. For, as Links says, “Generally the first thing to do in Venice is to sit down and have some coffee.”

The book starts with an introductory chapter, dealing with the history of Venice and chatting amiably about the part of the city centred on St Mark’s Square. Then Links takes us through four walking routes which, when combined, cover the major landmarks and art galleries. He is keen that we don’t take his walking routes too seriously, though. He encourages us to dip in and out, deviate if we want to, and under no circumstances to read and walk at the same time. The correct place to read his book, he declares, is while seated at leisure in a trattoria with a decent view:

Comments will therefore be reserved for when we are sitting down and, so far as possible, only the minimum of directions for when we need to get from one place to another. They may even be too minimal and we may get lost. No matter.

That gives you a feel for his narrative style. A fine example of his dead-pan delivery turns up in the Campo S. Margherita:

High up on the house next to the campanile is a statue of S. Margherita herself; the dragon beneath her is the devil in disguise and it is a relief to know that he devoured her but then burst asunder and vanished, leaving Margherita unhurt. It must have been a nasty moment, though.

Finally, I want to give you a longer quote from the book, a story about the painter Veronese, and how he came to paint his Feast at the House of Levi:

It was painted as a Last Supper and Veronese was hauled before the Inquisition, which was sitting for the purpose in a chapel in St. Mark’s. The buffoons, dogs, drunkards and dwarfs in the picture had affronted them but above all it was the Germans they could not stomach. ‘Were you commissioned to paint Germans in this picture?’ they asked. No, answered Veronese, but the picture was very large and there had to be a lot of figures in it. ‘Was it fitting that he should paint Germans at our Lord’s last supper?’ they pressed, and the artist could but answer, ‘No, my lord.’ […] He was given three months in which to correct the picture but he found a less arduous way of satisfying honour all round. He just retitled it Feast at the House of Levi instead of The Last Supper and left in the dogs, drunkards, dwarfs – yes, and even the Germans.

It would have been a pretty riotous Last Supper:

Veronese, "Feast in the House of Levi" 1573.
The offending painting (click to enlarge)

The Germans are in the lower right corner. They’re identifiable as such because they’re soldiers, in uniform. And their presence was particularly offensive to the Inquisition because, after the Reformation in Germany, they were probably Protestant soldiers. But Links doesn’t let such explanatory detail get in the way of a good story, well told.


And now for something completely different …

The whole Veronese/Inquisition dialogue was beautifully lampooned in a sketch written by John Cleese for the 1976 Amnesty International charity concert, A Poke In The Eye (With A Sharp Stick), which later turned up on video as Pleasure At Her Majesty’s. Here’s a later version of the same sketch:

(Be the first)