Sunday, December 8, 2002

Dressed to chill and stripped for action

Dressed to chill and stripped for action

Having bundled up warm to explore Lapland's cold winter landscape, Jeremy Atiyah finds himself naked in the snow

Published: 08 December 2002

The whole point of Finnish Lapland (I thought) was its purity and innocence and virginity and freedom from human pollution. But flying up from Helsinki to Kittila in the depths of winter, I am alarmed to find the plane packed with hundreds of tourists. Japanese men in the seats behind me are knocking back shots of vodka. Perhaps Lapland will be like Russia, except tiny and weak, rather than huge and menacing.

Anyway, this holiday (I have been told) is for people who like being outdoors in the snow, but who do not want to race down hills with competitive people in designer outfits and sunglasses. That is why we have got sedate-sounding activities such as snow-shoeing, cross-country skiing, snow-mobiling, ice- fishing, reindeer-sledging and dog-sledding to get through. And when we have done that, we are going to get naked in saunas, and roll in the snow, and sing karaoke in the hotel bar. That is all. And if after all that I still insist on skiing, then I need not worry: Finnish Lapland does have its mountains.

And unlike the UK, it also has snow. Driving from the airport to the town of Akaslompolo, I notice that every twig and fence-post has created a snow ripple. Snow on a rooftop doubles the height of the house. Pedestrians stepping off the road plunge in up to their crotches. The roads, in fact, resemble bob-sleigh runs: chiselled white cliffs of snow line the route. Fortunately, these roads are not busy. On the one-hour drive from Kittila airport, we encounter two vehicles.

Mind you, I am not hopeful about the alleged purity and innocence of Lapland. In Akaslompolo I was hoping to find a quaint, folksy little village with a close-knit community of housewives in headscarves getting together to discuss the price of reindeer meat. In fact, it is a rather sprawling place. Its population is only 400 but its houses (none of which are quaint) are strung out along the main road. The people who live here tend to be escapees from crowded Helsinki. Tuvo, who runs the hotel and restaurant, tries giving me the impression that his life is an idyllic cycle of wood-chopping and saunas, despite the fact that he seems to be running a big business.

Considering we are in the Arctic, his establishment is surprisingly classy. I see well dressed continentals quaffing Chardonnays and eating reindeer meat and expensive cloudberries. I am told that the best cloudberries are picked in mosquito-infested swamps (their expense originates in the pain of the picker).
But enough on the cultural incongruities of Lapland. The next morning, it is time to hit the snow. Tuvo warns us that we are going on "safari", which means that a strong, brave Finnish man will accompany, guide and entertain us as we go along.

One thing I soon find is that no matter how well dressed I think I am, the Finns want to dress me better. During my visit the weather does not seem particularly cold: daytime temperatures hover between 0 and minus 10. Nonetheless, huge, soft, padded boots and Mika Hakkinen-style overalls are provided to accompany our every activity.

I like these safaris. First is the snowshoeing, which is similar to walking along your local high street, except that the scenery is more picturesque here. Traditional snowshoers looked as though they had tennis rackets on their feet. These days the footwear has elongated itself and acquired an upturned tip. Once suitably clad, we shuffle off into a deep forest, up and down the sides of a steep valley. The activity is barely more strenuous than walking, until I find myself at the bottom of a snow hole looking up at the sky.

Our guide Mika is a little fellow with a pixie face who seems to love snow and trees as other men love houses and pubs. He points out fluffy Siberian jays and elusive snow rabbits and birch trees with tufts of moss hanging from their branches like goats' beards ("nourishment for the reindeer"). Then he causes everyone to stop in their tracks by admitting that his major interest in life is surfing. "It is true," he concedes. "Lapland's surfing community is small and out of touch." Meanwhile, he builds a fire for us and we begin cooking sausages for our tea.

Next it's off on the snowmobiles. These are to Lapland what motor-boats are to Windermere. Noisy, polluting toys which provide pleasure for the user and torment for the non-user in equal measure. It takes me a few exciting minutes to burn through the forest leaving all the hikers in my wake.

Meanwhile, of real reindeer-herding Lapps we see not a sign, except for a man called Hanno with a huge knobbly nose and a comic-book strongman's square chin. According to Mika, he speaks in a strangely accented, peasant-dialect of Finnish. His name card is a piece of engraved fire-wood and he carries a traditional wooden cup and a knife strapped to his belt, next to his mobile phone. But Hanno's business does not involve herding reindeer. His business is giving tourists rides on his reindeer-drawn sledge, as we now prepare to experience for ourselves. It is all over in minutes. Customers sit huddled on the sleigh under a reindeer skin, while the reindeer belts off round a short track through the snow. "Hanno's reindeer is an on-off reindeer," explains Mika. "He runs at top speed, or not at all."

It is the same with the huskies, who we meet the next day. On the husky farm we are greeted by two hulking men in furry waistcoats who (according to Mika) eat, sleep and live with their dogs. The huskies themselves range in appearance from sweet fluffy puppies to wiry wolf-like creatures with fangs and yellow eyes. They are reasonably friendly, except with dogs on other teams, whom they try to maul and kill at the slightest opportunity. And when they feel a ride is in the offing, they set up a barking and a howling to wake the dead.
Driving a husky team is not difficult. The sledges all carry two people: one reclining like royalty, and the other standing behind, ready to jump on to the brake with force at a moment's notice. Once the dogs are unleashed, five to a team, they tear off as fast as their little legs can carry them, hoping to overtake, and perhaps massacre, the team in front. On uphill stretches, the driver is requested to help the dogs by pushing with his feet.

It's all such fun. And to cap it all comes a pre-dinner sauna followed by mandatory naked cavorting in the snow. We won't bother, afterwards, trying to spot the aurora borealis. Instead we'll get drunk and sing karaoke songs. The Finns round here will love us for it.

The Facts

Getting there
Jeremy Atiyah travelled with Inntravel (01653 629010, which offers a seven-night holiday from £640 per person, based on two sharing, including return scheduled flights with Finnair from Heathrow to Kittila via Helsinki and half-board accommodation at the Yllashumina Hotel in Western Lapland, Finland. Alternatively, a three-night break costs from £490 on the same basis. There are reductions available for children aged under 16.

Further information
Finnish Tourist Board (020-7365 2512;

Sunday, November 10, 2002

Northern Soul

Northern Soul

Why, in the whole of North America, did the Russians choose to colonise Unalaska? Jeremy Atiyah (possibly the first tourist here since Captain Cook) discovers the remote islands where hard men enjoy wild surf, snow-topped hills and a very warm welcome from Brenda

Published: 10 November 2002

The last time I set out over the north Pacific, my flight was cancelled owing to "extreme conditions beyond King Salmon". But now here I am again, en route to the island of Unalaska. Any land down there? Luckily, there is. I espy the perfect volcanic cones of Unimak Island emerging through the cloud base. Thus do the Aleutians begin: stepping stones that will span this wild ocean from Alaska to Russian Kamchatka.

The plane is practically empty, of course. Few tourists have made it to Unalaska since a June day in 1778, when Captain Cook, aboard the Discovery, heard the approaching roar of breakers through the fog. No one but a fisherman would bother about these wind- and rain-blasted islands. In fact, the oddest thing about them is that they have their own indigenous people, the Aleuts. Why, 9,000 years ago, when the whole of the north American continent was available for colonisation, did people choose to settle here?

Anyway, settle they did, safe and splendidly isolated. No trees grow on islands like Unalaska, but the Aleuts found driftwood aplenty and other building materials, including whalebone, grass and sand. And by the time the white man arrived, 9,000 years later, the Aleuts were paddling about in nimble, unsinkable little boats called baidakas, built from driftwood frames and stretched sea lion skins. Not only had these ingenious people designed the parka (the original version of this waterproof garment, made from finely sewn strips of seal gut), but they had also devised a means for sealing themselves into the hatches of their baidakas with spray skirts, so that these could not fill with water. In peaked caps that kept the rain out of their eyes, men spent their days hunting birds, seals, sea lions, walruses and whales, while women maintained semi-subterranean sod-covered homes.

There were 20,000 of these rain-proof Aleuts living on the islands when gangs of wild Russian Cossacks finally began floating in from Kamchatka in the mid-18th century. And even now, the thought of the Russian-Aleut encounter makes me depressed. What (I ask myself) did those fur-grubbing, land-lubbing Russians think they were doing, setting out across the stormy Pacific, when they could have stayed at home, hunting sable in the forests of Siberia?

"The Tsar is far away and God is high above," Cossacks declared to one another. Restraint was thrown aside. With guns and ammunition, they promptly made war on the Aleuts, enslaving many, harnessing their hunting skills and agility at sea, for the purpose of procuring the furs of as many sea otters as possible.

We drop into the clouds. By the time we emerge into visibility, we seem to be almost at sea level. In fact, goddamnit, we are almost in the sea. Only at the last moment do cliffs and brown hills wobble into view. We dodge them. Then, before I can say "might is right" we have landed, and are braking uncommonly hard. So, this is America's number one commercial fishing port? It is raining, of course. The airport is the size of a bus stop. It is a half-mile walk into town and through the grey, watery wind, I spy a large red-roofed building resembling a block of flats on the tundra. "That's it, the Grand Delusion Hotel," says the only taxi driver, stretching to shake my hand. "Welcome, my friend, to Unalaska!" He pronounces Un-alaska like "Un-thinkable" or "Un-bearable". He then mentions that rooms at the Grand Aleutian Hotel cost $180 a night and that I might consider Brenda's bunkhouse instead.
I will not regret this. Brenda is a lovely bosomy lady from Michigan whose aim in life is to make the hardest men on the globe feel warm and comfortable inside. She does this by sitting them down in her roomy kitchen and frying sausages and baking cookies for them. "A tourist?" roars one man, from his plate, when she introduces me to the group. "Hell! What did you do? Stick a pin in the map, and miss?"
The clients in Brenda's bunkhouse are not only thousands of miles from home, but also involved in dangerous professions such as fishing or the cleaning of oil spills. "I like it here with them 'cause it's safer than Seattle," Brenda tells me, firmly, later on. She was frying eggs for 10 at the time. After some brief chat, which ranges through bear attacks, gunfights, plane crashes and drownings, I take a walk across the island, though the gloom, into the city of Unalaska (population 4,000).

I'm rubbing my eyes as I go. Is there something wrong? All colours other than grey and brown have vanished from the world. (Perhaps it happened when the Russians arrived.) Unalaska rises from grey surf on one side, and sinks into grey surf on the other. Snow-covered hillocks gleam white through black clouds. Monochrome, bald-headed eagles sit about on the sides of trucks and on the tops of lamp poles, while seals frolic in the shallows. I can't help feeling that I may be the first Englishman to walk this island since Captain Cook.

Which brings me to that travelling superman. In him, of course, the ice and storms of the north Pacific inspired no fear. He first made it to Unalaska one day near the end of June in 1778; he had recently discovered Hawaii, and was now searching for the north-west passage to Europe. But having weighed anchor at this unknown island to replenish his water stocks, Cook and his men were surprised to be approached by an "Indian" wearing an undergarment of sewn, feathered bird-skins, trying to cadge a quid of tobacco and a pinch of snuff.

Cook was not used to arriving on remote islands already tainted by European vices: the Russians, it seemed, had got here first. But he was soon enamoured of the native Aleuts of Unalaska. He declared that they were "the most peaceable inoffensive people I ever met with, and as to honesty, they might serve as a pattern to the most civilised nation on earth". (I find it regrettable that he later attributed these positive qualities to their "connection with, or rather, subjection to, the Russians".)

Cook's ships then spent some days at anchor in foggy weather, surrounded by cheerful traders in canoes. As I now learn, glancing through the journal of David Samwell (the surgeon of the Discovery), this proved an enjoyable time for the men. Soon after their arrival, Samwell noted, it was discovered that the local women were "handsome in their persons" and could easily be purchased by a few leaves of tobacco. Some of the crew even took time to visit the underground homes of the Aleuts on Unalaska, in the manner of a royal visit. "The houses," wrote Samwell, "were not to be seen, until we came close upon them. Then we were much surprised at finding small hillocks of earth and dirt scattered here and there with a hole in the top of them, through which we descended down a ladder ... into a dark and dirty cave seemingly underground, where our noses were instantly saluted with a potent stink of putrid fish."

Of abominable stenches or filth (of any kind) there is little evidence in 21st-century Unalaska. I look in vain for such houses as those described by Samwell. Instead, in the darkness, I see clapboard homes, city offices, a bank, a supermarket, a library, a high school, even a Greek restaurant run by an exile from Crete. Only later, in the incessant rain, when I drop in at the town bar, do I find anything faintly subterranean. Inside the Elbow Room, 10 crab fishermen are being kept in line by two blonde female bartenders resembling lion tamers.

"We're tough bastards," one of the fishermen says in my ear, apologetically. He has a jutting beard that seems to have blown up on to his nose and stuck there. "We got more friends dead than alive."
"Settle down!" shouts one of the bartenders. "Settle down! One more false move from you and you are Out!"

Not until the next morning do I finally come across a real, living Aleut. She is an 18-year-old girl who works in the Unalaska tourist office. She speaks like an American but her features are distinctly east Asian.

"You are genuine?" I gasp.
"Oh well, yeah ..." she smiles, as if recalling a fond family memory, "... but you know those early Russians, they like, made it, with the Aleut women? So today we're all mixed up."

The Aleuts turn out to have a surprisingly soft spot for mother Russia. Partly this is because Washington's record as a colonial master has been no better than that of the Tsars. (In 1942 the Aleuts were evacuated en masse to mainland north America; only with great difficulty did any of them ever make it back.) But the main reason is this: that long before being sold to the US in 1867, the Aleuts converted to the Russian Orthodox Church. Today, the dominant sight in the tiny harbour is the green onion dome of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Ascension, usually bedecked with eagles. Another grey day is fizzling out. I drop in on the local museum, to the shock of the curators who come running to unlock the door, panting, "Well, it's usually kinda quiet at this time of year ..." But there's one thing I have got to see: the sketch by Cook's official artist, John Webber, entitled Woman of Ounalashka.

We have a vivid description of that pleasant July afternoon in 1778, when Webber originally made this sketch, all because the hard-bitten travelling surgeon David Samwell seemed to fall in love on the spot. The woman whom Webber was drawing, he declared, was not only "very beautiful" and "altogether very prettily dressed", but "we were all charmed with the good nature and affability with which she complied with our wishes in staying to have her picture drawn, and with what readiness she stood up or sat down according as she was desired, seeming very much pleased in having an opportunity to oblige us. She was withal very communicative and intelligent ...".

And here she is now, in front of me, smiling and intelligent, her hair curled deftly forward, her lips and chin ornamented with walrus-teeth piercings. I consider the wanderings of this sketch, from the Aleutian islands, via Hawaii, Kamchatka, south China, Java, the Cape of Good Hope and back to London, where it was shown to King George III. Neither Samwell nor Webber could have dreamt that the Woman of Unalaska would one day be returned to her point of creation: a treeless island deep in the north Pacific, sodden with constant wind and rain.

The Facts

Getting there
Alaska Airlines flies daily from Anchorage to Dutch Harbor, Unalaska, weather permitting. Standard tickets are extremely expensive, but Jeremy Atiyah used an Alaska Airlines Best of the West air-pass. To qualify for the pass, you must be resident outside the US, and need to purchase only between two and 10 flight coupons. You do not need to purchase the international leg of your journey at the same time. Coupons for internal Alaska flights cost $109 (£70) each, and flights between Alaska and mainland US cost $169 (£108).

Jeremy thus flew Los Angeles to Anchorage to Dutch Harbor for $556 (£356) return, which is by far the most economical way of reaching the island, or any other remote part of Alaska. The airline's agent in the UK, which sells these tickets, is Offline Marketing (01992 441517).

Otherwise, from April to October only, there is the monthly AMHS ferry that sails from Kodiak Island to Unalaska. The trip takes two and a half days, costing about $200 (£128) one way without a cabin(001 907 4653941;

Jeremy travelled fromthe UK to Los Angeles as a guest of British Airways (0845 7733377). Prices drop below £300 return off-season.

Being there
On Unalaska, comfortable accommodation, with shared bathrooms, is available at Brenda's Bunkhouse, more formally known as Amaknak Camp, for $60 (£38) per person per night; homely and inexpensive meals are also served, in the company of hard oil workers and fishermen. Alternatively, try the far more expensive Grand Aleutian Hotel (001 907 5813844) which offers rooms from $175 (£112) per night.

Further information
Unalaska/Port of Dutch Harbor Convention and Visitors Bureau, PO Box 545, Unalaska, Alaska 99685 (001 907 581 2612; updhcvb@

Saturday, September 28, 2002

Strangers in Paradise

Strangers in Paradise

In 1778, Captain Cook and his crew were the first white men to arrive on the island playground of Hawaii. Natives rushed to greet them, and feted Cook as a god. But then it all began to go wrong. Jeremy Atiyah visits the spot where England's great seafarer was murdered

Published: 28 September 2002

Who would fly all the way to Hawaii, just for a holiday? You would? But imagine rowing there. No, make it harder. Imagine rowing randomly around the Pacific in the hope of hitting Hawaii, when you didn't know where it was or even if it existed at all... More of those difficulties later. Right now, in the lobby of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, in the year 2002, I am staring through the open hallway on to an electric-blue surf, framed by coconut palms. This is Waikiki, on the island of Oahu. I have finally reached the holiday paradise of the world. Ah yes, surfing. Now there's one thing I do know something about – from the history books, that is. And now I come to think of it, here in my pocket is the journal of David Samwell, the surgeon on Captain Cook's Discovery, describing Hawaii as first witnessed by the white man, 224 years ago.

In fact, Samwell's very sensible response to surfing was to have a panic-attack. He gasped in horror at laughing Hawaiian children carrying boards into "such a tremendous wave that we should have judged it impossible for any human being to live in it". Doubting the evidence of his own eyes, he described their reactions to an approaching wave, how "they get themselves in readiness and... suffer themselves to be involved in it, and then manage so as to get just before it, or rather, on the slant or declivity of the surf...", being driven along, on their boards, "with an incredible swiftness to the shore".

But where was I? Oh, my Waikiki experience. In fact it is turning out surprisingly pleasant. It is basically the beach suburb attached to Honolulu, capital of the state of Hawaii. But contrary to expectations, the place is not roaring with traffic. On one side loom the rainy mountains; on the other, stretches the sunny sea. The streets are clean and leafy. At dusk I sit at outdoor Asian noodle bars to watch free hula performances and listen to the wind in the palm trees. There is no oafish drunkenness.

Perfect cooling showers fall. Pale Japanese couples hold hands in silence, as if grateful to God that their happiness has not yet been terminated by tidal waves. Naked, flower-wreathed maidens smile at me from every corner.

Actually that last item is untrue. But it makes little difference – I am not looking for pleasure anyway. I'm in Hawaii to look for traces of ancient history.

Which is why I am now in central Honolulu in a tropical downpour staring at the statue of a man in a gold coat and the helmet of a Homeric hero. Two hundred years ago there was no man alive like him, except Napoleon Bonaparte. This was a man who emerged from the Stone Age to meet, and perhaps eat parts of, Captain Cook. His name was Kamehameha the Great.

"Of a clownish and blackguard appearance," was how David Samwell recalled him; "as savage a looking face as I ever saw" was the memory of Cook's 2nd lieutenant, James King. But after their visit, this was the man who spent the next 40 years conquering and then ruling Hawaii. And eventually he would metamorphose into the kindly, taciturn old soul who sat on the quayside waiting for foreigners to turn up so that he could be nice to them.

See? How can I lie on a beach, with a character like that to research? And in such a mood, I make my other assignment on this island: driving the Pali highway, into the middle of Oahu.

Up this valley came a bellicose King Kamehameha in 1792, chasing his enemies. Up the baddies came, and over this cliff they plunged. I stand now, looking from the island's central ridge, on to the north shore of Oahu. It's another world down there: dark, glowering and dripping wet. To one side, jagged black mountains and pinnacles disappear into the gloaming. Before me, shafts of light fall through black clouds making luminous green pools on the plain.

What a splendid place to be pursued to one's death, I tell myself, hurrying back to the airport afterwards. My watch has been ticking: my own pursuit of Kamehameha must now fly me east.
The Big Island, they call my next destination, because it's big. And as soon as I land, in what seems to be a volcano-blasted wilderness, I am off again, driving around, looking at half-forgotten ancient platforms of water-worn lava stones on empty coves. My guide here is a Russian naval officer, Otto von Kotzebue, who cruised this coast in the year 1816. The desolate north-eastern part of the island, Kotzebue also noted, was indeed covered in uninviting masses of lava.

But where was Kamehameha? Kotzebue continued south, past better lands which now offered "green fields and many dwellings shaded by banana and palm trees". Eventually he reached Kailua, where he and his crew found themselves "in a small sandy bay on the smoothest water... on the bank was a pleasant wood of palm trees under whose shade were built several straw houses... To the left close to the water stood the temple-platform of the king, surrounded by large wooden statues of the gods..."
This was where Kamehameha often sat in his house of sugarcane thatch, watching the mountain, the sea, and his favourite temple: a temple, which, in the wisdom of age, he had dedicated to peace and prosperity.

Things look vaguely similar today. Driving south, I too pass fields of whorled black lava that remind me of the world's biggest cowpat. Now I'm coming to leafy Kailua, where violent surf is pounding against the seawall, and where the whole world seems to be lying on a slope, tipped from volcano to sea. Kids, as usual, are throwing themselves into the rattling waves.

But here, on the edge of town, a few minutes walk from the centre, is Kamakahonu, the beach beside which Kamehameha lived for the last years of his life. This was where Kotzebue finally found him, sitting beside his warehouse and his fish ponds.

I try to picture this encounter of 186 years ago. As the Russian vessel approached, Kamehameha, sometimes in a loincloth, but today wearing pantaloons, would have stepped on to his platformed canoe. Seated on a gun-chest, with his hand on a silver sword, and surrounded by feather-cloaked chiefs and courtiers, he would have been canoed towards the visitors. Later, his corpulent queens would have lolled on deck, while he got down to business and politics.

The aristocratic Kotzebue seems to have been deeply impressed by Kamehameha in his "straw palace" with its "neatly made" chairs and tables. Great order prevailed around the king, he later recalled, and there was "no noise or importunity". The king may have had a "slovenly" and "disgusting" manner of eating, but he did treat Kotzebue to some good wine. Later he even introduced his guest to the large royal ladies, who were smoking tobacco, combing their hair, driving away the flies with fans, and eating. Naked sentinels stood about, as well as chiefs in ill-fitting black frocks. Meanwhile, Kotzebue's onboard artist, Louis Choris, set to work painting: the result of his day's work shows Kamehameha dignified and intelligent in old age, with a sophisticated streak of white through his hair.

Today, I find the old lava-stone temple being thwacked by massive waves. Visitors are not permitted on the platform, but from the beach I see ominous and grotesque wooden statues reaching for the heavens – less than 20 yards from where Americans are innocently sunbathing.

"These are our gods I worship," Kamehameha told Kotzebue, back then, turning to embrace his statues. "Whether I do right or wrong I do not know; but I follow my faith, which cannot be wicked, as it commands me never to do wrong."

And on that profound note, I decide to get going. The clouds are getting darker, and I still have to get to Kealakekua Bay.

This trip will take me another hour south along the winding coastal road. When I finally make it, I find sinister cliffs, bristling with brown grass. This was the place where Cook and his men spent much of their time during that fateful first encounter between the white man and the native Hawaiians.

Saturday, August 10, 2002

An explorer's leap of faith

An explorer's leap of faith

There must be something out there, thought Henry the Navigator as he gazed out to sea from the tip of Portugal in the 15th century. His determination to discover new lands led to the birth of a great empire,

By Jeremy Atiyah

Published: 10 August 2002

The End of the World is an odd place to start a journey. But that's exactly what the Portuguese always called it: O fim do mundo. It's the last corner of mainland Europe, the last cliff of the last headland of the last cape; the last place you would run to, the last place you could hide, before falling off the edge of the continent. It was Henry the Navigator who first concluded that there might be something beyond this edge. God knows what he had in mind. As far as I can see, this is the end of the world. A steely hot sea surrounds me on all sides. I'm squinting, but there's definitely no land in sight to tempt me over that horizon, no kingdoms rich in gold, no spice islands, no fragrant coasts. 

Madeira, the Azores, Cape Verde and Brazil are allegedly down there, but I can't see them. From where I stand, by the lighthouse, all I can see, a thousand feet below me, are a few swallows swooping about, and what looks like a giant head and shoulders in stone, being slowly pulverised by boiling waves that have thundered here from beyond the equator. Was it perhaps the land around here that inspired Henry? The Cabo de Sao Vicente, this wind-blasted, desolate, naked piece of maquis: a hustle-free world, perfect for surveying, and for dreaming up grand designs?

It might have been back then. The problem about the End of the World today is that it is packed with foreign tourists. This is the Algarve after all. We Dutch, we English, we French, we Germans, we Italians and we Spanish: we are all here, hoping for desolation, hoping for a glimpse of the curiosity and daring that drove Henry the Navigator to look for new worlds.

But now we all seem disappointed. Apart from tourists and stray surfers there is nothing here except nothingness. People are straining to imagine the smell of spices and the creak of rigging and the beat of exotic drums; but instead we see buses and revving cars, trying to manoeuvre on the gravel behind the lighthouse, while a hot-dog stall proclaims, in large letters, the "last sausage before America".

We were never meant to be thinking about sausages here. No doubt we have all seen the statues of the seated, inquisitive Henry, wrapped in a turban-like hat, that dot the Algarve. He was one of the great men of the European Renaissance. He was born before the end of the 14th century, in an age when the English were still in chain-mail suits. His father was the King of Portugal, but he himself showed little interest in the life of the court. Instead he had a vision to enact.

Because it was somewhere here at the Fim do Mundo that Henry, nearly 600 years ago, gathered his knights and priests and shipwrights and geographers and navigators and cartographers, and set them to work to plan the exploration of the world.

Don't be conned by the appended title of Navigator. Henry was no traveller. But he was the most single-minded patron of travel who ever lived. And from right here beneath my feet, his sailors used to sail off down the coast of Africa, with their portable altars and stone crosses, bobbing and floating past the lands of the Moors, on to the river Senegal, the river Gambia and the Cape Verde Islands. By the time of Henry the Navigator's death, a rather less impressive Henry (the Sixth) was still on the throne of England. But Portuguese seafarers had reached Sierra Leone, and possibly the Ivory Coast, scratching inscriptions on the rocks as they went. Under Henry's auspices, the sailing vessel known as the Portuguese caravel had been devised, and the sciences of cartography, navigation, and maritime commerce vastly stimulated.

You'd never guess it now. These terminal cliffs and headlands do not look as though they have made any kind of contribution to European civilisation. In the solar blitz of afternoon, when the Dutch and the Germans and the Italians have retired to umbrellas on the beach, I retreat to the tiny town of Sagres: the last place in the world but one. The wind rustles through bamboos and prickly pear bushes. I sit in a silent, hot bar, beside two drunks, watching TV; the pistachio-chewing bartender, who seems to be on the point of tears, in regret for his paunch, does not seem blessed by the spirit of Henry the Navigator. I suspect that very little has happened here, beyond the buzzing of flies, since the discovery of Brazil.

Before leaving Sagres, there's only one thing I need to see: the fortress on the edge of town. From the outside, looms a massive, silent wall of white, hot stone. Inside, on another of the headlands once occupied by Henry and his world-conquerors, I wander the scrub, sniffing the thyme and wild garlic. On these pathways (I am told) Henry contemplated the exploration of Africa and the sea route to India; he considered the means by which Christian Europe would gradually outflank the power of Islam; he took the first steps in the 500-year-long journey that would eventually lead to the Europeanisation of virtually the entire planet. Today, it's me and the Germans, wandering around in the heat, looking for things to do.

And that's the trouble about this place. You can't help asking yourself the question: what has Portugal done with itself in the centuries since Henry the Navigator set his ball of exploration rolling?
It worries me that the essence of this country may have disappeared off the edge of the Fim do Mundo several centuries ago. But there is only one way to check. I'll have to leave behind the tourist coaches and surfers and sausages of the Algarve, and head for Lisbon. It is up there, I already know, that Henry's explorations ­ within decades of his death ­ came to their brief fruition. Belem, on the outskirts of the capital, in the mouth of the river Tejo, became the launching point for Portugal's greatest voyages of discovery. If the key to modern Portugal survives anywhere, perhaps I will find it there. These days it's only a few hours by bus. When I get there, I notice that Belem is a step up in class from the Fim do Mundo. In cafés, later, I will eat the quintessential produce of the Portuguese voyages of exploration, dried salt cod from the north Atlantic, peppercorns from Malacca and potatoes from America. And I try to recall those few miraculous years around the dawn of the 16th century, when half the planet was discovered from here, from the first rounding of southern Africa, to the establishment of the sea route to India, to the discoveries of Brazil and the Spice Islands (which is to ignore the voyages of Christopher Columbus, whom the Portuguese king turned down for a job).
Lisbon, back then, became the richest place in Europe, if not the world. Within two decades of Vasco da Gama's epic first voyage to India, the Portuguese held and dominated all the most important sea routes and trading networks of the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf and the South China seas. For those who find this hard to believe in the 21st century, I've just noticed some of the evidence: in one of the great monuments of the European Renaissance, the fabulous monastery of the Jeronimos.

But the monastery, with its exotic cloisters and oriental stonework, only confirms my suspicion, that to be Portuguese is neither more nor less than to dream of other lands. Compulsory reading for Portuguese schoolchildren over the past 400 years has been The Lusiads by Luis Vaz de Camoes, the first European artist to cross the equator and to experience the non-European worlds of Africa and India. Portugal's favourite epic poem culminates in a guided tour of Europe, Africa, the Middle East, India, China and Japan, with the Americas and Antarctica thrown in for good measure. If The Lusiads were my national poem, I would love it too.

A ship's hooter disturbs the morning calm; ferries and speedboats will soon be crowding the river. Right now the tourist industry of Belem is setting up stall: girls are putting out tiles and cheese boards and trays and keyrings and pieces of lacy cloth. The vendors are Angolan, Mozambican, Brazilian. After reading The Lusiads, it is easier to see that contemporary Portugal is little more than a distant reflection of its own lost empire.

I crane my neck to stare to the west, past the mocked-up fortress of the ornamental Torre de Belem, towards the mouth of the river, towards the sea. From here, heroes in tiny ships were glad to point their prows into the wind. In the distance, I can just see the seductive crash of breakers.

Moments later, still on the waterfront, I find myself walking across a map of Portugal's maritime empire in pink marble, highlighting her colonial possessions in the Americas, Africa and Asia. Above me, in the sunshine, looms the "monument to the explorers", erected in 1960, on the 500th anniversary of Henry the Navigator's death. Kings and missionaries and kneeling princes and artists and scientists are depicted ascending a slab in Henry's wake.

What does this procession of Portuguese imperialists mean? It is in fact a monument of fascism. It is also slightly grimy and dated, like a 1960s housing project, overlooking the far bank of the Tejo, with its power plants and rotted silos and rusty freighters. And yet the Portuguese seem proud of it. A Picasso lookalike, without a shirt, has come wobbling up on a bicycle. Others follow, on foot, in sunglasses and pale jackets. These, it occurs to me, are the descendants of those left behind by the explorers; the ones who never learnt the use of quadrants, globes, charts, astrolabes, anchors or swords. Somehow I pity them for it. But I can also see that displays of colonial pride are perfectly inoffensive, when the empire in question is so palpably in ruins.

Travellers' guide

Getting there: plenty of flights operate between the UK and Faro, the closest airport to the "end of the world". Fares over the August bank holiday are likely to be high. Going out on Thursday, 22 August, returning on Tuesday, 27 August, Go (0870 60 76543, is quoting £203 return from Stansted and £283 from East Midlands. From Faro, you can take a train to the end of the line at Lagos, and buses west from there. To Lisbon, British Airways (0845 77 333 77, and TAP Air Portugal (, 08457 581 566) fly from both Heathrow and Gatwick. Fares for travel over the August bank holiday start at £270 return with TAP Air Portugal, and £210 with British Airways if you return on Monday 26 August. On the same dates, Portugalia (08707 550 025, flies from Manchester with a fare of £270. Several buses serve Lisbon airport, including the minibus shuttles (numbers 44/45) that run every 20 minutes to the centre of town.

More information: Portuguese National Tourist Office, 22/25a Sackville Street, London W1S 3LY (; don't call the premium-rate number, 09063 640610 (60p a minute) unless you want to spend a fortune on not-very-useful information.

Sunday, June 30, 2002

USA Independence Day Special: American Beauty

USA Independence Day Special: American Beauty

My new-found land: Discover Manhattan's hidden bars and New Englands shopping secrets. Daring to explore Los Angleses on foot and visiting a shrine to the Deep South's great romantic heronine.

By Jeremy Atiyah

Published: 30 June 2002

When it comes to San Francisco, Americans are unanimous. It is urbanity itself. It is handsome, worldly, cosmopolitan, cool and sophisticated. With those precipitous streets and terraced houses, those trams, bridges and ocean views, it effortlessly transcends all other world cities. The residents of San Francisco, according to this important sub-clause in the American dream, are uniquely fortunate, liberal and civilised human beings, enjoying the best music, art, food, wine (and real estate prices) on the planet.

A miracle? It seems like it, when you consider that most of San Francisco was built in a scrambling hurry, by people who had just arrived from the Wild West. I'm here on a fresh sunny day, in shirtsleeves, eating elegantly on a pavement, being served by a waitress who probably has a PhD from Berkeley. The notion that this lightly grilled tuna and that glass of chardonnay owe anything to the gun-toting, railway-building, Indian-killing, racoon-hat-wearing men of the prairies is clearly an absurdity. This city must have other origins. No citizen of Europe need find these hard to discern.

There is no mystery about this. After all, Europeans colonised this coast before the Americans did. Nor did it happen very long ago. As recently as 6 November 1769, in fact, did Gaspar de Portola of Spain find himself looking down from a neighbouring hilltop on to a bay the size of an inland sea. "We halted," he later recalled, of that blessed discovery, "in a level place, thickly grown with oak trees, having many lagoons and swamps."

He and his men spent the subsequent night encamped, surrounded by reeds, brambles and roses. And the next day in the morning they were sensible enough to annex this goodly harbour for Spain. They did so by erecting a cross on the southern side of its entrance – an entrance that would later become known as the Golden Gate. Which is where I am now, on a warm afternoon, looking at clipped lawns and trees and American flags and redbrick houses. Before being designated as parkland in 1994, this area was one of the most scenic army stations in the United States, but San Franciscans have only ever called it the Presidio.

Because here it is, right beneath these manicured lawns and pavements and shiny cars: the foundations of the Presidio itself, that is to say, of Spain's northernmost garrison in the New World. In 1993, archaeologists unearthed the remains of 5ft-thick adobe walls. I call it the proof, if any were needed, that San Francisco does have a history pre-dating Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead. The British too were here. Their first ship to enter San Francisco – under George Vancouver – arrived in the autumn of 1792. After waking up on his first morning to catch a pleasingly English glimpse of cattle and sheep grazing, Vancouver himself opined that this was "as fine a port as the world affords".

Not that the Spanish Presidio amounted to much back then. "What was pompously called by this name, had but a mean appearance," scoffed Vancouver's botanist, later. And Vancouver himself admitted that he had been expecting an actual city, before instead being shown "a square area, 200 yards in length, enclosed by a mud wall and resembling a pound for cattle".

In fact the original Spanish Presidio contained a church, royal offices, warehouses, a guardhouse and houses for soldiers and settlers. But the buildings and furniture, being "of the rudest fashion and of the meanest kind", hardly accorded with the ideas conceived by thrusting British explorers, "of the sumptuous manner in which the Spaniards live on this side of the globe". And it was laughably ill-defended. In short, summarised Vancouver, "instead of finding a country tolerably well inhabited and far advanced in cultivation ... there is not an object to indicate the most remote connection with any civilised nation". I just wish he had known what history had in store. What place has changed so much, so quickly, as California in the past 200 years?

In Vancouver's day, even places such as the pueblo of San Jose, on the southern fringe of San Francisco Bay, or Los Angeles further down towards Mexico, contained only 100 or 200 people, and otherwise comprised fruit trees, vines and gardens. George Vancouver had little clue that this coast would soon become the economic and cultural juggernaut of the world, home to beatniks, hippies, gays and dotcom millionaires. From where I am standing, I see the massive red supports of the Golden Gate Bridge; joggers in designer apparel padding the shoreline; vast highways funnelling distant traffic; aeroplanes cruising the skies; the Transamerica Pyramid twinkling from downtown. Everything around me has been imported, assembled, collected and constructed –in almost no time at all. Not even the natural environment seems to have been exempt from this process. Now it is wooded, but none of these grand old eucalyptus, cypress or pine trees turns out to be indigenous. When the Spanish arrived 200 years ago they found the shore overlaid by sand dunes, with grass and a few oak trees dotting the edges. Marshes along the shore attracted seagulls and pelicans, a few deer and the odd mountain lion or grizzly bear. Visitors described the land south of the Golden Gate as windswept and barren. Could a visitor from the 1790s, I ask myself, recognise anything of the modern city at all?

As if in answer, a bank of ocean cloud suddenly blots out the sunshine. Perhaps this is the one point of continuity. The notoriously clammy and bone-chilling coastal fog of the San Franciscan summer.
It was certainly the fog that drove most of the Spanish settlers inland. I already know where they ended up: not here by the Presidio, but a couple of miles away, across the peninsula, where the weather was better, at the Mission Dolores. And this is where I am going now.

The mission, alongside the Presidio, represented the other essential pillar of the Spanish occupation of California. Its function was to house monks, whose task was to convert native Americans up and down this coast. I am delighted to note that the relevant district of San Francisco still goes by the name of Mission. I'll get there from the Presidio by bus. Two centuries ago, travellers covered the same ground on horseback.

The journey, either way, takes around an hour, though for Vancouver the ride "was rendered unpleasant, by the soil being very loose and sandy, and by the road being much incommoded with low grovelling bushes". According to a Russian visitor, "Above half the road was sandy and mountainous. Only a few small shrubs here and there diversified the barren hills." Those barren hills, of course, now go by such names as Pacific Heights, Nob Hill and the Haight, and are best crossed by cable car.
Meanwhile, I'm reaching the Mission Dolores. Stepping inside the chapel I confess to intense feelings of disorientation. Is this the same land that has given the world Hollywood and the silicon chip? It turns out, in fact, that the Spanish missionaries had an excellent sense of timing: they reached this spot in the week in which American Independence was being declared on the other side of the continent. Today, the thick, whitewashed walls and heavy roof tiles of San Francisco's first building still present a startling image of an alternative America. Its cool floor tiles, saints, candles and Mexican altars astonish me as they astonished George Vancouver 210 years ago. He was dumbfounded by "its magnitude, architecture and internal decorations"; I'm dumbfounded that it exists at all.

And there's more. Later, from 18th-century drawings inside the mission buildings, I will see how this chapel once overlooked meandering streams, hills, Indian reed huts, and a scattering of animals at pasture. I look again, and gulp. Right outside this building, at pavement tables, people are consuming cranberry juice and bagels with smoked salmon for breakfast. Here in the gloom I am peering at sketches of Indians emerging from the reeds, handing gifts of fish and acorns to priests, with a hazy sun rising from behind the Oakland hills.

Whose vision of paradise is this? Not Vancouver's. In his mean-spirited view, the natives here were "a race of the most miserable beings possessing the faculty of human reason, I ever saw". They were "ill-made" and their "ugly" faces presented a "dull, heavy and stupid countenance". Their houses were "abominably infested with every kind of filth and nastiness".

But by most other accounts the Spanish monks and Indian hunter-gatherers of San Francisco lived agreeably together, off Mexican corn and chillis and native acorns and fish. A German naturalist who visited in 1806 was amazed to note that the Indian converts "three times a day ... get a measure of soup of meat, pulse and vegetables, about three English pints in size". And he himself did even better, stuffing himself on a "dinner of soup, roasted fowls, leg of mutton, vegetables salad, pastry, preserved fruit". The wine and tea – regrettably – were only of middling quality, but that was compensated for "by super-excellent chocolate".

Such were the charms of Spanish California. Don't expect any drama to this story, though: we know how it ended. After its first 100 years, the Mission Dolores was already ruinous and crumbling, overgrown with fig trees and wild flowers. Today, I find its cemetery in a ramshackle state, with roses and lupins sprouting in the long grass, amid stones marking the graves of Italian, Irish and English, as well as Spanish, Catholics. I pause at the forgotten obelisk of Don Luis Antonio Arguello, "the first governor of Mexican California", then step outside to find a bearded dropout with a supermarket trolley, flogging a spare tyre, a pot plant and a pile of pamphlets. "And," he exclaims to me, lifting out a polystyrene box, "the most beautiful mould of Jesus I've ever seen. Wanna look?"

No thanks, I tell him, speeding up to overtake. Yes, the enterprising Americans got here eventually. It was they who built this impossibly picturesque city, after all, competing to set up farms, chop down trees, build sawmills, open workshops and pan for gold – but without ever quite forgetting the spirit of the place.

Or so it seems to me. And with this in mind, I decide to stop at one of those pavement cafés to order a dish of angel-hair pasta with sun-dried tomatoes and fresh basil. Over dinner, at sunset by the old Spanish Mission, I will take time to reflect a little more on the origins of the world's most wonderful city.

The Facts

Getting there
Jeremy Atiyah flew courtesy of American Airlines (0845 606 0461; Return fares in July from Heathrow via JFK in New York cost £565 including tax. The fare drops to £498.20 in September. Cheaper fares may be available through discount agents such as Quest Worldwide (020-8546 6000).

Being there
Jeremy Atiyah stayed at the Four Seasons Hotel on Market Street near Union Square. Double rooms at the hotel cost from $469 (£321) per room per night.
A special introductory rate of $369 is available from now until 31 December, subject to availability (00800 6488 6488;

A cheaper alternative could be the atmospheric Archbishop's Mansion (001 415 563 7872; which overlooks the historic Alamo Square, home to San Francisco's famous "painted ladies", terraces of brightly decorated Victorian houses. Double rooms start from $195. Visit for more information.

Wednesday, June 19, 2002

Hotel Kamp, Helsinki

Hotel Kamp, Helsinki

By Jeremy Atiyah

Published: 19 June 2002

The historic Hotel Kamp in central Helsinki, all sweeping staircases, ballrooms and heated ceramic divans, has, since its renovation in 1999, resumed its role as a solid bastion of European snobbery: a role for which it was designed in the days when the Russian Czars ruled Finland.
Having fallen into a decline after the war, the hotel was demolished in the 1960s and rebuilt as a bank. It was reopened as a hotel in 1999, refurbished to resemble the original in every possible detail.

Location, location, location
Hotel Kamp, Helsinki Pohjoisesplanadi 29, 00100 Helsinki, Finland (00 358 9 576111, Bang in the middle of the city, just off the gardens of Esplanade Park.
Transport: Nothing is very far away in a small city. The train station and the port are within a few minutes' walk. Senate Square is just round the corner.

Time to international airport: A taxi to Helsinki's efficient airport, 19km north of town, will take around 20 minutes and cost about €25/£16.

Are you lying comfortably?
Rooms are large and opulent. Finland is cold for much of the year, so the emphasis is on heavy draperies. Every conceivable extra has been thought of, from mains electricity sockets that accept both US and UK plugs to umbrellas that you can borrow on rainy days. The bathrooms even have heated mirrors. Suites, all individually designed, culminate in the 258 sq m Mannerheim which has a library, sauna, antiques, and dining table for 14.

The bottom line
Standard doubles range from €330 (£210). Better deals can be obtained through a UK short-break specialist such as Inntravel (01653 629010), which offers two nights' B&B from £284 per person, including return scheduled flights.

I'm not paying that: Puhkus, on Vilhonkatu 6B (00 358 9 627437), offers the cheapest centrally located beds in Helsinki: quads without bathroom for €70 (£45) per room, triples from €63 (£40) and doubles from €56 (£36) with shower.

Wednesday, May 22, 2002

Hotel Ritz, Barcelona

Hotel Ritz, Barcelona

By Jeremy Atiyah

Published: 22 May 2002

From the day it opened in 1919, the Hotel Ritz was by far Barcelona's smartest, and most expensive, choice; the kings of Spain and Italy, and the president of the French Republic, all stayed here during the early years.

The very name, the Ritz, conjures up up-market aspirations. From the day it opened in 1919, the Hotel Ritz was by far Barcelona's smartest, and most expensive, choice; the kings of Spain and Italy, and the president of the French Republic, all stayed here during the early years.

Not that it's been all plain sailing. A few days after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, the Ritz was taken over by the trade unions and turned into the "Gastronomic Hotel No.1". A picture of Lenin was hung in the hall and "collective dining rooms" were established. A few years later, guests included the likes of Heinrich Himmler and Marshal Pétain. However, after the Second World War, it was back to business as usual with a return of the princes, grand duchesses, kings, archdukes and princesses, who chose the Ritz for their balls and grand receptions. The least conventional visitor to date has been Salvador Dali, who ordered a horse to be brought up to his suite, either stuffed or dissected, according to which story you believe.

Location, location, location

The Hotel Ritz is at Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes 668 08010, Barcelona (00 34 93 318 5200,

The Ritz is on the wide and leafy Gran Via, just off the Passeig de Gracia, about 10 minutes' walk from the central Plaza de Catalunya.

Time to international airport: It's a half-hour taxi ride and costs €25-€30 (£16-£19).

Are you lying comfortably?
Expense and exclusiveness are the hallmarks of this hotel, rather than attention to detail. The doors don't quite fit perfectly and some of the fittings look as though they haven't been changed in 80 years. Yet, this is all part of the charm. When you see the pink marble floors of the eccentrically shaped bathroom you won't care if the showerhead is slightly wonky.

Keeping in touch: the telephone cable can connect to your computer, but may not be able to transmit a message. The Ritz was not built for the internet.

The bottom line
Doubles start from €385.85 (£243.50). If you book in the UK through The Leading Hotels of the World (00 800 2888 8882, you might get a better rate.

I'm not paying that: the Ramblas Hotel, La Rambla 33 (00 34 93 301 57 00), has doubles from €154.08 (£97.25).

Sunday, April 21, 2002

For Pete's sake

For Pete's sake

St Petersburg was supposed to be the greatest city in the world. So why did Peter the Great build it in a remote swamp on the edge of Finland?

By Jeremy Atiyah

Published: 21 April 2002

It is the work of a madman," says Timofei, flinging a wild arm at his city. We're standing in the gloom and the cold beside Russia's most famous statue. My shoes are wet. And here is the culprit: Peter the Great, he of the intercontinental vision, astride a colossal horse, rearing and ready to charge.
Timofei, my guide, just can't help spewing out emotional jokes and erudite references. And pointing darkly at the statue, he now assures me that nobody of taste likes this 18th-century premonition of Stalin. "Your two front hooves," he mutters, "have leaped far off into the darkness..."

He is quoting some poet, as usual. I can't match that, though I do recall Catherine's favourite philosopher, Denis Diderot, calling this "a city of quite a new kind, a great and amazing city". Yes. Peter's city was to be the greatest city in the world. It was to be a city of the future, modern, commercial, multicultural, free from the past, free from darkness – perhaps even free from Russia. Mud would be turned to marble, huts to palaces, beards to brains. And how has it turned out?

For some reason, this strikes Timofei as a hilarious question. Just 10 minutes ago he was skidding me through the Palace Square, all overspread with ugly black tarmac as if for a film shoot; a rerun, say, of the Bolsheviks' assault on the Winter Palace. And then there was the palace itself: enclosing its Karelian-birch furniture, its walls of crimson damask, its colonnades, its onyx columns and agate inlays and rosewood window shutters.

"But can you imagine how it is, living with that in the centre of your city?" Timofei keeps asking, in incredulity. "Requiring your subjection, for ever and ever?" Unshaven, scarf-wrapped and sniffing, he looks more eccentric by the minute. Into the 20th century – he now exclaims – that fabled building remained home to an absolute monarch! A Caesar, a Sun King, claiming divine right to rule Russia!
So catastrophe was imminent. Even I can see that, without Timofei labouring the point. In 1918, with cigarette butts and dirty mattresses now littering its Winter Palace, this city rudely ceased to be capital of Russia. Within two years, its population had plummeted by two thirds. In the 1930s a quarter of its surviving population was purged. And within a decade of that, amid mass starvation, the entire city – now known as Leningrad – would stand on the brink of physical annihilation.

"Maybe, things ... have got a little better since then?" I murmur. Just an hour ago, after all, I was sitting in the restored Astoria Hotel, drinking tea and listening to a piano tinkle. Nicholas I's statue still prances outside the hotel, and Europe's rich seems able once again, in St Petersburg, to enjoy the exclusive opulence of liveried servants, a ballroom and a winter garden.

But Timofei does not want to hear this. He wants to talk about the fact that it's been sleeting and snowing ever since I arrived, and that Nevsky Prospekt and Decembrists' Square are full of darkly clad people shuffling through inches of mud and slush. And it's all Peter's fault. Why in God's name couldn't he have foreseen this in 1703, when he built his city on the edge of nowhere, in a swampy fetid corner of Finland, on Russia's remotest edge? Beneath these palaces and pavements, St Petersburg is half-sea, half-marsh. "Sprung out of the mire of dark and wood," marvelled Pushkin. Right now, with dripping icicles threatening me from every overhang, I admit it seems a wet place for a city.

Or perhaps it was just a joke. Peter's kind of joke: to watch gentlemen in brocaded coats, from the court and the diplomatic corps, forced to leave Moscow and set up home in a watery wilderness. Wasn't it hilarious? Timofei looks almost ready to cry as he recalls Peter's cruelties. This was the Tsar who purposely invited more guests to his dinner parties than could find seats. The result was "such scuffling and fighting for chairs that nothing more scandalous can be seen in any country". When the dust had settled, carpenters and shipwrights were in the best seats next to the Tsar, while "senators, ministers, generals, priests, sailors, buffoons of all kinds, sit pell-mell without distinction".

Might St Petersburg have been conceived as one of these jokes? A ghastly experiment in human souls? Timofei just won't stop. He is now almost on a gallop, gesturing at palaces, gabbling out reasons for hating the greatest tsar. Forty thousand labourers per year were to be sent here from the provinces to build, build, build! Tens of thousands died! "And this heretic," he pants, "is the founder of our modern state!"

From the start, then, it was clear that only evil could ever befall this newfangled city on the Gulf of Finland, with its Germanic-sounding name, disastrously founded on blasphemy and impiety. So said old men then, in (illegal) long beards, and so says Timofei now. But while Timofei is pointing out storm-stained, mustard-coloured palaces, with heavy doors, begrimed interiors and colossal renovation costs, my mind is floating back to Pushkin, and thinking of old St Petersburg, with its soft northern light and its bridges and spires, its noblemen on horseback, its sail ships filling the Neva skyline, its phosphorescent summer nights, its women in silk stockings and beauty spots, its gilded carriages and sledges, its whirling couples behind windows, its galloping troikas, its duels at daybreak. I demand a brief pause in the tour.

Since Pushkin's day, I now declare, central St Petersburg – as a monument in stone and stucco – has hardly changed. "It has! It is 200 years worse!" retorts Timofei at once, implacable, leaning by the embankment of the Moika Canal. The white ice on the canal is littered with vodka bottles. On muddy verges, a whole winter's worth of dog excrement is surfacing with the thaw. On street level I see grimy cars, grimy buildings, grimy windows; up above, tangled cables for trams and trolley buses criss-cross the sky. Where is the answer? Was this city really condemned to misery from the day it was built?

Timofei is keen for me to understand that it was. And under black skies, we now hurry on foot to the place where it all began 299 years ago: the St Peter and Paul fortress on its own island in the Neva. Crossing a footbridge over the ice, we enter a cathedral full of marble slabs.

"Meet the family," Timofei is saying. He means it. Because here they are, the Romanov Tsars, all under one roof, in the candlelight. To describe this lot as dysfunctional would do them no justice at all. Peter killed his son, Catherine her husband, and Alexander I his father. Which prompts me to wonder aloud if St Petersburgers are now glad to have their last tsar back here, rescued from his Communist hell in 1998. But Timofei, unblinking, is staring at these plain slabs of marble. "St Petersburgers are these people," he says. When I remind him that Nicholas II died 80 years ago, he dismisses this. "No, no, it has never stopped for us. We are citizens of St Petersburg."

This is an unusual situation. My guide seems to be on the point of losing his mind, as a result of his work. I escort him outside. Is he OK? Does he need to rest? "No, no," he says, standing in puddles, wiping his nose. "But let's get out of here." We hurry over bridges through slush-splattered traffic, in search of something less depressing. And half an hour later we are on the snowy parade ground of the Field of Mars, surrounded by bile-coloured barracks and palaces. Packs of children are warming themselves beside an eternal flame. But here it was, 200 years ago, that Catherine's son Paul tried to regulate Russian chaos by introducing Prussian-style square-bashing. "It was just like Peter shaving off holy Russian beards," scoffs Timofei.

Somehow we are being drawn inexorably to another St Petersburg: the cold city of the 19th-century autocracy, of Nicholas I, the immobile, neoclassical, haughty Nicholas; the city of yellow stucco and white columns, where even the office workers wore uniform, the nightmare city of Gogol and Dostoyevsky, where one button undone could mean degrading to the ranks, a flogging, or exile to Siberia.

Depression begins to weigh me down. But on the subject of alienation and disaffection, Timofei seems to cheer up. A while later, he is leading me to Sennaya Ploshchad, the old hay market, the setting for Crime and Punishment. He starts reminding me of Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov stumbling about this square, a place of "revolting misery" and "insufferable stenches" and "drunken men whom he met continually, although it was a working day". And before I know it, he's on to Gogol, with his "soulless heap of houses tumbled one upon the other, roaring streets, seething mercantilism, that ugly pile of fashions, parades, clerks, wild northern nights, specious glitter and base colourlessness". And it's true: things are just as cheerlessly static here as in any other part of St Petersburg. The square looks like an 1880s slum. Shifty men in bad suits and caps are standing about amid piles of slush and excrement, while women walk defensively arm in arm. For a moment, dare I say it, Timofei almost looks at home.
In the heat of his optimism, in fact, he even suggests taking a bus out of town – which is all very well for the first 20 miles, enclosed behind steamed-up windows, until the unmistakable shadow of another baroque palace falls upon our bus. This is Tsarskoye Selo: good for me, bad for Timofei. As we step into the snow, the façade of the Catherine Palace seems to go on for ever, shining now gold, now blue, windows rising upon windows, statues upon statues, columns upon columns, in a relentless receding line. "You see," says Timofei, "after Peter's death, the city began to acquire this fake, southern, Italian magnificence."

It was the Empress Elizabeth who first asked Bartolomeo Rastrelli to amend Peter's palaces; Catherine the Great then made further improvements to impress foreigners. "Well I'm a foreigner and I am impressed," I say, hoping to boost my guide's morale. And I mean it. Stepping inside, we find Rastrelli's monumental ballroom, crawling from ceiling to floor with gold leaf, on the mirror frames, the cornices, the candelabra, the lintels. We stroll through rooms that go on for ever, like years. One room is cool and classical, the next a baroque inferno. Each is themed and fabulous, with chinoiserie, cherubs, garlands, silken wallpaper, onyx vases, agate wall panels, Ottoman divans, patterned parquet flooring, monumental tiled stoves, ceramic columns, lapis lazuli tabletops, giant picture portraits.
"Upstarts!" Timofei keeps bursting out in my ear. "Parvenus! Trying to out-Europe Europe!" I have just been imagining immense retinues of courtiers with diamond buckles and buttons and epaulets. Now I see my guide's pale face. Perhaps a little fresh air for him? And in blinding snow, we step out into the garden, with its lawns, gravel walks, woods and follies. Troops of huddled tourists shuffle about under snow-laden trees. Then, down the road, beyond frozen ponds and rickety bridges, we spy the unkempt and peeling columns of the Alexander Palace.

Timofei looks reluctant to enter another palace. But once inside, we notice that it has been decorated on a rather modest scale. It is almost human. Suddenly, we are faced with chintzy English wallpaper, electric light switches, telephones, toys, chests of drawers, snaps of the children in cheap frames crowding the mantelpiece; personal remnants of the last tsar and his family.

"The creeping embourgoisement of the later tsars" is how my snooty guidebook describes these scenes. But the photos are painful. There is the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, uptight, with a pulled-in waist and puffed out shoulders; there is Nicholas beside his identically bearded cousin, the future King George V of Great Britain. And, suddenly, we are in the age of a 20th-century royal family. Nicholas, slight and neat, sitting in a group shot with his handsome wife and the children. Maria, Olga, Tatiana, Anastasia and little Prince Alexei: all at ease, all shimmering in their privileged innocence; all facing imminent death.

I hear a gutter gurgling. In this dingy room, the long windowpanes seem to be walls of sleet. But Timofei is wrapping and unwrapping his scarf, in an uncharacteristic silence, out-stared by the royal ghosts. It's that family again. And like them, it seems, Peter's great hope for Russia – his great city of the future – has already been dead and gone, for many, many years.

The Facts

Getting there
Only British Airways (0845 77 333 77; and Aeroflot (020-7355 2233; fly direct from the UK (London) to St Petersburg. Return flights cost £315 with BA and £210 with Aeroflot.

Jeremy Atiyah stayed at the five-star Astoria Hotel, which can booked through The Leading Hotels of the World UK (00800 2888 8882; Doubles cost from £258 per night.

He also spent several nights staying in "home-stay" accommodation, booked through The Russia Experience (020-8566 8846;, an excellent option for first-time visitors to Russia. Prices vary according to location, starting from around £170 per person, based on two sharing, for a minimum three-night stay, including transfers and half-board accommodation.

Interchange (020-8681 3612; email:, a specialist Russia operator, can put together packages. A three-night break costs £344 per person, based on two sharing, including return direct flights, transfers and b&b in a hotel.

Further information
All visitors to Russia require a visa. If booking a package through an operator leave visa formalities to them, otherwise contact the Russian Consulate, 5 Kensington Palace Gdns, London W8 4QX (020-7229 8027).

Sunday, April 7, 2002

Barcelona loner

Barcelona loner

Fifteen years ago, Jeremy Atiyah came looking for an old-world Spanish experience. His neighbours craved a Spain that was 'super-moderno'. Today he admits, perhaps they had a point

Published: 07 April 2002

Mercedes may not have been my kind of girl, in the same sense that Barcelona may not have been my kind of town. "Super-moderno!" she would shriek, at 5am, at the sight of a chrome Cadillac affixed to a discotheque wall in the name of design. Yes, we were in the 1980s. But I had fled to Spain to live the life of a penniless Bohemian. Had I chosen the wrong city?

There were good reasons for Mercedes' addiction to modernity. The Catalans, after all, were still emerging from a fascist twilightland of sexual, linguistic and cultural repression. But then again, I too was emerging from something that seemed almost as bad – a privileged British education. Weren't we all on the rebound? And yet, while I had taken my typewriter to live in a pension in the Gothic quarter, trapped amid smells of frying chips, with cracked-tiled floors, a creaking bedstead and a front-door key as long as my forearm, Mercedes had got into glamorous hairstyles and designer jackets.

"You like that slum?" she used to ask me, with deep mistrust. I told her that I did. And down the road from the Pension Costa, what was more, at a café called the Casa Jose, where the floors were strewn with tissues and prawn shells, I ate daily lunches of chickpea soup followed by meat or fish a la plancha ("on the plate"). This honest fare, I told Mercedes, in triumph, was washed down with wine drunk from the spout of a carafe. Why pay for chrome Cadillacs in your disco when you could have a set menu with characterful old peasants for £1.50?

We really did not mesh. Mercedes showed me the Pedrera, Gaudi's (and her) idea of what a man's home should look like, rippling round a corner on the Passeig de Gracia like a cliff-faced eroded by centuries of dripping water. Its balcony-rails resembled pieces of burnt-out wreckage, or the dissolved residue of an acid attack.

"You see, we are modern people," Mercedes would exclaim, icily, pointing out half-seen towers swirling from the roof. "We are not peasants, as you English think. Am I right or am I wrong?"
I fear she was right. But I didn't want to be wrong. I wanted patatas bravas, funny old Spaniards, olive trees, ancient inscriptions, idle chat, haphazard service and sunshine; not stylish discotheques or designer bars or the Olympic games or modernism or Miró or Gaudi. Which was why, in 1988, I ran away from Barcelona, vowing never to return. Until now, that is. Because here I am again, essentially the same man, wondering what I left behind.

And all I can say so far, is that the hoopla surrounding the 1992 Olympic games has not yet gone away. Checking in at the new-fangled art hotel, on the restored seafront, I arrive to find thousands of Catalans massing here for a Sunday stroll through the Olympic Village. They are predictably proud of this hotel. It is Spain's tallest building. It has been built within a superstructure of naked girders. Inside, it is full of original art. But when I notice that my room costs £100, I yearn for the Pension Costa.

Meanwhile, the first bit of tourism I need to do, is to visit the Sagrada Familia. Catalans measure their lifetimes by the progress of the works on this place. Stepping out of the metro right now, I confess that I am thunderstruck. Beyond the piles of half-cut masonry, an interior to the nave has emerged, with delicate columns leaning like giant rhubarb stalks to a canopied roof. Now I can see how long I have been away.

I set off strolling, but at an anxious speed, through town. Idly walking is a civic duty here. Mercedes used to assure me that the Spanish derived their late-night energy from doing it with friends before dinner. "It is the best time of the day to socialise. You English go to your pubs after dinner. This is wrong. After dinner is a time for dancing, not for talking."

Yes, I think. Dancing. But now the original Ramblas seems to have lost something. I see foreign fast-food outlets everywhere. What I remember as a peep show is now a bank. The performance artists are still there amid the flower-vendors, but looking rather tired. And when I take a closer look at the Catalans, I see what I have always suspected: that they are old-fashioned at heart. In their eyes I see scant evidence of Miró or Gaudi; but plenty, of new apartments and Habitat furniture.
In the glorious Boqueria market, skinned goats' heads with bulging eyeballs are on sale. The salted bacalao looks as raw as the shores of Newfoundland. I remain as calm as a Spaniard while waiting 10 minutes for service behind a hatted lady who is remonstrating with a fruit-vendor. "Last week the oranges were dry," she is exclaiming, "the week before stupendous, the week before sour! Now I just don't know where I am!"

Even as she speaks, I am noticing that the Boqueria's piles of hand-selected fruit would not disgrace the Harrods' food hall. I see plums from Chile, apples from Japan, kiwi fruit from California. This worries me. What is more, all the housewives are totting up their sums in euros.

Walking down to the waterfront I keep catching views of a city that never used to exist. The Barceloneta district I remember as an isolated grid of alleyways and dodgy fish restaurants on the edge of town; now I see tour groups of schoolchildren, exclaiming over Catalan marvels of the 21st century.

Didn't this bit here used to be part of the sea? This bit where lawns and mature palm trees have been planted? Gaudi too seems to be here, in the dismembered handrails and erupting plazas. I step out onto floating bridges to arrive at a super-moderno shopping and cinema complex called Maremagnum which reminds me of Singapore airport.

It is all wonderful. I'm just annoyed that Mercedes has been proven right. And I promptly duck back into the Gothic quarter, in a desperate bid to find my own neighbourhood. But here, instead of quaint old grocers, I pass shops selling lava lamps, dyed fabrics and ethnic kitsch. Inca and Hindu goddesses have replaced chickpeas and lentils. The grocery stores that survive are now run by Pakistani families.

And where is the Casa Jose? Is this it? I am standing in front of a bar decorated with pretentious Art Deco calligraphy, glinting with bottles and seductive lighting. Credit cards are accepted. The set menu is an astronomical £6.

I am almost in a panic by the time I approach the building where I once spent a year of my life. I pass another furniture shop. Surely that never used to be there? Or might it be that I just didn't notice furniture shops in those days? As for the Pension Costa: I am convinced it no longer exists. Then on street level, right next to the Plaza St Jaime, a mere 100 yards from the Gothic cathedral, I notice a herborist which strikes me as new, until I recognise the smell, a mix of camphor and camomile, mingling with the alleyway aromas of frying oil and cats' piss.

This is it. The medieval doorway is open. It is a place Mercedes would never have gone. I creep up broken brick steps and ring on the bell. A clanking and jangling of keys announces the extremely slow approach of an owner who, when he finally gets the door open, seems not to have seen the light of day in decades.

"How much is a room?" I ask. Seven thousand a week, he tells me. He hasn't worked that out in euros yet. But I make it about £3 a night, a slight decrease, in sterling terms, since the 1980s. I check the room, which hasn't changed in 15 years, and realise, with worry, that neither have I. It still strikes me as a very interesting bargain.

"We just have retired people staying here," the old man mumbles. "The ones who can afford it. You want to book the room now?" I think about years long gone, and tell the man that I will let him know as soon as possible.