Sunday, November 9, 2003

A dumpling masterclass with Mr Po

A dumpling masterclass with Mr Po

If you like Chinese food, you have to go to Hong Kong. Jeremy Atiyah stuffs himself with dim sum, washed down with black tea and a spot of t'ai chi

Published: 09 November 2003

So keen is Hong Kong to get its tourists back after the Sars calamity that even a miserable hack like me is being picked up at the airport in a green Rolls-Royce. I'm being taken to one the best suites of one of the world's best hotels.

Of course this royal treatment won't fool me. On my last visit to Hong Kong in 1995, I spent two weeks in a guesthouse in the Chungking Mansions, in a room that had been designed, grudgingly, to accommodate one thin bed. The only way to get under the showerhead was to sit on the toilet. And I paid good money for it.

Not that I'm complaining. Here in the Peninsula Hotel discreet British snobbery may have departed, but naked Cantonese snobbery has picked up the baton with gusto. In the vast gilded lobby I arrive to find tables packed with Chinese indulging in that great British tradition of afternoon tea, exchanging tiny sandwiches and cakes for sheaves of money. Up on the 18th floor, my rooms have got floor-to-ceiling windows, overlooking the harbour and the skyscrapers of Hong Kong Island.

Out in the streets of Kowloon, later, I still feel a little dazed. The sky is oddly clean, not as steamy as it should be. Expensive, chilled air is pouring out of all the shopping malls. Even the pavements seem to be air-conditioned. I wonder where they've gone, the old stenches, the fish markets, the flabby-leaved creeping plants, the copy-Rolex sellers, the turbanned tailors, the swindlers, the rickshaw drivers, the old sea-dogs, all the fetid trappings of the land where East meets West. One obvious thing hasn't changed. Taking the dear old Star Ferry to Central, I notice the whole island being shaken to its foundations once every 20 seconds. A giant pile-driver is somewhere at work.

How could I have forgotten: Hong Kong would not be Hong Kong without its perennial engineering projects. Noise pollution? Town planning? Feng shui? Economic difficulties? Forget it. The construct- ion of flashy skyscrapers must go on.

But this is all incidental. I'm not here to admire the skyline or to browse in refrigerated shopping malls. I'm here to eat. Because Hong Kong's food is one thing, I am told, that Sars, Beijing, Tung Chee Hwa, typhoons and the property crash can never touch.

To get started properly, the next morning, I head for a free t'ai chi session before breakfast, by the harbour. It's dark and stormy, and I feel very superior about having my morning exercise regime led by a wise old Confucian called Mr Ng, rather than by some inane Californian with a grin and a leotard. "And this movement," Mr Ng cries into the wind, slowly raising one arm and lowering another, "is called White Crane Flaps its Wings!"

Having flapped my crane's wings, and touched my ocean's bottom, and held my angel's hands, I set off in search of a suitably colourful local market. I am pleased to notice that these are not hard to find. At Yaumatei, off Nathan Road, I'm soon in the thick of it, surrounded by pigs' trotters, hearts, intestines and tongues. Men in singlets push barrows of greens, while old ladies sit behind boxes of meaty green crabs, salted eggs, live chickens, turtles, fresh fish, pickled bamboo shoots, green papaya, sheet bean curd, soy bean paste, and sticky rice puddings made with sugar.

This being a Chinese market, medicinal concerns are never far away. Here are strange leaves "to rid the body of moisture". Here are giant root vegetables, larger than footballs, "to eliminate toxins". Here are rosebuds, "to cure bruises". A tiny thin charlatan is selling homemade herbal wine. "It's five years old!" he cries. "I sell it worldwide! Even in America!"

I pick up a glass of cold soy milk from a café, attracted by the grimy fans, the overhead cables, the tiny stools, the soot, the bubbling cauldrons, the women in wellies, the floor running with water, the cats, and the parrot that speaks Chinese. Tanned men in shorts and vests and flip-flops are shovelling rice porridge with their chopsticks, surrounded on all sides by packs of noodles and plum sauces. Just look at the fruits and vegetables round here! They make me want to live in the tropics. The ripe smell of guava fills the whole street. Here are crates of woody, earthy mushrooms. Here are carrots three inches fat. Here are spring melons; here are bitter melons; here are lotus fruits; here are dragon's eyes; here are hairy squash and here are boxes of dates (or are they duck gizzards?).

Just next door is the incense shop. This is to any Hong Kong market what WH Smith is to a British high street. "To contact your ancestors," explains the shopkeeper, "you need to raise smoke. Prefer- ably fragrant smoke." He shows me not only incense sticks and sandalwood, but also cars, shoes, beer bottles, Rolexes, houses, footballs, Armani suits, credit cards, bank notes, wallets and passports - all made of paper, to be burnt, for convenient collection by the ancestors. "To die," murmurs the man, "is a complicated business."

By now I am hot and starved. I head for one of those air-conditioned shopping malls at the top of Tsim Shat Sui to find a place called the Super Star Seafood Restaurant, which sounds just the job. The first thing I see is a chef patiently pressing crabmeat with shredded ginger into roundels of soft pastry. "Hairy crab?" I ask. "Royal crab," he replies, shocked. Someone quickly whispers in my ear, as though I am in danger of embarrassing myself: "It's not the season for hairy crab."

Anyway, it's bright and crowded and public in here, as all good dim sum restaurants should be. You never take your mistress to dim sum. It is, though, quite a royal food, with its delicate but numerous portions. I've got a soup made from a suitably ugly fish, in accordance with the infallible rule that the uglier the fish, the better the dish. "Yes, the look is the first thing," says the chef, introduced to me as Master Po, who now joins me. "Then the dumpling pastry should be thin and the contents moist." He offers five basic types of pastry: rice, flour, bread, sticky rice and green pea. The rice pastry is softer and more transparent; the wheat pastry is more like bread.

The chef's challenge, in Master Po's view, is to be both traditional and modern. He is extremely proud, it turns out, of the peppery stonefish dumpling that he has pioneered. (Stonefish is poisonous to touch, in the wild, but it is also promisingly ugly.)

Tradition demands balance in your dumplings. In the case of a good old pork bun, for instance, this means a balance between dough and meat, between wet and dry, between sharp and bland. But novel, unorthodox influences are also permitted: Master Po has a Vietnamese-inspired dumpling containing pumpkin and fishmeat, for example. His sticky rice comes from Japan. He is also the inventor of a sweet, penguin-shaped, family-friendly dumpling that may owe some- thing to Disney. "For
commercial reasons," he explains, cheerfully. "Children like it."

I take a walk through the kitchen, where muscular men are shoving entire pigs into the barbecue using forks with prongs two foot long. I stroll through to see chopping boards the size of tree trunks, and knives the size of helicopter blades.

Master Po has been working as a chef for 33 years, since he was 12. Have tastes changed in this time?
"Sure!" he cries. "Now we are much smarter in our taste buds, and we are much more health conscious! So the portions are smaller; it's quality before quantity." As he speaks, a delicate peach-shaped bun with rosy tints appears, containing a filling of lotus and salty egg yolk. Another novel-looking dumpling contains cucumber and barley and mangetout, wrapped in pea-flour dough. "You always know which filling to put in what pastry," smiles Master Po. "It's intuitive."

The most delicious things on this table, though, are some pieces of barbecued pork resembling an archaeological section, each piece comprising an identical spectrum of crackling, fat and meat, in that order. They melt in the mouth like butter. From the subject of fat, conversation turns to tea. To counteract the effect of grease, we should, in fact, be drinking an earthy-smelling black tea called bo lei. "Only hot people should drink green teas like jasmine," explains Master Po. Hot people? This Chinese notion translates, roughly, I think, into "people with high blood pressure".

Other hard-core delicacies from the menu include duck's tongues and bird's nest soup. (The "nest" comprises not twigs but the dried spittle of swallows and swifts. Everyone at the table agrees that it is good for you: a lady from the Hong Kong Tourist Board puts a tablespoon of powdered bird's nest in her cornflakes everyday.) Abalone is the latest craze - you have to order in advance, as they need to be simmered for up to two days before they can be eaten. A big one might cost £200. "This is what Hong Kong is," says Master Po, modestly, as we say goodbye. "This is what we are."

I know what he means. And right now, stuffed, I feel like sleeping. But this is industrious Hong Kong, and it's time to head off to the western district of the island, in search of dried goods.

These never cease to amaze me. I'm soon looking at dried sausage, ham, squid, octopus, oyster, mussel, abalone, scallop - and these are just the mainstream items. That thing that looks like a sheet of tofu is, in fact, the dried lining of fish gut. That stuff resembling chopped cabbage is jellyfish (and has a crunchy texture). Heaped up around me, I survey ginseng, starfish, sea slugs, seahorses, fish bladders, giant conch, chrysanthemum flowers, deer tendons, turtle shells, dried flying geckos, cicada skins, tangerine peel, crocodile bacon (good for asthma), liquorice plants (good for Sars). Old men sit silently sifting through ginseng roots, sorting the thin bits from the fat bits. Twenty-storey apartment blocks loom up all around us.

Time for another cuppa? We enter the traditional teashop of one Mr Ngan, who brews and pours us some teas. Do I fancy yellow, white, clear, green, black or red tea? He talks of tea in the way connoisseurs talk of wine. He has old cakes of tea that will sell for thousands of pounds. He also has his "new arrivals", sealed in pewter jars. Green tea, he explains soberly, is like champagne and should be drunk young.

I find myself on a strong, semi-fermented tea called Iron lady. The tea stands for 30 seconds and then it's time to pour. First I must smell; then I must drink. And because we are drinking a black tea, which must be brewed very hot, the pot is made of purple clay from Yixing. Tea-drinking and Yixing pottery, says Mr Ngan, have been evolving together for 3,000 years. As always in China, I get the feeling that my own preconceptions are rather shallow.

Back in Central, I am taken to a trendy organic food shop owned by one Belinda Wong. A young woman in her 30s, Ms Wong has been trying to popularise old medicinal products. She has published her own funky recipes, like organic sea slug on noodles or organic bird's nest and almond soup. A few western delicacies such as bison tongue are also on sale here. It may be trendy, but her shop has the same old smell of ginseng as all the shops in western district, a smell I am beginning to like by now.

Not far down the road, we come to a seriously upmarket Chinese medicine shop. This time I am able to read the alleged benefits of the medicines for myself, as the signs are all in English. Cuttlefish, I now see, "promotes the circulation of vital energy and blood" while pearls "tranquillise the mind and improve the complexion". Deer's tail pills are supposed to be good if you have a "yang deficiency" in the kidneys, while cinnamon bark "treats a decline of fire from the vital gate". Quackery? Who am I to judge?

The day is almost done and the lights are beginning to twinkle in the harbour spray, when I find myself at Wanchai fish market. A fish market may not sound the height of glamour, but this is Hong Kong. I arrive to find a queue of gleaming Rolls-Royces and Mercedes with beautiful bejewelled Chinese women stepping out of them in search of dinner. The place resembles the London Aquarium, with its bubbling tanks full of lugubrious-looking fish. In front, giant crabs and eels struggle to escape, despite being bound up like prisoners on death row. Their millionaire purchasers will have no pity on them.
It's time to head back to the Peninsula. But as darkness suddenly falls, somewhere on Nathan Road, I find myself jumped by a gang of men. Help! Except this is no mugging. These are restaurateurs from the Chungking Mansions, all competing to press their cards into my hand. For old times' sake, I settle on a dinner in the Delhi Club Mess, a dark room lost in a dark stairwell, somewhere in the dark heart of this appalling building, where the curries are hot and the beer is cold: just another corner of Hong Kong where the food will be for ever wonderful.

The Facts

Getting there
Jeremy Atiyah travelled as a guest of British Airways and The Peninsula Hotel.
In November return fares from London Heathrow start at £563 with BA (0870 850 9850; Double rooms at The Peninsula Hong Kong (00 852 2920 2888; start at HK$3,390 (£260) per room per night.

Being there
Super Star Seafood Restaurant, Basement, Wilson House, 19-27 Wyndham St (00 852 25259238)
Mr Ngan's Teahouse, 290 Queen's Road, Central (00 852 25441375).
Eu Yan Sang medicine shop, 152-156 Queens Road, Central (00 852 25443870)
Delhi Club Mess (00 852 2368 1682), Chungking Mansions, 3rd floor of C block.

Further information
Hong Kong Tourist Board (020-75337100;

Sunday, October 19, 2003

'We packed up our culture in 2,000 crates'

'We packed up our culture in 2,000 crates'

Mao had his Long March. So did his Nationalist enemies - taking a precious cargo of ancient treasures to the safe haven of Taiwan. Jeremy Atiyah reports

Published: 19 October 2003

Beside the vastness of mainland China, Taiwan looks like nothing: a crowded, industrialised little island, famous for its production of computer chips. Chiang Kai-shek may have sought to build up Taiwan as a microcosm of China, but even he was not capable of decorating it with the Forbidden City of Beijing, or the misty crags of Guilin, or the mountains of Tibet, or the Silk Road oases of the western deserts, or the Yellow River which gave China its civilisation. Once the Nationalists had embarked on their escape, the territory of China would be utterly lost to them.

China's cultural heritage, however, was another matter. Elements of this were portable. And when the Nationalists left, they decided to carry it with them. The results of this decision can still be seen in Taiwan's National Palace Museum, which is by the far the greatest repository of Chinese art in the world today.

It is in search of those treasures that I'm here, rather than for anything else. Taipei is not an attractive city in itself. Grim, grey blocks line the streets. Flyovers and bridges stomp across the skyline. Even the President has his residence in the former Japanese governor's office, a tatty-looking brick building that no one has been bothered to replace. I find it hard to avoid the suspicion that a subconscious expectation of "return to the mainland" has not quite gone away.

But Taipei's art treasures will make up for all of that. I already know that the collection here derives directly from the collections of the Chinese emperors, who ruled their vast territories for more than 3,000 years. I step inside the National Palace Museum with a feeling of awe.

One of the first things I see is a bronze cauldron from the ninth century BC. And this is not some archaeological curiosity from pre-history. The man who made it (the Duke of Mao, from the era of the Western Zhou) is a historic figure. Inside the cauldron is a long inscription, the Duke's own words, written to his uncle, expressing opinions on how to rule and how to survive your enemies.

Such objects have been regarded as precious by virtually everyone in China's history apart from Chairman Mao. "The bronze and jade articles that give pleasure to the king," states a 2,300-year-old memo from the imperial archives, "are stored in the Royal Residence." Later, in the second century BC, the visionary Emperor Wu Di was also storing the calligraphy and paintings that pleased him. He even employed scholars to authenticate treasures newly excavated from Shang Dynasty tombs that were (then) more than a thousand years old. In the wise words of contemporary historians, the possession of such items was a sure sign that the mandate of heaven, to rule China, had been won.

What a pity that the history of this collection, from then to now, has been not a smooth process of accretion. In fact, the losses have been severe. During the chaos surrounding the collapse of the Tang Dynasty, for example, around AD 900, many of the scrolls were destroyed by fire and looting. But once the Song Dynasty had established itself, the collection was soon flourishing again. And it was in the reign of the great Emperor Song Huizhong, in the early 12th century, that the structure of the imperial collection as we see it today was set out.

Song Huizhong was an artist himself, and the inventor, I learn, of something called the "slender goat" style of calligraphy. It is hard not to admire him. "As long as there is painting and calligraphy," he once sighed, "a lifetime of one thousand years would not be long enough." He sent out scholars to scour the empire for surviving paintings from previous eras. The rigorous and scientific catalogues he drew up, of his own great collection, are still extant.

This is not to say there would be not be many more losses over the years. First came the Mongol invasions. And through the ages, emperors have been capable of flogging off paintings for cash, melting down precious bronzes and doling out jade ornaments as gifts. Then there were the secretaries and eunuchs who found cunning ways of stealing treasures. Thus were the collections precariously handed down from emperor to emperor and from dynasty to dynasty.

In the 15th century, a great imperial palace was erected in Beijing that came to be known as the Forbidden City. Many of China's treasures would be stored there for generations to come. And in the 18th century came one more great patron of the arts, the Qing Emperor, Qianlong. He spent his reign not only commissioning new works, but also cataloguing old ones. He stamped practically everything in the collection with his own seals, often inscribing comments alongside - in the most tasteful calligraphy, of course.

After Qianlong's death, times again became dangerous for the collections, as indeed they did for China as a whole. The emperors grew poorer, and more inclined to plunder their own treasures in the search for gifts. This was not the only threat: in a notorious incident in 1860, British and French soldiers ransacked the imperial summer palace outside Beijing, seizing a large number of precious paintings (some of which can now be seen in the British Museum).

In 1911, the Republic of China was declared. But Puyi, the last emperor of China, was permitted to continue living in the Forbidden City and it was during these years that there occurred some of the most catastrophic losses of all, not least those caused by a huge fire deliberately lit in the Forbidden City by discontented eunuchs. And Puyi himself sold off countless treasures to raise cash for his private use. Not until 1925 was this flow of losses stemmed, with the expulsion of the profligate Puyi once and for all. Museum professionals could at last be sent in to check the contents of the palace.

Inside, they found literally millions of items, including piles of ancient ceramics still in use as common utensils. On 10 October 1925, the Forbidden City, and all its contents, was officially opened as a museum. After 2,000 years it seemed that the trials and tribulations of the most precious creations of Chinese art had finally come to an end.

It was a false dawn. The next 30 years were to prove the most dangerous in the collection's entire history. In 1931, the Japanese attacked and, for safety, nearly 20,000 crates were packed up, and sent south to Nanjing and Shanghai.

For a while it seemed as though Nanjing might become their permanent new home. In 1937 however, the Japanese began a full-scale invasion of eastern China. Once again the treasures had to be removed, this time in a hurry.

Considering the exigencies of war, it seems astonishing how much time and money the Nationalists were prepared to invest in protecting the museum treasures. An old superstition seemed to survive, that the imperial collections represented the spirit of China itself; that their safety would confer legitimacy on the rulers who protected them.

Only in the very last days before the Japanese burst their murderous way into Nanjing were the last crates finally removed from the city. Their destination was China's south-west, far away from the Japanese advance, though different batches took different routes. Aged trucks and boats carried them through remote and difficult terrain. At times boats had to be pulled against the current, or boxes carried along muddy tracks. Some of the boxes were carried on foot over snow-covered mountains. Japanese bombing was never far behind.

In the autumn of 1939 the boxes arrived safely in Sichuan, not far from the great city of Chongqing, where Chiang Kai-Shek had established his government. And here in Sichuan province a young artist and designer called Suo Yuming first came into the employment of the museum. I know this because I am now talking to the man himself, here in the tea-room of the National Palace Museum.

He is a tall spindly character, now in his eighties. He got his first job in the museum as a painter and a designer; his work then was to help create imitations of some of the treasures, hidden in a small town. There was no bomb shelter. They just used to hide in a temple when Japanese planes came over.
After the war ended in 1945, the order came to pack up the treasures and transport them back to Nanjing, China's capital. For Suo, this was the beginning of an idyllic time. "In those days we never thought about politics," he says. "We enjoyed the feeling of victory, then got down to work." Suo was an assistant researcher, verifying the history and authenticity of each item. But his troubles - and China's - were not over. War flared again, this time between Chiang's Nationalists and Mao's Communists. And by 1948, the Communists were approaching Nanjing. Again, the Nationalists showed their attachment to the treasures. The order now came to remove them to the comparative safety of Taiwan.

The thought of packing up and moving for the second time in four years seems not to have depressed Suo. He supposed it would be a temporary move, as before. Many of the crates had not been unpacked since 1931 anyway. But they had just three ships in which to carry them. Only the most precious parts of the collection could be taken this time; less important items would have to be left.

Suo himself travelled in the last of the three ships from Nanjing, the Kunlun. There was supposed to be room in the ship for 3,000 crates, but in the event they were obliged to leave nearly 1,000 behind, in order to carry more men desperate to escape the Communists. By this stage, the selection process had become random - the dockworkers just picked up the first boxes they could lay their hands on. In some cases, sets of objects were thus separated from each other for ever.

Was Suo afraid? "No. The Kunlun was a military ship, and the Communists only had rifles." But his confidence was to some extent misplaced. Suo, like all of the departing Nationalists, was convinced that he would soon be returning. He could never imagine that he might still be living in Taiwan 55 years later. In the event he left behind a mother and a fiancée, neither of whom he ever saw again. But that is another story.

Right now all I can think of is a 1,500-year-old painting I've just been looking at, depicting two men on a bridge, a river, a barge, snowy trees, a wooden pavilion and the eternal misty hills of ancient China. People are such small and insignificant creatures, alone in a world of egrets and mountains. How does it feel to be buried in so much tradition? I shake myself and go to meet another member of the museum, the deputy director, Dr Shih. He is one of those elegant little Chinese men as quiet as a cat and with the distilled wisdom of 2,000 years of culture in his head. Does he worry, today, about the things that were left behind in 1949? "We would have taken it all, including the Forbidden City itself, if we could have," he smiles, sadly. "But most of the decisions taken then were the right ones. I don't complain."

He suggests that the mission to rescue the treasures from the Communists was a kind of Long March, comparable to Mao's. "It was a very holy, special, symbolic mission," Dr Shih says. "Any regime's legitimacy relies on a continuation of heritage. You also have to enrich your heritage, to prove you are a worthy heir."

Dr Shih tells me about the artists and professors - "the most important young intellects of China" - who
believed, in the 1940s, that they could create a new future for the fledgling Republic by lugging crates full of cultural treasures round China. They literally had 2,000 years of heritage in their hands. So highly did the Chinese Nationalists regard these treasures, that when the National Palace Museum opened in Taipei in 1965 - finally putting an end to 35 years of peregrinations - the director of the museum was a post that had ministerial ranking.

Dr Shih is anxious to remind me that he is more interested in the aesthetic aspect of the collection than in its political or symbolic aspect. But before I leave, he cannot help pointing out to me the bronze cauldron that stands in the courtyard at the front of the museum. "It is the ancient Chinese symbol of political power and legitimacy," he says, with a modest smile. I know what he means. The Communists may have won China, but they have lost her treasures. And for that, the Mandate of Heaven will never rest easy.

The Facts

Getting there
Jeremy Atiyah travelled to Hong Kong as a guest of British Airways (0870-850 9850;, and from there to Taiwan with Cathay Pacific. Return flights cost from £684 in November.

Being there
Places to stay include the cheap but cheerful Queen Hotel (00 886 2 25590489) at Chang'an W Rd, 226, 2nd floor. It is near the railway station and double rooms cost about £16 per night. Alternatively, the upmarket, central Far Eastern Plaza Hotel (00 886 2 2378 8888; at 201 Tunhua S Rd offers rooms from £150 per night.
The National Palace Museum ( is open daily, 9am-5pm. Admission is about £2.

Further information
In Taipei, the tourism bureau office (00 886 2 2439 1635; is at 280 Jungshiau E Road, 9th Floor.

The Lonely Planet Guide to Taiwan (£12.99) is the main guide-book. Visas are issued on arrival to visitors with UK passports.

Sunday, September 7, 2003

Showtime in Carmen's old stamping ground

Showtime in Carmen's old stamping ground

Bizet's flamboyant heroine still haunts Seville, discovers Jeremy Atiyah. Even if she's really a Belgian tour guide called Johanna

Published: 07 September 2003

It's 8pm and the solar whiteout is not yet finished. But I'm on a walking tour of Seville with Carmen. Carmen? Haven't I heard that name somewhere before? With her dark tangled hair and long baggy skirt she seems to have a touch of gypsy about her. She is slightly grungy, and might have been a fire-eater or a juggler on Brighton beach. She keeps projecting her voice above the rooftops, gesticulating wildly to the sky, breaking out into throaty songs. The only snag about her is that she is not Spanish, nor even a gypsy. She is, in fact, Belgian. Her real name is Johanna Vandenbussche.

But she definitely resembles the character from Bizet's opera, and she is also Seville's most theatrical tour guide. "I am the free, roaming spirit of Carmen!" she roars. "No one can tie me down!" She describes her act as "stand-up tragedy", and has already been on Spanish TV several times. Today, we, her paying customers, number about 15 people, including one state senator from Oklahoma and several citizens of France who cannot understand English (but who love Bizet). "The people of Seville," she is explaining, with an apologetic laugh, "are a little bit ashamed of Carmen." Which is why she, a Belgian, has taken responsibility for shouldering her story.

Off we go, with Carmen in the lead, heading on down to the tobacco factory. She is trundling a tatty old shopping bag on wheels behind her, from which she occasionally whips out an accordion. Then she begins to sing, rough little songs for Carmen and her lover Don Jose, whose two faces, on cardboard, face each other in an eternal stroppy stand-off above the accordion.

"Welcome to my factory!" she cries, when we get there. My idea of the tobacco factory from the Carmen story is of a handful of women in a seedy little sweatshop. In fact, this factory was the centrepiece of Spanish industry, and here it is: a monumental, square 18th-century palace, larger even than Seville's giant cathedral. It has royal gates and moats. Forty years ago it was converted into a university building; until then, it was a factory that at its zenith had employed 12,000 people.

And as Carmen now explains, you had to have very nimble fingers to get a job there. In other words, you had to be a woman, preferably (if rumours were true) a sultry, long-haired beauty with flashing coal-black eyes and a dagger in your garter, who would break out into a spontaneous foot-stomping, neck-arching, castanet-clicking dance routine every time the foreman turned his back.

No wonder the tobacco factory of Seville became a focal point of delirious male attention. In the southern heat, stories of passionate gypsies and heaving bosoms in the workplace (combined, perhaps, with memories of the Moorish harem) became ever more intense. Out of all this, Prosper Mérimée, a French visitor to Seville in the early 19th century, was stimulated to write a suitably febrile story about a woman called Carmen, a story later adapted by Bizet.

"It was all Columbus's fault," Carmen is complaining, on the subject of self-indulgent males. She reminds us of how Seville had grown rich in the first place from the fantastic American trade. For nearly 200 years, the city had revelled in the massive benefits of a legal monopoly, after a royal decree stipulated that all ships from the Americas sail right up the Guadalquivir into Seville itself.

Luxury, then, is nothing new to these streets. This is a city where architects could afford to worry as much about the smell and sound of their buildings as their appearance. We pass a sign advertising "LOVELY TYPICAL SEVILLIAN HOUSES WITH SMELL OF ORANGE BLOSSOM FOR RENT". From courtyards green with foliage and littered with oranges comes the trickle of water and the coo of doves.

We head back to the centre. Tourists in shady squares are thinking about the first drink of the evening. Horse-and-carriage drivers keep shouting "Hola Carmen!" as they trot past. Right by the Alcazar, we find ourselves on a street called Miguel Mañara, which prompts Carmen to break out into new raptures. "My hero!" she cries, crossing her hands lovingly over her heart, before beginning to tell the tale of her alter ego, that other Sevillian symbol of libertinism - Don Juan, later immortalised by Mozart as Don Giovanni.

It is not clear who came first, the historical figure Miguel Mañara or the mythical character Don Juan, who first appeared as El Burlador de Sevilla ("the Seducer of Seville") in 1630, in a play by the Spanish dramatist Tirso de Molina. But either way, sensual Seville was their stage. Both date from the early 17th century; both were licentious but attractive rascals who lived for the day, and had great difficulties remembering about the morrow - not unlike Carmen herself (but very different from Seville's third operatic child, Figaro, the comic hero of The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro).

Carmen, meanwhile, continues to talk passionately about Miguel Mañara. As a young man, she explains, Mañara had not only ruined the chastity of respectable girls, but also had even taken to murdering their fathers. Later in life he had done a famous about-turn, becoming a prior and spending his entire fortune on a hospital for the poor. Now he is regarded in Seville as something close to a saint. "A little bit of an extremist," sighs Carmen, as we stroll past the 16th-century former stock exchange, "but a typical son of Seville."

Now she sits us all down in the shadow of the Giralda and begins to sing about the circumstances of how she met Don Jose, her lover in Bizet's story. She had cut another woman's face, she calmly explains, after being mocked for her gypsy origins. "And Don Jose was one of those assigned to the job of taking me off to prison!" she adds, with a laugh. "That was how we met!" But before Carmen has time to explain further, the bells of the Giralda start ringing like crazy, swinging and ringing as if there is no tomorrow. The heat is crushing, but the sun has set and a Spanish couple will marry.

We walk down towards the river into the old warehouse area that used to back on to the port. The poor once teemed here in their thousands. But Carmen's beaming smile tells us a story: for here is the grand Hospital of the Caridad, the hospital built on the orders of her old friend Miguel Mañara. And there, in a courtyard opposite, overgrown with roses and long grass, we glimpse a forgotten statue of the man himself.

Yet another Sevillian wedding is taking place, just as we try to peer into the famous chapel of the hospital. The guests are in elegant silk and chiffon; we tourists in shorts and sandals. But there in the doorway lies the tombstone of Miguel Mañara. Carmen is clapping her hands in joy and exclaiming at the top of her voice, to the consternation of the wedding guests: "He wanted all the world to walk all over him!" But I can't help wondering if he wasn't just lobbying for sainthood. "With great humility, in his will," I now read, engraved in stone, "he demanded to be buried where all could tread on him... here lie the ashes of the worst man who has ever lived in the world." If that isn't a bad case of 17th-century spin, I don't know what is.

Meanwhile, we are about to emerge on the river itself. Over there in Triana, on the opposite bank, are some of the best and cheapest bars for fishy tapas in the world. Later, I'll sit there and look back over the city, while snacking on sardines dipped in sea salt and scorched on coals. But over here, our singing guide is bringing her story to a climax. We pause under the ancient vaulted ceilings of what used to be Seville's shipyard, to listen in on the increasingly disputatious relationship of Carmen and Don Jose.

And now here at last is the famous bullring of Seville. By the river, we see proud, pompous arches of gleaming white plaster coming into view under a steel-blue sky: how small and funny it looks compared with its modern equivalent, the football stadium.

But there is nothing funny about this place. Later I'll enter the ring to see shaded seats for princes and for owners - and broiling sun for everybody else. Ominous damp patches stain the sand. The intensity and the intimacy are too much; all of society can see itself in here. There is the small chapel, stuffed with virgins, where bullfighters make their prayers; and here, in the museum, is the stuffed head of a cow, the mother of the bull that killed Manolete, Spain's most famous fighter, in 1947. Carmen hates all this. "But the strange thing was," she adds, with a sheepish smile, "that I did fancy the picador."

Ah yes, the picador. Carmen's fatal mistake. So there it was, outside the bullring, in a dusty square by the river, that she and jealous lover had their last argument. "Come to America or you die!" Don Jose threatened. Carmen, of course, refused. "I chose the spirit of my city," she tells us, "of freedom!"

At this moment I feel oddly emotional. All of us have fallen silent. Right by the river we find ourselves beside Seville's only statue of Carmen, who, in bronze, seems diminutive, and more demure than I would have depicted her. Her face is serious rather than sultry. "Sad, isn't it, dear people!" shouts the living Carmen, with a big laugh. "Poor Don Jose killed me! But as I've already told you, although I am dead, my spirit is free. Isn't that amazing, dear people?"

The Facts

Getting there
Jeremy Atiyah travelled with Spain at Heart (01373 814222; and Europcar (0870-607 5000; A three-night break in Seville starts at £350 per person, based on two sharing, including scheduled flights with British Airways and b&b. Europcar offers a week's car hire from £140 for a group A car.

The Facts
Carmen's guided walking tour departs daily except Tuesday and Sunday at 7pm from the corner of Calle Sto. Thomas and Calle Miguel Mañara, near the Alcazar entrance. What you pay is up to you.

Further information
Spanish Tourist Office (020-7486 8077;

Sunday, August 3, 2003

Granada: Arabian heights Granada relishes the spicy legacy of its Moorish past

Granada: Arabian heights Granada relishes the spicy legacy of its Moorish past, says Jeremy Atiyah

August 3, 2003 Times Online

So much for what the legends say. I have come to stay in the Albaicin, the city’s so-called Moorish quarter, to look for the evidence.

So far, I am charmed. The Albaicin is lined with cobbled lanes, scuffed white walls and bougainvillea by the ton. It also happens to have the best view in the world, across to where the square russet towers of the Alhambra spring up like a Moorish myth from behind thousands of trees. But thanks to the steepness of its lanes, tourists are still outnumbered by the local children, who play football, smoke hash and sleep in tiny forgotten squares.

And look at this hotel of mine! The Casa del Aljarife is a centuries-old whitewashed house with an enclosed patio full of lemon trees. Its windows look up to the Alhambra, and when I wake in the morning, all I can hear is the distant wailing of flamenco singers.

The only problem, in fact, is the owner, a vast northern European who stomps about in shorts, shoes and socks. When I tell him that I envy him his house, he retorts that I do not know the reality of life in Spain.

“And you do not know,” he grimaces, “that when the Spanish say ‘tomorrow’, they mean ‘in about a month’.”

He is missing the point, I tell myself. Because if this sleepy place isn’t an Islamic paradise, what is? Even the restaurants resemble corners of heaven. Their garden sanctums are suit-ably veiled from prying eyes, and at many you must ring bells at hidden doorways to enter.

I spend hours under the orange trees at the Terraza las Tomasas, eating cod’s roe salad and Iberian ham with a moonlit view of the Alhambra filling half the sky. Later I try Taberna La Higuera, where I recline in a candlelit courtyard eating squid and drinking dirt-cheap wine. Why, I wonder after my fourth glass, doesn’t everyone live like this, all of the time? In such a mood, I feel ready to conquer the Alhambra itself. The ancient pinks, reds and browns of its hilltop battlements have obsessed me for long enough. It’s time to scale that summit.

The next morning, as I puff uphill to the gate, I’m met by armies of tourists descending from coaches. I hear disem- bodied voices in multiple languages addressing me on the subject of my rights and obligations once inside. I appear to be at the beginning of a touristic assembly line.

Lucky Washington Irving! When he applied to visit, the request was considered so freakish that he was given the Nasrid Palaces, within, to use as his private hotel. He lived there for several months in the style of a Moorish sultan, taking his meals “sometimes in one of the Moorish Halls, sometimes under the arcades ... surrounded by flowers and fountains”.

Not that I am going to let distaste for other tourists eat me up. Five-hundred feet below, the traffic of modern Granada seethes and rumbles; up here in the Alhambra, I have the rustle of trees and the murmur of water, and the cool air from the Sierra Nevada drifts among the columns and fountains.

It is easy to get carried along by the spirit of this place. The calligraphic decoration on the walls is the doodling of men with nothing to do but repeat the central happy certainty of their lives — that there is no god but God. I slip into a daze, stepping from courtyard to courtyard, dreaming of harems and other pleasures.

By the waters of the Patio de los Arrayanes, I recall the Nasrid sultan of Granada who once summoned his court here to witness his concubine Zoraya taking her bath. Each courtier was required to drink from a bowl of her bathwater, then rhapsodise in verse about the marvellous taste it had acquired. Only the vizier refrained: “If I taste the sauce,” he protested, “I may develop an appetite for the partridge!” That’s Granada, a city not of jokes, but of suggestive yarns. Neighbouring Seville and Cordoba have also tried to cash in on the memory of the lost Moorish culture of al-Andalus, but neither has half the legacy of Granada. Later, back in town, I discover that the new craze is for ever more splendid teterias, or teahouses — perfect venues for storytellers to idle away the afternoons of summer. These are no longer the dingy dives of a few years back, but cool, palatial bars, pastiches of the old Moorish pleasures. They have candles, divans and fountains, all surrounded by Alhambra-style columns and arches.

At the Teteria el Bañuelo, I am greeted by the murmur of Arabic music and the song of a caged canary. The walls are adorned with quotations — eulogies about the period of Moorish rule when Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together in peace.

But what’s this? The menu includes such offerings as “1,001 Nights tea”. Is this not just a fantasy arranged to impress naive tourists? I immediately think of Calle Calde- reria Nueva, where all manner of “Moorish” tat is now on sale, from leather lampshades to aphrodisiac brews.

“No, no!” protests the cafe’s owner when he sees my scepticism. He is carrying a huge bunch of fresh mint in his hand. “These are genuine ancient recipes of old Granada!” This leads to a rambling discussion about half-remembered “Moorish” dishes. He explains how the Muslims of Spain enjoyed cultivating vegetables, while the Catholics were content to rear cattle on the parched hills. Surviving specialities include dishes that are neither sweet nor savoury: soups combining almonds and garlic; fig tarts with pine nuts; honeyed aubergines fried in batter.

That evening, in a Moroccan restaurant called Arrayanes, I eat an extraordinary dish of filo pastry, shredded meat and icing sugar, all washed down with a green and gingery home-made lemonade.

And then, of course, there are the tapas. Granada is the last big city in Spain where the tradition of a free snack with every drink still flourishes. Tapas, they say, were a Muslim invention, designed to eliminate the unholy possibility of drinking without eating. Later in my trip, in an old-fashioned downtown bar called Cas-teñada, my glasses of chilled fino arrive with little dishes of lamb stew and plates of ham and olives — and I ponder the miracle of getting something for nothing. After five drinks, I will need no dinner.

If Granada’s Arabs had contributed only this to civilisation, I would already be in their debt. But before leaving the city, I have one more Arab speciality to sample — up by the River Darro, between the twin hills of the Albaicin and the Alhambra. This used to be a smelly lane, leading out into the melancholy country that Washington Irving found so silent and lonesome. Nowadays, however, the valley has been cleaned up — kids strum guitars on the riverbanks and cool trees line the river. And here is a genuine hammam: an Arabic bathhouse.

It’s not the original — that fell into ruins about eight centuries ago. This is a new one. But don’t be put off. When I step inside, there are fragrant candles burning, and languid figures lounge on the tiles or in the pools. Through the steam, the atmosphere is faintly nefarious, vaguely suggestive of a Victorian opium den. But I find there is no end to the pleasure of immersing myself in the hot bath then the cool bath, then lying on the tiles regarding the stars and the half-moons inlaid in the vaulted ceilings.

I can still see the place now, just as I’d seen it years ago in my imagination. The influence of the Arabs, who fled Granada sighing back in 1492, is definitely making a comeback.

Jeremy Atiyah was a guest of Spain at Heart and Europcar

Saturday, May 24, 2003

Swissotel, Berlin

Swissotel, Berlin

By Jeremy Atiyah

Published: 24 May 2003

The Swissôtel is just one of the new buildings that have sprung up in the Zoo area of West Berlin, designed to replace the tawdry city-centre blocks considered so glamorous in the 1960s. In common with certain other Berlin hotels in the five-star category, it is trying to promote itself as Swiss (efficient to a fault), trendy (full of modern art) and classy (Anton Mosiman runs the restaurant). It doesn't throb: don't expect crowds of flashy people. Instead the lobby is a silent, almost modest haven, four floors up from the street. Spaces throughout the hotel are sprinkled with paintings and sculptures from the German artist Markus Lüpertz said to be worth €20m.

Augsburger Strasse 44, 10789 Berlin, Germany (00 49 30 220100; The hotel is in the heart of old West Berlin, at the top of the city's most illustrious shopping street, Kurfurstendamm, and overlooking the landmark Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtnis Church. The upper rooms have fabulous views of the city. The only snag is that since 1989 the Ku'damm has become deeply untrendy. Mitte, a few kilometres to the east, is now the only place to be seen.

Transport: there is little to see within walking distance of the hotel, apart from the zoo and lots of shops. But Berlin's public transport is excellent, and the Swissôtel is only a few minutes walk from Zoo station, a major transport hub. Fast and inexpensive connections by overground train (S-Bahn) and underground (U-Bahn) run from here to all parts of the city.

Time to international airport: while From West Berlin's old airport, Tegel, a taxi takes 15 minutes at off-peak hours and costs around £15. The No 109 bus from the airport terminal (every 10 minutes for most of the day) takes about 30 minutes and stops right across the road from the hotel. The fare is about £2.50 each way.

Your room is likely to have a soothing colour scheme of milk chocolate and butterscotch. The space at your disposal is not colossal, though the soft leather armchairs, potted orchids and original art on the walls will certainly suggest colossal expense. The bathrooms feature free loofer-mits and extra large tubs with space for two.

Keeping in touch: You can access the internet via your TV, though it will cost you a minimum of £5 every time you check your e-mails. Every room has modem sockets.

Double rooms cost from €120 (£86). You can book direct or through Leading Hotels of the World (00800 2888 8882;

I'm not paying that: Just round the corner is the Jugendgästhaus am Zoo (00 49 3129410) at Hardenbergstrasse 9a. A bed in a four-bed dormitory costs about £13.

Monday, May 12, 2003

Green and peasant land

Green and peasant land

Ah, the joys of unspoilt Umbria. The perfect place to get back to basics: ciabatta, olive oil, pecorino and truffles washed down with a rough country red, says Jeremy Atiyah. But it takes a certain type of Brit to appreciate these simple pleasures, of course

Published: 12 May 2003

Hi. I'm a Brit, on holiday in Italy with my woman, looking for wines and olive oils and truffles and mushrooms and all that. Nothing fancy. Just good honest, simple food. You see, people like us, we understand the secrets of Italian life. And peasant food, I can tell you, is one of them, alongside a jolly good dollop of culture, such as church frescoes and medieval villages and crumbling abbeys and what-have-you. With no plebs, anywhere. This is what I call a holiday. You see, we are on an organised walk.

And it starts here, in this awfully nice town called Spoleto. I admit it's covered in rain and cloud at the moment, and the centre of town is scruffy and clogged with funny little cars. But look here, these medieval stones are cracked and bleached to perfection. Everything is mouldy and rotten, but characterful as hell. Guttering gurgles. Dank lanes wind through the town. Shops offer giant dusty cheeses the size of tractor tyres, stinking truffles and hairy legs of dried ham. Stepping under a 2,000-year-old archway, we enter the main square, where some Spoletano in a van is cutting slices from a whole wild boar stuffed with rosemary. My woman and I, we love all this primitive, authentic stuff.
The next morning it's time to get going, with our maps and route instructions, while a terrific character called Luca takes charge of our luggage. "We Italians wouldn't walk it, you know," he keeps chortling. "You are sure you want to walk? Sure you don't want a lift?" What an amusing fellow. We praise him and pat him on the back for his guileless charm.

Meanwhile, the weather has rather gone to pot. In truth, it's a let's-go-back-to-sleep sort of day. Except that my woman and I are not the types to lounge in bed. Instead we march off through Spoleto's dripping lanes to grab a few items for lunch. Just the usual stuff. Ciabatta baked with olive oil and rosemary? Throw it in. Vine tomatoes? No, let's take those colossal knobbly ones instead. A bottle of Montefalco red? It's anything we can find, really.

Off we go. Luckily we aren't bothered by the rain. In fact let's be honest, Italian rain has unique qualities. Before long we are shuffling through wet leaves in the forest, with porcini mushrooms erupting from beneath our feet. Important signposts announce areas reserved for the collection of truffles. Hamlets, orchards, groves and copses compose themselves on fog-shrouded hillsides. Splendid fissures open in the heavens, allowing shafts of light to ignite distant ruined forts and towers.

Good God, I tell my woman, this is simple beauty of a kind that only simple people like us deserve.
She agrees. In fact it will be raw, native pleasure all the way until lunchtime, when we find ourselves approaching a dot on the map called Cese, population about 25. The landscape round here is a droll fusion of the Alpine and the Mediterranean. Cows with bells round their necks chew grass beside hillsides covered in olives and vines. In Cese, a classic mountain peasant woman, wearing army boots and a table cloth tied round her waist, is standing in a doorway, filling large barrels with chopped tomatoes. "Mamma mia," she screeches, at the mere sight of us. "No umbrella? No car?"

"We are British," I say, with a knowing smile, before asking if she can direct us to any sheltered spot. In the end we find a mouldy barn in which to eat our lunch. Mud squelches and rivulets trickle. The cheesy stench of manure is a pleasingly genuine touch. A mangy dog puts a wet tongue on our pecorino. "But good God," I am forced to exclaim to my woman, "this ciabatta is perfection!" She thoroughly agrees. At that moment we turn to see two ancients under huge umbrellas creep into our line of vision.

They too, bless them, seem worried about our safety and our sense of direction. I inform them that we are walking over the hills and through the forests to the Abbey of San Pietro in Valle. We have maps and instructions. "Dio mio," one of them grunts, "you'll get lost!" Such are the quaint concerns of the Italian peasantry. They imagine that spirits of the forest, or perhaps wild boar or wolf, will whisk us away. We smile and continue on our journey.

It takes a few more dank hours to find our accommodation for the night and by then my knees will be suffering from something jolly near to rigor mortis. But pain means nothing to my woman and me. How so? Because we know that the Abbey of San Pietro in Valle, when we get there, will embody that unique Italian fusion of culture and beauty and taste and class and decency that suits people like us so well.

We are proved right. As we finally step into the grounds, monkish chants come echoing out of the chapel. We are shown past medieval cloisters to our bedroom, a vast baronial hall with a rough stone floor, commanding views across a green, deep, rain-swept valley. A sense of my true merit seizes me. Suddenly I feel transformed into a courtly knight, while my woman acquires the characteristics of a comely maid. I shall give her a jolly good rogering tonight, methinks.

But first it is time for dinner. A German woman called Anna, an employee of the abbey, drives us to a nearby restaurant. "I am living here for 20 years but still this is not enough to be accepted by the people," she complains. "There is no reading here, no culture, no opinion." She seems to be distressed. But these are a peasant folk, I want to remind her, who drive mules and feed their dogs on cheese and bread. Why expect the world from them? She need only adopt the simple life, and she too can be happy, like us.

Then, moments later, while stepping from the car into the restaurant, I become the unexpected victim of a diabolical act. A ticklish buzzing in my hand is followed by searing, stabbing pain. An enormous, no, a gigantic wasp has stung me.

I spend the meal with a blob of cold cream soothing my swollen red hand and a string of well-dressed ladies from nearby tables approaching to ask if I can still breathe. "Perfectly," I reply, having regained my composure, while our waiter is prattling at speed, about the next course. "This is a very traditional Umbrian dish of cured meats and cheeses which we would like you to savour," he recites. Or, "now we would like you to try our dessert wine, with these very traditional biscotti". One of the courses comprises a boiled egg with soldiers, into which truffle sauce can be added. This would seem terribly charming if my hand didn't hurt so much. In fact the truffle tastes mulchy and soily. As I have said, I am a man of simple tastes.

That night, in my baronial bed, beside my woman, I lie awake with shooting pains extending up my arm, worrying about the giant centipede that has also been spotted in the bathroom. In the morning, the clouds reach right down to our window.

But these are minor troubles, trifles, hardly worth mentioning. In general, the coming days will pass splendidly. Each seems to start with wind, rain and a punishing ascent; each eventually climaxes with cured meats, artichokes, lentils, chestnuts and vino rosso della casa. We cross upland meadows where boar, deer and even wolf have been spotted; we espy lone, stubbly shepherds, guarding their flocks. "These men," I assure my woman, as we sit astride windy ridges to eat salami slices and pears, "know many things that supposedly superior peoples have forgotten." And let me tell you that my woman and I feel a rich sense of kinship with these uncomplicated types.

At the end of the fourth day we stagger up steep lanes into the earthquake-cracked village of Preci. Freezing fog, impregnated with wood smoke, hangs over the church steeple. But these signs of winter do not deter us. We now resemble two mud-splattered peasants. Our pastas are becoming heartier by the minute, our cheeses stronger and our red wines heavier.

Then on the fifth day the sun comes out. Under old oak trees, a path described in our walking notes as "lovely and ancient" leads us through a valley towards the monastery of San Eutizio. Acorns crunch underfoot. But hang on: this path looks almost English. What's more, we will later spend several hours walking through an immensely long valley that resembles the Blenheim Estate, where lone apple trees stand on slopes of smooth grass, where sheep bleat and faint mists rise. You could almost wonder whether some bloody bastardo didn't design Umbria just to flatter British tourists.

But when we reach San Eutizio we find ourselves looking at an ancient building that grows endearingly from a cliff-top. It is obvious to me and my woman that you couldn't build that if you weren't Italian. What's more, as we picnic later under a walnut tree, we find nuts crashing to the ground beside us, conveniently cracking open as they land. "The natural abundance of Italy!" I exclaim, as my woman forages for bounty.

We finally creep into our last destination, the tiny walled city of Norcia, at the time of the twilight passeggiata. Happy children scamper. Happy adults stroll. Happy shopkeepers stand in doorways. Happy pilgrims pay homage to the local hero, Saint Benedict. As for the happy tourists – that is to say, us – we go in search of souvenirs. Before the shops close, we'll pick up some olives marinated in walnut oil; pecorino cheese matured for two years; wild boar prosciutto; truffle-flavoured grappa; dried porcini mushrooms. It'll be rough, peasant stuff of course, and nothing you would appreciate, unless you were blessed by the same plain Italian tastes as me and my woman.

Traveller's Guide
Jeremy Atiyah's walk was courtesy of Inntravel (01653 629010, The week's independent walking tour, called "Umbria: Italy's Green Heart" costs from £735 per person based on two sharing. The price includes return flights from Heathrow to Rome, transfers, seven nights B&B, five dinners and two picnics, six days walking with maps, and luggage transportation.

You can cover the same ground by finding a cheap flight from Stansted to Rome Ciampino on easyJet (0870 600 0000, or Ryanair (0871 246 0000,; Ryanair also flies to Ancona on the Adriatic coast. Alternatively, fly on Alitalia (08705 448 259, or British Airways (0845 77 333 77, to Rome Fiumicino. Rail connections to Spoleto are slow, but cheap.

More information: Italian State Tourist Office, 1 Princes St, London W1B 2AY (020-7408 1254,

Hotel Astoria, St Petersburg

Hotel Astoria, St Petersburg

By Jeremy Atiyah

Published: 12 May 2003

Two grand old hotels in St Petersburg survived Lenin and Stalin to become five-star establishments of the 21st century. The Astoria is one of them. (The Grand Hotel Europa is the other.) Not that the Astoria's pre-Communist glory amounted to much: the hotel's opening could not have come in a less auspicious year, namely, 1914, on the eve of the war that was to end Tsarist rule in Russia. Three years later, the Bolsheviks were in charge of St Petersburg and the toffs for whom the Astoria had been designed – aristocrats and rich foreigners – faced an 80-year wait until they could claim the hotel as their own.

Despite being named after the crooked American capitalist John Jacob Astor, the hotel entered legend during the Soviet era, as the place in which Adolf Hitler planned to hold his victory party after the surrender of the city. During the Nazis' three-year blockade of Leningrad, Hitler was even reputed to have had invitations printed and ready to send out to guests.
Today there is no sign of either revolution or blockade. The ballroom and the winter garden have been restored, and a harp tinkles in the lobby as St Petersburg's wealthiest foreign visitors take afternoon tea.

Bolshaya Morskaya 39, 190000 St Petersburg, Russia (00 7 812 313 5757,, right next door to the colossal St Isaac's Cathedral. It has a prime view over the statue of the most hated Tsar of them all, Nicolas I. The major sites of the city, such as the Hermitage, the Russia Museum and Nevskiy Prospekt are within a few minutes' walk.

Time from international airport: the Hotel Astoria is only 17km from Pulkovo Airport, but in traffic-clogged St Petersburg the trip can take an hour. The hotel will charge about US$50 (£31) to send a car. If you are arriving by train from Moscow, the fare from Moskovsky railway station will be about $20 (£12.50). These charges are high by local standards but if you are staying at the Astoria it would be unseemly to make a fuss.

The views of St Isaac's Cathedral are a selling-point, but rooms are on the small side, and are restrained and classical rather than sumptuous and extravagant. The flooring is traditional Russian parquet, and the furniture is comfortable but not eye-catching. Those who wish their luxury to be ostentatious and glamorous are likely to be disappointed; connoisseurs of discreet class will enjoy it.

Double rooms cost from $328 (£204). However, for the best deals and minimal bureaucracy, consider holiday packages from the UK. For example, Abercrombie & Kent (0845 0700 612; offers four night-packages from £880 per person. This price is based on two sharing a standard double room and includes breakfast, flights from the UK and transfers.

I'm not paying that: cheap rooms are hard to come by in St Petersburg. One UK company offering cheap stays and help with visas is the Russia Experience (020-8566 8846, A budget hotel booked through the company will cost £125 single/£200 double for three nights.

Sunday, March 30, 2003

Love thy neighbour

Love thy neighbour

Finland has been independent since 1917, so why does Helsinki still pay homage to a Russian Emperor? The answer, says Jeremy Atiyah, is that the Finns have a tradition of being rather nice to their oppressors

Published: 30 March 2003

I am trying to understand Helsinki, with its penchant for nice design, its saunas, its woman presidents, its conferences on security and co-operation in Europe, its cranberries and its lemon pepper salmon. The only living Finn I've heard of is Mika Hakkinen. But to judge by these respectable people in long coats, he isn't representative.

All I know about the residents of this city is that their trilling language is not an Indo-European one. It seems, in fact, more closely related to the language of bears and elks than to that of (say) Swedes or Russians. By day, the people of Helsinki may wear suits and surf the internet. But by night they dream of their Karelian wilderness of forest and clear lakes, their wooden saunas, their jars of home-pickled mushrooms, their fresh fish and arctic brambles and cloudberries ...

Or so I suspect. And others have drawn similar conclusions. Back in the 1920s, indeed, the Finns were a rather modish people in the salons of western Europe, what with Sibelius the composer, Alvar Aalto the designer, and the original "flying Finn", Paavo Nurmi (not to be confused with Mika Hakkinen), who won four golds in track and field in the 1924 Olympics in Paris. Word got out, back then, that Finland was a magical country of 188,000 lakes and 179,000 islands, but no cities.

Maybe Finns just don't do cities, then? Maybe the miraculous fact that they have emerged from history with a state of their own owes more to their ancient traditions of being nice to traditional oppressors. Finlandisation, it used to be called: and aren't they still at it now? A lady from the Helsinki tourist board, called Kaarina, is going so far as to take me to dine in a Russian restaurant.

"You see, this place is so authentic," she tells me. But authentically what? Its velvety interior and Dickensian lighting make me suspect that Rasputin and Dostoyevsky are drinking vodka at the next table. The food here – cranberries and steak – is far better than in Russia itself. But why, in Helsinki, are we thus deferring to the old colonial power?

I am not yet sure. The next morning, strolling the sleety streets, I find that the pale pastel plaster façades of the Finnish capital also look remarkably Russian. Senate Square, the city centre, is an ensemble of neoclassical buildings that would not look out of place in St Petersburg. What is more, in its very centre – at the heart of the heart of Finland – stands a statue of a moustachioed and rather limp-looking Alexander II, the Emperor of all the Russias.

"Yes, the good Tsar," points out Kaarina, hastily. "The one who emancipated the serfs ..."
Groping for reasons, I begin to speculate: might it be that Helsinki respects Russia for having brought the Finnish capital here from Turku in 1812? "Oh no," comes the vague answer. "No, no ... we just don't mind Russians."

But after declaring independence in 1917, the Finns must have faced a dilemma regarding their imperial statue. Should they tear Alexander down and risk offending the Russians? Or should they keep him, and risk offending the Soviets? To do nothing, in the end, seems to have been viewed as the least offensive option.

I stroll down to the harbour to find that it, too, is dominated by the sinister-looking Uspenski Cathedral, a giant Russian confabulation of dark bricks and domes. Not that the Finns seem to care about things like this. The place I am heading for now is an offshore island. Perhaps the fort of Sveaborg ("Castle of Sweden") will help to uncover the mystery of Helsinki's identity for me.

A few fur-hatted old men are aboard ship. Under our movements, the ice plates murmur like sherbet as they slide slushily together; a seagull perches on a wobbly ice floe. Looking back, I now see that Helsinki resembles a tiny fishing port, ominously dwarfed by two colossal Swedish ferries currently in dock.

But once on dry land again, 15 minutes later, I feel more hopeful. Here the snow is deep and crisp. No noises are heard. Big old trees sprout among the yellow buildings. And, suddenly, I have a beardy little guide at my side. Sveaborg, he declares, was originally designed 250 years ago to dominate the eastern Baltic. "It had the greatest dry dock in the world," he adds, in a confidential whisper. "After the Russians had built St Petersburg, and fortified their own offshore islands, we had to go one better."
"You did?"
"Yes, the Swedes did," says the man, airily. "In those days there was no difference between Swedes and Finns. Anyway, as I was saying ... this fort housed a lively community before Helsinki ever did."

As late as 1790, in fact, the Swedes were still beating the Russians in these parts. Not for much longer though: 20 years after that, they abandoned this whole "invincible" fort to a fleet from St Petersburg, with scarcely a shot fired. It was a surrender that embarrasses Finns to this day. "A shameful incident," my beardy guide is now muttering. "We should not have surrendered ..."

These days, Finns call the place the Suomenlinna, "castle of Finland". But it has largely lost its military function. The old garrisons have been converted into flats; only the naval academy survives. The great dry dock from the Swedish era is still there, housing up to 20 wooden ships, hauled up for the winter. But these are museum pieces. Does this place throw any light on the spirit of modern Helsinki?

I look south across the Baltic, beyond dribs and drabs of snow-covered islands. From that direction, I suddenly remember how, during the Crimean War in 1854, British ships had humiliated the Russians by launching a bombardment upon this very hillock where I now stand. "Oh, a savage attack," my guide is now recalling. "Savage. We took many casualties."
"You took them?"
"Yes. The Russians took them."

That's it. I'm ready to give up. The Finns must be out there on their lakes somewhere, eating their cranberries, not here in Helsinki. I promptly storm back to the mainland, where a couple of hours later I rejoin Kaarina as night is falling once more. I'm fed up because I can imagine the kind of thing she'll have in store for me: a typical Swedish meal of Baltic herring.

"Don't be stupid," she says. "We're off go-karting."
"Off what?" I gasp.
"Go-karting. Round a race-track."
She's serious. This, apparently, is what the people of Helsinki do in their spare time. Ten minutes later we arrive at the indoor track in time to see a group of girls and boys kitting up in what look like Formula One overalls.

"Car man with guts" is how the local paper describes the owner of this place. I see tiny cars with real engines, awaiting starters' orders. But there is no air pollution inside: giant air conditioners suck out heat, fumes and the whiffs of burnt rubber as soon as they are generated. And yes, Mika Hakkinen is a regular visitor to the track. To prove it, pictures are promptly brought out for my benefit, showing Mika grinning like a bear.

In my overalls and helmet, I think I look authentic. I'm soon off in my go-kart, hugging hairpin bends, screeching down the straights. The maximum speed (I have been warned) is 60mph: electronic controls prevent will prevent me from exceeding this. But suddenly, in my throttle, I can feel Helsinki coming to life. And after 10 minutes of extremely tight corners, I am ready for anything. A stylish meeting room with seating for 20 perhaps? A luxury sauna, where, from small windows, I can keep half an eye on the track? All these facilities are available on site. And all, it seems, makes perfect sense to Finns.

Thus revved up, so to speak (as Kaarina points out), I now have no choice but to indulge in Helsinki's greatest pleasure. It's a short drive back into town, and I am heading for a drink in the Sanua-bar. This turns out to be a bar where, for the price of a drink, I can also use the sauna round the back. "Take a beer and a towel," says the bartender. I feel as though I am going to a very expensive bathroom.

Having changed into nothing, I enter the innermost steam room to find a naked disc jockey and a naked banker. The disc jockey is mumbling about the need to get relaxed before going on the night shift. "If sauna and beer can't relax you, you must be dead," says the banker. "That's right," growls the disc jockey. "Real Finns are born in the sauna. And after we die, we are washed and laid out here."

The naked banker and I retire, wrapped in towels, to the outer room to drink our beers and stare into fish tanks. I tell him about the go-karting. He reminisces about great sauna experiences of his life. I have never felt so relaxed in my life. This is it, then. Finnish Helsinki. I've found it, against all the odds.

The Facts

Getting there
British Airways (0845 773 3377; is offering return flights to Helsinki in April from £139.

Travelscene (020-8424 9648; offers a two-night break in Helsinki from £287 per person, based on two sharing, staying at the four-star Hotel Klaus Kurki on a b&b basis. The price includes return flights from Heathrow on British Airways.

Further information
Finnish Tourist Board (020-7365 2512;

Sunday, March 16, 2003

The perfect place for an Urban Drop - Out

The perfect place for an Urban Drop - Out

Where are the most chilled, liberal human beings on the planet? In a remote corner of Latin America that nestles inside the US border. Jeremy Atiyah boards their earthship

I'm in Taos, New Mexico, chilling, and dropping out. I'm also sniffing the high, desert air for insights into the meaning of life. All these hippies, artists and sundry bohemians: what has drawn them to Taos? Ancient secrets maybe, from the local Indians? That's my assumption. The natives have never been mere nomads, after all. They built proper pueblos (villages) containing adobe houses and adobe temples. And the Taos Pueblo was here before Christopher Columbus born.

If that isn't enough to provide an urban dropout like me with some cultural backbone, I don't know what is. But even without the pueblo, there would always be the Hispanics to fall back on. They have lived here in their ranches with their dusty furniture and bleeding Christs, on more or less equal terms with the Indians, for about two centuries longer than the US has existed. Think of the Taos area, in fact, as Latin America's most northerly outpost. From here, in the good old days, it was a 40-day trek along the Camino Real (Royal Way) to Chihuahua, and 70 days to Mexico City.

Which sounds marvellously promising for anyone planning to chill out here. All this talk of antiquity and continuity: it is such an improvement on large cars and automatic icemakers. For people who want orgiastic nights of drumming and dancing around fires and sleeping under stars in a tepee, what could be better? Even the tourists here – I've met tax experts from Nashville and lawyers from Seattle – seem to be poets or painters in their spare time.

As for the people who have dropped out permanently to Taos, these may be among the most liberal, chilled human beings on the planet. They've all been through life's recycling bin a dozen times. First there's Maria and her husband from New York who are building a house in the sage-brush and living in it as they go along ("coyotes sometimes bothered us before we put the walls up"). Then there's Karen who has got into breeding alpacas for fur. Donna who lives in a trailer. Harry the ex-mountaineer. Like me, they all seem to be skint, but unlike me they all know the difference between straw bale houses, passive solar houses, houses built of pallets and houses built of a pumice-cement mix squeezed out of a tube.

"My floor-recipe contains mud, straw, wood ash and a little ox blood."
(That's the kind of thing Karen will say.)
"I live in a half-built house," says Maria.
"She's reading a book which tells you how to build a house," adds Harry.
"The house is turning out like a ship."
"I did all the adobe on my inside walls myself, that's seven tons of brick."
"She peeled the vigas with a potato knife."
"It's great living in a house which changes every day."

This is what people talk about round here. One day Karen and Maria take me to a place called the Greater World Earthship Community on the edge of Taos. "It's a very Taos thing," they explain gently; that is to say, a bunch of houses built of old car tyres and tin cans rammed with earth, where the pot plants are fed by water from the lavatory. "Holy moly, no utility bills," somebody shouts. This is not architecture, but biotechture; these are not houses, but earthships.

Streets on the Greater World Earthship Community have names like Happy Trail and Star Lane. When you ask the inhabitants what they do for a living, they might tell you they make incense-candles, or that they are "in storytelling." Fortunately an earthship costs next to nothing if you have time to build it yourself. What sacrifices do people make to live here, I ask? "Telephone," says someone. "Swimming pool," sighs another.

Such bourgeois weaknesses. By the way, I myself am staying in a b&b that must rank as one of the most olde worlde in the United States. This is the Mabel Dodge Luhan House, no less, in the middle of Taos. The fact that it currently happens to be owned by my wealthy American relatives also fits in with another fine Taos tradition – the high esteem (and patronage) paid by the wealthy to dropouts.

Which brings me on to the subject of Mabel Dodge Luhan herself, who built up this house in the first place. We Brits have hardly heard of her, but all good American Bohemians know her as the wealthy heiress who famously dropped out to Taos in 1918. The most shocking and best part of the story was her marriage to a local pueblo Indian, one Tony Luhan, her fourth and favourite husband.

Although it hasn't yet occurred to me to look for an indigenous wife, I like the sound of this couple. Mabel sometimes ordered Tony to sleep in a tepee in the courtyard downstairs, so that she could creep down for an encounter with a savage at midnight. And in the end Tony and Mabel almost took over Taos. This quiet, conservative community was flooded out with Mabel's designers, cooks, servants, friends and funky acolytes. Tony would drive her to the grocery store and honk the horn for food. And they remained king and queen of northern New Mexico right through to the 1960s.

Their old house? At first glance you see giant cottonwood trees, flat roofs, exposed beams, rounded corners and walls smeared smooth with chocolate-brown plaster. Then you see the courtyards, cloisters, solariums, ceramic cockerels and petroglyph stones. I call it a pueblo in itself; an adobe empire on the hill.

And when you step inside, the US might as well not have happened. It's cool and rustic, with crooked doorways and cavernous fireplaces and creaking floorboards and twirling columns and rickety staircases. People sit drinking afternoon tea. No wonder an American equivalent to the Bloomsbury Group once chose to coalesce here. Back in the 1920s, on Mabel's invitation, urban sophisticates were rolling up in their motor cars to chill out with Indians and sit on bear skins and paint and write and marvel at the biblical simplicity and savage light and arid landscapes. Among many others, D H Lawrence, Georgia O'Keefe and Ansel Adams were soon on their way. A movement had been born.

And that's the movement I am still trying to drop out to, right now. But what wisdom can I acquire from these artistic connections? Possibly (I am advised) I should try visiting an upstairs bathroom known as the "D H Lawrence bathroom."

This enigma concerns a bathroom designed with big windows and no curtains because Mabel (up here) and the local Indians (down there) wanted a good view of one another while she bathed. But Lawrence, when he arrived, was too uptight for such gratuitous exhibitionism. So he insisted on painting the bathroom windows over with ducks and chickens and stars and suns before taking his clothes off. These windows, I notice, are maintained to this day with as much devotion as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

But I'm not sure that Lawrence provides a benchmark to which I should be aspiring. Yes, he was a kind of dropout. But he also spent his time in Taos writing intense essays on the subject of Indian rituals and Indian religion. He definitely did not chill. The few who still can, recall him as a nasty, self-important little theorist. And to this day, I find people round here gossiping maliciously about what really happened to his ashes: Lawrence's wife Frieda, and Mabel, together, are rumoured to have eaten them for breakfast, mixed into a dish of scrambled eggs. Maybe that's the fate of people who bring their introspective preoccupations to Taos.

With this warning in mind, I decide to explore the town, in search of different inspirations. Is Taos beautiful? Yes. Huge spaces open to distant mountains. "But the rich are building on the hills!" locals keep telling me. "And the poor are building on the mesa!" They can hardly bear thinking about issues like this, until pressed, when they'll admit it: that 25 years ago more than 90 per cent of the population of Taos was Hispanic or Indian. That figure is now falling like a stone dropped from the Rio Grande Bridge.

And my main impression of the town centre today is of a dusty, traffic-jammed highway lined by fast food outlets and parking lots.

Nor is there anything very alternative about the latest immigrants to Taos. These days it's mainly Americans looking for holiday homes. People like Donald Rumsfeld and Julia Roberts for instance. It's getting almost as commercial as the state capital, Santa Fe. "Art" is no longer the refuge of bohemians, but big business, with every second store functioning as a gallery to display local styles.

And the main square, which in the old days enclosed saloon bars, mule wagons and men in villainous hats, now comprises boutiques selling curios and gifts.

In some ways, the meaning of life is as elusive in Taos as in any other town in America. How did this happen? How did we get from Mabel Dodge Luhan to Julia Roberts? What, I ask myself, came in between?

I haven't gone into the 1960s yet. But that confused decade soon saw hippies cruising along Route 66 into New Mexico, singing Dylan and shouting "Far Out!" as they came. Perhaps word had escaped that the Indians had a religious tradition of getting high on peyote. Anyway, New Age extended families and naked roving kids were soon crowding in. Communes opened. And finally the dreaded film-maker and actor Dennis Hopper moved into the Mabel Dodge Luhan House.

Let's not be too hard on Hopper. The trouble was that by the 1970s, you had to be so much nastier to maintain anti-establishment credentials than you did in the 1920s. So when Hopper reached Taos, he sold all the original furniture, tried to cut Mabel's bed in half with a chainsaw, dropped lots of acid, waved guns around and beat up innumerable women. Before long, by some accounts, Taos was a hotbed of riff-raff involved in dodgy communal living, public nudity and drug-taking. The Hispanics were outraged and the Indian culture was giving up the ghost; the old men in traditional blanket wraps were just about all gone by the time Hopper cleared out.

Since which time (it now occurs to me), Taos has gone in a reactionary direction. The hippie instincts are not gone but my chilled friends building homes with their bare hands have their backs to the wall. When I visit Cid's Organic Food Store, I find grass juice for sale, whole-wheat couscous, raw organic Brazil nuts and brown rice crisps. But everything is expensive. "When you know who you are," states a message posted on the wall, "you enter rapid learning and peak efficiency..."

Is this supposed to be an ancient secret? Or have I been looking in the wrong places? One day I drive off down a dusty track to the impoverished Pueblo, where a young Indian is explaining what "his people" have been through at the hands of colonialists. We're standing in a clean and tidy village square, scattered with stones and sleeping dogs. Brown adobe dwellings are heaped up around me; a sign outside one house announces "Real Indian stuff for sale". I follow a pair of tourists wandering through back alleys, peering through people's doors. "We just want to see what Indians eat," I hear them murmur, in front of a house. A girl's voice calls out: "I like peas but my mum hates 'em."

Over there, meanwhile, in an area forbidden to tourists, are the mysterious kivas, temple-pits in the ground, accessed by long ladders. It has been whispered darkly that the kiva ceremonies are no longer serious; that particpants get drunk and forget their duties. But right now I am intrigued by those pairs of poles, the extended tops of ladders, projecting from the ground like insect antennae.

Any sign of the meaning of life? A faint mist is certainly lifting off the mountains. And there's that smell of wild sage in the air again. No, I haven't found the elusive ancient wisdom yet, but Taos – to its credit – is still trying to give me a clue.

The facts

Getting There
Jeremy Atiyah flew to New Mexico as a guest of American Airlines (0845-778 9789; Fares from London Gatwick to Albequerque, New Mexico, via Dallas/Fort Worth, start at £381 return.

Being There
At the Mabel Dodge Luhan House (001-505 751 9686;, 240 Morada Lane, Taos, New Mexico, double rooms start from $110 (£73) to $160 (£106) per night in the main house, $85 (£56) per night in the more modern guest house on the grounds, or $200 (£133) per night for the Gate Lodge, which has two bedrooms.

Further information
New Mexico tourist information, 01329-665 777;