For a city of its importance, Birmingham is terribly good at hiding in plain sight. A show of hands amongst a randomly selected group of people from SE England would probably show that most had been to Amsterdam or Barcelona, but how many would have spent time in Birmingham? It has an abundance of quality Victorian architecture, yet it is Glasgow or Belfast that come to mind when we think of Victorian cities. It was the ‘city of a thousand trades’ at the start of the Industrial Revolution, but we are likelier to think of Manchester or Sheffield when we think of the coming of the factory age. Even in terms of pop music, having given us Duran Duran, Dexys Midnight Runners, ELO and Denim, Birmingham somehow lags behind Liverpool and Manchester as a pilgrimage point for music fans. Holidaymakers go for the Lake District, York, Bath or Oxford, and Brum keeps a low profile. We all know that it is the second largest city in the UK, and that it has more canals than Venice, but do we know Birmingham?
I once saw a quote somewhere by one of Austria’s post-war chancellors that “Austria has retired from world history, and is very happy about that”. Austria is not a particularly large country, but its erstwhile empire was very large and Vienna was a cultural metropolis and mixing-pot on the scale of London or Paris, and it has the buildings to match. The empire was finished by the age of the Manhattan skyscraper, but the buildings Vienna does have reflect the neo-classical ideology of Empire; everyone wanted to steal the clothes Greece/Rome, but as German-speakers the Viennese were also inheritors of the Gothic. The architecture, particularly around the lavish Ringstrasse that replaced the old city walls, is like a five-year-old unleashed on a pick ‘n’ mix with an unlimited budget. The familiar Hapsburg look of Herculean caryatids and green domes of oxidised copper is turned up to 11 in their capital; they were building a city for giants, on a heroic scale that seems almost comical to our eyes. But this city built for titans is now the capital to a small-to-middling country, and compared to our pressure-cooker global cities it has a paradoxically unpretentious, slightly soporific appeal that I find very appealing. It no longer asks to dominate world affairs; it is happy to rest on its laurels, and so it should be.
Following the news in the summer of 2017, we hear that the infrastructure of Southern Europe is collapsing under the weight of boat people being picked up by the Mafia a few metres from the Libyan coast, we hear that Rome is imposing a curfew on running water, we hear of multiple arson-encouraged forest fires sweeping across nation after nation, we hear that activists in Barcelona and Mallorca are threatening direct action against mass tourism, we hear that Brits are missing their flights because of four-hour queues in and out of the Schengen zone; in short, we hear that there are too many people on the planet, all taking too many holidays in the same overcrowded places. With this year’s summer break I get the impression that we sacrificed world-class art, culture and iconic sights in exchange for being obscurist holiday hipsters, because in the little corner of Austria on which we took a punt we barely saw another foreigner in a week, and we came home happy with our choice. The Wachau valley is a 20-mile stretch of the Danube, roughly equidistant between Linz and Vienna, that is particularly pretty. It begins with Melk, a huge and celebrated monastery with a small town below, and ends around the medium-sized town of Krems an der Donau (‘an der Donau’ performing the same role as ‘upon-Thames’), with a string of picturesque winemaking villages in between. People who are seriously into their exercise like to cycle its entire length, and a boat down the Danube to Melk is one of the classic day-trip excursions from Vienna, but we spent a week in the Wachau to recharge our batteries and indulge in some slow travel.
From Spain to the Spanish Netherlands. As I contemplate writing up this trip it dawns upon me that this is the first time I’ve blogged Belgium, and only my third visit to the country. Conclusion: I don’t get to Belgium half as much as I should. For so long Belgium was, to Britain, merely the butt of jokes in bad TV comedies. Yet the defence of this place across the water was what dragged us into World War I, and the swift Eurostar connection to Brussels means that these days we can go abroad and explore a relatively unfamiliar country without having to endure the awful experience of airports, and with a quicker journey time than we face going to Newcastle or Glasgow (although who knows what obstacles Brexit will place in our way). When Belgium was at its most unfashionable, Jonathan Meades made his celebrated film arguing that it was interesting because as devout Catholics, Belgians paired the same death-cult as Spain or Italy (where it is leavened by sunny skies and the blue Mediterranean) with perpetually grey skies that rain more than Yorkshire. My own great fondness for the place can probably be attributed, at least in part, to the fact that its brilliance is unsung, under-the-radar, and a wonderful surprise. The tourist goes to Venice in full expectation that he will find one of the most beautiful cities in the world, but what knows the tourist of Ghent? Until recently, not so much, but its greater accessibility these days seems to be waking Brits up to the fact that Belgium has the best beer, chips and chocolate on God’s earth, and much else besides.
There are two Spains; the Spain you find if you go there, recognisably European and not wildly different from France or Italy, and the overheated, exotic Spain of vintage tourist posters that has existed in the British imagination since the days of the revenge tragedy. Andalucia has a fairly strong and separate identity, as so many of Spain’s composite regions do, but it fills in for the rest of Spain, which we tend to think of as all flamenco, bullfights and tapas. Historically, this presumably comes from our connections to the area via the rock of Gibraltar and the sherry trade. Built on a Moorish template, with its whitewashed buildings, its orange trees and the ghosts of its former selves (Roman, Islamic and Jewish), Seville fits the mythical Spain like a glove. There seems to be a perfume in the air, and an intoxicating one. It is perhaps telling that the two most iconic Sevillanos, Carmen and Don Juan, are fictional characters. Seville’s historic parts are well preserved and the city fitted the image I always had of the Naples of the Grand Tour, before it became a concrete developers’ free-for-all. The simple fact that every square and boulevard is lined with orange trees seems to stand for the city as a sort of pleasuredome.
Andalucia is Spain’s, and Europe’s, most southerly point, in touching distance of Morocco. It is probably inevitable, then, that we romanticise, exoticise, and Other the hell out of it. Carmen the gypsy femme fatale, Don Quixote tilting at windmills; Spain signifies the crazy, the exciting, the dangerous. Here we the Spain that people think of when they imagine Spain, as opposed to the cities around the Pyrenees and Atlantic that are not so different from the rest of Europe. It was the last stronghold of the Muslim Moors who called their Iberian empire Al-Andalus, after the Vandals that swept in when Rome fell, and the eight centuries of Muslim rule have left their strongest flavour here; the spices in the food, the beautiful craftsmanship of the mosques and palaces, the iron railings in front of the windows that separated the female and male domains of indoors and outdoors, and perhaps the cultural practices that just don’t happen in Bremen or Birmingham; flamenco, bullfighting. As much as Spain is friendly, cosmpolitan and as plugged into the modern world as anywhere, one wonders if the ghosts of the exiled Moor, the fact that fascism clung on here until the late 70s, or the strong presence of Counter-Reformation Catholicism makes this a land of contrasts between the sunshine, the gaiety, and something more sombre. See what I mean about Othering?
Some Italian cities manage to be what I think of as Goldilocks cities; big enough to be a living place of activity, bustle and plenty to see, small enough that everywhere is a relatively short walk, and the worst excesses of mass tourism are kept at bay. Typically these cities will not contain Top 10 artistic blockbusters to compare with Michelangelo’s David, but they will be elegant, quite genteel, have a centro storico that is both well-preserved and chiefly pedestrianised, an understated charm, and a good-life ambiance that replaces the desperate rush of major cities with tranquility. Simply spend some time there, and the place will begin to work its magic; as you adjust to the pace of life, you can feel your body and spirit start to relax. After Siena and Florence, Lucca felt like a luxurious Sunday morning of a city, and it was the feel of the city, rather than any box office masterpieces, that won me over to it.