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.
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?
Deep within the inner cloisters of the Rockafeller Monastery, Don Draper and Roger Sterling furrow their brows and put their brains to work, as they attempt to formulate their order’s position on the Arian heresy. Was Christ entirely divine, entirely human, or somewhere in between? Just around the corner, crowds are gathering in the Madison Square market; Neil Simon and Billy Joel have written a new mystery play about the crucifixion, and it receives its premiere tonight in a production by the Stonemason’s Guild. Podesta Clinton says a short prayer before heading into the Palazzo Pubblico to face the city council; her rival faction have demanded that she walk across twenty yards of glowing hot coals tonight, that the city may find out whether God is on her side. Outside the city walls in the tiny hamlet of Williamsburg, Lena Dunham fretfully waits out the long hours in her convent cell. The mother superior has placed her in solitary confinement for inappropriately touching a new novice sister. Still, she is better off than her friends Marnie, Jessa and Shoshana, who were all married off to cloth merchants, sent away to cope with the biting winters of Antwerp, and died in their mid-teens during childbirth. Such is daily life in San Gimignano, the Medieval Manhattan.
And so to Italy, for a ridiculous third time this year (I might as well get it the obsession out of my system now, anyone paid in sterling won’t be able to afford it for much longer). Travelling around so many Italian cities, where the churches are often the only sights to be seen, I have ended up acquiring a real taste for the art, and felt the need to revisit the undisputed capital of the renaissance, Florence, which I had only been to years ago when I was young and unschooled; hence a tour of Tuscany. I didn’t know a lot about Pisa, beyond knowing that it shares a river with Florence and a vague recollection that it was an early maritime republic, but it houses Tuscany’s major airport; we were flying in and out of here and it seemed sensible to take a quick look around the city before dashing off. What we found was one of the great architectural set pieces of Italy, quite self-contained and sat apart from the rest of a lively young city; both are worth your while.