Passing through Birmingham recently I had a little time on my hands and so decided to visit the Digbeth area, a shortish walk from New Street Station. Head south from the futuristic silver button bulwark that is the Selfridges building and you will soon arrive here. Hitherto, I had known of Digbeth coach station – which is still here, revamped and now known as Birmingham Coach Station (opened by Fabio Capello, no less, in 2009) – but somehow whatever else lay in this industrial area close to the city centre had mostly escaped my attention.

IMG_2306IMG_2440Typhoo Tea once had a factory here, as did the Birmingham Battery and Metal Company before it decamped to Selly Oak, but probably the most famous of Digbeth’s buildings is the imposing Devonshire Works, better known as The Custard Factory. It was here that Alfred Bird & Sons manufactured their innovative egg-less custard powder, a buttercup-coloured product, which combined with hot milk, provided the nation with the necessary lubricant for its stewed rhubarb and apple crumble. An illuminated sign still hangs over its entrance to remind us of the building’s former use, although these days the complex has found new life as a centre for arts, small businesses and independent retailers.

IMG_2501IMG_2372The Custard Factory stands as a slightly self-consciously gritty beacon of culture amidst the quotidian surroundings of Digbeth High Street. Digbeth, which clearly still has some industrial dirt beneath the finger nails of its clever hands, does ‘gritty’ quite well. Beyond the high street, narrow streets lead down to the railway bridges and embankments that bisect the district east to west. The tropes of inner city cultural re-purposing are clear to see: the graffiti is mostly of a high standard; the converted galleries have a homespun, do-it-yourself air about them; the pubs remain authentic-looking despite their reinvention as hip places to drink.


IMG_2400It is widely thought that Digbeth was the focal point from which England’s second city developed when Berma’s Saxon tribe chose to settle the valley of the River Rea in the 7th century. Digbeth, which now tends to incorporate the old parish of Deritend at its eastern end, later became the manufacturing heart of the city when Birmingham rapidly expanded during the Industrial Revolution. Evidence of this industrial heritage can still be seen everywhere, although these days it is marked more by conspicuous absence than thriving activity.


IMG_2361Flanked by the Irish Quarter to the south and Eastside to the north, Digbeth was mostly cleared of its poor housing in the 1950s and ‘60s to become a factory zone that has slowly atrophied into a wasteland of disused industrial buildings and car parks, some of its more edgy-looking pubs now standing solitary and alone like isolated fortresses. Now, the area is an edgeland of sorts – a buffer zone between the shiny new architecture of the CBD and the residential areas of the inner city. Surprisingly, this formerly industrial quarter is also where Birmingham’s oldest secular building, The Old Crown, may be found: a Tudor period timber-framed inn that began life as a private house and would look more at home in genteel Stratford-upon-Avon than here wedged between the old factories and viaducts. There is more pre-industrial history if you look for it: a blue plaque next to the Irish Centre commemorates Bible translator John Rogers, who was born in Deritend in 1507 and burned at the stake at Smithfield, London in 1555, the first victim of the Marian persecution waged during Queen Mary’s reign. Whether or not a plaque that commemorates a Protestant martyr should be placed quite so close to a (Catholic) Irish institution is perhaps a moot point.

IMG_2394IMG_2487For all its atmosphere of gentle dereliction, Digbeth is clearly on the rise once more. The Custard Factory has its shops, studios and workshops, its bars are busy at weekends and there’s a burgeoning electronic music scene centered around some of the clubs.  On the up, certainly, but Hoxton-style hipsters have yet to take over (better try Moseley instead) and, rather than fashionable full beards, most of the facial hair that you will witness on the street here tends to be the henna-died chin whiskers of elderly Pakistanis who pass through Digbeth on their way to the Southside markets.IMG_2439


Palmyra 2000

SYR006LMThe news is always bad from Syria these days. The newsworthiness of the conflict seems to fluctuate as we in the West become increasingly inured to a lexicon that includes words like barrel bombs, Isis, chlorine gas, jihadi, caliphates and air-strikes. It seems almost too much to take in as a distant observer let alone as one of those unfortunates who have to suffer and bleed day-in, day-out on the ground. Recently the attention has turned to historic sites rather than people, and now that Isis have reached Palmyra there is fear for the future of this beautiful and well-preserved historic city in the Syrian desert. Religious fundamentalists have a habit of gleefully destroying great works of art and architecture – for some reason, beauty and creativity are seen as an affront to their misguided theological nihilism – and Isis are no exception. Much as the destruction of something as unique as the great desert city over which Queen Zenobia once reigned is an abomination, it is not as egregious as the loss of a single innocent life. But, tragically, there have already been an uncountable number of deaths. Perhaps it is a sad reflection on the values of the West that, when all things are measured, an historic site – albeit something as extraordinary as Palmyra – is sometimes valued higher than that of human life?

SYR023LMI visited Syria, Lebanon and Jordan in 2000 – an inspirational trip  in which I saw a plethora of ancient sites and exciting modern cities, and encountered welcoming and friendly people wherever I went. What I see on television news today does not register with what I experienced back then, although sometimes the backdrop – Aleppo Citadel, for example, which now lies in ruins – is just about recognisable through the         debris and smoke. These photos – low resolution copies of slides – are those that I took early one April morning after staying overnight at Palmyra.

SYR024LMOver the years I have been lucky to visit several places of great historic value before they were later destroyed by savage acts of war: the sandstone cliff Buddhas at Bamiyan in Afghanistan, which I visited en-route to India in 1977; the World Trade Center in New York (visiting a friend who worked alone in a TV broadcast monitoring station at the very top of the building in 1986); the bazaar in Osh, Kyrgyzstan (in 2006 before it was largely burned to the ground by inter-ethnic rioting in 2010); Aleppo Citadel. I can only hope that Palmyra does not go the same way as these unique sites, reduced to just a memory that exists only in photographs and people’s minds.




Serbia 4


The new edition of my Serbia guide is published today. It’s fully updated, of course, with revised text and lots of new listings, especially for Belgrade, a city that despite considerable setbacks seems to drive itself forever onwards and upwards. Here’s a snippet from the new edition that describes a possible future development for the Serbian capital. It looks quite remarkable (although probably hugely expensive too).


A large plot of land between Kalemegdan Fortress and the Dorćol riverfront is currently awaiting development. Originally owned by Beko, a company that went bankrupt, the land has been bought by Lamda development, a Greek company that is part of a holding company with EFG Bank and EKI Petrol. The Greek company approached the studio of Zaha Hadid to come up with a project for the land and the Iraqi-British architect has come up with a stunning plan for the development: a sweeping modernist design that connects with the surrounding landscape and incorporates essential public spaces and public transition between the fortress and the riverfront. At the time of writing, the proposed project was still awaiting public review (www.beobuild.rs). The design can be seen on line at: http://www.zaha-hadid.com/architecture/beko-masterplan.

Belgrade’s not a stranger to developments that never quite get off the ground. Here’s another snippet from the Belgrade chapter of Serbia 4:


At the edge of Ćirila i Metodija Park in the city centre, under the whiskery gaze of Vuk Karadžić whose statue graces the western corner, are several entrances that lead down to what appears to be an underpass. But there is more to this than you might imagine: this is the location for the only station on Belgrade’s metro. The station, known simply as Vukov Spomenik (‘Vuk’s Statue’) was to be part of an underground system that never came to fruition, and which, as things turned out, ended up being one of the city’s biggest white elephants. It was built during the Milošević period in 1995 as the first component of what would be a comprehensive underground network but the turn of events in Serbia in the late 1990s resulted in the country having far more pressing needs than that of a highly expensive underground railway. The part that was completed is well worth seeing, even if it is a bit surreal. A number of entrances lead down to a stylish atrium in brushed steel from where escalators plummet down further to the platform. The station has since found use as a stop on the Beovoz line that plies between Zemun and Pančevo and a few shops have opened for business in the atrium.



Yugoslav Hotels


They are a dying breed, Yugoslav hotels. And I use the word ‘Yugoslav’ advisedly as, although the buildings shown here are in what is now Serbia, all were erected during the period when that country was still part of Yugoslavia. At worst, these hotels, largely built in the 1960s and ’70s,  are concrete monoliths: multi-storey overnight people-parks, the sort of structures that might make Prince Charles go bug-eyed with apoplectic rage. Indeed, some are so brutally concrete and cubic that they bring to mind Rachel Whiteread’s House – a three-dimensional concrete representation of the internal space of an earlier dwelling.
IMG_1094At best though, they are imaginative, ironic, faux-futurist; canny enough to display an architectural sense of humour (although never quite as precocious as the Titanic Hotel in Nagorno-Karabakh). I’m thinking here of the skyrocket-like edifice that casts its long shadow over  Partisan Square in Užice, western Serbia. I have stayed here a couple of times and all I can say is that what the hotel lacks in working light bulbs and reliable lifts it makes up with excellent views over the city from its upper floor windows.


If the Hotel Zlatibor in Užice is a skyrocket then the Hotel Vrbak in Novi Pazar is a space station, albeit a very 1970s space station with neo-Oriental touches. And a semi-deserted, slightly disturbing space station too: on both occasions that I stayed here I was one of less than half a dozen guests. Perhaps it should be renamed Solaris?

While some of these government-owned hotels manage to keep going, most of their trade coming from large wedding parties and occasional school-trip groups, many have closed for business and languish unloved in provincial town centres awaiting investors that never come. They remain as ghostly real estate of the recent Yugoslav past, an embarrassment of concrete and glass that is too big and decrepit to profitably invest in, and too massive to easily demolish.
IMG_1527The hotels shown here are in Novi Pazar, Užice, Niš, Pančevo, Pirot, Knjaževac and Belgrade. The first three are still working; the remainder are not.


Savamala, Belgrade

I have just returned from Belgrade, the Serbian capital, where I have been doing research for the fourth edition of my Bradt Serbia guide that will be published next summer sometime. Belgrade never was the white city that its name (Beo = white, grad = city) suggests but some parts are certainly more grey than others. One such ‘grey area’ is the Savamala district that lies along the traffic-choked thoroughfare of Karadjordjeva close to the railway station and River Sava port. Heavy traffic, air pollution and decades of neglect have seen to it that, at first glance at least, this would appear to be one of the more down at heel neighbourhoods in the city. A closer look, though, reveals a wealth of wonderful, if slightly crumbling, architecture in Secessionist style.

The best of all the buildings here, albeit in poor shape these days, is the Geozavod building that started life as an Austro-Hungarian stock exchange before later becoming Yugoslavia’s State Geological Institute. Normally it is impossible to get inside as the building is considered to be unsafe but as it has been used to house this year’s 53rd October Art Salon I managed to gain access thanks to my artist friend Ivana.

Evidence of the building’s original use can still be seen on the ground floor, where as well as solid German-made safes, the exchange counters are still in place, their  marble and finely engraved glass pristinely preserved. Elsewhere a broken clock and cupboards filled with dusty tomes tell of its time as a geological institute. A portrait of Tito adds to the feel of a vanished world -the once powerful and influential nation that was Yugoslavia.

High Line

New York City isn’t the sort of place that immediately springs to mind when one thinks of walking but the city is a treasurehouse for urban exploration. Walking – with a little bit of assistance from the city’s comprehensive bus and subway system – is by far the best way to get under the skin of the ‘Big Apple’ and, to squeeze the life out of this hackneyed metaphor, who knows what you might find – pips, juicy flesh,  maybe even a worm or two?Unlike many American cities, where the assumption is that people prefer to move around in noisy mobile metal boxes, New York is a relatively pedestrian-friendly place. For a wholesome, petrochemical-free experience, there’s always Central Park, but for the past year or so there has been another traffic-free route through Manhattan’s West Side that has transformed a pre-exisiting industrial conduit to a green pedestrian byway.

New York’s High Line, a mile and a half of raised walkway above the working class neighbourhoods of the West Side, was once part of an elevated railway that was built in the 1930s to shift goods to and from the slaughterhouses and packing plants of the Meatpacking District around Gansevoort Street. Defunct by the mid 1980s, the rail line has since been lovingly transformed into a fine green artery that links that same meaty neighbourhood with West 34th Street in Hell’s Kitchen to the north. In place of sleepers and railtracks a landscaped walkway now threads along its length, which is lined on both sides by plentiful benches and seating areas, and long leafy borders filled with grasses, perennials and shrubs. To add a bit of glamour, the Empire State Building peeks above the surrounding city roofline at regular intervals as a reminder that Midtown’s architectural bling is really not so far away.

The real beauty of the High Line is that it does not really have any specific sight to see at either end – the Meatpacking District was never a big tourist draw, although the neighbourhood is currently on the up and being gentrified faster than you can say ‘sushi bar’. Sometime in the future there will be a new American art museum built at Gansevoort Street but, for the time being, rather than any particular goal, the attraction is the High Line itself – the walking of it. What better way to take in the city than to stroll above the streets and buildings where New Yorkers actually work and play out their lives?

Technically speaking, the High Line is an urban park rather than a mere thoroughfare. Its not just for tourists but a place filled with office workers eating sandwiches and  friends taking a stroll together – native New Yorkers looking down on the streets they have known all their lives and seeing them from a fresh perspective. It is also quite remarkably crime-free.

Halfway along, just south of Hell’s Kitchen, the route runs through the West Chelsea district and anyone wishing to pay homage to Sid Vicious or Dylan Thomas (who both died here), or Jack Kerouac, Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell (who all embraced its muse), could do worse than make a short pilgrimage to visit the famous Chelsea Hotel at West 23rd Street. Sadly, the hotel has recently been bought up by a developer and is no longer open to ‘receive new guests’, so artists, writers and rock stars in search of a creative Bohemian atmosphere or a suitable venue for high-spirited shenannigans are now obliged to look elsewhere.

East of Everett – Riding the Empire Builder

Arriving in Seattle, having spent the last two weeks on a small boat, it was time to make use of other forms of transport to get home. Flying all the way Seattle-New York-London would have been straightforward enough but after a fortnight at sea where 8-10 knots was routine I was keen to not only feel the earth beneath my feet for awhile but also to continue at a relatively stately pace. So I opted for the train: first to Chicago, then to New York City from where I would, begrudgingly but inevitably, finally take to the air to cross the Atlantic. By way of a prelude to all this cross-continental railroading I made use of the few hours I had in the city by taking the Seattle Centre Monorail to visit the Space Needle – an all-too-short run across the city centre that actually passes through the multi-coloured sheet metal flanks of Frank Gehry’s Experience Music Project Museum before arriving at its terminus.

Amtrak‘s Chicago-bound Empire Builder leaves every afternoon from Seattle, taking around 46 hours – the best part of two days and nights – to reach the windy city on Lake Michigan’s shore. A parallel service runs from Portland in Oregon and both trains join up in the middle of the night at Spokane, Washington. On my first evening on the train I decided to head for the dining car just after passing through Everett, Washington. Here, I met up with Anne (Amtrak waiters insist on grouping solo travellers together at tables – dining on a train in the US is a sociable event whether you like it or not), a grandmother from Seattle on her way to visit various offspring way out east. Travelling in the United States, instant life stories and the brandishing of family photographs to total strangers are pretty much the norm and a shared meal is viewed as a welcome opportunity to make new friends. Anne was no exception. We were all friends here on the train – relaxed friendliness being the default setting of any sort of public transport in the USA. As our conductor would announce later on that night, “Ladies and gentlemen please ensure that you have not put your belongings on the neighbouring seat. We are expecting quite a few travellers to get on at Leavenworth and so you will probably have a new friend joining you when we get there. Let’s make them feel welcome.”

No-one came to sit next to me at Leavenworth but at Wenatchee an hour or so later I was joined by an elderly man called Dale who had just come from a week-long Lutheran Church retreat in the wilds of Washington State. “I see we’ve got us a groaner here”, were his first words to me as he wearily slumped down alongside, throwing a casual nod at the source of the shrill metallic wail that was emanating from the carriage wheels beneath us and had been doing so intermittently since leaving Seattle several hours earlier. Lean and bearded with plaid shirt and baseball cap, Dale might have looked like a typical retired Mid West farmer but was, in fact, a lay preacher in the no-nonsense undemonstrative Lutheran tradition. Despite an outward appearance that might give the impression of being a little ‘ornery’ Dale was the gentlest of men, with a playful, twinkly charm and a thoughtful, considered take on the world. We got talking about Alaska. He had spent a year there as a preacher on an isolated island close to the Arctic Circle just 40 miles from Russia (“And I mean 40 miles, not like that fool idea that that Sarah Palin woman had that she could see Russia from her house in Wasilla”). Dale’s northern sojourn had given him the greatest respect for the native people that endured the difficult living conditions of Alaska’s far north although he acknowledged that there were serious problems of alcohol abuse. “It was supposed to be a dry island but people being people they snuck it in somehow.”

Catching a glimpse of western Montana’s Glacier National Park early the next morning – and adding on an hour as we reached the USA’s Mountain Time zone – the landscape soon settled down to the flat prarieland that we would be passing through for the rest of the day. This was cattle country but the grass looked thin and parched after a hot, dry summer. After Shelby, Montana, we entered cereal-growing territory, with newly harvested wheatfields rolling away to the horizon and tall grain silos by the roadside. Stopping at Havre, there was enough time to stretch our legs on the platform and examine the statue of James J. Hill, the founder of the Empire Builder route, in front of the station. A small group of Amish dressed in 19th-century added a touch of local colour. Amish generally spurn modern technology but are nothing if not pragmatic and for long distances it seems the train is an acceptable alternative to travel by horse and cart. Leaving Havre, we reached Glasgow (Montana, that is) two and a half hours later and passed into North Dakota and the Central Time zone in the early evening. North Dakota looked very much like eastern Montana had done and the view out of the window would not really change that much until we reached the industrial cities of the Great Lakes the following morning.

An entire day spent passing through relentless treeless praries has an unsettling effect. It instills a sense of melacholia. Perhaps it is not so much its appearance but its sheer scale that affects one so: the isolated farming settlements, the unknown family dramas lived out behind closed doors; small lives in a big landscape. It is humbling to think that the pioneer settlers who ventured this way in the 19th century had little idea of what lay beyond the next mile west other than almost inevitable danger of one sort or another.

As a reminder of the early days of this great western migration we stopped at Fargo, Minnesota in the early hours, although most of us were asleep at the time. The city, originally called ‘Centralia’, later became ‘Fargo’ in honor of Northern Pacific Railway director and Wells Fargo Express Company founder William Fargo. The arrival of the Northern Pacific Railroad here bestowed the city with the reputation as ‘Gateway to the West’.

Early next afternoon we shuffled through the endless urban sprawl of Milwaukee. Famous for its brewing industry (inspiring the song, What’s Made Milwaukee Famous Has Made a Loser Out of Me), the city’s huge car parks and warehouses put me in mind of a super-sized Swindon, although to my knowledge no tragic country anthems have ever been written about the Wiltshire town. Two hours later we pulled into Chicago, just twenty minutes behind schedule. Chicago’s Union Station lies in the heart of the city’s downtown district, towered over by some of some of the tallest buildings of the world. After southeast Alaska, where tall buildings and even tall people are scarce, this was the most urban environment imaginable. Quite a stark contrast from the tranquil waters of the Inside Passage I had been sailing through just a few days earlier. There again, so was Seattle.

Tomsk Waits

In contrast to the northwest Scotland of previous posts, the central Siberian city of Tomsk is indisputably East of Elveden – both figuratively and geographically. It is, after all, almost one quarter of the way around the world heading east from where I write. I spent a few grey rainy days here last autumn as a side trip to a long Trans-Siberian rail journey.

Tomsk lies just north of the main Trans-Siberian line, a sizeable city of about half a million sitting on the right bank of the Ob, a river that snakes its way north from here to the Gulf of Ob and the Arctic Ocean. Tomsk isn’t Arctic though – it lies at about the same latitude as Moscow and Glasgow, although it does drop to less than −20 °C in winter. Back in the 19th century, Tomsk was populated mostly by Cossacks, Tatars and political exiles but the city was side-stepped during the building of the Trans-Siberian railway line, when the new city of Novosibirsk (‘New Siberia’) was favoured as a stop instead.

These days Tomsk is a youthful, student-filled city; a relatively attractive place by Siberian standards, with a clutch of trendy brightly lit cafes around Ploschad Lenin, its central square. Trendy coffee bars are all the rage in the new Russia – even in backwoodsy Siberian cities like Tomsk. Here you’ll find ‘Travellers Coffee’, where you can get a pricey ‘bolshoi’ cappuccino, and another place called ‘Food Master’ – in a land where the Cyrillic alphabet reigns supreme, Latin script and English names are considered a guarantee of Western sophistication… or cheerless fast food. Food Master dishes up Mexican food with a pronounced Siberian accent – fajitas with beetroot, refried beans with dill and so on. There’s also an awkwardly translated English menu that temptingly offers ‘Languages with mushroom sauce’ and ‘Fat lard’ – fusion cuisine perhaps, but with a ‘con-’ prefix. Even here, in an establishment that is unapologetically ‘New Russia’, a Soviet-era fixation persists that has each component priced according to weight and itemised on the final bill – bread (the precise number of slices), sauce, garnish, meat (again precise, eg: ‘pig meat, 100g’) – as it would be the humblest factory workers’ stolovaya canteen. Actually, stolovayas are the places that I generally try and seek out – redolent of boiled cabbage, they promise cheap wholesome stodge served up by plump headscarfed women – just point and smile (or scowl if you want to blend in). It’s a genuine retro experience: school dinners, Soviet style. There is one of these tucked away in a basement a little further along Prospekt Lenin.

Stylish cafes are not the only concession to Western culture. Halfway along the high street a gable is covered with an enormous poster of gravel-voiced American troubadour Tom Waits standing astride a railway line and bellowing into a microphone windscreen mounted on a crooked stick – very much Tom the iconic hobo poet. The club in the basement beneath is called ‘Underground’ (a song from Swordfishtrombones) and, of course it is a lovely pun – Tom(sk) Waits – geddit. It seems unlikely that Tom Waits’ management is aware of this brazen Siberian deployment but equally doubtful that Californian copyright law stretches quite this far.  Waits is well known as an enthusiastic litigator of those who besmirch his image but this one seems to fit the brand perfectly.

Drop down a street or two to the west, away from the clubs and cafes of Prospekt Lenin, and you immediately find yourself in Old Siberia. A leafy street called Tatarskaya (this was once the city’s Tatar quarter) has old wooden houses with elaborately carved window surrounds and friezes. Poor, a little tumbledown but undeniably picturesque, this is the sort of thing that tourists  come to see, although most tend not to wander this far off the direct Trans-Siberian route between Yekaterinberg and Irkutsk.

Heading further north along Prospekt Lenin you soon reach a part of town that seems to have far more resonance with the old Soviet Union. Naturally enough, there is a Lenin statue here – this one in ‘hailing a taxi’ pose – as well as some brutalist Stalin-era civic buildings, Krushchevski apartment blocks and rusting boats at the river quay. This really could be a scene from almost anywhere in the former USSR pre-1991 but it is not – it is simply a matter of post-Soviet redevelopment not quite reaching this far uptown yet.

Tomsk may have once been lauded as the ‘Siberian Athens’ thanks to its univeristies and large number of students but Anton Chekhov did not like it one bit, although surely it must have been an improvement on the penal colony at Sakhalin Island that he had visited prior to passing through the town.

He wrote to his sister: ‘Tomsk is a very dull town. To judge from the drunkards whose acquaintance I have made, and from the intellectual people who have come to the hotel to pay their respects to me, the inhabitants are very dull, too.’

Quite understandably, Tomsk citizens have never quite forgiven this scathing dismissal of their city and in response have erected a mocking statue of Chekhov close to the university. Perhaps wounded by the accusation of  dullness, the authorities seem keen these days to instil some European-style civic fun into the Tomsk city calendar. They have inaugurated a carnival, and the one I witnessed last year was the fifth according to the posters. Roads were closed and a stage set up in the main square where a variety of acts came on to dance and mime to Russian turbo-pop. There was even a group of African djembe drummers hired for the task who grinned amiably as they performed to a bemused crowd that did not really know quite what to do. Young families and groups of friends watched the action on the stage and took pictures of each other with their mobile phones before sloping off for an ice-cream. No doubt it will take a while for imported carnival culture to catch on here – just two decades ago, rather than drumming Africans or disco-dancing teenagers, the citizens of Tomsk were watching processions of tanks and soldiers with supersized hats march by.

While Tomsk may struggle with the concept of carnival it is doing well in the world of football. In recent years the city’s home side FC Tom Tomsk (their logo in Cyrillic spells TOMb) has risen like an eagle up the divisions to reach the dizzy heights of the Russian Premier League. It remains there, respectably mid-table, to this day. The Hotel Sputnik where I stayed is located right next door to the team’s stadium but sadly I had to move on to Irkutsk the day before their fixture with Lokomotiv Moscow.

For a look at another quirky Russian city, Kazan, take a look at my feature in the latest edition of hidden europe magazine here.

Architecture without Architects

It all started more than 25 years ago when I bought a book called Architecture without Architects in a second-hand bookshop. The book, pithily subtitled A Short Introduction to Non-Pedigreed Architecture, and authored by Bernard Rudolfsky, came as a revelation, presenting all manner of strange and wonderful vernacular buildings from all over the globe.

The book was actually a follow up to an earlier exhibition of the same name at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Within its pages were numerous black and white photographs of African mud huts, Galician stone granaries, Cappadocian cave dwellings and the tightly clustered dwellings of Italian hill towns. What struck me most though was
three grainy old photograph of titled: The fortified villages of Svaneti. Of all the fanciful structures depicted in the book, the buildings in these images looked the oddest, the most improbable of the lot – menacing stone skyscrapers set against a snow-covered mountainous backdrop. Accompanying the photos was a little text that explained that they
dated back to the 12th-century and were built and maintained by local families as defence against the ‘blood feuds and vendettas that raged unchecked’ in the region. It didn’t even say which country they were in, just ‘western Caucasus’. They were, I subsequently found out, in the Georgian SSSR of what was then still the Soviet Union.

Almost two decades later I get to visit Georgia – following the breakup of the USSR such things have become altogether easier – but it was not until my third visit to the country that I finally managed to travel to Svaneti and see the towers for myself. Svaneti happens to be home to some of Europe’s highest villages, with permanent settlements where snow lingers late into May, but the region is better known for its unique ancient culture and for its somewhat sinister reputation. Even within Georgia, the Svan inhabitants of the valley are treated with suspicion as Svaneti is usually thought of as a backward, lawless region with a reputation for brigandage. This certainly used to be the case, and until a decade ago Svaneti was a risky place to visit with robberies at gunpoint not uncommon. Thanks to a big clean-up operation a few years ago – the Georgian government is keen to develop tourism – it is now pretty safe.

Visiting Svaneti  for the first time I realise that the place I saw in Rudolfsky’s book all those years ago was a collection of villages  called Ushguli, nestled beneath high Caucasus peaks and stretching high up a valley. At 2,200 metres altitude, Ushguli is probably the highest permanently inhabited settlement in Europe (although currently no-go Dagestan on the other side of the Caucasus range also has contenders to the title) but it is its magnificent medieval towers that make it truly extraordinary. Some have collapsed over the years but there still sufficient to present an imposing spectacle and render Ushguli’s towers a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

There has never been a better time to visit Svaneti, although things are changing fast – too fast for comfort perhaps. Following centuries of isolation – both the wheel and the internal combustion engine arrived here at roughly the same time during the 1930s – Svan villagers are starting to leave their high valleys for an easier life in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital. The building of a new road will no doubt help accelerate this change and the days of unadulterated Svan culture may now be numbered. For the time being though, travelling there is still to take part in an adventure.

Bradt Travel Guides have a good guide to the country. Authored by Tim Burford and recently updated by yours truly for the 4th edition, it contains all that you need to know about Georgia – Svaneti and Ushguli included.