SLOVENIA – ADRIATIC, ALPINE, ASTOUNDING by Glenn A. Baker

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Before World War II, you could present yourself at Bled railway station – with a suitable stack of valises for the journey – and buy yourself a ticket to Luxor as easily as you could to Paris. The rich and privileged of Europe did just that, using the lake resort on the sunny side of the Alps as a pleasant halfway house on the way to and from the mystical east as well as being a destination in its own right.

Even then, a half a century before the 1991 opening of the eight-kilometre-long tunnel through the Karavanken mountains which finally linked Slovenia with the Central European freeway system, or the introduction of the two-hour catamaran service across the Adriatic from Venice, the trek to the pure, warm, emerald green waters and thermal springs by the high peaks of the Julian Alps was deemed well worth the effort.

It is from a balcony of the famed Vila Bled that the allure is most apparent. Take, as I did, any eye line out across the water, past the tear-shaped island with its baroque church of the Assumption, up the sheer cliff on the other side to the striking 11th century castle clinging to the peak, and then out to the Karavankens in the dramatically arrayed distant background (with its imposing Mount Triglav), and you readily understand why this once royal realm has been eulogised and celebrated by poets, painters and photographers.

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The balcony in question – now part of a suite in the first hotel of a former Eastern Bloc country to be welcomed into the prestigious Relais & Chateaux chain – was once attached to the office of Yugoslavian communist strongman Marshall Tito (whose mother was a Slovene). First constructed by an Austrian noble in 1885 as a smart two-storey villa resembling an English cottage, the Vila Bled was serving as the summer residence of the old royal family until they were driven into exile by advancing Nazis.

Sturdily rebuilt in 1947 to serve as a guest house for Tito’s official visitors, it played host to the likes of Khrushchev, Ceaucescu (whom Tito loathed) Nehru, Nasser, Bokassa, Indira Ghandi, Hussein, Akihito and, well recalled for the inventory which departed with him, North Korea’s Kim Il Sung.

While German Chancellor Willy Brandt is said to have put the finishing touches to his ‘Ostpolitik’ while in residence, affairs of state did not occupy all the occupants all the time. For a hint of how these illustrious visitors passed their hours within the sturdy Dalmatian marble walls, one needs to ask for a private tour – the pearl of which is Tito’s private cinema.

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What first appears to be a dowdy room of aging furnishings is transformed into a compelling cultural time warp as large drapes are drawn back to reveal vast continuous murals of strident socialist realism which are even thin on the ground in Russia these days. The colours are assaulting, the imagery even more so – sheaths of wheat, valiantly wielded sickles, ragged peasant tunics, feet bound in tied rags, bright-eyed children – all surging forward into a glorious tomorrow which never arrived.

Easily the most-visited part of Slovenia – a ’boutique’ country traversed by the sun in all of twelve minutes – Bled comes alive in summer, with a plentiful international tourist flow descending upon the food, the displayed art, the evening concerts and a small casino. However, if you arrive out of season it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that mayor Janez Faifar, until recently the manager of the Vila Bled, will load you into his own car and take you with him as he strides about his domain, not just exposing you to the rustic delights of thousand year-old villages but proving resoundingly that what you’ve never been told about nails and bees can actually be essential information.

The giant nails which still hold together the pylons that support Venice were made (along with 129 other varieties) in Kropa, a tiny village wedged into a slim valley under the Jelovica Plateau. By the boiling base of the steep and fast-flowing Kroparica stream which slices through the famous little steel town is an Iron Forging Museum which recreates the world of the dedicated artisans who, for centuries, turned out fine wrought-iron decorations along with their shafts and spikes (some of which found their way to the New World with Columbus and were prised from planking by sailors who swapped them ashore for necklaces and other considerations).

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It is another rare craft that forms the core of the attraction of nearby medieval Radovljica, a craft that grew out of Slovenia’s beekeeping mastery. So advanced in all things apiarian is this little land that more than a thousand trucks are put at the disposal of bees in peak season to better facilitate the honey flow. Not content to just write treatises and export queen bees to the world, the keepers of the hives, from the early 1800s, began painting and decorating them with topical and often quite beautiful folk art.

In some, the devil is depicted sharpening an old woman’s tongue or swapping old wives for nubile young women; in another, two peasants quarrel about the ownership of a cow while a lawyer milks it; and, in another, a funeral procession through a forest sees a hunter borne to his grave by gun-toting animals. It is within the ornate Thurn Manor on the historical public square, near the 1822 Lectar Inn restaurant and former gingerbread bakery, that the Beekeeping Museum displays these amazing original panels and cleverly celebrates an industry that has shaped Slovenian life.

Paths are beaten to and beyond the doors of these museums between mid-April and mid-October, when the 2,500 beds in beloved Bled have been claimed. Part of the seduction secret is a certain serenity. There are no motored vessels allowed on the 500-metre-high lake. Twenty families have inherited rights to operate the gondola boats called pletnas that softly snake across the water to what is the only true island in Slovenia. Blekski Otok has borne a Christian church since the 9th century though there is evidence that it was a site of pagan worship for the early Slavs well before that.

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Now, the dimensions of landmarks are normally the fine print in guidebooks but it is worth knowing that, when the recession of the Ice Age Bohinj Glacier gouged out Lake Bled, it left a cavity just a whisker over two kilometres long. The length would not have been of any great significance to the primitive Slavs of the 7th century but it certainly was to aspiring Olympians of the 20th century who became aware that the official length of a rowing course was, yes, two kilometres. With a fortuitous, slightly off-centre placement of the island allowing the sleek craft to glide just past it, the rowers of Bled were able to practice, day in and day out; their disciplined labour culminating, at the Sydney 2000 Olympics, in the first gold medal for a new nation.

Heroes they are, in Bled and beyond, their praises sung and their visages displayed in the snug and stylish capital of Ljubljana, where a true cafe society is carried on under a castle backdrop amid a network of decorative bridges and buildings, waterways, narrow streets and busy markets.

It is the level of sophistication that comes as the first great surprise, though it really shouldn’t. Tucked into a curve in the Adriatic alongside Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia, with Trieste literally just down the road, Vienna and Rome thirty minutes away by air, and Venice, Salzburg and Munich a few hours away by road, Ljubljana is thoroughly European.

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Indeed, with its castles, crafts, alps, lakes, ports, culture, fertile farms, annual jazz festival and layers of linguistics, Slovenia is very much Europe in microcosm. It was French novelist Charles Nodier who, greatly impressed by the national flair for languages, once compared it to “an Academy of Arts and Sciences”.

What irks the fine citizens most in this lush land (after Scandinavia, it is the greenest in all Europe – more than two-thirds wooded) is being, as the popular phrase puts it, tarred with the Balkan brush. It is here in the art-laden coffee bars and restaurants of a safe and civilised city of just 300,000, where young policeman in goatee beards stroll with a smile past art-house cinema clubs frequented by chattering students in jagged fashions, that you keep hearing the exasperated refrain. It comes somewhere between the seasoned pork with field mushroom soup and the fragrant apple or violet ice cream: we were a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire for a thousand years and of Yugoslavia for seventy years but all anybody remembers is the last part.

“Even during the communist years, we were always somewhere in between – not socialist, not capitalist” offered a young man called Tomaz in the grounds of his old university. “We could travel internationally. If you wanted something that wasn’t available, you went to Trieste and bought it. We never felt that we couldn’t talk about anything we wished; we even had great rock’n’roll here.” Slovenia’s exit from the disintegrating Balkan state in 1991 was relatively painless, all over and done with in ten days of half-hearted sabre rattling by Belgrade. And, over the next decade, the entrepreneurial citizens prospered nicely in their bread basket land, untouched by the horrors in Bosnia or Kosovo. It was even overlooked by the criminal gangs that preyed on those disrupted and disputed republics.

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The impact of world perception was harsh when it came to tourism. In 1991, a million visitors a year came to the extraordinary Postojna Caves, west of Ljubljana toward the coast. A decade on, the admissions were less than half a million (though they’ve climbed upward since). Far and away the greatest loss was on the part of those who chose not to come to it or to the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Skocjan caves, for only around the Spanish/French Basque region are there comparable subterranean complexes.

Long known as “a cheese land” the Slovenia depths are patterned by some 7,000 caves, with only 20 open to the public. Described by English sculptor Henry Moore as “Nature’s most wonderful gallery”, the two-million-year-old Postojna is comprised of more than 25 kilometres of gloriously sculptured chambers, galleries, halls and river beds. Guides have been taking paying customers along the trails for almost two hundred years; with the aid of railway carriages since 1872 and electric illumination since 1884. Over 30 million people have passed through, in constant temperatures of 8-9 degrees centigrade.

The tentacles of these caves extend to the startling Predjamski Castle – a Robber Baron’s retreat castle where boiling oil really was poured from parapets. The dramatic setting of this four-storey structure, in the open mouth of a cavern halfway up a mountainside, made it a hotly contested property some five hundred years ago. The best legends are attached to Slovenia’s Robin Hood, one Erazem Lueger, who used the secret passages and caves to pillage the countryside and return to the impregnable, drawbridged castle. He met his inevitable end while performing his ablutions in a vulnerable water closet, having been betrayed by a servant to an Austrian cannon post.

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Legends also abound along Slovenia’s scant 47 kilometres of coastline, much of which was only incorporated into Yugoslavia in the mid-1950s. In summer months, it takes on a decided Cote d’Azur tone, with the coastal towns of Portoroz, Piran, Izola, Koper and Ankaran boasting 120 hotels between them, and around a million and a quarter visitors staying overnight in Portoroz alone – drawn by its beaches and popular health resorts.

At the heart of the appeal, apart from the strong international atmosphere, is the coast’s very Mediterranean climate, noticeably warmer that the rest of the country. In wintry January, temperatures rarely go below 4-5 degrees centigrade and, in July, sit around 21-2. Izola lays claim to the furthermost north olive trees in the world capable of yielding good quality oil; though that is but part of its bounty – citrus fruits, pines, palms, oleander, rosemary, laurel, tomatoes and paprika adding to an agricultural mix more Sicily than Slovenia.

The centrepiece of the coast, occupying the tip of a slender dogleg peninsula, is Piran (Pirano to the ubiquitous Italians). A rich merchant port, a ‘free town’ with its own statute in the 13th century, it is famed for a Venetian Gothic Old Town, layers of high ancient town walls, a flourishing arts community, and a small harbour marina for which the term picturesque is more than apt.

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With a name derived from either the Celtic word bior-dun (town on a hill) or the Greek word pyr (fire), this atmospheric old trading chest seaport has been handed from one conqueror to another over the centuries, with each occupant – be they Celts, Romans, barbarians, Byzantines, Obers, Slavs, Franks, the Patriarchs of Aquileai, Venetians, Italians, Germans, Austrians or Yugoslavs – leaving something tangible behind.

Within a 17th century palace along this small harbour, in front of Tartini Square (named after violinist/composer Giuseppe Tartini who found world fame with his infamous Devil’s Trill sonata) is a place of exhibition every bit as engaging as Bled’s nail and bees houses of wonder. Take the marble staircase up to the Sergej Masera Maritime Museum and you enter a time when navies ruled the world and commanded all trade, when fires were lit each night in the Punta district on the tip of the peninsula at Cape Madonna to guide ships heavy with precious cargo into port. A time also when the masts of Venetian ships, the frames of galleons and the walls of Venetian houses were made from high, straight oak trees plundered from Slovenia’s Karst region, where the caves reside (and where some hills are forever denuded).

Slovenia’s icons, as one learns within these walls, didn’t all play their way into chamber music fame or row into Olympic record books. The man who discovered that Baja California, in Mexico, was a peninsula and not an island 350 years ago was Slovenian. One Baron Marko Anton Kapus, a Jesuit Abbot. They’ve put him on a postage stamp.  A new nation takes its heroes where it can.

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Thanks to Italian nationals, who account for 90 per cent of the custom, the ‘Slovenia Riviera’ has a strong casino culture. During the communist years, locals were not allowed entry to those gaming centres set up to fleece foreign currency from the region and so developed no taste for gambling. However, with only four legal casinos in Italy there is an unquenchable appetite from that part of the world for the spin of the roulette wheel and the slap of the blackjack table which Slovenia, with its swish and highly professional emporiums of chance, is pleased to help satisfy.

Somehow the gamblers fit easily into a visitor flow that includes young British and European internet surfers who lob into Trieste from London on bargain charter tickets and treat the border as if it were not there (in many ways, it isn’t). What they all find is often more than they came seeking, for surprises are plentiful.  Take, for but one example, the Casa Del Papa in Ljubljana, a restaurant/bar cum nightclub devoted to Ernest Hemingway displaying a simply astounding array of ‘Papa’ and Cuban visuals over its three floors.

There is something decidedly comfortable about this country, with its often staggering diversity and inexpensive pricing, and something undeniably appealing about a people who are said to have a Mediterranean temperament with a touch of Nordic reserve combined with earthy Slav charm and sincerity. There is a sense of wry and dry humour that seems to be ingrained in those people who survive terms as Soviet Satellites. Ask Janez Faifar about the origins of the name Bled and he may respond: “In German, it means crazy, in Russian, it refers to a whore and, in French, it comes out as ‘a lost village in the mountains’. Maybe two out of three isn’t bad.”

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For the moment, these good folk are waiting for the world to catch up. It may insist, at least for the moment, on seeing Slovenia as Balkan rather than Adriatic or Alpine but they will keep politely correcting the record. As they know better than most, everything changes in time.

P.S. For a time, after my departure, Janez Faifar became the Mayor of Bled. An eminently wise elevation.

©2002   Words and photography by Glenn A. Baker 

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BEARING UP TO BERN by Glenn A. Baker

Bern bridge

The most memorable words spoken about Swiss timekeeping came from the great Orson Welles, high on a ferris wheel over Vienna, in the film, The Third Man: “In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michaelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love and five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

Switzeland's ubiquitous cukoo clocks

He may not have been quite so dismissive of Swiss clocks had he been given, as I was, an escorted tour through the entrails of the Zytglogge (Clock Tower) in Bern, the Swiss capital – on the site of the 1191 City Gate. It has long been said that a good magician does not reveal his tricks but all is on display here.

More than 500 years old, it is the world’s oldest mechanical clock and needs to be wound daily. Crowds gather in the square beneath it to witness the cast of a gilded crowing rooster, a bell striker and ten dancing bears.

Bern's premier tourist draw

My travelling companion was reminded of the Martin Scorsese film, Hugo; about an orphan boy living in a Paris railway station, who was taught to fix clocks and other gadgetry by his father and uncle and uses those skills to keep to station’s clocks running on time.

The Germanic-leaning capital of Switzerland, which once played host to Albert Einstein (with a museum honouring his presence), Bern gives the impression of having been designed by an ancient predecessor of a Tourist Office. Compact and clean, with pure air, striking architecture, covered outdoor arcades, traditional shopping precincts and markets, and a swiftly flowing river which winds through the city, complete with bridges and high views.

Bern busker

In the cool evenings, the city square is filled with spacious open street restaurants and buskers (one of which is a puppeteer’s doll, seemingly skilled on the violin).

There is a chocolate-box quality to the place and, not surprisingly, there are chocolate emporiums aplently. Our favourite was Laderach, which offers a particularly delectable dark blend with strawberries and pink peppercorns.  There are cake bears at the other sweet shops – a local delicacy.

Bern's Einstein museum

Add that to the Bern motif, an enclosure of brown bears residing in a cage down by the river, and a large moulded beast straddling a wire across a nearby bridge by the UNESCO World Heritage Old Town, and you readily reach the conclusion that Bern is bear crazy.

In March, Bern’s version of “Carnival” takes place when a mythical bear imprisoned in the Prison Tower is woken from his winter sleep by the ychüblete (drumming) and released. Masked revellers brave the winter temperatures and swarm through the streets and restaurants (including the 350-year-old Klotzlikeler) of the Old Town. Guggenmusik-Cliques (bands of carnival musicians) make the six-kilometres route along Bern’s arcaded promenade vibrate with their wild rhythms and noisy percussive music.

Bern's intricate cathedral art

Though there is a Schnit International Short Film Festival with Bern as one of eight participating cities, a Bern “Grand Prix” where thousands run along “the ten most beautiful miles in the world”, a Buskers Festival, a world-famous jazz club (Marian’s Jazzroom), Christmas Markets on Bear’s Square and at Kambly, and a September Sichhlete Festival which combines a harvest, livestock and folk festivals, and the four-day Gurten Music Festival – reached only on a funicular called the Gurtenbahn – showcasing some 60 live acts of all contemporary genres – it needs be said that there is little of the French joie de vivre that one finds in, say, Geneva.

Though the citizenry is faultlessly helpful – particularly when it comes to negotiating the network of trams and buses which can take you beyond the immediate city limits – the smiles and banter one encounters are more likely to be from other visitors.  There is a certain general abandon, though, down by the river under Parliament House. The normal gleeful splashing in a pool is to be heard but the real attraction is the use of the Aare River as a means of rapid transport cum recreation.

Bern's tourists

The crisp and deep waters that sweep down from the Bernese Alps can take you a few hundreds metres or from one side of the city and out the other. There is no need for a canoe or kayak, just hurl yourself (perhaps with your possessions in a watertight pouch) into the torrent from one of the platforms and, when you wish to alight, strike out toward the shore, grab one of the steel bars protruding from a platform and drag yourself onto land.

A first attempt can be a little, let’s say, challenging and even a tad terrifying, but once you get the hang of it, it’s an almost addictive experience. On a busy day, there are quite literally hundreds of bobbing heads being swept past your eyeline. All looking rather joyful for the experience.

Bern river

LISBON – FADO BY THE TAGUS by Glenn A. Baker

Lisbon - Portugal - Lisbon tramways by Glenn A. Baker

All great cities have a legend or two. Some weave their marketing motif around them. Mythical figures and tall tales are claimed and even fought over when it comes to setting one centre of civilisation apart from another.

Though Lisbon is a pivotal port of such vast, impressive documented history that it hardly needs the added sheen, it is quite prepared to toss into its tourist-teasing mix the story of how the Greek hero Ulysses founded the city on his way home from Troy.

While that can be taken with as many grains of salt as you wish, it does seem certain that the Phoenicians established a trading post on the site, there on the left bank of the Tagus River just inside the rugged Atlantic coast of the Iberian Peninsula, around 1200 BC and it is certain that the Romans came by in 205 BC and installed Julius Caesar as governor sixty years before Christ.

Lisbon - Sintra, Lisbon

It must have been a pleasing posting; it still would be. The city is bright and white, sparkling in a sun that never seems to be absent. It boasts springtime temperatures during the winter and cool summers invigorated by Atlantic breezes. The food is rich and plentiful, the architecture stirring and enveloping, the panoramas broad and breathtaking. With the intertwining of old and new realms has come another realm again, appealing as it is unique, as inexpensive as it is intriguing.

Claiming over twenty centuries of history, Lisbon has been Portugal’s formal capital since its conquest from the Moors in 1147. Some see it as the first true world city, the centre point of an empire spreading across the continents and sub-continents. All the western European nations amassed colonies but the Portuguese Empire was the first, longest-lasting and perhaps most diverse. After its flag was flown at Ceuta on the North African coast in 1415, this small nation took its language, culture and cuisine to Mozambique, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, the Azores, Goa, Brazil, Macau and East Timor – where it remains to this day.

That it was recognised by even its adversaries as the City of Explorers was due to Prince Henrique the Navigator who established a navigation school at Sagres which made possible Vasco da Gama’s epic journey to India that fulfilled the Medieval dream of finding a direct trade route to the riches of the Orient, and initiated other epic adventures of discovery by Bartholomew Dias and Ferdinand Magellan (sailing for the Spanish crown). Like the bar scene in Star Wars, Lisbon was a crossroads of the universe, a magnet for wayfarers. In 1477, Christopher Columbus was in residence and, with his brother, worked as a cartographer and studied geography before taking up sea-borne commissions to the North Atlantic and Africa. It seemed the right place to do it.

Lisbon - Lisbon 14 by GAB

“To someone born and raised in a Mediterranean sea port, his new home must have seemed magical, alive with anticipation,” contends historian Thomas Tirado. “Sitting at the mouth of the Tagus, Lisbon’s rhythm was that of the crashing ocean at its doorstep. Thrusting into the Atlantic, facing water on two sides, Portugal had become a center for maritime activity and Lisbon was a haven for explorers, adventurers, entrepreneurs, merchants and any others who saw their fortunes tied to the trade winds and ocean currents.”

Since 1960, on the riverbank in the Avenida de Brasilia in the district of Belem where the Tagus meets the sea and the mighty ships of sail first set off to lay claim to the New World 500 years before, the Portuguese Age of Discovery has been marked by the imposing Monument to the Discoveries. It’s a good place to start your own expedition, given its proximity to the Tower of Belem, a UNESCO World Heritage site that could well be the city’s most photographed edifice. Built in the 16th century to serve as a fortress in the middle of the River Tagus, its outer walls are adorned with a stone-carved rope and openwork balconies, as well as Moorish watchtowers and shield-shaped battlements.

Draped, like Rome, around seven hills, Lisbon is a walking city. It not only gives you ready access to the restaurants, taverns and markets, to the churches and cobblestone alleyways, but ensures that you fully appreciate the mosaic pavements, tiled facades, wrought-iron balconies, tall houses and churches for which it is famed and that you take full advantage of the strategically-positioned miradouros (viewpoints) that seem to present panoramas at every turn. Of course, it helps to know where to walk and where to start – which of those seven hills.

Lisbon - Lisbon 20 by GAB

It could be the highest of them, the one crowned by the moated St. George’s Castle (Castelo de Sao Jorge), guarding the Tagus, a fortress since the 5th century that came into its own during the Moorish occupation of the 10th when it was the ancient seat of the Saracens. There you can walk esplanades, climb ramparts and filter your gaze and eventually yourself down over the spread of the medieval Alfama district, the city’s most ancient quarter where many buildings display fading coats of arms bearing testimony to the fact that what would become (and, in some cases, still is) the home of stevedores, traders and sailors was once a most aristocratic quarter. Having largely survived the massive earthquake of 1755, it is true to its original layout and adjacent to it, on the western and northern slopes, are the nearly-as-old districts of Castelo and Mouraria.

But it perhaps should be Lapa das Mouras (the Moorish Rock) in Barrio da Lapa, the exclusive western quarter of the city (a twenty minute walk from downtown) that has long been the residential district of choice for nobility, foreign diplomats and the significantly wealthy. It is said to exemplify, with its shading trees, thick gardens and grand buildings (many now embassies) the 19th century Portuguese concept of “calming luxury”.

Like Columbus, Sandro Fabris is an Italian who settled in Lisbon, a city he also found alive with anticipation and not a little magical. One of those larger-than-life characters who can analyse Umberto Eco, accurately hum the sweep of symphonies, pluck a passage from an historical biography or cite lines from a slew of cinema classics, argue the importance of Deep Purple’s Concerto for Group and Orchestra and tell you about his embryonic book of photographs and anecdotes of the markets of the world – all within ten minutes of meeting you – he was considered such an asset by both countries that Giorgio Napolitano, the President of Italy, conferred the Knight of the Order of the Star of Italian Solidarity upon him when he last dropped by Portugal.

Lisbon - Cascais 1 by GAB

As, until recently, General Manager of the opulent Lapa Palace Hotel, Fabris was the king of his own castle on Lapa das Mouras, such a sturdy guide on what must be seen and done that it is hard to believe that he was also a visitor. Fresh from preserving treasures in Venice, he enthusiastically took upon the task of maintaining the remarkable standards of a remarkable building; a lavish private house built in 1870 and transformed into a palace thirteen years later by the Counts of Valenças.

And what a palace it was. Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro, one of the greatest Portuguese ceramists of the 19th century, created pieces of furniture and tiles. Columbano, the celebrated “painter of broken souls”, applied his art to the walls and ceilings. There was a ballroom, a Louis XV room (used as a ladies’ boudoir), a Noble Floor, river view towers and all manner of splendour. A family home until 1992 when the family of the Count sold it, it was turned into a hotel six years later by the family Simões de Almeida and then acquired by the Orient Express group.

The Lapa Palace has become accustomed to lavish praise, celebrated by a raft of reviewers as “Lisbon’s smartest hotel with luxuriant gardens”, “a voluptuous retreat” and “a hidden gem in Lisboa”. It hosts concerts by the Metropolitan Orchestra of Lisbon and the Ballet School of Lisbon uses its health club as a workout home, sharing the facilities with a steady stream of guests of renown, ranging from more crown heads of Europe than can be counted to Sting, Cher, U2, Catherine Deneuve, Paul McCartney, Tina Turner, Bryan Adams, Robin Williams, George W. Bush and a brace of Nobel Prize winners. When they were in residence, Sandro was in attendance though the most you’ll get from this discreet hotelier about the demands placed upon he and his team was, “…generally speaking the important people are not a problem, it’s their entourage which is difficult to manage.”

Lisbon - Lapa Palace, Lisbon

From Barrio da Lapa, it is a quick cab ride down to the main squares, the imposing statues, the seafront, the theatres, the tramcars tackling impossibly steep rises and the Bairro da Alto – the Upper City. An historic enclave like the Alfama, dating back to 1513, it is, as one guide book gushes, “a colourful district that resounds to the calls of vendors and fishmongers, its windows and balconies festooned with laundry and bird cages”. Reached from the lower city by the Santa Justa Elevator (sort of a mini Eiffel Tower), it really comes into its own at night when visitors come to streets lit by Victorian lamps to frequent the Fado cafes, fado being a music and dance form of lament and despair not unlike the blues that was introduced to Portugal by 19th century African slaves.

There is so much packed in to Lisbon, so much reward for investigation, that is seems almost greedy to want more. Yet foolish be the visitor who chooses not to take the brief bus or train ride to Sintra, billed as a riot of 14th century palaces and 19th century pastel-coloured whimsy architecture. The poet Lord Byron described it as a “glorious Eden … perhaps the most delightful spot in Europe” and his view was shared by UNESCO which has bestowed further World Heritage status.

The Serra de Sintra is a ten kilometre long granite outcrop thrusting upward between a vast plain to the north and the Tagus estuary to the south. This twisting mini-mountain range projects into the Atlantic Ocean as the Cabo da Roca headland – continental Europe’s westernmost point. Anciently associated with astral cults – evidence of which is seen in archeology and myriad monuments – it came to be known as Mons Lanae (Hills of the Moon) and, thanks to a micro-climate all its own, has always been draped in dense, verdant vegetation.

Lisbon - Lisbon 39 by GAB

Portugal’s tourism bodies seem to move into the highest of their gears when selling Sintra. Earnestly assuring that “The visitor can choose between descending into the Neolithic era at Tholos do Monge; enjoying the view of distant horizons from the walls of the Castelo dos Mouros, an 8th century Moorish defensive construction; experiencing the harsh austerity of the Franciscan monks of Convento dos Capuchos; strolling through the delightful mysteries of the Palacio da Pena, a mythically magical palace that seems more like a continuation of the actual mountain; or savouring the nooks and crannies of the Parque da Pena, a place of love and exoticism that exudes great peace and serenity”.

None of which is overstated, for a day spent negotiating the labyrinthine streets and steps and poking about the palaces and examining the art is a day exceedingly well spent.

The same can be said about a swift sweep down the coast to Cascais which, with nearby Estoril and Guincho, is a stylish summer resort zone of sea-swept seafood restaurants, flash resort hotels, nightclubs and discotheques intertwined with 15th to 18th century churches, hermitages, fortresses and a sea museum. Here are the hotels and bars, some still intact, where Nazi and Allied spies swapped secrets and did deals during World War II. The places where those desperate souls prepared to do anything to obtain travel documents in Casablanca dreamed of finding themselves. The places that contemporary author Robert Wilson weaves so wonderfully into gripping historical thriller-fiction in A Small Death In Lisbon and The Company of Strangers.

Lisbon - Lisbon 05 by GAB

With today’s tourism flow there is perhaps greater interest in seeking out the shop, on the way to Cascais, where the Portuguese Tart was first baked. The queues extending out onto the footpath have a strong English component, as does the southern Algarve region, the destination for more than a few charter flights out of London and land of the time share arrangement and holiday hotel. The connection between the Poms and the Portuguese is long and strong, with the Iberian inhabitants more often with them than against them during skirmishes with France and Spain over the centuries. Even while sticking to its policy of neutrality, Portugal granted Britain the right to establish a naval base on the strategically important Acores Island in 1943, to Germany’s considerable displeasure.

Before he departed for Madeira, Sandro Frabris liked to think that he’d fingered the source of solidarity. It is all about a gift of practice and culture that rather took on in a kingdom not always united. “When Catherine Braganza went to Britain to marry Charles II, she took tea with her,” he explained simply. Seems he shared that one with Sting while adding lemon.

Text and images copyright Glenn A. Baker 2014.

ROMAN WALLYDAY: HOW LARRY, CURLY, MOE AND NERO REVIVED THE ROMAN EMPIRE by David Latta

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The Colosseum of ancient Rome was a circus in more ways than one. Completed in 80AD, it hosted entertainment for the masses, and what entertainment it was! Up to 50,000 spectators would watch the ultimate in populist entertainment including recreations of famous Roman battles, animal hunts and fierce gladiatorial battles to the death.

It was completed largely under the patronage of the familial rulers of the Flavian dynasty, Vespasian and his son, Titus. Suetonius, who displayed an engagingly contemporary regard for gossip and scandal, went so far as to consider Titus (no relation to Shakespeare’s gore-soaked opportunist) a worthy emperor, one of the good guys as we’d say today, and thus the Colosseum remains one of his greatest legacies.

In modern times, the Colosseum is still a circus although a little worse for the wear and tear of the ages. Togas have been replaced by logo t-shirts and baggy cargo shorts, leather sandals by the gleaming white runners of the elderly American tourists who look as if the furthest they’ve ever jogged is to the nearest all-you-can-eat buffet.

They cram inside the Colosseum’s massive brooding walls, gazing out on the broken arena and possibly reflecting on Russell Crowe in Gladiator or, as Dr Frank-N-Furter once so grandly remarked, “an old Steve Reeves movie”. Oiled pecs gleaming in the sun, the glinting fury of swords cleaving human flesh, the deafening roar of a crowd maddened by blood lust. The images flow readily in a place where the atmosphere leaches from the weathered stone blocks like slowly-melting gelato.

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Any thoughts of Anita Ekberg wading through the Trevi Fountain a couple of blocks away or Audrey Hepburn, regally serene astride a Vespa with William Holden, seem like another Rome altogether. The Colosseum is blood, sweat and tears for the ages.

Outside, the snaking lines of tourists are tempted by hunky Romans dressed up as gladiators. For a few Euros, nothing less, they’ll be photographed flirting with the ladies and menacing the men with their plastic swords. Their scowls have been carefully crafted over years of mirror-gazing to maximum effect. Warren Beatty in The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone had nothing on these guys.

Yet, amongst the many locals eager to share a Kodak moment for the EU equivalent of a fistful of lira, the most popular were those I came to think of as the Four Stooges. Three were attired in the leather skirts and gold breastplates of Roman soldiers, the fourth as an emperor resplendent down to his crimson robes, gleaming laurel wreath and air of taciturn indifference (or else he’d seen The Great Beauty one too many times and was yearning for a colourful linen jacket and contrasting puff-pointed pocket square). They were gregarious and entertaining, jokes at the ready, flashing smiles and deadly poses for a never-ending line of delighted tourists.

The startlingly handsome gladiators, with cheekbones as sharp as their plastic swords were blunt, kicked the dirt in rejection. There was no competing with the Four Stooges and they knew it. They were the vanquished of the modern-day Colosseum, their humiliation as final as any suffered within its walls.

Words and photos © David Latta