Sightseeing in Slovenia

Slovenia is geographically blessed. Nestled between the Alps, the Mediterranean to the west, Austria on the east and Croatia in the south, its topography allows a bit of everything, from ski resorts to sandy beaches, 3 prominent wine growing regions and a country rich in forests and caves.

Its capital, Ljubjlana, is a city of 300,000, the largest in a country of 2 million.  Situated on the Ljubljanica River, a tributary of the Sava River, the city is overlooked by the Ljubljana Castle. On one side, Art Nouveau buildings stand since much of the older ones were destroyed in a devastating earthquake in 1895. The opposite side, between the Castle and the river, was spared, thus its buildings tend toward Baroque. Both sides of the river boast wide pedestrian ways thanks to a complete automobile ban during the day since 2007 and an array of pedestrian bridges to cross from side to side.

Free Walking Tour:

I started my exploration, as is my preference, with the free walking tour, led by Tina2, as opposed to Tina1 who also leads tours. We met at the main square where a statue of Slovenia’s favourite poet, Joseph Preseren, looks out over the square. A poet, explained Tina2, since Slovenia had until 1991 been ruled by non-Slovenians, so it didn’t have military or political heroes. Slovenian nationalism took hold only in the 16th and 17th century, after the invention of the printing press, when the Slovenian language was widely written down and standardized. Beside the statue is a pink church, the Franciscan Church of the Annunciation, with a tree planted in front to shield worshippers from the nude muse hanging over Mr. Preseren. Needless to say, this only works in summer when leaves are on the tree.

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Franciscan Church beside the Triple Bridge

We walked along the river, on the wide, carless roads and crisscrossed Ljubjalna’s famous bridges: the Triple Bridge so named because when the single bridge became too congested with automobiles, footbridges were added on either side. Today, all three are pedestrians (and bicycles) only. We walked over the dragon bridge with its menacing dragon statues guarding the each opening, the butcher’s bridge so named because it connected the butchers in the market to their buyers on the other side and finally, the shoemaker’s bridge. All were very wide, designed to encourage gatherings and conversation.

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One of 16 dragons on the Dragon Bridge

Tina2 pointed out more landmarks: The Ljubjalna Castle perched high above on a cliff with a steep funicular for those (like me) who didn’t want to hike the stairs. Built originally in the 12th century, the castle today is owned by the state and houses a puppetry museum and a museum of Slovenian History, where costumed characters perform scenes from different eras of Slovenian history. Ljubjalna Cathedral or St. Nicholas’s Cathedral – Slovenia is largely Roman Catholic – soars high and a daily open air market by the Greek style agora, a series of buildings containing covered stalls and selling both fresh food and prepared dishes, dominate the riverside. I indulged in strawberries from the market, sweet and juicy.

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Greek style market stalls lining the river

Tina2 talked about Slovenian food. Famous for its liqueurs, we were given a tasting of the local, cherry flavoured, schnapps. Being so close to Austria (Vienna is less than 400 kilometers away), bakeries were selling Viennese pastries – the apple strudels were excellent. Souvenir shops sold bottles of honey, enhanced with different ingredients like pepper or lavender. We returned across the river, to see the National and University Library Building – they are one and the same – before ending at Congress Square, Here a magnificent concert hall has stood since 1891, while on the nearby University Building, Tito addressed the gathered masses from its balcony.

History

Tina2 gave a very succinct history of Slovenia, as follows:

  • people have inhabited the land for 30,000 years;
  • Jason (of the Argonauts fame) passed through, founded the city according to legend and slew a monster, which has been transformed into a dragon and become the symbol of Ljubjalna and Slovenia;
  • the Romans had a small settlement in Ljubjalna; after they left, various tribes inhabited until the 7th century when the Slavs came and settled;
  • Italians, Huns and Ottomans all fought over the land, but in the 1500’s it became part of the Austrian/Hungarian empire where it remained until WW1;
  • post WW1, it was part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia;
  • during WW2, it was occupied by Italians until 1944, then Germans, but sustained little damage;
  • it was part of Tito’s Yugoslavia until May, 1991 when it declared independence;
  • it suffered only a 10 day war in 1991 and has been left alone since;
  • it joined the EU and uses Euros.

Joseph Plecnik House

The name, Joseph Plecnik, was mentioned in reverential terms numerous times. An architect, he is to Ljubjalna what Gaudi is to Barcelona. A native, he studied in Vienna, travelled to Italy and was charged with renovating the Prague Castle before returning home and redesigning much of the city. He was enamoured with ancient Greek and Roman design, thus much of the city has a Mediterranean feel. Wide pathways flank the river, expansive bridges, large squares with fountains and a market mimicking a Greek agora. He designed many of the bridges, squares, churches and the National Library.

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A Roman inspired fountain in Ljubjlana designed by Plecnik

He also designed part of his house; it’s a 3 building complex with 2 of the houses purchased to house his brother and housekeeper, but more importantly, to maintain his privacy. Devoutly Catholic and a confirmed bachelor, Plecnik was devoted to his work. He didn’t approve of sports or cinema, but had no hesitation smoking both cigarettes and medically prescribed opium. The 3rd house he purpsoe built. It contains a tower, for no better reason than he always wanted to live in a tower.

The house is preserved as a museum, with tours offered on the hour in English. Our tour of 3 entered through a covered porch filled with religious icons, decorative Greek columns and an uncomfortable chair. In his day, the porch was open to the elements, to discourage visitors from lingering. The main floor consisted of a kitchen, his bedroom complete with a drafting table and tons of books, and a tiny study. There was no living room or dining room. The entire house was constructed to make Plecnik comfortable and no one else. In the upper story of the tower was a large room where his students studied and worked under his tutelage. Completing the structure was a beautiful sunroom with a heating system designed to allow Plecnik to grow plants in the winter, opening to a large garden.

The other 2 buildings have exhibits documenting Plecnik’s life, many of his contributions to Slovenia, Vienna and Prague and models of his buildings and replicas of chairs he designed. During WW2, he was able to sidestep the Italian occupiers and complete many of his projects in Ljubjalna, but with the rise of Communism and its dislike of religion, Plecnik grew out of favour despite being a friend of Tito. He died in 1957.

A few years ago, I took a guided tour through the Frank Lloyd Wright House in Chicago. The guide explained and demonstrated how Wright had incorporated his architectural aesthetic into his living quarters. The Plecnik home tour was similar. But unlike Wright, who designed a house to be enjoyed by his family and friends complete with a fantastical playroom, the Plecnik house was utilitarian, with no space for leisure or gatherings, just as Plecnik wanted.

Lake Bled:

Located just an hour’s drive from Ljubjalna, Lake Bled features on every travel brochure and thousands of Instagram snaps with good reason. It is beautiful. In its tiny, 20,000 square kilometres (smaller than New Jersey) area, Slovenia boasts 60% forest, many of them cascading down its Alps mountains. Nestled in the Julian Alps, Lake Bled is a jewel of a lake, with an island in the centre upon which a monastery and church sit.

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Lake Bled and Bled Island on a cloudy day

Thomas, our bus driver/tour guide dropped my tour group, me and 5 doctors from Venezuela, India and London (via Singapore, but now working for GSK) all attending a paediatrician convention in Ljubjalna, off at the side of the lake and instructed us to find a row boat. A line of traditional large wooden boats called pletnas, each seating 20 people, with a single rower manning the two near upright oars, awaited. Our group and an Asian tour group jumped on and our rower quickly took us to the island.

Upon reaching Bled Island, we climbed the 99 steps to its summit, where a church with more stairs to its bell tower rests. For a small fee, you can climb the bell tower and ring the bell, but the bell ringer in me was dormant, despite the promise of wish granting if I rang the bell. Off on a slight tangent here, but as I was looking up a synonym for bell ringer (I first heard the term “carillons” in Bruge where the bells would play for half an hour, including popular songs and Christmas carols), the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as one who rings bells. Pretty useless definition in my view.

After admiring the view from the lake, our rower returned us to the mainland, where Thomas drove us to the most impressive building surrounding the lake, Bled Castle. Begun about 1004, it was added to, and renovated in, Romanesque and Renaissance fashions. Today, it is a museum, with an inner courtyard, medieval rooms, majestic views of the lake, a honey souvenir shop and a cafe serving the local specialty, cream cake: three layers of decadence consisting of a thin puff pastry atop light vanilla cream and custard, guaranteed to ruin one’s appetite for lunch.

A quick trip back to Ljubjalna for lunch, then an hour drive to the northeast of Slovenia to visit its other main tourist attraction, the Postojna cave and nearby Predjama Castle built into the karst. The castle dates from the Middle Ages and is a typical example of a medieval castle, with a great hall, prison, latrine house, kitchen etc. but, remarkably, constructed in the mouth of a cave.

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Predjama Castle

Slovenians love their caves and Postojna is its most famous, although others, some arguably more spectacular, are nearby. Postojna is the most visited, best set up for tourists and has been a tourist site since 1818 shortly after its latest recent discovery; graffiti inside has been dated to the 11th century. Its 24 kilometres are accessed aboard a 10 minute, 2 kilometre train ride to the middle layer of the cave, 40-60 metres below ground. From there, a guide walked us along a well lit path for 1 1/2 kilometres, pointing out the stalagmites, stalactites and curtain like formations, across and then under the Russian bridge and through cavernous halls where concerts were once held. As caves go, it was gigantic, not at all claustrophobic on the tourist trails and a fitting way to end the day.

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The Russian Bridge inside the cave

Slovenian Wine Tasting:

Slovenia has a long history of wine making. I had been enjoying a white wine made with Malvasia grapes, new to me, dry with just a hint of citrus flavours. Numerous tastings are offered, both as driving tours to various wineries or in city wine bars. I chose the latter. My fellow drinkers, Lloyd and Lee from Singapore, and I entered the Roman era cellar where Clemens led us through the wines. Both Lloyd and Lee worked for the Aviva Insurance Company, yet another former opponent of mine in the Tax Court of Canada. Along with the GSK physician, Slovenia was turning into a walk down my tax litigation lane.

We sampled 7 different wines, beginning with the whites, a dry and not sweet Riesling and then put on blindfolds for a taste test – white or red? After smelling and sipping, Lloyd and I guessed red, Lee white. All of us were wrong – we were drinking a unique Slovenian orange wine, made by fermenting the juice of white grapes with their skin. The resulting wine has the tannins of red wine but the citrus flavour of white wine.

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Wine Tasting in a Roman era cellar

The reds were hearty, full bodied and we finished with a late harvest sweet wine, milder than a Port or Sherry and delicious. Sadly, Slovenian wines will not be coming to a wine store in North America. The vineyards are small and even the largest only produces 6,000 bottles a year, not enough for export.

Concluding Thoughts:

My visit to Slovenia was pleasant. As it was always under the thumb of this empire or that, it doesn’t have a long, sordid history of military battles or an ugly past to confront. Mostly it was used as a throughway – Romans, Crusaders, Napoleon – all passed it on their way to the East. Being occupied by Italy during WW2 meant little bombing (Allies did bomb it on their way to and from Italy) and the relative lack of ethnic minorities spared it from the worst atrocities following the break-up of Yugoslavia.

Its commitment to the environment is admirable with vast forests, pedestrian and bicycle paths and laudable subterranean recycling system. English is widely spoken, locals are anxious to leave a good impression on visitors and, as of yet, it doesn’t quite attract the hordes of tourists endemic to the Dalmatian coast, my next destination. Stay tuned………

Intro to the Balkans: Zagreb

I have never been to any Balkan country, but I needed to spend considerable time in non-Schengen countries to avoid overstaying my allowable 90 days out of 180 days in a Schengen country visa. Thus, I mapped out an ambitious 8 weeks in 11 non-Schengen countries itinerary, taking me through all 7 former Yugoslavia countries and Albania, Romania, Bulgaria and Moldova. It looked a little tiring, so I only booked lodgings a week in advance and gave myself permission at any time to say “enough moving about” and go park myself on a beach in an apartment for an extended period.

Zagreb:

My starting point is Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, for no better reason than there were convenient and not expensive flights to it from Amsterdam that didn’t involve Ryanair. My Air France flight landed late, but free wine and delicious Madelines made up for the delay. The Zagreb airport hardly befits a capital city of 1 million. It is more the size of Saskatoon or Hamilton’s airport. At customs, no computers were available to scan our passports, just 8 customs and immigration booths with 4 people working them. They had an annoying habit of clearing 3 or 4 people, then closing the booth with no warning, forcing the line to go to the back of another line. This happened 3 or 4 times, resulting in it taking well over an hour to handle 150 people. Not an auspicious welcome to a country.

More promising was my accommodation. Searching for places to stay in the Balkans, there seemed to be 3 options: expensive full service hotels in the town centres, reasonably priced hotels beyond walking distance to the centre and renovated apartments, run like 1or 2 room hotels but without the amenities, for a fair price. My place in Zagreb was the  latter. Just a 5 minute walk from the city centre, I was met by Maja outside a 5 story building constructed in the Soviet Realism style. The non-descript double black doors opened to a dark, slightly faded hallway. “No elevator”, Maja said as she grabbed my suitcase and carried it up the wide, tiled staircase to the 1st floor, where a door opened onto a hallway with 3 suites. Mine was a studio that had every modern convenience needed, except a clothes dryer. Hardwood floors, 10 foot ceilings, AC, satellite TV, a fully equipped kitchen, etc. The place was immaculate, clean and quiet, everything needed for a home away from home.

Maja gave me a map and showed me where ATM’s, grocery stores, restaurants and the main streets were and off I went. First to an ATM to get Kuna’s, for although Croatia is in the EU, its economic indicators are considered too unstable for it to use the Euro. Next stop, the grocery store to buy basic breakfast items. It was a large grocery store with everything one might need except eggs. How or why there were no eggs in a major grocery chain in these times is a mystery and for a few minutes, I wondered whether Croatia had truly graduated from its communist past. Fortunately, there was another store in the same chain a few blocks away which had plenty of eggs, so mission accomplished.

The Walking Tour:

I took a free walk tour lead by the very capable Vid, through the main sites in Zagreb. Zagreb had traditionally been built on two hills – the Upper Town on Gradec hill where the elite lived and Parliament was located and Kaptol, another hill inhabited by church officials and the Cathedral. In between lay a valley which now houses the city centre, tram lines, bars, restaurants and a pedestrian walkway. Our tour started in the Upper Town, where the stairs leading up have graphics of famous Croatians and their inventions, including:

  • Slavoljub Eduard Penkala, who invented the fountain pen and gave it its name (this is not universally accepted);
  • Nicolas Tesle, who invented the electric light bulb but was working for the Edison firm so Edison got the patent; he is now much better known for inspiring the name Tesla;
  • Juan Vucetich who first recorded fingerprints for identifying criminals (in Argentina);
  • David Schwartz, who invented the dirigible, but whose plans were taken after his death by a German fellow named Zeppelin.

Missing from the wall, but sure to join it soon was the 2018 World Cup finalist Croatian soccer team, of which much mention was made.

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Graffiti wall showing famous Croats

Vid led us through Upper Town, where we admired St. Mark’s church, saw the Parliament and heard the daily firing of the cannon at noon whose loud boom even the screeching of hundreds of school children failed to dampen. Vid pointed out that there were 55 museums in Zagreb, including the most popular and original Museum of Broken Relationships. Sadly, he noted (and more about this later), there are no museums dedicated to either WW2 or the recent Croatian Homeland War. As we walked towards Kaptol, we passed by giant neckties, another Croatian invention.

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Giant Necktie outside one of many Cravat stores

We admired the Cathedral, but as I have had my fill of Cathedrals for a while, I decided not to enter. We ended our tour at the open air market in the town center, where I indulged in fresh strawberries and tried a typical Croatian dish, Cevapi, consisting of spicy ground meat, with tomatoes and onions of a flatbread.

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Cevapi

History of Croatia since 1918:

(If you are not into history, best to skip to the next part. I have tried to synthesize the very complicated history of the Croats but it is impossible to do in 4-5 sentences).

The walking tour did not go into any details about Croatian history or the more recent wars; for that I signed up for the History walking tour, again with Vid but not free. Vid was 5 when the war ended, so he had memories of it but not full comprehension at the time. Interestingly, he had completed 1 of his 2 masters’ thesis (Croatian Heritage and Tourism) on Jews in Zagreb, but he was not Jewish.

I did visit the Croatian History Museum before the tour but it is housed in a temporary site and can show only one exhibit at a time. I learned a lot about the Serbian, Croatian and Slovenian State that was formed following WW1, but little more, so much of the following is based on Vid’s commentary during the tour, various You-Tube videos and Dervla Murphy’s book Through the Embers of Chaos which I am rereading as I travel through the Balkans to get an Irish perspective on the wars. Here goes:

Since the 1500’s, the Croats, Slovenians, Serbians and Bosnians lived in relative peace and harmony under the Hapsburg (later Austrian/Hungarian) Empire. WW1 broke out (thanks to the assassination of Archduke Frank Ferdinand in Sarajevo by a Serbian Nationalist) and the Austrian/Hungarians were on the losing end. The victors created an artificial new state, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (meaning southern Slav and not to be confused with the Republic of Yugoslavia) comprising much of the Balkans. The Croats understood they would be equal with the Serbians in this new kingdom, but they were disappointed and held a grudge.

In 1938, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia negotiated a treaty with Germany, which Hitler broke when he invaded the Kingdom on April 6, 1941, ostensibly to assist Italy in its invasion of Greece and to secure gas shipments from Romania. The Nazis set up a puppet government in Croatia using a pro-Croatian nationalist movement called the Ustashe, which embraced fascism with a vengeance. Its leader was referred to in Croatian as “the Fuhrer”. It enacted the “racial laws”, proudly set up concentration camps manned by the only non-Nazis to do so and proceeded to exterminate most of Croatia’s Jews (about 90% of 20,000), gypsies and homosexuals. The synagogue was destroyed; a parking lot currently stands there, but the recently opened Jewish Museum is seeking to acquire the land. A small plaque marks the spot.

The Ustashe also invited Serbians into their concentration camps, killing between 50,000 and 200,000 and sowing the seeds for the later conflict. According to Vid, most current Croats are deeply embarrassed about the actions of the Ustashe, but there are also many Holocaust deniers and closet supporters of the Ustashe. Quite a few made their way to South America; there are more Croats living outside of Croatia than in it and the diaspora tend to be more militant than those in the country.

Zagreb was not bombed during the war, despite massive preparations for it. Long, lengthy tunnels run under the city and are still in use today as convenient thoroughfares. They were dug to protect the Ustashe from potential attacks and could hold up to 5,000 people:

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A tunnel under Zagreb

Post WW2, Joseph Tito, a communist and freedom fighter, became the dictator for life and managed to hold the 7 separate areas together as the Democratic Federal Yugoslavia. As Yugoslavia was the only country not to be “liberated” by Russia during WW2, Tito was able to escape the grasp of the Warsaw Pact and succeeded in obtaining funds under the Marshall Plan. For 35 years, he was one of the few leaders able to visit the White House (where he smoked Cuban cigars), have tea with the Queen and walk into the Kremlin with Brezhnev. During his life, Yugoslavians were prosperous compared to their communist neighbors, stores were stocked with food, people had a bit of money, some Western luxuries and the freedom to travel.

Tito’s largest failing was a lack of a succession plan. Upon his death in 1980, the various ethnic groups in Yugoslavia tried different ways to govern- rotating presidents, multiple education ministers each representing a single group, etc. but nothing resolved the basic differences. Serbians, the largest and most powerful group, wanted to maintain the boundaries of Yugoslavia and retain a centralist and Communist government. Other ethnic groups, including the Croats, did not. In the spring of 1991, a Croatian referendum resulted in a vote in favour of independence. Most Serbs living in the Croatian territory had boycotted the referendum.

In June, 1991, Croatia declared independence, with a 3 month delay in implementation. Serbian reaction was swift; the Yugoslav People’s Army (YPA) bombed the Croatian Presidential Palace on October 8, 1991 and Serbian paramilitary forces within Croatia began terrorist attacks on Croatian military and police forces. Croatians defected en mass from the YPA and started to strike back at the largely Serbian YPA. The Serbians in Croatia escalated the violence by invading towns and beginning the process of ethnic cleansing, murdering or displacing local Croats and succeeded in capturing large swaths of land claimed by Croatia. In areas retained by the Croats, Serbs fled the area, while in Serbia, Croats fled to Croatia.

A ceasefire of sorts, with U.N. peacekeepers, was negotiated in 1992, but the sticky issue of what to do with the former Croatian lands in Serbian control remained unresolved. Meanwhile, Bosnia-Herzegovina, right next door, declared Independence and what remained of the former Yugoslavia, headed by Serbia, became embroiled in a far more deadly war. Croat forces initially supported the Bosnians, but alliances were fluid and at other times, the Croats were allied with the Serbians in the Bosnian conflict. I’ll learn more about it when I get to Bosnia-Herzegovina.

By 1995, Croatia had managed to repel the YPA from all of its former lands. The war, which had never been officially declared, was over. Over the course of the 4 year war, an estimated 20,000 Croats were killed and 500,000 displaced. Although Zagreb remained relatively intact, having suffered only 2 bomb attacks, other towns and cities had been destroyed. The cost of the war was estimated at $35 billion, 5 years of lost productivity and the burden of integrating all the refugees.

Vid finished the story by telling us his own thoughts. “Both sides,” he said, “were wrong and each committed horrible atrocities. But no one really expected the situation in the former Yugoslavia to explode as it did, no one understands exactly how or why it did, but the one misgiving was the failure of the West and especially the USA to intervene and stop the bloodshed.” He couldn’t understand why the USA was so eager to assist Kuwait (Desert Storm had just finished), but turned its back on the Balkans. “Maybe because there’s no oil in Croatia?” I thought to myself, but decided not to voice my opinion. I found it strange that Vid, who in every other respect, was open minded and forgiving, had no hesitation in blaming the USA for the war.

Zagreb: Final Thoughts:

Zagreb has a lot of good qualities. Its city centre is compact, easy to maneuver except for a few steep climbs to Upper Town, and its sites close together. Its low prices were a much welcome relief from The Netherlands and Belgium; a glass of wine cost only $3.00 and a decent meal less than $20. Uber is widely used and cheap – only $5 from the centre to the bus station 3 kilometres away. And very safe in the centre – as the guides kept telling me, a woman alone could walk comfortably at midnight. Although I never put it to the test, the worst hazards I encountered were the numerous smokers and vapers waking down the streets.

Alas, all is not rosy. Croatia has significant economic problems, some stemming from the war, others the transition (still) to a free market economy whose primary revenue source is tourism. One guide proudly proclaimed that health care and schooling, including university, are free, then decried the 25% consumer tax on everything. When I asked him if he paid income tax, he said he didn’t know because he is paid a net wage; his employer is responsible for paying the income tax. Unemployment amongst those under 30 stands at about 30% and the beneficiaries of the free university are flocking abroad for higher paying jobs.

More disconcerting is Croatia’s inability or unwillingness to deal with its past, from its wholehearted embrace of the Nazis during WW2 to the horrors (by both sides) during the Croatian Homeland War. Two unrelated incidents brought this home to me. I decided to visit the Museum of Illusions one day, dedicated to, as its name suggests, optical, scientific and other illusions. I entered about 2:00PM, but after 10 minutes a group of extremely rambunctious, noisy school children entered and started racing around and yelling, to the point where I was unable to enjoy any of it. I asked the receptionist when the school trips would end and she replied, a bit apologetically, about 7:00 pm. I couldn’t take it and left. The next day, about 5:00PM, our history tour entered the Memorial Museum for the victims of the Croatian Homeland War. The receptionist had to unlock the door for us and turn on the lights. There were no school kids there; nor anyone else. They were probably all at the Museum of Illusions. Sadly, their absence at the Memorial Museum was probably emblematic of their attitude toward the past.

Thus, my visit to Zagreb ended on a slightly bitter note. It’s a nice city, with a bit (but not a whole lot) to offer. Everything was superficially pleasant, but it has a dark, ugly history which it prefers to forget rather than confront.

Next stop: Ljubljana, Slovenia.

 

Biking and Barging in Belgium and Holland

My endeavors to cycle independently through France had met with mixed success; I had made it to St. Malo and Roscoff on my bike, however my overarching success had been to figure out how to use the French train system toting a bicycle. It turned out to be fairly easy – just find a train and a train car with a bicycle symbol and wheel one aboard, pushing aside all those baby carriages and wheelchairs who deigned to park their apparatuses in the exclusive bicycle section.

Unwilling to concede defeat to the bicycle and buoyed by the beautiful photos posted on Facebook by two of my colleagues who were cycling independently through The Netherlands and Belgium, I signed up for a week long Bike and Barge tour offered by tripsite.com, going from Bruges to Amsterdam during the tulip season. We would cycle the flat bike paths in Belgium and The Netherlands during the day and meet up with our barge/floating hotel each evening. It sounded like a very civilized way to tour a country and get some exercise.

My first hint that things might not go smoothly was upon receiving the joining instructions – the group was to meet at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam to be transported to the barge moored in Ghent. I had wrongly presumed a trip titled “from Bruges to Amsterdam” would start in Bruges and had booked a hotel there for the preceding 3 days, thus requiring me to take a train to meet the boat in Ghent.

The barge, named the Clair de Lune could not be described as luxurious; perhaps functional is a better label. The top part contains the bridge, with the steering wheel, a large interior dining area/lounge and a sun deck with a box containing life vests should they be needed. Below deck were 9 single and double cabins. My cabin was bigger than the couchette I had on the Australian Ghan train, but that’s not saying much. A single bed, a tiny sink, a toilet that used river water and a shower that was smaller than a breadboard. As I said, functional not luxurious.

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The Clair de Lune

Age (pronounced aghher) , a 65 year old former IBM project manager and our tour guide, met me at the boat and helped me aboard. I was introduced to Michael, the skipper, and Chris, the cook and second (and only) mate. In the next few hours, I met my fellow 16 travelers, 4 Australians, 2 South Africans, 2 Germans, 8 Brazilians and me. Between us, there were 2 doctors, a dentist, a pathologist, a leukemia researcher, 2 lawyers, a nurse, an engineer, a teacher, a pharmaceutical consultant, some housewives and 2 businessmen. The youngest was 44; the oldest 72. It was a congenial group although the Brazilians were not the best at being punctual, which drove the Australians crazy. Best of all, not a single smoker.

After Chris served us the first of many hearty meals, Age fitted us on our bikes and we rode 5 kilometers to the center of Ghent, where we had a brief guided tour. As was becoming the custom in the Belgian cities visited, there was a marvelous belfry near the town square, a Cathedral, too many churches to count and 2 old castles, all nestled between ancient canals and cobblestone roads.

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Ghent by night

Most of the group took the train to Bruges the first day, but since I had just spent 4 days there, I chose instead to walk around Ghent. I visited Grovensteen castle, where the audio guide seemed focused on its builder’s (Phillip of Alsace) inability to procreate and the various means of torture and execution preferred in medieval times. An entire room was devoted to medieval torture instruments, making current interrogation techniques seem kind and gentle.

As Ghent is a canal town, a canal boat tour seemed in order. Five minutes after embarking, the skies opened up and the rain cascaded upon us. The boat operator/tour guide spent most of the time racing under one bridge to the next, but did provide a good history of Ghent’s golden age. Like Bruges before it and Antwerp later on, its fame in the Middle Ages came from its strategic location on a river that led inland from the North Atlantic, becoming a trading centre as its multitude of still existing warehouses attest, and wealthy from the tolls collected from the use of the canals.

The next day was our first real cycling day – 50 kilometres to the city of Dendermonde – alongside lazy canals with lovely, secluded bike paths running on each side and the occasional pasture where sheep or cows grazed. Age led the way, wearing a yellow vest, with one of us appointed the sweeper each day whose job was to also don a yellow vest but always be last. If Age could see the sweeper, we were good. If not, we stopped until the last joined up. The Brazilians were intent on documenting every second of their trip, so they made frequent photo stops, took pictures while cycling, raced ahead to film the cyclists coming forward and after a while, even the ever patient Age asked them to reduce their photo stops. Once that was sorted out, the group cycled at a reasonable pace, only about 10 kilometers an hour with a 45 minute coffee break, lunch and small pit stops near interesting things where Age would share some aspect of Belgian history or lifestyle with us. No one tried to race and everyone kept up the pace.

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Me, the bike and lots of sheep

Dendermonde was a pretty, medieval town like the other Belgian ones we toured without the name recognition of Bruges or Ghent. The next morning, we set out for Antwerp, arriving there after 5 hours on our bike at 3:00PM, much earlier than our barge which had been held up at a lock which refused to fill with water, then by rush hour traffic in Antwerp during which the harbour master wouldn’t open the drawbridge to let the boats through. It was a good opportunity to sit outside and enjoy a glass of wine and watch all the Hasidim walk by – the only clue to Antwerp’s position as a diamond industry giant.

On day 5, we cycled across the border into Holland, with only a small concrete post marking the boundary and began our trek in search of windmills. Soon enough, we arrived at Kinderdijk, the place of 18 windmills and a bustling tourist attraction, with busloads of Asians doing their European highlights tour and river cruise excursions bringing scores of Americans to the Visitor Center, both likely part of a concerted effort to get tourists out of the overly crowded Amsterdam. The mills themselves were beautiful against a backdrop of cloudy skies and the video, which explained the purpose of the windmills (water level management) and their mechanics, informative.

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The Windmills at Kinderdijk

From Kinderdijk, we cycled to Gouda, home to Gouda cheese. The barge was moored close to the main square, which again was charming, with a town hall and medieval hall which weighed the cheese and other goods for tax purposes. I located a cheese store and sampled all their different varieties of Gouda- green pesto, black lemon, almonds – before settling on a medium, an aged and a spicy red pepper one and posing for the obligatory picture holding a (plastic and hollow) round of cheese.

Day 5 had been all about windmills and Gouda cheese; day 6 was devoted to tulips. Our trip had been advertised as a tulip tour; unfortunately Mother Nature had the final say. Thanks to a prior week of glorious sunshine and hot weather, most of the tulips had blossomed early and the farmers had cropped their fields already. We were able to locate a few still carpeted with flowers, where everyone sang Tiptoeing through the Tulips and took pictures, but the best display was at the Keukenhof, botanical gardens outside of Amsterdam ablaze with tulips of all colours and varieties. The tulips there are planted sequentially, ensuring a longer bloom. The gardens are massive; I spent 3 hours there and wished I had more time.

We cycled to Amsterdam and met the barge for one last city stroll, dinner and an evening of drinking and exchanging email addresses. We had cycled about 250 kilometers, endured 2 flat tires, 1 bike falling into the canal (but fished out again) and 2 falls where the worst damage was some scraped knees. The bike and barge had been a nice way to see Belgium and The Netherlands. People were uniformly friendly along the route, the pace relaxed and I felt that I was able to see some of the “real” country.

I was reluctant to do much touring in Amsterdam. I’ve been here before and the crowds are unreal, but I couldn’t resist a canal boat ride, some pancakes, some brownies and stopping in at the Rijksmuseum to see the All Rembrandt show, featuring all of Rembrandt’s paintings and most of his sketches. I enjoyed it so much I abandoned my pledge not to visit any more art galleries and went across the road to the Van Gogh museum. It exhibits his early paintings in Amsterdam followed by his Impressionist period in Paris through to his madness and ultimate suicide in the south of France. The gallery does an excellent job of explaining Van Gogh’s paintings through his interests – whether about religion, nature or the peasant lifestyle – and his influence on his art friends and later painters.

After 5 weeks in France, Belgium and The Netherlands, where it seemed to rain for all but a few days, I am off in search of sunshine in Croatia.

Three days in Brussels

I had last visited Brussels in 1979, my first stop on a backpacking trip through Europe with an EuroRail pass and a copy of Europe on $5 a day. I stayed in a hostel, visited the Grand Place and sadly realized that $5 per day would not allow for guided tours, chocolate samples or buying lace.

I returned this week with a more generous budget and a longer list of places to see. The first stop was still the Grand Place, the medieval main square at the center of the old city. It hasn’t changed much in 40 years, but the large number of tourists was a big shock compared to the relatively foreigner free towns I had just come from in Brittany. Despairing of getting any photos without large crowds, I returned the following morning at 6:30AM to take some pictures, the square empty but for a group of young Americans still partying from the night before and the street cleaners.

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The Grand Place – City Hall

Brussels: The Walking Tour:

I joined a walking tour offered by Sandemans, a local “free, tip what you think it is worth” tour led by Magalia and her dog, Joseph. We started in the Grand Place, where Magalia provided a brief history of the architecture of the buildings. It had been a market square for centuries. The City Hall, still in use today, is a excellent example of 14th century Gothic style, except for the fact that it completely lacks symmetry. The entrance, topped by the 90 foot spire, is off-centre, as are other features, the result of too many architects and spontaneous innovations. The remaining buildings are all Baroque style guild halls, dating from the 18th century, reconstructed following the complete demolition of the original, wooden structures by the French king, Louis XIV, on one of his quests for more land.

Just a block away is Manneken Pis, a bronze statue which translates into exactly what it looks like, a peeing boy. Mention of it was reported as long ago as the 15th century, but it took its current location in 1618. In fact, it is a replica – the original is in the City Museum. Much beloved and considered the symbol of Brussels, the city employs a full time tailor to put different costumes on it 2-3 times a week, such as Santa Clause, Dracula and Madonna.

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From architecture, Magalia turned to talk of Belgium food, specifically beer (the best), waffles, chocolates and french fries. According to her, fries were invented by the Belgians, but Americans, seeing them for the first time during WW1 with persons speaking French, incorrectly assumed they were “French fries” and the name stuck. True Flemish fries are cooked in animal fat twice, to get the outside crispy but keeping the inside soft. She recommended the Café Georgette for some of the best fries. I order a portion there later that day. They came wrapped in a paper cone and were good, but I’m not sure I would say they are the best ever.

From the Grand Place, we walked to St. Michael Cathedral, an example of early Gothic architecture, more simply decorated than middle Gothic architecture. This Cathedral was finished just 12 years after Notre Dame and bore many similarities, but no rose window.

Brussels is a mecca for Modern Art and we walked in one of the districts, but it was closed and deserted on Easter Monday. Magalia entertained us with a short history of Belgium. There is no traditional Belgium language (French, Flanders Dutch and German are the official ones), tribe or land. Rather, Belgium was occupied and fought over at various times by its neighbors the Dutch, French and Germans, along with the British, Spanish and Austrians. In 1830, in part to stop the continual warfare between the states, Belgium was proposed as a separate entity to provide a buffer zone between the warring countries, on condition that it always remain neutral. A king (from a German family) was appointed and Belgium came into being. It remained neutral until WW1. Germany sought safe passage through it to attack The Netherlands, fully expecting to receive it since Belgium was supposed to be neutral. King Phillip had other ideas and rejected the German request. Thus, Germany invaded Belgium and overran most of it in a few days. So ended Belgium neutrality, but King Phillip became a hero.

The Hollerbos Forest:

Every April, the Hollerbos forest erupts in a sea of violet bluebells. A short train ride to the Halle station, followed by a 10 minute bus ride on the 114 (Brussels transit system is fairly easy to figure out), I arrived at the gates to the forest. Stretching about 6 kilometers, it has paved paths for vehicles and pedestrians and some well marked walking dirt paths that took me into the forest proper and away from the tour groups, cyclists, dog walkers and pretty much everyone else into an enchanted garden of flowers, trees and sunlight dancing atop the blossoms. I walked about for 2 hours, mesmerized by the beauty of it all:

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Chocolate Tasting Tour:

Brussels offers chocolate tours appealing to all tastes; how to make chocolate, history of chocolate and the one I settled on, a tasting tour at 5 different chocolatiers. Stefanie, a local studying law at the university, was our guide. As an aside, she told me she was doing her Masters in commercial law and that her tuition, like all Belgians, was heavily subsidized. She paid about 1000 Euros a year, although she was responsible for purchasing her own textbooks.

She promised after the tour we (me and 10 Americans) would all become chocolate connoisseurs. After a brief introduction about the cocoa bean and its components, the butter and the mass (the paste), Stefanie explained why some chocolates, like our first tasting place, Leonidac, sold its chocolate for 20 Euros a kilo but the last ones charged 80 -120 Euros per kilo. Part of it was based on where the cocoa bean came from (Central America, Central Africa, India, Vietnam were the most common), but also the quality of the other ingredients (organic was better) and most importantly, if the chocolates were hand made or machine made. The latter were far less expensive and not as tasty.

Leonidac is one of the oldest and least regarded chocolatiers. Yesterday, Magalia had explained that giving chocolates is a tradition in Belgium and the better the quality, the more respect you were showing to the recipient. If you wanted to insult someone, you gave them chocolates from Leonidac. With a similarly negative introduction, Stefanie handed us each a white chocolate, which is not chocolate at all but only the cocoa butter, and broke one in half to show us the well-defined layers of white chocolate, pralines and a coffee mousse-like center. We all bit in – it was sickly sweet and a bit gritty. Our second sample was a milk chocolate, but again quite sweet.

We moved on to Neuhaus, then to Mary, two mid-range chocolatiers where we sampled different sweets, including a champagne one. The chocolates got darker, the interiors less segregated and more of a conglomerate of flavours rather than distinct layers. We were introduced to “ruby chocolate,” which as its name suggests is a rosy pink colour. Introduced in 2017, it is the first new chocolate colour since Nestles created white chocolate. Why it is pink is a patented secret. Some speculate it comes from red cocoa powder made during processing, others claim it arises when the cocoa bean, which is naturally red, is left to dry for only a few days rather than the normal 60. Others allege genetic modification creates the ruby colour. Whatever the reason, it was tasty.

Our final two stops were at the high end (read hand made) shops of Whittaker and Frederic Blondel. At the latter, “nouveau French” chocolates were offered – dark chocolate with spices and fruit designed to provide a rolling taste explosion in your mouth. The cardamom/blackberry starts with a spicy hit of the cardamom, followed by the freshness of the blackberry and ending with the semi-sweetness of the dark chocolate. This was all getting a bit hoity-toity for me, but the chocolate was delicious and my favourite on the tour. But following 8 tastings, for the first time in my life, I’d had enough chocolate.

Mini-Europe: 

For anyone without the time or means to visit all of Europe but a desire to see all the iconic buildings or for those whose favourite place in England is Miniature World at Legoland outside of London, Mini-Europe is a must. A 30 minute metro/tram ride from the centre of Brussels, this park contains accurate 1:25 reproductions of many of Europe’s most famous sites. The trains move, the ships on the canals sail and the windmills turn. In the miniature bullring, a matador challenges the bull; at the Gdańsk shipyard, protestors carry signs reading “Solidarity.” The giant silver sculpture in the background is the Atomium, designed for Brussel’s World Fair in 1958.

Mini-Europe is newer. It’s theme is European unity and it focuses only on EU countries. Its exhibits are designed to display those that are significant to European and EU ideals: the Brexit vote results are displayed outside of the UK House of Parliament, the Brandenburg gate still shows the Berlin Wall and my favourite,, the Canadian memorial at Flanders Field, showing the world’s involvement in WW1.

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Flanders Field at Mini-Europe

The Africa Museum, the worst museum I have ever visited: 

I finished my time in Brussels on a negative note, the Royal Museum of Central Africa. Going in, I knew it was controversial and dealt with a difficult topic- Belgium’s colonial past – but nothing prepared me for the feelings of dismay and anger from my visit there.

Some history and context is necessary. Belgium’s second king, Leopold II, wanted to join the European colonies in their quest to conquer and exploit Africa. Through savvy negotiating and with the assistance of Morgan Stanley (he of “Dr. Livingston, I presume fame”), Leopold managed to become king of the Congo Free State in 1885. Fortunately for Leopold, the Congo Free State had an abundance of rubber trees, a highly desirable commodity at the time. Unfortunately for the native Congolese, Leopold embarked on one of the worst enslavement and genocide of the local population known to man in an effort to extract as much rubber as possible. Between 1885 and 1908, when the Belgium government wrested control of the Congo from their King, between 3 and 15 million Congolese died through starvation, beatings and execution. Atrocities abounded, most prevalent was the cutting off of hands and feet when a Congolese failed to meet his or her daily rubber quota.

As a result of this exploitation, Leopold II became the richest man in Europe. He used his wealth to fund massive building projects in Belgium, including the palatial structure housing the museum. In a desire to obtain widespread acceptance for his Congo project, Leopold II hosted the Universal Exhibition in 1897 to showcase the potential of the Congo Free State, complete with an authentic Congolese village populated by a few hundred Congolese imported specifically for the Exhibition. In order to make the Exhibition a success, Leopold II ordered his minions to acquire as much African art and artifacts as possible and transported them to Brussels.

For a century, the Palace of the Colonies/Africa Museum exhibited these materials, with the underlying theme of “how Belgium brought civilization to the Congo.” Finally, in 2013, the museum closed for an extensive renovation designed to bring the collection into the 21st century, de-emphasizing Belgium’s “civilizing “ influence and reconstituting the collection to emphasize African life and art. Five years and 66 million Euros later, it reopened  proclaiming its vision to be of a decolonized and contemporary vision of Africa. In my view, it failed in every aspect.

The first room in the Museum displayed  statutes of Africans in various poses which were generally derogatory. The introduction explained, almost red-faced, the source of the entire collection and how the statues were part of an outdated and negative European view of Africa and its colonization that the current museum rejected. The current focus of the museum was to educate people about central Africa and explain its traditions, history, topography, animals and resources, curated with the assistance of various African communities.

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The Statues at the Africa Museum

We were introduced, through artifacts, videos and written explanations in 4 languages, what life had been like in the mid 17-19th century in Africa – birth, initiation (education), religion, rituals and death. This continued through a few rooms, before we came to the animals. In one room were stuffed crocodiles, off to the side and easily missed was a room displaying information about colonialism and Belgium’s part in it

It was a complete whitewash. King Leopold’s horror show was buried under a general discussion about the causes of colonialism – the slave trade and desire for ivory. Only a single board focused on King Leopold in the Congo, with a half dozen photos showing some of the cruelty, a video discussing the genocide, and an explanation that atrocities were committed with the rather banal observation that some estimated millions died but no-one really knew but what was known was there were more deaths in some areas of the Congo than others.

That was it! No attempt to explain or apologize or to analyze the long term effect. The next room was filled with taxidermy animals, an elephant, a giraffe, a hippopotamus. Other rooms identified central Africa’s natural resources and current economic successes. Aside from some history about the differences between Congo, Rwanda and Burundi, the museum steered clear from any mention of politics or conflict. I don’t recall any mention of the Rwanda genocide.

The whole museum was disappointing. Given the money spent and the consultation with the affected communities, I expected an open and honest analysis of Belgium’s role in the Congo,  perhaps some expression of regret. Instead, I left with the sense that Belgium and the museum were too ashamed about its past exploits to address them. For me, that is sad. I left Brussels more than a little disappointed with the Belgians that all the chocolates, waffles and silly peeing statues couldn’t diminish.

 

 

Brittany Highlights

After 3 weeks in the region, I will be reluctantly leaving Brittany tomorrow. The area is beautiful, replete with rolling green fields bordered by wildflowers, sandy beaches along the Atlantic coast and enough villages and cities filled with medieval timber frame houses, gothic churches and majestic castles. It’s a history lover’s dream – with its population proud of its Celtic (we are not French, they reminded me) roots, Arthurian ( of the British King Arthur) connections and a bevy of new world explorers, privateers and slave traders.

The people I met seemed more relaxed than in Paris; maybe it’s the small town mentality or the lack of hordes of tourists. People were patient with my attempts to speak French and instead of telling me they spoke English, most asked me if I would like to them to speak English. Walking the streets was a pleasure. Cars stopped to let me cross the street if I so much as looked at the street, zebra stripes or not. At the abundant pedestrian crossings, without fail, every vehicle stopped to let me pass. Cycle paths were plentiful, unfortunately so were hills. That, along with solid rain and cool temperatures, limited my enthusiasm for cycling long distances in the region.

St. Malo:

Following a long day of cycling to get to St. Malo, my legs were in no shape to get back on a bicycle, so I spent the day exploring the city.  The town earned its fame as a maritime city, its Atlantic shores blessed with bountiful supplies of fish and crustaceans. Early inhabitants were fishermen, later it became a center for shipbuilding and exploration. Both Jacques Cartier and Sebastian Cabot set sail for the new world (although Cartier was aiming for China) from here, eventually landing in Newfoundland and Quebec. In the 17th century, the port became wealthy with loot earned by privateers capturing gold laden ships departing South America. Today, in addition to its fishing booty, cruise ships dock here and disgorge their passengers who mostly race out of town on pre-paid shore excursions to nearby Mont. St. Micheal.

St. Malo has a glorious castle and ramparts. The castle’s foundations date to the 6th century AD, but its current reincarnation was built between the 15th and 17th centuries, Today, it is a museum showcasing the city’s history,  with the exhibits only in French , so my comprehension was limited. But the real star was the building, medieval with thick stone walls, tiny arrowslits and an entrance to the tower roof, where a view of the city and the Atlantic awaited.

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The walls and castle at St. Malo

The ramparts, or walls, encircle about 2/3rds of the old city and were a pleasure to walk, with pathways as wide as 10 feet and paved in large tiles, rather than cobblestones awaiting to trip the unsuspecting walker. Strolling atop the ramparts, all of the architectural features of the city were on display: reconstructed 18th century houses (the city was heavily shelled during WW2), the castle, Fort National built on an island in the ocean, a lighthouse, watchtowers and an outdoor Olympic size swimming pool. Statues of local celebrities dot the path, including at least one honouring a privateer,  a fancy name for a state sanctioned pirate.

Today, St, Malo is best known as a beach town, with two beautiful white sand beaches bordered by pleasant walkways. Maybe it was too early in the season, but there were no signs of the tacky fish & chip shops and salt water taffy stands that deface the British seaside resorts I know (Margate comes to mind). Instead, there were creperies and brassieres (bars). Even the merry-go-round was quaint, reminiscent of a 1920’s model with pink horses and golden curlicues decorating the edges.

St. Malo is also famous for its seafood – oysters were for sale everywhere – and boat signs announced they had a fresh catch. Restaurants promoted their “fruit de la mer” and I couldn’t resist. After playing it safe with a St. Malo filet (dory) one night, the next I braved the seafood platter. With apologies to my Jewish family and friends, the offerings included oysters, escargot (snails), prawns, whelks, crabs and some things I couldn’t identify.

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Seafood platter in St. Malo

I gave it my best, but the oysters were really salty, the escargots chewy and tasteless, the prawns were fine but mostly bone and very little meat. Having tried at least one of everything on the platter, finishing the prawns and crab legs, I was still hungry, so I had my favourite part of the meal – the pumpernickel-like bread with butter.

Mont. St. Michel:

Beautiful bike routes of about 50 kilometers exist between St. Malo and Mont. St. Michel and my original plan had been to cycle there, but the previous day had seen hail and the day’s forecast was for rain. My bike stayed in storage and I took a train to Dol de Bretagne, then the bus conveniently waiting at the train station to the Mont. St. Michel visitor center to catch the trolley that dropped me and the other waiting tourists to within 500 meters of the island. From there, we were left to walk, using the causeway, or drop down to walk across the sand but as one could only walk on the sand with a licensed guide. I stayed on the causeway.

After entering through the walls, a winding narrow cobblestone alley with shops and restaurants on either side leads, after a heart pounding climb, to the abbey proper. I followed the audio guided tour through the abbey. Originally constructed in the 8th century, it has been rebuilt, expanded and reconstituted over the centuries. Inside are chapels, cloisters, greeting rooms and studies, most open to the public. The decoration was less elaborate than other churches I had visited – no stained glass windows or tapestries – but impressive in its simplicity.

I emerged to a thunderous storm and made my way down the street, ducking into one of the many overpriced restaurants selling Mont St. Michel’s specialties – galettes, crepes, and seafood- and enjoyed a Mont. St. Michel omelette, which was  fluffy with a light cream sauce.

Mont. St. Michel is impressive, but its most awe-inspiring aspect for me was that first glimpse, of the abbey and spire pointing to the heavens, atop an island. I walked the 3 kilometers back to the visitor center, frequently turning back for another view and a picture of the island.

Morlaix:

Five days into my 3 week long cycling trip, I’d given up on long distance cycling, but the town (15,000 residents) of Morlaix on an estuary for which I could not find the name (everyone said “the Morlaix harbour” but it wasn’t a harbour as I understand the term) had lots of bike paths. It’s a pretty town, with 123 timber buildings, numerous churches, a viaduct built in 1861 for trains and way too many stairs, which I did my best to avoid.  I stayed in the 200 year old Hotel L’Europe. Morlaix has long been a haven for ships, with the unnamed river/estuary only 6 kilometers from the ocean, but it became rich in the 15th and 16th century thanks to its manufacture of tobacco. An exhibit at the former tobacco manufacture plant explained the relationship of Morlaix to this industry and boasted that Morlaix had the largest number of smokers in France in the 1990’s. The plant is now an arts school and no cigarettes are made in the town anymore. Sadly, pretty as Morlaix was, its former market square had been turned into a parking lot.

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Morlaix, with the viaduct and former market square

Roscoff:

Roscoff is a small city on the Atlantic about 28 kilometers from Morlaix. My desire to cycle there was met with the dilemma of too many options. My Voies Vert (green routes for cyclists) book had one route, GoogleMaps another, maps.me a third and the signs with a green bicycle saying “Roscoff” pointed to yet another. I choose to follow the green road signs, which didn’t mention the route is probably good training for the Tour de France, with way too many steep climbs for my liking and a few off-road treks through farmers’ fields ripe with the bright yellow blooms of canola or smelling of manure. The signs were relatively easy to follow- only one wrong turn easily remedied when the  path led straight into the ocean – and less than 4 hours later, I arrived at my destination.

Roscoff is primarily a fishing and pleasure boat center, having no discernible beach. Its buildings spanned the centuries, its main church topped with a unique spire emphasizing its square building blocks, and plenty of restaurants lining the marina. I stopped for a typical Breton pastry, the Kouign-Amann, which is butter and sugar added to a croissant-like dough. Not great for dieters, but warmed-up, it was the perfect reward for a long bike ride. After demolishing one in quick fashion, I took a look at the brewing storm clouds and began the long ride back to Morlaix. I was drenched by the time I made it back, but nothing a hot bath and a glass of wine couldn’t cure.

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Roscoff

Dourduff:

The one thing I figured out about cycling in France is the route along the river or canal is likely to be flat. With that thought in mind, I cycled the 6 kilometers on the very flat roadway beside the still unbeknownst to me named river from Morlaix to Dourdoff. Despite the roadway being a minor (“D” series) highway without shoulders, the drivers were ultra considerate, always swerving generously to leave me wide berth, sometimes even slowing behind me for a few minutes until the center line became broken and passing was again permitted. Dourduff itself is fairly non-descript but offers beautiful views of the Atlantic.

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Dourdoff, facing away from the Atlantic

Brest:

Brest is a coastal city on the southern edge of Brittany, so I was expecting another charming seaside town, perhaps with a beach or two and an abundance of architecture. Unfortunately, as my train approached and I read up on the city, I learned that it had been, and still was, the headquarters of the French navy.  Thus, it had been bombed to smithereens in WWII; only a single original castle housing a maritime museum (in French only) withstood the barrage. Today, 1950’s office and apartment buildings line the river and harbour, with high fences topped with barbed wire and signs (again in French) warning it is military property and beware of the dogs. Looking down into the river, I could see a vast array of military ships and submarines. It was not my favourite stop, but its main pedestrian road had a bagel store, called Bagelstein, which made me a very good smoked salmon with cream cheese and red onions bagel.

Quimper:

Quimper marked a return to the scenic, quaint town, traversed by the canal along the Odet river and highlighted by the Saint Corentin cathedral, another gothic cathedral, this one dating to 1239. Architecture in the town again spans the centuries, with an unique Art Nouveau theater. Quimper and its suburb of Locmaria gained fame for its arts & crafts, especially its Faience pottery, for which there is a dedicated museum that is pleasant and informative. Feeling quite touristy, I took the tourist train for a ride around the center and, as the history buff in me demanded, visited the History of Quimper museum, with a large display of stone and Iron Age implements.

 

Nantes

Nantes, a city of 300,000, is the administrative seat of the Loire-Atlantique region. Why it is not part of the administrative region of Brittany is a mystery, but it isn’t.  Situated at the last navigatable point where ships could sail upstream from the Atlantic Ocean along the Loire River, and having two other convenient estuaries, it has a long history as a major port city. Its center is dominated by the Château of Anne, Duchess of Brittany, who had the good (or bad, depending on your viewpoint) fortune to marry two different kings of France, became a patron of the arts and completed the Chateau that bears her name. Entrance to its grounds, via drawbridge across a moat and around its ramparts, was free; the history museum charged but it was worthwhile. Although it detailed Nantes’ long legacy, the most informative displays recited Nantes’ role in the African slave trade.  Nantes’ ships sailed to Senegal, picked up slaves, sold them in the West Indies and returned to Nantes laden with mostly sugar cane, but also tobacco. Nantes wealth – its soaring gothic Cathedral (started in 1434 and not finished until 1891), its canals, its streets and public houses were largely financed with profits made by the slave traders. France abolished slavery during the French Revolution, but Napoleon reinstated it. It was outlawed for good in 1831.

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Entrance to the Chateau to Duchess Anne

Nantes, more than any other city in Brittany, prides itself on its forward thinking. Many of its buildings represent cutting edge architecture – my hotel had large orange and turquoise green pieces of plexiglass decorating its exterior, maybe resembling sails or maybe the colours of the football stadium which it adjoined. I don’t know. Nantes’ most lauded artistic achievement is Les Machines de l’Ile, a former shipbuilding site that artists turned into a place to construct and exhibit interactive plants and animals made from machines. The crowd favourite is the 3 story high, Grand Elephant, which carries passengers about and can spout water from its trunk.

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And so, with a mechanical elephant, I end my days in Brittany.

 

Cycling in Brittany

Dervla Murphy, an Irish octogenarian, is one of my favourite travel writers. In 1965, at the age of 30, she hopped on her bike and cycled to India, sleeping rough or in hotelis or truck stops for 1 pound a night, indulging in her preferred beer, Tusker, at least nightly and encountering an amazing number of English speakers willing to engage in far ranging conversations from politics to AIDS that frequently made their way into Ms Murphy’s books.  Her globetrotting cycling  through Africa, Asia and the Middle East and, with her young daughter, over the Andes by donkey, continued until Siberia in 2010 – which proved her undoing – after a fall damaged her knee, she gave up the bicycle but continued her voyage by train and bus, again resulting in an highly entertaining travel book.

She was my inspiration, but I knew I wasn’t going to completely emulate her.  I don’t drink beer and my hotel requirements extend well beyond a room with a bed and door,  but I had planned to do a lot of cycling. The hilly roads in Paris where I stayed in the fall, along with the aggressive nature of its drivers deterred me from renting a bike there and, except for bike share rentals in Sweden and Australia, my resolve to do some serious cycling had thus far eluded me. Returning to France and cycling weather in April, it was time to remedy the situation.

As an avowed fair weather cyclist, I kept watch on the weather forecasts in the weeks preceding my return. The region of Brittany, or Bretagne as is referred to in France, was expecting sunny skies and temperatures in the 20’s. It is also known as a cyclist’s paradise, with numerous velo verts or greenways dedicated to cyclists. Plus, Mont. St. Michel, a place I had always wanted to visit, was within cycling distance. After one last check on the weather before I left Doha confirmed the favourable conditions, I booked a hotel in Rennes, a bicycle, complete with 2 panniers (saddlebags) and a water bottle for 10 days and another hotel in St. Malo, 67 kilometres, from Rennes.

When I landed in Paris 7 hours later, the weather forecast had changed dramatically. For the first few days, the forecast held, but on the day I was to bike to St. Malo, rain and temperatures in the single digits were predicted. I was not happy, but there was little I could do except channel my inner Dervla Murphy, who was never put off by a bit of rain, and make the best of it.

I spent two days wandering about Rennes – it is a beautiful city of 200,000, home to the region’s parliament building and a charming old town. Medieval houses, with timbers criss-crossing the exteriors, dominate the old town.

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The Cathedral was started in 605 and evolved over the decades from Gothic to classical:

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The medieval gates were under scaffolding, but the Park of Thabor, with its traditional French garden design (symmetrical rather than mimicking nature like English gardens) was in full bloom.

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After 2 relaxing days in Rennes, it was time to get serious and cycle to St. Malo. My bike was to be delivered at 9:00AM, plenty of time to beat the afternoon rain if the Google Map’s distance of 67 kilometres was accurate. But 9:00AM, then 10:00AM came and went without signs of the bicycle. After a number of increasingly heated phone calls, my bicycle was finally delivered by an apologetic man who spoke good English. He showed me how to lower the seat, work the gears, unlock the panniers and where the tire puncture repair kit was located. When I shot him a dirty look, he said :

“Not to worry, there are repair shops all along the canal which can help if you have a puncture. Besides, we have reinforced the tires to prevent punctures.”

“Canal?” I queried. “I am going to take the Google Maps bike route.”

“Oh, no, no, no, you must take the canal, Velo 2. It is so much more peaceful,” he explained.

“Is it any farther? I haven’t done a lot of distance biking lately.”

“Not so much farther, but so much nicer.”

“Okay”, I said, “you know better.”

And I was off. Finding the canal route was easy since it was 3 blocks from my hotel, and, as indicated in its name, by a canal. In fairness to my sense of direction, there were two canals so getting on the correct one involved at least a modicum of intelligence. The sign post saying Velo 2 also helped.

The bike route started out beautifully. As promised, there were no cars, except where the path crossed well marked roadways. A few barges made their way upstream. Birds – ducks, geese, cranes – chirped and swooped into the water, completely oblivious to a lone cyclist. Three kilometres out I ran into a sobering sight. Police and an ambulance were tending to a downed cyclist. I do not know what happened to cause his injuries, but it was not an auspicious beginning.

Less than 15 minutes later, another police car slowly made its way up the cycle path. I swerved to let it pass, but instead, it stopped and a 30ish year old officer rolled down the window and held up a machine that looked like a large phone with a man’s photo on it. “Have you seen this man?” I was asked, in French. “No, I haven’t seen him,” I replied still in French. “Merci,” he said, rolled up his window and drove on. “Wonderful,” I thought, “the police are doing a manhunt on my bike path. For all I know, there is a psychopath ax-murderer stalking cyclists and I could be next.” Shades of Strasbourg entered my head, along with recognition of my total vulnerability if someone should try to shoot me. At best, my cycling speed is slow and I was weighed down by two loaded panniers and gears I hadn’t yet mastered. There were few other people around – some dog walkers, a few joggers and the occasional grey haired rambler getting what seemed to be his or daily exercise, a couple of other cyclists on the path – and cars were rarely visible. No one who could take down a gun-toting murderer should he appear.

Since there wouldn’t be much I could do if someone decided to jump out and start shooting, there was nothing to do but put such thoughts out of my mind and enjoy the scenery. Verdant forests lined the path, with occasional wild flowers peeking through the grass. The birds provided a symphony of nature sounds, fish splashed up and back into the water. Despite the cloudy sky, rain fell only for a few minutes a couple of times. I cycled on, listening to the sound of the bike wheels crunching the gravel below. It was heavenly.

After 2 1/2 hours, I sat down on one of many conveniently located benches, close to more conveniently provided water dispensers and a bathroom (an empty campground was nearby), pulled out some cheese, a baguette, an orange and ate lunch. I checked my mileage, only to discover I had done only 30 kilometres. Exactly how much longer than 67 kilometres was this path? Google told me: 107 kilometres. 2-3 hours longer than 67 kilometers at my usual 15 kilometres per hour pace. At the rate I was going, , it would take me 9 hours to get to the end of the path, then be faced with a short ferry ride to St. Malo. I had better speed it up!

Regretfully, the path had other plans. It turned from gentle gravel to large rocks, uphill climbs and slippery downhill slopes on what seemed to me an old logging road, with felled trees and a detour away from the canal. Suddenly there were no people around and the skies finally opened and a torrent of rain let lose. All that was missing was lightning. I got off the bike and pushed it through the now muddy dirt and rocks until, after an hour, the path returned to the canal and the gentle packed dirt. But it was already 3:00PM and my mileage computer told me I was barely half way to my destination.

I considered my options, or rather Google Maps did. The path would take at least 5 hours at my current speed. But if I continued on the path for 45 more minutes, then turned out and followed the roads to St. Malo it would take just another 2 hours. It seemed like the better choice.

After leaving the path, with Google Maps informing my I was 2 hours and 10 minutes from my destination, the instructions from Google Maps got me lost 3 times in short order, once into a farm yard with a frightful looking dog who started barking loudly as I wandered into his territory and another time up the 2 biggest hills in Brittany. After cycling off the path for an hour, I finally saw a road sign for St. Malo. I checked Google Maps – my battery was just about dead and I still had 2 hours and 4 minutes to go! I would have to follow the road signs from here on in, but given how badly Google Maps had mislead me, this was not an unwelcome development.

I cycled on the “D” series of highways, pretty country roads without shoulders but with little traffic and slow speed limits. What they did have were mountains. Now my son would call them molehills, but to me, after 6 hours and not in the best of shape, they were giant obstacles. I did what any sane person would do, climbed off my bike and walked myself and the bike up the mountains. But, dammit, on the third such climb, my legs started cramping!

Seven hours later, with St. Malo still 30 kilometres away, the wind picked up, the rain fell non-stop and I had had enough. My thighs were cramping, not only on the climbs or the walks, but on the gentle cycles on the flats. A small town loomed on the horizon. What would Ms. Murphy do? She would push through to the nearest town, find a grubby room costing only a few pounds, locate the nearest pub, have a beer or two and bear down for the night. I had a not inexpensive prepaid hotel room in St. Malo, could not find a bar to save my life and do not like beer. With a great deal of pain and will power, I made it to the town, found the only sign of life at a training school for bakers of crepes and pizzas (I kid you not) and asked them to call me a taxi.

Thirty minutes later, the taxi driver drove me and my bike the 25 kilometres to St. Malo, took us on an impromptu tour of the town (the prettiest beach in the world he claimed ) and deposited me at my hotel.

Ms Murphy would not choose this ending, but it worked for me. A hot shower, 2 glasses of wine and a dinner of St. Pierre filet (dory) and risotto later and I was a very happy camper.

 

 

Doha: Multicultural and Diverse?

I have a list of countries I would like to visit, but Qatar is not on it. Nonetheless, I sit here in its capital, Doha, on a rooftop terrace looking out over the city, skyscrapers lighting up the skyline in brilliant blues, greens and purple, warmed by a dozen artificial fires burning in nearby lamps, slowly sipping a $35 glass of wine and munching on nuts and nachos.

Getting here involved one of my guilty indulgences, no, not wine (although that probably qualifies as another guilty indulgence), but business class flights on long haul journeys. Back in October, when I was searching for ways to make the minimum 24 hour trek from Bali to Paris, 2 things caught my eye. First, business class was not even double the price of economy fare and second, I could take it on Qatar Airlines.

Here comes another guilty confession. Tons of blogs, websites and videos are devoted to reviewing, analyzing and rating different airlines’ business class experiences (see, eg: thepointsguy.com or onemileatatime.com). The self appointed business class critics, who usually fly on points, detail whether flight attendants fail to smile enough, do or don’t address the passenger by name, if the lie-flat bed comes with a thick enough mattress and whether the wifi speed measures up to their expectations. Food and food service is portrayed in minute details: is real china used (plastic is a big no-no), is white linen put pleasingly on the tray, is the meal served in separate courses or, the horror, all at once, and does the wine list meet their exacting standards? They are all pretentious as can be, but I cannot help myself. I lap them up. The one thing they all have in common is identifying their favourite airlines and Qatar is always in the top three (Emirates and Singapore Airlines also earn high accolades).

I couldn’t resist booking the flight, even though it initially entailed an 11 hour wait in the Doha airport. As the date grew closer, I started dreading the layover followed by a 1:00AM flight to Paris. I examined alternatives, and the one that made the most sense was a 3 day layover/mini-vacation/opportunity to get closer to the century mark achieved by visiting 100 countries. I changed my outbound flight and booked 3 nights at a Doha hotel.

I was in for a treat after arriving at 3:00 PM Doha time. Business class passengers are directed to a private lounge where they are invited to sit while waiting for immigration or, as I was the only one there, to go to the dedicated immigration officer. A quick stop at the HSBC ATM delivered local cash -Riyals – and I was off to the taxi line 15 minutes after landing. The ride into the city goes along side the Corniche, a horseshoe shaped road lining the harbour, affording views of the skyline, replete with architecturally unique skyscrapers shaped like shards or vases, but all having their basis in Islamic Art. Away from the downtown, more traditional buildings made of sandstone, in various hues of white to beige, with flat roofs and arched windows lined with carved awnings, prevailed.

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Doha skyline with traditional dhows in the harbour

My hotel was clean and modern and advertised that guests  could relax by the pool with a drink from the pool bar. It failed to mention that the “drinks” were limited to soft drinks and mocktails. No alcohol was served in this hotel, but the one down the street did. To get in, I had to show a passport (or have a special resident’s permit which I did not). I doubt they were checking for age. Alcohol was ridiculously expensive – the cheapest glass of white wine was $35, although it was half price during happy hour. Going to a liquor store was not an option. State run monopoly stores do exist, but a permit is needed to buy alcohol and I had no desire to get one. Bringing a bottle or two of alcohol into the country is also not an option; it is illegal along with importing pork or drugs.

Despite the alcohol issue, Doha has some pluses. It has lots of sidewalks, unlike Bali which, in the few streets where there was something that might qualify as a path separate from the roadway, cars and scooters saw them as convenient parking spots or  large trees sprouted up, cracking the concrete and making the whole thing a long, uneven obstacle course. It was the one thing I disliked in Bali, my inability to go for long walks unless I risked life and limb walking on the streets.

On my first morning in Doha, I started walking to the Corniche, a distance of about 3 kilometres, enjoying the wide, empty sidewalks, the pedestrian crossing lights and the lack of scooters honking. But, halfway there, I was stymied. The sidewalk ended with construction barricades and there were no pedestrian detours. My choices were to tempt death crossing four lanes of speeding traffic in each direction to reach the sidewalk on the other side or retreat, admit defeat and catch a cab. I chose the latter. It was a pattern that would be repeated more than once during my 3 days, starting down a nice sidewalk only to have it end abruptly with no alternatives but to go back. In Doha, the car is king and pedestrians are an annoyance.

The cab dropped me at the Museum of Islamic Art, another architecturally stunning building. I will quit saying this – all the buildings in Doha that are meant to appeal to tourists are designed by world famous architects, cutting edge design, with no expense spared.  The airport terminal, the sports stadiums (for the 2022 soccer World Cup), the newly built subway stations, and especially the museums all elicit oohs and ahs.

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The Museum of Islamic Art

The museum’s third floor traces Islamic art from its origins in the 7th century through its evolution to today, illustrating its variety with Chinese, Indian and other Asian influences. The second floor illustrates Islamic art in textiles, carpets, calligraphy, buildings and books. It was informative,  well curated, with beautiful examples of each type of art without being overwhelming.

A few blocks away is the Souq Waqif, and using the only pedestrian underpass I saw in Doha (no doubt so that the thousands of cruise ship passengers walking between the Museum and the Souq don’t get killed crossing the road), I walked over. It is a true Souq, an Arab bazaar filled with dark alleyways, men transporting goods in wheelbarrows, vendors politely asking if I would like to see their wares. Although a bazaar has stood on the grounds for at least a hundred years, the Souq was renovated in 2006 but maintains many traditional Qatari features: single story, no set pattern, wooden beams jutting out from the walls to hold the structure. Best of all, very few of the 100 plus stalls sell tourist related items. Spice stores, candy shops, textiles galore, toys and hundreds of colourful tiny birds jammed together in cages. Restaurants and hooka bars surround the Souq. I had my best meal in Doha there, a mutton curry served with the largest piece of a roti-like bread, with complimentary lentil soup and yogurt.

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Souq Wadif

A short walk away is The Pearl, which as its name suggests, is a sculpture of a pearl, a reminder of Doha’s beginnings as a pearl diving town.

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The Pearl

Highly recommended was a visit to The Grand Mosque (aka the Imam Muhammad Ibn Wahab Mosque), the largest and most important mosque in Qatar. Women were welcome, although in separate sections, but children under the age of 5 were not. All religions were also welcome, but with warnings that the mosque had recently been the scene of some anti-Christian and anti-Jewish sermons. I passed.

That night, I read about the grand opening the next day of the National Museum of Qatar.  As reported by Qatar’s daily newspaper, a speech by the Qatari Minister of Culture and Sports indicated this was part of Qatar’s commitment to its multiculturalism and diversity (thepeninsularqatar.com/November 17, 2018). Huhhhhh???? I read highlights of the speech. Qatar was very multicultural as there were over 150 nationalities who lived in the country. Its cultural diversity manifested itself in a variety of cultural pursuits: a film festival, art museums, sporting events, conferences promoting interfaith dialogues. Okay, I guess multiculturalism and  diversity have different definitions.

Intrigued, I scoured the internet for more information.  Of the 2.8 million people living in Qatar, only about 12% are Qatari. The rest are temporary workers, with large numbers from India, Pakistan and The Philippines, making the country truly multicultural. I don’t know if the foreign workers worship in the main mosques, but I saw no churches, Hindu temples or synagogues. I also doubt that most of the migrant workers (westerners aside) could afford the lifestyle lived by most Qataris – private drivers, air conditioned apartments, even the hamburger at the fast food chain was $25. Instead they are housed in cramped compounds on the outskirts of town, transported in on decrepit buses (unlike the air-conditioned buses used in the center of the city) to work long hours for low pay. One Pakistani taxi driver I spoke with had moved to Doha after 12 years in Dubai. He worked 12 hours a day, non-stop every day, for 11 months and returned for the remaining month to Islamabad and his wife and 4 children.

I decided to brave the crowds and attend opening day at the The National Museum of Qatar to learn more about the nation. Not unexpectedly, the museum is housed in a magnificent building, with its contours evoking the desert rose.

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The National Museum of Qatar

Inside, it was refreshing to be greeted by Arab women dressed in long black abayas, all with their hair covered, some with their faces hidden, employed as cashiers and guides. The museum starts at the beginning, explaining the land formations millions of years ago, then identifying the animals and fauna that exist, or did exist in the desert (the Arabian ostrich was hunted to extinction).

The next part focuses on the people, hunter gatherers for thousands of years who converted to Islam in the 7th century. They lived in small tribes, diving for pearls in the Arabian Sea during the summer and heading inland to the desert in the winter to graze their animals. Doha was also a trading stop, with the pearls exported all over the known world. Until the 17th century, little is known about the Qatari region, but it eventually attracted colonial attention. Between the 17th and 20th centuries, the tribes variously fought or allied with British, Dutch and Ottoman forces and did the same with other local tribes in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain.

1930 was a pivotal year in Qatar. The Great Depression hit with devastating effect – the economic crisis decimated the demand for pearls and what little remained was filled with the newly manufactured and cheaper, cultured pearls. Fortunately for the Qataris, vast quantities of oil were discovered that same year. Today, Qatar has the second largest reserves of oil, its citizens enjoy one of the highest standards of living and it is often considered the world’s richest country with a GDP of about $130,000 per citizen.

The remainder of the museum highlighted the achievements of the ruling family – an autocratic monarchy which rules with a tight fist (this wasn’t mentioned at the museum) – establishing schools, hospitals, banks etc. using Qatar’s significant oil revenues and lastly, the growth of Doha as a modern metropolis.

Conspicuously silent at the museum were a number of issues: conditions of foreign workers, women’s lack of equality, constitutional rights, freedom of the press or lack thereof….I could go on and on about its omissions. It highlights the Qatari state owned Al Jazeera cable news channel, which is highly respected and is permitted to air critical stories, so long as the stories are not critical of Qatar. For example, a recent story by Danish journalists about the horrid working and living conditions of construction workers in Doha was banned ion Al Jazeera, but this is not referenced in the museum.  Despite the museum being housed in a beautiful building and  providing historical and geographical background of the Qatari people, it completely lacks introspection. Words like “shallow” and “superficial” keep springing to mind.

I decided to do a little more internet research about Qatar and its commitment to “multiculturalism and diversity.”  To become a citizen of Qatar, one must live in Qatar for at least 20 years and have a good grasp of Arabic. Some exceptions exist for wives of Qatari men (up to 4 of them) but none for husbands of Qatari women. “Surely there must be leniency for people like Syrian refugees,” I thought. But no, Qatar is not a signatory to the UN Convention relating to Refugees and therefore does not recognize refugees. A grand total of (depending on the source) 42 (Wikopedia) or 83 (borgenmagazine.com) Syrians were granted refugee status in Qatar by 2017. Qatar points out that it did extend visas for about 50,000 Syrians already in Qatar, but since those people would already have been living and working in Qatar, the gesture seems rather futile. Qatar also provided significant funds (half a billion $) to aid in the feeding and sheltering of refugees in camps, as long as the camps were not in Qatar.

All this left a bad taste in my mouth. Qatar is super wealthy and touts itself as a leading global citizen (it had a seat on the UN Security Council a few years ago), but it does so with elaborate sporting events and grand buildings. It fails miserably in sharing its wealth in any meaningful way, welcoming immigrants (except as cheap labour) or upholding basic (albeit Westernized) human rights.

It does, however, have a very nice airline.