A medieval ghost town in Spain
I rode into Cáceres one fearsome afternoon in July, blistered and half-blinded by another ordeal in the Extremaduran sun. I was on a bike tour around Spain but I should really have been arriving on a horse.
The old town’s steepling cobbles deserved the echo of clattering hooves, not muffled, face-masked gasping and the painful grate of dusty gears. All the same I did begin to feel like some bygone itinerant.
Cáceres flourished in the Reconquista, an outpost of wealth and splendour in Spain’s poorest, most rustic province, and remains in a state of arrested development. Every lofty, meandering wall was clustered with dungeon window-grills; every studded door was framed by a grand arch and topped with a coat of arms, the finest carved details baked hard into the golden stone by 500 brutal summers. At the end of every vista, the barren, brown plains below wandered off to a heat-hazed horizon.
And there wasn’t a soul in sight, the alleys emptied by the double-dose desolation of siesta and a pandemic. I’d been through plenty of other locked-down ghost towns by then, but the medieval aspic gave Cáceres a compelling, mystical ambience. I wheeled my bike around deserted squares, eccentric, tilted quadrilaterals girdled with church towers, palm trees and shuttered taverns.
Clumps of crispy dead weeds pierced the paving below and spilled forth from the gutters above. It was as if some ancient curse had fallen across these wobbly, pantiled roofs, putting the citizenry in a hundred-year sleep and banishing all the Game of Thrones location groupies. “Please, you must return when this is finished,” said my hotel receptionist the next morning, eyes pleading above her facemask. I will, but for better or worse it won’t be the same.
A wilderness of wind, sand and stars
Earlier in the year, I travelled to northeast Chad. There was something in particular that interested me: a message in a bottle left by an explorer between the wars, where Chad’s Ennedi Desert rubs up against Libya. It was going to be the beginning of a new book project —something that would need a few years to pull off. Then Covid-19 struck. My research has been put on hold, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to let the pandemic sully the feeling of how good that journey felt.
Travel disruption continues
The countries featured in this article are open to tourists from some nations but usually not all. Even where borders are open, visiting might not be recommended: there may be lockdowns in place, as well as quarantine requirements, pre-arrival testing protocols and changes to visa procedures. Those planning trips should check with their destination country’s government website and their local embassy
It took me into “pure” desert — not the scrub I’d experienced in Morocco, but a wilderness of wind, sand and stars, of diamond-cut dunes, and towering, fragile rock arches that looked like they might collapse in a heavy morning dew. There was much to be wary of — the punishing heat; the complicated logistics getting in and out; the stones which were thrown at me when I pulled out my camera too fast — but the highs far outweighed my fear.
When I returned home, I was struck by the news that Christie’s was auctioning off a piece of the moon found in the desert further west. This made me think: if only the same people willing to pay £2m for a lunar meteorite were to travel to the deep Sahara for themselves. Sleeping on a bed of stardust under a sky sprinkled with darting lights immerses you in the kind of magic that inspired the 1930s French aviator, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, to write the childhood fable, The Little Prince.
In coming here, the moon shoppers would also get a sense of another art — the kind that doesn’t sit on a collector’s wall but is rooted to the oasis that inspired it. A 7,000-year-old cave painting of a rhino from a time when the desert was green. A horned cow, carved with ardent precision, on a giant molar of lonely rock.
Who put it there? Why? The Ennedi is full of unGoogleable secrets, which is why it is my discovery of the year.
Daunt Travel (daunt-travel.com) can arrange trips. The UK Foreign Office advises against tourism to the country
The best herring in Jutland
I was meant to eat at Noma in the spring. Instead, at the soggy end of summer I was speeding down a Danish motorway, and I was hungry. It was the second day of a roadtrip around Denmark. My travelling companion Jørgen Kaarup Jensen, a former TV journalist and author, had an idea for lunch. It involved herring, and a little inn called Sælhunden. “It’s not Noma,” warned Jørgen, “but it does serve the best herring in Jutland.” We would also see Ribe, which has a good claim to be Scandinavia’s oldest town. At the next junction, we turned right.
We arrived on the outskirts of Ribe in the mid-afternoon doldrums, and prised Sælhunden’s waitress away from her cigarette break. Sælhunden means “the seal” and inside, dewy, phocine eyes watched us from porcelain ornaments, cushions and paintings.
Things got worse when we ordered. “No herring specials today,” the waitress tapped her pen. “Just the rolled herring on rye bread. Sorry.” We sighed our consent and found solace in crisp glasses of pilsner. Outside, wooden boats lined the river, their noses pointed towards the grey Wadden Sea, the world’s largest expanse of intertidal mudflats.
Then the herring arrived. I smeared a trencher of rye with herb-laced lard, balanced a delicate parcel of fish on its back, and there it was — the best herring I’d ever tasted. As I mopped the last brine from my plate I thought, this is it — this is what I’ve missed in the months of lockdown; those minor discoveries, those unexpected corners of joy. They’re why we travel.
Pre-Columbian gold in Costa Rica
Just behind San José’s lavishly decorated belle-epoque National Theatre lie the subterranean Museums of the Central Bank of Costa Rica. One is devoted to pre-Columbian gold, a dazzling display of almost 700 works. And an hour here is a fascinating introduction to the country, both to the way its culture was forged by migrations and to the richness of its fauna.
For the majority of exhibits — jewellery, amulets, funerary and shamanic objects and, in one instance, an alligator-shaped nasal inhaler, made perhaps 2,000 years ago “to consume nerve-altering substances” — take the form of animals. Jaguars, I learnt, were the emblem favoured by warriors for their strength, speed and cunning; frogs and toads were not just protective of the dead, but predictors of bad weather; while eagles and vultures were guides to the underworld.
Costa Rica’s alluvial gold is found only in the southernmost part of the country, on and around the Osa peninsula, a still-remote, scantly populated place of unmade roads and abundant wildlife, where later that trip we encountered for real many of the creatures we’d seen represented in gold.
There were armadillos on the path to the waterfall where we’d bathe. We had to stop for peccaries en route to the beach. And the garden of the idyllic bungalow we’d found on Airbnb, deep in the jungle of the Matapalo Reserve, was full of monkeys (capuchin, howler, spider and squirrel), toucans and scarlet macaws. On March 16, its owner came to tell us Costa Rica was closing its borders. We embraced as we said our farewells — strange to think that, my husband aside, she is the last person who hugged me.
The colours of Antarctica
A forest fire had just wiped out the water supply in our remote Californian hillside home. Our insurance company wrote to say we would no longer be covered. The woman who looked after my 88-year-old mother told me she was going to leave. And every week messages from local officials advised me that, given the recent fires, our home was in imminent danger of being buried under a debris flow.
What a liberation suddenly to find myself in Antarctica! It sounds like a bad Cate Blanchett movie, not least because I’m a decidedly urban creature who can barely tell a black-browed albatross from a killer whale. But here I was, on the luxurious Silver Cloud ship, and all around me were nothing but horizons so vast and blue-flecked mountains so close that I felt as if I’d been released from everything I knew.
Nothing in 45 years of constant travel had prepared me for the colours of Antarctica, the textures: a hundred shades of silver in every direction, and sleeping seals, breaching whales, porpoising teams of Adelie penguins inducting me into a different kind of reality. In January, it was never cold; the strong midsummer sun blazed over ice floes by 4.00am. And no silent lake I’d seen in Alaska, no haunting white night around the West Fjords of Iceland began to correspond to the sense of scale and majesty I met here at every turn.
Yes, Antarctica teaches the most nature-insensitive of us about predation and climate change and the bloody realism whereby leopard seals will devour Weddell seals; yes, it raises difficult questions about what humans are doing in our ignorance and whether it might not be a good thing that tourist ships were anchored (because of Covid-19) just days after I disembarked.
But the simplest, deepest transport comes from the fact, well-known to many, that Antarctica puts one in place. Even after walking, 30 years ago, around a colony of 2m penguins in Patagonia, I was not ready for the breadth, the grandeur — the silences — of the southernmost continent. Antarctica turned out to be my last, as well as my first, big trip this year, but nowhere I might have seen could have left me feeling so small and so exalted all at once.
The Silver Cloud (silversea.com) is next due to sail to Antarctica in November 2021
The mule tracks of the Pelion, Greece
The mythological gods of Mt Olympus, as a diversion from wars and quests, would make for Pelion, where those half-horse, half-mortal reprobates, the centaurs, liked to take advantage of passing maidens and drink wine.
The region has always been my favourite summer playground too —Greece’s forgotten peninsula, curling into the Aegean like a scorpion’s tail. This year, I went in late autumn for the first time and it was revelatory, like another country. It was warm enough still to swim, yet cool enough to explore, slowly, and on foot, the network of recently restored kalderimi — 18th-century cobbled mule tracks that criss-cross the green, now russet, mountainous interior. They traverse gullies and gorges, in places cresting the sometimes snow-capped summits. The kalderimi also link the 24 fortified stone villages of the eastern hinterland, cloaked in forests of oak, wild chestnut and beech.
Walking the tracks, I met the monks who have always been drawn to these isolated parts, whose forebears colonised the inaccessible mountain lands alongside artists, intellectuals and free thinkers, and were left to their own devices by the occupying Turks. We passed their top-heavy, Ottoman-style mansions, drank from their old stone fonts that never run dry, catnapped in the lee of monasteries and lunched, one day, in the secret school, hidden in a cave close to Fakistra beach, that kept the Hellenic flame alight.
I thought about how the sparks of the Greek Independence movement in the 1800s and later the resistance against the Nazi forces in the second world war might have been ignited here. It seemed as good a place as any to honour the past and toast the present. On the cliff ledge outside, the Aegean glinting like crumpled silver foil below, I pulled from my rucksack a water cup and the handful of walnuts I had scrumped in the orchards earlier, and I started to crack them open.
Cold comfort in northern Sweden
January in Swedish Lapland and daylight was on borrowed time. Barely had a weak sun risen above the horizon than it sank again into a frozen landscape gripped by snow and ice. This was the backdrop to perhaps the most ambitious hotel launch of the year, Arctic Bath, which opened for a few, showstopping months before deciding to close as the pandemic spread. Optimistically, late last month it reopened for the 20/21 winter season.
This is a project I first saw on paper some four years ago, barely believing that a hotel built on a river (the Lule, near the village of Harads) and designed to float in summer and be frozen into the ice in winter, could ever become reality. But there it was, a circular conglomeration of tree trunks seemingly thrown together like spillikins to resemble a typical river logjam from days of old.
From a design perspective it was impressive stuff, but the premise of this hotel was as a wellness retreat, geared specifically round the feature from which it takes its name — an arctic bath or, more prosaically put, an icy plunge pool carved through the decking directly into the near-frozen waters of the river flowing below.
My signature “spa ritual” began with a sauna — of course. A heart-pumping, nostril-singeing 20 minutes at a mighty 90 degrees Celsius with a bit of yoga thrown in for good measure. Spontaneous combustion seemed imminent. Then there was the steaming tiptoe outside through the snow, the agonising descent into jet-black water, the breathless spasm, the wild scream of the shock, the mind-bending numbness, the life-affirming exhilaration. It turned out to be a gruelling year but what a way to begin.
Crab heaven in Cuba
We drove north without knowing what we’d find, in a country where little can be counted on. We’d spotted a dot on the map, out among the mangroves of Cuba’s north coast.
Reading from her phone, my girlfriend Camila said Isabela de Sagua had once been a port from which vast quantities of rum, molasses and sugar were exported but those days were a century gone and in 1985 it had been annihilated by Hurricane Kate. Some fishing families had stayed though, doggedly rebuilding.
It was still pretty battered when we arrived, having recently been sideswiped by a tropical storm. But at the end of the road, a line of houses appeared with tiki huts on stilts out in the sea. “Cuba’s Venice,” according to the phone. I laughed.
The huts were restaurants, and one, Vista al Mar, was open. We walked out to join a family wrestling with small children and a rum bottle, and eight men lunching in their work boots. Beyond were deserted keys and the white sails of fishing boats.
Ice cold beer was accompanied by a lobster salad. Then Camila had rice softened in a seafood stock so rich it called to us like a siren. My crab arrived, with claws bigger than my smile. It was the best seafood I’ve had in Cuba, in the top five anywhere, and it cost less than the change in my pocket.
Ancient treasures in Pakistan
My most thrilling journey this year was a rediscovery rather than an encounter with something new. In late February, just before lockdown, I returned to one of my favourite cities in the world, Peshawar, just below the Khyber Pass in Pakistan.
It was a regular hang-out of mine as a young foreign correspondent in the late ’80s, but after 9/11 it suddenly became an unstable and dangerous place: first the Sufi Shrine of Rahman Baba was attacked and shortly afterwards the best hotel, the Pearl Continental, was bombed and almost destroyed. Other bombings followed, including a tragic attack on an infant school.
Today, all that seems to be long forgotten. The city feels safe again, its shrines, courtyard houses and monuments — Buddhist, Hindu and Mughal — are undergoing restoration, and its magnificent museum, which contains some of the very greatest Indo-Hellenic Gandharan sculptures to survive from the ancient world, has been given a spectacular facelift. Today, rather astonishingly, the Peshawar Museum is arguably the best kept, best displayed, best lit and best labelled museum of the art of early south Asia anywhere in the subcontinent.
Almost as remarkable is the small site museum at Taxila, originally built by Sir John Marshall in the 1920s, which lies between Peshawar and Islamabad. This holds finds from one of the world’s first university cities where Alexander the Great questioned naked sadhu-philosophers and Panini wrote his celebrated Sanskrit grammar.
Both museums contain remarkable new discoveries excavated in the past decade: Peshawar has a range of large-scale images from the stupa gateways of a newly dug Buddhist monastic site, Zar Dheri, while Taxila has on display finds from the monastery of Bhamala, a few miles to the west, high above the waters of the Khanpur Lake. Here archaeologists have recently found fragments of the earliest known reclining Buddha, a massive 48 feet long, carved in the 3rd century AD.
Over one entire wall of the Taxila museum are gold coins, minted during the reigns of rulers with names such as Pantaleon, King of North India, Demetrius “Dharmamita” and Menander of Kabul. The coins hint at the hybrid world these kings inhabited. They brought east and west together at a time when the British, the only other Europeans who succeeded in ruling this area, were still running through the fog dressed in bear skins.
The coins of Heliochles of Balkh were typical: they showed a Roman profile on one side — large nose, imperial arrogance in the eyes — but on the reverse Heliochles chose as his symbol a humped Indian Brahmini bull. In the next cabinet you can see one of the oldest images of the god Shiva, on the reverse of the gold coin of the Kushan King, Vima Kadphises, who ruled this area from 85-120 AD.
The image is closely based on classical Greek images of Herakles and Poseidon, raising the interesting question if that is the ultimate source of Lord Shiva’s trident/trishul, or whether the image travelled in the opposite direction.
But most striking of all are the Gandharan sculptures in Peshawar, showing the Buddha and the Bodhisattvas. Room after room is filled with spectacular black-schist figures, standing, meditating, preaching or fasting. The physique is magnificent: muscles ripple beneath the diaphanous folds of the Buddha’s toga. The saviour sits with half-closed eyes and legs folded in a position of languid relaxation. His hair is oiled and groomed into a beehive topknot; his high, unfurrowed forehead is punctuated with a round urna mark. His face is full and round; the nose small and straight; and the lips firm and proud.
It is only when you have stared at these Hellenised Indic figures for several minutes that you realise what is so surprising about the Gandharan version of the Buddha: it is its masterful self-confidence. This is the Buddha as he was in life: a prince. And soon you realise where you have seen that haughty expression before: outside in the bazaar. For the Pashtuns meet your gaze. Hawk-eyed and eagle, their poise directly reflects that of the Bactrian Greeks who sculpted these images in Peshawar nearly two millennia ago.
History and inspiration in a Sicilian seaport
I first went to Mazara del Vallo the way we have all travelled this year, via a book. Norman Lewis’ In Sicily describes a dreamy port on the furthest south-west coast of the island, a place of deep twilights and slow passeggiata strolls along the seafront.
His portrait holds true. Mazara’s ivory stones contain specks of eternity. You would not have known there was a pandemic, as locals sashayed out in their finest — their affection for gaudy colours speaks of a connection to the east which began when the Phoenicians landed here in 900 BC. Cumulonimbus tower over the Sicilian channel. Trawlers make slow ways out to deeps still rich with catch. People speak Arabic in the Kasbah quarter, as they have since the arrival of their forebears in 827AD.
Such are the gifts of Mazara, and in a year that has ruptured our reality, this place testifies that our little lives make mighty lines through time. To prove it, one of those trawlers hauled up a treasure of the world in 1998 (though Lewis says it had been caught before and thrown back). I went to see the Dancing Satyr, a life-size bronze of a wild, ecstatic creature, possibly made by the Greek master Praxiteles, which now has its own museum. This year made us terribly aware of the body’s vulnerability, but stand in front of this immortal dancer and you remember that humans, like their gods, are also beautiful and fierce and strong.
A surprise in Santorini
We went to Santorini in October for a family wedding that had been long-planned and oft-postponed. Originally scheduled for spring, it had finally become possible thanks to a last-minute change to the quarantine rules. After months at home, and two damp holidays in England, we boarded the plane feeling deeply fortunate and fantasising about swimming in the warm Aegean.
What I didn’t feel was much curiosity about the island itself, though I had never been. Everyone knows what Santorini looks like: a tumble of sugar cube houses clinging to the rim of a volcanic caldera, a scatter of blue church domes, water sparkling far below. It must be one of Europe’s best-known tourist clichés.
The day after the ceremony, we were invited for lunch at somewhere called the Theros Wave Bar. We duly put the name into the sat-nav, and set off in our little white rented Fiat. We headed south, away from Oia and Fira, the famous caldera-rim villages, and into an area of scruffy farmland and vineyards. With 2km to go, we obeyed the computer’s instruction to turn off the road, and found ourselves on a winding gravel track that suddenly dropped into a desert-like canyon.
To either side rose rough rock walls pocked with caves — I warned the kids that we should look out for Sand People (forgetting they had never seen Star Wars, the entire plot of which I then had to explain). Finally, we popped out at the palm-thatched, open-sided bar, set back a few metres from the sea and all alone. In an ordinary summer it might be heaving, but in the autumn of 2020 it was deserted, soft music playing to empty seats.
The huge arc of Vlychada beach stretched to either side — black pebbles backed by high, pale cliffs formed from volcanic pumice and pyroclastic flows several millennia earlier, then sculpted by wind and sea into weird flutes, folds and columns. The result is wild and otherworldly, nothing like those Santorini images familiar from a billion brochures. On this day it was rendered even more preternatural by a tornado that passed a few miles away along the coast, just beyond the ruins of Akrotiri, the ancient city that is a possible inspiration for Atlantis.
The tornado quickly passed, the sun came out and after lunch everyone swam in the deep-blue water. I couldn’t join them. In an accident both freakish and yet somehow fitting for a travel journalist, 48 hours earlier I had managed to stab myself on a piece of hotel foyer art: a shimmering wall-mounted installation of scores of metal fish with surprisingly sharp tails. After several visits to the island hospital I was left with an arm bandaged from wrist to elbow which I mustn’t get wet. My luck had run out and the blissful warm water stayed just out of reach.
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