Seeking Dr Livingstone

by Jonathan Lorie

Nine million litres of angry river race past my ankles and roar over the cliff. The lip of the world’s greatest waterfall is twenty feet away. I inch a little deeper. Frothing currents rip at my legs as my toes search for a grip. Spray rises a thousand feet in the air. A single slip and I’m gone.

“There is where we swim,” says my guide Eustace, pointing at a circle of black water surrounded by raging surf that’s on the very edge. “There is safe.”  

Welcome to the Victoria Falls, adrenaline centre of Africa. Some come here to bungee from the bridge, microlight above the spray, or raft the whitewater that explodes from the gorge three hundred feet below. But I’ve come in search of an older adventurer – the explorer David Livingstone, born 200 years ago, who named these Falls for his Queen. And where better to start than Livingstone Island, perched above his greatest discovery, where I’m about to defy both gravity and sanity by swimming in the Angel’s Pool. 

Eustace holds out a hand and I grab it gladly. Together we teeter along a submerged ridge of stones towards a ragged boulder. I scramble over and down the other side, plunging waist-deep into dark water – then deeper – then my feet find a hold and I’m up to my neck but standing firm. I turn around to look. 

On every side a torrent of jagged water surges towards the lip. We are five feet from the drop. But the Pool is calm. I stare across the rim of the Falls, where a thousand miles of the Zambezi’s flow are tumbling into space. 

I duck my head under water, like a baptism in this wild place, then bob up and grin at Eustace. He throws me a thumbs up. Then we clamber back to the island and safety and lunch.

‘Scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight,’ is how Livingstone described the Falls. And it was from this island that he was the first European to see them, in 1855. Padding back through the reeds, we pass a stone monument to him. Eustace pauses. “Dr Livingstone was very important for us here in Zambia. He opened up this part of Africa for the outside world, for Christianity, and for the fight against the slave trade.” 

Livingstone left the island by dugout canoe, but we have Captain Viny and his motorboat – a steel dart that spins a terrifying line parallel to the mile-wide rim and then back up the swirling river. Ten minutes upstream, Viny moors us in smoother waters beside the clipped lawns of the Royal Livingstone Hotel. It’s a splendid white colonial-style place, where zebras wander beneath the trees and tea is served on the verandah. 

I duck into the cool of the long bar where ceiling fans whirr and oil paintings portray worthies of Britain’s imperial era. On the wall is a period map of Livingstone’s travels around the Zambezi. It shows lots of blank spaces where nothing was known, and one or two of his geographical errors. A tiny line of type identifies the publisher as ‘Stanfords Geographical Establishment, Charing Cross, London’. Stanfords supplied maps to Livingstone and Cecil Rhodes, and is still the world’s best travel bookshop.

Charming as it is, this colonial stuff was never here in Livingstone’s day. When he tramped through, this was raw bush with a populace ravaged by Arab slavers. The Tonga tribe used the island to sacrifice goats to the gods of the Falls. Colonisation was the remedy the Doctor prescribed for such ills, to bring Christianity and legitimate commerce. We might query such views today, but within 10 years of his death in 1873, the first British settlers had arrived. 

Looking for their ghosts, I catch a car into the nearest town – Livingstone, named after the great man, and once the capital of the British protectorate of Northern Rhodesia. It’s a delightfully sleepy place, its main roads lined with stuccoed colonial buildings and gaggles of teenagers. There’s a Stanley House, named after the explorer who found Dr Livingstone starving in the bush, and a David Livingstone Presbyterian Church, and a fast-food joint called the Hungry Lion. But the highlight for me is the town’s museum, which houses a unique collection of his personal possessions.

It’s an odd sensation to stand in front of a glass case that holds the battered white medicine chest with which Dr Livingstone treated the malaria and dysentery that plagued his 30 years of trekking through south-central Africa. Or another that has the flintlock musket that subdued wild animals, hostile tribes and mutinous porters. Here’s his field notebook, open where he has sketched the Falls in navy blue, the spray rising in grey above. There’s a copy of Pilgrim’s Progress, translated into Sechuana for the only convert he ever made, a Bakwain chief called Sechele. 

Even closer to the man, here is his wife’s own copy of his first published book, Missionary Travels – the memoir that made him a hero to Victorian England, though Mary was to die of malaria on one of his later expeditions. And there, in front of me, is his hat – the famous blue kepi with its band of gold. Finally, by the door, is a black tin trunk whose lid is stained with blobs of black wax, where every night he fixed a candle to write up his journal. The trunk was by his bed on the morning in the swamps when his African servants found him, hours dead but kneeling in prayer. 

Astonishingly, they wrapped the Doctor’s body in tree bark and carried it over 1,000 miles to the coast, where a British warship took it home. But his heart was left in Africa, buried beneath a mpundu tree at the request of the local chief. A piece of the tree is here in the museum.

I drive slowly back to my hotel. Livingstone came here to explore the Zambezi, hoping it would offer a navigable waterway to the heart of Africa. But he was defeated by its rapids. In the end it was trains not boats that opened up the region, starting with Cecil Rhodes’ railway from Cape Town to the great iron bridge that he built at the Falls. By 1904, just 30 years after Livingstone’s death, Thomas Cook was running train trips for tourists to this frontier of empire.

The ultimate in tourism today are the luxury lodges along the banks of the Zambezi. And I am staying in one of the loveliest: Tongabezi. It’s a scattering of glorified African rondavels – round huts with thatched roofs – among tall trees by the water. Inside they are luxurious. Mine has wide windows onto a vast bend of the river, crisp beds under frilly nets, and a claw-foot bath with a view to die for. At night hippos grunt in the shallows as I eat dinner on a raft on the river, the white linen and rare-grilled steak lit only by glittering candles and stars overhead.

It’s a far cry from Livingstone’s experiences. To get closer to his era, I head up-country next day. A rattling 12-seat Cessna flies me to Mfue, gateway to one of Africa’s finest game parks, South Luangwa. We soar above endless tracts of forest without roads or towns, marked only by the brown snakes of big rivers. Driving from the tiny airstrip to the park, I pass fields of maize plants and banana palms, between villages of mud and thatch where families gather in beaten-earth yards and mothers cook over open fires. How much out here has changed?

“David Livingstone crossed the Luangwa River just north of here,” says Adrian Carr, stabbing a finger at the map that spills from his first edition of The Last Journals Of David Livingstone. We’re sitting in his house on the edge of the park and he’s showing me a book from 1874. On its red cover is a gold illustration of porters carrying the Doctor across a swamp. “I know that place. There aren’t any roads up there, but local people still use it to cross the river.”

He pauses, a big, soft-spoken man in khaki shorts and shirt who has spent a lifetime guiding and hunting out here. “You know, life hasn’t changed a lot up there. Sure, they have some schooling, but they still grow what they eat. They still believe in the old gods. 

“Can you imagine what it was like when Livingstone came through? The only white man for a thousand miles? He must have been so tough.”

Toughness is a virtue still valued by men like Adrian, one of the last of the great white hunters who made African safaris famous. His father, Norman Carr, invented the walking safari, back in the 1950s, and opened up Zambia for tourism. Black and white photos of the old man grace the walls of Adrian’s game lodge nearby, where I will be staying tonight. They mostly show Norman with two tame lions at his side.

I drive into Kapani Lodge through a gateway roofed with reeds. On the road I have already seen three elephants at a pond. The lodge is built like a colonial estate, or perhaps the kind of mission station that Livingstone dreamed of founding. Its handsome cottages of ochre and thatch face a lake where hippos snort among flowers. Gazelles graze the banks. An open-walled drawing room has horns on the wall and skins on the floor.

I check in my bags and meet my guide, Shadreck Nkhoma, a burly man with a ready smile. We hop in his jeep and roar off to the park. On a bridge across the Luangwa River there are baboons on patrol and a 15 foot crocodile in the water. The park itself is a lovely rolling landscape of tall green grasses and spiky mopane woodlands. A cloud of impalas drift down a slope to a water hole where zebras swish their tails. In a grove of thorn trees, four giraffes stretch up to feed. This is Africa before the modern world. In the distance I hear the coughing of lions.

Rounding a bend, we catch a flash of yellow in a tree. Shadreck hits the brakes. The yellow has black spots. I raise my binoculars and stare into the eyes of a young male leopard. He flexes his paws and glances away. 

“My family lived here before it was a park,” says Shadreck as we drive off towards a sunset spot on the banks of the wide river. I ask how far the sense of history goes out here. “I know back to my great-grandfather,” he muses. “His family came from Batoka, towards the Falls. They came to this side of the river and lived the old way – in round mud houses with roofs made of grass, hunting and fishing.” The sunset is a blaze of purple and gold. “Then the park came and they moved out to the village.” 

The village is Mfue, and next morning I ask Shadreck to show me around. We wander through the wooden stalls of the market and the concrete cabins of the hardware stores, and then we see a church. “That’s my church,” he beams and ushers me inside. 

St Agnes Church is a red brick box with glassless windows and a roof of tin. The elders shake my hand with warmth and surprise. “And this is our teacher, Edwin,” says Shadreck with a grin. Edwin Chupa passes me a bible. I cannot understand its words. “This is in our language,” he smiles, and reads aloud the creation of the world in Nyanja. It’s a lilting, soft language, making the ancient words anew for Africa. His voice rolls round the bare brick walls. 

When he stops, I ask what he thinks of the missionaries like David Livingstone who came out here. His old eyes shine. “They brought us the light. They did not know it at the time, but they did. Now we have Christianity, roads, medicines.” He touches my arm. “Because of them, we are standing here now, you and me, understanding one another.”

In Laurie Lee country

by Jonathan Lorie

As I walked out one midsummer morning I found myself in Laurie Lee’s Gloucestershire, a glorious region of rippling valleys, ancient villages and echoes of an older England. This is where the much-loved country writer was born in the final summer of the Edwardian era – June 1914 – and I had come here to find the rural world that he captured so magically in his memoir of childhood, Cider With Rosie.

I started at one of Laurie’s favourite places – Painswick Beacon, a hill so high that from the Iron Age fort on top you can see all the way to Wales. Here Laurie used to come with his schoolboy friends in the 1920s, to marvel at the view. Clambering up its stony ramparts, I reached the summit and simply stood and stared. 

This must be one of the finest vistas in England. For 25 miles I could see, across rolling fields and brimming hedgerows to the blue teeth of the Malvern hills, past the red roofs of Gloucester with its Gothic cathedral poking skywards. To the left shone the pewter coils of the Severn river, and beyond it the faint smudge of the Black Mountains, 40 miles away. To the right was the wooded hill where villagers still roll Double Gloucester cheeses at Whitsun in an ancient and anarchic local custom. And behind me was the first of the crinkled little valleys that Laurie Lee called home.

No wonder he came up here as a boy. No wonder that 25 years after he left the village where he was raised, he caught so powerfully the glory of the English countryside. All of this world was his, preserved for posterity in his memoirs and poems. A childhood spent here would not leave you easily.

I turned and followed the stony path down, through the classic Cotswold village of Painswick where Laurie met his first girlfriend, and across a valley to his home village of Slad. At first I walked the Cotswold Way, then Stepping Stones Lane where hay lay heavy and sweet in the fields, and finally a broken old drover’s track through dark woods and high meadows of orchids and butterflies. A green holloway swept me down to Slad itself – which seemed no more than a hamlet really, a scatter of stone houses strung above a stream. 

There was a war memorial, a church and of course a pub. The Woolpack was a classic village inn, a simple place of scrubbed wood and friendly drinkers, a long narrow room along the side of the hill with windows onto a sweeping view. They served a cider called Old Rosie, and in one corner was the blackened settle where Laurie himself used to sit.

Today his seat was occupied by a younger poet, Adam Horowitz, who grew up in the valley in the 1970s and knew Laurie since then. At that stage Laurie had made a return to the village, after years as a writer in London, enabled by the success of Cider With Rosie to buy a cottage and settle with his wife and daughter back here. He encouraged the young Horowitz to write poetry, even at one stage bribing him with a fiver to “Go and get drunk and write some poetry!”

I ordered a pint and sat beside Adam. “My abiding impression of Laurie,” he said, “is of him standing with his arms outstretched, a big smile on his face, a little tipsy, being roguish and charming.” There was a photo of Laurie above the bar, in just such a pose. “He said it’s difficult to write if you’re living in Slad, because either there’s long grass for lying in the sun, or else there’s someone knocking on your door saying ‘Come to the pub for a chat.’ But at the heart of him, he needed to be here, to reconnect. It was a grounding thing.

“If you’re growing up here as a writer, as I did, the landscape talks back to you.  Walking through it inspires poetry. It’s both safe and wild. The past springs up, in the drystone walls or the shape of the fields. And there’s a continual cycle of death and life, change and decay, a seasonal cycle, as any nature writer will tell you. There’s a certain need for this sort of landscape – and for writing about it.”

We ambled out into bright sunlight and Adam showed me the village. Across the road from the pub lay the old church, with a window dedicated to Laurie in 2011. Outside was his grave, a simple stone inscribed with the words ‘He lies in the valley he loved.’ On its reverse we found some lines from his sweetest poem, April Rise, blessing a day in spring.

Up the lane was a bank of bright flowers leading down to his childhood home – Rosebank – the bleached stone cottage described in Cider With Rosie. In his day it was crowded with seven siblings and cluttered by his eccentric mother Annie. It’s still lived in by a country family, whose harassed mother was bustling around the garden keeping two toddlers from crying in the midday heat. I asked whether she ever thought about Laurie and his family squeezed in there. “Oh no,” she said firmly, “not unless I’ve been watching the films. You don’t live in the past.”

But the past was all around us. Further on was the old squire’s house, a handsome Tudor mansion in stone where Laurie and his friends went carol-singing each winter. Just beyond it was the gloomy pond where a spinster drowned herself, in one of the spookier chapters of his book. “It’s just fading from living memory,” Adam mused. “That’s why I think his work will last.”

The edge of living memory was where I was heading next. I said goodbye to Adam and walked past the pond towards the last cider orchard in the village. Across steep and boggy fields, through a footpath unsigned and overgrown with nettles, lay Furners Farm. I was welcomed into its medieval interior by Julie Cooper, who sat me in the dark kitchen and poured a glass of  her home-made cider.  So this was the stuff that they drank back then. It was cool but fierce, like a softened brandy.

“We met the original Rosie once,” she smiled, “if there was a real Rosie. About 20 years ago they brought her here for a documentary. She’d been a postmistress in Cheltenham. She was in her seventies, she’d been to the school here, and she sat on the swing in our garden. She was very sweet. But she didn’t remember kissing Laurie Lee under a hay wagon.”

She introduced me to her son, a handsome 13-year-old whose name was Laurie. As I turned to go, she whispered: “The kiss with Rosie happened in the second field beyond the stile. Past the old apple trees. Look out for it.”

So I stumbled along there and stood on a field still laid to hay, sweeping down to the stream and the village beyond. Laurie always said there were several Rosies in reality and his book could have been called Cider With Edna or Cider With Doreen. But whatever the truth of it, the setting for his delicious tale could easily have been this patch of earth.

In his essay on Writing Autobiography, Laurie suggested that ‘the only truth is what you remember’. Critics have questioned how much of his famous trilogy of memoirs was really true. Some say the timings cannot be accurate in As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, his achingly romantic memoir of walking across Spain as a penniless busker of 19 in 1935. Veterans of the Spanish Civil War query his account of volunteering for the republic, in A Moment Of War. The documentation does not exist to ever really tell. But someone who knows more than most is his daughter, Jessy, who still lives in the village.

I walked back to her cottage. It had whitewashed walls and an inglenook fireplace and a garden bright with flowers. “This was my childhood home,” she said, fixing me with enormous green eyes. She had the soft mouth and easy charm of her father, as though one were meeting him again. “This is where we all lived. It was wonderful being brought up here, playing in the stream, picknicking on Swift’s Hill. We were here together when he died. On a beautiful evening the sky turned totally black and a double rainbow stretched across the valley. It was extraordinary. Afterwards people sent me photos of it.”

She paused and stared into space. “It was awful for mum and I, just after he died, to have these nasty attacks from people saying ‘Was Laurie telling the truth about Spain?’ What’s wonderful is there’s so much more evidence now.”

For Laurie’s centenary in 2014, Jessy published a book of his paintings and drawings, which she had found after his death in 1997, hidden beneath a bed. “The book is a homage, really, to Dad – because I never really thanked him.” She pauses. “He did often seem tormented, which is one of the side effects of great art. But then he wrote wonderful celebratory poems about the landscape. And his prose was a long version of his poetry. I defy anyone not to get something out of his work.”

I thank her and turn to go. As I wander away down the winding lane of the village, I recall one further memory of Laurie. I met him myself, just once, at a reading he gave in London of his poems. It must have been the late 1970s. By then he was in his sixties, but he read the rippling words in a soft and heavy voice with a rich West Country accent, a voice you can hear in the prose of his books.

Afterwards I found him at the bar, nursing a small glass of white wine. Beside him was an untouched tray of tumblers filled with cider. “Aren’t you drinking the cider?” I asked. “Oh no,” he smiled, “I don’t touch it any more. You can get into trouble with that.”

Beside the summer sea

by Jonathan Lorie

“Look out for whales!” yelled my teenage son as our bicycles rattled onto a twisting path above a cliff. Below us green waves licked pebbly coves, behind us red cottages edged fields of corn. We freewheeled down a final slope to a hundred-year-old wooden farmhouse turned gallery, where he found hot chocolate and I found modern art, on a gentle lawn by the summer sea.

If you’ve never been to the Danish Riviera, prepare for a surprise. Not only is it one of Europe’s prettiest coasts, it’s also cool enough for kids, restful enough for their parents and less exorbitant than you’d think. This gentle curve of fishing hamlets and fine beaches runs 80 miles north from Copenhagen to the North Sea – and though locals spend their summers here, the British haven’t yet discovered it. So I took my son and daughter there to explore.

We had started in Copenhagen, possibly Europe’s hippest city with its cutting-edge Scandi style. My son and daughter were wowed by this everywhere – in avant-garde buildings on the waterfront like the glittering Black Diamond library, among sleek clothes and spiky furniture in the designer store Illums Bolighus, and even in our boutique hotel, the minimalist Ibsens on a sidestreet of bookshops. More challenging was the New Nordic cuisine we tried at Vakst, a hipster restaurant whose walls were packed with plant pots and tables filled with pretty but strange-tasting food: salt cod with gooseberries, anyone?

But despite everything that was hip and hyped, my teenagers’ favourite spot in this city was the Tivoli Gardens – an old-fashioned theme park that dates from 1843, since when generations of Danish kids have screamed and laughed on the traditional rollercoaster and the tiny pedal-boats – as did mine. Trends may change but children don’t.

So we drove out along the coast in search of more tradition. Thirty minutes north we found the first of a series of Edwardian seaside villages – Rungsted, where white wooden villas lined a sandy beach and swimmers dived into the sea from creaky wooden jetties. Beyond a marina bobbing with yachts, we found Rungstedlund, a seventeenth-century farmhouse that belonged to one of my heroes, Karen Blixen, the 1930s author of Out Of Africa. We wandered through its neo-classical rooms, with their ornate porcelain stoves and gilded mirrors, to her study hung with African spears. In the museum shop, her great-grandniece was chatting with visitors and planning for her wedding there.

Equally historic was our hotel nearby, Kokkedal Castle, a fairytale chateau of icing-sugar facades and sweeping stairways set among woodlands and croquet lawns. That night a wedding party was in full swing, the guests in black tie or ball gowns wafting through its baroque rooms while we hid in the bar and ate sausages. Next morning a polo party took over the back lawn, while we borrowed bicycles and cycled down to the seashore, singing as we went.

Then it was back into our car for a trip into the future, up the coast to Louisiana, Denmark’s leading museum of modern art. Perched on a cliff among gardens filled with flowers and sculptures, the place is a sprawl of modernist wood-and-glass cubes crammed with thought-provoking art. The kids were delighted to find a four-foot cigarette stub by Claes Oldenburg, and a mirrored room where spotlights were reflected to infinity, as though we were staring into the stars.

At the museum café we sampled smorrebrod – traditional open sandwiches of ham or salmon on dark rye bread – and I warned my daughter that some holiday homework was coming up. For ten miles north lay the castle of Helsingore, better known as Elsinore to students of literature like her. Here Shakespeare set his great tragedy, based on the Viking saga of Amleth. It is even imagined that he may have joined a troupe of English actors who toured here in his youth.

The castle was another baroque fantasy, surrounded by granite battlements and crammed with tapestried rooms lit by glittering chandeliers. In one of Europe’s longest ballrooms we found Hamlet and Ophelia arguing over love letters – or actors playing them as part of the annual Shakespeare festival. The theme continued at our hotel that night, the nineteenth-century Marienlyst, where they checked us into the Ophelia suite. The hotel’s blackened wooden frontage overlooked a tiny beach, and down a grand double stairway we found its restaurant, where fish fresh and salty from the Baltic was served above the waves.

Next day we took a 20-minute detour inland to the vast Lake Esrum, where we hopped into kayaks for a long, slow paddle among islands edged with bullrushes and herons. Dragonflies fluttered past. “I live in a village by the lake,” said our kayak instructor. “In autumn we forage in the woods for mushrooms and raspberries. We like to be close to nature here.”

At dusk we chugged back to the coast, to the furthest village on the Riviera. Gilleleje had a harbour filled with fishing boats and lanes strewn with white cottages. On the stone quayside we ate seafood at a ramshackle café, then pottered along a clifftop path with views across the quiet waters to Sweden, visible as a dove-grey cliff ten miles off. Below us stretched the loveliest, loneliest stretch of beach, empty of people, dotted with boulders smoothed by the sea.

On a high spot among trees we found a rough-hewn monument of granite, with the words ‘Soren Kierkegaard 1813’ carved into its mottled face. The great philosopher liked to walk here, for the solitude and peace to think. In his journal he wrote about this place: ‘I often stood there and reflected on my past life. The force of the sea and the struggle of the elements made me realise how unimportant I was.’

In that remote spot, I understood what he meant. All I could see was waves and gulls and my children.

Judging the Stanford Dolmen Travel Book of the Year 2020

Like Mark Twain, reports of the death of travel writing have been greatly exaggerated. I know this because I’ve spent the winter months reading the best of the past year’s travel books, helped now and then by my cat. 

This is not how most people choose to spend their winter evenings, but I’ve been one of the judges of the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year. It’s the travel world’s annual accolade for its best book writers, our successor to the legendary Thomas Cook Travel Book Award – among whose winners were many giants of our genre, which I fondly recall judging almost 20 years ago.

What a cast of characters the old Thomas Cook had honoured over the years…. Patrick Leigh Fermor, the only writer I know to have joined a cavalry charge across a castle drawbridge during a time of war. Norman Lewis, whose life included spying for Britain, writing the wondrous Voices of the Old Sea, owning a chain of camera stores and living with two women entirely unaware of each other. Then there were dashing English gentlemen like Tim Severin, scintillating heart-throbs like Jason Elliot, Soho bohemians like Jonathan Raban…. The prize judging took place at the Travellers’ Club in Pall Mall, over candlelit dinners on plates decorated with portraits of Lord Byron.

It was a time and a place and a tone. Reports of the death of travel writing have partly been based on the fading of that generation, whose classic style is sometimes described as ‘the white linen suit in the tropics’. That’s an unfair phrase for some of those authors, but reading through this year’s books, it is clear that a sea-change has occurred.

Today the travel books on my coffee table, meekly awaiting judgement, are alive to the modern world and how it is turning. Almost all are reaching across cultures and eras to tell us – and sometimes warn us – about the forces unleashed by our new world disorder. Together they are defining a new territory for travel writing.

In the age of fake news, they offer us the testimony of the traveller, the first-hand report of what is actually going on across our troubled world. As the poet WH Auden once wrote, in a decade not unlike our own: ‘Consider this and in our time.’

So here are some of the shortlist chosen for this year’s award. Quietest of them all was Richard Bassett’s Last Days in Old Europe, whose title says it all. A gentle memoir of living in places that once were part of the glittering Hapsburg empire, it offered a poignant reminder that superpowers can fall apart.

Also seeking lessons from the past was Simon Winder’s Lotharingia, a history of the borderlands between France and Germany since the days of Charlemagne. Was this a travel book? Who knows, but its overriding point was that centuries of conflicts have started there from politicking and nationalism, culminating in two hideous world wars fought along disputed European borders.

The meaning of borders was explored by Paul Theroux, whose book On the Plain of Snakes saw him driving along the US-Mexican border to judge the realities of the controversial ‘wall’ and the societies on either side. Predictably, he found people less divided than their nations, and developed a heartfelt writer’s credo that the heart of a country lies in its ‘hard-up hinterland’ not its flashy tourist sites. 

Sara Wheeler traversed the hard-up hinterland of Russia in Mud and Stars, searching for the stories of its great and often exiled writers – people such as Pushkin and Chekov – which mainly reminded me that there was a time when Russia was so cultured that it bothered to send its writers to Siberia. That era persisted from the Tsars through the Soviets, but probably ended with the present regime.

The rise of Putin’s Russia was vividly observed by Rory Maclean in Pravda Ha Ha, in meetings with everyone from illegal migrants to obscenely wealthy oligarchs. In a finely written and funny book, he pursues a serious question: why has Russia moved from optimism and democracy at the fall of the Berlin Wall, towards fatalism and dictatorship today? His answer involves national trauma and the comforts of nostalgia, imagined resentments against the outside world, and a widespread willingness to believe in lies. The implications for our own society are clear and somewhat chilling. Maclean’s book was runner-up for the Dolmen Award – and rightly so.

Moving away from the pressures of our day, but circling back to explain them, were two further books well worth a read. 

Epic Continent, by Nicholas Jubber, followed him across the regions spanned by various national myths in Europe – from innocent tales such as the Odyssey in Greece or a Viking saga in Iceland, to stories that have forged influential myths of more questionable kinds: most notably the duplicitous Song of Ronald that fired French patriotism for centuries, and the Rhineland tales of German heroism that inspired Wagner and then the Nazis. The inescapable conclusion is that nations define themselves through myths of a literary kind like these, and also through political myths – or shall we call them lies – about their own greatness, which prompt them towards aggression.

And finally, the winning book was Robert Macfarlane’s Underland, an astonishing work that takes us back to the beginnings of mankind in the rock-art caves of the Dordogne, and forwards to the futuristic mines being built in Finland and America to store our nuclear waste. In between he examines some of the greatest questions – what it means to be human, why we bury our dead, how we treat the world’s resources as riches to be extracted, and ultimately whether we will prove to have been good environmental guardians for the generations that will follow ours. The book may prove to be Macfarlane’s masterpiece. 

All of which is a long way from the elegant dinners in the Travellers’ Club of yore. And perhaps all the better for it. I look forward to next year’s list.

Sailing the Swedish islands

by Jonathan Lorie

“You eat it with a knife and fork,” smiles Jane, my blonde-haired Swedish cousin, as I peer into a bowl of dauntingly named Summer Meadow Soup. Blobs of orange and brown vegetable matter float in a puddle of grey froth, sprinkled with what might be woodshavings. So this is the famous cutting edge of Scandinavian cuisine. I lift half a meadow onto my fork and pray.

We’re dining in Matbaran, a Michelin-starred bistro in the Grand Hotel in Stockholm, across the water from the classical facade of the Royal Palace, in a dark-wood room that’s lit till late by the silver gleam of a midsummer sun. Around us a buzz of smart city folk are crowding the tables, ordering ice-cold beers and wooden trays of avant-garde food. It’s the night before I sail into the choppy waters of the Stockholm archipelago, and I’m catching a last taste of urban sophistication.

The soup tastes fabulous – a midsummer medley of woodland flavours like artichokes and bitter leaves, rooted in a truffle broth. Jane leans across and says: “Where you are going, it is like nothing you have ever seen.” Her blue eyes sparkle. “The archipelago is so beautiful. I want to live out there myself.”

The cluster of islands off eastern Sweden form the biggest archipelago in the world, with more rocks, skerries, islets and habitable chunks than Indonesia or the Canadian arctic. Stockholm itself is the start of a chain of 28,945 of them, stretching 60 kilometres towards the open waters of the Baltic Sea. That’s where I’m heading in the morning, following the track of the midnight sun.

The morning dawns clear. Before the boat leaves, there’s just time to explore the Grand Hotel where I’m staying. It’s the only 5-star hotel in Sweden – and deserves those stars. For its elegant neo-classical rooms are where the Nobel Prize winners stay each winter, and where the first Nobel awards banquets were held, in a fairytale salon modelled on Versailles, glittering with mirrors and gold panelling. 

I wander through a series of gorgeous rococo rooms leading out of the Hall of Mirrors, and downstairs I find a complete contrast: the uber-modern Nordic Spa – a shrine to the art of sauna, with a swimming pool lit by flaming torches and a jacuzzi built like a foaming rock pool. This is Scandinavian culture on an epic scale. Should there be some Vikings?

But I’m heading for simpler pleasures, and I trip across the quay outside the Grand to the landing stage for a ferry to the islands. As I walk up the gangway I notice that this is a working boat: on its deck are bundles of timber and roofing felt, bound for the isles. 

A toot of the whistle and off we go, thundering past the seventeenth-century alleys of the old town, then a cluster of warehouses, and quickly out to a landscape that is a seascape: rocky islets dense with pines, and hidden among the trees the first of the wooden summer houses – a rust-red cabin with white shutters, a sea-green bungalow with a red roof, a shell-white bathing hut on a boulder above the water, then a stone-grey villa with white carved balconies. Motor boats zip past, bouncing off waves. Yachts race at full sail. Swans glide on the swell. 

We pause at a tiny island where a girl in blue dungarees ambles down a granite jetty to greet her sister off the boat. A man pushes a wheelbarrow of logs across a lawn by the sea, where a table and chairs wait under a silver birch. It’s another world, and another pace of life.

My first stop is at Grinda, a large island two hours’ sail into the middle archipelago. The ferry clangs against the jetty, and I am met by Lars Sunekvist, a big man with a bigger smile, who chucks my bag into the back of a dusty golf truck and takes me on a bumpy ride towards the island’s only hotel. We putter through rippling woods where he says there are roe deer and foxes. Red chalets sprinkle lush meadows that sweep down to the sea, where rugged boulders break the surf. 

Lars shouts over the engine, “I brought up my kids on this island for two years. It gives them a different perspective. They don’t have 24/7 shopping, but it is so peaceful. We just spent time together.”

As are many families playing outside their cottages or tumbling in the water. “The whole island is owned by Stockholm city council,” says Lars, “so you can roam everywhere and the cabins are for rent to anyone. It’s not like other islands.”

He drops me at my room, in a wooden house with bleached floorboards but an iphone sound dock. I head straight downhill and find a tiny harbour full of yachts, where a trio of blond-haired dudes in shades are running a kayak shack. 

I ask if I can hire one. They hand me a paddle and a life vest. I explain that I haven’t really done this for a long time and should I have an instructor? They look at me and at the sea. One drawls, “Well, it doesn’t look like rain. You’ll be OK. Here’s a map.”

On the pebbly shore I twiddle my legs into a slender kayak and the dudes shove me off. I wonder how to hold the double-ended paddle. I look straight ahead and take a deep breath and pull. Magically the craft moves forwards. Its hull is orange against deep green water.

I paddle out of the sheltered bay and along the edges of the island, out of sight of people and houses, along a waterway fringed by dark trees and pink roses and jagged granite. A seagull soars overhead. The world is silent except for the splash of my blades. 

In a wider channel dotted with islands I stop and let the kayak drift, silent, staring at the milky sky of midsummer and the rolling water. It’s just me and the sea. I wonder whether my Swedish ancestors paddled or rowed around here, among fjords or islands like this, in the millenia before petrol engines.

My grandfather came from Stockholm and I was brought up on family tales of pre-war summers that lasted forever, among tall trees and sparkling lakes. But I never saw it for myself before.

Up until the 1950s these islands were home to 3,000 people, fishing and hunting from water-bound villages. The narrow twisting channels guarded the approaches to Stockholm, too, and Grinda has had a sailors’ inn since 1777. Its ruins can be seen near the ferry dock. Today that inn has been replaced by a fine old hotel, the Wardshus – and that’s where I’ve promised myself dinner tonight.

The Wardshus is a gem of Arts and Crafts architecture, all cream stucco and steep roofs, built in 1906 by the architect of Stockholm’s Grand Hotel. The owner here was Henrik Santesson, first head of the Nobel Foundation, and he brought his family to spend their summers in the heyday of Swedish grand society. Their idyllic holidays are captured forever in photos on the dining room walls: toddlers, servants, fishermen, patriarchs – another world again.

Tonight it’s too hot to eat indoors, despite the hotel’s fine interior like a Carl Larsen painting, all wooden panels and curving stairs and a big log fire beneath elk’s horns. I need fresh air, and where better than the garden terrace, with its trailing silver birches and its view across the pewter waters to island after island after island.

The outdoor tables are filled with healthy-looking yachting folk, and I order a seafood special: Arctic chard dressed with bright green roe, huge mussels that taste of the sea, slivers of apple and fennel. The delicate flavours of fish are lightened by the bright fruit flavours and a sprinkling of aromatic dill. I’m lightened too, by a glass of chilled Sancerre. Finally the midsummer sun sets, setting a trail of golden shimmers from white sky to grey shore. Sometimes I wonder why my grandfather left.

Next morning I take a change of pace, on board a big ferryboat packed with holiday-makers headed for Sandhamn – the smartest, busiest of the islands. It’s an hour further out towards the outer archipelago. Half way there I tap on the captain’s door and am allowed into the bridge, where grey-bearded Nils Gunnar is sitting among the flashing lights and levers that guide the ship. He’s been a ship’s captain for 40 years and lives on the boat for a week at a time. “I live in the archipelago,” he smiles. “This job, it’s alright.” At a steady 25 knots, he brings us into harbour.

After the quiet of Grinda, Sandhamn feels crowded. It’s only a wooden village built round a small marina, but there’s a hot dog kiosk selling Le Monde, a deli offering baskets of crusty oysters and scarlet lobsters, and shirtless boys on yachts flirting with languid girls in Hollister t-shirts. Blue and white boats nod at anchor and blond children in orange life-vests skip along the sandy streets.

I’m here to meet one of the few fisherman remaining in the archipelago, Anders Naslund. I’m told his house is “behind the bakery”. I wander into the backstreets. They’re a jumble of white picket fences and wooden cottages painted rust red, pistachio green or mustard yellow, among fruit trees and grass paths. When I find it, the bakery is a red cabin surrounded by white flowers, and beside it is a path blocked by a weather-beaten oar. That must be the place.

I walk past the oar and down a curve of path between clouds of marguerites and poppies. There’s a brown house by green water and a yellow-haired man in blue oilskins. A knife dangles from his braces. Anders. He smiles, a twinkling smile in a sea-creased face, and we sit beside the shore and talk. 

He tells me of growing up on the island, when there were only seven families here, and piloting the cargo boats, and his fish trap that takes three days to build every spring, and the biggest fish he ever caught – a 22-kilo salmon as tall as his shoulders. 

Then he shows me where he smokes the fish, in an outdoor cupboard that creaks open to reveal blackened walls, treacly from years of smoke and fish oil. He holds up a handful of pine branches and explains that these give a special flavour. Beside them is a tree stump with an axe buried to the hilt. 

He doesn’t have any fish on the go just now, so I seek out lunch at the Sandhamn Yacht Hotel. It’s another fine Arts and Crafts building, its restaurant a spectacular barn of a room lit with ships’ lanterns above the marina. Their speciality is a dish of three types of herring, the best one sluiced in vodka and succulent with vanilla and lingonberry sauce. 

This hotel was originally the headquarters of the Royal Swedish Yacht Club, and still houses a pine-panelled clubroom and the harbourmaster’s office. The young harbourmaster, Paul Henriz, shows me around and tells me about a race last week, the biggest of the year, which broke records for its speed. “It took only three days,” he smiles. His office is crammed with flags from every nation, “in case a visiting team might win.”

I wander outside to meet two more locals: Adam Svensson, a long-haired skipper who will take me to the last of my islands, and Lisa Lindskog, a slender student with a delicate smile who lives out there and needs a lift. We tramp down the jetty to Adam’s motorboat, which he guns into top speed as soon as we hit open water. “I used to sail for the navy,” he grins, and heels the boat to avoid a rock. 

Twenty minutes on and we are in a different world. A ridged rocky island appears, dense with trees, and Adam cuts the engine as we drift slowly around an inlet into a secret anchorage. There are cabins among the pines. Lisa waves. A jetty appears, below a tiny shop with a handpainted sign: Haro Lius. Outside are her mother and two sisters, and we’re greeted with whoops and embraces as we hop ashore.

Haro is an island way off the beaten track. There’s nothing here – and nothing beyond it to the Baltic. It’s a long way from the Grand Hotel. Lisa’s mother Kirsten shows me round her store. “We can’t get fresh meat,” she says, “and vegetables come in by boat.” But she does sell Italian olives and frozen steaks.  “We’re having a party later,” she smiles, “ but first let’s take you out in a boat.”

The boat is a little motor launch skippered by her husband, Bjorn. He’s a soft-spoken man in his sixties, happy to see his daughters Lisa and Katarina enjoy the breeze as we whizz out of the haven of Haro and head for the open sea. “Forty knots!” he shouts as we bounce on the front deck. Ahead of us the islands thin out and then there is void – just stone-blue water shading imperceptibly to stone-blue sky, and somewhere past that is Finland. The end of the archipelago feels like the end of the world. 

Bjorn cuts the engine and we bob there, silent, savouring the sunshine and the solitude. Nothing stirs.

Then we race back to tie up on the jetty below their summer home, a pretty red house on a hill above an inlet. Bjorn spreads a nautical chart and shows me where we’ve been. He coughs and murmurs, “I’ve been coming here for 65 years. As a boy I used to row from house to house selling fish. In winter the water froze over, so we used to skate between the islands. I was very lucky to have this.”

Below their house is a midsummer maypole, left from the dances two weeks ago. Beside the path I find a circular crown of leaves, worn by some midsummer maiden and left here in a moment of revelry or freedom.

Back at the island’s store, the party is a community affair. Islanders chug over in open boats, balancing plates of quiche or berries on their laps. There are old guys in checked shirts, students back for the hols, women in combat trousers. Kirsten and her daughters welcome them all with open arms. Bjorn pours me a beer. His neighbour Urban says that 20 per cent of Swedes have a summer house like this. 

We sit late in the silver light on the shop’s deck above the sea. Then Lisa says, “How about a sauna?”

So her girls and their boyfriends and I untie a boat and slip down the creek. Below their house, an old brown hut hides among long grass by the shore. Inside is a glass-fronted burner where they light some logs. We sit outside, lingering over cool white wine, then change into our swimmies and brave the heat.

It is roasting. My skin seems to crisp and then they make more steam. They tell me about the World Sauna Championships, in which the runner-up died. Sweat runs down our naked skins. We chatter brightly about England and Sweden, then ask the questions we really want to know, in the closeness and the dark. Then someone opens the door and we run out to the twilight, down to the water’s edge, and plunge straight in.  

The waters of the Baltic close over me. They are black and thick and cool. They feel like milk. I bob back up. The others are around me, laughing and joking, and around us all stand ridges of pine trees black against the never-ending sky. Just for now, there is nothing else.

I lie on my back and stare into blue. A single fish jumps.

We’ll always have Paris

Gliding between the tables of fashion models and millionaires, kissing hands and patting shoulders, the barman pauses at a photo above my chair. “I would say that was taken at Le Poulard at about 12 o’clock on the 25 of August 1944,” he muses above the chatter. “Robert Capa on the right has just taken the famous photos on the Normandy beaches, and Hemingway at the end of the table is about to liberate Paris with seven men. Or as he put it – liberate the cellars of the Ritz.”

He slips a glass of mist-coloured liquid onto the table in front of me. “You’re sitting in the chair where Hemingway’s son Jack used to sit in later years. Try this cocktail. It’s one of mine. We call it Serendipity.”

The cellars of the Ritz, and especially the Hemingway Bar at the Ritz, seem a good place to start an exploration of Paris in the 1920s. They seem even better after a sip of Colin Field’s exquisite mix of calvados, champagne and mint. No wonder he’s been voted the world’s best barman, twice. And a glance around his wood-walled bar, its panels crammed with prints of Hemingway hunting, shooting and writing, its tables crowded with beautiful people for Paris Fashion Week, is enough to seal the deal.

I’m here to find places where you can still catch an echo of that era, the glittering years between the wars when Paris shook up a cocktail of its own – from art, jazz, fashion and money – whose flavour is with us still. 

In this city Coco Chanel shaped modern fashion, Scott Fitzgerald trumpeted the jazz age in his fiction, Picasso exploded painting into Cubism and Dali lulled it into dreams. “Paris,” said the resident American writer Gertrude Stein, “was the twentieth century. It was the place to be.”

Right now, the Ritz seems to be the place to be, as the clock touches 2 am and I drift towards my bedroom. The corridors are impossibly grand, the height of six humans, drenched in blue carpets and festooned with chandeliers. Somewhere upstairs I find the room, its cream walls scrolled rococo-style, its bathroom a fantasy of marble and gold taps. There’s an ice-bucket on the mantelpiece chilling pink champagne, a vase of orchids, and a folder of hotel stationery on which they’ve printed my name. Beside the bed, gold buttons allow you to summon a waiter, housemaid or valet.

But I’m searching for something else, so next day I leave the glamour of the Right Bank and walk onto the Left. Here, near the spires of Notre Dame, is the city’s other shrine to the Twenties. A rackety bookshop, its low-beamed ceilings lit by dusty candelabras, its maze of rooms packed with red-leather tomes beside the bright bestsellers of today. Its terrace is scattered with benches and bookstands, where tourists and a tramp are browsing. A poster proclaims: “Be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise.”

This is Shakespeare & Company. For almost seven decades it has welcomed strangers, as customers or as guests. Hidden among its bookstacks, cunningly disguised as sofas, are pull-out beds where penniless writers can stay for free, in return for help in the shop. Over 50,000 hopefuls have stayed at this ‘Tumbleweed Hotel’. As I will tonight.

The shop’s name and ideals are reincarnations of a famous bookshop of the Twenties, run by a free-spirited young American, Sylvia Beach. That version of Shakespeare & Company became an informal club for the experimental and usually impoverished writers of the time, with Hemingway as its favourite friend and James Joyce as its patriarch. Beach bravely published Joyce’s radical novel Ulysses in 1922, defying public scandal. It made her reputation.

Today’s bookshop is run by Sylvia Beach Whitman, who was named after the first Sylvia. She can often be seen in the antiquarian section, blond hair curling over a pile of bills, coping with chaos.

I ask her how it feels to continue the work of her namesake. “It’s a dream to work here,” she explains, “surrounded by a circus of books and eccentric people constantly in movement. I think Paris still holds a very literary weight for aspiring writers. The literary history is rich here, the river is lined with booksellers, the city is made for walking, the cafés are for long hours of thinking and taking notes. Maybe I’m a romantic, but I still envision Paris in that way.”

Among the books on the first floor is my bed for the night. At 11 pm the shutters go up on the shop, the Tumbleweeds conjure their bags from hidden cupboards, and conversations begin. I talk late into the night with Alex, a slow-talking American whose literary ambitions are “fading”. My bed has a crumpled red duvet and I fall asleep beneath hardbacks with names like Memoir of Scott Fitzgerald, Being Geniuses Together and Gertrude Stein Remembered.

Next morning I awake to the bells of Notre Dame. I slip out to find the original Shakespeare & Company. Threading my way through the tall lanes of the Latin Quarter, I pass Picasso’s studio in Rue des Grands Augustines, a grand courtyard house where he painted Guernica in 1937 as the golden years ended in war. Some would call it the most important painting of the twentieth century.

Finally I find Rue de l’Odeon, a grand old street where the numbers are confusing. I blunder into a shop that might be the original Shakespeare. It’s a bookshop still, but the silver-haired owner is not amused. Beach’s shop was next door, he barks in classic Parisian style, rattling a telephone into life, don’t I have decent eyes?

Next door is a fashion store, with no trace of the frontage I know so well from photos. I give up and catch a Metro to the Closerie des Lilas, a lovely old café frequented by writers forever. Here we are closer to how it was. By the door an old man is shucking oysters. I get a flash of Hemingway’s famous description of writing a story in this very café as a struggling unknown – and celebrating its completion with a dozen Portugaises. 

Inside the Closerie there’s a grand restaurant to the right, all starched tablecloths, where Jean-Christophe the manager points out a famous lady novelist at lunch. But to the left is the old bar as it was: a dim-lit Art Deco room, with wooden tables where the names of past customers are recorded on tiny brass nameplates. I sit at the place of Edvard Munch. Nearby is Jean-Paul Sartre. Then Man Ray, August Strindberg and, curiously, Vladimir Lenin. Not shown is the original bad-boy poet, Charles Baudelaire, who drank here in the 1860s. On the counter, next to the ice bucket, is a plaque that simply says ‘Hemingway’. 

Surfacing after an ice-cold demi, I head for the Lutetia, the city’s finest Art Deco hotel. This is where Picasso spent his honeymoon after marrying a beautiful dancer from the Ballets Russes in 1918. The façade is a sinuous ripple of masonry, curving like a Gaudi. The interior is period perfection. The bar is lit by two huge bronze statues of women clutching bulbs of light. The brasserie is a blaze of chrome and mirrors, where customers in curving banquettes eat shellfish on ice. There are fashionistas in the bar, and jazz till 1 am, and a hedonistic spa. Of all the places I’ve seen so far, this one is the time machine.

Nearby is the Rue de Fleurus, where from the 1910s the almost unreadable writer Gertrude Stein held salons on a Saturday. And it is Stein who has drawn me to Paris. On her walls she displayed an astonishing collection of Modernist paintings, by daring unknowns like Picasso and Matisse, who she was the first to buy. She was a patron to young writers too. Visitors came to view the avant-garde art and talk to the experimental author – who believed that her style had largely created Joyce, Proust and Hemingway. 

After her death, the fabulous collection was dispersed. But this week it has been reassembled for an exhibition at the Grand Palais. It’s a once-only opportunity to step into that time.

Her studio is in a courtyard barred by glass doors. I lurk. Someone comes out. I flit in. Down a path is a square of bushes, and then on the right the famous apartment. Nothing special, a flat front painted cream. Lights turned out. But this is where they walked, all those pioneers.

To meet a living pioneer, I travel to the rougher quarter of Menilmontant. Here lives a 94-year-old painter who just caught the inter-war years. Alfred Rozelaar Green came here in 1938 as an art student from London, and stayed for most of his life. 

He welcomes me into the little house with a firm handshake and a glint in the eyes. “We’re holding an open studio,” he explains, gesturing at the vibrant canvases lining his studio. “I can’t lift my right hand to paint any more, but I’ve taught myself to draw with the left. Glass of rose?”

We sit in a garden beneath a vine with his wife Betty, eating omelettes and strawberries. They laugh at old memories. They tell me how they met, when Alfred staged a play at the avant-garde Anglo-French Art Centre in London, for which Betty was costumier. It was an experimental piece called Yes Is For A Very Young Man – written by Gertrude Stein. But this was 1948, just after her death, and they never met her.

But Alfred recalls the pre-war artist’s life: days spent sketching in studios from 9 am till 10 pm, nights at the Bal Negre dance hall, where Afro-Cuban jazz was the rage. From 6 pm the place to meet was the Dome café, two streets from his digs, a favoured haunt of Bohemians to this day. And one night he took home from there the woman who became his first wife: Nita, who once had been a model for Matisse.

They remember, too, hanging out with Picasso on the beaches of the Riviera after the war was over. “So playful he was,” smiles Betty, “always fooling about. In those days you could go into a café and see someone famous and just talk to them. Not like England!”

And they remember me, as a little boy, born in Paris in the cold winter of 1963, when my parents had run away from London to be artists together. My parents used to speak of meeting Picasso and Dali and Sartre, and an aged concierge who once was Rodin’s model. But they had not known the older Paris. And I have not visited Betty and Alfred for 30 years. We are all travelling in time.

Finally I say goodbye and head off to the Stein show. It is superb. There is a wall of early Matisses in their wild colourings. There are shimmering Cezannes, and precise Cubist works by Picasso and Juan Gris. I realise where Art Deco got its lines from. 

There is Picasso’s masterly portrait of Stein herself, a grumpy women in brown. She complained that it did not look like her, and he warned her that in the future it would. 

And then there is Picasso’s self portrait in his twenties. Not the bullish conqueror with the burning eyes of later years, but an awkward, unsure, younger man – a penniless arrival in Paris, wondering how to make his mark. I look into his face and see fear.

And I realise that perhaps this is what Paris gave them all, and why it happened here. For artists and writers, oddballs and roughnecks, this raffish city offered a place of sanctuary and the promise of a dream. 

That dream of Paris was captured best by Hemingway. His break-through novel in 1926 was The Sun Also Rises, a hymn to the Bohemian life of Paris in the jazz age. And his final book was A Moveable Feast, his attempt to recapture that era – “the early days when we were very poor and very happy”. His life and that time are encapsulated between those two magnificent books. They’re as close as you’ll ever get to being there yourself.

He started writing A Moveable Feast in 1957, after a visit to Paris when he was handed two old suitcases full of notebooks from the Twenties. They had been stored for all those years in the cellars at the Ritz.

For Steve Watkins 1965-2019

by Jonathan Lorie

I’m raising a glass for you tonight amigo
A glass of our Pedro Ximenez

Dawn in the Atlas mountains
You shooting the moon with a DSLR
The dust of four continents burnt on your boots

Breakfast in Antonio’s bar
You flashing a joke in Spanish
As the Mezquita bells tolled out their years

Midday at Zennor
You scrambling across the granite cliffs
To show a student the perfect shot

Teatime at the RGS
You introducing a hero of yours
To a theatre filled with fans

Sunset on the Bosphorous
You pouring another raqi
As we figured out the way ahead

Dinner at the Frontline Club
You weeping over a poem I wrote
About the toys of childhood

Midnight in the Jema
You telling me about the girl
You hoped to find some day

And a summer morning in Sussex
When I read a verse at your wedding
To the woman we met together

And now it is another kind of night
But what a day we shared

I’m raising a glass amigo
Because tonight I heard the news


These places are where you belonged
And no one now will remember them
As I do you

Steve Watkins was my star tutor in travel photography at Travellers’ Tales. Together we led courses in all those places, and shared what we knew of travel, creativity and life, with many wonderful students and with each other. Here we are in Marrakech, where he did indeed meet his wife Sarah. Some people are not replaceable. Tributes can be posted here.

Windmills in Spain

by Jonathan Lorie

“From up here you can see all the windmills in La Mancha,” says Jose Perulero, peering from a windmill tower to the rust-red plain below, where nothing stirs among almond trees and olive groves and jumbled white villages dotted with mills. “This is the crossroads of Spain.”

Behind him the miller hauls a chain and sets the great sails spinning. Wooden cogwheels creak above a massive grindstone. Jose takes a pinch of flour and smiles. “These windmills were used until the 1950s. Now this is the only one in all of Spain that still works all year round.”

Jose is my guide to the seven mills that perch on a rocky ridge above Consuegra, a dusty hamlet 90 miles south of Madrid. Locals believe that these inspired the tale of Don Quixote jousting with windmills, the most famous episode in the most famous novel ever written. For Consuegra is the gateway to La Mancha, the unchanging flatlands where Quixote’s adventures were set. And I have come to find his ancient Spain four centuries after the death of his creator, Miguel de Cervantes, in 1616.

We walk past the mills to a ruined medieval castle. Inside its sandstone walls some local actors in velvet robes perform a scene from 1183. The King of Castile is granting the castle to a knight with a cross, who swears to defend it against the Moorish armies of Andalucia. It’s the world of chivalry from which Quixote sprang.

His fabulous quest is to revive the age of chivalry by taking to the road as a knight in search of wrongs to right and damsels to defend. Sadly he’s doing this in sixteenth-century La Mancha, with a barber’s bowl for a helmet and a nag for a steed. Everyone he meets decides he’s mad, especially when he mistakes everyday things for fierce challenges – a windmill for a giant, a flock of sheep for an army – with ludicrous results.

By contrast, his squire is a crude peasant on a donkey. Sancho Panza’s main concerns are food, doubloons and a bed for the night. Together they are the first great comic duo, the Basil and Manuel of Renaissance literature, with similar scope for doomed pride and chaotic confusion.

“Don Quixote is a wonderful loser,” explains Jose. “But he’s an idealist. The book tells us to keep trying for our dreams, no matter how we fall down. That’s why it’s universal. Cervantes is our Shakespeare.”

This brilliant tale may have evolved in a sleepy village north of here. I drive to Esquivias along dusty roads, spotting windmills. The village is a maze of whitewashed houses with iron balconies and red-tiled roofs. Its streets are named after characters from the book. In the Plaza de Cervantes is the house where Cervantes lived, after marrying a local girl in 1584.

The couple shared this house with her uncle, Don Alanso Quijada. Local legend suggests he was mad. ‘Quijada’ is an old family name of Quixote himself, whose first name is Alonso. It’s just possible that this much-loved character was built on an elaborate family joke.

Today their house is a museum of the time. There’s a dark kitchen with a fireplace full of cauldrons, bedrooms with four-posters and praying stools, whitewashed walls hung with armour and tapestries. Outside is a bodega with tall wine-jars and a wineskin of the kind so prized by Sancho Panza.

I drive out of the village past a little fountain whose tiles depict Quixote and Panza kneeling together, with a quotation from Cervantes’ biographer Luis Marin: ‘Without Esquivias, Don Quixote would not exist.”

Next stop is El Toboso, home to Quixote’s idealised lady, Dulcinea de El Toboso. It has another house museum, the Casa de Dulcinea, once lived in by a possible model for her. Dulcinea’s statue graces the medieval square, where I spot a strolling player doing scenes from the book. A crowd of locals roar with laughter as he mistakes a door for a windmill and charges it. He’s a fat Falstaff, sending up everything and everyone while falling on his face. The audience loves it, which may explain why this book has stayed in print since 1605.

I spend the night in a seventeenth-century farmer’s house, La Casa de la Torre. These days it’s a lovely hotel in period style, corridors cluttered with heavy furniture, dining room warmed by a massive fire. There’s a chess set based on the characters, and a display of editions in 67 languages, including Cantonese and Swahili.

Next morning I potter to Puerto Lapice, whose village inn is said to be where Quixote was knighted by an exasperated landlord and Sancho Panza was tossed in a blanket for failing to pay the bill. The Venta Del Qixote is actually a quaint reconstruction of a coaching inn of the day, with a corral for animals and wooden tables around a cobbled yard. Upstairs is an exhibition on Quixote, with reproductions of illustrations by artists such as Picasso, Dali and Cocteau.

Lunch is in Valdepenas, centre of a local industry that was famous even in Cervantes’ day: wine-making. Everywhere you drive south of Puerto Lapice is blanketed with vines. The oldest winery is the Bodegas Los Llanos – and Panza would have liked it here. Two enormous cellars cut from rock house rows of wine vats 20 feet high. The ground floor has an elegant restaurant of glass. I perch at a marble counter and taste the wines. The whites are straw-gold with notes of raisin or grapefruit. A red tastes of blackcurrants, perfect with slivers of the famous local cheese – Manchego.

Further on is a village where Cervantes was once imprisoned. Argamasilla de Alba is home to the Casa de Medrano, whose bare cellar is less hospitable than Los Llanos. It has a stone bench for a bed and a rough wooden writing table. Here Cervantes was held, perhaps for fiddling the books as a local tax collector. In the prologue to his novel he suggests that it was written in a prison. Might that have happened here? Local legend also claims that he met a mad nobleman in this village, Rodrigo de Pacheco…

Perhaps Spain in the declining years of its Golden Age was brimming with crazed aristos. Or maybe all of La Mancha wants to claim its most famous son. Somewhere past Argamasilla I find the Cave of Montesinos, claimed to be where Quixote met some long-dead knights underground. It’s really just a crack in the earth and it’s hard to match these locations. But its setting is the lovely lakes of Ruidera, which do feature in the book – as damsels turned into pools. 

I head for the night to Almagro, a wealthy town in Cervantes’ day. Its winding streets are lined with noble palaces sporting coats of arms. Quixote would have loved all this. The main square is one of the prettiest in Spain, its sides lined with half-timbered houses on stone arches that hide tiny shops and cafes. On one side is the other reason to come – the Corral de Comedias, a sixteenth-century theatre unique in Spain, restored as it was in Cervantes’ time. He himself had tried his hand as a playwright in Madrid, though all but two of his scripts are lost. Inside, the Corral is like a theatre of Shakespeare’s day, which of course it is: an inn-yard with wooden galleries on three sides, a cramped stage on the fourth and nothing above but sky. I wonder what shows Cervantes watched here.

Curiously, Shakespeare and Cervantes died only days apart in 1616, and one may have influenced the other. There was a lost Shakespearean play called The History of Cardenio, based on an episode in Don Quixote where the shepherd Cardenio tells a tale of lovers betrayed and identities confused.

I retreat to the Parador de Almagro, a medieval convent turned elegant hotel. Its stone corridors wrap around Renaissance gardens of clipped hedges and gravel paths. Dinner in the lamp-lit restaurant includes suckling lamb that Panzo would have died for – and a bottle of ‘Don Quixote’ wine, a chocolaty red from nearby Manzanares.

Next day is Palm Sunday and I chug through villages preparing for Easter week. Palm branches and velvet banners hang from balconies. People gather in church porches. I stop at the handsome town of Villaneuva de los Infantes, where the House of the Knight of the Green Jacket is home to a character from the book. It’s a classic Spanish patio house, built around a central court with wooden balconies inside. The patio is scattered with wooden settles and rubber plants, where a maid is polishing candlesticks.

I check in at the sixteenth-century Morada de Juan de Vargas, a beautiful boutique hotel filled with modern art and stylish sofas on the Calle de Cervantes. Through a leaded window comes a distant sound of trumpets and drums. I skip outside to the Plaza Major with its medieval church and stone arcades. The sounds come nearer, accompanied now by marching, and into the ancient Plaza strides the Palm Sunday parade – a statue of Jesus on a donkey carried shoulder-high, a brass band thumping and a cohort of men in green robes with pointed hats like the Klu Klux Klan. Only their eyes can be seen through slits.

The procession circles the crowd in the square and my heart starts to beat with the drums. A bell in the church rings madly. Then the music stops and only the drums and marching can be heard in the silence. It is thrilling and terrifying. It is the old Spain, of church and state, of crusading faith, still here.

They wind past two steel statues, of Sancho Panza and Don Quixote leading their ridiculous mounts, and I realise why Cervantes’ delicious satire has endured for so long. It’s not only about human nature and the state of a nation: it’s about sending up the mighty so the ordinary folk can survive. It’s the revenge of the little lost villages of La Mancha on the kings and castles of their day. And it’s an essential story for us as much as them.

Following New Zealand’s rainbow god

by Jonathan Lorie

As darkness fell on the olive trees and the grazing deer, I slipped into the jacuzzi in my treehouse and listened to the Pacific breakers rolling in. My muscles ached from swimming with 400 dolphins beyond that surf, and my head swam from sampling almost as many wines at the vineyard outside town. I was looking forward to a dinner of drippingly fresh crayfish, then an evening by the fire that flickered at the far end of this treehouse room. Beyond it, huge windows revealed a zigzag of blue mountains. A stag bellowed to a doe. Beside the fire, an ipod rippled jazz. I slid deeper into the scented water. Was this, I wondered idly, the world’s finest place to get close to the wild?

Kaikoura is not a name that trips off the tongue when you list those lucky places in the world that offer a taste of adventure, an encounter with nature, and a touch of luxury at the end of an action-packed day. But this township of wooden cabins, ringed by mountains in a rugged bay, is New Zealand’s next big eco-destination.

“It’s the best place in the world for swimming with dolphins,” explains Kate Baxter, the sparky concierge at Hapuku Lodge, who shows me up the rickety stairs to my treehouse. “And seeing whales. But mind you read the weather report at breakfast.” She grins. “If the sea’s rough, you might need a Kaikoura Cracker. They’re the only pill that works.”

Kaikoura has two great claims to fame. One is Hapuku – a line of treehouses perched in a grove of wispy manuka trees, between the mountains and the sea. From the outside it’s a tumble of timber boxes on stilts, but inside it’s a cool expanse of slate flooring, designer furniture and satin drapes. Its restaurant is superb, with a chef flown in from San Francisco, and its management is keen to be green. It has been called the world’s most romantic honeymoon hotel.

The other great claim lies beneath the sea. Below those heaving waves is the Kaikoura trench – a Grand Canyon of the ocean, 60 kilometres long and 1,200 metres deep, whose rich food chain attracts giant squid and 14 species of dolphin and whale. Nowhere else in the world has such deep water a kilometre from land. Here your chances of seeing a whale are 95%, every day of the year.

Next morning I’m ready for the sea. Dutifully I search the breakfast room for that weather report. It’s a handwritten note among trays of fresh-baked scones and jars of home-made jams. ‘Rough seas warning.’ Should I be worried by this?

But I don’t need much persuading from Stefan, the crisp-shirted waiter, to try the Lodge’s signature breakfast dish: Duck Hash, a crisp tangle of fried duck strips, softened with sautéed potatoes and drizzled with the yolk of a poached egg. It is meltingly good.

As is my stomach when I hit the water an hour later, somewhere out to sea, intent on catching the best experience this coastline has to offer: a swim among dolphins. They’re everywhere. Our speedboat is surrounded by hundreds – leaping, diving, double-flipping, their black fins slicing the water, splashing in curious circles around us, somersaulting in water and air in a vast display of playfulness and trust.

I sit on the back step of the launch, clad from head to toe in rubber, madly adjusting my diving mask. “You have too many smile lines,” warns the instructor from Dolphin Encounter. “They’ll let the water in.” Then I leap into the wake behind the boat.

There’s a shock of cold water and a heave of ocean swell, even though we’re well within sight of the mountains, not half a mile from shore. But out here the waters stretch to the South Pole, and wide-winged albatross skim low over the waves. The water tips and slumps like a vast creature breathing. Luckily I have taken a Cracker.

Then I look down. Below me, far into the green depths, are shadow after shadow of dusky dolphins. They weave and dive through soft jade light. One curves towards me, then darts away. Another circles my head. I float face down, peering into the world where they live.

We make three dives like this – the maximum the instructor allows. “We don’t want to disturb them,” he says. But three is enough. On the third, as I float marvelling, a single dolphin of my own length appears beside me. It stays close. I see its head turning towards me, peering into my face. Then I hear the crackle of its voice.

I am entranced. It’s a feeling that returns next day, out to sea once more, this time in search of whales. Today’s skipper is a tousled Maori who’s tracking them down with a sonar. Whenever it blips, he guns the catamaran to top speed. “They only come up for five minutes,” a crewman shouts above the roar, “then they dive for hours. Their tail flip makes 500 horsepower – enough to dive a thousand feet in a couple of minutes. Last year a research submarine took two hours to do that.”

We race for a mile, banging into headwaves, and I realise I have no Crackers. But then skipper cuts the engine and we tumble out on deck. Spray whips our faces. The boat rolls. My stomach steadies. The crewman points.

Between billowing swells, we glimpse a fountain of water and the long dark block of a sperm whale’s head. “That’s just the front of its body,” he murmurs, “then there’s the tail. They grow to 18 metres long.”

It lurks in the water, still as a rock. Then tips up its head for one last fill of air and plunges into the deep. Its black trunk, gnarled with barnacles, surges upwards and then down, ending in the perfect arc of its tail, the twin flukes flicking skywards and under. A circle of bubbles floats on the water.

This is the first of four whales we see this afternoon. They’re all sperm whales, but others are found here too – humpbacks, orcas, blue whales, all pausing to refuel in the trench, en route from the Antarctic to the tropics. The size of these creatures is staggering. You could swim in the artery of a blue whale. Its heart is the size of a small car.

Whales rarely come so close to shore. That’s what first attracted Europeans, and their earliest settlement here was the Waiopuka Whaling Station in 1842. Its original building still stands, a clapboard bungalow on a lonely point. Now a museum, Fyffe House sits in a cottage garden of pink and white flowers. But when you reach its wide verandah, you see the foundations of the house are the bones of whales. Huge discs of vertebrae, wide as your shoulders and grey with age, sit between the wooden walls and the beaten earth. This town was built on whales.

But today the hunt is for thrills not kills, and Whale Watch Kaikoura, the leading tour operator, is keen on conservation. “We came up with the rules for watching whales,” explains Lisa Bond, a feisty ex-skipper, in a shoreside office crammed with awards. Their boats are environmentally designed, they limit the density of marine encounters, and their profits go to community projects. “The company was set up as a charitable trust by four Maori families, anxious to create jobs and keep the young people in town.” She smiles. “Now the young people do leave for university – but they always come back. We have a rugby team again.” And in 2009, Whale Watch were global winners of Virgin Holidays’ Responsible Tourism Award.

The town council has followed this lead, with an ambitious plan for a green future. In 2004 they became the first in the world to win a Green Globe certificate for environmental management. “Not bad for a little nowhere place,” grins council spokeswoman Ann Paterson, over a cup of tea on the art deco Esplanade. Then they set up a carbon-offsetting scheme called Trees For Travellers, and a festival of fashion from recycled materials. “Perhaps it’s because we’re so close to the sea,” she ponders. “Nature matters to us.”

But nature has always mattered here. Six centuries before the white men came, the Maoris arrived to fish its teeming waters. They named it for this abundance – Kai for ‘food’ and Koura for ‘crayfish’. In their legends, the trench was carved out by a god, and the first ancestor rode in on a Southern right whale. The god Maui fished up North Island from the deep, and where his foot slipped into the water, it made a splash that became the headland above the town.

You can walk up there today, wander the ramparts of earth that remain from the ancient village, and gaze across the sunlit waters. I went there with Maurice Manawatu, who runs the local Maori Tours. His sister welcomed us with a ritual song, walking backwards before us into the site. In a sacred spot surrounded by trees, Morris gave me a Maori name, enshrining a place back home that is special for me.

“And yours?” I asked.

He pointed a finger at the white peaks behind the town. “My name is from a mountain over there, called Sacred Footsteps of the Rainbow God. For us Maori, people of the land, all of nature is sacred.”

It’s a view that the modern world is starting to share. And here in Kaikoura, you can experience it for real.

Into Jordan’s hidden city

by Jonathan Lorie

“Cousin, do you remember me from two thousand years ago, when I sold you a shipload of ivory from Africa?” Mahmoud the red-scarfed storyteller shines his torch along our path, lighting the pavement where Hadrian walked, the statues where ancients worshipped, and the walls of rock that rise on either side of us to a crack of night sky five hundred feet above.

“We are walking on tombs,” he whispers, leaning closer. “I have found things here by night that I could not find in the morning. Come, cousin, walk with me through the ancient Siq to Petra.”

Not every entry into this hidden city, immortalised by emperors, explorers, painters and film-makers, is quite so dramatic. But two centuries after its rediscovery by the explorer Burckhardt in 1812, I have come to find out what Petra is all about. And Mahmoud is the perfect guide.

“I was born in a cave here, 60 years ago,” he confides, as he leads me down the narrow gorge that is the entrance to Petra. “This was my home, like all the people of the village. There were very few tourists then.”

And there are very few tourists now, thanks to turbulence in the region. If you ever want to see the ancient sites of Jordan without the crowds, this is your moment.

Tonight the Siq is lit by candles, flickering beside the path. We walk between rows of flames in the dark, turning under towering cliffs, mesmerised into silence. And then we see the sight I have come for.

Nothing you have read prepares you for this. The path makes one last twist. A gap in the rock shows a pillar far off, then a giant statue broken at the waist. You hurry the last few feet as the cliffs part to reveal a vast building carved from the mountain. It has winged goddesses and pediments and a doorway seven times human height. It is the fabled Treasury. And tonight it is lit by hundreds of candles on the square before it, a glittering field of light.

An audience has gathered for a show called Petra By Night. It starts with a musician sitting alone among the candles, scraping a lament from a rababah violin. His wailing song echoes off pillars and cliffs into the dark. Then Mahmoud appears, reciting the city’s legends. King David ruled here, and Solomon, and a lost Egyptian princess. “Imagine,” he barks, “the days when 5,000 camels arrived in caravan.”

After the show I sit among the flames, gazing at the carvings, sifting sand between my fingers like an hourglass. Mahmoud wanders over and smiles. “The Nabateans who built this city also believed in magic,” he murmurs, and disappears into the night.

Petra is the original lost city in the desert. Once a mighty trading post, it was abandoned after the Crusades and lay ruined for 500 years. Hostile local tribes kept it secret, but Jean Louis Burckhardt travelled among them in disguise. A storyteller of another kind, he posed as an Islamic scholar for seven years, and bluffed his way into Petra. The report he sent back to London astonished the outside world.

By daylight, Petra is pretty good too, as I discover next morning. The site is a scorching bowl of pink and yellow rock, hidden within a mountain range. Once inside, you walk down ruined streets lined with Classical facades.

In the centre is a monumental heap of rubble. This was the residential area of a city that housed 30,000 people at its peak, around the time of Jesus. The language they spoke was the same as Jesus – Aramaic – the language of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Book of Daniel.

Incredibly, I am addressed in Aramaic as I wander on. A grey-haired man introduces himself as Ahmed Moamer, archaeologist turned tour guide. He waves airily at the fallen stones. “Ninety per cent of this site has not been excavated. Those were houses, shops, walls. The city was ruined by earthquakes. We are near the Rift Valley, between the plates of Europe and Asia, and there were many earthquakes.”

Petra’s position at a crossroads of the world was its source of wealth. It built a trading empire, with camel trains across the deserts bearing frankincense from Arabia, pepper from India and silks from China. Nabatean coins have been found in ancient Rome.

To get a sense of all this grandeur, I make the mistake of climbing to the highest tomb at the hottest time of day. It’s 854 burning steps up a mountain gorge to the Monastery – and for once I’m glad there’s a café at the top. I sink onto a bench and order lime juice.

Here on the mountain top is a facade even larger than the Treasury: a doorway and columns 150 feet high. I climb inside. It’s a vast cube of dark space, where pagan priests once prayed: a huge assertion of faith and power, high above a city now in ruins.

There’s only one place in Jordan comparable in scale to Petra, and that’s where I’m heading next – because it too will be empty now. Wadi Rum is the Monument Valley of the Middle East, only bigger and with more legends. Here Lawrence of Arabia swept across the desert with his camel cavalry, blowing up railways in the First World War. And you can see why he chose this place as a hideout. It’s 500 square miles of loneliness, of bare dunes and forbidding cliffs, where grey rocks tower 2,000 feet above red desert and you feel as small as a single grain of sand.

Near the Wadi’s entrance I spot a stretch of railway and an old steam train. I stop my jeep and climb aboard. There are wooden carriages, a stoker’s perch, and a flatbed truck that’s stacked with sandbags as though expecting gunfire.

A guard says the train will soon be running for tourists: King Abdullah tried it last week and they staged a camel attack for him. But the engine, it seems, is real: a pre-war original from the Hejaz line – the railway that Lawrence raided.

That campaign is vividly described in Lawrence’s bestselling memoir, The Seven Pillars Of Wisdom. It’s a heroic tale of exotic tribes and handsome warriors. But parts of it are close to fiction, with Lawrence wildly retelling what he did and who he was. This inspired David Lean’s epic film Lawrence of Arabia, which is being re-released this weekend to mark its fiftieth anniversary, in a superbly restored digital version that suits the grandeur of this story and its setting.

Lawrence travelled the Wadi by camel, as many tourists do today. But I reckon the best way to experience this place is by horse. So I drive to the stables run by Jordan’s first Arab equine guide, Atallah Sabbagh Sweilhin. He’s a grizzled veteran, keen to explain the finer points of Arab purebreeds and Bedouin horsemanship. He looks sternly at my hiking boots and combat pants. “Adventure on horseback is for real riders,” he warns. “You must show the horse who is boss.”

I swing onto a frisky brown stallion whose name I don’t catch. The desert beckons. As does my minder, a bright-eyed boy called Ibrahim who rides a white steed with a speed and elegance that put me to shame. We trot out of the yard and into infinity.

It’s a hypnotic afternoon of riding between the big mesas, up red dunes, across black gravel washes, along yellow valleys dotted with green thorns. We hack beneath an overhang as tall as a skyscraper. Camels graze in herds. My leg muscles ache. Atallah was right: this is not for beginners.

Ibrahim trots alongside and tells me tales about his tribe. “We are the Howeitat,” he grins, “powerful people in Wadi Rum. The people who rode with Lawrence.”

A wind blows up, swirling a sandstorm around us and darkening the sky. Ibrahim winds his scarf around his mouth. I eat dust. We whip up the horses and canter into the storm, racing for home.

Tribal life comes alive for me that evening at Rainbow Camp. This remote pitch of brown tents is perched between rocks high above the floor of Wadi Rum. I am the only guest. Over snapping flames, the camp cook roasts lemon-drenched kebabs of chicken and lamb. I loll on brightly striped Bedouin cushions, beside a table piled with salads, dips and flatbreads.

My guide wanders over, clutching a narghile waterpipe. Okla Nawafleh is a young dude in a baseball cap, but he proudly describes the desert life. His aunt still lives in a tent. “Around the Bedouin campfire we learn our manners and our history. An hour sitting with the elders round a fire is worth a day in school.” He sighs and takes a drag. “But we are losing this. It’s a changing world.”

To catch that older world before it goes, we drive next day to Feynan, an eco-lodge in a nature reserve. Our route takes us past the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth. It’s a barren scene, the waters sullen grey, edged with a scorch of white where the famous salts are burning off.

Feynan is a turn-off onto pebbles, a jolting drive through dried-up river beds dotted with Bedouin tents. The driver is a white-robed Bedou with a wild beard and a red headscarf flickering in the wind.

Hidden in a gully lies the lodge itself, a handsome blockhouse modelled on the caravanserais of old. Inside there are tiled courtyards and arched ceilings and many chandeliers, as it is only lit by candles at night.

“I have spent a lifetime finding a place like this,” says the lodge’s director, Nabil Tarazi, a softly spoken Palestinian. “I was born in Jerusalem, then travelled the world, and now I am not allowed back.”

We sit on a terrace beneath a twisted tree whose name, he says, is Thorns of Christ. He pours us glasses of spicy tea.

“This lodge is 100 per cent off-grid. Our water is from a spring, our electricity from solar panels, and our staff from the local community. Seventy-five Bedouin families are supported by us, as staff or suppliers. We will visit them this afternoon.”

But first he leads us to the ruins of a village on a dusty hill, a maze of broken walls. It is the remains of a village from 10,000 years ago. “This is one of the first places on earth where people stopped being nomads and settled down.” He sighs. “From this, so much has come.” I pick up a slender chip of flint and see it is an arrowhead.

Then Nabil walks us through wadis sprinkled with oleanders and goats, to a camp of brown tents on a ridge. We duck inside a tent with a floor of beaten earth and a carpet where we sit.

The owner, Khalifeh, speaks no English but greets us with a blinding smile. He rattles around in a firehole scooped in the ground, roasting coffee beans in a cloud of fragrant smoke. It’s a ceremony for honoured guests – the beans are ground, roasted and brewed in front of us – and an ancient symbol of community. I wonder how old is this nomadic way of life? Khalifeh pours me a cup.

“This is the last generation who live in tents,” says his son, Suleyman, already a lodge guide speaking English. “The younger ones don’t want to look after goats, to bake bread. But this is the best life – the freedom, the quiet.”

Outside a boy leads a donkey to a barrel of water. Women’s voices burble round a fire. “Come back in 20 years,” muses Nabil, “and none of this may be here.”

Somewhere outside, a muezzin calls the faithful to prayer, his wailing cry echoing off the stony hills. A boy leads a donkey to a barrel of water. Women’s voices bubble up from a cooking fire. The sun begins to set, turning the mountains to green.

My last stop, near the airport, is Mount Nebo. This yellow hill above a dusty valley is steeped in the myths of the Bible. Here Moses looked towards the Promised Land, which he would never enter. I stare as he would have done across the burnt plain of the Jordan Valley. It is slashed by the green of the Jordan River, where Jesus was baptised. Beyond is the town of Jericho, the oldest in the world, where the ancient Hebrews planted their kingdom.

On the far ridge, a white city glitters in the heat. It is Jerusalem. In these places, in this land of fabulous storytellers, the greatest story of all was formed and told. Much of it may have been myth, but it’s a story that still touches all of our lives.