Chasing 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 the 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 the 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.

Chasing ghosts in Crete

by Jonathan Lorie

Disguised as dockers, two men darted across the no-go zone around the harbour and cut their way through the wire. They slipped onto the quayside, where enemy patrol boats bobbed in the dark. Their rucksacks were heavy with limpet mines. Searchlights swept the area. They wondered which ship to blow.

I put down my book and glance at the harbour, twinkling in the dusk below our rooftop terrace. My son Ben asks, ‘Did that happen down there?’ I nod. The quay is a curve of ancient stones guarded by a medieval castle. These days it is filled with yachts.

The British major and the Cretan partisan crept towards the silent boats, but a German searchlight picked them out. They turned and ran – back to the alleys of the city and then to the mountains rising behind Iraklion, where they lived in caves for most of World War II.

“Epic fail,” Ben grins and wanders back into our hotel suite. At the age of 11, he’s just as interested in its jacuzzi bath, gold bedspreads and room-service mezze as he is in history. But then he turns on the TV news and shouts, “The North Koreans have launched two warships with missile defence systems!” I say, “You’re watching history in the making.” He looks across. “Dad,” he intones, “if they launch a missile, history will be over.”

We talk like this because I’ve brought my two children to the island of Crete to experience history face-to-face, to take it out of their classrooms and chase its ghosts back to life. It’s a foolishly educational mission, but this is the perfect place. Crete has more history than it needs, stretching back to the very first cities in Europe, and including invasions by Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Venetians, Turks, Italians and Germans. Usefully for a family trip, it’s also got sandy beaches and simple cuisine.

Next morning we set off for the highlight of Cretan history: Knossos, oldest palace in Europe and legendary home of the minotaur. It’s a 20-minute drive from the concrete tenements of a modern Greek city to the scattered rubble of an ancient one. Knossos today is a green hillside among olive trees. The kids skip up the entrance steps. They were raised on Greek myths and want to find the Labyrinth.

The steps lead to a courtyard edged with stone rooms and two-storey buildings. Once this was the ceremonial court of a Minoan palace, possibly where the famous bull-jumping rituals took place. Today it is a shadeless ruin with everything of interest roped off and inaccessible. I came here 30 years ago and you could wander through royal apartments and down grand staircases to underground suites with frescoed walls, where the world of 2000 BC came vividly to life. No longer. So many people visit that it has to be protected. The children spend an hour peering through glassed-off doorways, while I bore my wife with how great it used to be. Then we leave.

Mercifully Ben and Sarah did enjoy the Archaeological Museum which we had visited in Iraklion yesterday. Even more mercifully, it was being rebuilt, so only the finest of its 15,000 artefacts were on show. We spent a delightful afternoon among statues and frescoes of ancient warriors, mighty bulls, Minoan houses and snake goddesses. These were the finds brought back from Knossos. Ten-year-old Sarah deciphered pictograms on a clay disc from 1600 BC: “There’s a cookie, a fish, a guy with a Mohican…” And Ben was amazed by a pair of “epic” axes. “I don’t really like art museums,” he explained. “But this one is about things that happened and how people lived. It’s the coolest art I’ve ever seen.”

Now, leaving Knossos in a cloud of dust, we drive to a place that may impress them more. Somewhere up a winding road lined with vineyards we find the site of a daring adventure from World War II. We sit by the roadside and I tell them the story.

Just here the British major, Patrick Leigh Fermor, and his Cretan partisans kidnapped the general in charge of the German occupation. They waved down his staff car disguised as German soldiers and demanded to see his papers. As he fumbled they pulled him out, tied him up and hid him in the back. Leigh Fermor put on his hat and they drove the car into heavily guarded Iraklion, saluting at checkpoints and heading for the road to the mountains.

For 19 days they trekked across the high passes, hiding in caves and shepherd’s huts, moving Kreipe across the island, dodging spotter planes and search parties. On a remote beach, a British boat spirited them away. As the ragged group climbed aboard, they were offered the comforts of Blighty: lobster sandwiches and Navy rum.

The children smile politely. But for the rest of the afternoon, they loll in the back of the car taking military salutes. Whenever we park, they leap out and bark “Show me your papers!”

The first time this happens is when we stop for lunch at Margarites. It’s a one-street village of whitewashed houses teetering up a hill. But almost every house is a pottery shop or studio. Since history began, this has been a village of potters – its very name comes from ‘margara’, which means ‘ceramics’.

“This is a holy place for pottery on Crete, there is no place like it,” says George Dalamvelas, bending over the potter’s wheel in his shop, Keramikos. “We think potters supplied the ruined city on the hill, in the eighth century BC. I still make some neolithic styles of pot.” And he shows us cups, pourers and shakers in red clay, shaped in ancient styles. He digs the clay himself, from the mountainside. His shop is a huge stone room with brightly glazed ceramics and bowls of lemons and walnuts from his garden. His children wander through and smile at ours. Sarah watches him work. “In this village,” George says, “there are six potters still making pithoi – the huge storage jars you see at Knossos. People like them for their gardens.”

We look for pithoi makers but find none among the medieval doorways and ancient chapels of the village. So we drive slowly home to the villa where we are staying, on the western end of Crete. On the way we pass the dramatic skyline of Mount Ida, where Zeus was born in a cave and raised among goats on the hills. As we cruise past the tourist resorts of the northern coast, we swap Greek myths out loud. Ben’s favourite is about Zeus’s father Kronos, son of the sky god and earth mother, who ate all his children in fear that they would rebel against him: all, that is, except Zeus himself, hidden in a cave on Crete.

History lessons over for now, we retreat to the Villa Zoneras in the foothills of the White Mountains. We can see their snowy ridges from the garden, beyond a rolling landscape of olive groves and white farms among rippling grasses and yellow flowers. The villa is new but the set-up is traditional: a handsome house of cream stones, red tiles and green shutters, surrounded by palm trees and pines. Inside, it is actually Middle Eastern in style: a great stone arch divides the ground floor in two, a curving fireplace fills one corner. I have seen such rooms in Jordan.

But I don’t bother the kids with that. For now they can splash in the villa’s pool pretending to be ninja turtles. We adults cook chicken legs in thyme from the hills and sample the local hooch – a bottle of ice-cold raki, left in our fridge by the owners, who make it themselves. Elsewhere in Greece you sip ouzo, but on Crete the drink is the same as you find in Turkey. As night draws in, we build a crackling fire and Ben settles down to play tavli, or backgammon. Sarah clicks the yellow worry beads she bought from a stall in Iraklion. The guys groan only a little when I say that all these things are left over from the days when Crete was part of the Ottoman Turkish empire. We could be a mountain family 200 years ago. Ben laughs, “Apart from the pool and the fridge.”

At night the stars are like sparks in the clear mountain air. We try to name them and my wife finds a star-gazing app on her phone. She points it at a patch of sky and it traces constellations between the planets: Sagittarius the centaur, Orion the hunter, Gemini the twins – ancient Greek legends through a modern-day lens.

It’s time to go into the mountains, the wild heart of the island. Early one morning we drive towards the peaks. The tarmac road dwindles to a twisting lane and climbs. The twists get sharper, the drops more dizzy. Herds of sheep and goats leap among twisted trees and orange rocks. Their bells and the wind are the only sounds. We pass turnings and hamlets of half-ruined cottages that are not on our maps. Finally we are so lost that I knock on the doors of isolated houses, where guard dogs bark and owners eye me warily.

Our destination is the village of Xiliomoudou, said to have Crete’s loveliest church. By sheer chance we find it. At the summit is the Taverna Lemonia, a wooden chalet with views over valleys and crags and distant white villages. Way below is a tiny Byzantine chapel, Ayios Nikolaos, the one we’ve come to see.The key to the church is kept by a woman in the next village and while Leonidas the taverna owner phones her, we chat to Charlotte, the Dutch waitress. “In this village they live like 200 years ago,” she smiles. “Come and see.” And outside in the yard she shows us Leonidas’ world. There’s a shed where he makes olive oil, turning the millstones with the help of a donkey. Beside it is a trough where the villagers tread grapes to make wine: and a still where the skins are fermented into raki. Across the yard is a windmill where Leonidas grinds flour, and a workshop where he makes traditional musical instruments. He’s hammering away as we wander in, a big man with a mane of white hair, grinning and speaking no English. In this place, history has no end. The children are entranced. As William Faulkner once wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

We drive down to the church. It’s a tiny building of pink bricks and lancet windows, surrounded by trees full of oranges. Their scent follows us inside, where walls of deepest blue are painted with mysterious frescoes dark with age – saints and scrolls and cities, with the rich reds and golden haloes of medieval icons. A single candle burns in a brass holder, as other candles have done here for 700 years.

I walk out to the sunshine and the rushing of wind in the leaves. Ben and Sarah are playing tag. The keyholder is waiting, an old lady in black. We smile and chat. Her son, she says, has lost his job in the recession affecting Greece. People have moved back from cities to villages. It is history, changing the world again. I offer her a fee for showing us around, but she proudly refuses. As we walk towards our car, she hands my wife a gift: a shining spray of orange blossom, fresh from the ancient trees.

Scandi noir

by Jonathan Lorie

I’m driving through central Denmark in search of dead bodies.

Not the kind you find in Scandi Noir movies or washed up in Copenhagen in scary news reports, but an older kind from long ago that can tell us about our past and maybe who we are.

“They were buried with everyday objects and even dogs,” says Jasper Lynge, steward at Lindholm Hoje, the largest Viking burial ground in Europe, where I begin. “They had things you would recognise – knives, jewellery, dishes for food. But this was done a thousand years ago.”

We gaze across a windswept hill in northern Jutland where hundreds of stone circles still mark the graves of Dark Age people. Many are shaped like ovals – like boats – 20 feet long and marked at prow and stern with taller stones jutting from the grass like ancient timbers. Beyond them shimmers a jagged fjord where longships once launched for the North Sea and the lands of plunder – including, of course, the British Isles.

“And now, a Viking breakfast,” grins Jasper, leading me into a visitor centre with fine displays on Viking history. We sit at a table spread with Dark Age delicacies – slices of sweet spelt bread, a rough bowl of pickled gooseberries, rosemary jam “and a horn of mead wine,” he chortles. “These salted almonds came from Spain, where the Vikings traded. They sailed everywhere. In the graves we found a brooch with African ivory inlaid, a knife of Damascus steel and coins from Arab lands.”

These early freebooters, part merchants part pirates, spun a web of trading and raiding that spanned Europe and the north Atlantic. They reached Constantinople and Newfoundland, built Dublin, York and Novgorod, ruled Normandy, Sicily and Scotland. They left behind their genes and their place-names, the British royal family, and a particular form of corpse that would not look out of place in The Bridge. I say goodbye to Jasper and drive off to see one.

Aarhus, 70 miles south through waving cornfields and pretty wooden villages, is Denmark’s Oxford – a handsome university town by the sea, noted for its nightlife and its New Nordic restaurants. This year it is Europe’s Capital of Culture and its ambitious programme, directed by an expat Brit, asks what it means to be European – an interesting question in the era of Brexit. There have been avant-garde operas, community arts, Viking sagas and a Creativity World Forum. But the town is much more famous for a 1,900-year-old murder victim on show in its archaeology museum, who offers a different answer to that question.

Moesgaard Museum is a spectacular modern building by the shore. You can walk up its slanting roof for superb views of the silver waters that link the Baltic to the North Sea. Inside is a hall displaying the evolution of mankind, from apes to now, shown in sculptured faces of all the variant species: Sapiens comes in late. Beyond that is the resting place of a 30-year-old man who was killed near here in 200 AD by having his throat slit from ear to ear from behind.

Grauballe Man was discovered in 1952 by peat-cutters digging for fuel. He was so well preserved in the acid waters of the bog that they thought he was a recent death and called in the police. The authorities could still take his fingerprints.

I gaze into his face. His hair is red. His skin is soft and shiny. His head is twisted behind his back.

Bodies like this have been found all across northern Europe, from the marshes of Poland and Germany to the lowlands of Belgium and the bogs of England and Eire. They go back a long way, as far as 8000 BC, and their spread suggests a single culture across ancient, tribal Europe, long before the Vikings.

They are thought to be sacrifices, slipped into the waterworld between earth and underground where gods might be approached, perhaps in times of trouble. Beside Grauballe Man are displayed other offerings dropped into the holy waters – warriors’ swords, ritual cauldrons, plaits of women’s hair.

I wander through the dim-lit chambers, as though underground myself. The maze of the museum is a twilight zone of a distant past that is also mine, like a place from a dream whose symbols stay in your mind. My ancestors came from Scandinavia. My grandfather was a knight at the Swedish court. These people are my own. The borders between them and me are thin.

Forty years ago, in the last era when Ireland had a hard border and Europeans were being killed for religious reasons, a young Irish poet called Seamus Heaney wrote a suite of poems about this bog man and his compatriots. One begins: ‘Some day I will go to Aarhus/To see his peat brown head,/The mild pods of his eye-lids,/His pointed skin cap….’

The suite became famous as the core of a book called North, which identified the old cultures of the North Sea as a single zone, whose buried meanings affect us still. For Heaney was writing in the time of the Troubles in Ireland, when historic identities bred violence on a scale way beyond Scandi thrillers. His poem ends: ‘Out there in Jutland/ In the old man-killing parishes/I will feel lost,/ Unhappy and at home.’

But in a classic case of mistaken identity, Heaney got the wrong corpse. I drive on to the town of Silkeborg to see the truth. It’s a handsome place on a lake where boats splash and the police are polite at my driving errors. In the hall of its local museum I meet curator Karen Boe.

“Oh yes,” she smiles, “I met Heaney. I even got drunk with him. He helped us a lot, because he wanted to make up for this.” Heaney’s bog body, she explains, was not the one at Aarhus but the one on show here in Silkeborg: Tollund Man. “But he said that Aarhus fitted better in the poem, so he owed us a syllable.”

She shows me the body on a slab. It is scary. The dead man is naked but for a leather cap and belt, curled as though asleep or afraid. And round his neck is a noose.

“Hanging was a sacred death,” says Karen. “In Norse mythology, Odin was the head god and he sacrificed himself by hanging on a sacred tree. Perhaps this man was a messenger to the gods.”

I end my journey at a final resting place, where Dark Age beliefs merged with Christianity. Forty miles south, in the heart of the country, is a village called Jelling. I park and walk to its whitewashed medieval church. Beside it rise two burial mounds, the tombs of the first king and queen of Denmark. In front is the Jelling Stone, a 10-ton slice of granite erected by their son, Harald Bluetooth. It’s popularly known as ‘Denmark’s birth certificate’.

I peer at its carved sides. One is chiselled with Viking runes boasting of Bluetooth’s conquests and how he converted ‘Danmark’ to Christianity. The other has a carving of a crucified god, tangled among branches. But it is not Odin: it is Jesus, the earliest image of Christ in all of Scandinavia.

A similar carving of Christ among branches has been found on a grave in St Paul’s Cathedral in London. It dates from the eleventh century, the period when Vikings occupied England under William the Conqueror – and never left again.

Pintxos on Picasso Street

by Jonathan Lorie

Michelin-starred chef Josean Alija leans across the kitchen counter and points at a plate of cod skins fried in oil. “This food is our culture,” he growls, “our identity, our place.”

I smile and try one. It’s a Basque version of a prawn cracker, fresh off the boats and sharp with the sea. Then he shows me to a table in his minimalist, modernist dining room and I begin an astonishing supper of reinvented Basque cuisine, from oysters in lemongrass sauce to hake with chrysanthemum leaves, ending with an ice cream made from sheep’s milk curd.

Over a final glass of Rioja Alta, I gaze out of the window at a sci-fi scene beyond – the riverfront of Bilbao, lined with modern apartments and high-arched bridges, curving away into a future of white concrete and mirror glass.

Josean’s restaurant, Nerua, is tucked inside the titanium folds of the Guggenheim Museum, and it’s part of the vision that has transformed this decaying industrial port into a tourist destination. Twenty years ago Bilbao adopted a masterplan for renewal, based around its river. So next morning I take a stroll by the water with a Bilbaino called Santiago.

He shows me the old shipbuilding yards, now a ship-shaped convention centre, the birds-wing bridge designed by Calatrava and the 40-storey tower of Spain’s largest energy company. A jetski whizzes past a giant spider sculpture outside the museum, where tourists pose for selfies.

“Twenty years ago,” says Santiago, “you didn’t come to Bilboa unless you were lost. Where we are walking was iron foundries and factories. Then they brought in the architects: Cesar Pelli for the waterfront, Norman Foster for the metro and Frank Gehry for the museum. Now everyone knows Bilbao.”

But it’s not all hi-tech in this ancient capital of the Basque country. Round a bend of the river is the old town, a crumbling grid of gothic alleys lined with cafes and boutiques. At one end is the revamped food market, where stalls are stacked with fish and fungi and plates of tempting snacks. In a pretty square of parasolled cafes is the cathedral of Saint James, named in the days when pilgrims to Compostella stopped off here.

In a back alley we pause outside a scruffy bar. “This used to be an ETA place,” warns Santiago, referring to the violent Basque separatist group, who only announced a ceasefire in 2011. “This bar posted photos of ETA activists on its walls,” he murmurs. “Six or seven years ago, you would not go in.”

I go in. It’s a grubby place with beer barrels along one wall and wilting sandwiches on the zinc. But pasted on a pillar, among the tattered postcards for local nightclubs, I find one about Basque prisoners tortured by police, and near it a photo of a man in khaki uniform and balaclava. Clearly a darker past is still present here.

Back out in the sunshine we head for the old town square, called of course the Plaza Nueva. It’s one of the loveliest in Spain, its neo-classical arcades packed with handsome shops and vibrant bars. We step inside the Cafe Bar Bilbao to try another kind of Basque cuisine: pinxtos. They’re the local answer to the tapas of southern Spain, with a baguette base on which layers of flavours are piled up. Plates of them cover the counter in the pretty blue-tiled bar.

We try slices of salt cod under pil-pil sauce, blood sausage topped with caramelised onions, then anchovies heaped on green peppers known locally as ‘Gernikas’. The owner plonks down a bottle of cool Txakolina wine unasked and we retreat to a table outside. Above us on a wall of the square I spot a sign for The Royal Academy of the Basque Language.

The Basque people have been semi-independent throughout recorded history, going right back to Roman days. Centuries of conquerors have swept across their mountain lands but never stayed long enough or fought hard enough to subdue them. Even today, Basques pay taxes to their own regional government not to Madrid, and Spanish kings swear a special oath to respect their autonomy. In 1981 King Juan Carlos, like his predecessors, swore this oath beneath an ancient oak in the nearby town that has come to symbolise Basque identity, struggle and renewal: Gernika.

I drive there next day. The road curves through green hills dotted with the big square farmhouses favoured by the Basques. Many Basque surnames contain their word for a house – eche or etxea – echoing their roots in this rural world. I reach Gernika and park. It’s a modern little place, bustling with the Monday market where burly men in berets hawk cheeses, hams and fruit from their farms. But 82 years ago, during the Spanish civil war, it was set ablaze in the first annihilation of a civilian target by aeroplanes.

On April 26, 1937 – a busy market Monday like today – bomber planes sent by Adolf Hitler to General Franco swooped on this sleepy place. In a single day, 80 per cent of its houses were destroyed. Perhaps 1,200 people were killed. Many were machine-gunned by the planes as they ran away. Such a thing had never happened before, in all of human history.

The town had no military value. The air-raid was Hitler’s experiment in the new technology of aerial warfare. Before the Blitz and Dresden, before Hiroshima, long before Mosul or Aleppo, there was this. Later the fascists pretended the damage had been faked by local militias, a lie still peddled by belligerents in conflicts to this day.

One man who survived the event is Luis Iriondo Aurtenetxea – and I am going to see him.

“When the bombs starting falling, I was halfway up the market square,” he recalls, when we meet in the town’s evocative Peace Museum. “People pushed me inside a shelter. I was terrified of being buried alive. I was just 14.”

His blue eyes narrow as he recalls that day. “The bombing lasted more than three hours. The planes released their bombs, then returned to base to load up more. They crossed each other in the sky as they came and went. I started hundreds of times to say a prayer but I never could finish.”

He walks me to a corner of town that survived, the old open-air market square, where he sheltered in a tunnel. His haven is still there. We step inside its bare white arch, hardly taller than a man. “I couldn’t breathe in here,” he says, “it was so packed. The walls were running with humidity. The floor was wet with mud. The whole town was burning.”

It’s a terrifying vision, and one that Luis has spent decades recounting to the world. “The young people now,” he sighs, “this is just history to them. We survivors will disappear. But nowadays Gernika is called the Peace Town, and we have an office devoted to spreading reconciliation techniques. We want people to carry on with our message of peace.”

I thank him warmly and wander the rebuilt backstreets alone. On a wall by the church is a tiled replica of Pablo Picasso’s furious painting, Guernica, which alerted the world to the atrocity here. It became the most famous artwork of the twentieth century and a copy still hangs outside the UN Security Council as a warning for the world’s leaders. Before the fateful UN debate on the invasion of Iraq in 2003, a curtain was hung across its face. I hope that was for shame.

Picasso painted his huge protest in just six weeks in the summer of 1937. He swore then that he would never return to his native Spain while Franco was in charge. And he never did.

Franco reigned for 36 years, the last of Western Europe’s great dictators. Only in the 1980s did his country start to emerge from his legacy of violence, poverty and ignorance. People like Luis are part of this recovery.

Two blocks down from the mural is Picasso Street, named in thanks for the painter. It’s lively with cafes and I sit down to gather my thoughts. At the next table a family are eating lunch, the children giggling over fizzy drinks. They’re just like mine. I watch them messing about with straws and paper napkins and realise that these are the tiny joys of peace. There is a future as well as a past. Places can be reborn.

I catch the eye of a waiter and order one final pinxtos.

Rendez-vous in Paris

by Jonathan Lorie

The first place I ever tasted freedom was Paris. I remember the day it happened.

Nothing dramatic, exactly. But one spring morning four decades ago I stepped out of the Gare du Nord, an 18-year-old school-leaver from London, and by midnight I was an adult.

Like all the special days when you’re young, the sun shone. It sparkled on the cream stone of classical mansions and the green shutters of peeling tenements. It slid down the bronze arches of Metro stations and bounced off the chrome tables of pavement cafes. It gilded the trees along the riverside quais and lit the faces of fur-clad women in the boulevards. It fired my pulse and told me that this city – and this life – were mine for the taking.

There should have been a girl, of course. In the French art movies that I worshipped back then, there was always a girl: something wayward in black, with a fearful temper and deep green eyes. We would have met in a cafe and kissed by the Seine. But I had a schoolgirl sweetheart back home, and she’d hidden pear-drops in my rucksack, and that was romance enough for me.

Instead of a girl there was my schoolfriend John, an earnest Catholic who’d somehow persuaded me to cross the Pyrenees on foot. I’d never walked further than a London bus stop before, but his plans seemed deliciously far away from life at home or school.

Now, like convicts on the run, we tore down the wide pavements of the Rue de Rivoli, dodged among the tree-lines of the Tuileries, skipped across the twirling traffic of the grand squares at Bastille and Concorde and Vendôme. The wrought-iron Marché Aux Fleurs was a blur of flowers – blood-red, sky-blue, sun-yellow. The Île Saint Louis was a circus where we tested our French on patient waitresses. Montmartre was a granite stairway to heaven. Up there, perched on the white cloudbase of Sacré Coeur, we saw the whole metropolis like a single heart, pulsing with traffic, beating like our own.

At dusk we blundered into Pigalle, a red-light district where dim-lit street girls stood like statues in every dark doorway of the Boulevard de Sebastopol. We staggered past the temptations of the devil and reached our lodgings in Menilmontant. There, in a quartier still crowded with nineteenth-century tenements and steep steps, lived an old painter friend of my parents.

Alfred Green was a throwback to the Fifties, and maybe beyond that. He lived in a cluttered, unwashed apartment brimming with broken antiques and unsold canvases. He grumbled when we arrived but his smiling wife Betty whisked up some eggs for our supper.

I remember it so well. Omelette, baguette, raw red wine from a bottle with a plastic cap: the smell of paint and turpentine, of olive oil in the frying pan and coffee beans in the crank-handled grinder. And Alf and Betty, talking to us as French parents do – as grown-ups – about art and politics and the world.

When we finally tottered to bed in their attic, where the rain hit the roof six inches from our noses, I thought – this is what it’s like to be alive.

That was the day a new President came to power. Francois Mitterand had trounced Giscard d’Estaing, a right-winger drenched in scandal. His left-wing victory had panicked the Bourse. There was a run on the banks. Betty had found huge queues at her bank that morning, as conservatives hurried to withdraw their savings. “You see,” she said, echoing the spirit of ’68, “the middle-classes have no faith in democracy after all.”

So the Paris of the Revolution lived on. As did the Paris of the artists. And this was what had once attracted my parents here. For Paris was where they eloped to in 1955, and where I was born.

They’d run away to Paris – disappeared on the boat train from Charing Cross without a word – because both their parents disapproved. Paris gave them freedom.

Years later they told wonderful tales of the decade they spent here as artists. Of meeting Salvador Dali at the Opéra (“He wore evening tails in bright purple,” said my father) and Picasso at his first post-war exhibition. Of Juliette Gréco singing her heart out in basement nightclubs, and police raids on the Crazy Horse Saloon, and Jean-Paul Sartre chatting up beatnik girls in black rollnecks in the Latin Quarter (“Such a bore he was,” my mother said. “Never left you alone.”). It was still the world of Jean Gabin smoking gitanes on the Quai des Brumes, of Robert Doisneau snapping carefree lovers on the Boul’Mich. It was, my parents shrugged, a time and a place.

Somewhere I still have an exhibition catalogue for the Salon des Indépendants of 1956, which lists my mother as an up-and-coming painter from Sweden. My parents were so up-and-coming that they could hardly afford to eat, and would frequent a cafe for hungry artists where the patronne let you sit at a warm table for the price of a loaf of bread and gave you pots of mustard to cheer up the dough.

That annual Salon had been created for unknown artists by Cezanne and Gauguin in the 1880s. And that cafe was an echo of an even earlier Paris, the 1860s capital of the vie de Bohème, when painters really starved in slum garrets and really changed the way we see. In time this city seeded Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Surrealism – no single place has matched its cultural impact since. And its echoes lingered in the Paris that my parents knew: in people like their ageing concierge, who sat beneath the stairs chopping newspapers for toilet paper but had once been Rodin’s model and mistress.

I was born there in the hard winter of 1963. In an era of coal fires and rattling french windows, Paris had run out of heat. When my father visited the maternity ward each morning, he brought his shaving kit because the hospital had hot water.

My first years were spent in a world you just can glimpse in a children’s film made then. The Red Balloon follows a little boy with blond hair and a shy smile as he chases a stray balloon across the cobbled city, wandering wherever it leads and meeting whoever he finds. I always thought he was me.

Ernest Hemingway, who lived here in the jazzy 1920s, wrote in his memoirs: ‘If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you…. There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other.’

And now I find myself, on the threshold of another era of my own, turning to this city again. I am sitting in a window of the Cafe de la Paix, remembering my personal Paris – and wondering whether it has ever left me.

The Cafe de la Paix is the grandest of the grand old rendez-vous, a nineteenth-century salon of a different kind, glittering with chandeliers and mirrors. My cafe au lait arrives in a gold-lipped porcelain cup.

It was my father who first brought me here, an old man on a return journey, sometime in the 1990s.

We’d spent a winter weekend wandering through the city, through old memories and new realities. It had changed so much for him. The rickety sloping roofs were dwarfed by gleaming skyscrapers, the open-sided trams had long since gone, and no one lived in the Latin Quarter any more. But one morning among the piled stalls of the Flea Market, where he used to buy antiques a lifetime before, a white-haired man had hailed him: “Stafford!” he cried, “Haven’t seen you in 30 years! Where the devil have you been?”

Then the years slipped away, and in the bistrots he showed me how to drink vin chaud against the cold, and in the Tuileries we threw snowballs from the snow that lay on the black curls of the ironwork and beneath the slender trees.

On our last evening he brought me to the Café de la Paix. He said: “In my day, this was the place to go, if you could afford it. We used to say – if you sit in the Café de la Paix for long enough, you’ll always meet someone you know.”

So here I sit, in a Paris that’s newer than all these memories, watching Prada-clad women on mobile phones, and four-wheel-drives where there used to be cobbles, and I’m wondering who I shall meet.

Will it be someone I know? Or maybe just these ghosts.