Archive for the 'travel writing' Category

Richard F Burton: Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina

September 17, 2019

Many years ago I read Richard Burton’s Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina; recently as I’ve been travelling, I had the Librivox recording to listen to in the car. It is an astonishing work. Burton was a Victorian traveller, a polymath; at school we heard of him because we discovered his translation of the Kama Sutra

Non-Muslims are not allowed into the holy cities of Islam; in Burton’s day, discovery would have meant his death. He took the disguise of an Afghan and performed the Hajj along with many other Muslims, and was not detected. He describes the journey and the places, the food and the people in minute detail, a great achievement given that making notes and sketches and diagrams was a difficult and dangerous undertaking, too, when you are always under the watch of fellow-travellers. His knowledge as detailed in the book is positively encyclopaedic: all the religious sites are there, the practices, rituals and the necessary prayers. I do not imagine anything is missing, at the same time realising that much will have changed in the more than century and a half since his intrepid undertaking. And I do not know if there is a contemporary account to match and equal his.

Why did he do it? Because it was there? Real interest in Islam and the culture and way of life of the desert Arabs and Bedouin is there, and he was certainly not the first to travel widely in those regions; he regularly cites his predecessors. Several times in the Personal Narrative he makes it clear he is a Christian, that is, that he has not converted to Islam. And yet, he performs all the prayers and rites, apparently he was circumcised too; he knew a number of the languages of the region… and he is always reverent and respectful towards the Islamic faith. I am in awe, as well as confused by his motives and beliefs.

I also admire the Librivox volunteers who produced this recording. A number of them are non-native English speakers, which can make for tiring listening and vexing mispronunciations, but many of them make up for it by their familiarity with Arabic, for Burton’s account is peppered with Arabic words and phrases, both in the text and the footnotes, and every one is faithfully retained in the recording, and (to this non-Arabist) seemingly well-pronounced. However, it was Victorian practice when writing about sexual habits and activities to do so in Latin, and I’m afraid the garbled renditions of the volunteers made these possibly interesting extracts unintelligible…

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Maps, again

August 28, 2019

51oKC5VfkGL._AC_UY218_  61gjZBNbkqL._AC_UY218_  414ejWraUnL._AC_UY218_  Every now and then I like to look through some of the larger books I’ve collected over the years, particularly atlases, turning the pages and stopping to stare and think wherever I fancy; I jokingly refer to this is as my map porn collection… Recently I took some time to look again at Cartographia, New Worlds (Maps from the Age of Discovery) and this tome which I acquired second-hand about ten years ago.

The Times Atlas of World Exploration is an astonishing tome which I’d heartily recommend to anyone who thinks they have the same bug for explorers and armchair travel that I have: it’s a very detailed and serious work of scholarship, put together by one of the leading writers in the field, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto. There are literally dozens of small maps recording the journeys of many travellers, and larger maps which finally helped me to understand how important all the different winds and sea currents were in the days of small sailing ships and primitive navigation, and why travellers sailed at certain times of the year and by particular and not often logical-seeming routes. All this makes the journeys themselves seem even more astonishing.

Recent reading has also shown me just how much exploration was going on way back in the past. I recall the big names from geography lessons at school – Columbus, the Cabots, Magellan, but there were so many others risking all to discover – what? – something to make a fortune from. And I keep having to remind myself that this is almost all from the Western perspective, and that we don’t know what travellers from other regions of the world were up to in those more disconnected times; maybe there are still-undiscovered accounts languishing and decaying in libraries somewhere…

As I’ve remarked elsewhere, I am moved by the idea that people would spend ages travelling – years, often – without knowing exactly where they were headed, or what or whom they might meet, and where they would end up. It’s particularly hard to get my mind around some of the adruous journeys along the Amazon, for example. Clearly there was the usual motive of making a fortune, but some travellers went just to see: because it might be there, as it were.

Ten of the strangest books in my library – part two

August 17, 2019

The Index of Possibilities

I haven’t looked at this for years: it’s a relic from my hippy days, a British version of the famous Whole Earth Catalog, an encyclopaedia for those alternative times, with pointers and links to all sorts of esoteric stuff, as well as the very early green movements, different spiritualities and radical therapy. It was a bible and an eye-opener for me back in my younger days.

Road Atlas of the Soviet Union 

Back in the days of the Soviet Union and its other socialist allies, consumer goods were in very short supply; this caused problems if you wanted a present for someone. You might have a really good idea of what you’d like to give, and no chance of buying it. Which is how I ended up with a road atlas of the Soviet Union as a present from a relative at some point in the 1970s. The idea that I’d ever get to drive on any of the roads in that country was a bit of a joke for starters. Then you think of the size of the country and regard the slimness of this volume and you get a better picture of the problem. Vast tracts of the country do not appear at all. Secrecy? No, just no roads at all. In some regions you can see a single road that proceeds for hundreds of miles, before stopping, ending: you make that journey all the way to the back of beyond, before realising that you then have to turn around and return the exact same way… Truly, this is a surreal book in so many ways.

I love it; it’s a very well-worn and well-used companion to travel books about Russia, and I supplemented it with a larger more general and larger scale Soviet atlas a decade or so ago

Sunday Compline

This is the slimmest volume in my library. I’ve written about my love of this religious office which brings the day to a close here. And, although I have a great nostalgia for the vanished Latin services and rituals of my childhood days – not out of any sense of belief, but for the spiritual feelings they still awaken for me – this is in English. Way back in the mid-1960s, shortly after services were done into the vernacular, a version of compline appeared, a decent translation using the same music, and there was a phase in the Catholic life of England when this service was much performed in churches. Only a couple of years ago I tracked down this copy at a secondhand bookshop in Edinburgh, and was happy to pay ninety times the original cover price to own it. It’s a nicely produced and illustrated booklet, the same as the one we used to use all those years ago.

Baedeker’s Northern Germany

In the days when travel was a serious business and involved careful planning, Baedeker’s guidebooks were a must. This one is pre-First World War, and I originally bought it for its marvellous maps, but it’s also a mine of useful information about places that were formerly part of Poland and would become again after the war, as well as places that eventually became part of People’s Poland after 1945. The maps of Danzig (as was) I found very useful when reading Gunter GrassThe Tin Drum, following Oscar’s adventures and peregrinations around his home city. There was also a Baedeker’s Russia from 1914, which was never widely distributed or sold because war broke out; it’s now one of the rarest travel guides there is, fetching hundreds of pounds and more. This, and the bizarre Nazi vanity project that was Baedeker’s Generalgouvernement (a tourist guide to the rump state created from the remains of Poland as a dumping-ground for unwanted people and site of extermination camps), are, fortunately, available free on the marvellous Internet Archive website.

Vassily Peskov: Eremites Dans Le Taiga

I was astonished when I originally came across a reference to this story, I think via a link to the Smithsonian website: a small family of Old Believers, a Russian sect, had lived completely apart from the entire world, in the depths of Siberia, for over forty years, leading a hand-to-mouth existence, when Soviet surveyors noticed signs of life in a remote area thought to be uninhabited. The story of the family’s existence and survival is almost beyond belief, and yes, I know that Russia is a truly enormous country, but to have vanished for so long in the twentieth century! The account was written by one of those who re-discovered and helped the family, and yes, I found it in French first…

Bonus: English as She is Spoken (A Jest in Sober Earnest)

Many years ago there was a concert interval talk on Radio 3 featuring extracts from this truly crazy book, which is a phrasebook and guide to conversation in English for Portuguese students, written at some point towards the end of the 19th century. The only problem is that the Portuguese author didn’t actually speak English, but somehow complied the book using a French phrasebook and a dictionary: a very high percentage of the English phrases therefore verge on complete drivel, and the book is a hoot. I found a reprint a long while ago and look through it for a laugh every now and then; if you’re interested it’s downloadable from the Internet Archive.

Voyageurs de la Renaissance

August 14, 2019

81HFTMPlypL._AC_UL436_  This was a rather more academic volume than I’d anticipated from its publication in a standard paperback line – almost Hakluyt Society depth and detail, as well as a number of extracts not being in modern French… they do things differently there!

Very interesting, though, to read a wide range of extracts from Spanish, Portuguese and French travellers from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, just as Westerners were beginning to get to know (and occupy) far-flung regions. What strikes is the fascination and curiosity about those who are so different from ourselves, and also the determination, the sense of our duty and right, to forcibly convert all these peoples to Christianity for their own good. There is a common sense of Western superiority to foreigners, because we are Christian and have a higher level of development, and higher moral standards. One of the extracts showed Francis Xavier (a saint in the Catholic Church) trying to make sense of and explain Buddhism, and find connections between it and Christianity: his theological contortions and errors are astonishing and amusing.

Travellers to Turkey and the Ottoman Empire dwell on the harems and Turkish baths, often with many fascinating details, and also on apparent lesbian practices in the baths: there is a disapproving, prurient, News of the World-style to their descriptions.

There are also many short extracts about travels in Jerusalem and other holy places (for Christians). The accounts of French travellers to Florida and associated regions are rather tedious, but the first accounts of Cortez and other Spaniards of encounters with the Aztecs are very interesting: the days before they set out to conquer and destroy their civilisation, but already from the accounts of the quantities of gold and other precious metals, you can almost smell the cupidity. The accounts of human sacrifices are suitably gory, and the travellers are appalled. Similarly, in travels among native Americans, there is great fascination with cannibal rituals which are described in minute detail…

What I learned from the anthology was just how much travel and exploration there was going on so early; I’d heard of the well-known names and vaguely slotted them into the end 15th / early 16th time-frame, but there were so many people from so many countries out there, all hoping to make a fortune… the Portuguese were particularly numerous and widespread in the earliest days. Though it is interesting to see these first glimpses of how the West saw others, it’s also very depressing seeing how they treated them as simple folk, savages, to be fobbed off with trash and forcibly Christianised; the moral blindness in the travellers’ horror at human sacrifices and cannibal rites when they themselves will be complicit in genocide within a few years is truly shocking.

The overall concept of the book is an interesting one, but better than the execution, as ultimately it does come across as rather a mishmash. It’s scrupulously well-annotated, and there are many reproductions of original woodcut illustrations, but no useful maps, sadly.

A tour of my library – part four

August 12, 2019

The travel writing section is the largest new one in my library, growing over the last fifteen or twenty years as my interest in travel writing has developed. It’s not systematic: there are areas I have deliberately explored and others I ignore completely. Deserts and the ancient Silk Roads both fascinate me. So, there is much on the Near East, the Middle East and Central Asia, lots on Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, but little on Africa unless it’s the Sahara, and very little on the United States. The colder parts of the world don’t figure much, either. And, as I have explained in other, more detailed posts on travel writing, I have by and large tended to avoid recent writing because travel has become tourism, too easy relatively speaking: I like to read about exploration and travel where rather more effort and difficulty is involved. For this reason, I have collected a fair number of accounts of travel from several centuries ago, and also accounts by non-Westerners, for their different perspective on the world. I think my most interesting discovery was probably Ibn Battutah, a traveller from the Arab world who travelled in the early fourteenth century and far more widely than did Marco Polo

I’m gradually disposing of my reference section, which, to put it bluntly, has pretty much been made redundant by the internet: there will be an article, invariably reliable, well-referenced and usually with numerous links, in Wikipedia. My local library now offers me the OED online for nothing. I have one or two literature reference books, and quite a few atlases, and they will now suffice. Maps on the internet do not cut the mustard for me. I have the large Times Comprehensive Atlas which I love, and various historical atlases and collections of old maps. I did, however, recently splash out on Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies translated into English. He was a seventh century encyclopaedist who put together and wrote down everything that was known in his time, and is now rightly the patron saint of the internet. It is fascinating to contemplate how others viewed the world and interpreted it in the past, and to realise that at some future date, our world-view may seem just as quaint to our successors.

Some readers of this blog will also know of my love of JS Bach’s music, and there is a small section of the library consisting of biographies, guides to his world and the places he lived and worked, and some reference books which I use when listening to his church cantatas. The most useful of these was the first book I ever acquired from Amazon in the days before it became the behemoth I now strive to avoid Melvyn Unger’s Handbook to Bach’s Sacred Cantata Texts. It contains texts of all the cantatas, in German, word-for-word translated and then a proper English version, set out in the manner of a classics ‘crib’ from many years ago. It also has all the relevant biblical readings to go with the texts, so that everything I need as I listen is on a single page.

There’s a sizeable religion and theology section, with bibles and other church service books, books on the history of religion, Christianity and Islam, which I have developed an interest in over the years; this joins up with my fascination with travel in those parts of the world. There’s also a reasonable number of books on Quakerism. The oddest book in the collection is probably a fine copy of the Liber Usualis which I acquired secondhand for a song when I was a student in Liverpool, and recently discovered was worth quite a lot. It’s basically a monastic service book with music, for the masses of every day of the church year; the music is four-stave plainchant, and the rubrics are all in church Latin too.

On walking

August 1, 2019

Having been very critical of a book about walking in my previous post, I realised that I could write about being a walker and what it means to me. But I’m no philosopher…

I’ve always walked. When I was a toddler, once a week I had to walk from the village where we lived into the town a couple of miles away, when my mother went to the market. And back! My stamina was fed by a bag of loose broken biscuits from Woolworths under the pram cover, where my sister rode. And then when I was a little older, I had to do the walk again on a Sunday with my father, to go to church. But the treat was, we got the bus back. When I was five, just after I’d started school, we moved into the town and I could walk to school; at seven, the journey to the juniors was just over a mile each way, and I did this on my own, most of the time without batting an eyelid.

There were also frequent walks for pleasure, usually on a Sunday afternoon if the weather allowed; we went to the town meadows or to the park. Either way, we hoovered up a few miles, and I only recall occasionally being tired.

When I got to boarding school, I could have won prizes for skiving sport and games, which I truly loathed. Instead, my choice to go for a long walk in the surrounding countryside, along with a couple of like-minded friends, was acceptable to the powers that be, so this was what regularly happened, at least a couple of times a week. We explored all sorts of places, woodland, canal and riverbanks, an abandoned airfield…

What I realise is that I have always walked a great deal, finding walking anywhere within reason a normal and usually pleasurable activity, as long as the weather wasn’t truly foul. I developed a reasonable sense of direction and road sense, and an ability to estimate how long a journey would take.

As a student, I walked miles, around the streets of Liverpool, and home across the park at night – ah, those carefree days when I thought little of the city’s dangers. Then, when I moved to Lancaster, I lived in a village again, a couple of miles outside the city, and frequently found myself walking home through the night (buses were never that frequent). And there was the beauty of the Lune Valley and the Trough of Bowland, as well as the Lake District to explore. I walked miles around the streets of London when I lived there for five years.

Cities are best explored on foot, I think. I used to know Paris really well, though it must be over ten years since I was last there. And, although the Metro was quick and efficient and cheap, I walked everywhere as I explored; it was impossible to get lost as there was always a Metro station with a huge helpful map every few hundred yards. You really get the sense of a place when you walk its streets. I’ve explored some of Berlin like that, and found all sorts of wonders. Food and drink are easily available, and I’ve always found locals friendly and helpful.

Having had a number of holidays in Europe with our children when they were young, I got used to country walking there: footpaths and walking trails are so much more clearly and helpfully signposted than in Britain, we found, and often it was not necessary to use a map at all.

Now I travel to the Ardennes every year for a walking holiday. I have learned to use maps reasonably well, although I also find that maps on my phone are very helpful if I think I’m lost. And since I’m on my own, I am beginning to be rather more sensible about safety and security, rather than just blithely striding forth…

So, what, if anything, has my experience of walking taught me?

I prefer to walk alone. If I’m with someone, or with a group, I will find myself paying less attention to my surroundings, to the nature, the flora and the fauna, the views and landscapes, and these are the things I really enjoy when I’m walking for pleasure. You can’t stalk a heron for ten minutes in a group of people, or outstare a wolf or a mouflon if you’re busy chattering; you won’t get face-to-face with a deer who hasn’t noticed you because the wind was blowing the other way… And if you meet someone who’s up for a brief chat rather than the usual polite walker’s ‘Hello!’ (or Bonjour, Guten Tag or whatever) then that’s a brief additional pleasure. I shared half an hour’s walk with a couple of French folk in the Languedoc because we were trying to find a particular track: I’m sure we enjoyed each other’s company, but equally were relieved to make our farewells.

I prefer to walk in forests or woodland, rather than in open space, which is why I prefer the Ardennes to the Lake District, for example, and I’ve written here about my fascination with forests. The birdsong is astonishing – and no, I can’t identify more than a couple of birds by their call, I just like the accompaniment as I go – even though I have poor hearing. And there is always the possibility of spotting or seeing other interesting wildlife.

I like to think. Being alone, and in motion, is very conducive to being reflective, I find. I can review where I’ve got to with my life, make future plans, ponder the meaning of life and existence, feel at peace and contented with my lot; I often find that where I am stimulates what I can only call spiritual thoughts, meditation, if you like. It’s peaceful, and reassuring. And technology is helpful here, too: if I have a moment of epiphany, or just a useful flash of inspiration, I can record a message to myself briefly on my phone so I don’t forget it…

I’ve read about walking, too. When I was quite young, my father introduced me to a fascinating book by a fellow Pole who had escaped from captivity in Siberia with some of his comrades and walked to India. It’s called The Long Walk, by Slawomir Rawicz, and is an astonishing tale of hardship and endurance, a tribute to the human spirit and urge to survive. And I’ve previously mentioned the books of Bernard Ollivier, who walked the entire Silk Route from Istanbul to Beijing. There’s someone whom I can admire and envy, for I can’t really contemplate such lengthy journeys myself because of a problem with my right foot, which will allow me to clock up getting on for fifteen miles a day for a couple of weeks, but does begin to complain quite a lot if I overdo things.

In the end, I suppose I regard walking as natural. It keeps me reasonably fit and healthy, and I’m not obsessive about my 10,000 steps a day, which apparently is a myth anyway. It gets me about at minimal cost, and as long as the podiatrist and the orthotist can sort out my wonky foot, I’m looking forward to many more years and miles…

On forests

July 7, 2019

My father was born and grew up in some of the most remote forests in Europe, far away on the borders of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Bielorussia as they were before the Second World War, forests so large and impenetrable that it was said that during the war, Germans dared not enter the forest because they would not come out again… which is probably why my father’s home village was burned to the ground because of partisan activity. And yet vague traces of the tiny hamlet of four houses are still faintly visible on Google Earth…

So I’ve often wondered if my love of forests is inherited. Yes, I know that biologically that’s a nonsense, but all the same, I love forests: nothing beats a walk in the woods where I am surrounded by trees of all different kinds, an astonishing variety of shades of green, amazing effects of dappled sunlight through the leaves and branches. If it’s raining, there’s the gentle sound of the downpour on the leaves. There’s all the birdsong from all sides, and the possibility of encounters with creatures: last year in Luxembourg I met a wolf, and the year before, mouflon (wild cattle).

I have family, friends and acquaintances who rave about the Lake District and the views, and who don’t like the idea of being surrounded by trees. But I like the element of surprise, rather than having all the landscape permanently visible when the hills are bare: in the forests, suddenly there will be a gap in the trees and a surprise view; half a mile or so further on, another opening will reveal quite a different picture: nothing is ever the same. I can enjoy open spaces, but nothing cuts it for me quite like a forest.

When I’m off walking in Luxembourg, I can walk for an entire day without meeting a soul: I like this, not because I’m some kind of misanthrope, but because I do find such solitude very conducive to reflection and meditation. It’s rather like being on an open-air retreat. I can take stock of the past year, or of my whole life; I can ponder problems and difficulties I may be faced with; I can elaborate future plans. And there’s my phone to record notes, ideas, flashes of brilliance whenever they occur.

Recently and rather belatedly it has occurred to me that I do need to be rather more careful when wandering off on my own like this, and I do now make sure that I have a first aid kit, emergency whistle and various useful supplies with me in case of any mishap: at nineteen I may have been immortal, not any longer. Each year I take a day or so to re-remember my basic map-reading and way-finding skills, and on the rare occasion when I have briefly strayed from the right path, the combination of maps and GPS on my phone has helped me get back on track.

I’m looking forward to a trip into the Kielder Forest in Northumberland soon, and another visit to the forests of the Ardennes in the autumn.

Norman Douglas: Old Calabria

July 6, 2019

81wSI-iJP9L._AC_UL436_  Here was a disappointment, especially since the blurb on the back promised one of the best travel books ever written…

I’d heard of Norman Douglas a good while back and meant to try some of his writing. He was writing earlier than I’d imagined, in this case shortly before the First World War, as he makes his way around southern Italy, describing places some fifteen years before Carlo Levi’s masterpiece, Christ Stopped at Eboli. Douglas is much more interested in the places and landscape than the people, it seems, and indeed at times is quite vituperative against the locals. His sceptical and mocking tone often belies his love of the charm and peacefulness, and the decaying beauty of the past.

His prose is often lyrical, his attitude leisured, and yet there is not enough to retain the reader. He treats all sorts of subjects in this omnium gatherum of a book; I loved the entire chapter on the supposed plagiarism by Milton of the story of Paradise Lost from a sacred Italian tragedy, and went off to do further research forthwith; I also loved the entertaining chapter of utterly bonkers stories about the supposed lives and escapades of various saints, especially those who could fly (although some, apparently, could only fly ‘a little’…)

Douglas clearly loved the places he wrote about, and knew the country extremely well, but ultimately I’m afraid I found the book rather a ragbag of disconnected pieces, with an evenness of tone that led to dullness, monotony even. Nothing really stood out as special in any way, and I found myself rushing towards the end of this disappointing read. I cannot decide whether it’s rambling and self-indulgent, or if it has just dated rather too much. However, there are many travel journals from much earlier times that I have read and found much more gripping and entertaining.

Fitzroy Maclean: A Person from England

June 9, 2019

51CDaOHf69L._AC_UL436_  A fascinating piece of ‘old school’ travel writing from over sixty years ago, focusing on the ‘Great Game’ of the Victorian era as Britain vied with Russia for influence over Central Asia, the Russians expanding and consolidating their empire and the British looking over their shoulder at the possible threat to India… and nobody managing to do anything effective in Afghanistan – no change there, then.

Maclean tells the stories of a number travellers who got into all sorts of scrapes, particularly if they managed to reach the fabled goal of the emirate of Bukhara. English arrogance astonishes, as does the gung-ho approach to non-British peoples, their laws, beliefs and customs; there is an over-weening pride in Britain, British arms, Christianity. The account of an eccentric clergyman who travels to Bukhara in an attempt to free two captive English officers reads like a Boys’ Own Paper story, such an implausible yarn it seems to be. Alas, the officers have been beheaded before he arrives…

We do learn about the dangers and difficulties facing travellers at that time, crossing territories known to locals but not to outsiders; the Russians also encounter unexpected challenges in their advance, and some of these are documented by an intrepid American reporter. Gradually the entire of Central Asia does fall under Russian suzerainty; they are keen to have the territory pacified and under control so that they can move about freely, but are not that concerned with actually ruling it.

The author’s own attempts to get to Bokhara in 1938, and his tales of evading the NKVD in his efforts, are most entertaining, and sadly, when he returns twenty years later, much of the old attractiveness of Central Asia seems to have gone forever. A good, easy and entertaining read: Maclean writes well.

My travels – Luxembourg again

May 22, 2019

I’ve nicely got back from my annual walking holiday in Luxembourg, and while I was there tried to understand why I’m so fascinated with the place and why I like it so much. It’s small – about the size of Yorkshire, where I live, more or less. It’s full of hills, small mountains, rivers, brooks and forests, all of which combine to make beautiful walking terrain, and the country is networked with hundreds, if not thousands of generally well-waymarked and maintained trails, usually circular walks; parking is easy and free. Next year all public transport in the country will be free for everyone: there is an excellent network, and many of these walks are easily accessible by bus and train. Overall I have the impression of a nation that thinks its worthwhile spending money on public amenities, unlike somewhere else I know… Near Echternach I saw a newly-planted orchard which has been specifically established to preserve all the old, local varieties of apples and pears. There’s a bee sanctuary attached…

Not that many people live there, so it’s not crowded. About 40% of the population are of foreign origin, largely Portuguese and Italian. The standard of living is high, roads and public buildings are well-maintained, and they spend serious money on public amenities – there are wonderful children’s playgrounds wherever you go, seats and picnic tables abound along the walking trails, as do litter-bins, which are regularly emptied, and there are display boards with posters depicting the flora and fauna to inform the passing walker. It feels like a conservative (with a small ‘c’) country; it’s national motto translates as “We want to stay the way we are”. Yes, I know it’s a tax haven that makes a good deal of its wealth that way, and whilst I don’t approve of that, nor do I approve of countries like ours that make enormous amounts of money from flogging weapons of death to all and sundry around the world. I found myself feeling alternately angry and sad, that other countries can do all of these useful and sensible things I’ve mentioned, and ours can not.

Luxembourg has its own language – Letzburgetsch – a curious hybrid of elements of French, German and Dutch, and the natives are also fluent in either French or German (or both) according to whether they live in the east or west of the country. They are proud of their history, and wherever you go, there are museums and memorials to the suffering the country endured under the Nazi occupation, when it was formally annexed to the Reich, meaning that young men were conscripted into the Wehrmacht, and you see graves which commemorate locals who perished on the Eastern Front. Resistance and civil disobedience was ruthlessly crushed: a strike in the town of Wiltz saw several teachers from the local secondary school shot, among others. And then large parts of the country were flattened during the Battle of the Ardennes in late 1944 and early 1945, when the worst of the civilian suffering also happened.

On a personal note, I realised that I have many happy memories of holidays taken there when our children were young, and the walking and exploring we did then. I hope to be able to take my annual holiday there for many years to come: certainly there are plenty more walks awaiting…

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