An Afternoon in Meknès

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Lunchtime was over in the Place el-Hedim. There was one man left at the clusters of tables outside the cafes, smoking and sipping mint tea. A black-and-white cat, with no food to beg now, bent in a yoga stretch under a chair and scrubbed at its fur with its tongue. Families promenaded, hand-in-hand, line-abreast. Redoubtable ladies in pink djellabas and hijabs sceptically fingered tagines at the traders’ stalls.

In the souks beyond the square, Berber rugs hung from the walls. Babouche slippers and hand-painted plates were arranged in colour-coordinated rows. There were piles of olives and mounds of spices, and dates and figs buzzed by wasps.

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Meknès is the lesser known of Morocco’s royal cities, by which I mean I had never heard of it until I planned this trip. You could spend all day in the Medina without seeing a traveller from anywhere in the OECD, and you are hardly ever hassled. There is no need for the benign protection racket of the official guides of cities like Fèz, who are not so much there to show you round as to stop you from being constantly, constantly bothered by the men who block your way, get in your face and angrily demand to sell you some unwanted assistance.

The old cigarette seller sat on a ledge with his friend in a clean, white kufi cap and an ill-fitting jacket over a sweatshirt in the heat of the mid-afternoon. The cigarettes were an American brand with a health warning in French and the pack of 200 was unopened. People strolled by in woollen djellabas with the hoods up, and sweatshirts with the hoods down, and white thobes and prayer caps, and denim jackets and baseball caps, and none of them bought cigarettes. Scooters snarled past. Grands taxis pulled up and disgorged their passengers across the road near the iconic gateway.

Bab el-Mansour boasts in its Arabic inscription, “I am the most beautiful gate in Morocco. I am like the moon in the sky. Property and wealth are written on my front”. All of that might be true, but the gate leads to nothing but an art exhibition. There is a door nearby into the old city.

Moullay Ismail made Meknès his capital on becoming sultan in 1672. He was a son of the founder of the Alaouite dynasty which runs right through to the present-day king and his rule overlapped with Louis XIV of France and William and Mary in England.

Horse-drawn calèches stand ready to clop you round the walled city and in and out of keyhole gateways, stopping at the roofless remains of Ismail’s cavernous stables which once housed 12,000 horses but are home now to a few retiring tabbies, and the mausoleum of the sultan himself which is an opulence of zellij tiles, archways, pillars, fountains, carved stucco and worked metal.

In the late afternoon in the ville nouvelle built by the French, where the buildings are blocky and functional and the pavements are broken and the shops sell stationery and sportswear, fruit sellers congregated on the corner of the street and bantered with customers. There was a man with a pushcart filled with leafy oranges, two more with bananas in boxes which warned in Spanish that they needed to be handled with care and a father and son team selling grapes.

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An imam, spotless in head-to-toe white, stood out from a crowd in tracksuit bottoms and scuffed leather jackets. A man with dreadlocks and the backs of his shoes turned down shuffled to the bottom of Rue d’ Accra and back every half hour or so. There was some unpleasantness on Rue Antsirabe between cackling teenagers and a loudly protesting old man. They had stolen something he had leant outside a shop and run down the street with it. But a woman burst out of another shop and made them take it back.

The scene faded to darkness. The crowds thinned. The fruit sellers packed up and melted away. The shutters came down on the shops. The call to prayer floated across the roofs from the Mosque.

I had only planned to stay in Meknès as a base for Volubis and Moullay Idriss, a stopping off point between Fèz and Rabat as I travelled down the country, but it had been well worth a visit in its own right.

© Richard Senior 2019

Bab el-Mansour image: Chris Martin from Decatur, Georgia, USA [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]

Pingyao and its People

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He rattled through the streets on a motor tricycle which was as rusted as he was wrinkled with age. Half a century ago, the whole town would have dressed as the old man still did, in the rough tunic and peaked cap of his better years.

The couple with the donkey cart were silver-haired too. Though they wore modern clothes, their cart might have been already ancient when they were born. It had been built, without thought for aesthetics, from timbers which would have served for a seagoing junk.

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Pingyao is more or less bang in the centre of Shanxi Province. It is four hours from Beijing by bullet train, but the China of bullet trains seems a fantasy of science fiction from inside its city walls.

Virtually all of the 4000 buildings on more than 100 streets and lanes across the square mile within the walls were built in the Ming and Qing dynasties, between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. Some are older than that, and the walls themselves have been standing since 1370. There are deep grooves worn by cartwheels in the roads leading up to the gateways.

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The dust of centuries clings to the bricks of the shops and courtyard houses. Their doors are gouged and dented from the mishaps of generations long passed. Lanterns hang underneath the swooping eaves. Silks, ceramics, antiques and decorative bottles of Shanxi black vinegar are arranged in doorways and tables outside the shops.

A mechanic has dragged a moped out of his workshop into the road. He crouches over it, surrounded by spanners, in an unwisely white vest. The unstoppable tide of domestic tourists eddies around him. Grim-faced ladies cycle against the flow on bikes which creak and crunch and squeal with every stroke of the pedals.

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The pagoda-like Market Tower broods over the main drag, which in other cities might qualify as a side street. A road sweeper leans against the wall with studied nonchalance. The reason why is working a street food stall, and he is managing to make her laugh.

Incense wafts from the splendid temples, Taoist and Confucian. There is a small Catholic church in one corner, as well. Marinated pork skewers are rotated over a grill by a contraption which looks as if it is driven by bicycle chains. A clunking museum piece of a machine laboriously produces confectionery. Hole in the wall restaurants serve Pingyao beef and Shanxi noodles, and they are a bustle of scraped chairs and excitable voices in the middle of the day.

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The city was an important banking centre in the nineteenth century, although it is hard to credit now. Rishenchang Exchange House Museum is one of several courtyard houses open to the public, either as themed museums or preserved family homes.

It was originally built in the eighteenth century for the Xiyuecheng Dye Company. To spare the worry of carting sacks of silver coins across China, the company began issuing drafts which could be cashed at any of its branches. The idea took off among merchants and became so popular that the owners of the company got out of the dyeing business and became bankers instead. Other draft banks set up in competition, in Pingyao and across the province.

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Away from the shops, the restaurants, the temples and the courtyard houses turned into museums, there are quieter corners which the tourists mostly avoid where the shops sell mundane staples and old posters are peeling from the walls.

The dust is more thickly encrusted in these parts. The lanterns are faded and ragged. Chickens scratch around junk in the courtyards. Chillies are laid out in baskets to dry in the sun. Washing is stretched out on lines across the fronts of buildings. The fruit seller has parked his three-wheeler in the shade of the parasol over his stall and is sound asleep in the back. At first horrified glance, he looks like a cadaver.

In the evening when the lanterns are lit outside the shops and the sky fades to a deep blue streaked with pink, then a deeper blue and eventually black and the air is still warm and a girl chars water spinach on a grill on the cobbled pavement with the paifan gate silhouetted behind her and a neon sign for a practitioner of traditional medicine glows in the background, the tourists thin out and the city relaxes and slows to a pace altogether more fitting.

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It is a surprise to find the road sweeper still working. But he is perhaps catching up with the work which he should have done earlier that afternoon when he was chatting to the woman with the street food stall.

© Richard Senior 2019

In St Petersburg with Dostoevsky

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“On an exceptionally hot evening early in July a young man came out of the garret in which he lodged in S. Place and walked slowly, as if in hesitation, towards K. Bridge.” Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment

The restless Dostoevsky moved about St Petersburg, coming and going, moving apartment, never staying anywhere more than three years, after he was sent there, against his will, at 16, to the military engineering school in the Mikhailovsky Palace (the Engineer’s Castle), now an art gallery and minor stop on the tourist trail.

He managed an unhappy year as a military engineer with one of the few steady incomes of his life, then gave it up to write and, along the way, got involved in radical politics, which in turn got him thrown into the political prison in the St Peter and Paul Fortress which dominates the right bank of the Neva. It was a sort of Oxford and Cambridge of Tsarist Russia; alumni included Leon Trotsky, Josip Tito, Maxim Gorky, Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin. The old prison is open to the public, now, a dank and oppressive curiosity among the gilded spires and domes and crenelated walls of the fortress.

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From there, Dostoevsky was marched to what is now Pionerskeya Place and put in front of a firing squad, but it was an early example of what we would now call a mock execution; his real sentence was eight years – commuted to four – in Siberia.

He drifted back to St Petersburg, moving from apartment to apartment, pursued by angry creditors. Mostly he lived in the claustrophobic streets around Sennaya Ploshchad (Hay Square), where he set Crime and Punishment. It was the cheapest and grimmest corner of St Petersburg, then: half a dozen blocks west but a world away from the splendour of Nevsky Prospekt:

“The heat in the street was terrible: and the airlessness, the bustle and the plaster, scaffolding, bricks…. The insufferable stench from the pot-houses, which are particularly numerous in that part of the town….

Owing to the proximity of the Hay Market, the number of establishments of bad character, the preponderance of the trading and working class population crowded in these streets and alleys in the heart of Petersburg, types so various were to be seen in the streets that no figure, however queer, would have caused surprise.”

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The Hay Market is long gone and the neighbourhood has been regenerated several times; but many of the old buildings remain, and the old atmosphere clings to them like soot from steam locomotives. It is still a lot shabbier than the avenues and squares of the main tourist trail with its murky courtyards, flaking paint, rusted railings and crumpled Ladas.

You emerge from the Metro on Sennaya Ploshchad among grimy kiosks where daytime drinkers sprawl on benches worked into the shape of carriage wheels in allusion to the vanished market. Across the road is the porticoed guardhouse in which Dostoevsky was locked up for two days in 1874 for breaching censorship laws.

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There are still dive bars on Brinko Lane, where Raskolnikov – the main protagonist of Crime and Punishment – met the drunken civil servant, Marmeladov, and each of them looks like the sort of place in which a Marmeladov or a Raskolnikov might drink.

Brinko Lane tips out on Sadovaya Street and the first right takes you over the Kukushkin Bridge and onto Stoliarny Lane, reversing Raskolnikov’s route in the novel’s opening lines:

“…a young mancame out of the garret in which he lodged in S[toliarny] Place and walked slowly, as if in hesitation, towards K[ukushikin] Bridge.”

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There is a bronze relief of Dostoevsky – looking his usual cheerful self – on the corner of No 5, where Raskolnikov rented his:

“tiny cupboard of a room about six paces in length…with its dusty yellow paper peeling off the walls, and… so low-pitched that a man of more than average height was ill at ease in it and felt every moment that he would knock his head against the ceiling.”

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Carry on down Stoliarny Lane to the next cross street, ul. Kaznachieskaja, turn left and at number 7 is the building in which Dostoevsky was living when he wrote Crime and Punishment; he had lived before at numbers 1 and 9.

Raskolnikov “walked along quietly and sedately, without hurry, to avoid awakening suspicion” on a roundabout way to the home of the old pawnbroker he planned to murder and rob. You can follow him to the end of Stoliarny Street, over the Kukushkin Bridge, onto Sadovaya Street, past the Yusopov Gardens and along Rimskogo-Korsakova until you get to Griboyedov Canal. “And by now he was near; here was the house, here was the gate.” The pawnbroker lived at Griboyedov Embankment, 104:

“a huge house which on one side looked on to the canal, and on the other into the street…let out in tiny tenements and…inhabited by working people of all kinds- tailors, locksmiths, cooks, Germans of sorts, girls picking up a living as best they could, petty clerks, &c.”

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On your way, you pass another of Dostoevsky’s twenty addresses in St Petersburg, Rimskogo-Korsakova, 3 – between the Ambassador Hotel and Azaliya restaurant, a few doors from a whimsical monument to The Nose from Gogol’s short story.

It is quicker and pleasanter to walk back along Griboyedov Canal. Near the top of Voznesensky Avenue, the last street before Stoliarny Lane, is another of the apartment blocks – at No 29 – in which Dostoevsky lived. Over the bridge, at the next corner is Griboyedov Embankment, 73, then an “old green house of three storeys,” now a yellow house of four storeys, where Marmeladov’s daughter, Sonia, had her apartment:

“…a large but exceedingly low-pitched room… a very irregular quadrangle and this gave it a grotesque appearance. A wall with three windows looking out on to the canal ran aslant so that one corner formed a very acute angle, and it was difficult to see in it without very strong light. The other corner was disproportionately obtuse….”

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Over to the west, the powder blue, star-dotted dome of the Trinity Cathedral rises above the rooftops. Dostoevsky – then a 45-year-old widower – was married there in 1867 to his 19-year-old stenographer, Anna Grigoryevna.

His clumsy proposal started with an ‘idea for a novel’ in which a painter married his much younger assistant and moved on to the hypothetical  question,“Imagine I am the painter, I confessed to you and asked you to be my wife. What would you answer?” Her answer – also couched as hypothetical – was “I love you and I will love you forever”.

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It is a good job she did. It is usually drink with writers, but with Dostoevsky it was gambling. Despite the royalties from Crime and Punishment, which was published the year before, Anna had to sell some of her things to help pay his gambling debts, and the couple eventually had to leave Russia in a hurry and spend the next four years travelling around Western Europe, where Dostoevsky continued to lose much of what he earned, often more.

They went back to St Petersburg in 1871, at first to the same neighbourhood near the Hay Market, then a series of apartments south of the Fontanka River, and finally further east to Kuznechny Lane, 5, where Dostoevsky wrote The Brothers Karamazov.

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He died in 1881, at the age of 59, and was buried with Mussorgsky, Borodin, Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov in the Tikhvinskoe Cemetery two stops on the Metro to the east. Anna, though still only 35, never remarried.

The house in which he spent his last three years is now the Dostoevsky Museum; his apartment has been carefully recreated. The first cross street to the east and the nearby Metro station have been named in his honour. And, just a few blocks to the west is the square in which, as a young man tentatively starting to make his name as a writer, he stood before a firing squad.

© Richard Senior 2016

The Fall of Saigon, Revisited

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“Twenty years ago,” reckoned the far-left polemicist John Pilger in 1995, “Hanoi was a Trappist monk and Saigon was a whore with a hangover”.

Saigon, on 29 April 1975, was – as Pilger sketched it – a city of bar girls, street hustlers, opium-addicts, gamblers and black marketeers, but it was also a city of high-rise buildings, Western fashions and a comfortable middle class. Next day, it would fall.

The images of that day – forty-one years ago tomorrow – are among the most iconic of the late twentieth century: the overloaded helicopters struggling from the roof of the US Embassy, the desperate crowds outside, the tank busting through the fence of Independence Palace.

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The old embassy building, at 4 Lê Duẩn Boulevard, up past the colonial-era Notre Dame Cathedral and round the corner, was demolished in the late 1990s, after the Clinton administration restored diplomatic relations and the site was given back to the United States. The planters which used to surround it are still there.

After the years, the months, the weeks of anticipation, and the days of frantic withdrawal, the fall, when it came, was an anti-climax. No shots were fired, no resistance was offered. The demoralised soldiers of the ARVN, the South Vietnamese Army, stripped off their equipment and went home. Rows of helmets and boots lay along the side of the road.

The cameras were not even rolling when the tank burst through the fence around Independence Palace. It had to reverse out and do it again so the photographers could capture it for posterity.

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Independence Palace was a disingenuous name. South Vietnam only came into being as an attempt by the French to regain control of a colony over which Ho Chi Minh had asserted independence. The original palace was what had once been the colonial governor’s residence, but that was bombed in 1962 by dissident pilots in the South Vietnamese air force, sympathetic to Hanoi, who ironically destroyed its left wing.

President Diệm, who had come to power in a free and fair election in which he secured 150,000 more votes than people entitled to cast them (despite advice to keep the result around 60%), commissioned a new building, but was assassinated before it was finished in one of the coups which punctuated South Vietnam’s short history.

From the outside, it could be a municipal swimming pool in a little-known provincial town; on the inside, it might be the headquarters of SPECTRE in one of the early Bond movies. It is open to the public and preserved much as it was on that morning in April 1975 when tanks bust down the fence. All that has really changed is the name. It is Reunification Palace now. That day, forty-one years ago tomorrow, is known here as Reunification Day. They refer to it as the Liberation, not the Fall. Since then, the city has officially been Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh, but it is still, informally, Sài Gòn.

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The Fall did not lead to mass-executions, as the Saigonese had feared, although many were forcibly relocated to the countryside. ARVN soldiers and others associated with the old regime, over a million according to some accounts, were sent to re-education camps where most were ill-treated – some abominably – and over a hundred thousand died.

The old men you see peddling cyclos – tricycle rickshaws – around modern Saigon are likely as not to be ARVN veterans. I asked one and he confirmed it, but he did not want to talk about the war or re-education camps: he just wanted to talk about ‘girly bars’.

Vietnam is still nominally communist, but it is a long way from each according to his ability to each according to his needs. Saigon is the economic capital and still feels dramatically different from Hanoi. There are familiar names on the plaques outside the most impressive office blocks, names like Citibank, Deutsche Bank, BNP Paribas, Allen & Overy, Mayer Brown, CBRE, Deloitte and Ernst & Young. There are Porsches and Ferraris parked nearby. There are men in sharp-tailored Armani and women in sharp-heeled Louboutins, and sharper than both is the contrast between the rich and the rest: sharper than I saw anywhere else in Southeast Asia.

It is hard now to think of Saigon as having fallen, or if you prefer, being liberated.

© Richard Senior 2016

VDNKh: Stalin’s Theme Park

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The All-Union Agricultural Exhibition was intended to showcase the success of the collective farms.

There was an immediate problem in that the collective farms were a disaster: output collapsed, there was a terrible famine and millions died. But they were Stalin’s idea and Stalin – Orwell’s model for Comrade Napoleon – was always right and his policies never failed, they were just sabotaged by “kulaks,” “Trotsky-fascists,” “imperialist lackeys” or whatever label he decided to pin on the scapegoats.

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Construction of the All-Union Exhibition went ahead, originally on 330 acres of wasteland in the northern suburbs of Moscow. It opened in August 1939, a few months after the New York World’s Fair with which it was sometimes compared.

There were pavilions to represent each of the Soviet Republics, territories and regions, all built to impress on a scale to match the General Secretary’s ego. Statues, stained-glass, mosaics and bas-reliefs spoke of plentiful harvests, well-fattened animals and happy peasants, interleaved with the corporate logos of Soviet communism, the hammers and sickles, the stars and the CCCP’s. Inside were exhibits of agricultural techniques and machinery.

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While the New York World’s Fair was quickly dismantled and slowly forgotten, the All-Union Exhibition expanded in scope and area to become the Exhibition of National Economic Achievements, abbreviated in Russian to VDNKh. It gained more pavilions, magnificent fountains and a stop of its own on the Metro.

Cosmonauts Alley leads up from the station. It is more allée than alley: a broad, straight avenue cut through parkland, lined with trees.

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There are statues along its margins of iconic figures from the Soviet space programme: the likes of Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Terashkova (first man and first woman in space), Alexey Leonov (first spacewalk), and less happily Vladimir Komarov (first man to die on a space mission).

At intervals up the centre line, there are granite plinths cut into the shape of the Soviet star, planed to an angle and topped with bronze plates, also star-shaped, detailing events from the earlier years of the Space Race (before NASA caught up and went into the lead). They are interspersed with vibrant flower beds.

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An oversize statue of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky – the original rocket scientist – stands at the end of the avenue and, beyond it, the grandly-named Monument to the Conquerors of Space, a 400-foot-high swoosh of titanium representing a rocket aloft with its exhaust plume beneath it.

The park and exhibition centre at the other side of the monument now sprawl over 2.3 sq km, roughly equivalent to Monaco and the Vatican City combined.

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In the Yeltsin years, VDNKh was parcelled up and leased out to private companies, which gutted the pavilions, threw away the exhibits and turned the empty spaces into warehouses and retail outlets.

The historic pavilions, soon half-hidden behind illegal extensions and advertising hoardings, fell into disrepair. Hundreds of jerry-built temporary structures were thrown up between them. The complex seemed unlikely to survive. There were proposals to demolish the lot to make room for a shopping centre.

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When I went in the summer of 2015, I expected to find the decaying remains of what had once been described as “the Soviet Versailles”. But, unknown to me, the authorities had recently demolished a few hundred illegal buildings and extensions, torn down the ugly hoardings, cleared out 10,000 tons of garbage, remade the roads and paths, added benches and bins, replanted the flowerbeds and restored the eighty-year-old pavilions.

It was surreal to walk among buildings evocative of the international expos that captured so many imaginations between the Thirties and the Sixties and which are still studded with Soviet iconography. They have been cleaned up and repainted, but the stonework, the stained-glass, the mosaics are original, so there is none of the sense that there often is after major restorations that you are effectively looking at a modern replica.

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The parkland around them is pleasant to walk in and full of surprises with gushing fountains and monumental gardens, a boating lake, a photo exhibition in a rose garden, a tiny Orthodox church, a Vostok rocket and Buran spacecraft, a theatre, an aquarium, an SU-27 fighter jet and YAK-42 airliner.

The BBC journalist, Martin Sixsmith, called it “Russia’s answer to Disney World, but without the rides,” but the comparison is unfair, both to VDNKh and to Disney World.

© Richard Senior 2016

The Curious Classics of Colonia

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An ancient Beetle, firing on two or three cylinders and with more holes than exhaust, snapped, crackled and popped down Calle De San Pedro.

The diabolical sound echoed between the walls, shattered the peace, outraged the feral dogs which spend their days padding round town and dozing in the shade. For each one that set off barking, another three responded. Those closest ran, barking, after the Beetle, trying and failing to bite its tyres; reinforcements bounded from nearby streets, barging aside old ladies who shouted in protest.

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I saw the Beetle again later in the day, parked with its windows left open and doors unlocked, the bodywork slumped on its shot rear suspension. The engine cover was held on with twisted wire; kitchen foil had been crumpled into the hole where the speedo wasn’t; the front wings had been painted in household emulsion, with a brush.

There are classic cars everywhere in Colonia del Sacramento in the southwestern corner of Uruguay. Many – like the Beetle – are everyday runabouts. Others sit at the side of the road in the middle of town, apparently abandoned; some have been made into features.

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There is a rare, century-old Model T pick-up outside a restobar. They rest their menu boards against it and store firewood in the back. Restored, it might fetch US$40,000 on the international market, but then where would the restobar lean its boards?

The popular café, El Drugstore, on Plaza de Armas, has a collection of old cars. There is a Model A Ford built sometime around 1930, which they have cut the side out of and turned into an intimate table for two. Behind it, painted in the same matt black, is a Citroen Traction Avant from the Forties, which they use as a planter: fronds erupt from the windows and boot. Round the corner is an Austin 10 from the late 1930’s, in fair condition and not – as yet – converted into anything whimsical.

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Another Model A – a station wagon – has seemingly been forgotten under sycamore trees on the edge of the old town; its white paint is blackened and sticky with sap. All the doors were open when I passed it early one morning, presumably so the dogs could jump in to sleep. They were closed again an hour later, although the streets were still silent and the windows all around still shuttered.

On a quiet corner, shaded by trees, down near the yacht club, there is a Morris Oxford from the 1950s under a thick layer of dust. Much of its paint has flaked off, but the body has not rusted in that temperate climate, as it would have done half a century ago in the soggy country in which it was built.

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A Ford Pop of similar vintage is displayed as a conceptual artwork down a side street off the main drag of Avenida General Flores. There are tags sprayed on one door and the boot and six-foot papier-mache fish in the front seats.

There were still Vauxhall Chevettes on the road in Britain when I was a kid.  Shove-its, we called them. They were laughable old bangers even then. I had not seen one for years, but saw at least half a dozen in Colonia, along with other European cars from the Sixties and Seventies which I never even knew existed: a Peugeot 404, a Fiat 600 (a bit like the iconic Cinquecento, but with all the charm engineered out), and a very rusty Fiat 124, which I mistook for the virtually identical Lada.

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There were Ford and Chevrolet pick-up trucks built before Eisenhower was sworn-in as President, yet still looking surprisingly fresh. There were better Beetles than the one which had upset the dogs in the morning.

I have seen it suggested on several sites that Colonia’s classic cars are a legacy of economic collapse in the Sixties: that a people once rich enough on wool and beef to import new cars from Europe and the United States suddenly found themselves having to make the old ones last much longer. I am not at all convinced, though. That could, perhaps, explain the Morris Oxfords and Ford Pops, but not the Model A’s and Austin 10’s, nor, for that matter, the Chevettes.

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Besides, other Latin American countries saw their economies trashed in the second half of the twentieth century; several, like Uruguay, ended up ruled by noxious dictatorships. But with the obvious exception of embargoed Cuba, none has the abundance of classic cars you see in Colonia del Sacramento.

© Richard Senior 2016   

Staying in San Telmo

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It was a fine nineteenth century building in the same state of repair as most in San Telmo. The paint was flaking from the shutters, the stonework had fallen from the balustrades; the stucco was criss-crossed with graffiti.

The sign outside called it a hotel, the WiFi code called it a hostel. More than anything, though, it recalled the cheaper guesthouses of Bangkok.

The room was hot and airless. The fan did not so much cool the air as swish it about, and made a noise like the treadmill at the gym. The walls were dirty, the floorboards were splintering, the French doors had swelled too much to shut. There was the inevitable dead cockroach in the corner, as ubiquitous in hotels at this level as Molton Brown toiletries at the top end. It was there when I arrived, it was there when I left five days later, and it is probably still there now.

There was a sort of a patio linking the room to the bathroom, but it had a high wall blocking the view to anything but rusting tin sheets, broken windows and ferns growing up the inside wall. If I stood on a chair, though, I could look over at the place where they slung the broken furniture.

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San Telmo is a characterful neighbourhood, the oldest in Buenos Aires. It was a poor barrio, centred upon a Jesuit mission, until 1767 when the Spanish drove the Jesuits out. It briefly went upmarket in the mid-nineteenth century, but a yellow fever epidemic put a stop to that. The rich left and their empty homes were carved into tenements and filled with immigrants fresh off the boats from Europe. Artists later moved in among them and lent the barrio the bohemian air it retains.

There was neither the money nor the mindset to tear down the old buildings and replace them with new, to extend or to bring into line with each ephemeral fashion, so everything stayed much as it was, photogenically decaying.

In the mornings, the smell of strong coffee and freshly-baked empanadas hangs in the air all over the barrio; in the evenings, the smoke converges from the many parrillas* as thick slabs of prime beef sizzle on grills. The convenience stores stay open late and do business through bars on the doors. The jobless sit listlessly in doorways; some sell odds and ends laid out on blankets.

There are rusting tram tracks up Calle Estados Unidos, although trams have not run on them for half a century. Dozens of Quilmes bottle tops have been trodden between the cobblestones outside the bars.

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I assumed that the cars parked up the street had been abandoned years before, until one of them grumbled past my hotel. It was as if all the cars from all the scrapyards of Buenos Aires had come spontaneously to life to roam the city’s streets. One was missing a bonnet, another a windscreen, and a few seemed to have been in the sort of accidents which make the front page of the newspaper, yet remained in everyday use.

Mercado San Telmo is outwardly unchanged since the last years of the nineteenth century when the barrio’s European immigrants went there to buy cheeses and hams from back home. It takes up the whole of the block between Estados Unidos and Carlos Calvo, opening out in the middle to an attractive wrought-iron and glass atrium.

There are hole-in-the-wall stalls selling beer and choripanes, baguettes toasted on the grill and stuffed with chorizo and slathered with chimichurri sauce**; but they seem, sadly, to be getting edged out by shiny coffee stands which could be anywhere from Washington to Wellington, from Cape Town to Cape Cod.

There are still butchers and greengrocers, as there have been for going on 120 years, but much of the market is now given over to antiques: to tinplate toy cars, brass letterboxes, old tango posters, military uniforms, radios, typewriters, and telephones. The antique shops continue down the lower end of Carlos Calvo and round the corner along Calle Defensa, interspersed with wine merchants, bodegas and design shops, all the way to Plaza Dorrega where the world-famous antiques fair, Feria de San Telmo, bustles every Sunday morning.

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A block to the south, there are two good galleries side-by-side, Museo de Arte Moderno and Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, then the gentrified end of San Telmo fades into the dangerous edges of La Boca.

© Richard Senior 2016

*Literally ‘grills’. In this context, restaurants specialising in grilled meat, especially the celebrated Argentinian beef.

**Made with finely chopped shallots, dried chillies, garlic, dried oregano, olive oil and red wine vinegar

Casablanca’s Forgotten Colonial Heritage

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Just as the muezzin began the call to prayer, a man lurched into the middle of the boulevard, swayed like a palm in the wind, then tottered diagonally at speed to the pavement and collapsed at the feet of another man sitting outside with a café noir. He pretended not to notice.

Casablanca is not Morocco,” said the novelist, Paul Bowles, in 1966, “it is a foreign enclave, an alien nail piercing Morocco’s flank”. It is different, for sure, from the rest of Morocco, but it is as much Morocco as Marrakesh, and as interesting in its way. It is just not the Morocco the tourists expect.

There is an ancient Medina, but it is not much to look at and the tourists hurry away disappointed and urge others not to go. They miss the point, though. Casa is not about souks and snake charmers, carpet shops and donkey trains: it is about the ville nouvelle.

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The French meant the new town to be a shop window for the Second Empire. General d’Amade let slip the scale of their ambition in 1928 when he wrote that, “by the end of the century, French North Africa will be the United States of today, with Casablanca stepping into the shoes of New York”. Of course, that was not quite how it worked out.

Planners and architects, frustrated by the conservatism of the authorities in France, flocked to Casablanca where they were free to do more or less what they liked. They schemed grand boulevards, lined with palm trees, connecting to monumental squares. They imported Art Nouveau and Art Deco and blended in classical Moroccan touches to create a Néo-Mauresque style of their own.

Jean Vidal’s short film, Salut Casa, shows what Casablanca had become by 1952: a beautiful, bustling city with spotless streets and gleaming white facades, and honking cars, dozens of bicycles and the occasional camel, and pavement cafes, grand arcades and luxury shops.

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The streets are not spotless anymore; the facades no longer gleam.

Boulevard de la Gare was the grandest of the grand boulevards in colonial times, stretching proudly from Casa Voyageurs station to the old Medina with upmarket shops beneath its porticos and marble-floored arcades leading through to adjacent boulevards. The luxury shops are long gone from what is now called Boulevard Mohammad V.

At the station end of the street, the rusting shutters look as if they were rattled down decades ago; the signs are from a bygone age. One shop has been gutted behind the grille and filled up with 10, 15, goodness-knows-how-many years of Coke cans, cigarette packets, fast food containers and rubble, all coated with a thick layer of grime. Ruined men lounge in doorways and rummage in bins. Kids kick a scuffed football between the walls of an alley.

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But to fixate on how much the ville nouvelle has declined is to see the glass half-empty. The point is how much has survived.

Casa Voyageurs’ clock tower can still be seen way down the boulevard, just as the planners intended in 1923. It is always half past two, twenty to six or a little before quarter to ten, depending which clock face you check. The monumental buildings which the camera panned across in Salut Casa are by and large still standing.

Restaurant Petit Poucet is much as it was under the French Protectorate, with the original bar which Albert Camus, Antoine Saint-Exupéry and Édith Piaf have all leant against.  At the end of the block is the Maroc Soir and Le Matin newspaper offices. A few letters have dropped off the facade, so Le Matin is now just  e Ma  n, but it is a nice example of Casablancan Néo-Mauresque, as is the Central Market across the road with its keyhole-shaped arch and green zillij tiles.

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Avenue Hassan II still has dazzling white Art Deco buildings, the town hall, the law courts and the Main Post Office from 1918 with its columns and arches and a frontage of zillij tiles in emerald green, royal blue and gold

You could lose a day wandering the streets in the scalene triangle between the Medina, Parc de la League Arabe (the French called it Parc Lyautey) and the Central Market, remembering to look up to see curving balconies, zillij tiles, ornate brise-soleil, entrance gates worked into the shape of peacocks and bouquets of flowers, ghost signs from the days of the Protectorate, and the huge stone crown topping La Princière salon de thé.

There is a hint of a renaissance in downtown Casa. The Art Deco Cinéma Rialto and half a dozen period hotels have been beautifully restored inside and out. The new tramway has thinned out the cars whose exhausts had been filthying the grand old buildings since colonial times.

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But there is a tension between those who want to preserve the heritage and those who have to pay for its upkeep. The old Hotel Lincoln is emblematic.

It was the first landmark building on Boulevard de la Gare, a masterpiece of Néo-Mauresque. But it lost its lustre after the French left in 1956 and the owner has, reportedly, wanted to tear it down for decades so that he can build an office block. Campaigners persuaded the authorities to list it as a historic monument, and since then it has been left to rot.

The roof caved in a long time ago; one floor collapsed in 1989 and killed two people, another section fell down in 2004, killing a homeless guy who was sheltering inside, another in 2009, and yet another in 2015. Only the crumbling walls of the central section survive…for now.

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Casa’s future is hard to predict. It could become an African Valencia with its Art Nouveau and Art Deco facades rejuvenated, or it could be another Coventry: a city which once had buildings worth seeing.

© Richard Senior 2016

Subterranean Sightseeing: the Moscow Metro

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On the surface, the tourists troop round the Kremlin; they snap selfies in front of St Basil’s, explore GUM and the State History Museum, stroll through Alexander Gardens and stop to watch the changing of the guard; they tick off the Bolshoi and Maly theatres, the Tretyakov and New Tretyakov Galleries, Gorky Park and the Seven Sisters.

And two hundred feet below ground, there is a parallel Moscow with its own set of tourists, making their way between subterranean sights. Little groups of them huddle around guides, then disperse to kneel with SLR’s or stand smiling with smartphones at the end of poles, and bustle onto trains to get to the next big sight. Solo travellers make their own way round with Metro maps stuffed into guidebooks to mark the page.

The older stations, built under Stalin from the mid-thirties, were designed to impress with an extravagant blend of brass and bronze, marble and mosaics, stucco and chandeliers, as if the architects interpreted a little too literally the old Soviet promise to build ‘palaces for the people’. There are artistic flourishes in the smallest details, like a ventilation duct shaped around a bronze wheatsheaf with the openings seeming to be part of the sculpture, instead of the rectangular aperture topped with a grille you would see more or less anywhere else.

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When Stalin died, Khrushchev ordered a stop to his vanity projects and, by the late fifties, the Soviets started to build functional Metro stations to a standard design, like everybody else in the world. But most of the stations which a visitor is likely to pass through, and all of them on the Circle Line, could qualify as Must See sights.

Komsomolskaya has an opulent Baroque look with rows of limestone pillars, chandeliers and a stuccoed ceiling with mosaics of Russian heroes. It looks like it might have been designed for the Romanovs but was actually meant to celebrate the Komsomol, communist youth league.

There is an Art Nouveau look to Novoslobodskaya, which was built around a series of 32 stained-glass panels, rimmed with brass, slotted into Ural marble and illuminated from behind.

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Belorusskaya has floral motifs worked into the stucco of the ceiling, interspersed with mosaics of peasants and artisans in Belarussian costume. The walls are faced with pink and black marble with niches lit by bronze uplighters.

Chandeliers hang from the ceiling at Kievskaya. The arches cutting through to the platforms are edged with gold-coloured braiding. Between them are large mosaics of scenes from Ukrainian history.  

At Park Pobedy, by contrast, the side walls and ceiling are free of ornamentation. The visual impact comes from pleasing curves and highly-polished grey and red marble, reflecting in the chequerboard floor and directing attention to the paintings on the end walls of the defeat of Napoleon.

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Life-size bronze statues crouch either side of the arches which lead to the platforms at Ploshchad Revolyutsii. They represent soldiers, workers, peasants, sportsmen, hunters, parents and a border guard with an Alsatian dog who is supposed to bring luck if you stroke his nose (the dog’s, not the guard’s).

Elektrozavodskaya is named, as only a communist regime would think to do, after a lightbulb factory. Its ceiling is clustered with 318 inset lamps which – designedly – look like oversize household bulbs; its walls have gilded grilles and bas-reliefs.

Mayakovskaya is gloriously Art Deco. It won the Grand Prize at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. The long central hall is lined with arches faced with stainless steel and pink rhodonite. Niches are scooped out of the vaulted ceiling, ringed with filament lights and filled with mosaics themed around ‘24-hours in the Soviet sky’.

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But the Moscow Metro is only incidentally a tourist attraction. It carries 9 million people across town every day, more than the New York Subway and London Underground together; more than any system outside Asia.

The trains average 25 mph, against 17 in New York, and come at around one minute intervals. Regular minutes, that is, not the infamous ‘Northern Line minutes’ with 240 seconds each.

It is free, it seems, of all of the Northern Line’s legendary inefficiencies*: the trains which somehow end up further away the closer they get, or which are announced but never arrive, or have one destination on the front but go to another, or just disappear into a tunnel and break down.

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What is more, a single journey costs the equivalent of 45p, or 63¢, instead of $3.00 (£2.10) in New York or the hilarious £4.90 ($6.95) in London, yet the system still turns a profit.

© Richard Senior 2016

*The Northern Line is a standing joke in London. I lived on it for years. I was usually standing but rarely joking.

Paterai Prison: the Best Bars in Tallinn

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The weeds were waist-high at the foot of the watchtower; the windows were smashed, the door rusted open.

The whitewash on the main building had weathered to beige and flaked away and exposed the crumbling brick beneath. Razor wire coiled haphazardly round the edge of the roof. Windows were missing panes of glass behind the bars; some had been bricked up and a few, in what must have been administrative rooms, seemed stuck open.

Paterai Sea Fortress is a sprawling sextant-shaped building arranged – as an estate agent would say – over four floors, including the basement. It was built as a cannon battery in 1840 on the orders of the Tsar to protect the shipping lanes to St Petersburg; later it was converted into barracks, and later still to a prison. But it was long ago abandoned and left to decay.

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The main wing curves around the waterfront and looks out across Tallinn Bay. Two smaller wings extend from the rear and meet at a point and enclose a courtyard with standard Soviet exercise blocks, three metre squared, surrounded by walls too high to see over, open at the top, but covered with mesh. A gangway for the guards runs between them.

I had read that it was possible to arrange guided tours but instead just turned up and walked in. I doubt that I was supposed to, but the gate was open and the security guard never looked up.

There was an eerie silence in corridors which once must have echoed with the slamming of doors, the jangle of keys, the clunk of locks; sobs and screams, jeers and shouts, the thumps and squeaks of scuffles, running feet and the sickening thuds of batons swung with abandon.

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The paint was bubbling from the walls, and each accretion from each regime was visible; the chequerboard floor tiles were half-hidden under dust. A ventilation duct had burst open and its panels hung limply from the ceiling.

The administrative rooms had the look of being ransacked, or cleared out in a hurry by ham-fisted soldiers.  Drawers left open, doors hanging off cupboards; chairs knocked over and never picked up, the contents of files strewn across desks and over the floor. Smashed typewriters, telephones and office bric-a-brac spilling out into the corridor.

The dusty shelves in what used to be the library were bare, except for a few rows of toppled booklets, stray pages from books and screwed up newspapers with the headlines of twenty-five years ago.

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A few of the cells still had skeletal bunks squeezed in rows under vaulted ceilings – it was thirty to a cell in Soviet times. The rest were hauntingly empty, expect, perhaps, for a solitary chair and paint which had peeled from the walls in strips and covered the floor like autumn leaves.

There was nothing to stop me nosing about wherever I liked and I wandered, as if at a gallery, down each of the long, empty corridors, stepping through gates which used to seal off each section, peering into rooms never knowing what I would find inside, with only natural light spilling through windows and into the corridor through open doors, and occasionally being plunged into total darkness and having to use the torch on my phone.

One room was filled with old chairs, spewing out stuffing, upside down bunks, collapsing cupboards, more Soviet newspapers, leg braces, and the remains of a notice with a heading in Russian which my phone translated, nonsensically, as “what to do if grab”.

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Another room had a sink in one corner, missing its taps and stained dark brown, and a squat toilet whose walls were papered with fading pictures torn from magazines of young women who might well be grandmothers now.

The tiles in one room of the old prison hospital were still gleaming white, but the grouting around them was filthy with age and neglect and the paint, as elsewhere, was peeling away in sheets and the damp was blackening the plaster beneath.

Operatory lights were still attached to the ceiling, angled at the frame of an operating table and a mottled dentist’s chair. There were big broken bottles, scattered syringes and a box marked ‘ТАБЛЕТКИ’ (pills), and cabinets and machines and tables and chairs which looked as if they belonged in a hospital bay; but there were, as well, discordant notes like a flat iron, a house brick and the rusting head of a pitchfork. It looked like conceptual art.

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It occurred to me, when I was at the far end of the corridor on the top floor, that the security guard would be likely at some point – I had no idea when – to lock the front door, shut the gate and go home for the day. It occurred to me, too, that no one knew I was inside.

Perhaps I might hear the door shut; and perhaps I might be able to run to an open window, or wrestle one open, and shout down to the security guard; but, then, this was the security guard who never noticed me going in.

I hurried a little after that, down to the claustrophobic basement where one room was filled with old bicycle wheels – surreal, but I was conditioned to the surreal by then – and out into the courtyard, where I waded through weeds to the exercise blocks, then quickly up, down and along the other wings.

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In a melancholy room lined with heating pipes, spotted with damp, and lit through a small, high window, there was a trapdoor in the floor and a rusted hole in the ceiling above it where a hook used to be. This, apparently, was where prisoners were hanged.

There was no way that I was going to risk spending the night among the ghosts of this bleak and silent monolith. I made for the exit and slipped out again. The security guard never looked up.

© Richard Senior 2016