North-East England, One.

It is time to introduce you to a few places near where I live. The following photos are of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Darlington, a beautiful village church near Darlington, Bishop Auckland in the fog, Newcastle’s Hindu mandir, and a tree stump in woodland near Sedgefield. The dramatic sunset was taken from the back door of our Darlington house. Trains feature in two of the shots because, as I am sure many of you know, Darlington played an important role in the early development of the railways. The station interior is Newcastle Central and the steam locomotive is leaving Darlington Bank Top.

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Uzupis, Vilnius, Lithuania.

Although Vilnius is an increasingly popular destination for touristic purposes, the district of Uzupis is often ignored. Get to Uzupis as soon as possible. Why? Read on!

The most interesting parts of Uzupis are enclosed on three sides by the relatively narrow and shallow Vilnia River. Consequently, the district lies just to the south of St. Anne’s Church and the Church of St. Francis and St. Bernardino, and just to the east of the Russian Orthodox Church of the Holy Mother of God. Five or six road and foot bridges lead into the district, which is bisected from west to east by gently meandering Uzupio Gatve. All the bridges have padlocks attached to them, those leading to Uzupio, Paupio and Malunu gatves having perhaps the most. And the significance of the padlocks? They imply that, on crossing the bridges, you enter the Independent Republic of Uzupis where freedom rules the roost, okay?

Uzupis is famous for being an unofficial breakaway republic of artists, squatters and drunks who have declared themselves a separate state from Lithuania. There is a constitution comprising of forty-one statements found on metal plates attached to a wall near where Paupio and Uzupio gatves join. The statements have been written in different languages including Lithuanian, Russian, Polish and English. They combine the serious with the frivolous: everyone has the right to be happy, everyone has the right to be unhappy, everyone has the right to love and to take care of the cat. In the middle of the small square where Uzupio, Paupio and Malunu gatves join, local people have erected the Angel of Uzupis on the top of a tall stone column.

The district of Uzupis extends east to Olandu Gatve, but the most interesting parts end where Uzupio Gatve divides into Polocko and Kriviu gatves. Because about a third of the most interesting part of Uzupis is now in ruins, small derelict plots await redevelopment (but the ruins and the derelict plots are remarkably picturesque, especially in rain or under grey overcast skies). Another third of Uzupis is lived in by artists, squatters and drunks who occupy the somewhat rundown buildings that still have roofs on them, and the last third has benefited from gentrification (Uzupis may have degenerated into a slum some years ago, but many old houses survived, albeit in a very neglected state. It was only a matter of time before the area’s potential became apparent to young middle class Vilnians, not least because of its close proximity to the old and the new towns). Gentrification means that the area’s role as a haven for artists, hippies, squatters, new age travellers and drunks is slowly being undermined. Alternative lifestyles are being marginalised, not only by improvements made to the area’s housing stock, but also by the influx of more trendy shops, cafes, restaurants and art galleries. There is even a busy pizzeria which serves food all day long, and a branch of Iki, the popular supermarket chain (the local drunks appreciate the supermarket because it sells cans of beer for less than 2 litus each, which significantly undercuts costs in even the most rundown local bar).

If I had been one of the area’s alternative lifestyle pioneers, I would be upset to see how this once wacky and innovative community is being undermined by the influx of money and middle class beneficiaries of economic liberalism. However, what I saw is an area in transition with a bright future ahead. Uzupis has the potential to be one of Vilnius’s most attractive inner city suburbs because of the wonderful mixture of buildings dating from the 16th century to the present day, the low hill on which it is situated, and the absence of major roads that might bring excessive congestion and pollution. The river and the little pockets of greenery combine with a network of footpaths and narrow roads to create an area that has intimacy and variety rarely encountered in contemporary townscapes. I was drawn back on many occasions to examine the tumbledown ruins, the derelict plots, the gentrified courtyards, St. Bartholemew’s Church (unusually small by Vilnius’s standards), the unsealed car parks behind houses and small apartment blocks, the terraces of single- storey wooden sheds and brick stores, and the gardens and grassy banks tumbling down the hillsides.

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The Muslim Cemetery, Mardin, Turkey.

I know I said this blog will concentrate on unusual destinations, but for once I am breaking the rule. I hope you will agree that the reason for doing so is sound.

As an earlier post indicates, Mardin, the Turkish town featured in the photos below, is widely known nowadays (even Prince Charles, a member of the UK royal family, has made at least one visit). However, people rarely walk to the remarkable Muslim cemetery to the south of the town from where there are outstanding views of Mardin to the north and the Syrian desert to the south. Try to visit the cemetery early morning or late afternoon when the light is at its best. I hope the photographs confirm that it would be a good thing if Mardin is designated a UNESCO world heritage site, which is what the people in the town would like to see happen. Much has been done in recent years to enhance Mardin’s beauty. As for its location, it is simply amazing. Once seen, never forgotten!

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Savur and Dereici, Mardin, Turkey.

In south-east Turkey, Mardin and Midyat are popular destinations in their own right, and extremely useful bases from which to explore must-see Tur Abdin and Hasankeyf. However, the small town of Savur, about 40 kms north-north-east of Mardin, makes an equally good base for visiting the same places, but has the advantage of being rarely visited by non-Turkish tourists. Some of Savur’s architecture is as good as that in Mardin and Midyat, and a hilltop konak (large mansion) dating from the Ottoman era has been converted into a remarkable hotel (photos of interiors below were taken inside the konak).

Savur has another advantage: it is only 7 kms from Dereici, which, although largely a ghost village, has two Syriac Orthodox churches that have recently benefited from sensitive restoration. This means that you can get a feel for Tur Abdin without having to aim for its heart (although, if in the region, missing Tur Abdin proper would be very foolish).

So: photos of interiors reveal what the konak is like, the photo with the name Dereici begins the sequence of shots of the ghost village, and sandwiched between these are photos of Savur itself.

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Polish Cemeteries.

Because it suffered more terrible tragedies in the 20th century than, perhaps, any other nation state, Poland is a country full of enormous cemeteries, cemeteries which go some way toward revealing the immense loss of life that took place during and following warfare. Inevitably, some of the photos below have an air of beauty, but we should not forget that some of the graves and the tombs mark the final resting place for people who were murdered, some for political reasons, some for reasons associated with sexuality or disability, but most for reasons associated with ethnicity. Of course, there are also the millions of Polish citizens who were never accorded a proper burial at all, but this, perhaps, is a story of even more tragic consequence.

Christian and Jewish cemeteries feature in the following photos, which derive from towns and cities such as Warsaw, Krakow, Tarnow and Lodz.

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The Hemsin Region, Rize, Turkey.

The Hemsin region, a region of outstanding natural beauty with a unique eco-system and highly distinctive vernacular architecture, is in north-east Turkey not far from the Black Sea coast. Three valleys penetrate into the mountains to the south of the Black Sea, the valley of the River Firtina being the most famous. Other than to the town of Ayder, where most of the region’s tourist facilities exist, public transport and easily negotiated roads are rarely encountered. This said, it is well worth visiting the more remote and highest yaylas, or summer pastures, because the scenery is remarkable. During the relatively short summer season from mid-June to mid-September, accommodation of a basic nature exists in some of the distant hamlets. Moreover, trekking across the mountains is now a popular pastime, so visitors are not the rarity they once were.

Must-see things in the valleys include waterfalls, high-arched stone bridges, large houses built of wood and stone, beautiful wooden serenders (food stores raised on stilts), deciduous forests, summer meadows covered with wild flowers, snow-capped mountains and at least one extraordinary castle. The local fauna includes bears. Many villages and hamlets have been built high on the valley walls. The Hemsin region has rain at all times of the year and the villages and the hamlets are often seen above the low cloud and the mist that gathers along the valley floors.

Do not leave the region without trying the excellent local honey, which is very strong in flavour.

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Kaunas, Lithuania.

Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, is, for understandable reasons, attracting visitors in growing numbers (it is very, very beautiful), but Kaunas remains a little off-the-beaten-track.

The old town of Kaunas, located on land between the Neris and the Nemunas rivers west of the new town, developed to the east and the south of the castle. The castle was founded in the 11th century and was an important link in the defensive chain that lay along Lithuania’s western border. A reconstructed tower, a section of wall and part of a moat are all that remain today, but the castle looks very attractive because of its slightly elevated but isolated situation.

Large Rotuses Aikste is, without question, Kaunas’s architectural highlight. The centre of the square is occupied by the tall white baroque Town Hall, which is now the Palace of Weddings, a function that dates from the Soviet era. A ceramics’ museum occupies part of the building. The south side of the square is dominated by a twin-towered Jesuit church, college and monastery dating from the 17th century. Many 15th, 16th and 17th century merchants’ houses encircle the square. Nowadays, many of the houses have bars, cafes or restaurants at ground level, but their beauty and diversity of design are still easy to appreciate.

In the south-west corner of the square is the statue of Maironis (1862 – 1932), a Roman Catholic priest called Jonas Maciulis who was the most famous and most widely respected poet of Lithuania’s late 19th and early 20th century nationalist revival. His tomb stands outside the south wall of the cathedral. To the north and the west of the statue are attractive buildings, some belonging to the Roman Catholic Church and others housing museums and archives. All the buildings benefit from restoration of a very sensitive nature, but restoration proceeds slowly in Lithuania because the country is short of money for such projects. A small open space not far from a large but derelict church has a tall wooden cross. We saw many similar crosses on our return to Kaunas, and in Vilnius and Trakai. I was reminded of Romania where people also love carved wood for devotional purposes.

There are many notable buildings around Rotuses Aikste and in the side streets leading from the square. Aleksotas Gatve has two of the most interesting buildings, the House of Perkunas and Vytautas Church. In common with a number of other important structures in the old town, the House of Perkunas and Vytautas Church are built of brick. Consequently, the old town is littered with structures with a distinctly Hanseatic appearance, something that did not altogether surprise us because the Baltic is only 150 kms to the west, and many of Kaunas’s merchants had been German in origin. The House of Perkunas dates from the 16th century and is said to occupy the site of a former temple to the Lithuanian thunder god, Perkunas (Lithuania’s gradual conversion to Christianity began after 1200, but the new faith’s predominance was not assured until the beginning of the 15th century, by which time bloody religious wars, crusades included, had cowered the overwhelmingly Pagan population into submission. Roman Catholicism may have triumphed, but at enormous human cost).

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