Villages in Transylvania, Romania.

Although visitors to Romania head first for the big cities such as Bucharest, Cluj-Napoca, Iasi, Brasov, Sibiu or Targu Mures, it soon becomes apparent that another side to the country exists in the villages, many of which lie in pretty valleys surrounded by forested hills. Although Maramures and Bucovina are said to possess the country’s most interesting and beautiful villages, villages almost as good seem to exist in many other parts of the country, not least Transylvania.

Because the beautiful Transylvanian cities of Sibiu and Sighisoara have very good train and bus services to the surrounding settlements, it is easy to do side trips to all the places featured in the photos. From Sibiu, villages within easy reach include Cisnadie, Cisnadioara and Rasinari, and from Sighisoara public transport and/or short hikes will get you to Dumbraveni, Saros, Biertan, Richis, Copsa Mare and Albesti.

Visit some or all of the villages just listed and what will you find? Fortified Saxon churches; richly decorated Orthodox churches; remarkably diverse vernacular architecture utilizing stone, wood, brick, plaster and red pantiles; the occasional shop, bar or restaurant from which to purchase food or drink; pretty undulating countryside criss-crossed by roads and paths that link one settlement to the next; and ethnically mixed populations (Romanians are in the majority, but you also encounter many Roma/Gypsies, some Hungarians and, if very lucky, a few Germans of Saxon origin). Note that the Roma/Gypsies tend to live apart from other ethnic groups, usually in an area of more rundown housing on the edge of each village.

For visitors who fall in love with Romanian villages (this is easily done, despite the way the Roma/Gypsies are marginalized as second-class citizens), consider staying in the small hotels or pensions that exist in some of the more famous and/or beautiful villages. Costs for such accommodation remain low, but the hospitality is excellent.

It is sobering to recall that the unlamented communist regime planned at one time to destroy thousands of villages after herding the displaced people into cramped apartment blocks in nearby towns and cities (in fact, many villages WERE destroyed during the communist era). Officially planned to boost industrial and agricultural production by transforming “peasants” into “proletarians”, the destruction of villages was also a way of eradicating commitment to beliefs and practices at odds with the brave new world that communism was meant to inaugurate. Anyone keen to find out what a bestial and dysfunctional society Romania had become by the late 1980s should see “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”, a film by Mungiu. The film is a modern masterpiece which deserves to be much better known.

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Siirt and Aydinlar/Tillo, Turkey.

We set off for Siirt through the hills and the mountains, stopping only once to take a few photos of a village built in the mouth of a deep gorge. It was a pretty drive, and the prettiness was accentuated by the yellows, oranges and russets of the autumnal trees. Only as we entered the suburbs of Siirt itself did ugliness intrude. A dire mixture of industry, commerce and drab housing, the latter in Soviet-style apartment blocks, created a blot on the landscape, a blot exaggerated by the rain and the grey skies.

In Siirt itself, we stayed in the excellent Erdef Otel on Cumhuriyet Caddesi where our enormous room with its large bathroom and superb breakfast cost only 70TL (about £24) a night. It was lovely having a bathroom as large as all our accommodation in Bitlis! The owners of the hotel ensured that a matching colour scheme enhanced every room. Also, there was a bath in the bathroom. Nowadays baths are quite a luxury, showers being deemed less wasteful of water (additionally, showers take up less room than a bath, so, if you provide a shower but no bath, you can build bathrooms that are much smaller!). To top off the hotel’s delights, the heating worked all day and there was constant hot water (because we were travelling in late October and early November, it was often chilly).

It was still raining, but I was determined to see some of the town while Hilary enjoyed the excellent hotel amenities. I looked first at the lively but compact pazar, then went to the Ulu Camii to examine the interior of the prayer hall and the recently restored tapering brick minaret. The minaret has a square ground plan. Ceramic tiles set among the bricks create attractive patterns, some of the best being star-like motifs. Progress was slow because I was detained twice to drink tea. Next, I wandered into the area of old and gecekondu (built overnight) housing which ascends the hill to one side of the pazar. It was mostly children and women I encountered, the former playing in the increasingly wet conditions, and the latter engaged in various chores in and around their homes. Women were shopping, cooking bread at communal tandirs, or sweeping away the rain which threatened to enter doorways and courtyards. Returning to the town centre, I passed a pretty Muslim cemetery with a large tomb belonging to someone who, when alive, had obviously been highly respected.

By now quite wet, despite an anorak zipped up to my throat, I returned to the hotel and urged Hilary to come out: it was time for lunch. We left the hotel and, less than a minute later, were asked by a well-dressed man if he could help us. After I had said that we wanted to eat lunch, he led us to Ali Buryan Lokanta, a restaurant which lies along a covered alley just off Cumhuriyet Caddesi. We were ushered through the busy downstairs male-only dining area and up some stairs into the family room above. The man who had led us to the lokanta ordered our meal: three salads, ayran, and coarsely sliced and diced roast lamb. The roast lamb was served between two flat-breads oval in shape. The juices from the lamb seeped into the bottom loaf of bread making it even more tasty than would otherwise have been the case. The man stayed just long enough to confirm that we were delighted with the food, then left. We ordered tea to extend the meal. Imagine our embarrassment when we went downstairs to pay, but were not allowed to do so. Whether the man who had recommended the lokanta had paid for us, or staff were providing the meal for free, we never found out. But the food was sublime. The main course had a distinctly primitive quality to it, but the meat was outstanding in flavour and texture.

We returned to the hotel and leapt into the car for the short run to the small town of Aydinlar, still known locally by its old name of Tillo. The rain had at last stopped, so, although the sky was still overcast, we paused twice to watch the mist and low cloud caught in the folds of the hills below the road. In Tillo itself we visited the tombs which are the town’s main claim to fame, but also had a lovely walk through the pretty cemetery and the narrow cobbled streets that meander among the old stone houses. Tillo looked even better the second time than the first (I had been before in 2001). Some of the old houses have been restored. A few such houses, some with three storeys, are tall and slim in a way I have encountered nowhere else. Walking around were some of the young males who come to Tillo to train as the next generation of mullahs in Turkey’s mosques. There were also a few soldiers from the nearby barracks. The soldiers looked very bored.

At one of the tombs we met a man who said he belonged to the Huseyni Sufi sect. He alleged that he was related to one of the sheyks buried nearby. Whether this was true or not, he was very knowledgeable about the town and the people whose bodies lay in the tombs.

Earlier in the day, at Veysel Karani’s tomb in the small town of Ziyarat, men and women who wanted to pay their respects were restricted to their own entrances. In Tillo, men and women use the same entrance to each tomb, thereby paying their respects together. As is so often the case, Sufism emphasises gender equality and integration of the sexes.

Driving out of Tillo we saw a signed asphalt road for the kale (castle). We followed the road for about 4 kms until it terminated at a relatively new and well-designed picnic area. However, more impressive than the picnic area and the few remains of the kale was the location itself; we were on the top of a mountain with uninterrupted views in every direction. In one direction we looked over massive buttresses of rock into a valley far below, and in the opposite direction toward Tillo itself, which stood on a flat hill with larger hills and mountains behind and around it. After a car set off in the failing light, we had the place to ourselves and found it very hard to leave. This was an unexpected treat, one which confirmed the remarkable beauty of these remote and mountainous parts of eastern Turkey.

N.B. Here is some useful background information for teachers (and, indeed, others) who may wish to use the post for educational purposes.

In classrooms in schools, and even sometimes in classrooms in universities, it is rare that much attention is paid to Sufi Muslims because content about Islam is dominated by the beliefs and the practices encountered within the Sunni and the Shia traditions. This is unfortunate because, if more attention were devoted to Sufi Islam, some of the negative stereotypes that prevail about Islam in the non-Muslim world might be more easily challenged. Why? Because Sufi Muslims are the mystics of Islam. Consequently, Sufi Muslims are, as a general rule, far less rigid than Sunni and Shia Muslims in the way that they interpret the Qur’an. To put matters a slightly different way, Sunni and Shia Muslims emphasise the importance of orthodoxy (right belief), but Sufi Muslims emphasise the importance of orthopraxy (right practice). Moreover, within the Sufi tradition there is immense diversity of practice, so much so that Sunni and Shia Muslims have frequently condemned individual Sufi groups as heretical.

Two of the most interesting Sufi groups, the Mevlevis and the Bektashis, have their origins in what is modern-day Turkey, but have been in existence for hundreds of years. The Mevlevis, better known in the West as the Whirling Dervishes, use music, song and dance to create an appropriate atmosphere or state of mind to connect, albeit fleetingly, with Allah. Their founder, Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, is regarded within the Islamic world (and elsewhere, in fact) as an outstanding poet of international renown. The Bektashis retain in their beliefs and practices aspects of Paganism and Christianity, so much so that worship usually unfolds in remote but beautiful locations far from population centres and mosques; communal meals involve the ritual consumption of bread and alcohol (in an echo of the eucharist in Christianity); and members of the sect are encouraged to believe in the “trinity” of Allah, Muhammad and Ali (moreover, based on the evidence of his lovingly executed pictures, it looks very much to the outsider as if the most popular “person/being” in the “trinity” is Ali, not Allah or Muhammad).

As noted above, Sufis have often found themselves the victims of persecution perpetrated by the numerically larger Sunni and Shia populations among whom they have lived (most scholars suggest that Sufis make up about 10% of the Muslim umma, or community of believers). However, as a general rule, because Shia Islam has aspects of mysticism within its belief system, Sufis have fared better in predominantly Shia nation states than in predominantly Sunni nation states (nonetheless, Turkey, and the Ottoman Empire before it, both predominantly Sunni, contradict what has been the norm in relation to the persecution of Sufis for the last thousand years).

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The Muslim Cemetery, Ahlat, Turkey.

I finished my second glass of tea and walked to the stop from where the minibuses depart for Ahlat and Adilcevaz. The minibus left Tatvan just after 7.30am and I was in Ahlat’s cemetery not long after 8.15. The sun was shining and the visibility was perfect.

I had been to Ahlat before, but, during my earlier visit, had been so interested in the tombs and the fortifications which lie scattered far and wide across the surrounding countryside that the cemetery had not been examined with sufficient care. I was here to rectify the situation.

In the open space that lies behind a small museum is the famous Selcuk cemetery with about two or three hundred gravestones and small tombs. Many of the gravestones look superficially like Armenian khatchkars (Armenian for “stone crosses”), but, once you ignore their shape and height, you notice that all the carvings have an Islamic rather than a Christian character. Moreover, the inscriptions are in Arabic and Persian rather than Armenian. However, there is evidence that the Selcuks utilized the skills of Armenian stonemasons to produce the beautiful monuments.

Although the gravestones and tombs cluster in groups in the long grass, the wild flowers and the herb bushes, larger tombs lurk around the edge of the open space. In the distance are wonderful views of Lake Van and the surrounding mountains. Early morning, the cemetery is a sublime spot in which to walk. My only companions were professors and students from an Ankara university engaged in digs across the site. The professors and students were ably assisted by labourers who did the most demanding physical work.

Some parts of the cemetery are devoid of gravestones, but elsewhere the undergrowth threatens to bury the tombs, most of which have intricate inscriptions. Not far to the south of the cemetery is the 13th century Ulu Kumbet, the largest tomb in the Van region, and to the north are Cifte Kumbet, or the Twin Tomb, and Bayindir Turbesi, the latter with its colonnaded upper storey and distinctive mescit. Bayindir Turbesi dates from the end of the 15th century.

But back to the cemetery itself and some words penned by Gwyn Williams in 1972. Williams captures well the enduring appeal of this beautiful spot:

“There are acres and acres of lovely tall rectangular tombstones, some of them nearly 2 metres high and not all of them upright. They are all carved in relief with intricate designs, usually around a pointed panel in the lower part of the stone face. The reverse side of the stones often has a curious and unusual arrangement of symbols. The extent of the burial ground and the number and the beauty of the stones effectively record the prosperity, good taste and fine craftsmanship of medieval Ahlat. This long-abandoned graveyard is one of the strangest sights in Turkey and should not be missed. The forest of tall scrolled and lichened stones seen against the background of the lake and the far mountains seems no longer to have any reference to life or death, but a strange and absolute beauty.”

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Gateshead and Felling, North-East England.

Some people in the United Kingdom (and even in nearby Newcastle-upon-Tyne) insist that the whole of Gateshead is an edgeland or sacrifice zone. This is most unjust, of course, but there have been times in the recent past when parts of the metropolitan borough have resembled such shunned and marginalized places (see an earlier post entitled “Edgelands and Sacrifice Zones: Turkey, United Kingdom, etc.” for a description of what an edgeland or a sacrifice zone might be). As those of you who know the area will realize, the photos I share below, although taken no longer than four years ago, reflect a world that no longer exists. Cosmetic tidying up and more substantial redevelopment are slowly transforming the town. Whether all the changes are beneficial is hotly disputed by many local people, perhaps especially in relation to the iconic multi-storey car park brought to international fame/notoriety by “Get Carter”, a film released in 1971 (the 1971 version of “Get Carter” is not to be mistaken for the 2000 version set largely in Seattle, USA. The 1971 version of the film is an embarrassment, but the latter is even worse).

All the photos below were taken in the centre of Gateshead or in nearby Felling (a part of the metropolitan borough of Gateshead accessible via the excellent Metro system). The photo of the Gateshead bank of the River Tyne was taken from the iconic High Level Bridge connecting Gateshead with Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

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Murcia, Spain.

The city of Murcia in south-east Spain deserves to be much better known, but it is in competition with nearby costas, Alacant/Alicante and, above all, Granada. For this reason, most people by-pass Murcia for destinations far more famous. This is a pity. The city has a wonderful cathedral; a compact but lively old quarter; a river lined with attractive buildings; interesting shopping opportunities that defy the chains and the multinationals; pretty squares with tempting bars, cafes and restaurants; and plenty of things a little less ordinary to tempt you into the surrounding suburbs. Excellent train and bus services connect you with the surrounding towns and villages, perhaps the best of the larger settlements being Jumilla, Lorca and Caravaca de la Cruz. Have a week in Murcia with day trips to the aforementioned destinations and your time wiil have been well spent. Oh yes. Just off the main square, the square with the west facade of the cathedral at one end, is one of the best tapas bars in southern Spain.

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Kansas City, Missouri, USA.

Anyone visiting large cities in the United States will probably go to New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington DC and/or Chicago well before, say, Kansas City. However, Kansas City is a wonderful place if you want to spend time in somewhere that is easy to navigate, not too large, very safe and full of interesting things to see and do (for example, it has some remarkable museums). The photos below dwell on aspects of the city that might be overlooked, especially by people staying only two or three nights (for people on short stays, the museums alone can take up all your time).

Kansas City has an enviable reputation for barbecue, for water features, for restrained but elegant architecture, and for a downtown reviving with the construction of some landmark buildings. The photos below merely hint at the pleasures that await visitors. And the museums that do not feature at all? At least two are world class. I kid you not.

Just for the record, we ate barbecue twice in Kansas City, once at Gates and once at Arthur Bryant’s. Sorry: I refuse to enter the debate about which is the better place to eat. Pop along and make up your own mind!

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Walthamstow, London, United Kingdom… and two places that really should not be featured!

I realize that London is NOT an unusual destination, but, inevitably, some areas of London are visited more often than others, and other areas are unknown to almost everyone except those who live in them.

London is my birthplace. It is a city loved and hated in more or less equal measure. With over 300 languages now spoken by its people, it is one of the most cosmopolitan places on the planet, which therefore, in my estimation at least, makes the city a magnificent and magical place. However, from the architectural point of view, London is an increasingly incoherent and ugly place. But this does not mean that the city does not have many other things to commend it beside being effervescently multiethnic.

One of the most enduring myths about London is that it is a vast city made up of many villages. A nice idea, perhaps, but the reality is very different, today at least. Noise, traffic, pollution, litter, increasingly uniform high streets dominated by the same charity shops, betting shops, coffee shops and fast food outlets, and lots of mundane late 20th century architecture (thinly-clad sheds for retail purposes, high-rise concrete slabs for housing, and steel and glass boxes for those “masters” of the universe, the men and a few women in the financial services’ sector who have contributed more than most to ruining our economy for a generation), ensure that London’s “villages” are often tacky, hyperactive and congested places increasingly uncertain of their identity (however, there was a time when each “village” had something special or unique about it). This said, London still has so many positive qualities that even an exile like me, who has not lived for over forty years in what we used to call The Smoke, can deny its appeal. But its appeal lies largely in those places that are a little off-the-beaten-track. Hence the following photos.

Most photos derive from Walthamstow, where, as at least two shots confirm, something of “village” London survives, despite the fact that the borough is one of the capital’s most multiethnic with an overwhelmingly working class population reeling under the current economic hardships. Other photos derive from Liverpool Street Station and the area immediately around it (note the Gherkin in the background of one of the shots). I could not resist a photo of one obvious landmark, however, Piccadilly Circus (but at night). Blink, and the neon lights transport you to Times Square in New York. Nor could I resist sharing a stereotypical image of London, the tree and the street lamp in silhouette against a cloudy sky. Why is this a stereotypical image? Because the London boroughs have done wonders to ensure that trees and street furniture survive from the past, so much so that, although the photo derives from Walthamstow (as does the photo of the Danny Kaye poster), it might have been taken almost anywhere in the Great Wen.

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