Floral tourism: on the trail of Transylvania’s elusive crocus

Robin Lane Fox on Nemesis on an evening ride in the Carpathians, Romania © Harriet Rix

Robin Lane Fox on Nemesis on an evening ride in the Carpathians, Romania © Harriet Rix

In idyllic east European sunshine, I have been focusing on a crocus. It is not a purple or yellow-flowered hybrid, one of those Dutch fatties that city dwellers admire in spring. It is a lilac-flowered wild beauty, at home in Transylvania. Even in Romania, few realise the rare charm of its autumn flowers. It avoids main roads and towns, so I have had to ride to find it.

By Robin Lane Fox
First published in The Financial Times 17 October 2017

I recommend this sort of floral tourism. Mine was aimed at crocus banaticus, the iris-flowered crocus which has three big outer petals. I first discovered its distinctive beauty in the Bulletin of the Alpine Garden Society, that seminal influence on the prose-style of the great travel writer Norman Lewis, as he once told me in his sitting room in Essex. About 40 years later, the same crocus was discovered in the same bulletin by Harriet Rix in Devon, my indomitable companion on our ride last year into the high floral meadows of Kyrgyzstan. While we put brave faces on the mountain storms, we discovered a shared love of this crocus and pledged in mares’ milk to find it in its Romanian home. She, not I, realised that it overlaps there with Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Between The Woods and The Water, the immortal tale of his walk from London to Istanbul. In summer 1934, the 19-year-old Leigh Fermor trod above our crocus, dormant in the Transylvanian grass, while he eloped with high-spirited Angéla, one of those “times when hours are more precious than diamonds”. Between the woods and the meadows we might find gems which flowered in their wake.

The crocus is named “banaticus” from early finds in the Banat, territory that became a bitter triangular contest between Hungary, Yugoslavia and Romania, until the Treaty of Versailles divided it between the latter two in 1919. The most recent reports of the flower are further east, so we began our hunt in the Transylvanian villages founded by German-speaking Saxons. In the 12th century, the offer of land and a tax-free life lured thousands of Saxons to migrate from the area of modern Luxembourg and settle in Transylvania. They strengthened the land’s defences and vitalised its crafts and crops, terracing the hillsides and growing apples and productive vines. Between 1980 and 1990, many migrated in reverse. They were sold by Ceausescu, no friend of village life, to the Kohl government in Germany who saw them as loyal voters. Before Ceausescu’s fall, up to 250,000 Saxons returned to take up German citizenship, leaving only a rump to maintain churches, crafts and houses.

The base-camps for our adventures were Saxon houses restored since 1995 by the celebrated Mihai Eminescu trust. Its rentable properties range from double-fronted village houses to two fine manors at Richis and Malancrav with tempting libraries and rooms for up to nine guests.

We began in the Saxon heartland of Viscri whose fortified church gives a special sense of orderly Saxon life. Social ranks and the sexes were segregated in the congregation. Unmarried young men were sent up to the gallery from where they could look down on the plaited hair and hollow black headdresses of the unmarried Saxon girls. Only outside the church was contact possible, on a grassy circle that served as a dance floor. Inside, painted panels show sunflowers and lilies of the valley, “ladders to heaven” in German tradition, among roses and reflexed lilies. I thought of the red roses and “tiger lilies” that Leigh Fermor’s beloved Angéla pushed into his buttonhole at the train station as they took their sad farewell. Of crocus banaticus, there was no sign.

Crocus banaticus growing wild in the fields above Zalanpatak © Harriet Rix

Crocus banaticus growing wild in the fields above Zalanpatak © Harriet Rix

Evidence soon emerged. The main churches of the Saxon villages are Lutheran and in Brasov’s Black Cathedral, their choirs were to assemble and mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. As a noted soprano, Harriet was invited to join them and help with the higher notes. As a spectator with no religion, I was tagged with a wristband and allowed to watch from a front seat. While the choirs rehearsed, I researched the flower stalls of Brasov market and found two bunches of crocus banaticus on a flower-lady’s stall. She had no idea where they had been growing.

After Luther’s setting of Psalm 118, it was time to find out. Tagged by evangelicals, I set off for Copsa Mare where I met my Nemesis and fell in love. Nemesis is a 10-year-old Dutch warmblood mare, 17 hands 3, with a Czech passport. She is stabled nightly beside the tall dark Romulus who was once a gallop-on star in the film Prince Caspian. James and Rachel de Candole offer trips for up to four riders on their beautifully schooled horses, with picnics and overnight stays. Nemesis carried me smoothly past gardens of zinnias, cosmos and calendulas, flowers that I often recommend to readers here. White-flowered wild asters, another favourite, marked our ascent into beechwoods of exceptional beauty but as they also contain wild bears, we had to travel noisily. In Britain it is 12 years since I last halloaed legally for fox hounds. In Transylvania I have been halloaing to keep bears away.

In the crocus’s absence, nearby back gardens offered a big surprise instead — crops of exotic tuberose. An expert grower, Elisabeth, showed us the last tall stems of her crop before she sheltered their roots under winter covers. Tuberose is native to Mexico but it won favour with Maria Theresa, the Habsburg sovereign, and travelled east to the scent-loving Romanians. In rich acid soil, village growers water the plants that departing Saxons left in their care. They will either be gold or earth, they told Elisabeth, but she learnt the golden touch. Of the Banat crocus, however, she knew nothing.

In eastern Transylvania sightings of it are reported near villages of Hungarians, so we headed for a final hunt in Korospatak. There, horses are offered by Count Kalnoky, descendant of a great medieval line, but a sign saying “Shagya Club” marks his driveway, and at first we took it in an English sense. We reversed in haste, not realising it refers to crosses between Arab and thoroughbred horses. After an hour’s climb on brisk brown Rudi, I finally sighted our prey, lilac-blue crocus banaticus flowering leaflessly beneath beech trees.

The further we rode, the more it multiplied, always in damp semi-shade, never in open meadows. In the valley of Zalanpatak we found even thicker masses, including a rare white form, seldom in stock in any bulb-grower’s list. Spreading on the hillsides, were these crocuses natural escapees from gardens? Surely not: they have lived here for millennia, untroubled by Romans, Tatars and Turks who sacked the villages beyond.

In her superb book Peacemakers, Margaret Macmillan describes how the Banat, a “bucolic backwater”, was split between Romania and Yugoslavia in 1919. She warns that it may yet prove contentious territory. In antiquity, Philip, father of Alexander, won a great victory on what was called the Crocus Field in northern Greece. If fighting breaks out in the Banat, I now know my role. Mounted on Nemesis, I will guard the priceless crocuses in its hills.

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A word about boots

 

My Zamberlan 309 New Trail Lite GTX Walking Boots after walking 140 miles from Winchester to Exeter, October 2017

For those of us who walk, selecting good boots is probably the most difficult decision that we make. Whilst all other kit is binary – it either works or it doesn’t, like a stove or a waterproof – we never know about our boots until we have actually tried them in anger on an actual walk. Even then they may seem fine for the first few miles, or for a day walk. But how will they hold up to many days over varied terrain?

The choice is so very personal. Do we have wide feet, or balletically narrow? Are the toes on our right foot longer than those on the left? What about those seemingly large ankle bones that always rub? Of course we may also need to select boots for differing conditions such as the ability to take crampons.

I have struggled most of my life to find the right boots. The DMS boots issued to me in the Army were killers. The “improved’ version, the Combat High, was only marginally better. I had some fair success with a stout pair of Meindl boots which were much better suited to mountain walking than long trails. I used them on my 2013 walk to Santiago de Compostela, but I suffered various pains and blisters after a while. Eventually things settled, feet hardened and I wore them again (after a period in sandals and socks!!).

After the Camino, I searched for a replacement, seeking something lightweight and unsuccessfully tried some Scarpa boots which just didn’t size up correctly and caused problems after some miles, and another expensive pair of newer Meindl’s which again were not right and I gave them away.

Both my daughters successfully achieved Gold Duke of Edinburgh Awards and as they got older and their feet stopped growing I gave them each a pair of Zamberlan boots. My eldest still has hers. Ten or more years on and after many, many miles, they have never given her any reason to complain. I thought maybe I should try Zamberlan next, but they are difficult to find. Last year I invested in a pair of Zamberlan 309 New Trail Lite GTX Walking Boots from Uttings Outdoors which is where I had bought the boots for my daughters. Since then I have walked over 500 miles in them, often day after day, carrying weight, and have never suffered from any pain or blisters. My lifelong search is over! Having said that, selecting good socks is also very important, but don’t worry I shan’t be showing you pictures of mine.

I thought that I would share this with you, as many of you will be walkers, and may experience the same problems that I have had. These boots are Italian and are therefore made on a small last. I am normally a size UK 11-11.5 (with narrow-ish feet) but I bought a size “Euro 48 – UK 12.75”. Size charts (and conversion charts) vary enormously so in essence I bought a pair at least one full size larger than normal. They are made from one piece of leather which means no seams to rub you, and the Gore-Tex lining works very well keeping my feet dry. Zamberlan make many other styles of boots (and Uttings appear to have the best range in the UK), but for support, comfort, and confidence, I cannot recommend my boots too much. So, if you are thinking about buying a new pair of boots consider these. But remember, we are all different, and what works for one may not work for another.

It would be great if you could join the debate and comment, telling us about your boot experiences!

The Benaki comes out fighting – progress at Paddy’s house

In late September the Benaki museum carried out an extraordinary publicity drive in London in an attempt to counter the ongoing criticism of its tenure of the house and progress with renovations. On 26 September I attended an event at the Hellenic Centre which was, I am told, similar in content to an exclusive evening held the night before at the Traveller’s Club.

by Tom Sawford

After an extraordinary period of silence, like an old boxer absorbing the body-blows of criticism for many rounds, the Benaki came out with all guns blazing in an attempt to explain how things were now really moving with the house project. No less than two of Her Majesty’s former Ambassadors to the Hellenic Republic were on the five person panel to ensure that we agreed it must be so.

To make sure we were in the right mood, we were first treated to the Benaki promotional video which portrays the museum as one of the most important cultural institutions in Greece, and indeed it certainly has a fine collection and many responsibilities including looking after the house of Nikos Ghika, which must be where Paddy and Joan got the idea in the first place. I encourage you to watch it here.

Irini Geroulanou, a member of the Executive Board of the Benaki, explained the details of the bequest and ran us through the events that have taken place since Paddy’s death six years ago. We do have to appreciate the serious financial circumstances that have existed in Greece and some of the tortuously slow bureaucratic steps that needed to be taken to secure permission to work on the house. Key events were the 2015 business plan for the house produced by AEA Consulting which outlined how the Benaki could make it self-funding, and the 2016 donation by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation which at last made money available to commence the works.

Ms Geroulanou went on to show glimpses of plans but, curiously, only a very few photographs of work on the house. The intention is to create five independent “units” including a work area and en-suite facilities to foster privacy, focus and creativity. A Common area will be centred on the “world’s room”. Winter will be a maintenance period; in the spring there will follow two months of academic residence; there will be two periods in the late spring and early autumn for “Honorary fellows” to use the house as the writers’ retreat that Paddy foresaw; in the summer, three months will be set-aside for holiday rentals, this forming the main part of the annual income. The house will become known as The Patrick and Joan Leigh Fermor Centre, and the Benaki plans to start a charity in the UK to create a dedicated endowment fund.

This was all very encouraging. But, as I say there were very few pictures showing actual progress at the house. Apparently the roof is being replaced but workers were reluctant to be photographed. The museum would do itself a lot of favours if it were to publish regular updates, with a few photographs on the House section of its website.

Ms Geroulanou also made time to counter the criticism made against the Benaki. She was passionate and very detailed in her rebuttal – countering the reports that had apparently appeared in newspapers (so not this blog then!) that donations had been turned down – giving us a detailed breakdown of all three or so donations which seemed to add up to the value of a good night out at a taverna in Kardamyli. There were other mentions of criticisms on “websites and blogs” (OK – guilty) which seemed to have struck hard at the Benaki, leading to “an unpleasant climate of suspicion”. I stand by the criticism I made a year ago about a lack of care of many of the smaller items in the house, but that is all now in the past.

It is encouraging to report that things are now happening. It is also good to know that the Benaki is a distinctly reputable and experienced organisation, and now with the funding it has, Paddy and Joan’s vision may be achieved within 18 months or so. I look forward to updating you on progress, as I also look forward to the Benaki sharing plans, reports, updates and photographs on its website so that the nasty “unpleasant climate of suspicion” does not return.

PS – apologies for the delay in posting this update. I have been working very hard, and away for a time on a personal pilgrimage on foot from Winchester to Exeter via Salisbury, Wells and Glastonbury. I encourage others to go! I can supply my route information.

The Violins of Saint-Jacques Is a Lush Portrait of a Lost World

Click to purchase

It’s not often that we get to see anything about Paddy’s one and only novel so I thought that you might like to see this recent review by Joe Blessing. Why not take some time to take a look at some of the interesting stuff on the blog about The Violins of Saint-Jacques?

“A ball is almost a short lifetime in itself… the ball goes on and on and the incidents stand out in retrospect like a life’s milestones against a flux of time whose miniature years are measured out in dance tunes.”—Berthe de Rennes

Most parties sadly cannot live up to those words, but the tragic Mardi Gras ball in The Violins of Saint-Jacques, spoken by protagonist Berthe de Rennes, truly contains multitudes. The extravagant soiree acts as a glittering prism, reflecting all facets of the culture and curiosities of the fictional Caribbean island of Saint-Jacques (modeled on Martinique) before the island’s daunting volcano erupts and erases the island forever.

The Violins of Saint-Jacques is a slim novel of beguiling contradictions. Though taking place largely over the course of one night, it still feels broad in scope, as the reverberations of that night ring out across the length of a well-traveled life. Another contradiction is that the accomplished novel, first published in 1953 and now reissued by New York Review Books, is the only work of fiction produced in a long life of writing by Patrick Leigh Fermor. Fermor, who died in 2011, lived larger than life in a manner rarely practiced anymore. Compared by some to his friend Ian Fleming’s most famous creation, James Bond, his wartime kidnapping of a German general on Crete was so adventuresome that the great British directors Powell and Pressburger made a film of it, Ill Met By Moonlight (1957) starring Dirk Bogarde as Fermor.

But Fermor is best remembered for an even more youthful endeavor, his 1933 journey by foot across an entire continent, from Belgium to Constantinople, which he began when he was just 18 and documented decades later in a trilogy of modern classics of travel writing, beginning with A Time of Gifts in 1977. His literary reputation rests largely on those books, which both channel his youthful exuberance and also overlay it with a lifetime of erudition, allowing him to expertly pick apart the varying threads of culture he found interwoven as he traversed Europe. Readers of those books will find that the same excellent eye for detail and deep curiosity about local customs in The Violins of Saint-Jacques, which gives a truly staggering amount of cultural detail in just 140 pages.

A brief frame story set on an Aegean island (the area where Fermor lived most of his life) finds a Fermor-like Englishman meeting the mysterious but well-loved Berthe de Rennes in her twilight years. When her painting of Saint-Jacques catches his eye, he entices her to tell its story, the story of her wondrously happy childhood on the colonial outpost, and the fateful Mardi Gras night in 1902 when it all was lost.

Berthe moved from France to Saint-Jacques after losing her parents as a teen, taken in by her distant cousin, the Count de Serindan, and his family. Berthe is soon a cherished member of the family and a confidant of the witty Count. The Count is the kind of splendid character little seen outside of books, a patriarch who uses his wealth and power solely for the pleasure and amusement of those around him. On occasions like Mardi Gras, this largesse extends to the entire island and he spares no expense in hosting lavish parties the entire population looks forward to.

Berthe begins her narration on the day preceding such a ball, leading the reader through the elaborate preparations and the fierce anticipation felt by the young Serindans, especially Berthe’s closest companion, Josephine. A ball might seem a flimsy subject to some, but Fermor’s accomplishment is to see in the ball an embodiment of the island’s society and to organically provide details that cohere into a surprisingly complex portrait. Fermor gives readers the provenance of the songs played, the steps of dances, the length of the swizzle sticks, the scents of the floral decorations, the ingredients of certain drinks, and perhaps most fun, the colors and creatures on the elaborate costumes the black islanders wear as they dance through the streets.

Nor does Fermor withhold human detail, expertly sketching the prejudices and tensions between the proudly Royalist and conservative Creole aristocracy and the new governor just arrived from France with modern ideas. Berthe must leave the party when she learns her beloved Josephine is eloping with the governor’s rakish (and already married) son, leading her to a ship off the island’s coast that saves her from, but allows her to witness, the biblical destruction that wipes the site of her happy childhood off the map.

The Violins of Saint-Jacques is so engrossing and brief that its flaws are easily overlooked. Fermor’s portrayal of any colonial life as idyllic might prove offensive to some, although he takes pains to distinguish the relatively peaceful race relations on Saint-Jacques from the brutal regimes on other nearby islands. The novel has a rather 19th century, predetermined approach to character and never takes the time to delve into any complex interiority or psychology. However, this approach is perhaps fitting in a story that’s not about human agency, but rather about the futility of it in the face of inhuman, impossibly powerful forces.

Fermor was an excellent student of culture, but his own wartime experiences gave him no illusions about their fragility. Despite all readers knowing the eruption is coming (it’s on the back of the book and heavily foreshadowed), it’s still a shock at how brutally and completely it destroys everything that Fermor has just taken such care in describing. The Violins of Saint-Jacques is a charming portrait of a lost world and a potent reminder of just how quickly a culture can disappear.

Jan Morris review of Nick Hunt’s Where the Wild Winds Are

Nick Hunt reads from his new book at the launch at Stanford’s bookshop, London on 6 September 2017

Jan Morris’ review of Nick’s new book, Where the Wild Winds Are: Walking Europe’s Winds from the Pennines to ProvenceFirst published in The Literary Review. She is effusive in her praise, concluding …

Hunt’s own summing-up of the whole venture expresses it better than I can, anyway. He says that he and his senses have been washed, scoured, scrubbed, frozen, heated, pummelled, pounded, downcast, uplifted and animated by the Winds.

And so, in a way, have mine, by reading his book.

This extraordinary work is a prime example of that contemporary genre, the ex-travel book. Travel writing as such being a bit obsolete now, since so many readers have been everywhere, the form has evolved into something more interpretative or philosophical. Where the Wild Winds Are: Walking Europe’s Winds from the Pennines to Provence is a work of this sort – a thoughtful (and perhaps rather too protracted) relation of a journey on foot across half of Europe – and it contains much admirable descriptive writing of the old sort. It is also, however, something far more interesting than most such enterprises: it describes an expedition into the Winds!

The Winds? Yes, four European winds, sometimes with a capital W, sometimes not, into which, one by one, Nick Hunt goes. He wants to experience and explore them all. Each is rich in history, myth, folklore, superstition and effect. Many of us have travelled across Europe, but as far as I know nobody has hitherto so deliberately explored the kingdoms of the great winds. Scientists, geographers, glider pilots, artists, poets and theologians have investigated and commemorated them, but travel writers never before. Hunt immerses himself in those Windlands and manages to give his readers a blast, a sigh, a shiver of each.

He chooses four named winds out of dozens, four being a geographical sort of number. His first and smallest wind, one I have never heard of before, blows across a northwestern corner of England. It is called Helm, and its headquarters, it seems, is a desolate plateau called Cross Fell in a particularly uninviting stretch of the Pennines. Helm is the only named wind blowing across Britain. It sounds perfectly awful and its reputation is frightful: it howled for fifteen days in 1843, it demolished a castle tower once, everybody complains about its psychological and temperamental effects and for centuries the countryside it rules was plagued by vendettas, pillagings, rapes, cattle-rustlings and murders. Hunt relates an awful curse that a 16th-century archbishop cast upon the place: it ran to more than a thousand words and finally declared that the souls of the local miscreants should be condemned to the deepest pit of hell, their bodies to be torn apart by dogs, swine and wild beasts.

Of course Hunt does not blame Helm for all this, but the wind does seem to have a baleful influence upon people, even now. He never experienced it for himself, diligently though he tried, tramping the high fells in search of it and miserably camping out, but his description of the experience is sufficiently vivid. It seems to me that the whole of Helmland is blown through with scoundrels and demons.

Less baleful, thank goodness, seems the influence of Foehn, which the novelist Hermann Hesse once described as the south announcing news of spring to the snowbound north. It is a warm wind (katabatic, Hunt helpfully explains, meaning that it blows downslope, not anabatically), and although it is said to cause migraines and depressions, it is also associated with clear skies and warmth. It sounds an ambiguous sort of wind. Our author starts his walk through its realm in Zurich in late March. He hopes to catch the wind doing what Hesse said it did, and he gives us some classic travel-book stuff on the way (‘flocks of sheep clanged their bells in a satisfyingly Alpine way’). When he gets to Liechtenstein he finds an entire exhibition devoted to Foehn. ‘We say’, announce its curators fondly, ‘that Foehn is the Oldest Man of Liechtenstein.’ This lively exhibition seems to reveal a different sort of attitude to the wind from anything Helm inspires in the bitter Pennines – more considerate, more affectionate perhaps. As Hunt walks on, though, he finds that while his front is growing warmer, his back is getting cold, and I take that to demonstrate that Foehn is a two-faced sort of wind.

It apparently is responsible for an illness of its own – Föhnkrankheit (‘Foehn-sickness’). Citizens complain of wind-induced depressions, anxieties and headaches. Farm animals grow fretful when Foehn blows and schoolchildren become uncontrollable. Hunt saw for himself a horse ‘excitedly’ performing ‘a small dance in its field’, and took this to mean that Foehn was on its way. When he told one elderly citizen that he was hoping to experience the wind for himself, the old boy scowled, tapped out his pipe on his trouser leg and simply said schlecht (‘bad’).

When our author did at last encounter Foehn in person, as it were, sure enough it was an ambiguous fulfilment. The energy of its gusts was evidently thrilling: ‘Now that I had found the wind, I had to follow it.’ But with Foehn, he says, came a powerful sensation: ‘Melodrama was everywhere: in the lake, the trees, the grass, the birds, the mountains, the sky, the light.’ He was, he says, ‘worn ragged from the struggle … I had come a long way to find the wind, but now for the first time … I had the strong sensation of wanting it to stop.’

Ah, but Hunt’s fourth wind (I will get to the third one later) is the Mistral, and we all know that one. The very name whispers holiday, art and the warm south. Van Gogh, Hunt tells us, painted his Summer Evening specifically because the Mistral was blowing through the Midi that day. ‘Aren’t we seeking intensity of thought’, Van Gogh asked a friend, ‘rather than tranquillity of touch?’ Intensity is evidently a hallmark of the Mistral. Both the French and the Spanish have warships named after it. Van Gogh himself, of course, eventually went mad.

Hunt knew all about the Mistral when he began his exploratory walk at Valence, where the wind is popularly supposed to start, and he had no difficulty in finding it for himself. It hit him in the face the moment he went out, and all around him, he tells us, passers-by ‘walked at forty-five-degree stoops, their hair-styles heading south’. Was this indeed the Mistral? he asked one of them. The reply was definitive: ‘Oui … This is the place with the most wind in France.’

He need not have asked. Throughout his stay in Provence, the Mistral was boisterously and proudly with him, and everyone talked about it. It used to be called ‘the idiot wind’, he learned. In the town of Orange in 2004 it blew for sixteen days without stopping, and it regularly blows there for one in three days throughout the year. ‘It makes us nervous – angry, even. Yes, it makes us angry! He enjoys this! He likes the passion! Me, I hate it.’ It had lately changed its blowing patterns, some said, while others suggested that in the law courts judges sentence more leniently if the Mistral is blowing hard.

One connecting theme of Hunt’s book is the subject of madness and its supposed links with particular winds. Van Gogh spent a year at Arles in Provence and painted two hundred pictures there – scenes all distinguished, Hunt suggests, by ‘the restlessness of the air’. Van Gogh himself called the Mistral merciless and wicked, but he loved the clear light of it, and it was not in Mistral country but in northern France where in the end he shot himself.

Nick Hunt reads from his new book at the launch at Stanford’s bookshop, London on 6 September 2017

I have left to the end Hunt’s second Wind, the Bora, because it is the one I have personally experienced, and because it seems to me the one most dramatically associated with a particular city. The Bora is a terrific climactic phenomenon that periodically storms down the mountainous coastline of the Adriatic and bursts through gaps in the highlands to fall upon places on the coast. Hunt calls it the ‘enfant terrible of the Adriatic’, and at its worst it can reach hurricane strength.

The Bora is intimately associated with Trieste, a city of tangled nationality, mingled fortunes and pungent character. I have known the place myself for seventy years and have written about it often, but until Hunt’s book reached me I had never heard of the Bora Museum, which is in a back street near the docks and contains 150 bottled winds from the four corners of the world.
Trieste and the Bora have become almost synonymous and they are proud of each other.

Everyone in the city has tales to tell of the wild and boisterous Bora, its rolling over of trams, its stripping of roofs and all its extravagant goings-on – such a contrast from the sometimes melancholy suggestiveness of the city itself. The Bora is fundamental to the self-image of Trieste. There is a street named in honour of it, artists repeatedly celebrate it, you can buy comic postcards of it and local historians like to claim that a nearby battle fought under its influence in AD 394 led directly to the fall of the Roman Empire. I forget exactly why.

I can myself testify that the Bora has the usual deleterious wind effects, including odd sensations of desolation or enervation. Nevertheless, after finishing this fascinating work, it seemed to me that the Bora is the happiest and jolliest of all Hunt’s Winds, the only one, perhaps, with a sense of humour.

Where the Wild Winds Are is full to the brim with learning, entertainment, description, scientific fact and conjectural fiction. It is travel writing in excelsis, and if I have judged it to be too long, that is perhaps because I have had enough of the genre itself. Hunt’s own summing-up of the whole venture expresses it better than I can, anyway. He says that he and his senses have been washed, scoured, scrubbed, frozen, heated, pummelled, pounded, downcast, uplifted and animated by the Winds.

And so, in a way, have mine, by reading his book.

Buy Where the Wild Winds Are: Walking Europe’s Winds from the Pennines to Provence
By Nick Hunt
Nicholas Brearley Publishing 258pp

Postcard from . . . Bulgaria

Illustration by Matthew Cook

Illustration by Matthew Cook

In a cramped office at Bulgaria’s Rila Monastery, a black-robed monk is swiping my passport. Set in a wooded valley 70 miles south of the capital Sofia, Rila is the country’s largest and oldest Orthodox Christian monastery, and a source of intense pride for Bulgarians. Travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor stayed here in 1934 and found a place of “clattering hooves and constant arrivals and departures . . . like that of a castle in the Middle Ages.”

by Tom Allan

First published in the Financial Times

Today the clatter of hooves has been replaced by the rumbling tyres of tour buses and the monastery’s humbug-striped pillars and copper domes are one of Bulgaria’s major tourist attractions. One thing hasn’t changed: the monks still offer accommodation — there are 38 rooms available to pilgrims and non-believers alike. Stay the night and you can explore once the day trippers have departed.

The monastery was founded in the 10th century by the followers of St Ivan of Rila, a hermit who lived in a nearby mountain cave. Its library holds an important collection of medieval manuscripts and there are exceptional wood carvings, including the Cross of Rafail, which took 12 years of surgical chiselling to make, by which time its creator had lost his sight.

The surroundings are special too. The forested slopes that encircle the quadrangle are now a nature reserve with a network of hiking trails. After checking in to my room (basic but comfortable and en suite), I clump out over the cobbles and head for the summit of Dodov Vrah, a 2,597-metre peak that towers over the valley. The path ascends through a beech forest alive with cuckoos and drumming woodpeckers, eventually reaching an open landscape of tussocks, wild violets and creeping juniper bushes. This is halfway; I continue up past the tumbledown remains of shepherds’ huts to reach the snow drifts on the ridge.

From the summit I look north to the crags around the Seven Rila Lakes, then peer down to spot the red-tiled roof of the monastery, 1,500 metres below. The knee-jarring descent leaves me avoiding stairs for a week, but the river in the valley bottom provides a welcome ice bath for my feet.

No food is provided for guests, so I head to a nearby restaurant for a delicious meal of grilled local trout. A sign informs overnight visitors to return before the gates are locked at 8pm, so I gulp down my wine and rush back before curfew. With characteristic Bulgarian punctuality, the doors eventually swing shut at 9pm. Electric lights clunk on around the cloisters and the looming mountains turn a shade darker. Without the clamour of visitors’ voices, other sounds are amplified: the tinkle of the fountains, the screaming of the swifts wheeling around the courtyard, the gargled miaow of one of the monastery cats.

Church bells wake me early the next morning. I step out on to the creaking wooden veranda; overnight rain has drenched the cobbles and mist clings to the forested mountainsides. Apart from a group of doves purring and sipping from a puddle, the quadrangle is still. Inside the church, the monks have begun the morning service. They stand facing the ornate gold-plated iconostasis, a screen inlaid with icons that separates the main nave from the sanctuary, the holiest part of the church. Every so often, a robed figure appears through a door in the screen, vigorously distributing incense from a hanging censer.

After the service I speak to a monk in the reservations office, Hierodeacon Nektarii. In a soft, musical voice he tells me how he came to the monastery as a novice 10 years ago. There are just eight monks at Rila now, he says — in the 19th century there were 200. When the monastery became a national museum in 1961, the remaining monks were all moved out. “People asked: what kind of monastery has no monks? And a few years later a few of us were allowed to return.”

The gargantuan cooking utensils and 1,000-loaf bread oven displayed in the museum date from Rila’s 19th-century heyday. “On feast days the monastery attracted thousands of pilgrims,” Nektarii explains, “and we would feed them all”. Today’s operations are comparatively modest and Nektarii bakes the communion bread himself — still in a traditional ornamental mould “but we use a modern oven now”.

I pack my bags as the quadrangle begins to bustle with tourists again. As I head out past the tour groups and souvenir stands, I think about Nektarii’s description of the 19th-century monastery — a place of feasts, thronging with pilgrims — and of Leigh Fermor’s description of the carnival buzz of Rila. I feel a pang for the loss of that world but I won’t quickly forget the peace of Rila at dawn.

Details: Twin rooms at Rila Monastery cost from 50 levs (£22) and can be booked in person at the reservations office in the monastery or by phone (+359 07054 2208). For more general tourism information, see bulgariatravel.org

Benaki report on progress with Paddy’s house

Although there are no new updates on the Benaki website, there does appear to be progress. Some readers have been in touch to report that work appears to have started, and indeed, the house has been closed to visitors to permit the work to commence.

On 26 September, the museum will report to interested parties in London at an invitation only event. I’ll try to update you immediately afterwards on progress.