Wednesday, 29 June 2016

The Algarve


“Portugal – it’s like Donegal, only with sunshine.”

I recall this quip from a work-mate, a description of his favourite golfing destination when I told him about my impending first trip there back in the 1970’s.  And it is indeed accurate, in a couple of senses.
Just as the Irish county is bolted onto Northern Ireland providing Ulster’s western seaboard, Portugal reveals itself as an appendage to the Iberian peninsula, almost in the shadow of its larger Spanish neighbour.  But the most striking parallel is that both places contain some of Europe’s most beautiful and inviting beaches.

That was why the Portugal was this family’s preferred holiday destination when our children were growing up.  One or two trips were made to the country’s west coast near Setubal; but most of those idyllic holidays were spent on the south coast, the Algarve.

This year, like a new awakening, it dawned on us that it had been more than 20 years since visiting Portugal (apart from one trip to Madeira).  To prove our resolve, an immediate decision was reached to remedy the shameful deficiency.  But rather than return to earlier haunts like Alvor, Portimao and Albufeira, we decided that the priority this time would be to explore the eastern Algarve.


From Ireland, there are two principal options for flying to the region’s airport at Faro.  One is Belfast, the other is Dublin.  The former entails a very early start to meet a 6 a.m. flight departure; whereas the latter offers a late afternoon departure and a mid-morning return flight.  For that reason, as well as the benefit of free transport direct to the front door of the airport terminal (using the senior citizens bus-pass), we booked Aer Lingus flights from Dublin to Faro.


One attraction for holiday-makers to Portugal is its range of good quality accommodation in restored buildings of architectural and historic interest.  
Pousadas describe themselves as small luxury hotels and are spread over the country[i].  Only three are located in the Algarve.  One sits in the village of Estoi which is just north of Faro.  It was temptingly described by one travel writer[ii] as

“for style and luxury combined with Portuguese panache, base yourself in this Neo-Rococo palace with chandeliers, mirrors, impressive stucco work...”

Evidence which is hard to resist.

Arriving in the early evening, this was a good choice for us being a short drive from the airport.  The late 18th century Pousada do Palacio de Estoi is a spacious modernised property in a grand baroque building with Versailles-style gardens.  It has 45 double bedrooms, 15 superior rooms and three suites.  Its facilities include outdoor and indoor swimming pools, spa, and wifi.

Venturing out without ambling too far beyond the confines of the village, our first discovery was the Algarve's premier Roman site at Milreu.  This is the location of a Roman villa and a range of associated structures, whose most impressive feature was a series of beautiful mosaics. 

It appears that the affluent Romans built villas with facilities that are still regarded today as the the essence of luxurious living, such as a spa.  Very civilised.

One joy of discovering this area in late spring is the abundance of all sorts of wildflowers.  Poppies thrive. Nature is winning.


We visited two of the most beautiful beaches anybody could wish for, both accessible (almost tantalisingly) only by boat.

The first was the aptly-named Ilha Deserta.   
We took a boat from the Porta Nova just outside the walls of Faro’s old town, a trip of about 20 minutes.  You sail along shimmering channels between sandy islets through the Ria Formosa Natural Park wetlands, emerging onto what appears like the most expansive and deserted sandy beach ever.  After an hour or more of relaxing with a good novel and some swimming, there is time for a late lunch in the island’s single restaurant before a return trip back to Faro.

The other magnificent beach was thirty kilometres further east, off the pretty town of Tavira.  The ferry-boat to the Ilha Tavira leaves from a spot close to the town centre at the estuary of the Rio Gilao.  The distance and time to get there is similar to that for Faro’s deserted island.  

One difference is that this island is populated with an array of restaurants, all grouped together and offering a range of prices.  Another difference was that there were more visitors than on the Ilha Deserta.  That said, however, walking for no more than five minutes up the expansive sands and it was easy to find privacy away from the madding crowd.  Gorgeous sand and crystal clear water once more.  Bliss.

Faro, the old town

A couple of years ago we spent a week discovering Malaga, through which most tourists pass through from the airport and head to the costas.  That trip was a revelation, partly because Malaga is a fascinating city with many cultural assets and one that is not dominated by tourism.  In such resorts, one feels more like a local than a visitor.  The same applies to Faro.

We travelled from Estoi into Faro on the local modern bus, offering the opportunity to gaze at the verdant countryside and its fertile fields displaying a wide range of horticultural produce including olive groves, orange trees, and grapevines.  The 8 kilometre journey took less than half an hour.

One of the most eye-catching sights of Faro is storks and their nests.  These tall skinny-legged birds build the most enormous nests sited precariously on top of some of the city’s most prominent buildings.   
Storks' nests (4) on Arco da Vila
I observed as tourists risked getting knocked down attempting to get the impossible photo of these elegant creatures landing and taking off.  What a tribute to Faro’s green credentials and its citizens that they allow nature to co-exist rather than, as might happen elsewhere, relocate the nests.

Entering the old town at the 19th century Arco da Vila gateway and its bell tower adorned with storks nests, we visited the majestic Santa Maria Church, Faro Cathedral.  This is the centrepiece of the historic quarter.  The Cathedral accommodates eleven or more chapels, replete with enough religious art and sculptures to keep a saintly person going for at least a lifetime.  
                                    And what a view from above.
View over Faro from the Cathedral

Outside the old town, we visited another large church, the Igreja do Carmo, again full of elaborately decorated altars, a place for quiet reflection.  Its chief draw for visitors, however, was the almost ghoulish Capela dos Ossos, or Bones Chapel.  
Apparently, to accommodate an extension to the mother church, the skeletons of many monks were disinterred from the adjacent cemetery and to this day their skulls and bones form the neat interior of this chapel.

This being a holiday, more earthly pleasures merit space.  While waiting for our return bus to Estoi, we stopped at a cafe across the street from central station for coffee and cakes.  I ordered a triple pancake smothered in cream, ice cream, strawberries all covered in a Chantilly and chocolate sauce.  
A mid afternoon snack like this combined with pleasant sunshine creates quite a soporific effect.  I suspect this is why I slept most the way back to the Pousada.


Before setting out on this visit to the Algarve, a friend at home had recommended a visit to Tavira as the most pleasant place to visit, unspoilt by mass tourism.  It lies about 30 kilometres east of Faro, an easy drive for us from Estoi.   
The Ilha Tavira ferry
Apart from the beach on the Ilha Tavira, the town’s riverfront was recommended by our guidebook[iii] as the best place for a wander.  It leads up to the town’s central square, the Praca da Republica, where we were met by the magnificent strains of the best busking jazz band I have ever heard.  Not unlike the Buena Vista Social Club in tone and quality.


When we visited in mid-May, apart from some cloud on the first two days, the weather was mostly very pleasant with temperatures in the low 20's C. Sea temperatures were perfectly acceptable for swimming.  
All in all, our next visit to Portugal will not take twenty years to organise.

©Michael McSorley 2016

[ii] Belfast Telegraph Weekend 2 June 2014 Harriet O’Brien 48 Hours in Faro
[iii] The Rough Guide to Portugal Jan 2014

Friday, 29 January 2016

Enigmatic Russia

Russia is never out of the public consciousness.

As a friend in England reminded me after reading last month’s article[i], Churchill described Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

Perhaps this explains why it features so regularly in current affairs news reporting and likewise commands our continuing attention in the cultural media.

Russian News

Last year (and the year before that), for example, we heard all about the unrest in the east of Ukraine and consequent criticism about Russia’s intentions; we witnessed the concern in Europe as Russia annexed Crimea; in total contrast, international sympathy for Russia was aroused last autumn when a jet carrying Russian tourists over the Sinai in Egypt was destroyed by a bomb; the UK Prime Minister and others criticised Russian airstrikes in Syria, criticism which continues; suspicions harking back to the Communist era were evoked when Russian athletes were suspended from international competition following a report produced by the sport’s world drugs body about global athletics; and the fall-out from the death almost a decade ago of the former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko continues with a public inquiry concluding recently that President Putin “probably” approved of his murder; which story has been followed by a row over accusations on BBC Panorama[ii] by the US Treasury about President Putin’s “secret wealth.”
And so it goes on.

Russia’s televisual portrayal

This year, Russia has been given a fantastic public relations introduction, at least in the UK.  Thanks to the BBC, Russian history and culture have been portrayed in their finest light with a series of superb documentaries and also by the dramatization of its greatest novel written by its greatest author.

On 3 January, a lavish 6-part interpretation of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace[iii]” got 2016 off to a beautiful start for Russophiles and lovers of costume drama alike.  Reviews of the series have been overwhelmingly positive, and deservedly so.

Where our national broadcaster also excels is in the non-fictional world of documentary-making.  Early January was lit up brightly by two one-off programmes about classical music.   
Receiving more publicity was a third documentary which is about the Tsars.  The eminent historian Lucy Worsley has been explaining in three one-hour programmes entitled “Empire of the Tsars” the story of the Russian royal family, the Romanovs, and its 300 years of history.  
Essential background that helps us understand the influential country we know today[iv].

Having referred last month to Sarah Quigley’s superb novel (“The Conductor”) about the siege of Leningrad and Shostakovich’s composition of his seventh symphony, the broadcast on 1 January of “Leningrad: the orchestra that defied Hitler” told the same story factually.   
Just like the novel, the documentary was as thorough as it was realistically upsetting, meticulous and hard-hitting.[v]  
It included some persuasive eye-witness accounts from the St Petersburg concert recounting their version of half-starved musicians grappling with a complex score.  
Archive footage of the composer and of the city’s horrendous suffering under siege were also presented.  
I hope that the presenters, Tom Service and Amanda Vickery, are recognised for the diligence of their research.

The other documentary was “The Joy of Rachmaninoff,” a recounting of the compositional life of this great Romantic composer[vi] and presented by Tom Service.  Having referred in last month’s article to the Rachmaninov Vespers and the performance in Omagh by the Mariinsky Chorus under Valery Gergiev’s baton in 2000, one revelation resonated with me.  This was the last Church music that was written and performed before the Bolsheviks and Lenin took brutal charge of Mother Russia, banning religion and the composition of sacred music.

Russia in recent books

Having emphasised last month the role of fiction in communicating the horrors of despotism and the wonderful novel “Child 44,” the publication of “On Stalin’s Team: The Years of Living Dangerously in Soviet Politics” sounds like a factual account of the same issue, namely the Stalinist purges.  The author is Sheila Fitzpatrick.   
The review which caught my attention[vii] listed it as Book of the week.  Aaronovitch explains that this book sets the record straight, contradicting the official account following Stalin’s death.  It reveals that Stalin’s inner circle did in fact play a significant role in the purges, the arrests and imprisonment of two million people.  This together with the execution of 688,503 people between 1935 and 40 was not the work of Stalin alone.  So many victims, so much horror.

Another recent non-fiction book that stands out is “Winter is coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must be Stopped” written by Garry Kasparov, the chess grandmaster.   
The review which grabbed my attention[viii] on this occasion calls it “this brave, trenchant and convincing book.”  Its message seems to chime with the current row over the Alexander Litvinenko murder.  Kasparov rails against what the author describes as the cowardly West which refuses to stop the dangerous regime that currently misrules Russia.

Finally and returning to fiction, I cannot wait to receive the latest novel written by the UK Man Booker prize winner (in 2011) Julian Barnes.  The Noise of Time” has a publication date of 28 January 2016.   
It has been previewed with effusive praise by one critic[ix] as “fictional biography... this is a great novel...a novel that is powerfully affecting, a condensed masterpiece that traces the lifelong battle of one man’s conscience, one man’s art, with the insupportable exigencies of totalitarianism.”   
The subject, of course, is Shostakovich. 

Russia together with its woes and its beauty is a never-ending saga, an enigma indeed.

Postscript: My copy of "The Noise of Time" arrived two days after its publication date.  
Alex Preston's review is uncannily accurate - powerfully affecting, a masterpiece.  
Just as the novel "Child 44" recreates the horror endured by ordinary citizens during Stalin's purges, Julian Barnes puts the reader in the shoes of the great composer to convey the impact of tyranny on creative genius. (MMcS 03202016).

Monday, 28 December 2015

Russia Revealed


The world’s biggest country is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a land of gargantuan contrasts. I now realise this as fact as a result of visiting Russia in May and after two months of more recent study.

There are inevitable geographical and climatological variations to be expected in a vast land mass which stretches from the Baltic to the Pacific, from the White Sea to the Black Sea.   
But the contrasts which grab my attention are related to culture and history.

One extreme encapsulates the ultimate in beauty and creativity, the other exposes the most depraved limits of violence and human degradation.  How is it possible that Russia, which has given mankind superlative culture, has also been exposed to and survives some of the most psychotic tyranny ever endured by any nation on earth?

Russian contrasts

The creative side includes towering geniuses in literature (Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Pushkin, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Boris Pasternak), in classical music (Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Rimsky-Korsakov, Shostakovich, Mussorgsky), ballet and opera companies (the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky), and great museums (the Hermitage and the Armory).   Beautiful Russia is also revealed through its sublime architecture.

The achievements make my heart sing with joy; in complete contrast, the carnage wrought on everyday twentieth century life in the name of Communism and Nazism evokes profound sorrow and sympathy for the country’s long-suffering citizens.


One abiding impression indelibly imprinted on my mind as a tourist last May in Moscow and St Petersburg was the huge priority that post-Soviet Russia has given to architectural restoration.  The scale and quality of the work in both cities is overwhelmingly impressive.   

Related to this is the realisation that Orthodox Catholicism seems to be flourishing in Russia in spite of twentieth century ideological hostility and subjugation.  It seems almost perverse, but some of its finest ecclesiastical architecture is juxtaposed with very heart of Government.

The Kremlin includes a number of cathedrals within the fortress.  These include the five-domed church of the twelve apostles, the Assumption Cathedral, the church of the Deposition of the Robe, and Archangel Cathedral.    
The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, a 19th century church, was destroyed in 1931 by the Soviets.  It has been rebuilt, miraculously, to the original design, completed in 2000 and is again the tallest Orthodox church in the world.  Its guilded copper domes and white walls gleam triumphantly.  Its interior walls are bedecked with magnificent icons.  The city’s tourist board describes the cathedral as a “symbol of Moscow’s post-Soviet revival.”

In St Petersburg the Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood reveals a similar story.  Named after and built on the spot where the Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881, this Church is dedicated to the Resurrection of Christ.  It also had a tumultuous existence in the twentieth century because of the Bolsheviks suppression of religion.  The building has been restored – resurrected - to its former magnificence.

The State Hermitage and the Winter Palace provide another example of Russian beauty as well as reminders of man’s tyranny.  The building was planned by Tsar Peter the Great and enhanced by Catherine II, Catherine the Great.  “The Russian Empire at its most grandiosely extravagant” is the apt description by the St Petersburg tourist board.
In October 1917 it was ransacked by the Bolsheviks.  
As if that wasn’t enough, the Nazis gutted it during the 900-day siege of the city.  

The impact on the senses of subsequent restoration of the property is staggering.  The art collection is outstanding.  Apart from Faberge eggs and priceless jewellery, the Hermitage houses artistic masterpieces by Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Goya, El Greco, Titian, Murillo, Veronese, and a Michelangelo sculpture, and a collection of paintings by the Impressionists - Monet, Matisse, Degas, Cézanne, Gauguin as well as Picasso and Van Gogh.[i]  Proof of what we were told in class – Peter the Great gave modern Russia its body; Catherine the Great gave it its soul.

The Catherine Palace in Pushkin was the summer retreat of Catherine I, Peter the Great’s wife.  Like the Hermitage, this building exhibits magnificence through imposing and colourful external appearance as well as sumptuous interiors.  
Following the Nazi occupation and the disappearance of lavish panels, the Palace’s Amber Room[ii] (dubbed “the Eighth Wonder of the World”) has been recreated at huge expense.  The work has taken 20 years to complete.  A montage of black and white photographs graphically illustrates the destructive impact of World War 2.

Just when you think your senses can take no more beauty, along comes one more marvel. The Peterhof Palace (Petrodvorets) lying about 15 miles outside the city was the elaborate suburban palace of Peter the Great.  It was inspired by Versailles.   
Before leaving for the airport and the end of our trip[iii], the sun shone to reveal this fabulous estate’s golden statues, fountains and cascades.  The palace and its sensuous sculptures look proudly down at the Gulf of Finland and the Baltic.   
This testament to restoration backed with financial muscle provides a defiant answer to the erstwhile destroyers of Russia (and Europe’s) culture.

The commitment of the post-Communist Russian authorities to its architectural heritage makes an emphatic statement.  To me it proclaims – this is who we are, we are proud of our Imperial and Christian legacy.

Second World War

Our visit coincided with the 70th anniversary of the end of World War 2.  The occasion was proudly celebrated in extravagant style on 9 May with the biggest parade in Moscow since the fall of Communism.   
According to the BBC television report[iv], Russia lost more lives than any other country on earth - 26 million people perished during the war.
Consider this single example.  Hitler wrote – “Leningrad must be erased from the face of the earth.”  History books record that over the next three years, 1.4 million people left or were evacuated from the city and 1.5 million starved or died.

Novels have a way of conveying the visceral pain and struggle for survival more poignantly than any history book can.  Even though such narratives can upset as well as surprise emotionally, graphic reminders of human depravity serve a positive purpose.  The reader becomes an eye-witness, exposed to heartache and suffering - and also to hope.
Stalin, as we learned in class, distrusted the city and placed it on his blacklist.   

“The Conductor[v]” tells the story of the composition of most of the mighty Leningrad Symphony by the defiant Shostakovich before he was evacuated.  The book realistically depicts the deep human spirit of resilience in the face of the horrors of bombing and starvation.   
Likewise, “The Siege[vi]” details a harrowing tale of a family’s struggle to survive, making soup from a leather manicure case, burning books and furniture to stay warm.

Chekist purges

The novel “Child 44[vii] captures the frightening atmosphere of paranoia and sheer terror that pervaded the country because of the purges wrought by the Stalinist regime.   
The reader feels the bodily pain of horrendous torture, the torment inside aching minds, and sees the butchery of human torsos.  
So vivid is the story-telling that I had to put the book down and go for a walk to recover from shock.  Just imagine what it must have been like to live under such a regime.

An appendix to the novel starkly reveals appalling statistics.   
These include the number of forced labourers in the USSR (28.7 million); the number of execution warrants signed by Stalin on one November day in 1938 (3,167); the number of political executions between 1930-1953 (786,098); the number of peasants who died during the terror-famine of 1930-1933 (14.5 million); the number of homeless children 1943-45 (842,144); the number of Churches in Moscow before the Revolution (460), and the number by 1 January 1933 (100).

The fiction of these three page-turning contemporary novels is based on meticulously researched fact.  Thus it fits perfectly with the legacy and the narrative style of Russian Realism established by writers like Pushkin and Tolstoy.

Creative influences

Pushkin is also fondly remembered for his fairytales, drawing on the Russian tradition of folkloric legends.  The same influence is heard in Russian classical music.   

Rimsky Korsakov’s mystical and powerfully orchestrated Scheherazade about Arabian nights and Mussorgsky’s whirling Night on Bare Mountain about witches and Satan fire the imagination with stirring and uplifting melodies that conjure up exotic fantasies.
Tchaikovsky’s superlative ballet scores - The Nutcracker, Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty[viii] - bring to life with the most ethereal music, stories which are, in effect, fairytales. 

This same composer has also enriched all of our lives even further with gorgeous symphonies and concerti.  These range from the turbo-charged maelstrom of the 1812 Overture inspired by the Napoleonic invasion of Russia to the beauty of his Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture and the haunting eeriness of his sixth symphony, the Pathétique.

And who can live without Rachmaninov and especially the soaring melodies and mesmeric beauty of his heart-melting second and third piano concerti.  Omagh people will never forget the performance by the Chorus of the Mariinsky Theatre conducted by Valery Gergiev in the Sacred Heart Church of Rachmaninov’s Vespers in 1990.

Music to die for.  Tragically, far too many millions of Russian citizens have lost their lives on the altar of ideological tyrannies.

Russia’s literature takes us from fantasy to realism, reflecting in a way the country’s variety and its historical extremes.  
In the same way, Russia’s composers produce music which is stirringly bellicose and at another remove can evoke the most calming and soporific mood imaginable.

Creative Russia reveals itself with aplomb and in the face of adversity through its wondrous art, architecture, literature and music.  It stands the test of time.


[i] “The State Hermitage: Treasures from the Museum’s Collections.” Booth Clibborn £175
[v] Sarah Quigley “The Conductor” 2011 Head of Zeus
[vi] Helen Dunmore “The Siege” 2001 QPD
[vii] Tom Robb Smith “Child 44” 2009 Pocket Books
[viii] Birmingham Royal Ballet performed Swan Lake in the Grand Opera House and a Moscow Ballet Company performed Sleeping Beauty in the Waterfront Hall, Belfast on successive nights in November 2015.

©Michael McSorley 2015