Adam Yamey's Blog
November 23, 2014
Many of our acquaintances expressed some surprise when we told them that we were going to spend 12 days in Fort Cochin ('Cochin'). They thought that we would get bored, and suggested that we left the place for a few days to see the Backwaters or some of the Keralan nature reserves. We did spend 12 days in Cochin, but did not follow our friends' advice. We discovered, as I hope to show, that there is plenty to see in Cochin and that, maybe, 12 days is not long enough.
The climate in Cochin is hot and extremely humid. Therefore, it is best to take things at a leisurely pace; try to 'chill-out' (if that is possible in such a hot climate) rather than rush. Try to spend a lot of time eating and drinking - Cochin is full of lovely places to refresh body and mind (see my article about eating in Cochin by clicking HERE )
The place to which we kept returning at least once every day was the stretch of beach where the Chinese Fishing Nets operate. These nets were introduced to Kerala either by the Chinese explorer Zheng He (1371-1433) or by Portuguese settlers from Macau. A net stretched between 4 connected rods forms the base of a pyramidical structure. This is attached to a long lever which carries stone counterweights at its landward end. Periodically, the net is lowered beneath the water and left there for a while. Then a number of men, assisted by the counterweights, raise the laden net fom the water.
The contents of the nets consist mainly of the weeds that float on the water, and are emptied into crates. One of the fisherman sifts through the weeds looking for seafood (see below). Small, immature fish are chucked back into the sea, and anything that can be sold is sorted into containers.
One needs to visit the nets often to be lucky enough to see a net 'in action'. A path runs alongside the nets. Fisherman offer the passersby fresh fish, which they suggest you buy to take to nearby restaurants to cook. Other people try to sell a wide variety of products, mostly of little use! If all this activity is too much for you, there are more 'Chinese' nets to be seen across the waters on nearby Vypen Island.
The ferry stations for Vypen are close to the Fort Cochin Bus Stand. You can use the foot passenger ferry (see above), which has a special 'ladies only, section at its stern, or the vehicle carrying ferry on which men, women, autorickshaws, two-wheelers, cars, and trucks, mingle freely. The nets at Vypen stand facing those across the waters in Cochin, but without any crowds near them.
Vypen has a beautiful church that dates back to the Portuguese invasion of Kerala (see below).
An autorickshaw or bus from the Vypen landing stage will transport the visitor over a bridge across a stretch of water to Vallarpadam Island, where the twin-towered Basilica of Our Lady of Ransom (see next 2 pictures below) stands in splendid isolation and attracts many pilgrims.
Returning to Cochin from which we hardly ever strayed, let us now look at some of Cochin's churches. Not far from the Chinese nets and almost opposite the grounds of the Fort Cochin Club - a fine example of British colonial architecture, which can be viewed by non-members through its gates, is St Francis Church. Now a Protestant church, it was once Roman Catholic. It was built by the Portuguese. The altar which they installed (see below) is now housed in the fascinating Indo-Portuguese Museum (very well worth a visit) in the compound of the Bishop's Palace on Elphinstone Road.
Today, that altar has been replaced by a newer one. The general appearance of the church's interior is rather dull except for the hand-operated punkahs (ie. ventilators, see below)that are suspended above the pews.
Look out for the gravestone marking the resting place of Vasco da Gama who died in Cochin. His body was later taken to Lisbon in Portugal. The walls of the church and especially the estern end of it are lined with Dutch (see below) and Portuguese gravestones.
Near to St Francis is the marvellously stocked Idiom bookshop. This is a booklover's paradise, but do not expect any bargains!
The Basilica of Santa Cruz (see above), now a Roman Catholic Church, stands further away from the coast than St Francis. Its interior (see below) is nothing special but worth visiting briefly. For those who like attending masses, they are available in Malayalam, English, and also Latin.
However, the church is located close to a truly wonderful Italian restaurant called Upstairs.
St Peter and Paul is a less visited church, but most interesting. Located in Tower Road, it serves an Orthodox Syrian congregation. It is said that the Syrian Orthodox Christians in India began worshipping in the Orthodox rite following their conversion by St Thomas in 52 ad. Whatever their origins, these Christians worship according to rites that resemble those practised by Orthodox Christians in the Balkans and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Over the centuries, the Syrian Christians in India have become divided into numerous different sects. Those that worship at this particular church in Tower Road look to a spritual leader not in Syria but somewhere in Kerala.
The high altar of the church is hidden not by an iconostasis, as in Orthodox churches in Europe, but by a curtain rather like that found in a theatre. The picture above shows this as found in St Mary's Orthodox Cathedral in Ernakulam. The church in Tower Road in Fort Cochin contains an interesting carved tablet (see below).
It is carved, so we were informed, in Syriac (a dialect of Middle Aramaic) script. The bible (see below) used in this church is bilingual - Malayalam and Syriac. I hope to write much more about this fascinating church in a future article.
Another church well worth visiting is St Lawrence at Edacochi, which can easily reached on a local bus (see below) that starts at Fort Cochin bus stand.
This attractive Roman Catholic church was established by the Portuguese in the 16th century. Close to the weed covered waterway, this church has a lovely white-painted facade and a bell tower with 'arabesque' features.
When we visited it, a christening was in its final stages (see below). The congregation were very friendly and some of them spoke with us afterwards.
Regular buses connect Edacochi with Mattancherry, but the latter can only be reached by autorickshaw from Fort Cochin. For many centuries, Mattancherry had a thriving Jewish community. Now, only a handful of very elderly Jews live there. We met one of them - an old lady called Sara Cohen, who supervises the running of a shop (see below) selling woven material of Jewish interest (kippot etc.) There are not enough male Jews in the Cochin area to be able to hold services in the beautiful synagogue, which has now become a protected national monument.
The synagogue is well worth a visit.It has a beautiful floor covered by hand-painted Dutch tiles, each one a different design. The central bima made with brass is spectacular as are the many lamps that hang from the ceiling.
Many tourists swarm through the ancient synagogue, but it is worth sitting down and passing a few minutes inside. In between the bursts of visitors, it is a very peaceful place to linger. The synagogue is close to Jew Street, which ought to be renamed 'Kashmiri Street' as many of the shops lining this picturesque thoroughfare are now owned and run by people from Kashmir.
The Synagogue is right next to the Mattancherry (Dutch) Palace (see below). This contains some interesting frecoes, but these and the other exhibits are difficult to see because of the crowds of visitors streaming through the place. Give it a miss if you are pressed for time!
Halfway between Mattancherry and Fort Cochin, there is a delightful church with a Portuguese facade to be visited.
Its peaceful interior is quite decorative (see below)
Back in Fort Cochin, there are many more attractions. A small arch on Tower Road (near to the Tourist Police office) admits one to the old prison which is now open as a visitors' attraction.
On entering the jail's compound, you get to see a row of empty cells, whose doors open out onto a covered walkway. A number of photographs (see below for an example) commemmorate heroes of India's long struggle to become independent of the British.
Some distance away from the jail, and well beyond the vast grassy Parade Ground which is surrounded by a number of grand buildings dating back to Portuguese and Dutch times, there is the Dutch Cemetery. This was closed when we visited it, but the gates permit a good view of its well-spaced funereal monuments.
Even further away from the centre of Fort Cochin lies the Maritime Museum. Situated on Indian Navy Land, this place is a bit disappointing at first sight. But, do not be put off by first appearances! The grounds of this museum are filled with guns, weaponry, and other military hardware (see below). This is of limited interest in my opinion.
You should give the outdoor naval 'armamentarium' a cursory glance before entering the massive 'bunker' that contains the most interesting part of the museum. This pleasantly cool bunker cxontains a number of extremely fascinating exhibits relating to India's many century-long history of military warfare. One part of this that attracted my eye was an exhibit about the tracking of a Pakistani submarine that plied between West Pakistan and what is now Bangladesh (formerly 'East Pakistan') during the 1971 Bangladesh War.
There is another museum that must be visited. This is the Indo-Portuguese Museum, to which I have already briefly alluded. This is housed in the grounds of the Bishop's Palace (which is not open to the public). It has been handsomely endowed by the Gulbenkian Foundation and contains a good selection of exhibits dating back to the period during which Cochin was a Portuguese 'possession'. The pair of doors illustrated above make a fine entry to the exhibition space. The door lock, illustrated below, is one of many fascinating exhibits.
It contains within its complex designs the following religious symbols: a Hindu trident, an Islamic Crescent, a Christian cross, and Jewish candles. It summarises Kerala's religious diversity. Another curious exhibit is a statuette of St George and the Dragon (see below). St George in this depiction looks remarkably like Indian representations of Lord Krishna.
While the Indo-Portuguese Museum is a contemporary structure housing 'heritage' items, David Hall, which faces the Parade Ground, is a 'heritage' structure that houses contemporary objects.
Its external appearance (see above) reminded me of Dutch constructions that I saw when visiting the Cape Province in South Africa (see an example below).
David Hall is a Dutch construction. It contains a number of room used to house contemporary artworks: paintings and sculptures. The largest of these is used occasionally as a performance space. We were fortunate to have been able to attend a concert given by a jazz ensemble visiting from the Netherlands. The concert was so popular that some of the audience were forced to stand outside and peer through the windows (see below).
Fort Cochin is full of 'heritage' buildings, some of which date back several centuries to the times when the Portuguese and Dutch ran the area. By wandering slowly through the streets of Port Cochin, the visitor will gain plenty of views of these, some of which contain rooms that serve as accommodation for tourists and other visitors. One one of these buildings I spotted the sign of the Dutch East India Company (see below).
The road that connects the Fort Cochin Bus Stand with the Ernakulam ferry station, Calvathy Road, contains a number of so-called 'heritage' buildings of varying degrees of interest. The slightly dilapidated Aspinwall's building (see below) is used as one of the exhibition places during the Kochi-Muzhiri Biennale, which is next to be held from December 2014 until March 2015.
Aspinwall and Company Ltd has been involved with commercial activity along the Malabar Coast since 1867 when it was founded by an Englishman John Aspinwall. Almost opposite this building, there is a small shack in which I spotted a large portrait of Che Guevara (see below), This and the many hammer and sickle signs that can be seen all over Cochin remind us that many people in Kerala have socialist leanings.
Greenix, further along the road, was described to us as being 'unmissable'. It describes itself as a 'cultural art centre promoting Kerala's varied art forms under a single roof '. It might well live up to its claim but the unfriendly and unhelpful behaviour of the staff on duty when we visited it put us off exploring it. The Pepper House, which is across the road from Greenix makes a pleasant contrast. This old building contains a large, peaceful inner courtyard (see below), at one end of which there is a pleasant café.
The building, which is also used during the biennale, houses a privately owned magnificent library of art books and DVDs. The collection that is open daily for members of the public to use rivals many universitys' collections of books on contemporary (and older) art.
Back in town, not far from the Fort Cochin Bus Station, stands the luxurious Brunton Boatyard Hotel. Its website describes the building that houses as being a 'recreated period building ' , the period being the 19th century. It is worth wandering around its extensive lobby in order to view the fine coollection of portraits (see above) and old maps (see below) that line its walls.
I hope that by now you are, dear reader, beginning to understand how we were able to spend so long in Fort Cochin without having to make excursions to undoubtedly fascinating stretches of the Backwaters or to nature reserves. Spend lots of time in Cochin, relax and make your own discoveries!
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November 16, 2014
When we informed our friends in Bangalore that we were going to spend 12 days in Cochin (in the Indian State of Kerala), they all wondered what we would find to do there for such a long time. "Ah, well," some of them said, "you can always spend a few days on the backwaters or in a nature reserve. That would help the time pass nicely." Despite advice such as this, we managed to find plenty to do in and around Fort Cochin without having to leave it as our friends suggested.
One of the things that we particularly enjoyed in Cochin was eating. This small city is well provided with restaurants, many of which serve food - both Indian and European - of the highest quality. In 12 days, we had plenty of opportunities to sample the fare on offer in this delightful, laid-back historic town. I plan to make your mouth water by describing some of the many places that served us food. The opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own and completely unbiased by inducements offered by the establishments to be discussed.
There is a line of 4 restaurants along one pavement of Tower Road opposite the grounds of Delta College. They look rather like the beach-side 'tavernas' that I used to enjoy visting in Greece during the 1960s and 1970s. At any time of day or night, it is impossible to walk past them without being solicited by the people who work there. Even if you tell them that you have just eaten, they will encourage you to take your next meal there. I had never eaten at Maxim's in Paris, and thought it would be interesting to sample Little Maxim's, one of these pavement restaurants in Cochin. Sadly, it was one of the least enjoyable places that we patronised. There was nothing wrong with the food, but it lacked interest. The restaurant's prices were no less than other establishments that we visited, which had better food and more pleasant ambiences.
24 hours later, we ate dinner in one of the best places that we discovered in Fort Cochin. The Old Harbour House is located in a beautifully preserved building that was probably built by the Dutch several centuries ago. It has an internal courtyard (see above) and a lovely walled garden where meals can be eaten. Costing little more than Little Maxim's,this restaurant is blessed with a chef who learnt his craft in Italy. The seadood pasta (see below), which I ordered, was second to none, even some of the splendid pasta that we had sampled earlier in the year in Sicily. My wife had a superb Keralan fish curry. On our second visit to this restaurant we drank wine, but now this may no longer be possible as Kerala has just become a 'dry state' in which the serving of alcohol is severely restricted by law.
The Old Harbour House is not the only place that serves excellent pasta in Cochin. Located on the first floor of a building opposite the Santa Cruz Basilica, Upstairs is an Italian restaurant, Its owner was trained to cook in Genova in Italy, and the food that he serves shows much eveidence of this. Both the pastas that we tried and the one pizza were superb - well up to the standard of most good restaurants in Italy.
Upstairs calls itself a 'jazz café'. Diners are regaled by an endless stream of recorded jazz music, which is not unpleasant. An Italian who spends several months a year working in Cochin confirmed our opinion of the high quality of the Italian food served here, but his only criticism was that he did not think that they used extra-virgin olive oil! On one of our visits to Upstairs we shared a table with a young lady who reccommended that we tried the nearby Fusion Bay Restaurant. We did as she advised, but were disappointed. This pleasant looking restaurant is very popular, but we did not find that the food was as high a quality as many of the other places where we ate in Cochin. Equally, Talk of the Town, which is opposite Upstairs, was not worth revisiting.
David Hall (see picture above) is a building built by the Dutch, and looks like many of the houses built by the Dutch settlers in the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa). Beautifully restored and preserved, this has become a cultural centre. Some of its rooms house works of contemporary art, and the largest of these is used occasionally as a venue for performances. We were lucky enough to attend a fine jazz concert there. Behind the building there is a garden. On one side of this there is an open air café covered by a canopy. This restaurant serves food and drinks. Its kitchen is provided with a pizza oven (see below). The pizzas that I tried there were not as good as that which I ate at Upstairs, but they were quite acceptable and better than many pizzas that I have eaten elsewhere in India.
Other offerings from the menu at David Hall are best avoided. Whether or not you plan to eat at David Hall, it is a place that is well worth visiting in Cochin. David Hall is located at the side of Fort Cochin furthest from the bus stand and various ferry stations. Between the bus stand and the ferry landing stage where boats to Ernakulam may be boarded, there are a number of eateries of interest. The 'poshest' of these is Brunton Boatyard. The two places that we looked at here were the groundfloor bar-cum- restaurant, which is reached by walking along a passageway lined with fascinating old maps of Cochin (the one shown below was dated 1663), and another much fancier place upstairs called the 'History' restaurant.
The ground floor place has an outdoor garden overlooking the lagoon and with a view of distant cranes at the container terminal on Vallarpadam Island. Incidentally, it is surprising that the two most luxurious hotels in the area - the Brunton and the Taj Vivanta on Willingdon Island - have rather spoilt vistas rich in industrial objects. The filter coffee served in the ground floor café was pricey but excellent. Feeling peckish on one occasion I ordered a 'beer slider with bacon' (see below). This was beautifully presented but disappointingly prepared - poor in taste and not good value for money. The History Restaurant has an elaborately written menu, but offered little that could not be obtained elsewhere in Cochin at a fraction of the price. Each main dish cost more than a decent meal for 2 or 3 people elsewhere in the town.
The Cochin Fort restaurant is directly across the road from the Brunton Boatyard. It is a lively, popular place set back from the busy main road. On arrival, we were invited to look at the freshly caught fish on display and if we had wanted we could have selected specimens that caught our eye. We ate a good meal during an exceptionally heavy rain storm.
The fish peera, a dryish preparation of fish with cococonut, was delicately flavoured and delicious. The fish moilee was also excellent as were the prawns prepared in a north Indian way. The Aleppy fish curry was tasty but not as good as the other dishes that we ate. 'Continental' and Italian dishes were also on the menu but our hosts did not reccommend these.
Further away from the bus stand and almost opposite the rather disappointing Greenix exhibition of Kerala arts, crafts, and traditions, there stands the Pepper House. Like the David Hall already described, Pepper house is both an eatery and a cultural centre. The café overlooks a peaceful and very beautiful grassy courtyard. We sampled a Bombay Sandwich which was essentially a cucumber sandwich with a spicy masala - surprisingly tasty. The café serves a fresh lime soda laced with ground sarsaparilla root (see below).
This curiously flavoured drink is both refreshing and enjoyable. The café is adjacent to a large room containing a magnificent library of books on art - mostly contemporary - and a huge collection of DVDs of western 'art' movies. This library is open to members of the public, who are free to browse and read the books. There are also facilities for watching the DVDs. The library belongs to, and was collected by, Bose Krishnamachari, the director of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale that is about to begin in December 2014.
The Fort House Hotel is close to Pepper House. Its small restaurant, which is one of the best that we visited in Fort Cochin, is housed under a huge traditional palmleaf canopy (see above).
We ate at this restaurant twice , as we did at Old Harbour House which is only just a slightly better eatery. The squid olarithu (see above) was perfect as was grilled fish. Other seafood dishes that we tried were also good. This is a very pleasant place to eat.
One of our few visits to places outside Fort Cochin was to nearby Mattancherry. We entered a particularly unpretentious looking, rather shabby place opposite the bus stand and the entrance to the Dutch Palace. This was the Indian Hotel , where we ate beef biriani (see above). This typically Moslem preparation was one of the best birianis that I have ever tasted. Oddlly enough some of the other really good birianis that I have eaten were also made by Moslems in Kerala (in Calicut).
Returning to Fort Cochin, there are two cafés that deserve mentioning. One of these is Tea Pot. This is housed in an old Dutch (or Portuguese?) house that used to be the home of a family. The walls of this place are lined with shelves containing a large collection of teapots and kettles; they also hang from hooks above. The centrepiece of the place is a circular glass table supported by the upturnerd roots of a tree.
Drinks at Tea Pot are good as was the prawn kurma that I tried. I cannot say the same for what I saw and sampled of the sandwiches and other food offerings. Nevertheless, the Tea Pot is an extremely pleasant place in which to linger. Nearby in Burger Street, there is the lovely Kashi's. Filled with interesting works of contemporary art - mostly sculptural (see below) - and a good selection of art journals, this is a 'happening' place filled with visitors and locals.
Although the food that we saw being served at Kashi's did not look particularly exciting, the cold coffees and ginger lime sodas that we drank there frequently were second to none. There are many other cafés in Kochin, but the 2 that I have described are by far the best.
The Cafe du Mahe is the restaurant of the Tea Bungalow homestay (see detail above: this illustrates the type of rainwater conducting chains found in buildings all over Cochin)), and is excellent. It is a little way away from the centre of Fort Cochin, but worth visiting. We ate beside a swimming pool in the small garden surrounded on three sides by the hotel.
The grilled fish that we ate (see above) was exquisitely prepared. The vegetables accompanying the fish were cooked to perfection lightly flavoured with garlic and celery leaves in a European manner.
Back in the centre of Fort Cochin, close to the Chinese fishing nets and next to the Harbour House restaurant stands the Tower House hotel that is housed in a 17th century building. This establishment contains a restaurant that we tried to enter several times unsuccessfully. The rude watchman at the door put us off twice, and on another occasion it was closed because the cook was 'away'. I am glad that we persisted because when we did finally get to eat at the restaurant, the food was above average. We ate a light lunch consisting of an authentic tasting gazpacho, deep fried squids that were perfect, and a curious cheese croquette. This consisted of cheese sandwiches that had been coated with breadcrumbs and then deep fried; it was delicious.
The Bright Heritage Hotel on Tower Road, where we stayed, also had a good restaurant, which serves non-residents as well as hotel guests. This is open to the outside under a canopy on the top of the hotel. Everything was made from scratch when it was ordered. A team of 4 young cooks chopped, ground, stirred, and fried, once the order for a dish was given. The results were tasty. We particularly enjoyed a prawn and raw mango curry. The payasam (see above) served as a dessert made a great finale for the good meals that we ate there.
During our only visit to Ernakulam, the modern city of Cochin across the lagoon from Fort Cochin, we were taken to have lunch at the beautifully restored old Grand Hotel on MG Road. It has a large dining room, which was filled with locals enjoying the excellent food served there. We enjoyed several Keralan dishes - both seafood (see below) and meat - served with flaky Kerala parathas (see above).
In summary, Fort Cochin is not only a delightfully picturesque place to visit but also a wonderful place for gourmets. Both local dishes and European dishes of a high quality are available at reasonable prices in pleasant surroundings.
Spice shop run by Gujuratis in Ernakulam
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November 9, 2014
BEEF IN BANGALORE (BENGALURU)
When I tell my friends and others in the UK that one of the very best places to eat beef is in the land of the 'Sacred Cow' - India - they raise their eyebrows in surprise. I assure them that I am not pulling their legs.
Just before ending my very first visit to Bangalore in early 1994, my wife suggested that we ate a good biryani at a place which she considered to be good at making this kind of dish. We headed for Shezan's, which was located in an old-fashioned bungalow in Lavelle Road. The bungalow no longer exists, but the restaurant does, having relocated to another place in the same road. I looked at the menu and noticed that a large chateaubriand steak with trimmings was available for about 2 pounds (GB). I said that I would have that as the same thing would cost many times that in the UK, and that getting good biryanis was not difficult in London. The steak was outstandingly good. This was my introduction to eating beef in Bangalore.
We have visited Shezan's may times since, and always enjoy eating there. Some years after my 'discovery' of Shezan's, which also calls itseft 'The Other Place', I was taken to Only Place ('OP'). This restaurant was originally started by Haroon in a location on Brigade Road. Later, it shifted to Museum Road. Haroon and his son Shoaib served some of the best beef steaks that I have ever eaten.
The late Haroon of OP
Haroon died about 2 years ago. Shoaib and one of his relatives inherited the restaurant in Museum Road, and ran it as a partnership. About a year ago, Shoaib and his partner chose to split up. Shoaib left Museum Road, and his former partner continued to run it. We visited the restaurant once or twice after Shoiab had left it, but were not nearly as satisfied with it as when Shoaib had been involved.
After some time, Shoaib opened his OP at a new location: 311, 6th Main, 2nd Stage, Off 80 Feet Road, Indiranagar . This place in Indiranagar is in no way related to, or connected with, the OP in Museum Road. Shoaib's OP in Indiranagar is yet another reincarnation of the place that Haroon first created many decades ago in Brigade Road. The quality of the food and service at the 'true' OP in Indiranagar has not suffered in the slightest from the shift from Museum Road to Indiranagar. Shoaib's OP still serves some of the world's best beefsteak. You will spurn Aberdeen Angus, Charolais or Wagyu beef after eating what Shoaib and his team prepare with beef bred in Karnataka! Shoaib's beef is so good that major embassies in New Delhi order it from him.
The Indiranagar OP, which should really be regarded as the ONE and ONLY 'Only Place' is located in a tree-lined street opposite an open space belonging to Defence Colony Cricket Ground. Some of its tables are outside in the shade of the leafy branches of huge trees. Other tables are indoors in a simply decorated dining room. Apart from being a place to enjoy superb beef as well as seafood (try the king fish [seer fish] steaks and the jumbo prawns), this is a pleasant place to linger and to escape from the hustle and bustle of Bangalore. Whatever you choose from Shoaib's extensive menu that contains mostly European (rather than Indian) dishes, you should leave space for a portion of Shoaib's deliciously fruity apple pie. Shoaib's OP is not only renowned for its deservedly highly praised beef, but also for the aforementioned apple pie. So, even if you are a vegetarian, there is at least one reason for you to visit Shoaib's OP in Indiranagar. I have never tried the vegetarian dishes at OP as I am a true carnivore!
Finally, please do not confuse Shoaib's 'original' OP in Indiranagar with that establishment that is now running in Museum Road. The latter will disappoint you; the former - in Indiranagar - will delight you.
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September 8, 2014
There are many towns within a roughly 20 mile radius of Sicily's capital, Palermo. No doubt, each of them is unique in its own way, but the most special of all of these has to be Piana degli Albanesi. The majority of the 6000 or so inhabitants of this town, which perches on the slopes of Mount Pizzuta, speak -as their mother tongue - a form of the Albanian language known as "Arbëreshë". Distinct from Albanian spoken in Albania itself, the language spoken in Piana is closer to Tosk than Gheg.
Many of the inhabitants who live in Piana degli Albanesi are descendants Albanians who fled from the Balkans in the 15th century when the Ottoman Turks invaded their homes. More than 500 years later, the Arbëreshë people in Piana not only use the language of their forefathers but also preserve much of their traditions, culture, and religious practices. Many of the decendants of the Albanians living in Piana degli Albanesi and the 4 other surviving communities set up by the Albanians seeking refuge from the Ottomans (Contessa Entellina, Mezzojuso, Palazzo Adriano, and S Cristina Gela) worship in churches following the Eastern Orthodox rites, but regard their 'Greco-Byzantine' or 'Eastern Catholic' church as being within the folds of the Vatican; they regard the Pope as their religious leader.
Adam Yamey recently stayed in Piana degli Albanesi, and explored the history and culture of the Arbëreshë people. By meeting and discussing matters with a number of informative and extremely hospitable people in Piana and elsewhere, he was able to amass a great deal of information about the Albanians who adopted Sicily as their new home and their descendants. They told him about their origins, their religion, their culture, and their tragic involvement with the Mafia.
Adam's recently published personal travelogue, in which he describes all 5 of the Arbëreshë towns in Sicily, is full of illustrations and maps, and is called: From Albania to Sicily.
Adam Yamey in Viale Scanderbeg in S Cristina Gela
Read From Albania to Sicily and learn about the importance of the Arbëreshë in Garibaldi's conquest of Sicily that led to the liberation of Sicily as well as what happened to the Mafia after Mussolini visited Don Ciccio, the one-time Mafia mayor of Piana degli Albanesi. Discover the secrets of making the best cannoli in Italy and why the town of Palazzo Adriano was a star in the movie Nuovo Cinema Paradiso. Learn about the inner meanings of icons and what happens on Ascension Day in Piana. These and many more fascinating topics, including the tragic events that occurred on the 1st May 1947 at Portella della Ginestra, fill the pages of Adam's book.
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July 21, 2014
This may sound ridiculous, but it has taken us over 20 years to realise the convenience of London bus route number 46 that begins its journey at Lancaster Gate, which is close to where we live. This bus goes almost straight to Hampstead Village (which used to be known as 'Hampstead Town'). Until we 'discovered' it a few days ago, we took a far more roundabout and longer route to visit the village near to where I was brought up.
During my childhood in Hampstead Garden Suburb in the early 1960s, my parents used to take my sister and I to Hampstead almost every Saturday morning. My mother, who was the only driver in the family, drove us up to Jack Straws Castle, a pub that used to stand close to a war memorial and the Whitestone Pond. The car park behind this historic pub, which no longer exists, had a very uneven unmade surface. We walked from there to the pond, often passing men who offered donkey rides, which we never accepted. Whitestone Pond, which was popular with those who needed to sail toy boats, still exists but has recently had a cosmetic 'make-over'.
From the pond, we walked down Heath Street. In summer, the northern end of Heath Street which had a very broad pavement hosted an outdoor art exhibition. Paintings were hung in makeshift shelters under corrugated iron roofs. There were also artists selling wooden sculptures and bits of pottery, but these were outnumbered by the painters. My late mother, who was an accomplished artist, used to study the works of art on display, and rarely made kind comments about them. My parents knew one of the men who displayed carved wood sculpturs every year, and we always stopped to chat with him even though we never bought any of his works. The exhibition is no longer held there, and has not existed for several decades. For a long time after it ceased to be held, there used to be small blue marks on the wall that ran alongside the stalls. These had something to do with the positioning of the exhibition stands. Now, even those feint reminders of the open-air art exhibitions have disappeared; parts of the wall have been rebuilt or cleaned.
Soon after the pavement narrows, and Heath Street begins to descend steeply, we used to pass the picturesque Friends Meeting House. This Quaker establishment still exists, but was not a place that we ever entered. A little further down, and on the opposite side of the road one can still see and eat or stay at La Gaffe, an Italian restaurant that seems to have been in Hampstead as long as I can remember. It was not a place that we patronised.
Further down and on the same side of Heath Street as The Quaker's place there is a wedge shaped restaurant. Its only entrance is on the corner of Heath Street and Elm Row. This restaurant, currently selling Italian food, has been through many reincarnations. When I was a child it was an Italian restaurant called the Pimpernel. This was always our first stop on our Saturday morning excursions to Hampstead.
When I was a child in the '60s, there was a short bar next to, and on the left of the entrance. It was here that my parents, who were incredibly fond of Italy and the Italians, ordered their espresso coffees and fruit juices for my sister and I. As they drank thier beverages, they used to chat with the Pimpernel's staff, but mainly in English. When we finished what we had ordered, my sister and I were always given small pieces of torrone - the Italian version of nougat - as gifts by the staff. These were wrapped in silver paper and contained inside cardboard boxes that were the same size as small matchboxes. A newish (1960s) building across the main road from the Pimpernel housed the most wonderful classical music gramophone record shop. This moved away to another site in the early 1970s before going out of business. By then, a branch of the Our Price chain had opened in nearby Hampstead High Street. This has also disappeared. The shop opposite the Pimpernel looks much as it did when it housed the record shop, which I think was called 'Hampstead Hi-Fi', but now it contains a completely different kind of business. The picture below shows Heath Street looking northwards towards the former home of the Pimpernel on the right, and that of the record shop on the left.
Our next stop was a clothes shop further down Heath Street on the same side as the Pimpernel. My mother loved browsing in this shop, but never bought anything! After visiting that shop, we used to turn left, and walked down the steep Back Lane, which is still cobbled even today. This led to Flask Walk, a short pedestrian way lined with shops that links Back Lane to Hampstead High Street. Next to an old-fashioned butchers shop on the south side of Flask Walk, there used to be a small bookshop that sold both second-hand and remaindered books. This has gone, as has a small gallery opposite it that exhibited paintings by one of my parents' numerous friends, the portrait artist Milein Cosman. She was married to the music critic Hans Keller. We used to call in on her occasionally. Some years after I first began visiting Hampstead with my parents, a second and larger second-hand bookshop opened in Flask walk. This still exists, and is one of the only - if not the only - survivor of the 6 or 7 second-hand bookshops that were in Hampstead in the 1960s and 1970s. Apart from Keith Fawkes shop, one of the only places in Flask Walk apart from the pub that has survived since my much younger days is a small French restaurant called 'La Cage Imaginaire'. This did not exist in the 1960s; it opened after my mother died in 1980.
From Flask walk we used to turn left and walk down Hampstead High Street, which eventually becomes Rosslyn Hill. Before changing its name, there is on its south side, closed to what is now Waterstone's bookshop, a truly venerable Hampstead establishment: The Coffee Cup.
Oddly enough, I had never entered this place until a few days ago. It was not somewhere that my parents frequented, and I never ever felt the urge to do so. It dates back to 1954, when I was 2 years old, and is littled changed. Its archaic interior, illustrated below confirms this.
Further down Hampstead High Street, where it becomes Rosslyn Hill, there used to be three neighbouring shopfronts behind which stood the shelves of High Hill Bookshop. This was for me the highlight of our weekly visits to Hampstead. My sister and I were always allowed to choose a book to buy from its well-stocked childrens' department. Sadly, the shop has long gone. Its demise was in no little way the result of the opening of Waterstone's far inferior bookshop in the early 1980s. High Hill closed its doors forever in 1988.
From High Hill Bookshop, we used to make our way up hill and back to the car. Every Saturday was much the same. The very first cinema film that I ever watched was The Red Balloon. I saw thisFrench film, which was first released in 1956 in the Everyman Cinema in Hampstead. This cimema, which still exists, was first a drill hall, then a theatre, and in 1933 it became a cinema. I saw many more films there in my childhood and adolescence. Every year, there used to be a festival of Marx Brothers films. I loved these. In those days, the cinema's audtorium had a strange smell that strongly resembled gas. Indeed, there were gas lamps attached to the walls of the auditorium, but I am certain that I never saw them working. The Everyman is located in Holly Bush Lane, which is close to Hampstead Underground Station.
This station's platforms are the deepest in London. They are 192 feet below street level. In my youth, these were reached by four or five lifts. Two of these were high-speed. They had metal concertina-like doors and travelled so fast that my stomach shifted and my ears popped. The other lifts with brown wooden sliding doors with art-nouveau decorations were used when the high-speed ones were out of action. They took ages to travel between the station entrance hall and the platforms. The station's entrance was where young people from all over northwest London loitered whist waiting for their friends.
Heath Street continues past the station and winds its way towards Fitzjohns Avenue which descends in a straight line to Swiss Cottage. Before doing so Heath Street is lined with shops and restaurants. One of these that has survived since my adolescence is Louis Hungarian Patisserie.
Even in its heyday, I thought little of it, but considered it a suitable place to entertain a young lady friend. recently, we revisited it, and were disappointed. Its fare was nothing special and its ambience was at best rather depressing. Further along from Louis and occupying a spot on the corner of Heath Street and Perrins Lane is another shop that has been there as long as I can recall: Photo Craft.
This camera shop is now showing its age. I believe that over the years I bought one or two accessories there, but I am recording its existence mainly because it is one of the few shops that has rmained unchanged in Hampstead for over 5 decades. Next to it on Perrins Lane there is a shop of recent vintage, but next to that there is a row of houses, the first of which can be seen in the picture below to have a green front door:
In my teens, this used to be a second-hand bookshop. It was run by a learned old man. The groundfloor was his shop; he lived above it. Although shelves lined the walls, every available surface including most of the floor was covered with disorderly piles of books. Whilst my friends and I rummaged about looking for interesting volumes, he sat at a book covered table reading. every now and then, he used to chuckle loudly and then he used to read us aloud a passage, often in Latin. We bought many books from him, but now he and the bookshop are merely memories.
Parallel to Perrins Lane, but a little near to the Underground station there is another narrow thoroughfare called Perrins Court. Near to the end of this where it meets Hampstead High Street, there is the Villa Bianca Restaurant. This opened long after my mother died in 1980. In the 1980s, I lived in Gillingham in Kent. On most weekends, I visited London and stayed with my widowed father. Often on Sundays, we used to eat lunch in this restaurant, or occasionally, the Cage Imaginaire. The Villa Bianca used to serve good Italian food in those days. I have not eaten there for at least 20 years. Returning to Heath Street and close to the Photo Craft Shop, we reach the beginning of the tree-lined Church Row. This is the locatiuon of another restaurant, the Cellier du Midi.
When the Cellier opened in the late 1960s or early 1970s, my parents, who were connoisseurs of good food rated it highly, but never took my sister and me tto eat there. A few years ago, we did visit the restaurant, thus fulfilling a long-held ambition. We were disappointed. Apart from being an interesting time-warp, the food was drearily prepared.
The end of Church Row is dominated by the attractive 18th century parish church of St John at Hampstead. Oddly, I had never set foot inside this lovely building until about 5 years ago. And, only yesterday did I discover that it is a real curiosity. Its high altar is at the west end of the church. It used to be, as convention dictates, at the east end of the church, but it was moved when there were fears about the stability of its bell-tower.
Before leaving Hampstead, let us return to Hampstead High Street. A little way down the hill from the Coffee Cup there is another institution that has been in Hampstead for many decades: La Creperie de Hampstead:
Finally, let me not forget the New End Hospital. Now, it has been converted into luxury flats, but when I was a school boy in the late 1960s, it was still a hospital. I used to do voluntary work in its thyroid treatment laboratory, and once in 1969 I narrowly escaped being attacked by a bunch of skin-heads who were lurking near it.
So, there you have it: a selection of my memories of Hampstead.
If you have enjoyed these reminiscences,you will probably also enjoy reading:
CHARLIE CHAPLIN WAVED TO ME
It is availbale from Lulu.com, Amazon, & Barnes&Noble, and may be ordered from your local bookshop.
June 28, 2014
Most tourists visit the small town of Palazzo Adriano to see its perfectly preserved old piazza with its unusual fountain, where the delightful movie Cinema Paradiso was filmed in 1988. We visited it for another unrelated reason. The picture below, a copy of a photograph in one of the town's museums, shows a scene from the film. The fountain is on the right side
Detail of the fountain as it is today
Palazzo Adriano is one of the 5 places in Sicily that were settled in the 15th century by Albanians fleeing from the Ottoman invaders of their homes in the Balkans. The first Albanians to arrive there were soldiers and their families, who left the Balkans before the death of their great leader Skanderbeg in 1468. More of them arrived later, bringing with them the traditions and practices of the Eastern Orthodox (Byzantine) Church. The plaque shown below, which is on the side of the town's largest Byzantine rite church, reminds us that the Albanians who came to Palazzo helped defend western Christianity from the ravages of the Ottomans.
The largest of the 5 places settled by the Albanians in Sicily is Piana degli Albanesi, someway north of Palazzo. In Piana, more than 95% of the inhabitants speak Arberesh, which is a dialect of Albanian. In Palazzo, no one speaks it anymore, but many people worship according to the Byzantine rite. We learnt this when we asked some old men who were spending time in the town's small 'Circolo Skanderbeg'. This place was filled with items relating to the town's Albanian connection. Even the lace curtain over its window was embroidered with the two-headed eagle of Albania:
The town boasts a museum of Albanian culture, the MUSEO DELLA CULTURA ARBERËSHE. It is housed in part of the castle, which overlooks the town. This grandly named institution displays only a few exhibits. Amongst these, there are a few traditional costumes that, we were told, were copied from paintings of the Arberesh made by the French artist Jean-Pierre-Louis-Laurent Houël (1735-1813).
Portrait of Houel by François André Vincent (Source: http://mbarouen.fr/en/oeuvres/portrai...)
Best known for his painting of the siege of the Bastille, he visited Sicily between 1776 and 1779. During his travels there, he painted and drew many pictures of what he saw. Many of these were bought by Russian royalty, and are now to be found in the Hermitage Gallery in St Petersburg (Leningrad). The museum in Palazzo has copies of two of these pictures, both depicting Arberesh women in traditional dress. They are illustrated below:
The marks with the crown in the lower right corners of these copies shows that they are also part of the Hermitage collection. The lower of the two pictures shown above shows what Palazzo Adriano looked like when Houël visited it. The picture below shows a part of the piazza as it is today:
We visited Palazzo Adriano hoping to find evidence of its Albanian past, and did. Even if you have no interest in the Arberesh or Albania, this well-preserved little town in the heart of western Sicily deserves a visit.
TO DISCOVER MOREWRITINGBY ADAM YAMEY,
Click H E R E
May 5, 2014
The captions to this and the rest of the pictures in this article may be discovered by reading Adam Yamey's Charlie Chaplin waved to me
Capturing memories of youth...
"The attic of my parents’ house in north Londoncontained a number of old Revelation suitcases. These were plastered with ageing colourful paper stickers bearing the names of shipping lines and also of places such as: Cape Town, Southampton, Harwich, New York, Montreal, and Rotterdam. Had they been animate and able to speak, what tales they would have been able to tell!
If, as a child, I had become a suitcase, I too would have been covered with an exotic assortment of stickers including some of those mentioned above. But, I did not become a piece of baggage, and the stickers that I carry are not made of paper. Instead, they are memories stuck in various compartments of my brain. Unlike the inanimate objects in the attic in the eaves of our house, I am able to speak: to divulge my impressions of the places that I visited in my childhood; to describe the remarkable people I met in those places; and to reveal the unusual experiences that resulted from travelling with my learned father and my talented mother."
Adam Yamey's latest book, Charlie Chaplin waved to me, contains his memories of the holidays and trips that he took with his parents, mostly during the first eighteen years of his life.
They are worth relating because they differed markedly from the kinds of holidays that most people took during the 1960s and 1970s. Rather than exposing their children to the sun on the beach, his parents preferred to expose their 'kids' to cultural experiences that, they hoped, would benefit them in the future. This was due to Adam's father’s great interest in the history of art, which resulted from his mother having been an artist. Whereas now he appreciates what they did for him then, he did not always do so at the time ...
Here is a very brief extract from the book:
" ... my mother noticed a gondola draped with green cloths pulling up at the corner where the nearby small side canal, which ran alongside the Pensione Seguso, met the much larger Giudecca Canal. The gondolier, a young man, was dressed in green livery that matched the drapes on his highly polished black boat.
Soon after this gondola had moored, we noticed our elderly American fellow diner emerging from the main entrance of the Calcina. He headed straight for the recently arrived gondola, and then boarded it. Next, he sat down, and then started reading a newspaper whilst the gondolier began to row him across the Giudecca Canal. We watched his gondola crossing the water until it disappeared into one of the small canals that traversed the Giudecca Island. We were fascinated and intrigued. After he was out of sight, we began our morning’s activity.
My mother was never shy when she needed to know something. So, after lunch that day, she stopped our mysterious American lunch neighbour and asked him about the gondola and its liveried oarsman. He explained that everyday, he was ferried out into the lagoon in the gondola. When he reached the lagoon, he took over the oar and rowed around the waters of the lagoon for an hour before handing the oar back to the gondolier, who then rowed him back to the Calcina in time for lunch. Remarkable as it was that a non-Venetian could row a gondola competently, what he told us next was even more amazing.
Mr Milliken, as he identified himself, was, as my father was most excited to learn, none other than the director of the well-respected ClevelandArt Museum in the USA. The liveried gondolier, who we had observed, was the grandson of his late mother’s personal gondolier. She used to accompany Mr Milliken on his annual visits to Venice before WW2, and employed her own gondolier during her stays. "
"Charlie Chaplin waved to me"
by Adam Yamey
is available from:
AMAZON (including KINDLE)
BARNES & NOBLE (Soon)
April 19, 2014
I have been passionately interested in Albania since about 1965. Until 1984, when I visited Albania, I spent a great deal of time visiting places from which I could catch even a distant glimpse of the country. One of these places was the area containing the Prespa lakes in the north-western corner of Greece. There are two of these lakes: the Small and the Great Prespa lakes. The smaller one shares its waters between Greece (mainly) and Albania. The larger one shares its waters with Greece, Albania, and FYROM (formerly the Yugoslav Macedonia). The lakes are separated from each other by a thin strip of land, which is currently Greek territory.
Heading west along the strip of land separating the Great Prespa Lake (right) from the Small Prespa Lake (left)
In 1977, I visited the Prespa area with my parents in a chauffeur driven car. We left the main road that connects Florina with Kastoria somewhere near to the village of Vigla and joined a winding rough surfaced mountainous side-road that led more or less in a western direction. A few metres along it, we had to stop at a police post. An official recorded our car registration and our names in a huge old-fashioned ledger, and then allowed us to proceed. We had just entered the sensitive border area of Greece close to Albania.
Map of the Prespa lakes area showing places mentioned in this article.(The arrows show my approximate itinerary in 1977).
In 1977, Albania and Greece were still technically at war with each other. One of the causes of this was the Albanian claim that northern Epirus (Çamëria, in Albanian) should be returned to the ethnic Albanians, who had been expelled from it. I get the impression that the problem remains unresolved even today, at least in the minds of some Albanians.
The road we followed wound through wild mountainous terrain. Eventually, we arrived in the tiny village of Aghios Germanos. It had a deserted appearance as we stared at it in the midday sun. Nobody was about. From there we made our way to the neck of land that separates the two Prespa lakes. We stopped along it to have lunch - I believe that we ate fish -at a small restaurant.
The strip of land separating Great Lake Prespa (in the background) from LittleLake Prespa. Adam Yamey is on the right of the group in the photo.
From where we stopped, we could see the peaks of Albanian mountains in one direction.
Great Lake Prespa. The distant headland in the right third of the picture and the barely visible mountains behind it are in Albania.
And, in the other direction we could see the distant hills of Macedonia.
Great Lake Prespa looking east towards the mountains of Macedonia (FYROM)
As we drove away from Great Prespa, we began to get good views of Little Prespa
Little Lake Prespa
We left the Prespa lakes region by way of a different road from that which we arrived there. We rejoined the main road that connects Florina with Kastoria near to the village of Trigono, where we stopped because I wanted to take a photograph of the monument whose illustration appears at the beginning of this article.
I had completely forgotten that I had taken this picture in 1977, and only rediscovered it this April (2014). The simple monument in white stone bears an inscription, which I have illustrated below:
My rudimentary knowledge of the modern Greek alphabet allowed me to decipher the subject's name as "Skountris Emmannou??" In vain, I searched for this name or variations of it on the Internet. Next, I wrote to my relatively new acquaintance Professor Christina Koulouri in Athens. She told me that this statue was put up in memory of a Cretan volunteer, Emmanouil Skountris. Furthermore, she informed me that he was a Greek fighter during the 'Macedonian Struggle' (1903-1908).
In brief and at the risk of gross oversimplification, the Greeks were fighting the Bulgarians to gain control of Ottoman Macedonia. There is very little about Emm. Skountris on the internet, but what follows is what I have managed to discover so far.
Trigono is known as 'Osčima' by the Bulgarians. On the 14th September 1904, Greek rebels led by the Cretan Efthimios Kaoudis fought with Bulgarian rebels at Trigono. The Greeks won this battle, but amongst the injured was Emmanouil Skountris.
A Bulgarian web-site ( click here) contains six lines of text about Skountris as well as the picture reproduced above. Using a computerised translator and a little common sense, this is what they say:
"Emmanuel Skundris Adele was born in Crete. He entered the ranks of the Greek propagandists in Macedonia in 1904, joining the the band of Evtimios Kaudis. He took part in the fighting near Kostenariyata and was slightly wounded at the Battle of Oshtima on September 14, 1904"
The variations of spelling are to be expected when transliterating from one alphabet to another. I found another picture of Skountris in a Greek website (click here). In this illustration, he is shown mounted:
When I took the picture of his monument back in 1977, I did so because I was attracted by the naivety of its sculptural style. At the time, I doubt that I even noticed the inscription below the bust. I only spotted it 37 years later! Now that I have seen photographs of Skountris, I realise that far from being naive, this sculpture is a very realistic representation of its subject.
What intrigues me is that this little monument in a tiny Greek village encapsulates the problems that have plagued the Balkan peninsula. Trigono was once just a small place in the large Ottoman Empire. Then, as this empire began to disintegrate at the end of the 19th century, it like so many other places began to be contested by the nations that evolved from the smouldering embers of the empire. Skountris is remembered because he helped to wrest the area from the rival Bulgarians. But, others in neighbouring states may still be looking hungrily at the area around Trigono and the Prespa lakes, where the borders of three countries now meet. Let us hope that whatever the aspirations of those who feel that the borders have been incorrectly drawn, peace will continue to reign in the area.
This article has been written by
Adam Yamey, who has published two books about the Balkans:
"Albania on my Mind"
"Scrabble with Slivovitz"
Details of these books may be found by clicking
March 22, 2014
Shoreditch Town Hall, 21 March 2014
Sometime in March 1965, when I was almost 13, I attended a birthday party held by my school friend Hugh Watkins. After attending a showing of the latest James Bond film Goldfingerat our local Odeon cinema in Temple Fortune in northwest London, we had afternoon tea at Hugh’s home. It was at that tea party that I first met the brothers Francis and Michael Jacobs. They lived next door to Hugh. Michael, who shared his birthday with my mother, 15th of October, was a few months younger than me. It is curious that his mother shares the same birthday, 8th of May, with me.
Michael Jacobs (in pink shirt) with Adam Yamey (in white robes and holding a coconut) in India, 1994
Yesterday, 21st of March 2014, I attended a large gathering to celebrate the tragically short life of Michael Jacobs. This moving occasion was beautifully organised by his wife Jackie along with his good friend Erica Davies. His death on the 11thJanuary 2014 came as a complete shock and surprise to me as I had not known of his illness. A number of people who had known him for varying numbers of years shared their memories of this remarkable person at the gathering yesterday. In this essay, I wish to share some of mine, a few of which derive from an era before which some of yesterday’s speakers knew him.
Michael was very musical. During his school years, he became an accomplished clarinettist. He told me that whenever he went on holiday, he had to carry a mouthpiece with him so as not to lose his lips' embrasure. His grandmother Sophie was friendly with John Beckett (1927-2007), a close relative of the writer Samuel Beckett. John was one of the people who began to re-introduce early music, and its ‘authentic’ performance into the concert repertoire. Sophie gave Michael and Francis a number of records that his ensemble Musica Riservata had recorded. We loved listening to these on the Jacob’s gramophone, and Michael learnt how to sing some of the renaissance songs. His renderings of these were superb, and continued to bring joy to his friends during the rest of his life. One of these, which he sang often, was called El Grillo.
During his later years at Westminster school, both Michael and I developed an interest in the Gothic and neo-Gothic eras. We were both interested, for example, in the novels of Walpole and Beckford. He carried this further by organising a ‘Gothic’ event at Westminster School. I was invited to attend this curious occasion, of which I recall little except that Michael had persuaded a number of his school mates to dress up in monk’s habits and wander around the cloisters whilst ‘Gothic’ music from his and also my collection of early music LPs was played over loudspeakers. The school authorities must have thought highly of him to allow him to put on this extraordinary event.
Michael enrolled at the prestigious Courtauld Institute of Art in about 1971. Very soon, he became recognised as one of the Institute’s better students. This caused him to be selected to join a group of academics on the Institute’s highly exclusive annual overseas excursion. He had to join the tour somewhere, which I cannot recall, in Europe. It might have been Bavaria. He asked me whether I would like to join him on a trip through the Low Countries and West Germany on his way to wherever it was that he was joining the art historical elite. I was on my university vacation, and it sounded like a good idea. We decided to camp to save money. I provided the tent, and we set off from Londonto Dover, where we crossed the English Channel.
I was carrying a rucksack with my belongings and the tent. Michael’s baggage was heavy and unwieldy. He was carrying not only the clothes and the sleeping bag that he needed for our camping trip but also things that he needed for his forthcoming trip with the academics. As this was to be a smart affair with formal dinners, he had to carry a dinner jacket and its accompaniments including smart shirts, shoes, and ties. He also lugged an enormous bag filled with huge hard-backed art books that he felt that he might need for that event. We camped somewhere near Lille in northern France on the first night. All went well until the following night, which we spent at Grimbergen just outside Brussels. We awoke the next morning to discover that the rain was falling heavily. Our tent was soaked, as were our sleeping bags. The rain managed to get into our baggage. Michael’s books got wet, and his formal clothes became dishevelled. We decided not to continue with camping, but instead to spend the rest of our trip sleeping in youth hostels.
Michael guided us to fascinating museums on our trip. He was somewhat short-sighted, and often went up close to paintings in order to - as he explained to me - examine artists’ brush-strokes. This often caused the men and women guarding the works of art to become anxious. They had nothing to fear from this young man, who was destined to become a significant art historian and a well-known writer.
When we reached the West German city of Marburg, I told Michael that I had run out of money. The £60 or so that I had budgeted had almost been spent. There was just enough to pay for my railway ticket back to London. On my way back, I had to spend the night in Liége. With nothing in my pocket except my ticket, I slept on a bench in the railway station. Michael continued on his way to meet up with the Courtauld party. Despite having had to cut it short, I enjoyed the journey and Michael introduced me to a lot of art which was unfamiliar to me. For example, had we not visited the art gallery in Dortmund, it might have been many years before I might have finally, if ever, learnt of the existence of the Blaue ReiterGroup and the marvellous expressionist paintings produced by its members.
Some years later in 1982 when I qualified as a dental surgeon, I learnt to drive and acquired a car. Michael, who never learnt to drive a car, was grateful to his many friends who were happy to enjoy his company and drive him around. I was one of them.
In 1984, Michael along with Paul Stirton published The Traveller’s Guide to Art: Great Britain & Ireland. The research for this involved a great deal of travelling around the British Isles. One holiday, I drove Michael along the south coast of Englandand around Walesso that he could visit museums and galleries in these parts. I had a cassette player in the car, and played many of the tapes that I had recorded from my large collection of Central European and Balkan music LPs. Michael enjoyed the exotic music, and once remarked to me that listening to it whilst travelling through the British countryside, made the somewhat familiar landscape seem a little less familiar, even a bit foreign and hence more interesting.
We began our journey along the south coast at Eastbourne. We arrived there in the late afternoon. Michael was dismayed to find that its art gallery was already closed. He suggested that we walk up to the building, and then try to peer in through its windows. This was unsuccessful; we could not see much inside it. Undaunted, he approached two young lads walking in the street close by. He began asking them whether they had ever visited the gallery. I thought that he was being a little over optimistic; the lads were skin-heads. And, in those days they were the least likely people to have been interested in art, and were potentially violent. Fortunately, we escaped unscathed.
During that trip, we celebrated Michael’s birthday by staying at a better than average bed and breakfast (‘B&B’) near to Newport in South Wales. He had chosen a beautiful place to stay. The breakfast that we were served was one of the best that I have ever eaten in a B&B. Apart from being offered a selection of different kinds of teas we were served perfectly prepared fish as well as the usual English breakfast items.
After visiting fine art galleries in Cardiff, Swansea, and Llanelli, we made a detour to Laugharne, where the writer Dylan Thomas lived and worked. It was a lovely spot.
The west coast of Waleswas devoid of places that were deemed suitable for his forthcoming book, but we drove along it one Sunday. We stopped for the night at an isolated village at the western end of the Lleyn Peninsula. The sole place to stay in this Welsh speaking village, which resembled the Scottish village that starred in the 1984 film Local Hero, was the place’s only pub. The village was teetotal on Sundays. So, we sat in the deserted bar eating an unsatisfactory evening meal without being able to wash it down with something alcoholic. As we were eating we could hear the thudding of loud pop music coming from somewhere in the building, but we thought nothing of it. After dinner, we decided to go for a late night stroll; Michael was a keen walker with an abundance of energy. When we left the bar and entered the lobby, some doors burst open, and a couple of young girls burst out. Seeing us, they asked us (in English rather than in their usual Welsh) whether we would like to join their party. We followed them into a room where a party was in full swing. There, we were offered beer and other alcoholic drinks; and were made to feel most welcome.
Llandudno, which we visited on the next day, had the most curious museum on our trip. It housed a collection of carved wooden Love Spoons. I can not remember whether Michael and Paul included this in their book eventually.
Throughout the trip, and others that I made with Michael, he was supposed to be our navigator. This was a good arrangement. He was a good map reader. The only problem was that Michael had a tendency to fall asleep in moving vehicles. Whilst investigating the art treasures of southern England, he was asleep as usual when we speeded through Cheltenhamand had continued beyond it. Suddenly, he woke and asked me where we were. I told him that we were almost at Gloucester. Somewhat panicked, he charmingly persuaded me that we should turn around and head back to Cheltenham which we had overshot by almost 10 miles. He had forgotten to tell me that it was supposed to be one of his stopping places before he had drifted off.
In 1986, Michael published another book, The Good and Simple Life. This book about the artist colonies of Europeat the end of the 19th century also required several chauffeurs during its research phase. I drove him to the West Country so that he could carry out field research in the Cornish towns of Newlyn and St Ives. We stayed in Newlyn, where he was allowed to bring the hand-written diaries of the artist Stanhope Forbes (1857-1947) from a local library to our bedroom in the B&B. He read them during the night, and the next morning we sat together for breakfast. We were the only two guests in the B&B, and we were confronted with a vast spread of greasy fried breakfast fare. I ate a little of it. Michael ate his share. Then, he looked at what was left on the table - a substantial amount of food - and said that we would have to finish it. I told him not to be ridiculous, but he replied that he did not want to hurt our landlady’s feelings by leaving it. He was genuinely concerned not to upset her. So, he finished it off. During the rest of the day, he kept clutching his stomach; his kind-heartedness and thoughtfulness for others was making him suffer.
I have to thank Michael for introducing me to St Ives. I have visited this beautiful little port many times since. Apart from visiting the Barbara Hepworth Museumthere, Michael and I also visited places associated with the artists who worked together in the town’s artist colony. This involved visiting the St Ives Art Club which was founded in 1890 and the archives of the town’s library.
At some stage during this trip, we stopped, and spent the night at, at Worth Matravers near to Corfe Castleon the Isle of Purbeck. He took me to a pub where the artist Augustus John (1868-1961) used to drink. When we entered, Michael asked the barman whether there were any traces of this artist in the pub, maybe some graffiti or something scratched into the woodwork of the bar. The barman, whose cultural knowledge was a microscopic fraction of Michael’s, looked at him blankly and said nothing. So, we ordered a pint or two, just as the great artist would have done many years before our arrival.
At yesterday’s memorial event, the renowned cookery writer Claudia Roden praised Michael’s culinary skills. This praise was well-deserved. Long before Roden sampled his cooking, I had been fortunate to have enjoyed many dishes prepared by him in the kitchen that he had constructed with his own hands in his home in Hackney. His mother was an excellent cook, but he surpassed her by being both excellent and also successfully ambitious. Few people could prepare a coulibiak (кулебя́ка) - in essence, a pastry filled with fish - as delicately as he did for me on at least 2 occasions.
His food was worth waiting for, and indeed one had to do just that. He would generously invite guests for dinner, but would arrive full of apologies long after them. The dishes that he would prepare for us as we sipped aperitifs never disappointed; and that was not just because we had all becomes so hungry waiting for them. As a cook, he was a genius. However, occasionally he was a little over ambitious.
This was the case when he decided to make home-made fresh pasta for a large number of people who were going to celebrate his 40th birthday at his home. He had decided to make enough fresh tagliatelle for at least 30 people. I arrived early at his house, and found him in the kitchen cranking his hand operated pasta machine. Layer after layer of strips of tagliatelle were accumulating on his kitchen table. To his dismay, he realised that they were beginning to stick to each other. I suggested to him that fresh pasta needed to be hung up to dry a bit. So, we separated the ribbons of pasta and hung them over the backs of the assortment of wooden chairs in his kitchen and anywhere else that seemed suitable. When that was complete, he had to face the problem of cooking this vast amount of pasta, and then serve it with his home-made ragu.
On another occasion, my wife and I turned up at his home the day after he had had a dinner party, at which he had served his home-made filled pasta. Not only had he made the pasta himself, but also the delicious filling. The few leftovers that he cooked for us matched the best tortellini that we hade ever eaten anywhere - and my wife had lived in Italyfor 4 years.
Michael was blessed with a great sense of humour. He was very witty. When his brother got married in Ireland, I drove Michael and Jackie to Avoca in Eire, where the wedding was being held. At the reception after the ceremony, Michael began his best man’s speech by saying something like: “Unaccustomed as I am to speaking in public…” then pausing for a few seconds before continuing, “… without being paid.” This had everyone present roaring with laughter. A few moments later, he continued: “I had originally thought of projecting a few slides showing Francis’s development from infancy to adulthood, but then I decided against it. After all, this is a family show…”
Michael’s death has left a gap in many people’s lives. As the memorial event at Shoreditch Town Halldemonstrated so vividly, he meant many different things to many people. But all of us, who attended the event, were united in at least one thing: we all felt his great affection for us. Overall, he was one of the most life-enhancing people I have ever met.
Michael Jacobs with Lopa and Adam Yamey at their wedding reception in Bangalore, 1994
I feel privileged to have been his friend and that he was one of the few people who made the long journey from Europe to India in order to celebrate my marriage to Lopa in Bangalore.
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Read about Adam Yamey's writing on:
March 9, 2014
Statue of Skanderbeg near Bayswater in London
Between 1385 - when the Turks beat the Albanians at the Battle of Savra near modern day Lushnjë - and 1912, Albaniawas part of the Ottoman Empire. The Albanians did not take their defeat sitting down. They offered much resistance, the best example being that offered in the 15th century by the Albanian hero Gjergj Kastrioti Skënderbeu (1405-1468), better known to English speakers as ‘Skanderbeg’. Despite the brave attempts of the Albanians to rid themselves of the Turks, Ottoman rule was established firmly. Many Albanians fled the country and started new lives abroad, often in places that are now part of modern Italy.This excerpt from a work in progress by Adam Yamey reveals his up until now brief experience of the Albanian community that fled from the Ottomans invading their country to Italy. The illustrations are all harvested from the Internet with one excep[tion, and their sources are given, as well as gratitude to those who posted them.
Skanderbeg's stronghold at Kruja in Albania (1984)
Excerpt from a work in progress by Adam Yamey:
“The small Bar Redentore was just across the AcademiaBridge that straddles the Grand Canal. I am not sure why my parents favoured this amongst all of the many bars in the city, but they did. They drank good quality espresso coffees whilst we children enjoyed munching tasty tosti. These are toasted sandwiches often containing prosciutto crudo and slices of cheese. The Italians make these better than almost anyone else. The sandwiches are not squashed in a heavy grill but instead are gently suspended between the heating elements of a toaster. The result is a much lighter tasting sandwich than those prepared in the heavier grill that compresses them as it cooks. We never sat down in Italian bars, be it in Veniceor elsewhere. Even if the bar man offered to seat us, my mother refused. She knew that there was a hefty surcharge for sitting down in a bar or café.
More than 35 years after my last visit to Venicewith my parents, we visited the city with our then 10 year old daughter, who had seen pictures of the place in a magazine and was longing to visit it. Prior to arranging the visit, she was learning how to swim. We told her that once she had learnt, we would take her to Venice. This inducement worked, and we re-visited the holiday place of my childhood. During the visit I was surprised to discover that many of the shops and other businesses that we had visited in the ‘60s and ‘70s were still operating in 2005. These included a small shop selling decorative paper items made in Florence as well as the Bar Redentore, where we also stopped for a drink.
We used to reach the Redentore by walking across the Campo San Stefano, where we sometimes sat down during the afternoon, and then passing along a narrow alley, which contained a building that has long intrigued me. It was the Scuola degli Albanese. This building whose façade, which is almost impossible to photograph properly on account of the narrowness of the alley, is covered with carved stone bas-reliefs.
The facade of the Scuola degli Albanese in Venice
By the time that I had reached my early teens, I had developed a great interest in the then very mysterious country of Albania. Anything connected with that place, which was then almost inaccessible to anyone from the world around it, was of great fascination to me. We used to stop and look at this building, wondering what it had to do about Albania, but I never found out … until recently.
Detail of facade of Scuola degli Albanese in Venice - a Turk contemplating the Fortress of Shkodër in Albania
In February 2014, I was attending a reception at the Albanian Embassy in London when I met the great scholar of Albanian matters, Bejtullah Destani. This highly approachable friendly man began talking to me. As we chatted, I suddenly remembered the Scuola degli Albanese and asked him about it. If anyone knew anything about it, it had to be him. And, I was right, but I was not prepared for his reaction. He looked surprised that I knew of its existence. He said that he believed that of the 40 or so people assembled at the reception, many of them Albanian and the others having a great interest in Albania, I was probably the only person there who had ever heard of, or even noticed, this building.
Destani told me that when the Turks invaded Albania in the 15thcentury, many Albanians fled the country. Some went to southern Italy and others to Venice. He explained that the Scuola degli Albanese was the headquarters of the Albanian confraternity in Venice. The Albanian community in Venice was extremely prosperous, and well able to hire the fashionable painter Vittorio Carpaccio to paint a series of canvases to decorate the main hall of the Scuola between 1504 and 1508. These paintings, which still exist, are no longer in the building, which has long since ceased to serve its original function; they are scattered amongst museums all over Italy. This contrasts with the set of Carpaccio’s paintings that are still in situ in the Scuola degli Schiavoni not far from St Mark’s Square. We used to visit those beautiful pictures lining the walls of a dimly lit room almost every time we visited Venice.
One of the pictures by Carpaccio that used to hang in the Scuola degli Albanese: nowin a museum in Bergamo.
Mr Destani also told me that when the Scuola degli Albanesi ceased to function as a confraternity, the entire records of the Albanian community in Venice, spanning several centuries, were transferred to the Archives of the City of Venice, where they are awaiting scholarly examination.
Santa Maria del Giglio in Venice
Close to the Scuola degli Albanese, but nearer to St Marks Square, there was a church that interested me because of my interest in the Balkans. It was Santa Maria del Giglio (known by the Venetians as 'Santa Maria Zobenigo'). At the base of its florid neo-classical façade there were a number of maps carved in bas-relief. At least two of these were of places on the Dalmatian coast, namely Split and Zadar (or 'Zara', in Italian). There was another one depicting ‘Candia’, now known as Heraklion on Crete. These maps interested me. The rest of the façade interested my parents.
Map of Zara (Zadar) on facade of S. Maria del Giglio in Venice
Adam Yamey visited Albania in 1984. His memories of this
extraordinary journey are published in his book/ e-book
"ALBANIA ON MY MIND"
This is available from Amazon, Barnes&Noble, and Bookdepository, and also www.lulu.com