Visiting the Albanian towns of Gjirokaster and Berat

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My first visit to Albania was earlier this year in late September when I visited the northern Albanian town of Shkoder en route towards Montenegro after having spent a week in neighbouring Kosovo. Visiting the rest of the country wasn’t on the agenda on that trip but I vowed to return to Albania later in the year. Since the beginning of November I had been based in Athens for almost three weeks. Yet I made sure that I would return to Albania before the end of this trip.

From the northern Greek town of Ioannina, I took an early afternoon bus directly to the southern Albanian mountain town of Gjirokaster. I was the only tourist on the bus. Ioannina is a mountain town located on a plateau of around 500 meters. The entire sky was heavy with thick low lying clouds and I was wearing my warmest garments. During the two hour bus ride we drive through some awesomely stunning mountain landscape. There is no heating on the bus and my feet are turning to ice. The border crossing feels like its located at the same altitude as La Paz in Bolivia. On the Greek side we all have to get off the bus and I make an inward groaning sound. Uniquely for border crossings, the Greek border official is full energy and excellent humour. His English is impeccable…‘So Mr Nicholas Alexander, what the hell are you doing on the Greek-Albanian border?’ When we approach the Albanian side I feel relieved when we don’t have to disembark the bus. Instead the bus driver takes all our passports to give to the Albanian border official before handing them back to us.

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By Lake Pamvotis in the northern Greek town of Ioannina

On arrival in Gjirokaster, the bus stops on the side of the main town boulevard, Bulevardi 18 Shtatori. Multiple red Albanian flags line the middle of the boulevard. I establish my bearings towards my guesthouse via Google Maps. With hindsight, it would have taken an age to find my place without all this digital cutting edge technology at my disposal. From the boulevard, I walk up multiple ascending narrow stone paths. As I get closer to my destination, the older part of town with its old historic Ottoman style houses (some splendidly dilapidated) slowly reveals itself to me. I wish I were wearing my hi tech Merrel brand boots with their tough Vibram grip. My trendy hipster Vans shoes are not made for walking these jagged stone paths. As I walk further up one of the paths, a young man on a donkey with a small cart attached to it passes me by.

Google Maps is on my side and eventually I reach my final destination, Mele Guesthouse, or at least I think I have? An elderly couple greet me at the gates and take me inside their house. I ask them for the whereabouts of Mele, but neither of them speak a lick of English. We sit down on the sofa in the living room and the lady goes to the kitchen and returns with a tray carrying a bowl of sweats and an oversized shot glass of raki. With weather as cold as this, the raki is like a hot woodfire stove in my belly. I am also presented with a photo album of the couple with two of their children, a son and a daughter, in Venice. I assume that the daughter is Mele. After some time, a man in his late 30s/early 40s appears. I have a giant lemon sweet drop in my mouth disabling me from speaking clearly. Mele, I learn, is the surname of the man who’s name is Edmond. He speaks excellent English and I follow him to his house next door where my room is located. There is a balcony by my room with a tremendous view over the rest of the city and of the dramatic wide snow capped mountain symbolic of this town. My room is not warm but Edmond tells me to use the air conditioning unit on the wall, which doubles up as a radiator during this time of year. Edmond and I sit on the sofa in the heated living room. He makes me a delicious and warm organic tea and mentions that he once lived in Milton Keynes for two years back in 2005. Nowadays he works as a metal welder in town and lives in the house with his partner and their adorable young kid.

I spend the remainder of the afternoon walking around the old town. I need to withdraw some local cash so I head back towards the new part of town where I originally arrived. Instead of the arduous multiple narrow paths route I earlier in the day, I find a descending stone paved road leading directly into that part of town. After withdrawing my cash, I enter a bakery and order a slice of cheese and spinach pie and a wedge of halva cake. It all comes to about one Euro in the local Leks currency. That same purchase down the road in Ioannina would have cost me three times more. I am served by a young woman of about 20 who speaks passable English. She is so lovely and kindhearted, and admits to me that she cherishes all the opportunities to practice her English. Her name is Ada and she’s a student at a local university.

When I return to the old part of town, I try to find Taverna Kuka, a restaurant recommended to me by Edmond. The wooden taverna is aesthetically very tasteful and well heated. On one wall, there are several framed pencil sketches of assorted areas of the old town by a local artist. My first choice, the moussaka, is unavailable so I settle on a plate of qifqi, a local ball-shaped delicacy made from rice, dhjozme, egg, salt, pepper and milk.

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Taverna Kuka

 

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A plate of qifqi and meatballs

At night the temperature drops below zero. The air-con is humming away converted ice cold air into warm air. It’s a cumbersome and electricity wasting process and nothing beats a radiator, whether portable or nailed to the wall. Entering my private bathroom, which is unheated I must add, is like accidentally wading into a winter in Vorkuta. I pee and brush my teeth with haste before exiting back into a warmer vacuum. Edmond has kindly provided me with enough blankets to prevent the entire population of Gjirokaster from developing hypothermia.

When I wake up at 7am the next day, I roll up the shutters covering the sliding balcony glass doors. I am rewarded with a pristine blue day. The wide mountain and town skyline are majestic. I am served a decent breakfast of bacon, eggs, bread, sweet pickles and a Nutella crêpe. Wolfing down my breakfast, I tell myself Carpe fucking Diem. I am going to live today like its one of my last. I have the energy of James Brown, sans angel dust.

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View of Gjirokaster from the balcony of my guesthouse room

 

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Breakfast on the balcony

The first site in town I visit is the former childhood home of the Albanian president-for-life Communist dictator Enver Hoxha. Hoxha ruled the country for over 40 years from 1944 until his death in 1985. During his rule he cut off the country from most of the world. Albanian civilians were not allowed to leave and his regime tortured and killed thousands. Albania was comparable to Fidel Castro’s Cuba or present day North Korea during this period.

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Enver Hoxha 

Hoxha’s childhood home is an old Ottoman style house over 100 years old, which has been converted into the town’s ethnographic museum. Most of the wooden features and designs of the house appear to be original and well preserved. In contrast to this, many of the old historic Ottoman style houses dotted around the old town look neglected and in a decaying state of disrepair. In the vestibule of the first floor of the house, there is a small corner table with two black and white photographs of Hoxha resting on the wall. The living and guest rooms of the house are furnished with long sofas, antique carpets, intricate Ottoman style wooden reliefs on the wall and also some artillery pieces like the two rifles in one of the rooms.

The childhood home of Enver Hoxha now the Ethnographic museum in Gjirokaster

 

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Photographs from inside the Ethnographic museum in Gjirokaster

Another figure to come from Gjirokaster is one of Albania’s best known literary figures, Ismail Kadare. His most famous novel, I visit his former home, which has been reconstructed after a fire in the 1990s destroyed the original structure and features. It is used as an exhibition space today and when I visited there were a number of Expressionist style oil paintings by a local artist dotted around the home. In one room there is a small table with black and white photographs of Ismail as a young boy, some books, the hat he wore whilst he was a journalist in Vietnam during the war and a certificate honouring Kadare for winning the Jerusalem Prize for the Freedom of the Individual in Society of 2015.

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Inside the former home of Albanian writer Ismail Kadare 

Afterwards I head to the enormous hilltop fortress of Gjirokastra. Just before I walk up the steps towards the fortress, I get lost walking up some of the mazes of surrounding stone pathways. The higher I climb the more awesome a view I have of the fortress and the old bazaar. The wide snow capped mountain in the distance, visible from my balcony, augments the beauty, rawness and authenticity of this historic slice of Albania. When I enter inside the fortress, I arrive at an area with great tall multiple stone arches and a collection of artillery dating back to the Second World War. Most of these weapons belonged to German and Italian forces, which occupied Albania during that time. The fortress is also home to the Museum of Gjirokaster. The museum contains numerous displays and information documenting the history of the city from as far back as pre-historic times. Of most interest to me is the period of history starting from when the Ottoman Empire conquered the Balkans region. In 1417, Gjirokaster became part of this empire. Since that time the town grew immensely and Islam became the dominant religion, although the Ottomans were tolerant towards the existing Christian communities.

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Fortress of Gjirokaster

 

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The artillery gallery inside the fortress

By the time of the 18th and 19th centuries, Gjirokaster was an important administrative centre for the empire. It was around this time in 1811 when the city was captured by Ali Pasha of Ioannina, the last town I visited before I arrived in Gjirokaster. To say that Pasha was a formidable ruler would be an understatement. From the modest bits and pieces I’ve read up on him, he strikes me as the quintessential larger than life colonial despot; an intimidating and nightmarish version of Louis XIV of France on an eternal cocaine comedown. Or more generously, a PG certificate Ghenghis Khan. Lord Byron famously visited his court in the walled Turkish Kastro in Ioannina in 1809 and had conflicting feelings about the man. On one hand he was impressed by the ruler’s cultural refinement and the opulence of his court yet he was shocked by his propensity for off the charts barbarism as he wrote in a letter to his mother, ‘His Highness is a remorseless tyrant, guilty of the most horrible cruelties, very brave, so good a general that they call him the Mahometan Buonaparte…but as barbarous as he is successful, roasting rebels, etc, etc..’ An example of his brutality include tales of drowning people who rubbed him up the wrong way by bundling them into sacks loaded with stones and then tying up the sacks before proceeding to drop them in Lake Pamvotis below the walls of his court. I recalled walking by that lake close to the Kastro and former court of Ali one cold and overcast day on my way to the bus terminal hellbent on getting to Albania. All the leaves on the trees by the lake were golden autumn brown. Ignorance is bliss and all I can remember is being struck by the beauty of the nature of my surroundings. Ali Pacha of Ioannina back then was just a name and I knew almost nothing about the man and the history of the town I was passing through.

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Ali Pasha

But back to Gjirokaster before I digress any further. The origins of the fortress date back as far as the 12th century but it wasn’t until the time when Ali Pasha first seized the town that major changes occurred. He instigated an enormous building project to expand the fortress with the help of his chief architect, Petro Korçari. His expansion project included new fortifications, the clock tower and an aqueduct to transport water from a mountain spring to fill the huge cisterns in the castle. The fortress was large enough to house up to 5000 soldiers along with their weapons and other supplies. An arsenal of 85 assorted British made state of the art arms were added to further protect the fortress from invasions. Not surprisingly, during Ali Pasha’s rule, the fortress never came under attack.

Some other interesting things I discovered in the museum about Gjirokaster include how fond the English landscape painter and poet, Edward Lear, was of the town. He visited two times in 1848 and 1859 on his travels through the Balkans. There are two black and white photographs which ignite my curiosity. One is a photograph of the old town from 1925 and the other is a photograph of locals hacking away with a hammer at the large town statue of Enver Hoxha after the fall of Communist rule in 1990. Although Gjirokaster is his place of birth and the town where he grew up, during his 41 year rule of Albania from 1944 until his death in 1985, he only visited his hometown a few times. There is also a display of miscellaneous ephemera from the Communist era such as political propaganda papers and identity documents.

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Painting of the fortress and the connecting aqueduct by the 19th century English painter and poet Edward Lear 

 

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The old town of Gjirokaster in 1925

 

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Locals posing by and hacking away at the statue of Enver Hoxha in Gjirokaster after the fall of Communism in the early 1990s

 

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Objects and ephemera from the Communist period

From the top of the fortress, one is rewarded with a monumental view of the famous wide mountain of Gjirokaster. Ali Pasha’s clock tower is located near the end beneath the backdrop of the mountain. Elsewhere there is a large metallic dome shaped structure over a circular stage. This is where the National Folk Festival is held every four or five years.

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The Ali Pasha built clock tower of the fortress of Gjirokaster

With less than a couple of hours remaining of light on these preciously short days, I make my way towards Zekate House; a grand Ottoman era house and probably the most spectacular of all the grand houses in Gjirokaster. It was built between 1811-12 and was a gift from Ali Pasha to Beqir Zeko (whom the house is named after) who built the house for him. It is located on a high slope over looking the rest of the old town. The view from the top of the house over Gjirokaster is just as epic as the view from the top of the fortress. The house is incredibly well preserved with almost all of its original features. One of the guest rooms comprises of ornate Ottoman style art on the walls and a beautifully designed wooden ceiling in the same style. Some of the windows feature multicoloured glass pains.

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The grand Ottoman era Ali Pasha constructed Zekate House 

 

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One of the guest rooms inside Zekate House

In the evening the temperature drops dramatically hovering around the -5/-6 Celsius mark. Even with the aircon unit going into overdrive to pump warm air it isn’t enough and dispite having all the blankets in the world, I consider sleeping in my clothes. All this aside, the guesthouse is very homely and Edmond and his partner did their very best to make my stay as pleasant as possible. Edmond organises his friend to collect me after breakfast the next day to drive me to a part of town from where my bus to the town of Berat, further north of the country before the capital of Tirana, would depart. His friend arrives in a black Mercedes Benz parked at the bottom of the path leading up to Edmond’s home. With hindsight I am glad I opted for a cab. I most likely would have got hopeless lost had I gone it alone. Edmond’s friend doesn’t speak a word of English and the young lady at the office of one of the bus companies is not much better. Fortunately I have my phone so I give Edmond a call and he communicates with both his friend and the lady. I later learn that the bus to Berat will be arriving at a later time. Two minutes later I am bundled into a white mini van destined for the Albanian town of Lushnjë from where I have to catch another bus to Berat. When I enter the van it is close to full capacity and I find a seat in the row of seats right at the back of the van.

Leaving Gjirokaster, we slowly descend to a lower plateau and the temperature becomes noticeably milder, but I am still wrapped up. There is no heating system in the van. Before we reach Lushnjë, the bus driver points to a sign indicating the direction to Berat. The driver speaks zero English yet he directs his hand pointing frantically to a small bay area by the connecting road. I assume a Berat bound bus will be stopping there? Still I am not sure so before disembarking the bus I make an impromptu call out to all the passengers on the bus beginning by asking whether anyone speaks English? Thankfully a young lady with dyed platinum hair comes to the rescue and is able to confirm in modest English that I need to go to the bay area the bus driver keeps relentlessly pointing at. I say the Albanian word for thank you, faliminderit, about a dozen times putting my right hand to my heart.

Like some travelling 1930s Mississippi Delta Bluesman, I trudge with all my stuff over to the other road and the small bay area. Within five minutes a Berat bound battered furgon appears and I nudge myself inside with my suitcase. I am dropped off somewhere outside of Berat from where I board a local bus to the centre. The ticket seller on the bus asks me in broken English what football team I support? I am not a football man but I tell him Tottenham. He looks at me and smiles, exposing a set of truly disgusting broken and jagged nicotine stained teeth; a sight so disturbing I conclude this is someone not suitable to be around young kids. ‘Chelsea!!!’ he howls at me in a voice so piercingly loud all the other passengers stop what they are doing.

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Berat

From the centre of town I disembark with my suitcase and walk, via trusty Google Maps, to my guesthouse located in a quiet and desolate location on the margins of the centre of town. It is a small newly built bungalow home with a few rooms. The outside of the house is no great shakes, but the few rooms inside are all in immaculate condition. In spite of this the rooms are very cold and even the air con unit doubling up as a heater doesn’t sufficiently heat up the room. The floor is cold as ice and the bathroom is one big freezer with a wooden door. The owners, an old Albanian couple, have a heart of gold though and the price per night is ridiculously cheap and good value. Too good in fact, especially if you consider that the price included a very generous breakfast of assorted slices of ham, jams, bread, feta cheese slabs and cut pieces of cucumber and tomato. Yet the cold temperature of my room means I sadly have to move on to another place the following day. The second guesthouse I stay at is more expensive, but is closer to town, run by a lovely family and has warmer rooms.

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The old Ottoman Gorica Quarter of Berat

Most of my stay in Berat is handicapped by ferocious torrents of rain. In fact the rain was so severe across most of the country that whenever I watched the national news it was all total mayhem; monumental floods, overflowing rivers, main highway roads blocked by mud and sludge etc. I was even wondering whether I’d make it on to Tirana on time? The entire second day of my stay in Berat was spent inside my room. When on the third day the rain still hadn’t softened, I was so determined not to spend another day bunkered in my room, I decided to brave the deluge. All I had was my small black umbrella I purchased from a vendor in the Omonia district of Athens for a couple of euros.

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Castle walls of the old hilltop Kalaja neighbourhood in Berat

I wanted to visit the old Kalaja neighbourhood located on top of a hill within the walls of the old city castle. It is a quite a shlep to get there and with the lashing rain and low hanging clouds even more challenging. About two thirds of the uphill stone path have turned into rapid streams of water. I invariably step into the steams and my busted Vans are already soaked to the bone. Yet I persevere and make the entrance of the castle walls at the top of the hill. From where I am, all of the town below is smothered in substantial puffs of nimbus clouds.

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A cloud smothered view of Berat from the historic hilltop Kalaja neighbourhood

Yet I am glad I made it. The old neighbourhood within the castle walls is a gem of stunning old Ottoman architecture and narrow stone alleys and passages. Walking through this maze evokes mental images of passing though a slice of medieval England with a Turkish twist. It feels very authentic here and this is no museum. It is a living and breathing neighbourhood where locals go about their daily lives.

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Photographs from the old Kalaja neighbourhood

What is interesting is that for a long time Kalaja was a Christian neighbourhood and at one point had around 20 churches. Today there are fewer churches, yet the largest church in the district, the Church of the Dormition of St Mary (Kisha Fjetja e Shën Mërisë), is an old church still in existence dating back to 1797 and was constructed on the base of a church from the 10th century. This church is the site of the Onufri Museum. Onufri was a 16th century Orthodox icon painter and Archpriest priest of the Albanian town of Elbasan. He is considered the most significant icon painter of a group of Albanian icon painters from the 16th century who were instrumental in reviving the style of old sacred religious icon painting which flourished during the pre Ottoman Byzantine period. Some of his panel paintings are featured in the museum along with works by other Albanian Iconographical painters made between the 16th and 20th centuries. The enormous and ornate iconostasis situated inside the church is magnificent and one of the finest creations of the 19th century by the very best Albanian wood-carving masters. The iconostasis features two rows of icon paintings created by the ‘Grabovar’ icon painters from the Çetiri (or Katro) family under the leadership of the master icon painter Johan Çetiri. The carving of the iconostasis is documented to have been constructed by two master craftsmen, Masters Andoni and Stefani. It’s prohibited to take photographs but I am so blown away by the works that I sneak a cheeky pic on my Motorola smartphone.

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The elaborate gilded 19th century iconostasis inside the Church of The Dormition of St Mary

 

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16th century icon painting on wood by Onufri

Outside the church there is a display of black and white photographs of Berat from the early 20th century. They show scenes of life in the town including a photograph from 1918 of the old Gorica quarter of Berat with its many old Ottoman era houses all grouped together on the side of a hill.

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Photograph of the Gorica Quarter from 1918

 

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Photograph of the old bazaar from 1908

The rain is still fierce and by the time I return to my guesthouse my shoes, socks and rucksack are soaked. In the evening I have dinner at a local taverna restaurant called Weldor. I’ve already eaten there a few times and I am always served by a cordial young waiter who speaks faultless English. He’s never been to England but for many years he worked in a hostel run by a guy from Newcastle. The restaurant serves delicious and authentic Italian pizza, pasta and risotto dishes made by an Albanian cook who spent many years in Italy working as a chef. The local staples are also excellent and tonight I order a homemade casserole dish made with aubergines and served with some of the finest bread I have ever tasted.

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Traditional Albanian cuisine at Wildor restaurant

By the next morning the rain has stopped and there are even some patches of blue in the sky. I seize this morning before I depart to Tirana to walk and explore the town in a way that was long denied to me. The main pedestrian promenade in the centre of town is covered in sludge. Already there are men at work with shovels and hose pipes trying to remove and wash away all the mud. Watching the people at work is like witnessing the aftermath of some natural disaster. I return to my previous guesthouse where I’d left my pyjamas. The owners greet me with a smile and hand me a plastic bag containing them. I tell them I am staying with a friend.

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The aftermath of days of heavy rains, which flooded many parts of Albania

I walk over the river to the old Gorica quarter. Most of the cobbled paths are smothered in sludge with huge puddles making walking a challenge. From Gorica, I have a super view of the old town on the other side. Both this district and the old town are full of old classic Ottoman style houses each side mirroring the other and both responsible for this being known as the Town of 1000 windows.

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The old town of Berat from the other side of the river

The family at my guesthouse arrange for me to go to Tirana via an acquaintance who will be driving there. I spend the remaining couple of hours of my time in the foyer with the family and their two adorable dogs, Spiky and Lucky, before a silver hatchback Golf pulls up to take me to my next destination.

 

By Nicholas Peart

©All Rights Reserved

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Solutions In The Age Of Job Security Decline

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This is an unpublished piece I wrote back in May 2017

Today we are living during an extraordinary time where technology is advancing at an exponential pace. The growth of the internet and powerful emerging technologies like Artificial Intelligence are disrupting industries and jobs that were once considered safe. It seems to me that the traditional Industrial Age job seeker 9-5 modal of working and job security are in decline. Replacing this is the rise of the precarious gig economy of job scraps with zero hour contracts.

Any job where the work is repetitive and/or is work where there are patterns in the tasks is most certainly at risk from potential automation. In fact the whole notion of ‘a job’ is changing. Restricting yourself to the mindset of solely looking for work is restricting yourself to a periodically shrinking pool of increasingly scarce opportunities. On the other hand, if you can move away from the mindset of a job seeker to one of a job creator or entrepreneur than you have already prepared yourself. That is the new job security.

 

Solutions for Workers in low paid Unskilled Jobs

Low paid jobs such retail and bank clerk jobs, cleaning jobs, transportation driver jobs, factory workers and all kinds of call centre and admin work etc are the most at risk from automation. In fact many of the jobs in these industries have already been automated. It is important that people in these jobs take a moment to retreat and try to understand a bit more about themselves. What are your interests and passions? What inspires you? If you have a passion, say for example, for cooking or gardening, you could start a blog and connect with people and impart some unique and sought after tips and extend this into offering a paid service like cooking or gardening classes/workshops. There are also more potential revenue streams like providing advertising space on your website especially if you have lots of subscribers and followers. You could also focus on a more specialised form of something that you are passionate about which would make you stand out if the market of the area you are focusing on is overly saturated.

 

Solutions for Professionals

Professionals in the medical, legal and financial services require more skills than people in low paid unskilled work yet it does not mean that their jobs are not immune from the potential threat of automation. As I already mentioned, it is important to understand and know what interests and inspires you as it can potentially be translated into a successful online business or project. Alternatively, if you are, for example, a lawyer working for a large law firm and you want to remain in the industry, you could start your own online law business in an area of law you are most interested in. In a way, AI will be very beneficial to the legal industry since super intelligent deep learning systems will be able to (and already are to a degree) crunch through reams of dry data and documents in far less time than a human can. This will have the added benefit of freeing up more time to work on more cases and more interesting aspects of law. Furthermore, all these new technologies will make running your own business easier, saving you both time and money.

 

Solutions for Creatives

If you are an artist, musician, writer or fashion designer etc, the most important thing is finding and connecting with your biggest and most loyal fans since they are the ones who will always willingly fund what you do whenever you try to sell your products and services. With the rapid growth of the internet and social network sites this is easier to do than ever before. All this enables creatives to potentially bypass middle agents and deal directly with their fans, meaning all profits go directly to you without any middle people taking a cut. Twitter is an indispensable social networking site for constantly networking, connecting and keeping your fans up to date with all your developments. Instagram was made for creatives and is a very powerful platform to network and showcase your uniqueness.

If you are a creative that is shy and feels uncomfortable with networking and are inexperienced in the business side of things then my advice is to find a trustworthy and experienced manager to do all the networking, promoting, funding and sales on your behalf in exchange for an agreed percentage of your net revenues.

It is very important that you are constantly connecting with your fans and making them feel a part of your creative journey, since if you ever wanted to raise funds for your projects via crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter, you will stand a higher chance of reaching your financial targets.

 

By Nicholas Peart

©All Rights Reserved

Inside The Croatian Museum Of Naive Art

This art museum was one of the highlights of my trip to Zagreb. Naive Art as an art form was very fashionable during the 1960s and 1970s. Personally I don’t like the term very much as I think it degrades art and implies that it’s not very good. Some art of that genre can be very kitsch but it can also be very brilliant, full of heart and soul. The best work of this genre is up there with many of the greatest works from the Art Brut movement where artists, with no formal art education, created work, often of a very raw nature, outside of the confines of the ‘Art World’ and other established institutions.

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Self-Portrait (1975) by Ivan Generalić

Most of the work on display at this museum is by noted Croatian artists of the Hlebine School. Hebline is a small village in the north of Croatia which from the 1920s was the place where a small group of self taught peasants began to develop a new style of painting. The artist Ivan Generalić (1914-1992) was the father of this movement. When I enter the first room of the museum, his Self-Portrait (1975) painting is the first painting to catch my eye. The prominent blue background of the painting is unmissable and I am immediately reminded of the Italian Renaissance painter Giovanni Bellini’s Portrait Of Doge Leonardo Loredan.

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Harvest (1938) by Mirko Virius 

In the same room, there are also paintings by another artist of the first generation of Hebline school artists called Mirko Virius (1889-1943) who’s paintings are of traditional rural people. His painting Harvest (1938) reminds me of the rural paintings of everyday peasant life by the pre Impressionist French painter Jean-Francois Millet. Millet was also a huge influence on Vincent Van Gogh who at the beginning of his painting career wanted to paint rural peasant life in its purest form from the source. Many of Van Gogh’s early paintings and drawings capture this very beautifully.

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The Evangelists On Calvary (1996) by Ivan Večenaj

Then there is another painting in that same called The Evangelists On Calvary (1996) by one of the second generation of Hlebine School artists called Ivan Večenaj (1920-2013). This is probably the most powerful painting in the room. The intricate mess of destruction, decay and dehumanisation makes me hark back to the most nightmarish paintings by the legendary and light-years-ahead-of-his-time Dutch colossus Hieronymus Bosch. Out of all the art works in the museum, it is those paintings by Večenaj, which resonate most deeply with me. Another painting of his entitled Gaitery Juna (1962) features a peasant lady with a deformed face. A third painting depicts Moses by the Red Sea.

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Martin Mehkek

In another room, a series of portraits by Martin Mehkek (1936-2014) stop me in my tracks. The portraits are very human and Mehkek seems to have a unique ability to empathise with his subjects and put himself in their shoes. He paints his subjects in a way which executes their emotions and traits. And many of his subjects seem to be local villagers and they appear to be painted in a way where all their quirks, bizarreness and insularity are masterfully captured.

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Emerik Feješ

The paintings of Emerik Feješ (1904-1969) are of colourful, childlike, ethereal and joyful buildings in a style that is his own. Like ornate Venetian buildings turned into multi coloured, energetic Mississippi and New Orleans juke joints. Observing his paintings fill me with hope and positivity, which is very vital in a pungent age of anxiety.

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Luxary Ship (1974) by Drago Jurak

The final piece of work in the museum to make an impression on me is a painting by Drago Jurak (1911-1994) called Luxary Ship (1974). It is a extraordinary painting and I immediately think of the impossibly insane Swiss artist Adolf Wölfi, a key artist from the Art Brut movement. His paintings are of an overly complex, obsessive and deranged nature. Like a shockingly talented Persian miniature painter on acid. Some artists are just happy to knock up bland landscape pastiches. Yet painters like Jurak and Wölfi are forever hellbent on rocking the boat and driving the square community mad.

 

By Nicholas Peart

©All Rights Reserved

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FLOATING IN SPACE IN ZAGREB: Review of the Subspace Hostel

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Most hostels have the same standard model of rooms with bunkbeds of varying degrees of quality. I am a private person and rarely tend to stay in dormitory rooms. Yet in some cities which are prohibitively expensive, they are still the best way to save money. Dorm guests stumbling intoxicated into the rooms during the small hours of the night, sometimes turning on the lights, and rummaging noisily through plastic bags are some of the common complaints of staying in a dorm room.

The ingenious hostel setup at the Subspace Hostel in the Croatian capital of Zagreb is inspired by the model used in various hostels throughout Japan and China, which comprise of having ‘space capsules’ for guests to sleep in rather than standard dorm bunks. In a way it doesn’t matter whether a room has 4 or 40 of these space pods, since one has their own space (pun most intended!!). I simply climbed up into my intergalactic pod and was able to completely shut the door and fully withdraw inside. I felt I had almost the same level of privacy that I would have had by having my own room in a hotel or guesthouse and at an affordable price. Yet hotels and guest houses, unlike hostels, are not best places to be if you want to meet other travellers.

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Whilst inside, there was a TV screen with multiple channels, a couple of remote controls, four lights, a safe, plug and USB sockets, a small ventilation pocket and even a fire extinguisher. My bed was very comfortable and my pod also came with an additional head rest. In these increasingly virtual times, where the chasm between the physical and virtual worlds is forever shrinking, it is just too easy to get lost in virtual bliss and forget that there is a historically interesting city to be physically exploring and getting under the skin of.

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The showers and toilets, instead of being in separate rooms, are constructed within the rooms as funky neon-turquoise cylinder cubicles. The only cumbersome thing about the toilets and showers is that they lack proper locks. They can only be locked via a dangling thin piece of metal where the end is inserted through a circular metal hole, which is often located a little too far out. That would not cut the mustard on Apollo 11! But I am being a pedantic jackass here.

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Artwork by Tomislav Buntak

As well as this wonderful hostel set up, the other thing that makes this hostel unique is the exquisite artwork on all the walls and ceilings created by a gifted notable local artist called Tomislav Buntak. There is a large hardback book with many photographs of his work by the reception, which I highly recommend you have a look at.

The last time I stayed in an equally special place was at the Santos Express Lodge in Mossel Bay, South Africa. You can read my review of it here

 

By Nicholas Peart

©All Rights Reserved

How 3D Printing Could Be The Biggest Thing To Affect Our Lives Since The Internet

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I’ve been very interested in 3D Printing for a few years now. What fascinates me the most about this technology is the awesome and unlimited potential it has. Currently it is still at a very embryonic stage in terms of its development but, like the internet before it, its potential is enormous. 3D Printing has the power to transform and effect many different industries. I am listing a few of these industries below.

 

The Manufacturing Industry

This is the industry which I think will be most affected by 3D Printing. Already large segments of the global mass manufacturing industry are automated via Robotics and AI. As 3D Printing develops and evolves more and more, it will be able to greatly increase the productivity of this industry and even contribute towards automating it to even greater levels than robotics. In fact, 3D Printing may even have the power to completely disrupt the entire mass manufacturing industry. This is especially true after this technology has become truly mainstream and every home not just has a basic 3D printer, but one that is capable of printing almost any kind of 3D object imaginable using just the basic raw materials. Once 3D Printing has got to this stage of development and has matured as an important consumer technology, then one could say that every household is a factory. People would be able to create and customise any physical good they want through simply taking the designs of the products and applying them to the 3D printer. This could severely disrupt businesses whose business model is based mostly on manufacturing goods, especially at the mass level.

 

The Construction Industry

The construction industry is the next obvious industry to be affected by 3D Printing after the manufacturing industry. As with the manufacturing industry, it has the potential to increase efficiency and productivity as well as save costs and time. The construction industry is also a potentially dangerous industry for human labour and any building physically constructed by humans will always be vulnerable to flaws and errors. Yet 3D Printing with a double dose of robotics and strong AI has the potential to create buildings more robust and in less time than humans can and without the labour costs involved. And as these technologies develop further, it will be possible to 3D print entire cities. And why stop at building on dry land? Perhaps one day in the distant future when these technologies are at a level far greater than our comprehension, it may even be possible to 3D print domed cities under water. A crazy notion but with out of this world technology anything is possible.

 

The Medical Industry

The medical industry and our lives and health have the power to be greatly augmented by 3D printing. Already the technology has the ability to print prosthetic arms and legs. Yet 3D printed bones and organs are a real possibility. 3D printed organs will already reduce the enormous waiting list of patients waiting for organ transplants, especially for kidneys and livers. And what if the 3D printed organs were more developed and healthy than the healthiest of donated organs? 3D Printing combined with other groundbreaking emerging technologies in the biotech sector like stem cell technology, genetic engineering and nanotechnology have the power to achieve this.

 

I am looking forward to experiencing how 3D Printing will further develop and more importantly how it will greatly assist and make our lives easier as well as being an amazing resource to make our lives more efficient and aid us in reaching greater heights. Already there are a number of growing 3D Printing start ups and businesses all trying to further develop this amazing technology.

What is becoming increasingly clear with the way emerging technologies are developing, and will develop, is that our ideas and creativity will be our greatest assets. These technologies will help us expand our ideas and creativity and realise them to the greatest levels possible.

 

By Nicholas Peart

©All Rights Reserved

Greetings From Delhi

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Back in Delhi

Last Monday night, I flew from London Heathrow to Delhi via Jet Airways. I took a random punt on this airline and it was a pretty lackluster experience. The aircraft was quite old and backdated. I had an aisle seat in the middle aisle row of seats. The two seats of the four in the middle were vacant. On the other end of my row was an old Sikh who got very drunk and disorderly and later incurred the wrath of the airline staff who refused to serve him more whisky. There sadly was nothing entertaining, charming or witty about him and he was a constant pain and drone for most of the flight. I spent the majority of my flight either taking advantage of the in-flight entertainment system or listening to my iPod.

Delhi was just as I had envisaged it to be when the plane landed at Delhi airport. The entire landscape from the runway was blurred by thick blinding smog. As everybody began to disembark from the plane, I realized that I couldn’t find my navy blue retro cotton scarf. Amongst the mess of used airline blankets and headphones, I couldn’t see it. I again looked in my bag. No luck. I broached this to the airline staff but it was a futile quest. Ah fuck it, I concluded. Lets get out of here.

I waited over an hour just to change £30 into Indian Rupees at the Thomas Cook bureau de change at Delhi airport. The recent demonetization events in the country involving the sudden withdrawal of all R500 and R1000 notes, representing over 80% of the country’s money supply, compounded with the tough restrictions on how much money one could withdraw or exchange meant that one was by law not supposed to exchange more than R5000 a week. I was with a group of other fellow travelers including a group of Peruvian tourists who’d just flown in from Hyderabad and they were equally dejected by the whole thing.

I decided to take the modern metro airport express direct to New Delhi station instead of haggling with a cab driver. At the entrance to the station there was a security check with austere Indian police in charge. The express train blazed through vacant and baron swathes of outer Delhi. The heavy smog made all the surrounding scenery translucent and vague. Many trees were either dead, dying or suffocating by the smog, pleading desperately with the gods in vain for rain. They would have to wait until at least June next year. At the top of the smogged skyline was the sun, heavily veiled to resemble one of those glowing white coated energy saving lightbulbs rather than a piercing brilliant white hot glow. People had to have lungs of steel to live in this city.

Arriving at and exiting New Delhi metro station gave me my first official taste of India since the last time I arrived here almost 10 years ago. All the famed filth and fury slowly began to unravel and reveal itself to me. As I made my way towards the entrance of the main bazaar thoroughfare of the legendary tourist ghetto of the Paharganj district via the hectic and high pressure New Delhi Railway station, I bump into two long-term travelling backpackers. Both look like they’ve allowed India to get under their skin and truly connect and flow with the rhythms and current of this fascinating, multi-faceted, mind blowing, full power wild soup. Peter is from Germany and his partner Olga is from Russia. They both met in Rishikesh. Peter had in fact traveled to India by bicycle from Germany. In Iran he was involved in a road accident and this delayed his trip as he recovered in a Tehran hospital.

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The Paharganj district of Delhi

We all walk together through the mess of the main Paharganj bazaar as Peter tries to find a Post Office and I try to find the Hotel Vivek. Not much has changed along this main thoroughfare of mayhem since I last graced this road as a fresh faced 23 year old backpacker. Back then I foolishly didn’t book accommodation for my first night. Furthermore, I got overcharged by my taxi driver from the airport with hardly any past travel experience under my belt. I had thrown myself in the proverbial deep end. Arriving in the Paharganj all those years ago was like arriving in the middle of some bombed out extra-terrestrial mess on another planet in another galaxy. I was always getting harassed by unsavory touts and constantly trying to avoid being hit by a passing motorbike or rickshaw. I carried my heavy backpack with no reservation, not knowing which hotels to enter or avoid. I remember settling on a veritable fleabag of a place which had these soulless dirty busted rooms for around the R200 mark a night. My current room at the Vivek is no great shakes and the mattress is pancake-thin but this is like the Best Western compared to that place. Before I check into the Vivek, I say goodbye to Peter and Olga. Perhaps I’ll bump into them next at a temple somewhere in Sri Lanka? Who knows.

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Back in the Paharganj after an almost 10 year absence 

Instead of going to bed, I dump my things in my room and re-enter the Main Bazaar. I walk back towards New Delhi station and onward towards Connaught Place. It is here where I discover a marvelous open air secondhand book stall. Mountains of books are piled on top of each other like mini towers of Babel. By now I find myself feeling the undesirable effects of Delhi’s air pollution. Its not only my mouth which feels like one great field of ash and dust. My eyes are stinging like I am walking through clouds of sulfuric acid. I need a bottle of water sharpish and some vitamin C tablets to phase out the carcinogenic mess of free radicals manifesting inside of me. What I’d give for an incubator of premium quality South Pacific air!

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A great secondhand bookstall by Connaught Place 

As I trudge around Connaught Place, the sun has already gone down. There are impossibly long lines of people outside every functioning ATM hoping to withdraw some limited Rupees. It doesn’t matter that the current daily limit has recently been increased from R2000 to R2500, I can see more chance of pigs flying than achieving a successful and hassle-free ATM withdrawal. Yet I fortunately have another option for getting cash in the form of my scarce supply of hard currency. I genuinely feel sorry for the locals who have been affected by this.

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People queuing up outside an ATM in Connaught Place hoping to withdraw some scarce Rupees 

I look for a street vendor selling bottled water. I find one offering me R20 for a liter bottle. He even says that he has change for a R2000 note as he palms me nineteen R100 notes along with the rest of my change. I am extremely grateful to him. For the most part, carrying around one of the recently issued R2000 notes is like carrying around a King Cobra. I can’t take it everywhere.

I chat to some random locals in Connaught Place. The people I speak to genuinely want to chat and the conversations never turn to money. For dinner I pay a visit to Hotel Saravana Bhavan for some delicious South Indian food. There are already people waiting outside with their names on the waiting list. I sign myself up and wait around 20 minutes before I am allocated a seat. I am seated opposite a middle aged Delhiite. When the time comes to order I go for the Thali Special. All this glorious food hits the spot. Afterwards I take a rickshaw back to my hotel to rejuvenate.

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Outside Hotel Saravana Bhavan

 

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The Thali Special at Hotel Saravana Bhavan

The next day I wake up at 11am after over 12 hours of sleep. I exit the hotel just before noon. A secondhand book shop catches my eye in the Paharganj. The owner even has another larger shop around the back bursting with books. I conclude that this must be the best stocked book shop at least here in the Paharganj. I purchase a secondhand copy of a book of teachings by the great Indian sage Ramana Maharshi.

For me the heart and soul of Delhi is its old city around the high pressure Chandhi Chowk. I took a metro train over there. It is a monumental sight, like nothing I’d ever experienced before. When I was last here, it was a mind-blowing and overwhelming experience. As soon as I exit Chandhi Chowk metro station, a bicycle rickshaw driver decides to stick himself to me like glue. He becomes a magnificent liability. On the other hand, I wouldn’t want it any other way. I’ve missed this chaos. I finally manage to break free of him by very diligently crossing the carnage of Chandi Chowk traffic where there is something resembling a pavement on the other side. I spot a peanut wallah and purchase a small bag for 10 Rupees.

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Chandhi Chowk

At the end of the main Chandhi Chowk thoroughfare is the monumental Red Fort. This exotic clay-red juggernaut of a fort was constructed during the height of the Mughal period. I enter the outside grounds but I do not go inside as I’d already visited the fort during my last trip to Delhi. Soon I get chatting with an affable local named Satish and we have our photo taken together by the entrance.

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In Chandhi Chowk

 

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With Satish outside the Red Fort

Chandi Chowk may be hectic but for an even more glorious, full powered and disheveled experience, nothing beats the labyrinth of bazaars, streets and hidden alleyways around the nearby Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque.

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Old Delhi street scene 

Like the Red Fort (and the Taj Mahaj in Agra), it was designed by Shah Jahan, a famous Mughal emperor whose reign was often said to be the golden age of Mughal architecture.

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The magnificent Jama Masjid

The streets and bazaars around this jewel of a mosque are special to me. We may be living in the digital age, but walking these streets I feel very much connected to the past lives, energy and spirits of this part of the city. This is ancient Delhi at its finest.

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One of the streets surrounding the Jama Masjid

One particular memory of this area which never escapes me are the reams and reams of black electricity wires tangled and coiled like snakes everywhere and hanging by the most fragile of threads. Seeing these wires so naked and exposed is like seeing my body with much of my skin removed and all my arteries transporting blood around my body for all to see; I am still alive and going but mess around or damage them in any shape or form, and it’s curtains.

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Notice the mess of electricity wires

I spend a long time sat down on the steps at the top of the Jama Masjid watching this fascinating maze of life. I simply observe it and don’t attempt to make any sense of it. I am so happy to be here and the longer I sit here watching it all unfold in front of my eyes, is the moment I know that I am truly in India. It’s marvelous to be back.

 

By Nicholas Peart

12th December 2016

(All rights reserved)

Dicing With Danger In Fortaleza

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Fortaleza: Not all a beach

 

The following article is an excerpt taken from my 2013-14 travel diary ‘Travel Journal Of A Lost Soul’

 

29th March 2014

Today the aeroplane crashed into the mountain. What happened today was perhaps the most frightening and dangerous position I ever found myself in so far in all my travelling life. Getting mugged on the streets of Caracas five years ago was small beer compared to this.

In the morning I took a local ômnibus to Fortaleza’s international airport to buy my plane ticket to the Cape Verde islands and also to have some clarity over a few Cape Verdean related immigration queries. I was also carrying my rucksack containing my iPad so that I could take advantage of the wireless internet in the airport. When I arrived at the airport, the TACV (local Cape Verde airline company) desk for flights to Cape Verde was closed. There was nothing I could do so I took an ômnibus from the airport to the city centre of Fortaleza. I had planned to take some photos and make some short films discreetly. So far tudo bem. I take my photos and films, have two cups of agua de coco, and explore a large portion of the city untroubled.

Later in the afternoon I look for an ômnibus going to the suburb of Iracema where my guesthouse is located. A big tough ol’ fat lady weighing at least 300 pounds tries to guide me to my bus. After some time she becomes very aggressive and starts demanding money. I board a random ômnibus about to depart and she gets on it too and begins to lunge at me. Immediately she grabs at my shirt and trouser pants and tries to punch me several times WWE style. I naturally cry for help but unbelievably no one on the bus comes to my rescue. At this moment I am absolutely terrified and in a panic I empty my wallet containing 15 Reis. She snatches the 15 Reis out of my hand and demands that I give her more money. When I am unable to give her more money, she rips my fake pair of Ray Bans off my face and crunches them up to debris in one of her enormous hands like a crusher at a scrap metal plant. Right now she’s a combination of Medusa and Big Mama Thornton on crack. Five policemen enter the bus. Three of them try to restrain her. My Brazilian Portuguese is maybe only half a step up from standard Gringo level and most of the time I barely decipher what she’s saying as it jets out of her mouth at 90 times the speed of sound. Only a little later does it become clear that she tried to unscrupulously frame me by claiming that I bought cocaine from her. And not only that…that I refused to pay for it! Even if this house of cards allegation were true, by admitting that you are a drug dealer surely creates ramifications for yourself, does it not? The police officers turn me and my rucksack upside down in pursuit of the smallest nano particle of blow. When they eventually realise that I am in possession of no drugs let alone cocaine, they simply bark something at this rare disgrace and let her go. The pathetic absence of justice and incompetence on the part of the local police, whilst it didn’t surprise me, left me feeling vulnerable, insecure and full of fear. Yet in their defence they did do one caring thing for me by driving me back to my pousada on Rua Dom Manuel in Iracema.

I am still trembling from this rare hi-octane episode of barbery that I spend the rest of the day and night in my room. I only venture out once in the early evening to buy bottled water and have a simple dinner at one of the adjacent restaurants.

When I finally manage to calm down, I discard my emotions and purchase my flight ticket to the city of Praia in the Cape Verde islands off the west coast of Africa. Tomorrow morning I vow to exit this city and go to the small and tranquil beach village of Canoa Quebrada.

 

By Nicholas Peart

(All rights reserved)

image source: http://www.expedia.com