Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs, Travel

The topographical geometry of a big little island.

Geography still suffers from an image problem. It has never had glamorous TV presenters or highbrow authors to make its case as has, for example, history. And yet, as one of the few books to buck the trend shows, History is the prisoner of Geography. What happens in places is, fundamentally, dictated by the spatial configurations of those places.

For better or worse, Brexit has prompted an increased focus on the strengths and weaknesses of the UK – something that I felt had largely been put to bed by the early 1990s as free market economics (and in my view the Single Market) provided at least the veneer of a much more successful country. As I worried at the time, it was merely papering over cracks that have been cruelly exposed again in the last fifteen years.

And yet we seem not to learn the lessons of Geography. British people widely seem to have almost as little real appreciation of the lump of rock they inhabit in the eastern Atlantic, as they do of the continent next door. At present, this is particularly apparent in the discussions about regional disparities and the role that new transport infrastructure may have in addressing it. Yet even the politicians seem not to have noticed that history is littered with initiatives to solve this particular problem, as though it is nothing more than a slight political oversight, rather than the more enduring forces of geography that they are dealing with.

So here is a brief explanation.

  1. The British Isles are not “an” island – nor just two – but about 6000 – of which about 130 are inhabited.
  2. Many of those islands are highly indented in shape. Great Britain alone has a coastline of around 17,800km (setting aside the controversy about how this is calculated). It has an area of just under 210,000 km². The Hausdoff Dimension for the island is a high 1.25 – in other words, there are lots of separate, sticky-out bits into the sea, on the way to nowhere.
  3. This means that useful distances between places are often a lot longer than they appear. For example, Pembroke to Penzance is 175km as the crow flies, but 500km in human travel terms. From my home, Dover is about 90km away in a straight line but double that by the shortest road. In practical terms, this means that regional economies that in a country of a more consolidated shape would be able to interact, are often barely able to.
  4. In addition, Britain’s position on the margin of a vast ocean means that there are few reasons to go to, let alone beyond those outlying places in order, for example,  to reach other countries. Italy suffers from a similar peninsularity problem, but at least one can head to the Balkans or North Africa from the extreme south. There are very few places to go from northern Scotland. So they remain culs de sac.
  5. As a result, many of Britain’s regions are remote, underpopulated and underdeveloped – for example, the further south-west, west Wales, and progressively, the whole of the north.
  6. The shape of the island naturally dictates that routes from the extremes all converge in south east England. London is not where it is by accident.
  7. While the country’s topography is not as challenging as say Italy’s, when combined with the indentation, it still presents problems. Those radial routes manage to cross lowland England without too many problems – but they are then divided from each other by ranges like the Pennines and the Welsh uplands. This makes travel to London easy, but cross-country travel much more difficult. There is only one proper East-West motorway between the M4 (London to Bristol) and M8 in Scotland.
  8. Equally, linear geographies make the emergence of parallel routes more difficult – there is nothing approaching the ‘net’ of motorways seen in Germany and Benelux, thus focusing traffic – and hence congestion – on a few routes. See the maps below (though note that some British dual carriageways not shown would almost be considered motorways on the continent). There is still no direct continuous dual carriageway between the English and Scottish capitals, nor along the south coast.
  9. The same shape only gives rise to one major non-London axis, from south-west to north-east – but this was historically neglected by transport companies that were much more interested in serving London. It also has to dodge or cross many of those ridges of upland.
  10. Recent history has not helped either: when Britain was the world’s workshop, it was as easy to dock a ship at Bristol, Liverpool or Glasgow as London. This was aided by the fact that the hinterlands of those cities produced goods (cotton, wool, steel) for which wet, hilly terrain was a positive advantage when it came power sources and raw materials. Nowadays, such areas are perhaps less attractive. In many ways, the population distribution of the UK is a relic of 150 years ago. If you were planning a new city today, you would probably not choose Glasgow or even Newcastle as the location. The large populations of northern England and central Scotland are marooned in places which in geographical terms have little competitive advantage – and lots of disadvantages.
  11. The increasing links between the UK and the continent have placed the regions at an ever greater disadvantage. Any trade or travel between them and the continent encounters the London region as a major blockage, in both practical and economic terms. And coming the other way, too much investment gets as far as London – but no further.
  12. This has not been helped by policies that have privileged the London region at the expense of the rest. In simple terms, the UK has focused development in the most favoured areas and abandoned the outlying ones. Many countries would use infrastructure to do exactly the opposite. But regional services through the Channel Tunnel never got off the ground – cancelled due to low predicted demand – even though there was equally low demand for train services from London to Paris before the tunnel opened. Quite apart from the practical impact, the effects on provincial perceptions of ‘Europe’ would have been great.

A lot of current discussion centres on, for example, whether the country needs High Speed Two – or whether the money would be better spent linking the northern cities. This is to miss the point: we need both. The fact that the cost is now so enormous is the result of decades of failure to address the problem. We are half a century behind the French, for example, in building high speed rail lines.

Too often, they are still seen as discrete projects, rather than as an integrated network. It seems to have been too much to expect High Speeds One (to the Tunnel) and Two (to the north) to be linked together, for instance. It was also too much to expect Crossrail to be linked into HS1, or to be used to provide regional services from East to West across southern England, rather than a simple commuter shuttle for London.

High Speed Three (Liverpool to Hull) makes most sense if it is linked into HS2 in Manchester and Leeds – it is the overall connectivity that is important, and would make the projects both more cost-effective and user-friendly. It would also reduce the risk of HS2 simply sucking more growth into London. And the option of building it from Plymouth to Edinburgh to link almost all regional centres to provide a counter-balance to London seems never even to have been considered – despite the fact that that route could have been built with money saved from expensive construction in the London area.

An imaginative private sector proposal to link HS 1 and 2 via Heathrow and Gatwick has apparently been rejected even before the drawing board (too many Tory seats in the way?)

All of these things are entirely within the ability of this country to solve – or would have been, had they not been neglected for so long that the cost is now enormous. The real problem has been a lack of understanding or foresight – of the benefits of joined-up thinking in particular. And that is perhaps the most British failing of all.

 

Arts, Architecture & Design, Food, Travel

Lille in Winter

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Lille Winter Fair in the Grand Place.

“Don’t be ridiculous: European is what I am when I don’t want to be British!” She had form, too, the woman who said this to me some years ago – as she divided her time between Sussex and Paris.

I’ve always felt “European” ought to be something Europeans do at home, though, not just when they’re playing away. But there is no doubt about it, even a quick shot of “continental” does wonders – which is why we had planned to take advantage of Eurostar’s cheap anniversary tickets for a post-Christmas day in Lille. This time, however, it was tinged with notes of both sadness and defiance: our day was to be our last blow-out as EU citizens – but also an act of defiance that the European life will go on regardless. Here’s a photo report.

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Place Louise de Bettignies

Crawling out of bed at 06h00 on a Saturday in January is not to be recommended – but an early train to London (50 minutes) and a quick hop to St Pancras saw us ready for a departure around 09h00. It could all be so much quicker, of course, were it not for the paranoia that still treats Anglo-French travel as though it is a trip to the moon…

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Eurostar – St Pancras.

That aside, we had an excellent day in Lille. I have been countless times and know the place pretty well. I like its fine old town – but also its slightly gritty, post-industrial feel. It’s our nearest continental city – and certainly a better proposition than Paris or Calais for a day out. We arrived at around 11h30 local time, followed by a good mooch around the city centre, lunch at Paul – involving rather too much molten hot chocolate – and some retail therapy, even if mostly the window-cleaning variety. (Lécher les vitrines: literally, licking the windows). We did come home with a new table lamp, though, some of our ritual pates de fruits from Méert and some crazily-reduced purple leather gloves from Printemps (not for me…)

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Bouquinistes in the Vieille Bourse
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Méert was established in 1677 and the current shop dates from 1839. Charles de Gaulle’s favourite shop (He was a native of Lille).

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Plenty of other chocolatiers on the Rue Esquermoise…
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Ligne Roset…
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Roche Bobois.

My wife had never done the city tour bus before – rather surprisingly we find these a good way to get a slightly wider perspective than one would on foot. (The Lille one takes in some of the new, modernist business districts too, for instance). When we called to book in the morning, it was not certain that the tour would run because of some expected demonstrations. We called back, to find the decision taken to go ahead. So the tour was undertaken – albeit with certain delays and diversions as we did manage to run into the middle of a manifestation gilets jaunes

I really like Notre Dame de la Treille, Lille’s cathedral: dour on the outside but a surprising clash of tradition and colourful modernism on the inside.

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Above and below: Notre Dame de la Treille. The West window is made of translucent sheets of marble.

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By afternoon, the city was packed, as the sales are still in full swing, as is the Winter Fair that runs to the end of January.

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Place Louise de Bettignies – one of Lille’s more recent renovations.
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Place des Oignons.
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Winter cafe life.

We had decided to branch out in terms of dining; the particular challenge being to find somewhere that could cater for my vegetarian wife while giving me a traditional Flemish hit. France is slowly cottoning on with vegetarianism, and we had a number of places to check out. In the end, though, we allowed ourselves to be pulled into the Estaminet de Gand (Estaminet being a traditional Flemish eatery) on the Rue de Gand, with an hour to linger over apéros and cheese before they could serve meals from 19h00. You need to get in early if you haven’t booked…

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The Rue de Gand
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Estaminet de Gand – traditional Flemish restaurant.

Le Welsh is supposedly a Flemish speciality – basically a version of Welsh rarebit using Flemish beer, Maroilles cheese and just about anything else you want in it. More like fondue with floating toast… and frites. My carbonnade (beef stew with beer) contained about half a cow, Then I found the other half lurking under the salad. A very friendly and accommodating restaurant.

A much-needed walk across the city centre saw us back at Lille Europe for just after 20h00, and home at 23h00.

I don’t care how subjective the impression may be: French cities have a charm and style that is simply missing from most in the UK. And the people still know how to dress properly for winter, too.

Opinion & Thought, Travel

Travel confuses the mind.

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Musings of a cultural magpie, part 2.

They say that travel broadens the mind. Sometimes, I think it just confuses it.
Over the years, I have been a house-guest of perhaps half a dozen French people, sometimes for a week or more at a stretch. I have visited the homes of a good many others, not to mention some of their schools and workplaces – and have hosted a similar number in return.

Hardly a representative sample of a populous nation, of course, but perhaps rather more than average for a Brit. It’s hardly surprising that those people were all quite different in both personalities and life-styles, just as individuals are anywhere – and yet my dominant memory of them, collectively, is their overwhelming Frenchness.

I had similar experiences in Germany, with the added complication of being nowhere near as competent a German-speaker as a French. Luckily, my hosts all spoke good English, and the same is true of Switzerland, where I have the most enduring friendships. Once the language issue is minimised, you can progress.

I recall the timidity with which I first made such connections, something that has fortunately lessened over the years. While this was doubtlessly partly a matter of personality, I suspect that neither is it an unusual experience. Anxieties perhaps hinge most obviously on language and food, tinged with a less-focused fear of making an unintended faux-pas. At a deeper level again, I was aware of a self-imposed sense of being an “ambassador” for my country. It ought to be possible for people just to be people, no matter where they come from!

But for all that the British may carry the extra baggage of their self-perceived ‘apartness’, I doubt that such anxieties are a one-way affair; indeed the comments and behaviours of those who have stayed with me suggested as much. To some extent, it is a simple matter of unfamiliarity.

What this perhaps betrays is the fact that national identities still matter; that despite several decades of intensifying integration between the nations of Europe, we have yet to cast off those national characters and become some kind of bland, homogenous Euro-citizen, the kind of thing of Eurosceptics’ worst nightmares.

I think the cultural dissonance that we experience on such occasions is entirely natural, and nothing to be ashamed of, even if it makes sense to try to overcome it. In fact, it is just as possible to experience similar feelings in an unfamiliar part of one’s own country, or with people whom one does not know well. All the nationality issue does is raise pre-existing stakes somewhat. Yet despite that, when travelling around one’s own country one is not, I think, struck firstly by its homogeneity. From the ‘inside’, such things are taken for granted, one notices subtle differences more quickly – and it takes something exceptionally symbolic to prompt the “so English” response. I’m pretty sure that the same phenomenon applies elsewhere: we just take our own cultures for granted.

Yet our tendency to “other” people is more difficult to overcome than we like to think. There is evidence to suggest that it is a natural survival instinct, and such things are not easily over-ridden: it takes a great deal of work to remove all illiberal thoughts. Even though I am entirely comfortable in the countries that I mentioned earlier, and despite the fact that I know some places and people in those countries better than plenty in my own, it can still be difficult to get beyond that first-level sense of ‘otherness’, even when it is a wholly positive experience.

I still tend to think of Swiss friends, French friends, German friends – not just friends; I expect it is reciprocal. In recent years, I have made progress in this respect. Some of my Swiss friends, in particular, are now so familiar that the nationality issue has (almost) disappeared, and I just think of them as discrete individuals like any other – until they say or do something that re-emphasises their otherness… Can it ever disappear completely?

But it has taken a lot of years and shared experience to get to that point. With people I know less well, it is less easy to do; again, I suggest this is quite normal, and not only an international problem. (I sometimes wonder what lies behind the public bonhomie of EU leaders’ meetings: do they really share so much that the national differences are secondary?)

The same is true of places: those that I return to year in year out have eventually become just places (almost) like any other where I spend part of my life. When we are in Basel, it is almost impossible not to flit between three countries just in order to function. Our friends live within about ten minutes’ drive of both France and Germany; their son went to school in ‘another’ country; they own a second home in Germany – about a hour’s drive away. Eventually, you start forgetting which country you are in – certainly between Germany and Switzerland; France is a little more ‘different’ – and that difference therefore perhaps intrudes more. (I wonder, though if that is true for the Swiss and Germans too: I don’t think I would ever mistake Scotland or Ireland for England, for all that we share so much…)

I suppose it would be possible to criticise all of the forgoing quite heavily. It could be a purely personal difficulty, that many people don’t experience at all. But I somehow doubt it: my feelings are born from many years of deliberately confronting the issue. I remember just how (needlessly) intimidating my early trips to other countries were – and I can see the journey I have travelled. Much evidence suggests that the bulk of the British population, at least, is still in the starting blocks. I don’t think an annual foreign holiday comes anywhere near adequately addressing it: you have to access local people and places for a start – and you have to keep going back.

I suppose that it could even be seen as a form of racism: the confession of a limited mind that can’t escape its own constraints. Perhaps – but it is not for the want of trying. It is born of decades of experience – and I suspect that anyone who claims it isn’t remotely that difficult really hasn’t thought about it very deeply. The more I understand these issues, the more complex and intractable they can seem…

Where does this leave us in terms of our own national identity? I ended part one by saying that I don’t like much of what I see of my own nation’s modern identity. I find little there that I wish to “own” – which is why I have gone looking elsewhere for something that is meaningful to me.

Yet I suspect that we can’t ever fully escape the culture into which we were born. Emigrating to another country might be a valiant attempt – but the extent to which one can ever really become someone else is doubtful. Despite citizenship tests, taking another nationality is fundamentally a legal and financial matter; I doubt if that act alone ever really changes one’s mindset very much. I suspect that people who live abroad are ultimately destined to be perpetual outsiders, perhaps eventually in their native lands too. They risk becoming – dare I say – “citizens of nowhere”. Perhaps that is why many are so sensitive about the label ‘ex-pat’?

So, much as I love my perceptions of certain other countries, I remain highly suspicious that they are anything more than romantic stereotypes, born of one’s inescapable tendency to generalise. Neither am I convinced that fleeing a country in which I feel almost as much a foreigner as anywhere else, would actually solve anything. The daily routines might change; familiarity would definitely increase – but would that experience destroy precisely what I appreciate about those places as an outsider? Would greater familiarity just breed contempt of what I previously admired?

There is, however, no law that says one should only be influenced by one’s birth-nation, no matter how nationalists might want it that way. People have been inspired by what they encountered abroad for centuries: it was the whole raison d’être of the Grand Tour. Somewhere along the way, we can cross a rubicon from infatuation to genuine adoption. Part of that no doubt involves getting past infatuation and moving onto marriage. By doing that we both remove “foreignness” and simultaneously make ourselves a little more cosmopolitan. Now that panettone, for example, is eaten throughout Europe, is it now less Italian – or are those doing the eating a little more Italian? (And what happens when we Brits do what we always do and adulterate it, or turn it into bread-and-butter pudding?)

I think one thing is certain: this is neither a quick nor easy process: extending one’s cultural horizons beyond one’s national ones can set up all sorts of conflicts. Maybe this is, too, what the much-derided “Little Englanders” are afraid of. Perhaps it is all the worse because of the relative weakness of their home culture?

Facing it can be a challenging proposition – but especially so for those who rarely venture (in their heads, if not their bodies) beyond their own little island.

(Final part to follow)

Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought, Travel

More schoggi…

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When we were in Lausanne last month, we stopped at another grand cafe that I have occasionally frequented. Moutarlier is situated in the Place de la Palud, near the city’s central fountain and glockenspiel clock, so an outside table normally does nicely. In fact, I don’t ever recall going inside before. However, use of the facilities dictated on this occasion – and quite a revelation it was.

I’m mentioning this because for me it exemplifies the Swiss outlook on their simultaneously historic-yet-modern country. Popular image of the country is, of course, very twee – all wooden chalets and Heidi meadows. There is indeed a lot of ‘heritage’ to look after – and yet once again this belies the real country – a nation that is not afraid to take a very progressive approach to much of what it does.

I didn’t take my camera with me – so I am relying here on images from Moutarlier’s own website. From the outside, one could be forgiven for thinking that this is another institution unchanged for decades (in fact, it opened in 1996). The exterior is rather grand – and largely intact. And yet… inside one encounters a pretty avant-garde modern decor quite deliberately at odds with the quaint exterior. But somehow it works: the basics of grande confiserie have been respected, as have the specific needs for whiling away the afternoon in strikingly auspicious surroundings. I also like the nods to traditional Swiss architecture, such as the wood panelling. The quality of the design and materials is also excellent – and I fully expect it to be the same in however many years’ time it is before I visit again.

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In some ways it is the complete opposite to Britain’s approach, where it still seems that everything either needs to be made to look “historical” even when it isn’t – or superficially modern in a way that will fade and date in just a few years. Much of the time it is in fact nothing more than flimsy shop-dressing which will need to be ripped out and replaced with something else when fads change – and before it has even got an established identity. Even when we British do contemporary, we somehow mostly lack the confidence to give it the ‘edge’ that makes it work, let alone something that will last for decades, as I suspect the interior of Moutarlier will. In fifty years time, it will be renowned for its period interior… We by contrast, are too timid by half – and then we wonder why our modern design often doesn’t deliver the goods. Like anything else, quality counts, and so does continuity – even when it is radically reinterpreted. In fact, perhaps that is the secret of the Swiss success.

At a retail centre near me, the original fake village ‘High Street’ is presently being reconfigured with something rather more contemporary – but again very ‘safe’ and quite probably equally ephemeral. In the end it is just the latest engineered-consciousness stage-set backdrop against which people can part with their cash. But at least it has a new Lindt shop, so the chocolate will remain constantly, Swiss-ly good, even if the architecture isn’t.

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Arts, Architecture & Design, Travel

Blame it on Mary.

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Mary Plain was a small bear. She lived in the Bear Pit in Bern – at least in the imagination of Gwynedd Rae, who wrote her children’s stories in the 1930’s, and which were a youthful favourite of mine. She has a lot to answer for.

Every time I pass through Bern, a necessary ritual is to go and say hello to Mary’s descendants. The bear pit as drawn in the books was quite accurate: a pair of round, sunken stone compounds, with various (rather denuded) trees for climbing, a large bath and sleeping quarters at the back. As I child, I was delighted to see that you could indeed buy carrots and sugar lumps to feed to the bears.

We made our latest visit a couple of weeks ago, on the way back from Lausanne to Basel, when the city was looking especially mellow in the late-afternoon glow of a sunny September day. Pleasingly, the Swiss have moved with the times when it comes to animal welfare, and in a neat reversal, the original bear pit is now an exhibition space and gin bar containing humans, while the bears roam a much larger and more naturalistic enclosure outside, on the steep hillside leading down to the river Aare. Now the trees have grown, however, it is much more difficult to spot them…

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(Library picture)

Despite its being their capital, amongst the Swiss the Bernese have a reputation for being slow and lumpen. (“Why shouldn’t you tell a Bernese a joke on a Wednesday? Because he might laugh in church on Sunday…”). On the train into Bern earlier in the day, we had an impromptu conversation with a not-at-all lumpen young Bernese man, who was returning from visiting his girlfriend in Basel. He told us, though, that he does indeed like Bern because although it is the capital, “it is just like a large village”. But it still has some pretty swish quarters, if my experience is anything to go by, of the one where, a good many years ago I once went to a rather smart party. Even if it did go by the name of Bümpliz…

There can be few capital cities where you can see wooded hills at the end of the main street (and on some days snow-capped Alps too), and yet at the same time indulge in a spot of serious shopping or eat at a top-notch restaurant (avoided, given the distinctly non-provincial prices…). Bern has a wonderful character, and as with the other larger Swiss centres, its conservatism is pleasingly spiced with a noticeable undercurrent of trendy urban rebellion. It is a place that moves slowly and deliberatively, but always with its eyes on the future.

The centre of the city lies on a neck of land surrounded by the deeply-incised valley of the Aare, giving a dramatic setting, the main streets gradually sloping down towards the sharp point of the meander, while both road and rail routes are forced to approach over dramatic high bridges. The outer sides of the valley are scattered with desirable villas, while it is possible to indulge in a spot of river swimming here in the city centre, as in Basel. Topographically, the city has a superb natural arena.

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Many of the timeless buildings have decorated shutters, and are built from a sandstone that is a particular shade of mustard-green that seems to be found nowhere else. Quintessentially Swiss. It goes without saying that the public transport is peerless, even if the main station was rebuilt in the seventies in the style of Birmingham New Street. Here, twice an hour, inter-city trains from all over Switzerland draw up at adjacent platforms so that easy interchange is possible from almost anywhere to anywhere.

We love the arcaded streets, a larger version of those all over Switzerland which were, of course, never flattened by the ravages of the Twentieth Century. It’s all original. The old clock tower and the square outside the parliament building are straight from a fairy tale; visiting them, on the way to the bears, is another ritual. Even more than elsewhere in Switzerland, the shop-keepers seem to take a pride in making the most attractive window displays imaginable, which promise to turn the most mundane of purchases into a super-stylish adventure. I decided to make a small photo-survey of some of the present ones – see below.

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I like the scale of Swiss cities: I know exactly what the young traveller meant: it is a capital built on a very human scale, just as Switzerland is a nation built on an equally human scale. Ironic really, considering the physical grandeur all around. Maybe the ever-present mountains give the Swiss a sense of their own, human, insignificance?

My amusement with Bern’s slowness got its own back, however. As we were leaving the station, I was stung by a wasp. Being Bernese, it moved slowly enough that I was able to bat it away before it did its worst. But it left its venom to work a very gradual inflation of my right arm over the following two days, which then lasted a good week. Even the smallest inhabitants know that slow and steady brings results that are both progressive and unchanging over long periods of time.

I like Bern precisely because it feels both thoroughly modern and timeless. Thanks to Mary Plain, we have come to know quite well another Swiss city which subtly, perhaps unintentionally, drives home all that could be so much better about the life that, inexplicably, one has to live somewhere else.

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Below: a short photo-study of Bern’s shop windows…

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Food, Travel

Beyond Schoggi

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Schiesser, Basel

I am very partial to a grand continental café. A classic of the kind is the Cafe Romand in Lausanne (below), its unchanging parquet-floored, wood-panelled interior a place where old men still come to pass the afternoon with a paper and coffee, and grandes-dames take afternoon cakes. In the evenings it serves fondue in traditional ceramic caquelons. It is immensely popular, a local institution, even though it’s a youngster, dating only from 1951. I’ve been an occasional customer since the late ’80s, and it is one of those places that somehow move with the times without ever changing.

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Cafe Romand, Lausanne

Then there is Schiesser, an institution in Basel dating from 1870, another darkly-panelled tea shop on the upper floor of the eponymous confisserie opposite the town hall. Proper black-and-white-dressed waiters still prevail here, and the heiẞe-schokolade most definitely comes not out of a Cadbury’s tin.

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Elevenses by Schiesser

Swiss cuisine doesn’t have a particularly high profile abroad, partly perhaps because it, like the country itself, is so heterogeneous. The obvious features are fondue and – of course – cheese in general, together with the increasingly-known raclette and rösti. Like the country itself, the diet is a sometimes-perplexing mix of Germanic, French and Italian influences, which can crop up in disconcerting combinations. But there are also delicacies such as filets de perche, which have almost cult status on Lake Geneva. And we shouldn’t forget the fresh apricots and peaches, and the wine, even though it is something of an acquired taste, and not widely available elsewhere.

Food is done with the same care that the Swiss attach to most things – and they don’t forget the importance of the visual, either. Their food is tasty, and often cosmopolitan, but the thing that really stands out is that it is so enticingly presented.

Visiting food shops in Switzerland is a feast for the eyes even if you don’t purchase, and this is something else that to me gives the place a solid sense of well-being that is often lacking in Britain (and sometimes elsewhere). Sorry, but Greggs is just not the same. Somehow the Swiss manage to make their food outlets classy without being elitist, in a way that even their neighbours often fail to match – and that is saying something.

Britons might consider the approach quaint; there are still quite a few restaurants where waiting staff are traditionally formal, and even on the trains one still eats off crockery with proper cutlery. Old-fashioned, or simply maintaining high standards? There are plenty of street-food stalls of course, but the things that really appeal to me are the more solid outfits.

A much-missed attraction in London is the Swiss Centre in Leicester Square, which used to contain a Mövenpick Marché self-service restaurant in its basement – a bit like a culinary version of an IKEA marketplace, only much tastier. One could, for a while, imagine that one was in Bern or Zurich, and it was (presciently) where my wife and I went on our first date.

Mövenpick is a reputed Swiss brand, which covers restaurants, hotels and more. For me, its crowning glory is its ice cream, which unlike the company’s other offerings can be found scattered (thinly) across the U.K. I most recently came across it, bizarrely, on the menu of a pub in deepest Cambridgeshire. Recommended.

Even department stores and motorway service stations get in on the act as foodie destinations. While the up-market Globus might be expected to have a seriously sexy food hall, even the more mid-market Manor offers its own Marché. One proceeds with tray to various ‘stalls’, from which to mix and match salads, patisserie, fruit smoothies and more, or to have various dishes cooked while one waits. To top it off, the store in Basel has a great roof-top terrace, where one can park for a good while, looking out over the city.

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Globus food hall
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Manor Marché, Basel
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Manor Marché, Basel
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Rooftop terrace, Manor Marché, Basel.

But I suppose we must inevitably come to chocolate. Forget Nestlé. An up-coming company is Läderach – first founded in the 1960s and producing superb chocolate. While Britons at last seem to be learning a serious chocolate habit (for which, sincere thanks Hotel Chocolat) this is on a different level entirely, with comparable prices; good chocolate is not a cheap commodity, but then a small amount goes a long way. Once again, the Swiss elevate an everyday transaction to the level of serious luxe; it is also rather more grown-up than Hotel Chocolat’s sometimes-gimicky presentation. It is noticeable that this brand has been expanding vigorously in recent years, and has now spread to several other countries, though not yet the U.K. It is possible to order online, and they do seem gradually to be addressing their shipping costs.

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Above and below: Läderach

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I suppose it is possible to argue that presentation doesn’t make any difference to the product. But I think it does: if it is true that consumers are shifting their spending from goods to ‘experiences’, then presentation and quality of service are part of making the purchase of something into a feel-good experience. It is something that too many retailers in Britain seem not even to begin to understand. I might have been tempted to suggest that large chains simply aren’t capable of delivering such experiences – but the Swiss show that to be incorrect, too.

As I wrote in my previous post about Morges, Swiss streets seem to be little-harmed (as yet?) by the online shopping revolution, certainty compared with the free-fall being seen in the U.K. Maybe that is because they understand (or just care) more about these matters.

The proof of the theory is in the eating.

Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought, Travel

Morges please!

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Some places are just naturally blessed. Consider, for example Morges, a small town of 15,000 people on the shore of Lake Geneva a little to the west of Lausanne. I have known it for many years –and it was the place where I once took my wife-to-be, to cure her leg-pulling that my near-obsession with Switzerland was nothing more than rose-tinted imagination. It worked.

I suppose it’s the geographer in me that means I rarely go anywhere simply to switch off; travel is an opportunity for gentle, observational research. I am drawn to examine the differences between places, why they exist, and the effect they have on people’s lived experiences. It is patently not true that people and places are the same everywhere – but precisely how and why they are different can be complex, and behind the physical exterior lies a cultural landscape that is even more difficult to divine. In the case of Switzerland, as well as my general appreciation of the country’s more well-known attributes, I have become fascinated with what makes it tick. And yes, on occasions that can appear quite obsessional.

As with much of Switzerland, it’s not a matter of being on a different planet; it’s just that things there tend to fail to work badly, in the way they can do elsewhere. Morges is the kind of place that I suspect many would agree would be something close to a dream or ideal – and yet it is entirely real – and therefore realisable. True, it has an exceptionally beautiful setting, but more than that, the Swiss always make the most of what they have: a small town centre that in some countries would be peeling and faded, half the shops either boarded up or filled with junk shops is, instead, beautifully maintained, artfully lit, and full of genuinely interesting small shops and eateries.

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The main street.

The traffic, while busy, is generally subordinated to pedestrians, and there is plenty of opportunity just to enjoy being there. What puzzles me rather, as a Briton, is that there is very little sign of the town suffering from the onslaught of online retailing, as is so obviously happening in my own country. The only evidence I found was the hoarding of a new mixed development near the station which talked about boosting the life of the town centre.

I think the answer is one that Britain would do well to note: the shops are not the cloned bulk-warehouses of conglomerates; most of them appear to be small, and individually-owned. They offer a range of goods that is genuinely enticing, high quality, and often displayed with panache. There is not a fast-food outlet or chain restaurant in sight. It makes using the town centre a desirable and rewarding experience, and this surely has to be the way forward.

As a non-native, it’s hard to get to the bottom of Morges’ seemingly charmed life. It is hardly ordinary – that would be nigh-on impossible given its location on the Rivièra Suisse, former home to the likes of Audrey Hepburn, Roger Moore, Charles Chaplin and Freddie Mercury – but it is seems largely by-passed by those on the Geneva – Lausanne – Montreux tourist drag. Judging by the levels of social interaction observed in the streets, most people there are locals – though that can perhaps conceal who those ‘locals’ are.

A little research shows that nearly a quarter of residents were born in the town, another quarter elsewhere in the Canton (region); a further 20% were born elsewhere in Switzerland and the remaining 30% is from elsewhere in the world. That is perhaps not surprising given Morges’ position between two international cities (ICRC and UN in Geneva, International Olympic Committee in Lausanne). But it is not unusual in Switzerland, where nearly the same percentage nationally is not Swiss. It is, in many ways a ‘just’ a local, provincial town. It has a well-known tulip festival in spring which brings in the tourists – but otherwise it is largely configured for its local population. I once went to an evening class on motor mechanics there.

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The waterfront.
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Art Deco restaurant on the lake front.
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Lausanne in the distance.
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The lakeside promenade.

 

It’s too easy to dismiss the solid, refined quality of the place as the product of one of the world’s wealthiest countries. Undoubtedly, that is a significant factor – but more important is how the money is spent: invested in a high-quality public realm, excellent public transport, a well-maintained historic centre and beautiful landscaping, all of which are accessible to the whole population. It is not wealth, for example, that stipulates that lake shorelines in Switzerland must maintain continuous public access – something that elsewhere even Roger Federer is struggling to overcome.

It is not wealth alone that established the tulip festival, or the year-round programme of cultural events. Nor is it wealth alone that seems to make the Swiss populace take so much care over everything they do, from personal appearance, to the cleanliness of the streets and the beauty of even quite ordinary shop windows. Twenty years ago, I bought a shower curtain with a silly cartoon Swiss cow on it in the Morges branch of Interio. It is still as good as new.

Unlike many places with glossy exteriors, Swiss quality is real. Judge for yourself from the quality of this small town’s municipal website here.

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The tulip festival.

It is easy to dismiss Morges as a place living a charmed life – but many of my observations about it could equally apply to almost any similar town in Switzerland. What’s more, in Britain I suspect that not only would many equivalent small towns be struggling with the effects of decades of under-funding, but they would be desperately clinging to what is left of their ‘heritage’ And yet Morges is busy, in conjunction with Swiss Railways’ property arm, building an entirely new urban quarter next to the station, that will combine public space with a school and crèche, offices, shops and apartments – all built in a modern style that would do credit to some of the smarter bits of London. So different from the fight a few of us have had in our local town to get anything other than Disney-esque fake cottages built.

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Apartment in the new quarter being built near the railway station.

It was good to be back in Morges after several years in which we lost our local connection. We did the customary walk along the lakeside, had the ritual (superb) ice cream from our regular kiosk and enjoyed a crêpe lunch in the lovely main street. But the real wealth of the place is simply its superb natural setting, looking across the Lake with its constant animation of paddle steamers, yachts and water-skiers, to a grandstand view of the Mont Blanc massif. It is just as glorious, in a quieter way, in winter.

The problem with Switzerland is that one is daily confronted with one’s ideals made real. Morges is the kind of place I would love my actual home to be, a place where one can imagine putting down deep roots, and feeling really proud of where one lived. Of course it does not do to be taken in purely by physical appearances, but I know the country well enough after a lifetime of visits, to know that Swiss quality is not a sham.

My sense, from being in the country, is of a place that is generally content, stable and reassuring: a place where the balance between what you put into life and what you get out of it is right, where life is lively without often being fraught, where it is possible to live genuinely well. That Switzerland regularly appears at or near the top of global life satisfaction surveys would seem to confirm this.

Maybe it is true that people are conditioned by their environments. All the Swiss need to do, in which case, is to capitalise on what they inherited. And they do. As I said, some places are just naturally blessed.

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Mont Blanc, seen from Morges.