Welcome to Paradise: A short trip to the Dominican Republic

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Dominican Paradise (Photo M. Germana)

Dominican Paradise (Photo M. Germana)

Looking for paradise?

Try Google Images. You will get thousands of pictures of white sandy beaches fringed by wind-swept coconut palm trees and washed by turquoise water. Cliché? Perhaps.

But it seems a fact that the vast majority of web users identifies Caribbean scenery with the idea of ‘paradise’. I certainly felt I had entered a parallel universe when, after an 8-hours flight from London Gatwick, I found myself swimming in the Atlantic Ocean after a stroll on Bavaro Beach. I must admit I didn’t know much about the Dominican Republic before we booked this last-minute escape to the Caribbean. All we wanted was sunshine, fresh fish for dinner, and blue waters to swim in.

Caribbean sunset (Photo M. Germana)

Caribbean sunset (Photo M. Germana)

The Dominican Republic seemed to tick all of those boxes, and more: you can be on a beach literally fifteen minutes after leaving the palm-roofed huts of Punta Cana Airport.

I was relieved to see the sun shining through the cloud; the weather forecast had not been particularly favourable, but I have learnt not to be put off by the yellow lightening symbol on a Caribbean weather chart. Tropical rain is warm and the storms rarely last more than a couple of hours. The proof was we used up our full supply of sunscreen within five days.

Lobster on Demand (Photo M. Germana)

Lobster on Demand (Photo M. Germana)

Modern-Day Paradise

Glad to be on the other side of a recent rough patch, my travel companion and I decided to treat ourselves to a luxurious all-inclusive stay for the first leg of our journey. This kind of accommodation is, perhaps, the closest we can call a modern-day utopia, with all the perks that capitalism can offer to the Western consumer: unlimited supplies of succulent fish and tropical fruit; freshly-made cocktails on demand; smiling staff ready to help. Could this be paradise? In many ways, it is/was. We felt privileged. So why did I also feel guilty? My feelings echoed Hanif Kureishi‘s article on his stay in St. Lucia:

The well-off of the first world have always used the third world as their playground, brothel, resource and factory. And the middle class of the third world – usually living elsewhere – have always been happy to sell off their prettiest things. This mild and often comic recreation of colonialism for the European elite, this suspended piece of the past – where ordinary whites can pretend to be aristocrats for a week – makes one wonder why there isn’t anything more fruitful or intelligent for willing workers to do. (The Guardian, 25 January 2014)

Dominican lady, Bavaro Beach (Photo M. Germana)

Dominican lady, Bavaro Beach (Photo M. Germana)

Perhaps the truth is that there is not such a thing as a guilt-free paradise. But you could also argue that foreign investments of this kind also boost the country’s economy and create employment. Leaving politics aside, what I really enjoyed about my stay in Bavaro Beach, was that, although the beach is largely dominated by all-inclusive resorts catering primarily to foreign visitors, the sandy shores are not the sole privilege of tourists. Indeed, on Easter week-end, local people appeared to enjoy their holiday on the beach as much – if not more – than the visitors. Large groups, often comprising several generations, crowded the public stretches of the long beach, come from nearby villages for a paddle in the sea, the children in their underwear, the elderly fully clothed. Some of the adults, less interested in the beach, gathered in the dancing clubs until the early hours of Easter Sunday.

Banana Boats and More: Water Sports in Bavaro

Underwater 1 (Photo M. Germana)

Underwater 1 (Photo M. Germana)

We knew that Christ had risen when we saw banana boat streaming fast across the bay.

The Dominicans treat the Holy Week (Semana Santa) very seriously; we were told – rather apologetically – that the banana boat and the inflatable donut – ‘Big Mable ‘ – would not be available until Easter Monday, when we inquired about water sports. We were not too fussed; there were plenty more attractions than bouncing over a rubber dinghy chasing a speedboat. In fact, speed was precisely what I didn’t want from my holiday. It was a time to follow a more natural rhythm of life. Our days often started with a barefoot run on the beach, which left us with very stiff calves on the first two days (you’re not supposed to run for more than 15 minutes, the first time you try out a sandy terrain!) or an early-morning swim. After breakfast, which for me consisted of lechoza (papaya), oats, and a pastry, we spent more time in the water, windsurfing, or snorkelling.

Underwater 1 (Photo M. Germana)

Underwater 1 (Photo M. Germana)

Snorkelling is like entering another layer of paradise. Of course it’s just great to be able to swim in the sea, but when you can see what goes on underwater, you really feel like you’re in a dreamscape. Talking with a diver we met on the boat trip that took us to the reef, we agreed that the reef was not as spectacular as in other parts of the world (Australia and the Red Sea came to mind), but it was still worth exploring. And when you don’t think the bottom of the sea offers anything interesting, you just need to sharpen your eyesight to spot sandy coloured sting-rays lying still on the sea bed. Or look up, close to the surface, and you will spot tiny needle-fish swimming all around you. On our first trip, off Bavaro Beach, the sea was very choppy and it was difficult to get a close look of the reef. Nevertheless, we did see plenty of fish and coral.

Leaving the Compound: Samaná

When we finally decided it was time to leave the safe and comfortable of environs of the all-you can eat/drink/enjoy resort, we rented a car and started exploring the island. Our first stop was Samaná, the narrow peninsula that juts out of the north coast of the country. Our journey took us across the country, as we drove from Punta Cana to Las Terrenas via La Romana. It was an eye-opener, in many ways. The wetter climate in the north means that the vegetation is lusher and the climate more humid, though not uncomfortably so. The vast expanse of land on either side of the road was thickly covered in vegetation, and, occasionally, a small flock of colourful birds would fly above us.

Dominican Republic, interior (Photo M. Germana)

Dominican Republic, interior (Photo M. Germana)

It made me think of what Europe must have looked like before ‘civilisation’, when large areas of our old world would remain untouched by concrete and technology. It’s not being conservative about progress, but an exercise in time travel. Driving through the country also gave us a first glimpse of what we already knew.

Flower shop, Las Terrenas (Photo M. Germana)

Flower shop, Las Terrenas (Photo M. Germana)

A large portion of Dominicans still live in very simple conditions, at the other end of the accommodation spectrum than what an all-inclusive resort might offer. Wooden shacks scattered on either side of the road gather small villages, communities whose subsistence relies on the mango, coconut, cocoa and coffee. By the coast, of course, fish is plenty, too. Samaná felt instantaneously more chilled than Punta Cana. Fewer buildings, fewer people around. The beaches we went to, Playa Coson, Playa Madám, and Playa Frontón all felt secluded, even though their reputation is widely spread among visitors. Even Playa Rincón, reputed to be the most beautiful beach in the world by some, was hardly crowded.

Giant Caribbean starfish (Photo M. Germana)

Giant Caribbean starfish (Photo M. Germana)

The friendly German tour operator we met in the fishing village of Las Galeras, told us this is low season. Most European visitors tend to come in the heart of winter. Well, we felt privileged to be there at the right time, with few other lucky travellers. The most spectacular snorkelling experience was, undoubtedly, off the coast of Cayo Levantado (the famous Bacardi island of the 1970s advert), we were rewarded with beautiful red starfish, giant sea urchins and a thousands of fish (I’m not exaggerating).

Swimming with fish (Photo M. Germana)

Swimming with fish (Photo M. Germana)

Post-snorkelling refreshments consististed of a fabulous lunch of langostines accompanied by coco loco (coconut milk, granatine, rum, served, of course in a green coconut shell).

coco loco (Photo M. Germana)

coco loco (Photo M. Germana)

Beyond the Beach

But the peninsula offers more than sandy shorelines and turquoise waters. The National Park of Les Haitises is a protected area best visited by boat. One of the highlights of the park is the mangrove swamps, which fringe a large part of the coastline.

Mangrove roots (Photo M. Germana)

Mangrove roots (Photo M. Germana)

These amazing plants, whose roots have a sophisticated filtering system that extracts salt from saline water, are responsible for the delicate equilibrium of the park’s ecosystem. The complex root system helps the environment in two ways: first, it prevents erosion; second it offers a suitable environments for several marine creatures, including lobsters, oysters, and crabs.

Tarragon Langostinos (Photo M. Germana)

Tarragon Langostinos (Photo M. Germana)

The 365 islands of the park also conceal several caves, many of which can be visited for their Taíno mural paintings.

Limon Waterfalls (Photo M. Germana)

Limon Waterfalls (Photo M. Germana)

The subjects of these paintings are largely taken from the natural surroundings, which, thanks to conservation efforts, would appear to have changed little since the civilization became extinct in the 16th century, after the Spanish colonisation.  So there is an interesting continuity between the paintings of whales, plants, and birds, and the scenery outside the caves. We saw a crane bird in the wild, literally minutes after seeing it painted in one of the caves.

Another spot worth a visit is the Limón waterfalls. A recommendation from our hotel in Las Terrenas, we started our horseback treck from Santi’s Restaurant in Limón. The ride was, perhaps, more interesting than the waterfall.

Moreno and Colorado, our horses for the afternoon, looked both rather thin, and I had my doubts about them making it up the hill, especially after the filling lunch Santi had cooked for us as part of the deal. I was proved wrong; not only did our steeds deliver us to the waterfalls in good time, but they also raced each other along the path. Our guide, who travelled alongside on foot, showed us the plants of cocoa, coffee, and even small pineapples sprouting on the forest floor. I never realised how beautiful the banana flower is.

Banana Flower (Photo M. Germana)

Banana Flower (Photo M. Germana)

The South

On our way back toward Punta Cana, we explored the south of the island, though we gave Santo Domingo a miss this time; we opted, instead, to spend a couple of days in the Bayahibe region, an area densely populated and visited by Italians, as many of the restaurants testify; we had the most romantic meal under the stars in one of the secluded gazebos of Tracadero, one of the most upmarket seafood restaurants in Dominicus. During the day, we took a boat tour to the Parque Nacional del Este, and stopped in the Saona Island, where we visited Mano Juan, a small fishing village. The villagers appeared happy to see tourists, if nothing else because of the florid souvenir tourist trade.

Mano Juan coconut oil shop (Photo M. Germana)

Mano Juan coconut oil shop (Photo M. Germana)

Walking through the village, however, I had mixed feelings about those visitors in our group who magnanimously gave away pastries smuggled out of their all-inclusive breakfasts to the beautiful indigenous children. While everybody took photographs of the posing children, my travel companion spent some time chatting to a disabled child, aptly hidden from the other children on display.

No trip of this part of the country should omit the star attraction of the region, La Cueva de las Maravillas, ‘the cave of wonders’, easily accessed from the highway between San Pedro and La Romana. This is a wonderful complex of caves, only 30% of which is accessible for conservation purposes. We were lucky to visit the cave last thing in the evening, on an ad-hoc private tour. Maria, our guide – despite the fact that her tip was inevitably going to be smaller given the reduced size of the group – made sure we got the most out of our tour. I have seen my fair share of stalactites and stalagmites in the past, but there was something special about the concretions of Las Maravillas. Perhaps I was influenced my recent snorkelling experiences, but I did feel the cave looked like an upside down ocean floor, with corals and seaweed hanging down from the ceiling. Truly magic.

If you are into wildlife, you will enjoy the iguana sanctuary which is attached to the cave complex.

Iguana (Photo M. Germana)

Iguana (Photo M. Germana)

 Sex, Drugs, and Merengue

At the end of the tour, our guide asked us for a lift; she had missed the last bus to La Romana. During the short trip, she told us about the difficulties faced by young women in the Dominican Republic, a society largely dominated by discrimination and patriarchal attitudes towards women. Domestic violence is endemic, as is female unemployment. Trapped in abusive marriages, and unable to find a job to support themselves and their children, women often have nowhere to turn to. This is, it would appear, a country which still regards women for their beauty and youthful appearance. If you are over 25 and larger than a size 8, you may not be able to apply for a job in a bank or an airline. For years, Maria was tied to a boyfriend who kept her and their children, while cheating on her.

In the end, I got him to pay for my degree, found a job, and left with my children. It’s a struggle, but I’m free.

There is a dark side to paradise, after all. Even more disturbing, perhaps, is the popularity of the country as a sex tourism destination. It was no coincidence that in Las Terrenas Viagra was on special offer at the chemist’s where I bought coconut oil. The local pub we went to for a drink on our last saturday night, had rooms upstairs where local girls took their European clients and their blue pills. It would seem that even if you are pretty, you may not get that office job after all.

Despite these incidents, one the whole the island felt like a safe place to travel. The locals are very friendly and, although their economy relies heavily on tourism, we were never treated like ‘walking wallets’. On the contrary, Dominicans love a party. At night time, the local rhythms – merengue, bachata – blare out of ghetto-blasters, car stereos, even petrol stations. In Bayahibe, we stumbled upon a ‘fiesta patronal‘, a village fête which involved, needless to say, a lot of dancing.

Merengue (Photo M. Germana)

Merengue (Photo M. Germana)

 

After their show, the dancers got off stage and invited some of the guests to dance with them. I was picked by a handsome dancer for a round of merengue. I hope he still has all his toes.

The Dominican Republic was well worth a visit, and driving around the country allowed us to explore the natural beauty of the country beyond the packaged image offered by all-inclusive holidays. Just remember not to park your car under a coconut tree. The insurance will not cover any damage caused by free-falling coconuts!

Red is for Luck

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Lucky Red (Photo M. Germana)

Lucky Red (Photo M. Germana)

Italian and Chinese people may have many cultural differences – not least the argument over who invented spaghetti/noodles. But they do share their preference for red to welcome the new year under good auspices: Italians have red underwear on to attract good luck, as they toast in the New Year’s Eve; the Chinese also wear red for good luck during their New Year’s Celebrations.

Red Lanterns (Photo M. Germana)

Red Lanterns (Photo M. Germana)

Bright red objects – toys, ornaments, and lanterns, of course – decorate the streets of Chinatown in the two weeks leading up to the beginning of the New Lunar Year. This year, it fell on 31 January, though the main events in London happened on Sunday 2 February.

This is the Year of the Horse. According to Feng Shui specialist Raymond Lo, this is the year when people will tend to stick more to their principles. Good news? Well, it depends, of course, entirely, on your principles!

'Chinatown Gate' (Photo M. Germana)

‘Chinatown Gate’ (Photo M. Germana)

For me, it was an opportunity to apply one of my (Western) New Year’s resolutions: get the camera out more and write more! So here we are.

London’s Chinatown is always a cornucopia of colour and scent. On the first Sunday in February it exceeded itself. The smell of sweet and sour sauces oozed out the restaurants, luring more people to queue for a table at one of the many eateries on Gerrard, Rupert and Wardour Street. We didn’t want to waste any time eating, so just grabbed a couple of sweet buns from a bakery. The streets were very crowded, and, being a small person, it was sometimes difficult for me to see what was going on. I took advantage on my travelling companion’s sturdy shoulders a couple of times to take some of the shots of the Lion Dance.

Lion Dancer (Photo M. Germana)

Lion Dancer (Photo M. Germana)

A particular variation of this performance, the cai-qing (“plucking the greens”) involving dancers or – more specifically on New Year’s Day – martial art performers – takes place on the streets of Chinatown on the day of the celebrations. Two performers under an elaborate costume danced around the streets, bouncing, jumping, and shaking their booties. The lion gets particularly frisky at the sight of green lettuce hanging from shop entrances.

Hanging Lettuce (Photo M. Germana)

Hanging Lettuce (Photo M. Germana)

It’s good luck for the business if the lion successfully plucks it. It’s good luck for the lion, too, as attached to the leafy bunch of greens is also a red envelope containing more precious kinds of leaves for the performers.

Red envelopes containing “lucky money” are also, apparently, handed out by friends and family to children, who will find them under their pillows, and single people, to wish them good luck with their romantic lives in the new year. Well, may the year of the horse be a year full of love, then, and, a little money, which never does any harm!

What I like about Chinese New Year is the way that all things Chinese seem to spread well beyond the boundaries marked by the Gates of Chinatown.

Chinese Trafalgar Square (Photo M. Germana)

Chinese Trafalgar Square (Photo M. Germana)

The major performances, in fact, took place in Trafalgar Square, where large crowds converged, throughout the day, to watch circus acrobats and traditional Chinese dances. One wonders what Lord Nelson would have made of all this; he certainly had a good vantage point to watch the festivities from.

It was a good day out and, whatever people may think of the failures of multiculturalism in Britain, it did feel like the whole world had turned up to this party.

Multicultural Chinese new Year (Photo M. Germana)

Multicultural Chinese New Year (Photo M. Germana)

Harvesting and Countryside Churches: Autumn Walks in Kent

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Autumnal Colours (Photo M. Germana)

Autumnal Colours (Photo M. Germana)

The capricious nature of British climate is obviously why in Britain weather talk is a staple part of everyday conversation. Even foreign visitors – and residents, like myself – will pick up the habit. You can’t help it. It rules your life. But it also makes us tell each other stories.

Autumnal Colours 2 (Photo M. Germana)

Autumnal Colours 2 (Photo M. Germana)

This one is about the sensual beauty of the British Autumn. I have often thought October can be one of best months to visit Britain. The leaves are changing colour, and the coppery and rusty palette is even more striking against the crisp blue sky we have seen over the last few weeks. The air has a particular scent, too, of ripening berries and sweet grapes.

Berries (Photo M. Germana)

Berries (Photo M. Germana)

John Keats paints a vividly evocative picture of the season’s generous produce, in his Ode to Autumn:

SEASON of mists and mellow fruitfulness,

Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;

Conspiring with him how to load and bless

With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;

To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,

And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;

To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells

With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,

And still more, later flowers for the bees,

Until they think warm days will never cease;

For Summer has o’erbrimm’d their clammy cells.

You may be satisfied with crunching the mulching/soggy leaves on the pavement, but if you venture to the countryside, you will be rewarded with many more seasonal gifts. If you live in London, Kent is only a short drive away, and yet you will feel as if you have entered a different world.

Kentish View (Photo M. Germana)

Kentish View (Photo M. Germana)

On two separate trips we took a couple of medium-length walks in the Isle of Harty and Maidstone areas. Both times we were blessed with the perfect weather for a Sunday walk. Mostly sunny, mild enough for comfortable walking. In Harty we came across St Thomas the Apostle, a charming countryside church, built around 1089, following the destruction brought to the area by the Danes’ incursions.

St. Thomas, Harty (Photo M. Germana)

St. Thomas, Harty (Photo M. Germana)

We  thought the church might be locked, but  were pleasantly surprised by the church warden, who asked us where we came from and then invited us in – ‘Welcome to Harty’, he said.  Inside, the small ambient of the church was made even cosier by the warmth of the wood panelling covering the stone walls. The warden told us that at Christmas, service is candle-lit and the church always reaches its full capacity.

We couldn’t help but notice baskets with fruit, lying around the church vestibule. ‘Harvest Festival’, the church warden explained. It looked like we had just missed a good feast of autumnal flavours. We made up for that on our following trip.

Our walk in Harty ended up on the Gothic-looking beach.

Beach, Harty (Photo M. Germana)

Beach, Harty (Photo M. Germana)

The sun had set and the sky was heavily overcast. But it was the dark  wooden stumps – the remains of old wave-breakers, I guess – that were scattered around the light-coloured sand that gave the place a somewhat post-apocalyptic aura. Ironically enough, on a hot summer’s day the place would be teeming with naked bodies basking in the sun – the beach is a naturist resort.

Untitled (Photo M. Germana)

Untitled (Photo M. Germana)

The weather was consistently good on our second walk, which started in Sutton Valance. To me, it was a quintessentially English walk, although the architecture of the villages – and, in particular the red roofs of some of the houses – also give this part of Kent a kind of French je ne se quois. Still, as we walked past East Sutton Church, I couldn’t help but think of Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy written in a countryside churchyard’, the most Romantic tribute to the haunting beauty of English countryside cemeteries. This one was particularly striking because of the most unusual style of this graveyard’s tombs: mummy-like sculptures rest above ground as suggestive reminders of those buried six feet under.

Graveyard, East Sutton (Photo M. Germana)

Graveyard, East Sutton (Photo M. Germana)

Our walk was punctuated by regular stops to gather copious amounts of blackberries and, occasionally, some fallen apples and cobnuts, left behind after the harvest.

DSC_2232

Cobnuts (Photo M. Germana)

There is nothing that tastes sweeter than fruit that has just been picked from it source. It’s not just the novelty of foraging, although I’m also surprised that wild berries and mushrooms are often left untouched in Britain. It is also the realisation that we hardly ever consume 0-miles food, and when we do, we appreciate the fact that supermarket ‘freshness’ is an oxymoron.

We took home the berries we couldn’t eat, but they didn’t travel well in our sandwich bag. And so they became jam. Less healthy than fresh fruit, for sure, but a good way to preserve the sweetness of Autumnal fruit for the cold months ahead.

Freshly-foraged apples (Photo M. Germana)

Freshly-foraged apples (Photo M. Germana)

Gothic London: Phantom Railings

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Warning

Warning (M. Germana)

Ever walked home late at night and become conscious of somebody else’s footsteps behind you?

I was taking a short walk on Malet Street when I was startled by a strange sound that seemed to echo my footsteps. 

When I walked faster, the beat of this uncanny tune became quicker, too. When I stopped, it all became quiet again. I was puzzled and curious.

As I walked on, I reached the gate to the Malet Street Gardens and the mystery was revealed to me at once.

Malet Gardens Gate

Malet Gardens Gate (M. Germana)

The sound I could hear was produced by technological devices, which on detecting the sound of footsteps replicates the rhythm with a metallic sound, as if a stick were running along the iron railings.

These ‘Phantom Railings’ have been here for about a year, and I’m glad I stumbled across them. It’s the work of  ‘Public Interventions’, an artistic collective dedicated to developing innovative ways of engaging the public within the urban environment of London.  They are particularly interested in using technology to establish new lines of communication and aesthetic response: in this case, they successfully manage to draw your attention to the strange absence of iron railings.

Malet Street Gardens is one of few places where the iron bars taken off during the Second World War were never replaced: the residual trace of the past punctuates the wall with dark metal stumps. The historical dimension of the installation also made me think of another evocative use of sound: Menashe Kadishman’s Shalechet (‘Fallen Leaves’) in Berlin’s Jewish Museum: this uses 10,000 metal ‘faces’ carved in metal discs, and placed in an area of the museum that visitors are invited to walk on.

P1010197

Ghostly (M. Germana)

‘Phantom Railings’ speaks of a past that once was but also of the meaning of fences, barriers, and other kinds of lines demarcating private spaces. Such borderlines are expressions of power, status, ownership. They are reminders that the city has fewer and fewer public spaces. At times, the railings become, themselves, contested spaces. Like proper frontiers, they are the site of urban conflict: the number of signs urging cyclists not to attach their wheels to railings is on the increase.

P1010203

Untitled (M. Germana)

 

These kinds of warnings – and the transgressions associated with them – make me think of a poem I read when I was studying English at school: Jenny Joseph‘s Warning.

Here the poet, who was only 29 at the time, longs for the little subversions she will be indulging in later in life, breaking all the rules and regulations she is abiding to as a young person:

I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.

When was the last time you broke a rule? And how did it make you feel?

Mardi Gras of Fire… Viking-Style

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The Jarl (Photo M. Germana)

The Jarl (Photo M. Germana)*

The weather was never going to be on our side. Although the force-11 gale forecast never came true, the locals said they hadn’t had such awful weather in a long time for Up Helly Aa. This is the annual fire festival – the largest in Europe – hosted in Lerwick on the last Tuesday of January. And this year – in spite of the heavy rain and the frosty blizzard – I was among the thousands that lined up the streets of Lerwick to be part of Up Helly Aa 2013.

What is Up Helly Aa? The festival’s name seems connected with the word ‘Helly’ which in ‘Shetlandese’ means week-end, but also ‘holy’, though it may also be linked to the last day of Christmas celebrations, which would fall 24 days after 5 January:

Historically the 5th of January was Old Yule, and the 24th day following the 5th was the final day of the Yuletide celebrations – a day of fire, feasting and frolic – Up Helly Aa day. It has also been referred to as the “four and twenty day” and “Antimass” or “St. Anthony Day” – all meaning “the whole festival at an end.”(Shetlopedia)

It’s a relatively modern tradition, dating back to the 1840s, when celebrations of the end of Yuletide started to involve the burning of barrels. The Viking theme is an even more recent acquisition (c. 1877), although, of course, the relationship with Norway has been a strong part of Shetland’s history and culture for centuries.

The Jarl Squad and the Gulley (Photo M. Germana)

The Jarl Squad and the Gulley (Photo M. Germana)*

Against all odds, we were lucky with the weather during the day.

DSC_0978

Helmet Detail (Photo M. Germana)

Led by Jarl Stevie Grant, and accompanied by the sounds of pipe and brass bands, the squad paraded around Lerwick and ended up on the Alexandra Wharf where the guizers’ lined up on the galley (Krisara was her name, this year) for photographs. This year’s Jarl costumes were blue and silver and as the sun kept popping in and out, the light bounced off spears, axes and helmets. Their ornate designs reminded me of those found in the treasure of St. Ninian’s Isle.

Vikings Come in all Sizes (Photo M. Germana)

Vikings Come in all Sizes (Photo M. Germana)

As my friend Bruce often reminded me, although the festival has attracted tourists for some time, it largely remains a local thing. You could certainly read the community spirit in the guizers’ eyes, looking out for thir friends on the streets and taking care of some of the youngest members of the squad… from 4 years of age and going up to 90+, there is no limit, as long as you are male (no women are allowed on any of the squads!),  fit enough to carry an axe and, in the evening, a torch for the final procession, leading to the burning of the boat itself.

The evening ceremony involves a larger crowd of guizers. Beside the Jarl’s, 47 ‘alternative’ squads took part in Up Helly Aa this year. Each squad dressed up following the most diverse themes, ranging from Rastafarian to giant Teddy-Bears, cross-dressers and fire-fighters.

There are no words – or pictures – to do this breath-taking spectacle any justice. At 7:30pm exactly, all the street lights go off. This is when you realise, for a few instants, how dark winter nights must have been in the olden days.

Then the magic begins.

And Then There Was Light (Photo M. Germana)*

And Then There Was Light (Photo M. Germana)*

Gradually nine hundred torches are lit and, with the smell of paraffin increasingly more pungent in the air, in a matter of minutes the streets are bright again, as the squads begin marching in a circular route along Lower Hillhead, St Olaf Street and King Harald Street. The rain is replaced by a thick shower of orange sparkles. It is like witnessing the end of the world, or being in the middle of a volcanic eruption.

The parade ends in a park in the centre of town, where music, songs and fireworks announce the imminent blaze.

The Procession (Photo M. Germana)*

The Procession (Photo M. Germana)*

This year, I am told, fewer people turned up to see the burning, no doubt due to the weather. To me, it all added to the drama and, with fewer bodies around, I was able to get closer to the burning site, to watch the body of Krisara slowly being consumed by the flames.

It all happens rather quickly. The guizers throw their torches over onto the galley, which is soon ablaze.

The Procession (Photo M. Germana)*

The Procession (Photo M. Germana)*

On a night like last Tuesday, the phrase ‘battle of the elements’ couldn’t ring truer. Although the wind and rain threatened to blow off the torches, in the end, the fire was the winner. The storm subsided, allowing the galley to be engulfed in the firy embrace of Up Helly Aa.

Setting Fire to the Gulley (Photo M. Germana)*

Setting Fire to the Gulley (Photo M. Germana)*

After the burning, people found shelter in friends’ houses to reactivate blood circulation with the aid of a dram or two… I have to thank Anne and Robert for my life-saving sip of whisky.

The celebrations continued at the 12 official festival halls where live entertainment, eating, drinking and most importantly ceilidh dancing went on until 8 o’ clock in the morning. There was also a comedy show on at the new theatre-cum-arts-centre, Mareel. The guizers visited each of the hall, performing dance routines and songs inspired by current affairs, popular culture and local business. Some of the acts are exquisitely random; think Snow White Meets Star Wars, Little Britain does James Bond or dancing giraffes… In most cases it worked, in a strange kind of way, and each performance deserved top marks for creativity. After their acts, the guizers invite the spectators to dance with them. I was the only lass in hiking boots and, by far, the worst ceilidh dancer in Islesburgh Hall, but I was welcome to join in.

The day after is a public holiday in Lerwick.  Everybody will catch a little sleep before going out again at night, to compare notes and share the gossip.

The Blaze (Photo M. Germana)*

The Blaze (Photo M. Germana)*

*A selection of photographs kindly reproduced after publication in New Welsh Review, 102, December 2013.

Isn’t she lovely?

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London Winter Scene (Photo M. Germana)

London Winter Scene (Photo M. Germana)

London in a wedding dress. Icy confetti fell all over her, the winter bride, at the week-end.

Too poetic? Perhaps. But isn’t it incredible how a few inches of white frost can give the city a radical make-over?

Finsbury Park (Photo M. Germana)

Finsbury Park (Photo M. Germana)

Proper seasonal changes give you the impression of travel; you may have not moved, but overnight the change of scenery will give you the impression you have been transported elsewhere. That’s what I call ‘weather-travel’.

Perhaps I speak just for myself, but I was getting tired of this mild, grey, non-descript climate. I am convinced November lasted three months this year.

Winter Colours (Photo M. Germana)

Winter Colours (Photo M. Germana)

It’s a different story, however, when the temperature drops and we get to wear the Christmas jumpers we couldn’t really justify taking out of the closet in December. On Thursday the sudden burst of winter sunshine caught us by surprise, and we all smiled again, relieved to see the blue sky piercing through the mist and clouds that have been oppressing the city of late.

Then came the snow.

And it was as if the city is a different place. With fewer cars around, the streets looked prettier and smelt fresher. Snow is like a layer of light foundation make-up; it hides blemishes, enhances colouring and features. And besides the crazy travel disruption – if you are not affected by train cancellations – there seems to be no better weather to enjoy London in the winter.

Branches (Photo M. Germana)

Branches (Photo M. Germana)

As the city slows down, everybody seems to find their inner child… on Friday night I was caught up in a snow-ball fight as I walked to an empty restaurant in Covent Garden. Closing early, because of the weather, of course. Snowmen popped up on pavements, bus stops and park benches.

Snowman (Photo M. Germana)

Snowman (Photo M. Germana)

Who needs a ski-break in the Alps, when you can slide down kite hill on Hampstead Heath?

Seasonal changes are the best answer to reduced travel budgets; if you can’t afford to go to the slopes, let the slopes come to your door-step!

On Saturday the Heath was heaving with improvised winter sports enthusiasts. Armed with plastic trays, traditional wooden sledges, rubbish liners and other, imaginative sliding solutions, Londoners of all ages enjoyed risking breaking their necks (would your winter sports insurance cover your slide down the icy paths of North London?) until dusk. As the sun set, and the city lights began to sparkle to outline the familiar skyline, the view from the top of the hill was stunning.

Frozen Buds (Photo M. Germana)

Frozen Buds (Photo M. Germana)

Like any traditional English bride, London didn’t forget to throw her bouquet for good luck. We went looking for it in Regent’s Park on Sunday.

We saw what remained of the wedding feast: covered in a thick coat of white icing sugar, benches, tree-branches, sculptures looked like they had been stolen from the display of a posh patisserie.

And then we found it. In the Queen’s rose garden, of course.

The precocious buds, blushing mutely through the snow, defiant of sub-zero temperatures; there it was, London’s understated bridal bouquet.

Red Gems (Photo M. Germana)

Red Gems (Photo M. Germana)

She may be old-fashioned, but London likes a good party, too. Before we know it, she is getting thrashed already.

So don’t waste anytime, go out for a walk, before the slushy hangover settles in!

2012 in review

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The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 2,900 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 5 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

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