Derry

No city is more defined, more defiant, than Derry. Ireland’s only city to retains its walls, maintaining a fortress that has guarded the Foyle estuary for three and a half centuries. Within that timespan is contained much of the weave of Irish history, a focal point for native and invader to generate modern myth and identity. In this place where the banners of the old jest were woven, colours were dyed that are still worn with pride, with belligerence even. Murals form a gallery from the gable ends of housing estates, slogans whisper and scream, flags proclaim sharp divisions, marking enclaves alongside more subtle imprecations, while canon, monuments and ancient buildings illustrate a colourful past. Such is the visible skin; meanwhile, beneath the city’s life and blood pulses, a palimpsest of possibilities.

From a distance Derry stretches like any large Irish town, a soft outline beyond a grey broadening river, two sharp spires to denote the Irish religious duality. This last distinction is no longer a pervasive or definitive line here in Ireland, but in Northern Ireland it matters a lot. The colour coding of flags and emblems, the red, white and blue painted kerbstones, serve to remind visitors of the identity long contested and jettisoned by most, but profoundly felt in the floating province. From the Waterside the bridge taking us west to the centre of the city is, appropriately, split level. Crossing to the west bank of the Foyle in part feels like a return to Ireland, but that would be putting things too simply.

The Guildhall is an impressive gothic pile, symbol of the burgeoning confidence of trade and dominion, English gothic in style and confidently placed just outside the main gate. Nearby, a market huddles in the lee of the walls, emphasising the medievalist notion of a city isolated from its hinterland behind fortifications. More precisely, the fortress is Early Modern, dating from the seventeenth century and employing a grid plan for its streets, a very modern notion in its day. Viewed as a plan, the two main streets, Shipquay Street and Ferryquay Street, form a cross to mimic the London coat of arms. That particular and contentious prefix gives rise to the joke that Londonderry is the only word in the English language with six silent letters.

The city centre is the Diamond, as definite a centre point as you could wish, on the highest elevation, its war monument the pin holding it in place, truly the city on the hill. Now the ornate consumer palace that is Austin’s dominates the square, a playful addition to the skyline. Across the street, Witherspoon’s pub has that quintessentially British air, elsewhere the bars are more native, particularly so on the outer edge of the wall in Waterloo Street. The diaspora is prominent too, one bar, Bound for Boston, is helpfully indicated by a large model of the Statue of Liberty. Well, it’s in the ballpark…

Derry was the focus of a different diaspora at its foundation. Early settlements sought to carve an English niche out of the Irish hinterland. It is said the first garrison so mistreated the locals that they were cursed by the spirit of St Columb, and so destroyed themselves by accidentally igniting their own gunpowder. Subsequent settlements were more organised and by the late 17th century the city was well established, staunchly Protestant and Parliamentarian.

The Siege is everpresent. The imminent capitulation of Lundy to Jacobite forces was averted by the action of the Apprentice Boys in 1690  Good King Billy relieved the siege and established the Protestant supremacy, still trumpeted on certain streetscapes throughout the province today.

The walls provide an elevated journey around the modern city and a window into its past. The Apprentice Boys Hall, the First Derry Presbyterian Church, St Columb’s Cathedral and the Verbal Arts Centre are amongst the distinguished buildings hugging the inside of the walls. Looking west over the parapets there is the Bogside. Its gable ends face the city walls with a certain acrimony. They have become a gallery of graphic murals, commemorating the likes of Bobby Sands and Bernadette Devlin, and more surprisingly Che Guevara. The paratroop killings are commemorated in the iconic shot of Fr Daly escorting a victim with a white handkerchief. But there is no surrender here either. The Bogside has slammed its own missiles and slogans against the towering walls.

Around the corner, The Fountain district lies beneath St Columb’s. Here the red white and blue prevail, King William still rides and the Union Jack flies. The dilemma is encapsulated in the phrase: We only have a siege mentality because we are under siege. Both supreme and surrounded, it is difficult to reconcile.

Yet, reconciliation is a major factor in Derry. How could a city thrive without some communality amongst its citizens? The citizens are as solid an entity as any edifice of bricks and mortar. Along the streets people throng the shops and pubs, the cafes and restaurants. As the markets melt into the dusk music beats out from the venues. Crowds flow across the curve of the pedestrian bridge to a concert on the Waterside. At the end, fireworks pummel the air above the Foyle. The smell of cordite flows into the city. There is a perverse echo of a city suspended in time. From its foundation there has been a pattern, from its formative gunpowder fiasco to the famous siege, on through the ages to petrol bombing youths and the shadows of various gunmen of various tribes. The walls survive and the people too. The spirit of Derry thrives, welcoming an uncertain future,

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Vancouver

Vancouver.

Vancouver is on the same latitude as Ireland and suffers nominally the same marine temperate climate. It rains, man, it pours. The city is set on a peninsula against a dramatic backdrop of snow capped peaks. Not that we can see them on the first day as it lives up to its sodden image with a welcoming downpour. By the next day however the clouds have lifted to reveal the highrise city and the Coastal Range across the bay.

Vancouver’s population density is said to be second only to Hong Kong and has all the rich and varied hum of city life which that implies. It is very modern and preserves only isolated scraps of its heritage. Even the landmark monoliths of the early twentieth century are dwarfed amongst the skyscrapers, they’re still impressive though. The Fairmont Hotel is in the signature Canadian style with a steep bronze roof like a French chateau. The Marine Building is an exuberant art deco building from 1929, designed to appear like a ‘great crag rising from the sea.’

Something of a coherent urban heritage survives in Gastown. The area takes its name from English adventurer Jack Deighton who established the first saloon here in 1867. Deighton earned the nickname Gassy Jack for his voluble espousal of any worthy cause in the growing city. He died in 1875 and his body lies in an unmarked grave but there’s a statue to him on Water Street standing atop a beer barrel.

Gastown remains a picturesque enclave of late nineteenth century buildings with a good concentration of bars, restaurants and clubs.

Chinatown is nearby. The second largest Chinatown in North America after San Francisco, Vancouver’s is more downbeat and edgy. Tens of thousands of Chinese arrived in the eighteen eighties to build the Trans-Canada railway and formed a shantytown here. The Chinese community was ghettoised for decades but, as builders of Vancouver, they cleverly constructed a network of tunnels allowing them quick access to the city from which they were forbidden. An ornamental, traditional gate now marks the entrance to Chinatown but it is the streets between here and Downtown that have developed into a modern ghetto. The area is reminiscent of Dawn of the Dead, with crowds of those who have fallen through the bottom of society congregating, zombie-like, in the streets and squares.

While much of Downtown gleams new, Granville Street remains a shabby but seductive slice of fifties Americana. Glorious old film theatres jut into the street which is low-end shopping by day and thronged with rough edged nightlife after dark. Where the street crosses False Creek Granville Island is an oasis off the city grid, a maze of markets, restaurants and cafes. There are art galleries and buskers and along by the Creek is a great place to admire the city skyline.

Modern Vancouver is more than highrise Condo heaven. The library at Robson Street resembles Rome’s Coliseum, but its nine floors are devoted to more intellectual pursuits. Entrance through an outer spiral arm leads into an impressive concourse with several cafes. Light pours in through an atrium six stories overhead. The library itself is airy and spacious, creating an overall effect of calm within a busy maelstrom of human traffic.

After feeding your head you won’t need to go far in Vancouver to feed the body. The rich ethnic mix means there’s no shortage of variety and, not surprisingly given that it is the Pacific out there, there’s plenty of Chinese and Japanese cuisine. Davie Street is Vancouver’s Castro and lined with restaurants and clubs. It is friendly and unapologetic, self-contained to an almost parochial degree.

Granville Street at night is more hetro and there’s an even more butch option at GM place which is home to the Canucks ice hockey team. Canada’s national sport is incredibly fast and skillful, but there’s more than that, you’re guaranteed a night of beer, loud music and regular punch ups. What more could you ask for? Well, the Stanley Cup, hockey’s premier prize, would be nice, but as yet it has eluded the grasp of the boys in blue.

More natural and timeless pleasures can be found in Stanley Park on the northern tip of the city. The thousand acre expanse of parkland is in sharp contrast to the metropolis looming over it. Vancouverites and visitors flock here for sport and recreation and its many attractions include a vivid reminder of the areas origins. The Totem Park is a startling collection of totem poles by local ‘Indian’ tribes. The Canadian term is First Nation, after all, they were here first. They’re still here, and the timeless visual narratives of the totem poles is a fascinating counterpoint to the exclamation mark of modern humanity, the two facing each other across a short stretch of grass and water.

Reykjavik

Iceland loomed large last year, not so much as a destination – more a roadblock. Eyjafjallajokull sent a pall of ash over the North Atlantic disrupting flight services all over Europe. It’s not the first time Icelandic volcanoes have had a baleful effect on Europe. Three thousand years ago the explosion of mighty Hekla contributed to the eclipse of the early Mediterranean civilisations of Minoa and Mycenae. It won’t be the last.

Iceland straddles the continental divide between Europe and America. The faultline is visible in the region of Thingvellir where the continental plates rear in sheer walls above a steaming plain. It is the site of the world’s oldest parliament, the Althing. Here, in 930 AD, ancient Icelanders gathered to hold court and elect their parliament. Irish monks were the first people to reach Iceland but the Vikings would supplant them and become the were the first Europeans to colonise the North Atlantic and ultimately reach America.

Four hundred years before Columbus, Leif Eriksson founded Vinland (Greenland) and the colony lasted a couple of centuries before fading from sight and memory. In the 1930s the Americans commemorated the explorer with the donation of a dramatically heroic statue which guards the plaza before Reykjavik’s landmark Hallgrimskirkja. The church is named for Hallgrim, a 17th century devotional poet. He married Goethron, a Westland Islander captured by Algerian pirates in 1620. She was amongst a fortunate few to be ransomed by the Danish king and Hallgrim was dispatched to reacquaint the freed captives with Christianity – thus do love stories begin.

At the top of Hallgrimskirkja’s immense spire you can see all of Reykjavik neatly laid out below. There’s a palpable sense of drama and contrast on this fulcrum between the old world and the new, where Europe meets America. Powerful organ music pushes up from the stark church full of gothic power, while the modernist spire feels like a spaceship to heaven. Meanwhile, the city far below has a feeling of toy town. The buildings are clad in corrugated iron, painted in primary colours tumbling down to the harbour, beyond which jagged snow-capped  mountains pin down the deep blue horizon.

Iceland’s modern parliament building dates from 1880 and is set in a pleasant square in the city centre with the small Cathedral, Domkirkjan, nearby. I shelter from the cold in a pleasant bar opposite the park and enjoy a pint of the local brew, Gull, the rim of the glass frosted with ice. There are large photos on the walls of the recent disturbances after the financial crash. The black and white prints give a feel of ancient history, the scenes themselves, featuring police in riot gear, look improbable in such a placid square amongst an amiable people. The crash and the anger were real enough though.

There is political fire too in the work of Erro at the City Arts Museum. Iceland’s most significant visual artist was a prolific exponent of the collage, depicting a strange synthesis of propaganda, sex and consumerism. His most appealing series shows Mao and the Red Army leading a communist invasion of Europe and the USA. There is much reference to classical painting and iconic advertising such as the Rothman’s ad. Perhaps the east will rise, as Erro hints, or perhaps the twain should never meet. Iceland itself is finely poised, ever growing, ever changing.

Madrid

The Irish Celts are supposed to have come from Spain, the Milesians setting out from that land of the dead to the fabled isle of destiny in the western ocean. It would not be the last time a great voyage of discovery initiated in Iberia. It is in a state of constant change, sending voyagers outwards, receiving the insanely talented too. Columbus, the Italian, sought out Spain to back his ambitions. El Greco found acceptance for his otherworldly paintings here. There were the Conquistadors, the doomed Armada of  King Philip, poets, artists, and the ubiquitous Spanish student.

Madrid is central to this country, this fulcrum between Europe and Africa, stepping stone to the new world. The joining of the thrones of Aragon and Castille under Isabella and Philip brought Spain into being and the King chose Madrid as the capital for its central location. What had been little more than a small town on a bleak plateau became the capital city of the greatest empire of the early modern world. The city is built in overlaid layers, medieval lanes merge into grand boulevards, spacious squares are hidden amongst warrens of tiny streets, there are regular, elegant streetscapes in the European mode and sudden eruptions of art deco highrises in the American style. The stroller is rewarded with interesting shops and intimate taverns and the city plan is sufficiently confusing to make walking a pleasant adventure.

In terms of fine art Madrid ranks with the best. The Museo del Prado at the edge of is the most famous with an enormous collection of art from Spain and its colonies. The exuberance and hot colours of Spanish art are immediately addictive as is the passionate, baroque take on faith. The Cretan immigrant, El Greco, most captures the heart. Sinuous figures wave upwards like flames flickering in adoration. A more cautionary take on life is embodied in the work of Hieronymous Bosch, it is also more fantastical than one would think possible. My fevered teenage brain had been captured in a pocket-sized book on El Bosco, how great it is to stand before the original triptych of the Garden of Earthly Delights.  Goya also spanned the worlds of horror and sumptuous wealth, his truth and disturbing vision reaching deep into the soul. To simply enumerate the other artists would fill this article and the Prado could sustain a whole week’s visit, but there is more too see.

The Centro de Arte Reina Sofia is the place to see modern art. The collection includes Dali, Juan Gris and Miro. Picasso’s Guernica is understandably a powerful magnet; passionate, rough hewn, it appears incomplete, as if it were an emergent apparition about to engulf us. He is otherwise not my favourite, I must say, but this is the real thing. That other Catalan, Salvador Dali, moves us in a different way, the landscape of madness that he depicts is within us, his stunning technique inspiring awe and making the impossible certain.

The Museo Thyssen Bornemisza is a private collection bringing both strands together. Eclectic and extensive it spans five hundred years of Western art, ricochets amongst cubism and surrealism, explores Russian graphics and dazzles with the American Hyperrealists. So, here I stand in a gallery in Spain looking in through the reflections in the window of a New York diner conjured up by Richard Estes.

There are other theatres of art. At the Santiago Bernabeu stadium we bear witness to the stoic resistance of  Real Madrid to the wizardry of Barcelona FC. One hundred thousand passionate Spaniards are packed to the rafters, a sea of banners waving to the beat of drums, chants and songs. The great masters of the game, Messi and Ronaldo supply a goal apiece, honours are shared, the war goes on.

At night La Latina is the place to go. Narrow winding streets are packed with revellers, there are ornate bars and fragrant restaurants. We searched for Flamenco but found the blues instead at a hopping little club on the Calle de los Huertas. There are other delights to dip into. Deli food and wine are an excellent start to the evening at the lively Mercado de San Miguel. The Plaza Mayor is a signature for the city, but everywhere you emerge into magical plazas – Sol, Angel and Santa Anna thronged with diners, buskers, performers and hustlers. Art Deco architecture draws the eye upwards in delight. The Circulo de Bellas Artes is a particular gem – a slice of 1930’s New York containing a cultural foundation with a beautiful café. On our last morning we enjoy the ambience and watch the bustle of Gran Via  and Calle de Alcala pass by.

Our Easter vacation started with the sombre gaiety of Holy Week. Processions redolent of medieval intensity mark the days, the bond of spirituality runs deep. Religion, art, sport and society are entwined. This is the land of Death but so full of life. You can be seduced  to look at reflections in the glass of a shop window and pass through into a hyper-realist vision and see the possibilities of the whole world.