Just west of the Pennines, South Lancashire seethes with cities. We’re Manchester bound, although the route I take via the circling motorways is a bit, well, circuitous. Eventually I trust to luck, or instinct, following a long straight road that falls ever so slightly downhill. Despite a brief detour through a dodgy flats complex, courtesy of ubiquitous roadworks, I stumble upon Piccadilly Station, close to where we’re staying. Mind you, the rental company has changed its address without telling anyone, but we hunt it down eventually on the roof of a multi-story.

View from the Mercur over Piccadilly Gardens

View from the Mercur over Piccadilly Gardens

Manchester has been compared to an incredibly vast shopping centre, where you never feel more than halfway towards the centre, ever. It does have its fair share of malls, not necessarily a bad thing. The point is that Manchester, like many new cities, is an urban conurbation – you can go city to city without leaving town. I figure we stayed in the centre, or high above it anyway. The hotel overlooks Piccadilly Gardens which pass for the town square. Here is the hub of the clanking tram system, Britain’s most extensive and a boon for the visitor or commuter. The Gardens itself is as ugly a slice of modernity as you are likely to see, its designer presumably antagonistic to the concept of parks, or people, or possibly both. Enter, if you dare, through the facsimile of an underpass; works wonders for the confidence that. What better place to lie in wait, slither out and importune strangers for money or drugs. We decide to give it a go. One step in, someone steps out of the shadows and importunes me for money. Disengaging from that, another approaches stage right. We give it a miss, retiring instead to the relative safety of the surrounds, a rather sleazy strip of downmarket dens.

The name Piccadilly also denotes London’s centre, so what does it mean? The word supposedly derives from a collar of Spanish lace, a high fashion item in the sixteenth century. Perhaps an allusion to the parade of fashion common to a city centre. Manchester bustles more than it poses. There is a regular beat of footfall along with the throb of commerce. Plenty of shopping here, along straight, severe canyons and in extensive modern malls. Manchester has been referred to as being about as beautiful as the back of a fridge. That’s a bit harsh. While there’s something functional, determinedly commercial, about the city, there are shards of beauty in its Victorian civic and industrial architecture.

City Hall and Albert Square

City Hall and Albert Square

None finer than the Gothic extravagance of the City Hall. Palatial but, with an eye to the democracy it represents, accessible. You are free to enter, more detailed exploration by guided tour. An atmospheric restaurant peeps out of the cloistered entrance hall. Function rooms are available for those with a taste for the gothic. Both interior and exterior aspects are full of the beauties of fine craftsmanship, allied with the notion that buildings can be expressions of a higher ideal, that they can occupy the imagination as well as physical space. It dominates Albert Square, a surprisingly calm space boasting almost as many statues as people. While herself plunges into the sea of shopping, I linger in the square, The Chop House on the corner providing the oasis, a quiet pavement table with a view.

St. Anne's Church

St. Anne’s Church

We’ve arranged to meet at St Anne’s Square, a smaller, intimate space which also offers respite from the commuting and shopping throng. The old church that gives the square its name has been here since the eighteenth century when Manchester was still a small town. A feeling of more olden days pervades. There are market stalls, pub and restaurant marquees, and the right ambience to relax and watch the world go by.

Manchester is really a modern city. It only received that designation in 1853, by which stage it was on the crest of the tidal wave wrought by the Industrial Revolution. Cotton was king, the city even nicknamed Cottonopolis. Warehouse City was another monicker, as the city flexed its industrial muscles to conjure up a Lowryesque landscape. The artist was a local, lived, studied and is buried here. The major museum in his honour, The Lowry, is housed nearby on the Salford Quays. Manchester, lest we forget, became a major port in the late nineteenth century. Over sixty miles from the sea, it was connected by the Ship Canal in 1894.

Ryland's Library

Ryland’s Library

Along Deansgate, you can catch the flavour of power that propelled this city into the twentieth century. Handsome proportions of streets and buildings, the Victorian and Edwardian palaces an impressive statement of wealth and craft. Not only God and Mammon, Manchester nurtured culture too. The John Rylands Library is a supreme Gothic confection from the early nineteen hundreds. It houses ancient papyrus and illuminated manuscripts, a Gutenberg bible and an extensive collection of the printing of Caxton. Beyond Deansgate lies the river and the great canal system. A city for exploration in itself.

Cathedral Gate

Cathedral Gate

Hunger, for now, draws us back to the commercial hub. We dine at a high end pizzeria, and very nice it is too. This precinct has grown quieter at night but the atmosphere is good. Through a vast mall we find ourselves on a raised terrace with a view of Manchester Cathedral beyond. The Cathedral dates back to the fifteenth century though, like the city that now surrounds it, has undergone much change since. Below us is a lively spot, all mock tudor beams, called the Cathedral Gates. This is the place to be, with extensive outdoor seating and a great buzz. The medieval quarter, as such, straggles around here. There are guided walks to get you in touch with the original essence of the city. Every city comes from somewhere, you do want to keep that spirit alive.

The Mancunian with the golden car

The Mancunian with the golden car

We wake to the incessant tinkle of trams. It’s all abuzz again. We take a tram to Piccadilly Station, heading for home via England’s extensive, if weirdly connected, rail system. We require three trains to get to Holyhead; a pity the ferry cannot sail from Manchester.


Following last year’s visit to Oxford, we completed the learning curve with a visit to Cambridge. Just fifty miles north of London, it’s a morning’s drive in the hire-car from Russell Square, through ever decreasing suburbs into the low countryside beyond Epping. Past the Gog Magog Hills, Cambridge nestles in the fen lands, a sodden lowland through which snakes the River Cam. Romans, Angles, Vikings and Normans have stomped across this geographically open landscape, now it is pure middle England.

Cambridge is somewhat smaller than Oxford with a population of about 125,000. There is less of an urban ambience, less classical in its streetscape, it is more the winding country town. The university is the dominant force by far. About a fifth of the population are students. Formed by Oxford rejects at the start of the thirteenth century, it grew to become its keenest rival. The annual boat-race on the Thames is a famous manifestation of that rivalry.

View across the Paddocks at Downing College

View across the Paddocks at Downing College

We have a room at Downing College. It overlooks a quiet quadrangle, an arcade to one side adjoins a small theatre hosting a seminar. At quieter moments we decamp there with coffee and a book. At crowded tea-breaks it is useful to eavesdrop on the networking and hob-nobbing of the seminarians. The college is in a mellow yellow stone throughout. It is cast in the neo-classical mode. Built in the early eighteen hundreds, it has been described as the last of the old colleges, and the first of the new. Its patron, George Downing also gave his name to Downing Street. Of course, knowledge is also a corridor of power. We note, with some amusement, that certain walks are confined to the Fellows. At this time of year, we should be okay. The view across the Paddocks is, in a way, quintessentially English. Yet, the spire of the church on Lansfield Road also recalls home. It’s the uncanny valley again, so near and yet so far away.

Later, we step outside of the groves of academe for our evening meal to eat curries from the carton at an Indian deli and store across the road. There’s posh for you. It was very good indeed. Next morning, we breakfast in rather grander surrounds, at Downing’s great hall. Food to feed a horse, if a bit rushed owing to our late-coming tendencies. We resolve to be better tomorrow.

The Hopbine Pub advertises an invaluable service.

The Hopbine Pub advertises an invaluable service.

There are plenty of good restaurants here, incidentally. On our second evening we make a more serious scouting effort for our dining pleasure. The good spots fill up quickly as evening falls. We get a table at the Wildeside, another English meal with the great man, though of course he was an Oxford man. It’s quiet and stylish, with a little patio to the rear.

During the day, Cambridge, even with the tourist throngs, is eminently relaxing. Although it doesn’t quite have an aspect of dreaming spires, it is both evocative in its atmosphere and rich in visual delights. Kings Parade is probably the definitive vista. Old vernacular streetscape to one side, the impressive frontage of major colleges, notably King’s College, to the other. The winding thoroughfare retains a sense of the ancient. The oldest building in Cambridge, St. Benet’s Church, a quiet, simple structure, dates back to 1209.

Author deposits his books at Cambridge University Library

Author deposits his books at Cambridge University Library

Beyond the Cam, parkland cradles the more modern campus of the University. Cambridge University Library is a startlingly modern addition to the skyline. Built in the 1930s, the huge central tower has all the pulsing power of industrial art deco. Its architect, Giles Gilbert Scott, was also responsible for the Bankside power station that houses the Tate Modern. Chamberlain is said to have referred to it as a ‘magnificent erection’! Indeed it is impressive, it is also a repository for all books published in England and Ireland; mine too, I’m sure.

King's College Chapel viewed from the Backs.

King’s College Chapel viewed from the Backs.

Walking the city centre periphery illustrates Cambridge’s inevitable affinity with boating. Punting on the canal, or the corralled section of the Cam, is central to the Cambridge experience. Punters ply the serene waters, keeping up a patter of history, myth and gossip. Our host Phil hails from Northern Ireland, but is well versed in local lore with the gift of the gab thrown in. The route travels along The Backs, with views of the colleges across well-tended lawns. The Cam was rerouted for this. Henry VIII being instrumental in a scheme aimed at enhancing his and England’s prestige. The gothic grandeur of King’s College Chapel is another element of his legacy. Silence may have been preferrable at some sections. The Bridge of Sighs is evocative, indeed the entire poem of still water and ancient stone is a joy. But it really is a crowded river at times. You can hire your own punt too. Many do, floating drink parties are still drifting about at dusk.

Approaching the Anchor Pub

Approaching the Anchor Pub

We put our anchor down at the terminus in Mill Pond. Appropriately enough, The Anchor pub nestles there. This was once the hangout of Syd Barrett, where, as a teenager, he used to bend an ear to the resident jazz band. He would later lead his own band, those masters of avant garde psychedelia, Pink Floyd. Barrett would ultimately be replaced by his hometown friend, Dave Gilmour. Barret is commemorated in two panoramic panels on the lower level. An open terrace looks out over the maelstrom of the pond. In a town not exactly falling down with good pubs, it quickly becomes our favourite for a few drinks. There’s keg ales and good food. The pub rises through three levels. At the top, a jazz band plays. Imagine yourself back in Floydian times, let the mellow jazz merge seamlessly with Pink sounds. Put on a gown that reaches the ground, float on a river, forever and ever…

Dublin – National War Memorial Gardens

I first discovered these gardens in the 70s, heading for Phoenix Park from Drimnagh, just past the Grand Canal and Kilmainham. Discovery is the appropriate term, back then these gardens were forgotten and in a ruinous state. Hardly a soul would venture in there, other than those wanting to step outside of society. Burnt out cars and burnt out people came to be the companions of the marooned masonry and overgrown parkland.


You could just about discern within the remnants the outline of something which once must have been impressive, perhaps the whisper of faded empire. It was a place to give free rein to ghostly imaginings, conjuring a Classical past from Gothic decay. There were mood altering substances at work too. Like I said, it was a place where we could step outside of society for a while.

The decay was at last reversed. In the 1980s, the Office of Public Works (OPW) began the restoration work. Completed towards the end of the decade, The Irish National War Memorial Gardens were restored to their original state. The memory of our true past was once more cherished. It is sometimes thought that the Gardens were allowed to go to ruin as they were essentially a British Army memorial to those who fell under that command in the Great War of 1914 to 1918. This does not stand up to scrutiny. The 1970s saw widespread degradation of our urban fabric, including parks. In large part this was caused by the economic recession of that period, but there was also a disregard for our architectural heritage, a craven desire to prefer the modern over the old. It is the reversal of the latter trend that has allowed us to reclaim the treasures of our built heritage.


Mind you, the Gardens at Islandbridge are not particularly ancient. In their decade of ruin they were barely forty years old. The concept of a memorial garden came shortly after the end of the Great War, at a time when Ireland was entering the throes of its own War of Independence. The object was to commemorate the fifty thousand Irishmen who had died in the European conflict. This project was initiated in the fraught first decade of Irish independence, in a country riven by the bitterness of the Civil War. 1931 saw the development of the parkland between Islandbridge and Chapelizod on the banks of the Liffey. If the accession to power of Eamon De Valera did not seem auspicious, the project didn’t founder. Work commenced on the Memorial Gardens themselves in 1933. The project was completed in 1939, as another global conflict broke out. It’s notable that, in a spirit of shared memory, with the wars of independence so fresh in the mind, the workforce consisted in equal halves of ex-servicemen from the British and Irish armies.

Sir Edwin Lutyens, one of the finest British architects of the Modernist era, designed the Memorial Gardens. World renowned, Lutyens had worked extensively in Ireland, including Heywood Gardens in County Laois, and at Howth Castle and Lambay Island in Dublin. His work is characterised by its harmonising of Classical and Modernist styles. At Islandbridge, he set out a symmetrical plan, rich in imagery yet restrained in effect. The main lawn is centred on a War Stone, symbolising an altar, while the flanking fountains are marked by obelisks representing candles. At each end are a pair of granite Bookrooms linked by pergolas. The Bookrooms are a repository for the eight volumes of books recording the names of all those Irish who perished during the war. These were designed and illustrated by Irish artist Harry Clarke, most renowned for his stained glass.

The Bookrooms and books can be viewed by appointment. We had contacted the Gardens in advance, and received an informal, personal tour of the monument from one of the OPW onsite team. It is an informative and moving experience, to see entries for such young men, mere boys really, who drew their last breath on a foreign field, preserved here by name, forever young.


Passing through the linking pergolas of granite columns and oak beams, we enter the sunken rose gardens. Each are centred on lily ponds and surrounded by yew hedging. These are points of tranquil reflection, allowing the monument to recede into a serene mixture of flora and elements. To the south is the most imposing statement. The Great Cross presides over all, inscribed to ‘the 49,400 Irishmen who gave their lives in the Great War.’

The restoration of the park restores the dignity of those who fought in the war, but it is not, nor was it ever, a triumphal memorial. The classical elegance underpinning Lutyens design is a quiet reflection on the sacrifice of these men. It is, in effect, a monument to peace. The first visit of an English monarch to an independent Ireland, in May 2011, was marked with the laying of a wreath by Queen Elizabeth II at the Great Cross. Almost a century after that great fallout, a note of reconciliation was sounded.

That war, which we now call the First World War, did not end all wars. Sadly, such dreams are just that. We can wallow in wishful thinking, seek solace in forgetfulness, but it is, perhaps, better to remember our history and hopefully to learn by it. Ireland did gain its independence through bullets and blood, our National Anthem notes this fact. But it was the force of civil solidarity, allied with vision and idealism, that won the day and, to an extent, won the peace. Don’t forget that.


A hundred years ago, Casablanca was little more than a small coastal town, struggling to come to grips with its deepwater Atlantic harbour. The walled area delineating the Medina is still there, while greater Casablanca has grown into a vast city of three million people. The French colonial system established the modern city in the inter-war years. Wide boulevards are lined with white-stone buildings with ornate iron balconies. Fine civic buildings of the nineteen thirties preside over public green spaces beneath towering palm trees. The effect was to lend the centre an elegant air, while re-echoing the original designation ‘white house’.


Sadly overcome by time, dereliction and a societal aversion to commerce and its attendant boon of social celebration, Casablanca today can seem more grey than white. Individual and collective poverty have eroded the civic fabric, dirt and dilapidation have taken root. Men perch like gloomy crows at pavement cafes, a glum parody of gaiety Parisienne. Unattended by female company, they sip thick coffee and watch the world, or this part of it, shuffle by. Not often in a city do I wonder what it is I should be doing.

Alienation has its compensations. Chaotic shoots of commerce, the creative individualism of traffic, warp the elegant street plan, push against the homogenous conformity. There’s life in the street-hawking, the hustling for work and pay, as back street operations infiltrate Main Street. Occasionally the plan prevails in a positive sense, as surprising green spaces open up an oasis of calm, an opportunity of rest. The ancient city still prevails, a medieval way of life endures.

Inside the Medina

Inside the Medina

If the Medina is not widely renowned for its charm, it does at least display plenty of spirit. At the gateway we are knocked off course by some aggressive hustling. We turn, by way of evasion, into a localised web of backstreets that becomes a bewildering maze. The river of humanity surges around us. This is where locals buy and sell; fruit, meat, vegetables and all the goods of life. Repair shops, two seater cafes, bric-a-brac stalls jostle for business. Live chickens are exchanged, weighed, haggled over and strangled in hectic bouts of shouts, gestures and desperate clucking. Mopeds, impossibly weighted with food and booty, weave through pedestrians with casual abandon.

Our companions have taken off like scalded cats and it is a struggle to maintain contact. I wonder if this is the proper place to be festooned with a Canon. Not through any fear of theft, or even the wrong kind of attention – the locals are indifferent to our presence, although some children are greatly amused. No, this is a place to be experienced, not itemised. Anyway, it is rude to point.

Hassan II Mosque

Hassan II Mosque

Our journey takes us to the Hassan II Mosque. This towers above the city, its two hundred metre minaret being the tallest in the world. The massive complex is isolated on a plinth of blazing blue sea and sky. The king was keen to give Casablanca an iconic sight. This is it. People flock here, drawn like filings towards a giant magnet, drawn to its prospects of prayer and peace. If Morocco is dubious of the benefits of mammon, it can at least feel itself close to God. As we rest by the giant plaza, some local schoolchildren decide to wrestle nearby. A guard, whip poised, is not amused. There are always imperatives for behaviour, even for the very young. The children depart, but still in good humour. Where there’s life there’s hope. Where there’s laughter too.

Away from the spiritual island, some seeds of economic advancement have sprouted. Along the coast road, new apartment blocks gleam. Aloof from the crumbling city nearby, they are the future, perhaps. Where we re-enter the Medina, there is a small park, its trees promising shadow where children play, the older folk sitting and talking. This quieter, residential precinct, has a more comfortable ambience. A village of thousands, where life can find its own pace.

Rick’s American Bar is to the seaward side. Established some years back in homage to the Curtiz film, where Bogart and Bergman conjured everlasting love and eternal art from monochrome light. There never was a Rick’s Bar, of course, it is all smoke and mirrors, anther Hollywood trick. What better place to explore the universe than inside your head, in the dark beneath splaying beams of magic light? So, Rick’s Bar is made flesh and from the unpromising stone of Casablanca weaves its own form of magic. We enter the sedate and seductive world imagined by the movie. White walls, tiled floor setting off the heavy, ornate furniture. Light ambushes the cool interior. It is much more welcoming, intimate than we had anticipated. No crass Americana here. We order drinks, something which might have been possible elsewhere, just neither obvious nor desirable. This is something you do behind closed doors here.

The grime and crush of the city dissipates. On the wall behind us, a good sized screen shows the movie. We dip in and out, it is silent and subtitled. We ask the waiter to take a photograph and he obliges. Only later do I notice the frame he has captured behind us sets in motion that most magical movie moment, where Rick addresses Sam: “Stop it. You know what I want to hear….”

Everyone goes to Rick's

Everyone goes to Rick’s

Later, we find the market end of the Medina. There’s plenty on offer here, especially leather and jewelry. I get an excellent jacket from a friendly and diligent stall-holder. The most difficult requests are met with hurried phone calls and the arrival outside of a speeding moped and the requested article. That’s what I call service. Commerce and society are alive here, but struggling. Hopefully, it will all come good someday. After all, the heavenly realm and its rules notwithstanding:

You must remember this / A kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh / The fundamental things apply / As Time goes by…

Las Vegas

It’s a long drive from the Grand Canyon to Las Vegas, from the wilderness world to the land of fabrication. We’re up early and heading south to pick up Route 66 again, then turn to head west through Seligman and Kingman. At Seligman, birthplace of the Mother Road, there’s a long and lonely train strung along the horizon, and a cowboy in a pickup turning on to the range by a gateway. We stick to the freeway while the old route bumps off to our right. There’s a camper van parked in isolation with two waifs, Thelma and Louise, in halter tops and shorts posed on the roof staring off into the shimmering distance.

Kingman is off the highway but doesn’t originally reveal the tacky charm I had anticipated. We’re lost in the fast food outskirts before finding a Burger King off what could be the Naas Road Industrial estate where we pore over the maps again. This is always a good way to attract an American. A man folds up his mobile phone mid sentence to come, unbidden, to our assistance. With his help we’re back on Route 66, cruising by the amazing pink motels of ‘historic’ Kingman before picking up the highway again towards Las Vegas.

We head north on 93 with dust devils dancing off the road to the sounds of Sheryl Crow and Michelle Shocked on the stereo. Isolated trailers and shacks pin down handkerchief plots of minor cultivation in the arid landscape. We rise and rise until we come to the cooling variety of a maze of black rock hills. The troopers welcome us to Nevada and when we come to the edge of the plateau, there’s Lake Mead in its impossible cool blue, a fake lake held in the heat by the miracle of the Hoover Dam. Constructed during the Great Depression of the 1930s, it is surely one of the engineering marvels of the world, transforming the desert beyond into an Eden, of sorts.



The car is now recording one hundred and ten degrees and outside the souvenir store the heat blasts at us as from an open oven. A wiry old-timer plays lock-hard in the narrow car park. British or Australian, he loves the heat but for us it’s life in the oven with the thermostat flipped. A meaty black family from New York must be shedding pounds passing over the dam from Arizona into Nevada, but they’re permanently happy with it all. Golden rest rooms offer brief respite from the heat before we head off into the desert.

There are glimpses of Lake Mead against the desiccated landscape, then there’s a sudden pulse in the traffic and we’re flying into the Las Vegas freeways. Oran navigates us well through some tense moments and dizzy junctions but pretty soon we’re heading in city traffic towards the strip. We do an impressive swerve in the empty forecourt of Caesar’s Palace before finding the right route to the multi story. Then we’re bound for the gilded lobby of the hotel. Our room is very impressive with jacuzzi in the bathroom and telephone in the toilet. We can see the Eiffel Tower from our window and more of the unreliable skyline of Las Vegas.

Time for a swim to take off the desert heat. I could get to like the pool at Caesar’s Palace. You lounge there and call a barely clad waitress to bring you an overpriced, but well chilled and welcome, beer. Mind you, the prat at the next lounger has decided to try out his chat-up lines on her which she attempts to fend off with chillingly white, but all too polite smiles. My beer is warming.

Out on the street it’s hotter than you expect out-on-the-street to be. The heat brings a peculiar stillness to the air and with the banks of neon it feels like walking through a vast arcade. There are fine water sprays on the street to give some humidity to the desert air, but already my Mick Jagger lips are in need of a remould. Further on up and we’re on the Rialto bridge, with gondolas waiting expectantly. We stroll up the strip in the evening to see the pirate pantomime at the Treasure Island. I thought the desert heat dissipated at night but if anything it’s hotter and heavier in the milling crowds.


Las Vegas is not a place you either love or loathe – you can do both. It is terribly fake. The sights of the world, the Eiffel Tower, Venice, New York, ring hollow as hardboard and will be gone again in a few seasons; but it’s fun. There is beauty in imitation and glitz has its own romance. The Belaggio and Cesar’s Palace provide their own version of grandeur and perfection at a reasonable price and, for a night or two, you can maybe feel like a high-roller or an elegant courtier.

We take the monorail on the second day and sit beside a Colorado couple who are regulars here. They are from Grand Junction – before I die, I gotta see that town- and they recommend the original strip but it’s a bit far for us. Historical Las Vegas! We walk back through baking sunshine with occasional detours into the various casinos. Circus is tacky and weird, and it echoes some childhood feeling of Fossett’s, or Bray in the fifties. And besides, herself can attempt to catapult rubber chickens into a pot. Another casino with a western theme, vaguely nineteen seventy-ish is getting ready to shut down. We eat at a chrome diner and try to cool down a little.

The pool beckons again, a better place to while away the hours than in the relentless ching ching of the interior. We splash out on the Caesar’s Palace buffet tonight and this really is a meal you can shake hands with in the dark. I dream of it still but to describe it is probably too close to food porn – eat your heart out Homer Simpson!

The Boss and Davin continue on down to Luxor tonight, but Oran and I double back at New York. I’ve seen as much of the world as I can possibly take in forty eight hours. Hispanic men flick cards with sexual services all along the strip, while families and couples gawp at the Belagio fountains and the neon show goes on and on into the night.

Later, I make my own way through Caesar’s Palace casino into the wee small hours. The arcade shops are all closed, more like a mall now than the surreal, almost Italian city it has been impersonating. Some still gather at the Trevi fountain but more are pulled towards the blackjack and roulette tables. If I wanted to be distracted I could take my place at a table where lingerie clad croupiers would take my chips and maybe spin a wheel or two, or I could just play it quietly from the bar, where it’s quiet and almost empty.

Grand Canyon

We head through the Painted Desert towards Flagstaff. The doom laden chords of The Doors seep out into the emptiness, leading on into Riders on the Storm. Ponderosa pines sprout from the arid hills and the city limits loom out of a mirage. The Cadillac heads downtown and touches tyres on Route 66. We’re on America’s main street, we’re on the Mother Road.

The town centre ranges along the railway where impossibly long trains regularly thunder through. There’s a bar and restaurant across the tracks which does a special free cocktail when the train is passing, if the waiters can hear you, I suppose. Our motel is a half mile out of town, just the right side of seedy but with a good pool and Route 66 visible from the window. There’s a Barnes and Noble next door where we spend some time reading and drinking buckets of coffee. Walking back into town the neighbourhood is a homely patchwork of residential, bohemian bars and diners, with a colourful smattering of churches, from Protestant sects to a determinedly Catholic Our Lady of Guadaloupe.

Davin spends a lot of the afternoon in a music shop with Oran and buys an effects box for his guitar. The car is filling up with stuff, but what better place than Route 66 to buy your wah-wah pedal? We relax over a beer at a shaded sidewalk bar. This is the only time I have ever seen a waitress accompanied by an intern – they’re very thorough here.

Flagstaff is a lively spot, its redbrick streets typical of the American west but with a more sophisticated, bigtown feel than Durango. At the town centre square there’s hot southern rock with a country twang playing throughout the day and into the evening. A large screen shows Happy Feet and there is indeed a happy feeling pervading the town.

After sundown, the nearby Lowell Observatory has set up a few telescopes for public amusement and edification in the square. We take our turn and talk to the astronomer who, as it turns out, is from Dublin. Small world, big universe, same sky all over. After an evening meal at the railway track, we take the windy road to the hills where the Lowell Observatory perches above the town. It’s a picture book observatory, a serene and surreal dotting of buildings set in the forest. There’s a great display of stars above us while beneath the diamond lights of Flagstaff spread out along Route 66. Again, astronomers have set out their stalls and we queue for a peek at the planets.

Percival Lowell obsessed over the sky, and there’s plenty of sky over Flagstaff. It was Lowell who put canals on Mars but also put a planet out beyond Neptune. Not long after he died this last planet was finally discovered, appropriately at Flagstaff. Pluto’s first two letters a tribute to the astronomer.

The Grand Canyon is due north of Flagstaff. We set off early through the San Francisco Peaks. The Ponderosa forest passes changelessly by. These trees are peculiarly regular. Neither dense nor inspiringly huge, they conspire to a misleading ordinariness, though the overall effect is unsettlingly vast. The Canyon is easy to find. Keep going till you hit the hole in the ground. It takes some time to locate our accommodation, the Maswik Lodge, inside the park. We’re too early to check in and a bit hot and bothered by it all. I’m anxious to see the canyon as though it will somehow close or diminish if allowed to stay unobserved for another hour or two.

Eventually we trudge down to the rim. The initial view is perplexing. Like much of America it triggers a sensation of deja vu, but such deja vu is based on the image and the reality itself is so enormous that it becomes difficult to recognise. At the canyon’s most popular viewing point the whole thing is flattened to hues of blue and magenta, presenting a tableau that is impossible to assimilate at once. It’s when we move around in the landscape an appreciation of its immensity and beauty begins to seep in. We venture just below the rim on the first day and teeter over the abyss on unprotected trails. A friendly squirrel pulls Davin’s hair and poses for the camera.


The park at the south rim is spread over several miles. A free shuttle service links the various vantage points. This is just as well. At one point we decide to walk between two stops but away from the shade of the pines it is very hot. The walk along the rim is a joy. There are a number of lodges teetering on the brink dealing in arts, crafts and souvenirs. Park rangers wait politely to help tourists with enquiries and to share their knowledge of the park’s wildlife and history. Californian condors wheel far below, tiny even through the binoculars, and they are big birds. We take our first dip below the rim and the heat gathers ever closer. The boys are particularly taken with capturing all this on camera and pose appropriately above yawning chasms, all this without a safety net, or even a railings.

Sunset at the canyon is worth the price of admission. This spectacle has been specially adopted by the God crew. Our original perch was pleasantly quiet, I thought, but herself moves us two hundred yards further on to where a battalion of Jesus fans are praising the Lord with the encouragement of their pep-talking leader. Well, they do have a point. If this is God’s light show it’s the best goddamned lightshow on the planet. A resident of the park also gives strangers turns at his telescope and answers any questions. This is a thing that Americans like to do. Courtesy is by way of duty but not in any weary sense, they’re proud of this place and like showing it off.

The next morning we brave the chill of dawn to catch the sun coming up. We head westward to get a good vantage point, practically sprinting up the path so that we’re winded by the time we get to a good spot. Already we can spot hikers making for the bottom of the canyon. It is reckoned as next to impossible to get up and down in a day, and even to get down requires an early start. It looks a great adventure, setting off with a small pack, the odd lonely light shining from lodges on the rim.

Later, we take a shuttle east for a brief adventure below the rim. Myself and the boys plunge towards the towering desert. At seven thousand feet there is no sense of coolness, falling a few hundred feet in the next half hour is parching. Herself, meanwhile, relaxes by reading horror stories helpfully posted by the park authorities, telling how hikers have managed to do themselves to death by underestimating the power of the landscape. Things aren’t helped by a family foursome, whom we passed as they ascended, clearly noting our casual footwear and the boys’ black teeshirts. They ponder loudly at the top on whether they should call the rescue services given that such an ill-equipped a party as us couldn’t hope to make it out alive. We do, of course, the boys bounding up to the rim while I manage to plod home by myself.

We stop for drinks at El Tovar – the hotel for the top brass which successfully mingles elegance with rustic wilderness charm. The waiter from West Virginia cheerfully tells me I’m like Mick Jagger, but without the wrinkles. I laugh, causing more wrinkles, and get myself upgraded to Pierce Brosnan. “Why Pierce was here just last month, sitting right over there at the bar.” Small world. We return for our evening meal, although there’s a long queue. But it’s worth it to upgrade from the Maswik canteen to a proper restaurant within sight of the rim. A restaurant on the edge of the universe – in a way.


Colorado The light is fading over the freeway as we approach Denver. Way out west the sky is painted with improbable exuberance, attempting to distract from the serene, serrated silhouette of the Rockies. Denver rises from the undulating mid western prairie – the mile-high city. With our luggage still somewhere between Dublin and Dubai we are travelling light and running on empty.

On the second floor of Earl’s Place (that’s one above ground over here) there’s a sports bar and a restaurant which is practically al fresco, the outer wall is somehow removed and we are of a height with the city trees, swaying balmily in the breeze. American waitresses are programmed to attack. Relentlessly cheerful and equipped with the anorak’s grip of every nuance of the cuisine. Each order is answered with a question – how do you like your steak? your eggs? American or Italian cheese? Oh, surprise me, Oran entreats. Yet their enthusiasm is infectuous. Maybe it’s the altitude but we mirror their smiles and echo their repartee, and then find that it comes naturally.

The 16th street mall is Denver’s main drag, a pedestrianised street a mile long, lined with trees, restaurants, cafes and bars. A free electric shuttle bus operates along the street or you can take a horse drawn carriage if you fancy something more grande. The atmosphere is laid back, quiet and friendly. At one end of sixteenth street is the State Capitol, typically neo-classical, with a high burnished dome of twenty four carat gold. The high rise financial district is relatively recent, gleaming like an extrusion of giant crystals through the red brick fabric of the nineteenth century cow town. Even more unlikely is the teetering sharp edifice of Libeskind’s Art Museum. A sudden jolt from the classical lines of the Civic Centre, the multi faceted structure seems to have made an unplanned landing at the plaza from some distant and bizarre planet.

We return to the airport for our car and to leave instructions for our wandering luggage. We’re pencilled in for a Buick but at Davin’s insistence we upgrade to a Cadillac. This is still shrink wrapped, a white panther for our west coast prowl. Out on the freeway I am engulfed in a stampede of pick ups piloted by laconic maniacs in stetsons. Home on the range rover, if you like. We make for the maw of the Rockies. It’s a relief to get off the freeway and snake up silent curved roads to the mountains.

Leadville is a gem cunningly concealed in its base metal name. Here on the continental divide Colorado’s highest peaks rise snow topped over the purple sage and the scent of columbine spices the scarce air. At two miles above sea level Leadville is America’s highest incorporated city. The discovery of silver brought the boom times here. There are fifty buildings from the 1870s when Leadville was a boomtown of 30,000 people. The Tabor Opera House and Grand Hotel remain even if the population did not. The ghosts of gunslingers are caught reflected on the fine frontage of the grandly named Harrison Street where Doc Holliday, Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack once strutted, and no doubt caused plenty of lead to fly.

I enter Leadville’s legendary Silver Dollar Saloon which dates from 1879 and is the perfect synthesis of the Irish pub and the wild west saloon. It’s all aged woods and bottled beers, a louche ambience enlivened with the crackle of conversation. All roads lead here. The woman tending bar tells me she’s of Indian, German and Scottish stock and that the McMahon family has run this place for nearly seventy years. I fall in with two Canadian truckers and with the mixture of alcohol and altitude everything suddenly seams hilarious. Later I float up the sidewalk as the night sky bursts above me, just two miles nearer heaven and the view is perfect. Mind, on those echoing raised sidewalks I keep an eye out for a phanthom gunslinger, for Doc Holiday or Texas Jack; not that I’m sure I can shoot too straight right now.

After Leadville the Collegiate Range – Princeton, Yale and Harvard – guard the horizon to the west. We pass through Granite and Poncha Springs towards Gunnison. The premonition of an impending showdown is emphasised by Gunnison, still resplendent in its western clothes. There’s a fleeting Irish connection at the Gunnysack Bar which serves Harp lager on draught – but you won’t hear the cry of the curlew out here.

Davin determines that I risk life and limb to ride through a raging torrent in a tub. They don’t call it brown trouser rafting, but they might. We book with Scenic Tours for a two hour raft down the Taylor River. Their advertising doesn’t deceive and shows people plunging headfirst into boiling waters and clinging desperately to rocks. The starting point is an hour’s drive up a wooded gorge which could once have teemed with hostile Indians. Instead, thirty or so enthusiasts full of foolish and youthful optimism await the flotilla of six rafts.

Greg is our guide and tells us the hidden dangers of rafting, as if the obvious ones weren’t enough. The paddle is the source of most grief. The leading hand should keep the top of the handle covered so it doesn’t get waved about in rough water. Otherwise, according to Greg, “Franklin here could have a case of summer teeth: Some are in the boat, some are in the river and some are in Franklin’s head.”

In fact Franklin and his wife Liz are well experienced with the great outdoors and cede pole position to us on the helter skelter of the Taylor. They have a hike planned later. They want to live. After a short practice run of about ten seconds, we drop over a mini Niagara and enter a world more suitable to fish, bears and what’s left of the Mohicans. Greg has a deep knowledge of the river and of the helpful names of its most frightening features. There is the Tombstone and the Toilet (don’t ask) and more besides that I was too busy to commit to memory – why memorise something that might kill you? The Tombstone is the only one to claim victims as a rookie guide and four teenage girls get upended. There is a brief frantic scramble amongst the flotilla but all are dragged quickly to safety.

To add spice to the quieter lower reaches, as I begin to enjoy the scenery despite shivering from the soaking, Davin is allowed to ‘ride the bull‘. Greg positions him on the prow and there are a few good plunges on the last stretch to give him the soaking he so richly deserves. He enjoys it immensely. What the heck, so do I. Image


Volcanos spread south from Seattle, cones frosted white against the blue sky. Flying north, civilisation is trumped by the crumpled wilderness of mountain and sea. This gathers its own dusting of snow while the clear sky turns grey and mottled with cloud. We fall into conversation with Donna in the aisle seat. She is tanned from a fortnight with her daughter down in the Southern 49. We compare notes on the joys of parenthood. She hails from San Diego originally but is well naturalised now. Her dad was a pilot, as many Alaskans are. I think of the famous Fly Boys, those bush pilots that opened up the outback in the ‘20s and 30‘s. Pioneers like Carl Eilson, Russel Merrill and Bob Reeve wrote sagas and epic poetry with their vapour trails across endless daylight skies, above an empty wilderness.

Approaching Anchorage the plane twists and turns through mountain passes, crosses stormy inlets, descends through veil after veil of heavy clouds. The full spectrum of grey and black is sundered by shocking white slashes. It is ominous, yet exhilarating. There is one last banking manoeuvre, I imagine the wings tilting near enough to the perpendicular, some passengers moan while we grip our seats before sliding in to touchdown at last, with some relief.

Our luggage doesn’t show but it somehow seems unimportant. Anyway, our lift hasn’t shown up either. Both arrive simultaneously, an hour late. George, our driver, is another to hail from California. He came up here at age eight, hated it at first but loves it now. This certainly ain’t the sunshine state. Rainclouds are punctured by the serrated mountains and the long straight streets of Anchorage are shiny with rain.

Weather clears by morning and it’s warm and sunny when we hit the streets. Head out of town on 5th Avenue, out to where the streets have names. Anchorage is a railway town and follows the typical template in its street naming. Avenues are numbered consecutively north to south, Streets in alphabetical order east to west. We walk past a knife shop and other places you might not linger. Loop back on 4th which becomes downtown after A st. It’s alphabet city after that.

There are craft shops and souvenir joints aplenty. In one, rich with beautifully wrought clutter, we get talking to Richard Ziegler. Ziggy, as he is known, is a cobbler, odd job man, craftsman and muralist. He loves wolves and dogs, which form a recurrent motif in his art. He explains the First Nation and Inuit cultures of shape shifting. Consider a group of Eskimos – an allowable term in Alaska, apparently – out hunting. If one falls through ice and next animal to emerge is a seal, it is not unreasonable to explain that as a shape-shifting hunter. It is consoling, too.

Across the road, a giant mural by Ziggy adorns the intersection of D Street and 4th Avenue. It celebrates the Iditarod dog-sled race which starts from here every first Saturday in March. The world’s best Mushers set off with their sixteen strong dog teams in a race lasting nine days or more across the desolate terrain of Western Alaska, all the way to Nome, up by the Bering Strait. This was once the only way to travel, before roads, before railways and aeroplanes. One famed race against time, in 1925, saw mushers deliver diphtheria serum to Nome. The lead dog on the last run, Balto, is commemorated with a statue in Central Park, New York.

Murals and other visual tricks loom out of the city architecture elsewhere. A lifesize whale pod traverses a wall along one side of the Town Square Park nearby. Painted freehand by Robert Wyland, it brings the surrounding wilderness within the city limits. The wilderness is a very tangible thing in Anchorage.

One hundred years ago there was nothing here. Captain Cook had sailed up the inlet that bears his name, back in 1776, in a vain search for the Northwest Passage. He didn’t hang around, though the city’s finest hotel is named for him, and a memorial stands at the foot of 4th Avenue. The Russians were the first old world people to settle Alaska. Russian Orthodox churches still peep out of the Americana and remains the religion of Native population.

Typically, the Americans struck gold shortly after buying Alaska from the Russians in 1867. The Yukon goldrush is much starred in the western psyche, even still. Many legends were spun from the untamed territory. Jack London’s ripping yarns, the lucid poetry of Robert Service. Alaska, for all its vast and numbing physicality, is very much a metaphysical construct. By the early twentieth century the Americans began to sew together their patchwork territory with the railway. Thus was Anchorage born, a halfway house between the port of Seward to the south and Alaska’s Golden Heart, Fairbanks, much further north.

The oldest building to survive is the Oscar Anderson house. He was the 18th man to hit town a hundred years ago. He witnessed the growth of a roughhouse town, the engagement with the last frontier. The tussle still goes on. Oscar Anderson lived in this house until 1974, it is now converted into a museum; apparently he haunts it still. Nearby, the Tony Knowles trail heads out along the inlet, along by the railway tracks.

The parkland meanders off into the suburbs. Along the main track is a scale model of the solar system. Devised by a local college student, it is designed on the principle that walking speed equates with the speed of light, testablishing the distances between the planets which are scaled down proportionately in size. At N street, Mars is a grape, while heading back along 5th Avenue, Venus a ping pong ball, Earth something similar while Mercury is a Malteser. The sun is a hemisphere sinking behind the city theatre.

Rain is falling heavily as we pick up our rental the next morning. Heading north towards Denali on the Glenn Highway the landscape is ridiculously big. Mt McKinley, or Denali – the big one in the Native tongue – is an outsize tower dwarfing already impressive mountains surrounding. It is rarely visible. So, when it does peek palely through the mist, it is more suggestive of art or magic, a trailer from heaven’s movie. Some miles from Anchorage we are swallowed by the forests, human habitation dwindles and dies. It’s five hours to Denali where we find our wilderness lodge set on a dizzying crag overlooking the valley. The town stretches along the highway like a hastily fashioned necklace. The ad hoc boardwalk gives a feeling of frontier times. Ramshackle huts and houses are given to souvenir shops, craft shops, restaurants and snackeries. It feels both impermanent yet old.

We eat at Prospector’s Pizza, the place is hopping. We fall easily into conversation with the locals, as is becoming customary. Kelly and her husband join us at the bar. He’s on crutches and has an accident prone life from which to draw his stories. He’s worked around here variously on construction and as a pilot. His hair-raising accidents only make him more cheerful. Before leaving he hops over to our table and presses a $20 bill on me. It would rankle with an Alaskan to let us leave without showing us hospitality.

We emerge into the full glare of dusk. Grey veils float to the summits, catching fire as they drift north towards the uncertain sun. We walk onto a near deserted patio where four dudes are strumming guitars and sipping bottled beer. As the guitar music waxes I feel connected to evenings like this around the globe, experienced by me and so many others too. Glancing south I see a rainbow spin its arc through the retreating rain. It’s drawing a bridge from Denali across the sky, dropping its gold off god knows where. Behind me the music stops, and the light of evening sharply wanes.

Our return to Anchorage is brief and passing. Above us, mountain, cloud and rain conspire to show the pathway into heaven. The city slips around us like a mirage. The ground below is slick with water, and it feels as if the city could at any time fade into droplets and air. I must come back some day, back to Anchorage and walk the streets of glory. Step again onto 4th Avenue, flip a Mustang lighter to fire up one last cigarette. With darkness drawing in, the feeling persists that I am sheltering under the rainbow. Cold creeps up, coating everything in its silvered glass. Anchorage recedes into infinite space, stars spread along the avenues and streets.


Finland’s shape on the map is cut like a dancing woman. The snows of the Arctic are in her hair, her dress swirls with forest and lakeland. On her ankle is fashioned the elegant bracelet of Helsinki. The Finnish capital is relatively new, planned in straight lines yet fitting naturally into its marine setting. Religious temples form an exotic skyline. None more so than Helsinki Cathedral, the white neo-classical confection that is the most usual postcard image of the city. This is where we begin, climbing the dauntingly steep steps of its plinth. The day is appropriately blue and white, up at these latitudes we can almost touch the dome of the sky, see pale stars glimmer behind its glass.

   Helsinki excites the designer’s muse. No surprise that it’s designated the World Design Capital for 2012. That subtly cool skill of the Scandinavian, twisting artistic impulse into  the fashion and fabric of the city itself, is given an added exuberance by the Finns. They are noticeably a different crew than their neighbours, the Russian and the Swedes. They speak a different language, unrelated to the Indo-European of most of us; Hungarian and Estonian its only kin. 

  Like us, the Finns have suffered the overbearing attention of powerful neighbours. The Swedes founded the city as Helsingfors, running the show here until the early nineteenth century. The Swedish Theatre still stands proud on the Esplanadi, catering to the Swedish speaking remnant. It is only a century since Finns first outnumbered Swedes here, now Swedes comprise under ten per cent of the population. 

   The Russians established Helsinki as capital of their Finnish province and initiated its transformation into a city. Styled somewhat along the same neo-classical lines as St Petersburg, architect Carl Engel established the central focus of the city at Senate Square on a hill overlooking the South Harbour. The Cathedral dominates the skyline and provides a superb platform from which to admire the expansive city floating on the blue Baltic. 

   The parallel thoroughfares of the Esplanadi, each side of a slim green park, make for an elegant main street. Bronze dames dance naked in the park but whatever controversy they once aroused has now subsided. It is the place for summer strollers, bandstand music and cafe society. Sidewalk drinkers perch outside elegant establishments, devoting their full attention to people watching. Cafe Kappelli is the popular place, an ornate conservatory blending with the greenery. It is crowded on this hot summer day, but we grab a beer at a nearby kiosk and sit and watch the world go by. Some of it anyway. We are amused at the sight of the worst display of human statuary in the world. A man with a beer crate and a spiderman suit, and a brass neck.  

   The Esplanadi merges into Market Square along the seafront. Small pleasure boats and taxis bring a pleasant maritime flavour into the city’s heart. A lively market is laid out along the quays. Above, standing proud on a crag is a reminder of Russian days. Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral is full of eastern exuberance, sounding a strange, but pleasant note against the more rational symphony of architecture. 

  Nationalist confidence brought creative fervour. The zeitgeist manifested itself in Art Nouveau, Jugendstil in Finnish. The city boasts many fine examples of the style. The Central Railway Station, designed by Eliel Saarinen, is the most striking. The soaring clock tower is its distinctive landmark feature. Up close, we find the entrance guarded by four stone giants, each holding a spherical lamp. The interior doesn’t disappoint either. Coolly elegant, the design lends serenity to what is usually a hectic environment. It must be a pleasure to travel by rail here.

   Helsinki is very modern. A hundred years ago under one hundred thousand people lived here, today it is home to more than a million. Trams speed busily above ground, the metro beavers away below. To the north the extensive Olympic centre hosted the 1952 games. Finns set great store by athletic achievement. Their great Olympian, Paavo Nurmi, merits a statue, though he was hardly a person to encompass stasis. Set amongst the parkland that is such a feature of the city, the stadia and village are a monument to the greatness possible when a small nation believes.

 Alvar Alto, designer and architect, came to define the modern era. A leading figure of functionalist design, Finlandia Hall typifies the inherent style and musicality of the city. Sound and vision combine again at Tempeliaukio, The Church of the Rock is built underground; a hollow of bare rock with light streaming in from above. The design happily encompasses superb acoustics. Infested with tourists, including ourselves, there is still a pervasive hush as a pianist serenades us to the music of Sibelius. 

  We buy a strange, yet appropriate ornament. An old antique shop on an undulating, San Francisco-esque street, provides a magical interlude hinting at olden days. In the palm of your hand, four dancing ladies sashay, white with blue trim. They could be Finnish, or oriental, it is hard to tell. Perhaps they’re Lapp dancers. 

   It is hard to tell, in this imaginative city, which of the orient or the occident prevail. At sixty degrees north, lines of longitude converge and the human experience grows ever more unique and rare. Helsinki, tenuously connected to the past, embraces the present and the future. Confident, creative, individually and collectively; where such virtues pervade, dreams can be made.



Stockholm sleeps in its shallow lagoon. Thousands of tiny, verdant islands guard its entrance. It would be a hard job sneaking up on the canny Swedes. On the other hand, over the centuries they have ambushed a few themselves, being something of a warlike tribe that carved empires out of the ice, the oceans and the steppe. East and west, Protestant and Orthodox, can put a tick beside Swedish influence on their cv. 

  They’re a more sober bunch now, good Europeans though not Eurozoners. Still, we found that the citizens of the capital maintain a certain hostility towards the foreigner. Sverige might be almost an anagram of service, but the concept is not enthusiastically embraced in Stockholm. At our first coffee stop in Djurgarden, a large island designated as the city’s park, I pay at the counter and, after an uncomfortable silent interlude, ask for the goods. The girl serving jerks a thumb over her shoulder: get it yourself, she snaps. Charming. 

  Early on a balmy Saturday morning, the streets are yet deserted and a wonderful sense of peace envelops the massive stone palaces and well scrubbed streets of this floating world. The city is built on fourteen islands so you’re never far from the waterfront. Elegant architecture proclaims centuries of success, the hint of empire with a pervasive sense of royal power. 

  These days, of course,the Swedes are the epitome of democracy. Its system is often envied, or at least name checked in relation to public service, generous welfare and all round good and healthy living. Grumpy denigrators point to dullness and expense. Certainly Stockholm doesn’t exhibit much in the way of drunken mayhem. The citizens are well to do, but perhaps not so well to do as to splurge on a few litres of expensive brew. There is something of an inbuilt reserve too. Garish modernism, noise pollution, general rowdiness are alien to this environment.

  The Old Town, Gamla Stan, retains an ancient feel, its cobbled streets winding between huddled buildings. An outer ring of Parliament buildings, Royal palaces and museums is impressive, the soft centre of ancient lanes and tottering buildings beguiling. Vasterlanggatan is the main drag, lined with shops, atmospheric bars and eateries.

There’s even the odd Irish bar, one promising the joys of League of Ireland soccer.   

  Crowds seep in from noon and quickly the area is thronged with tourists, street performers and three card trick men. In Jarntorget, a crowded pedestrian square, a woman sings Irish songs playing an instrument that could be described as a cross between a harp and a wok. I relax over a black coffee. Having already paid, the staff refuse to give me milk and I’m a bit dubious about asking the other customers.

  Gamla Stan is where the city began almost eight hundred years ago. Birger Jarl established his base here, fortifying the harbour against invasion with wooden piles. The clearing of the woodland for this purpose is what gives the city its name. It translates as island of logs, which is unfairly prosaic. Meanwhile, Stockholm would grow from humble beginnings to become northern Europe’s dominant city in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

  Since then it has continued to expand. To the west Kungsholmen island is the main centre for administration and law. Most notable is the City Hall, one of Stockholm’s best known landmarks. Completed in1927, this massive stack of redbrick, plain and modern, resounds with Nordic Gothic power. Its interior is more ornate, proving the Swedes have a certain exotic, well cached. Every year, the Nobel Prize ceremonies are hosted here.

  The north central area is simply known as City, the commercial hub of Stockholm.

Kungsgatan is a long street, specifically designed as a modernist main street in the nineteen twenties. It is guarded by two massive neoclassical towers, amongst the few high buildings in the capital. The King’s Towers also resemble a fortress, connected by a bridge which carries another busy street across Kungsgatan. This is an area of impressive stores and bustling shoppers. At Hotorget (Haymarket) Square we ask directions of a hostess outside a restaurant, but she is indignant and stalks off swearing, telling us to, more or less, get lost. Fortunately we don’t, and return to the waterfront through the bustling shops and markets along Drottninggatan, leading across a bridge that takes us back to Gamla Stan.

  We wave goodbye to Stockholm, wending our way south through its archipelago. You wouldn’t sneak up on these folk in the dead of night, hell, even in the glare of midday they don’t like it too much. But that’s okay, gaze on the natural and architectural beauty, and enjoy. In a couple of days we will get to Malmo in Sweden’s exotic south. It may not be so impressive as the capital, but it turns out to be a bit warmer in more ways than one. Perhaps the good folk of Stockholm might shed their icy reputation, if only they chilled out  some.