The Water of Leith: a storymap

At the beginning of December I spent a weekend in Edinburgh, combining shopping for festive essentials with some heavy duty city walking. I’m now a tourist in what used to be my home town, although my Edinburgh, of the late 1970s and early 1980s, is still there too.

On the Sunday I walked a section of the Water of Leith, somewhere I had never really been before. Rather than a series of photos I’ve tried something different as a way of curating this walk, using Knight Lab’s Storymap JS. It’s a really easy to use tool, synching with Google Drive as a back-up. Among the maps on offer is Open Street Map, which shows the walkway perfectly, although it seems to pick the scale it fancies. The end result is attractive, with the drawback that it’s not possible to draw a route – and it doesn’t play with

Click on the image below to go to the interactive version of my My Water of Leith storymap.

WoL storymap

For more see the walkway and audio trail on the Water of Leith Conservation Trust (@wolct) website. If you are in Edinburgh you can pick up a free leaflet with a basic route map in the TIC at Waverley Bridge, but the £1 version, with text from a book now out of print, is well worth the investment.


Danubia and the myth of Mitteleuropa


  • 30 May 2018: fabulous piece by Mark Baker on the Danube and re-reading Magris 30 years on: “as I paged through the book I was constantly reminded of Central Europe’s über-rich cultural history. But I also found myself wondering how much of this would resonate with modern readers, for whom the Danube is just another waterway in the European Union. The answer is probably not very much, and that feels like a loss.” Indeed. He also highlights two further articles revisiting Magris, The Danube transformed (2003, New York Times) and Richard Flanagan on Why Claudio Magris’s Danube is a timely elegy for lost Europe (Gdn, 2016).
  • 2 May 2015: just back from Sofia, pretty definitely not Mitteleuropa and also not on the Danube, although not a million miles from either, brings us the story of Liberland, a self-declared microstate consisting of a wetland wilderness upstream from the point where the Danube is joined by the Drava, a borderland between Croatia and Serbia. More to be done on this stretch of the river, and also on the Rhine, rather less written about.

Before I kick off my latest batch of belated travel  blogs here’s my first book of the year, Simon Winder’s not unrelated Danubia (Amazon | GoodReads | Google Books). Reviews: GuardianNew York Times SpectatorTelegraph.

The Austro-Hungarian empire, at the heart of the alluring concept of Mitteleuropa, is a pyschogeographic gold mine – a “psychic and liminal space between east and west rather than an objective geographic reality, its borders imaginary, drawn and redrawn with each new historical situation” (Chris Haddix), erased almost unnoticed in a world of dichotomies after the Second World War. Writing in the New York Review of Books in 1986 (republished in the 1991 edition of The uses of adversity) Timothy Garton Ash explored its temporary rebirth – and in the early 1990s it briefly looked as if there just might be a middle way.

Simon Winder’s Danubia, the companion piece to his Germania, is a “personal history” of the mosaic of Mitteleuropa, taking political and especially military history as its main framework but seasoned with a host of sidesteps and even dead ends. Not entirely chronological and assuming an amount of prior knowledge on the part of the reader, it’s a long haul to get to my personal main event, typified by 1913 (“when Freud waved cheerily from a tram at Schiele and the Second Vienna School sang a capella to delighted cafe-goers”), but equally it’s a pleasure to bathe in the quirks of the Hapsburgs and their blundering incompetence, a quality they excelled in, and simply enjoy the ride.

On central Europe’s towns:

the standard full kit: electric tramways, an opera house, a whole lot of art nouveau, a bust of Schiller and a comically dreary monument featuring a statue of a lumpy woman with an ivy entwined sword and a palm leaf

On the Hapsburg jaw:

the women in portrait after portrait appear to have a sort of awful pink shoe attached to their lower faces

At the start of his bibliography Winder states that he has deliberately excluded Claudio Magris’ Danube (1986), along with Rebecca West’s Black lamb and grey falcon (1941), reprinted in 2006 with an introduction by of course! Geoff Dyer. Like Winder I find it impossible to avoid the gravitational pull of a growing canon of books and authors, and having dusted off my central European bookshelf am now embarking on Nick Thorpe’s The Danube: a journey upriver from the Black Sea to the Black Forest (Amazon), ie the wrong way, which looks like a good counterpoint to the rather blokey Danubia.

Also making a case to be read is Nick Hunt’s Walking the woods and the water (Amazon; blog), a 2011/12 retread of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s 1933 trek from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. Nick H highlights even more jolly japes in Paddy’s footsteps, including Travellers’ century, a 2008 TV documentary by Benedict Allan, Blue River, Black Sea (Amazon) by Andrew Eames, who “travelled the length of the Danube by bicycle, boat, and, for some reason, a green plastic bathtub” in 2009, and New York Times‘ journalist Matt Gross, who walked from Vienna to Budapest in 2010. A final PLF related find is this analysis of the literary and historical references in A time of gifts, crying out to be mapped.

For a different perspective see Dimiter Kenarov’s From Black to Black, a literary overview which starts and ends with the significance of the Bulgarian equivalent of R4’s Shipping Forecast:

For nearly fifty years the Danube was a demolished bridge, a liquid roadblock. The wall may have been in Berlin, but the truly impassable one was an invisible dam on the Danube, somewhere between Vienna and Bratislava…Today, to sail along the Danube is to see the new face of Europe, old as it is…The great changes of 1989 might have brought freedom to the people of Eastern Europe, Eames suggests, but it has been the freedom that comes from the sudden bursting of a dam wall, the waters inundating everything on their way downstream.

In an article about Freud’s Vienna as inspiration William Boyd asks: “Why do certain cities haunt the imagination? Not just the city itself but the city in a particular historical period.” He identifies the cause as a place in time you would like to have lived in yourself, but sadly the 1913 narrative was a post-war creation. According to Winder at that time Austria-Hungary “could probably have been summed up as a barracksridden, aristocratic and actively philistine place”, with its music viewed as having a merely museum-like quality (Der Rosenkavalier rather than Mahler’s Ninth), its writing disregarded and its painting and architecture swamped by the Paris art scene.

This society “only really appreciated in the rear view mirror” was preserved in the memoirs of countless exiles and the writings of in particular Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth, all soon eclipsed by a fresh wave of horrors. The keepers of the flame of the Hapsburg myth see the Dual Monarchy as a period in which a diversity of nationalities lived together peacefully in a well ordered, ideal fairytale world, compared with the series of “small and dirty cages of the new nation states” created after 1918, a dichotomy which persists into the 21st century.

Highlights from my Mitteleuropa bookshelf:

  • Frederic Morton’s A nervous splendor: Vienna 1888/1889, the year Crown Prince Rudolf shot himself
  • Gregor von Rezzori’s Snows of yesteryear on his childhood in Czernowitz  (“his very name a perfect Hapsburg amalgam”)
  • Bruno Schulz’s The street of crocodiles – Schulz lived in Drohobycz, where “oil deposits created a strange little semi-Americanized enclave of prosperity” near Lviv, and was shot dead in 1942 by a Gestapo officer

Just where is Mitteleuropa? The shifting borders are a thing of endless confusion – this timelapse doesn’t really help. Winder includes a map of how Kaiser Karl’s United States of Austria could have turned out, with names such as Carniola and Galicia which have vanished into history.

Literary traces in Trieste and Venice

Update: for a Slovenian literary topography see Aleš Debeljak’s Literary citizenship: cities and their writers. Trafika Europe 5 has a Slovenian focus, with extracts from Maja Haderlap’s Angel of Oblivion and much  more.

Jan Morris’ magisterial Trieste and the meaning of nowhere (Amazon), her Frank Sinatra-like ‘last book’, is the perfect companion for a literary exploration of the city. James Joyce lived there off and on from 1904-20, when disappointed by the new Italian administration he left for Paris. While in Trieste Joyce taught English to businessman and novelist Italo Svevo, a Joseph Roth type and possibly the model for Leopold Bloom in Ulysses. Perhaps best known in English for Confessions of Zeno, Svevo lived for part of his life in Charlton, while working for his in-laws’ family firm (there’s a plaque at 67 Charlton Church Lane, SE7). Joyce also made the acquaintance of Umberto Saba, a Jewish poet and bookshop owner. The antiquarian bookshop on Via San Nicolo Saba ran for more than 35 years is still in operation.

Jim and Italo also share a museum if not a website (Joyce | Svevo) next to the library, and all three are commemorated in sepia tinted walking tour leaflets, available online at Itinerari Trieste with Google maps and pictures from the period, and by life size bronze statues and plaques around the city. A fourth itinerary commemorates novelist Tomizza (1935-99) aka the Voice of Istria, an Italian patriot from Capodistria (now Koper) who left Yugoslavia for Trieste in 1955, working as a journalist for 20 years at RAI. The lives of these four writers represent the changing identity of Trieste in a nutshell.

Claudio Magris of Danube (1986) fame has been a professor of German literature at the University of Trieste since 1978, and his Microcosms (1997, Amazon) is on order. Casanova lived in Trieste for two years from 1772, while Richard Burton (the other one), known for his translation of The Arabian Nights, ended his days as British consul there. Rilke wrote his Duino Elegies while enjoying the hospitality of the Princess of Thurn and Taxis at the nearby castle during 1911-12, while Il mio Carso by Scipio Slataper (1888-1915) deals with the relationship between Trieste and its Slovenian hinterland. Finally, local journalist Corinna Opara’s recent guidebook Three days in Trieste is in a reversible format – turn it over for a reproduction of an 1858 guidebook with a contemporary map.

Bookending her Trieste, Jan Morris’ first book was Venice, and it seems that it’s rare for a writer not to have done their time in the city – from Goethe’s Italian journey and Ruskin’s The stones of Venice to Byron, in town for three years, who swam the Canal Grande, and Hemingway, injured near Treviso during WW1, who financed Harry’s Bar where the Bellini cocktail was invented on the same stretch of water. (Plus his Across the river and into the trees opens in Trieste). See Fictional cities: Venice for an exhaustive list, including non-fiction. Also worth a look is City Pick’s Venice and Blue Guide’s Literary companion, plus Robin Saikia’s The Venice Lido – I’m tempted by all three, although these literary guides are a bit like holiday liqueurs, and best enjoyed in situ.

Updates: new Danish book Venedig eller kunsten at fare vild (Venice or the art of getting lost), a collaboration between beardy Jens Blendstrup and a photographer pal, looks of interest, as does Polly Coles’ The politics of washing (Amazon), discovered via R3’s The Essay. This seems to have caused a level of controversy and is hence an interesting addition to the expat writing canon.

With no time available for the full Venice through literature tour we did manage to fit in a quick peek at the Grand Hôtel des Bains on the Lido where Thomas Mann stayed in the summer of 1911.


The Venice syndrome

Venice, tourist attraction or functioning city?

Having only spent two days or so in Venice we obviously didn’t get a chance to get a real feel for the place. As a map fan and public transport nerd I was happy to note that the island of Venice really is the shape of a fish, reached from the mainland via the Ponte della Libertà, a 3.6km bridge built in 1933. The only other bridge over the lagoon is the Austrian railway bridge built in 1846.

Other than the Fish of the other islands in the lagoon we only managed a trip to the Lido at sunset via vaporetto. I’m rather fascinated by the Lido, a seven mile long sandbar completely unlike its Tooting Bec descendent. Not just a summer resort, this Lido has a population of 20,000. As well as the scenic route down the Canal Grande there are car ferries from Tronchetto and quicker vaps along the Giudecca and Canneregio Canals.


the main square in Mestre

We stayed on the mainland, a 30 minute bus ride to the Piazzale Roma. If it weren’t the antipasto for Venice proper Mestre would be worth a visit for its own sake – we stayed by the clock tower, and spent our first evening joining the Italians in a pre-pizza passeggiata. Much is made of Jan Gehl’s comment that Danes became Italians once Strøget was pedestrianised, but I’m not really buying it, although with artificial islands and cruise ships also dominating, Copenhagen is in with a shout as Venice of the north.

Geoff Dyer in Jeff in Venice, death in Varanesi:

Every day, for hundreds of years, Venice had woken up and put on this guise of being a real place even though everyone knew it existed only for tourists.

With Tronchetto the last of the islands to be created (in the 1960s as a car park), there are very few modern traces in Venice proper. Let’s explore two.

The Ponte della Costituzione, the fourth bridge over the Canal Grande creating a direct link between the Piazzale Roma and Venezia Santa Lucia railway station, opened in 2008 to widespread protest. While it would look at home in Copenhagen, here its minimalist style sits awkwardly. Furthermore, its rise and fall is fairly steep, with irregularly spaced steps and slippery-when-wet see through panels causing further visual disorientation. The addition of a cable car to improve accessibility has barely helped matters.

The station, one of the few modernist buildings in Venice, is undergoing a renovation programme which began in 2009 and doesn’t look like ending any time soon.

Moving on, the most jaw dropping sight in Venice may well be that of cruise ships looming over the horizon at regular intervals as they sail from the port up the Guidecca Canal to appear round the point at Accademia, then breaking free to round the Lido and head back into the Adriatic. While in Copenhagen you can pretty much avoid the 315 cruise ship calls, here there’s no escape, although the ships can look quite picturesque as they sail into the sunset.

See you in Trieste!

Note: The Venice Syndrome is a 2012 documentary – see the trailer.

Sebald’s place in the country

Sebald is a significant figure in the walking/writing arena, hailed by not least Self, Sinclair and Macfarlane. He came along after I had finished my Germanistik studies, and although I picked up The Emigrants on publication he didn’t become a regular habit. If I’d studied at UEA rather than Bristol it could all have been different.

WG also found time to be founding director of the British Centre for Literary Translation. How to get your head around it?

In his review of A place in the country Leo Robson states:

efforts to co-ordinate a wave of dissent – or to win even partial acceptance for the view, expressed by Alan Bennett, Michael Hofmann and Adam Thirlwell, that his work is pompous or banal – have faltered

He highlights how ‘Sebaldian’ is constantly invoked to characterise the “new school of sullen flanerie, to substantiate non-fiction’s claims to creativity”.

Taking A place in the country as an example, sections of the six essays read like presentation speeches for an academic conference (which some of them were), with the assumption that the reader is familiar enough with the subjects to bypass biographical narrative in favour of what they “might be shown to symbolise or represent…in Sebald’s own variant of Romantic autobiography” (Robson):

Sebald’s work is driven by associative thinking – coincidences, connections – but his chief aim was to evoke and capture, and his images, rich in mystery, or resonant with pathos, are what linger.

Damien Searls finds his approach out of date is some ways, but redeemed by the fact that he “never just found connections or followed links; he made them, made them new”. This “unsystematic searching, idiosyncratic linking” is more, not less, relevant in a time of big data and preprogrammed hyperlinks.

The Danish library system delivered the original Carl Hanser edition of A place in the country, published as Logis in einem Landhaus in 1998, from the national library to my local library in less than a week. It didn’t look like it’s ever been opened, but there were a few light pencil marks on the text. Sadly, both sustained reading on a screen and borrowed books present me with problems, plus here I was beaten by the German, so I finally invested in the paperback Penguin. This is less satisfactory as an object than the German edition, with the colour plates at the heart of each essay bisected rather than included as two page foldouts.

In translation the style is still troublesome – Wikipedia sums up Sebald’s German as “intentionally somewhat old fashioned and elaborate”, making frequent use of page long paragraphs and even sentences. I’m not sure what it’s left me with.

Selection from the review canon: Vertigo | Towards UtopiaTredynas DaysObserver | Slate | LA Review of Books | New York Times | Music and Literature

The links with Robert Walser are significant, and for many of the above the Walser essay (Le Promeneur Solitaire, available online in The New Yorker) is the most successful. See Vertigo on The Robber intro (2009) and in A place in the country (2013).

You can spot the common ground – from A little ramble: “We don’t need to see anything out of the ordinary. We already see so much”.

Like Walser, Sebald attracts a wide range of responses, inspiring others to curate and create:

I’m still tempted to give The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz a whirl at some point – the cover of the latter is familiar, as my father had it on his desk until he died, I suspect at best half-read, the battle against the nine page sentence lost.

New for 2015! Sebaldiana, a blog for the exhibition Sebald Variations, part of the Kosmopolis15 amplified literature festival in Barcelona, being held from 18-22 March. Posts include The clocks of Austerlitz part 1 and part 2, Sinclair on Sebald and Sebald and Germany. In Five Dials 36 we find To the brothel by way of Switzerland: WG Sebald Kafka’s travel diaries (trans: Anthea Bell) – with added Mahler: “Wiesengrund once wrote of Mahler that his music was the cardiogram of a breaking heart” (lots more Sebald).

And into 2016…Hidden Europe on The art of flying, citing Sebald’s Die Kunst des Fliegens (untranslated, it seems) and issues of displacement and perspective; more via Vertigo: “…travel as a unifying “aesthetic strategy” for Sebald. Sebald’s hybrid writing style and his “extremely multifarious material” could only be bound together through his use of travelogue as a narrative structure”…Teju Cole’s Always returning in The New Yorker (2012).

2017 brings us Melancholia: a Sebald variation at Somerset House (via Barcelona).

See also Sebald and photography (“photos catch the moment, have a short time to survive before they are lost/stuck in a box, stop the flow of text, disturb the norms of seeing and reading” and Vertigo’s annual bibliography of photo-embedded literature.

Copenhagen Green Capital: #sharingCPH

Update, 8 Dec 2014: CPH hands the baton over to George Ferguson’s Bristol this week at something called Green Capital Days. Looks like it’s largely for the professionals. The whole thing has been rather underwhelming and doubtless passed the vast majority of the population by. Like most things handled by WoCo it feels inauthentic if not to say fake, the first error of a city branding strategy.

The Bristol 2015 website feels rather different from its Copenhagen predecessor; it would be fun to pick this apart, but I’m getting a more people focused approach, dynamic with a ‘can do’ attitude – and way less preachy. Back in CPH, the council is still running the Sharing Copenhagen brand (Facebook), with climate change, nature in the city, the circular economy and mobility its priorities for 2016. Funding available.

Scepticism herfra, but I’m interested in how cities present themselves, not least Copenhagen, which to a resident of eight years still doesn’t feel like home. One of my reasons for exploring urban development is to try to work out why.

On 22 January Copenhagen officially became European Green Capital 2014 with the teeth grindingly awful slogan of #sharingCPH – to me the Danish equivalent, #delditkbh (share your Copenhagen), has a rather different resonance, less “look at us” and maybe more inclusive. Wonderful Copenhagen, the city branding agency, has been doing a great job over the past couple of years getting global coverage for the delights of the Danish capital, but is there really more to it than bikes bikes bikes and greenwashing? Is it really so different from anywhere else?

The European Green Capital opening event was marked by 30,000 tealights forming quotations and 15 concerts in 10 locations, under the headline: “If I say green, you say…”. Note that candles and associated på dansk is levende lys, ie living light, and the tealights were made of beeswax donated by Bybi and sustainable palm oil. Winter swimming was also involved. How all this fits in with the concept of a winter city is interesting to ponder.

This event (invitation) was organised by KIT, hosts of Metropolis 13, and took place from 16:30-23:00. The weather wasn’t kind, but soup, coffee and tea were available on Rådhuspladsen, with the rather more promising attraction of tapas and beer during the launch of the #sharingCPH pics exhibition in Rådhushallen.

Here’s the route and programme for map fans:

map of the opening event for Sharing Copenhagen

On 23 January there was a conference for the great and the good at Rambøll, liveable cities advocate – see my Storify. and also the vid from Rambøll, where speakers at the conference give a more nuanced picture. New hero is Bristol Mayor George Ferguson, who commented that Copenhagen is in “danger of losing the way” in the new areas of the city (cf Ørestad). Bristol, where I studied, is European Green Capital 2015.

Moving on, the Let’s share programme (PDF warning, no links) is set out under five topics. Up first is Good city life of the future (Danglish alert), looking at how the “green transition” and life in “cities of the future” can go hand in hand. This runs from January to April and includes the following, in addition to the Men’s European Handball Championships (tangential, surely) and the whole of Wondercool (no comment):

Some work still needed then. Presumably the calendar will be updated in due course, and not just on Facebook?

Postscript: as reflected in the update above, #sharingCPH was all a tad underwhelming. As an example we have Ecoisland Amager (defunct; see Øko Ø | Facebook), which promised a lot (presentation) but tailed off in a “let’s hope nobody notices” kind of way. Very Danish.

Bern: walking city

Update, 2016: In praise of the tram – it’s time to follow the Swiss model, which has led to Zurich having “the lowest modal share of car transport of almost any global city of comparable size”.

We recently spent eight days in Switzerland. Being fans of the whistle stop tour the original plan was to visit a city in each of the three major language regions, but our itinerary kept shrinking and in the end we only visited the German speaking part of the country, spending time in Bern, Basel, Zürich and Luzern.

Our journey started on New Year’s Eve with the overnight train from Copenhagen to Basel. The fireworks were already starting in Hvidovre as we left, having delivered the beagles to the safer haven of Roskilde. After sustenance of a sort at CPH station we boarded our two person sleeper – more private than a couchette, but a little claustrophobic. My partner chooses to retire early, which left me perched on the lower bunk looking out at the fireworks at midnight in Hamburg and beyond.

As a German graduate there’s something magical for me in travelling the length of Germany through the night. I was awake at Frankfurt, where I studied, and we had breakfast in Freiburg, travelling through the Schwarzwald and over the border to Basel. We then hopped on a train to Bern, arriving there around an hour later.

In common with Scotland both 1st and 2nd January (Berchtoldstag) are public holidays in the German speaking part of Switzerland. This meant limited shopping opportunities, however the slick modern station, like many in Germany, had a wealth of shops and supermarkets of the everyday variety so this was not really an issue. With a branch of ace vegan buffet restaurant Tibits just outside the station we were well set. Our hotel was a little way out of town but it was easy to take a tram outside the station. On the second evening we walked back, getting more of the feel of the suburbs. All in all, despite it being a holiday period, the impression we got was of a lively well functioning city.

Bern’s centre, a UNESCO World Heritage site, includes 6km of arcades, the largest in Europe. The weather was clement, but I can imagine that it wouldn’t really be an issue to get around when cold or snowing. There were plenty of reasons to be out and about – for example the small park behind the cathedral was historic, not an artificial construction, and included a mini-library. All over the city there were people simply sitting and reading, no longer warding off TB, but probably old habits die hard. As it stays lighter longer there’s more of an impetus to sit out, plus glimpses of the Berner Oberland, the Eiger and the Jungfrau, don’t really hurt.

All around town were yellow Walk your city style signs with the walking time to particular locations. Turns out that these are standard Swiss hiking signs – perhaps Walk your city got some inspiration from Switzerland. There were also cycling signs and a city bike depot, but these did not seem over-used.

Bern is home to the Zentrum Paul Klee, of taking a line for a walk fame, and the city fathers haven’t shirked on building on this connection (see article auf deutsch | video). 54 Wege zu Klee signs connect streets and landmarks to Klee and his works, leading you onward:

(pics from the Wege zu Klee Facebook page)

Three routes around the city and beyond (see trail maps for Zentrum Paul Klee circular walk | station to ZPK), plus street names further underline aspects of walking:

With many Klees currently on show at Tate Modern the main exhibition at the ZPK was on Klee’s life and work, making the man himself come alive. Of particular note was the letter signed by the Bauhaus professorial team after Paul went AWOL – it was easy to picture Walter Gropius going round getting everyone to sign it. A second exhibition with paintings from the collection of Frankfurter Hanne Becker included lots of highlights for Expressionism fans.

Klee update, July: clearly a fan, three sections in Philip Hensher’s new novel, The Emperor Waltz, are set in the Bauhaus, and he wrote a lengthy piece around the Tate exhibition as well as a nice entry in the Guardian’s my hero series: “Somewhere in the afterlife, I am going to accompany [Klee’s] violin in the Brahms G major sonata.” 2017 update: Sara Baume’s A line made by walking named for the quote?

More Bernese walks and related:

Update: several holidays later I’m forced to concede that planned photo essays on Basel and Zurich aren’t going to happen. Both cities were great sources of inspiration – Basel for its border town position in a triangle between France and Germany and multiple railway stations, the Rhine, its stress on walking the city and trams creating life even on a Sunday…we went on two guided walks, at the Vitra Design Museum across the border in Germany and at Rudolf Steiner’s unique Goetheanum in the nearby village of Dornach.

Zurich, jockeying with Copenhagen in the liveable city lists, was more elusive. Stand-outs were our first James Joyce Museum, Umsicht, an urban development exhibition we found by chance in the university, and Zurich West, with the house which refuses to give way to shiny new things. Need to go back!