I have a fondness for smaller cities. Compared to the great metropolises, they are more discrete, more human in their scale. They are also often built upon a single resource. One thinks of Salzburg, with its salt mines, or Seville, which hosted all the gold of the Americas. Oxford is the most human of all, though, as it is built on the very commodity which puts the sapiens into Homo sapiens. Here, they mined wisdom.
I remember my own sense of awe when I arrived as an undergraduate in the mid-1990s – first as a biology student under one of Kenya’s greatest ecologists, and then studying philosophy under a tutor whose own tutor could trace a direct line, tutor to tutor, back to Immanuel Kant himself. I remember how, in the warm autumn sun, the university buildings stood like vast stone-clad thrones for the human mind – their distinctive golden colour coming from the ancient coral reefs that fossilised to form the limestone deposits of nearby Headington.
When I first came to Bad Gastein, a year ago, I could not believe that I had not only never been here before, but had never even heard of it. The vagaries of its notability in history are almost as cyclical as the rise and fall of stock markets.
In February 2020, it seemed to me a classic bustling ski resort, with extraordinary, high-level skiing, comprising 200km of pistes, half of them red runs. Admittedly, the languages you heard in the après-ski establishments tended more towards the Germanic than the frequent smatterings of English or French one might hear in Zermatt or Val d’Isère.
However, what really struck me was the look of the town. Built into the steep mountain slopes, its vertiginous streets are lined with exquisite fin de siècle houses from the heyday of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Even the train station – 90 minutes to Salzburg, 3 hours to Munich – is an Art Deco gem, opened by Emperor Franz Joseph himself in 1905, the first such station in the Eastern Alps.
For this was the Imperial resort. The Prussian Kaisers would come and meet their Habsburg Emperor cousins here to enjoy the waters and the walking, for both of which it had been famed since the 7th century. Of course, in those pre-skiing days, summer was the high season.
The original article at full length can be found for subscribers at The Telegraph online here, or outside their paywall at MSN online here. I enclose the important final paragraph below.
Indeed, in order to put itself back up among the first rank of such resorts, to outdo those who once outstripped Gastein like the younger but more glamorous – for now – Swiss resort of St Moritz and nearby Kitzbühel, they are even arranging the first ever Imperial Snow Polo Cup at Sport Gastein to open the winter season, with a host of royalty on the guest list; fixers from that world like Major Peter Hunter of Guards Polo Club from England and International Polo Events, and sponsorship being discussed between the incoming Hirmer Group’s Travel Charme Hotels, who are set to restore and reopen Gastein’s Bel Epoque Jewel in the Crown, the once world-famous Hotel Straubinger, and the Grande Dame of all Austrian hotels today, The Imperial in Vienna.
Good news from Fiske Plc today (February 19th), of which I am a director, in a nice little article in the newspaper of record for the capital, and the daily read on the way home to those who still work in ‘The City’ of London, the Evening Standard. Despite the good half-year results, my father Clive’s quote is as judicious as ever.
AIM-LISTED Fiske, which is one of the City’s few remaining independent stockbroking and investment managers, said its results for the six months to November 30 showed continued improvement after its operating loss narrowed to £21,000. Total revenues of £2.8 million were an 11% increase on a year earlier, with investment management fees up 14%. Chairman Clive Fiske Harrison said the company retained a “healthy degree of caution regarding the immediate outlook for markets“. Shares rose 5p to 70p.
The hidden secrets of England’s most underrated county
The Queen has agreed Southend in Essex will be granted city status, in honour of Sir David Amess, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced. The resort town on the Thames Estuary, with the longest pleasure pier in the world, is just one of many gems of my home county, which is so often (wrongly) overlooked by visitors, both domestic and international.
The recent reputation of Essex seems to be a construct of the media, most recently reality television, based on a parody of a small southern strip of the county. That strip, from Dagenham through Basildon to Southend, was formed far more by its proximity to London, especially the East End, than with rural East Anglia. This was especially true after whole new towns were built to house those Londoners rendered homeless by the Blitz.
“I’d much rather be a Spanish fighting bull than a farm cow”
I left the site of my last Andalusian postcard with a heavy heart and burning ears: apparently some locals had taken offence to the “elitist” connotations of my comparison of their town to Notting Hill. People take things the wrong way with a vengeance nowadays: as with Montparnasse in Paris, the artists that first made Notting Hill famous were followed by richer creative-types and the resulting economic gear-change had both upsides and downsides.
Notably, though, these complaints were British ex-pats. The Spanish were delighted, with the Mayor of the town, a socialist, writing to say how much he looked forward to hosting Telegraph readers.
After Gaucín, for the first time in a decade I did not know where to go in Spain mid-July. Normally, I would head north to Pamplona for the Feria of San Fermín, known here simply as Fiesta.
Some people think running with bulls, a pastime for which that city is most famous, is dangerous and anachronistic, and the end place of that run, the bull-ring, is a place of torture and death. And indeed, all Spain’s bull rings are registered abattoirs – they have to be, because the carcass of every bull ends up in the food chain. The only difference, in terms of the bull’s welfare, is the manner and duration of their life and the manner and duration of their death, but perhaps not in the way readers think.
Europe’s most sensuous city in a time of social distancing
Six weeks ago I wrote about a dream of wandering the streets of Seville, far away from my prison quarantine in Jimena de la Frontera in the forested wilds of central Andalusia.
But no imagining could have been quite as dreamlike as finally stepping off the bus at the Prado de San Sebastián, where they once burned heretics, but now welome tourists.
The Sevillian sunlight in late June has that perfect golden slant, between the chilling white of winter or the infernal yellow of true summer which comes at the end of July. The temperature here is already mid-30s in the shade and a coronavirus cleansing 40 degrees in the sun.
I am met by my old friend, Nicolás Haro, a native of the city, who I have not seen since the pandemic began.
“It has been strange, mi amigo, to be locked away because the government lacked the hospitals and personal protective equipment to allow us to be together. After all, we will all catch this virus.”
I agree with his fatalism, but, for the moment at least, Seville is one of the clearest places on Earth, with a mere seven Covid-19 hospital patients in a city of over a million, and just two in intensive care.
Despite this, we drive down almost deserted streets and those people we do see are masked and separated. The bars and restaurants for which the city is famed are shuttered.
I hope so as well, but also I cannot help feeling that I have never seen Seville so alluringly peaceful. With its bustle and feverish heat, rendered in purified form by its twin emblems of bullfighting and flamenco, Seville has always struck me as an overwhelming sensuous city. Now it is its grandeur that is on show, the remnants of a wealth that once outstripped all other cities on Earth.
In over 20 years of visits, I have never seen it look so striking.
“It is waiting,” says Nicolás simply.
It will not have to wait for long, for all the signals are that by the end of June quarantine-free travel will occur between Seville and the rest of Europe, possibly even the UK. For now I have the city to myself and am determined to take full advantage.
I decide to retrace the steps of my usual pilgrimage, as described in these pages, and am delighted to find Bodega Antonio Romero open, even if I begin the evening as the only customer there.
However, my other favourites – Casa Matías, Casa Morales, Las Teresas – we find shuttered, and I retire to bed.
Even that is trickier than usual: the owners of my two mainstays, the Hotel Inglaterra and Las Casas de la Judería, had both told me they were closed. So I reach out to an old friend, Patrick Reid Mora-Figueroa, whose family owns the exquisite boutique Hotel Corral del Rey. To no avail. “Sorry my friend, I’m in Marbella – we’re closed until September.”
Deciding to put to an end to further exchanges I contact Marriot International, which runs the largest, grandest and most historic of all the hotels in the city, the Alfonso XIII. Closed until July 1.
Luckily, Nicolás’s brother Kinchu owns the nicest short-stay apartments in town, Almansa 11, a series of rooms carved out of the Marqués de Villamarta’s former mansion in the old El Arenal district of the city, so I finally find my rest.
The next day, Monday, Spain begins to reopen, including the Balearic Islands to certain forms of foreign tourism. But in Seville, where the Alcazar welcomes visitors for the first time in months, hearing the exclusive use of the Spanish language in the streets and bars has its own charm.
“It is as though the Sevillanos have reconquered the old city centre, where once it was so filled with tourists many locals stayed away,” says Nicolás.
We start the day at the usually packed El Rinconcillo, the oldest tapas bar in existence (founded in 1670) where Javier de Rueda, whose family have owned it for the last seven generations, greets us at the bar.
From there we crisscross the city, from the taurine characters who prop up the Bodega San José next to the bullring, to Casa Cuesta over the river in old Triana, at each stop meeting with more and more people – although all distanced, all protected, all obeying the measures which finally brought the virus in Andalusia to its knees.
And as the day draws to a close, and we sit down to dine at the finest white table cloth restaurant in the town, Casa Robles, with its perfect chuletón steak and its exhaustive list of riojas, I once again quote to myself the motto of the city which is engraved on every lampost and manhole cover, and which occurs to me each time I visit: Sevilla no me ha dejado, “Seville, she has not deserted me.”
My old family friend Peter Hill Beard, that hybrid of Hemingway, Warhol and Errol Flynn, died with signature irregularity sometime in either March or April, aged 82.
The obituaries say he was ‘known as “the last of the adventurers”’ so often that one suspects he may have coined that himself.
Peter was old money. His great-grandfather James Jerome Hill, born in 1838, founded the Great Northern Railway and from him descended a line of New York stockbrokers with a mansion on the Upper East Side and an estate in Tuxedo Park. William Waldorf Astor and J.P. Morgan attended Peter’s grandparents’ wedding. His grandmother later married Pierre Lorillard V, whose family were the original developers.
No financier, Peter became a photographer, focusing on his beloved Africa. Always trying to get the shot others couldn’t — in 1996 he was gored by an elephant — he developed a signature style of collaging the original image with handwritten notes and color washes, often using materials from the moment the photo was taken, such as elephant dung or his own blood. His works, enhanced by his personal cachet, sold well in exhibitions and from his friend Michael Hoppen’s gallery in London’s Chelsea.
Beginning as an African conservationist — a word he hated for evoking ‘tourist’ — Peter published his most important book in 1965, The End of the Game. But it was befriending Karen Blixen of Out of Africa fame and buying the neighboring ranch to hers in Kenya that created his African name.