YORK RAILWAY STATION AT NIGHT

York Station, just after midnight

York Station, just after midnight

I’ve always thought of railway stations as the true cathedrals of the industrial revolution of the 1800’s. Their huge scale, vast, vaulted ceilings and surprisingly ornate interiors often unconsciously ape the great Gothic masterpieces of the past on more than one level.

And truly, York is one of the grandest of them all. Located almost mid way between London and Edinburgh on Great Britain’s main east coast route, it was the largest station in the world when it first opened in 1877.  At that time, it had no less than thirteen platforms, but now it’s eleven in all.

It’s a gloriously overblown swathe of Victorian bombast, writ large in stone and steel. Normally, the place is a hive of activity throughout the day and evening, and often late into the night.

So, to capture the vast, imperious old edifice silent and deserted- that was too good to miss. I wandered around the vaulted, venerable old brute in solitary silence, picking out details, facades and nuances that I would never have been able to see in the frantic cut and thrust of the morning commuter blitzkrieg.

More amazing than anything was the sense of stillness. Acres of vast, empty platform yawned as far as the eye could see. A handful of darkened commuter trains looked like snoozing metal snakes, waiting for the arrival of day.

So- here we go. York Station as you’ve never seen it before. Enjoy!

Huge and silent

Huge and silent

The scale is incredible

The scale is incredible

Bridge across the tracks

Bridge across the tracks

Clock says it all...

Clock says it all…

Amazingly ornate lamps

Amazingly ornate detailing

A pub with no trade

A pub with no trade

The brickwork is something else

The brickwork is something else

See what I mean?

See what I mean?

Under platform tunnel

Under platform tunnel

Other side of the tracks

Other side of the tracks

Acres of empty space

Acres of empty space

A vast, imposing edifice

A vast, imposing edifice

Your eyes are always drawn upwards

Your eyes are always drawn upwards

HAUNTING DURHAM IN PICTURES

Durham Cathedral

Durham Cathedral

It was a one off chance, as things turned out. I have always wanted to photograph Durham at night. When the streets are empty, and the lights illuminate the old stone and cobbled squares. An hour at which only the ghosts walk the old university city…

When it came, the chance was quite unexpected. I arrived back in the city in the early hours by train, back from a trip abroad. And, surprisingly alert and lively, I decided to spend an hour touring the famous sites, to get my shots.

But I actually lost myself in the city I know so well, so to speak. For, with no traffic on the road or people in the streets, I was able to frame pictures and see the sights from a series of vantage points that daytime traffic would have made impossible. And, as I warmed to my theme- and luckily it was a warm night- I really got into my sudden, impulsive mission.

Shorn of the normal noise and bustle of every day life, those streets and buildings really do speak to you in a way that is almost audible. While the famous cathedral and castle loomed vast and ghostly in the blackness, bathed in a wash of weak fluorescent lighting, it was the old, cobble stone bridges and streets that really got me. Even the rolling River Wear seemed to be on mute; a few lights glistening on the ink black surface were almost the only clue to its presence.

It was quite the night. Ghostly statues loomed, huge and impassive, against the charcoal hue of the night. Stars peeped between the leaves of trees that were undisturbed by even the ghost of a breeze. Somewhere, a bottle fell over, and the sound carried in the stillness like a rolling artillery barrage. Then, stillness again…

I have to say, the ghosts were very good company. They led me by turns through centuries of the old, historic university city. And then, suddenly, something quite magical happened.

To my utter amazement, the first, pale fingers of daylight began to glance across the blackness. Slowly at first, but inevitable and wondrous, daylight overwhelmed the darkness, and a wash of stunning, vibrant sunlight kissed the cobble stones of old Durham. Bowing politely, the ghosts made their excuses, and left me to breathe in the first rays of a near perfect new day.

The legacy of that strange, semi-mystical mission is here for you to see for yourselves. Happy browsing!

Durham, 3AM...

Durham, 3AM…

The city never truly sleeps

The city never truly sleeps

Silence stalks the streets

Silence stalks the streets

Narrow old alleyways

Narrow old alleyways

Spirits on tap?

Spirits on tap?

Stones white as old bones

Stones white as old bones

Up near the cathedral green

Up near the cathedral green

The world famous cathedral

The world famous cathedral

That fabulous facade

That fabulous facade

Ghostly and glorious...

Ghostly and glorious…

A Romanesque masterpiece

A Romanesque masterpiece

Feel the spooky?

Feel the spooky?

Light and dark

Light and dark

Market square

Market square

If walls could talk...

If walls could talk…

Down to the lazy river

Down to the lazy river

Growing in the night garden...

Growing in the night garden…

Durham rail viaduct pillar

Durham rail viaduct pillar

Cobbles and chills?

Cobbles and chills?

First, faint flicker of dawn

First, faint flicker of dawn

Daylight's first breath..

Daylight’s first breath..

Ghost rider in the sky

Ghost rider in the sky

Darkness gives up the ghost

Darkness gives up the ghost

The day dawns...

The day dawns…

Market square dawn

Market square dawn

The river yawns, and wakes...

The river yawns, and wakes…

 

BRILLIANT BUDAPEST- THE GEM OF THE DANUBE

National Gallery on Castle Hill, Buda

National Gallery on Castle Hill, Buda

Budapest. Two ancient cities, now forged as one. Fifteen bridges span the Danube these days to link flat, blue collar Pest to leafy, patrician Buda. Joined physically for the first time by the Chain Bridge in 1849, the city became the joint capital- with Vienna- of the over blown, ultimately doomed, Austro-Hungarian Empire.

What history it has seen since that time. Over eighty per cent of its buildings were destroyed or damaged in the bitter, three month battle and siege of 1944-45, a campaign every bit as bloody as Stalingrad. Smothered behind the Iron Curtain post war, Budapest was the scene of the poignant, 1956 Hungarian uprising that was so brutally snuffed out.

Today, the great city has been largely restored to its pre war, imperial Art Nouveau splendour. Cafe society rules here in this huge city of two million people, the first in Europe ever to have a working underground system. Pest has many broad, leafy thoroughfares, smart shopping along Vacy Street and Andrassy Avenue, and no shortage of cake rich old cafes and restaurants, with huge, heroic chandeliers suspended above acres of dark wood panelling and mirrored walls.

But Pest is also very Bohemian; check out The Ruins, a quirky run of bars that resembles a cross between an Egyptian bazaar and a Mad Max film set. Every bit of furniture and decor is made from recycled material, and the wall ‘art’ consists largely of graffiti in a lexicon of different languages. Fun it is; genteel, not so much.

Cafe life, Budapest

Cafe life, Budapest

A huge city, Budapest is still relatively easy to navigate, thanks to a vast, extensive network of buses, trolleys, trams, and the famous metro, which currently has three main lines. Hotels are often elegant, old world affairs straight out of an episode of Poirot, and come suffused with that air of polite geniality so typical of the old, pre- world war one era.

The food is world famous, and with good reason. Hotel buffets offer chocolate cake as part of the breakfast spread; and the infamous goulash originated in Hungary. Budapest is the town of paprika and the fiery, not to be taken lightly palinka, the local national drink that varies in consistency between perfection and paint stripper. An acquired taste that you may- or may not- acquire. But Budapest is not a beer town; the city is far more enamoured with local Hungarian wines such as the vibrant, delicious Tokay. But whatever your tastes, you’ll never go hungry or thirsty in this city.

Budapest is a late night town as well. Sultry jazz bars and cafes line the banks of the Danube, and it is not at all unusual for them to still be open at four in the morning. On a warm summer dawn, you could emerge from one and walk straight into the first rays of daylight as the sun rises over the ancient, rolling river.

Some of the most magnificent buildings and memorials line the banks of the Danube like a series of stunning exclamation marks. On the Pest side, the Hungarian Parliament is topped by a massive cupola dome, and bears more than a passing similarity-intentional, as it turns out- to the Palace of Westminster.

Parliament building, seen from Castle Hill

Parliament building, seen from Castle Hill

Further along, you will see the pitiful, open air display of several sets of cast iron shoes. This is a poignant memorial to the Jewish victims of the fascist Arrow Cross, butchered here in the last days of the siege of 1945. It’s sobering, harrowing and unforgettable, and a stunning work of art in its own right.

Over on the Buda side, you’ll see the fabulous National Museum up on Castle Hill, as well as the seven, Disney- esque spires of the famous Fishermen’s Bastion. The world famous Hotel Gellert is also here, and it contains one of the best sets of spa baths in the entire city. If you want a spa town, you’ll find that Budapest has some of the best and most extensive anywhere in Europe.

Downstream and in mid river, Margaret Island gives the city a green, verdant lung; a kind of Central Park on the Danube, if you will. Today it is a serene spread of open lawns, nature trails, bikes for hire and children eating ice cream in the searing heat of a Budapest summer. It’s all a long way removed from 1945, when the island was the scene of some of the most desperate hand to hand fighting of the entire battle for Budapest.

Chock full of agelessly elegant Art Nouveau avenues, lined with houses sporting intricate lace balconies, and flanked with beautiful, wrought iron street lamps, Budapest is a city brimming with a wealth of mind blowing sights; one hidden for too long under the damp overcoat of the Iron Curtain. The entire city is an open air theatre, full of light. life and sound. From the plaintive mewing of  a violin in a street underpass to the lush, rolling strains of a Strauss waltz performed by a full orchestra. the ‘Queen of the Danube’ will get under your skin, and stay there. A singularly wonderful city.

The famous Fishermen's Bastion

The famous Fishermen’s Bastion

BUDAPEST’S CLASSIC CHAIN BRIDGE

From the Pest side

From the Pest side

Budapest sprawls along both banks of the Danube; it’s a spellbinding city, brimming with stunning, neoclassical buildings that flaunt their considerable beauty along both sides. From the Parliament complex in industrial, working class Pest to the National Gallery that dominates the skyline in lofty, patrician Buda, the entire city is almost a living, breathing museum in its own right.

The two halves of the city are linked by a string of fourteen bridges in all. Designed and executed in a smorgasbord of architectural styles, they are collectively as symbolic of Budapest as the bridges over the Tyne at Newcastle, or those that span the Arno in Florence. The city’s bridges not only link it; they define it’s structure and development. And, of cousre, they are hugely symbolic, too. Massive statements of intent, wrought in steel, chain and stone.

The first, and most iconic, was the Chain Bridge. Originally opened in 1849 and designed by the Scottish engineer, Adam Clark, the huge bridge was actually built in Great Britain, and shipped out to Hungary in sections.

With a central span of more than two hundred metres, this vast, graceful suspension bridge was one of the largest in the world at the time, and it is still one of the most famous and photographed in the world today. In 1852, a quartet of vast, stone lions- very similar to the ones in Trafalgar Square- were added to the approaches on both sides. They are still there today.

Although known worldwide as the Chain Bridge, the official name is the Istvan Szechenyl Bridge. A gracefully arching, steel green colossus, it has not always enjoyed the peace and serenity it has today.

On January 17th, 1945, the Chain Bridge was destroyed, along with four other major bridges, by German and Hungarian troops as they retreated from Pest to make their last stand on Castle Hill over in Buda. The partially submerged, twisted wreckage was gradually raised and restored. In 1949- on the centenary of its inauguration- the Chain Bridge was reopend.

Here it is, in all its glory. Enjoy.

One of the famous Lions

One of the famous Lions

A marvellous sight

A marvellous sight

Ranging across the Danube

Ranging across the Danube

National Gallery on the Buda side

National Gallery on the Buda side

Pedestrian walkways at left and right

Pedestrian walkways at left and right

Cables and rivets

Cables and rivets

Fabulous vistas from the bridge

Fabulous vistas from the bridge

Hungarian coat of arms

Hungarian coat of arms

The steel grey Danube below...

The steel grey Danube below…

Left side bridge vista

Left side bridge vista

The sheer scale is apparent here

The sheer scale is apparent here

LAID BACK LIPARI- AN ITALIAN IDYLL

Good morning, Lipari!

Good morning, Lipari!

One of the most rarely visited islands in the entire Italian Mediterranean is Lipari, the largest of the so called Aeolian Islands, located just to the north of Sicily. With a population not much in excess of 11,000, Lipari looks- and feels-like something of a one horse town.

And therein lies it’s unique charm. With no pier capable of docking them, most cruise ships simply sail past Lipari, on their way to the ‘greatest hits’ ports along the west coast of Italy. Only a handful of smaller, intimate vessels find their way to the anchorage just offshore, and tender their passengers into what is, quite literally, the centre of town.

Here, dogs sleep in the shade of side streets, where lines of washing hang limp between window shutters in the mid day heat. An occasional motor scooter might splutter into life like a sporadically maddened wasp. Every so often, the ancient church bells peal dolefully across the narrow expanse of the sparkling briny.

Other than that, the loudest sound is usually that of freshly caught fish, sizzling in a restaurant kitchen. Here, the sounds, smells and sheer sense of classic Italian dolce vita conspire to gang up on you and simply mug you. Because Lipari is not only pretty; it is breathtakingly so.

The obvious sense of intimacy lends it a charm often lost in much larger, more tourist orientated spots. You have none of the crowds of a Sorrento summer here, and none of the ghastly souvenir shops that loom like carbuncles at the entrance to seething, petrified Pompeii. No, Lipari is simple, pared down beauty. Here, less is most definitely more.

Of course, there is nothing to stop you taking a languid wander around the town. Up on the hill, you’ll find the silent stone walls of a massive, Spanish built fortress. It was built in 1556, on the site of an ancient Greek acropolis. Back in its day, it was the only truly safe place on the island. Pirates still roamed these waters into the early part of the nineteenth century.

Lipari at one time was also used to confine political prisoners. One of it’s most stellar involuntary residents was Edda Mussolini, daughter of the deposed, royally dismissed former Duce.

You can ponder this history over the rim of your wine glass, as the afternoon sun catches it and throws the whole, dreamy sprawl of the day into a different light and perspective. But Lipari, name and place, is more about indolent, platinum chip hedonism than anything else.

Enjoy!

Small, perfect and rugged

Small, perfect and rugged

The old Spanish castle

The old Spanish castle

The stuff of dreams

The stuff of dreams

The stunning waterfront

The stunning waterfront

Silver Spirit off Lipari

Silver Spirit off Lipari

Sun, sea, and stone

Sun, sea, and stone

Typical, old world Italy

Typical, old world Italy

Ship and shoreline

Ship and shoreline

Rugged seascapes everywhere

Rugged seascapes everywhere

Rock and rolling sea

Rock and rolling sea

Lipari amphitheater

Lipari amphitheater

Old church tower

Old church tower

Castle summit

Castle summit

If walls could talk.....

If walls could talk…..

Another vantage point

Another vantage point

Suumer time blooms

Summer time blooms

Spectacular view from the ship

Spectacular view from the ship

Boats and battlements

Boats and battlements

Twilight in paradise....

Twilight in paradise….

GORGEOUS GENOA- A CLASSIC ITALIAN BEAUTY

The gorgeous Hotel Di Savoia looms over Genoa's skyline

The gorgeous Hotel Di Savoia looms over Genoa’s skyline

One of Italy’s greatest ports and also one of the original, hugely powerful city states that pre dated the unification of Italy, Genoa today is a vastly under rated, beautiful city. Awash with gloriously over the top Renaissance statuary and architecture, it has never quite attracted the same level of kudos and amazement as, say, Venice, Florence, or Rome.

Located on the extreme north west tip of Italy, Genoa is almost right on the border with France. A train from here will have you in Monaco in just three hours.

The port has been the epicentre of Italian ocean travels for over a century. All of the great Italian ocean liners- from the Rex and the Conte Di Savoia, through to the Andrea Doria, the Michelangelo and the Raffaello- started their maiden voyages from here. All called this great sea city their home.

Set on a series of rolling hills that cradle a stunning natural amphitheatre, Genoa has much in common with cities such as Lisbon; you see it in the Italianate architecture painted in a riot of pastel shades;  in the vast, overblown monuments to local heroes such as Christopher Columbus, and in the trams that crawl sluggishly into the hills.

But though the city is a riot of undiscovered and extensive glories, modern Genoa is not simply some Gothic theme park. The long, gracefully curving waterfront has one of the most fantastic aquariums in Europe, and literally hundreds of bars and waterfront cafes that brim with life in the long summer days and nights. There’s even the giant pirate ship built for the multi million dollar move, Cut Throat Island, now a popular local attraction.

And, of course, the big ships do still sail from here, too. Year round, the giant cruise ships of MSC Cruises and Costa Crociere  still ghost in and out of the ancient sea city, along with many others. With the gorgeous fishing villages of the Cinque Terre region almost within shouting distance, many big cruise ships use Genoa as a base from which to allow their passengers to explore such famous beauties as Portofino and Alassio.

While there is much to see and savour in those amazing, idyllic little slices of the good life, it is still nothing short of amazing that hordes of arriving passengers still give barely a second look at the swaggering, gorgeous city that actually welcomes them. For far too long, Genoa- or Genova to give her the Italian name- has been a hugely under rated destination in her own right.

And, when you’ve checked out these pictures, you- like me- might be left with one simple question; why?

Genoa's imposing cruise ship terminal

Genoa’s imposing cruise ship terminal

Awe inspiring Genoa

Awe inspiring Genoa

Rich and colourful

Rich and colourful

Italianate echoes

Italianate echoes

Old and even older

Old and even older

Genoa is at once hilly and heady

Genoa is at once hilly and heady

Ice cream colors prevail here

Ice cream colors prevail here

Typical medieval Italian largesse

Typical medieval Italian largesse

Soaring, spectacular Genoese cityscape

Soaring, spectacular Genoese cityscape

The elegant Hotel Di Savoia

The elegant Hotel Di Savoia

Genoa is elegant and symmetrical

Genoa is elegant and symmetrical

Tram ride

Tram ride

Love these stunning buildings

Love these stunning buildings

Palms and passageway pastiche

Palms and passageway pastiche

Ancient clock tower

Ancient clock tower

Did someone say 'pirate ship'?

Did someone say ‘pirate ship’?

Now that's big

Now that’s big

Genoa is a bustling city

Genoa is a bustling city

Facade of the cathedral

Facade of the cathedral

Want Lions? There you go

Want Lions? There you go

And that's 'arrivederci Genova'....

And that’s ‘arrivederci Genova’….

GRAND HOTEL BUDAPEST- THE DANUBIUS ASTORIA

Lobby on the fifth floor

Lobby on the fifth floor

Recently, I was lucky enough to make my first visit to Budapest. It was very much love at first sight. An elegant, swaggering confection swathed in gorgeous Art Nouveau architecture, the city of Budapest enjoys a marvellous setting along both banks of the mighty River Danube.

In any city break, location is everything, and nothing emphasises this like the sheer scale of Budapest. With a population of two million, the two parts of the city- vast, working class Pest and hilly, more patrician Buda- the combined city has more than a fifth of the entire population of Hungary. In short, Budapest is a big city, and it feels like one as well.

Similarly, the quality of accommodation can make or break any city stay. After a hard day exploring a new destination, there is nothing as gratifying as returning to the warm, welcoming cocoon of a comfortable, well run hotel. Similarly, there is nothing more maddening and soul destroying than returning to an establishment so badly run that it makes Fawlty Towers look like the Fontainbleu Hilton.

So my hotel was a critical choice. Because I had never been to Budapest before, I wanted somewhere near the Danube itself. There’s something about strolling the river banks of a city that is just so good for the soul. And I also wanted somewhere near one of the major underground stations.

So I ultimately settled on the Danubius Astoria. And experience would prove that I got it exactly right.

The Astoria opened in March, 1914, when Budapest was still one of the twin capitals of the over blown, tottering Austro- Hungarian Empire. It was just months from the fiery conflagration of the Great war when the seven story Astoria first opened its doors for business.

City view from my room

City view from my room

The hotel was decorated in contemporary style; all rich, deep wood panelling, elegant, barrel vaulted ceilings in places, gorgeous chandeliers, and the obligatory smattering of opulent, potted palms. Happily, the Astoria has changed very little to this day.

One hundred years later, it looks- and feels- like a uniquely charming time capsule; elegant yet human in scale, with a welcome and hospitality that is genuine, without the over the top bowing and scraping from staff that sometimes comes with these places.

The Astoria is comfortable, commodious and easy; a great four star hotel at a superb price. The Cafe Astoria- the main dining room (no mere restaurant, this) is one of the best regarded among locals in the entire city. It’s a gorgeous, split level room with windows on one side that look out on the city. The buffet breakfasts, complete with chocolate cake, french fries and multiple kinds of bread, represent an awesome challenge. A bit light on fruit choices yes, but come on- chocolate cake for breakfast! It does not get more old world decadent than that.

My fifth floor room was more than  big enough, though I was a bit surprised at first to see that it came with two single beds. Being a corner room, it had not one, but two Juliet balconies, giving different viewpoints of all the bustle going on down below. The bathroom was huge, and came with a shower and bathtub combination, plus a toilet and bidet. Most importantly, there was no shortage of good quality towels.

I was initially concerned about being located right above a busy, traffic intensive street. Would I sleep? Well, I did. And like a baby.

So, ladies and gentlemen, i give you; the proud and beautiful Danubius Astoria. I have found my ideal Budapest hotel. And I cannot wait to return.

City view from the other balcony

City view from the other balcony

The dining room

The dining room

Elegant, old world style

Elegant, old world style

Stairs to dining room upper level

Stairs to dining room upper level

Almost unchanged for a century

Almost unchanged for a century

Breakfast setting

Breakfast setting

That ceiling is gorgeous

That ceiling is gorgeous

Sumptuous decor

Sumptuous decor

Love the vaulted ceiling

Love the vaulted ceiling

A room with a view

A room with a view

The lobby

The lobby

Room 511. Note the antique TV!

Room 511. Note the antique TV!

Lounge area, room 511

Lounge area, room 511

Beds and spreads, room 511

Beds and spreads, room 511

Bathroom of room 511

Bathroom of room 511

SHOES: A BUDAPEST MEMORIAL

Budapest shoes....

Budapest shoes….

Strolling the Pest side of the Danube on a beautiful summers’ day last week, I saw what looked like a huge collection of randomly discarded shoes. Male and female. All sizes. All ages. Cast in iron, and facing out over in the direction of hilly, patrician Buda across the river, they constitute one of the most simple, eloquent and moving memorials that I have ever seen in my life.

Some background to this is clearly necessary;

In March, 1944, Hungary, at that time an ally of Nazi Germany, began making secret overtures to Stalin’s Russia in a vain attempt to sue for peace. The Third Reich was obviously going to lose the war and Hungary’s ruler, Admiral Miklos Horthy, was anxious to jump ship before the advancing Red Army poured into Hungary. By that same March of 1944, that was looking more or less inevitable.

Unfortunately for Horthy, Hitler got wind of what he was planning in time to react rapidly.

German troops poured into the country, ostensibly to ‘protect’ their jittery ally from the Red menace. Horthy was allowed to remain as ‘ruler’ but with one proviso that had never applied previously.

The mass deportation of Hungarian Jews to concentration camps would finally begin. And en masse.

At that time, a million Hungarian Jews lived in relative safety under Horthy. He had refused to embrace the more insane and rabid aspects of Nazi ideology, But now, with his own life on the line, the morally bankrupt Admiral caved in to Hitler’s demands.

For the doomed, deranged Fuhrer, Budapest was to become an obsession every bit as massive and unhealthy as Stalingrad. The continued existence of  the Jews of Budapest was something not to be countenanced. Despite the fact that Germany was reeling on all fronts, Hitler went to extraordinary lengths in his attempt to eradicate them.

First came the awful, precise and unfeeling Adolf Eichmann. Thanks to his maniac zeal and sense of organisation, crammed, fearful train loads soon began rolling out of Budapest, ultimately bound for the killing fields of Auschwitz. Eichmann found more than willing helpers in the members of the Arrow Cross, the Hungarian version of the Nazi Party.

This ghastly ritual of death rolled on for months on end, even as the Red Army loomed in the foothills of the Carpathians. As they got nearer, Eichmann redoubled his efforts with obvious, sadistic relish. And then, something completely unexpected happened.

Horthy developed a backbone, and halted the deportations.

The Regent of Hungary was no fool. He had been made painfully aware by Allied pronouncements that he would he held responsible for events that transpired on Hungarian soil. Torn between the threat of a hangman’s noose around his neck and Hitler’s baleful breath down the back of it, Horthy buckled. The death trains came to a screeching, abrupt halt.

Of course, that was not the end of the story….

The Allied landings in Normandy, plus the launch of the massive Russian offensive- Operation Bagration- in June of 1944 fully occupied the Fuhrer’s attention during that fateful summer. They also made the end of the Third Reich more or less inevitable. But come September, Hitler’s obsession with the Jews of Budapest erupted one more time.

That, and another attempt by Horthy to sue for peace, brought out the true gangster in Adolf Hitler. In a brilliant, daring plan, Horthy’s playboy son was kidnapped by German commandos, rolled up in a carpet, and delivered to the Nazis. Here, he was to be a ‘guest’ of the Third Reich.

Naturally, his continued safety came with certain conditions. Chief among which was that Horthy would resign, and turn over power to Ferenc Szalasi, the self styled Hungarian ‘Fuhrer’ of the brutal Nazi wannabes, the Arrow Cross. Predictably, Horthy folded, and went into voluntary exile.

The death trains soon returned. With them came Adolf Eichmann, working to his own timetable of doom and destruction. But things by now were deteriorating, and rapidly.

The horrid Szalasi was now Fuhrer of less than a full country. Russian troops had already overrun a third of Hungary by October, and were looming towards Budapest itself in overwhelming strength. They were already across the Danube, and threatening to surround the city.

A series of desperate German counter attacks threw the Russians back again and again. Some of the biggest and bloodiest tank battles of the war- far bigger than anything seen 0n the western front- were fought out across the plains of Debrecen, even as Eichmann and Szalasi kept the death trains and their terrified human cargo running at full throttle. But, in the end, the overwhelming Russian strength was bound to prevail, and it did.

On Christmas Eve 1944, Budapest was surrounded by the Red Army. Inside were 70,000 desperate German and Hungarian troops. Predictably, Hitler ordered them to fight to the last man.

They did just that. Among them were two SS cavalry divisions, whose men knew that they could expect little or no mercy from the Russians. With nothing to lose, they resolved to go down fighting.

The battle that developed was fully as bloody and monumental as Stalingrad three years earlier, although the final outcome was never in doubt. As the Red Army blasted its way through the heart of the city, more than eighty per cent of the buildings in it were either damaged or, more often, completely destroyed. Budapest was a charnel house on an epic scale.

But for the surviving rump of the Budapest Jews, the imminent arrival of the Red Army was no passport to salvation. Although the death trains had long since stopped, the members of the Arrow Cross took up the cudgel instead.

As the Budapest pocket contracted and one relief attempt after the other ran out of steam, the Arrow Cross formed a series of roaming death squads. They began rounding up any Jews that they could find. Many were simply shot on the famous Chain Bridge, and their bodies kicked unceremoniously into the ice strewn Danube.

By mid January, the German and Hungarian defenders were preparing to evacuate Pest completely, crossing the river over to hilly, more easily defended Buda. These troops would make their last stand around the hill top Castle District. By January 17th, they were preparing to blow up all the bridges across the Danube. But before that happened, the Arrow Cross embarked on one last orgy of ritual genocide.

No one can be sure exactly how many Jews they rounded up that awful day. But we do know what they did to them. Men. Women. Children.

These doomed people were made to take off their shoes. Scores of pairs. All shapes, styles and sizes. They remained there, a random mass, pointed at the retreating Germans as they streamed towards the temporary safety of the Castle District.

Ammunition was in short supply, so the Arrow Cross got creative. They simply tied two people back to back, and made them stand on the edge of the quay.

Then they shot the person facing them, ensuring that two bodies- one still alive, of course- toppled over into the freezing Danube.

Fuelled by a mixture of obscene, genocidal rage and obvious fear of their own, impending demise, the Arrow Cross killed indiscriminately. All that was left was a blood splattered, grey cobble stone quayside. And all of those pairs of shoes.

The battered remnants of the Budapest garrison finally surrendered to the Red Army on February 13th, 1945.

The architects of this callous carnage almost certainly died in the fighting, As for the loathsome Szalasi, he had fled Budapest in early December, before the city was encircled.

It did not save him; he was captured, brought back to Budapest, and publicly hanged on March 12th, 1946. In all, his Arrow Cross thugs murdered an estimated 10-15,000 Jews during their brief, bloody rule.

Adolf Eichmann, famously abducted from Argentina by an Israeli snatch squad, was hanged in Israel’s Ramle prison on May 31st, 1962. He remained unrepentant to the end.

The iron shoes that now commemorate these last, bloody days were the idea of the film director, Can Togay, and created by the sculptor, Gyula Pauer. They are located about three hundred metres from the site of the Hungarian Parliament building, and comprise some sixty pairs of shoes in all sizes and styles.

It is impossible not to be moved by the sight; simple, perfect and harrowing all at the same time, it conveys the sadness, futility, and sheer, desperate barbarism of this insane act of genocidal barbarity. It is not an easy thing to look at, but it is something that anyone visiting Budapest really should see.

Those lost deserve nothing less from humanity.

DESMOND TUTU TO SAIL ON CRYSTAL SERENITY IN 2015

Tutu for Crystal at 25

Tutu for Crystal at 25

In what must be regarded as something of a true coup, the venerable Archbishop Desmond Tutu will sail aboard the ultra luxurious Crystal Serenity as part of the line’s 25th anniversary celebrations next year.

The learned and erudite Archbishop Tutu- long a profound and eloquent proponent of human rights and peaceful, non violent resistance in the years of the Apartheid regime, has been a huge figure in the long, slow ‘truth and reconcillation’ process that is an essential part of South Africa’s attempts to deal with its violent racial excesses. It is literally impossible to quantify his value in this cause. Working with his friend, the late Nelson Mandela, Tutu is rightly hailed as a major architect of the nation’s transition into the modern world.

For the 25th anniversary of Crystal Cruises, it is hard to imagine a more potent or engaging guest speaker.

Archbishop Tutu will be on board the Crystal Serenity on March 13th 2015, for the twenty one day voyage from Perth to Cape Town. 

In all, Crystal Cruises has lined up more than fifty international standard guest speakers to celebrate its first quarter century. The line, together with its two, six star rated ships- Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity- has been the most consistently lauded luxury vessels in the cruise market ever since their debuts in 1995 and 2003, respectively.

 

PAUL GAUGUIN STARTS REFIT

Paul Gauguin cruises the waters of French Polynesia

Paul Gauguin cruises the waters of French Polynesia

Singapore dockyard is the chosen venue for a current ongoing refit of the boutique M/S Paul Gauguin.

The 19,000 ton luxury ship has cruised exclusively in the waters around French Polynesia and the South Pacific since being delivered to her owners from the former Chantiers shipyard in Saint Nazaire, France, back in 1998.

Managed for many years by Radisson Seven Seas in its pre- Regent days, the Paul Gauguin quickly acquired a reputation for ultra luxurious cruising and an elegant, intimate.on board ambiance. Not surprisingly, the Paul Gauguin soon became very popular with honeymooners, providing a cost effective, all inclusive way to see that highlights of one of the most beautiful and remote parts of the world.

Highlights of the ongoing current refit include:

* The restoration of all teak decking on Pool Deck, plus all new umbrellas for shade.

* All chairs in La Palette lounge and the L’ Etoile restaurant have been completely reupholstered.

* All cabin balconies have been furnished with new tables and chairs.

* All new chairs in the Internet Cafe.

* Polishing of all in suite and stateroom furniture.

* Refurbishment of the stage in Le Grand Salon.

* A comprehensive overhaul of the on board sound system.

* Some steel work, plus overall hull repainting.

The company was a one ship operation for many years, but now also operates the yacht style Tere Moana- formerly Le Levant of Ponant Cruises -on a series of itineraries in the Mediterranean and Caribbean.