Odd Facts from the Road: Nordic and Baltic States

Use of the labels ‘Nordic’ and Baltic’ suggests that these groups of countries are defined by their common traits. However, despite intensive programmes of assimilation under the Russian Tsars and the Soviets followed by 12 years of “ever-closer union” through EU membership, the main trait shared by the Baltic States is their uniqueness. Likewise, the […]

Madame Butterfly

From the first volley of ‘ta-ta-ta-taaa’, Beethoven’s fifth spirited me away and struck untouched emotional chords. The musical drama conjured that night, within a mysterious triangle formed by the conductor’s extravagant flourishes, the paper enshrining Beethoven’s genius, and the musicians’ trance-like dexterity, was matched by the grandeur and opulence of its surroundings: the marble statues, […]

The Lisbon Underworld

Below the picture-postcard Lisbon is another Lisbon. A Lisbon without trams, decorative tiles or salted cod, from where the cobbled streets and red roofs wrapped around the city’s seven hills cannot be glimpsed, a little-known underworld where only adventurous souls enter and only after donning hard hats. Their reward is a chance to rekindle their […]

Life can be a minefield

We face multiple threats on our streets, but on International Mine Awareness Day it is worth reflecting on one of humanity’s cruelest and most enduring weapons. First used on a wide scale in World War II, landmines still kill or maim over 4000 people per year. I witnessed their threat on a visit to an […]

A translation mightier than the sword

500 years ago a German monk nailed 95 theses to a church door with a moral force that cracked open the edifice of the Catholic Church to reveal a rotten interior. By disputing the power of indulgences (by which the Pope granted remission of the temporal punishment of sin in purgatory through the sale of certificates) Martin […]

Art: from the Sublime to the Deranged

My final cultural outing in Lisbon was to the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga (National Museum of Ancient Art), a treasure trove packed with Portuguese and European art produced between the 12th and 19th centuries. Among the various masterpieces discussed on the day with my Portuguese conversation group, for me two stood out for the […]

20 Years on the Road

It feels like yesterday yet this summer marked twenty years since a fresh-faced graduate arrived in South America with just a 60 litre rucksack and a thirst for adventure. In those days, South America felt like a final frontier for backpackers longing “to boldly go where no man has gone before”. Imaginations ran riot and […]

The spy who hugged me

“(Russia) is using its whole range of state organs and powers to push its foreign policy abroad in increasingly aggressive ways – involving propaganda, espionage, subversion and cyber-attacks.” Andrew Parker, MI5 Chief. This month, the underground world of espionage surfaced and was splashed all over the UK press. Firstly, Andrew Parker used the first-ever newspaper […]

Anglo-Portuguese Alliance: 630 Years and Counting

Ever since my arrival in Lisbon, whenever new Portuguese acquaintances discover that I am English they invariably refer to the world’s oldest alliance or to Catherine of Braganza’s role in popularising tea-drinking in England. Their enthusiasm leaves me with a vague feeling of camaraderie that is difficult to explain given my limited knowledge of the […]