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My favourite tramlines 12 February 2020

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  1. The Lisbon 28. 
    Lisbon is a paradise both for the vehicles (with controllers marked ‘Wolverhampton 1904’) and the crazy switchback routes. The 28 winds up the hill from Rua do Conceição in Baixa past the cathedral and up to the viewpoint above Alfama at St Tomé. The viewpoint is also a squeezepoint, with 4 tracks converging into a single one [photo] as the 12 and 28 diverge. Trams chase each other like something out Indiana Jones’s Temple of Doom. Just after the fork the 28 squeezes along a street so narrow the tracks have to interlace with each other, penetrating the maze where no bus would be safe. It’s great that Lisbon has now realised what an asset its trams are, and in 2018 persuaded the operator Carris to reopen part of line 24. Further extensions are planned. See Wikipedia for an excellent historical map.
  2. San Francisco Powell-Mason cable car.
    Whoever moved heaven and earth to preserve this line were geniuses. It must be one of the city’s biggest tourist magnets. It’s a unique technology, powered by cables running in ducts under the road at a steady 9 mph. At the termini, the cars are rotated on hand-pushed turntables. An arcane problem arises where the line intersects the California St line while going up a steep hill. How do you keep grip on the cable when another cable is crossing at right angles? The solution is that the line makes a shallow dip as it crosses California, and as the car approaches the crossing, the ‘gripman’ driops the cable, coasts across the junction and then picks it up again. This must require iron nerves and immaculate timing. You can see the giant cable drums and tensioners that power the system at the Car Barn near the junction of Mason and Washington Streets.
  3. I can’t leave out the Brussels 81, on which I’ve been commuting on and off for 34 years. Nothing modern about this line, which describes a semicircle round the southern side of the city centre, connecting working-class areas of St-Gilles and Etterbeek with Midi and Merode stations. In its central section, it winds through narrow streets, some cobbled, and dips into tunnel, but at either end gets room to breathe in a central reservation. I think it has only survived because it forms the only link above-ground link between the eastern part of the network, including the Woluwe tram museum, and the city centre. It’s therefore a good place to see (and hear) museum trams. A curiosity is the looping figure of 8 tracks that connect its Montgomery terminus with the 39/44 tracks to Woluwe. Over the last few years, STIB/MTUB has had the spare vehicles to intensify the timetable, and the line has got much busier. Stops have been moved and lengthened so that it can accommodate the 43-metre low-floor Flexities. So it’s now a viable inner-city ring line. But it also encapsulates the soul of the city, and at one time had a community newspaper named after it.
  4. A total contrast is Amsterdam’s line 26, the IJtram. Built in 2005 as the lifeline of the new suburb of IJburg, an archipelago of artificial islands in the IJsselmeer east of the city, it was originally going to be a metro, and has express characteristics – it runs at up to 70 km/hr, on reserved track of course, and has widely-spaced stops. It’s the only tram in town that will carry your bicycle. As IJburg has grown, capacity has had to grow to match, although nowadays you can also escape from IJburg by a bus connection at its eastern end. Peak headway is now every 3 minutes, and in 2020 GVB plans to introduce coupled sets. At Centraal station it has two alternative terminal loops – the normal one at the front, and an emergency one on the IJ side, just underneath the new Eurostar terminal.

Thirst for learning 12 September 2019

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Why don’t government-run archaeological sites in Greece have cafés?

This summer we made a tour of some of the most venerated ancient sites in Greece – Delphi, Olympia, Nestor’s Palace near Pilos and Mistras near Sparti – and noticed a paradoxical common denominator: they lack catering facilities. At Delphi the museum and ticket complex includes a café – but it is closed (and the drink vending machines don’t work). At Olympia, a building that looks exactly like a possible cafe stands derelict. Even the brand-new Acropolis Museum in Athens does indeed have an impressive restaurant – which in inaccessible because you have to make a reservation. This is no joke when temperatures are in the high 30s.

Contrast this with some of the privately-managed cultural attractions: the Benaki Museum in Athens is surmounted by a marvellous cafe with air contitioning and panoramic views from its terrace. Even the Diros caves in faraway Mani (one of the cooler experiences one could wish for in the height of summer) has a café at the entrance.

We posited a number of possible causes for this:
– a highbrow attitude from the ministry that seeks to present ancient cultural artifacts in some sort of ‘pure’ state, to be studied high-mindedly and not cluttered up by commercialism;
– the recent austerity forced on the government means that they have had to lay off ancillary staff such as caterers;
– the local chambers of commerce have objected to ‘unfair’ competition.

But these don’t stack up:
– the key sites have well-designed modern museums, into or near which it is perfectly possible to build a café without trespassing on the remains;
– reopening the cafés would provide both local jobs and boost the ministry’s coffers (by the way the entrance fees are absurdly cheap by northern European standards – especially for seniors);
– at Delphi and Olympia the eponymous villages are some way from the sites, and so cannot satisfy immediate demand for a cold drink.

The absurdity of the situation is shown by the fact that at Olympia the Red Cross of all people has erected a tent to dispense bottles of water to thirsty visitors!

So we are left with a contradiction: the mainstay of the economy (tourists bring in 21% of national income) is left frustrated, while funds that could stimulate local economies and pay for more excavations go untapped.

Guerrilla marketing 3 November 2013

Posted by cooperatoby in Amsterdam, beer.
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Last night saw my third stint as guest barman at Castrum Peregrini, an arts-based ‘intellectual playground’ in Amsterdam’s city centre, during Museumnacht, when the cream of Amsterdam’s museums stay open till 2 a.m. During World War II, Castrum was a hiding place for German refugee artists, and in 2011 won the prize for the best exhibit (Truus is on its programme advisory group). This year, the show featured the Atelier Revolutionair, which explored the role artists are playing in struggling for justice, diversity and social inclusion worldwide. There was an exhibition called Speaking from the Heart curated by Shaheen Merali – and an Iranian disco.

Toby manning the barIn a throwback to my Ale House days, I made it my mission to subvert the tenacious and irrational belief among Dutch people that Heineken is a good beer by wearing my IJbrouwerij t-shirt. This subtle bit of guerrilla marketing resulted in at least one customer’s hopes being raised that something decent to drink would be on offer – but they were cruelly dashed. I could tell he was a man of principle as he preferred to drink nothing rather than Heineken.

We looked enviously across the Herengracht at the trip boats disgorging into a permanent queue outside NIOD, the National Institute for War Documentation, whose first foray into Museumnacht it was. Nevertheless we did a decent turnover purveying not only wine, ‘beer’, tea and coffee, but also delicious home-made pumpkin soup – served straight out of a picturesque giant pumpkin (shame I didn’t have my camera with me) – and that unwieldy Dutch staple, the rookworst. There’s nothing like a rookworst to pick you up after an exhausting night of museum-going.

I’m hoping and praying that when Museumnacht comes round next year, Castrum Peregrini will become a unique haven of hoppy tasty ale.

Stock ale 20 June 2013

Posted by cooperatoby in beer, Brussels.
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Great news that Brussels’ disused stock exchange is to be turned into the Belgian Beer Temple. It’s good that we should worship beer there and not capitalism. I particularly like the idea that the exploration of Belgium’s brewing heritage will be “a non-linear discovery, with a dynamic and interactive content” according to Brussel Nieuws. Belgian beer is certainly strong enough to make it so!

The city and the brewers’ federation have the ambition to turn this landmark, which is appropriately modelled on a Greek temple and whose front steps are a favourite perch for young people, into one of the city’s top five tourist attractions. I suspect it has something to do with the plans to pedestrianise the square in front of the building. It’s about time: I remember being distinctly underwhelmed by my visit to the dingy Brewers’ Guildhall on the Grand’ Place many years ago, so somewhere with more natural light and space will be welcome. The brewers’ federation has already been testing the water with its annual Beer Weekend in that same square and it has proved very popular (even if deterringly bureaucratic).

Two ways to fail

There are two ways the brewers could mess this idea up. First they could over-commercialise it – a warning may be found in the horrific prices charged at the shop called the Beer Tempel in Grasmarkt. (Does the brewers’ federation already run that? I never guessed.)
The second would be to exclude the smaller and more innovative brewers that are springing up. For years the only brewer actually brewing beer for sale in the city was aeons-old gueuze paradise Cantillon. It was joined in 2010 by the Brasserie de la Senne, who dared to brew stout and use an English amount of hops in their beer. This month sees the Brussels Beer Project market testing 4 beers called Alpha, Beta, Gamma and, you guessed it, Delta. It aims to be a ‘community brewery’ – not only do the public get to vote on how the beer should taste, they will also be asked to crowdfund it. This is the sort of new and experimental brewing that will keep beerophiles coming back.

Perhaps one shouldn’t read too much into models 6 May 2013

Posted by cooperatoby in Brussels.
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Derailed mini-ThalysWe visited Mini-Europe the other week (see photo album), a temptation I’ve denied myself for two decades that was finally made inevitable by the visit to Brussels of my two step-grandsons Tijme and Siem (along with their parents Roos and Michiel of course). It was a now-or-never decision, given the rumours that the attraction is to close.
Mini-Europe's entirely ineffectual fireboats
I enjoyed the fine architectural models and I loved the jokes: Don Quixote plods along a path in La Mancha; in a nearby lake three dolphins leap, and nearby a diver is pursued to the end of time by a shark – the boys love sharks. Their favourite though was the ‘fire at the oil terminal’ scenario in which a tank goes up in flames and is attended by two fireboats drawn by underwater cables. These squirt water in entirely the wrong direction – and the fire obediently goes out anyway. Unfortunately Vesuvius waited till we were leaving before it exploded.
There are a number of entertaining sideshows which on that Sunday morning were uncrowded: you can pilot radio-controlled boats, help a gendarme to catch a robber, and compose a customised electronic postcard to e-mail to your friends
Mini-Europe mirrors the rise and fall of Europe’s self-confidence – the early EU countries are represented in force – and so is fractious Britain – and the high point of European optimism, the fall of the Berlin Wall, is enacted before one’s very eyes (thankfully the famous Brezhnev-Honecker kiss is not animated). More recently, the obligation to include each new EU member state seems to have grown too onerous – Malta is represented rather minimally by a prehistoric stone circle.
Symbolic derailment?
And the park is showing its age. Nothing is left of some exhibits (Pisa cathedral, what I imagine was an Alpine cable-car) but a ghostly impression, so it seem that the owners have decided that maintaining them is no longer worth the candle – although the first building that greets one is the renovated Berlaymont, so some money (whose?) has been invested recently. Most of the lorries that used to drive around following cleverly buried wires now sit stationary.
Perhaps what best symbolises Mini-Europe’s decline is the model of the Thalys high-speed train. Various other trains shuttle to and from advertising sponsors such as DHL, but the Thalys has toppled off its track, and no one has rescued it. This is inappropriate because the real-life Thalys (unlike a certain other attempt at a high-speed train in these parts) actually works rather well.
Outside the gates, there is a jolly fairground roundabout and disappointing catering establishments that visitors to tourist attractions have to suffer.

The joy of organs 5 March 2011

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I’ve discovered a new joy in organs – of the street, café or dance variety.

Enthralled children at the Museum Speelklok in Utrecht

It all started when my cousin Steve Greatrex took me to the Museum Speelklok in Utrecht. This not only collects and restores mechanical musical instruments and curious automata of all sorts, but is a paradise for children, who can punch out and play their own tunes. Last week was half-term so it was busy: the museum now attracts over 110,000 visitors a year. One of the main reasons for its success must be the enthusiasm of the guides, who are mostly music students. It’s absolutely infectious. And it’s a popular art from, the predecessor of the jukebox and the MP3 player.
As we were shown round by Jelle Verhoeks and Alberic Godderis, I had a sudden flashback. I remembered how once day in the late 80s I’d set out on a beer expedition to Beersel, a village southwest of Brussels. We tracked down the Oud Beersel pub on the outskirts, which had a reputation for its home-blended gueuze. We installed ourselves in the middle of the room, at a party table encircled by a round bench. As we supped our sour beer, the landlord walked over to a contraption built into the wall, opened it up, pressed a button and played us a rousing tune. I didn’t know what to make of it at the time, but now I realise I was privileged to be listening to what was probably Belgium’s last café organ, a Mortier Orchestrion. The pub is now a flower shop and the organ has been sold to an American collector. Happily the brewery nextdoor was reopened in 2006.
Until quite recently an organ grinder toured the back streets of St-Gilles a couple of times a year, but nowadays it’s quite rare to find an organ, a Dutch trademark, on Holland’s streets. There are plenty of collectors so they are no longer being broken up. But it’s a real shame that such uplifting and essentially public instruments should be hidden away in private and never heard.

Holland in miniature 17 October 2009

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A fortnight ago, in perfect autumn weather, we visited the Nederlands Openluchtmuseum near Arnhem. it has everything: a tramline to get around on, a brewery and even its complement, a street urinal.

‘Zaanstreek’ windmill

Of course it covers all the Dutch stereotypes: it is dotted with windmills of various types, and has a steam-driven dairy where they will sell you various sorts of gouda. It has a reconstituted pond out of the Zaanstreek (strangely out of place up there in the Veluwe), with a green weatherboard house from Marken and a white drawbridge and a hand-hauled rope-guided ferry. You can shop in the bakery and the cavernous sweetshop, and sit and eat poffertjes or try riding a penny-farthing.

There’s an appelstroop manufactory, a piggy-bank collection, an Indonesian house, a maze…

The whole thing strikes exactly the right balance between its high-minded educational mission, national nostalgia and commerce. You can even get there by trolleybus. It makes a perfect day out.

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