Tarragona’s Amphitheater

Grove Koger

Tarragona’s Roman amphitheater is remarkable not only for its position overlooking the blue waters of the Balearic Sea but also for the fact that much of it was carved in situ out of the existing bedrock. The structure is 427 feet by 335 feet in size, and, at the time of its completion in the early second century CE, when the city was known as Tárraco, could accommodate an audience of some 12,000. In its early years, the amphitheater was the scene of the usual array of cruel Roman spectacles, and was renovated during the reign of Roman Emperor Heliogabalus (204-222).

Heliogabalus made quite a name for himself—briefly. According to historian Edward Gibbon, he “abandoned himself to the grossest pleasures and ungoverned fury” and was assassinated at the age of 18. So black was his reputation that he was then subjected to damnatio memoriae—the erasure of all references to his existence from the historical record. (The fact that such a practice actually had a recognized name tells us a lot about the time.) Nevertheless, archaeologists have discovered traces of his memory in the inscription celebrating the amphitheater’s renovation. It seems that they found key letters on scattered fragments of marble, allowing them to piece together what would have been a reference to the hated emperor.

Tarragona’s mayor asked modernista architect Josep Maria Jujol to undertake the amphitheater’s restoration in the mid-1920s, but nothing came of the project, and it would be the middle of the century before any serious work was done. Decades later, in 2000, the amphitheater was designated as one component of a UNESCO World Heritage Site—the Archaeological Ensemble of Tárraco.

When Maggie and I are in Tarragona, we stay in a small, family-run hotel a short bus ride up the coast from the amphitheater. After an afternoon of swimming on Savinosa Beach and a light dinner at a chiringuito (beach bar) called Pepe’s & Lugano Restaurant and Chill-out (that’s transcribed correctly, by the way), we can enjoy the view above from our hotel balcony.

Matisse & the Seductive Colors of Corsica

Grove Koger

If you’re thinking about visiting the Mediterranean island of Corsica in the near future (I know, I know), there’s an exhibit that you won’t want to miss.

Matisse en Corse, un Pays Merveilleux (Matisse in Corsica, a Wonderful Country) opened earlier this year at the Musée de la Corse in the city of Corte and runs through December 30. It celebrates Henri Matisse’s six-month visit to the French island in 1898, a period in which he painted 55 works.

The trip was actually part of Henri and Amélie Matisse’s honeymoon, and took them to the port of Ajaccio on the island’s rugged southwestern coast, where they stayed in the Villa de la Rocca (now renamed the Villa Matisse) for more than five months. The 28-year-old artist had never traveled south of Brittany, and the experience represented his introduction to the Mediterranean world. Apparently he found all the subjects he needed near the villa, and was especially fond of the nearby Route des Sanguinaires, which runs along the southern coast of the port and overlooks the dark red porphyry Sanguinaires (Bloody) Islands.

As it turned out, the trip had a decisive effect on Matisse. As he later put it, he was “seduced by the brilliance of pure color.” However, his fellow artists had reservations when they saw his new canvases, with one remarking that they looked like they’d been painted by “a mad and epileptic Impressionist.” In fact, Impressionism had begun to lose adherents by then, and the stage was set for the appearance of new movements, including Fauvism (with which Matisse was identified for a time) and Cubism. But “for many years to come,” as Hillary Spurling puts it in her 1998 biography The Unknown Matisse, the young artist’s Corsican paintings were “too disturbing to be shown to his contemporaries except in private.”

Besides twenty or so works that Matisse painted on the island (several of which have never been exhibited in public), the show includes works dating from his subsequent time on the mainland in Toulouse and the little port of Collioure. Matisse en Corse draws on private collections as well as public institutions such as the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Matisse Museum in Nice, and the Musée de l’Annonciade in Saint-Tropez.

The image at the top of today’s post is Landscape of Corsica, the second is Sunset in Corsica, and the third is Corsican Landscape. The poster features the painting The Sea in Corsica, Le Scoud. All are by Matisse, and all date from 1898.


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Flying with Roland Garros

Grove Koger

September 23 is remembered in France as the anniversary of an aviation milestone.

The pilot involved was Adrien Roland Georges Garros, born October 6, 1888, in the French colony of Réunion in the Indian Ocean. Commonly known as Roland Garros, he was educated in Paris and took up bicycling in the Riviera city of Cannes as a means of recovering from pneumonia. Subsequently he became interested in several sports, including tennis and rugby, as well as in automobiles and, particularly, airplanes.

The first plane he flew was a Demoiselle (Dragonfly) monoplane. He mastered the basics quickly and received his aviator’s license in July 1910 before graduating to Blériot models. He entered several air races in the following years, and placed in several of the stages of the 1911 Circuit d’Europe (Circuit of Europe), which involved flying from Paris to London and back.

Garros set an altitude record in September 1911, reaching 12,960 feet, and broke his own record the following year when he reached 18,410 feet. But it was on September 23, 1913, that he achieved an even greater accomplishment. Piloting a Morane-Saulnier G, he flew from a naval airfield on the Riviera, Aérodrome de Fréjus-St. Raphael, to Bizerte in northern Tunisia (then a French protectorate), becoming the first person to fly non-stop across the Mediterranean. The flight had taken 7 hours 53 minutes, and had covered nearly 500 miles. The plane’s tank held more than 50 gallons of fuel, but sources differ over how much (meaning how little) fuel he had left at the end of the flight. Was it one gallon? Two and a half? 

Garros flew as an escort pilot with Escadrille 26 in World War I, but was shot down and held captive for nearly three years before escaping and making his way to London and back to France. After rejoining his squadron, he was shot down again and killed on October 5, 1918.

If the name Roland Garros sounds familiar, it may be because you’ve watched or even attended the famous French tennis tournament known as Les Internationaux de France de Roland-Garros. Or it may be that you’ve admired the monument dedicated to the aviator as you strolled through Place Roland Garros in Bizerte, in which case I envy you. Or it may even be that you’ve flown into the Aéroport de la Réunion Roland Garros on another one of your trips, in which case I’m doubly envious.

The image at the top of today’s post is a French postage stamp issued in 2013. The photograph of Garros is reproduced courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and shows the pilot standing in front of his Demoiselle plane in 1910. The third image is a poster designed by Lucien Cavé and published by the French Secrétariat Général à La Défense Aérienne in 1930, and the final image is the logo of the airport in Saint-Denis, Réunion.


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A Look at Loch Ness

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Grove Koger

When Maggie and I planned our trip to Scotland in 2006, we included visits to Loch Ness and Morar (a favorite haunt of composer Arnold Bax) on our “loop” around the country. So, after short stays in Edinburgh and the Highlands city of Inverness, we took a bus down the western shore of the loch to the colorfully named village of Drumnadrochit. There we toured the stunning ruins of Urquhart Castle and—who could resist it?—the Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition.

The loch is, of course, the realm of a reputed “monster.” Countless book and articles have been written about this cryptid, and some of the them are good—sober-minded in their presentation of the evidence and carefully reasoned in their conclusions. I have little to add to the discussion aside pointing out a few facts. Loch Ness is nearly 23 miles long, has a surface area of almost 22 square miles and a maximum depth of almost 745 feet. And it holds close to two cubic miles of water. In other words, it’s very, very large. On the other hand, although there are several species of fish native to the loch, there aren’t enough of them to feed a large carnivore for any length of time, much less a breeding population of them.

On the other hand still, a number of reported sightings strike me as being reasonably credible; the witnesses really do seem to have seen something. Eels, which can grow to nearly six feet in length, are common in Loch Ness and might be responsible for some of the sightings. As scientists have recently reported, “there is a very significant amount of eel DNA” in the loch’s waters.

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In any case, we booked what turned out to be an enjoyable boat ride on the loch, from which we caught a glimpse of Boleskine House high on the eastern shore. For years the residence of Aleister Crowley (1875-1947), known in Magick circles as “the Beast,” it was later owned by Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, who was taken with Crowley’s occult theories. Sadly, the house was badly damaged by fire in 2015 and again in 2019.

Urquhart Castle, on the other hand, was already in bad shape at the time of our visit—really bad shape, in fact. While its history stretches back to the thirteenth century, the structure was abandoned and partially destroyed in the seventeenth. There’s an odd satisfaction to be had in contemplating ruins, as Rose Macaulay observes in her book Pleasure of Ruins (1953), and that afternoon, on a headland overlooking the loch, we indulged that satisfaction to the utmost.

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Speaking of pleasure, Scotland offered us a bounty of calorie- and cholesterol-rich food. We enjoyed the full Scottish “fry up” at breakfast, of course: fried eggs, bacon, fried potatoes, fried tomatoes, fried mushrooms, and fried bread. Dinners consisted of meat pies, fat sausages swimming in rich gravy, and … haggis, which turned out to be an unexpectedly tasty surprise, all washed down with draughts of pale ale.

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Isak Dinesen in Africa

Today’s post from my book When the Going Was Good describes the most famous work by Danish writer Isak Dinesen, who died September 7, 1962.


Out of Africa (London: Putnam, 1937)

Isak Dinesen was born and grew up in Denmark. As a young woman she had fallen in love with her second cousin, but upon rejection turned to his twin, Bror Blixen. Before their marriage, the two had toyed with the idea of managing a rubber plantation in Malaya, but a relative’s ecstatic description of the British East African colony of Kenya led them to change their plans. 

The couple married in Kenya in 1913 and subsequently lived on a plantation of 4,500 (later 6,000) acres twelve miles from the city of Nairobi and only one hundred miles south of the equator. Six hundred acres were given over to growing coffee, but the plantation’s soil turned out to be unsuited to coffee and the region’s rainfall too meager. When the couple divorced in 1922, Dinesen kept the plantation, but falling coffee prices finally forced her to sell in 1931. It was at this same time that Dinesen’s lover, aviator and safari leader Denys Finch Hatton, died in a plane crash. Dinesen remained long enough to pick his burial site and to convince government officials that the Africans who had worked on her plantation deserved enough land to continue living together.

It was only with the passage of time that Dinesen was able to write Out of Africa, as she called her memoir of the plantation and her life there. The book’s opening words, “I had a farm in Africa,” suggest its nearly mythic simplicity. Dinesen wrote the book first in English, and only afterward refashioned it in Danish, employing (at least in its English version) a burnished, slightly archaic prose. She had studied painting in her youth, and the work shows a painterly deployment of carefully chosen detail against a sweepingly sketched background. It concludes with a series of painful losses—of the dashing Denys Finch Hatton, of the farm, in a sense of Africa itself—and passes silently over others, but Dinesen manages to wrest a literary triumph from her many defeats.

If you’re looking for a good edition of Out of Africa, the 1963 Time-Life edition includes an introduction by Alan Moorehead, the 1980 Folio Society edition (1980) includes an introduction by Elspeth Huxley, and Cresset Press’s Illustrated Out of Africa (1989) adds a number of illustrations, some in color.      

Other works by Dinesen include Shadows on the Grass; Letters from Africa, 1914–1931; and Isak Dinesen’s Africa: Images of the Wild Continent from the Writer’s Life and Words. Bror Blixen wrote several books himself, including two that have been translated into English: African Hunter and The Africa Letters.


The image at the top of today’s post is the cover of the first edition of Out of Africa, and the portrait of Dinesen dates from her years in Kenya. Besides being a writer, Dinesen was a talented artist; the painting reproduced is Ereri, an old Kikuyu (1923).

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A Sicilian Medley

Grove Koger

I make caponata at least once a year, but somehow I never think about it until midsummer. It may have something to do with the slant of the light or the rich, spicy smell of the August air. Or it may simply be that I’ve just noticed how enticing the eggplants look in my local grocery. In any case, once I think of it, I’m compelled to make it—which I did a few days ago.

Caponata is a Sicilian dish, and the first appearance of the word was apparently in a Sicilian etymology in 1709. However, it may have originated in Catalonia as the similar relish caponada. Noted Italian doctor, writer, and gastronome Alberto Denti di Pirajno, whose books include Siciliani a tavola, believed that it may have been devised to serve on long sea voyages, as one of its ingredients, vinegar, would have acted as a preservative. And whatever else, the Catalans were noted mariners.

But whether or not there’s a Catalonian connection, caponata is truly international. Eggplants probably originated far to the east of Sicily, in India, while tomatoes, of course, are native to the New World. And as the relish exists today, its melding of sweet and sour flavors reflects the pervasive influence of nearby North Africa—only 219 miles away across the Strait of Sicily. As Waverley Root points out in his comprehensive Food of Italy, “every Sicilian dish is a medley.”

Recipes for caponata vary widely, and I routinely combine a couple of them. Besides eggplants and tomatoes (or tomato sauce), its ingredients are olive oil, vinegar (I use balsamic), celery, and a dash of sugar. But the relish’s character derives in large part from its secondary ingredients, which can include capers, olives (the oil-cured kind when I can get my hands on them), garlic, cinnamon, pine nuts, currants, thyme, and cocoa powder. In her classic Italian Food, Elizabeth David provides a recipe (said to be from the then-chef of the German ambassador in Rome) that calls for anchovies. Root notes that “every city, town, village and hamlet in Sicily seems to have its own sacrosanct recipe” for the dish, and mentions asparagus, artichokes and hard-boiled eggs!

Whatever recipe(s) you use, caponata is best eaten at room temperature after being allowed to sit overnight in your refrigerator.

The map of Sicily dates from 1747 and is the work of an unknown engraver working for the German firm of Homann Heirs, while the cover illustration for Italian Food is by noted Italian artist Renato Guttuso.


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A Walk in the Park in Barcelona

Grove Koger

If things had turned out differently, Maggie and I would be in Barcelona about now, and one of the city’s many attractions we’d be visiting would be the 70-acre Parc de la Ciutadella—the Park of the Citadel.

At the time we made our hotel reservations in 2018, we were only vaguely aware of the proximity of the park. That changed quickly after we checked in, as we stared out from our fifth-floor window onto a sea of green across the street. However, there was … something … golden, so shiny that it was hard to discern in the bright August sun, far below us amidst the trees.  

As we explored the park that afternoon, we realized, more or less, what it was that we had spied. I phrase it that way because it took some time and study to make out what we were seeing, but even then it wasn’t quite clear. The Font de la Cascada almost defies description, but Robert Hughes comes close in his book Barcelona (Knopf, 1992). “With its triumphal arch and steps, its quadriga [four-horse chariot] and its water-spouting griffins, its Neptune and Leda and Amphitrite and Danaë, its river gods and its central group of a chastely draped marine Venus in a flamenco posture, standing on a shell on top of what appears to be a mass of artificial lava dragged, against friction, by four sea horses, the Cascade is a work of almost unsurpassable ugliness, pomposity, and eclectic confusion.”

As you might have guessed, the Cascade is the work of a committee. In its original, and undoubtedly more satisfying, form, it dates from 1881, but that simple design apparently didn’t sit well with a public hungry for Culture. As a result, a clutch of architects (including young Antoni Gaudí) were commissioned to make it artier. And they did …

Digging into the park’s history, we learned that its name can be traced back to 1714, the year that marked the end of the Siege of Barcelona and, with it, the conclusion of the divisive War of the Spanish Succession. In the conflict’s aftermath, the victorious Philip V, whom the Catalonians had opposed, tore down a section of the port’s Ribera district to erect an enormous five-cornered citadel—which Barcelona’s citizens themselves were forced to build and pay for. By the middle of the following century, however, the hated citadel was no longer needed and many of its walls and buildings were razed. Juan Prim, who was briefly Spain’s Prime Minister, ceded the land to the city on condition that it be turned into a public park.

Parc de la Ciutadella’s extensive grounds were landscaped by architect Josep Fontsére in the early 1870s, and a few years later, in 1888, the park was chosen as the site of the Exposició Universal de Barcelona. It was thanks to this event that the park took on the general aspect that we see today, as it involved, among other improvements, the construction of the fanciful Castell dels tres dracs, or Castle of the Three Dragons (seen in the background of the photograph at the top of today’s post), and, what’s since become my favorite Barcelonian landmark, the truly magnificent red brick Arc de Triumf, or Triumphal Arch, which served as the main entrance to the fair.

The park also offered us more modest pleasures. We couldn’t help enjoying the antics of its many flocks of green parrots (Myiopsitta monachus). Descendants of unwanted South American pets, they’ve taken up raucous residence in and around the city—much to the consternation of the area’s garden farmers, who’ve seen their fields of tomatoes ravaged by the hungry invaders. Best of all, we sighted a delightful Eurasian hoopoe (Upupa epops) one afternoon bobbing its way across the grass near where we were sitting.  

I should mention that our hotel was the Motel One Barcelona-Ciutadella, which we had chosen not because of its name—“Motel One” must sound more exciting to European ears than to ours—but because it offers a rooftop terrace and bar. I ran across an article the other day headlined “Rooftop Cocktails in Barcelona!” The phrase has a pretentious air to it, but rooftop cocktails—gin and tonics, to be exact—are indeed what we enjoyed every evening of our visit as we stared out across the park and the city’s skyline to the open sea beyond.

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The Mysteries of Mysteries of Lisbon

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Grove Koger

There’s more doubling involved in Mysteries of Lisbon than just my title. First of all, there’s the 1854 novel Mistérios de Lisboa by the man who may have been Portugal’s most prolific writer, Camilo Castelo Branco, 1st Viscount of Correia Botelh (1825-1890). Then there’s Camilo’s own 1855 sequel, Livro negro de padre Diniz: Romance en continuação dos aos Mistérios de Lisboa. Then there’s an audacious 6-hour television miniseries from 2010 based on the novel and directed by Chilean filmmaker Raúl Ruiz (who died August 19, 2011). And then there’s a shortened version of the series, a 4-hour 32-minute film marketed in the United States as Mysteries of Lisbon, which offers yet more doubling—and more mysteries. (As if that weren’t enough, Ruiz’s widow and fellow director Valeria Sarmiento went on to film Livro negro in 2018, but let’s save that for another day.)

It’s difficult for me to say much about Camilo’s two novels, as they don’t seem to have been translated into English. But as David Frier notes in A Companion to Portuguese Literature, Mysteries and its sequel are “marked by convoluted plots, manichaeistic characterization, lengthy digressions, and sensational chains of events.” He adds that many of Camilo’s “major works reflect intensely some of the major experiences of the author’s personal history: A lonely childhood, distant and uncaring parents, and, above all, turbulent love affairs, often with two young lovers … struggling against the will of paternal authority and a complacent social establishment which closes ranks in its exclusion of those who seek to escape its norms.”

It’s somewhat easier to talk about Ruiz’s movie, although I’d have a difficult time putting together a coherent summary, since, as Frier suggests, there are multiple plot lines, numerous characters (the most important of whom appear in different guises) and several flashbacks. The period is the early-to-mid nineteenth century and the action ranges from Portugal to Venice and France and finally to one of Portugal’s tropical colonies. In point of fact, however, the film was actually shot in and around the picturesque little Portuguese town of Óbidos, which lies on the coast south of Lisbon.

The central character is an ostensible orphan named João who is being cared for at a school run by Father Dinis (played with quiet intensity by Adriano Luz) and who is taunted for his lowly origins. After João is hit in the head following a scuffle with his fellow students, he awakens to see a beautiful woman staring down at him. In what we come to realize is a key element of the movie, the woman leaves the boy a miniature theater as a gift, and from time to time it reappears, with important scenes represented, toy-like, within its proscenium arch. Ruiz is reminding us that what he’s showing us is, after all, unabashedly theatrical.

As you might guess, the beautiful woman is João’s mother, and as the movie continues, it’s revealed that her lover was João’s father. We learn the story of this forbidden romance, of the lover’s murder, and of the jealous husband’s vengeance. In another flashback, we watch someone who looks suspiciously like a young Father Dinis rescue the infant João from a roguish assassin known as “Knife Eater.” But what is the relationship between Father Dinis and the beautiful but embittered Elisa de Montfort? And where have we encountered the violent Alberto de Magalhães before? And so on, and on … until the movie’s final ambiguous scene, which suggests that we may need to rethink everything we’ve watched for the last four hours.

Mysteries of Lisbon won Best Film awards from the São Paulo International Film Festival, the Portuguese Golden Globes, and the Athens Panorama of European Cinema. Maggie and I were able to enjoy it thanks to one of Boise’s finest cultural institutions, The Flicks, which offers first-run art movies, a large collection of DVDs, and, at Rick’s Cafe Americain, a selection of wines, beers, and simple dishes. Unfortunately, however, there’s no piano. Sorry, Sam.

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The Portuguese stamp in the second image is one of several issued in 1925 to commemorate the centenary of Camilo’s birth.

The Sea, the Sky & Eugène Boudin

Grove Koger

A factor I value more and more in art as I see more and more paintings is weather: wind and clouds and sky, along with evidence of the season and suggestions of the temperature and the time of day. Entire eras seem to have passed in which artists took no notice of the weather, concentrating (it seems) on less ephemeral aspects of life. And yet most of those were eras in which heating and cooling systems were primitive, so the weather on any particular day must have been a concern. Today, of course, is a different story, and whatever the strengths and weaknesses of any particular artist or work, weather doesn’t seem to play much of a part. And I miss it.

Surely one of the factors involved in these developments has to do with where artists actually paint. A studio is one thing, but the open air is another, and Eugène Boudin, who died August 8, 1898, was one of the first French artists to work en plein air, as the French put it, or outdoors.  

We seem to have Henri de Valenciennes (1750-1819) to thank for the concept. He himself painted outdoors, and expounded his theories in his 1800 book Elémens de perspective pratique, a l’usage des artistes suivis de réflexions et conseils à un elève sur la peinture, et particulièrement sur le genre du paysage. There had been numerous reasons for working in the studio, ranging from the cumbersome process of preparing and mixing pigments to the difficulty of moving easels and canvases—not to mention the conservative attitudes common to academic art teachers. But the introduction of the box easel and paint in tubes made all the difference.

Boudin came by his vocation and his favorite subjects—the seaboard and the sky—naturally. He was born in 1824 in Honfleur, a port near the mouth of the Seine on the English Channel where his father worked as a harbor pilot. In 1835, the elder Boudin moved his family across the river to the larger port of Le Havre, where he opened a stationary and framing shop. There the young Boudin, who had himself worked for a time on a steamboat, met artists such as Jean-François Millet, who displayed his work in the shop and who encouraged Boudin’s interest in painting. Subsequently Boudin studied in Paris, where he saw and admired the works of Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, who would later call him the “master of the sky.”

Boudin painted his subjects directly and with care, even noting the atmospheric conditions and the time of day on the backs of his canvases. Some of his paintings are of unaffectedly natural scenes: cattle grazing peacefully, for instance, and sailing ships careened at low tide. But he owes his most characteristic works to an important technological achievement—the construction of the 142-mile Ligne Paris-Le Havre, which was completed in 1847. The railway made it possible for middle-class and aristocratic Parisians to visit the seaside. And visit they did, encouraged by the example of President (later Emperor) Napoleon III and his wife, the Empress Eugénie, both of whom popularized bathing in the sea.

Thus it’s scenes of smart Parisian tourists, stylishly (over)dressed and grouped within sight of the water, some standing, most comfortably seated, that Boudin painted by the dozens. There’s often a dog, and occasionally we see “bathing machines”—wheeled carts in which the bravest souls could change into somewhat less cumbersome costumes and be helped into the water.

Boudin’s natural affinity with the early impressionists led to his exhibiting with them in 1874, although he subsequently gravitated to the more conservative Paris Salons. “I am a loner,” he once remarked, “a daydreamer who has been content to remain in his part of the world and look at the sky.” The loner began to enjoy official attention in the late 1880s, and was awarded the Legion of Honour in 1892.


The image at the top of today’s post is Boudin’s painting The Beach near Trouville, c. 1865. The portrait is by Pierre Petit, and is reproduced courtesy of the Archives Larousse, Paris. The second painting is On the Beach near Trouville, and was painted about 1863. The final image is Beach Scene at Trouville, another painting dating from 1863.

A Taste of Lambic

Grove Koger

Despite its downscale reputation in some quarters, beer is a sophisticated beverage. While it involves the simplest of ingredients, it can be brewed in a number of different ways, resulting in beers that vary widely in taste, appearance, alcoholic content—and, of course, quality.

Beer can actually be brewed from almost anything that has sugar in it (although cereal grains are standard), but the compilers of a centuries-old set of criteria, the Reinheitsgebot, or Purity Law, attempted to lay down strict guidelines. Enacted in Bavaria in 1516, the law specifies that only barley, hops, and water can be used in making beer. But another ingredient—yeast—has since been added to the mix. The tiny fungi were always present, of course, floating in the air or present on the surfaces of the vessels involved in the brewing process, but early brewers didn’t realize that they were there.

The Reinheitsgebot has now been incorporated into the Bekanntmachung der Vorlaeufigen Neufassung des Biergesetzes, or Announcement of the Preliminary Revision of the Beer Act. While the act is regarded as something of a standard, the world is swamped with mass-produced beers that adhere to its guidelines but are perfectly insipid. Sophisticated brewers have long since learned to use different varieties of hops, for instance, and varying kinds of yeasts. And they often add flavorings to the beer at one stage or another of its production.

All of which brings us to lambic beers, which are brewed in Belgium’s Pajottenland region. Brewers here use a mixture of malted barley and unmalted wheat, and rely on the wild Brettanomyces bruxellensis and Brettanomyces lambicus yeasts natural to the area. Because harmful free-floating organisms are more common in the warmer months, production of lambic is limited to October through May. Substantial quantities of aged hops are used, but primarily for their preservative rather than their bittering qualities. The resulting beers tend to be dry and vinous, or “winey.” They’re also often flavored with fruit, including cherries, peaches, and raspberries, and sometimes sweetened.

The lambic that Maggie and I enjoy from time to time is a kriek lambic from Brouwerij Lindemans, a family-owned brewery founded in 1822 and based southwest of Brussels. The beer is flavored with fresh juice from the native Schaarbeekse variety of sour Morello cherries, and comes in a 12-ounce bottle that’s not only corked but also capped and topped distinctively with red foil.

The online site Beer Advocate scores Lindemans kriek lambic at 88, or “very good,” which is a little lower than the pale ales and India pale ales that we generally drink. Its ABV (alcohol by volume) is a low 3.5%, and its cherry flavor is pronounced—as is its ruby-red color. A spokesman for Lindemans explains that when the company began exporting the beer to the United States in the 1970s, the motion at sea reactivated the fermentation process and popped the corks. Now their lambic is pasteurized and apparently a bit sweeter than it once was. After sharing a bottle the other evening, Maggie and I agreed that it’s an excellent way to begin a celebratory evening—and a pleasant alternative to the cava we might otherwise choose.

The photograph of the Brouwerij Lindemans is by Paul Hermans and the photogaph of Morello cherries is by Rod Waddington; both are reproduced courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. If you’d like to know more about the brewery itself, watch the video How Do You Brew Lambic Beer on YouTube.

Mikhail Lermontov in the Caucasus

Grove Koger

What was the first Russian novel? It may have been Ivan Vyzhigin by Faddei Bulgarin, which was published in 1829 and in English translation by George Ross two years later. I haven’t read it, and I suspect that there are few now living who have, either in its original language or in English. But shortly after its publication, better-known novels by major Russian writers began to appear.

Nikolai Gogol published a short version of Taras Bulba in 1835, and Alexander Pushkin’s novel The Captain’s Daughter followed in 1836. Aside their historical importance, these two works remain quite readable today. But a longer novel dating from 1840 was destined to surpass them in psychological insight and technical innovation. The work was A Hero of Our Time, and its author was a young army officer named Mikhail Lermontov.

Born in 1814, Lermontov was a sickly child whose grandmother took him to spas in the northern Caucasus in hopes of improving his health. The treatment seems to have worked, but as an unruly military officer, he had two opportunities to become acquainted with the more mountainous regions to the south, finding himself banished there twice—in 1837 and again in 1840.

Throughout most of Lermontov’s life, Russia had been waging what historians call the Caucasian War, a protracted series of conflicts in which Lermontov’s compatriots fought a variety of indigenous peoples, including the Circassians and the Chechens. Russia had annexed Georgia, which lies south of the Greater Caucasus Mountains, in 1801, but the territory between southern Russia and Georgia remained unconquered. In an effort to pacify the region, Russia had established a series of forts in a rough line—the North Caucasus Line—stretching from the northern shores of the Black Sea on the west to the Caspian Sea on the east. And to make it easier to move troops, it had improved the surface of the 132-mile Georgian Military Road, an ancient route linking the southern Russian city of Vladikavkaz with the Georgian city of Tbilisi.

Young Lermontov had begun publishing romantic verse, much of which reflected the “exotic” allure of the Caucasus, in the late 1820s, and began writing his novel, which was set in the same region, in 1837 or early 1838. Three of its sections appeared in the magazine Otechestvennye Zapiski (Annals of the Fatherland) in 1839 and 1840, with book publication following shortly afterward.

The novel is written in six sections of varying lengths. They’re related by three different narrators, arranged out of chronological order, and are even cast in differing modes. However, they’re linked by Caucasian settings and recurring characters. And in the background is the ever-present Caucasian War.  

In the first section, “Bela,” an unnamed narrator recounts his meeting along the Military Road from Tbilisi with an aging officer named Maxim Maximych. Forced to take shelter in a native hut during a snowstorm, the two exchange remarks and Maximych recounts a tragic story involving another officer, Grigory Alexandrovich Pechorin, and a young Circassian woman.

Separated for a few days on the road, the two travelers meet again in the novel’s second section. The setting is Vladikavkaz, where they encounter Pechorin himself by chance. Maximych is overjoyed to see his old comrade in arms, but Pechorin feigns indifference and tells the two that he is on his way to Persia. He also urges the disappointed Maximych to do whatever he wishes with the personal papers that he had left with him. The narrator immediately asks for the papers, which are, as we subsequently learn, pages from Pechorin’s journal.

In the next, brief section, which takes place sometime later, the narrator explains that he has learned that Pechorin has died in Persia and that therefore he is publishing three extracts from his journal. “Taman” is set in the port of that name on an extension of the Black Sea known as the Sea of Azov, and “Princess Mary” takes place in the spa town of Pyatigorsk. The third extract, “The Fatalist,” is set in a village on the eastern flank of the Line and dramatizes the question of whether fate or chance governs our lives. While they illustrate different aspects of Pechorin’s character, the picture that emerges is of the ultimate Byronic hero—brooding, cynical, arrogant, and self-destructive.

Lermontov shared those characteristics, and they came to the fore at the end of his short life, when fate (or was it chance?) also took a hand. In late July 1841 he ridiculed a fellow officer so incessantly that the man challenged him to a duel. The event took place the afternoon of July 27, but although Lermontov refused to aim at his opponent (saying loudly, according to one account, that he would not “fire on that fool”), the other officer shot him in the chest, killing him instantly.

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The cover at the top of today’s post, scanned from my 1958 Doubleday Anchor paperback, is by Edward Gorey and is based on an 1837 oil by Lermontov himself, Caucasian View with Mount Elbruz. The map, taken from the same edition, is by Raphael Palacios and is adapted from an original by Dmitri Nabokov, Vladimir’s son. The elder Nabokov judged Lermontov’s language harshly, but added that if we consider him as a storyteller, “then we do marvel indeed at the superb energy of the tale.” The third image is another 1837 oil painting by Lermontov, The Military Georgian Road near Mtskheta (Landscae with a Saklia—Dwelling of Caucasian Mountaineers). Mtskheta, by the way, is a city in Georgia. The fourth image, also by Lermontov, is an 1837 sketch of Taman; both it and the painting are reproduced courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. The final image is a 1957 Soviet stamp celebrating Lermontov, and was designed by Vasily Zavyalov.