From Norway to Hong Kong (via Dubrovnik)
Each time I return to Hong Kong I see something new. But the view is still unbeatable, as are the cu
This week's journey sets a high bar for my travel agent. I start in the north of Norway, go on to Dubrovnik and finish in Hong Kong. The Sanderstølen Conference, three hours north of Oslo, is a sort of energy-oriented Davos. There seems to be more snow here than was shown on BBC World and CNN from Switzerland.
How can anyone like snow? It's just about OK dusting the back garden twice a year, but it produces a seriously depressing landscape and is nasty, wet and cold. To think that there are some people who pray for it, pay huge quantities of cash to stand in queues in it, in order to risk breaking their legs on it. The latest climate-change reports suggest that it will disappear from European mountains, which will instead provide summer resorts for the panting inhabitants of Europe's southern coastal areas. Hope for the residents of Dubrovnik, then.
For years, my air travel has been dominated by reading briefs on the next country I'm visiting. In my last full year as a European commissioner I took more than 180 flights. Journey after journey was spent studying trade figures in Latin America or reports on drugs in Afghanistan. Now, I can read for fun again. The latest copy of the New York Review of Books is a must for a long journey, but I'm also reading more novels and am accompanied on flights this week by a great Indian novel - Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra.
When I'd finished all 900 pages, I felt bereft. From the first, savagely funny paragraph (it requires a health warning for dog lovers) it's a crackerjack, even if you're not familiar with Indian obscenities. Buy it, and look forward to the day when the books out of China are as good as those coming from India.
Croatia looks forward
Dubrovnik is a jewel, a fortified city on the largely unspoilt Croatian coast. The central drag - the Placa - leads from the northern to the southern gate, passing beautiful churches, a colonnaded customs building and grey stone houses. The footsteps of 500 years have worn the city's streets and squares as smooth as marble. From the heights above Dubrovnik, Serbian army reservists fired shells down on to the city below, killing many of its citizens and damaging its buildings. These are all now restored.
From the cemetery, where I attended a ceremony to commemorate the war dead, you can look up through the cypresses to the gun emplacements. The deputy mayor, a local professor, points to row after row of graves of those killed in the Serbian assault, many of them his pupils. All this happened 15 years ago and now Croatia is making good progress in its negotiations to join the European Union. I hope no country will seek to make its progress hostage to agreement on new institutional arrangements.
I loved the Hong Kong cops-and-robbers film trilogy Infernal Affairs, though I confess that I found myself a bit lost in the twists and turns of the final episode. I had to keep asking my wife to explain what was going on; she concentrates harder on films than I do and normally spots the bits of plotting that don't work.
I was a bit surprised that these films didn't give a slightly better idea of just what a beautiful city Hong Kong is. After all, the South Island New Zealand landscape was the star of The Lord of the Rings. Each time I come back to Hong Kong I see something new, admittedly through the polluted haze blown over the city from the industrialised Pearl River Delta. President Hu Jintao is said to be serious about trying to rein in polluting heavy industry, one of the reasons for his defenestration of the Shanghai Communist Party boss.
On this, at least, all the rest of us should be on President Hu's side. Anyway, the view is still unbeatable. I used to spend the whole day sitting at the window at the top of one of Hong Kong's hotels (the best in the world) looking out over the harbour. I'd better own up - that's exactly what I'm doing now.
Everyone in Hong Kong knows that I like the local custard tarts and opened my favourite baker's new shop last year. I always get given prodigious quantities and this time I bring a big box home. They get through the security machine at the airport, but not past my wife. Confiscated again, alas.