NOT QUITE HEAVEN

Barry Oak­ley re­ports from the com­fort of his arm­chair on an am­bi­tious new travel nar­ra­tive

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Holidays Afloat -

PRO­CEED care­fully be­fore reach­ing the first chap­ter of Heaven on Earth by Matthew Brace (Ebury Press, $24.95). Step over a straw man in the pref­ace that Brace has duly de­mol­ished: ‘‘ It is not enough any more sim­ply to take a hol­i­day. We don’t want boil-in-the-bag tourism any longer; we want ex­pe­ri­ences, won­der and mean­ing.’’

Now zigzag through the in­tro­duc­tion, avoid­ing plat­i­tudes (‘‘It seems that in­creas­ingly we need our hol­i­days to mean some­thing’’) and hy­per­bole (‘‘Now we are fu­elling a sec­ond travel revo­lu­tion, a seis­mic shift in what we want next from our hol­i­days’’).

But once he lets go of the so­ci­o­log­i­cal mi­cro­phone, Brace drives a mean tourist bus, tak­ing us to what he claims are the new travel hot spots: North­ern Ire­land, Ro­ma­nia and Libya.

In the new North­ern Ire­land, where Catholics and Protes­tants are shar­ing power af­ter 40 years of fight­ing, nightlife in Belfast is a blast, metaphor­i­cally in­stead of lit­er­ally, and the paramil­i­tary mu­rals are now a tourist at­trac­tion. But old an­i­mosi­ties still linger. When Brace was tak­ing pic­tures of one of the art­works, a young wo­man with a child on her hip walked in front of him and gave him a taste of the old elo­quence: Fack off.’’

Brace sees an­other revo­lu­tion at the other end of Europe, in Ro­ma­nia, but it doesn’t sound like a must-see to me. The big­gest rea­son for not go­ing is the Pres­i­den­tial Palace, the world’s largest build­ing af­ter the Pen­tagon. Tiny men need to com­pen­sate, and since Ni­co­lae Ceaus­escu was only 4ft 9ins (the old im­pe­rial mea­sure ex­presses it bet­ter), the dic­ta­tor’s com­pen­sa­tion was con­sid­er­able: 3100 rooms, with a nu­cle­ar­bomb-proof base­ment and an in­te­rior space large enough to take a he­li­copter on top.

It came for him and his equally aw­ful wife, Elena, in the end, but they were put in front of a fir­ing squad when it landed again.

If you can avoid this mon­stros­ity, the new, free Bucharest of­fers street mu­si­cians, sonorous Ortho­dox litur­gies and minia­ture golf on the roof of the In­terCon­ti­nen­tal Ho­tel. I am sure there is more, but Brace didn’t seem to stay long enough to find it.

He is more per­sua­sive about Libya, where he vis­its Lep­tis Magna, pos­si­bly the best­p­re­served Ro­man city out­side Italy. It is built of lime­stone and has thus re­mained largely in­tact, with a mag­nif­i­cent theatre, the manda­tory Ro­man baths and a colon­naded high­way once lined with stalls, where the li­ons, leop­ards and camels were kept be­fore be­ing taken to the im­pe­rial cap­i­tal.

Scorn­ing what he calls ‘‘ safe and fluffy’’ des­ti­na­tions, Brace now goes to a lit­eral hot spot: a live vol­cano called Are­nal in Costa Rica. When he hears it boom­ing in the dis­tance, his guide calms his nerves: ‘‘ This is noth­ing; it’s just say­ing hello.’’ Brace starts climb­ing, past roar­ing fu­maroles — es­cape valves for the pres­sures un­der­neath — and into the path of the burn­ing boul­ders blown out of the vol­cano, break­ing up as they bounce. He uses his soc­cer skills to weave and dodge, sprains his an­kle and limps back to safety.

Hav­ing felt the tremors of pure ad­ven­ture, Brace goes in search of spir­i­tual ex­pe­ri­ence and finds it in the Shet­land Is­lands, the most northerly out­post of the Bri­tish Isles. Shet­land’s pla­ce­names, an aro­matic mix­ture of Scots and Norse, sound as if imag­ined by Tolkien. Be­yond Fladdabis­ter, Muckle Flugga, Fleck and Grut­ness Voe, he fer­ries to the tiny is­land of Mousa, where an Iron Age tower, or broch , has sur­vived for more than 2000 years.

Later, Vik­ings in­hab­ited the broch and, as Brace pon­ders th­ese things, around the head­land came the sil­hou­ette of a Vik­ing long­ship, its silent oars­men row­ing in per­fect syn­chronic­ity. It’s what he calls ‘‘ a Blue Bub­ble travel ex­pe­ri­ence’’.

And it’s the spir­i­tual and pas­toral that brings out the best in Brace. His tourist-bus jok­i­ness is re­placed by the con­tem­pla­tive and ele­giac. When he finds the ul­ti­mate ecore­sort on Vic­to­ria’s Cape Ot­way Penin­sula, he sounds like Dylan Thomas: ‘‘ In the skies above us olive whistlers whis­tled, fan­tails fanned and su­perb blue wrens wrenned, and some­where, sleep­ing off a long night of ro­dent hunt­ing, was a pow­er­ful owl.’’

De­spite the in­tro­duc­tion’s talk of tourism’s seis­mic shifts, this is what travel, and good travel writ­ing, has al­ways been about. Barry Oak­ley is a for­mer lit­er­ary ed­i­tor of TheAus­tralian . Matthew Brace is an oc­ca­sional con­trib­u­tor to Travel&In­dul­gence .

Peace at last: Peo­ple re­lax in the grounds of City Hall in Belfast, North­ern Ire­land

A head of its time: Libya’s Lep­tis Magna

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