Brief intro: I have compiled a list of recent Japanese films that I enjoyed, as simple as that. I found them either good movies or that they provide an interesting insight view to Japanese culture. In this list I have not included horror films (I am a ISO-9000 certified chicken and therefore don’t like them) or anime (they are too well known). Here we go:

Tokyo Sonata (Tôkyô sonata, Kiyoshi Kurosawa 2008)

Tokyo Sonata

An average Japanese family running an average life filled with routine and little emotional communication. The underlying tensions explode the same day for all of them. It touches the always hard subject of the unemployment in the head of the family, how he deals with it and how affects the family. Some funny moments and emotional detachment in the way the story is told softens the drama. Won the “Un certain regard” award in Cannes.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0938341/?ref_=sr_1

Fish Story (Fisshu Sutôrî, Yoshihiro Nakamura 2009)

Fish Story

Can Japanese punk save the world? 4 stories intertwined in 4 different decades with a failed music group in the center while Earth is going to be destroyed by an asteroid. Fresh, funny and with a good soundtrack. I found hilarious how Japanese punks were terribly polite and considered.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1244666/?ref_=sr_1

Still Walking (Aruitemo, aruitemo, Hirokazu Koreeda 2008)

still walking

Koreeda transforms a family meeting into a masterpiece of hidden tensions, resentments, sadness and love that unfolds in front of our surprised eyes. Delicate and powerful at the same time, it has amazing moments like when we can hear Ayumi Ishida classic “Blue lights of Yokohama”. A wonderful movie.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1087578/?ref_=sr_1

Confessions (Kokuhaku, Tetsuya Nakashima 2010)

Confesions

Tetsuya Nakashima challenging Chan-Wook Park’s vengeance trilogy for the throne of most twisted revenge movie. Dark, powerful and with stunning moments, it was a massive hit in Japan.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1590089/?ref_=sr_5

Departures (Okuribito, Yojiro Takita 2008)

Departures

Winner of the Oscar for the Best Foreign Language Film in 2008. A sort of Japanese “Six Feet Under”, although the movie is far from perfect, it gives a really interesting and moving view of how Japanese people mourn their loved ones and prepare them for the Long Sleep. Tradition and respect. It has some moments of failed sentimentality and excessive softness but if you like Japanese culture is a must.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1069238/?ref_=sr_1

Love Exposure (Ai no mukidashi, Sion Sono 2008)

Love Exposure

A mesmerizing 4 hours tour-de-force that leaves no one indifferent. Religion, cults, guiltiness, fetishism, true love, teenagerhood, cross-dressing…impossible to classify, thrilling, excesive and unique. I have to admit it might not be for everyone’s taste, but I loved it and its 4 hours passed in a glimpse.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1128075/?ref_=sr_1

- The twilight samurai (Tasogare seibei, Yoji Yamada 2002)

el ocaso del samurai

A delightful revision of the samurai genre where feelings are more important than honor and fights. A sort of  “Unforgiven” for the samurai movies. The story line, the actors, scenery, the dialogues…all were brilliant. Nominated for the Oscar Best Foreign Language Film in 2003.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0351817/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1

- The hidden blade (Kakushi ken oni no tsume, Yoji Yamada 2004)

the hidden blade

After the success of the “The twilight samurai”, Yamada went back to a similar subject for his next film. This time the main subject is the end of the feudal samurai world and the change of an era that brought dramatic consequences to Japan and its people. Maybe not as perfect as the previous one but still a great movie made with care, talent and respect.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0442286/?ref_=sr_3

White Light/Black Rain:  The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Steven Okazaki 2007)

white light black rain

A breathtaking HBO documentary about the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the expected quality of their productions. Testimonies about the tens of thousands that were disintegrated in seconds and the thousands others that found themselves excluded from a society that rejected them since they could not understand their illness. I watched it just after coming back from Hiroshima and cried my eyes off as with very very few movies. Technically this is a USA movie, but who cares. Incredibly tough but necessary at the same time.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0911010/?ref_=sr_3

Cold Fish (Tsumetai nettaigyo, Sion Sono 2010)

cold fish

Brutal and with no concessions to the audience. Incredibly dark and with even darker humor. A big success within its possibilities in Europe and the proof that Sion Sono is a master at telling convingcinly and powerfully weird stories on the edge. Not your movie if you get easily impressed.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1632547/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1

Nobody knows (Dare mo shiranai, Hirokazu Koreeda 2004)

nadie sabe

Deep and melancholic, the movie tells the story of a group of half-syblings  who are abandoned by their mother. They need to learn to survive in a small flat in Tokyo. When they get in touch with the world outside the flat their thin balance starts to fall apart. Koreeda tells masterfully a sad story with tenderness, certain despair and without cheap sentimentalism.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0408664/?ref_=sr_1

- Sawako decides (Kawa no soko kara konnichi wa, Yuya Ishii 2010)

sawako decides

Light and irregular comedy that tells the story of Sawako, a young girl who is disenchanted of her mediocre life in Tokyo and goes back to the village where his sick dad lives. She decides to take charge of his old fashioned fish factory that is not doing very well. She will have to overcome the prejudice from the old female workers and others around the village while building a personal relationship. The Japanese original title is very cute: “From the very bottom of the river, Hello”

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1611082/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1

- 13 assassins (Jusan-nin no shikaku, Takashi Miike 2010)

13 asesinos

Miike puts aside the horror movies to film this remake of a typical samurai story while updating the genre showing lots of blood and violence in Tarantino fashion. A good contrast with the other samurai movis mentioned above, here fights and blood are everything.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1436045/?ref_=sr_1

Zatoichi (Zatoichi, Takeshi Kitano 2003)

Zatoichi

A good sample of Kitano at his best. The best known and most internationally acclaimed of the current Japanese directors tells the story of Zatoichi, a wandering samurai who has legendary fighting skills despite being blind. The very last scene of the movie is definitely one to remember.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0363226/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1

Battle Royale (Batoru Rowaiaru, Kinji Fukasaku 2000)

battle royale

Maybe the most famous one of all the list and a movie that has achieved a very well deserved cult status. In a somber future where there are too many people and too few resources a whole school class are taken to a deserted island. Only one of them can survive. With a brilliant dark humor, it leaves you glued to your seat while you assist at the teenagers killing each other for the most strange reasons. The scene where a stone-faced Kitano and his cheerleader explain the kids their fate is hilarious and soooo Japanese. There is a second part that i have not seen yet.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0266308/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1

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寝心に花を算へる雨夜哉

My sleepy mind

Counting cherry blossoms

A rainy night

Haiku from master Issa Kobayashi dedicated to the sakura

Tokyo is often described as fascinating, fast, different, vertical, overwhelming, oppressing…but treats like “beautiful” or “pretty” normally remain elusive. Still like all big cities it also has gorgeous spots, and the neighborhood of Nakameguro  during the sakura season is one of the best ones I have seen in the capital of Japan.

Sakura (桜; in hiragana さくら) is the flower of the Japanese Cherry tree and it is also used in a wider sense to name the moment when the cherry trees bloom. The sakura is one of the main national symbols of Japan and can be found on the 100 yen coin. One reason for its importance in Japanese culture is because it is a metaphor for the cycle of life according to Buddhism: continuous transformation during its short period of existence, fleeting and frail beauty that we should appreciate and understand in each of its stages. For centuries and till today the sakura has been a recurring inspirational motif in all types of artistic and cultural works: paintings, poetry, literature, etchings, furniture decoration, traditional folk songs…but also in more contemporary art expressions like cinema, manga, anime and pop songs.

The first cherry blossoms appear in early February at the subtropical archipelago of Okinawa, in the southern part of the country. Then the sakura travels up north throughout Japan. In Tokyo, Kyoto and Nara the flowers usually bloom at the end of March / beginning of April. Then the last stop is Hokkaido, the northernmost island, by mid May. Every year when the sakura approaches, TV stations and newspapers follow it by showing the Sakura Zensen – literally sakura front – , a map showing where the cherry blossoms have already bloomed and when it is expected to happen in other areas. Since the whole blooming cycle is very short -just a couple of weeks- planning in advance is essential to be able to see it at its best. Here is the forecast for 2013 and here is the famous list from the Japan Cherry Blossom Association with the top 100 spots to see the sakura around the country. My 3 favorite places from that list are Odawara castle, Nara Park and Arashiyama area in Kyoto.

Hanami (花見) -which translates as “flower viewing” -is the secular Japanese tradition of enjoying the beauty of the sakura  and continues to this day. It is believed it started during the Nara Period – s. VIII b.C. – among the higher classes, spreading to the rest of the society soon after. In the beginning it was the plum blossom –ume (梅)- that people admired but some decades later it was replaced by sakuras and cherry trees were planted all around the country for pure ornamental reasons (as they give no fruit). As it has been happening for hundreds of years, 21st century Japanese people await eagerly the sakura season. When it arrives they flee to the parks and temples in the thousands to eat, drink and picnic under the blossomed trees. During the weekends many of them stay until late at night enjoying the  yozakura – night hanami – when paper lanterns are lit for the occasion. Most of the Japanese people I know consider the sakura to be the most beautiful moment of the year and hanami their favorite activity, although some prefer the autumn when the leaves in the trees are full of vibrant colors.

The most popular and usual places to enjoy the sakura in Tokyo are the parks, particularly UenoYoyogi and Shinjuku Gyoen. They are all big spaces with countless cherry tress and they get ready for the massive crowds with food and drink stalls, souvenir shops, lanterns… creating a lively atmosphere. Despite their beauty I found them a bit too crowded with both locals and tourists. I enjoyed myself more when we went to the smaller but cozier Kinuta park for hanami. There was plenty of people but it was not too cramped and almost everyone was Japanese, which made it a bit more special as you felt part of the daily life of the city for one day. While we were sitting relaxed in the middle of the park we saw a couple of Domino’s Pizza delivery boys and to my surprise (and joy) it was possible to order a pizza then and there. They marked your position in a GPS they carried and your smoking hot pizza was delivered in half an hour. It definitely was a brilliant idea and they were quite a success.

But let’s go back to Nakameguro. Nakame, as Tokyo people call it, is a quiet residential neighborhood that has become one of the trendiest places in the city to go for hanami especially for people in their 20s and 30s. Its moment of glory occurs during the final part of the sakura – called chirisakura – when the petals of the flowers start to fall. What makes it so special is the presence of the Meguro river along the main street. The riverbed is confined into a narrow canal with high concrete walls on either side. These are topped by a metallic handrail from where the creepers descend to touch the river. On both sides of the canal there are dozens of robust cherry trees leaning towards the Meguro as if they wanted to take a peek at the water. The branches from the trees on both shores cross in the air forming a natural tunnel under which the river flows. When the sakura arrives the naked branches suddenly explode with life and the cherry trees seem to bend under the weight of thousand of petals. There is an unforgettable moment when you discover that the water of the Meguro has almost disappeared and all you can see is a carpet of white and pale pink petals that flows peacefully stream down.

When the wind blows the air fills with petals and all around is white as you were under a Siberian snowfall. This always brings huge smiles and even screams of joy from the Japanese girls – sugoi! sugoi! -. The narrow pedestrian street is full of all sort of restaurants, from small izakayas (Japanese style taverns  to Italian and French places. In some of them there are tables with river views but they are often booked up to 6 or 7 months in advance. The restaurants set food stalls and tables in the street helping to create a lively atmosphere. Late in the evening, when the sun has set and the lanterns are lit, is the most romantic moment of the day. If you happen to go to Tokyo too late for the sakura Nakameguro offers you a second chance: following the river a few hundred meters down the street there is an area with the so-called yae-zakura, dark pink cherry blossoms that bloom a couple of weeks later than the traditional sakuras.

The sakura has arrived to Nakameguro in 2013 (Photo by Naomi Hatta)

The sakura has arrived to Nakameguro in 2013 (Photo by Naomi Hatta)

Practical information:

- The closest tube station is Naka-Meguro, on the Tōkyū Tōyoko and Tokyo Metro Hibiya lines.

- Some restaurants recommended by my favorite food spy Miss NH:

Shimizu: cozy and friendly mizu-taki restaurant.

>Yakitori Akira: as the name implies it is a yakitori restaurant. Nice atmosphere but can get a bit smoky (remember than in Japan it is still possible to smoke indoors in restaurants).

Hashidaya: they cook chicken in all sort of ways. Great service and good food. It is quite popular.

Da Isa: sells an extremely popular pizza by the slice. Queues tend to be massive.

Thanks to Aiko Yokozuka for letting me use a couple of her pics and to Naomi Hatta for all her help and this year’s pic.

This post is dedicated to my daughter Sakura

A spanish version of this article has been published in the cultural magazine Jot Down

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When I think about a place that offers a perfect combination of beach+relax+great food+beautiful landscapes Sagres is one of the firsts names that come to my mind and definitely one of my favorites  The small village of Sagres (2000 people) is located at the very southwestern tip of Europe, right where the continent ends and the Atlantic Ocean spreads in all directions. I have listed 5 reasons why I am in love with Sagres:

1.- The Beaches: there are 3 magnificent beaches around Sagres, all of them with fine and golden sand and each one with a different style:

Mareta: right at the bottom of the village, it has a family atmosphere. It has few hundred meters long and the water is fresh and clean. It is the most sheltered of the 3 beaches and the sea tends to be calm, with very small waves. There is a place for drinks and food within the beach (Bar Restaurante Raposo). The food was not great but still ok and we liked more the sandwiches than the main dishes.

Mareta Beach with the fortress in the background

Tonel: one of the top beaches for surfing in Portugal and the main reason why Sagres has become an important destination for surfers. Located just outside the village in the direction of Cape St Vincent you have take a gravel path that goes downhill and you can only see the beach once at the bottom.  It is signposted. Sincethe beach is fairly hidden and cannot be seen from the road, it surprises for its big size and width. In the middle of Tonel there is a massive rock eroded by the strong waves that gives the beach some personality. There is a small bar at the bottom of the access slope. It is the most exposed of the 3 beaches around Sagres and a strong wind is constantly blowing, the waves are big and if you want to swim you’d better be careful with the strong currents. Every time I have been there it was packed with surfers at any time of the day.

Beliche: my favourite beach in all Algarve and one fo the best ones I have ever been to. It is located a couple of Kms outside Sagres in the direction of the Cape, just after passing the campsite on the left hand of the road (it is well signposted). The beach lies at the bottom of a dramatic cliff and you have to walk down 160 steps, 80 of them very steep. The difficult access makes it the most quiet of the 3 beaches as it is a tough one to go if you are with children and all the gear they normally use (remember you have to climb up those 160 steps to go back to your car). On the left hand side of the beach by the entrance steps there is a basic bar. The area of the beach further away from the accessing point is quite secluded and it is a common place for nudism. I have always thought it is worth going to Sagres just to spend one day in this spectacular beach. The waves are not too big and the water is cold and surprisingly transparent to be the Atlantic Ocean.

A view of Tonel Beach with the fortress on the background

2.- The sunsets from the Cape St Vincent: from the tip of the Cape, where there is a lighthouse, you can see one of the most amazing and famous sunsets in Europe. If the day is clear there is nothing between you and the Sun sinking into the middle of the Ocean. It is usually very crowded any day with good weather and during the summer is normally packed, so go with some time to find a good spot. Often people take bongos and other percussion instruments to play them while the Sun goes down and celebrate the departure of yet another day lived. When the Sun has given it last ray of light of the most people applaud. In the summer there are stalls selling drinks, snacks, clothes and souvenirs. Even if the day has been very hot it will likely be chilly and very windy in the Cape, so better take a jumper and a blanket. The road leading to the Cape ends there with no possible detours, so even to go north you will have to go back to Sagres via the same road you arrived.

Panoramic view of the coastline with the Cape St Vincent in the background

3.- The landscapes: dramatic cliffs sharp as if cut with a knife with postcard like beaches at the bottom, a rugged coast that goes back and forth into the Atlantic Ocean, the clean sea that shines under the sun, groups of dolphins swimming close to the coast…if you are into photography this is a good place to go.

4.- The village of Sagres: Sagres feels like an oasis of tranquility within the much more touristic Algarve. Since it is surrounded by a protected Natural Park it has escaped the mass tourism, golf courts and resort madness of the rest of this part of Portugal. It has been able to keep its identity of laid back village where time goes slow and where there is no rush. Despite being a surfing mecca and having some pubs, nights are quiet and silent. Most houses and flats are painted in shiny white and the ones closer to the sea have their walls flanking due to the powerful marine breeze. The main architectural highlight is the Fortress over Sagres Point. Close to Beliche beach you can find the ruins of the old Beliche Fortress.

The lighthouse on top of Cape St Vincet

5.- The food, the vinho verde (green wine) and Sagres beer: it is well known that portuguese food is superb and Sagres is no exception. My favorite restaurant is called Meridiano. It is on the side of the main road that leads to the centre of Sagres and it looks totally average from outside. But the food (seafood or lobster rice for example) is great and the service extremely friendly (it is run by a local friendly family). A good choice to have with the rice is the local vinho verde (green wine), light but tasty. Last time I ate there (September 2012) we paid 24€ per person for a big pot of seafood rice, a bottle of green wine, a big salad and desert. I have also tried several of the pizzerias in town and the one I liked best was pizzería Columbu´s.

Sagres is also the name of the best beer in Portugal. They have it from the tap in most of the bars and restaurants around the village.

Accomodation

Sagres has plenty of accommodation offer with all sort of prices. There are many hotels, B&Bs and you can also rent private rooms. Close to the village there is a campsite but it is a little bit too far if you do not have a car (2+ Kms). During low season it is easy to find good prices.

Last time I went to a top end boutique hotel, Mareta View. Price was  87€ per night with breakfast included. It was a really nice place: clean, fresh, beautiful and with plenty of light. The breakfast was very good, service was friendly and the ocean views absolutely fantastic. Recommended.

On January 26th 1972, flight 367 from JAT (Yugoslav Airlines) left Stockholm bound for Belgrade. The plane is a McDonnell Douglas DC-9 and the flight plan includes 2  stops: Copenhagen and Zagreb. After taking off from Copenhagen there are 28 people on board, 23 passengers and 5 crew. Vesna Vulović, 22 years old, is one of the 3 flight attendants that along with the pilot and the copilot have replaced the crew that departed from Sweden. She is working in this flight because the person organising the rotas mixed her up with another colleague also called Vesna. But Vulović was happy about it all since she had always wanted to visit Denmark’s capital and sleep in the Sheraton.

The flight is uneventful and the plane is stable at cruise altitude and speed when at 15:59 the pilots receive the weather forecast from the VOLMET system. They are informed that no complications are foreseen. At 16:01, when they are flying over  Hersmdorf (then in the GDR) the plane suddenly disappears from the radar screens and any communications cease.

An explosion in the front cargo area breaks the plane apart at an altitude of 10160 metres (33330 ft) causing it to spin out of control. The plane, broken in two pieces, crashes against the snowed slope of a mountain by  Srbská Kamenice, a small village in Czecoslovaquia (nowadays in the Czech Republic). Among the scattered debris of the DC-9 there are 27 corpses and, miraculously, one survivor,  Vesna Vulović.

As soon as the news of the accident arrived the Czechoslovak secret service (Státní Bezpečnost) sealed the area, not allowing access to other authorities or the press. On the morning of the following day (January 27th) the swedish newspaper Kvällsposten received an anonymous call from a man who, in broken swedish, claimed to be from Croatia and that he belonged to a nationalist group responsible for putting a bomb in the plane. A few hours later the Yugoslav government officially blamed the Ustaše as the hand behind the terrorist attack. Some ten days later the Czechoslovak secret service presented some burnt parts of an alarm clock which they stated came from a bomb and had been found in the plane debris. They also informed that (strangely enough) the black boxes had not appeared.

In May 1974 the final results of the investigation were presented concluding that the plane disintegrated in mid-air due to an explosion caused by a bomb placed at the front of the plane. No terrorist organisation, Croatian or not, ever claimed responsibility for the bombing. No other proofs were found of a terrorist attack. No one was arrested and there weren’t any parallel investigations. The Yugoslav government accepted the official explanation given by the Státní Bezpečnost and the case was closed.

All the facts related above are the official account of events as still accepted today.

But let’s go back to Vesna right where we left her. Still following the official theory, Vesna was able to survive to such a free fall due to a series of circumstances. At the moment of the blast she was at the rear part of the plane which was torn apart from the rest of the fuselage. One of the catering trolleys pinned her to the wall preventing her from being sucked out of the plane during the fall. The tail cone of the DC-9 stayed intact during the fall and that had 2 effects: the fall was slowed down below the so-called terminal velocity (due to air friction) and the fuselage protected her body from the full force of the impact. Also, when the tail cone impacted against the snowed slopes of the mountain it did it with such angle that made the debris crash-slip, so the brutal deceleration did not happen all at once.

The explanation above has been the most common one given by physicists, aviation experts and people who studied the accident to the unbelievable fact that a person can survive a 10 Km freefall.The conclusion was: “extremely improbable but not impossible”. The famous TV show “Mythbusters” dedicated one of their programs to the accident, calling it “Freefall Flight Attendant”. Their verdict was similar: there was an infinitesimal probability of a person surviving, depending on the conditions on impact of the fuselage where Vesna was trapped.

But the scenario described above and officially accepted as true contradicts the version given by Bruno Henke, a person who lived in the area where the plane fell and who was the very first person to arrive at the site of the accident. According to Henke (who later on called his own daughter Vesna as an homage to her), Vulović was not at the tail but in the middle section of the plane, right above the wings. Bruno’s medical knowledge (he had been a doctor in the Wehrmacht during WWII) were key to save Vesna’s life since he knew what to do. Henke told her that he found her following her screams. She had the lower part of her body still inside the plane and her upper part hanging down and out of the fuselage. The body of one of her colleagues was on top of hers. Vesna has always believed Henke’s version. He had no reason to lie to her and they remained good friends till his death. Also, Vesna has stated that following JAT cabin protocol she had to be right behind the last passenger. As the DC-9 was half empty she should have been in the middle section of the plane.

Vesna had indeed survived but her situation was critical: she had a fractured skull, 3 broken vertebrae (one of them totally crushed), brain haemorrhage and multiple fractures in both legs. She was immediately sent to a Hospital in Prague were she spent the following 27 days going in and out of a coma. Apart from her very delicate health situation she also had another problem that has been crucial not to know what happened: she had memory loss. To this day she has no recollection of any memories related to the accident.

The day after she was taken to hospital she briefly woke up not knowing where she was or what had happened. She asked the doctor for a cigarette and slipped back into the coma moments later. Vesna finally knew about the accident some two weeks later when in a lapse of consciousness she was given a newspaper with the news. She suffered a huge shock that in her own words “almost killed me”. But even after knowing about the crash her memory was still blank. Her last image of the flight was helping the passengers board in Copenhagen.

Due to the broken vertebrae Vesna was paralysed waist down. After getting surgery she was able to move her left leg and, a month later, further surgery made her recover mobility in her right leg. In less than ten months and after an arduous re-learning process Vesna was able to walk again. She spent all that time going in and out of hospitals and resting by the sea in Montenegro before she was discharged.

Once recovered from the accident Vesna tried to go back to her normal life. She continued to work for JAT and she even asked the company to let her fly again. Since the accident memories were gone she was not scared to fly. But JAT refused her petition and instead she was given a desk job at the airline headquarters.

But nothing was the same ever again. Her amazing survival story made her a national heroine in Yugoslavia and she became a celebrity, not only in the Balkans but all around the world. When she was transferred to Belgrade from Prague, Tito gave her a welcoming reception, arguably the highest honour you could get in the country at the time. She got songs dedicated, she was a usual guest in prime time TV shows (what she did till the early 90s, some 20 years after the accident) and Vesna became a fashionable name for babies as it was assumed it brought good luck. In the very few occasions that JAT let her fly the Serbian passengers would instantly recognise her and move to a seat by her side thinking that if the worst happened they had a chance to survive. Tito’s regime pampered her and used her for propaganda purposes, something quite common during the Cold War years with people who became worldwide celebrities.

The peak moment of her international fame came in 1985 when The Guinness Book of Records invited her to London to assist to her induction ceremony. She was awarded with the “highest fall survived without a parachute” record and Paul McCartney, Vesna’s youth idol, gave her the prize.

Challenging the official version of the accident

From the very moment the details surrounding the accident were made public there were reasonable doubts about their veracity as stated by the StB and backed up by the Yugoslav authorities. On one hand the story was too attractive to resist to believe in it and on the other hand the well-known secrecy about anything happening behind the Iron Curtain did not help for any potential parallel investigations to clarify what happened. This helps understanding why the official version ended up being accepted almost unquestioned by the media and public opinion. There was not much chasing to shed some light to the dark areas.

And which were the main dark areas? Several and crucial: the black boxes were never found, nobody claimed responsibility for the accident even after Vesna’s survival made it an international sensation and it would have given huge echo to whatever terrorist cause, the StB took charge of the investigation and the information release instead of civil authorities, the Yugoslav government never questioned the outcome of the investigation despite its flaws and never started a parallel one, no arrests were made or charges pressed…

Vesna’s story had become something of a Cold War era weird tale, a recurrent subject in TV programs or magazine articles about “amazing happenings”. Until January 2009 when an investigation undertaken by a group of german-czech journalists (Peter Hornung-Andersen, Tim van Beveren and Pavel Theiner) was published in the magazine Tagesschau and broadcasted in a special program in the german radio station ARD.

The outcome of their investigation was very different to the official version. It stated that it would be “extremely probable” that the facts previously exposed were just a cover up of flight 367 being downed by mistake by MIG planes from the Czechoslovak Air Force. The new investigation was based in evidence uncovered from recently declassified documents marked as “Top Secret” from both the Czech Civil Authority and the Czech National Archives that were not available before. It took the group of journalists 2 years to publish the results.

According to them flight 367 started experiencing technical problems that lead to a steep descent, either for an emergency landing or maybe trying to stabilise the plane. After drifting away from the assigned route and altitude it was mistaken by an attacking enemy fighter and shot down by one or more MIGs.

But why such an aggressive and deadly reaction by the Czech Air Force fighters? The journalists give 2 possible reasons:

- the DC-9 strayed into a high security military area. There was a soviet nuclear missile base very close to where the plane was shot down.

- it is now known that the USSR premier, Leonid Brezhnev, was secretly visiting his RDA counterpart Erich Honecker and, after a conference in Prague, his plane was in the air and in the surroundings at the same moment.

According to the investigation, among the facts that the StB hid were the declarations of several eye witnesses assuring that the DC-9 appeared from below the clouds on fire but still in one piece and that it finally exploded at an approximate height of 800 meters. Those same witnesses saw another plane flying nearby at low altitude before disappearing moments later. This would agree with a report produced by a Yugoslav government investigator called Zlatko Veres who stated that the area covered by the plane debris was in line with a disintegration at 600-900 meters rather than at 10000 (the area had been much bigger).

What is more, the journalists say that Yugoslav intelligence knew the real reason of the crash but they helped in the cover up under heavy pressure from Moscow (the StB was directly supervised by Moscow and the relationship Belgrade-Moscow had been very tense since Tito decided to split with the soviets in the late 40s). In this context Vesna’s record was created as a distraction in order to avoid too many questions. And it was indeed a successful move: the general reaction was more focused in trying to explain her impossible survival rather than investigating in-depth the accident details.

The main reason given for such a long-lasting cover up is that the people who masterminded it and staged it still occupy key positions in both the Czech and Serbian secret services and the civil aviation authorities in those countries. They reported that many documents containing vital information about the crash had been deliberately destroyed and that the mentioned authorities did not help at all during the investigation, so getting every small bit of info was a painful and slow process. Sadly even nowadays a story in which bad Croats kill good Serbians has political value in Serbia. Only the Czech witnesses accepted to collaborate in full.

The Czech Aviation Civil Authority rejected the results of the new investigation but did not comment on the new evidence uncovered. A high rank in the Czech Army also rejected the results and denied any cover up stating that at least 150-200 people should have known about it and it does not make sense that they are not telling the truth 40 years later. A fact supporting the official version is that the Yugoslav prime minister at the time (a valuable target) was scheduled to take flight 367 but finally took an earlier one, something possibly unknown by the terrorists.

The consequences for Vesna

The challenge to the official version made headlines around the world and Vesna was asked about her opinion. In general she just stayed neutral, reminding that since she does not remember anything there is not much she can add. Still she thinks that the new explanation is a “nebulous nonsense” and does not convince her.The Guinness Book of Records on the other hand reacted very quickly and she was removed from the records. A representative stated that “it seems that at the time Guinness was duped by this swindle just like the rest of the media”. Vesna added that she would not mind at all if the record never happened since that would not change anything in her current life.

There are many in Serbia who think that it was Vesna’s status as a national legend that saved her from going to jail when she openly opposed to Slobodan Milošević’s regime in the late 80s. What she could not avoid was being fired by JAT in 1990 and her fall in disgrace at official level, but she did not seem to care that much. On the contrary her political activism increased and she could be seen on demonstrations of the Bulldozer Revolution that made the regime fall.Vesna, who admits that got happily married and even more happily divorced, lives on her own in her Belgrade apartment surrounded by her many cats. She still gives interviews but is mostly retired from the public eye. She has always admitted feeling guilty for having survived and she does not consider herself lucky: “I’m not lucky. Everybody thinks I am lucky, but they are mistaken. If I were lucky I would never had this accident and my mother and father would be alive. The accident ruined their lives too.”. She does not think either that the accident was a miracle since there were 27 people who did not survive.

Vesna attended annual commemorations at the accident site till they were halted in 2002. She met Henke and the doctors that attended her  in the 25th anniversary of the catastrophe. A hotel located close to where the plane fell is named after her. Nowadays she continues to give her political views and it is a supporter of president Boris Tadić. Every time she is interviewed she insists that her main concern is the political future of her country, stating that even if she survived the impossible if the dark days of ultra nationalism and war return her heart would be able to handle it.Vesna considers herself a survivor, but no more than the rest of the Serb people: “we Serbians are true survivors. We survived communism, Tito, the war, poverty, NATO bombings, sanctions and Milošević. We only want a normal life. I just want a normal life”.

This article is also available in Spanish in Dokodemo Door Blog

http://dokodemodoorblog.com/2012/06/27/que-le-paso-realmente-a-vesna-vulovic/

This article has been published in the Spanish cultural magazine Jot Down

http://www.jotdown.es/2012/06/que-le-paso-realmente-a-vesna-vulovic/

Dates: 24/01/2012 to 31/01/2012

Visa: No visa needed if you hold a Spanish, British, Japanese or USA passport. For other countries check here.

Currency: local currency is the Eastern Caribbean Dollar (EC$). US dollars are accepted everywhere but you will get your change in EC$ most of the times. The exchange rate used was US$1 = 2.67 EC$, give or take a couple of cents.

Flight details:

London Gatwick (LGW) – Saint Lucia Hewanorra (UVF). Direct flight with British Airways in a Boeing 777. Outbound flight time was 8h40m and inbound flight time was 7h40min. Return flight was delayed over 2h because the connecting flight left Trinidad and Tobago late. Both flights almost full. Hewanorra Airport is at Vieux Fort, in the south tip of the island. The drive from the airport to Rodney Bay area takes approximately between 1h 30 min and 1h 45min depending on the traffic.

Accommodation:

We bought a pack with Trailfinders that included flight, hotel (B&B) and the commute from/to the airport in St Lucia. It was cheaper than buying the flight and hotel separately. All went smooth with Trailfinders and no complaints.

Coco Palm Rodney Bay Hotel

http://www.coco-resorts.com/index.php

We were very happy with the hotel choice as it was exactly what we were looking for: not too big, more a hotel than a resort, secluded and isolated from the noisy main street. And just a 5 minutes walk from both the beautiful Reduit Beach and the restaurants/supermarkets area. Free wifi was included. The hotel is a 2 stores high colonial style building. The rooms were big, bright, clean and well maintained. The hotel workers were helpful and really friendly (a constant around the island). The beds were super-king size (1.80 m wide). I’d definitely recommend it and if we were to go back to SL we’d probably repeat here. They were kind enough to give us a room to have a shower after we had checked out and before we jumped into the plane.

Note than in several travelling forums it is recommended not to go for the so-called “criolle rooms”, which belong to the hotel but are located outside the hotel perimeter, by the noisy main street. I imagine it must be difficult to be able to sleep.

The breakfast is served in the hotel’s restaurant, called Ti Bannane, shaped as a hut and sitting outside the main hotel building. The breakfast included could be either continental (cereals, fruit, toasts) or english (eggs, pancakes, sausages). Both were very good.

Sunset at Reduit Beach

Rental car and driving in St Lucia: after checking with a couple of companies around Rodney Bay area we decided to rent the car with Drive-a-matic through the Trailfinders representative. The prices were almost identical in all the companies. The car we got was an automatic Suzuki Jimny in very good condition.

The total price for 2 days rental was US$207 (EC$552.69) broken down as follows: US$61×2 for rental + US$12×2 for CDW + US$5×2 for local taxes + US$21 local driving license + US$30 fuel prepay. As it happens in other Caribbean countries like Antigua&Barbuda it is mandatory to get a local driving license. Once purchased it is valid for 3 months.

The fuel prepay is a rip off but all the companies do it. They give you the car with half of the fuel tank full so you “don’t have to bother or waste time refuelling” and you can give the car back with the tank empty. If you hardly use the car and you give it back with almost all the fuel it had they will not reimburse you any money.

When driving in Saint Lucia, if you stick to the main roads it is not difficult at all and you will not need a 4WD type car. In any case careful driving is needed as the island is quite rugged and the road can be very steep with sharp bends at many areas. But the tarmac is in generally in good condition despite a pothole here and there. A 4WD or SUV is recommended if you plan to reach some remote areas within the inland national parks. The locals drove ok, we did not have any scary moments or witness reckless overtaking as in so many other places. In general we felt safe and relaxed.

Diving: I did a diving day with Eastern Caribbean Diving (www.easterncaribbeandivingstlucia.com). I booked them through the office “Tours-r-us” has in Rodney Bay. I was happy with ECD, they were professional but also fun and relaxed. The price for a 2 tank dive was US$120 and US$71 for my wife’s snorkelling. All the gear was included and it was cheaper if you brought yours.

I was told that the best place to dive in SL was in the Pitons-Soufriere Marine Park so I decided to go for it. There seems to be another good spot: a wreckage a little bit further north. In the Marine Park the underwater landscape was spectacular. There is a “third Piton” that did not make it out of the water and fishes from different sizes and colours, although no really big ones. Both dives were just in front of the Pitons so the views from the boat were superb. It is a great day out either for diving or snorkelling.

As a tip, if you go diving/snorkelling to the Soufriere area is exactly the same path of the typical and popular boat tour to see the Pitons, so you can skip the second one and save some money. While resting between and after the dives we had plenty of time to enjoy the landscape and swim, apart for getting some feedback about the areas and villages we were passing. All in all was a perfect day out (we were picked up at 7:45 and dropped back at the hotel around 16:00).

Izumi and the Suzuki Jimny

Eating

I found most of the restaurants around Rodney Bay area going from not cheap to expensive, with US or European price ranges (average of US$25 to US$30 per person). They take all sort of credit cards and US dollars in all of them. For lunch we had mostly sandwiches and fruit on the beach. There are a couple of big supermarkets in the malls stuffed with USA products, not cheap either. Quick recap of the restaurants we tried:

Ti Bannane

As mentioned above is the restaurant of the Coco Palm hotel. It is shaped as a hut and all made in wood. It has 2 different areas: the bar and the restaurant. The bar had 3 big TV screens and they played US sports most of the time. The atmosphere on the restaurant side was nice, the service was friendly and the food was really tasty (my goat curry was excellent). Price was US$28 per person.

http://www.coco-resorts.com/dining/ti_bananne.html

Spinnakers

Located right on Reduit Beach, it is very popular and tends to be packed all throughout the day, specially for dinner. Food was good but nothing special, better the fish than the meat. We paid US$24 per person.

http://www.spinnakersstlucia.com/

Tríos

Recently open, they present their food as Caribbean Fusion. Located slightly off the main street that leads to Reduit Bach. It is very beautiful and offers a good and sophisticated environment, great service as well. It is more expensive than the previous ones mentioned. Food was good but with strong taste that might not suit everyone. The portions were small. We paid US$24 per person despite ordering only light starters.

http://baygardensresorts.com/restaurants-bars/restaurants.html

Whiskey in the Jar

An American style grill right in the heart of the main street. Pure US atmosphere inside. Someone recommended it to us and it was good. In fact the baby ribs were very good, but a bit pricey (we paid US$28 each).

http://uptodatestlucia.com/listing.php?id=855

Jambe de Bois

Despite being far from Rodney Bay area we decided to go as it was widely recommended, both in guides like LP and RG and by locals. It was the best place we went for dinner by a long shot. It is located in Pigeon Island within the PI National Landmark area, inside the historical area that can be visited (once you pass the gates turn left and it will take a 5 minutes walk). The place has an unpretentious rustic style with old sailing motives and a lovely terrace by the sea. The food was great and the atmosphere as well. A band played live music one of the days we went. The owner and the service were very friendly and they always had a genuine smile in their faces. And it is almost half the price compared to the restaurants in Rodney Bay (we paid US$15 per person the first day and US$16 the second).

The only problem is how to go there from Rodney Bay. The first time we went we had our rental car and it was easy. The second time we took the public bus to Gros Islet and from there we walked some 30 minutes till we reached the restaurant. For the way back to RB the staff ordered a taxi for us and we paid US$12. Don’t miss it!!

http://www.thismenu.com/st-lucia-reviews/4-restaurants/62-jambe-de-bois.html

Petit Piton (left) and Gros Piton (right) from the boat

RODNEY BAY AND THE NORTH

Rodney Bay (named after british naval officer George Brydges Rodney) is in the northeast of the island and it is the main touristic area in Saint Lucia. The village itself is not a pretty one: a couple of roads packed with bars, restaurants and hotels. Despite all is a practical area to establish a base as in a range of a couple of kms you have most hotels, restaurants, supermarkets and shops. But if what you want is a taste of the real Saint Lucia better choose a  place somewhere else. The best attraction of the area is the wonderful  Reduit Beach, one of the best beaches in the island. An arc-shaped stretch of golden fine sand with Mt Pinard at the south bottom and limiting to the north with the entrance to the modern and big marina (one of the best in the Caribbean, worth visiting if you like yachts). The sea has a nice colour, water is very clean and the waves are small. Despite the numerous hotels and condos in the area it was not too crowded when we were there. The quietest part in the southern one, just by Mt Pinard: a good shadow, acceptable snorkelling around the rocks and a small hut run by locals serving drinks and a quick bite.

I cannot say much about the capital, Castries, as we hardly dedicated any time to it. The few times we drove around it was always bustling with people, even more when you were getting closer to the Central Market. There were some nice and colourful colonial style houses here and there. It is located at the very end of a deep bay where the cruise liners stop (we saw up to three at the same time). George F.L. Charles airport is in the surrounding, where small planes connect SL with the islands around. There are some beaches around Castries but we did not visit them.

Just up north of Rodney Bay and also by the coast is the  village of  Gros Islet. It has a superb beach (that in fact is just the continuation of Reduit Beach) that extends to the little peninsula called Pigeon Island. Although they are really close in distance, the contrast between  Rodney Bay y Gros Islet is enormous, being the latter the typical Caribbean village and offers a more accurate idea of local life style. During the weekdays it is really nice to go to that part of the beach as tends to be more empty. During weekends and specially on Sundays it gets much busier when locals bring their cars here to prepare bbqs and play loud reggae music.

Within Pigeon Island is  Pigeon Island National Landmark, one of the few historical visits that can be done in the island. During the middle part of XVI century the french pirate Jambe de Bois (wooden leg) used the island as his base to attack spanish galleons on their way back to Spain. When the english took possession of the island they fortified Pigeon Island to keep an eye on the French fleet moored in the nearby island of Martinique. It is possible to visit (paying the entrance fee) the remnants of the barracks, walls and other military buildings. From Rodney Bay you can go to Gros Islet using public bus 1A (in fact a van) for just  EC$1.5 and takes some 10 minutes. On Friday night there is a famous street party with food and drink stalls. Locals mentioned constantly that it is a good fun and that we should go but we decided not to.

Pigeon Island

The northern tip of Saint Lucia (going further north from Pigeon Island) is more remote and rugged, filled with small hills. The landscape is different, a bit drier and dominated by scattered summer villas and condos mainly owned by foreigners, including a golf club. It has a quiet and sleepy feeling to it. Very close to the north tip of the island (Pointe du Cap) there is a beautiful and pleasant cove called Smugglers’ Cove, that is accessed walking down the cliff via some hidden steps. It is not easy to find the entrance (no signs point to it) and we had to ask around.  The cove has a small bar for drinks and a bite where they rent gear for water-sports. Since it is bordering the Atlantic the wind was stronger and the wave bigger, so be careful when swimming as the tide was strong.

On the Atlantic side (East) of the island, just a short car ride from Rodney Bay is the beach of Cas en Bas. The beach is a long horseshoe-shaped stretch. Despite being a very nice day on the Caribbean side it was very windy and not very pleasant there. The beach was almost empty, with just a bunch of people doing water-sports (mainly kite surfing) and no one swimming. We also saw some groups horse riding. It is easy to understand why there are much less condos and houses on this side of the island, since the feeling is wilder and more exposed although the beach is fairly secluded from the ocean. There is a place to eat and drink (Marjorie’s) with a curious item on display: one of the parts of a rocket booster that fell nearby.

Rockets booster part in Cas en Bas

THE PITONS, SOUFRIERE  AND CENTRAL-WEST AREA

The central-west area is, in my opinion, the most beautiful part of the island specially around the Pitons. The road that goes down from Rodney Bay to the Pitons well paved and in good condition overall. After passing Castries and Marigot Bay you reach the fishermen village of Anse la Raye. It is a laid back Caribbean fishermen village: small size, the houses painted in lively colours, people sitting relaxed in the front porches…it really feels worlds apart from Rodney Bay and even Castries. In the main street (which you have to go through to continue down south) there were stalls with local crafts and other souvenirs. Minivans full of tourists stop here for a few minutes and when they leave the village gets back to its sleepy atmosphere. Anse la Raye had a nice beach but there was no one either sunbathing or swimming and it did not feel too inviting.

Once you pass Castries the road swerves up and down steeply, offering amazing views of the low parts where the beaches are and the green valleys that extend inlands. The section between Anse La Raye and Soufriere is particularly stunning. Just before you start driving downhill to reach Soufriere there is a viewpoint with astonishing views of the village and the Petit Piton in the background. Soufriere is bigger than Anse La Raye but still maintains the refreshing atmosphere of the authentic Saint Lucia. It is a good place to stop for lunch or just for a break and a walk around. Once more you have to go through the entire length of the village to continue in the main road down south. Just before Soufriere there is a side road leading to one of the most famous beaches in the island for its beauty: Anse Chastanet. We could see it from the boat during the diving trip and it looked stunning, but we did not go with the car.

Soufrieres and the Pitons in the background

Our final destination was Jalousie Beach where we spent the rest of the day before heading back. It is a truly magical spot just in between the two magnificent Pitons. Even if it is just to visit this beach is worth going all the way to Saint Lucia. To me it is one of those places I will never forget. While swimming in crystal clear waters you can see the imposing moles of the Pitons just meters from you, emerging abruptly and powerfully from the water almost vertically. The beach was a secluded arc with powdery white sand. The beach is public but you have to access it through a luxury resort called Jalousie Plantation. Coming from the main road you drive around the Petit Piton and follow the indications that lead to the resort. You have to leave the car parked at the entrance parking (it is free) and then walk downhill for some 10-15 minutes till you reach the Jaulosie Beach. The resort itself is beautiful, with colonial style bungalows and an elegant restaurant-bar by the shore. The hotel rents towels and beach chairs. It was not too full at all the day we were there and very pleasant. Such a spectacular place!

The Gros Piton from Jalousie Beach

In that same area and very close to Jaulosie Beach you can find the famous Sulphur Springs, where we stopped by to see the volcano crater and have a mud bath. The entrance fee to enter the volcano area (including a guided visit) and the baths costs EC$30. The crater looked like a lunar landscape with the usual rotten-egg smell of these type of places and the water bubbling. You can peek into it from an elevated wooden platform and the guide was friendly and helpful. We went in the early evening, just one hour before they closed. Tour buses had already left and it was not crowded. The mud baths area was very quiet as well, just 6 people or so including us. The natural hot water comes running down from a small stream filtering from inside the earth and is taken to a small concrete pool where you have buckets full of mud that you can spread all over your body, face included. From there the water continues to a natural pool just a few metres down where you can sit and relax. They had a few showers and changing rooms.

Sulphur emissions inside the crater

A FEW MORE THINGS

- We had been told that Saint Lucia was the most beautiful island in all the Lesser Antilles as it is covered with thick lush vegetation and for its mountainous landscape. So far we agree with this.

-  It is possible to climb up the Gros Piton but you need to hire a guide at the base. I really wanted to do it but apparently the hike is short and quite tough at times, not ideal for a four months pregnant lady as my wife was at the time, so we skipped it. Maybe next time?

- From Rodney Bay marina there is a ferry going to Fort de France, the capital of the nearby island of Martinique. It departs daily but the departure time may vary, so better check in advance if interested. Travel time takes 1h30min.

http://www.express-des-iles.com/

- The bus that goes from Hewanorra airport to Rodney Bay passes through the less visited Atlantic coast of the island, crossing to the Caribbean side around the middle part of the island. roughly, doing the last bit by the east coast. The Atlantic coast was rougher and maybe less attractive but still worth keeping the eyes open for the duration of the ride.

Reduit Beach with Mt Pimard

Reduit Beach with Mt Pimard

The Petit Piton

All entries about the Caribbean

“Nobody roots for Goliath” – Wilt Chamberlain

In mid-late February, London woke up with the news that one of its most famous and legendary buildings was on the market for sale. And this was the fourth time, uncomfortable déjà vu. Almost 30 years after its operational closure, the mythical Battersea Power Station languishes in a wasteland by the river Thames in what could perfectly be an image from a post industrial apocalypse movie. The biggest brick building in Europe probably feels abandoned and orphaned while it dreams with sharing the glamorous fate of her little sister the Bankside Power Station, reinvented as the Tate Modern to an unbelievable success for over a decade now.

It is hard to believe that English people, always proud and respectful with their heritage, have left a building that was charismatic since its birth (in a survey in the late 30s it was voted as the second favourite building in London after St Paul) to rot slowly but inexorably without finding the way to avoid its deterioration. Only the absence of the roof and the presence of scaffolding in one of the colossal concrete chimneys proves that there have been an attempt to do something to help the weeping giant to find again a purpose to exist and to continue belonging to the city to which it has given so much through the years. There were many of us who thought that the injection of money and dynamism linked to the celebration of the 2012 Olympics Games in London could finally and for good change the destiny of the BPS, but the time passed, the Games are almost here and nothing has changed in Battersea area.

In the last few weeks several surveys have appeared in different British media asking if the BPS should be demolished or not. Some 40% to 55% of the voters (depending on the media) supported the idea of the demolition (this would require the building being removed from the protected heritage list) and gave green light to start from scratch in the development of the 15 ha of  land surrounding the building. This shows a big change in general public opinion and it seems that the current global economy crisis has made Londoners lose their hope that it is actually possible to conduct any project related to the BPS to a successful end. Just a few years ago the idea of wiping the building would have been considered unthinkable and even sacrilegious.

Views of the South facade from Battersea Park Rd

A LITTLE BIT OF HISTORY

- In 1925 the British Parliament decides that the power grid should be a single and unified system. As a reaction to this, a few private power companies merge together to form the London Power Company with one of their priorities being the construction of big power stations capable of supplying energy to wide areas. Battersea is chosen for its proximity to the river Thames (needed for both cooling down the water and easy delivery of the coal) and for being in the heart of London, the main targeted supply area.

- The project comprised two phases (A and B) and Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (designer of the no less iconic red telephone box among other things) is hired as “architect for the external appearance”, what is done in Art Deco, trendy at that time. Construction of the first phase (A) begin in March 1929. By 1933 the A station (that had just 2 chimneys) is working and generating power although is not completed till 1935. The total cost was £2,141,550 and 6 people died in different accidents during the works.

View of the North facade from Grosvenor Rd, north side of the Thames

- In 1945, once WWII was finished works for phase B began. The new phase would be identical and symmetrical in the exterior aspect to phase A. Station B became operational in 1953 and it was completed in 1955, giving the BPS the current layout. When finished the BPS was the third biggest power station by capacity in the UK, the most efficient in the whole world and it generated up to 20% of all the electricity used in London. The building measures are 160 x 170 m, with the roof reaching up to 50 m and the chimneys towering up to  103 m.

- In 1948 the UK nationalized the electric supply industry and the London Power Company (including the BPS) is absorbed by the state-owned British Electricity Authority, which will change names a few times during the following years.

- Station A is closed in March 1975 after more than 40 years operating. A campaign was then launched to try to save the building from a potential demolition. As a result the BPS was declared part of the national heritage (EH) listed sites in 1980 as grade II building. The last day of October 1983 production is stopped in Station B and the BPS finally ceases operations.

- In 1986 is approved a plan to turn the BPS and the surrounding land in a theme park dedicated to the British industrial revolution. In 1987 John Broome, the man behind Alton Towers, buys the lot and works start. In 1989 the project is halted due to lack of funding after the budget skyrocketed from the initial £35m to £230m. At that moment the roof had been removed in order to remove the heavy machinery from inside the building. Looking for more a more profitable outcome, a new project is submitted. The new idea is to build offices, a shopping area and a hotel. Despite strong rejection from public opinion permits are granted in 1990, but the high costs associated to it paralyse any work from 1990 to 1993.

- In 1993  Parkview International buys the BPS for £10m plus assumption of the debt incurred till that moment (approximately £70m). In 1996 a new project, called simply The Power Station is presented. The new development included a massive shopping centre with all sort of leisure locals and is approved in 2000. In 2005 permission is granted to knock down the chimneys after they are deemed  irreparable due to corrosion. An alternative research considers that they can be repaired and demolition is stopped. Still Park View wants to demolish and rebuild them identically piece by piece with the approval of EH.

- In November 2006 the Irish company Real Estate Opportunities (REO) acquires the BPS  for £400m. The Parkview plan is dropped and REO submits a new one by 2008, including real estate development for which an investment of £4000m is needed. Works are not even started and in November 2011 REO (and with them the BPS) files for bankruptcy. Back in 2009 the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, had said no to the possibility of building a 300+ metres eco tower. Finally, on February 2012 the BPS is back in the market again…

View from Gate 2, in Kirtling St

PRESENT AND FUTURE

The sale is managed by Knight Frank, who markets the BPS as “the last big development in central London”. Investors are being sought after all over the globe, mainly in India, Russia (a few years ago there had been talks about moving Chelsea F.C to the BPS and very recently it has been confirmed that the football club has put a bid for the building), China and Middle East, being the latter one the preferred options. The most optimistic voices hope to have the sale finished by the end of the autumn, once the Olympic games are gone and the city can go back to business as usual. Although the last time the BPS was sold it reached a price of £500m, however given the current global economy climate it is more likely that the price will go down considerably to something between £300m and £400m.

The operation has a carrot (the already approved plan to develop the area and build offices, hotels, a shopping centre and housing, valued at £5500m) and a stick (the buyer will have to finance the refurbishment of the BPS building, that in the current situation cannot be demolished, with an estimated cost of £150m, and provide another £200m to build the extension of the Northern Line tube line from Kennington area to Battersea). A recent research has shown that the BPS building is indeed a poisoned candy: if it could be demolished it would be possible to build up to 1200 flats more, increasing the operation profit to over £500m. The project, would theoretically generate some 25000 jobs, 15000 of them directly in the main building, and also apart from that the construction of 16000 new flats. This would be an enormous impact for an area like Battersea that has been considerably stuck for quite some time.

Getting the tube to reach Battersea has always been seen as a crucial factor for the success of any project related to the BPS. The lack of public transport (just a couple of small train stations and a few bus lines) has historically been an issue when discussing the redevelopment and future of the BPS, as the current connections are clearly insufficient to bring the massive amount of tourists and visitors needed to make the business in the area successful.

East wall from Gate 1

And what would happen if there is no buyer? The administrators (Ersnt&Young) are legally bound to maintain the building as it is part of EH, but unless a mid-to-long term economically viable plan appears, the ghost of the demolition will continue hanging around the historic building. The architect Sir Terry Farrell has presented a proposal that tries to achieve a middle ground: keeping the chimneys but demolishing the side walls, which would be replaced by columns and then building a park inside the BPS. This would radically reduce the price of both  redevelopment and future maintenance costs of the complex.

Currently the only use made of the BPS is the celebration of private events in the Boiler House, a venue with a clear roof section within the main building that has become trendy to host all sorts of celebrations (from video games presentation to sport galas, including the launching of the 2010 Torie campaign). It can be easily seen using Google Earth.

“VISITING” THE BPS

And it has to go with quotation marks because… it cannot be visited. As mentioned above both the BPS and the surrounding land are private property and apart from the events in the Boiler House there are no organised touristic visits (this was confirmed by the security company when asking at the gates).

Despite not being allowed to go into the building, it is still possible to see it from a reasonably close distance, so you can get a good idea of its real size along with other details (the considerable degradation state, how big the land around it, the difficulties of bringing up a plan to develop it, and the privileged location…).

The northern part of the perimeter that surrounds the BPS faces the Thames, so the only possible way to get a closer look is by boat. From the western side there are no good views since the train tracks and Grosvenor Bridge get in the way and make impossible to go close. The maximum proximity spots are in the south and the east of the perimeter and it is where the entrance gates are located.

Gate 2 (main entrance) is in Kirtling Street and offers a close view of the east side wall. Gate 1, just some 100 meters away but in Cringle Street, is the closest point of all and you can see even more clearly the shattered windows and the robust legendary chimneys. If you are looking for the best panoramic views, they are from Battersea Park Rd (south facade of the BPS) or from Grosvenor Road, just in front of the north facade on the north side of the Thames.

The best way to visit the BPS on foot is taking the train to Battersea Park station (directly from Victoria in just 5 minutes and if you sit on the left side of the train you will have great views when crossing the river and passing by the building) or hoping off at Queenstown Road station. If you stop at the first mentioned station you will come out in Battersea Park Rd and just  turning left and walking for a few meters the station will appear  in full sight. If you go to Queenstown Rd you will appear in the street of the same name. Then you have to turn right (direction northwest) and turn right again (to the east) once you reach Battersea Park Road (you can see the building by then). Both Kirtling St and Cringle St are off Battersea Park Rd on the left hand side. A perfect way to complement your visit to the area is strolling around Battersea Park, just a couple of minutes from the BPS and one of the nicest parks in all London.

Some interesting links:

- Image gallery from the BBC web, showing recent pictures of both interior and the exterior

- Image gallery from The Guardian with historical pictures

- Image gallery with different development projects for the area

View from Grosvenor Rd, north side of the Thames

Frontal view from Grosvenor Rd, north side of the Thames

The fall of the Eastern Bloc left many images for History, those that stay in your mind forever. But the one I remember the most among them all is that of the people knocking down the statues of Lenin, Stalin and other soviet communism leaders that had been watching and threatening them from their marble watchtowers for dozens of years. And as somehow I have always been a practical person, I kept wondering a few things: what happened to those statues? were they smashed by the angry mob as the first taste of their just recovered freedom? were they sold as metal scraps like the Colossus of Rhodes? were they abandoned in the Siberian steppe in a twist of destiny and a historical revenge?

I am not sure what finally happened to the statues in other ex soviet republics but in Lithuania Viliumas Malinauskas (famous entrepreneur and businessman whose family became rich selling the mushrooms and berries from the dense forests in the south of the country) had the brilliant idea of renting them from the government and setting up a theme park / museum. The curious and interesting result is known as Grūtas Parkas, aka “Stalinland”.

The project was controversial from the start, not surprisingly since it has only been 20 years since the Wall fell and many wounds and difficult memories are still open, fresh and bleeding. Many people opposed to it saying that a theme park about the soviet invasion was inappropriate and it could be considered making an apology of totalitarianisms. But to show another point of view, Grutas Parkas states in their web that their mission is to denounce soviet ideology, the propaganda culture, the lack of liberties under the regime and the Lithuanian Genocide. When Malinauskas was asked about the reason why he was doing it, his reply was: “(the park) is my gift for future Lithuanian generations. They can come here and make fun of these statues. That will mean that Lithuania and the Lithuanians are no longer afraid of communism”. Some of the politicians that accused him of being indifferent to other people feelings and their pain tried, unsuccessfully, to close the park.  Malinauskas, controversial as usual, ordered wooden statues with the politician’s faces and put them in th park among the other ones saying “those who are still scared of the shadows of the past have to be here with them”. Nostalgia or rejection? Probably uses a bit of both to drag visitors here. In any case people’s verdict has been clear so far: Grutas Parkas receives over 100.000 visitors per year despite being far from Vilnius and not very well connected to the main Lithuanian cities.

The park is close to the small spa city of  Druskininkai, deep into the south of the country and close to the Byelorussian border. “Druski” is a very popular destination for local tourism and we went there to get to know both the city and the amazing primary forests that surround the area. It took us some 20 minutes of leisure drive to reach Grutas Parkas. In my opinion they have chosen the right place to set the park up: a bit apart from the main road and by an idyllic lake, just at the heart of the quiet and peaceful  Dzūkija Natural Reserve.

Before the visit I did not know much about the site, just that it had a collection of soviet times statues and all the controversy surrounding the project. So I must say I was quite surprised when we arrived there and I realised that the external appearance of the park imitates to the detail the infamous soviet Gulags.

Grutas Parkas Entrance

Barbed wire demarcates the boundaries of the park and all along the perimeter is dotted with watchtowers, some even with dummies wearing Red Army uniforms. Each of the towers had a small old-looking speaker that played unsettling soft martial music non-stop, to remind the inmates 24 hours a day that the Big Brother was always watching, even when they were sleeping.

In the entrance path there was a train like the ones used to transport the deported persons to the Gulag. It looked similar to those we see in Holocaust movies, with carriages designed for cattle painted in red, with tiny windows covered with iron grids. The difference was that this time the locomotive had a distinctive red star at the front. When the park was being set the idea of making visitors arrive in these trains was discussed but was finally dropped after fierce opposition from gulag survivor groups. It was going a bit too far.

The Gulag Express

Once you cross the gates and you are in you bump into a signpost stating that all the historical references have been done by the Genocide and Resistance Research Centre of Lithuania. I think it was a check mate move by the owners to give the park credibility and plus of interest, although I imagine Malinauskas had little choice after all the problems he faced in when he announced the creation of the park. Still, if I think about Spain, I find really hard to imagine a Franco related museum or theme park in Valle de los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen) with the owners letting the left-wing Historical Memory Law Association do the texts and explanations. No way.

Grūtas Parkas is quite different from what I had in mind prior to the visit. It is much bigger (covers 20 Ha), with a smart and well thought set up and much more interesting than the “bunch of rotting statues piled up in a corner” that I had imagined. Apart from multiple statues and busts of Stalin, Lenin and Marx (the most repeated) there are other groups of sculptures representing idealised communist imaginary: stoic soldiers with fierce eyes, tireless looking workers, austere women with a martial aura representing Victory or scenes showing the relentless effort of the proletariat building the perfect society (for example a massive one of Mother Kryzhkalnis, symbolising the Red Army that freed Lithuania from the bourgeoisie nationalism).

Undercover partisans led by Antanas Snieckus

Some of the statues that really caught my attention were those of the “renegades”, Lithuanian citizens that worked for the soviet side and that are widely considered as traitors by Lithuanians, like  Vincas Kapsukas and Feliksas Baltušis-Žemaitis, or controversial and disputed figures like Antanas Snieckus. Most of the statues have a detailed explanatory legend in english, including the original location where they were standing before their removal, usually in prominent spots of the main cities.

Family Photo

Visiting the whole park takes a good amount of time since there are over a hundred statues and monuments and the complete distance to walk is more than 3 Km of narrow wooden paths, also Gulag style. One of the best spots is the so-called Museum or Information Centre, a 40s soviet dacha looking wooden house. Inside there is a collection of all sort of soviet era artefacts and memorabilia: flags of all the ex soviet republics, medals (both military and commemorative), uniforms, daily use objects…The walls were covered with propaganda posters and with the front page of the regime’s official newspaper, taking you in a time travel throughout the main news of the soviet occupation times: the deaths of Stalin, Breznev, Andropov and Chernienko, Bolshevik Party congresses, Gagarin in space, visits of soviet high ranks to Lithuania…). All of them have a footnote with English translation, what really makes things more interesting to the foreign visitor.

Statue of Lenin by the entrance of the Museum

There is another house that can be visited, containing the Picture Gallery with paintings done in soviet realism style. You can find the historical leaders (multiple portraits of comrades Stalin and Lenin, the feared  Dzerzhinsky, the mastermind of the Red Terror) and others of the idealised soviet society (there seems to be always one of workers harvesting).

In order to make Grutas Parkas look more as a “Theme Park ideal for the whole family” the complex has a restaurant, a small zoo and a children playground. On May 9th, anniversary of the soviet victory over fascism, a group of actors dressed as soldiers recreate the old parades. Here is how to reach the Grutas Parkas using public transport.

All entries about Lithuania

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