St George’s Hall is one of the most impressive buildings in Liverpool (in a city which has many) and gives an indication of the wealth that once passed through what was once claimed to be ‘the second city of the Empire’ – after London (although other cities claim this ‘accolade’, Glasgow and Bristol being two of them). The Minton Tile floor is an expression of this wealth.
I don’t want to go into too much detail about the building itself (I’ll do that in other posts) as here I want to concentrate upon the Minton tiled floor of the main concert room, which has recently been on public view for a couple of weeks. It wasn’t long after the building opened in 1854 that a decision was made to cover the sunken part of the floor to protect the tiles for posterity. In some ways a strange decision as the covering of the more than 30,000 tiles takes away much of the splendour of the hall itself. Don’t get me wrong, the concert hall is still very impressive, but it’s a bit like a book with part of the story missing.
However, that decision made so long ago does mean that on the occasions when the floor is uncovered visitors get an unparalleled idea of what was it was possible to achieve during the heyday of Britain’s industrial greatness. Comparing the protected tiles with the surrounds you are able to appreciate the way that the lack of protection has taken its toll in some places but also to realise that these tiles are incredibly hardy as many areas have survived quite well.
So a few facts and figures. St George’s Hall, built in the middle of the 19th century, is classified as a neoclassical building. That means it takes its architectural influence from the buildings that remain from ancient Greece and Rome – and the Hall mixes the two. Not strictly so, but more or less Greek on the outside and Roman on the inside, especially in the main concert hall where the inspiration for the architect, Harvey Londsdale Elmes, came from the Baths of Caracalla in Rome.
At the time when it was unveiled the floor was the largest pavement of its kind in existence being some 140 feet long and 72 wide and was constructed using more than 30,000 tiles. The part of the floor that is normally covered is sunken and is a couple or feet or so below the walk way that goes around the edge of the hall. When uncovered it’s possible to see the grills that were all part of the central heating (and cooling) system that was all part of the original design and one of the first of its kind in the modern world – we have forgotten much of what the Romans had learnt. However, the covering of the floor meant that the imaginative innovation came to nought, at least in the main hall.
In the centre there’s the Royal Coat of Arms, measuring 5 feet in diameter. On both sides of that design the rest of the floor is basically symmetrical, along the length of the hall. Within those two areas are found: the Liverpool Coat of Arms; the Star of St George; the Rose; the Thistle; and the Shamrock. I’m afraid for the Welsh there is nothing, even though the Welsh had a huge influence on the early development of Liverpool and it’s more than likely that many of the men working on the site would have been Welsh, the building trades being where they tended to gravitate. Between these picture designs there are large swirling arcs which are made up of flower designs and filling the gaps geometric designs following a regular patter. At both ends of the hall there are semi-circles that have the face of Neptune at the apex and on both sides are sea satires and nymphs in amorous embrace, together with dolphins and other sea creatures. The dominant colours are buff, brown and blue.
To give an idea of how the tiles were made I can do no better than reproduce a description from one of the local Liverpool newspapers which carried a long story about the Hall at the time of its opening in 1854:
The antique practise of tile making, as appears from the existing remains of ancient works, confined the manufacture of the use of few colours or tints. The method commonly used seems to have been this: – A piece of well tampered clay having been prepared, of a proper size (usually about six inches square and one inch in thickness), a die, having some ornament in relievo was pressed upon it, the indented pattern thus produced was then filled in with clay of some other colour, generally white, the tile was then covered with a metallic glaze, which imparted to the ground (usually red) a deeper and richer colour, and gave the white ornament a yellowish hue. These tiles were often arranged in sets of 4, 16, or more, and sometimes intersected with bands of plain tiles, of a self colour, such as black, red and white, and frequently displayed great geometrical skill and beauty of effect. Good examples may be seen in the churches of St Denis and St Omer, in France, and specimens from the abbeys of Juvaulux, Westminster, and other buildings in England. The modern process of encaustic tile making, as adopted by Messers MINTON, HOLLINS and Co, enables them to produce not only a far greater variety and brilliance of colour in the general effect of a pavement, but admits of several colours being placed upon a single tile, thus producing a soft effect of fine mosaic work, in a much more durable and less expensive material.
From The Liverpool Mercury, September 19th, 1854
In the more distant past the floor was only uncovered at very long intervals, 10 years or more, but it looks like this event has set to become an annual affair.
There have been suggestions to try and construct a glass floor over at least a part of the sunken area but so far they have come to nought. And anyway that might allow an understanding of the skill of the craftsmen and the beauty of the design but not of its scale, which can only be appreciated when fully uncovered. To keep the floor on permanent display would bring into conflict the preservation of a unique architectural attribute with the desire to use a major City Centre public indoor space.
I hope the slide show below will provide an idea of what is hidden from view 48 weeks of the year.
Minton Tile Floor Reveal 2019
This year the floor will be uncovered between Thursday 1st and Monday 26th August 2019. Entrance is via the Heritage Centre on St John’s Lane from 10.00 – 17.00 everyday (but not Monday 19th August). Entrance to the Great Hall is £3.30 (under 16s normally get in free – but no information on webpage this year). This allows the visitor to get an overall view of the floor from the balcony.
There are opportunities to walk on the floor, obviously providing a closer view of the art work, as part of a guided tour. These will take place between 10.00-11.00 and 16.00-17.00 each day the floor is uncovered. In the past the demand has been so great that extra slots have been created – so check back of the ticket site for an updates if tours start to fill. Each group is limited to a maximum of 30 people. Only bookable online by visiting the TicketQuarter website. Tickets cost £13.20 per person.
There’s another option to get a closer look at the floor if you book for the event known as ‘A Night on the Tiles’ which takes place on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays between Thursday 1st August and Saturday 24th August from 18.00 and 21.00. This allows you to walk on the floor, you get a class of something fizzy and costs £15.40 per person. Get all tickets in advance, online, at the TicketQuarter page.
In various posts on this site I have been concentrating on providing descriptions and analyses of some of the many Lapidars in Albania. That is ongoing and there are still more to post in the future. At some time I also want to have a look at Albanian paintings from the Socialist period (1944-1990). Some of these have been introduced as they cross over with the sculptures on the monuments. There is still an opportunity to see some of these paintings in various locations throughout the country – principally the National Art Gallery in Tirana but also in the City Art Gallery in Durres, the Historical Museum in Fier and the Museum in Peshkopia.
But it wasn’t just in the plastic arts that Socialist Realism had a role to play in the construction of Socialism. Putting the role of the working class and peasantry in the forefront of all that happened in society, in the post, present and future, was also a task of writers of short stories and novels. For those interested in this aspect of Albania’s road to Socialism the various foreign language publications (especially the large format, monthly colour magazine, New Albania) provided translations from the Albanian language in English, Russian, French, Chinese and Arabic. The story below appeared in New Albania, 1971, No 6.
This particular story dealt with a fictional incident in the National War of Liberation against the Fascist invaders – assisted by local collaborators who were always a threat to true patriots.
Note on translation. Translations into English were good during the time these magazines were being produced – but not perfect. I have made a few minor, obvious grammatical changes to the original but have not sought to correct all errors due to the fear of losing the meaning that the author was wanting to convey to the reader.
There was a man walking, or rather dragging himself slowly, along the bank of the river, weary and hungry. The pain from the wound in his left shoulder made it agony to breathe. He stopped, bracing himself against a tree or a big rock and drew breath very slowly and carefully as the pain stabbed at him. With great effort he pulled himself together.
Great dry flakes of snow that stuck wherever they touched were falling so thickly that they blotted out the world. Earth and sky were blended into a white gloom. He mustn’t stop. There was no road, no tracks but this didn’t trouble him. In his ears was the roar of the Black Drini. When the sound came clear he carried on; when it died away a little he angled more to the left and went ahead again. The Drini, swollen with the past week’s rain, tore madly down its course. Where it narrowed at the bends the waters hurled themselves upon the rocks and obstacles in their way with a sound like the fury of a distant hurricane.
The man lifted his head and listened.
“Good, I’m on the right track”, he whispered. He pushed on. River and man proceeded side by side, the one loud in its arrogant strength, the other wounded and nearly all in. Despite that they carried on side by side. If it had not been for the Drini who knows where Sulo Arifi, courier of the Dibra partisan unit, might have been lost. He had been travelling all night with the river for his guide and companion. He came from Cermenika where he had picked up some letters from headquarters. He was returning to his unit but did not find it where it had been at Ostreni. Instead he found a letter in the secret communications place. ‘Follow us down the Drini. We shall meet in Dibra. As fast as you can.’ “Trimi”. “Trimi” was the Commissar.
Sula Arifi had never done this trip before but that was not important. He would follow the tracks of his comrades down the course of the Drini. He could rely on the Drini. He would get there, come what may, he would get there.
He started early from Ostreni. Although the sky was dark and threatening neither snow nor rain had begun to fall.
Sula climbed the spur, leaving Cerrieci and Gorice on his right. He passed Zalli of Bulqiza and Majtari and daybreak found him near Devolan. So far the trip was going well. He tried to slip undetected past people and houses because there were enemy bands prowling about but he couldn’t get away without being observed. Shots rang out. Bajraktar’s men took a delight in blazing away at any stranger. If he happened to be a partisan, then so much the better.
Sula Arifi exchanged three short bursts with the two who were firing at him from behind a bank and then slipped away. But he hadn’t gone five hundred paces when a fearful pain caught him in the shoulder. A glance showed his jacket stained with blood. ‘Oh, the devil’, he thought. ‘Those dogs of Bajraktar have managed to get their teeth into me. What rotten luck!’ Painfully he managed to struggle out of his jacket and tried to stem the flow of blood by tying strips from his shirt around the wound. It was deep and bleeding heavily. Sula tested his arm, moving it backwards and forwards. ‘Thank goodness – at least it hasn’t touched the bone’, he comforted himself. ‘But I suppose that bit of metal’s still in me. I must get there and the comrades will pull it out.’
He made to move off, but he was no longer the man he had been the evening before. His makeshift bandage slipped and the bleeding continued. He was obliged to stop and tighten the strip of rag. On he went.
‘Oh! it’s a long way, this Dibra!’
Near Cetushi a fine drizzle began and quickly turned to snow. And what snow! Flakes as big as your hand. The whole world was blotted out. Within an hour six inches, a foot of snow had fallen. Sula struggled forward, lifting his feet high as he plodded along. Unable to see a thing, he strained his ears for the sound of the river. ‘I’m all right’, he whispered, ‘I’m on the right track. Bless you, Black Drini!’ And he hurried his steps as if to keep pace with the river as it rushed northwards. Behind the partisan the snow immediately covered his footprints and the spots of blood.
Sula Arifi came to a halt. His legs would no longer obey him. His whole chest was a fire of agony from his wound, as if his ribs had been riddled with bullets. It was snowing as hard as ever. He couldn’t see ten paces ahead and neither could he hear the Drini. It had fallen silent. ‘Either I’ve lost my way or the river’s wider here and not making much noise’, thought the partisan.
Unexpectedly, a sweet lethargy began to steal over him, spreading over his limbs and warming them, making him drowsy. Hundreds of figures, some new, some familiar, danced before his eyes. He seemed to be back in the old bakery where he had worked so many years as an apprentice. The baker, with his great hairy arms like a bear, quenched the burning paddles from the oven in a tub of water. On the broad counter, trays full of pies, roast meat and pastries, were lined up side by side. Further over, on the shelves, buns fresh from the oven and shining with egg-yolk were steaming. He took one and sank his teeth in it, but he couldn’t get it down his throat. The baker hit him hard in the belly with the butt end of the paddle.
Sula Arifi pulled himself together, scared. It was a near thing. One moment more and he would have been asleep. In the snow, that would have been the end. He took a handful of snow and rubbed his face with it. At first it felt cold, then the sting turned into a scalding heat which flushed his cheeks. Sula Arifi took a proper hold on himself. At that moment he remembered the words of the letter: ‘As fast as you can, comrade’, he whispered mechanically. But his legs would not function. His limbs seemed frozen and numb. The partisan lifted his head. Through that snowy stillness, that fearful stillness, a muffled roar was becoming gradually louder, heading towards the north. ‘Ah! there it is again. Bless you, Black Drini!’ Sula Arifi took one step forward, two steps, then he was on his way again, as though drawn along by the roar of the river.
About midday the snowstorm began to peter out. The flakes thinned out, then they stopped altogether. On his right Sula Arifi could see a village, on his left, the river. He turned from the village, moving towards the river. What would he have given, at that moment, for a crust of bread! It was painful to think that there, five hundred paces away, there was a fire, bread, and people who might gladly give it.But this village ahead – was it Brezhdani? Or Kishavici? March, Sula Arifi, as quickly as you can! But his legs would scarcely move, while the Drini roared furiously on its way. Now, with its banks covered with snow, it seemed like a narrow stream snaking along. ‘This must be Kishavici! But what is the name of this stream?’ He could go no further. He stood, breathing heavily. He was not sleepy now. His limbs were laden, while his feet seemed like two strange, lifeless lumps. He no longer felt his wound. The blood had clotted round the bandage in a heavy crust.
A tall stone house where perhaps he might rest loomed before him in the gathering darkness. The courier stood looking at it, isolated, rising from the snow-covered plain. The other houses were a fair way off, scattered over the ridges and valleys and indistinct now in the deepening twilight. He turned his eyes again to the plain. What was going on behind those cold walls, behind those narrow, loophole windows? There seemed something ominous about the way the angles of the stone stood out in the gloom, clean-cut as with a knife.
Sula Arifi wavered, paused, then moved towards it. It was a partisan base. It was an open fire where wet clothes could be dried and exhausted limbs stretched out. It was a piece of corn bread gladly given, a pleasant corner where one could dream of the morrow.
He approached the house, and pushed open the big door. The wooden stair creaked under his feet, the steps slippery with slushy snow.
‘There’s someone here then’, thought Sula, clinging to the banister. The sight of the open door gave him strength to struggle up the last few steps, but he froze rigid on the threshold. In the room beyond the door lay a dead man. An old woman sat with bowed head beside him. Her face was buried in her hands and partly obscured by her black shawl. Two other women sat in silence, a little to one side.
The old woman looked up. Sula Arifi shrank back against the door. ‘Oh women’, called the old woman, ‘stand up and welcome the guest.’
Sula mumbled with embarrassment, ‘I … I … ‘
‘Oh you women’, repeated the old woman in a deeper tone, ‘stand up and welcome the guest’.
‘No’, said Sula firmly, ‘I am going’.
‘You’ll not cross the threshold alive, my boy!’
She stood up and strode towards him.
Sula took off his cap and approached the body.
‘Your son, Mother?’
‘When did this happen?’
‘Today. Halil Alija. *But relax, boy, don’t get excited!’
Her glance fell on his chest. ‘But you’ve been shot!’ she said. ‘Oh, damn their eyes, you’ve been shot, too.’ Quickly, women, we must get those clothes off him.’
But the women had disappeared. ‘They’ve gone, the fools,’ she whispered. ‘They were afraid. But I’ll dress this wound without them.’
‘There, there, dear boy. My son wouldn’t like his mother to leave you in this state.’
The old woman, with a glance at her son, rose to her feet. The flames from the fire at her back cast a long shadow right across the room. As she moved towards him with her great stride, she seemed to Sula Arifi like a mighty oak with a massive trunk and broad-spreading branches. He tried to remember her eyes when he had first seen her through the doorway. They were cold in the beginning, almost lifeless, but the life blazed up in them immediately she noticed the partisan.
‘Ah, what a brave old woman you are, mother, a brave old woman indeed,’ whispered Sula Arifi.
The old woman came back carrying a roll of cloth prepared precisely for bandages. A shudder passed over the partisan when he saw it. In that roll of bandage, the whole blood-stained history of the banks of the Drini was expressed. There wouldn’t be a house without such bandages, nor a woman who didn’t know how to weave them. The bride brought them in her dowry. The blood feuds ran on from century to century.
Reluctantly the partisan lay down. He felt ashamed at being treated. Ashamed and embarrassed in the presence of the dead. But what a woman this was! A slight groan escaped his lips. Immediately the old woman lifted her hands from the wound.
‘Did I hurt you, son? Did I hurt my dear Abaz?’
Sula Arifi looked at the dead man. A lock of blonde hair had fallen across his forehead. The look of death had not yet touched his face. The old woman was confused. The living partisan seemed like her dead partisan son.
She turned his head towards her and wiped his tears. It was too much. Her hand was roughened and cold, but Sula Arifi seized it and pressed it on his face.
‘There, there, dear boy, mother’s here!’ She rose and filled a cup with coffee.
‘Drink it, son. Now I shall get you some food’
‘What courage,’ murmured Sula Arifi to himself. ‘Even at such a time she thinks about food for me.’
‘My son did not leave me on my own this night, you came, my boy.’ The cup quivered in the partisan’s hand. He no longer felt his wounds. Didn’t this old woman show how to bear pain?
Sula put down the empty cup. A rifle shot rang out from nearby. The partisan reached for his gun.
‘Hand over the partisan, old woman, if you don’t want to follow your son to the grave!’
The voice came clearly from just outside the wall. Sula rose to his knees. The pressure of the old woman’s hand on his shoulder prevented him from standing up. From outside the threats were repeated. The house was surrounded. Sula stood against the wall.
‘I’m going out,’ he said.
‘Do you intend to give yourself up, boy?’ The old woman was looking fierce. ‘I’ll never surrender while there’s breath in my body, mother, I want to go out to face them.’
‘No, not while I live. One I gave them, another never!’
‘They will burn the house down.’
‘One I gave them, another never,’ whispered the woman again. ‘Let the house go up in flames!’
In her agony of indecision she began to pace backwards and forwards across the big room. What to do? How to save Sula Arifi? Until then she had been so brave, faced with her dead son. Now, before her living son she seemed lost.
Sula peered out a loophole. They were shooting from outside. Bullets whistled and smashed against the stone walls. It was pitch dark out there.
The old woman threw a pitcher of water on the fire. Darkness enclosed the room. Who knows how much suffering this woman has seen, how many times she has quickly doused the fire when the rifles started at night. Outside they were keeping up a furious fire. Sula fired the odd shot in reply. There seemed to be no end to the volleys. Tiles flew from the roof and smashed to the ground. Dogs were barking from somewhere near.
Sula turned to see what the old woman was doing. To his astonishment, she was coming towards him, with a gun in her hands.
‘Slip out through the little door at the back. I’ll hold them off, they won’t suspect anything.’
‘Oh mother, mother,’ whispered the partisan, ‘I’m not leaving. You go,’ he said to the old woman.
‘I’m carrying letters from headquarters. They must be delivered to the unit at all costs. You know the way. You go, mother.’
‘I have a brave son here,’ she said.
‘Now go! One son I gave another never!’
‘But I am wounded. I’ll not get there.’
‘The letters must be delivered at all costs. I am wounded.’ His words became almost delirious, beseeching. He could not leave her on her own and go.
‘Away you go! A wounded man can make it, a live man can make it, but not a dead one. I want you to live. Abaz would have listened to me. Now please go!’
And he went. He valued his life that night no more than a hair of his head, but there are bigger things, more important things than that.
As he went, for a long time he could hear a shot with a particular sound distinguishable amongst the others, the sound of a carbine. It continued all through the evening until nearly midnight. Then it was silent. Sula Arifi went on towards Dibra.
*Halil Alia was a collaborator with the fascists and one of chiefs of the traitor forces that fought against the National Liberation Movement.
One of the best ways into Albania is via the ferry from Corfu to Saranda in southern Albania. What follows is the practical information of what you need to know to make that process easy and – hopefully – trouble free.
I’ve been to Albania three times now, so far, and each time via Corfu. The first time I arrived late at night and was expecting to leave on the ferry the next morning. That was thwarted due to an annual safety check on the hydrofoil (so I was told though I heard a different story in Saranda) which meant there was no departure for three days. The second time everything went as it should and the journey was made much easier due to my previous experience. What surprised me the most was there was no way I could find detailed information about the logistics of getting across a relatively narrow stretch of water. This posting is an attempt to give an as up to date and accurate step by step approach to getting from one country to another as is possible.
Where you buy your tickets depends upon the time of year. During the high season, when there is more than one sailing a day, there is a kiosk just inside the main New Port entrance, to the left backing on to the main road. However, outside of the months of June to September tickets are only sold in the company’s office.
This is the head office of Ionian Cruises. That’s a grand title but it’s based in small shop facing the Domestic Terminal building, which also houses the biggest café in the area (as well as a left luggage office) on the road that runs parallel to the sea. There is a small sign indicating that they sell tickets to Albania (in English).
All the details I’ve been able to collect are as follows:
(The website has improved significantly since I first published this post. Any additional information will more than likely be found there, e.g., vehicle tariffs.)
Tel. : +0030 26610 38690, 31649, 25155
Fax : +0030 26610 38787, 26555
The office is open from 08.00 and the people who work in there speak English, which makes life easier for some of us non-Greek speakers.
Fast Ferry – Hydrofoil
You need your passport and you MUST buy a ticket before going to the boat. As of April 2018 the adult cost is €19 each way in the low season. The cost increases to €23.80 from mid-June to mid-September. Children go for half price. Departure Times (all year) are at 09.00, but with 2 or 3 extra sailings from the middle of June to the middle of September. Check the website for times when you want to travel. The latest sailing from Corfu is 18.30. Apart from possible disruption due to the weather or mechanical issues the ferry should run every day of the year. There is now a facility to book and pay online.
The hydrofoil leaves from the top end of the new port. This means that after buying your ticket in the office you have to get to the main entrance to the Port of Corfu which is about 400m along the road, heading northwards out of Corfu town. Once through the main gates turn left and head to the New Passenger Terminal, the sandy coloured building about a 100m away. Here you will get your passport and ticket checked. There is also a small Duty Free shop but few other facilities.
Duration of journey: 30 minutes.
Once on board leave your bag at your seat (or at the luggage store by the entrance) and go right to the back of the boat and get a sensation of speed without being blinded by the spray that obscures any sightseeing from the cabin. The boats are Kristi, Santa and Santa III, Komet class hydrofoils, not that young any more but still up to the task in hand.
Remember to put your watches/time pieces forward one hour when landing on Albanian soil (you effectively arrive before you have left!).
A ferry taking vehicles is also now an option. From 16th May till 25th October there’s a departure from Corfu at 19.00. There’s an extra ferry between 1st July until 25th October at 13.00. From Saranda the departures during the same dates are 10.30 and 16.00 (local time). Costs are too complex to list here but all are on the website.
Duration of journey: 70 minutes.
These times and prices are valid for 2019.
There are no visa requirements for citizens of the European Union, citizens of other countries should check first. Passport formalities are remarkably innocuous on entering (or leaving) Albania. The passport will be scanned and recorded on the immigration service computer. You normally get a stamp in your passport if arriving or leaving by boat but this is not always the case at land borders. The lack of a stamp took me by surprise the first time I entered by land, from Greece, but later learnt that this is common and you shouldn’t be concerned if there is no entry stamp.
Once you leave passport/customs control you might well be approached by Tomi. He’s an English-speaking Albanian who runs a basic hostel less than 100m from the port entrance. If you are new to the country, want to meet other foreign visitors to pick their brains about what/when/where the hostel is a good place for all of this. Tomi also is a mine of information and if he doesn’t know the answers will almost certainly know someone who does. If you miss him you can call his mobile, +355694345426.
Another good place to check out is the Dolphin Hostel, located at 168, Rruga Lefter Talo. This is just above the street Rruga Flamurit, which is effectively Saranda’s interurban bus station.
The ticket office to get tickets to Corfu is in the building on the main road, directly above the dock. The name over the office is Finikas Lines. Sailings from Saranda vary depending upon time of year. There’s always at least one a day but there are extra sailings in the peak season. Check the link above for exact sailing details.
Recommendations and suggestions
So now you’ve arrived in Albania (hopefully without too many problems) what do you do? Below are some places you might want to visit. Also there’s a bit more (hopefully) useful tourist information as well as some commentary on Albanian politics and society. Click on the image to be taken to the post.
If you are interested in Socialist period culture (i.e., monuments – known locally as lapidars, bas reliefs, mosaics etc.) many examples of which still exist – in varying degrees of repair then here’s a page with links to locations throughout the country. This page also includes some of the post-Communist constructions in the country, e.g., churches and how the reaction has used Socialist Realist styles to promote the opposing ideology.