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November 27 2011

Christmas gifts 2011: which books will be under your tree?

Our critics choose the books they intend to give this Christmas, and the ones they hope to receive

What do you think are the best books of 2011? Take part in our open thread discussion here

Diana Athill
Editor and writer

I am crazy about Craig Taylor's Londoners (Granta £25), a brilliant collection of "voices" in the manner of Studs Terkel. It's quite long, but I wanted it to go on and on, and I can't imagine any lucky recipient not enjoying it. One I'm sure I'll enjoy myself when I get my hands on it is Claire Tomalin's biography of the most glorious of all Londoners, Charles Dickens: A Life (Viking £30).

Richard Eyre
Theatre director

I'd give Christopher Hitchens's collected essays, Arguably (Atlantic £30), in the hope that in return I'd be given John Updike's collected essays, Higher Gossip (Knopf £25). Hitchens is said to be the best British essayist since Orwell; anyone who doubts this, considering him a mere provocateur, will be convinced by this collection. Updike was the best novelist of his generation and also a prolific critic and essayist. His posthumous book is a distillation of his non-fiction writing over nearly six decades.

Russell T Davies
TV dramatist

It's too late to make a Christmas present out of How to Be a Woman (Ebury Press £11.99) by Caitlin Moran, because as soon as I'd finished it, I bought five more copies. One each for my two sisters and three nieces. I think this is the most important book they might read in their lives. Underneath beautiful, aching and hilarious memories of family life, it's a true polemic, arguing that women still eat, shave and dress entirely for the benefit of men. As for me, I'll have A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In (Bloomsbury £12.99) by Magnus Mills. For the title alone!

Tim Adams
Observer writer

Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow (Allen Lane £25) – a terrific unpicking of human rationality and irrationality – could hardly have been published at a better moment. Kahnemann is the godfather of behavioural economics, and this distillation of a lifetime's thinking about why we make bad decisions – about everything from money to love – is full of brilliant anecdote and wisdom. It is Kahnemann's belief that anyone who thinks they know exactly what is going on hasn't understood the question; as such it's the perfect gift for opinionated family members everywhere.

It would be interesting to know what Christopher Hitchens would make of Kahneman's faith in doubt; one of the many pleasures of reading our greatest contrarian over the years has been his ability to give the impression that he knows exactly what he thinks about almost every subject under the sun. Hitchens's collected essays, Arguably, is the book I'd most like to receive, for its bravura certainties, in spite of everything.

Joe Dunthorne
Novelist

A recent issue of McSweeney's magazine included a severed head (opening that morning's post was like the final scene in the film Se7en), but the current edition, the 38th, focuses on what the magazine does best: great stories, both fiction and non-fiction. I would give it to anyone with a short, persistent commute.

For myself, I'd like House of Holes (Simon & Schuster £14.99) by Nicholson Baker. Although reviewers have been bewildered, I'm intrigued by Baker's transition from writing a (brilliant) low-key novel about a struggling poet to this one, which is, by all accounts, a cheerful porno odyssey. Not the sort of book to be seen buying for oneself, mind you.

Rachel Johnson
Editor and author

Whoever says women aren't funny should be tied to chairs and force-read Bossypants (Little Brown £16.99) by Tina Fey, a darkly hysterical monologue-memoir by the writer/actor about growing up with dark shin fur in the land where yellow hair is king, writing skits for Saturday Night Live, her aborted honeymoon cruise (the ship caught fire) and Kotex panty-pads.

Johnson's Life of London (Harper Collins £20), by Boris Johnson, is not only the book I want to receive, it's the only book I can guarantee I will be given, as the author gives only two things to his family as presents: condiments he's made himself and books he's written. I am looking forward to both as I have been assured by my brother that his book on London is every bit as good as his apple chutney.

Philip Hensher
Novelist

I'm giving everyone Robert Harris's The Fear Index (Hutchinson £18.99) for Christmas, because everyone's already read Alan Hollinghurst's superb The Stranger's Child, and The Fear Index is a total ripsnorting Demon Seed-type romp through the bowels of high finance and whirring computer-cogs. In the usual way of things, people kept sending me copies of things such as Samuel Beckett's wildly boring letters (Volume 2) when what I really wanted was Tessa Hadley's excellent The London Train (Jonathan Cape £12.99).

Joan Bakewell
Journalist and broadcaster

The past shapes our lives today, and both of my choices throw light on our own times. Sebastian Barry's On Canaan's Side (Faber £16.99) – the book I'll be giving – takes up the story of the Dunne family, which he has told in several previous novels. Together, these works cover the time of Ireland's troubles, from within the Unionist protestant community. The gorgeous prose adds to the pleasure.

I would like to receive Amanda Foreman's epic A World on Fire (Penguin £12.99), which deals with the British/American relationship throughout the American civil war. Growing up near Lancashire, I have always known that American exports of raw cotton fed the cotton mills of Britain. But I have never understood what happened when the civil war broke out. This lavishly praised book will explain this and many other things. And at 1,000 pages, it will last the year!

Michael Palin
Actor and broadcaster

Colin Thubron's To a Mountain in Tibet (Chatto & Windus £16.99) is an absolutely terrific book. Thubron has perfect pitch. He uses the minimum of words for the maximum effect. His descriptions are fresh and acute and he can convey atmosphere and emotion on the head of a pin. The journey to Mount Kailash is enthralling and he keeps the reader right beside him every inch of the way.

The book I'd like in my stocking is Adam Macqueen's Private Eye: The First 50 Years (Private Eye Productions £25). The Eye has given me more consistent pleasure, pain and provocation than any other publication in my lifetime.

Rachel Cooke
Observer writer

What you need at Christmas is a novel that thoroughly muffles the sound of tired and overemotional relatives. So, I will be giving all of my girlfriends State of Wonder (Bloomsbury £12.99) by Ann Patchett, a sort of feminist Heart of Darkness. It has the barmiest plot ever – plucky scientist enters Brazilian jungle in search of her lost colleague and the secret of everlasting female fertility – but, honestly, it grips like a vice.

The book I would most like to receive is William Nicholson: Catalogue Raisonné of the Oil Paintings (Yale £95) by Patricia Reed, Wendy Baron and Merlin James. I can stare at a single Nicholson painting for long minutes at a time. He is just the best.

Fergus Henderson
Chef

Life is peculiar at the moment, but nothing could be as bad as Bernie Gunther's lot: prison camp to prison camp, interrogation after interrogation… Philip Kerr's battered hero in Field Gray: A Bernie Gunther Mystery (Quercus £17.99) is an ex-Berlin policeman who gets knocked around from Cuba to postwar Europe. When he finally gets his glass of German brandy I sighed a sigh of relief for the poor chap.

A very different kettle of fish – not much mention of the Gulag – is Sarah Winman's When God Was a Rabbit (Headline Review £12.99). I feel that at this point in life I'm ready to tackle a book about love, and Sarah Winman's charm will make her the perfect guide.

Chris Patten
Chairman of the BBC Trust

The most enjoyable new novel I have read this year is Snowdrops (Altantic £7.99) by AD Miller. It's a very well written page-turner that confirmed all my prejudices about Putin's Russia. I came to it after reading Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate, my number one discovery of the year, which to be fair to Mr Putin, does at least show how much worse things were under Stalin.

I have asked for David Gilmour's The Pursuit of Italy (Allen Lane £25) for Christmas. It may help me to understand rather better this heavenly country, which has given the world great buildings, cities, music and food, as well as Mr Berlusconi.

Mary Warnock
Philosopher

The book I'm going to give, specifically to people nostalgic for their childhood in the late 1960s and 70s (of whom I know many), is Nelson (Blank Slate £18.99), edited by Rob Davis and Woodrow Phoenix. I am fascinated by the comic strip format (like the excellent comic book versions of Shakespeare), by the different styles of each participating artist in this collaboration between 54 British comic artists, and by the way the central character develops under one's eyes as each year in her life unfolds. It is perfect for anyone without a great deal of reading time at Christmas.

The book I'd most like to get is one that I have already reluctantly given away, Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin. I'm not a Dickens fan, but Tomalin is the best biographer there is.

Julie Myerson
Novelist

By far the most impressive novel I read this year was Jacqueline Yallop's Obedience (Atlantic £12.99). The prose is as intense, opaque yet elastic as its morally complex themes: guilt, sexuality and secrecy in a convent in wartime France. I'd give it to anyone who wants, as I do, to have their head and heart churned up by what they read.

The book I'd most like to be given is anything bought at one of the two independent bookshops in Southwold, Suffolk. Except both have now closed down. Which makes membership of Southwold Library – now ludicrously also under threat – the best free gift you could give anyone there this Christmas.

Philip French
Observer film critic

A worthy Booker laureate of this or any other year, our most versatile novelist Julian Barnes paid tribute in his acceptance speech to Suzanne Dean, cover designer of The Sense of an Ending (Jonathan Cape £12.99). This makes it a perfect present in these last days of the book as singular object. The one I hope someone will send me is Brian Kellow's Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark (Viking $27.95). I read her for more than 30 years and wrote an introduction to her final collection.

Daljit Nagra
Poet

Tahmima Anam's The Good Muslim (Canongate £16.99) is a perfect page-turner for the festive period. It is a powerfully gripping story about the birth of Bangladesh. Subtle plotting and vivid dramatisation of characters allow Anam to explore the formation of national identity. CB Editions is an exciting new poetry press which has published JO Morgan's second collection, Long Cuts (£7.99), this year. For me, this would be an ideal gift as I loved his first collection, Natural Mechanical, and reviews suggest this one is even better.

Tristram Hunt
Historian and Labour MP

Maya Jasanoff's Liberty's Exiles (HarperPress £30) is going to be in the Christmas stocking for a number of nearest and dearest. Jasanoff is an exceptional scholar of British history in all its global dimensions, and her evocative chronicle of the loyalist diaspora from the American war of independence allows us to rethink the cultural legacy of the Thirteen Colonies' rebellion. And, in turn, I would like an equally big book on US history by another transatlantic female historian – Amanda Foreman's A World on Fire. British involvement in the American civil war is still under-appreciated, and Foreman's work, on the 150th anniversary, looks like a useful corrective.

Wendy Cope
Poet

I always enjoy Caitlin Moran's columns, so I read her How to Be a Woman as soon as it came out. Although I didn't agree with every word, it is spot on about most things, and very entertaining. If I hadn't already given my copy to my partner's daughter, I would buy it for her. Another 2011 favourite is Edgelands (Jonathan Cape £12.99) by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, which I will be giving as a Christmas present. My Christmas wish-list includes Death Comes to Pemberley (Faber £18.99) by PD James and Blue Monday (Michael Joseph £12.99) by Nicci French.

Curtis Sittenfeld
Novelist

I thoroughly enjoyed The Oregon Experiment (Knopf $26.95) by Keith Scribner. Set in a college town in America's Pacific Northwest, it's a novel about – among other things – anarchists, adultery, new babies, hippies, and a woman with such a powerful sense of smell that it lets her discover secrets about other people. The book is just really smart and juicy. A novel I haven't yet read but have heard is wonderful is Love and Shame and Love (Little Brown $24.99) by Peter Orner. It's about a Chicagoan named Alexander Popper and his messy family – and I do always like family messiness!

Geoff Dyer
Novelist and essayist

The book I'd most like to receive this Christmas is Magnum Contact Sheets (Thames and Hudson £95), edited by Kristen Lubben: a collection of the pictures that were made either side of some of the famous images from the photojournalists' archive. The book is an exemplary bit of publishing in that it is stunningly beautiful – and huge, and expensive – but is full of the kind of material that might be considered the preserve of scholars or researchers. I'll be giving copies of Terry Castle's screamingly funny – and lethally sharp – collection of autobiographical essays, The Professor (Atlantic £20).

Marina Warner
Writer and academic

So much of what I read is in translation – from Alice Oswald's new reworking of the Iliad, Memorial, to Richard Hamilton's compendium of Marrakech stories, The Last Storytellers. Matthew Reynolds, in The Poetry of Translation: From Chaucer & Petrarch to Homer & Logue (Oxford £50), shows us what is at stake in these border crossings. Close looking is close reading's counterpart, and Deanna Petherbridge is one of its most impassioned advocates. If I don't find The Primacy of Drawing: Histories and Theories of Practice (Yale £55) under the tree, I'll buy it, gladly.

William Dalrymple
Historian and travel writer

I greatly enjoyed Sherard Cowper-Coles's brilliant account of how and why we are losing Britain's fourth war in Afghanistan. Cables from Kabul (HarperPress £25) is the most insightful record yet published of the diplomatic wrangling that has accompanied the slow military encirclement of western forces in the country. It is also the best account I have read of how post-colonial colonialism actually works.

A book I would love to be given is the fabulously illustrated catalogue accompanying the Masters of Indian Painting show at the Rietberg in Zurich this summer – unquestionably the most remarkable and ambitious exhibition of the Indian miniature tradition ever mounted. Masters of Indian Painting, 1100-1900 (Museum Rietberg £120) is a huge, two-volume affair, with essays by the three great historians of Indian art: BN Goswamy, Eberhard Fischer and Milo Cleveland Beach.

Mariella Frostrup
Observer writer and TV presenter

Robert Harris's fine new thriller, The Fear Index, is a must-have in every Christmas stocking. It's highly "readable" – the buzz word in literary circles this year – but more importantly, it manages to explain what a hedge fund actually is, using the example of lacy black lingerie. With our lives currently in turmoil thanks to the machinations of the financial markets, understanding how they work should be a priority, and Harris manages to combine such instruction with a fast-paced thriller.

I'd love to receive Marina Warner's epic study of the Arabian Nights, Stranger Magic (Chatto & Windus £28), a dissection of the myths in these enduring classics that promises to throw light on the countries from which the stories spring and the lives of women in them.

Hari Kunzru
Novelist

To London friends I'll be giving festive copies of Laura Oldfield Ford's Savage Messiah (Verso £19.99), the seminal fanzine (now released in book form), which reveals, in photos, text and beautiful drawings, the abject underside of the regenerated city. The book I'm hoping to find under the tree is Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee's Poor Economics (Perseus £17.99), which apparently overturns many received ideas about what it's like to be very poor.

Shami Chakrabarti
Director of Liberty

Sometimes the most serious messages are best expressed with humour, and this Christmas should be a time to try to smile. The book I'd love to receive is Private Eye: The First 50 Years by Adam Macqueen. But because I would love the next 50 years to be better for women, I would most like to give Caitlin Moran's How to Be a Woman. I've already bought a spare copy for a female friend. I will give it in celebration of Moran's wit and wisdom and in loving memory of my mother – an unsung feminist.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft
Writer

No better history books were published this year than David Gilmour's wonderful The Pursuit of Italy and The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean (Allen Lane £30) by David Abulafia. Both tell riveting but melancholy stories. Gilmour shows that the "unification" of Italy 150 years ago has been a profound failure, while in the course of Abulafia's account his great sea ceases to be the centre of civilisation.

Bright Particular Stars (Atlantic £25) is the latest of David McKie's sesquipedal peregrinations. This "Gallery of Glorious British Eccentrics", some of whom are a good deal more eccentric than glorious, is unfailingly droll and will make a perfect stocking-filler.

Nicholas Hytner
Artistic director of the National Theatre

Anthea Bell's new translation of Stefan Zweig's Beware of Pity, published this year by Pushkin Press (£8.99), is the latest in a brilliant series of Zweig translations. A psychological thriller with an emotionally dense unreliable narrator, and a terrifyingly needy heroine, it is compulsively readable.

I hope I'm given Claire Tomalin's Charles Dickens: A Life. Her biography of Dickens's mistress, Nelly Ternan, is a phenomenal feat of literary reclamation, but I fear that her new book will do nothing to refute my long-held belief that the novels ascribed to Dickens could not possibly have been written by the son of a naval pay-office clerk who left school at the age of 12, and are plainly the work of the Duke of Wellington.

Kirsty Wark
Broadcaster

If you want to make someone happy, lying on the sofa in front of the fire on Boxing Day, then you must give them Robert Harris's new thriller, The Fear Index. You might think you've had enough of the economic crisis – but this is the hugely entertaining version. Thinking of that same sofa, I'd like to receive Alan Hollinghurst's The Stranger's Child (Picador £20), which somehow eluded me this year. As an added extra, please may I have Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's Veg Everyday! (Bloomsbury £25), which I know is a very good thing for us all. Go on Santa.

Andrew Rawnsley
Observer political editor

For anyone you know who likes to be provoked to both laughter and thought, I can't think of a better stocking filler than Craig Brown's One On One (Fourth Estate £16.99), 101 ingeniously linked encounters between the famous and the infamous. As a great admirer of Max Hastings's military histories, I would be pleased to unwrap All Hell Let Loose (HarperCollins £30), his latest, much-praised volume on the second world war, focusing on the experiences of those at the sharp end of the conflict.

Kate Kellaway
Observer writer

There is one book that has bowled me over – on a subject close to my heart. The Story of Swimming (Dewi Lewis £25), by Susie Parr, not only looks ravishing (filled with unusual mermaids, avid modern swimmers and stunning photographs by the author's husband, Martin Parr) but is also a fascinating, idiosyncratic, beautifully written history. Readers will want to do far more than dip in – I intend to give it to all my amphibious friends. Meanwhile, the book I can't wait to read is Matthew Hollis's said-to-be-outstanding Now All Roads Lead to France (Faber £20), about the last years of Edward Thomas.

Peter Carey
Novelist

I have twice given away David Graeber's Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Melville House £21.99), and Christmas will not change my habits. The book is more readable and entertaining than I can indicate in 100 words. It is a meditation on debt, tribute, gifts, religion and the false history of money. Graeber is a scholarly researcher, an activist and a public intellectual. His field is the whole history of social and economic transactions. He has been an important figure at Zuccotti Park and Occupy Wall Street. Here, he uses his own klieg lights to illuminate the pea and thimble mechanisms that have delivered the current debt crisis. Would someone, please, give me a copy this Christmas. I promise to keep it for myself.

Elizabeth Day
Observer writer

One of the most thought-provoking novels I read this year was Amy Waldman's The Submission (William Heinemann £12.99), an elegantly plotted debut that charts the fallout after a New York jury chooses a Muslim architect to design a memorial to 9/11. Waldman uses this central focal point to unravel the tensions and contradictions at work in modern America.

The book I'd most like to unwrap underneath the Christmas tree (hint, hint) is Claire Tomalin's new biography, Charles Dickens: A Life. I've read every biography Tomalin has produced and am in awe not only of her impeccable research but also of her real feeling for her subjects and her exquisite writing.

AN Wilson
Writer and columnist

The book that I am hoping to find in my Christmas stocking is Fiona MacCarthy's The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination (Faber £25). I have enjoyed all Fiona MacCarthy's biographies (Eric Gill, William Morris, Byron...) and I cannot believe that this will disappoint.

The book I shall be giving is Robert Douglas-Fairhurst's compelling critical biography, Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist (Harvard £20). If you only read one book on Dickens during the bicentenary year of 2012, it should be this. Every page illuminates the books and the genius who produced them.

Bidisha
Writer and cultural commentator

So many contenders, but I would share the incredible creative power and intense imagination of Alice Hoffman, whose novel The Dovekeepers (Simon & Schuster £16.99) shows just how far and deep historical fiction can go. I would love to receive Sarah Hall's short story collection, The Beautiful Indifference (Faber £12.99), which I expect to be as gripping and cerebral as a previous novel of hers – one of my favourites – The Carhullan Army.

Salley Vickers
Novelist

The book I shall be giving for Christmas is Ronald Blythe's At the Yeoman's House (Enitharmon Press £15). The "house" is the mysteriously named "Bottengoms", once home of farmers and shepherds and rescued and restored by John Nash, for whom the author worked as a young man. The book is a quiet meditation on the nourishment to be found in the past. The book I most want to be given is Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. I'm a speedy thinker myself, so am hoping to be endorsed in that practice.

Robert McCrum
Associate editor of the Observer

Amanda Foreman's A World on Fire, an epic history of two nations divided by conflict, is an enthralling portrait of Britain and the US during the American civil war. It's a book that ought to be a natural Christmas present. Unfortunately, at 1,000 pages, the publishers have made it almost unreadable (ie impossible to hold in bed). This is a shame. To turn a brilliant narrative history into an infuriating doorstop is an insult to Foreman's work. Perhaps, for the gift market, Penguin should consider a two-volume paperback edition.

I've followed Christopher Reid's poetry for years, and was delighted when he won the Costa prize with A Scattering. Now Faber has issued his Selected Poems (£14.99). This is high on my list of books to read at Christmas.

Fintan O'Toole
Journalist and author

The book I'll be giving is Tim Robinson's Connemara: A Little Gaelic Kingdom (Penguin £20). In an age of sundered specialisms, Robinson – mathematician, map-maker, naturalist, folklorist – is a marvel. This last volume of his wonderful trilogy on Connemara ranges through political history, music and topography, marking him as the supreme practitioner of geo-graphy, the writing of places. I'd like to receive Derek Mahon's New Collected Poems (Gallery £17.95). Mahon's combinations of savage indignation and ludic delight, of high formality and apparent ease, repay endless revisiting.

What do you think are the best books of 2011? Take part in our open thread discussion here


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July 01 2011

A great white hope in Avilés, Asturias

The Asturian city of Avilés is betting on its new Oscar Niemeyer arts centre delivering the 'Guggenheim effect'

If first impressions were everything, you might not bother with Avilés. The A66 motorway takes you along the bank of a river that eventually opens into the Cantabrian Sea, but there's no water to be seen through a mephitic landscape of factories and warehouses. As you approach the city centre through the industrial grime, however, two things catch your eye: on one side of the estuary, a harmonious jumble of old town roofs; on the other side, a collection of grand buildings in curvaceous white forms.

Avilés is a revelation wrapped up in a surprise. The northern Spanish region of Asturias, under the radar for far too long, is finally taking its rightful place in British hearts thanks to its unspoiled beaches, its mountain landscapes, its gastronomy and idiosyncratic local culture. Oviedo is posh and pulchritudinous, Gijón a rough-and-tumble harbour town. Until quite recently, Avilés had seemed the post-industrial Cinderella of the three. Yet, thanks in large measure to a futuristic new cultural centre designed by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, things are picking up.

On an evening in late May I walked up to the Plaza de España, the city's front room, where one side is formed by the imposing Town Hall, and a few steps away lies the Palacio de Ferrera (Plaza de España 9, +34 985 129080, nh-hotels.com, doubles from €70), an urban stately home transformed into the best hotel in Avilés. From the square, cobbled and flagstoned streets radiate out into the best-preserved medieval city in Asturias.

It was getting on to 11 o'clock, but I needn't have worried about finding a decent dinner. The Casa Alvarín (Calle de Los Alas 2, +34 985 540 113, casaalvarin.com), a cider house with sawdust on the floors and Joselito hams hanging from the ceiling, was still serving up plates of octopus and slabs of Cabrales cheese.

Historic and cultivated, with one of the best harbours on the Cantabrian coast, for centuries the city did well out of fishing and trade. In the early 1950s the rot set in. Avilés was earmarked for an industrial future by Franco's government. The wetlands of the ría (estuary) were partially drained, the course of the river altered, and the giant factory complex of Spain's premier steel works, Ensidesa, installed within a few hundred yards of Avilés' charming old town. Smoke from factories painted the stones of the old town a shade of charcoal grey and the estuary became a dead zone.

In recent years, however, the spiral changed direction. The 1960s-built airport, 15km out of town, was extended in 1994 and again in 2000 (EasyJet flies there from Stansted). And now the city has just lucked out big-time. Niemeyer, the architect responsible for the building of Brasilia and masterpieces such as the contemporary art museum in Niterói, over the bay from Rio de Janeiro, had won the Prince of Asturias prize for architecture in 1989. In 2005 the Prince of Asturias Foundation contacted past winners as part of the prize's 25th anniversary. Niemeyer's contribution to the celebrations was a design for a cultural centre, to be sited wherever the government of Asturias might see fit; it would be his first building in Spain. As it happened, Avilés was just considering how best to engineer a socioeconomic change in the city by means of contemporary culture, earmarking parts of its decaying ría for a project that might have the same transforming effect that the Guggenheim had on Bilbao. The Centro Niemeyer (centroniemeyer.org) has just opened, and is intended to be the beginning of what will eventually become the Isla de la Innovación, a Norman Foster-designed "green city" entirely transforming the ría.

The Centro is a composition of simple forms arranged over a wide open space, described by its creator, with all the youthful idealism of his 103 years, as "a square open to the sea for all the men and women of the world, a place for cohabitation, education, culture and peace".

What strikes you first is the sudden glare of whiteness in this grey-green temperate zone. The auditorium, which seats 961, is housed in a wave-shaped building, the stage opening on to the square for open-air concerts. A long, low, curving form known informally as "the banana" has a cinema, meeting rooms and a cafeteria. The cupola, made by spraying white concrete on to an inflatable dome, is the centre's main exhibition space.

Shows lined up for the rest of 2011 include a Julian Schnabel Polaroid exhibition, a concert by Brazilian singer and guitarist Gilberto Gil (29 July), and the Bridge Project, with Sam Mendes directing Kevin Spacey in Richard III in September. The Niemeyer has just four permanent staff, but a roster of advisers that most arts centres would give their eyeteeth for, among them Spacey (theatre), Brad Pitt (architecture), Stephen Hawking (science), Woody Allen (cinema, and the occasional appearance on trad jazz clarinet).

The Centro is now the city's main attraction, and is just a short walk from the heart of old Avilés, where most tourists will spend the rest of their time, exploring the medieval centre's network of pretty streets, such as Calle de la Ferrería and Calle de Galiana. Avilés has few major monuments, though you wouldn't want to miss the church of San Francisco, its Romanesque facade eaten away by centuries of salt spray, or the barrio of Sabugo, formerly the fishing quarter, where you can see the stone table beside the church where mariners met to finalise their travel plans.

What the city has most of, however, are bars and taverns, restaurants and tapas joints. Avilés is rich in old-fashioned grocers' stores with high ceilings and flagstone floors, selling everything from tinned cabbage to maize flour and jars of tuna in olive oil. There are two Michelin-starred restaurants – Koldo Miranda (La Cruz de Illas 20, +34 985 511446, restaurantekoldomiranda.com) and Real Balneario (Avenida de Juan Sitges, +34 985 518613, realbalneario.com), above the beach at nearby Salinas, with its beautifully presented "new Asturian" food and sea views to die for. There are also gastrobars such as Sal de Vinos (Calle de la Muralla 36, +34 984 832053) and La Dársena de Fernando (Calle de Llano Ponte 7, +34 984 832900, ladarsenadefernando.com). In the pastry shops, the range of traditional sweetmeats has been joined by a new invention: dome-shaped little cakes variously known as Niemerinos, Niemeyitas and Avimeyers.

A "Niemeyer effect", smaller in scale but analogous to the "Guggenheim effect", is already at work in the city.

EasyJet (easyjet.com) has flights from Stansted to Asturias, half an hour's drive from Avilés, from £43 return


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New Zealand's island ruled by artists

A stone's throw from Auckland, the bohemian enclave of Waiheke Island has become a gallery-rich art destination. Our writer follows its sculpture trail

My first impressions of Waiheke Island are coloured by the sight of bare bottoms, all brightly painted in tinges of lime green, lemon yellow, electric blue and blushing pink. Sailing in from Auckland on the hourly Fullers ferry, we pass underneath a whole hillside of these cheeky sentinels, life-sized human figures standing stock-still and buck naked on the headland above Matiatia Bay. They were carved from wood and screen-printed to look three-dimensional by a sculptor named Christian Nicolson. His installation, titled Barebottomland and inspired by the Spike Milligan story Badjelly the Witch, was selected to open the biennial Sculpture on the Gulf festival which ran earlier this year.

There is talk of making it a permanent fixture, a way of saying "Welcome to Waiheke" that encapsulates the spirit of the place. Which is not to say the place is a nudist colony (though two of its 100 white sand beaches do operate a "clothing-optional" policy). It is merely to suggest that this island is ruled by artists and artisans.

The sculpture festival was founded by the Waiheke Community Art Gallery in 2002 as a showcase for the local creative element, who have turned the landscape into an open-air exhibition space. Following the coastal trail between the various featured artworks is like taking a nature walk through some parallel world where eight-foot totems of Super Mario – created by 13-year-old Timothy Sang – are built out of giant Lego blocks and planted on the clifftops.

A gigantic marine fossil seems to float over the harbour with an exoskeleton of electro-polished steel. Luminescent boats shaped like fallen leaves are anchored to the shore below. Some of these pieces were made by competing sculptors from Auckland – which is visible in silhouette as the sun goes down, just 18km across the Hauraki Gulf – or other parts of New Zealand. But this year's first prize goes to Denis O'Connor, who has lived on Waiheke for more than 40 years, and is sometimes given the credit for establishing it as a bohemian enclave.

"I came over with the dropout generation," says O'Connor, lying back on the grass beside his winning entry, a horsebox filled with chalk-like etchings and inscriptions – a metaphor for the mind of the artist that he has titled the Tangler's Cave. "At that time, a lot of us were getting pretty fed up with the city, and Waiheke was known as a haven for what you might call 'alternative lifestyles'. Aucklanders used to joke that they could see a constant cloud of pot smoke hanging over the island." The population has since grown to around 8,000, with another 3,400 arriving every summer to occupy their beach houses and holiday homes, the oldest of which are traditional New Zealand "baches" – simple huts with timber walls. And with O'Connor leading by example, the "dropouts" have become considerably more productive. Local art is now a viable industry, and hundreds of islanders make a living in it. The thoroughfare of Oneroa village is lined with shops and galleries full of their work. "For many years, Waiheke was a refuge," says Olivier Duhamel, who sculpts in bronze at a gallery called Bodyscape (+64 9 372 7220, bodyscape.net.nz). "But recently it's been growing into an art destination. People are coming over specifically to buy here."

Around the corner at the Toi Gallery (+64 9 372 2962, sallysmith.co.nz), which showcases the work of Sally Smith, among others, I am told that an artist named Chris Bailey is so in demand that they can barely keep his pieces on display. Invited to visit Bailey's nearby workshop, I find him carving out a headstone for a recently deceased family member. "My heart is in the stone," he says. A hulking Aucklander of mixed Irish and Maori descent, with a punch-bag hanging next to his workbench, he first came to Waiheke to escape the gang culture of the city's west side. "I basically reinvented myself, away from all my peers," says Bailey. "This island lets you do that." Having subsequently learned the tool-making techniques of his Te Aupouri ancestors, he started carving native wood, granite, andesite and basalt, based on tribal designs for weapons, paddles or anchor stones. "I love how all that stuff was essential, but also beautiful." That stuff is now fashionable, for lack of a better word, and therefore marketable.

While we're talking, he receives a phone call to tell him that his entry for the sculpture festival has already been sold. "I've got goose bumps, mate," he says. "Every sale means I can pay a few bills, and order in some new stone."

Most islanders will tell you that Waiheke is becoming more affluent, and many have turned to making their own breads, olive oils, sheep-milk cheeses and other high-end comestibles, to capitalise on the recent influx of wealthy retirees from the mainland. According to Denis O'Connor, these newcomers "either loosen up, or get divorced".

My hosts seem to belong in the first category. Gene O'Neill and Liz Eglinton were living what they call "corporate lives" in Auckland until 10 years ago, when they quit their jobs and built a guesthouse on 16 acres of island hillside, facing west toward the city and the sunset.

Modelled on Waiheke's old-style bach accommodations, but a great deal more luxurious, their Te Whau Lodge makes a tasteful and respectful case for gentrification, with nothing but local produce in evidence – from the soaps to the seafood and the wine cellar. Sitting in the hot tub on their sun deck with a glass of syrah, I can't see any signs of imminent class war. "Not likely," says Liz. "There's a pretty healthy relationship between the islanders and the people bringing money in."

The view is even better from the fine-dining restaurant on the Mudbrick estate (+64 9 372 9050, mudbrick.co.nz), one of several boutique vineyards that began taking full advantage of Waiheke's warm and breezy micro-climate in the 1970s and have since covered swathes of the island in world-class bordeaux and chardonnay grapes. But for the first time during my stay, it begins to rain, and the low clouds pour down over Church Bay, obscuring Auckland in the distance. "Great," says my waitress, and she's not being sarcastic – residents depend on these showers to fill their water tanks. "That's how you tell a weekender from an islander," she says. "The tourists hate the rain, but we bloody love it."


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April 30 2010

Italy in summer: insiders' guide

From alfresco cafe culture with the Milanese, gelato with the Romans and all-night revelling with the Genovese, our experts give the lowdown on local life

Alfresco partying, Milan

Milan's fashion pack really comes out in force during summertime, when those in Gucci sundresses and D&G shades sip on espressos while people-watching over sun-soaked piazzas. Cafe culture is big business here, and there are alfresco eats aplenty: the new outpost of California Bakery (Piazza Sant'Eustorgio 4) offers a mouthwatering menu and a beautiful outdoor backdrop.

Milan's bar scene also spills outside in summer (though many shut up shop in August); the Roïalto roof garden (Via Piero della Francesca 55) is the place to soak up the sun, while the Diana Garden terrace (Viale Piave 42) is the place to be seen. Corso Garibaldi has a string of hip bars – try the Radetzky Café at 105. Temporary venues also pop up each summer, although Bar Bianco (Viale Enrico Ibsen 4), a cocktail bar in Parco Sempione with a live DJ, is a trusted favourite.

When it comes to outdoor clubs, the best are Café Solaire (Gate 7, Circonvallazione Idroscalo, Segrate, +39 02 3406 756096) near Milan's artificial lake by Linate airport, and Karma (Via Fabio Massimo 36, +39 0256 94755) – here you can party under the stars and rub bronzed shoulders with the rich, famous and fabulous. The Milan Film Festival in September finishes off a fun summer in the city.
Townhouse 31 (+39 0270 156, doubles from €199) is an understated townhouse with a courtyard bar
Nick Clarke, writer for Hg2, luxury city guide series

Peace and people-watching, Florence

A hop and a skip over the tourist trap Ponte Vecchio, hiding in the cute-as-a-bug's-ear neighbourhood of San Niccolò, lies the peace of the Bardini Gardens (Via dei Bardi). Rising in stepped terraces towards the ancient city walls, these simple and lovely manicured gardens offer a grandstand view of Florence across the Arno, and the €7 entrance charge also gets you free admission to the neighbouring Boboli Gardens, the Pitti Palace costume museum and the Medici Treasury. When you totter out of the Pitti Palace you can rest your toots at a lovely little wine bar Pitti Gola e Cantina (Piazza de Pitti 16). Just opposite the palace, this elegant little prime people-watching perch – with its tiny streetside terrace – serves tasty fare in addition to a cheeky Tuscan sip list. Perfetto.
J and J Hotel (doubles from €130) near the Duomo has stylish white rooms
Grant Thatcher, founder, Luxe Guides

Ice-cream and cocktails, Rome

When in Rome in the summer, do as the Romans do and head out into a sun-soaked space such as the Spanish Steps or the Piazza di Trevi, or indeed pound the pavement of Via dei Condotti in search of something suitably filigree to slip into. The creamiest gelaterie of the city-based crop are Giolitti (Via degli Uffici del Vicario 40) and San Crispino (Via della Panetteria 42). For lunch, there's nowhere quite as trendy as Trastevere: bookstore-cum-café Bibli (Via dei Fienaroli 28, +39 0658 14534) serves excellent food in a quaint covered garden. If it's a terrace with a view you're after, Caffè Capitolino (Capitoline Museums, Piazza del Campidoglio 19, +39 0669 190564) has panoramic views of the city and, on a clear day, the Alban Hills.

On sticky summer nights, it's all about quaffing negroni cocktails on hotel rooftops or lingering till late on trendy terraces. For the former, take the elevator to the 7th Heaven Bar at the Aleph Hotel (Via di San Basilio 15), while the latter can be enjoyed at Joia (Via Galvani 20). And if that isn't enough summer goings-on, the Estate Romana Festival between June and September – with more than 150 music, sporting and film events – ensures that there is always something outdoorsy to do. NC

Shakespeare and Zeffirelli operas Verona

Verona in summer means the arena (Via Roma 7), the enormous Roman amphitheatre which is home to one of Italy's best opera seasons, from mid-June to the end of August. This year, the arena pays tribute to Italian director Franco Zeffirelli by staging his versions of five much-loved operas: Aida, Carmen, Il Trovatore, Madame Butterfly and a new production of Turandot. But the city is also offering a packed calendar of events at other venues, with jazz concerts at the Roman theatre (Palazzo Barbieri, +39 0458 066485), ballet (among others, Romeo and Juliet) also at the Roman theatre, and Shakespeare plays (in Italian) at several venues around town. And of course Verona itself is always worth a visit, with the beautiful, bustling Piazza delle Erbe, the views from Castel San Pietro and pretty Piazza del Mercato Vecchio, which often hosts street performances.
Hotel Verona (+39 0455 95944, doubels from €88) has plain but pleasant modern rooms
Carla Passino, editor, Italymag.co.uk

Art and picnics, Rome

Notwithstanding its collection of awe-inspiring masterpieces by Canova, Bernini, Raphael and Titian, the Galleria Borghese (Piazzale Scipione Borghese 5, +39 0685 48577), is all the more divine for its splendid location in the sylvan parkland that is Villa Borghese. The recipe for the perfect day is simple. A day or two before, book your timed-entry tickets for the galleria, then reserve your cestino of goodies at Gina (Via San Sebastianello 7, +39 0667 80251) situated just by the Spanish Steps – their lovely rentable wicker picnic hampers come complete with everything you need including checkered tablecloth, glasses, plates, fresh sandwiches, fruit, wine and even a thermosflask of coffee – how neat is that. On the day, stop by Gina en route and you can leave your hamper at the cloakroom check-in while you ooh and ahh. Not a picnic person? No problem. Within the park is the grandiose Casina Valadier (Piazza Bucarest, Villa Borghese, +39 0669 922090). A leisurely alfresco lunch under the trees of this palazzo's dappled terrace is perfect for those who prefer something a little less rustico. Taste and culture. Gioia! GT

Heated battles and cool jazz, Genoa

Genoa is staging thousands of events this summer to celebrate its role as one of the Mediterranean's most important cities. There will be art, with an exhibition of Caravaggio's landscapes at Villa del Principe until 26 September (Piazza del Principe, +39 0102 55509, dopart.it/genova), poetry, with an international festival at the Palazzo Ducale (Piazza Matteotti 9, +39 0105 574000, palazzoducale.genova.it) from 10 to 20 June, historic re-enactments, including a regatta on 2 June, where vessels from Italy's four ancient maritime republics – Genoa, Pisa, Amalfi and Venice – do battle with one another, and religious processions (in honour of the city's patron San Giovanni, on 24 June). But most of all there will be music. The rhythms of the Mediterranean world will take centre stage all summer at Genoa's old harbour, Porto Antico, filling it with sounds from Europe and Africa.

Women will be the focus of Just Like a Woman, a three-day celebration of international music queens, featuring Sinead O'Connor, Morcheeba and Diana Krall, on 8, 12 and 14 July respectively, all at Porto Antico (Via al Ponte Calvi 5, +39 0102 485711). But Genoa's musical programme also has a strong American flavour, with a Guitar Festival paying tribute to Jimi Hendrix (between 16 and 28 July at Porto Antico), an exploration of American music at Villa Bombrini (5-25 July) and Gezmataz's, the city's biggest jazz event, a five-night feast of concerts and workshops with, among others, Ornette Coleman, Vicente Amigo, Paolo Fresu and Stefano Bollani (all at Porto Antico). After a quieter August, the Genoese summer season culminates with the Notte Bianca, an all-night revel, on 11 September.
Palazzo Cicala (+39 0102 518824, doubles from around €190) has airy white rooms, funky bathrooms and period furniture CP

Love and romance, Trieste

Few places are more conducive to romance than Trieste, the grande dame of Italian coastal cities, stretched white and neoclassical along the Adriatic Sea. This spring and summer, Trieste takes the mantle of Italy's romantic capital by displaying Francesco Hayez's 1859 painting Il Bacio (The Kiss), the masterpiece that celebrates the love between a man and a woman (and, as an allegory, between Italians and their soon-to-be-unified homeland) until 15 August. The show will also include three watercolours by the same artist, and will take place against the haunting backdrop of Miramare (Viale Miramare, +39 0402 24143), the wedding cake of a castle built for Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian and his wife, Charlotte of Belgium, on a small promontory west of the city.

But summer romance is in the air everywhere – take a walk along the promenade at night to see the moon playing on the water, or climb up to the cathedral and castle of San Giusto to admire the panorama over Trieste's red roofs, the harbour and the soft wavelets beyond. And don't forget to walk the path that links the seaside towns of Sistiana and Duino, to take in the magnificent sea views that inspired Bohemian poet Rainer Maria Rilke's Duino Elegies.
The Hotel Greif Maria Theresia (+39 040 410115, doubles from around €120 – call for best rates) is a grand affair in the seaside suburb of Barcola CP


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