Friday 25 December 2015

A Christmas Peregrination

Happy Christmas!

La Peregrinacion. Ariel Ramirez. Performed by the King's Singers.

Thursday 17 December 2015

Venice: Twelve Tips for First-Timers

This week, a guest post from Lynn Reynolds

So you’re off to Venice for your first ever visit, eh? Lucky you! Here are a few brief pointers to help you get the most from your time, whether that be a long weekend or a fortnight. Everybody’s experience of this extraordinary city is different, so I’m keeping my tips fairly practical. But on the basis that you’ll enjoy yourself all the more if you know something about the history of the place, I’ve also included links to relevant background sources.
  1. Before you leave, it’s worth taking some time to look at what the Grand Tourists of the 18th and 19th centuries saw when they visited Venice. Various galleries in different towns (such as London’s Wallace Collection) exhibit collections of so-called view paintings, the era’s equivalent of the postcard or location selfie.
  1. If you’re flying into Marco Polo airport, you could take a water bus from there to your destination. But if you have €110 to spare, I recommend opting for a motoscafo, or taxi. These wood-panelled speedboats whiz you and your luggage as near to your doorstep as they can, and you’ll have an amazing view along the way.
  1. Pack light, because you’ll probably need to carry your luggage at some point. No, lighter than that. Preferably in a backpack, or something you can easily hoist across expanses of cobbles and the numerous bridges you’ll almost certainly encounter on your way from the taxi stop to your hotel/hostel/apartment.
  1. Here’s one just for travellers from the UK. When selecting your seats on the plane, observe the SOPH (starboard out, port home) principle. Then you’ll be rewarded with memorable vistas of the city upon your approach and departure.
  1. Be warned that there’s a 10-minute walk from Marco Polo airport to the water bus or taxi rank. In fact there’s a lot of walking in general in Venice, few elevators anywhere, and many bridges to cross, which means plenty of steps. On the way back to the airport from my last visit, I walked in front of a young woman who spent the entire ten minutes lamenting that if she’d known visiting Venice was going to be so tiring, she’d have stayed at home and gone to the gym every day instead.
  1. My fellow women: Venice is one of the most genuinely glamorous and elegant places you’ll ever visit, but if you wear high heels to walk anything but a short distance you’ll end up in serious pain. Surfaces all tend to be uneven, slippery, hard and unforgiving. The city is full of shops selling soft, comfy (often quite ugly) shoes, and there’s a very good reason for that. Take a stylish pair of flats so you won’t need to make an unflattering emergency purchase.
  1. Eat on the hoof most of the time. My opinion of restaurant food in Venice is a resounding “meh”. In my opinion, it’s certainly not worth missing out on sightseeing time for. Fortunately, snack foods like tramezzini and mozzarella in carozza are pretty good, and they’ll keep you going as you power round those must-see destinations. But when you do want something more substantial, here’s what to look for.
  1. Even if you’re only visiting for a short time, you must go to Torcello. When you do, you’ll experience Venice’s origins. All the better to appreciate the city’s amazing transformation from a settlement of refugees in a malarial swamp to the head of one of the most enduring empires in history.
  1. If you really love classical music, you could go to the opera at the Gran Teatro la Fenice. But if you prefer a more intimate experience, check out Musica a Palazzo. This company perform a variety of programmes to small audiences in the splendid surroundings of a real Venetian palace.
  1. Do take a gondola ride. But instead of encouraging your gondolier to sing cliched folk songs originating hundreds of miles south of Venice, ask him—for it will be a him—to tell you more about this truly unique form of water transportation. Sounds nerdy, but you won’t regret it.
  1. When you see an ice cream shop called Grom, drop in and have one. It’s probably the best ice cream you’ll find anywhere.
  1. Don’t miss cocktail hour. You’ll know it when it happens, because you’ll see lots of people sitting around in front of bright orange and deep red drinks. My bet is that you’ll be only too pleased to join in, because there aren’t a lot of places to sit down in Venice, and by now your feet will be killing you.

Friday 11 December 2015

Drinky-poos in Venice

Cocktail time in Venice is bright orange

The visitor to Venice with the even slightest interest in drink will notice on practically every table and bar counter glasses of filled with an enticing orange liquid. This is the Spritz, which these days seems to be the drink most closely associated with Venice. 
Campo San Barnaba, Venice.
3 glasses of Spritz. The item in my hand is a selfie stick. 
(Picture cropped to preserve the anonymity of my companions)
A spritz is made from white wine or prosecco, a splash of soda water, and a "bitter", usually AperolIt’s served over ice, usually garnished with a green olive at the end of a long stick, and /or a slice of orange or lemon, and makes a delightful aperitif, light and refreshing, sweetish, a bit orange-y (or is that the colour influencing my perception?) , with a little bitterness. 
The spritz has its origins in the period when Venice was ruled by the Austrians, and derives from the Austro-Hungarian habit of mixing wine with sparkling water to make a Spritzer. In the 20th century, Venetians began adding bitters to produce the Spritz as we know it today. Apart from Aperol, you can also have yours made with Campari (less sweet and more bitter). Or you could have it with Select, which is a little more bitter. Select was first made in Murano in 1920, and labels itself the Very Venetian aperitif. It’s difficult to find outside the area, and doesn’t even have an entry in Wikipedia. It makes a good Spritz, with a bright red colour. In recent years, thanks to intensive marketing by Campari, who now own Aperol, the spritz is available in bars all over the world, from London to Singapore, but you will probably find it difficult to to get one made with Select if you are outside the Veneto region, so you might want to seize the opportunity while you are there.

Image from 
I think the Spritz on the left is made with Select, and the one on the right with Aperol
It’s worth noting, by the way, that Aperol has an alcohol content of 11%, and Campari about twice that. I'm not sure about Select, but I think its strength is more towards the Campari end of the range. If you don't realise this, the effect can be a bit startling if you've only tried the Aperol Spritz, then decide to sample some of the other versions. You can also make a Sprtiz with Cynar, which is a bitter made from artichokes. I've only just discovered this variant, and I just remember to try one at the next opportunity.
If you want something with a bit less alcohol, you can of course have Aperol with soda, which is very pleasant. There are also soft drinks with a similar flavour, such as Sanbittèr, which make rather pleasant non-alcoholic aperitifs, so you can still sit around in a bar enjoying your bright orange drink even if you are teetotal, or below the age of lawful alcohol consumption..
One of the nice things about Venetian bars is that many of them offer a wide selection of wine, available by the glass in small measures, and at prices which are very reasonable to people from places like the UK or Singapore, owing to the different taxation policies (freshly-squeezed orange juice is usually more expensive). The bars also often have a range of delicious snacks, as described in my previous blog post on food. If you like your wine sparkling, you will be delighted to know that Prosecco is a local wine, and widely available, and you should be able to have your wine fizzy rather than still on every occasion without feeling especially self-indulgent.

Which brings us to that other Venetian cocktail, the Bellini, invented at the famous Harry’s Bar and is made from prosecco and white peach puree, with the addition of sugar syrup if the peaches are tart. I’ve been fortunate to have tried it at the establishment where it was invented, and I liked it very much. The combination of peach and prosecco was delightful.
You can also buy your Bellini ready-made in bottles produced by Cipriani (the owners of Harry’s Bar), which are pretty good. Should you wish to prepare it yourself from scratch, remember that it's not a sort of Buck's Fizz made by adding peach juice to prosecco. The Harry’s Bar website advises you to use fresh frozen white peach puree, not to use a food processor if you are making the puree yourself (as this will aerate the fruit), and to never use yellow peaches or other additives like peach schnapps. Like the Singapore Sling, it’s one of those excellent concoctions which have been brought into disrepute by improperly made versions. 
In your wanderings around the city, keep your eye out for the modest local shops, usually found in the quieter parts of town, where inexpensive but very agreeable wine is dispensed from large demijohns into the customers' own bottles (usually re-used plastic mineral water bottles).

They usually have containers to hand for people who require them, but on our last visit the shop we visited had run out of bottles, so we had to gulp down the mineral water we had on us and use the bottle thus made available. And yes, you can fill your 1.5 litre used mineral water bottle with prosecco from the tank for a very reasonable price.

That concludes my review of drinks in Venice. Cin cin!

Related post: Food in Venice - a personal view

Friday 4 December 2015

Food in Venice - a personal view

In which we discuss Venetian food

As a city whose economy is dominated by tourism, in Venice there’s no shortage of places for the visitor to eat. The food does vary a little from what you might be used to in your local Italian restaurant, and if you are keen to sample the regional cuisine, it’s worth knowing what to look out for, since many of the establishments might aim to cater for the less adventurous tourist.

As you might expect, seafood features strongly in Venetian cuisine: fish, squid, cuttlefish, prawns, crabs and clams, but also unsual crustacean species, such as the canoce or mantis shrimp, with markings on the tail that look like eyes. A good place to see the raw ingredients is at the famous Rialto market. The guidebooks will tell you that this is where the locals have always gone for the finest produce, and perhaps that is so, although I suspect that most of them might shop at places nearer their homes, of which you will find numerous examples. I used to wonder if the local restaurants obtained their supplies here, and asked the staff at one of the better establishments, who told me that they got their produce from the nearby fishing port of Chioggia, which makes perfect sense, since the Rialto market isn’t big enough to supply the catering industry.

Of course, like in the rest of Italy, a lot of pasta is consumed, but in Venice they also eat a lot of rice. Years ago, in the days before cheap flights, I woke up in the morning during an overnight train journey to Venice and was rather puzzled when I looked out of the window and saw what looked like paddy fields. Of course, they were paddy fields. I was passing through the Po valley in northern Italy, a major rice-growing area.

The classic rice preparation is risotto, in which the rice is cooked in a pan by gradually adding stock, a little at a time, until enough of it has been absorbed and the dish is ready. There are lots of variants, which in Venice often incorporate various kinds of seafood. Unlike pasta, which can be put into a pot of boiling water and left until it is ready, the preparation of risotto requires the constant presence of the cook, so many restaurants do not offer it on their menus. I tend to assume that a restaurant that has risotto on the menu is probably better than one which does not, especially if it comes with a warning that it will take 20 minutes or so to cook.

The other ubiquitous grain is polenta or cornmeal, which can be served as a sort of mush to accompany various dishes, or as a sort of cake, both of which I find quite agreeable, although it’s not to everyone’s taste.

Fish and vegetables tend to be cooked quite simply, and with only a moderate use of garlic, herbs and spices. Things tend to be fried slowly over a gentle flame, so that onions remain pale and not brown. If you are renting an apartment and want to have a go at authentic Venetian cookery, it’s not difficult to reproduce many of the restaurant dishes with the aid of a good cookbook, or an online recipe.

I can’t claim to have extensive experience of the restaurants in Venice, but there is one establishment, first recommended to me by a friend who grew up there, where you can sample more or less all the typical dishes at a moderate price. The Rosticceria San Bartolomeo, also known as Ghislon, is in an alleyway off the Campo San Bartolomeo, close to the Rialto Bridge and therefore very central. It’s a self service establishment and here you can get starters and a range of meat and fish dishes, as well as snacks.

(Image from the restaurant's Facebook page)

This is a good time to list a just a few Venetian dishes to which I am partial, which you will be able to get here:
  • Bigoli in Salsa: Bigoli is a spaghetti-like pasta made from buckwheat or whole wheat flour. The salsa is a sauce made from slowly-cooked white onions and anchovies. Some versions also include sardines.
  • Risotto: Different versions are served at the Rosticceria, depending on the day.
  • Seppie nere : baby squid cooked in its ink, available with polenta, spaghetti, or in risotto
  • Pasta e Fagioli: Borlotti beans which are have been cooked until they form a sort of puree, then mixed with short pasta. This is like a thick soup. It sounds odd but is very tasty.
  • Baccala mantecata: A creamy preparation of dried salt cod that has been rehydrated, cooked, then pounded with olive oil and milk or cream into a paste. Served with polenta as a main course, but often also on rounds of bread as a snack
  • Fegato alla veneziana: Calves liver and onions. Accompanied by polenta.
If you just want a snack, the Rosticceria excels at these. I like their Mozzarella in Carrozza, essentially a deep fried mozzarella sandwich. This is available in various versions. My favourite is the one with anchovy (“Acciuga”).

This is a good time to mention that the snacks in the city as a whole are often very agreeable. Many of the bars serve tramezzini, triangular overstuffed white bread sandwiches with various fillings. They are made with large crust-less slices of white bread. The fillings are mayonnaise-based and include combinations like hard boiled eggs and anchovies, chopped ham and mushrooms, or prawns and rocket. The sandwiches are filled so that the middle is full and bulging. Then the edges are pressed together and the bread sliced on the diagonal, so that you end up with a triangular sandwich in which the hypotenuse has profile of a convex lens. They are delicious. Although easy to make, I have never seen them in the UK or Singapore, and you won’t be able to make them at home because that sort of bread doesn’t seem to be available (I’ve tried).

There are lots of other sorts of snacks, and you will be able to select them for yourself based on the way they look. They are known here as “cichetti”, which is more or less the Venetian equivalent of tapas, and you will find them all over the city. There are some well known cichetti bars behind the Rialto, such as the Cantina do Mori, which are lots of fun. Another which is near an apartment where I used to stay is the Cantinone (Già Schiavi), a wine shop which serves prize-winning snacks, situated across a canal from one of the last remaining boatyards that still makes gondolas.

For a bit of a blow out, I would recommend Corte Sconta, which is very well known, and in all the guidebooks, but deservedly so as the food is excellent.

If you are visiting Torcello (which I particularly recommend) or Burano, its worth considering a visit to Alla Maddalena on the island of Mazzorbo, especially in the colder months when they serve wild duck, shot by local hunters.

Here are some listings, but just in case you are not familiar with it, here is an explanation of the Venetian system of addresses. Venice is divided into six districts or sestieri, and the house numbers pertain to the district and not the street. So, for example, the address of Corte Sconta is Castello 3886, ie, house number 3886 in the sestier of Castello, which happens to be in the street called Calle del Pestrin.

So here are the listings:

Rosticceria San Bartolomeo
Calle del Bissa, just of Campo San Bartolomeo
San Marco 5424/a
open daily 0900 -  2130
Facebook page

Cantina do Mori
Sottoportego dei Do Mori
San Polo 429
0800 - 1930 closed Sun

Cantinone (Già Schiavi)
Fondamenta Nani, by Ponte San Trovaso
Dorsodouro 992
0800 - 2000, closed Sun

Corte Sconta
Calle del Pestrin
Castello 3886
closed Sun, Mon

Alla Maddalena
via Mazzorbo 7/B
Venezia Burano Mazzorbo 30142
closed Wed

So much for the food. Next time: drinks.

Thursday 26 November 2015

Torcello and the origins of Venice

Visit Torcello to see where it all began

Image from Wikipedia

Having just returned from a most enjoyable trip to Venice, I've encountered a few people who might be planning their first visit, so I thought I would list a few things which someone visiting for the first time ought to see. 

But to begin with, why visit Venice? What's so special? For me, there are several reasons. It is very beautiful, probably the most beautiful city on earth. The main island is small, so that all the lovely things are packed very close together. It is entirely pedestrianised, as all the vehicular traffic is on the water, which means that unlike anywhere else, the entire city is laid out on a human scale, adapted for the pedestrian travelling at 3 km/h rather than the driver speeding along at a minimum of 20 km/h. In that sense, as enlightened planners today try to reverse our dependency on cars, it also provides a model for the city of tomorrow. And although the place is packed with the art of the past, there is also an abundance of the modern and contemporary.

Venice also has an interesting history which provides the backdrop for what we see today. It began its existence at the time of the fall of the Western Roman Empire, after 400, when refugees from invading barbarians, the likes of Attila the Hun, settled in the low-lying islands of the lagoon, and the best way for the visitor to get a sense of this is to visit the island of Torcello in the northern part of the lagoon.

Torcello was one of the islands to be settled by the early refugees and became the principal settlement of the lagoon, an important trading centre, and the seat of the local bishop. However from the 12th century the lagoon around the island became a malarial swamp, and it was eventually abandoned by most of the population. Today the principal monument is the cathedral, founded in 639, but built over the centuries, with many of the main buildings and mosaics dating from the 11th century onwards.

The boat trip from Venice to Torcello takes about 45 minutes. Depending on the time of day, you might need to change at the island of Burano, so it's quite a long trip, but it allows you get a sense of the immensity of the lagoon, the sort of low lying islands on which the early settlers had to build their home. 

On Torcello, they built their cathedral, the oldest in the Venetian islands, with its beautiful mosaics of the Virgin, Christ, and the last Judgement, which are among the finest examples of their kind in Italy. It's also worth climbing up the bell tower for an aerial view of the surroundings. From this vantage point you can appreciate the immensity of the lagoon, with the shallow water that protected the inhabitants from seaborne invasion, the navigable channels marked by bricole, those characteristic wooden tripods, which could be removed in times of peril. 

I can't think of anywhere else in the world where you can get such a feel for the earliest days and the origins of a city and a nation. Because although Venice is today is a city within the Republic of Italy, it was previously an independent state in its own right, with territories on the Italian mainland and overseas possessions in the Mediterranean. The Venetian Republic was founded and 697, and lasted for 1100 years until 1797 when it was conquered by Napoleon Bonaparte, a period of existence as a political entity that is longer than most states in Europe today. And it grew out of an unpromising environment such as the one you see around you.

Thursday 19 November 2015

Venice, the festa of the Salute, and the Palazzo Mocenigo

A post from abroad. 

We're just over half way through our week in Venice, and it's been very enjoyable so far. At this time of the year, compared to the warmer months, there are much fewer people. And no mosquitos, which is a great relief. It's now final week of the biennale, and on Saturday it's the festival of the Salute, marking the end of the great plague of 1630 - 1631. A pontoon bridge has been constructed across the grand canal to the eponymous church at its entrance. On Saturday, people will walk across it to the church, and there will be stalls and fireworks. The traditional dish for this festival is castradina, or salted lamb, boiled and served with savoy cabbage. I haven't seen it on any menus so far, but I made it on a previous trip in our rented apartment and rather liked it. This time round I don't think I'll go to the bother of cooking it myself, but I'm still on the lookout for a restaurant that will serve it.

Earlier during the trip, we visited the Palazzo Mocenigo. This is a house dating back to the gothic period but extensively rebuilt during the early 17th century. The last surviving member of the illustrious Mocenigo family donated it to the city in 1945, and today it is a museum and study centre for the history of fabrics and costumes. The museum with its architecture, furnishings, paintings, and other objects evokes the life of the Venetian nobility during the 17th and 18th centuries, as well as displaying the clothing of the period.

There is also a section on perfumes with a display of the raw ingredients that you can sniff, and a lovely collection of perfume bottles. For those who are interested, they also conduct perfume making workshops.

18th century Venice is the era depicted in the views of Canaletto and Guardi, and in the genre paintings of Longhi. This is sometimes thought of as a decadent age, when the thousand year old republic went into decline and became the playground of wealthy tourists and pleasure-seekers. The truth is of course always more nuanced, and during this period the arts continued to flourish, while life in the city remained relatively prosperous and comfortable by the standards of the time.

The Palazzo Mocenigo museum is well worth a visit for anyone interested in this period. Smaller and more intimate than the other better known museum of the 18th century, the grand Ca Rezzonico, and giving an insight into the more modest life of the very rich, as opposed to the stupendously wealthy.

The day after, we visited the Fortuny museum, a stunningly beautiful place, but that's for another blog post.

Friday 13 November 2015

Three quirky small cruising boats

I've only seen them online but they look like lots of fun

Compared to a lot of people I haven't done that much sailing myself although I've been fortunate enough to have sailed on a range of boats of different sizes, from small dinghies, to reasonably large tall ships. They have all been fun in their own way, but I've been most intrigued by very small cruising boats, or micro-cruisers. There have been heroic ocean-crossing voyages in small dinghies, like those of Frank Dye who sailed across the north sea to Iceland in a 16 foot wayfarer, but that's not the sort of thing that interests me. I'm referring more to small boats for pottering around in coastal or inland waters, which can get to places that the big boats can't reach. Sailing can be very expensive, and complicated. The bigger the boat, the more the hassle and maintenance. Small boats make things simpler and cheaper. They can be towed or sometimes car-topped, and brought to one's desired cruising grounds. Three examples have caught my attention recently, all from the internet.

The SCAMP (Small Craft Advisor Magazine Project) is just under 12 ft in length, with a tiny cabin. There is a single sail, a balanced lug, which is the attractive, traditional, easily-handled rig you can see in the picture.

The mast is unstayed, i.e. there are no wires holding it up, which makes everything very simple, and allows the rig to be set up quickly. Boats of this size usually have a centreboard which can be lowered to reduce sideways drift while sailing, and the centreboard sits in a casing which sticks out into the middle of the boat. In the SCAMP, the centreboard is offset from the midline, so that the crew area in the cockpit is unimpeded. The boat is very stable, water is used as ballast, and there is a tent that extends over the cockpit so that you can sleep aboard under shelter. The boat is built of wood, from plans which can be purchased, and recently it has been available in fibreglass as well. Very importantly, as far as I'm concerned, I think it's a beautiful design.

The Portland Pudgy is much smaller, measuring a mere 7 ft 8 inches in length.

She's made of moulded polystyrene and designed as an ultra-safe unsinkable lifeboat, but one that can be sailed, rowed, or powered with a small engine. Unlike a liferaft which drifts while the occupants await rescue, the Pudgy can be sailed or rowed by the crew. As a lifeboat, the accessories include a shelter which can be used at sea. However, the Podgy can also be used as a sailing dinghy, and as a solo microcruiser. The floor is long enough for a 6'2" person to sleep in, so it can be used for camping and sleeping on board. The masts and sails (available in a selection of options) stow inside the watertight compartment within the hull, and her size makes her ultra-transportable. The design allows the oars to be fixed to the side of the boat, available for use but out of the way. There are all sorts of optional extras available, such as a built-in compass and solar panels.

Here's one set up with a (non-standard) junk rig, under sail and with the tent:

Finally, ultimate simplicity in the form of the Mersea Island Duck Punt.

Based on the old boats used for duck hunting in the East Coast of England (with an enormous shotgun  pointing over the bows), the modern duck punt can be made at home by a not-very-skilled amateur (or so it is alleged) from a few sheets of plywood over a weekend. Plans are available for free, and the materials are said to cost around £150. I suppose that assumes you already have the tools and so on. The rig is a sail from an Optimist dinghy (a well-known class of boats designed for children). There's no rudder, and no centreboard, just a paddle held over the side for steering. This is obviously different from the usual sort of boat that most people learn to sail in, so I guess you have to spend a bit of time getting the hang of it, but it does look like rather a lot of fun and just the sort of thing for exploring the shallow backwaters of the East Coast of England.
For plans:

Thursday 5 November 2015

Batik and Wax Fabric: From Indonesia to Africa, via Holland

I thought there was something a bit familiar about those African fabrics

(Photo from The Wax Sellers of Wentworh Street by the Gentle Author of Spitalfields Life)

Some time ago while wandering around the streets around Wentworth Street, off Brick Lane, where there are numerous shops selling African fabrics, I was struck by how a lot of them reminded me of Indonesian and Malaysian batik. Looking a little more closely I saw labels which said things like "genuine Holland wax". So I did some research, and guess what? It turns out that there is in fact an Indonesian connection, via Holland.

Batik is a technique of wax-resist fabric dyeing which has been practised in Indonesia and maritime South East Asia for centuries, most notably on the Island of Java. The process involves applying a design to cloth with wax, and then dyeing the fabric. The parts of the cloth not covered by wax take up the dye, while the parts covered by wax do not. The wax is then removed from the fabric, and the process can be repeated as often as desired to build up the design. As you can imagine, this is a slow, painstaking and highly skilled technique, and Indonesian batik is on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

This video shows the process:

Indonesia was a Dutch colony until 1949, and the Dutch exported batik to West Africa from the mid 19th century. Towards the end of the 19th century, machinery was invented which could replicate the wax resist process more swiftly, and this gave rise to the African wax fabric prints as we know them today.

The machine-produced batik was not popular in Indonesia, but was popular in Africa. One theory is that West African troops serving with the Dutch forces in Indonesia brought batik back home to Africa, where it was well received. The early fabrics were imitations of Indonesian batik, but the manufacturers later began producing prints aimed specifically at the African market. To this day, although there are now producers in Africa,  and—of course—China, the high end of the market remains dominated by Dutch companies like Vlisco, whose entire output is for the African market. 

Although these fabrics are quintessentially African, they are designed and manufactured abroad. This raises some interesting issues, as you might expect. Critics of the industry have suggested that it represents a continuation of colonial endeavour, and argue that Africans should wear clothing designed and made closer to home. This whiff of colonialism is perhaps the reason the artist Yinka Shonibare includes wax fabrics in his work, as in this example :

Africans may buy their fabrics from Europe today, but there was a time in the past when Europeans had to journey abroad to buy the luxury goods which they were unable to produce themselves, such as Chinese silk during the time of the Roman Empire,  chintz and other luxury fabrics from India from the 17th century (currently the subject of an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum), or porcelain from China, which was not produced in Europe until 1708 (at Meissen). I don't know much about the  textile industry or Africa, but my optimistic view is that it's only a matter of time before fabrics are produced and designed in Africa, by African companies, which will compete with the products from abroad.

I never get tired of wandering around the Wentworth Street area and marvelling at the multitude of wax designs. Some are quite similar to traditional Indonesian batik, but from the early days, many of the fabrics incorporated motifs and images from modern life. They often have stories or symbolic meanings associated with them. This famous Vlisco design from 1940 is called "Six Bougies". The bougies are spark plugs, meant to show that the wearer is wealthy and owns a six-cylinder car, but there is another meaning: that he woman in the centre of the design is strong enough to take on six men. 

Motifs found on more recent fabrics include laptops and mobile phones. Others—like the one entitled Michelle Obama’s Handbag, or Kofi Annan's Brain—pay glorious homage to contemporary events. 

Kofi Annan's Brain

They’re mathematically interesting, too: within the frame of a single shop window you can see anything from regularly repeating motifs to some whose placement seems quite chaotic. There’s never been an occasion where a second, closer, look at these fabrics has gone unrewarded.

I've been wondering for some time if these African batiks would work on traditional South East Asian clothing, like the sarong kebaya.

"Kebaya 1" by Jamieson Teo from Singapore, Singapore - _MG_8051. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons

After all, the batik shirts commonly worn in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, like the ones seen here, worn by Indonesian President Joko Widodo and politician Prabowo Subianto:

...have quite a lot in common with the sort of garment favoured by the late Nelson Mandela.

And perhaps nowadays there might be a market for Southeast Asian batik in Africa.

A small correction:
It turns out that Mandela's shirts were made from Indonesian batik, and batik shirts are known in South Africa as a 'Madiba shirts"

Further reading:

Made in Holland: the Chanel of Africa by Inge Oosterhof., 2015

When It Comes to African Wax Prints, Buying Local, Thinking Global Isn’t As Easy As You Think African Urbanism, 2012

Africa's Fabric Is Dutch Robb Young, The New York Times, 2012

African Lace: an industrial fabric connecting Austria and Nigeria Barbara Plankensteiner. Anthrovision, 2013

The Wax Sellers of Wentworth Street, by the Gentle Author