hidden europe 35

Unforgiving stone

by Paul Hadfield

Picture above: The Whaligoe steps in Caithness, Scotland (photo © Paula Fisher / dreamstime.com).


The poetry of Paul Hadfield has featured before in hidden europe. When he sent us a poem on the Whaligoe Steps in north-east Scotland, it set us thinking about some of the iconic stairways that we have encountered on our travels around Europe.

With a poem by Paul JA Hadfield

The flights of stairs etched into our subconscious are the stuff of dreams and nightmares. Have we not all worried a little about the impossible geometry of the Penrose Stairs, which are immortalised in Escher’s famous lithograph Ascending and Descending? Then there are those stairways so dramatically fixed on celluloid that it is hard to erase them from our memories. There is a particularly awful staircase in The Exorcist, a space full of vertiginous horror and as ghastly as the film in which it features. Devotees of the film can see the real steps in the Georgetown district of Washington DC. Oddly, they are locally called the Hitchcock Steps, though there’s no evidence of any connection with Alfred Hitchcock (who in 1935 made The Thirty-Nine Steps, a film of John Buchan’s novel of the same name, where the steps of the title have a peculiarly enigmatic role in the plot).

Europe has thousands of flights of steps immortalised on celluloid. Indeed, in the very first issue of hidden europe, we found ourselves on the steps of the Teatro Massimo in Palermo, Sicily (see photo) — which featured so dramatically in the tragic final scene of The Godfather III. Among Europe’s most famous filmic steps is surely the graceful wide stairway that links the harbour at Odessa with the city above. Originally named in honour of the Duc de Richelieu (who was governor of the Black Sea port in the early nineteenth century), the steps featured as the scene of a massacre in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film The Battleship Potemkin. Nowadays this monumental Odessa stairway is remembered as the Potemkin Steps.

The steps that lead up from harbours across Europe are rarely as grand as those in Odessa. Buchan’s 39 steps are in Broadstairs (on the Kent coast of England), and are quite unremarkable and all-in-all a disappointment. There are not even 39 of them. Although they lead to a beach, true devotees of coastal stairways could do a lot better. We have climbed up through steeply pitched stairways between buildings from the harbour of Hydra (on the eponymous Greek island) to gaze back over the port to the Aegean beyond. And we have stumbled on rocky stairways linking the sparsest of harbours with remote farmsteads in the Faroe Islands, ever conscious of the fate awaiting those who place a foot wrong. In 1874, a visiting clergyman celebrated the Sunday service on the tiny Faroese island of Stóra Dímun, but fell to his death as he negotiated the steep steps back down to the harbour. But few are the stairways so steeped in history as that at Whaligoe on the coast of Caithness in north-east Scotland. The tiny harbour at the base of the steps was a place where the herring fishermen could find respite from fierce storms.