Category Archives: Museums

Art Galleries, Boat Museums, wine museums, bull-fighting museums, and anything that interests the curious traveller.

A FAVOURITE ABBEY IN FRANCE

It was while staying in the village of Bize in southern France, that I came across the Abbaye Sainte-Marie de Fontfroide, a former Cistercian monastery that sits in the foothills of the Corbières, 15 kilometres south-west of Narbonne.  There are many abbeys in France, but the Abbaye de Fontfroide at Bize is special, located as it is in the heart of the unspoiled Fontfroide Massif and nestled in the heart of a typically Mediterranean landscape.

The exterior view of the Abbaye

This sumptuous 12th and 13th century Cistercian complex consists of large terraced gardens, a rose garden, a good restaurant and rooms to let. It also holds an annual orchid festival, and produces its own wine.  What’s not to like about that?

The monks would use the cloisters as a passageway to read and to meditate. The original cloisters had a wooden roof but through the centuries it was expanded and marble pillars were added

Founded in 1093 by a few Benedictine monks, Fontfroide was linked in 1145 to the Cistercian order and quickly became one of the most powerful abbeys in Christianity, growing in status and power, due in no small part to having been gifted land by the Viscountess Ermengard of Narbonne.   During the Crusade against the Albigensians, it asserted itself as a bastion of Catholic orthodoxy in the face of Catharism.

It seems it had a rocky history from then on under the ownership of three different families in the 14th and 15th centuries, with further depredations taking place in the 15th and 16th centuries when the commendatory abbots (ecclesiastics/laymen) took more and more of the income from the abbey to the point where it became increasingly poor. By the time of the French Revolution, it had to be abandoned.

Things seemed to be looking up when, in 1858, the monks from the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque in Gordes formed a new community at Fontfroide, but sadly, they were sent into exile in Spain in 1901 due to legal changes, and the monastery was once again abandoned.

But in 1908, fate stepped in again when French painter Gustave Fayet and his wife Madeleine Fayet purchased the abbey and began its restoration which is an on-going project. It is still privately owned and throughout each year there are festivals and artistic presentations, including the orchid festival already mentioned. The Abbey produces AOC Corbières wines and one can have lunch at their “La Table de Fonfroide” restaurant or café where the wines can be sampled and bought.

Truly, a place worth visiting.

  • Address: Route Départementale 613, 11100 Narbonne (in the Aude department)
  • Open: daily from mid-May to the end of December

The Third Man and Vienna

The unmistakable Harry Lime (Orson Welles)

Last Thursday I watched The Third Man, possibly for the 4th time, the film that in 1999 was voted by the British Film Institute to be the film of the century: I have no argument with that decision. This British film noir starring Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, Alida Valli and Trevor Howard has attained cult classic status in many countries, with its hypnotic theme tune played on the zither by Anton Karas, its atmospheric photography and its gritty screenplay.

Directed by Carol Reed from a Graham Greene script, the real star of this 1949 film is post-war Vienna. Kim Philby, the UK’s most famous espionage agent who worked for the Russians along with Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, had been resident in Vienna in the early thirties and it was this that gave Graham Greene the idea for the screenplay – or so it is said. Greene’s Vienna reveals the murky post-war underbelly of the city, the squalor and black-marketeering and the ambiguities of living in that world – the world of Harry Lime played by Orson Welles in the film.

Alida Valli, Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles

It portrays a burnt out Vienna in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, a city divided into four zones governed by Britain, France, Russia and the USA, a city that created a world of criminals and black marketeers. 

I found this other Vienna in a little museum hidden down a residential side-street in the Margareten neighbourhood – The Third Man Museum.  The sole focus of this private exhibition which exists without sponsors and without subsidies is Carol Reed’s now-legendary film and Vienna’s pre and post-war history. It is the perfect antidote to the sugariness of Vienna’s palaces and pastries.

A Wall Covered in Posters for the Film

Gerhard Strassgschwandtner, 51, a ceramic artist and part-time city guide and his translator wife, Karin Hoefler, are responsible for this amazing collection. It is their consuming passion and they have designed the displays of 3000 original exhibits and documents and 420 cover versions of the Harry lime Theme in over fifteen rooms.  Being unsubsidised they have to work at other jobs to support their passion so it is only open on Saturdays – and by appointments on other days.

Gerhard began collecting “Third Man” artifacts many years ago when he was trying to understand Vienna’s history. His idea at the beginning was to curate the history of Austria in the 1930s and 1940s, but as The Third Man encapsulates that history, the museum incorporates both Viennese history and the film. The museum is a trove of original film artifacts – from location stills and posters in foreign languages to clips of the stars and flea-market uniforms of Occupation soldiers. Dominating a corner of one room is a still functioning 1936 Ernemann 7b projection which was used when the film was first shown in Vienna and which is now used to play back a short film sequence. It was provided by Karin’s father who worked as a studio sound engineer. A whole wall is taken up with records that Anton Karas made of his moment of musical fame, including the zither with which he improvised the score as he watched the movie on the screen.

There are over 2,000 original film posters, costumes, sheet music, sound and film recordings, autographed photos, zithers, CDs, books, and numerous cover versions of the music, including one from the Beatles.  It even has Little Hansel’s cap!

The entrance to the museum is at street level and after you’ve spent time there, you are escorted outside and down the street to another building which houses, among other things, Trevor Howard’s original script and the actual zither on which the haunting theme music was recorded. 

But The Third Man Museum is more than a film archive. Fascinating though the exhibits are, the rooms in the basement housing pre and post-war artefacts which are less about the film and more about the period in which it is set, are just as interesting: more so to historians of the period.  Here, in these rooms, the murky world of post-war Vienna with its four sectors a barrier to movement and free speech, the black marketeers and the hunger of citizens fearful of the future, are brought to life, setting the film firmly in time and place.

Revealed here are tales of the clerical dictatorship that preceded Hitler and of Vienna’s enthusiasm for Nazism. There are sections covering the early thirties when Austria was ripe for a takeover by Hitler, the days of the 1938 Anschluss and the Nazi annexation of Austria, and the reality of 1.7 million displaced persons in post-war Austria.  One set of photographs shows a day in the life of a Vienna street: defended in the morning by Germans, open for shopping in the afternoon, then watching as Russians marched through at dusk.

The post-war is covered extensively by displays marking the occupation by American, British, Russian and French forces.  Ration books, newspaper cuttings, photographs, and video recordings of survivors, bring this harsh period to life and as background to The Third Man it is an invaluable historical source.

Not many locals visit this museum: the dark days of the 1930’s are seldom spoken of in today’s Vienna which prefers to think of itself as the city of Strauss and strudl, waltzes and weiner schnitzel.  The portrayal of the city in ruins after the war with a population mostly involved in smuggling, black marketeering, or just looking the other way, is not one that the good people of Vienna want to remember.

Gerhard was quoted in an article as saying ““Nobody teaches it in schools. The Americans invented a myth of Austrian innocence. It is not up to me to challenge that fiction. Graham Greene does it all in the film.”

The famous zither of Anton Karas

You may not see the Museum listed in local guides: don’t think this is because it is not worth it.  It is very much worth a good part of a Saturday spent in Vienna. On an average weekend you can still enjoy high-calorie kaffee und kuchen, spend time in palaces, churches and art galleries and nights at the opera – even take a drive through the Vienna Woods, but don’t miss The Third Man Museum

It is closed at the moment but will open as soon as Covid subsides and things return to normal. When I visited in 2019 the entrance fee was €8.90 (€2 off with the Vienna Card) and it opened from 2.00-6.00pm on Saturdays (private visits can be arranged with the owner). Watch the website for news of opening. https://www.3mpc.net/

The Third Man Museum, Corner Pressgasse / Muehlgasse, Pressgasse 25, Vienna 1040

Tel: 0043 1568 4872 (Have the address with you. My taxi driver had to telephone for directions).

Precis of the film for anyone who hasn’t seen it.

Briefly, The Third Man is a story about writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) who arrives in Allied-occupied Vienna looking for his friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles).  Told that Lime has been killed in a car accident he attends his funeral where Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) informs him that Lime is a criminal engaged in the blackmarket sale of essential medicines and currently wanted by the occupying army and the police.  Martins refuses to believe this, and is convinced that Lime was murdered, as does Harry’s girlfriend (Alida Valli), a refugee from the Russian sector who is fearful of being returned there.  In the most iconic shot of the film he sees Lime’s face illuminated in a car’s headlights and there follows a cat and mouse game played out in the sewers of Vienna when Lime is hunted down by the army and his one-time friend, Holly Martins.

For those few who may not have seen it, the American version had to be altered for USA distribution as the powers-that-be felt they weren’t shown in a very good light!

London’s Hidden Gems (1)

Postman’s Park in London contains a simple but evocative Memorial to unsung heroes of the 19th and early 20th century, in the form of a collection of glazed Doulton plaques on a wall protected from the elements by a loggia.  Each of these plaques commemorates someone who, in tragic circumstances, died a hero, trying to save the lives of others.

What and where is Postman’s Park in the City of London?

First the name:  the park acquired the Postman’s Park name because during it’s heyday in the 19th century and before it became the site of the Memorial, it was popular as a lunchtime retreat with workers from the General Post Office in nearby Clerkenwell, long since demolished.

Situated between King Edward Street, Little Britain and Angel Street and just round the corner from St Paul’s Cathedral whose steps are normally crowded with tourists hugging backpacks and guitars and where the streets are full of bankers and financiers bursting with self-importance, it contains a gallery of tiled memorials to extraordinary people who were, nonetheless, just ordinary citizens.

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St. Paul’s Cathedral – Mari Nicholson

The brainchild of the Victorian painter and philanthropist, G.F. Watts (1817-1904), a radical socialist who felt deeply about the dreadful conditions of the London poor, and who had twice refused a Baronetcy, it is now regarded as a Memorial to Watts who made no attempt to hide his dislike of the greed of the upper classes of the time.

About the Tiled Memorials

London Child Hero -
Plaque to one of the child heroes on the Memorial of Heroic Self Sacrifice in Postman’s Park, London –   Photo Mari Nicholson

A long, high wall covered with Royal Doulton ceramic plaques, decorated in burnt orange and blue, names, ages, occupations and means of death engraved on the tiles – this is a wall before which people have been known to stand with tears in their eyes.  Tragedy after tragedy told in a few simple phrases, bring to life drownings, raging fires, train disasters, and runaway horse accidents, in which these workers and children had saved someone’s life by giving their own.

There is seating under the plaques and the garden area of the park is a restful place with bright flower beds and a gently trickling fountain, interesting shrubs and flowering plants. Of special interest are the large banana tree, musa basjoo, which flowers in late summer, and the dove tree, davidia involucrata.  In fact, Postman’s Park is a perfect place for a lunchtime picnic.

In 1887, Watts wrote to The Times to suggest the creation of a park to commemorate ‘heroic men and women’ who had given their lives attempting to save others.  This, he said, would be a worthy way to mark Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee year.

His letter to The Times did not stimulate any interest, however, but in 1898, St Botolph’s Church at Aldersgate purchased land that had previously been owned by the City Parochial Foundation, and they approached him regarding the Memorial.   So, on the site of the former churchyard of St. Bolophs, there was erected a 50ft long open gallery along the wall of which he planned to place glazed Doulton tablets commemorating acts of bravery, each one detailing a heroic act.

One of Britain’s leading tile designers at that time, William de Morgan, agreed to work with Watts.  Their collaboration, first unveiled in 1900, is what you see on the early plaques when you visit Postman’s Park. 

About the Tiles and Plaques

London Hero = 60 yer old William Goodrum
Plaque to William Goodrum, a 60-year-old Hero, honoured on the Memorial wall in Postman’s Park – Photo Mari Nicholson

The plaques could easily be overlooked in the somewhat hidden corner of the park, but these beautiful hand-lettered tiles hand-painted at the Royal Doulton factory, when once you see them, live with you forever.  Each one tells the story of a boy or girl, man or woman, who died trying to save another at the expense of his own.   Told in a few poignant words, they nevertheless manage to paint a picture of a life unfulfilled that ended in tragedy.  Take, for instance,

  • the young Alice “daughter of a bricklayer’s labourer who by intrepid conduct saved 3 children from a burning house in Union Street Borough at the cost of her own young life”.   Or
  • William “drowned in the Lea trying to save a lad from a dangerous entanglement of weed”.

The stories seem almost Dickensian until the very real tragedies these plaques represent hit home and one realises that this was real life, not fiction.  Life was harsh for those who didn’t own land or property of some sort in those days: violence and disease were everyday events.  Prostitution and child abuse were rife in late-Victorian London, and these children who died, many of them orphans or ‘indentured workers’, each and every one of them would have been working at some poorly paid job.

Reading the tiles one is struck by the occupations that don’t exist any more and the causes of death that remind one of nothing so much as a Victorian engraving – a runaway carriage of four with a child trampled beneath the horses, a boy in the Thames (probably a mudlark) attempting to swim to land with his friend in his arms.

Harry Sisley - London Child Hero
London’s Child Heroes, 10-year-old Harry Sisley, honoured here in a Doulton plaque on the Memorial in Postman’s Park, London – Photo Mari Nicholson

G.F. Watts and his Reasons for Erecting the Memorial

GF Watts wanted to use his art as a force for social change and his intention was to build a memorial that honoured ordinary people, people who would not have had a burial tomb at Highgate, Brompton or even St. Pancras & Islington Cemetery.

Watts had for many years collected newspaper reports of heroic actions and the plaques were based on these cuttings.

London Worker Hero
Royal Doulton Plaque for one of London’s Worker Heroes, showing the placement of the plaques side by side and on the row above.  ©  Mari Nicholson

It was planned to have one hundred and twenty tiles in place for the opening, but sadly, it was only possible to erect four.  By this time Watts was too ill to attend the unveiling and only nine more were added during his lifetime.  His wife Mary, took over the work and added what she could before her death.  Then, 78 years later, in 2009, the Diocese of London added a new tablet to commemorate one Leigh Pitt who rescued a nine-year-old boy from drowning in a canal.  The plaque reads:

  • Leigh Pitt, Reprographic operator, aged 30, saved a drowning boy from the canal at Thamesmead, but sadly was unable to save himself.  June 7, 2007.

Today you can see rows of blank spaces, although no doubt there were unsung heroes in the intervening years who were never commemorated.

This wall of tiled plaques to these forgotten Londoners is one of the city’s most moving Memorials and in 1972, along with other key elements in the park, it was Listed as a Grade ll site.

Postman’s Park in Recent Film

The BAFTA and Golden Globe-winning film Closer which stars Natalie Portman, Julia Roberts, Jude Law and Clive Owen (based on the play of the same name by Patrick Marber) references Postman’s Park in that the character Alice Ayres (Natalie Portman) fabricates her identity based on Ayers’ tablet on the Memorial which the film character had read.

How to get there:

Tube –  Central St Paul’s

Buses:  4, 8, 25, 56, 141, 100, 172, 521, 242

 

 

 

Florence, A City for the Florentines

Florence is a place where art, culture, food and wine come together to create a city close to perfection.  A medieval maze of ochre-coloured houses with the River Arno gliding beneath the ageless Ponte Vecchio, and Michaelangelo’s magnificent David dominating the Piazza della Signoria.

The River Arno in Florence with the Tuscan Hills as Backdrop
The River Arno in Florence with the Tuscan Hills as Backdrop

Florentines talk of the Stendhal Syndrome, a reaction to the city’s overwhelming beauty and romanticism that caused the writer Stendahl to swoon at the splendour of Santa Croce.

Section of Neptune's Fountain in Piazza della Signoria
Section of Neptune’s Fountain in Piazza della Signoria

It takes a stretch of the imagination to accept that in this technological 21st century, doctors are still reporting cases of sensitive souls fainting through the sheer emotion of viewing the Duomo, the Baptistry, and the treasures of the Uffizi.  But speak to those who live there and they will assure you that this is the case.

Neptune's Fountain
Neptune’s Fountain

There is an unreality about Florence that causes the visitor to surrender sensible feelings and give in to a lightness of spirit.  On a spring or summer evening, the city resembles an elaborate film set, and if the luscious Helen Bonham Carter were to stroll into view shading her fair skin with a parasol, it would not appear surprising.

The Glorious Facade of the Baptistry
The Glorious Facade of the Baptistry

The glittering cast of characters that inhabit Renaissance history can be imagined strolling through the piazzas and along the banks of the Arno – Dante and his Beatrice, Donatello, Dante, Brunelleschi, Botticelli, and of course the towering giants Michaelangelo and Leonardo.

Canoeing on the River Arno
Canoeing on the River Arno

No city on earth has so much art and architecture packed into such a small space, but not everyone has time to visit, or even wants to visit, the museums and galleries.  Don’t fret about it, the city is a living museum and the streets and alleyways, the exteriors of the beautiful churches, the gardens, markets and outdoor statuary may be enough – the important thing is to experience Florence your way.

Horse and Carriage for a leisurely tour of the city
Horse and Carriage for a leisurely tour of the city

The true heart of the city is the Piazza della Signoria, centre of political activity since the Middle Ages.  It was here that the monk Savanarola burned the books in the Bonfire of the Vanities and where he himself was burned at the stake in 1530, where the people of Florence proclaimed the return of the Medici from their own exile, and where in the 19th century Robert and Elizabeth Browning took hot chocolate on cold winter nights during their exile from England (their favourite cafe is still there serving hot coffee and chocolate).

Most Famous Statue in the World - David by Michaelangela (this is a copy in Piazza della Signoria but still needs cleaning periodically)
Most Famous Statue in the World – David by Michaelangela (this is a copy in Piazza della Signoria but still needs cleaning periodically)

Towering over the café-filled Piazza is the imposing Palazzo Vecchio which has remained virtually unchanged since it was built in 1299-1302, and still functions as the town hall.  Outside is a massive marble copy of Michaelangelo’s David and if you don’t want to join the queues to see the original statue in the Galleria dell’Accademia, then this copy is as near perfect as you will get: more to the point, it places the statue where the artist originally meant it to stand.

The Uffitzi Gallery in Florence
The Uffitzi Gallery in Florence

Donatello’s exquisite, androgynous David is in the Uffizi Gallery just a few steps away and this must be seen too, if only to compare it with Michaelangelo’s monumental figure.

The wise visitor to the city will do as the Florentines do and spend time leisurely enjoying an espresso or an aperitivo, watching the world go by while deciding how to spend the day.  Subtle and sedentary moments like this are essential if one is to survive the sightseeing marathon that Florence’s many attractions make necessary.

A Panel from a Baptistry Door
A Panel from a Baptistry Door

Fortunately, Florence is a compact city and you will pass and re-pass the most famous sights more than once as you stroll through the streets, contemplate nature in the Gardino di Boboli, Italy’s most visited garden, and marvel at the finest Renaissance sculptures in the Bargello, the oldest seat of government surviving in Florence and the place from which Dante’s banishment was proclaimed.

If Dante were to return to Florence today, much of the city would be familiar to him.  El Duomo, one of the city’s oldest and most famous buildings and the building that broke all the rules when Brunelleschi designed it, is visible from virtually everywhere in Florence but the best view of it is from Giotto’s bell tower, Il Campanile, beside the Cathedral.

El Duomo from one side of the River Arno
El Duomo from one side of the River Arno

Brunellechi’s great rival was Lorenzo Ghiberti, who was responsible for the Baptistry Doors, the epitome of Renaissance art and before which one can stand for hours reading the story portrayed in bronze.

The Magnificent Bronze Doors of the Baptistry
The Magnificent Bronze Doors of the Baptistry

The East Door is considered his masterpiece, but again, these are not the originals: the originals are housed in the Museo dell’Opera dell’Duomo.

Away from the magnificence of its art and architecture, Florence is a shoppers’ paradise, the three big names being Emilio Pucci, Salvatore Ferragamo and Gucci who help keep alive the art of the Italian designers in this fashion conscious town.  For goods with durability but exquisite design, visit the San Spirito neighbourhood where artisans still tool intricate designs on leather, and woodcarvers painstakingly apply whisper-thin layers of gold leaf to wooden statues.

Pizza, Palazzos and Parking Problems
Pizza, Palazzos and Parking Problems

At the other end of the spectrum is the Piazza Santa Croce, where the less wealthy Florentines go to shop for moderately priced goods and if you want to get up close and personal with the locals, head for San Lorenzo Market where the stalls sell everything from crafts to food.

Everyone, at least once, strolls across the Ponte Vecchio, the inimitable bridge near the site of the Roman crossing of the Arno which, from the 16th century until the late 19th, had been the place to shop for Florence’s spectacular jewellery.  Today the array of shops can only be considered disappointing: much better to experience the romance of the bridge from the riverside.

Ponte Vecchio, Florence
Ponte Vecchio, Florence

Looking at it from a cafe or a gelateria below the bridge places it firmly in the Renaissance world, away from the tourists that crowd the shops selling cheap jewellery and trinkets.  In the early evening when the sun is just about to set, look towards the bridge and imagine, if you will, Dante, Boccaccio, Machiavelli, or members of the Medici family, strolling across the bridge to visit the famous goldsmiths who carried on their trade there, their brilliantly coloured  cloaks standing out against the blue sky and the distant Tuscan hills.

Italian Ice Cream - none better!
Italian Ice Cream – none better!

And after hours of Giottos and Ghilbertis, piazzos and palazzos, make sure you do as the Florentines do, sit at a sidewalk cafe and have a gelato or an espresso.  The best time for this is during the passeggiata, the stylised evening parade beloved of the Italians, when the object is to see and be seen.

The River Arno, away from the Crowds
The River Arno, away from the Crowds

The centre for all this is on Piazza della Signoria, so grab a seat at one of the cafes there and, for a couple of hours at least, be wholeheartedly self-indulgent.

Florence Tourism:  http://en.firenzeturismo.it/en/firenze-territorio/tourist-information-offices-in-florence-pdf.html

Italian Tourist Board in UK:  http://www.italiantouristboard.co.uk/          1, Princes Street, London – W1B 2AY    Tel. +44 20 7408 1254 – Fax. +44 20 7399 3567                                                                               info.london@enit.it – www.enit.itwww.italia.it

Marseilles: Like an old Black and White Movie

B & W Marina
Marseilles Marina

It seemed right that Marseilles should live up to its shady reputation when our first encounter with it was the Gauloises-smoking taxi-driver who ripped us off by overcharging for the journey from station to hotel.  Asked if the taxi was metred, he gave a Gallic shrug and raised his eyebrows in amazement that we should think otherwise.  When we got to the hotel however, he announced in a mixture of languages, that ‘Zee taxi-metre ees kaput’.

We managed to laugh as we paid up, for just being in Marseilles, the oldest city in France and a melting pot of east and west was exhilarating.   Its origins go back to 600 B.C. and take in Greek and Roman occupation as well as the various kingships of France.  It was one of the most successful trading cities in the Mediterranean, its port favourable to commercial activity and despite invasions, plague and revolution, business prospered on an international scale.

Fisherman unloading Catch in Marseilles

The best place to start exploring is at the Vieux Port, guarded at its entrance by two massive fortresses.  The expensive sailing boats and yachts that crowd the marina just off the Corniche is one example of how far this once seedy Mediterranean port has come.  A few rough-looking cafés still line one side of the harbour, as though in homage to old black and white movies of the past, and the waiter with sleeked back hair who served us could have come direct from central casting.  Posher restaurants line the Place St. Saens on the other side, and throng the Quay des Belges where just after dawn, fishermen and chefs from the top restaurants planning that day’s menus, haggle over the night’s catch.

Fisherman on Quai, Marseilles

The same fish goes into the superlative boullabaise, a thick, spicy, fish stew, the gastonomic delight of France’s southern shores.  If you haven’t tried it before, or if your previous experience of this dish disappointed you, try the Marseilles version.  Fish soup it is not.

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Church of Notre Dame de la Garde

 Before embarking on a major tour of the area, take the two rides that are available on the ‘Petit Train’ which runs from the Quai des Belges in the Vieux Port.  The 50-minute ride goes up to the church of Notre Dame de la Garde, an enormous Romano-Byzantine basilica which stands on the highest point of the city, surmounted by the gilded statue of the virgin and child. The area was a look-out post until 1978 which has resulted in Garde Hill becoming an urban as well as a sacred symbol, and the spectacular views over the city prove just how effective the look-out must once have been.

Fish seller 6

The second ride circuits Vieux Marseilles via the Cathedral and the Panier quarter, wheezing and shuddering through the steep, cobbled streets of the old city.  Both rides give an excellent introduction to the architecture and the landmarks of the area, easy to locate on your free map.

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Cliffs and Sea, Marseilles

From the old port you can take a ferry to the Frioul Islands in the bay, and the 16th century Chateau d’If , immortalized by Dumas as the place where The Count of Monte Christo was imprisoned.  Chateau d’If has reinvented itself and although its history includes no written record of the imprisonment of Edmond Dantès, that doesn’t stop the locals offering trips around the dungeon where he was allegedly imprisoned.  On the other hand, there is a very visible hole in the wall which he is said to have dug.  You can also visit the cell of the Man in the Iron Mask, another non-prisoner in the Chateau.

The modern part of the city is a short ride away, a thriving, bustling place with wide open streets, supermarkets, and department stores, indistinguishable from any other modern French connurbation.   A good way to see it is to hop on the L’Historbus that makes a tour of the city every afternoon and which covers both its modern and medieval aspects, including the Abbaye Saint-Victor with its sarcophagi dating from the 3rd – 5th centuries.

.   Fish sellers 5

Marseilles is a vibrant, bustling, untidy city, full of colour and gaiety, due in no small part to the heavy ethnic mix of North Africans, Tunisians and Algerians.  The apache dancers, the matelots and the inky black bars have gone from the seafront, but Marseilles still has attitude: cynical, sharp, and witty.  That edgy feel is still there.

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Marseilles Street

Just what I remember in fact, from those the old black and white ‘B’ movies I saw years ago.

Recommended Restaurants in the Old Harbour area:  Le Fetiche, Rue St. Saens (04 91 54 00 98) and Chez Caruso, Quai de Port. (04 91 90 94 04)

French Tourist Office:   

website: http://www.franceguide.com

TATE BRITAIN – GREAT BRITISH ART IN LONDON

A Grenadier Guard in London
A Grenadier Guard in London

Tate Britain, the original Tate Gallery to distinguish it from Tate Modern, is situated near Lambeth Palace and just a short walk from the South Bank, the Eye and Westminster.  It is an elegant building with a neo-classical portico in the area of Millbank and stands on the site of the former Millbank Penitentiary.  It houses the greatest collection of British Art in the world, works by  Epstein, Gainsborough, Hirst, Hockney, Hogarth, Rossetti, Sickert, Spencer, Stubbs,  and the artists of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood who revolutionised British art in the 19th century.      copyright Tate Britain

Special attention is given to three outstanding British artists from the Romantic age: Blake and Constable have dedicated spaces within the gallery, while the Turner Collection of approximately 300 paintings and many thousands of watercolours, is housed in the specially built Clore Gallery.

Originally called the National Gallery of British Art it started with a collection of 65 modern British paintings given by its founder Sir Henry Tate (he of the sugar cube and sugar refining firm) when it opened in 1897.  A further gift from Sir Henry in 1899 enabled an extension to be built, and in 1910 thanks to the gift of Sir Joseph Duveen, the Turner Wing was completed.

Over the years the Gallery amassed a collection of works dating from the 16th to the 20th century, to include Modern Art in 1916 and three new galleries for foreign art ten years later.  This led to a change of name from National Gallery of British Art to The Tate Gallery.

Parliament, Lndon, in evening light.
Parliament, London, in evening light.

The Tate is rightly famous for its collection of the works of the foremost English Romantic painter and landscape artist –  J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851).   Turner left his collection of oil paintings and thousands of studies to the nation on condition that they were kept together, and in 1987 the Clore Gallery was opened to house this magnificent bequest.

When the Tate Modern opened on Bankside in 2000, a decision was made to create more space by transferring the collection of international modern art from 1900 to the present day to the new gallery.  Tate Modern, a former pumping station, is the perfect repository for modern art, and in the Turbine Hall, it has space to display enormous installations.

Looking Across to the Embankment from the South Bank, London
Looking Across to the Embankment from the South Bank, London

Tate Britain however, continues to house the Turner Prize exhibition, one of the art world’s most controversial prizes.  Awarded to an artist under 50, British or working in Great Britain, the Turner Prize attracts both media attention and public demonstrations, former well known winners being Damien Hirst, Grayson Perry and Gilbert and George.

The Tate is no stranger to controversy, from accusations of favouritism in the purchase of work by Royal Academicians in the 19th century to media ridicule of the works it purchases today.  There was the famous case in 1972 of the work by Carl Andre popularly known as The Bricks, which caused The Times newspaper to complain about institutional waste of taxpayers’ money.  In 1995 a gift of £20,000 from art fraudster John Drewe came to light, along with the fact that the gallery had given Drewe access to its archives from which he forged documents authenticating fake paintings which he then sold.  The last major scandal was in 2005 over the Tate’s purchase of Chris Ofili’s work The Upper Room for £705,000 with accusations of a conflict of interest.

None of these controversies however, detracts from the Tate’s magnificence.  Whatever time of the year one chooses to visit, there will be one or two challenging exhibitions ranging from Neo-classical sculptures, exhibitions of the work of Rubens, William Blake, and Millais (founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood), to film and video work of Derek Jarman and that of the Iranian film maker and photographer, Mitra Tabrizian.  All this as well as the gallery’s normal offerings.

View Over London from The Shard, Highest Building in Western Europe
View Over London from The Shard, Highest Building in Western Europe

Three year’s ago the Tate held the Francis Bacon Exhibition (1909-1992), a re-assessment of his work in the light of new research since his death, comprising around 60 of his most important pieces from each period of his life.   It showed in great detail, the work of possibly the 20th century’s greatest painter of the human figure in an exhibition that captured its sexuality, violence and isolation.  The artist’s bleak outlook, his flamboyant homosexuality and his colourful private life had made him a controversial figure in life as much as in death.

For those visiting Liverpool, the superb Tate Liverpool which opened in 1988 shows various works from the London Tates as well as mounting its own eclectic displays and for those heading for Cornwall, the Tate St. Ives has an equally impressive collection.

The London Eye
The London Eye

The out-of-London Tates entail rail or coach travel from London, but Tate Britain is an easy walk from Westminster.  For a truly memorable arrival, the best way to travel is by river-boat which leaves half-hourly from Tate Modern on the Thames, stopping at the London Eye along the way.

Like that other great palace of art in Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery, the Tate also offers free admission apart from special exhibitions.

website: www.tate.org.uk

Open 10.00 a.m. to 17.50 daily.

Bus No. 77A runs from the centre of London through Westminster, Whitehall, Trafalgar Square and Aldwych to the Museum every ten minutes.   Nearest underground:  Pimlico.    Two superb licensed restaurants are in the basement of the Gallery.

Visitors wanting a quick and expert guide to parts of the Gallery should take one of the free one-hour tours offered daily which start at 11 a.m. 12 p.m. 2 p.m. and 3 p.m (Saturdays and Sundays 12.00 and 15.00 only).

Noto – Sicily’s Perfect Baroque Town

Sicily, with its dark history, rough mountains, ravishing scenery, and Etna, that brooding snow-capped volcano that is  never far from people’s thoughts, is one of the Mediterranean islands to which I am constantly drawn back.   I go there for the known attractions and for the food, heavily influenced by the cuisine of the many nations that conquered the island, and for the Baroque towns that sprang up after the earthquake of 1693 that devastated the south-east of the island.  All are beautiful, but the finest of them all is Noto, a town built of golden stone from a local quarry and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After the earthquake, Giuseppe Lanza, Duke of Camastra, employed the best architects of the day to rebuild the city just south of the original town: the result is a triumph of urban planning and harmony.  Noto is in the province of Siracusa, itself a gem of a city and one that should not be rushed through as it has some of the most beautiful buildings in the area, plus the world famous Duomo in the Piazza of the same name, a sea-front with a wall just made for sitting on while you feast on a gelato.  Noto lies about 35 kilometers southwest of Siracusa and is easily reached by local trains which run regularly.        

It was built almost entirely in the  prevailing style at the time, Baroque, and these near-perfect buildings are what makes Noto so special and which earned it the title of  UNESCO World Heritage site.

It is a very accessible town.  You can wander the length of the graceful Corso, stopping here and there for a coffee and one of Noto’s famous cakes, or a gelato or freshly squeezed orange or lemon juice.  Take a detour down the side streets and climb the steep steps to the top where the aristocrats lived, then come down to the next level which housed the clergy and other nobility, before arriving back at street level where the ordinary people lived.   One of the best streets in which to wander is the Via Nicolaci, famous for its buttressed balconies held up with playful horses, griffons, cherubs and old men, incongruous on an otherwise severely classical façade.

Just at the top of Via Nicolaci is the beautiful elliptical façade of the Chiesa di Montevirgine. I didn’t have time to count them, let alone visit them, but I was assured that Noto has thirty-two churches.  Think on that – thirty two churches.

So, what to visit when you are only there for a day visit.  If time is short my advice is just to wander.  Like Florence, the history of the town is in its buildings, their façades and the sense of life in the streets.  The Cathedral rises impressively above Corso Vittorio Emmanuelle and is approached by a wide and graceful flight of steps and its simple interior  

may well come as a surprise in contrast to its exterior.

I had initially mistaken the flamboyant Chiesa di san Dominica for the Cathedral, flanked as it is by huge palm trees and looking more Middle East than Mediterranean. The Municipio (town hall) has an exuberant trompe l’oeil ceiling and a “magic mirror” which is just a mirror of illusion.  My own favourite interior was the Vittorio Emmanuelle Theatre, still offering productions to its patrons, a fantasy theatre with red velvet and gilded boxes lining the walls echoed by heavy drapes curving round the proscenium arch.      

If you want to imagine what Italian towns looked like in the 17th century, then Noto should be on your list of towns to visit – it’s very special.    

The Wine Museum of Rioja

Dinastía Vivanco Bodegas Museo del Vinois not just a great Museum, it is a beautiful one as well, set in the heart of the wine area of Alberite in La Rioja, Spain.  What also places this Museum in a category of its own is its geographical position with glorious views over the surrounding countryside.

View from the Steps of the Museum of Wine, Rioja

The Museum is located right next to the Vivanco winery from which it takes its name, in the town of Briones, La Rioja, and was built to “give back to wine what wine has given to us” in the words of its founder Pedro Vivanco Paracuellos. It was Senor Vivanco’s passion for collecting everything to do with wine that led him to open this magnificent museum, created to showcase every aspect of his collection.

With audiovisual and interactive displays and a specific route for physically or visually impaired visitors, this museum ticks all the right boxes. The collection is divided into 5 main spaces and takes the visitor from the process of vine cultivation through its development from 8000 years ago right up to the present day, the history of which shows how the vine is central to our culture. Dinastía Vivanco Museo del Vino is set to become the world’s greatest museum of viniculture

What to See in the Wine Museum at La Rioja

Starting with an introductory video about the family Vivanco, visitors then move through the rest of the museum. An easy to follow plan guides one around but various sections can be skipped if time is short, or if the particular theme is not of interest. During the tour one learns that wine is closely related to human patterns of settlement and that it was found in both pagan and religious ceremonies from the earliest days.

Egyptians, Romans and Greeks are all well represented in the displays, and some beautiful mosaics and drinking vessels are on show along with the front panel of a 3rd century sarcophagus and some small oil paintings on copper. Many artistic works show how grapevines and wine have been used throughout the ages to depict figures in classical mythology. With ancient presses and ploughs, etchings and early pictures to illustrate the harvests, and photographs of more recent times, the life of the labourers in the vineyards is brought to life.

Barrels and Bottles and Transportation of Wine

Transportation of wine was always of major importance and barrel making and acquiring the correct oak wood for the barrels occupies a goodly section of the museum. There are only 3 types of oak used to make barrels today, Sessile Oak which adds a vanilla flavour to the wine, English, French and Russian Oak (not much used) which is very tannic, and American White Oak which adds chocolate aromas. Oak grows very slowly and cannot be cut before it is 120 years old.

As well as the barrels there is a whole area devoted to bottles and the corks used in them. The use of cork is always recommended for fine wines as its flexibility means that it swells up on contact with the wine and fits tightly into the bottle. The foil on the cork and top of the bottle protects it from exterior airs.

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Following on from that there is a display of nearly 3,000 corkscrews that charts the evolution of this simple instrument, dating from the first patented model in the 18th century. Wine has given work to many people in many trades over many centuries.

It would be a shame to leave this delightful museum without spending time in the Essence area, a spot where different aromas can be experienced, from jasmine to leather, chocolate to chillies. It is revelatory.

Restaurant, Bar and Wine Tasting Area

Outside the displays can be found the tasting bar where one can spend a happy half-hour or so, sampling the delightful wines of the area.   The bar sells a fine collection of local and imported wines, and the excellent onsite restaurant offers superb, local dishes, cooked and served in the local fashion and with carefully chosen wines to accompany them.

A Pink Dawn Over the Rioja Vineyards

Ellen Terry Museum, Smallhythe Place, Kent

Needing to get some photographs for an article on pretty Kent villages, took myself off to the Weald last week only to find that places like Tenterden and Biddenden had thrown themselves into Jubilee mode with a vengeance.  Medieval doorways draped with the Union Jack, windows bedecked with red, white and blue ribbons, and bunting strung across the streets wasn’t what my editor wanted for the article, so I had to leave this particular area and postpone the writing.

Looking round for an alternative idea I thought of covering some of the lovely venues in the area and headed for Sissinghurst which I’d visited some years ago.  Unfortunately, I hadn’t checked opening days and when I got there found it wasn’t open on Wednesdays or Thursdays.  Very disappointed.

I felt it would have been helpful if National Trust had put a sign by the entrance giving the Opening Days, saving visitors a drive down to the car park and then a walk to the entrance, only to be refused entry.

Sissinghurst Castle

However, the sun was shining so I looked around the exterior of the buildings, checked out the plants for sale, was tempted by the David Austin roses for sale and enjoyed the lovely views.    The emerald lawns looked spectacular and the exterior was immaculate, making it even sadder that I couldn’t gain entry to the house and gardens.

Smallhythe Place Museum – former home of Ellen Terry

From there I drove on to Smallhythe Place, the best little Museum I have ever visited.  Also a National Trust venue but they were open – until 4.30 that is.  Smallhythe was the former home of one of England’s most beloved actresses, Ellen Terry, and the house still seems like a home, full of her treasures and memorabilia from various roles she performed on the London stage.

The Barn Theatre, Smallhythe Place

In the gardens is The Barn Theatre where many famous actors have worked (plays are still performed, but it is a private theatre), and the gardens are full of the roses she loved, every one of which had an exquisite smell.

So, all was not lost on my trip to Kent, but I have made a note to avoid all celebratory times if I want to take photographs as the decorations do date them.

Marble Bust of Ellen Terry

Back from Rioja and Catching Up.

Been a long, been a long, been a long time.  Anyone remember those words from the old song?

I’ve been busy over the last few months trying to work for a living and juggle social life which has made me neglect my blog.  I blame my computer really, as the many ways it distracts me from doing essential jobs are too numerous to mention.  Especially when it comes to playing with photographs, resizing, cropping, changing aspects, etc.  My biggest problem is not being able to resist trying them in different styles – just for my own amusement, of course – and I can waste a good few hours doing this.  But hey ho! here I am again.

Logroño

Bar in Logroño, capital of Rioja Region

Since I last blogged I’ve been to the Rioja Wine Festival in Spain where the celebrations were absolutely fabulous.  Tapas in the bars from 7 in the evening until well into the early hours of the morning, drinking some fabulous wines that I’d never tried before and when it wasn’t a tapas evening, sampling superb food in great restaurants, two of which stand out particularly.

Rich, Red, Rioja

1.   Restaurant La Venta Moncalvillo, a country restaurant about 12 miles outside Longroño. Since opening in 1997 this restaurant has grown from a modest little place to one of the most important restaurants in the region.  The two owners, brothers Carlos and Ignacio Echapresto do everything between them from the wine buying to the organization of the seasonal menus. A dish of wild mushroom sliced so thinly as to be almost transparent and served with the best olive oil and a sprinkling of chives makes a perfect starter, especially when followed by Ham Ibérico liced just so wrapped round the white asparagus that Spain specialises in.

Display of Coloured Corks at Taberna Herrerias, Logroño

2.   Taberna Herrerias, Logroño
In the old area of Logroño stands the Taberna Herrerias (a name that means Blacksmiths Tavern),on the street of the same name.  It is a 16th century palace sympathetically renovated without losing any of its ancient charm and now a restaurant serving delicious fresh, locally produced food,. The wines come from all over the world, but naturally, the locally produced Rioja is very much to the fore, especially the top quality Riojas that are sometimes difficult to source.

Logroño, Rioja’s capital, is an amazing city and one I hadn’t previously visited.  Accessible from the port of Bilbao which we arrived at and from where we hired car, we reached Logroño in just over two hours easy driving.  I met some people who had flown there, via Madrid, which they described as an easy trip.

Balloon over Vineyards of Rioja
Of the many experiences in and around Rioja, I treasure most the early morning balloon flight over the vineyards, flying up and into the clouds and watching the morning sun come up and cast the balloon’s shadow on the same white clouds.  Looking down on the toy cars and the dolls’ houses and experiencing the eerie silence as we drifted in space sharing a breakfast glass of champagne, was something I shall remember for the rest of my life.  I’ve done other balloon flights, but this one I can only describe as magical.
Museum of Vineculture

A visit to what must be one of the best Museums ever, the Dinastía Vivanco Bodegas Museo del Vino set in the heart of the wine area of Alberite in La Rioja, should be on everyone’s list of things to do in Rioja.  Located right next to the Vivanco winery from which it takes its name, in the town of Briones, it was built to “give back to wine what wine has given to us” in the words of its founder Pedro Vivanco Paracuellos. It was Senor Vivanco’s passion for collecting everything to do with wine that led him to open this magnificent museum, created to showcase every aspect of his collection.

Overlooking vineyards and the town of Briones, the Museum covers everything from ancient wine making to wine tasting guiding the visitor through ceramics, brass utensils and even a “smell experience” where the smells associated with wines can be experimented with.  Truly the most enjoyable museum I have ever visited.

There were wine tastings, trips to a thermal spa, horse riding, visiting an old monastery, and always, eating.  As a week-end trip, or a short break, this undiscovered town has everything, plus some of the best wines you will ever sample.

I think of Longroño now, as one of the places I must return to a.s.a.p.