Tag Archives: Art

In the Footsteps of The Impressionists

Looking through some images last night reminded me of a trip I took a few years ago visiting the places where the Impressionists had painted (sometimes standing exactly where they had stood as they worked), places like Rouen, Honfleur, Etretat and Le Havre in N. France.  The idea behind the trip was to look at the reality of what the artists had painted and then to try and make a connection with the painting by viewing it in a nearby gallery.

Where and what they painted at the time was a complete change in the art world, helped by pre-mixed paints in tubes and new vibrant hues like chromium yellow and French ultramarine that freed them from the chore of grinding up lapus lazuli and mixing dry pigment in linseed oil to make colour.  With these aids, their style of painting was able to evolve and they could now paint outdoors, capturing the momentary, transient aspects of light and the ever-changing colours of the clouds using ordinary subject matter.

Claude Monet painted more than thirty versions of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Rouen, a church which is a mishmash of architectural styles spanning four centuries, but which is mesmerizing in its scale and grandeur.    As we stood facing the church, in front of the house on the opposite side of the square from whose window Monet had painted the church, rain was pouring down its exterior walls.  But that was good.

Notre-Dame Cathedral, Rouen
Notre-Dame Cathederal, Rouen

The Musée des Beaux-Art in Rouen has a particularly fine collection of Impressionist paintings and when I came face to face with Monet’s misty, murky impression of the rainswept sumptuous west face of this massive Gothic structure, I was nearer understanding why he painted so many versions of it and who so many were painted in the rain.

Rouen is a maze of cobbled streets lined with beautifully preserved or restored half-timbered houses that lean crookedly together: more than 100 of these houses date back to the Middle Ages.  Many of these streets lead from the Cathedral to the famous Rue du Gros Horloge with its lavish Renaissance clock centred in an elegantly carved arch, and then to the city’s hub, the Place du Vieux Marché ringed by cafés and restaurants housed in 16th – 18th century houses, and famous as the place where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431.  An iron cross set in a simple little memorial garden marks the spot and a daringly designed slate-covered church dedicated to the saint stands next to it.

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Place Joan d’Arc, Rouen

Not far from Rouen is atmospheric little Honfleur, a town unlike any other in Normandy where the 10-storey high timber and slate-faced buildings that surround its 17th century Vieux Bassin has made it one of the most photographed towns on the Seine.   Bright trawlers jostle together in the old harbour to sell succulent seafood on the quayside, seafood which is later served up by the many waterside restaurants.

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It is here that Eugène Boudin and a like-minded group of friends from Paris formed the Impressionist movement.  Attracted by the beauty of the town and the quality of its light they used to gather at the nearby Côte de Grace Hill above the town, and paint the scene before them, edging towards something experimental and new, using short, broken brushstrokes of untinted and unmixed colour, painting wet paint into wet paint instead of waiting for one layer to dry, which led to intermingling of the colours.   Later, they would drink and dine in a simple 17th-century farm dwelling, Ferme St. Siméon, now a luxurious and very expensive hotel.

Honfleur

The delightful and intimate little art gallery, Musée Eugène Boudin, founded in 1868 by Honfleur’s best known artist, considered by many to be the father of Impressionism, has one of the best collections of Boudin’s own works – including the wonderful Port de Dieppe – as well as a vast collection of paintings by artists like Jongkind, Isabey, Monet, Dubourg, Mettling, Pissarro, Renoir and Dufy who came to be known as “the Honfleur school”.

Honfleur was also the birthplace in 1886 of the musician Erik Satie and it is worth spending an extra hour or two in the Maisons Satie where you are led from one room to another with the accompaniment of Satie’s music backed by a series of stunning Satie-esque visual effects – like the white piano in an all-white room that clanks and jangles maniacally.

The scene painted by Sisley at La Bouille
This is my picture of a scene painted by Sisley at La Bouille 

A surfeit of art and too many Museums can lead to an inability to be a discerning art critic, so a trip to La Bouille on the banks of the Seine, a favourite spot for Alfred Sisley to paint, came next.   Packed with art galleries and good restaurants, this charming village is a haven of peace.  To see it from the river, you can board a cruise from Rouen and enjoy the scenery along the way, the many little villages along the curves of the Seine and the village life of France.   Canoes and kayaks swish through the water, a little ferry chugs across the river transporting passengers and cars between Duclair and La Bouille, and Sahurs and La Bouille and if you stand by the landing stage and gaze downstream to the loop in the Seine, you are looking at a scene often painted by Sisley.

 

The quality of light that floods Normandy attracted the painters to the coast at Etretat spectacular setting between cliffs eroded into arc-like shapes brought Boudin, Monet, Courbet, Isabey, Delacroix, Degas and Matisse here when it was still a fishing village.  They came to paint the natural arches and stone outcrops (one needle rock stands 70 metres high) shaped by the thundering waves:  they came also to paint the  beach scene, for Etretat was a very fashionable town in the 19th century, popular with Parisians and writers like Flaubert, Gide and Maupassant were regular visitors.

La Porte d'Aval with L'Alguille (needle)
La Porte d’Aval avec L’Alguile (needle)

(It is still popular with visitors from Paris and Le Havre).  From every angle on the promenade, you can see the scenes the impressionists worked on, but the best view is found by climbing the steps from the promenade and walking along the path at the top of the cliff.

Etretat may have attracted many visitors from nearby Le Havre, but that port city has its own magnificent steel and glass Musée Malraux right on the waterfront, recently revamped to make use of the optimum light.

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The Beach at LeHavre – Pixabay

Many people pass speedily through Le Havre without realizing that the local Museum houses an unbeatable collection of paintings by the local born Raoul Dufy, full of the dazzling blues and vibrant colours for which he is known.  Eugêne Boudin, the other impressionist who lived here, is represented in the Museum by over 200 canvasses.   Monet was brought up here from the age of five (and taken under Boudin’s wing when he was 15 years old), painted several masterpieces, including the one that some believe gave the name to the group, Impression Soleil Levant (Impression Sunrise) from a position just in front of the museum.  The collection includes the square Giverny waterlily painting and one of his brooding paintings of London’s Houses of Parliament.

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LeHavre – Pixabay

I knew little of Impressionism before I went looking at the paintings with a ‘painterly’ eye but now I no longer view thundery skies with the jaundiced eye of the philistine.  If there is a bright yellow sun I know that the Impressionists would depict the shadows as violet, and if the shadows are blue I know that the sky must have had strong orange tints.  Now on my walks, when I see changeable and tumultuous clouds I think of the skies I saw, often stretched across half a canvas, and I think, “That’s a Boudin sky” and I don’t even mind that they herald rain.

Monet hated the tag “Impressionism” but whether he liked it or not, it was this that defined the movement.  Unspoilt Normandy, rich in beguiling light, ever-changing skies and the winding Seine made the perfect studio for the painters.

Notes:  I would hate people to think that Rouen’s Musée des Beaux-Art only has a collection of Impressionist paintings.  It also houses a fine collection of work by Renaissance and Flemish painters, plus a magnificent Caravaggio and a whole roomful of Veronese (plus it is rich in paintings of Monet’s vibrant poppies).

If time permits, do eat at one of the glass-screened restaurants in Etretat.

Le Havre had to be massively rebuilt after the city’s obliteration during the second world war, but it still retains some old Breton architecture in the St. Francois quarter.

Palermo: Caravaggio to be Returned?

You may remember that when I wrote about the Serpotta Stuccoes, I mentioned that the Caravaggio masterpiece, Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence, had been stolen from the altar of the Oratorio and that the replacement painting was not something one could really admire.

I was more than pleased, therefore, to read in The Guardian a few days ago, that there are hopes that the painting may be recovered soon as Italian investigators have received information that the painting, which was stolen in 1969, could be hidden in Switzerland.  The head of Italy’s anti-mafia commission last Thursday said that the information came from a former mobster-turned-informant who revealed that it had once been held by Gaetano Badalamenti, a ‘capo di capo’ (boss of bosses).  The informant told the mafia investigators that Badalamenti (who has since died in America where he had been convicted of heroin trafficking) had been in touch with an art dealer in Switzerland.

To have this masterpiece returned to the Oratorio of San Lorenzo would be something wondrous for the people of Palermo, as when the criminals stole the painting by cutting it from its frame with razorblades everyone presumed it was lost forever.

Rosy Bindi, the head of Italy’s anti-mafia commission, told The Guardian that they have collected enough evidence to launch a new investigation and to request the collaboration of foreign authorities, especially those in Switzerland.

Leoluca Orlando, mayor of Palermo, who has helped Palermo transform itself from a  stronghold of the mafia to a European Capital of Culture, said that the city was no longer dominated by mobsters and godfathers, that it has changed and now demands the return of everything the mafia had stolen from it.

The return of this painting to the Oratorio will be an event to be celebrated throughout Sicily.  I hope it happens soon.

Meantime, here are a few of the pictures of the 16th-century stuccoes from the Oratorio that I originally posted.

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Pézanas, where Molière Played

A town often overlooked in the Languedoc area is Pézenas, graced with elegant 17th and 18th-century houses of mellow, honey-coloured stone adorned with graceful, wrought iron balconies.

It was once the capital of Languedoc but lost that honour in the late 17th century although it continued to thrive as a trading centre for over 100 years afterwards: if you are there on a Saturday you should visit the market which hasn’t changed much since those days.  It further declined as a trading hub when it was bypassed by the railways in the 19th century and became something of a backwater.  This could be seen to have been to its benefit, however, as it has managed to preserve much of its charm from earlier days and to have escaped the ravages of over-development that have afflicted so many other French towns in the area.

During the town’s heyday, Pézenas was one of the favourite towns for the cosmopolitan elite to visit.  Travelling players made regular stops here and provided the main entertainment of the day, one of whom, Jean Baptiste Poquelin, known to us as Molière,  frequently made Pézanas his base.

Moliere statue in Pezanas
Homage to Molière in the centre of the town

The famous playwright toured with a  troupe of jobbing actors and in the process of acting and playwriting in Pézenas, he became the town’s favourite son.  In fact, so popular was he that he acquired the patronage of the Prince of Conti, governor of Languedoc, at whose court in Pézenas they often performed.

At the Place Gambetta lies the heart of this medieval town and this is where Molière would spend much of his day chatting and drinking coffee in the cafes, and visiting the tradesmen in the square among whom he had many friends.  Today, the square is a place of many delightful cafes and it gives one the chance to sit and relax while thinking about the famous resident, and maybe even reading some of his work which is available from many of the shops around.

As you wander through the old town you will sometimes find yourself in a different world, alleys lined with houses with chimneys, gables, arches, windows and doors dating from the 14th right up to the 19th  century.  It is here that you will find the medieval Jewish quarter, just one road where a few buildings carry a Jewish emblem.  Jews were able to live quietly here, in an amicable relationship with their Christian neighbours despite having been expelled from France in 1394 under the orders of King Charles Vl.  (When I was there a few years ago there was talk of a Jewish Museum being opened in the quarter).

Artisan's toy shop
A shop full of handmade wooden toys

Pézenas has a tradition of fine craftsmanship and you will find many craft shops on your walks through the town, from woodwork to stone carving.  New crafts are well represented too in the form of boutique-style fashion shops where the designs range from quirky to haute couture.

The Tourist Office on Place des Etats du Languedoc is one of the most interesting I’ve ever come across, as it is contained, along with the town’s ancient prison, inside the Hôtel Peyrant on Place des Etats du Languedoc.

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The Tourist Office

The building is interesting in its own right, once offering accommodation to aristocrats as well as prisoners.  You can explore the old jail but to get the best out of a visit to the Hôtel, try to make time to see the wonderful Scenovision Moliere, a 3D show about the famous playwright that takes place over five acts, each performed in a different room of the building.   Details herewith.

Scenovision Moliere

The 3D film show in French and English is presented on the upper floors of the tourist office. daily 9am-noon and 2-6pm Monday to Saturday (from 10am on Sun) with a break for lunch, with extended hours over the peak summer season with no lunch break.  Adults €6: children €4:  families €15

Pézenas Tourist Office, Hotel Peyrat, Place des Etats du Languedoc

http://www.scenovcisionmoliere.com

If cruising the canals of France, it is easy to arrange a visit to Pezanas.

 

Oldest Door in Town
In a town of old doors, this is the oldest
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Artisan chocolates – luscious

 

Among my (Japanese) Souveneirs

Having decided that sentimentality has to give way to practicality when one has downsized and lacks room, I am making strenuous efforts to clear away the bits and bobs that one brings back from one’s travels.  I’m not talking the sort of souvenir that one puts on the sideboard or has pride of place in the hall, I’m talking about things like programmes, tickets and other ephemera.

And none that I have short-listed to be disposed of are causing me such a problem as these below.

The Menu on the right is not crumpled, it is the style of paper on which it is printed.

Hand-painted menus are a feature of most of Japan’s Ryokens (traditional Japanese-style hotels) and it was one of the pleasures of the meal to be presented with these delightful examples of Japanese art.  Not only were the delicate floral designs lovely to look at but the papers were all of a high quality, often marbled or embossed.  The smaller paper was usually the actual menu, folded and tucked inside the larger menu page.

The dishes on which the food was served were equally beautiful, dainty, thin porcelain bowls and plates on which the food was arranged so artistically it seemed wrong to disturb it just to satisfy hunger.  I will confess, I didn’t always enjoy the food.  There was an amazing amount of small dishes but the texture of so many seemed slimy (an overabundance of abalone in many cases), and when I did get a dish I could enjoy it was of minuscule proportions.

However, here are some pictures of the food.  Enjoy these while I try and decide whether I can throw away these lovely menus, or if I can think of another use for them.

All these pictures were taken by one of my travelling companions, Steve Moore, who enjoyed the food on every occasion.  I think it shows in his compositions.

There was usually one dish that had to be cooked personally, so a miniature barbecue or a dish of oil would be on the table (one for each person).  Nothing too difficult, small pieces of Kobe beef, fish fillets, that sort of thing.

As the menus were in Japanese we were never sure of what we were eating.  The waiter/waitress took great care to explain each dish but sometimes there was no translation for what we were faced with, something very pink turned out to be ginger, something that looked like a bean was a paste formed into the shape of a bean.

Imagine the time it took just to arrange these items on the plate.

And now, for something completely different.

Strasbourg – Cross Roads of Europe

With the UK about to depart the EU after the 2016 Referendum, albeit with only an extremely narrow margin of Leave votes, my thoughts turned to my visit a few years ago to that lovely city, Strasbourg, site of the European Council and European Parliament.

A-Strasbourg-Square

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This delightful city, full of medieval churches and half-timbered houses seems to have become a byword for what some in the UK see as a hijacker of British sovereignty.   Which is a shame, because it is blinding people to an elegant, international city of great charm that in the Middle Ages was referred to as The Crossroads of Europe.  At that time, goods from the Baltic, Britain, the Mediterranean and the Far East poured across the borders to be traded for wines, grain and fabrics and just like today, when the languages of the 46 member states can be heard in the squares and streets of the city, traders speaking a dozen different languages, met and conducted business.  People from different countries working together and mingling in Strasbourg’s squares means that the city continues to be the crossroads of Europe.

Once a free city within the Holy Roman Empire, Strasbourg later came under periods of French and German rule, which has given the ancient centre a unique appeal, enhanced by the half-timbered Medieval houses that sit alongside elegant French-style mansions.  In 1988, UNESCO classified Strasbourg as a World Monument, the first time such an honour was given to an entire city centre.

It is an easy place for visitors to discover, as the traffic problems that beset most big cities have been solved here with a combination of canal boats, a sleek and comfortable light rail system, local buses, and pedestrianised squares.  Although it presents itself as a folksy-like small town, Strasbourg is very international, cosmopolitan and multilingual.

GRAND ILE ISLAND

This is the historic part of the city where you will find the main sights and using the 142-metre high spire of the Cathedral as your landmark, you will soon find your way around Strasbourg.

The city’s charm has much to do with its canals which surround the Grand Ill island where Petite France, is located.  A 70-minute boat trip (open-top in fine weather) on Batorama’s Twenty Centuries of History, circumnavigates the whole of the Grande-Île before skirting the 19th-century German Quarter.  The turn-around point and good photo opportunity is where the European Parliament, Council of Europe and European Court of Human Rights are head-quartered, a magnificent architectural display of concrete, steel and glass.

Flags-of-all-Nations

If you take the boat cruise, the Vauban Dam will be pointed out, a defensive lock which allowed the entire southern part of the city to be flooded in times of war.  It is near the confluence of canals by the Pont Couverts.

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They even grow grass between the tramlines in the street

Walking around the canals, especially in the early part of the year when everything seems green and lush and the spring flowers are out in abundance, is an equally attractive method of seeing the main sights.  This is a city that loves nature and it takes pride in decorating every bridge and windowsill with baskets of flowers, changed according to the seasons.

PETITE FRANCE, STRASBOURG (a UNESCO site)

The number one attraction in Strasbourg is Petite France, the historic part of town, a photographic cluster of 16th and 17th-century half-timbered houses reflected in the waters of the canal.  These houses were originally built for the millers, fishermen and tanners who used to live and work in this part of town.  If you have taken the boat tour, you may like also to take a tour of the historic centre with an audio guide (€5.50) from the Tourist Office which will introduce you, via a winding route through the narrow streets, to a truly fascinating old town.

NOTRE DAME CATHEDRAL Opening hours: 7am-7pm

Cathedral-from-the-canal

The Cathedral, an imposing red sandstone edifice, stands alone in its square and towers above the city.  It was the tallest building in the world until the 19th century and is the second most visited cathedral in France after Notre Dame in Paris, receiving 4 million visitors a year.  Built in 1439 it is considered to be an outstanding masterpiece of Romanesque and late Gothic art with outstanding 12th-century stained glass windows. Inside is one of the world’s largest astronomical clocks.

Try to arrive at the cathedral by noon to get a good viewpoint for the 12.30 display of the famous Astronomical Clock.  The procession of sixteenth-century automata was designed to remind us of our mortality.   Afterwards, you can climb 332 steps to the platform below the cathedral’s twin towers for a stunning view.

The narrow street that leads to the cathedral and the Place de Cathedral is the liveliest place in Strasbourg, especially in summer, and are filled with outdoor restaurants that remain open late into the night.  Entertainment is in the form of jazz musicians, mime artists and clowns.

Oldest-House-in-Strasbourg
This is the oldest house in Strasbourg

And finally, Strasbourg’s Christmas Market has a high reputation but its popularity may be its undoing.  After a few evenings of mulled wine, yuletide cake, Silent Night and Adeste Fidelis, a spring or autumn visit begins to look very attractive.

But Strasbourg is a city that has a very special charm at any time of the year and the organisations that dominate its life are what still guarantees peace in Europe.  If you are looking for culture, cuisine and character, Strasbourg is hard to beat.

Facade-of-the-Oldest-House-in-Strasbourg

A few recommended eating places:  Expect the usual French coq au vin, boeuf bourguignon, crème Brulee and crepe Suzette, but be prepared also for the German influence of pork and sauerkraut.

First up though, is wine.  Strasbourg is the capital of one of France’s premier wine regions and if you are in the mood to sample some of the best, head for Terres à Vin, 1 Rue du Miroir, tel +33 3 88 51 37 20, with several by-the-glass options from €3.20 to over €10).

Pain d’Epices, 14 Rue des Dentelles, for indulgent gingerbreads and cake and for the heady scents of spices.

Master-Patissier, Christian Mayer, offers a tea room second to none in Strasbourg at 10 Rue Mercière, just a few yards from the cathedral.

Maison Kammerzell 16 Place du Cathédrale, tel +33 3 88 32 42 14, where the oldest section dates back to 1427, is a Strasbourg institution.  Occupying rooms on four floors, you can sample the house speciality of fish sauerkraut if you fancy that but there are many less thought-provoking dishes from which to choose, average €40 for three courses.

Au Pont Corbeau, 21 Quai Saint-Nicolas, tel +33 3 88 35 60 68, – a warm and welcoming place where the onion soup is so thick you could stand your spoon up in it.  A modest but excellent wine list available.  Average €32 for three courses.

The Batorama Tour departs from the Quai outside Palais Rohan, adults €12.50.

A ticket with unlimited tram and bus trips valid for 24 hours is available for €4.30. Also, you can rent bikes (vélhop) for $5 per day.

Tourist Office, 17 Place de la Cathédrale

Honfleur, Beautiful Even in Winter

Frost=covered trees near Honfleur3
Frost Laden Trees Along the Seine

I’ve written before about Honfleur, my favourite French town, but before this year I’d only visited it in summer.  I arrived in France on New Year’s Eve this time, not by car as I had done before, but on a ship which sailed down the Seine from L’Havre to Rouen.

Frost-covered trees near Honfleur
So White it Looks Like Snow

On the journey we looked out on a wondrous scene of frost-covered trees on the banks of the river, trees which at first I took to be silver birch, so thickly covered in frost were they.

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In the Midst of the Frosted Trees Appears a Mansion

I had never seen anything like this before, and it was made more fascinating by the fact that there were also pockets of greenery where the frost had not reached.

Honfleur is not far from Rouen so it seemed a

The Great Clock, Rouen
Rouen, the Great Clock

good idea to take ourselves off there for the day, even though I had presumed the town would be mostly closed up for the winter.  But no, the town was as busy as ever with cafés, restaurants and bars open and packed with visitors.  As usual, the area around the marina, the Vieux Basin, was the most crowded and we had a problem finding a table at lunch time.

Honfleur, an essential stop on any Norman itinerary, is still a fishing port, and despite its sophisticated yacht harbour and fantastic high-rise houses surrounding it, the town has preserved its rich artistic and historic heritage in its traditional buildings and picturesque streets and squares.  It is unlike any other part of Normandy, seeming to bear no relation to industrial Le Havre just across the Seine estuary or the Pays dAuge to the south.

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One Side of the Marina
Vieix Bassin, Honfleur
St. Catherine’s Quao

The oldest part of Honfleur lies in the area of the Vieux Bassin, a tangle of delightful cobbled streets and alleys known as L’Enclos, the original medieval town of Honfleur enclosed within the first town walls.

Honfleur staple
A Nomandy Staple

Here you will find the oldest church, the deconsecrated 14th and 15th century St. Etienne’s, a Gothic parish church constructed of chalk with flint and Caen stone.  The bell tower is covered with a façade of chestnut wood in the local tradition, as indeed, are many of the old houses behind it.

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A Street in Honfleur

Behind this is the original 17th-century Greniers a Sel (salt warehouses) the royal salt stores that once contained 11,000 tonnes of salt for preserving the locally caught fish and the Atlantic cod and herring which the fleets landed.

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Honfleur Street

The Bassin is surrounded by picturesque narrow houses, and without doubt this is what catches the eye of every visitor upon their first visit to Honfleur.  The real jewels (and looking like jewels too because each one is a different colour) are in the row along the Quai St. Catherine, some of the houses being 10-stories high, with slate roofs and half-timbered and slate façades looking as though they might topple over at any minute.

Vieix Bassin, Honfleur
The Beautiful Vieux Bassin, present-day yacht Marina, of Honfleur

An interesting fact about these narrow 16th and 18th century houses that are squeezed against one another on St Catherine’s quay is that not only are they all different in size, shape, and colour, but that they also have two ground floors: one opening on to the quay and another one, half way up opening behind on to either Dauphin Street or Logettes Street.  Because of this, each house is privately owned by two different householders.

Honfleur’s finest architectural prize is the old wooden Church of St. Catherine which was built by shipwrights in the 15th and 16th century just outside the walls of the medieval town, using wood from the nearby forest.

Honfleur Wooden Church
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This is the largest wooden church with a separate bell-tower in France.  The interior architecture of the church is quite remarkable, as the shipwrights used their naval construction skills in the building of it (stone was scarce but timber was plentiful in the neighbouring forests) and in shape inside it resembles an overturned double hull.  Look closely at the pillars and you will see many irregularities pointing to the crudeness of the tools used in the work.  The separate bell tower, opposite the church, is an oak construction built above the bell-ringer’s house and this serves as an annexe to the Eugène Boudin Museum – a must for art lovers.

Honfleur old Belfry Tower
Wooden Bell Tower

Honfleur has been attracting painters to the area for generations.  Boudin, known as the father of Impressionism, was born in Honfleur and painters such as Monet, Corot, Daubigny and Dufy were drawn to these parts by the beauty and quality of the light.  Their work is well represented in the many galleries in the area.  The painters usually stayed just outside the town at Ferme St. Simeon, then a rustic auberge, now a very grand and beautiful five-star hotel standing in magnificent grounds.

Carvings inside Wooden Church
Carvings in Wooden Church

 

Honfleur was also the birthplace in 1886 of the avant-garde musician, artist and writer, Erik Satie, and there is a Museum dedicated to the man where you can immerse yourself in his quirky world.  Unlike any other museum you’ve been to, this one takes you from room to room to the accompaniment of Satie’s music (via electronic headsets). stunning visual effects and extracts from his writing.  Even if Satie is not one of your favourites, this is a very special experience which I’d highly recommend.

Calvados House, Honfleur
Calvados House, Honfleur

It is very easy to walk around this small town and you won’t get lost.  However, like many towns, Honfleur has a Petit Train Touristique, a tractor-drawn ‘train’ that trundles around the main tourist spots, operating May-September.  If only there for a day, I’d recommend this.

Honfleur Tourist Board.

Winter scene in Vieux Bassin - Polar Bear on Ice
It Really is Winter – Polar Bear on Ice in Vieux Bassin – December 31st 2016!
Frosted trees above towpath houses on Seine
Town along the Seine with Frosted Trees above

Montpelier: Antigone Area

Montpelier had been experiencing rapid growth since the 1970s.  The city was on line to become the new regional technology centre and there was a need for expansion and for more public housing.  In 1979, the newly elected municipal council of Montpelier, with far-seeing vision, decided to develop a whole new district to provide for this expansion and link the centre to the River Lez.  The plan for the stunning development incorporated a west-east axis consisting of a landscaped boulevard and a series of squares enclosed by residential blocks each of seven-stories, to terminate in a new waterfront “port” along the Lez.

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Magnificent Buildings along the 1 Kl-length of Antigone – Mari Nicholson

Thus did Antigone, surely the most attractive of new developments in France, c0me into being.  The 1-Kilometre length of this development was built on the grounds of the former Joffre Barracks, located between the old centre of Montpelier and the River Lez which meanders along the eastern side of the city.  It is known as the Champs-Élysées of Montpelier and the master plan was designed by Spanish architect, Ricardo Bofill – who also designed the majority of the buildings – as a series of grand neo-classical structures with pediments, entablatures and pilasters on a gigantic scale.

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Neo-Greek Statues with Fountain – Mari Nicholson

The Antigone squares are idealised, perfectly proportioned Renaissance spaces with grand names like La Place du Nombre d’Or.  Neo-classical Greek statuary that harks back to another age is dotted about the boulevards and plazas in streets that were planned to allow a paved walkway from Place des Echelles de la Ville to the River Lez.  A continuous movement of wheeled devices and small battery-powered minibuses provide transportation within the mall.

Antigone is an enormous project in every respect.   It includes about 4,000 new dwellings and 20,000 sq. meters of commercial space, the Languedoc-Roussillon regional government headquarters, office space, various government offices, restaurants and cafes, schools with special housing for students and artists, sports facilities, and underground parking.  This new development is town planning n a grand scale.

among the water spouts with Greek statue centre – Mari Nicholson

The only other project of this size and scale designed by one architectural firm is the Karl Mark Hof in Vienna, but this has a mere 1500 dwellings as compared to the 4,000 at Antigone and almost no other services.

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On the River Lez there are various watersports for the public – Mari Nicholson

A visit to this remarkable area of Montpelier makes it easy to see why it continues to attract worldwide attention.

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Rome: View of the Forum at Night

Rome and the Tiber

Castel-Sant'Angelo-from-across-the-Tiber

Castell Sant’Angelo across the Tiber – Photo Mari Nicholson

The Tiber has been the soul of Rome since the city’s inception, and it could be said that Rome owes its very existence to this strategically important river on whose banks the first settlements were built.  The two sides of the river are joined by more than thirty bridges, creating a fascinating setting for the archeology and history of the eternal city.

View_of_the_Tiber_Looking_Towards_the_Castel_Sant'Angelo,_with_Saint_Peter's_in_the_Distance
Old View of the Tiber, possibly 18th century

Several of the old Roman bridges no longer exist, in Papal Rome and in the modern city seven were built in the 19th century and ten in the 20th century.

Bridge on the Tiber leading to Castell Sant'Angelo
Ponte Sant’Angelo with statues

The Tiber (named after Tiberius who drowned in the river) is unlike rivers like The Danube, The Seine or The Thames as there is little activity on the water.  In the summer, various boats convey tourists along the stretch of the river, but in general, it seems underused. However, along the Lungotevere, the boulevards that run alongside it, human traffic always seems to flow.

Flooding was a regular occurrence before the high embankments were built in the 19th century when there were houses located along the banks of this navigable river which was used for fishing and bathing.  Over time, however, silting and Photography 101: Connectsediment build-up meant that the river became unsuitable for navigation.

Looking downriver towards the Cavour bridge

Looking down to Cavour Bridge, Rome

As in other cities such as Bangkok, Seville, London and Paris, tour boats were introduced along the river to give locals and tourists a unique opportunity to view the city.  This is a great way to take in the panorama, and immerse yourself in one of the most evocative cities in the world.

A stroll along the Boulevard is also a favourite pastime and a visit to Castell Sant’Angelo and the Jewish Ghetto and Synagogue, which are both situated along the Tiber can be combined in a “Tiber walk”.  There are many restaurants, cafes, and bars down by the river  so sustenance is not a problem: these are very noticeable at night when the warm lights from their windows illuminate the Boulevards.

The Tiber

The Tiber, Rome – Mari Nicholson

Whether you opt for a dinner cruise, a daytime hop-on-hop-off cruise, or a private jaunt, along the way you can admire the great Palace of Justice, designed by William Calderoni;  Sant’Angelo Castle, one of the oldest monuments of Rome; St. Peter’s Basilica, Tiberina Island, a picturesque island linked by one of the most famous bridges in the city, and the innumerable bridges that span the Tiber.

Ponte Sant'Angelo with statues

Ponte Sant’Angelo Looking towards the Castle – Mari Nicholson

When the surface of the Tiber is calm and the monuments that span the river are reflected in the still waters, they increase one’s delight in the vista they offer across Rome.  Ponte Sant’Angelo (by the castle of the same name), Ponte Fabricio, Ponte Rotto, Ponte Garibaldi, they all offer a sense of the history of the city.

Angel-on-Ponte-Sant'Angelo-near-Castle
Angel on Pone Sant’Angelo – Mari Nicholson
Angel on the Ponte Sant'Angelo
Angel on Ponte Sant’Angelo

 

The first named, Ponte Sant’Angela is the most spectacular, being embellished with angels carrying the instruments of Christ’s passion, and was designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini whose fountain in Piazza Navona is one of the most photographed in Rome.

The Ponte Sant’Angelo was erected to ease the movement between the Vatican (which was also connected to the Castell Sant’Angelo) and the commercial area across the river.

Ponte Sant'Angelo

The Vatican City is the only zone controlled by the papacy today, but in earlier centuries papal dominion was exercised over the entire city, hence the need for easy connection with the commercial area of the settlement.   Three energetic popes, Urban VIII (1623–44), Innocent X (1644–55), and Alexander VII (1655–67), harnessed the versatile talents of the great artists nd sculptors of the day to build monuments and beautify areas all over Rome but especially in the Vatican area.

View from the Vatican Dome
View from the Vatican to Ponte Sant’Angelo – Photo Solange Hando

A walk along the Tiber, and then up the imposing obelisk and olive-tree-lined road to the Vatican is an exercise in itself and you can be forgiven if you decide to postpone visiting St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museum until another day.  It can take a long time to do justice to them both.   A trip to the top of St. Peter’s is a worthwhile exercise but be warned, there are many steps to the top.  A lift goes part way only.

Part of Bernini's Magnificent 4-Rivers Fountain in Piazza Navona, Rome

Part of Bernini’s Magnificent 4-Rivers Fountain in Piazza Navona – Photo Mari Nicholson

How to get there:  Ponte Sant’Angelo:  Metro Line A, Lepanto stop. Boats leave from nearby.        Buses 23, 34, 40, 49, 62, 280, 492, and 990.        Tram 19.

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

 

 

 

Milan Gets Ready for Expo 2015

The Duomo, Milan
The Duomo, Milan

One hundred years ago Milan had a popular Expo when the city was in the forefront of the industrial boom and on its way to becoming Italy’s capital of finance.  A century later and it is preparing for Expo 2015 but it can add to these attributes the fact that it is now an international centre of design and fashion to rival Paris, New York and London: and with 191 foreign communities in the city it can be considered one of the most cosmopolitan in Europe.

I’ve just recently returned from Lombardy where the preparations for the upcoming Expo 2015  has the region in a whirl.  It will be big, Big, BIG!  and it is already attracting unprecedented attention.  With one and a half million tickets to the Expo already sold to China, something tells me this is going to beat not only the 1915 Expo but all the others in between.  The site for Expo 2015, which is located on the outskirts of Milan, is themed around sustainability and the desire to guarantee everyone in the world a healthy, safe and adequate diet.  To this end, many of the Pavilions will be devoted to food that lends itself to this idea and will give Lombardy a chance to show off its rich and fertile land and the produce that the region produces.

High Fashion in Milan
High Fashion in Milan
High Fashion, Milan
High Fashion, Milan

Entertainment in many forms is planned but perhaps the most spectacular will be the world famous Cirque du Soleil which is creating a unique show of music and dance taking its cue from “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life” and which will explore and celebrate the elements of culture, tradition, innovation and their relationship with food. Presented nightly, from May 6th to August 23rd, Allavita! will be performed in an open air theatre with a cast of over 50 Italian and international artists.

Of course Lombardy is going all out to showcase its beautiful towns and cities but these need little introduction to those who love food and fashion. When you think fashion you think Milan, the fashion capital of the country.  A walk through any of the chic areas like Brera, or through the exclusive boutiques located on the Via Montenapoleone and Via della Spriga,and in the magnificent Galleria Victor Emanuele by the Duomo is an experience dear to the hearts of all fashionistas.

Lombardy’s fine foods and wines stem from the richness of the countryside and the husbandry of the land over many centuries.The feast of flavours that is risotto, osso buco and the casserole dish, cassoeula, accompanied by any one of the 42 wines bearing DOCG, DOC or IGT denomination and superb cheeses such as Taleggio, Pavano, Povolone and Gorgonzola will satisfy the most demanding bon vivant.

Cheeses in Market
Cheeses in Market

Cheeses in Market

Even snacking on antipasti dishes of salami and Parma hams dressed with local olive oils or their special oil flavoured with almonds, is guaranteed to impress.

Mouthwatering selection of salamis at Milan's open market
Mouthwatering selection of salamis at Milan’s open market

Culture in Milan

Nor does Milan rely only in fashion and food to keep its visitors happy.  That world renowned temple of culture, La Scala Opera House with its seasonal repertoire of ballets, operas and concerts, has just had an upgrade and now its acoustics and level of comfort rival any major opera house.  For more experimental performances, film festivals and lectures, the first permanent theatre in Italy, the Piccolo of Milan which is an institution in itself, is where it all happens..

The immense Gothic Duomo of Milan deserves that must used and abused word, awesome, and if you take the lift to the first roof and the winding steps to the top from there, the view is magnificent.  Stories of its construction are legendary but experts agree that work on it started round about 1386 and continued until the 19th century, leading to the phrase for a long awaited item “took as long as the Duomo”.

Faint copy of Leonardo's Fresco -- The Last Supper
Faint copy of Leonardo’s Fresco — The Last Supper

It’s a cliche I know, but one has to say that the jewel in Milan’s crown is undoubtedly Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, the exquisite fresco that even in its faded state, has a glory and a grandeur that draws one in to the scene.  This fresco is housed in the refectory of the Renaissance gem that is the Convento of Santa Maria delle Grazie.  Leonardo spent more than 20 years in Milan and there are various spots around the city which have connections to him, one being the innovative system of canal locks at the Alzaia del Naviglio Grande which were the first examples of hydraulic engineering in Lombardy and were partly conceived by him.

Night scene at Navilgi, Milan
Night scene at Navilgi, Milan

Worth visiting at night for the party atmosphere – BoHo Milano as it’s called – this area from dusk till after midnight is a world of party people strolling along canals lit by sidewalk lamps and the neon signs of the bars, cafes and restaurants that line the waterside.

Cremona: Violin Making Centre of Italy

Cremona: Home of the Violin Makers
Cremona: Home of the Violin Makers

Not far from Milan is Cremona, the cultural centre of Lombardy and important in Italy’s cultural life since Roman times.  The narrow streets of the city are rich in history, the red brick medieval towers and the Renaissance buildings offering shade to the grateful Cremonese during the heat of summer.  It is also the birthplace of the violin, the most famous centre in the world for the production of stringed instruments since 1566, when Andrea Amati invented the instrument based on the medieval viol.  His grandson, Nicolo Amati, and his pupils Antonio Stradivari and Guiseppe Guarneri, then went on to make the best violins in history, but it is to the violin master of all time, Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) that the city owes its fame.  The great man is reputed to have made 1,100 stringed instruments, mostly violins, over half of which are still in existence and which today sell for millions of dollars – when they come on the market.

Luthier Stefano Conio of Cremona, demonstrates his craftmanship.
Luthier Stefano Conio of Cremona, demonstrates his craftmanship.

The heirs to the great masters are today alive and well and  I was lucky enough to be invited to visit the studio of one, Stefano Conia, a 42 year old master violin maker as was his father and grandfather before him, and I watched as he shaved the wood, varnished the violins and mixed the glues for instruments he was working on.  Most luthiers produce only 10-12 instruments per year, most being commissioned and costing upwards of £12,000 each.

The Museum del Violin

Opened in 2013 this exhibition and concert hall is a stunning venue, displaying the magic and mystique of the stringed instruments in walk through sections that display the history of the violin.  In the Museo Civico there is a world-renowned collection of more than 60 stringed instruments, early guitars, mandolins and lutes, the beautifully decorated violins of Amati and the inlaid masterpieces of Stradivari in ten rooms each one dedicated to a specific period.

On most days one can hear a short performance played on one of the violins from the collection by one of the young musicians from the Foundation, musicians at the very top of their profession.  To hear Meditation from Thais by Massinet played on a 1727 Vesusius Stradivarius as I did, is something just short of magical.

What to See and Do Beyond the Museums

Monument to Stradivari
Monument to Stradivari

In the streets and piazzas you will find links to both Cremona’s commercial and cultural past, whether it’s the bronze statues of Stradivari  in the Piazza of the same name, the house in Corso Garibaldi where he lived and worked from 1667 to 1680, the replica of his tombstone in the Piazza Roma, or the statue to the equally famous Claudio Monteverdi in Piazza Lodi.

Monument to Monteverdi
Monument to Monteverdi

Moneverdi, born in Cremona in 1576, wrote one of the world’s first full-scale operas, L’Orfeo, in 1607 and received his first musical training at the Duomo which no one visiting Cremona should fail to visit.  The XVlll Ponchielli Theatre, only the third opera house to be built in Italy was named in honour of the Cremonese operatic composer Ponchielli who wrote his first symphony at the age of ten.  Best known today as the composer of La Giaconda (Dance of the Hours) which as well as being a well-known ballet featured in the Disney film Fantasia half a century ago.

Ponchinelli Theatre luxurious in traditional red and gold
Ponchinelli Theatre luxurious in traditional red and gold

If it’s summer there is lots to do on the river, boating, excursions, canoeing etc., and if you have a few days to spare you can rent a floating houseboat and go right down to Venice, or next door to Padua for instance.

Expo 2015 will bring many more tourists to the towns and villages surrounding Milan – Cremona, Mantua and Padua.  The food in this part of Lombardy is particularly wholesome and the slow-cooking revolution is growing fast. Hotels are plentiful and good but special mention should be made of the Agriturismo movement which has thrown up some superb b & bs in and around the towns where the food is produced, usually organically, on the farm stay.

Tourist Boards will be happy to help with addresses and ‘phone numbers and a useful website for information on what to see and do in Cremona during the Expo period:

http://wonderfulexpo2015.info/en/where-to-go/cities/cremona

Further information on all aspects of Expo 2015 at

www.wonderfulexpo2015.info

The official tourist website of Milan and Lombardy containing information, updates, descriptions, images and videos about the beauties of the area,as well as a range of proposals of travel, accommodation and services offered by Lombardy.

Hotel recommendations in Milan and Cremona area:

Milan: 4* Anderson Hotel:  http://www.starhotels.com/en/our-hotels/anderson-milan/

          4* RitzHotel:    http://www.starhotels.com/en.our-hotels/ritz-milan/
          Exceptional Agroturismo restaurant and accommodation at:
Welcome to Italy! The Smiling Policeman.
Welcome to Italy! The Smiling Policeman.