Wednesday, 20 December 2006

Technophobia for fun

This has nothing to do with travel, apart from the fact that I found it in an old copy of  the French railways TGV magazine.

Lassi Etelatalo won  the 2006 Mobile Telephone Throwing competition with a Nokia-hurl of 89 metres.

Haven't you ever wished you could do that to *your*  mobile?

Tuesday, 19 December 2006

To travel hopefully...

I've blogged before about how the way you travel can be just as important as where you go. Recently I've come across some great ideas for rather different ways of seeing a city.

For instance the Times today carried a story about how to see San Francisco by buggy.  Even better, they have a GPS guided tour installed on-board.  The article is delightfully humorous, but if you want to go straight to SF without bypass, the buggies are at

Now I've never had much time for the Segway despite being, usually, your original technophile Gadget Grrl. It's not weatherproof like a car, or fast like a motorbike,  nor does it have the fitness-enhancing properties of a bicycle, rollerblades or good old feet. But just for a bit of fun, a guided trip round Paris, Vienna or Budapest on one of these things seems to have something the guided walk doesn't. Segway Tours also offer trips in Washington, Atlanta, Chicago and New Orleans. But nowhere with really big hills. I wonder why...

Sunday, 17 December 2006

Son et lumiere - Christmas lights in Paris

Christmas lights have undergone a stylish transformation - in Paris, anyway.

No garish multicoloured displays this year. Instead the code is single-colour - wonderful streamers of blue hanging from the tops of trees, or shimmering white curtains over the road. Even more fun was one we spotted in Suresnes, fingers of electric blue poking upwards like a strange skeletal plant.

Sometimes I wonder about the French love affair with modernist style. But to a palate jaded by the tweeness and representational literalness of most of the London Christmas lights, the Paris lights came as a welcome and refreshing surprise.

Tuesday, 12 December 2006

Food on trains 2

Some stations are just sixties boxes where you can buy tickets and wait for a train. Others take us back to a more gracious time.

Lady Foley, the woman who was largely responsible for the development of Great Malvern as a fine and leafy Victorian town, had her own personal waiting room on the London platform at Great Malvern station. There's now a tea room there instead.

Beautiful William Morris style wallpaper, gentle lighting, and wood panelling create a comfortable ambience. Salads, soup, and such staples as beans on toast are all available, together with a variety of teas and coffees. Piano sonatas play in the background and the clock ticks gently on as you wait for your train.

This is definitely a first class waiting room!

Tuesday, 5 December 2006

… and after!… and after!
‘Guerilla lighting’ - before

Guerilla lighting

BeforeI've just come across an intriguing press release. The BDP Lighting Group turned up in the middle of Manchester last week with 60 people and a load of LEDs, and proceeded to transform the centre of the city with transient lighting designs.

Apparently, Manchester is way behind the game in lighting up its architecture - which is odd if you consider the wealth of lighting talent that must have been nurtured in Madchester nightclubs... Other cities are way in front.

For instance Chartres has 'Chartres en lumieres' which lights up not just the cathedral, but other medieval churches and streets within the city. Chartres' heritage of fine medieval stained glass inspires much of the design, and there's even a recreation in light of the famous Chartres labyrinth in the cathedral pavement. Sées, in Normandy, lights up its gothic cathedral every July and August. And Amiens cathedral lights up at Christmas, with a 45 minute show hoping to show the cathedral facade as it would have been in its pristine medieval glory - painted and gilded, only this time just with light.

Well, I suppose the French did invent the term 'son et lumière'.

Thursday, 30 November 2006

No food please, we're Belgian

We're so used to many symbols that we don't question them. No entry signs, one way signs, signs for men's and women's toilets...

But I came across one in Ghent that amused me, because it was slightly different.

I've often seen, in Italy, the 'no food in the church' message with a picture of an ice cream.

But in Belgium, of course, ice cream is only one of the two ubiquitous foods.

So the sign gets a picture of a cone of chips, with a big red X through them.

Monday, 27 November 2006

Academy of Urbanism

I've just seen the Academy of Urbanism Awards 2006. They include one of my favourite places - Borough Market,  London. It's a great story of regeneration.

Borough Market was always a thriving market, just on the south bank of the Thames, across from the City of London. With Southwark Cathedral, the new Globe Theatre, the remains of the Bishop of Winchester's medieval palace, a wonderful galleried inn, and some fine pubs, as well as the market underneath the railway viaducts, it was a great area to explore - slightly seedy and undiscovered, but full of interest.

Borough Market has now become a mecca for foodies. It still supplies fresh produce for the restaurant trade, but it also has a good retail trade. My one doubt, though, is that it's no longer a food market for ordinary people - it's expensive deli land.  Even so, it's good to see new life being breathed into markets. Others in London have been killed off, or like Covent Garden have just become heritage-style shopping malls.

Tuesday, 21 November 2006

Gothic collapses

Having been amazed by the octagon of Ely cathedral I got round to wondering how many cathedrals had their towers collapse.

Quite  a few it turns out. Winchester in 1107 - the central tower collapsed. They should never have built so close to the river - the entire cathedral needed underpinning in the 1900s.

Lincoln's tower fell in 1237. Ely's in 1322. Looking at the west tower that still survives, if Ely's central tower was taller it must have been impressive - and was definitely dicing with death, structurally speaking. Chichester lasted out the middle ages only to collapse dramatically in 1861.

Beauvais, probably the most adventurous technically of all the French cathedrals in its pursuit of sheer height,  had two major upsets. First, the vaults of the choir collapsed in 1284. When it was rebuilt, the number of piers in the apse was doubled, making the whole thing look rather squashed and dark. Then the central tower fell down in 1573.  The cathedral was never finished and the back of the transepts is still just shored up, over four hundred years later.

And at Norwich, though the fine Norman tower still stands, two spires were lost before the one that survives today.

It seems that medieval builders lived with the risk of catastrophic failure - and sometimes with the reality.

Monday, 20 November 2006

More fun for less

Travel can be expensive. Loads of hotels would like to relieve you of a couple of hundred euros a night, and restaurants aren't much less greedy for your wallet. Add in a few visits to the sights and you can end up spending more than you want to.

But you can have more fun for less. My tips?

- seek out the places behind the railway station. Quite often, a few hundred yards away there are some great little bars and restaurants.

- use the markets. I lost weight, kept fit and saved money in Venice going down to the Rialto market to buy strawberries, grapes, satsumas, and apples to keep hunger away during the day. Many markets have great fast food for very little. It's usually local-style fast food, too - churros y chocolate in Spain, choucroute or andouillettes in France (though I don't do andouilletes, they're just too rank for me, I eat merguez sausages in a baguette instead).  And you get a great atmosphere. Restaurants near markets are often good - they're using today's produce, fresh.

- Find small, family run hotels. Sometimes you don't strike lucky - more often, you find a cheaper hotel than any of the chains, with a bit of character. Often, too, you'll find whoever's  behind the desk is a mine of information on the town and its customs.  They may be able to recommend good places for a meal. Use resources such as to look for somewhere.

- Get off the beaten track. In Bruges, for instance, just heading out of the touristic centre of the city towards the north or east can save you money on your dinner or drink.

- Swap traveller's tales. I met up with a couple in the de Garre bar in Bruges who told me where they usually stayed - a nice hotel I had passed up as looking too expensive! They also recommended me some great places to eat. And don't overlook the locals as a source of information. I stopped for a bottle of beer at the beer shop in Akademiestraat in Bruges - and managed to find out where I ought to stop for beer and a bite.

- When you do want to splurge,  do it properly. One really fantastic meal every week is worth it. Go for the best - don't be at home to Mr In-Between. On Mont Saint-Michel, it's La Mère Poulard - just omelette and lamb gigot is the traditional meal, and you wouldn't believe the difference between eating it there, and in one of the other places on the island. The omelette is delightfully fluffy and the lamb tastes wickedly sea-salty.

- Eat seasonal! If you're in Holland at the right time, try an all-asparagus menu (yes! even asparagus ice cream!). In Cefalu, Sicily, one restaurant does an almost all artichoke menu - that's the local crop - though they don't do ice cream (or didn't, when I was there).

- Make sure to look around for the best room rate. Hotels don't have a single rate - you could pay a range of different prices for the same hotel, sometimes depending on the web site you booked through. If you're going to arrive late, sometimes local tourist offices have bargains going just before closing time - this worked well for me in Cologne, Worms and Speyer a few years back.

- Get return tickets or weekend tickets on public transport. Bruges to Ghent is seven euros each way - or seven euros return, at weekends. That's quite a saving.

- Go off-season. It's obvious, but just a few weeks either side of the season can make a big difference. Don't go to Venice during Carnival unless you're really, really determined to see it. You might also want to check out commercial exhibitions - for instance anywhere around Hanover is going to triple in price and halve in availability when the big computer fair CEBIT is on in March.

- Remember the metro exists! You don't have to stay in the centre of London or Barcelona - or Paris. Look for hotels out of town, but close to the underground or Metro system. I quite like La Villette/Porte de Pantin area in Paris -  still a bit edgy, but with fine walks along the Canal de l'Ourcq and in the Parc de la Villette, and just a few stops from Gare du Nord on the metro. Prices are a lot lower than in the centre. And there's an Ibis hotel with lots of little ethnic restaurants charging relatively little for a solid dinner.

A day in Ely

Off to Ely to research a podtour. I already knew the cathedral well - so I thought.

But I obviously didn't know the town. There are some lovely medieval buildings tucked away around the cathedral, all part of the monastery in the Middle Ages, and many now part of the King's School. I hadn't given them a glance before.

Prior Crauden's chapel is a particularly nice building. It's tiny - well, compared to most churches. And it's beautifully delicate; a narrow, high box, with turrets, buttresses, and the most lovely traceried windows. A perfect miniature which feels just as if it's come out of a medieval manuscript.

Then there's the Great Hall.  Boring, I thought, looking at it from the front - a classical frontage, probably seventeenth or eighteenth century. Go the other side, though, and you can see the original medieval fabric. As so often, appearances are deceptive!

I think for me that's the fascination of touring in Europe. Sometimes you do come across a building perfectly 'of its age' - Versailles, for instance, or Chartres Cathedral. But more often, you find layers upon layers of history.  Rome, in particular, is a city like an onion - peel off one skin and you find another layer underneath.

Anyway, I now have to write up and record the Podtour. It should appear on towards the end of this year.

Thursday, 9 November 2006

An excellent book

I've just been reading Jean Bony's  'French Gothic architecture of the 12th and 13th centuries'.

That's a rather unimaginative title and some of the work is hard going. But if you've ever visited a couple of French cathedrals and found yourself, perhaps, instinctively liking one and not the other, or trying to work out why they feel so different, it's worth ploughing through Bony's book.

Bony knows all the architectural history, the structural engineering (how and why these buildings actually stand up) and the documentation. But what he has that really distinguishes this book is a feeling for the artistic quality of the architecture.

He believes that Gothic isn't about technical means. It's not about flying buttresses, vaults, or pointed arches - though these technological innovations have their place in helping Gothic architects achieve what they wanted. Instead, he sees the origins of the Gothic style in a desire for lightness, for volume, for height - and later on, for 'self explanation', architecture that evolves a logical relationship between its component parts to reflect the orderly universe of scholastic thought.

And what's marvellous is the way he looks at Laon (yes, I'm biased, it's probably my favourite French cathedral) not as the first step in a new architectural style, but as an artistic creation. He seems to relate directly to the anonymous builder, who achieved a marvellous play of forms, which interpenetrate,  move around, telescope, create transparent and recessive planes.  Yes, there's a lot of technical stuff. Even I got bored in places... but the book is a great preparation for really understanding the Gothic style.

And Bony managed to get access to quite a lot of place you can't normally go. Into the triforium galleries, up on the roof, even into the roof space so that he can show how the vaults are put together on the top side. The photographs are consistently excellent. He also introduces documentary evidence for a number of cathedrals you'll never get to see - because they have been destroyed in wars or revolutions.

The downside is the price, a stunning £48.95 from Amazon. (ISBN 0520055861). Track it down in a public library if possible; I did.

Beer is the teacher

I remember in the Czech Republic being told 'pivo je ucitelj', beer is the teacher. (My Czech may not be very good; I was after all learning it with the help of several beers.) That's 'in vino veritas' adapted for a beer-drinking country.

Well beer has recently taught me a lesson. I was working at Norwich Beer Festival as part of the cellar team. It's a good job; you get to do the quality control (though by the end of the week, believe it or not, this really does become a chore).

I have decided preferences in beer. I like it dark - the darker the better. Milds, stouts, old ales, that's my thing. I don't drink IPA. I don't drink lager (except for Budvar black lager of course.. ) I like sweet beers, I don't like hops.
So why is it that my favourite beer of the entire festival was a pale, hoppy, citrusy IPA? Thornbridge's Jaipur IPA to be precise. Damn, that's lovely stuff!

So what did the beer festival teach me? NOT TO BE PREJUDICED.

That applies to beer. It applies to people. And it applies to travel. How often do I hear someone say 'I don't like modern architecture', or 'I can't get on with the Baroque', or 'I don't like big cities', or something like that? People who won't visit Versailles because they're not into palaces.

So - don't be prejudiced. We all have our preferences, and I'm very clear what mine are. But keeping an open mind is more fun.

A strange form of spontaneity

I came across something quite fascinating this morning - a 'fall colors update' telling you where in the US to go to see the autumn colours of the forests.It even tells you which stage of colour have been achieved where.

It seems slightly wrong, though. It's like chasing hurricanes - which I gather has become a sort of sport and has even generated a tour operator specialising in hurricane safaris! (Though admittedly, he's only letting professionals in on the act, presumably because they come with their insurance already fixed).

For me, autumn colours ought to be experienced spontaneously. You're out there, and suddenly the sun shines in a certain direction, or you round a bend in the road, and it's as if someone turned all the lights on; the landscape  is glowing with red, orange, yellow. It happened to me on a stormy day walking a circuit from Kendal - the sun came out, and the trees were all below me, wonderfully sidelit; and then again driving down a valley in the French Vexin, when we rounded a corner and came over the top of a crest,  and there was a whole amphitheatre full of autumn forest.

I know you can drive to see these marvellous forests in the US. But I do wonder whether the experience is ever going to be quite as gratifying as the spontaneous, unexpected glimpse of glory you get purely by  accident.

Perhaps that's a paradox. After all I write tour guides for a living - trying to structure people's experiences. But at some point, spontaneity is the thing that really makes travel come alive - and you can't structure that.
So let's celebrate the accidental, the unexpected, the spontaneous. Happy autumn.

Monday, 6 November 2006

Roots and routes

I've always been a great believer in walking as a way to understand places. If you've walked to Santiago (or cycled, or even like one disabled lad I met, been taken by car, sleeping in a refuge each night with his helper),  you understand something about the place and the pilgrimage that isn't accessible to people who've  just arrived at Santiago by air.

The track you take forces you to understand places in particular ways. For instance, it's linear - you see one church one day, and one the next, and you can't help comparing the two. But it's not like comparing pictures in a museum - you're comparing  what's  in front of you with the memory of what you saw yesterday. You can't go back and take another look.

And also, you start to understand the locality, and something of its history, through what you see. When you've been walking through chestnut forest all day, a stew with chestnuts and mushrooms in the evening seems a natural complement. Or when you've seen three or four roofless castles, you start to wonder when the roofs disappeared.

The pilgrimage routes are obviously focused on this kind of experience. I've walked part of the Via Francigena, from Lucca to San Quirico d'Orcia, following the track of northern pilgrims to Rome, as well as various ways to Santiago. You're following the footsteps of thousands of pilgrims over the years, and that gives the route a particular resonance.

But there are other 'routes' as well, like the Romantische Strasse in Germany, or the Ruta de la Plata in Spain.  The Spanish tourist office in fact proposes a number of routes, all focusing on particular epochs of history or types of art - like the Ruta del Califato, which links sites associated with the Moorish kingdoms of the south. There's a Camino de Sefarad too which explores Spanish Jewish culture and history.

And then of course there's the possibility of following an army (Hannibal across the Alps), or a writer (Thomas Coryate to India), or even a mad morris dancer (Shakespeare's comic Will Kemp who danced from London to Norwich). There are even people already re-enacting Patrick Leigh Fermor's 1930s walk from Holland to Istanbul...

Friday, 3 November 2006

Opening the vin de noix

I made some vin de noix earlier this year. You have to take the walnuts when they're plump but still green, in late June or early July - apparently the traditional approach is between St John's Day (midsummer Eve) and Bastille Day (July 14). Pick 24 of the walnuts, chop them in quarters and put them in a big bucket with a litre of brandy, five litres of red wine, a quartered orange or two and a huge vanilla pod, and then add a kilo of sugar. And wait. And wait. And strain it after about a month, and then wait some more.

Anyway, this month I took a bottle along to Norwich Beer Festival, where this was my fourth year on the cellar team. And we opened it for a taste.

Highly successful! The vanilla and orange come through but there's a wonderful chocolate flavour, too. It's sweet, but not sickly, and it's definitely alcoholic.

I got introduced to this lovely home-made liqueur when I was walking the pilgrim route to Santiago, and stayed in a hotel in Conques. I've never seen it for sale - you have to make it yourself. It seems to fill the same space in the French kitchen that sloe gin does in England or rumtopf in Germany. But I have to say, I like it more.

Local drinks are always worth checking out. Apricot brandy in Hungary; flavoured vodkas in Poland (I'm afraid I'm a girly here - I prefer cherry and honey to the grass flavoured one, which tastes like silage); and local ciders, which never seem to travel far from their orchards, in Normandy, Brittany, and northern Spain.

Just try not to get drawn into a drinking competition. I've seen the aftermath of some - and it's not pretty.

Food on trains

The great days of train travel are gone, I think. In the 1970s train food was sometimes fantastic - except, of course, in England, where it was vile. In many capitals, the restaurant at the station was your best, most reliable place to eat; I remember a fantastic goulash at Zagreb station.

Few trains now have such good food. I rather like German sleeper trains for their quality breakfasts - a big warm roll with butter and honey, and strong bitter coffee. The plastic packaged croissant offered on the Paris-Rome train doesn't even come close.

And a few years ago I had a marvellous meal on a Hungarian/Austrian connection (we were travelling from Linz to Vienna but I think the service had actually started in Budapest). I forget what we ate, but there was a choice of a really good Spatlese wine and 5-puttonyos Tokaj, so we had both... no wonder I've forgotten the food!

Many German  trains still offer a very reasonably priced and well cooked hot meal (or at least did two years ago when I last travelled there). One of my favourites is the garlic soup - the garlic is roasted and then cooked in milk, so it's like a very gentle white onion soup, not aggressively flavoured.

GNER now does good food on the London-Edinburgh run, but at a horrible price - £35 for one person and that wasn't pushing the boat out, just a normal meal with a small bottle of beer.  Worth it if the boss is paying (he was). Anglian Railways did a lovely restaurant meal on many of their trains from London to Norwich, which you could wash down with local beer (Adnams, fortunately, not Greene King). But now One has taken over the route the  service seems to be less regular than it was.

Few French trains have  anything decent. Some just have vending machines. My technique in France is to find a good kebab or sandwich shop near the station (not in it) and grab something for the train. A few TGVs, apparently, are now offering a sort of packaged lunch you can order, but it's cold, and it's costly.

Italy is also  rather poorly served, at least on the trains I've been on. (I discovered a little trick last time I was in Milan, though - look for the restaurant where the off duty train drivers are eating!) By the way, as a part-time French resident, I am mystified as to why the Italians call croissants 'brioche'. It's like calling bread cake!
When I compare the various European rail networks, it's Germany, Austria and Hungary that seem to win the competition. The UK is too pricey - the English seem to have an idea that good food is only for the wealthy - and France and Italy too poor.

And that's odd.  I would have thought that the French would always beat the Germans  when it came to food, but when it's on a train, the Germans win hands down!

Tired of the city?

I used to travel a lot on business and often ended up with a 'spare' weekend in one of the cities I was visiting. Third or fourth time out, I got a bit fed up with Prague and Budapest. I was tired of the big city, and I wanted to see something a bit different. So I thumbed through a couple of guidebooks, and found a couple of side trips.

Most cities have some great escapes. Here are a few thoughts for how to escape the smoke and the traffic for the day:

  • Paris. Take the pedestrian way from the Bastille out to the Chateau de Vincennes and its park. It's just a few kilometres mainly along the top of an old railway viaduct and it's a world away from the busy boulevards. Or take the metro to Saint Denis - the first work of the Gothic age in Paris, and the mausoleum of French kings, located in a gritty northern suburb near the gleaming arena of the Stade de France.

  • Budapest - take the rail or bus to Szentendre - a little Serbian village on the Danube dominated by the fine spires of its orthodox churches. It was an artists' colony for years and still feels like it.

  • Hamburg - an hour's train journey gets you into Lubeck, probably the most beautiful of all the Hanseatic towns of north Germany with its fine Gothic brick architecture.

  • Florence - take a trip uphill on the bus to Fiesole, with its amphitheatre, old church, and fine views over the countryside. It couldn't be more different from busy, commercial Florence.

  • Venice - get the boat that goes furthest out in the lagoon, to Murano, Burano and, eventually, Torcello. Torcello's fine Byzantine cathedral and baptistery are better known than they were, but if you wander round the island you can still find solitude in the moody marshes.

  • Barcelona - take the train for about an hour to Girona, a pretty town on a hillside overlooking its river. The Gothic cathedral, 'Arab baths' and old Jewish quarter are attractive and you can still wander out into the country, though the city has grown recently.

  • London has some fine country walks in Epping Forest, at the far eastern end of the central line (that's the red one on the tube map). Or at the other extreme, take a trip out west by train to Hampton Court, Cardinal Wolsey's fine Tudor palace stolen off him by King Henry VIII and used by the royals ever since. If you fancy a longer walk you can get lost in the famous Hampton Court maze.

  • Frankfurt. Although it's a major financial centre, full of skyscrapers, Frankfurt has some decent medieval buildings and fine museums - and great cycle lanes! But if you're bored, then you can easily get to Mainz, with its marvellous Romanesque cathedral and fine baroque streets.

  • Paris (again) - take a train to Chartres, with the cathedral and city on its hill over the river Eure.  Probably the best cathedral in the world, to steal a phrase from Carlsberg.

I'd be interested to see what other people can come up with. The idea is to find side trips that don't involve a car, that don't take up more than an hour travel each way and can be done easily in a day, so you're 'back home' in time for dinner.

    Wednesday, 11 October 2006

    Manhole covers and paving tiles

    Sometimes the best stuff lies under your feet.

    I'm not talking about underground sights, though some of those are fine - the Catacombs of Rome, the Moscow Metro, the Etruscan wells and shafts of Orvieto.

    I'm talking about boring street engineering - the manhole covers, the tiles.

    For instance in the Passeig de Gracia, Barcelona, all the paving tiles are copied from designs by Gaudi, with spirals and sea shells.

    And in Reims, the town hall ordered special gratings with a fine wavy pattern, which have been used all over the city.

    I wouldn't go a hundred miles to see them - but these little things often make me smile. And they do contribute to the feel of a place. And sometimes, as with the Gaudi design, they tell you something about the history of the place, too.

    And some people take them much more seriously than me. Dan Heller takes pictures of manhole covers. Nice photos. Nice manhole covers. Worth a look.


    I've just launched a few more Podtours on my site. We already have Paris Sainte-Chapelle (shortly to be expanded to include the rest of the Ile de la Cité); Norwich, Salisbury, and Chichester cathedrals; Rouen and Chartres; Florence, Venice and Rome (baroque, medieval, and the Imperial forums).

    I'm just adding Gloucester and Winchester Cathedrals, Gothic Barcelona, and Modernisme Barcelona. And I'm writing up Reims and Laon cathedrals for recording over the next few weeks.

    Further out I'm going to be working on tours of Ghent and Bruges, and a drive-tour of "Norfolk 1450" focusing on the late medieval heritage of the county.

    Tuesday, 10 October 2006

    A challenge

    There's a plaque on the city gate at Laon stating the distances to different places. Paris is 135 km away; Reims, 45; Chartres, 235. Rome is 1661 km.

    And the real challenge? 4,300 km to Jerusalem.

    "Vous  êtes à la porte de toutes vos randonnées" says the plaque - you are at the start of all your travels.

    And so I am... thinking... 4,300 km at 30 km a day, let's say, is 143 days. Five months. Without allowing for rest days. And assuming I walked the lot; but I might take ship for part of it, as the medieval pilgrims did... And the route could go through Constantinople.

    So, I might be at the start of a journey.  Next year in Jerusalem... But I'm going to need a lot of help to make it work!

    Sunday, 8 October 2006

    Little brothers

    Just back from a weekend visiting Reims and Laon - two fantastic Gothic cathedrals.

    What's interesting is that each has a 'little brother'.

    At Reims, Saint Jacques has just the same three storey elevation to the cathedral. But it's dumpy instead of breathtakingly tall, and that ruins the proportions.

    At Laon, the former abbey church of Saint-Martin has two towers that aim at transparency in the same way as the towers of the cathedral. It doesn't quite manage the amazing lightness of construction though - the towers just look as if the windows were made too big.

    It's interesting to see these 'little brothers', even though they're not great works of architecture. It's easy to walk into a cathedral like Laon and take it for granted. When you see Saint-Martin, you realise just how revolutionary, just how amazingly original and complex, was the cathedral mason's vision.

    And I think, rich as Reims is, Laon is probably my favourite Gothic cathedral in France. It's full of light, spacious, transparent. It has the famous sixteen oxen that sit at the top of the towers, commemorating a miraculous ox that appeared when those pulling the blocks of stone up the hill to the cathedral couldn't manage.

    And the towers have a secret. From below you can already see how complex is the design, with an octagonal top stage on top of a square tower, and square transparent turrets angled out from the octagon. But if you climb the towers (the local tourist office arranges ascents occasionally, and we were lucky) you'll see that the mason included a transparent round spiral staircase within one of those square turrets, creating yet another layer of complexity.

    Laon is one of the earliest of the Gothic cathedrals. And yet here is a complete vision - a mason who knew exactly what he wanted, how to manage space and light, how to manage geometry.

    And in the middle of the nave is his other secret - the shiny black stone which gave him all his measurements, a lozenge divided into rectangles whose measurements reflect the Golden Section. There must have been such stones in many other churches but I'm not aware of others surviving. And it's in roughly the same place as the maze at Chartres, which can in one sense be interpreted as a builder's claim on our memory (Daedalus, who made the original Cretan labyrinth, was the first of architects).

    Thursday, 5 October 2006

    The price of bread

    Visit a supermarket in England and it's the price of petrol which is usually proudly displayed outside.

    Visit a French supermarket, though, and there's always a board outside with 'prix du pain' - the price of bread.

    I think that reflects something about the French character. Not just the central place that food has in French culture, but importance of bread itself. After all, the rest of the world calls the baguette the 'French stick'.

    Visit a French village anywhere and you'll find it has a boulanger - a baker's shop, and importantly,  one that's making its own bread. There's no 'Hovis' or 'Mother's Pride' here - bread is a local product, not a branded one.

    Every meal comes with bread. Eat with a French family and you'll find the plates are already clean when they go to be washed up, because everyone has wiped the plate down with a piece of bread to enjoy the last of the sauce, gravy or salad dressing. (I have been told, though, that this is not polite behaviour - best not to do it at the Crillon or the British Embassy.)

    Most foreigners think the French eat croissants for breakfast. In fact, they're more likely to have a 'tartine' - baguette with butter and, if you fancy real luxury, jam.

    It's anathema to eat bread that was baked two days ago. Part of French life is that you should be close enough to the boulanger that you always have fresh bread. Of course, that raises problems when the baker goes on holiday - but in my local village, they have a nice little deal with the supermarket, which doesn't sell bread except when the baker's away.

    And it still leaves the problem of what you do on Monday, when like all good local French businesses, the boulanger is closed.

    Wednesday, 4 October 2006

    In praise of Zodiaque

    Some of my favourite books are the magnificent series on Romanesque architecture produced by Zodiaque, at La-Pierre-Qui-Vire in France.

    Each book in the 'Nuit des Temps' series focuses on a single region - some regions get more than one - and though Zodiaque is a French publisher, it doesn't neglect other countries. Leon, Castille, and Catalunya in Spain, even Scandinavia and the UK, have books devoted to them. There's even 'Terre Sainte Romane' -Romanesque work of the Crusaders in the Holy Land (let's not ask too closely what that means in terms of modern state borders).
    Romanesque architecture isn't a single style; each region has its own. There's the Herefordshire school with its ornate, almost barbaric carvings; the austere, geometrical Norman style of Caen or Norwich; the elegance of Poitevin work, or the classical echoes and monumental aspirations of Burgundy.

    That's one reason I love these books. They really get to the heart of what makes each regional style different.

    Another reason is the superb, mainly black and white illustrations. It's very difficult to take a single photograph that will please the art historian and still convey the architecture of a place, but somehow Zodiaque manages to pick the right ones.

    These books aren't intended to be gazetteers - there's a separate range of 'Itineraires romanes' also published by Zodiaque for that. But they are complete enough that you could arrange an enjoyable tour around the contents of any one book.

    What's the downside? They're not cheap - thirty euros or more, most of the time. And they're not easy to find. Many of them are now out of print, and there are other collectors besides me - I remember visiting one French fan when I was walking to Santiago who had an entire book case full of them, and since it was full he'd started stacking the new ones on the floor!
    Sometimes I manage to find them in bookshops on my travels, and even if I'm travelling light, there'll be room for them in my rucksack if I do! Occasionally I find one on ebay. And just once I was lucky enough to find one in a jumble sale.
    Intrigued? There's a whole site (in French) dedicated to the Zodiaque books.

    Just one warning. Don't become an addict, like me. It can get expensive.

    Monday, 2 October 2006

    French car-booting again

    We had a fun though overcast Sunday going to 'foires à tout' in Septeuil, Limay and Magnancourt.

    Septeuil is a lovely sale. The whole centre of this small town is closed off, with stands set up in the streets and squares. Most of the buildings are in the fine local stone, crumbly, creamy coloured, rough-coursed limestone, and the town nestles between hills with a stream running through it.

    We stopped at the local bar for moules-frites (mussels and chips), EUR 8 each including a glass of Amstel beer. Food was the order of the day - we bought a whole ham from a stall piled with hams and cheeses, and some gorgeous (and very expensive) walnut bread. One of the stalls was serving seafood - not a few tired prawns and some whelks, but half a lobster, a crab and six oysters on a plate - then there was a huge stall of sausages. Wild boar sausage, sausage with pepper, sausage with cider, sausage with roquefort, and donkey sausage. We stuck with wild boar in the end. As so often in France, no quarter's given to vegetarians...

    Limay was quite different. Not a gourmet experience but a 'foire du quartier', in the over-the-river suburb of Mantes la Jolie. I could smell merguez sausages and a huge couscous was being cooked in one courtyard just off the street - many North Africans live in this area.  And it was busy, really busy.

    Amazingly, I managed to pick up a little thuya wood box with dice, to go with the box of dominoes I'd bought in Septeuil; they are an exact match. (And that solves the problem of how to play the backgammon we bought in Oman, which doesn't have dice with it.)

    One thing I saw yesterday that I'd not seen before is a 'grolle'. It's a strange wooden vessel with four spouts - or more - and little handles, and it reflects a hygienic approach to social drinking - you mix the drink, then pass the grolle round your friends. Each of you has to remember to drink from your own spout - which I imagine becomes difficult after a few gulps, given the extremely alcoholic recipes I've seen for filling the grolle.

    Saturday, 30 September 2006

    Holiday without a camera

    For some reason my camera got left behind on my trip to Barcelona. This was obviously a disaster.

    What was interesting though was that I reached the end of my three days in the City with a very good feeling for exactly what photos I wanted to take. The patterns, the sight lines, and the lighting effects that would really make stunning photos. I now have a map marked up with some of these.

    I suppose it happens when you've been taking photos long enough; you get a feeling for what makes a good picture, and you don't even need to make a 'viewfinder' with your fingers to have a rough feel for how the image will fit.

    Of course when you have a camera to hand, it's easy to just click away. And ninety per cent of the shots will just be snapshots - throwaways, below par.

    So maybe I'll make sure the next time I'm in a new city, to leave the camera at home the first day. I'll find the angles, think about the shots, and then go back to take the pictures the next day.

    Ten big hills

    I enjoy travelling. I enjoy hiking. I enjoy biking. And what I really, really like is the sight of a great big hill to climb.

    So here are my ten favourites.

    1 - Penyghent, in Yorkshire. It's just a few feet short of being officially a mountain but it has everything it needs for me to think of it as one. There's a precipitous climb up the sharp face, and a marvellous yomp down the grassy side. Its silhouette taunts the walker - "Here, you, bet you can't climb me!" I have, twice - and I want to make it three before I'm finished.

    2 - The Malvern Hills. Equally split between Herefordshire and Worcestershire, these fine hills stick out of the Severn plain like a dragon's back. The views are tremendous, all the way over to Wales in one direction and the Cotswolds on the other. The medieval poet William Langland begins his poem 'Piers Plowman' with the view from the hills - you really can see the whole world from here, just as he says. And you can walk from end to end in a day. If you're up there on the second weekend in December you'll see me and about sixty other certified lunatics Morris dancing.

    3 - the road up to La Mola in Formentera. You start at sea level at end up at about 197m. One long winding road to cycle up, until you can't, and walk up, until you can get back on the bike. My lungs started to burn half way up. My shirt was soaked when I got to the top. But there's a wonderful view of the whole of the rest of the island, laid out below - the rocky promontory of the Cap de Barbaria, and the long, sandy beaches to north and south. And it's great fun going downhill again!

    An alternative route, which I adore, is the Cami Roma, or Cami de sa Pujada - a rocky path that leads up the sea cliff. It's steep and direct - none of the winding and indirectness of the road. I sat down for a rest half way and after a couple of minutes the little green and blue lizards that live there lost their fear and started climbing all over me. And there's the best view of all, about two thirds of the way up, with a little bay below and the island spread out beyond.

    4 - the path up to O Cebreiro, on the Camino de Santiago. One long, hard, zigzagging climb that seems to take the whole of a day. And it's always raining. But it's a magnificent climb none the less.

    5 - Castrojeriz, another waystation on the Camino de Santiago. Rioja and the meseta of Spain are full of these little hills that poke up from a flat plain - and this one is topped by a castle, just the way it should be in a medieval romance. In late September, I watched the sun set behind the hill and light the cornfields up with gold. And I never climbed up to the castle; I didn't need to. Beautiful just to look.

    6 - Glastonbury Tor. I ought to hate the Tor; I had to run cross-country up and down it when I was at school. But its outline, with the ruined tower on top, and its position, a unique eminence in the otherwise completely flat landscape of the Somerset Levels, make it unforgettable. I've been up and down it enough times, but my favourite view is from Cadbury Castle, a huge hill fort miles to the south east.

    There's a miniature Glastonbury Tor too, for which I have a great affection. Just like the Tor, the Mump at Burrowbridge, to the south, has a ruined chapel to St Michael on top of it.

    7 - Elm Hill, Norwich, has to be in here. What happens when you put a little hill together with fine half timbered houses and cobblestones? It's probably the most photographed sight in East Anglia and it deserves to be. Not a serious climb of course - but I did mention cobblestones; just try it on a racing bike!

    8 - The Pic Saint-Loup, Languedoc, France, has the same fascinations as Penyghent - but it's bigger, and the local wine is better! It's a marvellous limestone climb and its spiky profile is visible from everywhere around Montpellier and the coast. There's a chapel at the top, apparently. I've only seen it from far off - on the TGV down to Montpellier and Narbonne, or walking in the Herault - but it's telling me the same thing as Penyghent; I've got to climb it some time!

    9 - Vezelay. The whole of this town is built on a ridge, visible from the vineyards and fields below, with the great abbey church at the summit. And in between there's one great street, with old stone buildings on both sides, curving up to the magnificent church.

    10 - Shippea Hill. Reached on the railway line between Norwich and Peterborough, this hill has to be seen to be believed. Some intrepid explorer has tackled it and given us this interesting account and pictures of the enormous hill. And once you've seen the picture you'll know why it's one of my favourites!

    Now I have one exclusion that I'm really not happy about. I've left out the Mont Saint-Michel and it really is a hill, and one of my favourites. But I expect I'll be doing ten top islands at some point, and it really wouldn't be fair to give it a chance in both categories...

    Thursday, 28 September 2006

    Flood lines

    I was born a long time after the great East Anglian floods of 1953. But my father remembered them, and he showed me the pictures from the local newpaper - the vast flatness of the Fens under water, just a house and a few telegraph poles left standing.

    I've been fascinated by floods ever since.

    So whenever I travel I keep an eye out for the flood lines. Plaques on buildings often tell the story of great floods, and not always in the most obvious places.

    For instance Saint Guilhem du Desert, in the Languedoc of France, is a hill town in the middle of limestone country. It's better known by climbers than sailors. But it's in a narrow valley, with a little stream flowing down the middle and a river at the end of the gorge - and when that stream gets full, the waters back up and the whole place floods.

    More obviously there are flood markers all over the Ile de la Cite, in Paris. There's one at the entrance to the Sainte Chapelle in Paris, neatly added to the Gothic sculpture of the portal. There's another on a Renaissance house by the river bank. The rising Seine even flooded the metros in 1910 - and stopped all the clocks, when the compressed air network that drove them flooded.

    In Florence, flood markers recall the artistic tragedy of the 1966 flood. The waters of the Arno reached 6 metres high in some of the lower lying areas. The saddest relic of the flood though is not the flood lines, though, but the Cimabue crucifix in Santa Croce - scarred almost to the point of illegibility. Half of Christ's face has been ripped away by the water, though his halo still shines, intact.

    The best collection of flood markers I've ever seen, though, comes from East Anglia - on the west door of a church in King's Lynn. This Ouse port, on the edge of the Wash, has no protection from the sea - and when the wind blows from the north east down the North Sea, it funnels the water into the neck of the Wash, and down to the flat Fens. It's amazing that so much of medieval Lynn's furnishings have survived - fine monumental brasses, sculptures, and even woodwork - when you think how often the water must have risen.

    Timing is key

    Two weeks on Formentera. Not really my kind of holiday; beaches.

    Beaches full of Italian tourists and sunloungers. Beaches busy with sunbathers. Roads full of kids on scooters. Not really getting away from it all. More like rush-hour-on-sea.

    However, I did find one great thing. If you get up early - and on Formentera that's anything before ten in the morning - you can go for a good swim before the sun gets blisteringly hot, and before anyone else has finished their breakfast. If you go to the beach late, say 630 in the evening, you can have the same experience - a quiet swim with hardly anyone else around.

    It doesn't always work. I cycled out one afternoon to the lighthouse on La Mola, and for ten minutes I was the only person on the road. Dry stone walls each side, huge fig trees trained into drooping umbrellas of leaves, rows of vines, blue sky, and the dead straight road towards the lighthouse.

    Then three buses passed me all at once - and every single person on those buses got out for a drink at the bar there and a wander over the clifftops. Bad timing!

    It's quite easy to find out how to subvert the timing at tourist spots. Cathedrals are a favourite - you can't actively do 'tourism' first thing, but going to an early service is often a good way to get a feel for the building before the crowds arrive. Early mass at Fl0rence cathedral sets the building ringing with song and the low bom of the bells.

    And for the photographer, early morning or late evening are often the times to get the best shots. Tewkesbury Abbey comes alive with the evening sun, making the stone glow. Walking out of Granada, the chines and gullies of the mountains are set off by low shadows in the early morning sun. Markets are being set up in the morning; we saw a blind man in Barcelona taking his daughter to her first day at school, and a little boy on the back of mum's bike. And I once did manage to get a picture of the Piazza San Marco with no one in it at all, just a lot of water.

    I rather like revisiting places at different times, too. The atmosphere of a place changes according to the time and the season - the way the light falls, the number of people there, a scattering of rain or shade.

    Tuesday, 5 September 2006

    Photographing people

    About ninety percent of the photos I take are of landscapes and architecture. It doesn't move (though the light does, which can be interesting) and it's never going to get self-conscious.

    But I also take pics of people. And one of the problems there is that as soon as you arrive with a camera, they get self-conscious and start posing.

    That's okay. As so often, patience is a virtue. I just sit around for a while, and you'd be surprised how often they start to ignore you. For instance I turned up at the shipyards in Sur, Oman - a fascinating and usually almost deserted place - to find a new wooden ship being built. I introduced myself to the foreman, who had no problem with my taking pictures.

    So first, a couple of posed shots. Then I just hung about in the background. Within a few minutes I was no longer the focus of attention, and I got some marvellous shots of carpenters at work - concentrating on the task in hand not the lens.

    I find a long lens is also useful. It enables you to stand just that little way away from your subject, and the distance makes it easier for you to be part of the background. I generally only use 2 or 3 x zoom - not more than that. Very useful, too, for cutting through crowd scenes to get a shot of the interesting things happening on the periphery. I look for interactions - two people haggling, a conversation going on.

    The other option is to pose the shot quite deliberately, but KEEP SHOOTING. This is where 'cheese' dioesn't cut the mustard (to mix a metaphor sandwich). You're not posing a moment, but a few minutes, and shooting every few seconds. Somewhere in the mix of ten or fifteen photos you'll have one that's pure gold and a couple that are okay, and the others won't work. Because people know you're shooting, but they're not waiting for a particular moment, you don't get that frozen quality (what I call 'school portrait' shots).

    The other thing I do like is to find a figure in a landscape. I took a lovely shot in Oman of a couple of women walking home with their shopping. A nice ordinary shot - except that they happened to be in the middle of a desert wadi. One man on a park bench. A vendor selling birdie whistles at the Fischmarkt in Hamburg. The difficulty is balancing the landscape and the figure - and that all depends on the story you're trying to tell.

    I've got a few of my pics loaded up on flickr - mainly landscape but I'll be loading up some of the shots I've talked about, too.

    Now, a request for photographers reading this - I'm a K1000 lover, but film is alas coming to the end of its usefulness for me. So I'm looking for a digital camera that would give me the same high quality as a K1000 - great lenses, reliable (mine has been dropped on a station platform from 6 foot up and still survived, with a couple of dents), sturdy, and with the very simple controls - just set aperture and shutter speed, no fiddling about with knobs and visual displays. I'm using a Sony DSC 727 at the moment but I am really fed up with the difficulty of doing anything but point-and-shoot, and looking for the mixture of simplicity and total control that the K1000 gave me. All advice welcome!

    Wednesday, 12 July 2006

    Sounds and smells

    Photographs can only give you so much of a travel experience. For instance I could take a picture of a French market, but it wouldn't have the feeling of the life - the noise - the stallholders shouting out - the bustle.

    Sounds are an important part of travel. For instance in Europe I could tell you what country I'm in, blindfold, by the sound of the church bells. Carillons playing bright tunes in the Netherlands. The amazing cacophony of all the different huge bells ringing at once in Russia. The mathematically exact peals of England.

    So I was overjoyed to find this site which lets you hear the bells of Verona cathedral. And it has some pictures of them, too. What a fantastic sound.

    Sunday, 2 July 2006

    Car-booting in France

    We went to three car boot sales today near where we live in Normandy.

    Cherisy was very much like an English car boot sale. A big field with lots of stalls. But though some things were very familiar, others were typically French (merguez sausages, and of course mayonnaise, with your chips on the food stall) and even typically Norman.

    For instance all the cider presses for sale. Even toy cider presses. That's a real Norman thing. Around where we live, every three or four fields is a tiny orchard - sometimes just a line of apple trees, not divided from the fields by hedge or ditch. We've never seen anyone in these orchards, but around the middle of June the grass gets cut, and when the apples are ready, they disappear - so someone must be looking after them. A pity - otherwise we'd go scrumping!

    We have calvados too - the national drink of Normans. And almost every stall seemed to have an ornamental calva bottle with a little character portrait head on the stopper and designs of apples and foliage, in tough earthenware.

    Another common theme is old agricultural implements. Lots of scythes, rakes, pitchforks. old spades, rusty axes. No one uses them now - it's all shiny new combine harvesters from L'Hermite in Dreux, the John Deere distributor. We passed a couple on our way, throwing out their clouds of dust behind, and the road was covered with torn shreads of corn stalk.

    On to Goussainville where the sale was on the two squares in the middle of the village, a couple of roads cordoned off for the day. Lots of cookware and casseroles, some antiques, a little bar set up under the trees.

    And finally, Nogent-le-Roi. And this was superb. The whole of the centre of town was filled with stalls; and it's a charming town, with half-timbered houses and a fine church. (And a good collection of fifteenth and sixteenth century stained glass, too.) A cheese shop with a model cow outside. A fine spire on the church, and some nice houses backing on to what was the town moat and is still a fine, fast flowing stream.

    This is a nice way to see a French town or village. Nogent probably isn't quite worth the detour on its own - but together with a good sale, it's delightful. And of course the contents of the stalls are interesting to a traveller, too. We even found one stall where the patron was a specialist in old weighing scales and measures.

    He told us something interesting. French weights come in sets - usually a one gramme, two two gramme weights, then a five, ten, fifty, hundred, two hundred, five hundred and one kilogramme. There's also a thing called a tare which you use to counterbalance the weight of a container - say a cardboard box or jar into which you're weighing the ingredient. It's hollow, so you fill it to balance with the container, then you start weighing whatever you're going to use.

    Now for obvious reasons, because these scales were used in shops as well, the tare isn't supposed to look like a weight. It's supposed to look different. But this one had been made to look just like a 1 kg weight, but hollow and with a top that screws off. So instead of sticking his thumb in the scales, the wicked grocer could fill this to about 900 grams and then give all his customers short measure.

    Now that's something you would never find in a book!

    What did we buy? A nice thuja wood box; a new tea tray, with two glorious colourful parakeets painted on it; a little silver bracelet; a couple of sharp knives; a book on Speyer Cathedral and two books on Greece; a new salad bowl; and a few good wine glasses.

    And most importantly a fine new stove for our house. A lovely, dark green, ornamental, and VERY French, metal stove.

    Friday, 23 June 2006

    Arabs in Pisa?

    Pisa baptistery floor

    Originally uploaded by andreakkk.

    This work makes me think of the Maghreb. It makes me think of the Alhambra, the Generalife, the life and work of the Moors in Spain. The geometry is quintessentially Moorish, using overlapping squares and eight pointed stars to create a lattice of interlaced strips.

    But it's actually the baptistery floor in Pisa. It's not the only bit of 'Arab' work I've seen in Pisa, either. There's an eight pointed star over one of the baptistery doors, a griffin that might be Hispano-Moorish, north African or even Persian standing guard over the cathedral apse, and 'Saracenic' pointed arches in the cathedral. And Pisa did trade with Moorish Spain and with the African coast - having taken over Cagliari as a useful staging post.

    Everyone knows about Venice and its Byzantine past. And Sicily, a strange half-Norman, half-Arab kingdom which developed its own mix of styles.

    But there seems to be an Arab story in Pisa.... which hasn't often been told.

    Waking up in a new country

    Waking up in a new country can be interesting.

    Not always. Waking up in a Holiday Inn anywhere is pretty much the same. Breakfast is the same, CNN is the same, even the furniture is the same.

    But sometimes waking up is different. I remember the first time I stayed in Oman, and the muezzin woke me just before dawn. The day is still - the sun is not up, nothing is moving - and into this stillness breaks the call to prayer. The day doesn't start the same way there that it does here. It starts with a mindfulness and attention that we might well emulate, Muslim or not.

    That's a deep difference. There are smaller differences too. In Austria and Slovenia I remember the coffee - thick with robusta beans, more bitter and electric than the more usual arabica. And sometimes with evaporated milk, sugary and thick. Not the sophisticated cafe au lait I'm used to.

    Or in France, drinking my coffee out of a bowl, not a cup. It's amazing how different that seems to make breakfast even if the bread and jam is the same I'd have in England. Though I do notice France is less dominated by strawberry jam. And of course marmalade is unknown here.

    But I suppose my favourite way of waking up in a new country is the sleeper train. I used to take the late train from Gare de l'Est to Munich, sleeping my way through Eastern France and southern Germany, and up in time for a fresh roll with honey, and a big mug of coffee, before arriving at Munich about nine o'clock in the morning. That's a civilised way to travel. And through the night, rocked by the motion of the train, dimly aware of the rural stations we're rolling past...

    Waking up in a new country is always good.

    Sunday, 11 June 2006

    Different countries, different thinking

    One of the things you find when you travel is that different nationalities have different ways of thinking. Slight changes of emphasis that make you shake your head in puzzlement - or burst out laughing.

    For instance I went hiking in the Tuscan hills one day. I was chatting in a restaurant about the way I'd come, down the lanes and through a couple of hidden valleys. The response: "Why didn't you just come along the main road? It's shorter."

    The Italians just don't get hiking. (Germans do. So do the French.) Look at a Roman road, dead straight and firmly paved, and you'll understand why.

    Media Guardian has this fascinating piece on German television. Amazing. The Germans really do have a sense of humour. But it's a rather different type of humour from British fun. I think...

    Medieval New York

    I've always been fascinated by 'mixed up' culture. For instance there's a bit of Budapest that remains resolutely Turkish - mainly the hot baths, little else got left behind. Then there are the multiple layers of Rome, like at San Clemente where there's a Mithraeum under a church under a later church.

    And now, there's Medieval New York. Which sounds a dumb title, but the architects of nineteenth century New York were so eclectic that they built what amounts to a Legoland exhibition of European style.

    What the site doesn't mention is that there's some REAL medieval architecture in NY as well - the Cloisters museum incorporates pieces of the cloister of Saint Guilhem du Desert, as well as other pieces bought up and shipped over wholesale.

    Monday, 22 May 2006

    Best ice cream (2)

    Slow Travel Italy has some pictures of ice cream bars including the Sienese star exhibit, Nannini on via Banchi di Sopra.

    Best ice cream

    Travelling in different countries has different rewards. In Germany it's the beer. In France it's the food. In Italy, of course, it's the ice cream!

    But where are the best ice cream places?

    One I'd heartily recommend is the gelateria on the Tiber Island. The Tiber island isn't very big and the main road crosses right over between the two bridges, and so it's pretty easy to find. They have some excellent flavours - one you don't see too often is marron glacé - and I believe they're now using organic ingredients. Very fine, and there's a nice small piazza outside the church of San Bartolomeo where you can sit down and consume your purchase.

    In Siena, head straight for the Piazza del Campo, and not actually on the Campo but just off it there's a superb gelateria. One of the widest ranges of ice cream flavours I've ever seen. I'm just sad that no one seems to do an ice cream version of the famous Siene panforte. After all, chocolate, nuts, candied fruit, AND ice cream - what's not to like?

    Venice is a bit poor on the ice cream front. Paulin's in Campo San Stefano is probably the best, though it doesn't have such an extensive range. To be honest, when I think of Venice I think of the 'moro' chocolate, nut and fruit cakes, or the nougat and caramelised nuts sold at the Christmas fairs.

    And I never found a really good ice cream place in Florence. Pizza, yes; ice cream, no.


    Thursday, 18 May 2006

    Stairs, Verona

    Stairs, Verona

    Originally uploaded by andreakkk.

    On my last trip to Italy I was mainly working, but decided I would take the time to climb the Torre dei Lamberti, in Verona. I managed it all without taking a breather, and arrived in the belfry just in time to hear the Marangona ring ten o'clock. My ears were ringing for a while after that but it was a marvellous experience.

    There are some good views from the top of the tower but nothing as good as this view right up the middle of it. And by the time I got here I had already climbed a few hundred stairs!

    I rather like taking this kind of photo, trying to capture the geometry that lies underneath the surface. I don't always succeed, but I like this one - the rusty colours give it extra interest.

    By the way, Verona is one of those go-ahead Italian cities that has an 'all in one' card for the tourist sights - though you can pick and choose at a couple of euros each, the card is a bargain because it gives you free bus transport for the day as well. When I was there it was 8 euros for one day, which is a bit of a rush, or I think 12 euros over two days.

    Wednesday, 17 May 2006

    The end of the world

    I'm fascinated by the number of cities that have 'end of the world' myths - or at least, the end of the city.

    For instance, London will fall when the last raven leaves the Tower of London. And Rome will fall when the last piece of gilding flakes off the statue of Marcus Aurelius. Or when the places for portraits of popes in Santa Maria Maggiore have all been filled up.

    And Hildesheim will decay if the thousand-year rose tree that grows up the cathedral ever dies. Despite heavy bombing in the Second World War, the rose tree survived - and so did Hildesheim.

    These are only odd legends I've collected over the years. I wonder if there are more? Were there similar legends in Abbasid Baghdad or in Constantinople under the Byzantine emperors? Or did every small town in Germany have one?

    I suppose many of these legends are actually rather comforting. Whatever the vicissitudes or politics or even war, they offer a hope that the city can be prevented from falling, that everything will be all right if only we can protect the ravens or the rose.

    Of course life's not like that. But how we wish it were.

    Saturday, 13 May 2006

    Learning to love industry

    Art history seems often to have an inbuilt bias against the functional. Architects are slightly less prone - but still, designing a theatre or a government building remains higher profile than designing a factory. And after all, few of us go on holiday to look at factories or warehouses.
    Yet one of the things that continually amazes me is the wealth of immensely striking industrial buildings that many cities contain. In London, of course, some of the old warehouses on the Thames have now been reclaimed as apartments or office space. Their high and narrow facades give the Thames frontage near Southwark its character - quite different from the posher areas down by the Savoy on the other side of the river.

    In Paris, you have to go a bit out of the way to find my favourite - the old flour mills on the Canal de l'Ourcq, at La Villette. This is a funny area - there are some great museums including the Cite de la Musique, which last time I was there had an exhibition on Pink Floyd as well as a fine collection of Renaissance and Baroque musical instruments - and then there are cheap hotels and little ethnic restaurants and rather austere apartment blocks. But if you wander along the canal - still used by commercial barges - you'll find the impressive mill buildings, a fine nineteenth-century piece of architecture and quite unmistakably a mill, with high silo towers.

    Another fine mill is the Molino Stucky on the Giudecca in Venice. I used to think I was the only person in the world to love this gothic extravaganza - but now it seems the Stucky has become fashionable, as it's being converted into the Venice Hilton. This rediscovery of industrial forms is happening everywhere – maltings, for instance, are now frequently being converted into houses or offices. Perhaps it’s the stark geometry of the industrial buildings that makes them so popular – there’s something a bit post-modern about their spareness and reliance on geometrical form rather than decoration for their character.

    But perhaps one of the most fascinating industrial forms is the gasometer. Anyone who watches cricket will recognise the gasometer at the Oval, and I have a huge amount of affection for the one on the edge of Mousehold Heath in Norwich. But the most fantastic ones going are those in <a href=””>Vienna</a> – huge Gothic arcaded tanks, with bands of brick and stone looking like mad Italian castles. You can even take a tour inside them as their website shows.

    Circular forms, of course, have always exerted their fascination, from the Pantheon in Rome to the central building in <a href=””>Piero della Francesca’s ‘ideal city’</a>. I wonder if the designer of the Vienna gasometers had seen this painting?

    Wednesday, 10 May 2006

    Venice and surprise

    I've just been reading Richard Goy's book on Venice and it explains why the street system is so tortuous.

    Venice didn't develop as a single contiguous city, but as a collection of islands each forming its own parish. If you'd been there around the year 1000 you wouldn't have seen a city, as you do now, with canals running through it - you would have seen mudbanks with scattered parish-islands.

    Now each parish-island has quite a regular street system, usually with a main street running up to the church, and a campo in front of the church. But where these islands join up, the two different street systems have to make compromises of all kinds. So we find bridges at odd angles across the canal; dead ends; dog-legs and weird corners. Big streets running into little ones.

    So I suppose I have to take back what I said about Venice being the medieval city par excellence. Perhaps it is - but it's not a paradigmatic medieval city. It's a very unusual one.

    Thursday, 4 May 2006

    Walking the walk

    Sometimes a walk is more than just going from A to B. Last time I was in Venice, I decided to do something I'd always wanted to do - I walked the entire length of the city from the railway station to the point of the Dogana, and on to the edge of the Arsenal. That wasn't just a walk - it was a kind of 'beating the bounds', a way of estimating the city's size, almost a kind of magic to bring the whole of Venice under my control. Not 'just' a walk then.

    Thinking of this I was reminded of Richard Long's wonderful art. He's an artist who works with landscape as his material. His first work was a straight line in a grass field; a path going nowhere. Each of his walk realises an idea - some create sculptures, others poems ('textworks'). He joins up cairns on the Brecon Beacons, or walks across England carrying a stone each day from his start point to the end of the day's hike.

    Richard Long is in touch with the magic nature of walking. It's an act of control - walking around a city's walls puts it in your power (I wonder if that's what lies behind the Biblical story of Jericho, which the Israelites walked round seven times, a magical number).
    By the way, I'll be putting a pdf of the Venice walk up on the podtours website ( pretty soon, so if you feel like doing the Venice end-to-end walk, you'll be able to.

    Wednesday, 3 May 2006

    Compartmentalised thinking

    Because the tour books are all organised by country, we tend to think in terms of 'An Italian holiday' or 'a tour in France'...

    But we might be missing a trick. Country borders weren't set in stone within Europe until the late 19th century. And airports aren't always sited neatly for country borders.

    For instance, depending on where you want to go in Slovenia, it might be better to fly into Graz (Austria) or Trieste (Italy) than Ljubljana airport.

    The Venetian empire did cover most of North-East Italy at one point. But equally, it covered the Adriatic coast of Slovenia and Dalmatia - cities like Koper and Piran show strong Venetian influences. Equally, Robert Adam's tour of Dalmatia in the 18th century showed how Spalato (as it was then - Split today) could be seen as part of the Roman Empire, rather than a hinterland of Slavic culture. Perhaps heading east from Venice down the Slovenian and Croatian coast could make an interesting holiday.

    Saturday, 29 April 2006

    In the Guardian

    A bit of a thrill. I occasionally put posts on the Guardian's 'I've been there' blogs. They're a wonderful resource - tips from people who have visited tourist destinations. One of mine actually made the printed page a couple of weeks ago.

    So I'm going to recommend the same place here - the pasticceria Puppa, in Venice. Take the route up towards the Gesuiti and Fondamente Nove and you'll find it in Calle del Spezier. The window display is what first drew me - a fantastic, calorie-laden phantasmagoria. Chestnuts dipped in chocolate. Chocolate cakes. Cakes covered in chocolate. Cakes with chocolate chips. You're getting a pattern, I hope....

    The inside is just as good. I got talking to the owner and pastry chef, Mr Puppa. He's a happy man, it's obvious when he comes into the shop with his broad smile and little white hat. He's proud of the traditional recipes he uses - and they taste very good. Castagnaccio, soft doughy cake made with chestnut flour, and budino, made with rice and egg custard, are two favourites. Then there are big cookie-like cakes with chocolate and nuts, as well as the confectionery.

    I'd got rather used to Venice being expensive, but this shop has reasonable prices too. I made it a pretty regular stop the week I was in Venice.

    The other good pastry shop I found was just off Campo Santo Stefano. There's a half way decent ice cream place there too, but to be honest, Venice just doesn't do ice cream that well. No, if I want gelato, I'm going to go to Rome or Siena where they really know how to mix it.

    For you greedy people who want to know - Rome's best ice cream is in the shop on the Isola Tiburina, near San Bartolomeo, and Siena's is just off the Campo. Marron glace gelato anyone? Honey and almond?

    Tuesday, 25 April 2006

    What I hate about the Blue Guide

    I have a huge collection of Blue Guides. I use them for work - planning Podtours - and for planning my own travel. Some of them go back to the 1950s or even earlier, but in terms of art and architecture, they're pretty reliable. (For hotels, opening times, admission fees, and so on, I use the web.) And they're very comprehensive.

    But they're also soul-destroying. You couldn't sit down and read a Blue Guide, it would be like reading a laundry list.

    The Blue Guide is really reliable at telling you what is there. You won't miss anything. In a picture gallery, it will tell you about every darn picture. Yes, it puts, say, a good Caravaggio in bold type and a Michelangelo with a star, but it tells you pretty much everything that's there. And if, like me, you have some wayward enthusiasms for particular painters, that's very helpful.

    But it has no sense of humour. It has no feeling for atmosphere. (The Blue Guide doesn't wander about to see what might be interesting, or hang out in a bar to get the vibes; it travels with a list of sights to see and it takes a rest when it's seen them all.)
    What I really miss, though, is that granted the Blue Guide knows great art when it sees it, it doesn't tell me why it's great art. Why am I looking at this painting? What makes it worth my time?

    Time for an anecdote.

    I was in the Bardi Chapel in Santa Croce when a schoolteacher started telling his charges about the paintings there. There are the Giotto frescoes of course but there's also
    an altarpiece by 'the Master of the San Francesco Bardi"
    in a quite different, Byzantine style.

    "Well," says the teacher, "you have to appreciate that the different styles show different values. The Byzantine ideal is spiritual, ascetic - the flesh, passions, emotions, individuality, all get in the way. God is purely spiritual and the closer we get to God, the less individual, the less passionate, we become. And so here we see St Francis, without emotion, schematically drawn." I looked at the knife edge folds of the robe over his legs and thought, interesting.

    "And then Giotto is basically a Renaissance man, a Florentine too, and for him, it's precisely the physicality of life, the emotions, the passions, which make us human. He looks for the spirituality within the physical world. So his figures are rounded, his faces expressive and individual."

    That was interesting. I dare say some art historians and theologians might quibble but it made a lot of sense to me. And it's a markedly more sympathetic treatment than the 'Giotto seven out of ten, Master of San Francesco Bardi two out of ten" rating points given by the Blue Guide (Eurovision painting contest anyone?)

    Eavesdropping provides many pleasures for the traveller - and an occasional education. But you wouldn't get that advice out of the Blue Guide either....

    The little things that matter

    Just back from a trip to Venice to research some Podtours, and I got round to thinking what is it that makes Venice so Venetian? - Other than the canals, of course.

    It's lots of little things. For instance it's the coloured marble disks used everywhere to prettify the facades of houses, churches, palaces. You see your first marble inlays on San Marco but once you open your eyes, they're everywhere. My favourites I suppose are the 'telephone dials' on the Palazzo Dario. And there are little Byzantine carved roundels everywhere, too - eagles eating lambs, lions fighting, peacocks drinking out of elegant vases - all in pure white stone. The occasional sculptures, if you look out for them, are everywhere - even a camel in Campo dei Mori (and by the way, look at the mosaics in the atrium of San Marco and you'll see more camels - clearly the Venetians knew the Middle East well, as these twelfth century camels are realistic ones, not the usual spindly-legged things out of a medieval bestiary).

    It's the sottoporteghi. Lots of cities in northern Italy have arcaded streets, but few of them have as many streets that run under buildings. In Venice, it's quite normal for a street to run 'underground'. Leaving a campo you dodge under the huge beams that support the building above; then after a few metres you're out of the tunnel.

     The sottoporteghi create the effect of surprise that is typical of Venice. The only panoramas are from the water - if you're walking, you're dodging into tunnels, round right-angled corners, down streets so narrow you have to walk in single file. Cities like Rome and Turin were rationalised in the Baroque - great streets and piazzas laid out, vistas created. That never really happened in Venice. So you're left with almost a fairytale idea of the medieval city, created spontaneously, unplanned, with a surprise around every odd-angled corner.

    Well, that got me round to thinking about other cities that are - or were - defined by the little things that matter. In the case of London, big red buses have disappeared - at least, the iconic Routemaster has gone though arguably the new 'bendy buses' are bigger and they're still red - and so have red telephone boxes. Is that an act of cultural vandalism? I wonder. It's certainly stripped away a layer of what many - tourists, but also Londoners themselves - identified as typical London.

    Sometimes it's a local building material or style that makes a place memorable. Painswick, in the Cotswolds, derives its entire character from the creamy local stone that is used in its buildings. On a day with thunderclouds building behind the church spire and a sharp ray of sunlight glancing off it, the stone glows almost white.

    In Northern Germany you have the Backsteingothik - "brick Gothic" - towns, like Lubeck, where brick is everywhere. And here, too, it's little details like the stepped gables that give the city character. The use of local materials is one of those things that is disappearing as big building materials warehouses spread the same colour brick and the same concrete blocks everywhere - but it's the local materials that created the character of the place. Perhaps if local planning offices banned the use of non-local materials we'd get more distinctive modern buildings...

    Local political structures had something to do with the way cities were built, too. For instance in medieval Italy, without the strong feudal structures of France or England, noble families erected tower fortresses inside the city - in Sam Gimignano, in Bologna, in Lucca, in Florence - to which they could retreat in troubled times and, I suspect, throw things at their enemies. At completely the other extreme you have the great Georgian cities - Bath and Edinburgh - with their lines of respectable, identical, tasteful terraces. These represent quite different values - rationality, reasonableness, a certain understatement and lack of ostentation - and without the increasing stability of British society in the eighteenth century, it's difficult to believe they could have been built.

    But back to those little things... for Georgian houses, the boot-scraper is one of them. If a Georgian house doesn't have the little iron bootscraper next to the door, it's lost its soul. Like those houses where the sash windows have been replaced by PVC and flat glass.

    And then there are signs. Road signs, street names, street furniture, signs of businesses. In Rome, if you look around carefully you'll find painstakingly carved stone plaques from the eighteenth century forbidding waste tipping in the streets. Montpellier has fine eighteenth-century street names carved in its creamy stone. Paris, of course, has the fine Art Nouveau metro railings.

    We need to save all these little things. They're so often overlooked, in favour of more impressive sights. But it's the little things that really do make the difference.

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