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.