Thursday, 27 December 2007

Distinctive locality

I've written before about local distinctiveness - what makes a region or a city special, what gives it that certain almost indefinable flavour that distinguishes it from anywhere else.

Such distinctiveness is of course under threat. Chain stores, the spread of 'one size fits all' architecture, a certain feeling that local traditions are uncool or plebeian, all tend to impose homogeneity on our townscapes and landscapes. Agricultural colleges teach a single 'best practice' for all countryside - no respect for the distinctive feel of terroir there.

So it's nice to celebrate a couple of organisations which are fighting to preserve this specialness.

First, Maisons Paysannes de France, an organisation which promotes authenticity in the way older French houses are restored. It's a truism in the UK property press that 'only Brits buy old French houses, the French like them new'; but fortunately there are many French owners of old houses who do care about their local vernacular building traditions.

Maisons Paysannes offers links to conservation orientated building professionals, as well as publicising good restorations of period houses. In France, where you'll often see a period house that would be grade II* listed in the UK with modern double glazing and a PVC conservatory stuck on the end, they're fighting a tough fight.   Good luck to them.

Common Ground is a UK based charity that focuses on the ways people can celebrate their local distinctiveness.

One of the threats they identify is abstraction. In a recent Guardian interview Common Ground founder Sue Clifford picked out some particularly nasty ones; 'sites' for streets or fields, 'the public' for people, 'natural resources' for woods and streams. Even the word 'environment' makes her suspicious. Abstract words blind us to real distinctiveness.

(What she didn't go on to elaborate is that local words are another component of 'real place'. What would Norfolk be without bishybarnabees - ladybirds - or dodmen - snails? And we have lokes, where northerners have ginnels and York has snickelways - though the latter is a fairly recent coinage.)

Common Ground's web site suggests ways that people can celebrate the distinctiveness of their own place - ABCs of differences, photographs, parish maps. These maps are not 'objective' (regular readers know I have difficulty with the idea of any map being really objective; the very assertion of 'objectivity' displays a biased idea of what mapping is about). Instead, wilful subjectivity rules - the maps are written, painted, knitted, embroidered; they include dialect words, pictures of wildlife, old stories and legends.

It's back to the 1960s in a way for Common Ground. 'Think globally, act locally' has been replaced by 'think locally! act locally! buy locally!'

Tuesday, 25 December 2007

Great Christmas walks

I'm not much of a Christmas person. Christmas trees and tinsel don't do it for me.

But what I do like to  do, weather permitting, is get out on Christmas Day or Boxing Day (or indeed both) for a good long walk.

You can see things differently. There's no one about, usually. Everyone's headed into town for the sales, or sitting round the telly at home.

It's a good time to revisit your summer walks and see them stripped down for winter. The fields no longer green and yellow with corn (or rape) but brown and bare, furrowed perhaps, an occasional flash of light catching the corner of a flint in the soil. Trees bare.

Here in East Anglia our trees grow not straight and elegant, but full of character; twigs like arthritic fingers, stout trunks creviced with age, sagging and writhing boughs. Every so often you see one that's been lightning struck, bleached where the bark's been stripped; sometimes, half the tree survives, Siamese twinned dead-and-alive.

Or go for somewhere lonely and precarious. For me, that means the coast. Studland, Dorset, where the sea seems to swell higher than the land, and towards dusk you can look out from the beach and see the lights of ships at sea. Or Spurn Point, where an exiguous finger of shifting sand and shingle extends three and a half miles into the North Sea, and you feel you could be washed away at any moment.

I shan't be far from home this year, but if the weather's good tomorrow - it's horrible today - I shall motor up to Holkham, and take a walk along the beach and through the sand dunes, through marram grass and pinewoods, and along the coast to Wells.

There's something about the cleanliness of sea air that's an antidote to all the pudding and stuffing and  overindulgence of Christmas. Time to get my boots on.

Saturday, 22 December 2007

Run away!

I knew someone whose great dream was to visit Macchu Picchu. I don't know if he ever made it - but I think he would have been disappointed.

Too many great sites are now laid out for us in a way that prioritises crowd control and profit per head, rather than real experience. The tourist experience is nothing new of course - hawkers would have laid in wait for medieval pilgrims in Rome, Jerusalem or Mecca - but it's becoming difficult to avoid, at least if you want to see the 'top ten' sites.

Of course you can choose to seek out smaller and less well known sites. For instance, I'd definitely choose the Ridgeway at Uffington Castle and Wayland's Smithy, rather than the better known Avebury and Stonehenge. (Avebury should be a charming place but I have only ever met aggression and surliness in the village. Something seems really wrong there; when I heard that Silbury Hill was sinking in the middle it seemed to me that the whole heart of England was rotting away.)

On the Ridgeway a few years back I'd just paid my respects to Wayland Smith - as a silverworker and wordcrafter I regard him as a sort of patron saint - when I bumped into a woman treading the ancient path with her infant child.

"I thought I'd bring her  up here to introduce her to the grandmothers," she said. And the baby looked out with serious eyes that reflected the sky, tiny microcosms. I've never had a meeting like that at Avebury.

Stanton Drew is another fine site, just south of Bristol.  Quite by chance I was there at midsummer, on my way down to a folk festival. There were people playing guitar and flute and picnicking quietly in the  stone circles. And it wasn't till someone handed me a glass of wine and said 'Blessed be' that I realised it was Beltane.

Finding your own sites is one option. The other response to over-managed or overcrowded sites is  to take the advice of brave Sir Robin and 'run away!'

Not literally, of course. But suppose you turn your back on Stonehenge... you can then make your way from the great henge along pathways to Woodhenge or Normanton Down, or along the great Cursus, or out to the barrows of Winterbourne Stoke. And from almost everywhere, you can still see the stones of the great circle, focusing the sacred landscape.

Walking the chalkland,  you'll find relatively few other walkers. But you share the land with flowers and butterflies in summer, and with the elusive stone curlew, and with the ghosts of the ancestors, if your imagination is alive. Compared to the stage-managed experience of the imprisoned stones, I find the walks that lead away from Stonehenge far more evocative and enjoyable.

And of course you have that feeling of having earned your experience - having truly travelled, not just consumed a product.

Friday, 21 December 2007

Urban adventures

Running along the Wensum this morning, I was suddenly aware of how busy the place is.

Squirrels running along the ground with that strange half-leap, half-ooze movement, like slinkies. Swans looking unconcerned, bright bills tucked under their wings, one black eye malicious and alert.

A rabbit hiding by the brick wall of the Great Hospital. Blackbirds chasing each other, dark torpedoes over the top of a hedge. A robin perching on a twig, head on one side as he assesses me.

This let's remember is the centre of Norwich. yet there is wilderness everywhere. I came out of the King's Head late one evening - well, the early hours of the next day - and there in the passage outside, among the fag ends, was a fox, staring at me as if I had no right to be there. It was his time. And then he trotted off down Magdalen Road.

I'm not much of a twitcher. I don't have the Observer Book of Birds. I can tell a hawk from a harnser (that's the Norfolk original of the hawk and handsaw joke in Hamlet, which Will Kemp understood but Brummy Will Shakespeare completely failed to get) whichever direction the wind's in, but that's about it. And even so, I'm rather enjoying the avian accompaniment to my daily run.

Mind you, although the anglers on the Wensum tell me that they've taken some good big pike this year, I have to say I've never yet seen one...

Monday, 17 December 2007


Another lovely post fromGawain on Heaven Tree, with two identical jade cups. It's an interesting play between uniqueness and duplication - while the two cups replicate each other, the laborious technique by which they were made surely makes them unique in their way, a sort of specialness like that possessed by identical twins.

I got round to thinking how much of our travel is looking for the unique. Sometimes, we're looking for copies. Travel to Vegas, and are you looking for a copy of Venice? or are you actually aware, in a rather ironic way, of the specialness of the Italian city 'recreated' in the heart of American kitsch and glitz?

In the same way, if you visit a 'typical' Tuscan hill town, are you looking for it as a copy of that ideal you carry in your head (or guidebook) of the archetypal Tuscan hill town? or as a uniquely perfect townscape?

When we spend too long looking for the typical, we actually neglect the unique. And perhaps also we make ourselves immune to surprise. Immune to the shock of seeing a clash of the old and the new, experiencing a back street epiphany as we stumble upon that hidden antique store or sudden view out to the country.

Can we look for the unique? Possibly not. But we ought to hold ourselves open to experiencing it.

Ten unique places:

  1. The silversmiths' supplies shops in Muttrah souk, Oman. I bought two dies for stamping out little ornaments in silver; weighty brass octagons carved with symbols - hearts, half-spheres, stars.

  2. The 'Cosa nostra' Italian importers in Novgorod (this was years ago, so I can't guarantee it's still there).

  3. The archangel's cave basilica on Monte Gargano, reached by steps carved in solid rock, with its Byzantine bronze doors, and old women burning braziers in the wintry streets outside.

  4. Reculver, on the Kent coast, where the ruined towers of a great Minster brood over a caravan park and solitary, desultorily used amusement arcade.

  5. The via cava that leads from Pitigliano to Sovana - an ancient Etruscan road where you can still see the ruts made by ancient carts, and walk on last year's leaves slowly rotting in the covered lane.

  6. The great abbey church on Mont Saint Michel on a January evening, when the floodlights shine from outside through the windows, bleaching the inside into a ghostly shimmer.

  7. Fish Hill, where the road from the Cotswolds drops down a series of sweeping curves to the Severn flood plain.Or Bredon Hill, seen from the Malverns above a sea of  roiling mist, or (once) isolated amidst the silver of flooded fields.

  8. Nine Standards Rigg, on the coast-to-coast path above Kirkby Stephen, where huge tall cairns guard the way down from the Pennine watershed, and the road seems to drop forever away from the peaty tops.

  9. Okocim Brewery, Poland - a cathedral of beer where the huge cellar is cut into the side of a mountain, and the only sound is the slow dripping of condensation from the overhead pipes.

  10. The éoliennes (wind turbines) on the cliffs at Wimereux, just south of Boulogne. I stopped once in the car park on the side of the motorway, and their thrilling hum drowned out the noise of the cars.

Nerd's delight

A wonderful new book offers transport nerds a rover ticket for all urban railway systems.

Masrk Ovenden's Transit maps of the world has maps of just about every rapid transit system in the world. There are old maps, new maps, a history of urban rail networks - this isn't just a book of maps, it's much more.

And as always, we see how maps fulfil different purposes in different ways. Harry Beck's fine map of the London tube, which reduces the geographical meanderings of the system to a neat diagram, is a case in point - personally I love to try to trace exactly where the underground underlays the London street system, but that's not the point of his map; it's getting passengers from A to B, and they really don't need to know what they're underneath at any particular point.

New York didn't have Harry Beck on board. They got a visually lovely  map in 1979 - but they've replaced it; it just didn't do the biz for passengers. So there is a tradeoff between visual quality and functionality - as so often in architecture and design - and following the tradeoffs is interesting, whether you're a graphic artist or simply someone who enjoys investigating the multiple ways we can represent reality in visual (and other) media.

You can see how much transport nerds love this book from the reviews on Amazon - it gets five stars from just about everyone, together with nerdy complaints like 'the map on p 86 is too small' or 'it would be more interesting to have the 1956 map'.

And here, I'm going to come out of the closet. Deep breath... I'm a transport nerd too.

I've really been repressing it for years. But when I look at the things I do when I'm using the Paris metro, I know ... I am what I am.

I derive great enjoyment from perusing the metro map and trying to find a station I don't know about. I've memorised the stops from Gare du Nord to Montparnasse (which is the quicket route from my home in Norwich to my home in Les Basses Lisieres). I even enjoy reading the history of the Paris metro that decorates the wall high above the conveyors at Montparnasse (including the story of the crickets who live on three of the Metro lines).

So please, would some kind person get this book for me as a Christmas present? Failing which, I may have to buy the book myself.

I did say this book has nearly every rapid transit system in the world. It misses one - the Ipswich Underground Railway.

We in Norwich like to think we are superior to Ipswich. But we haven't got a metro. Mind you, Ipswich hasn't got an underground any more either - it closed down years ago. But Simon Knott has done an excellent job of investigating the remains of this intriguing transit system.  His photographs are clear, his research detailed, and he has done architectural historians a huge service in discovering the contribution of Soviet architect Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky to the Ipswich Underground.

Surfers should however note the dateline on many of the photographs - April 1, 2007.

Saturday, 15 December 2007

Strange buildings

Dubai has become a mad wonderland of architectural dreams and nightmares. An unprecedented (and unecological, for what it's worth) building boom has spurred architects on to come up with ever more stunning, ever more ambitious buildings.

The Pearl for instance is now touted as "a city in a building".  It's in a way a take on the Grand'Arche de la Defense, but has two openings instead of one - a cheap shot or vaulting ambition? I'm not sure which.

Dubai already has buildings in progress shaped like chess pieces; the Red Queen would have loved this Wonderland...  there's a wave, a sail, ridiculous references in some cases. There's a megalomaniac attraction to sheer size - the tallest, widest, biggest, most of everything.

What I find worrying about the subtext though is that Dubai is creating architecture that turns it back on reality. Microcosms. Malls where you go to experience the inside. Places where you never need to emerge into the 'real' world at all, where you can go from air conditioned car park to air conditioned shops to air conditioned restaurant to air conditioned flat. The 'wild wadi water park' isn't a real wild wadi, like the lovely Wadi Shab in Oman - it's a fake jungle in a mall.

And getting back to La Defense; the great thing about the Grand'Arche is that it belongs there; on that huge axis that runs through Paris, reflecting and subverting the Arc de Triomphe. It's not a 'historically sensitive' building in many ways, but it is rooted in a historic landscape and takes its theme and meaning from that history.

Dubai's buildings, on the other hand, break with any Arab past; which is an interesting architectural tradition, and ecologically interesting too with its wind towers, natural cooling systems. The new buildings are revolutionary, not necessarily in a good way.  And they have no reference to anything that came before.

Dubai could become a stunning metropolis. But equally, in twenty years' time it could look as dated - and as kitsch - as the end of the pier show in Great Yarmouth.

Friday, 30 November 2007

Another wonderful piece by Simon Jenkins in the Observer, on London's maps.  Unfortunately the web version doesn't come with the fine pictures.

One of the most striking pictures for me was the Rhinebeck panorama - a view of the City in about 1810. What's lovely is the way the view is dominated by the spires of the City churches, soaring above the grid like streets of plain houses; now, with the gherkin, the Shard, and other skyscrapers being built, that view has gone for ever. (In fact, though, it's not really the new generation of high buildings which are destroying the City's skyline - it had already been done by an increase in the overall height of buildings over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In a way, the Gherkin and its peers are reviving the idea of a view dominated by towers - they are the new spires.)

The geological map of the Thames basin gives you a completely different feeling for place. It's like seeing a dissected body - what lies beneath the skin - and it gives the same sense of shock. The loops of the meandering Thames are instantly recognisable, but the greens and pinks and blues of the geological strata are strange, unknown.

Of course we make maps not only  to represent reality, but to organise it in our minds. So I was interested to see the 1908 tube map - one which shows the underground railway lines as they really lie, not in a tidied up, regularised way like the current map. The District Line wiggles between Earls Court and West Brompton (and Fulham Broadway is shown as 'Walham Green'); the eastern end of the railway system is all squished up, coming to a point at Aldgate, with Moorgate and Liverpool Street all crushed up together; and the colours are wrong - the Central Line (now red) is purply blue, the Metropolitan is red instead.

We hit the twenty-first century with a house price heat map from - hot red areas of privilege in the west of London and in the suburbs,  and dark cold blue in the eastern corridor where prices are low.  Mind you, since the prices only appear to run up to one and a half million, this map has to be several years old....

Thursday, 22 November 2007

Food and tourism

A collection of tips from travellers at included one that appealed to me: make your first stop a food market.


Big markets like the Boqueria in Barcelona can be a real pleasure to peruse. In smaller French towns it's worth noting what day the local market is; you'll get brilliant fast food (though it may include andouillettes, or 'shit sack sausages' for those who don't like them).  Even rather boring places like Boulogne, where Speedferries arrive and most cars head straight out of town to the motorway, can be transformed in market hours, when fishermen unload their catches at the quay.


But I'd say, don't overlook the appeal of supermarkets. Spend some time in a Champion or Leclerc for instance, and you'll get a feeling for the real differences between the French and the English attitudes to food. No baked beans, certainly not an entire side of one aisle given over to different brands of tinned beans and spaghetti. Fresh fish including a lot of spiny, odd things you won't have seen before, and, usually, oysters and fresh mussels. An absolutely massive range of cheese, usually including at least one local cheese.


And labels on all the fruit and veg (and meat) telling you where it's come from - if it's French, even telling you the département where it originated.


Plus, a choice of beef according to the breed of animal.


So always head for a food market, or a supermarket, or just a corner shop, and find out what people eat...  and you will find out, without really trying, about the local culture.

Travelling local

There was a really good piece about Slow Travel I noted recently (Josh Kearns, on Brave New Traveler). Slow Travel isn't just about speed; it's also about taking time to appreciate the locality, and the lives of local people. Not just seeing them as 'character' for a photo, a bit of local flavour - but seeing them as potential friends, with their own desires and needs.

It's about helping a child understand how solar installations work rather than just giving him a pen or a sweetie. Or helping fix a motorbike or dig a field. Or having a long, rambling talk with someone about their lives - rather than just visiting the top three tourist attractions.

I had a little Slow Travel moment in Seville a while back. Definitely my least favourite of the three great Andalucian cities... till I walked into the Hospital de San Juan de Dios, and met a charming black-clad little old lady. (She was little, too; she didn't come up to my shoulders, and I'm only 5'4.) She showed me round, and we chatted a bit, and passed a happy quarter of an hour; and she was honestly proud of her city.  I wasn't actually Slow Travelling - I was getting some research done for an audio tour; but I made the time for it. And I remember Seville with rather more warmth than I would have done.

So if Slow Travel is really ethical travel - perhaps we should all be doing it?

I suppose Couchsurfing is one way of doing slow travel. Find a local friend. Hang out. Chat. Have a few beers. See their city through their eyes. It's just a pity Couchsurfing is so much a Club 18-30 thing - youngsters for the most part. And at just over 40, I@m really feeling my age.

Monday, 19 November 2007


I'm sorry if this blog has started to look like London Buses - no posts for a month and then three come along at once...

I've just spent some time with Peter Ackroyd and London. First, his immense and strange book: 'London - the biography' - and then a videotape of the first programme of his BBC series on London, which a friend made ages ago and I've only just had time to look at.

Ackroyd is less weird than Sinclair but he's definitely on the occult end of the spectrum as far as London historians go. He sees London as a living creature - a threatening organism that can kill, ravage, burn; a creature that is regenerated through fire. He actually begins the programme by mentioning his heart attack - the day after he delivered his book on London to the publisher - a testimony to the city's maleficent powers (though also to its healing ones).

What I particularly like about Ackroyd is his ability to shift from extreme detail to extreme distance - from close up to panorama. His immense depth of research enables him to spin perspectives, to separate or to merge the layers of history. And there's always a feeling of the paradoxical closeness and distance of the past - epitomised in the Saxon brooch that was dropped so long ago, in a bath house where he now stands.

Ackroyd refers to the concept of 'psychogeography' - but unlike Guy Debord who originated the concept of geography's impact on individuals, instead Ackroyd sees the city itself as a living thing, modelled by multiple human experiences.  It's an approach that frees him from purely formal scholarship and sets the mind travelling along the ley lines of history; and that's why the book is a biography, not a history, of the city. Marvellous stuff. I'd love to do the same for Norwich.

I'm not sure about the series.  Quite a lot of it is fine, but the re-enactments of figures such as Tacitus, Geoffrey of Monmouth, and Christopher Wren seem rather prosaic and mockumentary besides Ackroyd's own magisterial yet self-deprecating presence. The one thing that is absolutely true in the series, though, is the wonderful precision and zest of his language. And that is something you can experience in the book.

I so wish Ackroyd would now go to live in Rome for a few years. True, he wouldn't have the lifelong experience that makes his work on London so deeply felt; but he is one of few writers these days who I think could bring alive those multiple layers and alarming continuities that make Rome such a bewildering and satisfying city.

Things vs Experiences II

Daniel Libeskind obviously believes that the traditional museum - a box you keep things in - has passed its sell-by date. His Jewish museum in Berlin creates spaces that are in themselves an artwork and a reflection of the Jewish experience in Germany. A traditional museum has room only for fulness - for glass cases full of objects. His museum has room for a void - for openness to emotion, to free thought and experience.

While museums have always commissioned fine architectural designs, the nature of those designs has changed. In the Victorian age, museums such as Waterhouse's Natural History Museum provided an assertion of the continuity civilised values by the use of classical, Gothic or Renaissance building styles; but they were essentially containers for a collection.

Now, the focus is less on the fine facade than on interiors that can be experienced by the museum-goer. I suppose that must have begun with the Guggenheim spiral ramp, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright (1957).

I have a suspicion though that we are losing objectivity. The great thing about seeing objects in a case is that you can make up your own mind about them. Yes, you have to do the work - you'll have to read up on things before you go if you want to get the best out of the place. But if you want to pursue a particular line of thought, you can do so. (One such line of thought led me into the back bits of the British Museum one day to see, in the flesh, an Eishi woodblock print, with its sharp lines and glistening mica background. It wasn't on display - but you could ask to see the reserves; and I did.)

Now, the museum wants  to tell you how to experience things. It wants you only to see the best, the most typical things. And it's not a hundred miles from there to dumbing-down - lists of 'Top ten things to know about the Romans in Britain' (and I don't mean Howard Brenton's play), or the critically panned Tutankhamun exhibition, high on glitz, low on scholarship.

That said, Libeskind's work is anything but dumbing down. But it does challenge our ideas of what museums are all about.

Things vs Experiences

The opening of France's new Immigration Museum last month was well noted in the press - less so by the great and the good, with Sarkozy and his immigration minister deciding not to attend.

What I find interesting is that this is a museum which tries to address concepts and experiences. The whole concept of 'being French', for instance. France has always had a strong centralising, classicising culture; a strong tradition of linguistic correctness, style, a canon of work. (Braudel, a historian whose work I find particularly interesting, comments that this can be set against a very strong regional and local trend - the 'terroir' - so it's not only immigration that challenges this centralised Frenchness, it's the tendency of individual French people to identify as Savoyards, Provencals, Bretons, or Burgundians... but I digreess.)

So immigration challenges the core of French culture; the unified, single-language, single-system, statist view of culture. The view that says whatever your origins, you are 'French' - where in England we say 'black Briton', 'British Muslim', in French the phrase is 'd'origine Martiniquaise', 'd'origine Algérienne'. You are only of that nationality by origin - you are French by essence.

Now how does a museum go about addressing these issues? Museums are truly great at showing you things. One of my favourites; a study room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art entirely full of ushabtis (tiny Egyptian tomb figures). Another; the cases of Tanagra figurines in the British Museum.  You learn something about that country and that period by seeing them, but the focus is on the things themselves.  The same with art galleries; you might actually get some good ideas about Van Gogh by, for instance, lining up one of his pictures with photographs of the landscape, or of contemporary interiors in real life, but what the gallery is about is showing you things. You're then in charge of the experience.

Now the museum of immigration can certainly put together a number of things. At danger of stereotyping; a kora for Senegal, tea glasses for North Africa, Chopin's piano for the French Poles, a Torah for the Jewish community (though whether you can call French or English Jews 'immigrants' - or indeed whether you can spot a 'typical' Jewish experience when Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities had such different histories). Things.

But actually those things don't tell you anything about the immigrant experience. Perhaps it's only art work that can do that. An installation of insidious voices for instance. Accounts of their lives, taken from immigrants of different generations and origins.  (To its credit, this museum has tried to do that by engraving their words on the glass of some of the cases.)

So I suspect this museum, for all its honesty and integrity, rather fails.  Because it's difficult to square the requirement for scholarly integrity - which has always been based on showing things -with the need to admit experiences.

Friday, 9 November 2007

The ancient railway revived

A marvellous post by Simon Jenkins in the Guardian about the opening of the St Pancras Eurostar terminal, which reuses the Gothic fantasy that is the Victorian St Pancras station.

What I love about this article  isn't so much the puncturing of certain hypocrites who turned up for the opening while advocating the demolition of other, equally important monuments of the Victorian railway age. It's the well researched, grateful roll-call of those who have helped to save the station, from John Betjeman to railway managers you've never heard of.

I do feel sad though in a way that the building has been so grandly 'revived'. London used to be full of marginal spaces, half-ruins, areas where you could start up a shop in an old building for nearly nothing, where artists and actors and anarchists could live on almost nothing, where things could happen, where you could just hang out. King's Cross, Bermondsey, Whitechapel, Spitalfields.

And now? There's nowhere like that left. It's all been cleaned up, formalised, taken over by gleaming buildings.

Spitalfields market for instance was a place I used to go at weekends for organic meat, second hand clothes, old books. You could rent a stall there cheaply and many people did, selling their own photographs, or second hand musical instruments. There was cheap food, there was space, you'd get drawn into an interesting conversation.

And now the space has been taken over by bright modern shops. Bright modern shops with bright modern rents. And the life has gone out of the area. Instead of informality, experiment, spontaneity, there are expensive brands, luxury, credit card symbols on every door.

London has lost something. I don't live there any more and I'm glad; it's not a city of villages any more, it's a city of mortgages.

But with St Pancras revived, at least the city hasn't completely lost its Victorian roots.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Old buffers

I travelled down to Surrey yesterday and had one of my least favourite experiences; trying to connect from Liverpool Street Station to Waterloo. For some reason, there are at least five different ways to do this, all of them involving at least one change and none of them very good.

But I had a couple of minutes spare when I got to Waterloo and was able to look around. It's not London's best train shed by any means; it's expansive, but it lacks the class of Saint Pancras or Liverpool Street. All the money was spent on the rather pompous frontage.

What I loved, though, were the huge hydraulic buffers at the end of the tracks - proudly marked  with the name of Ransomes & Rapier, Ipswich. The firm is no more, unfortunately, but the buffers stand proud today.

There's something rather nice about old ironmongery. Many French villages retain their old village pumps - some still working, some purely decorative - and it's interesting how each region seems to have had its own dominant firm of ironfounders.  It always makes me sad when I see an old pump or fountain that's fallen into disuse; but when they're working, and particularly when resplendent with a fresh coat of black paint, they give the place life and verve.

Old signal buoys sitting on the docks at King's Lynn, streaked with rust and spattered with estuarine mud, the lines of rivets like buttons on a guardsman's coat. The fine swing bridge at Leith,  its x-shaped girders marching under the fine curve of the top beam. These are functional bits of metalwork, but they somehow have more than just functionality; they have character.

I wonder if we're now appreciating old ironwork not so much because of nostalgia for the past, as because architects like Calatrava, Richard Rogers, Frank Gehry and Edward Cullinan (designer of the Gridshell at the Weald & Downland Museum in Sussex) have accustomed us to looking at structures and grids, at exposed structural parts, rather than the veneers and smooth surfaces of conventional architecture?

Most people associate Victorian stations with John Betjeman and the old fogeys. They're looking at the picturesqueness of the work, at the echoes of Gothic architecture, the coats of arms of railway companies, the feeling of a lost world.

But I think the appreciation of  elegant software solutions and post-modernist architecture gives you a different perspective on the Victorians and on functional ironwork. It's not about picturesqueness, but about the integrity and imagination of a daring structure - of a great bit of engineering.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Real landscapes, real townscapes

Two interesting themes this week.

One of them  got a lot of press coverage. The Work Foundation published a paper looking at 'clonetown England' and local distinctiveness, arguing that cities which have established distinctive patterns of living and trading (Silicon Fen in Cambridge, gay-friendly Canal Street in Manchester) have benefited economically from doing so.

The Breckland Society didn't  get nearly as much attention. But it has published an interesting survey of the vernacular architecture of Breckland - a strong component of the region's distinctivness.

Knapped flintwork, 'galleting' (inserting little chips of flint  into the mortar joints between courses), the use of brick and clunch in combination, are all strong elements of local architecture. They're every bit as much as part of the Breckland 'feel' as the Scots pines and open heathland that characterise the landscape - but have had, if anything, even less protection.

What's particularly good to see is that the Breckland Society hasn't just surveyed  traditional architecture as a part of the past. By running workshops on relevant skills such as flint knapping and flint walling, they are helping to ensure that local building firms have the expertise needed to restore old houses, and build new works in keeping with the tradition.

Local distinctiveness is worth fighting for. And  it needs to be real local distinctiveness - not pastiche, not stereotypes and 'heritage' in the country house tradition, not tourist traps and the 'this is Scotland so let's have some tartan and a haggis' attitude. What's good is that more and more people are beginning to appreciate the small things that make up that local appeal - and seeing ways to bring it into the twenty first century.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

The Leith police dismisseth us

With a morning to kill in Edinburgh, and a clear sky, I decided to do something a bit different and take the Water of Leith walkway from the heart of the New Town towards the old port.

It's a lovely hike - about two miles there and two miles back. The path runs beside the Water of Leith,  at first a rushing stream, later a much broader river; sometimes beside you, sometimes far below. There are parks, woods, cuttings dug into the rich moist earth, and there's one little wiggle through an industrial estate. You're never far from industry, yet the natural attractions of the path allow you to forget it for most of the route.

As I walked beside a brick warehouse, a heron regarded me seriously from a rock in the middle of the river, then took off and flapped heavily towards the trees on the other bank. A squirrel spiralled a tree, each revolution stopping to poke his head round and see if I'd moved. As I grew closer to Leith I began to hear seagulls.

Leith itself is intriguing with a mix of seventeenth century houses (and the tower of a windmill), Victorian and modern docks, and twenty-first century  regeneration.  A fine swing bridge offers interesting photographic opportunities; and at the end of the road, you'll see a wall of containers as a ship comes in. No way to the edge of the Firth of Forth, though, which disappointed me.

Edinburgh's other longer walk is a completely different experience - through Holyrood Part and up Salisbury Crags ('Arthur's Seat').  No doubt it's grander - but I enjoyed the intimacy of the Water of Leith walkway, and the homely welcome from people exercising their dogs, watching the squirrels, and jogging.

Let there be lights

York is being illuminated, along the lines of the fine light shows at Chartres and Amiens. Artist Usman Haque is lighting York Minster from 26 October to 3 November 2007,with an installation that will let visitors activate the lights with their own voices. There'll also be a trail of light-based art works in the city, as well as 'Weather Patterns' in light on the York Art Gallery facade.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Another good bike scheme

The Velib seems to have taken off in Paris, and bike schemes are now proliferating.

Most of them are targeted at pedestrians or commuters (with bikes at railway stations, for instance). But the Belgian city of Mechelen has taken green street cred to drivers, siting a bike park at the main underground car park of the city. Bike hire is included in the price of the parking ticket.

I love Mechelen - it's a huge, sprawling medieval city, with narrow, twisting streets. Ideal for biking - and a pain in the backside if you have a car. So I hope this initiative takes off.

Late night opening - more

News that from now till 20 December 2007, Brussels will be opening all its museums late on Thursday nights. ('Late' means 10 pm, by the way.)

And even better, the Nocturnes plan offers reduced entry fees too - together with extras such as curators offering guided tours, story-tellers offering a different view of some exhibits, and behind-the-scenes tours at some museums.

My particular interest would be the very fine musical instrument museum. But the comic strip museum and the museum of gueuze (lovely tart Belgian beer, fermented spontaneously with wild yeasts) would also be high on my list. 50 different museums are in the scheme so there should be something for everyone.

And for transport fans, the Brussels Tram Museum is running several of its old buses between the  different museums.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Kilometre zero and the lapis niger

I've visited two 'kilometre zero' sites this year, in Paris and in Madrid. The one in Paris is just in front of Notre Dame cathedral; the one in Madrid is in the Puerta del Sol.

They're not impressive sites; in Paris there's just a little circular motif in the pavement. If you didn't know what it is, you'd think it's a small manhole cover.

But there's something immensely poetic in the idea of a kilometre zero - the point from which all road distances are measured. It's like the omphalos, or navel of the world, at Delphi, or the medieval Christian idea of Jerusalem as the centre of the world. It seems, in a way, to focus the entire energies of a country in a single point.

And then, in a rather post-modern way, there's the irony that with all this going on, the kilometre zero itself is such a banal object.

The 'kilometre zero' that really brings together the mapping and administration  dimension with that sacred, shamanic dimension, though, is one I haven't visited; Delhi. Here, India's kilometre zero is built on the site of the cremation of Mahatma Gandhi - the father of the nation. It's as sacred in its way as the Lapis Niger in Rome, the original sacred centre of the city in the Forum (the 'new' kilometre zero is on top of the Capitoline Hill).

Friday, 28 September 2007

The world through 'innocent' eyes

A fantastic article in the Independent reprints the travel advice of Mrs Favell Mortimer, a mid nineteenth century writer who had apparently never been out of England. She sums up foreign countries in a rather schoolmistressy way - neatly showing every English prejudice of the time.

It is, in a way, the world through 'innocent' eyes. Not the self-consciously innocent eyes of some modern travellers, who attempt to see everything as if for the first time, to experience other cultures without a layer of superiority or difference between them. No, this is the innocence of someone who actually doesn't realise that other cultures exist - that real people live in them - that they are anything other than a sideshow to hold up in the classroom to demonstrate the superiority of the British Empire. I particularly like the comments on Prussia - a horrible place but at least it's Protestant. (The same sort of judgment as 'a dreadful town but at least you can get a nice cup of tea'..)

Yes, that's a strange kind of innocence indeed.

A most amusing article none the less.

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Statues of strangeness 2

One of my favourite occupations when travelling is to keep an eye open for unusual statues. Any city is full of the great and the good - often, generals who were well known in their time but now almost forgotten, or civil servants whose claims to fame have lapsed - but the statues I'm looking for are the unofficial, sometimes strange or quirky.

There's a nice article in the Telegraph today on London statues. Now I don't think  Christopher Somerville should have left out the fine Charles I by Le Sueur in Trafalgar Square. It's not a Bernini, but it breathes the same air of Baroque plenitude. But some of his other selections are interesting. He prefers the informal (Churchill and Roosevelt cracking a joke) to the formal, the fantastic (the composer Purcell dreaming) to the ordinary, 'everyman' (the Jewish children of Liverpool Street) to the nobs. And he also finds room (as I have done in my own life) for one very special companion - a feline, Hodge, Doctor Johnson's cat, "a very fine cat indeed." (Being a lover of the Baroque rather than the Enlightenment, I don't like Doctor Johnson overmuch, but his ailurophilia - and in particular his consideration of Hodge's feelings - is an endearing feature.)

I think I blogged the great statue of the tom cat in El Raval, Barcelona, a while ago. Wikipedia's now got a picture of it. And El Pais has an article on it (only if you speak Spanish, though), pointing out that it's already had several lives - it's lived in the Olympic stadium, the Ciutadella park, on the Paral.lel...  and it is now purring away quite happy in this slightly seedy quarter, where no doubt it can find enough food in the rubbish bins!

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Cologne stained glass - a controversy

New stained glass windows in Cologne Cathedral have attracted the ire of the Cardinal Archbishop.

Gerhard Richter's designs have been christened 'confetti windows', made up of squares of vibrant colours - pink, yellow, blue, replacing the clear glass windows that made the cathedral look so washed out. They're thoroughly modern in one way - but in another, their abstract design reminds me of the Cistercian-influenced grisaille style you can still see in the 'Five Sisters' window of York Minster, or at Salisbury cathedral.

There's an excellent post on Art(h)ist'ry covering the controversy. Gninja points out that in fact, the window - made up entirely of geometrical abstract designs - is in the true Gothic tradition. Every Gothic cathedral is designed to incorporate a set of mathematical ratios; and gninja says that
"If [the Cardinal Archbishop] knew his own Cathedral a bit better, and the principles behind its construction, he might see Richter’s work as completely consonant with the structure."

Sunday, 23 September 2007

Modern pilgrimage?

Gadling has a neat story about the famous stall where Republican Senator Larry Craig was arrested. It seems to have become a tourist attraction.

A nice bit of trivia, but it got me thinking. What's really different between having your feet photographed in the celebrated toilet stall, and going to see blood spattered bits of Thomas a Becket, or a finger of Santa Rosalia?

Sure, there' a theological underpinning to pilgrimage. But it's always struck me that the early church actually hated both relics and pilgrimages - even in the Middle Ages many thinkers were deeply uneasy with the reality of relics and pilgrim travel. When Erasmus objected to the cult of relics he was not being revolutionary or Reformist - he was drawing on a long tradition of objection. In fact you could see a lot of the arguments in favour of relics and pilgrimage as justifying, after the fact, a trend that had already begun without benefit of clergy.

Some medieval (and later) pilgrimages do seem to have sprung up in just the same way as this 'toilet stall pilgrimage' - almost spontaneously.  And they seem to be about the same thing in human nature - a desire to be associated in some way with the great, the celebrated, the famous. A desire to touch something bigger or more renowned than oneself. That may be rather frivolous (as in the Larry Craig case) or deeply spiritual (the 'pilgrimage' to Little Gidding), but the roots of that desire are the same.

I wonder if some of our desire for wilderness stems from the same desire. For an age in which authorised gods don't have much appeal, the wilderness can take the place of that thing bigger than ourselves...

Saturday, 15 September 2007

Back from a pilgrimage

Just back from the Medieval Trust pilgrimage to Walsingham. It hurt.

There were quite a few surprises. One was that the night we'd all been dreading - sleeping under an unfinished thatched roof, part of a reconstruction of medieval building materials - was actually the cosiest. We were laid out like sardines in a tin, loose straw scattered below our straw-filled mattresses, and thatch above, snug as bugs in a rug. Don't underestimate the insulation value of straw. By comparison, our nights in a barn and a church were freezing.

Another surprise awaited us as we came into Walsingham; we were pestered by touts selling relics, herbs, religious tat.  (Other re-enactors - this isn't the  welcome that awaits  normal pilgrims.) Now I hadn't really thought all twelve of us had bonded over the four days (most of us knew only two or three of the other participants before starting the walk), but I know I was responsible for a couple of squabbles - but faced with this barrage, we closed ranks impressively. One of the other re-enactors noted to me the day after that she felt thoroughly left out!

Surprise number three; mulled beer for breakfast. (St Peter's Honey Porter with extra honey works a treat. I don't actually like that beer much cold; add more honey and warm it up and you have anaesthetic enough for at least three miles!) Beer at eight in the morning shouldn't work, but it did. Thoroughly recommended as a Boxing Day pick-me-up for inhabitants of the twenty-first-century.

Personally, I found the pilgrimage extremely difficult even though it was only 10 miles or so  each day for four days. Medieval shoes give little support to the ankle, and you've only got three or four millimetres of leather between your sole and the path. Blisters at once. Then the lack of sleep, with many of us getting only a couple of hours and lying awake most of the night through cold, discomfort, or listening to other people snoring. Then the clothes; three or four layers of wool above linen form a portable sauna; no chance to strip down (and for women, not even the chance to take your headdress off; medieval society enforced head-coverings for all mature women).

Another surprise was the understated beauty of the Norfolk landscape. Some of the nicest stretches were along the Marriotts Way, a cycle track that uses an old railway track. At some points you're walking an embankment above marshes; at others, in a dapple-shaded cutting below overarching trees, protected from the sun. Towards Walsingham, one minor road ran past a number of lightning-struck oaks just beginning to grow again, leafy boughs contrasting with the stark white of the old wood. At Pensthorpe, I heard cranes fly past in the morning - as noisy as the USAF planes that overflew us the night before.

I must admit to feeling relief rather than achievement when I arrived in Walsingham. It had been hard. But the next day, when we got given our pilgrim badges in the ruins of the old priory, I felt quite tearfully proud.

Link to the account on the Eastern Daily Press website.

Sunday, 2 September 2007


I've been thinking about doing a lot more travel, recently. Time I upped sticks and did a proper trip. And I have various ideas; hitching lifts on boats down the Danube; walking to Jerusalem; perhaps a motorbike trip through America.

But one of the things that has struck me while I've been doing this thinking is that while one might follow a road (to Santiago perhaps) or a river, there's something highly appealing in the sense of a crossing.  From the coast-to-coast footpath here in the UK to the crossing of theEmpty Quarter, journeys that completely traverse a landscape or  sea have a unique attraction.

I think it's something to do with ritual, almost. While a journey is just from A to B, maybe visiting C, F and X en route, a crossing returns us from strangeness to normality. So that though it goes from A to B, in a way you could say it's from A to A; we come back to where we started. 'There and back again' as Tolkien says (if you don't recognise the quote, it's the subtitle to The Hobbit).

But a crossing's not a circular walk, either. Because we don't come back exactly where we started. It has a dual nature; we're back in normality, on dry land, out of the desert, whatever, but in another place.

And it's also a ritual where we expect to have changed. So that though the journey, we have visited a strange place in ourselves. And now we're back in civilisation, but we have changed. We are not quite the same people we were.

So that has got me round to thinking about crossing the Sahara.

I like deserts. I like the emptiness. I like the way everything, because of that emptiness, becomes full of meaning; a single dead tree, a stone, a track. (I actually like camels, too; sweet, loving creatures, like cats - like cats also in the way they do what they want to do. If it happens to be  what you want to do, fine; if not, you have a battle on your hands.)

I enjoyed a trip to the Wahiba Sands when I was in Oman. We only spent a few days out there in the company of our Bedouin guide. I still regret not taking the time to cross the sands - it would have taken some weeks, from the edge of the sands to the sea coast. It's not just that I would have liked to have taken longer, got to know the camels and how to care for them, got to know the desert; I would have liked to do the crossing, to be able to score that red line on the map, to feel I had come from one side to the other.

So maybe the Sahara... I shall have to do some hard thinking about that.

Rugby World Cup page

I've just loaded a tourist guide to the Rugby World Cup venues in France to my Podtours site:

Of course you can use it to find out about Montpellier, Lens, Toulouse, and so on even if you're not 'un rugbyman'. (Does the French language contain a noun for female rugby fans, I wonder? and if so, what is it? une rugbymanne? rugbyfemme?)

Another free concert

Organ lovers: another free concert. St Peter's in Vienna has organ concerts at 3 pm each day, though I'm not sure if this is all year or just in the summer.  It's a great church to listen in - there's a lot to look at while you're listening, from the Rottmayr dome fresco to the wonderful baroque main altar.

Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Keeping your eyes open

I found a lovely quote from Pierre Louys in his novel The woman and the puppet, set in Seville:

"Have you ever noticed, my dear friend, how people never look at the things that are really worth seeing?

Last year for instance, as I was crossing the Triana bridge, I stopped to admire the most beautiful sunset of the year. Nothing can give you any idea of the splendour of Seville at such a moment. Well, then I looked at the passers-by. They were all going about their business, or chatting away as they strolled about, unable to escape their boredom; but not one of them turned round. That magnificent evening spectacle - no one saw it."

There is a moral there for all of us - travelling or at home.

Wilderness at home

A review in the Guardian today recaps a theme I've previously referred to on this blog; the adventure of travelling at home.

Robert Macfarlane's new book 'The wild places' might seem like a standard adventure book from the title. But in fact it's a tour of Britain - finding wilderness everywhere, even in the back yard.

In fact, he comes to revise his ideas of wilderness as he travels. There are no 'wild' places in Britain - they have all been changed by man. Celtic field systems, prehistoric megaliths, Roman roads, Norman hunting forests - nowhere on these islands has land been left completely to its own devices. The grouse moor and pine forest of much of the northern uplands, too, is man-made.

Yet instead of deprecating this  man-made quality of the landscape, Macfarlane comes to love it, as a texture of history woven over the land.

Nothing has been unseen. There is no virgin territory.  And again, instead of seeing this as a disappointment, Macfarlane sees how it creates a richer tapestry; how the whole landscape can be experienced through the words of earlier writers, as well as through the senses today.

Friday, 10 August 2007

Guided art tour on a website

The Boing Boing blog made me aware of this excellent site - Making sense of Marcel Duchamp.

It's a guided tour of Duchamp's work. The elegant design is an immediate recommendation. But what I particularly like is the commentary - particularly, pointing out Duchamp's sense of comedy, and the way he subverts artistic forms.

'The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even' is deconstructed, and made to operate as a sort of perpetual motion machine through the use of cartoons that interpret Duchamp's original designs (not all of his ideas made it through to the final work).

And there's a timeline which makes it easy to see where Duchamp's works fit in the overall progression of his art.

The technology is a perfect fit with the content. You can't say that about many websites. And I really do feel, having spent half an hour with the site, that I understand a lot more about Duchamp - an artist I previously knew only for the famous (or rather notorious) urinal. I like him a lot more, too.

Monday, 6 August 2007

Tourism ideas - 'secrets'

Two nice ideas from Spain which seem geared to provoking tourists into seeing something a little bit different.

First, 'The Secrets of Cordoba'. It's a quiz, with questions on hidden patios, out of the way statues, and unfrequented alleys. Six questions; if you get them all right you get a diploma, apparently. I thought this was rather a nice idea; it certainly motivated me to go out of my way to find a couple of the smaller alleyways and yes, it was worth the detour.

Secondly, 'unknown Toledo'. I found Toledo one of the most overrun cities in Spain - the problem seems to be that it's now only 30 minutes from Madrid by train, so it's daytripper territory, yet no one actually stays there overnight so it's dead by 930 at night. And a day is not really enough, so the daytrippers tend to rush from one 'must see' to another.

'Unknown Toledo' suggests some interesting second-line sights. I found it particularly interesting since of these sites are still being excavated and evaluated - so it feels as if you're participating  in the reinterpretation of the city's history, as if you're sharing the work of discovery.

As often in Spain, execution is lacking. The 'Secrets' are not well disseminated, and many of the Toledo sights remain unknown to me as I was unable to find them open. But none the less, these are great ideas for helping individuals explore a city in more depth - and perhaps spreading the tourist traffic a little more thinly across the cityscape.

View from a train

If you take the train from Madrid to Segovia, Avila, or Salamanca, keep your eyes open as you leave Madrid. About ten minutes from Chamartin station starts the park of El Pardo, previously a royal park. It may not look like much - scrubby little trees, arid soil - but there are amazing numbers of deer in the park; I saw five heavily-antlered stags lying down for a siesta, and deer wading in the shallows of a stream.

I was also lucky enough to be in Atocha station on a day when Renfe was giving out little booklets on bike and hiking routes on the 'Cercanias' (commuter) network.  Unfortunately I can't find them on the Renfe web site but I did find some walking routes from Barcelona.  And then some more.

Chartres by night

We had an evening out yesterday in Chartres. First to hear the organ concert, then to see 'Chartres en lumière', the illuminated city by night.

To my amazement the cathedral is open till 10 - officially; actually there were still people inside at 1030 and no one seemed to be making any great attempt to push them out. There was also an extra free concert, 'Musique et silence', with a violin and cello duo playing; during which you were quite free to wander around, or sit and listen.

I know Chartres cathedral pretty well but coming to it in the late evening showed me another side to the building. When we got to it at four thirty, the sun outside was bright, and the glass shone out as I've never seen it before - the whole cathedral was bathed in blue and red from the stained glass. And suddenly I noticed something I'd never seen before - how the great north rose breaks with the prevailing blue of the rest of the cathedral, and instead creates a fanfare of red and orange - a blast of colour.

The lights weren't put on till nearly half past nine, so the cathedral gradually dimmed as the sun declined; at one point the only light, practically, was the west window blazing in the sunset, a symphony of blue. And the whole place felt different; quieter, more meditative. Just before they put the lights on, all you could see in the ambulatory was a smear of colour from the stained glass, almost extinguished, and the banks of candles in front of t Virgin of the Pillar.

The light show came on at 1030. It's not just the cathedral that is lit up; quite a few of the other buildings in the city are also illuminated, including the church of Saint Pierre  lit both from the inside (to show its wonderful stained glass) and from outside, with pictures from medieval manuscripts. But the cathedral facade is the tour de force; a five minute show drops architectural elements into place, with pictures of builders from the stained glass, and finally the whole facade is covered with a projection of the Virgin and Child from the window of the 'Vierge de la Belle Verriere'.

My favourite though was the north porch, where the lighting is used to colour in the statues. A fascinating, ephemeral  view of the medieval sculpture in bright colour - the way it might originally have been, before wind and rain stripped the paint from the creamy stone.  And the bridges on the river, illuminated with lettering around the arches to tell the story of the city.

The strange thing was how few people were chasing the lights. Perhaps because it was a Sunday evening; if we'd gone on Saturday it might have been busier.  So rather than what we'd expected, which was a busy experience like the Versailles night opening, what we got was a rather quiet, meditative mosey around a deserted French town. Highly recommended for a very different night out.

Also highly recommended; 'Le Mughal' in Rue de la Clouterie . EUR 20 each gets you a three course meal with fish tikka, chicken tandoori, and a choice of curries (or you can select from the vegetarian menu).

Thursday, 2 August 2007

Bye bye crowds

I've always been an early riser (unless I've got a hangover, I suppose) and one thing I like about that habit is that if you're out at seven in the morning in summer, you've got the streets to yourself. And, usually, that lovely warm light you get early on, and that disappears into a burning glare by ten o'clock.

However, you've got to get up very early to get some sights to yourself. Well, you can't, really. I was fifth in the queue at the Alhambra, and even at eight thirty as the gates opened, the Nasrid palaces were beginning to fill up. Even so, the atmosphere was placid and quiet, and the mountain breeze cool - later on, the palace becomes crowded and hot.

When at ten in the morning I saw the queue for the Alcazar in Seville, I would never have thought I would have half an hour all on my own in Pedro the Cruel's palace. But I did. And this is how;

I turned up at four o'clock in the afternoon. Hey, no queue! All the tour groups seem to have gone by this time - they do the place in the morning. Still fairly busy. Anyway, time to look around, take some photos, take notes, wander the gardens. An enjoyable experience.

Now the place closes at eight. By seven o'clock, the crowds are thinning. So about then, I thought, let's go back and look at the palace again. About ten past seven, I think I haven't seen anyone for a while. I look at my watch; I'm not going to get shut in here, am I? No - loads of time left.

Everyone else had gone. There were still people in the gardens; but no one at all in the palace. So I just carried on moseying; sat for a while in the courtyard; amused myself trying to work out how the wooden doors had been put together and which bit went where (the Arab carpentry is rather like a more complex and ornamental kind of Rubiks cube); and eventually made my way out of the palace twenty minutes later.

So a lesson learned. If you can't turn up early - turn up late!

Sightseeing for free

The cost of sightseeing can soon add up if you're visiting museums and historic sites. For instance in Seville, add together the cathedral, the Alcazar, and a couple of the other museums and houses, and you can easily have spent twenty euros before you realise.

But some of the best sights are free. Or they're sometimes free.

* The Great Mosque of Cordoba only costs money to visit after ten o'clock in the morning, when the crowds arrive. Turn up at 8.30 instead of having a lie-in, and you'll not only miss the crowds,  you'll get in for free. And no one actually came to turf me out at ten o'clock, either.

* The Escorial is free to EU citizens (remember to take your ID or passport) on Wednesdays. (And also, apparently, to citizens of Latin American countries.) However, this only covers the areas you can visit freely - apparently, not the Royal mausoleum.

* Many museums in Italy and France have one free day a week, sometimes one a month. Some have free evening opening.  For instance the basilica of Saint-Denis is free on the first Sunday of each month (with some exceptions) as is the Louvre. (The Louvre does have massive crowds that day, though.) In Cordoba, the Alcazar and Arab baths are free on Friday.
* Watch out for events like 'La Nuit des Musees' and the UK heritage open days. These are often not just an opportunity to save some money - there are special exhibitions, and some areas may be on view that aren't usually open to the public.

* Look out for free museums like the Archaeological museum in Granada. Unfortunately the exhibits are only labelled in Spanish but even without being able to read the information, you'll be amazed by some of the finds on show.  Often, the museums that are free are specialised or quirky little places, and a nice antidote to the showiness and cultural weight of the 'must see' sights.

* In Paris, the city run museums are free, thanks to Mayor Delanoe.

* Cathedrals are not always free. But if you go to a service, though you won't be free to wander round, you'll get to see the architecture and experience the building in the way it was meant to be experienced - as part of an act of worship rather than a guided tour. If you visit one of the major English cathedrals, or one of the Oxford or Cambridge colleges with a fine choir, you'll also get to hear some excellent music (but not on Monday which is usually the choir's day off; and for the colleges, not during school holidays).

Not that I am always a cheapskate. I don't mind shelling out ten euros for the Alhambra; it's a wonderful place, quite unlike anywhere else on earth. (Though for free, you get an isolated taste of Arab splendour if you take time to find the Cuarto Real de Santo Domingo, down below in the modern city of Granada; a fine qubba that you can have entirely to yourself most mornings and afternoons.) And quite often, I'll visit a cathedral one day for tourism, and then come back the next day for matins or evensong, to get a different feeling for it. But saving a bit of money from time to time can be useful, if there's not that much to go round.

And at least when the entrance ticket is free, and you're not enjoying your visit, you don't get that "I-paid-eight-euros-for-this-ticket-and-I'm-damn-well-going-to-stay-here-

two-hours-even-if-I-hate-it" feeling. You can just find the exit door, and do something else!

Thursday, 26 July 2007

Spain - brickbats and plaudits

Just back from two weeks travelling in Spain, preparing a number of Podtours. After being completely spoilt in Germany, Spain came as a nasty surprise.

First of all in the total lack of information 'on the ground' in many cities. Spain has a prominent advertising campaign to get tourists there - once you're there, the tourist organisations seem to lose interest. Arrive at a train station in the south of the country and you'll find (with the honourable exception of Corduba) that there are no maps, there is no tourist info, there is nothing telling you how to get to the centre of the city. And because the stations are so far away from the centre, the map in your guide book won't show them. So you're stuffed.

Tourist offices have funny hours. Seville for instance closes at three o'clock in the afternoon. And none of them, not a single one, had a list of hotels stuck in the window. It's not rocket science, is it? Contrast Passau, for instance, where the tourist office outside the station leaves maps and hotel lists in a little box outside, so if you arrive when it's closed (which I did) you can still find yourself somewhere to stay. Or Bourges, where a big map lights up the location of hotels when you push the buttons.

Brickbats to RENFE, the state railways operator. My local station here in France has an automatic ticket machine, which works, which is 24/7, and where I can print out internet-ordered tickets or buy a ticket on local or main lines. This is a tiny station, on a branch line. Okay, not as tiny as the halt one stop further on that has no staff, no ticket machine, and not a lot of trains stopping there - but pretty small; one permanent member of staff, that's it.

Now go to a major Spanish station like Madrid Atocha or Seville. Automatic ticket machines are only available for 'Cercanias' destinations at Atocha. There are some machines in the long distance ticket office - five or six, I think -  but I couldn't find one that was actually working. And when the ticket office is closed, the machines are locked up inside it! That reminds me of the early days of the internet, when the Next (UK fashion retailer) website proudly stated its opening hours as 9 am to 5.30 pm....
Now for the plaudits. First place must go to Segovia - which has managed to open many of the lovely romanesque churches in the city, for free, with guided tours all summer. I was amazed by the knowledge of some of the guides and their enthusiasm for their churches. One even took me out of the church to show me the arabic market gardens and falaj system of irrigation - the Arabic heritage of that particular quarter of the town. Segovia also provides access to the tourist office website and other resources in its tourist office.

Second place to Madrid and particularly the young man in the tourist office at Plaza Mayor who showed me - with great enthusiasm, I suspect his waistline will be growing larger - where to get typical Madrid sweeties such as violetas, and local biscuits (ronquillas). I don't imagine that's a usual tourist request but he was well informed and showed me exactly where to go on the map, besides writing down the names of the things I should try. Madrid has tourist offices at each of its main stations as well as in Plaza Mayor - unusual and smart. (But still, alas, no help outside opening hours.)

And a small award to Toledo, which is now promoting 'unknown Toledo' with a set of sights most people don't know about - a Roman baths, a mosque, smaller churches off the beaten track. Unfortunately, the opening hours of these are very sporadic; Segovia, I think, does it better. But it is a good way to start.

Sunday, 8 July 2007

Versailles Grands eaux nocturnes

We visited the gardens of Versailles for the Grands Eaux Nocturnes this Saturday. It turned out to be rather different from what I'd expected.

First of all, the attendance. About ten thousand at a guess. The closest experience I've had to it in five years was the great anti-war march in London back in 2003; it was that packed. And yet, if you strolled just off the main pathways, you could find yourself almost alone.

Secondly, the sheer size of the gardens. Each of the individual 'bosquets' is a good sized garden in itself. We had two hours, and we still left five or six gardens unvisited.

Thirdly, garden mind games. Now this was definitely encouraged by the scenario of the lighting and effects (whispers coming from the bushes, strange flashes of light in the trees, overheard conversations), but it's there in the design of the gardens. Look at the map, and you think the grid layout is clear; enter one of the bosquets, and you find that the entrances have been angled cleverly so that when you get to the centre, you can't actually see any of the ways out; or find that there's no direct approach, you have to go at an angle.  Quickly, despite your conviction that the grid pattern will keep you on the square, you're lost. It's not a formal maze, a maze that says it's a maze, like Hampton Court; it's worse, a maze you thought was a formal grid, a maze that suddenly arrives with its ambiguity and threat like a flashback in a Buñuel film.

Then there's the inside/outside mind game.  Is the centre of the Bosquet inside or out? It's outside - a clearing, an open space, unroofed - and yet at the same time it's inside - a drawing room, a salon, a defined space. And then there's the forest, contained within green trellis walls - the forest creates the wall; is that an inside or an outside? You actually never see the forest, unless you peer through the trellis; but it's there, an indefinable presence. You're never quite sure where you are, once you wander off the main axis of the Grand Canal and chateau.

Of course that main axis is everything I had expected; formality, grandeur, that you could have anywhere - a German Archbishop's residence, an Italian villa, a Russian palace. But it was the informal spaces that were the real surprise for me.

The Grands eaux nocturnes is not a cheap experience; tickets cost 17 euros. But it's impressively worked out, with audio visuals including a recreation of a project for a globe floating on one of the fountains, which was never built; baroque dancers; amazing glitterballs throwing light on to one of the clearings; and some charming baroque music; as well as one glade devoted to the sense of smell, which, unfortunately, we didn't get round to. The whole thing is just balanced nicely on the edge where French art excels - so nearly pretentious, but not quite.

And you get a first class fireworks display at the end. Not lots of big bangers and garish colours, but a well paced display of shimmering silver and green rains, interlaced trails of golden fire, and a little surprise at the end, which I won't spoil.

Friday, 6 July 2007

German railway stuff

Germans really seem to love their railways, if the selection of materials in the Deutsche Bahn shop is anything to go by.

You can get a 'Handy-Zug' - mobile phone train. When your phone rings, it chugs along its little track to bring the phone right to your hand. Aaah!

Or you can buy an 'ICE Computermaus', a wireless optical mouse shaped like the high speed ICE train.

Or even a little model of a Saxon stationmaster, if that's what floats your boat. Er, sorry for the inappropriate metaphor there...

Following the heavens

Sachsen-Anhalt has a new tourist route; the Heavenly Road (Himmelswege). Various monolithic remains and museums have been linked, together with the fantastic new museum, the Arche Nebra.

This museum was built to hold the Nebra sky disc, a  bronze and gold disk showing the sun (or full moon), crescent moon, and constellations.Dated about 1600 bc, it's a unique Bronze Age work - beautiful in itself, but also demonstrating the fascination with following the course of the heavens that led to the creation of stone circles and alignments.

And the design of the museum is a wonder. Its bright slab side is curved upwards at the ends like the 'sun boat' or inverted rainbow on the disk, and seems to float over the glass ground floor.

The Arche Nebra museum only opens to the public on 21 July, so I can't tell you about the exhibits other than the sundisk, and the spearheads found with it. (There's some dissension over the authenticity of the find, since it was made by metaldetectorists who tried to market the treasure privately - and illegally; the state of Sachsen-Anhalt only managed to acquire the treasure as part of a plea bargaining process. However, most archaeologists now seem to think the disk is real Bronze Age work, not a fake.)

But the museum design, and the coherent marketing of local megalithic sites (including the Goseck circular ditch, probably a solar observatory) by the local tourist board, are impressive. It all makes me wonder what the hell English Heritage is doing with Stonehenge - a real opportunity missed....

Tuesday, 3 July 2007

Industrial history museums

Okay, I love Versailles as much as anyone. But it's just as interesting to visit the world of the workers. Here are a few suggestions for getting to grips with the grittier side of European history.

The Leogang museum in Austria highlights the Salburg mining tradition. I rather like the fact that they make you walk down the mine - no tourist trains for this museum, which wants you to share the medieval miners' experience. The museum also includes a fine collection of metalwork - locks, keys, safes, clocks, and strange little iron animals made as ex-votos for Saint Leonhard, patron saint ofthe miners.

One thing I didn't know was that as well as mining for silver, copper and lead, the Schwarzleo miners also produced cobalt which sold to Venice for the Murano bright blue glass. And this whole area was a hotbed of Protestantism - the 'heretics' were only driven out in 1731.

Other mining museums in Kutna Hora, Czech Republic, and Bochum, Germany ( a nice blog on it here), as well as the mother of all mines, Stora Kopparberget - the Big Copper Mountain (namers don't come much more descriptive than that) in Sweden.

In the UK, the heavyweight industrial museum has to be Ironbridge, an early Industrial Revolution site. There are ten separate museums, though the real fascination of the area is that it's a fine industrial landscape. Here the method of smelting iron with coke instead of charcoal was discovered, and the ironmasters made their wealth.

Nuremberg was a major industrial centre in Germany from an early date - one reason the Allies bombed it pretty hard - and has some fascinating industrial museums. The Museum of Industrial Culture is housed in an old screw factory (you couldn't make it up...) and features a Motorcycle Museum with over 130 old bikes, together with displays of old cars, and telecoms history. Or if you're not a petrolhead there's the DB Museum (outdoor area open only April to October) with the original rolling stock of Mad Ludwig II of Bavaria's royal train, as well as a new ICE train (basically it's a German TGV, all right?) and the reconstructed Royal Waiting Room of Nuremberg station.

I have a certain fondness for Deutsche Bahn. Not as efficient and timely as it used to be - a five minute delay will no longer drive a stationmaster incoherent with rage - but a damn good railway none the less. Visitors to Regensburg looking for a good and inexpensive lodging may be lucky enough to stay at the DB training centre in Pruefening, and if you both read German and like trains, you'll enjoy the breakfast reading material. (If not just concentrate on the excellent buffet breakfast.)

Oh yes, if this isn't all specific enough for you, try a couple of the most specialised museums I've come across  in a long time - Nuremberg also houses the Tram Museum, Dialysis Museum,  the Fire Brigade Museum, Pigeon Museum, Museum of Garden Huts (I am not making this up), and Museum of Weissbier Glasses.

In France, one of my favourite industrial sites is the Seuil de Narouze, where the Canal du Midi is fed by 'La Rigole' - a fresh water stream from the Montagne Noire. This isn't a museum - in fact the old mill has become a stop for pilgrims walking the Via Tolosana to Santiago - but it's fascinating to see the way the water is captured, stored, and then released into the Canal du Midi. This is the watershed; it's all downhill from here, whether you're heading to the Mediterranean or the Atlantic. And what a marvellous work of engineering by Pierre Paul Riquet - a hero of French industrial culture second only in the estimation of many to the holy trinity of André Lefebvre, Flaminio Bertoni and Pierre-Jules Boulanger*.

Typical of France in its application of classical design and industrial function is the royal saltworks at Arc-et-Senans. Claude-Nicolas Ledoux designed it in the 1770s as a symmetrical arrangement of boiling-houses, canals, and workers' houses, laid out in a huge semicircle.

That's only a few industrial museums. I haven't even touched the brewery museums (like the Museum Brewery run by Coors in Burton on Trent - which still brews very fine beers based on historic recipes, such as P2 - a personal favourite) or the many purely local museums.

If this blog post has interested you, then you might want to check out European Routes of Industrial Heritage -  many more industrial sites including mines in Asturias, an open salt works in Cheshire, textile museums, and more.
* who of course created the iconic 2cv.

Town planning of the Renaissance

Medieval cities were often somewhat impromptu in their structure. They grew semi-spontaneously, despite attempts to regularise them - for instance the bastides, grid-based towns around a central square, in southern France. (Winchelsea, a town founded by Edward I of England, is also a bastide, though it's almost a ghost town - it began to shrink once the sea receded and its port trade disappeared.)

But the Renaissance brought new ideas of architecture and in particular, the idea that towns and cities should be planned to create harmonious and functional spaces where citizens could function. The square was no longer just an area without buildings, and the street no longer simply a thoroughfare; components were given meaning and dignity.

So we see, for instance, the Place des Vosges and Place Royal in Paris being created; Michelangelo refocusing the scattered medieval buildings of the Capitoline Hill into a centralised, symmetrical composition and planning a pavement which would integrate the whole into a geometrical and, perhaps, cosmological pattern. We see the creation of huge straight streets giving immense vistas in Baroque Rome. (Even London got St James's Square, but the City remained resistant to the new trends and still has most of its medieval street network.)

But there's a feeling that most of this town planning was done for the wealthy, or for the commune as a whole. It didn't touch the lives of the working class or even the middle classes, much.

Well in Nuremberg, it did.  The 'Sieben Zeilen' were built for weavers in 1489, timber framed houses arranged on what looks like seven rungs of a ladder between two diverging streets. It's an early town planning grid and though the houses look vernacular medieval - you can imagine them in any medieval town - the placement is typically Renaissance.

And these are lovely, big houses, with plenty of light (important for weavers, of course) and space around them.

It reminds me a little of the weavers' houses in London's Spitalfields, tall Georgian houses with huge penthouse windows at the top to let in light for the looms.  Here too the weavers weren't poor workers - they were moderately wealthy entrepreneurs.

Travel as art

The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art has a Richard Long retrospective.

I've known Long's work for a while and love it. He takes not so much landscape, but the land itself as his subject - mud, twigs, the process of walking. "Throwing muddy water" uses mud splashes on the wall to create a triptych of enigmatic symbols. "A line made by walking" is simply a photograph - in black and white, starkly reductive - of a straight line path made in a muddy field.

There's something quite meditative about these works. The subject is the artist's interaction with the landscape, the soil, the natural materials. We see how the mud has been thrown, squelched, left to dry. There's an element of time; Long exposes natural forces such as gravity, erosion. He opens up, in small, a vista on to geological time and infinite space (it reminds me of the way Tennyson sometimes does this in his poetry, a tiny lyric opening up into a whole universe).

Perhaps it's because his work is to do with time that so many of his works are represented by photographs. They're not intended to be permanent. Their impermanence is part of their meaning. And yet they are strangely permanent, decisive in their effect; a straight line marked on a field, a decision made, which will never be reversed; even when the trodden path has long been eroded, the mark of that work of imagination, that engagement with the landscape, is ineradicable.

For anyone interested in long distance hiking as a mode of spirituality and engagement with the earth, rather than simply an olde worlde way of getting from A to B, Richard Long's work is an essential reference.

Monday, 2 July 2007

More fun hotel stays

NH Hoteles is refurbishing one of its Madrid hotels.

30  individuals are being selected for the amusing task of trashing its 146 rooms between now and September, when the hotel reopens - presumably with new decor.

I think this is even better than the goldfish (blogged earlier). A chance to indulge in real rock star behaviour.

A pity this isn't a regular offer...

Saturday, 30 June 2007

Listen to the poor busker!

Buskers are a varied breed. Some are tuneless Bob Dylan impersonators of little talent; I even suspect some of being tone deaf. Others are true professionals; I've known members of major orchestras supplement their income this way, as well as music students and jazz bands. (Rockers and rappers seem not to busk; I wonder if their sound equipment just isn't portable enough.)

There's a marvellous busker in Salzburg. Go through the arches from the Franziskanerkirche into Domplatz and he'll be there, most days, playing accordion. Yes, the obligatory Mozart, of course, but also some rarities - a lovely piece by François Couperin, Les Rozeaux, which has never sounded so good on a harpsichord. He plays with real emotion as well as technical sureness - this is another of those free concerts you can be lucky enough to find.

Yet most people walked past without noticing. In the fifteen minutes or so that I sat and listened, only two other people stopped to hear. The rest just treated it as muzak.

There's not really a moral here. But I wonder why so many people pass up on the riches that life delivers for free?

Friday, 29 June 2007

Free concerts

I've had some marvellous free 'concerts' recently.

First in St Giles' cathedral, Edinburgh,  where a young lad was playing the Rieger organ.  Subtle, that instrument is not! But it's massive, and rather great, and he was pretty good, too.

And then at the east end of Regensburg cathedral, where the 'Domspatzen' were having their rehearsal on Sunday morning, and had left the door open because of the heat. I sat down on a step nearby and listened for half an hour or so.

It's nice when you get a spontaneous free concert like that. But more formal free concert opportunities are also worth looking out for. Many churches in the City of London have a free lunchtime concert - St Anne and St Agnes in Gresham Street does; it also has a Bach Vespers many Sundays, at six, with professional musicians performing Bach cantatas as part of the liturgy. Very highly recommended.

Church services aren't always a musical feast. But most English cathedrals, and the major Oxford and Cambridge colleges, have good choirs providing regular sung services. Watch out though as they have one day a week off. For instance at King's, Monday is a day off, and on Wednesday you will hear only men's voices - that is, the boys are not singing. King's also offers an organ recital on Saturdays at 630 pm, with free admission.

In Paris, Saint-Eustache has a monstrously capacitous organ and there are regular free recitals, at 530 every Sunday; Saint-Merri and the American Church (each Sunday at 5) also stage free gigs in summer.


I wish I had been in Vienna in November 2006 - that's when this fantastic light show was created on the facade of the Karlskirche by two artists, Heiko Hofer and Alexander Nickl.  (Needs Quicktime to run.)

This year, the same artists are lighting up the Essl art museum in Klosterneuburg. This isn't gentle son et lumiere - it's garish, geometrical, utterly wicked. Like looking at buildings through a kaleidoscope.

Conservation tourism (2)

I blogged before about how conservation of historical monuments can in itself be a tourist attraction.

The Karlskirche in Vienna is a particularly interesting example.  The church is under restoration, partly filled by a skeleton of steel scaffolding reaching up into the dome. A lift takes visitors up to a platform under the dome, for a close up view of Rottmayr's wonderfully dynamic paintings. Then you can - if you're so inclined and have a head for heights - make your way up a rather wobbly staircase into the lantern right at the top.

The entry fee is a steep 6 euros -  but for this amazing chance to see the paintings from close up, it's worth it.

Friday, 1 June 2007

Visits by candle light

Having enjoyed the Nuit des Musées in Versailles - open from 7 in the evening till half past midnight - I decided to look up what other nocturnal attractions might exist.

There aren't as many as you might think, though many museums now have one late opening every week. The National Gallery, in London, is open every Wednesday till 9 pm, with live music from jazz to Renaissance lute solos. And the Louvre is open late on Wednesday and Friday evenings - which are often much less crowded than during the day.

I was overjoyed to find that one of the rather special nocturnal events is quite close to us - so we will be heading there probably at the weekend. Vaux-le-Vicomte, the chateau which inspired the better known Versailles, has candelight openings every evening in summer. Even better, one ticket will last from 2 in the afternoon - so you can see the fine formal gardens - until midnight. Then, your coach will presumably turn into a pumpkin drawn by frogs unless you hop it smartly.

The chateau of Valençay also offers candlelit visits, which can be combined with dinner from EUR 26 (the basic ticket, assuming you're not hungry, or take a picnic, is EUR 10).

These are aristocratic palaces just made for seeing by the light of the fine chandeliers. But a more down to earth experience is provided by Monday evening visits at the Dennis Severs House in London's east end.  You'll need to book via the web site for this, as times vary depending on the time of year. This fine Georgian house is presented in eighteenth century style, just as if the occupants have left - even their dinner plates are ready on the table. It's a little spooky, and intriguing, and you can go for a curry in Brick Lane afterwards.

Thursday, 31 May 2007

While researching York Minster I came across an interesting, and indeed rather moving, account of the restoration of the south transept rose window by the glazier.

And he says two things in particular that are very interesting.

First of all, he's convinced that the window only survived the fire because it has already been restored, so it was in good shape - the pieces of glass weren't loose in the leading, so they didn't fall out.

Secondly, which I think is most interesting, he mentions that when the restoration of the glass was half complete,  he exhibited it in the chapter house so that people could see it from close up. I've noticed that conservationists and craftsmen nowadays are often - not always - keen to show what they're doing.

The old practice was to swathe the object of restoration in layers of netting, and ban visitors - it's still being done in Italy, unfortunately, which seems to be one of the least progressive countries in Europe in this regard. (I would love to be proved wrong.) But if people can't see what is being done, how will they know that it's worthwhile?

Anyway, enough of my views; read the article for yourself.

Sunday, 20 May 2007

The sound of the Low Countries

One of the things I've come to appreciate as I've travelled around the Netherlands and Belgium is the sound of bells. Carillons are everywhere.

In Antwerp, the cathedral carillon plays 'La Follia' every hour. That's a tune I know from the Renaissance, being a musician, so I felt welcome in Antwerp right from the start (before the nice guy in the tourist office marked my map with the three best serious beer bars in the city - De Waagstuk, Oud Arsenaal, and Kulminator).

And in fact I've got a closer connection with the carillon than that. One of my favourite composers for the recorder is van Eyck - a blind musician who published 'the flute's pleasure garden' or Der Fluytenlusthof in the 1640s. But recorder playing was only his second trade; he was a carilloneur, too - and, what I didn't know, probably started the famous bellfounding Hemony brothers on the right route to producing properly tuned bells, something that had proved difficult to achieve up till then.

So I was happy to find this exceptional recording on Youtube. Credit to Mr van Eyck (any relation?) for this fantastically exciting piece, played on the carillon of Mechelen cathedral.

Intimacy with the past

It's always fascinating when you come across the past intimately - when you find one of those little things that we overlook, that are completely everyday, that suddenly allow us to step out of our own world and across the boundaries of time into another.

For instance there's a painting in Mechelen cathedral that shows a dockside scene - and on a sack, the merchant's mark. It's not a great painting but that single detail gave me a shock of intimacy - connected me with that merchant.

Or like the time I found a photo of my grandfather as a young man of seventeen. He looked so exactly like my brother - yet his clothes were clearly not contemporary. Again, there was a real shock that the past was so vivid - as well as so far away.

So I really enjoyed this posting by Gawain about  old Venetian playing cards. It's not an "easy reading" blog, but it's a good one. I came across it when I started researching Punch and Judy (Tiepolo sketched a number of Pulcinellos, some in quite surreal positions) and I've been reading ever since.

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

Bob, bob, bob

A fantastic press release from Travelodge appeared this morning. My favourite of the year, so far, and thank goodness it's not April 1st.
If you are stressed out, they now offer you the opportunity to book quality time with a goldfish.

Two Travelodges, in Leeds and Birmingham, will have nicely equipped tanks for their guests to watch. And we're assured they will be properly looked after.

I certainly would book myself some time with the goldfish if I were staying. It does seem one of the nicer services offered. I remember another hotel chain where you could book out a Nintendo Gameboy for a rather different method of de-stressing.

Why  'bob, bob, bob' in the headline, you may ask. If you can lip read, you'll realise this is what goldfish keep saying. A good thing they only have an attention span of thirty seconds.

Flower power

A little diversion from my usual travel photos; I've been photographing the bearded irises in the garden, on a dewy morning.

It's the first time I've ever taken flower pictures. Normally I never use the closeup ability of my camera or lenses, so this is something new.

A few lessons.

Just because the flower is a few centimetres away doesn't mean I don't need depth of field. I actually needed f22 to shoot down the tunnel of an iris and have the furry stamen clear all the way back.

On the other hand a really wide aperture lets you shoot the flower and keep the grass behind well out of focus, just a blurry green background. It's amazing what a difference that makes.

Don't ever use autofocus doing this. It unerringly picks up just the bit of the plant you don't want in the picture. Use manual focus and choose carefully exactly where you focus - whether it's on the furry inside, the raindrops on a petal, the texture.

Keep moving in all three dimensions - around the plant, up and down, sideways. These are complex shapes - every inch you move will show new vistas.

Zoom in. Relentlessly, zoom in to find a line, a pattern, a texture, a vortex, that makes a complete picture on its own.  Showing the whole flower is for simple flowers, like harebells. A bearded iris has too much complexity for that. I'm amazed how poor my shots of the whole irises are, compared to those shots where I zoomed up close.

I've done nothing with lighting today. No flash, no reflector. Just using ambient light. I might think about using some light next time to get a little more definition on the shape of the irises.

Rain is your friend. Nothing makes an iris sexier than raindrops on the petals.

Last lesson: don't overlook your own back yard. Today I was still a travel photographer,  but I travelled inwards, not away.

Next week: photographing cats.