Wednesday, 28 March 2007

More unusual transport

Now I like unusual ways of getting somewhere. A steam train, a canoe, a cargo boat, a Segway - all good fun.

But a human-sized hamster wheel?

That's what artist Virginie Mermet is going to be using to travel from Norwich to Happisburgh, according to an article in the Norwich Evening News. It will take about twelve hours, slightly more than one mile an hour, so it's not the most efficient way of getting there. Still, it sounds like fun.

Tuesday, 27 March 2007

I don't like Rubens but...

I've never liked Rubens.

His fleshy, ruddy nudes and well fed cherubs don't do much for me. I find them a bit overdone, and there's a feeling of grotesquerie in some of his painting that suggests the Breughel/Bosch streak in Flemish painting never died out.

So I wasn't expecting much from a trip to Antwerp and Mechelen.  However, I was in for a surprise.

First of all, the 'Miraculous draught of fishes' in Our Lady's Church over the Dijle in Mechelen. It's amazing - the matte surface, the vibrant, bright colour, reminded me of 1930s works rather than the high Baroque. The treatment of the apostles' bodies and drapery could almost come from the socialist realism tradition. It's a striking painting - almost the antithesis of everything I thought Rubens was about - and the fact that the evening sun was falling full on it brought the colours out in all their liveliness.

I found another Rubens painting I liked in the Rockox House in Antwerp. Nicholaas Rockox was Rubens' friend and patron and so you'd expect to find a couple of Rubens paintings here. And so no surprise to find a Rubens crucifixion hanging on the wall.

What's surprising is that it was so small. I thought Rubens was about big things - most of his best known paintings are huge, super-life-size canvases. But here, the whole scene of the crucifixion is reduced to a canvas not much bigger than an A4 piece of paper, and you can actually see Rubens' brushwork, swirls and flows of paint. Sometimes it's diaphanous, thinned right down; elsewhere there are blobs of thick impasto. It's all alive, bright, a moment caught on the fly.

My last Rubens shocked me. It's in the Plantin Museum in Antwerp. I'm interested in the craft of letterpress printing so this was a compulsory stop for me; Plantin was the greatest printer of his age in the Low Countries,  and Rubens even contributed frontispieces for the Plantin/Moretus press's books.

The 'Dying Seneca' here is related to a number of paintings which include a large history painting in the Prado, and the 'Four philosophers' painting in the same room of the Plantijn Museum. But this painting is striking in a way that the others aren't. Here, we see simply a portrait of the dying man; no event, no disciples, no philosopical reference frame, just a man dying. His eyes stare yet they're already becoming blind with death; there's a starkness in the delineation of the naked flesh that implies pain and struggle, and yet the painting as a whole is also strangely peaceful. And around Seneca's figure there is nothing but darkness; the darkness he will soon enter.

I haven't been so struck by a painting since I saw one of the Rembrandt self-portraits 'in the flesh'.

Hiking and boozing

One of my fondest memories from the whole Camino de Santiago was the excellent vin de noix I sampled in Conques. And one of the highlights of the Pennine Way was the Fox and Goose in Hebden Bridge - a mini beer festival rather than a pub!

Apparently I'm not the only one to like the idea of hiking all day and boozing most of the night. Two German districts now offer this mix.

In Saarland, for instance, you have the brandy hikes of Losheim am See. Saarland is great hiking country anyway but on the Hochwald Brandy Days (21 April to 6 May this year) you can hike and enjoy tastings as well.

In Hessen, there's a hike along the Bergstrasse, walking through the vineyards by day and tasting the product at night.

France of course used to be the world's great wine centre - though its trade has now lost share to winemakers in new areas. But the historic heritage of wine, whether that's the great chateaux of Bordeaux and Medoc, or little family vineyards in the Midi,
is well worth visiting.

I spent a happy week and a half meandering around Burgundy on a hike from Auxerre down the Yonne and over the hills to Vezelay and then Avallon. This is lovely country, full of attractive villages and fine Romanesque churches - the hilltop abbey of Vezelay is one of France's greatest.

And the food is magnificent. Cooked ham, rich creamy fromage blanc, coq au vin. It's hearty food - nothing mediterranean about it; you'll walk all the next day on a decent Burgundian dinner.

Oh, and snails. Are you brave enough? I wasn't.

If you prefer two wheels to two feet, Duvine Adventures offers cycling holidays in the Bordeaux region. I took a bike out there on my own some years ago; it's nice, not particularly demanding country, with many back roads where you'll not see a car for hours. Imposing chateaux stud the landscape, many of them with the possibility of a 'pause degustation' (tasting stop).

Meanwhile I shall be ending this week with our local version: a pub crawl. I'm looking forward to Friday already!

Monday, 19 March 2007

Make my flesh creep

Ghost tours are incredibly popular, it seems.

I knew Edinburgh had a couple  of spooky attractions. And I'm not averse to a spot of the macabre. But the ghost tour seems to have taken on a life (after death?) of its own. There are more ghost tours than any other kind of tour of Edinburgh, and now there are ghost tours in York as well.

What's the hook? I suspect  it's the same things that's made ghost stories irresistible through the ages. It's the motivation of the Fat Boy in Dickens - "I want to make your flesh creep." It's my brother watching Doctor Who from behind the sofa (he wasn't afraid of the Daleks, he was afraid of the opening sequence!)

While anyone can tell a ghost story, some of the tours have managed to find really unique selling points. For instance one of the tours in Edinburgh offers a visit to the Mackenzie mausoleum and Covenanter's prison by night - locking the 'tourists' in. I suppose it has its attractions, though I'd rather spend my time with malt whisky if I wanted a night with an unco' spirit....

Ghost stories and travel writing don't seem that far apart sometimes. MRJames for instance sets stories memorably in the depths of rural Ireland, in Saint-Bertrand des Comminges, on the bleak East Anglian coast. (Simon Raven picked up several of the threads from Saint-Bertrand and expanded them to Greece and Venice in his 'Roses of Picardie', though I don't think he does ghosts as well as MRJ. Nobody does.

My favourite ghost story? It's in Shakespeare's A winter's tale, Act II sc 1. Mamillius starts:

There was a man

Dwelt by a churchyard: I will tell it softly:

Yond crickets shall not hear it.

The really scary thing about it is that the crickets never hear it, and neither do we; and by the end of the play Mamillius is dead -  one of the tragedies that the tragicomic ending can't erase.

Travel and politics

I've just been reading a very impressive book, Ken Finn's 'My journey with a remarkable tree'.

I won't spoil the story, but he gets involved with trying to find out what happens to the great 'spirit trees' of the Cambodian forest. And in between times, he gets a lot of his innocence taken away.

I like Ken's voice. He'll obsess about something - and then admit he knows he's being obsessive. He isn't afraid of drama, or of looking pretentious; big storms hit the jungle, trees speak to him. And his writing comes across to me as immediate and fresh.

But what I like most of all is that he cares about the context of what he's seeing. Not just: here's a tree. Not even: here 's a tree and I'm being a good green tourist. But: here's a tree, and I want to find out what happens to it after it's cut down.

There's a lot of politics here but I just don't see how it could be avoided by any traveller if they wanted to write something more than 'What we did on our holidays'. Any more than you could visit Auschwitz without knowing about Hitler.

It strikes me that one thing most of the travel writers I like have in common is that they engage with the politics behind what they see.  They might not be actively campaigning, but they see what's going on. For instance, Jan Morris is always aware of the marginality of eastern Europe, the kind of cities that survive only by permission of a larger empire. Timothy Garton Ash is both a political writer and a travel writer when he's looking at Eastern Europe and its emergence from the Communist period. It's about being aware of undercurrents and crosscurrents. Being aware of where wealth came from - and who might have suffered for it.

(When does politics become history.... that's another question. Perhaps for blogging another day.)

I don't mind the 'innocent' travel writer. But anyone who is serious, I think, makes their enquiries and finds out what is really happening - not just seeing the sights or retailing historical anecdotes.

Tuesday, 13 March 2007

Vandalism and Latinity

I've been reading a fascinating book this week while preparing a Norwich tour - 'Decoding flint flushwork' by John Blatchly and Peter Northeast.

The authors analyse the meaning of inscription in the fine flint panelling of Norfolk and Suffolk church towers.

But the mystery is how the pre-Reformation  messages survived. Well, maybe it's not such a mystery; flint is remarkably difficult to damage.

In just two cases, the Puritan iconoclasts did manage to erase messages. But in both cases, they left some of the words intact.

At West Tofts St Mary, they chiselled away the superstitious messagres - 'Pray for', and so on. But they left the names of the donors unmolested. That was actually rather kind of them - but of course it was only the suggestion of praying for the souls of the departed that they found unacceptable. A mere record of who paid for the work was theologically unexceptionable.

However at Helmingham St Mary they left a whole line of a Marian matins text intact - "Scandit ad ethera puerpera virgula Jesse", the branch of Jesse's tree ascends to heaven.  They had erased all the obvious texts - Ave Maria gratia plena, ora pro bonis, and so on.

It seems that Dowsing's Latin just wasn't good enough to understand the matins text!

So because he didn't understand it, he didn't chisel it away.

That rather tickles my sense of humour.

Wednesday, 7 March 2007

Maps and experience

Today's been a day when I've done a lot of thinking about maps.

It started when I went into Julian Graves to get myself some cashew nuts. They've just taken delivery of a new map of Norwich - a rather nice map, the kind that is illustrated with little pictures of the buildings. I was quite impressed. It was free, which is even more impressive.

Then someone mentioned to me the maps of John Rocque, an eighteenth century mapmaker who worked in London. I remember Rocque's name - there was a very good brasserie near Liverpool Street Station that bore his name, and was illustrated with fine enlargements of his maps. (Wonder if it's still there.) It's fascinating looking at his maps because they give you a feeling for the density and patterning of the city of his day - the small courtyards that open up in the middle of thick dark blocks of building, the way the whole riverbank of the City was carved up by long, narrow alleys just like Lowestoft's scores or Yarmouth's rows, giving access to the wharves.

A lot of that has changed - but not by any means all of it. Some patterns continue but in a slightly different form. The wide expanse of Farringdon Road now divides the City from Fleet Street - a great traffic artery where Rocque shows the Fleet Ditch. (If you look at the map with your eyes half closed, the two-banks-and-river format looks almost like a three lane motorway.)

And some things stay just the same. Right in the centre of his London map is the bulky shape of St Paul's with its crowning dome. That hasn't changed a bit.

Rocque's plans are what we expect of a map nowadays - though he does try to show the internal arrangements of the major churches, too, so you can see the nave, aisles and chapels at Westminster Abbey. But John Speed, making his maps in sixteenth century England, shows the cities more like the Norwich map I got today, with pictures of the buildings' elevations.

What's really stunning in all these old maps is to see how rural England still was. King's Road Chelsea, on Rocque's map, is a long, winding country road with not a house along its length. Pimlico is just orchards.

A map isn't just an archaeological record of course. It's a way that we try to categorise and organise our experience. And we have different ways of using them. When I'm hiking, my map serves for navigating on the ground. But I also have an overall map of the long distance path - and every evening, before I go to bed, I colour in the bit I've done today. It's a moment I've waited for, and I really savour it. It encapsulates my satisfaction with what I've done. And it gives me anticipation for what's still to come.

When I walked to Santiago, I drew the landscape another way, too. I transferred the contours from the map to a chart of the elevation, so I could see 'how high am I today'? Usually, a chart like this flattens out the terrain - but I was impressed to see just how big the mountain pass of O Cerbreiro still looked when I'd charted it.

And now we have Google Maps and some fascinating mashups which merge other data with mapping. Whether you want to see crime rates in New York, or your address book as a map, Google has opened up new ways for us to chart our experience of the world around us.

Sunday, 4 March 2007

A bit of bragging

I'm feeling rather happy today. In between writing and recording Podtours, I occasionally find time to submit to the Guardian's 'Been there' travel site. It works on the same basis as tripadvisor - submitted reviews of sights, hotels, bars. And every weekend the paper gathers together tips on particular cities and prints them as a feature in the travel supplement.
Three of my tips on Sicily made it into the newspaper yesterday! Apparently I'll get a t-shirt for my efforts. As a journalist I wonder what the opportunity cost of the t-shirt is... about 70 quid at my usual word rate. Even so, I'm a happy girl today.

Friday, 2 March 2007

Pilgrimage to Walsingham

It looks as if I'm going to be able to score another pilgrimage badge.

I'm already entitled to wear my scallop shell badge for the pilgrimage to Santiago. The Mediaeval Trust is  organising a re-enactment of the pilgrimage from Norwich to Walsingham - in proper medieval dress.  I'm really tempted to go.

Unfortunately the word has got out that we are being authentic 24/7. That is, no bunking off at six o'clock to go the pub and stay in a B&B. No, we've got to sleep on straw and eat proper medieval food. Fortunately I do know the Mediaeval Trust is blessed with some excellent cooks!

What do I get for four days of footslogging? Well if I go, I'm going to be raising some sponsorship for the Trust. And I hope I'll get another pilgrimage badge - like the one shown on Ladysmaid's page about pilgrimage (it's about half way down).

Is it really worth it? Maybe...