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...