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!