Monday, 23 November 2009

Lighting up the streets of Valletta

Flying into the tiny island of Malta, I am immediately struck with it’s similarity to Greece with it’s rocky dry landscape and white classically styled houses that can be seen perched on the largely treeless hillside. This is not totally surprising because although there are greater geographic connections to Sicilian Italy, there are also strong historic and cultural links to Greece. However, that is where it ends, as the islanders remain proudly Maltese, forged from an eclectic collection of influences that also includes North Africa and colonial Britain. As a result of more recent historical connections, English has joined Maltese as the dominant languages spoken throughout the island, which subsequently attracts hordes of sun seeking visitors from the UK each year. This has been terrific for the local economy, but tourism has come at a price. Over time it has transformed sleepy fishing villages such as St. Julian’s into garish centres for nightlife, with countless clubs, bars, casinos and restaurants lining the narrow streets. While this further enhances the attraction of the island to the young crowd, for me the nearby capital of Valletta remains a far more appealing place to explore, with its wonderfully stylish Baroque and Neo-classical architecture. Being a world heritage site, it is justifiably a beautiful and historic city; despite the every increasing demands of tourism that is constantly threatening to change it’s character (with three times more visitors to the island each year than actual residents). The fortress and waterfront area of the city is particularly attractive with views of the harbour that can be admired while eating delicious Mediterranean cuisine at the numerous cafes and restaurants that line the docks. However, the old town remains the most appealing, with its grand buildings and historic laneways of residences that overhang the streets with their ornate wooden balconies.

As the sun set on a brisk November night in Malta (well outside the regular tourist season), music could be heard in the distance as bands began to rally in the streets to join an annual parade that would celebrated the Christmas lights being switched on. This was quite a unique experience for a visitor, as within no time at all local folk had emerged from their houses to line the route and follow the parade. The music and enthusiasm of the crowd swept everyone along. They clapped and cheered enthusiastically as they walked through an impressive pathway of lights that were strung overhead leading toward the centre of town. The normally quiet streets of Valetta had suddenly been transformed into a celebration of light, music and Maltese tradition, set against some pretty unique architecture…quite special!

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Crossing the Alps into Zurich

After several days of enjoying the delights of Montreux, we are off to Zurich, following the ‘Golden Pass’ railway journey through the picturesque Swiss Alps. What a scenic delight … it’s like being a part of a giant model railway with its picture perfect landscape that has not a blade of grass out of place. As we peer out the window, we see stunning mountains dotted with Swiss Chalet’s and perfectly groomed cows complete with shiny brass bells hanging around their necks.

Eventually the spectacular landscape begins to give way to the familiar sights of a big city as we change trains at a town called Wiessman then head toward Zurich. Of course the city of Zurich is now a major European metropolis, but the centre of the old town hints of how it might have been several centuries ago. It’s now one of the best locations for shopping and indulging in a wide range of culinary sensations. It’s here we taste some traditional Swiss fondue for the first time and later lunch at the Odeon Bar, which was once the favorite haunt of famous figures such as Lenin, Mussolini and James Joyce. We both really enjoyed the atmosphere of Zurich, reminding us of Melbourne with its network of trams that take you all around the city. However, for the best view of Zurich we boarded the funicular to the ‘Polyterraisse’, which is an open air courtyard adjoining the university. From here we admire the old town and it’s winding river surrounded by its classic architecture. Returning to ground level, I head off to ‘The Kunsthaus’ (art gallery) while Jules can’t resist the shopping at the’Bahnhofstrasse’, which is said to provide over a kilometer of ‘retail therapy’. The lovely thing about Zurich is that it is all so compact and after a short walk I am enjoying a wonderful exhibition of Seurat drawings … it’s all very inspirational!

Just when I think that Zurich can’t get any better, Jules provides the ‘piece de resistance’ by organising tickets to the 50th anniversary concert of Miles Davis’ classic jazz LP ‘Kind of Blue’ (our all time favorite record). The celebration of this album nicely coincides with my own 50th birthday, so the timing is just perfect! Headed by the legendary drummer Jimmy Cobb who is the last of the remaining members of the Miles’ 1959 band, it is a rare treat to hear indeed. He had carefully selected the musicians, which includes Wallace Roney, who was the only trumpeter to be personally mentored by Miles Davis until his death in 1991. Needless to say it was a simply fantastic concert … certainly the best jazz performance I have ever seen!

Apart from some slightly grey weather, our time in Zurich had been perfect! We found it to be a city with so much to offer. It had clearly adapted well with the times and had somehow managed to strike a happy balance between it’s historical past and the needs of a modern urban city. In more ways than one it will always remain one of our most memorable, not only as a destination, but also the journey getting there.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Inspirations from Montreux

Although never having visited Montreux before, it was a place that I had long heard about. This was not through travel books or TV documentaries but through music. First it was through the lyrics of 70’s group ‘Deep Purple’ who sung about it in the rock anthem ‘Smoke on the Water’ and later through the countless jazz recordings from concerts at the famed Montreux Jazz Festival. It was a mysterious place of which I had no visual images in my head that I could draw upon. So when the train from Geneva pulled into the station, both Jules and I were amazed at the sheer beauty of the surrounding area.

We had arrived in autumn and the leaves had turned a brilliant range of shades from bright yellow to deep red, adding to a stunning vista looking out toward the lake and rugged snow capped mountains beyond. It was now the end of the tourist season and the town itself was somewhat quiet. The famed Jazz festival (one of the largest in the world) had come and gone for another year (July) and many of the hotels, including ours were relatively empty. Although I would have dearly loved to have attended the festival itself, in many ways this was possibly the best time to see the quiet side of Montreux; not only for the stunning leaves, but simply to enjoy the place much as locals do throughout the year. It is truly a beautiful place with crisp clean air and as you look around you can well understand why many notables such as Noel Coward, Dame Joan Sutherland and Freddie Mercury chose to make their home here. In fact, as we walked alongside the mirror-like lake, we come across a life size statue in tribute to the ‘Queen’ front man, posed in full performance mode, such was the regard they had for him in this picturesque town. Further along the lakefront is the famed convention centre with a small park that contains numerous tributes to the many jazz artists who have performed here since it began in 1967. The great Miles Davis played here no less than eight times, as did other legends such as Ella Fitzgerald, Bill Evans, Dizzy Gillespie and Les McCann.

Back at the eastern end of the lake is one of the most picturesque castles that you could ever hope to see. Chillon Castle looks as if it’s an apparition directly out of a fairy tale. Jutting out from the shoreline and positioned almost in the lake itself, this 12th century chateau is quite something to behold, with its wonderful medieval spires of varying heights. Jules and I donned an ipod head set and spent ages just wandering around the labyrinth of rooms and passageways, learning about its fascinating history. The noted English poet Lord Byron had done a similar thing back in the early 1800’s and in the dungeon we found the pillar on which he had carved his name. The castle and indeed the dungeon itself would provide inspiration for one of his most celebrated works, ‘The Prisoner of Chillon’ (1816). During his travels around Lake Geneva, Byron was accompanied by the writer Mary Shelley who was likely to have also found inspiration here for her classic novel ‘Frankenstein’ (1818).

Like many others who have visited Montreux, we both felt that this was a very special place and could well understand how it had energized so many artists, musicians and writers. As we sat on a bench eating our Swiss ice-cream, there was little to be done than to just take it all in.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

The Magnificence of Versailles

One of the great things about visiting or indeed living in Paris is the opportunity to access some of the most beautiful public buildings imaginable. Many of which are surrounded with a wealth of historical, architectural and cultural significance. With that in mind, none could be regarded as any more significant in France than Versailles. This was the stunningly opulent palace built by Louis X1V and would eventually become a central location in the story of the French revolution. Sitting just a short train ride outside of Paris, it is easily accessible and well worth the journey. Our first encounter with the grand building was when we trekked to see it with ‘Fat Tire Bike Tours’, who conduct regular trips by rail. After a short train journey, we unload the bikes and then we were off to the local market to pick up the mandatory supplies of cheese, bread and wine before our leisurely ride through the town and onward to the Palace of Versailles. We entered the vast grounds from a rear entrance and were immediately struck by the scale and beauty of the gardens. We then pedalled along the ‘Grand Lake’ to take up a picnic spot at the far end, looking back toward the grand palace. This was apparently a favourite location of Marie Antoinette who would often picnic here. You can certainly see why, with it’s vast view of the magnificently wide canal that was once the setting for numerous nautical spectacles. Along the banks are row upon row of box shaped trees that heighten the perspective and leads the eye toward the palace. This style of tree pruning represented the sixteenth century ideology of the mastery of man over nature, but causes much debate between Jules and myself…I tend to like them and Jules does not, preferring trees to remain in their natural shape! Nonetheless, it is fair to say that Versailles certainly makes a bold statement about ‘the haves and the have nots’ in France, a fact that would eventually spark a sweeping revolution throughout the country. This is further reinforced when walking around the palace itself, with rooms such as the famed ‘Hall of Mirrors’ providing an insight into the sheer wealth and indulgence of the monarchy of the day. Yet despite it’s chequered past, the French remain immensely proud of Versailles and regard it as a high point of their artistic and cultural history. This was particularly evident later in the year when we were invited by some French friends to their home near Versailles for Sunday lunch. At the conclusion of our meal, they kindly offered to take us a short distance to the palace for a late afternoon stroll. We actually entered near ‘The Petit Trianon’, which was Marie Antoinette’s private chateau that sits close to her own little village where she could enjoy simple rural indulgences away from the grandeur and formality of Versailles. By the time we arrived the tourists were beginning to leave and we could enjoy the grounds and the magnificence of her salmon coloured chateaux quite alone. It was very different than other areas within Versailles, with its slightly more modest scale and sense of seclusion. Apparently the Queen spared no cost in designing it to her own distinctive taste that tended to favour a more ‘English’ style of architecture and garden. It is still a very grand affair, but far more appealing than the 'big house'. As the sun began to set on a beautiful clear winters day, the scene was amazingly beautiful. We could sense our friends patriotic pride, but they didn’t say a lot…they didn’t have to! It certainly was a memorable moment for us and as we walked around the grounds, in the footsteps of Marie Antoinette, we both recognised that it is places like Versailles that make France such special place to visit.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Lingering at the Louvre

For an Art teacher, there is simply no other place to experience some of the most wonderful and iconic artworks of the past than in Paris. There are just so many great galleries, but of course one immediately springs to mind … ‘The Louvre’ (or the Musée du Louvre to give its official title). With our friend Daryl in town, it was high on his list of places to visit and although Jules and I had been before, we had truly only begun to scratch the surface of its vast collection of fine art. This former royal palace that hugs the right bank of the Seine is a lavishly ornate 16th century building that houses one of the largest collections of fine art and antiquities in the world.

Walking through Tuileries Garden late in the afternoon, we couldn’t help but be impressed by the grandeur of its architecture that domininates the Parisian streetscape. Yet in more recent times, it is the modern glass pyramid entrance (designed by I.M.Pei in 2002) that has certainly become the most recognizable external feature of the museum. Despite its initial controversy for not being in keeping with the renaissance style of the building, it is now claimed that since its construction, annual attendance to the Louvre has actually doubled. Its notoriety was further enhanced in 2003 when it emerged as a significant element of the ‘Da Vinci Code’ book and subsequent movie. This has further added to the huge number of tours that seem to centre around the Louvre on a daily basis. In fact, if you’re not careful it’s quite easy to be trampled by bikes, Segway vehicles and tourist groups led by flag carrying guides who constantly pass in and out of the area. If all this can be avoided, it’s possible to admire a most impressive view of the city directly through the Place de Concorde, along the Champs-Élysées toward the Arch de Triomphe and beyond…quite something!

Upon entering the Louvre by heading down through the glass pyramid, we were faced with the big decision of what to view. There is just so much to see that an initial plan of attack seemed the best way to make use of our limited time, as you could quite literally spend days in the museum and not see it all. The works on show in the Louvre cover everything from the cultures of Egypt, Greece and Rome through to the great works of pre and post Revolutionary France and beyond. Yet there is one particular piece of Italian renaissance painting that dominates the entire collection of 35,000 works, although in comparison to many pieces on show, it is a relatively diminutive piece of 77 x 53cm. Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’ is the one they all come to see and crowds of two or three deep can be seen around the work at any given time. While it’s debatable whether the hype behind the piece matches the reality, it was certainly nice to see it up close, although I was equally impressed with other nearby works by Leonardo that seemed to get very little attention. Another popular piece was Greece’s most famous sculpture, ‘Venus Di Milo’ which is probably more famous for her lack of arms than the artist who created it (believed to be Alexandros of Antioch). It is possibly one of the most parodied artworks ever and as a result, has become a favorite of the general public. We ended up spending much of our time looking at the enormous paintings (both in scale and number) from the 19th century French revolutionary period, which included the ‘Coronation of Napoleon’ (1807) by David, which is a massive 5.2 x9.7 metres in size. However, I particularly enjoyed Delacroix’s smaller but more iconic work of ‘Liberty Leading the People’ (1830), which is believed to have provided the inspiration for Victor Hugo’s classic novel Le Miserables.

While there were some late 19th century works that hinted of the birth of the ‘Belle Epoche’ (the ‘Beautiful Era’ from 1890 -1914), the Louvre essentially continues to display the ‘Royal Collection’ and earlier works. Most of its 20th century pieces moved to Musée d'Orsay in 1986 and such was the vastness of it’s collection that today it still seems endless. It is certainly one of those places that you can explore again and again and never really quite see it all.

' Liberty Leading the People' by David

Thursday, 1 October 2009

The Pompidou … Gallery of the People!

One of the great joys of living in Paris is having some of the world’s most famous art museums at your doorstep. Of course the Louvre and Musee de Orsay are justifiably the most popular amongst the tourists, but no less impressive is the Pompidou Centre and after several visits, it still remains one of my favorites. This was not entirely anticipated, as, like many Parisians who viewed this centre of contemporary art with initial suspicion, I was also a little wary of this strange industrial structure that had inexplicably landed in the 4th arrondissement in the 1970’s like something from outer space.

It must have been quite a shock when the designs for this highly anticipated building were initially revealed to the French public. Not only were the winners of the international design competition foreign (Italian architects Renzo Piano and Gianfranco Franchini, and Richard Rogers from Britain), but also the design they proposed was such a radical departure from any other building in Paris as to totally alienate itself from all historical ties to the city. Not since the building of the Eiffel Tower in 1889 would a structure cause such consternation and derision, yet the ‘Beaubourg’ as it was known at the time, would continue to be built, championed the country’s president, Georges Pompidou. The result was a radically complex multi-level form that effectively would see the traditional notion of a building literally turned inside out. With its exposed structural skeleton combined with a spaghetti-like maze of multi-coloured electrical and air-conditioning ducts, it appeared to be the ultimate celebration of function over aesthetics. While I still can’t honestly say that it is one of my favorite pieces of architecture, it’s significance as a post-modernist icon has to be acknowledged. Despite initial public criticisms, it proceeded to change our perception of public architecture. Although Modernism had done little to change many of the elitist notions of what an art gallery might be, the design of the Pompidou Centre had successfully signaled a new egalitarian approach to the arts that can be clearly seen today.

The first time Jules and I visited, we were immediately struck by how the building was squeezed within the traditional period buildings of the neighborhood. Surprisingly, there are few surrounding grassed areas, but rather paved spaces that could be adapted for a range of public uses. When we were there, we were amazed to find dozens of young people scribbling on the ground with chalk. Clearly this was some sort of organized event, but it was difficult to see exactly what was being achieved. Nonetheless, there was much laughter and enjoyment from the simple indulgence of making colourful marks in a prominent public space on a warm Sunday afternoon. Similarly the nearby Stravinsky Fountain (designed by Jean Tinguely) was another colourful reminder of the fun and relaxed nature of the area that surrounds the Pompidou Centre. This is a youthful space that encourages spontaneous art in all its forms; be it artists, musicians, jugglers, mime acts or dancers … they all seem to congregate around this Parisian landmark.

Traveling our way upward through the Perspex domed escalator that is attached to the outside of the Pompidou, we are provided with wonderful views across the suburbs of Paris … a bonus! We head straight to the third level (the highest point) to inspect a major exhibition of the work of Alexander Calder and as we step into a wide open area, we are immediately struck by the contrast of the minimalist interior to the visual chaos of the buildings exterior cladding. In the gallery it seems, the buildings architecture takes a back seat to the importance of the art itself and despite the large crowds, there seemed to be a distinct sense of light and space. It was simply one of the nicest places to view art and over the next few months we would visit several times to attend major exhibitions by Kandinsky and Freud, as well as continuing to examine it’s impressive permanent collection.

The architects of the Pompidou Centre were originally given the brief to create a building that would promote the popular notion of artistic, social and cultural exchange and to that end, they certainly achieved their goals. While it created much controversy in its day, the building and its surrounding spaces are now a welcome haven for all forms of popular culture and as a result, is constantly alive with activity. While the Louvre and the many other galleries and museums of Paris tend to celebrate the past in a more academic and austere manner, the Pompidou provides a youthful approach to the arts that is somehow quite irresistable. This was particularly reinforced as we took the escalator downward after our visit and looked to where we had earlier seen kids marking the pavement with chalks. Their task was now almost complete and we were both quite stunned by the colourful floor mural that had collectively been created throughout the afternoon. While it was more than likely that this enormous work of art would be washed away with the next shower of rain, they had clearly valued the experience of making art in this collaborative way. Indeed it is doubtful whether such an activity would have been undertaken anywhere else in Paris other than here. The Pompidou is truly a place in which both permanent and transient art forms are equally valued as legitimate artifacts of a creative culture. It remains ‘a gallery of the people’ and much like its architecture it is influenced by the contemporary rather than the conventions of the past.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Chateaux of the Loire Valley

Having settled nicely into Paris, it was now time to venture further afield with my first opportunity coming in the form of a school camp to the Loire Valley in the heart of France. Although I would be sadly traveling without Jules, it would provide me with an opportunity to journey through some of the most picturesque wine growing districts and according to our itinerary, view some of the most elegant chateaux’s in France.

Heading out early, our bus made its way through the outer suburbs of Paris and eventually on to the open highway. While most of the staff and students ignored the passing activity, for me as a new arrival to France, it was all very interesting. The early morning commuters, the regular toll booths, nuclear power stations, various bridges crossing gently flowing rivers and the sight of distant towns; nothing escaped my attention. Eventually the major highway gave way to smaller roads that passed through quaint towns and rolling hills lined with endless rows of grapevines. Conversation amongst the staff on board inevitably switched to the serious subject of wine and the reputation of the various varieties that come from this region. The only thing I could contribute at this point was a positive comparative endorsement of Australian wine, something that didn’t particularly carry much weight amongst those who had lived in France for several years. It seemed that on this particular subject, French produced wine was clearly the best in the world and those from other countries should be regarded as being merely one step up from vinegar. As I hastily retreated from the debate, I cast my eyes out of the window to see several hot air balloons effortlessly drifting across the horizon … now that would be a unique way to take this all in!

Our first stop would be Chateaux Chambord, which is the largest chateaux in the Loire Valley. Although it has some 440 rooms, this was a mere hunting lodge for Louis XIV who used it frequently as he particularly enjoyed the pastoral court life it offered. Originally built in the 1500’s, the Chateaux provides a somewhat grandiose vision of French renaissance architecture, with its curved exterior walls and more than 800 sculpted columns upon its elaborately decorated roof. While the chateaux interior has 84 staircases, one in particular attracts most of the attention. It is claimed to have been designed by Leonardo da Vinci and consists of two intertwining spiral staircases. Much like a DNA ‘double-helix’, it allows two people to go up or down the stairs without crossing paths with each other … surely only Leonardo could have engineered something like that! With the pillaging of the French Revolution and with long periods in which the chateau was left abandoned, there remains little in the way of furniture. However, the building stands as testament to the flamboyant excesses of the French aristocracy and as a fascinating monument to its architectural extravagance.

Another great Chateaux we visited was at Chenonceau where one of the most photographed buildings in France elegantly straddles the River Cher. We sensed that this was quite a special place by the sheer number of tourists who were single mindedly trekking through the woods with cameras in hand. It is after all, apart from the Palace of Versailles, the most visited Chateaux in France. Although it is always referred to as a Chateaux, Chenoneax is technically a ‘manor house’, being much smaller in size, although it remains no less elegant with a history that goes back to the days of French royalty in the 1500’s. While Chambord might reflect the excesses of the period, Chenoneax is regarded as quite an exceptional, yet more modest example of French rennaisance architecture. The fact that it has survived both revolution and war is quite amazing; something which in no small part was due to a succession of extraordinary women who protected and administered this much loved building during its long history. It is truly a romantic building, with its beautifully balanced asymmetrical design that features arched footings, which seem to lightly touch the river that it spans.

Over two days we spotted many more chateaux in the region (there are actually more than 300). Most sit on vast acres of land as cold and distant monuments to a time long gone. So it was particularly nice to visit a Chateaux that is still inhabited and operational; due to the support of tourism of course. Such is the case with the beautifully preserved Chateaux Beauregarde, which was designed and built in the 1500’s and is indicative of the style of many constructed at that time. As well as being architecturally elegant, the Chateaux is significant for enabling the visitor to put faces to the many aristocrats and royalty who frequented such buildings and the region. This is due to an enormous ‘gallery of portraits’ (the largest in Europe), which displays paintings of 327 dignitaries from the 14th-17th century. With works displayed in a large and beautifully preserved oak paneled room, the gallery provides an insight into the human side of the architectural eccentricities of that period. At one time these people were the most powerful in Europe, with such unimaginable wealth as to indulge themselves with buildings of scale, splendor and opulence. While these Chateaux now remain a much appreciated legacy of those times, there is no doubt their presence must have fuel the discontent of the masses in their day. I guess that in the end, it wasn’t totally surprising that it all culminated in the fervor of violent revolution!

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Star Wars in Tunisia

One of the unexpected aspects of visiting Tunisia was to come across a range of areas that had been used as locations for various movies. ‘The English Patient’, ‘Gladiator’ and ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ have all been filmed here. However, the most famous of all would have to be the ‘Star Wars’ series. Many of these George Lucas movies were filmed in the remote deserts of Tunisia, which apparently seemed to be an ideal location to represent planets from ‘a galaxy far, far away.’ As part of our Sahara odyssey, we were scheduled to visit some of these locations which would certainly be of more interest to me than Jules. We had actually attended the opening night screening of Star Wars back when we were dating many moons ago, but while Jules was happy to leave the series at that, I had continued to enjoy the original trilogy for many years to come. It was over forty degrees when we head into the rocky desert area, toward the tiny village of Matmama. This is the land of the ‘Berbers’, nomadic tribes who still live in primitive dwellings dug into the hillside as a way of protecting themselves from the intensely dry heat. Such was the design of the ‘Sidi Drass Hotel’, which was similarly dug down into the ground to provide the visually unique setting for Luke Skywalker’s childhood home. Amazingly, the interiors remain much as they were seen in the original 1977 film and as a functional hotel, the dwelling still attracts Star Wars devotees from throughout the world eager to spend the night. The dugout rooms were amazingly cool and we enjoyed respite from the heat while tucking into a traditional Tunisian lunch before heading back into the desert. The next day we change our mode of transport from coach to four-wheel drive as we headed deep into the sandy desert to search out an exterior location from ‘The Phantom Menace’, filmed in 1999. Bouncing over the sand dunes, we eventually come across the manufactured set looking pretty much as George Lucas had left it once the filming was over. Clearly it still provides a good income for locals who continue to transport the tourists across the desert as well as for the trinket sellers who wait there eagerly for them to arrive. You can well understand why this area was selected, with it’s stark unearthly landscape providing a terrific backdrop to the sci-fi epic. As we wandered around the remote site, we had our light saber at the ready…well, our camera at least! The isolated beauty combined with some fantastic alien architectural forms certainly provided us with some interesting shots that appeared to be straight from another world, just as the famed director intended.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Sunset at the Oasis

Driving across the inland deserts of Tunisia, we are struck by its harshness of the landscape, but also the variety of forms that a desert can take. There are long stretches of low-level saltbush, flat sections that look like salt lakes and rocky lunar-like landscapes. Of course the most visually appealing are great sandy deserts that come with the occasional welcoming patch of green oasis. While not looking quite like the clichéd image of an oasis, these are generally large areas of closely packed palm trees that are obviously thriving on a small well of water rising from somewhere deep below the ground. This was the sort of desert experience we were looking for and it wasn’t too long before our driver was heading toward an area where we could explore it further. It was mid-afternoon and the temperature was scorching as we headed toward a tiny town called Douz. Also referred to as ‘the gateway to the Sahara’. Douz has long been the starting point for many desert treks and historically was an important stop for the Trans-Saharan caravan route. Today it remains a haven for tourists wishing to have a taste of a bygone era when camels were truly the ‘ships of the desert’. We leisurely waited in the swimming pool of our hotel until late in the afternoon before we donned traditional Arabic kaftans and head cloth (known as a kufiyya) to join our group for a sunset trek into the desert by camel. Now at this point I probably need to mention that I have always been a big fan of the film ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, which provided me with a very romantic notion of the desert since viewing the movie at our local drive-in theatre way back in the 1960’s. So the notion of riding a camel across the desert dunes was somewhat of a fulfillment of a childhood fantasy for me. While I was getting quite excited about the notion, Jules was becoming increasingly apprehensive about climbing on board a headstrong dromedary that appeared not so keen on being ridden by an inexperienced Australian. There was a solution…while I would ride the camel, Jules would be chauffeur driven in a horse drawn buggy taking photographs of me having my ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ moment…perfect! So as the sun began to shimmer over the horizon, we headed off across the soft white desert sands. The scene looked as picturesque as I had imagined if you somehow managed to ignore the hundreds of other tourists also wishing to have the same experience. Jules’ camera was working overtime in the dying minutes of the day and as the sun began to set, a silhouetted figure sat high on his camel strolling majestically across the crest of the desert sands. At that point and in my own dream world, I swear I could hear the soundtrack to Lawrence of Arabia in the background!

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Gladiators of El Djem

Up early on a hot and steamy Tunisian morning, we quickly eat breakfast and waited outside our hotel for a 6.30am pickup to begin what is referred to as a ‘Sahara Getaway’. The trip would take us far from the coast and inland heading toward the Libyan border. However, our first stop was at the ancient town of El Djem, which is famed for it’s magnificent Roman amphitheatre. Now, this isn’t one of your average crumbling Roman ruins but rather one of the best preserved examples of Roman architecture in the world, dating way back to the third century AD. While it’s equally impressive cousin the Colosseum in Rome continues to attract millions of visitors each year from around the world, El Djem remains much less known and as a result is somewhat less tainted by commercialism and the tourist dollar. It is similar in design and scale but in far better condition with its classic circular structure remaining beautifully preserved despite numerous wars as well as the inevitable destructive combination of time and the desert sands. Once it held crowds of up to 45,000 people watching everything from ‘Ben Hur’ style chariot races through to gruesome gladiatorial events. In fact, it is still possible to venture down into the dungeons to see the cages where animals and possibly people were kept before their encounters in the grand arena. As Jules and I wandered through the ancient tunnels and stairways that lead to the amphitheatre, we could only imagine what life must have been like during those ancient times. We both really enjoyed being able to just wander around the largely unrestricted site without being swamped by hordes of other tourists. Despite its World Heritage listing (awarded in 1979), this particular Colosseum appeared to have remained somewhat undiscovered by the wider world, with only small groups of interested visitors willing to make the indirect journey to this remarkable location. Its isolation and authenticity is probably one of the factors that has attracted numerous filmmakers over the years. Not surprisingly, Ridley Scott’s ‘Gladiator’ was filmed here, as were scenes from Monty Pythons ‘Life of Brian’. For us, El Djem was quite an unforgettable introduction to Tunisian history and to the desert region. It suggested that this country had an intriguing and unknown past that had many more remarkable secrets yet to be revealed.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Tunisia … Our Last Resort!

With just a couple of weeks to spare, before heading to Paris, Jules and I were keen to do some sun chasing. The UK was having yet another disappointing summer, so we began to look further a field. A place that was being heavily promoted and was certainly in our price range was Tunisia. We had absolutely no idea about this destination other than the fact that many were recommending this North African country as a great place to enjoy the warm Mediterranean coastline. As we boarded the plane it was clear that many others had already heard the whispers and were also keen to stretch their holiday dollar even further by paying Tunisia a visit. When we left the gray skies of Manchester, the holiday excitement of the many sun-starved northerners on the plane was clearly beginning to build. Of course our touch down at Monestir was met by the obligatory round of applause (not sure why they do that) and we were quickly whisked onto our holiday package tour bus that would take us to our resort. To be honest, our initial impressions of Tunisia was somewhat of a shock. As we left the airport we encountered a dry and dusty urban landscape of buildings that looked either half demolished or half constructed (it was often hard to tell). This was the first time we wondered whether we had done the right thing by coming here. The streets revealed a strange combination of the old and the new. Horse and carts traveled the roads with the sleek four wheeled drive vehicles. Traditionally dressed locals mixed with those in the latest European fashions. We passed advertising billboards standing on empty patches of desert sand showing futuristic artist impressions of proposed high-rise buildings. Was this the promise of what was to come or just wishful thinking? All this confusion was certainly in stark contrast to what we saw when passing through the gates to our resort at Port El Kantaoui, with its lush green manicured gardens and grand entrance to our white multi storey hotel. There was certainly no ambiguity here; this was a sanctuary for fun and relaxation in an environment that was more than likely well out of reach to most Tunisians. For most of the folk in our transit bus, this is where they would stay for the remainder of their holiday time, without venturing outside the gates. They would spend their days soaking up the sun and enjoying the warm waters, interrupted only by visits to the ‘all you can eat’ food buffet at meal time. Down by the beach they would be enticed to shell out a few denars to engage in a host of water activities ranging from paragliding, catamarans sailing, jet skiing, paddle boating, through to being towed along by speed boats on what looked unmistakably like a giant rubber banana. If they felt inclined they also had the option of heading further out to sea on one of the many cruising boats. We spotted one in particular that was decked out like a cliché styled pirate ship, but judging by the music blaring out it was clearly for the younger crowd. Being the height of summer, other resort guests would race out well before breakfast to lay claim to a place near the swimming pool by placing their towel on one of the many hundreds of sun beds that would eventually become fully occupied as the day became hotter. Once in position and nicely roasting, they would be regularly hydrated by one of the many waiters keen to keep the drinks flowing. As this was our first time taste of the Mediterranean holiday scene, Jules and I had much to learn about this type of holiday. While it was certainly nice to feel the warm sun on our backs, it all made us feel strangely uncomfortable. It may have been the confinement or the self indulgence, but it was just not our style, although it had taken a visit to such a resort for us to truly realize it. Fortunately, the resort was prepared for recalcitrants such as us and with a few tour options available, we soon began to plan an adventure beyond the guarded walls to see what the real Tunisia had to offer.

Friday, 31 July 2009

A Journey to the Birthplace of the Olympics

Jules and I were quite excited about visiting the ancient site of Olympia during our Mediterranean cruise. For many years we had viewed scenes on TV of maidens in classical Greek garb catching the rays of the sun to light the famed Olympic torch. Having been the site of the original Olympic games in ancient times, by tradition this location has always been the place where this global sporting event was launched every four years. We docked in the tiny town of Katakolon and were quite surprised to find that Olympia is actually 45 minutes away by train. We arrived at the small town of Olympia with its pretty little railway station, renovated especially for the tourists, with the realisation that this ancient site is quite isolated. However, as you enter the historic site itself there is an immediate sense of its cultural significance. This is a sacred location (after all, the Olympics was originally a religious event), where some of the greatest athletic events were born at around 700 years BC. We walked freely around the ruins that spoke of a civilisation long disappeared with its various temples to the Greek Gods and Grecian pillars that surrounded once grand buildings. Eventually we made our way toward the site of the very first Olympic stadium, which is remarkably humble by modern day standards. I was tempted to run a quick lap around the track, but as it was a very hot time of the year, just stepping onto the track was quite enough. As you walk through the arched entrance way you can imagine the scene of the first Olympics with cheering crowds watching running, javelin, discuss and other events, while athletes competed for the glory of victory and a simple olive wreath. These were simpler times that seem a far cry from the multi-billion dollar event the Olympics is today!

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Afternoon in a Greek Taverna

For the final leg of our Greek odyssey we spent a little time in bustling Corfu. We were aware that this is a favourite tourist destination and could immediately see why. The township sits on an island off the north west coast of Greece and is particularly picturesque with its steep rolling hills that drop straight into a clear blue ocean. Being an important strategic location for ancient battles, it is dotted with early fortifications that are perched high in the hills and provide wonderful views of the undulating coastline. Within the old town itself there is a labyrinth of narrow cobblestone streets crammed with tourist shops and eateries. It was here that Jules and I would begin our much anticipated search for an authentic Greek meal… something that eluded us so far, due to our busy sightseeing schedule. We were being very particular about our choice of venue as we looked for the freshest seafood we could possibly find (no frozen food for us). Eventually we found an accommodating owner who assured us that his fish was fresh off the boat today. Taking him on his word we sat down in a comfortable alfresco spot that provided a view of the harbour. Clearly the owner was determined to backup his word with actual proof, as within minutes he came running over with a massive platter of assorted fresh fish and seafood to meet our approval. He had certainly proved his point and we settled down to the delicious Greek meal of calamari, sardines, Greek salad, cold Greek beers and Greek coffee…an authentic lunch to remember! At that point we reflected on how lucky Australia was to have had such an influx of Greek migrants during the 50’s and 60’s and how much they had truly influenced our taste for food. We also realised that the Greek experience is not just about it’s ancient history, scenic beauty and beautiful waters, which are all in abundance, but it is very much about the simplicity of their lifestyle … good food, drink and company, shared in a climate that is not too dissimilar to home.

Tough Trail to the Acropolis

Continuing the Greek leg of our cruise of the Mediterranean, we awoke to see the amazing sight of Athens coming into view. It is so different to what we had imagined… very large and very white! There seemed to be hardly any greenery in the city itself with a mass of white washed buildings from the shore to the mountains. As we looked toward the mountains in the distance we could see the unmistakable sight of the Acropolis, which is of course the ‘must see’ tourist attraction of this great city. While the other ‘cruisers’ chose to travel there by coach and taxi, Jules and I decided to mix it with the locals and opt for the train (Jules is the master of railway systems). While others were stuck in a monster Greek traffic jam, we made our way up the mountain within 45 minutes after leaving the ship. We naively imagined that we would be the only ones up there when we reach the top…boy, were we wrong! Of course people come from all parts of the world to see this great monument and the pilgrimage begins very early. Weaving our way past camera-laden tourists, speaking a myriad of languages, we gradually made our way to the top. The scene was almost biblical in scale, as the massive crowd clung to the ruins in an attempt to get a view of the iconic Parthenon. Attendants encouraged us to move along and resist the temptation to take photos, which would inevitably slow down the procession. We eventually made it, but with a huge crowd kicking up ancient dust and combining it with a brisk warm breeze, it wasn’t particularly pleasant. We took a moment to catch our breath and have a drink of water and for a moment we were tempted to just head straight back down. This was not at all what we imagined! I eventually found a relatively quiet spot to pull out the sketchbook, only to be soon invaded by tourists who were buzzing around me to see what I was drawing. Eventually, with dust in our eyes and our hats blowing off, we gave up and headed back down. The Parthenon certainly looked as picturesque as you would imagine, but the postcards just don’t take into account the mass of people that come with it. An hour later, a little less hassled, we found ourselves walking the picturesque streets of the old town of Athens. Feeling hot, dry and dusty, we looked up toward the ancient mountain and reflected upon our experience. We both agreed that it was great to see it in the flesh, but we couldn’t help think that in the height of summer, the Acropolis was tourism out of control!

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

The Bargain Bazaar of Kusadasi

Our early morning arrival to the coastline of Turkey revealed a rocky landscape of spartan low lying hills that ran down to the sea. Nestled along the shore was the resort town of Kusadasi, renowned for it’s sun drenched beaches and unique shopping experiences. Over the years the town has established itself as a regular stop over for cruise ships, so naturally enough the local traders were well prepared for the influx of visitors that would invade the township ready to spend.

Jules and I had been reliably informed by our ships company that this was indeed the place where bargains were to be had and that if we were prepared to ‘haggle’ we would come away with some exceptionally good deals. Apparently bartering was such a tradition in this part of the world that refusing to negotiate on price was tantamount to an insult. It was also suggested that prices would be coming thick and fast in the crowded bazaars of Kusadasi, so the best strategy would be to play it cool by at first ignoring the various banter and enticements being thrown at you. If we were seriously interested, we should begin by offering around 30% of the original asking price, which would in turn trigger some serious negotiations and if we played are cards right, it would eventually result in us paying around half price.

Armed with this information we headed ashore, although our pre-embarkation pep talk had not quite prepared us for the consumer assault that we were about to experience. As we headed along the lanes, traders would bolt from their shops following us down the road quizzing us about our obvious need for all manner of rugs, clothing, jewelry, watches or souvenirs. It was all done in relatively good humor, but it was nonetheless quite intimidating and rather than luring us into their shop, it had the opposite effect as we picked up our pace to get away. Eventually we settled into the atmosphere of the bazaar and began to purchase a few things, mindful that any brand names we were buying would generally be fake. In fact we both laughed when passing one very honest watch shop that proudly displayed the sign ‘genuine fakes here', which seemed indicative of much of what was for sale throughout the market.

Having felt somewhat victorious from our bargaining (well, we thought so anyway) we headed back to the ship slightly exhausted. Not only had we negotiated on every item purchased, but also endured the constant verbal barrage from the various traders who were determined to have us reach even deeper into our pockets. This was certainly no place for casual browsing, but rather a shopping experience that had developed into a battle of wits and endurance that we were both happy to have survived.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Bathing in the Waters of Crete

Many years ago, when Jules and I first met and I started to visit her house, it was clear that Greek culture figured prominently in the life of her family. Not that her family was Greek but anyone entering the house for the first time could have easily been mistaken. Her mother was going through her ‘Greek phase’ after just returning from a holiday to Athens and the Greek Islands. Greek bazuki music would be constantly playing on the stereo, while Jules’ mum would be in the kitchen cooking Moussaka, Dolmades or some other Greek delicacies. The country had made such an impression on her and in turn she had planted a seed in Jules and later myself, so that one day we would have to visit and experience it for ourselves. The opportunity was now here, all be it thirty years later, as we embarked upon a cruise around the Mediterranean. One of our first ports of call was on the legendary island of Crete, arriving on a beautifully warm day in July. Our ship docked in the picturesque little town of Agios Nikolaos and it’s not too long before we are down the gangplank and wandering the streets. We are so impressed with the many cafes that line the harbour and it’s simply too hot to go further without enjoying the local hospitality. As we sat sipping our drinks we looked out toward the ocean and became increasingly drawn to the brilliant blue waters. However, just one catch…neither of us had bathers! Having departed from England, we had simply forgotten what warm weather was and had neglected to buy some. It was too hot to go looking now! Not deterred, we drifted down to the rocky shore and away from the tourist spots for what we thought might be ‘a quick paddle’, but after noticing the isolation of the spot we had chosen it wasn’t too long before we were stripped down to our undies and hopping in! Well, I simply can’t describe how clear, cool and wonderful that swim was! We spent quite a while just bobbing up and down in the crystal clear waters, watching the boats sail by. I sat on a rock and sketched and then after a while we wandered back into town for yet another refreshing drink. Not surprisingly it wasn’t too long before we were back to the same spot (still without bathers) to do it all again. The simple pleasure of that day was a great introduction to the Greek Islands.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

The Devon and Cornwall Road Trip

It was well over twenty years ago, during a stint of living in the UK, that Jules and I, with our four year old son David, bundled ourselves into a very small red hire car and headed south from London towards Devon and Cornwall. It was the summer of 1988 and while being typically grey, there were a few special days where the sun managed to peep through to shed its light on this glorious part of England. For years we carried with us pleasant memories of rolling hills, narrow laneways, country B&B’s and seaside villages complete with the distinctive sound of seagulls flying overhead. In fact we were so keen to relive the experience again that we planned a five-day road trip that would retrace much of that journey. So in the height of yet another English summer and despite grey clouds brewing on the horizon, we took off expectantly down the M5. As had been the case all those years ago, no particular destination was planned and no accommodation booked. We would simply follow the road and rely on our AA map and Jules’ fabulous navigation skills to get us there.

We arrived in Lyme Regis by late afternoon as the first showers began to fall and although it seemed quite a nice little coastal town, like most of the holiday makers on the beach our enthusiasm was being somewhat dampened by the weather. Nonetheless, Jules had read about a particularly good restaurant that was well worth visiting, so we decided to stay the night. It was at this point that we realized that our cunning plan to simply drop into popular seaside towns in summer in the hope of finding somewhere to stay might have a serious flaw. After several phone calls from the tourist office we finally managed to secure something, but suffice it to say it made ‘Fawlty Towers’ look like the Hilton Hotel and we hit the road very early the next day.

Continuing our journey south, the rain began picking up where it had left off the night before. With the wind screen wipers working overtime, we eventually reached the quiet inlet of Noss Mayo and enjoyed a hot chocolate in the local pub that overlook this tranquil fishing town. We soon pressed on to the historic town of Plymouth where I couldn’t help but think of the many convicts who once boarded ships here for a one-way passage to sunny Australia … there could have been far worse punishments I’m sure! As we moved down the coast towards the picturesque towns of Looe and Polperro, fond memories came flooding back, as this region was our favorite. These are quintessential fishing villages that have barely changed for centuries, if you discount the fleets of tourist buses that visit each town daily. With the rain driving down, we looked for brighter horizons on the west coast and in particular in the town of Padstow, which has become somewhat of a tourist Mecca due to it being the home of celebrity chef Rick Stein. In fact this charming fishing town could well be renamed ‘Rick Steinville’, as we counted at least five business establishments baring his name. Of course his celebrity has done much for local economy and in particular the demand for accommodation, as we found out first hand when we tried to find a room for the night. This time there was not a bed to be had and so late in the evening, we drove out of town only to find a very remote hotel somewhere near Newquay ... our B&B plan was not working well!

The next day we backtracked through Padstow and continued north to the mystical town of Tintegal. The ruined castle here is believed to have provided the inspiration for Camelot, King Arthur and the knights of the round table. After a lengthy drive, we arrived at the rugged cliffs to view what is said to be the ruins of the ancient castle. To be honest the few remaining stones bare only a passing resemblance to a castle and there is considerable reliance upon the public’s imagination to create the medieval scene. However what can be guaranteed is plenty of wind! This, combined with on going rain, meant for pretty bleak conditions and this was the height of summer!! Feeling cold and wet, we settled for the best attraction to be found in Tintegal, the genuine Cornish pasty!

Over the next few days we would take a slow and meandering course back toward Bournemouth. We would head through the Dartmore National Park, staying in the quaint town of Mortenhampstead, where following the advice of our B&B host, we ventured south to Salcombe. This was one of the nicest surprises of our road trip, as it is a charming little fishing town with a lovely outlook. Skirting the outskirts of Torquay, we headed toward Exeter, then onto the seaside town of Budleigh Salterton, which was again quite nice despite the drizzle. In the end, the sun did make the occasional appearance offering us hope of brighter days, but it seemed that this time we were destined to experience a typical English summer. Our road trip was not quite what we had imagined, nor did it totally recapture the fond memories of all those years ago. If we can take anything from this trip it is that we must always treasure those wonderful moments of travel, as they are often so difficult to ever recapture again.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

In Respect for Lawrence

When I was a child, one of our family treats was going to the drive-in theatre and one of the first films I can remember seeing in the 1960’s was David Leane’s ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. It was an epic film that conjured up visions on the big screen of a culture and landscape that I had never seen before. It certainly made a huge impression on me and later it would add to a wider appreciation of history that continued to stay with me into adulthood. As far as T.E. Lawrence was concerned, I wanted to learn more about the man and his legend and over the years I read several books and watched documentaries about his life. So when we were in Bournemouth (UK) to visit Jules’ aunty and uncle, I was well aware that this was close to the county were Lawrence had spent his final days. Just a short drive into Dorset would allow us an opportunity to visit his home called ‘Cloud Hill’, a remote cottage not too far from Bovington Camp, the army base where he served his final commission. When you approach ‘Cloud Hill’ you immediately learn something about the man. Firstly, judging by the amount of people visiting his home on any given day, he is clearly still held in high esteem by the people of England. Secondly, looking at the size of the house as you walk toward it, you sense that he lived a humble existence despite the fame and adulation he received during his lifetime. This is re-affirmed when you enter his tiny house, which he purchased in 1925 and where he lived without power and limited water supply for ten years. The interior is left almost exactly as it was on the day of his motorbike accident, that eventually took his life. His personal library and gramophone records remain in tact, as does the sleeping bag that was reserved for his guests and which was stolen shortly after the release of the movie, only to be returned again in 2001. It was certainly an austere existence, which in many ways reflected his complex personality. Later Jules and I visited his grave in the tiny town of Morton, which was as expected, a very understated monument to his life. The size of the grave gave an indication of his small stature, which was around 5’5” and somehow belied the larger than life status he had held in life as a result of his fame. Although he had sought obscurity after his desert adventures, it was evident that he still carried some political weight, with Winston Churchill attending his funeral in 1935. As we stood alone in the tiny graveyard paying our respects, I couldn’t help but reflect upon the path that had led us all the way there from Australia. For a moment my mind flitted back to that drive-in movie all those years ago.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

The Legendary Leaning Tower

After catching a train from Florence, we headed toward Pisa tohave a look at arguably one of the worlds most famous architectural triumphs and/or disasters. It is the bell tower for Pisa’s Cathedral Square (Piazza del Duomo), better known as ‘The Leaning Tower of Pisa’. This is one of the great iconic buildings of Italy that continues to attract tourists to this major Tuscan city. To be honest, Jules and I generally found the city itself a little uninspiring in comparison to Florence, but we had come here on a mission and it wasn’t too long before we began to follow the tourist trail to the cathedral. As we discovered, the Pisa bell tower is just one of a collection of magnificent buildings that make up the cathedral complex called Campo dei Miracoli, which means ‘Field of Miracles’. It is a splendid collection of classic Roman architecture, constructed of white marble that includes not only the familiar leaning tower, but also a magnificent basilica and domed cathedral. Even without its unusual lean, the tower itself would have still attracted visitors over the years, as it a wonderful piece of medieval architectural design. With its unique circular construction and ornate marble arches, it stands eight storeys high and must have originally been regarded as a building triumph. However, so prominent has the lean become that over the years this feature has tended to over shadow its significance as one of the great buildings of the era. From what we learnt, the tower appeared to reveal its structural problems right from the very start. Way back in the 1100’s it became obvious during construction that the ground was beginning to subside and soon the characteristic lean was becoming obvious. By the time of the latest restoration (1990) it had developed into a lean of around 10 degrees, which was then corrected to around 5 degrees in order to prevent it from literally falling over. Today the restoration continues and on the day we were there we could clearly see the workman perched up high, precariously working on the arches. Looking much like a giant white wedding cake that has been accidentally bumped, the tower took pride of place, set starkly against the manicured green lawns. Jules and I particularly enjoying watching the hoards of tourists having their photographs taken, standing in the foreground and posing as if to be pushing the tower upright. There must be millions of these photos in albums throughout the world and I must confess that we took one or two ourselves. Eventually, we sat back on the grass in the warm sun eating pizza in Pisa and just admired the scene. We both agreed that despite or maybe because of it’s lean, the tower was every bit as impressive as anything we had seen in Italy so far.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Looking for ‘David’

One of the major things that had attracted us to Florence was its overwhelming connection to art and in particular the Italian Renaissance. In the centre of that artistic revolution was the master artist himself, Michelangelo Buonarroti. He had spent much of his early life in this great city and as his fame grew, he spent most of his life sharing his time between the Medici family in Florence and the papacy in Rome. Therefore, not surprisingly there remains much evidence of his time here, with many works in the Uffizi and in other parts of the city. However, by far the most notable is his statue of ‘David’, which was completed in the early 1500’s and has stamped its visual identity on Florence ever since. Like thousands of others, we were here to track him down and it was not long after arriving that his emblazoned image could be seen everywhere on all manner of tacky souvenirs. This iconic statue originally stood in the Piazza Della Signoria, until its true artistic and cultural significance was fully recognized in the late 1800’s when it was whisked away to a safe haven indoors. Today a replica stands in its place, but nonetheless Jules and I would still spend many an hour gazing admiringly at it from any number of nearby cafés and restaurants in the square. It is such a recognizable and iconic statue that has been so often reproduced to the point of cliché, but it is still very rewarding to see even a reproduction in its original location. However, like all the other tourists we were eventually drawn to join the long queues to view the original at the Academia Gallery. After finally getting through the doors, we made our way past several incomplete Michelangelo carvings showing us just how the master set about ‘releasing his figures from the stone’. However, for many the sight of the famed naked figure of ‘David’ was just too irresistible, as they stormed by other works in order to push their way through for a closer look at the large iconic statue. I must say that it was all a bit manic, as tourists jostled for position in an attempt to take photographs, much to the protesting voices of the many security guards. They tried in vein, but just as they managed to get the ‘no photos’ message across, another wave of tourists would enter the room and the excited protests would begin again. In the end we resisted the temptation to pull out our camera for a sneaky shot and while ‘David’ was wonderful to see, there was much to be said for simply enjoying the reproduction in the open air. After all, most people jostling for a view in the enclosed space couldn’t really tell the difference anyway. A much more relaxed viewing of Renaissance art was at the Basilica Santa Croce where the great artist was finally entombed alongside the astronomer Galileo and several other illustrious Italians. This is a beautiful old church dating back to 1200AD with a distinctive white marble façade that is presented in a classic grid-like format. Under great vaulted ceilings there were some incredible works on display, including a sculpture that I particularly liked by Pio Fedi, which is believed to have been the inspiration for the ‘Statue of Liberty’. Beyond the basilica itself there were other interesting galleries to view also, including a contemporary exhibition by the painter Santo Tomaino, surprisingly based upon the world of boxing. While slightly out of context, it reflected the diversity and ongoing love of art in Florence. Yet there is little doubt that Michelangelo’s ‘David’ will always remain the jewel in the crown; the one piece that tourists seek out and the one that will always be inexplicably linked with Florence.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Fabulous Florence

Florence must be one of the great cities of the world! Much like Rome, it has managed to strike a happy balance between heritage, culture and modernity. By maintaining many of its original buildings, it has managed to hold onto its history and distinct Italian character, factors that continue to attract visitors from throughout the world to enjoy both its atmosphere and its art. With that in mind, Jules and I arrived into Florence by squeezing on to a crowded bus from Siena and by the time fell out of the doorway, we are well and truly ready to stretch our legs and begin to explore all that this historical city had to offer. We begin by wandering around the Piazza San Larenzo with its endless rows of market stalls and magnificent produce market. With so much to buy and sample, I had no doubt that this would be a spot that we would return to often. We then moved on to view our first ‘great’ building, the ‘Duomo’, which has dominated the skyline since the 1400’s with it’s distinctive oversized dome and equally impressive tower. Having just undergone extensive restoration, the white, green and pick marble exterior looked quite magnificent in the sun and provided us with an insight into the glory days of a city that justifiably brought about the Italian renaissance. A short walk away is another of Florence’s iconic structures that continues to span the River Arno as it has done since Roman times. Ponte Vecchio is an ancient stone and wooden bridge that has traditionally housed all manner of traders under its porticos and these days jewelers and goldsmiths seem to have a monopoly on the site. It’s possibly a little too rich for these two Aussie globetrotters so we move further a field. A large gelato is probably more to our budget, so we wander past the Uffizi (Florence’s most famous art museum) and through the Piazza Vecchio (with it’s numerous classical statues) to find a sunny spot in Piazza Della Republica. This is the site of the ancient Roman forum and is recognizable by its classic architectural style dominated by the use of classic archways. Today it’s a haven for tourists who enjoy the numerous restaurants and cafés that surround the square. In fact the area lured us back later to further enjoy the atmosphere and a nice meal in the cool of the evening. Similarly the Piazza Della Signoria would become regular place to eat, drink and bask in the culture of Florence. We simply loved the various piazzas and wandering around the many narrow laneways. However, we were keen to gain a wider appreciation of the city, so one day we joined a cycling tour that would take us twenty five kilometers to the outskirts of the city and back through it’s suburbs. Beginning early in the morning and starting high in the hills at an ancient monastery, we were able to admire the city from afar before tackling the treacherous winding roads that would lead us back toward the city. As we dodge cars and pass the numerous fields of grapes and olives, we could occasionally catch quick glimpses of Florence through the trees. The scene was like something from a postcard and very picturesque indeed. However, photos were few and far between as we were just concentrating on surviving the steep downhill run. Back in the city we were happy to hand back our bikes, grateful for the experience, but quite happy to continue to explore the city in a slow and relaxed manner. There is still so much to see and admire in this great city and a slow walking pace will suit us both from now on.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Winning at the Palio

A bonus to our trip to Siena was that it coincided with the annual running of the famous ‘Palio’ horse race that is run in the Piazza Il Campo. This traditional event attracts thousands of tourists from around the world to witness the colourful festivities that culminate in the big race. During the days before, the atmosphere continues to build with decorative banners adorning the narrow lanes, identifying the 17 distinct areas within the city, which are referred to as a ‘contrada’. Each contrada has it’s own distinctive colour combination and animal symbol that are worn by the bare back riders. The Palio is steeped in tradition which is at times confusing to the outsider, but clearly the event is taken very seriously by the locals who continue to contribute money throughout the year to procure the best horse and the best rider for the event. As a tourist, you have no choice but to get involved by selecting a contrada to support and buy a coloured scarf to represent the horse you will be cheering on during the race. Jules had taken a liking to the ‘Contrada della Tartuca’, which is represented by the tortoise. She had figured that with a mascot like that, they probably needed all the support they could muster. On the big day we headed toward the piazza to the droning of the tower bell. In the laneways, each contrada had begun their own procession that consisted of a range of characters in colourful costumes and even suits of armour, marching along on foot and on horseback. Leading the way were flag bearers who spasmodically stopped to throw their flags high into the air receiving applause from the crowd as they caught them upon there descent. As they marched, they were followed by an ever growing group of supporters, each wearing the appropriate contrada scarf. Eventually each group filed into the piazza for a lengthy grand procession accompanied by the deafening sound of trumpets. After several hours of posturing, the horses and riders appeared on the track and it first appears that the race would be run and won in minutes…not so. It would in fact be quite a while before the actual race would begin. There would be several hours of jockeying for position, bargaining amongst themselves (riders have been known to be bought off at the start line by competitors), hitting each other with their whips, blocking the start and enduring numerous false starts before it would begin. As a result of the numerous delays, the day was slowly starting to turn to night and it was 9.00pm before the shot gun blast could be heard around the piazza and the actual race is underway. After two furious laps around the piazza, it is all over and to our amazement Tartuca was the victor! We had backed the winner and we were as just excited as the locals, jumping up and down and waving our scarf. The crowd quickly flocked onto the clay track to surround the winning rider and lifting him high onto their shoulders. Other supporters were clearly not happy, claiming yet another false start , but it was official, the tortoise would be awarded with the coveted painted silk banner. Celebrations would continue well into the night, but for us, after several hours in the hot sun, reflecting on the victory over a glass of red wine in our little farm house would be quite enough.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Timeless Tuscany

During our stay in Siena we had organised to hire a car in order to venture out into the Tuscan countryside. From our farmhouse high on the hill, we could view across wheat fields and the vineyards dotted with Cyprus Pines and wondered what might be beyond. As we headed out gingerly, we were mindful of driving on, what was to us, the wrong side of the road. We took our time along the picturesque winding roads, constantly being passed by impatient Italian drivers who were unaware that novice European drivers were at the wheel. As we looked around, we were reminded of the similarities the landscape had with parts of Australia. After all, it was the height of summer and the fields had taken on that familiar straw coloured appearance that is so familiar at home. We first made our way along winding roads to the hilltop town of Montalcino. Towns such as this are characteristic of the region and usually consist of a large central fortress surrounded by the sort of picturesque village that you would see in a coffee table book of Italy. The day we visited it was relatively quiet and we were able to wander around the enchanting narrow laneways almost entirely on our own. This was certainly not the case with the more famous village of San Gimignano. The tourists had certainly discovered this historic medieval town characterised by it’s many distinctive towers. After a pleasant drive through the Elsa Valley, we hit the outskirts of the town to spend a considerable amount of time simply trying to find a car park. Eventually we secured one down the hill and on the edge of town making for a lengthy uphill walk towards the central piazza. As we made our way through the narrow cobbled laneways, we dodged the many visitors who daily make their way to this popular spot on the numerous tourist coaches. The town is buzzing with a wide variety of trinket shops and of course there was plenty of food to be had from the various rustic café’s. We sit for a while on the steps of the cathedral to do a little drawing while soaking up the atmosphere, before Jules spots a shop claiming to sell ‘the worlds best gelato. We are always wary of such claims, but it seems that the shop had indeed won an award at some kind of international competition for gelato makers and as we found out, it was indeed very very good gelato! Over the next few days we would meander the countryside, passing through little villages like Castellina, Corsignano and San Giovanno, enjoying the odd slice of pizza, porketta sandwich or gelato. We adored the vineyard area of Chianti, famous for it’s light red wine and particularly enjoyed the little town of Radda with it’s commanding views of the whole region. We were amazed at what we could see within a reasonably condensed area. There was many a classic scenic montage to be viewed and the sense that Tuscany had not radically changed much over the passing years.

Monday, 29 June 2009

Enjoying the Simple Life in Siena

In renting a farmhouse in Tuscany, Jules and I fulfilled a long held ambition to spend some time enjoying the simple life in the Italian countryside. The spot we had chosen was ideal as it sat high on a hill looking directly across a valley filled with grapevines toward the famed medieval town of Siena. The two-storey farmhouse was rustic and traditional with accommodation above and a workshop below. The customary terracotta building had been constructed in the late 1800’s and had not dramatically changed from that time, with large green shutters on the windows, an old stone barn and a well. The amenities inside were equally characteristic of the time, with high ceilings, a large open fireplace and heavy wooden doors. The best part was of course the views from the various windows, which were just stunning and reminded us daily exactly where we were. While we had no television and only a small radio for entertainment, it didn’t matter, this would be our base for exploring, painting, eating and drinking Italian style. After some settling in time, we eventually decide to explore the surrounding area and in particular the nearby town of Siena, sitting high on the distant hill much like an ancient fortress. As we make our way upward through the narrow laneways of the old town we find it buzzing with excitement and tourist activity. It seems that we have accidentally chosen the time of the year when ‘The Palio’ is held. This is an annual horse race that is steeped in tradition and sees riders racing bareback around the central piazza. In preparation, banners and flags are being hung throughout the town and the Piazza Del Campo is being converted into a giant racetrack covered in red earth. Meanwhile, our exploration leads us to Jules’ favourite place, the local market and she has the opportunity to practice her Italian while buying some deliciously fresh produce for our evening meal. Eventually we head back to the piazza to indulge in the inevitable slice of pizza and a gelato, as we would continue to do on several subsequent visits. Although the tourists have well and truly discovered Siena, it still remains a special place and we never tire of just wandering around. There are some grand buildings to be seen, including the ‘Basilica of San Domenico’ and the magnificent gothic masterpiece of ‘Il Duomo’ with it’s distinctive white and black horizontal stripes of marble that stands in contrast to the sea of surrounding terracotta. Of course there are some lovely little food stores too, with all manner of sausages, meats and cheeses hanging in the windows. By the end of the day we always tended return back to our little farmhouse with a bag or two of delicacies, as is the Italian way. In the cool of the evening we would enjoy our spoils and the tranquillity of the Tuscan summer.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Discovering the Yorkshire Dales

During a visit to Wigan, my uncle Terry suggested that we might want to take the opportunity to stay in their caravan in the Yorkshire Dales. Without much hesitation we said yes and it wasn’t too long before we were heading up the M6 highway to Cumbria and a little town called Sedbergh. Typically the weather was inclement, but it didn’t dampen our enthusiasm to explore ‘The Dales’, which were made so familiar to Jules and I through the highly popular BBC series ‘All Creatures Great and Small’. It turns out that Sedbergh itself is a lovely little town with narrow lanes and classic stone buildings. It is just how we had imagined a typical Yorkshire village to be, however there is a much wider region to explore and it’s not too long before we are winding our way around extremely narrow country roads in search of picturesque and interesting locations. Our first stop is the Wensleydale Creamery in the town of Hawes. The dairy products here are regarded as some of the best in England, but it is particularly well known as the cheese of choice for the animated characters ‘Wallace and Gromit’. After a generous tasting session we thread our way through to Ingleton, Kirby Lonsdale and Casterton, with quick stops along the way as we complete a loop back toward Sedbergh. However the major place we wanted to visit was Dent as before the caravan came along, the town was the regular holiday destination of my uncle and aunty, who always rented a traditional white walled cottage and spent many a day walking across the dales. True to their description, we found it to be a truly authentic Yorkshire village looking much as it would have looked a generation ago. There still remains a rustic yet rugged isolation in the villages and countryside of this area and It is no surprise that the lush green scenery and peaceful atmosphere continues to attract tourists. The Lakes District in particular makes for some spectacular sight seeing and we were certainly keen to explore it further. So the next day we set off to explore Lake Windermere, a location that was familiar to me as the stretch of water that was frequently the location for many water speed records in the 1950’s along with nearby Coniston Water. Being 10.5 miles long, Lake Windermere is the largest and certainly the most beautiful natural lake in Britain. Naturally enough it has always been a haven for boats of all shapes and sizes; everything from yachts to steamboats, however on the day we are there the skies were grey and the lake remained surprisingly empty. After driving the full length of the lake, we headed back via the tiny village of Cartmel who’s claim to fame was that it professes to be the home of ‘the worlds best sticky toffee pudding’! True to its word, it turned out to be pretty darn good, but once again it was the delightful village itself that was the highlight. As with so many places we had passed through during our short stay, it had truly reflected the unique character of northern England. While the weather was not always at it’s best, the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District had not disappointed. We had thoroughly enjoyed experiencing its rugged landscape and the warmth of the local people.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Stepping Back into Wartime Paris

Having watched many a documentary about World War Two over the years, this chapter of Paris history has always held a fascination. Seeing grainy black and white footage of goose-stepping German troops marching past the ‘Arch de Triomphe’ and down the ‘Champs-Elysees’ is an image that is clearly emblazed upon my brain. You can only imagine the emotion that Parisians must have felt on the day of the occupation and the subsequent years of struggle they would have to endure in order to reclaim their city. To learn more about this war time era, I decided to join a walking tour of Paris that focused upon the ‘Resistance’ battles and life under Nazi reign.

I met up with our guide Jean-Paul on Pont Saint-Louis, which was only a matter of metres away from Cathedral Notre Dame and from here we would take a short walk to a very understated yet elegant Memorial (Memorial des Martyrs de la Déportation) that is dedicated to the over 200,000 French citizens who were deported to Nazi concentration camps during the war. Stepping into the dark bunker-like memorial, you physically begin to feel the oppression of those victims and become noticeably conscious of a sense of freedom when you exit into the bright light of day. It is a fitting start to our tour and is a reminder of a significant part of the human toll during the years from 1940 to 1944.

Although Jean-Paul was quite a young man, he clearly had studied his Parisian war history and as we walked, he provided detailed accounts of street battles that occurred during the liberation. He particularly enjoyed pointing out the numerous bullet holes that still remained in buildings that would otherwise be missed by the average tourist. Likewise, he showed us a significant number of small memorials along the way (usually denoted by a plaque and a posy of flowers), often recognising fallen partisans. As we reached elegant Hotel De Ville, we were reminded of the famous speech made by Charles De Gaulle from its front window on the day of Liberation in 1944. By the time we reached The Louvre, Jean-Paul was recounting how authorities, well aware of the impending Nazi invasion in 1940, were able to safely spirit away thousands of priceless artworks (including ‘Mona Lisa’ and ‘Venus De Milo’) to safe houses deep in the French country-side. While many works were still plundered by the Nazi’s, it seems that most of the national treasures at the time remained in safe hiding until the end of the war.

Clearly these foreign ‘occupiers’ had a sneaking admiration for the history and elegance of Paris. None more so than German Military Commander Dietrich von Choltitz, who in the final days of the occupation refused Hitler’s command to destroy the city and leave nothing but a ‘baron field of ashes’. Rather than return to Germany, he eventually surrendered at the Hotel Maurice, which had been Nazi headquarters in Paris for most of the war. As we walked through the Tuileries Garden, we could clearly see the building and the upper rooms from which Choltitz had reportedly stood peering out over Paris pondering his fateful decision. Thankfully, this famous city was saved and with the surrender of 17,000 troops, a dark chapter of its history had finally ended.

While today Paris prides itself on it’s style and elegance, the war years could have resulted in a very different contemporary landscape. Fortunately, a walk around inner city Paris can still reveal much about the wartime experience as much of the original settings for these historical events are still there to be appreciated. As I discovered, the streets, the buildings and memorials certainly remain testament to the persecution, struggle and ultimate triumph of the people of Paris during those war time years.


Hotel De Ville

Monday, 1 June 2009

Looking at Le Corbusier

Early into my Design studies back in university we were introduced to the architectural genius of Le Corbusier. We looked at black and white photographs of his flat roofed geometric creations that revealed the birth of modernism through his so called ‘Purist’ style or as it is referred to today, ‘Minimalism’. So some thirty odd years later I was keen to visit some of his classic architectural designs during our time in Paris. Of course the jewel in the crown was ‘Villa Savoy’ (designed in 1928) which has been beautifully restored and is now a must see for anyone at all interested in modern design. After a thirty minute train trip from the centre of Paris we found ourselves in the nearby town of Poissy and after a short walk up a hill, we approached the impressive stark white building standing majestically against the lush greenery of a generous sized garden. Having seen it so many times in books, it was wonderful to be able to walk around it and view the inside of a building that had literally changed the direction of domestic architecture. A few weeks later Jules and I visited Le Corbusier’s apartment studio in Paris, which although comparatively humble, showed some really interesting design features that maximised the space and utilised his roof top views. Close to our apartment in the 16th arrondissement was another notable domestic design that was certainly worth a visit. Villa La Rocca was designed in 1923 for a Swiss art collector and like Villa Savoy, has some distinctive features such as an impressive internal ramp that gradually leads you upward to the first level. Like all of Le Corbusier’s greatest designs, there is a distinctive sense of functionality and modernity that must have been quite confronting at the time. While his high-density designs tend to leave me cold (and were somewhat of a social disaster), there is no denying the quality of his domestic houses. The use of space and light is often quite remarkable and as we walked around, it was like strolling through a familiar work of art with features that continue to be replicated in so much of our architecture today.