Friday, 29 May 2009

Wandering Montmartre

Over the years I have read so many stories about the ‘Belle Epoque’ or ‘the beautiful era’ of Paris that spanned from the late 1800’s through until the first world war. It was an era of enlightenment, optimism, new technologies and exciting revolutions in Art. Significant to what was happening in Paris at the time was the outer area of Montmartre in the 18th arrondissement, which continues to be easily identified by the wonderful white domed Basilica of Sacre Coeur. This is where many of the great artists of the 20th century began their careers and remains an absolute must see for anyone remotely interested in the history of fine art. Jules and I decided to join a walking tour of the area and on a lovely warm day we stood waiting for our tour guide in front of the Moulin Rouge. While the iconic red windmill still remained from the days when the dance hall became the spiritual home of the ‘Can-Can’, it is now a very different establishment. Yet all those years ago it played an important role in the history of art, particularly with the likes of Toulouse Lautrec who often frequented its doors to capture glimpses of the risqué social nightlife of the times.

Eventually our guide arrived and we were soon on our way, but before heading up the hill we made a quick stop at the nearby Montmartre cemetery to pay our respects to some of the areas most prominent citizens, including the renowned painter Edgar Dagas and the singer Dalida, who apparently still receives bucket loads of flowers everyday from admirers some 25 years after her death. To be honest, Jules and I hadn’t actually heard of her prior to the tour, but our guide highlighted her stature by claiming that she had once polled second behind Charles De Gaulle as the person who had the greatest impact on French society.

We eventually began our walk upward; along cobble stoned streets and passed classic shuttered architecture that had not particularly changed over the ensuing years. We walked by the studios of Monet, Lautrec and Van Gogh, each indicated with a small plaque at the entrance. The area is now leafy and quite refined, which is a far cry from how it must have been when it was a haven for impoverished artists. More in keeping with the past era is the Moulin De Gaulette, which still has its old windmill (originally used for grinding local wheat for bread), which became known as the site for a popular open-air dance hall. The surrounding garden, filled with laughter and good cheer, would be depicted in Monet’s masterpiece ‘Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette’ in 1876 and in 1900 would inspire a young 19 year-old Spaniard called Pablo Picasso. Continuing our walk we headed toward Le Bateau-Lavoir, the communal studio that Picasso shared with Amedeo Modigliani. Our guide tells us that at the time, the two were so poor that they had to sleep in a single bed in shifts…how their fortunes would change!

As we headed in the direction of Sacre Coeur, we walked past the lodgings of composer Eric Satie where he composed the hypnotic composition ‘Gymnopaedies’, one of Jules’ favourite classical pieces. The building is near The Montmartre Vineyard, which is surely one of the hidden treasures of Paris, with neat rows of vines sitting on a small sloping block. Being the only remaining Parisian vineyard and producing only a miserly 1000kg of grapes a season, its wine has become some of the most sought after in France. From here we took the final stroll upward into the busy streets surrounding the famed basilica with its many restaurants and wine bars. The focal point is Place du Tertre, where local artists maintain the traditions of the area and continue to remind us of the generations of artists who once lived and worked there. Today it is a haven for tourists, keen to pick up a water colour souvenir or to have their portrait sketched. For us it’s a place to soak up the atmosphere of Montmartre before wandering over to sit on the steps of Sacre Couer and enjoy one of the best views of Paris.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Wandering Through the Colleges of Cambridge

Much like the famous rowing race, Jules and I have a bit of rivalry over the English university towns of Oxford and Cambridge. Having visited both places in the 1980’s, Jules took a fancy to the larger metropolis of Oxford, while I really enjoyed the more compact city of Cambridge. So I was particularly pleased to once again travel the few hours north of London by bus to visit my cousin who had made the district of Cambridge his home. Upon arrival, the town looked somewhat bigger and more bustling than we had remembered, which is not totally surprising with a jump in population from 90,000 in the 1980’s to around 125,000 today. It’s population boom confirming that many other people have recognized the appeal of this historical town and what it had to offer beyond its universities. This may in part be also due to the fact that Cambridge has developed into the English version of ‘Silicon Valley’, attracting some of the UK’s most qualified people, who come here to explore a wide range of developing technological industries.

On a bright and sunny day (somewhat untypical), we traveled into Cambridge from the outlying village of Sawston where we were staying. After a lovely picnic in one of the many parks, we were ready to once again explore the centre of the town with its many historical landmarks. Of course the University of Cambridge itself dominates the streetscape with numerous colleges spreading out throughout the town. One of the first to be revisited was Kings College which is one of our favorites and is easily recognisable by the traditional gothic spires of its magnificent cathedral. It’s from here that every Christmas Eve ‘Carols from Kings’ is telecast throughout Britain and Australia, so it holds a special place in Jules’ heart who always insisted that we played the angelic tones of the young choristers every year in the lead up to the big day. Another favorite of mine is Trinity College with its strong historical connections to Henry VIII, who established the college in 1546 and whose unmistakable figure looks down from above from the sculptures of Great Gate. Passing through the gate we arrived at ‘Great Court’, made famous in the movie ‘Chariots of Fire’ in which the annual ‘Great Court Run’ was reinacted. The premise of this annual event is that students should undertake a dash around the 400-metre parameter of the court within the 43 seconds it takes for the old clock to strike twelve o’clock. A very difficult task but to prove that it could be done, in 1988 Olympic runner Sebastian Coe actually managed to complete the sprint it in 42.53 seconds!

One of the largest and most impressive of all the colleges is St. Johns College with its sprawling buildings and grounds. While it has several grand gates and courtyards, for us the jewel in the crown is ‘The Bridge of Sighs’. A small gothic styled bridge that spans the River Cam and is possibly one of the most photographed structures in Cambridge with picturesque scenes reminiscent of Venice. The appeal of this landmark is further enhanced by the sight of students (or at least young folk) punting under it and down the river. ‘Punts’ are nothing like gondolas, as these are simple flat bottom boats, yet similarly they have a person standing at the back who dips a long poll into the water in order to propel the unstable looking craft along. On a summers day this is a very popular pastime that creates quite a bit of congestion on the narrow waterways. For us it was good fun just observing novices tackling their poll technique and while there were some pretty wobbly boats out there and a few near misses, to our disappointment none managed to fall in while we were watching.

Scenes such as these, combined with the classic gothic architecture of Cambridge, certainly conjure up some quintessential images of English life. While the city itself has certainly grown since we last visited, its tourist appeal remains much the same. For the thousands of students who pass through the various historic gates of the colleges, their time here must truly be memorable. In places it appears as though time has simply stood still and there is comfort in the knowledge that things will generally remain the same as it has done for centuries. You could say that we are all just passing through Cambridge (not just us tourists) and that it will always provide a constant reminder of what is ‘great’ about Great Britain.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Artefacts of War

A significant part of English history is marked by its involvement in numerous wars. Over the years the victories, defeats, triumphs and tragedies on the battlefield have all added to the British psyche and have no doubt helped to shape the nation. Therefore, it is understandable they have chosen to remember and commorate times of war through a variety of significant museums. One of the best would have to be the Imperial War Museum in London that focuses primarily on modern warfare and in particular the two World Wars. As Jules was not particularly interested in this aspect of British history, she left me to my own devises for several hours to wander around the various floors and view the massive range of exhibits. Coming up from the Lambeth North underground station, it was a short walk past William Bligh’s house (of ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ fame) to the museum. The architecture of the building was most impressive and as I made my way toward the grand entrance, I passed by two enormous fifteen-inch naval canons. Upon entering I walked into a huge atrium area that housed numerous tanks and canons from different eras, while overhead a diverse range of aeroplanes attracted my attention upward. The tanks from World War One showed just how primitive the technology was in those days, as well as the obvious hardships the soldiers faced. Similarly, the interactive display of trench warfare gave me some idea of the misery of the battlefield. On the second level there was an opportunity to view early bi-planes and the famed ‘Spitfire’fighter at close range. You could also the climb into the cockpit of a Lancaster bomber then view the wreckage of the plane used by Rudolf Hess in his ill-fated flight to England to broker a peace deal midway through the second World War. Especially moving was the Holocaust exhibition that included photographs, documents and artefacts covering the rise of Nazism and their persecution of the Jews. Other display cases including items collected from Hitler’s bunker including his appointment book, which I found particularly interesting, as it seems that he had bookings right up to his last day. Another area of the museum was devoted to post 1945 conflicts and includes an extensive collection of spy material from the cold war. The hours slipped by quickly with so much to see and it was probably better that I was alone with so much to take in. Being particularly interested in modern history, the Imperial War Museum was certainly worth a visit and the displays were done very well, as you might well expect from the Brits.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Tales of Canterbury

Jules and I arrived in Canterbury on a wet evening and headed to the Millar’s Arms, a lovely traditional English pub where we would stay for a few nights while we were finding our feet in Kent. We found it to be a great spot to sip a beer by a warm cosy fire or on a sunny day enjoy the fast flowing canal that it faced. Our first few days in Canterbury were spent wandering around the narrow streets, exploring the historic sights and rustic buildings. The locals we met were very friendly and we found the old part of town really picturesque. Sure, it’s a little ‘touristy’, but it has plenty of genuine history, which is highlighted by famous Canterbury Cathedral that forms the stunning centrepiece to this ancient walled town. Indulging our passion for good food is quite easy, as there are also some great places to eat and over the next few weeks we try plenty of them. The temptation is even greater when we eventually move into our accommodation in the high street, where the aromas from the various pubs, restaurants and bakeries drift through our open window. From our little ‘artist garret’ we are able the view the hive of activity that happens below every day and hear the accents of people from all over the world who are visiting this popular town. Eventually we hire a car and are able to explore the county of Kent a little more, by eventually heading down the east coast toward Dover and Folkestone. We quite like this region, which is open, lush and green (unlike Australia which is suffering a drought at the time). It is a lovely fine day and we lunch outdoors at a traditional English teahouse in the pretty town called Tenderden. There is a distinctively rural feel in this part of England and Jules and I are amazed how relatively close it is to London and even Paris. With the Eurostar train passing through this area daily it certainly makes it a perfect location to access both these iconic cities quite easily, which is exactly what we eventually intend to do.