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 D├ęportation) 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.