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.