Sunday, 12 December 2010

Christmas in Japan

Once again festive season is upon us and this year Jules and I are jetting back home to Australia to celebrate with family and friends. However, before we head off, we have the chance to experience a taste of Japanese Christmas. Like us, you might be surprised that it is even celebrated here at all, considering it’s predominantly Buddhist and Shinto spiritual leanings (less than 1% of the population are actually Christian). However, as is the case with many other western influences, the Japanese have enthusiastically taken Christmas on board. Gone are the biblical references, with the focus of this time of the year on a combination of Santa, family and friends. It is also regarded as somewhat of a time for romance, with Christmas Eve being akin to Valentines Day. Like at home, Christmas decorations are a major part of the celebration and they start to appear in early November. Steadily the build up begins with households and shopping streets throughout Osaka hanging elaborate decorative lights to launch the festive season. This was particularly evident when we recently visited Kobe, where they have one of the most spectacular light shows you could ever hope to see. The illuminations originally began as a commemoration to the victims of the 1995 earthquake and have since grown into a spectacular and quite moving event. For 10 evenings the streets are closed to traffic, while thousands of people slowly parade through a dazzling display of lights, while a stirring choral soundtrack adds to a surprisingly spiritual atmosphere. There is a winter’s chill in the air (not as cold as Paris…more like an Aussie winter), but there is a general feeling of warmth and goodwill in the air. Naturally enough the retail shops use the season as a time to boost trading, with favourite seasonal tunes playing in every store, while decorative trees and displays heavily promote annual Christmas sales. From all accounts Christmas Day itself is a little strange. It is really much like any other; the stores are open, people work and students go to school. We were surprised to read recently that the traditional Christmas dish is Kentucky Fried Chicken!!!.. with the ‘finger lickin’ morsels so popular that you have to pre-book your bucket for the day. Surprisingly, presents are not traditionally given, with much of that saved until the New Year celebrations. Unlike the western world there is also no Christmas hang over and apparently by the day after the decorations have been whisked away for another year. It is certainly very different, but strangely enough you can’t help but sense that the Japanese have managed to get the commercialism of Christmas in perspective. They don’t pretend that it’s anything more than what it is…a feel good time to spend, eat, drink and enjoy in good company!

Saturday, 27 November 2010

A Couple of Tokyo Joe's

Being a long weekend in Japan, Jules and I decided to fulfil one of our major goals since arriving in Japan. We boarded the bullet train for a quick trip to Tokyo! The train itself is a super fast beast that whisks you past the snow capped Mt. Fuji before pulling into Tokyo station only two and a half hours after leaving Osaka. From there it was just a short walk to the upmarket area of Ginza where we were staying. Being close to the Imperial Palace, it is a very stylish part of town. Along the major shopping strip all of the major European designer labels are well represented and despite worries about the Japanese economy we notice plenty of retail activity. Christmas is in the air and in the evening the city lights are even more spectacular with added illuminations on many of the buildings and tree lined streets. Once again Jules comes into her own, by quickly mastering the metro system and we are easily able to dart around to various areas of this huge city. We explore bustling Asakusa, with the traditional Sensoji temple on one side of the river and the post-modernism architecture of Philippe Starck’s Asahi brewery on the other. There is also the crazy excitement of Akihabara, which is the electronics centre of town, which is matched by the fashion areas of Harajuka and Shibuya with its famous pedestrian crossing that has become the archetypical scene of Tokyo. I begin to discover some the numerous galleries that dot the city, including a major Van Gogh exhibition at the National Arts Centre, which was particularly appropriate as only a few months ago we had visited many of the places where the works were painted. On Sunday evening we indulged ourselves by visiting the bar made famous in the movie ‘Lost in Translation’. On the 52nd floor of the of the Park Hyatt Hotel we sit with drink in hand, listening to some cool jazz and admiring the spectacular view…not bad at all!! Jules and I both agreed that Tokyo generally has a different feel than Osaka…much more cosmopolitan, it feels like a major international city and there is a sense that the locals know it… not in an arrogant way, but just in their general air of confidence. Most spoke some English, which was particularly helpful to us, and the signage, menus etc. were always in dual languages. It is a welcoming city and we certainly enjoyed our short stay here. As we sped back to Osaka we felt confident that we will return soon…there is still so much to see!

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Sculptural Servings

For my recent birthday Jules presented me with something I had secretly wanted to possess since we had arrived in Japan…my own genuine piece of ‘plastic food’. It came in the form of a deliciously tempting fruity ice-cream sundae which looked so fresh and tempting, which is exactly what it is designed to do. I had developed this strange fascination for these colourful and totally inedible plastic pieces since we started to frequent the many restaurant areas around Osaka. It seems that almost every second eating establishment display their exotic menus using model replicas of the actual dish. They are beautifully presented to the last detail, but as we later found, often provide a somewhat enhanced version of the actual dish that comes to your table. What I particularly like about the plastic pieces are their sculptural qualities that accentuate the sheer visual splendour of food…its colour, texture, patterns and forms. The displays are pure ‘pop art’ that in a different setting could easily be accredited to artists such as Warhol and Koons. Instead they simply add to the overwhelming visual assault that hits the unsuspecting visitor to the streets of Japan. In the meanwhile my little piece sits proudly on display in our apartment, always fresh, ever so tempting, but never to be eaten.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Croissants and Kimonos

When you think about France and in particular Paris, it conjures up a whole range of mental images usually associated with food, wine, fashion, art or architecture. We certainly loved experiencing as many of these things as possible while we were there. However, it seems that nowhere in the world is French culture regarded in such high esteem as here in Japan. All things French are unquestioningly placed on a pedestal and held up as the pinnacle of sophistication. Many fashion arcades are dedicated to the giants of French couture, while lesser local clothes shops simply brand their establishments in French in order to suggest their stylistic credentials. When walking through a food area you are hard pressed not to come across a patisserie or boulangerie, complete with a catchy French title (often spelt incorrectly). If you peer through the windows you see high-hatted bakers producing delicate pastries and crunchy French sticks that could be straight from the streets of Paris. Similarly, the local liqueur stores proudly boast a wide selection of wines from major wine regions such as Champagne, Provence and Bordeaux (highly recommended). There also seems to be an endless number of homeware stores encouraging the Japanese to switch to the French provincial style. Of course the major galleries here heavily promote their French collections of paintings, even if they seem to consist of lesser known works. If you want a souvenir of Paris itself, why go there, when you can easily pick up a fridge magnet, postcard or even a replica Eiffel Tower! Possibly the strangest thing we came across was in Kobe, where we found a complete full size replica of an old style French village on a busy city corner. The facade not only came with traditional windows and signage, but in a dedicated attempt for authenticity, it had been artificially aged with faded paintwork and chipping plaster. The old style French oil lamps further sought to complete an illusion that was never really going to work, as numerous high-rise buildings tower over the scene. Jules and I, are constantly amazed with this strange fascination and always looking for further evidence of ‘Japanese-Francophilia’.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Otsu and All That Jazz

The Japanese love their jazz and it seems that just about every weekend you can listen to some wonderful live performances in and around the city. We have run into several by accident, but on the weekend we decided to visit a small jazz festival in a town called Otsu just a few miles out from Kyoto.

The‘Otsu Jazz Festival’ is quite a new one and this year is only the second time the event has operated. After about a 45 minute train journey, we walk out of the station to be enthusiastically greeted by an English speaking promotion volunteer who thrusts a program in our hands and starts to direct us toward the many venues in the town. Otsu is a relatively quiet place, perched on the banks of Lake Biwa and the jazz festival was obviously originally designed to inject a little bit of life into the town and provide a focus for the community.

As we wander around the streets we come across some terrific performers who are all surrounded by small enthusiastic groups of jazz lovers, wildly applauding each number.Not surprisingly we seem to be the only foreigners there, although do we come across a food vendor from Turkey selling yiros at one of the venues near the water. In the same spot our eyes catch a glimpse of an Australian flag, where to our surprise, there is a Japanese man selling Aussie meat pies! Our patriotic duty meant that we simply had to have one! As we continued to move around to see the various acts, we are ushered into a traditional Japanese house by a kindly old gentleman uncharacteristically wearing a jazz festival t-shirt. The interior is typically Japanese with its wooden screens and as we pass an ancient interior water well (that is obviously still in use) we see and hear a young guitar duet playing some lovely jazz standards in a large tatami room. We respectfully remove our shoes, pull up a pillow and join the handful of spectators sitting on the floor enjoying the music. Near the performers the sliding screens are open, revealing a picturesque Japanese courtyard. It was just perfect and sitting there listening to some soulful jazz it all seemed quite surreal. I must say that Jules and I have never listened to live jazz quite like this before!

Monday, 11 October 2010

A tasty time in Kobe

On a bright and sunny Autumn day Jules and I decide to venture out toward the seaside to visit the nearby city of Kobe. It’s about an hour away from our apartment by train, so it’s quite an easy commute that takes you between the coast on one side and the mountains on the other. Kobe is most recently known for the 1995 earthquake, which killed around 6,500 people and injured some 250,000. When we arrive there is now little sign of the devastation, although down by the docks there is small Commemorative Park where an original stretch of the ruined coastal walkway is still preserved. Today it is once again a bustling city, but it’s proximity to the coast gives it a somewhat more relaxed feel than other areas around Osaka. We had set out to visit one of the many art & craft markets that are constantly held throughout the year, but as is often the case there is so much more to see. We stumble into a small jazz concert, and then spend some time sampling the many tasty delights of Chinatown (where there was another jazz concert). With a Turkish ice cream in hand we head down toward the shore to find yet another flea market, then upon arriving at docks themselves we discover a huge gourmet festival in full swing! The Japanese really know how to celebrate the joys of good food and we are happy to join in! There is little time to explore the temples and other cultural sights on this visit; we’ll save that for another day!!

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

First Taste of Kyoto

After a busy first month in Osaka we are finally beginning to find the time to explore the wider region. We have been told that one of the must see places is Kyoto, as it provides some authentic Japanese experiences with it’s numerous temples and shrines. So on the Monday holiday (respect for the elderly day), we join the many citizens of Osaka who board the local train for the forty-minute trip. Upon arrival the differences from Osaka are not particularly evident (although a little more low-rise), but it is not too long before we are wandering through the tiny lanes and even passing quite a few citizens dressed in traditional kimono and hakama. We particularly enjoy looking at the art & craft galleries and purchase our first piece of Japanese artwork, which is a 120 year-old woodcut print. After a traditional Japanese lunch, we make our way to the Kiyomizu Temple that stands magnificently in the foothills close to the city as it has done since 798. It is crowded, but still very calm as people sip and wash with the sacred waters then respectfully touch the statue of Budda. Jules buys a temple book and begins the popular tradition of having it signed by the monks at every temple you visit…the calligraphy is a work of art in itself. Clearly Kyoto has much to offer and it won’t be too long until we return to sample its many other attractions.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Ode to the Vending Machine

As you walk around the streets of Osaka you are forever faced with temptation. The temptation takes the form of countless drink vending machines that seem to be dotted on every street corner and in the most obscure locations. They are usually filled with all manner of beverages, including a wide variety of iced teas and coffees, various brands of water, soft drinks and even beer in some cases. On hot days, these machines dispense delightfully icy cold drinks, which are always very refreshing. Next to the machines are usually small portable plastic bins (that are regularly emptied) so bottles can be neatly placed after consumption ready for recycling. The amazing thing about these machines is that they often stand in the most isolated locations in the hope of tempting the occasional passer by to part with around 150 yen (approx. AU$2.00) to relieve their thirst. They are always meticulously maintained and fully stocked, but more significantly, they appear to remain untampered. In most places in the world (including Australia) machines such as these would be an easy target for vandals or petty criminals looking for some small change or a few bottles of drink. They would be open to attack just because they can. Yet here they remain a small but significant testament to the nature of Japanese society. The honesty and respectfulness for a simple service such as this is so refreshing and reminiscent of an era that has long passed most countries. As the long hot summer continues here in Osaka, Jules and I will continue to enjoy the humble drink vending machine, wherever it may be!

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Osaka Food Safari

It is hard to believe that we have been here in Osaka for three weeks as we are only just beginning to catch our breath. The first few weeks have been filled with the nuts and bolts of creating a new life here. Plenty of paperwork to be organised, things to be bought, delivered and installed in our new apartment. To compound things, most days have been sweltering with temperatures averaging around 38 degrees, mixed with incredibly high humidity. Even by Japanese standards, it has been a hot summer and it’s not over yet! While I have now started school, Jules is beginning to explore the city itself. Every night she tells me all of her new discoveries and revelations. As a true epicurean, the search for food ingredients is high on her list of priorities and finding her favourites has been a challenge. As most bottled and canned products are in Japanese, many still remain a complete mystery, while the hunt for essential herbs and spices continues. There is plenty of trial and error, but as each day passes Jules seems to find something she seeks. Gradually the pantry grows, so once she masters our tiny free-standing oven (whose instructions we can’t read) we will be eating gourmet style once again! In the meanwhile we indulge in the best of Japanese food with several fine meals from the endless selection of restaurants. This has resulted in several trips to downtown Osaka, which is around 30 minutes from our apartment. It is quite a remarkable experience and very different from our more suburban existence. After emerging from the train station you are faced with a labyrinth of arcades lined with shops and restaurants that extend over a number of levels. When you finally surface at ground level it is a visual explosion of high-rise, signs, sounds and people. It has been claimed that director Ridley Scott used Osaka as inspiration for the sci-fi classic ‘Blade Runner’, and I can see why, with its mass of illuminated signs and chaotic junction of overhead cabling, it seems to have evolved rather than been designed. However at nightfall, there is an energy that is quite unique and it seems that everyone is out to eat, drink and party. The Japanese really know how to enjoy themselves and it’s an opportunity to reveal the more out going side of their character. That is until around midnight at least. At that time, throngs of people are back on the streets making their way for the last of the trains that will return them safely to their homes. Naturally, we follow the tide of people and make our way back to our somewhat more sedate lifestyle in Japanese suburbia until next time our stomach’s start to rumble.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Splashdown Osaka!

After a long flight from London via Dubai we finally arrive at Kansai International Airport Osaka Japan. After much anticipation we have finally made it and while it’s late in the evening, we can see that it is big…very big! Although the sun has set, the temperature is still in the high 30’s. Thankfully the school has organised for us to be picked up at the airport so we are comfortably whisked to the heart of the bustling city to a hotel close to the school in the north. As day breaks, we can see that although this area is nowhere near as overwhelming as downtown Osaka, it’s still a busy metropolis that sits close to the surrounding mountains. We immediately hit the ground running with many things to be organised, including the most important one… somewhere to live! With no time to waste, we are taken to see a few potential places and are quite surprised by their generous sizes, as we had been previously warned that we might need to get used to some very tight living conditions…not necessarily the case! Amazingly, after only a couple of days of looking, the decision is made and we settle for a nice apartment, which is walking distance from the school and faces a leafy park. Of course it’s completely empty, so Jules is bound to have some fun over the next few months fitting it out. With that major decision over, we have started to venture further afield and are increasingly gaining confidence in the complex bus, monorail and train systems. We have had some great meals already, including a couple in down town Umeda and Namba, confirming that Osaka truly is a gourmet city…so much ahead to explore! Everyone has been so warm and welcoming and despite the obvious language differences, we are getting along quite nicely. Each day in Japan brings new revelations, as we just begin to scratch the surface.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Viva Seville!

With a week to spare before we venture to Japan, we decide to revisit one of our favourite countries, Spain, but this time the picturesque city of Seville. We had loved Barcelona when we visited earlier this year and knew that we would be warmly welcomed in regard to both hospitality and weather. From the time we arrive the thermometer remains around the 40 degree mark, so we opt for a steady routine of sightseeing, drinking, siesta, eating, more drinking followed by ice cream…a tried and true approach to Spanish tourism in the heat of August. We are fortunate that our hotel is in the old town, which means that some of the best tourist sights are at our doorstep and we are able to walk the narrow cobblestone lanes to most locations. We are amazed by some of the architecture with its strong Arabic influences, which are gradually undergoing careful restoration. In particular Torre Del Oro (The Golden Tower) and La Giralda with it’s imposing minaret, whose many ramps we patiently walk in the scorching heat of the day to reveal the best view of the city. The tower is attached to the grand gothic Cathedral of Seville, which is the third largest in Europe and houses the tomb of Christopher Columbus as well as many priceless church artefacts. Another highlight is the Real Alcazar palace with it's ornate decorations reminiscent of Morocco and it's tranquil gardens. Just around the corner from the hotel is the Plaza de Toros regarded as the oldest and most beautiful bullring in Spain and despite our objections to the sport itself, we remained impressed by this spectacular arena. Not too far away from the city centre is The Spanish Plaza, which is a complete surprise to me as I know very little about it but now regard it as possibly one of great buildings in the world. When the sun finally retreats around 10.00pm, the locals begin to emerge to enjoy their paella’s and drink sangria’s in the many street cafes, while the beautifully maintained horse drawn carts clip clop by. Like most tourists who stupidly tramp around in the midday sun, we are tanned and tired but in the cool of the evening we now happily try to blend in. All is well, until our lack of Spanish inevitably gives us away!

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

County hopping

No sooner have we hit the shores of Southampton and we board a train for a short half journey to Bournemouth to visit Jules’ aunty and uncle. It is now a familiar spot for us and seems to always welcome us back with a warm sunny day. As part of our stay this time we visit the bustling township of Poole, which looks so picturesque with its views of a sparkling boat filled inlet. There is certainly a holiday atmosphere, with the tempting smell of chips and vinegar wafting through the air. After a few days of generous hospitality we head back to London for a quick pit stop before hitting the road again to visit Jules’ second cousin and his family in Norwich. We had visited several years ago, but this time we have more time to explore the surrounding area. This includes a quaint little seaside town called Sheringham; with it’s tumbled stone beach and an impressive links golf course that hugs the rugged coast. Further inland we explore a very grand residence called Blickling Hall, formally home to Anne Boleyn, the ill-fated wife of Henry VIII. We wander around admiring the considerable collection of art as well as the ornate ceilings and fireplaces. However, closer to Jules heart is the expansive kitchen downstairs that reveals a glimpse of life in service providing good English fare for dignitaries such as Queen Mary. After a short stay in Norwich we continue our travels with another short train trip to the cathedral city of Ely, which was famously home to Oliver Cromwell at the time of England’s short-lived revolution. It is here that my cousin is to be married and the big event brings friends and family together from far and wide. It is very much a village wedding, complete with horse and cart and the reception is held in a beautiful apple orchard that overlooks the rural surrounds. As the sun sets and with a celebratory glass of champagne in hand, we gaze admiringly over a classic English pastoral scene that we imagine wouldn’t have changed too much over time.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Final ports of call

The approach to Norway is very picturesque as we sail through narrow channels observing quaint and colourful wooden buildings perched high on rocky outcrops close to the water. The weather is somewhat cooler than we have been used to as we arrive in Oslo and for the first time in 10 days the skies are overcast. Nonetheless, the city looks welcoming and very manageable for walking. We first head towards the Royal Palace which is in the city centre then meander down the wide main avenue through to the lively shopping areas. Its a nice mixture of old and new and it seems to be quite a relaxed place. This was the home of the artist Edvard Munch so its quite surprising how such an intense painting as 'The Scream' was ever created here. The next day we visit Kristiansand which is far more traditional with its white washed weatherboard homes. It is smaller and less sophisticated than Oslo but is similarly positioned in a scenic harbour which we enjoy as we start to begin our journey back to Southampton.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Helsinki smiles!

Although Helsinki in Finland is only a few hours away from St Petersburg the atmosphere is completely different. While St Petersburg appeared to be quite serious and austere, Helsinki on the other hand is clearly a relaxed and happy city. The locals are extremely friendly and keen to assist newcomers in experiencing the very best they had to offer. As trams bustle around the streets, it reminds us very much of Melbourne, as does some of the art deco architecture around the harbour that is similar to St Kilda. The warm weather (high 20s) saw many market stalls setting up around the docks area while sidewalk cafes lined city streets. On the harbour there are plenty of boats taking tourist groups around the coast. We spend several hours in the design district, which is home to dozens of great shops selling a wonderful range of Finnish products. If only we had more room in our suitcases!

Friday, 16 July 2010

Russian around in St. Petersburg

The weight of social and political history that surrounds St Petersburg is quite overwhelming when we finally arrive at our furthest destination. From the days of Peter the Great to the Russian Revolution, you can see that it is a city that continues to live through significant periods of change. As we tour around we can see many grand buildings in the centre but also sprawling residential and industrial constructions that seem to go on for ever ... it is a huge place! Our Russian guide is Polokov, who takes us to the major spots that represent the significant events of a bygone era such as Isaacs Cathedral, the Rostral Columns and the Battleship Aurora whose guns signalled the start of the Russian Revolution. Of course, the highlight for us is the Hermitage, which is no longer a palace for the Czars but one of the great art museums of the world. We arrive early the next day with our tour group in order to beat the rush of tourists to view a magnificent collection of works that would certainly rival the Louvre in Paris. With more than 2.7 million works of art on show, we only begin to scratch the surface after several hours. We do our best to lose our group in order to explore more of it alone, but to our disappointment, we are eventually found.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Estonia surprises!

We have absolutely no preconceived ideas of what to expect when we reach Tallinn, Estonia. Upon approaching, we are able to see two distinct sides to the town ... the modern industrial sector with its high rise buildings and a quaint traditional quarter with its numerous spires from the many cathedrals. We decide to limit ourselves to the old town and are pleasantly surprised by the beauty of the cobble stoned streets which are lined with restored buildings leading to flourishing piazza styled squares. Clearly the tourist dollar arrived many years ago and free enterprise is now flourishing. There are plenty of market stalls, restaurants and shops, each with a friendly local eager to usher you in. We avoid temptation and continue to follow the numerous lanes that lead you in and around the old walled city, eventually reaching Toompea Castle. Perched on the steepest slope of the hill, it provides a panoramic view of the city and we are able to sit under shady trees and sip a nice cool drink while I complete a quick sketch. In the distance, we can see the docks and even more cruise ships arriving and as we walk back down, the lanes are packed. Tallinn has well and truly been discovered by every possible nation and is making up for lost time after gaining its independence from Soviet rule. It's not surprising that this picturesque old town has been given UNESCO World Heritage status as it is now clearly a major tourist hot spot.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Keeping cool in Stockholm

We are welcomed to Stockholm, Sweden with clear blue skies and sparkling waters. Remarkably high temperatures remain with us as the thermometer again reaches into the mid 30s. This further enhances the beauty of this city with its combination of modern and grand old buildings that hug its extensive waterways. We explore the cobbled streets of the old town before going in our own directions. Jules checks out the local shopping and the Royal Palace, while I walk across the island footbridge to the Moderna Museet. This is another nice gallery with several significant works by Matisse, Dali and Picasso. We agree to meet in the afternoon and to visit the Absolut Ice Bar which is quite an experience. We sip vodka cocktails from a large ice cube while leaning on a bar totally constructed from blocks of solid ice in a room that was at a temperature of -5 degrees. Although we had been given woolly ponchos and gloves, we could only last 20 minutes and were quite relieved to eventually step back into the warmth of the Nordic sun. The journey out of the harbour was as picturesque as Stockholm itself. The estuary was stunning with giant granite boulders that dropped straight into the clear waters that are set against a heavily wooded backdrop ... picture perfect!

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Seeing the light in Copenhagen

After about a day and a half at sea we arrived at the picturesque city of Copenhagen in Denmark. We are quite surprised by the warm temperature that greets us (above 30 degrees) as we take the short walk along its Langaline Pier into town. As the sun shines, the centre of the city is buzzing with numerous canal cafes crammed with patrons, while street musicians celebrate the Copenhagen Jazz Festival and add to the happy atmosphere. We walk along the shopping street called Stroget, browsing around the many shops that display wonderful Danish design. We also take some time to inspect the newly renovated Royal Palace for Australia's very own Princess Mary and the future King of course. As Palaces go, it is very livable with some interesting creative touches provided by several leading contemporary Danish artists. Another pleasant surprise is the NY Glyptotek which is a gallery that includes an excellent collection of early Impressionists works and other modern masters. After being inspired by these, I indulge in a bit of sketching while Jules climbs to the top of the Rundetarn for a great view of the city. The tower is one of the tallest and oldest buildings in the city centre and houses a fully functioning observatory. She returns thrilled by the opportunity to actually view the sun through the giant telescope, something that not many of us can say we have done.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Back to where it all began

We arrived back in London and it's like visiting an old friend. The circumstances may have changed but the underlying character of this wonderful city remains the same. After all, it was here that our adventure began over fifteen months ago. It's great to be back yet again, even if it is just for a short while. We hop on the tube with such confidence these days, barely glancing at the underground map as we dart around to familiar spots that leap straight from the monopoly board. It's a busy schedule, as we catch up with family and friends, while the mid year summer sales tempt us to add to our ever increasing luggage weight. We find some time to catch a West End play (Prisoner of Second Avenue with Jeff Goldblum) and we finally visit the Saatchi Gallery (it was closed on our previous visit). All of these pleasantries prevent us thinking too much about what we have left behind in Paris and the challenges that lay ahead. The deception continues as we head to Southampton to board the Queen Victoria for a very indulgent cruise of the Baltic ocean.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Au Revoir Paris

On Saturday night we spent our final evening in Paris. We sat perched on a park bench close to the Eiffel tower sipping champagne in celebration of a truly remarkable year. Tomorrow we would say goodbye to our cosy little apartment and board the Eurostar for London, so we were feeling quite reflective about the many wonderful people we had met and memorable places we had seen during the course of the year. As usual the place was buzzing with tourist excitement that was further heightened by the added ingredient of the world cup being televised on the big screen across the Seine at Trocadero. As we watched the hourly twinkle of lights on the tower and analysed our mixture of emotions, we would be occasionally distracted by the distant raw of the crowd watching the Spain v Paraguay game. At its conclusion the Spanish supporters emerged singing, dancing and waving their red and yellow flags. Clearly they had won! Their noisy celebrations near to where we were sitting signalled it was now time to shoot the last of our photos and take a final lazy stroll back to Rue de Javel. One chapter had ended, but another was about to begin.

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

A Room with a View

Last Friday was my last day at school. An emotional day that concluded a fantastic and memorable year! It was a great location to work, not the least because for a year I had one of the best views in Paris. Being perched in the high side of the Seine, I never tired of the outlook from the art room that stretched across the rooftops to take in that iconic monument, the Eiffel Tower. It was one spectacular view and in the daily grind of day to day school life (which in many ways is similar the world over), a quick glimpse would continue to remind me just exactly where I was. Although its image is used to such an extent as to become almost a Paris cliché, Jules and I just love it. Not a day has gone by when we haven’t simply stared up in amazement at its perfectly proportioned ‘meccano-like’ form. It’s subtle changing colours at various times of the day and its spectacular night illuminations have remained spellbinding. We have particularly loved running around it early in the morning before the tourists had arrived, feeling that just for that moment it was all ours. It has been our beacon when we were disorientated walking the streets of Paris and a welcoming signpost that always pointed us back towards our little apartment.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

In Search of Vincent

Recently Jules and I completed a fascinating journey that had lasted several months, as we followed in the footsteps of the troubled and somewhat misunderstood artist Vincent Van Gogh. It began at his studio in Montmartre, but eventually saw us making our way to the countryside of Provence to stand in the very locations where many of his most famous works were painted. Journeying to the town of Arles, we saw the spot were he once shared a house with Gauguin, which also coincided with the famous ear cutting incident. We visited the hospital where he convalesced, with its beautiful Spanish style courtyard and drank coffee at the café featured in the painting ‘Café Terrace at Night’, with both remaining quite the same as in his time. We ventured to the nearby town of St. Remy where Van Gogh spent a year in the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole-Asylum. We sat in the walled garden where he had spent many an hour and I pulled out my watercolour box to render a quick homage to the moment. The tranquillity, the iris in bloom and the gentle spring light was almost spiritual! The trail soon continued back to the township of St.Remy, which was dotted with sign posts indicating the location of many of his most famous works. The final stage of the journey was completed quite recently with a short train trip from Paris to the town of Auvers sur Oise where Van Gogh spent his final days under the care of Dr. Gachet. He painted many celebrated works in this lovely town and of course his final work, ‘Wheatfield with Crows', with its three paths going in different directions can still be seen in the fields at the edge of the town. Nearby the graves of Van Gogh and his brother Theo can be found, quite humble but carefully maintained. Our journey is now complete and we both feel that we have learned so much more about the artist than just reading a book or viewing his works in a gallery. We saw these places through his eyes and like him became enthused. The beauty of the landscape and simplicity of a way of life that still remains inspirational.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Pop Art hits Paris!

Over the past few weeks my year 9 art class have been working productively to build a colourful collection of ‘crawling critters’ with the notion of creating a temporary pop art sculpture in Paris. They had been studying 'public art' and were keen to create their own collaborative art work that would create some attention. Today was the day... the sun was shining and the crowds were heading toward Trocadero to watch France play possibly their final world cup game on the big screen. As they walked the Pont d’lena in front of the Eiffel Tower they were confronted with an army of yellow, blue and red crawling creatures arranged in interesting configurations by the young artists. The crowd reaction was very positive as by passers photographed the activity. The students enjoyed the attention and the sculpture temporarily became a colourful addition to one of the great locations of the world.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Les Puses - Paris

Visited Les Puses on the weekend which is something we had promised ourselves we would do on a previous short visit to Paris and it has come down to the last weeks of living here before we have done it. ‘Les Puces’ is probably the biggest flea market in Europe selling everything from cheap brand rip-offs to expensive antiques. You would think that with hundreds of stalls to look at we would find one unique souvenir of Paris but alas no…lots of junk and the few gems that we did see were quite expensive. Of course weight is always an issue for nomadic adventurers such as ourselves, so that was another factor to be considered. It’s certainly a bustly place, but a bit grotty in parts. As you come up above ground from the metro there are many shady characters thrusting fist loads of sunglasses, hats, lighters or cigarettes in your general direction. When you walk further and escape the tatty market and wander into the tiny alleys, it’s more sane and you can meander around some interesting shops without being hassled. It was made even more pleasant on the day we were there as there were a series of impromptu jazz performances dotted throughout the area, which were brilliant!

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Turning Back Time in Troyes

As the coldness of the European winter recedes and warmer weather begins to emerge, Jules and I set our sights on visiting some of the picturesque towns that lie outside of Paris. One such town to the southeast is the historical village of Troyes (pronounced ‘Twah’). Located in the heart of the champagne region, it was a relatively short train trip away (approximately 150 km) and ideal for an overnight stay. As it is regarded as one of the better preserved 16th century towns in France, we were keen to make our way there. Upon our arrival we were immediately struck by the traditional architecture, which was very different than what we had imagined; looking much like the Elizabethan Tudor style of England with its use of exposed wooden structural beams. Clearly the channel between the two countries was no barrier to the development of this building style. Amazingly many of these particular structures date back to the 1500’s and over the years whole streets had been beautifully restored and maintained. Walking through the narrow cobblestone streets of the old town was indeed like stepping back in time and we were amazed at the way its authenticity has been maintained over the years. We were particularly fortunate to secure one of these heritage buildings as our accommodation for the night. Positioned close to a tree lined canal where narrow boats were moored as they had been for hundreds of years, it was an idealic picture. As we continued to wander around the centre of town we came across the ornate Troyes Cathedral, which could be viewed at close quarters from the town square. This is the heart of the old town, which is lined with numerous cafes, bars and restaurants and is a haven for tourists. In the increasing heat of the afternoon, we couldn’t resist sitting under the colourful umbrellas to quench our thirst with a nice cold beer, while taking in this uniquely French outlook. In fact, it was so good that in the evening we returned once again to eat outdoors and enjoy the ambience of the balmy night. Unlike Paris there was a relaxed atmosphere here that appeared to be less rushed by the modern pace of life. The locals were genuinely welcoming and happy to share the unique qualities of their town and countryside. Certainly, with the champagne region at their doorstep they had much to smile about, although for us the town itself was simply enough.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Remembering the Diggers at Villers Bretonneax

One of our goals while in France was to visit the historic region of the Somme to pay our respects to the fallen Australian diggers who lost their lives during World War One. It was a long weekend, so we left Paris by train on Friday to stay at Amiens. After only a few short hours we arrive at this very pleasant city. Everything was very clean and tidy and there was clearly plenty of civic pride evident. In the centre of the city is Notre Dame Cathedral, which is not quite as famous as it’s namesake in Paris, but is statistically larger and in our opinion more impressive. From here we hop into a taxi for the short trip out of town to Villers Bretonneax and dropped off at the Australian War Memorial that sits on the crest of the rolling hills outside the tiny town. On this site many of our young lads lost their lives as they halted the German advance on Amiens. It remains a pilgrimage destination for many Australians, so not surprisingly we start to hear some Australian accents from those wandering through the rows of headstones. We talked to a lovely couple, who had travelled from Queensland and were moved to tears with discovery of the resting place of a great uncle. The memorial is beautifully maintained and despite the ravages of the Second World War (evident by the bullet holes that still remain on the central tower) it stands proudly as a testament to the enduring bond between Australia and France forged through battle. Similarly this is evident in the township itself with several streets named after Australian cities. We even have coffee at Le Cafe Melbourne before visiting the Franco-Australian museum, which is set above the local schoolhouse built from the donations of Australian school children in the post war period. Looking at the old photos of the area after the devastation of war is quite a sobering experience, but the efforts of our soldiers to rebuild this tiny town makes us proud to be Australian. Amongst the many exhibits was a small bible that had been borrowed (possibly for spiritual comfort) from the local church in 1918 and taken back to Australia by a young surviving soldier. In an accompanying letter written many years later the soldier had felt so badly about taking it that he organised to have it sent back. Such is the respect for a town that it is increasingly being recognised for being as historically significant as Gallipoli.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Sampling the Monaco Lifestyle

While touring the south of France, Jules and I had planned to head over the border to visit one of the smallest countries in the world, Monaco. We were familiar with this place for two main reasons…the much-publicised marriage of Grace Kelly to Prince Rainier and the Monaco Grand Prix, which was annually telecast in Australia in the early hours of the morning. We were also aware that this place was regarded as the playground of the wealthy, who were understandably attracted to the region both for it’s climate and the fact that Monaco has no personal income taxes!

So on a wonderfully sunny day, we hopped on a train from Nice and within half an hour we were there. Emerging from the station we were immediately reminded that it was indeed Grand Prix time, with temporary stands being set up all around the major streets and foreshore. The big race was only one week away and there was plenty of activity to be observed. We immediately decided to walk the racetrack, something we were very familiar with from those telecasts, only to find that what television doesn’t quite convey is the steepness of the terrain. Our admiration of those drivers went up a notch when we saw first hand the narrowness of the streets and the tightness of the curves. We headed past the famed Casino Royale and down the hill toward the coastline and the familiar motorway tunnel that runs parallel. As is tradition at this time of the year in Monaco, they hold a Classic Car Grand Prix as a warm up event for the Formula One race so we were able to walk down toward the pits to watch the owner/drivers preparing for their weekend race. Unlike for the F1’s, the public are quite welcome and despite the fact that we are not at all ‘petrol heads’ we quite enjoyed inspecting their wonderfully expensive toys as if we knew something about racing.

Over at the marina it is similarly busy, with boats from all over the world taking up prime positions. Well, they were not really boats in the normal sense, more like floating mansions; often several stories high and complete with jacuzzi. Each seemed to have a large crew either polishing the brass or hosing down the deck, with many from Australia, judging by their accents. The owners and guests were easy to distinguish by their white trousers, suntans and lavish display of jewelry. This seemed to be quite a common look amongst the ‘beautiful people’ of Monaco and as we walked around, admiring the countless exotic cars, it all seemed disturbingly perfect. There just didn’t seem to be too many ‘everyday’ folk living here, everyone appeared to have either just stepped out of a glossy magazine or off the set of a James Bond movie!

For a broader vantage point, we again headed upward, following a rocky ridge to one of the highest spots in Monaco that provides the best view of the city and marina. Not surprisingly it was the location of the Royal Palace, which is not an overly grand building, but nonetheless had all the usual trappings, including large cannons and immaculately dressed guards complete with sky blue pith helmets. Here the main parade square was lined with traditionally styled colonial buildings that appeared to have been painstakingly restored. Upon closer inspection, there seemed to be a sense of ‘manufactured oldness’ about them that gave the scene an almost theme park quality. Much like many of the local residents, it all looked a little too perfect to be true. Although being quite beautiful in itself, we felt that the area surrounding the Palace didn’t look historically believable. Perhaps, the angles were simply too straight, the windows were too much in alignment or that there wasn’t a crack to be seen! Monaco had turned out to be pretty much what we thought it might be, a very beautiful and picturesque playground for the rich and famous! However, what had really surprised us was our reaction to it. Rather than being envious of their lifestyle, we felt distinctively out of step with it all. It was not just the obvious wealth, but rather the apparent superficial nature of life there. To us it had tended to lack much of the character we had found in many of the towns in France. While Monaco appeared to be perfect, the truth is that the rest of the world isn’t. We had realized that sometimes it is diversity, age and the imperfections of life that create the unfathomable characteristics that make a place unique. It's something that simply can’t be bought.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Time in Toulouse

The airlines are grounded due to the huge volcanic eruption in Iceland, but that won’t affect us, as we are off to Toulouse by train. Toulouse, or to be more specific the nearby town of Albi, is the birth place of the artist Henri Toulouse-Lautrec who has been the topic of many a history lesson in my art classes. Leaving Montparnasse station it only takes us a few hours to arrive at the ‘pink city’ as Toulouse is often referred, due to the frequent use of pale red terracotta brickwork on most of it’s early buildings. One of the most prominent buildings is La Basilique Saint Sernin, which is conveniently opposite our hotel and provides a spectacular view particularly at night when it is lit up like a Christmas tree, which just happens to be similar to it’s shape. There are many other wonderful buildings here that date back to the eleventh and twelfth century. The city itself is a lovely place to wander the narrow lanes that lead to a wide flowing river. There you can see structures such as Pont Neuf and Dome De La Grave, which are very reminiscent of Italy…great for drawing. There is also Foundation Bemburg, which is a fabulous private eclectic collection of art, housed in a beautifully restored residence. Our aim is to eventually get to visit the town of Albi but although we have dodged the plane disruptions we can’t avoid a typically French phenomenon…the train strike! This, compounded with me catching a heavy cold, sees us restricted just to Toulouse, but that is fine as it’s a nice place to just sit in the plaza (or place) and watch the world go by.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Stepping into Cezanne’s studio

Arriving in Aix en Provence, Jules and I are immediately struck by the beauty of this southern French township. It has all of the things you imagine a French provincial village might have …classic architecture, stately fountains and quaint cobblestone laneways. In short, it’s a pretty nice place to live! With that in mind, it is not totally surprising that the great Post-Impressionist painter Paul Cezanne (who was born here in 1839) chose to live and work here throughout his life. The building that housed his original studio can be found in the centre of town, although little evidence remains except a small plaque on the wall. However, his final studio still remains and can be viewed pretty much in its original state. The studio was built 1901, once his status as an important Modernist had been established. Cezanne chose a nice patch of land, high on a hillside overlooking the little township, while also catching the distant view of Mont Sainte Victoire (the subject of many his paintings). After a short walk out of town and up the hill, we found it hidden away amongst the suburbs, which have long since engulfed the area. This is so different to the early photos that we later view, when Cezanne’s studio stood very much alone amongst olive fields. As we enter the gates we are suddenly transformed back to Cezanne’s time, stepping into his rambling garden, which was very much loved by the artist. The studio stands as it did in his day and is a relatively modest two storey stone building. Following Cezanne’s death, it was locked away for many years and so today remains very much as it was toward the end of his life. We make our way up the stairs to the studio itself and notice Cezanne’s bowler hat and coat still hanging in the same place the master artist had left them over a hundred years ago. Large north facing studio windows allow natural light to flood into the room, which is filled with familiar objects, so often seen in Cezanne’s later still-life paintings. Today, the masterpieces are gone…tucked away safely in national galleries around the world. While the studio itself, now quite sparse and humble in appearance, still remains a significant place as it was witness to the birth of many great works. It is also a room that attracted many famous visitors. Some of them prominent artists of the day such as Matisse and Picasso, but also in later years less anticipated figures such as the likes of Marilyn Monroe. Even today and despite the many thousands of visitors, the studio has a particularly calm and tranquil feel and on a warm summers day it is not to difficult to imagine how Cezanne became so inspired. The colours and the clear air remain, as does the special charm of southern France and in particular, Aix en Provence.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Stepping into the World of Gaudi

The most unique and original architect of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was not an American, Frenchman or Italian, but rather a Spaniard called Antonio Gaudi. To be precise, he was a Catalonian (a citizen of Northern Spain), which is a fact that you are often reminded about when walking around Barcelona. In any case, he was a remarkable designer, both in the creativity of his vision and the scale of his endeavors. Having studied many of his buildings as a significant part of my Art History course, I was finally going to see them for myself, while Jules was going to be introduced to him for the very first time.

The great thing about Barcelona is that many of its most famous attractions are within walking distance from the city centre, so on a fine sunny day we began our pilgrimage to Gaudi’s most famous domestic dwellings. ‘Casa Batilo’ is a remodeled apartment building that must have astounded its owners when it was completed at the beginning of the twentieth century. The locals affectionately refer to it as ‘the house of bones’ because of its organic nature, resulting in window structures and balcony forms taking on an almost skeletal quality. It is an amazing combination of colourful mosaic, flowing lines and ornate ceramic shapes, that are interwoven into what can only be described as a wonderful piece of ‘fantasy architecture’. However, the building that really saw Gaudi recognized as one of the new breed of art nouveau modernists can be found close by and its called ‘Casa Mila’. It is a much larger building than Casa Batilo and reflected the ongoing development of Gaudi’s organic style, combined effectively with the use of stone and wrought iron. There is not a straight line to be seen in this building and it is crowned with a rooftop of the most amazing chimney designs that you’re ever likely to see.

The intricate and fantastic nature of Gaudi’s designs often resulted in some quite extended building times. Such was the case with the large garden complex of ‘Guell Park’ that took fourteen years to complete. Despite being a little out from the town centre, Jules and I found that it was well worth tracking down, as not only was it a wonderfully imaginative example of Gaudi designs, but it also provided some of the best views of Barcelona. As we entered, people were lining up to be photographed next to the amazing mosaic dragon fountain that welcomes you before making the climb up the grand stairs. There is a nice atmosphere with guitarists playing and lots of kids on school excursions clearly excited to be there. We take a rambling trail to the upper level, passing through grotto-like structures as we go, to eventually rest on the multi-coloured mosaic seats to admire the view. This is certainly one of the most unique and pleasurable parks we have ever visited and we can well understand the time taken to build it.

Yet its construction time pales into insignificance compared to Gaudi’s greatest achievement, ‘Sagrada Familia’, the basilica church that dominates the Barcelona skyline. When building commenced in 1882, even Gaudi couldn’t have imagined that it would have remained incomplete to this day. Such is the detail and intricacy of Gaudi’s planning that despite steady ongoing construction for over a century, it is still anticipated that it will not be fully finished until 2026. As you can imagine, it is a church like no other and not surprisingly it has already been granted world heritage status despite remaining incomplete. What I particularly liked about it was the many whimsical features that could be seen at closer viewing. From the fruit bowl mosaic spires, to the turtles carrying the weight of its enormous columns, such decorative features tend to lighten the tone of the buildings sombre religious mood, reinforced by the countless chiseled statues that surround it. Each time the scaffolding is removed it reveals yet more aspects of Gaudi’s fertile imagination and the scope of his vision for this Barcelona icon.

Gaudi justifiably remains one of Barcelona’s favourite sons. His designs are unique to this day and like no other, his buildings have put an undeniable stamp on this city. While his designs are not to everyone’s taste, they remain totally individual and for anyone interested in design and architecture, his works are certainly a must see. Stepping into a Gaudi design is like entering into another world and it is difficult to imagine how such expressive designs could ever be built today.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Brilliant Barcelona!

One of the places that continued to be mentioned as a place we must visit was the Spanish city of Barcelona. From Paris it’s an overnight run by train, which we boarded with much anticipation at 8.00pm. Being quite an old train, the sleeper could have been a little more comfortable, but we eventually arrive safely in Barcelona at 8.30 am. Despite its size the city was relatively quiet and an over night down pour had left the streets glistening as the sun broke through for a new day. This was considerably different from the grey skies and cold days we had only yesterday left behind in Paris.

 We walked to our hotel, which was nicely positioned on the most popular street in town, Las Ramblas. From here we would later enjoy all of the daily action of this wide and leafy boulevard, with its numerous souvenir stalls and plenty of street performers (well, if you can call standing like a statue a performance). These interesting characters seemed to be positioned every few metres and came in all forms … everything from Edward Scissorhands through to a man disguised as a human pot plant! Each seemed to have a steady stream of tourists eager to have their photograph taken alongside them, for a small donation of course. In any case, it all seemed to add to the relaxed and happy nature of Las Ramblas, which made it such an inviting place and with Sangria in hand, it was certainly a great place for us to soak up the atmosphere of this bustling city.

As with most cities we visit, Jules is always keen to seek out the best places for food and it wasn’t too long before we found ourselves in the local market (Mercat de La Boqueria) with its delicious assortment of fresh produce, much of which would find its way into the many surrounding tapas bars, which we also thought was our culinary duty to explore. Back on the streets, we marveled at the range of interesting architecture that can be experienced around every corner. Of course the famous Gaudi buildings are legendary, but there are also some wonderful architectural delights that reveal the cities diverse architectural past. We were amazed to discover that Barcelona has its very own Arc de Triomf, which is far less formal than the one in Paris, but no less impressive. A favorite area was Barri Gotic, which is the centre of the old city of Barcelona and is a wonderful labyrinth of narrow cobblestone streets and tall medieval buildings. This is the Gothic quarter of the city with plenty of charm and character. On one of the days we were there, a cool wind was sweeping through so we headed to the nearby Placa Reial, which would provide a warm and sheltered haven. The square is like a little piece of paradise with it’s palm trees and ornate street lamps, all surrounded by a beautiful arched façade … simply a perfect place to sit in one of the cafés, sip a coffee and sketch, which is exactly what we did!

Over the years, Barcelona has been the venue for some notable world events. The 1992 Summer Olympics certainly provided the city with a number of modern structures and stadiums as well as a wonderfully clean and efficient underground train system. This enabled us to move easily around the city and we even went as far a field as to visit Montserrat in the rugged mountains surrounding Barcelona. Earlier events such as the World Exposition of 1923 had also created a number of significant landmarks. From Placa Espanya we ventured passed two large and distinctive towers to view what remains from the event. For me, the Barcelona Pavilion by Mies Van Der Rohe was a building I had really wanted to see and it certainly didn’t disappoint. The building was originally part of the German section of the exhibition and represented new modernist (led by the Bauhaus) developments in architecture. Over 80 years after the event, it still remains one of the world’s greatest and most influential buildings with it attention to minimalism and stylistic purity. While the Spanish Pavilion is far more traditional, it still exists and was designed to represent regional styles of the period. Today it provides an important centre for local arts and crafts, with many practitioners working directly on sight and we particularly enjoyed wandering around and viewing the artists at work in their studio and picking up the odd piece.

Our time in Barcelona passed so quickly and we could well understand why so many people had recommended this city to us. The local Catalonians had been so welcoming and despite it’s size, we had found it to be a very relaxed metropolis, with so much to offer … and we had only begun to scratch the surface! It remains one of our favorite cities and our voices are certainly added to the chorus of people who continue to sing its praises.