Delphi, Jeremy and ‘coronavirus’

Last September I had been complaining that a ‘real’ holiday, not accompanied by work, had become, more and more, a ‘pipe dream’. ‘Well, just book something and I’ll fit in with it’, said John, as if he was batting away a mosquito. I had just got a brochure from ‘Travel Editions’. One of the trips was almost the same as our Greek odyssey in 1970, where six of us travelled in an old Land Rover across Europe, ending up in the Peloponnese, via the island of Skiathos and Athens.

One site we were disappointed to miss out on – because for some reason it was closed – was Delphi. This current tour took in Delphi, Olympia, Nafplio, Mycenae, Corinth, Mystras and Sparta, nearly all of which we did manage to visit – fifty years ago. John was hooked, I was excited and happy …

But in February ‘coronavirus’ was in the news more and more frequently, rearing its ugly and terrifyingly invisible head. It reminded me of Hercules trying to kill the Hydra – a serpent with numerous heads. If you cut one off, two or more would quickly grow out of the stump. This virus was stalking the world, creating chaos and in many cases, death. It had apparently arisen from wild animal markets in China, linked to bats and pangolins and had made the jump to humans. I was getting more and more anxious but when I rang ‘Travel Editions’, the tour was still up and running. We decided to risk it.

on our way …

Jeremy Paterson, our enthusiastic tour guide, who taught Ancient Greek and Roman history for over forty years at Newcastle University, collected us together at Athens airport and we were soon plunged into the Greek landscape with Nikos, our driver. I felt relaxed, footloose and ‘fancy free’. We had got here, Jeremy was in charge and I could sit back and enjoy a ‘real’ holiday, with somebody else doing all the organising. Bliss!

Arachova is a delightful mountain village near Delphi. Our room at the hotel Likoria had a balcony overlooking the mountains and the Delphi valley. We arrived in time to explore, Jeremy suggesting we visit the church, which was approached via 100+ steps …

Agios Georgios Byzantine church, Arachova
Church infiltrated by the evening sun
exquisite

The sun was beginning to wane and there is that magical moment when it blazes for the last time before slipping behind the horizon. I’m not particularly religious in a formal way but I lit a candle and made an offering for being here.

sunset – shades of de Chirico …

We negotiated our way back to the main street via stray cats patrolling crooked alley ways. Jeremy had recommended a tea shop, which was easy to find, as the window was full of teapots. It not only sold tea but we bought dried apricots, mango, almonds, sesame biscuits and some kind of large citrus fruit which was dried, sliced and vivid green. I wish I had bought a huge bag of it – it was so very delicious.

This village has an alpine feel to it as there is skiing in the winter, which is very popular. But we were in a quiet time between that and summer tourists.

a basketful of pomegranates
Still Life …
vampire cat
chimney pot 1
chimney pots 3

I wonder why Greek chimney pots often resemble birds?

Time for supper at the hotel – the bed is comfortable and I’m looking forward to a good night’s sleep in the mountain air.

view from our balcony – remains of day 1

I’m more of a one-to-one than a ‘group’ person but Jeremy and Bianca make me feel at home, always ready to answer any questions and full of interesting stories. And I am absolved of all responsibility – they will sort things out. I didn’t realise then how much sorting out they would ultimately have to do.

It’s a glorious day, sunny and warm, bathed in that ‘special’ light of Greece. Greek myths tell us that Zeus sent two eagles out from the ends of the universe to find the navel of the world. They met in Delphi, which was for many centuries the cultural and religious centre and symbol of unity for the Hellenic world. (Jeremy’s notes). Its setting in the landscape is spectacular.

trees at Delphi

We pass by the Shining Cliffs and meet up with George, our Greek guide, who lives locally and is the son of a priest. He and Jeremy go back a long way. George points out the Castalian spring. This sacred fountain was used to purify people before entering Delphi. Byron apparently plunged in, hoping to enhance his poetic spirit. I held out my hand and drank the clear water, splashing it on my face. I’m open for anything good coming my way. … I hope the ‘Pythia’ was listening …

‘Shining Cliffs’ – Delphi
outside the entrance to Delphi

Behind the bespoke Land Rover you can see the tent like nests of the processionary moth, whose larvae attack pine trees throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. It’s a massive problem.

Delphi – healthy pine cones

Lots of birdsong. We walked under a bower of yellow, strongly scented flowers, which were buzzing with cohorts of bees …

bee flowers …
wall at entrance to Delphi
Serpent column at Delphi

This is a replica of the original 8 metre, bronze column, which is now in Istanbul. There used to be three serpent heads on the top – destroyed – although a small piece of one serpent’s jaw is in the museum in Istanbul.

Delphi – The Athenian Treasury
Delphi – Jeremy in full flow …

A lot of the stones are carved with inscriptions – in Greek, so I can’t translate them – but apparently many of them relate to the emancipation of slaves. The Greeks’ view of making slaves free men is interesting – different from the norm.

Delphi – inscriptions on stone

I don’t own a cat but I was rather taken by the one which followed us around the ruins …

guardian of the stones …
Delphi – keeper of secrets …
embodiment of the Pythia
Temple of Athena

Looking down from Delphi into the valley, you can just make the temple remains out on the left, shaded by trees. As the museum was closed, due to coronavirus, we got a chance to visit the temple instead. Next day the whole site was closed down – we managed to squeeze in with twenty four hours to spare. The ‘Pythia’ was benign on a perfect day. Luck was on our side.

Temple of Athena looking towards Delphi
Delphi – spring blossom
Delphi – purple vetch
Delphi – white throated nuthatch (?)
splendour in the grass
The Oracle keeps her secrets …

… as we leave for the monastery of Osios Loukás, which is quite close.

Time for a coffee break on the way in a quiet village. Old men playing the even more ancient game of backgammon. They were happy for me to take a photo. When I was in Fethiye in Turkey I asked some men if I could take their photo and they invited me to sit down with them and bought me tea in a glass – sadly, I didn’t have time to learn backgammon.

backgammon
eye catching pickup truck
keep on trucking …

The site of the monastery on Mount Helikon dates from before AD 944. It exceeds all expectations. The location is secluded, the atmosphere is tranquil and the silence all embracing.

entrance to the Monastery of Osios Loukás
Osias Loukás basking in the sun
Osias Loukás – church
Church interior
votive beeswax candles
fountain with flowers and urn
Songs

While I was taking photos, George started to sing in Greek within the church. He has the most mellifluous voice – molten with the honeyed smell of beeswax candles …

sunbathing
trying to capture the ‘special’ light of Greece …
John at the Monastery of Osios Loukás

Coronavirus creeps closer. As we leave the hotel next morning the owners close it down. Our itinerary must change as many sites are now being closed too. However, Jeremy, George and Bianca are full of innovative ideas and we end up at the delightful town of Nafpaktos by the sea with its impressive looking castle on the top of the mountain.

Venetian castle of Nafpaktos overlooking the bay of Patras
Nafpaktos – harbour with Venetian ramparts
Nafpaktos – Bay of Patras
Nafpaktos harbour – fishing boats
under the ramparts to see …
…the view of the Rio-Antirio bridgewith bathers …

The Rio-Antirio bridge is the world’s longest multi-span, cable stayed bridge. It crosses the Gulf of Corinth, linking the town of Rio on the Peloponnese to Antirio on mainland Greece.

Nafpaktos was known as Lepanto during part of its history and by the harbour is a statue of Cervantes, who took part at the Battle of Lepanto. There is another statue on the harbour wall of Giorgos Anemogiannis, who lost his life defending his country. The two statues seem to be waving to one another …

Greetings!

Most shops are closed and although bakeries are open, only two customers are allowed in at a time.

no shoap or shampoo …

As we walked back to the bus along the shoreline I noticed a shower was set up on the beach with a large notice not to use soap or shampoo. Seeing spelling of ‘shoap’ on the notice made me think of the roots of words and language. If it’s shampoo, why not shoap …

Shampoo seems to have had Indian roots and was first noted in England in 1762. Its original meaning in Hindi was ‘a full body massage’. Soap seems to have German/Dutch roots. My most successful chemistry lesson at school was succeeding in making a bar of soap! Digression …

Next stop is at the bridge – we take the ferry across to get the best view of it.

view of Rio-Antirio bridge from the ferry
On the ferry
coming and going …
The ferryman
the way ahead …

This photo reminds me of the work of Richard Diebenkorn, a Californian artist, whose paintings are a mix of abstract and figurative. I especially like his colour palette.

He manages to be both geometrical and lyrical at once, which brings on a train of thought. How music and mathematics are in tandem… how poetry works lyrically, limited yet enhanced by lines of a sonnet or haiku … how a painting speaks to an audience in a more emotional way when constructed invisibly by the harmony set by ‘the Golden Mean’.

An example of this is in ‘The Baptism of Christ’ by Piero de la Francesca, who was also a mathematician and a pioneer in the field of perspective. I am always drawn to his paintings – the way he uses colour and light. And the invisibility of the ‘Golden Mean’ underlying it all.

If this photo appeals to you, it’s worth looking up more on Diebenkorn too. (1922 – 1993).

Back on the bus, I snap these weird looking cliffs. They remind me of Ursula Le Guin’s ‘The Wizard of Earthsea’ or a film set in ‘Lord of the Rings’. However, I think this is merely a quarry.

weird cliff formations

Maybe I’m flagging a bit – needing a siesta … I remember I bought something to eat in Nafpaktos so I rummage around in my bag to find it.

fig sticks

I’m sure one or two of these will raise my energy levels. The label mentions that they are ‘fumigated’. I don’t know what that means but I’m hungry so I’ll risk it…

The site at Corinth is already closed but we can look through the fence as various companionable dogs follow us.

village at Roman Corinth with dogs

You can just see the fortress of Acro-Corinth on top of the mountain in the right of the picture.

swan gates

This reminds me that when we get home John’s new book, his twentieth, will be published. It’s called ‘Green Swans’ – The Coming Boom in Regenerative Capitalism – and has already had some positive feedback from both business and environmental people.

shrine

I notice lots of shrines by the side of the roads as we pass. Bianca says that many of them commemorate people who have died in car accidents. One man even built a chapel of remembrance for his son on the spot. I am glad that Nikos is our driver, as he is excellent …

And the best is yet to come – we are driving up the mountain to Acro-Corinth.

fortress of Acro-Corinth

The fortress had its own water supply – the spring of Pereine – and a commanding view from the mountain top over the Isthmus of Corinth.

view from the fortress over the Isthmus of Corinth

Asphodel grows here – the sacred plant which is connected to the Elysian Fields, where knights and warriors who lost their lives defending their kingdoms entered – the equivalent of Paradise. I first came upon asphodel growing on the ramparts of the castle by the harbour in Kyrenia in Cyprus. It struck a chord – it is wonderful to see it growing here.

asphodel

Asphodel is the pinky white flower – the other is euphorbia, which grows everywhere we have visited.

Acro-Corinth – time to leave

Nafplion. I’m so looking forward to seeing this town again fifty years on. It’s a small port and again, like Nafpaktos, has an impressive Venetian fortress, Palamídi, towering over it. There is also another fortress – Bourtzi – located on an islet in the middle of the bay.

But our first point of contact is the Hotel Amalia, a few minutes drive outside the town. It’s huge, spacious, full of light and our room has French doors onto the gardens and a small nature reserve, full of bees, birds and croaking frogs. I’d like to explore it but it’s cordoned off and I think the ground must be quite marshy, given frogs are in abundance.

Hotel Amalia – entrance
Hotel Amalia – doors to gardens
Hotel Amalia – gardens
Hotel Amalia

The hotel is silent and almost empty – except for us. I’m enjoying the breakfasts with oranges off the trees and delicious, thick cut quince jam. Add it to Greek yoghourt – fabulous … it’s alright to have seconds on holiday …

Jeremy, George and Bianca have sorted out interesting things for us to see, despite the castle being off limits. We drive right up to the entrance with the view of Nafplion spread out before us.

Palamidi castle/fortress at Nafplion
what is it?

I’ve fallen in love with this tree. I keep seeing them and wish I could grow one at home.

outside the castle walls
well used/ill used public phone box

Graffiti persists the whole world over – I suppose it did in Greek and Roman times too …

more interesting graffiti …

On the opposite side of the road is the ‘Lion of Bavaria’, carved out of the living rock. It dates from 1840. The sculptor was Christian Siegel, the first professor of sculpture at Athens Polytechnic. It was commissioned by Ludwig of Bavaria – father of Otto – who was the first king of Greece – in memory of Bavarian soldiers who died during the typhoid epidemic in Nafplion (1833/34).

Lion of Bavaria

He looks pretty exhausted but he was commemorating a grim typhoid epidemic. It is quite an extraordinary achievement.

As Nafplion was once the capital of Greece, there are many commemorative statues, where Jeremy and George can expand on our knowledge of Greek history.

Theodorus Kolokotronis (1770-1843)

TK was a Greek general and leader of the War of Independence (1821-29) against the Ottoman Empire.

Ioannis Kapodistrias (1776-1831)

Kapodistrias came from Corfu and studied philosophy, medicine and languages in Padua before going into politics. He established the first agricultural school and the first printing shop, when becoming the first governor of Greece. Sadly, he was assassinated in 1831. He is deservedly honoured in the country today. Statue now under renovation …

My favourite statue is of King Otto, who came from Bavaria and ruled as king in Greece from 1836 to 1862. He married the rather beautiful Amalia of Oldenburg. In 1862 there was an uprising, forcing the royal couple into exile. They spent the rest of their lives in Bavaria, deciding to speak Greek every day between 6 and 8 o’clock to remember their time in Greece.

King Otto in Greek national dress
elegant Syndagma square

This square is the heart of Nafplion and must usually be buzzing with people but now it is eerily quiet. I’m a bit behind the rest of the group as I came upon a Gelateria that was open and bought a lemon ice cream cone – later on, I sloped back for another. Greek and Turkish ice creams are the best.

Gelateria – Nafplion
floral balcony
a place to stay in Nafplion

I looked this up when I got home and it appealed. It’s always good to have recommendations of places to stay. Often best to book direct with the hotel.

Nafplion alley way

We are left free to roam around this afternoon. Hardly any shops are open and I can’t even find postcards. I don’t expect many people bother with writing them nowadays, finding stamps etc. – I always used to send them because I liked receiving them from others in far flung places. And I was excited to be abroad and exploring. This is a postcard odyssey of sorts I suppose … without stamps …

We walked along the shoreline. I’m fascinated by the tiny fortress of Bourtzi which takes up the whole of an islet in the bay. There’s more about its history on www.greeka.com. It holds a music festival in the summer.

There’s a slightly sinister side. Until 1930 the fortress was the home of the local executioner. It defended the only navigable channel in the bay, which could be closed off by a chain reaching between the fortress and the town. (info gleaned from Eyewitness Travel book on Greece, published by DK).

Bourtzi fortress, Nafplion
Nafplion – down by the shore
seascape – Nafplion

The streets are silent. The tavernas are closed. But the air is fresh with a sea breeze and it’s lovely to be here …

closed
closed
tarte au citron – bittersweet
deserted garden
little owls …

In Greek mythology the little owl was the messenger of Athene, goddess of wisdom. Fifty years ago, we bought a print from a gallery in the Plaka in Athens and the owner gave us a tiny print of a ‘little owl’ as a gift. I hadn’t thought about this for a long time until I saw these owls in a shop, which was also, sadly, closed. I have to say I am missing ‘the shops’ !

film ‘noir’
old Nafplion

This is an old photo, showing the fortress and the harbour of Nafplion – the fish is still fresh today but there was probably more to catch then …

Nafplion 2020 – time to go

I hope I may come back one day.

Back at the hotel, I now know where its name, Amalia, comes from. The wife of King Otto. Jeremy said Otto really tried hard to be a good king in Greece. I’m lying on my bed having a rest before supper and idly looking at the picture of a mimosa tree on the wall. Mimosa is one of my favourite blossoms – a yellow, fluffy harbinger of Spring, coming out to give cheer in February, with the most delicate, seductive fragrance.

mimosa tree

There are two life size ‘fake’ statues which we pass on the way to the dining room A woman holding a lute and a man who seems to be holding a giant ice cream. That ice cream in Nafplion was especially addictive …

lady with a lute
ice cream man

This may sound flippant but as all the museums have been closed from day 1, I don’t have much in the way of Hellenic sculpture to show.

Next morning is cool and cloudy. George had a word with some nuns last night, who offered to show us round their nunnery, two at a time. On arrival all is silent and after many attempts with the bell pull and his phone, George decides that they must have changed their minds. The small shrine at the entrance will have to suffice.

shrine at entrance to nunnery

We pass by the site of Tiryns and drive on to a small church where the caretaker arrives on his bicycle to let us in.

cypress at Tyrins
illuminating on a cloudy day …
capturing colours

We’re going on to Mycenae but will only get a superficial look as the site is now shut and we’ll miss seeing the Lion Gate and the tombs. This complex of buildings was discovered by Heinrich Schliemann in 1874. It spans the years 1700 – 1100 BC, when it was abandoned. John remarks on first view that it reminds him of a battleship. I expect it survived many battles before sinking into the earth. We’ll have to make a return visit.

Mycenae

The car park at the top is empty, except for our bus and a ‘pussy posse’ who explode out of the underbrush in the hopes of food. Bianca supplies this as they circle around her.

pussy posse
topcat
wild spring flowers of the Peloponnese

Petrol station alert – we stop for food and facilities and find there’s a shop attached. I did rather covet the head of Medusa and thought about buying an ‘icon’ of St. George and the Dragon’ and/or an octopus plate but ended up with six bars of orange blossom soap to give as gifts when we get home. I don’t yet realise how very welcome these gifts will be …

Medusa, the Gorgon killed by Hercules

Her hair was live snakes and if you looked at her you would be turned into stone. Hercules managed to kill her by looking at her reflection in his shield.

St George and the dragon
octopus plate

Outside there’s a reproduction of the ‘Jockey of Artemision’. This is a bronze statue of a young boy riding a horse, dated to around 150 – 140 BC. It was lost in an ancient shipwreck and found in the wreck in pieces only in 1926. Then it was reconstructed and can now be seen in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.

the Jockey of Artemision

Coronavirus is now snapping at our heels and any other tourists seem to have evaporated. We are alone but in good company with our three guides and Nikos at the wheel. Our destination today is Epídavros but we stop off on the road from Tyrins to look at a famous (Arkadito) Mycenaean bridge, which is, astonishingly, still here – dating back to the Greek Bronze Age.

Mycenaean bridge

We stop in a small town to look at an exquisite little church that I feel I could hold in the palm of my hand. There’s an orchard of almond blossom behind it, sunlit orange and lemon trees … we have now been told that ‘Travel Editions’ has got us onto an earlier plane, so home tomorrow. It’s probably for the best.

What I will miss most is going to Mystras and Sparta, which I remember very clearly from fifty years ago. We walked up steep hills, baking in the hot sun, fragrant with oregano, thyme and rosemary beneath our feet. When you want something and know you can’t have it, then you want it even more – we are so near and yet so far. Even more of an incentive to try again next year …

an exquisite gem
interior 1
interior 2

George tells us that there are lots of different kinds of oranges grown in Greece. I’m not sure from this picture whether I’m photographing oranges or lemons – the latter, I think. But they are super large. If you’re interested to know more about the history of citrus fruits, the book ‘The Land Where Lemons Grow’ by Helena Attlee is a great read – but mainly based in Sicily. It also includes some recipes.

oranges/lemons?

The skin is rough and knobbly but they look delicious. I desperately want to pick one and eat it – but they belong to someone else. I turn my attention to other things …

siesta with flowers

It’s so warm today – almost like summer now – Easter flowers – a perfect spot to enjoy sleeping in the sun.

I notice a tree that’s been cut down by the church, where a beetle has bored lots of holes through the stump.

Two years ago we stayed in a lovely hotel called ‘Es Moli’ in Deia, Mallorca. The gardens were beautiful but some of the pine trees had holes in the bark, just like this. It’s an attack by an evil looking beetle. One landed on my hat and I should have killed it at the time but then we didn’t know what it was. There are photos of it in my journal about our stay in Deia. Diseases of trees are very much on the increase, throughout the world.

massive attack by evil beetle …

George has devised a walk for us through olive and orange groves to the village which is near the site of Epídavros. It’s delightful to be by the sea again. And I love being off the beaten tourist track, despite missing some of the sites. I feel the pull of Greece and I want to come back.

a giant sized ‘Ali Baba’ pot amidst the orange groves
village view from orange groves
a man repairing his boat
I was enchanted by the fish … so much so that …
I had to take a close up …

Look how the patterns in the wood mimic patterns in water …

walking round to the village …
sitting on the sea wall with my sandwich
counting sea urchins

Greece has had such a battering over the past few years and now they are losing the tourist trade because of coronavirus. We’ve been welcomed and had a brilliant time here but I feel guilty leaving the Greeks to yet another uncertain future, just as they were getting back on their feet.

But they are a tough people and will keep going and we’ll be back. If Europe can’t get itself together a lot of us will be in the same boat. This is the first time I am querying whether we should stay in the U.K. I see myself as European and then British. But where are we now? We should be strengthening our bonds and making Europe a continent to be reckoned with. China and the U.S. are powerful but they also have huge problems – even more so in the present circumstances.

picture postcard
sun and shade
a suspicious look …
fishing nets
reflections

I’m aware that I’m teasing out this last day to make the most of it. We are now on our way to the site at Epídavros. It’s closed too but the location is magical.

graceful trees at Epídavros
pine tree cones
a sifting of daisies at Epídavros

Persephone is the goddess of Spring. Her Roman name is Proserpine. Khloris is the goddess of flowers. Her Roman name is Flora. I need to find a book which gives me all the Greek names of the gods and goddesses with the equivalent Roman ones. One book which sounds very good is ‘The Complete World of Greek Mythology’ by Richard Buxton.

Star of Bethlehem

This grows on many of the sites we have visited. It is part of the lily family and poisonous to eat. And beautiful …

at Epídavros – March 2020

Tomorrow we pack up and leave for the airport. The hotel waves us goodbye and closes down. Soon we will all be scattered to the four winds but there are still one or two treats to be had together.

I took a fast moving photo from the bus as we passed the ‘open’ prison on the other side of the road from the hotel. John and I realised that it was the same place where we had pulled off the road fifty years ago as it was getting dark and we had nowhere to stay the night. The others put up their tent in what we thought was a field, while John and I slept in the back of the Land Rover with the tailgate down. I was woken at dawn, having a dream that somebody had cut off my feet. When I lifted the canvas at the back of the Land Rover, a man with an axe was standing there.

Dreams like that don’t usually come true – and my feet were still attached. We worked out that the man had murdered his wife’s lover – and was here atoning for his sins by working at the prison in the olive groves. He seemed content and we enjoyed his company. I still wonder about it …

Nafplion – passing by the ‘open’ prison

We’re stopping to get a view of the Corinth canal. There’s an old photo of this in our album at home with a ship coming through.

Corinth canal – 18 March 2020
Corinth canal – summer 1970

John took this photo fifty years ago. Things don’t seem to have changed a lot – except there’s no poster today showing the ‘Regime of the Colonels’ – far right military juntas that ruled Greece from 1967 – 1974. But something isn’t quite right …

I took a photo of the bridge shown at the information kiosk. Having wondered how John managed to take his photo, I realise that the motorway, where we are standing today, wasn’t there. John’s photo was taken from the next bridge.

Planners of the Corinth Canal

Athens airport is fairly empty – all the staff and many people wearing masks. As John travels so much we are able to sit comfortably in the lounge and have some something to keep us going on the flight ahead. I’m really happy not to eat on planes at the best of times. This time coronavirus is stalking the aisles no doubt.

I can finish my book and look out of the window. I’d been watching Mark Kermode talking about films and he reminded me about how good ‘The Day of the Jackal’ (1973) was. Edward Fox played the jackal. I’d never read the book by Frederick Forsyth, so I bought a copy before we left. It’s a great thriller – you are on tenterhooks from the start and if you know Paris, that’s an extra bonus. It turns out to have been a perfect choice for this trip … and it is so filmic …

Rio-Antirio bridge from the air
flying home

I’m so glad we managed to get here despite having to come home early. Thank you to Jeremy, Bianca, George and Nikos for a wonderful Greek odyssey and for keeping us entertained and safe and to ‘Travel Editions’ for getting us home ‘in the time of coronavirus’.

END

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Favourite books of 2019

I don’t know if it’s a case of getting older but I do sometimes re-read books I have loved. These include ‘The Greengage Summer’ by Rumer Godden, ‘The Lady Vanishes’ by Ethel Lina White, ‘The Balkan Trilogy’ by Olivia Manning, ‘Hotel du Lac’ by Anita Brookner, ‘Unreliable Memoirs’ by Clive James (after his recent death), ‘Any Human Heart’ by William Boyd, ‘The Diary of a Nobody’ by George and Weedon Grossmith, ‘The Young Visiters (sic)’ by Daisy Ashford, ‘The Humans’ by Matt Haig and ‘The Places Inbetween’ by Rory Stewart. I love Patrick Modiano’s books in french, often just re-reading a chapter because of the brooding atmosphere of impalpable menace he is so good at invoking. ‘Maigret’ by Simenon, in french, is also a great favourite This short list probably gives some inkling into my personality. A lot of these books have also been made into films.

The writer

I’m starting with Muriel Spark, who was brought up in Edinburgh and ended up in Italy. She was quite a tricky personality but Alan Taylor, who has written her biography after many meetings and interviews over some years, became a friend and there was obviously a ‘spark’ between them.The book’s title is ‘Appointment in Arezzo’, subtitled ‘A Friendship with Muriel Spark’. What a great name, even though it came from her husband, who was, apparently, not so great! William Boyd writes on the cover, ‘A beguiling, fascinating memoir’ and I couldn’t put it more succinctly myself. I felt I got to know her well and found the book enormously enjoyable.

I also read her book, ‘Territorial Rights’. Much of it is set in atmospheric Venice – with rocky romance, adulterous liaisons, a would-be art historian meddling with a capricious countess, blackmailers and spies against a backdrop of ‘respectable’ ladies who run the Pensione Sofia. An interesting footnote – when Robert and Anna are tracked down by a middle aged man in a business suit, purporting to be a ‘talent spotter’, he tells them they have ‘style’ and can ‘make the top’. As a result, they are sent to the Middle East to train in a terrorist camp! This book was written in 1979 …?

Two excellent reads

From there I came upon a great find in Waterstones. First published in the U.S. in 2017, ‘Sourdough’, by Robin Sloan, is set in San Francisco and features the Farmers’ Market on the sea front, where I remember sitting outside a great fish restaurant with a steam beer, feeling on top of the world. Sourdough bread is all the rage – now in the U.K. as well – and the author has soared on its wave of publicity. Lois Clary, a software engineer, is bequeathed a sourdough starter, which she, a novice in baking, must keep alive. Shades of ‘Burning Man’ eccentricity, a new life opens up for her in an unexpected way. The Financial Times calls it ‘An enjoyable slice of fiction, wonderfully written and absolutely brilliant’. It sparkles.

Always buy sourdough bread!

A non-fiction book from that part of the world – but based in Silicon Valley, is ‘Bad Blood’. John Carreyrou is an excellent investagative journalist who tracks down secrets and lies in a Silicon Valley start-up. A scientist becomes obsessed with a new idea and then hides the fact that the technology is flawed. Investors have put in millions of dollars. Carreyrou discovers a huge, corporate fraud. This is an example of the downside in taking risks with new technologies. It’s a fascinating read – quite shocking. It rather confirms my reluctant suspicions about certain people and projects in Silicon Valley. Hi-tech needs to be monitored and regulated. Difficult but necessary in a globalised world. No photo – the jacket is bright red but it’s disappeared … suspicious…

I’m interested in Japanese culture and found two books which really appealed to me. ‘Sweet Bean Paste’ by Durian Sukegawa and ‘Before the coffee gets cold’ by Toshikazu Kawaguchi. Both of these books explore the meaning of individual lives (‘no existence is devoid of meaning’), of the power of friendship, the importance of memories and how the celebration of good food and drink interweaves into our spiritual existence.

‘Sweet Bean Paste’ is a charming, sweet and tender book, using the deliciousness of the sweet bean pancakes to illustrate how unexpected friendships bring happiness to each person and harmony to the world around them, enhanced by the beauty of pink cherry blossom. And yet there will always be dark clouds, bad memories, bad times, challenges to overcome. ‘Poignant, poetic, sensual’ (Lausanne Cités) – ‘This mix of grief and solace, cherry blossoms and red beans is a recipe for happiness’ (Radio SRF 2 Kultur Kompakt). A book to be read when feeling overwhelmed with the modern world. It will ease your worries for a while and give you new insights into what life might mean to you. Much recommended.

Two charming reads take time to sit down, clear your mind and read them slowly …

I picked up ‘Before the coffee gets cold’ partly because I liked the cover. It’s very offbeat, set in an old fashioned café and quite mysterious. There are three stories – three different people who wish to find out what the future holds, following things that have happened in the past, which cannot be changed. A chair in the café offers you the possibility to travel back in time but not without risk. And you must return to the present before the coffee gets cold. Mesmerising and extremely thoughtful. It starts slowly but stick with it and you will be rewarded.

Delving back into the past in a different way is a book by Lara Maitlem about the treasures to be found in the mud of the Thames in London. It’s called ‘Mudlarking’ and a mudlark is defined as ‘A person who scavenges for usable debris in the mud of a river or harbour’. I see many ‘mudlarks’ plying their trade along the banks of the Thames and have often thought I would like to join in. The author has spent fifteen years discovering objects from the past that the river throws up on its banks – buckles, pins, pipes, pottery, bottles, coins, sometimes engraved with initials and love knots, examples of which are illustrated on the endpapers of the book. Lara has many stories to tell – a fascinating read.

Treasures of the Thames

I don’t usually read the books which win the Booker Prize but ‘Hotel du Lac’ by Anita Brookner won it in 1984 and I have enjoyed many of her novels since – so much so that I read this one again recently. It was made into a film, starring Denholm Elliott and Anna Massey in 1986. The Times calls it ‘a smashing love story. It is very romantic. it is also humorous, witty, touching and formidably clever’. Hilary Mantel writes ‘Her technique as a novelist is so sure and so quietly commanding’.

Anita Brookner taught at The Courtauld Institute of Art and wrote twenty four novels. She died in 2016.

One of those books that merits a re-read

Talking of the merits of re-reading, ‘The Lady Vanishes’ by Ethel Lina White (1876 – 1944) also qualifies but in this case I saw the film on television and then decided to read the reprinting of this book. It was first published in 1936 under the title ‘The Wheel Spins’ and made into a film, entitled ‘The Lady Vanishes’ by Alfred Hitchcock in 1938. It starred Margaret Lockwood, Michael Redgrave and Dame May Whitty. Two further remakes were made.

Ethel Lina White wrote over fifteen mysteries and thrillers, several of which were made into films. She was enormously successful in her day and as well known as Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers but she fell into obscurity following her sudden death in 1944. The story is about a woman who goes missing on a train travelling through Europe and the tension is kept up until the very last page. The characters are well drawn and I can see why Hitchcock decided to make a film of it – which, in itself, was a great success.

Two very enjoyable reads …

Surprisingly, here is the detective novelist, Agatha Christie writing a very personal diary of the trips with her husband, Max Mallowan, to archaeological sites in Syria, Iraq and Mesopotamia. Fascinating photographs are interwoven throughout the text . I’m really impressed by how she copes with the primitive conditions in the desert. How would I compare if I was woken in the night by mice running over my face, only to struggle to light a lantern which then illuminates hundreds of cockroaches on the walls of what can hardly be called a bedroom. She describes everything with a wonderfully dry wit, and is very ‘beady’ about the local sheiks and their behaviour.

P.D. James writes ‘Agatha Christie has provided entertainment, suspense, and temporary relief from the anxieties and traumas of life both in peace and war for millions throughout the world’. She continues to do so today. Félicitations, Agatha. Very good to read something about your own life!

I’m now turning to contemporary writers. I have always loved Sebastian Faulks’ writing – ‘Birdsong’, ‘Green Dolphin Street’, ‘Charlotte Gray’ – and ‘Paris Echo’ (2018) doesn’t disappoint. If you love Paris, it’s an especially good read. I love the detailed descriptions, for example, of the markets in Paris and in Tangier. Sebastian Faulks is so thoughtful that I feel he must know some of these individuals personally … maybe not. But he pulls out all the stops to deliver a first rate story, balancing his characters between Paris and Morocco – delving both into the past, their daily life in the present and the hopes of Hannah and Tariq for their different futures. Again, a relationship which happens through a chance meeting which in the end fulfils both of them.

‘Trinity'(2018), by Louisa Hall, is extraordinary and mesmerising. It is based on the complex character of J. Robert Oppenheimer – the father of the atomic bomb. The title, ‘Trinity’, is used because ‘Trinity’ was the code name of the first detonation of a nuclear device on 16 July, 1945. It was named by Oppenheimer, who said he was inspired by the poetry of John Donne, (1572 – 1631). Maybe ‘Batter my heart, three person’d God’ …

The author takes seven fictional, separate individuals who fall into Oppenheimer’s orbit at different times of his life in order to unfold the scientist’s very complicated personality. It’s an absolutely riveting read. The ‘New York Times’ pronounced it ‘brilliant’.

Two contemporary favourites …

Two other contemporary novels, which I didn’t get on with quite so well. However, it’s good to see what other people like. John suggested ‘Liberation Square’ by Gareth Rubin. John likes ‘what if ‘ books. The Germans have won the war and London is now like Berlin, with a wall down the middle. Everything operates in an atmosphere of fear. I found it a bit muddled but on the whole, a good thriller. It didn’t do much for me though. Just added to the gloom of the present uncertainty in our general lives …

Elizabeth Strout is an acclaimed writer, obviously beloved by many. So I bought ‘Olive Kitteridge’. Somehow, I was reluctant to get into it but then began to really enjoy it, so it clattered along. Over half way, I began to find it so parochial and suffocating, I started to wonder why these people managed to go on living such tedious lives. Poor Olive is tied to a life of negativity because of her personality. I do see myself in a very small part of her (which I must keep extinguishing) – really so glad I wasn’t born Olive. She’s bitter, she’s irritating, she’s tetchy, she’s funny, her character assassinations are brilliant, she relies too much on common sense and can’t help breaking out in kindness and self pity from time to time but she’s also lonely and sad and won’t admit to it. She’s not someone I would like to see often. Too wet blanket, too needy, just tiresome. But still, I sympathise with her lot in life. Will I buy the new book, ‘Olive Again’? I’m curious but life is short, so I’m not sure. Elizabeth Strout does hit the nail on the head though. Ouch!

Horses for courses …

What I needed now was some tales of derring-do. An old fashioned phrase, stirring up memories of Hammond Innes and Alistair MacLean. Vintage have re-issued some of Hammond Innes’s thrillers – and I landed up with ‘The Lonely Skier'(1948). He dedicates the book to a friend, Peter Wilson, saying he hopes it will recall pleasant memories of places visited together. The setting is the Dolomites. This is a thriller at the top of its game – a great book to read either while travelling or tucked up in bed. Satisfaction guaranteed!

In 1975, Frederick Forsyth wrote a novella, Called ‘The Shepherd’. He’s not a writer I know well, although a film (1973) was made of his book, ‘The Day of the Jackal'(1971), starring Edward Fox, which was a massive success. The film was absolutely riveting but I don’t believe I ever read the book. I should. My father-in-law, who was in the RAF, died last year, aged 98. ‘The Shepherd’ has a picture of an RAF brooch on the front cover, which men gave to their sweethearts as they left for war. I had bought two of those for my daughters as mementoes of their grandfather. So I picked up ‘The Shepherd’ out of curiosity. It’s Christmas Eve 1957 and a pilot is flying home solo, on leave from Germany – a simple sixty six minutes of flying time. Things go wrong. It’s a miniature masterpiece. Tense, spooky, stirring and beautiful. I loved it.

High quality thrillers

I’ve just found a book which incorporates both travel and history in Europe. It’s called ‘Lotharingia’, by Simon Winder. Judith Flanders says ‘He has created a genre all of his own, the history-travelogue memoir’. It sounds just up my street!

A treat in store …

Art books by Taschen are fantastic and always a great gift to receive. I’ve been dipping into ‘What Great Paintings Say – 100 Masterpieces in Detail’. Alongside it, I’ve been reading ‘The Art of Rivalry’ by Sebastian Smee. He takes Manet vs Degas, Picasso vs Matisse and De Kooning vs. Pollock. This writer really knows his stuff and uncovers so much personal detail of each artist. This is rivalry that stems from admiration and friendship. It’s an illuminating and rewarding book.

‘The Secret Lives of Colour’ by Kassia St Clair is beautifully presented. It’s also packed full of information with fascinating stories about each colour. I’m besotted by colour and this is such a treasure trove. ‘A vivid, whirlwind tour through the rainbow’ says The Wall Street Journal. These are all books which reside by my bedside. Dippers!

Treasure troves – the buzz of learning more about what you love …

I love Alexander McCall Smith. I bought his new book of short stories, ‘Pianos and Flowers’, inspired by old photos which he has come upon randomly – he doesn’t know the people in them but has created stories around the images. There are fourteen stories from all over the world concerning love, friendship, happiness and how chance and serendipity play a part in changing lives. ‘McCall Smith’s generous writing and dry humor, his gentleness and humanity, and his ability to evoke a place and a set of characters without caricature or condescension have endeared his books to readers’ – (New York Times) . He’s a lovely man in real life too!

Brief Encounters

And now a cracker of a book, bought by John and definitely in my top three reads of the year. It is a non-fiction, historical account of The British Plot to Bring America into the Second World War and stars two unlikely heroes, Bill Stephenson and Bill Donovan. It really is a sensational piece of writing, entitled ‘Our Man in New York’ by Henry Hemming. There is praise from Ben MacIntyre, William Boyd, Max Hastings, ‘The Guardian’ and many other newspapers and journals. I couldn’t put it down. Those two men did so much for us all.

A revelatory and wholly fascinating work of history ‘ – William Boyd

I finished up with a book advertised enormously in advance and very well worth the wait for! This is one of my favourite writers. ‘The Body – A Guide for Occupants’, by the illimitable Bill Bryson. Besides his brilliantly entertaining travelogues, he is also a mine of information about life in general. If you enjoyed ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’, you should read ‘The Body’ too. His erudition is lightly worn and he has the enviable gift for explaining the most difficult subjects in the clearest possible way, spicing his writing with a dry sense of humour, often against himself. This is a book to return to. Like a knowledgable and engaging friend, you will always find something new and inspiring to discuss. I am always curious to learn, so this book is perfect company.

A final flourish …

This has been a great year for books. I am happy, as I love reading, love bookshops and long may they continue to give us such pleasure. As you may have guessed, I am not an Amazon fan. Waterstones and Hatchards in Piccadilly are my stamping grounds – good cafés within at Waterstones, meaning I can always stay that little bit longer …

2020 awaits …
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Christmas Day 2019

So often, Christmas Day is disappointing weather wise. But in 2019 it was beautiful – no snow, which would also have looked beautiful, but bright sunshine in a blue bowl of sky.

above Barnes pond – Christmas Day 2019
a walk across the Common – Christmas Day 2019
grasses in sunlight – Barnes pond – 25.12.2019
red berries at Christmas – 25.12.2019
2 in 1 Christmas Day 2019

On our way across the Common we passed the giant tree, which reminded us of a heartbreaking accident.

Christmas 2019 – remembering Iris

Iris Goldsmith died, aged fifteen, on the 8th of July, 2019. An all terrain vehicle that she was driving over fields at the family home tipped over and trapped her. She was a lovely person and very special to all her friends, who have made a ‘shrine’ at Iris’s favourite tree on Barnes Common.

Christmas Day 2019 – plants outside the Olympic cinema – Barnes
yew trees at entrance to St Mary’s church, Barnes
Gravestones – St Mary’s church, Barnes 25.12.2019
the old fashioned knitting shop, Barnes 25.12.2019

We are lucky enough to have an independent bookshop in Barnes as well as an independent cinema – ‘The Olympic’.

The Barnes Wetlands were created out of four old reservoirs, which were ‘places of scientific interest’. The wetlands are bringing wildlife and the countryside into the city. You are welcomed at the entrance by a wonderful sculpture, created by Nicola Godden of Peter Scott, who created the bird sanctuary at Slimbridge in Gloucestershire, encouraging similar ones across the country to be set up.

entrance to Barnes Wetlands
Barnes Wetlands – Observatory

Many migrating birds stop off here – as well as local ones.

Barnes Wetlands, London SW13

This is a great place on our doorstep, both for adults and children. Besides the wetlands themselves, there is a bird observatory, a café and a shop. And a big car park, although it’s also easy to get here from Central London on public transport.

Christmas coots on Barnes pond – 25.12.2019
Christmas Day, Barnes – illuminated grasses

I can’t help thinking that a glamorous dress along these lines would make people gasp at the Oscars.

wall in Barnes – 25.12.2019
a beautiful Christmas Day 2019 in Barnes, London SW13

END

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Homeward Bound

It’s late afternoon at the end of November. I just got off the bus which is continuing up river. Van Gogh’s painting ‘Starry Night over the Rhône’ comes to mind as I contemplate the reflections of the street lamps over the water.

What shall I make for supper?

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Bridget Riley – Op Art in the Psychedelic Sixties

Bridget Riley is best known for her eye wrenching optical illusion art in the 1960s – much of it in black and white. The idea spilled over into clothes, some designed by Mary Quant. I still have something from that time in my wardrobe – I must have been so slim, it was so easy to wear geometrical patterns which hung perfectly ‘spot on’ in 360 degrees/3D!

A friend wanted to go and see the ‘Retrospective’ at the Hayward and it is impressive. However, if you are prone to migraines, I don’t recommend it – my eyes went into a mix of Marty Feldman’s in ‘Young Frankenstein’ and those of the lorry driver in ‘Men in Black’. I felt peculiar, I looked slightly discombobulated. The paintings are decidedly unsettling in that they antagonise your eye at the same time as being quite geometrically perfect in their execution. It was interesting to see how Bridget Riley arrived at this quite extraordinary way of looking at things.

Arrival at the Hayward Gallery on the South Bank

Bridget Riley was partly inspired by Seurat and pointillism. I had always thought of her as being more inclined to black and white but Seurat was fascinated by how colours reacted with one another. For example, red with green, yellow or orange with blue. I can almost taste the way they interact. And in this exhibition you can see how BR was exploring this too.

Seurat was very much influenced by Chevreul, who was a chemist. Chevreul noticed how a colour was influenced by the colours it was next to when he was director of the Gobelins Tapestry dye works in Paris. Seurat, for example, puts dots or small dashes of colour next to one another in many of his paintings but at the same time creating a figurative rather than an abstract painting. Later on, Matisse was also inspired by this way of using colours together. His cutouts illustrate this. But back to Bridget Riley …

Wired up at the Hayward …
Brainwaves …
Colour and movement – like dancers …
Flow
Cutouts
Bridget Riley – in drawing and pointillist mode …

During his long life – he lived to age 102 – Chevreul came up with the idea of a ‘colour wheel’. This study of how colours interact had a great influence on art – especially with the Impressionists. Appropriately, given his long life, Chevreul also studied gerontology – the effects of aging – he was a chemist but came from a medical background. As a polymath, Chevreul managed to explore the intertwining of arts and science – he is only one of 73 people to have his name inscribed on the Eiffel Tower in Paris and truly deserves to be remembered for his many sided contribution to the understanding of the science that lies behind our feelings and emotions.

Personally I prefer the pointillist lady with a hat to the abstract display of colours below – but both paintings are experimenting with the interaction of different colours – it’s just that one seems human and the other seems robotic – one is imaginative and the other is digital … and yet they are both employing the effects of what Chevreul captured in his ‘colour wheel’.

Colourfest … at some level, exhausting!

Bridget Riley shows how experimental she herself is. If you had asked me to guess who had painted the picture below, I would have opted for a Scottish colourist like Cadell.

Bridget Riley in colour and figurative mode …

and now she’s in

black and white mode

Black spots, black holes, sucked into 3D space …

out at the sharp end … in your face
Fairground colours

These candy stripes makes me feel queasy – like sinister clowns who use mirrors to change your shape and steal your soul …

Puzzling

The above looks like a message in code but I am incapable of translating it …

I wonder what this young man is thinking … ? He’s very personable.

At the end of the day …
Pals contemplating pastel patternsroom for discussion

I enjoyed this exhibition for itself but even more because it threw up new channels of exploration and linked up various artists and ideas which I hadn’t connected. The sixties were a time bubbling with freedom to think outside of the box and that appealed to my curiosity. Now I can see the linkages in a different way. I expanded my mind!

On the way home, I passed some geodesic domes overlooking the river – a table and chairs set for a meal lie within. A suitable venue to discuss the art of Bridget Riley, while watching the waves …

Bon appetit

I’m thinking that if I came back in a hundred years – impossible – I would be as surprised and shocked, curious and questioning and maybe like a fish out of water – as Samuel Pepys would be if he appeared in London today. Progress is inevitable and includes the bad with the good. The universe will have changed but is unalterably made up of the same nanoparticles – it’s how we use them that makes change possible.

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Olafur Eliasson at Tate Modern

An interactive exhibition by this Danish-Icelandic artist is full of light and reflections – a mixture of the beauty of the natural world with the science that it is made up of and a universe that we don’t totally understand. Oddly, I had bought a ‘Little Sun’ (renewable energy) at the Design Museum in Copenhagen earlier in the year, unaware that it was conceived by Eliasson as one of his many projects. Eliasson is also keen that people should welcome being part of a community. In his own studio he established a kitchen using local, seasonal, vegetarian ingredients in order to help bring his team together.

On my way to Tate

I walked along the river from Waterloo with plenty of time to explore the river front. Such a glorious mixture of buildings, old and new. The weather was mild – it was good to be out and about.

Blackfriars bridge from the South Bank
Designs for the first Blackfriars bridge

If you have time to stop and stare for a moment, it’s worth a look.

An inviting prospect?

But I had already had breakfast and so I moseyed along the river thinking about the treasures that lay beneath the water in the mud and the mudlarks who patiently search for them. At the moment I’m reading all about this in a fascinating book by Lara Maiklem, unsurprisingly entitled ‘Mudlarking’. It is a BBC Radio 4 ‘Book of the Week’.

Tate Modern

I’ve arrived – the poster for the exhibition is outside and to the left is the Millennium Bridge just touching base on the South Bank. I’m early, I find a bench, sit down and take in my surroundings.

Tate Modern – waterfront

‘Elbow’ skyscraper

There are two men on top of this building. I feel dizzy watching them.

A head for heights!

Not a job I would have the qualifications for …

My companion arrives and we make our way into the world of Olafur Eliasson. Light, mirrors, reflections, ice, fog, moss, multiple images …

Bubble
Geometry leaking light

We come upon a long passage filled with fog called ‘Den blinden passager’.It is suffused in a yellow light but I can’t see very far in front of my nose. We are encouraged to keep moving forward. I feel disorientated and my balance is wonky but I persevere and begin to become acclimatised. It makes you think – good to be out of one’s comfort zone !

Moving on … touching the void!

Alien
Catching quantum physics
‘In the mood’ – a shadow community …
Glacial melt water
Wherever next … into the blue

Colours, light, reflections – all these I am drawn to. I love artists like John Singer Sargent, Joaquín Sorolla, Claude Monet and many of the Impressionists who capture those things in their paintings. I love other artists as much in different ways but I would never choose to live on a planet without light and colours. I don’t expect I would be given a choice but as Jim Al-Khalili moots – your reality may be based on something that doesn’t exist … or at least things we haven’t yet understood. So there’s still room for learning and dreaming. It’s a pity I won’t be able to come back in a hundred years from now. But as it is, the planet has given me enough food for thought in my life to date …

Workshop in spatial experiment

I love this ‘hands on’ room in the final zone where everyone looks completely fascinated by what they are discovering.

And finally, there’s a special treat. The Kitchen team have been set up by ‘Tate Eats’ for us to have a lunch which is similar to the ones made for Eliasson’s team. It is exciting, delicious and wraps up an excellent exhibition. Thank you Olafur Eliasson.

SUNLIGHT
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Wimereux – 1st October 2019

This old fashioned, Hulot-esque town overlooks the sea on the north coast of France. I was introduced to it by my sister and her husband. Almost fifty years ago Mickey and his friend managed to cross the Channel in not much more than a leaky dinghy. They lost their way and finally landed somewhere in total darkness, not knowing if they were still in England or had made it to France. France it was and Wimereux welcomed them. Mickey came back regularly over many decades …

Sadly, he is no longer with us. Times have changed and luckily the Channel tunnel is more reliable than the dinghy. We arrived in good time to board, the sky like grey goose down, shedding a few heavy raindrops onto the windscreen.

Rain, steam and speed – entrance to Channel tunnel

We left England at 11.20am. The photo below will remind me to take the coast road to Wimereux rather than the autoroute. It is empty of cars and full of fresh sea air, the waves rolling in like white horses.

Take the coast road to Wimereux via Peuplingues

An hour later and we are settled in at ‘Les Oyats’ café by the sea, enjoying a ‘crêpe nature’ with salad and a ‘thé au citron’ – or maybe ‘un verre’. The sea is quite wild. ‘Oyats’ translates as marram (sea) grass. The café is busy, despite the weather.

Wild waves
At ‘Les Oyats’
A breath of fresh air

We walked along the ‘digue’ afterwards, feeling madly invigorated. Sun isn’t always a given for holidays – the force of the sea was pulsing through my veins, filling me with a new found energy.

Back at the hotel I noticed a couple at the reception desk and recognised the man straight away even though I hadn’t seen him for many years. Struggling through the cobwebs of my memory, I finally came up with it. A TV programme called ‘The Likely Lads’ – a series shown between 1964 – 66. He was James Bolam – his other half being played by Rodney Bewes.

Sun bursting through …

The clouds are breaking up this morning. The rain has moved on and we have a clear palette for the day ahead. I sometimes wish I could paint but taking photos captures the moment very well. We are off to Boulogne, fifteen minutes away – market day.

Boulogne – market day
Boulogne – la fromagerie roulante
Temptations galore

However, I’m even more interested in the notice above which is anti pesticides. It says pesticides are a tragedy for health – ‘nous voulons des coquelicots'(.org) (we want poppies). It has a message advertising a meeting about the environment on the first Friday of each month at the Place Gustave Charpentier. ‘Chapeau’ for the French!

It’s lunchtime and before we know it we’ve found ourselves in a ‘biker’ café, which is obviously very popular. We plump for a Flemish dish called ‘Flammekueche’ – roasted peppers, aubergines and courgettes on a base which resembles matzos. It’s super delicious, paired with a glass of red wine and a (glass) bottle of ‘Vittel’. There is quite a lot of Belgian influence on this north coast of France.

Biker café – lunchtime
Lunch companion …

The man sitting on the right must be a basketball player. When he stood up, he was over 6’6″!

Boulogne – entrance to fish market at the harbour

We decided to visit the aquarium in the afternoon. Got slightly sidetracked by the most delicious looking patisserie called ‘Fred’.

This box contains the most divine …
…Tartelette au citron …

The aquarium is on the seashore and contains 10 million litres of sea water and 58,000 sea creatures. The entry, through curtains, leading to a down escalator, is dramatic.

Wavepower

This photo didn’t come out well because I was persuading my sister onto the escalator, while this enormous video screen seemed to be enveloping us over and over in a giant wave with a suitably mega soundtrack.

Having descended into the depths, we were met with a huge metal cage and surrounded by roving sharks …

Face to face!

I feel very small – one tiny, tasty morsel …

!!!
Marine wonderland …
Jellyfish!
This is a great coastline for windpower
…and for ‘moules marinières’ …

Dinner time was at the delightful ‘Cap Nord’ – a restaurant/brasserie on the sea front. We were in for an extra treat – front seats to watch a wonderful sunset while eating our ‘moules’.

A lone runner …
A couple watching the sunset on the shoreline
Towards the end of the day …
Nightfall

At this point you could read Shakespeare’s sonnet number 73, which expresses some of the feelings going through my mind at this moment better than I could. It was such a fabulous show this evening. What will tomorrow bring?

Our hotel has been in the same family for at least three generations. It has preserved its traditional French atmosphere downstairs in the hallway and restaurant. A modern addition however has been added at the back, overlooking the garden. Having breakfast with a Fornasetti vase examining your credentials is a sight to behold. I think we passed muster.

Tessellated entrance hall
Glimpse of the traditional hotel dining room
The Fornasetti vase with its uncompromising gaze

It’s worth looking up the Milanese designer, Piero Fornasetti (1913 – 1988). His designs are witty and surreal and continue to be popular.

The sky was becoming bluer by the moment and we headed for the beach, where the tide was out, passing some traditional buildings along the way.

House with traditional ‘oeil de boeuf’ windows …
Paul et Virginie – erstwhile stables made into holiday apartments
Wimereux – an especially ‘grande maison’
Extraordinary companions

This building is on the main street. I find it bizarre that Our Lady of Lourdes and St. Christophe seem to be advertising ‘Express Cars’ and ‘Automobiles’ ! But 100% preferable to having a flimsy, tacky, garage advertising burgers. In fact, the non sequitur arrangement very much appeals!

Wimereux – panorama

In the summer, Wimereux is known for its kite surfing, sand yachting and hot air ballooning. On the beach, there are still a few hardy souls riding the waves from dawn until dusk.

Wimereux – kite surfing

This photo somewhat reminds me of Eugène Boudin, who was one of the first artists to paint ‘en plein air’ and was a mentor to the young Claude Monet, who was brought up in Le Havre. Boudin, (1824 – 1898), was born in Honfleur, the son of a sailor. He met Monet in 1858. Boudin is especially well known for his beach scenes.

On the beach – big sky …
The lone and level sands stretch far away …

… and we had them almost exclusively to ourselves save for a few dog walkers. Magnifique. This is just the place to clear your head and make a fresh start.

On a more sombre note there have been a lot of landslides – the cliffs are friable and several pillboxes and blockhouses left from the Second World War are victims, hurled down onto the rocks below.

WW2 fallen pillbox covered in surreal graffiti

Maybe the eye is a reminder. ‘Lest we forget’. There are still many pillboxes dotted along this coast and also a huge, sinister looking blockhouse containing a small museum of memorabilia near Wissant. Worth a visit.

We retraced our steps and were soon striding back along the ‘digue’ with the wind in our hair.

Back at ‘Les Oyats’, writing a few postcards

Nowadays with email, many fewer postcards are sent, which is a pity. I hope the two I sent will be enjoyed!

I wonder what will have happened at the end of this month. Will Brexit have isolated us from the rest of Europe? Since the end of WW2 people have forgotten that an enormous effort was made to work out a structure of international agreements to prevent another war. The risk now looms again, ever larger, forces that seem to be out of our control.

A great percentage of the population know little about history in general. And some have no wish to learn or remember. I include here a lot of politicians, which is a disastrous situation. I am looking around in vain for a visionary with an addition of common sense.

However, there are a lot of good people doing great things out there and I am positive that at some point the tide will turn in their favour. There are natural cycles in our history, just as in nature.

A second cup for contemplation …

The Channel is looking cold.

Dinner at the hotel is in the offing after a quick visit to the Carrefour supermarket and some of the exclusive looking delicatessens and wine shops in the rue Carnot.

Tasty
Rose garlic
Côte D’Orgood quality chocolate
Tintin

A delicious box of biscuits with Snowy – Milo en français – on the lid. I have always been a fan of Tintin books and obviously he is as popular here. The author, Hergé, hailed from Belgium.

And thinking of things being delicious, here is our last dish in France coming up.

Slightly out of focus – nice wine!

Time to leave but it’s not far to drive to the Channel tunnel. I always think just three or four days away from normal daily life gives a great boost to morale. Speaking another language, enveloping yourself in another culture, welcomed with delicious food and drink and a comfortable place to lay your head.

Au revoir, Wimereux et à bientôt
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Bank Holiday with Roland Mouret et al …

The ‘dog days’ of August – people on holiday, searching for the sun, which they seem to have left behind in London. It was so very hot. I used to work in Mayfair in the 1970s for Heinemann – publishers in Curzon Street, near Shepherd’s Market. Mayfair was always wealthy and quiet, with an ambient buzz around the narrow streets of the market area. Not the Berwick Street type of market with stalls – more an ancient pub or two, bijou boutiques, art galleries and discreet restaurants. And one or two ‘ladies of the night’. The Mayfair Curzon cinema with its marble ‘toilettes’ is nearby – always a treat. And the upmarket Connaught hotel. I’ve never been inside but it was a favourite watering hole for Alec Guinness … (he played ‘Smiley’ in John Le Carré’s novels, which were adapted for television).

Carlos Place Mayfair – yellow awnings are at the Connaught hotel

I stood next to the refreshing spray coming from the fountains – opposite was an exotic floral display at Roland Mouret – fashion designer. The display is by a friend of mine.

Mayfair – exotics at Roland Mouret
Roland Mouret

Designer fashion and sleek, purring cars with Dubai number plates are two a penny around here …

Caroline Herrera – headless …
Mayfair – Picasso-esque
Luxurious Lanvin …
Exquisite Lalique
Lalique too …
N. Peal – sumptuous cashmere – Burlington Arcade
Mayfair – a stork in Cork Street
Gallery ‘refurb’ in Cork Street

A lot of galleries have had to leave Cork Street because of modern redevelopment and presumably higher rents. Some have reverted to being ‘online’ only. I’m glad this one seems to have survived and look forward to its new persona. I especially miss the Medici … Some months ago I turned the corner left out of Cork Street, where there is a small café. It has been there for many years – this time I was especially happy to see Bill Nighy sitting outside, enjoying a cup of coffee. I smiled at him and hurried on.

In Albemarle Street …

So that was my Bank Holiday Saturday. In a few minutes I will see my two favourite bookshops on Piccadilly – Hatchards and Waterstones. I can’t pass a bookshop without buying a book … but first, a glamorous afternoon needs to finish with a glamorous cup of tea.

Tea at Fortnum & Mason, Piccadilly

P.S. The book I came home with was ‘The Lady Vanishes’ by Ethel Lina White. She used to be as well known as Agatha Christie, writing over fifteen mysteries and Hitchcock made a great film of this book. Sadly, she fell into obscurity after her sudden death in 1944. Recommended!

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My family of houseplants

Last year I was given a giant terracotta pot, full of succulents, for Christmas. They looked exquisite and in the early Spring I decided to put them out on the garden table for a day or two. The sun was warm and I thought they would benefit from fresh air.

On the second morning, I looked out of the window only to find an unbelievable scene of frenzied destruction and total carnage. Some monster had, under cover of dark, uprooted the plants, scattering earth everywhere. The plants were massacred, half eaten and thrown on the ground. Was it a fox, a squirrel or a malign force – was this sinister night visitor still lurking somewhere nearby, waiting to wreak more vengeance …

I was horrified and then sad. It became grey and cold outside. I put out seeds for the birds – robins, blackbirds, goldfinches and a tiny wren. Undeterred by the late frost, primroses appeared. The demise of the succulents slowly faded …

As Spring gave in to Summer I started buying small plants, one at a time. And now I have a new family of succulents – kept safely inside for the moment …

My family of succulents

One morning I came down to find that one plant had grown a beanstalk type stem in the middle, showing a crowning glory of pink, starry flowers. If the initial pot had survived, I doubt that I would have started this collection – so some good came out of disaster …

Pretty in pink!
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Barcelona – a kaleidoscope

John was speaking at a conference here and I was invited along by ‘Atlas For The Future’. This is a company run by two very talented women – Lisa Goldapple and Cathy Runciman. They are both fabulous.

This was my first visit to Barcelona and it would be only for two days. Early evening sun lit up the city. The Jazz hotel is central and our room was probably designed by a female brain because all the mirrors, hooks, lighting etc were in the right places! So often I can’t believe how badly designed some hotel rooms are. Even expensive ones.

We were met in the lobby by Judith and Naledi who spirited us off at a fast pace through the streets to a roof top terrace where bottles of ‘cava’ flowed and exquisite ‘tapas’ were enjoyed by an eclectic group of all the conference speakers.

Barcelona jacarandas
The Gothic quarter
Barcelona – the cathedral
Arriving at our destination for the evening …

Not only were there delicious tapas treats but for my first time we were strapped into a virtual reality gadget, which showed us future scenes of the results of climate change on the planet. I found it very disturbing but we need to be faced with this reality and be encouraged to take steps to prevent some of these scenes happening. Will we be in time?

This conference was made up of wonderful people, all trying to do their best to save us from a tragic outcome. A warmth of spirit and enthusiasm for the good things in life and how we can preserve them prevailed throughout.

Comfortable bed, reviving sleep, day 1 of the conference.

On our way to the conference
The library – an interesting concept …
Entrance to the university
‘Atlas of the FutureConference – speaker

We had a little window of time before the afternoon session and made our way to the Picasso Museum, which stretches across five medieval palace buildings. It’s very impressive.

Picasso museum
Picasso museum – him and her
Picasso’s birds …
Picasso reflections …
Mirrors within mirrors

I’m now leaving the museum but feel like Alice Through the Looking Glass – not sure how this photo came to be but I’m reflected behind the red dot. Somewhat confused, I eventually found myself back on the street … this is a great place to show Picasso.

Near the Picasso museum

There was still a short time to explore and we made best use of it.

Looks fun – maybe next time …
An inviting enclave …
Trapped under a bell jar

I wanted to buy him but he wasn’t for sale. So – trapped for ever …

A quick lunch with the best olives …
Rose tuna
lemon sorbet
the bird awaits the crumbs …

Scurrying back for the afternoon session – do we know the way? Barcelona is so picturesque it’s hard not to stop and stare – so I do a bit of that … while hurrying on in the heat of the day……….

Statuesque
Ever onwards …
People watching and a pretty dress …

The afternoon session goes well – a lot of discussion on nutrition and I am impressed by a British journalist called Bee Wilson and a Scottish/Italian chef who lives in Adelaide and has a top restaurant. The two of them create huge sparks of energy together.

Pan pipes – music fills the street
No, I don’t know – it remains a mystery …

I noticed some small ‘vintage’ boutiques as we were speeding along today and planned to return alone to check them out. John is fast track, while I am slow and love to potter about.

Bona nit
Barcelona boutiques
shoe shop!
delicatessen
pink fashionista
meringues galore!
dog – boutique style
a bar – looking inside out …
‘vintage’ silky purchase in fifties pattern

This is from a tiny boutique near the university called ‘ZIEL’. I think they look through old patterns, then reprint onto new material. This pattern reminds me of ‘jiving’ – great rock n’ roll dance steps of the fifties. It’s also classy, unlike many modern ‘tops’ today. I am so happy!

Restaurant

This looks inviting but time is of the essence as the conference is now coming to a close at the end of the day. We had wanted to see the Sagrada Família but the queues were much too long – a colleague suggested to John that we should go and see the first house Gaudi created, both inside and out, for an industrialist, politician and patron, Eusebi Güell. It now belongs to Barcelona, given by his youngest daughter and has been named a UNESCO world heritage site. It is ‘out of this world’ original and wonderful.

On our way to Palau Güell
City street with Catalan flag
Barcelona bikes

The city has many trees lining the streets – some with impressive seed pods.

Impressive seed pods!
Palau Güellentrance
The stairs beckon …
Ceiling 1
A floral chest
Ceiling 2
Ceiling 3
Could come in handy!

Cut to the roof top. As you are probably aware by now, there was no limit to the budget and Gaudí went on to create Parc Güell, which is a must for the next time in Barcelona.

A magical roof top
Gaudí at play
Captured mistily in a beautiful mirror
Reminds me somewhat of Jack Nicholson in ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’?
Palau Güell – garden
Palau Güell – exit

We left and our short time in Barcelona came to its end too … I hope we return.

Adéu Barcelona
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