Monday, November 21, 2005

Firenze - Day 20

We have allowed just this one day, as Venice is our primary goal for the second Italian week. The Uffizi gallery is first on the list, and leaves us with the same feeling as the Vatican Museum: a display of temporal power, but with far too much religious tat. However, the more ancient pieces of statuary are great, Botticelli's Venus glows at us, and there are a couple of Canaletto's little masterpieces tucked away in a side gallery. The buildings themselves are glorious, as is their context, and having seen the copy of Michelangelo's David in the piazza outside, we don't bother with the real thing.

On to the Ponte Vecchio - the bridge over the wide and dirty Arno, where gold and silversmiths have had stalls for hundreds of years - and are still, to judge from the prices, paying off the original mortgages. Up to the Boboli Gardens the long way, via the side streets and the Roman gate at the top. This is well worth it, as the gardens have vistas, fountains, statues and well tended paths. And the ticket gives us entrance to exhibitions at the Pitti Palace, so we walk over the hill and in the back door. The Palace was very forbidding from the side streets we had originally passed it on: built to be defended against all comers. But the Boboli Gardens are, effectively, the private back yard of the Palace, and this back-garden aspect of the Palace is still formal but welcoming. And once inside, the Mythologia e Erotica exhibition is staged in a series of sumptuously painted rooms.

When you start to multiply the number of Palaces, the number of painted rooms in each, and divide this by the number of artists required, it really is no wonder that the Renaissance threw up so many gifted people. The combination of an arms race in palatial outfitting, and the fact that these were private establishments outside the death grip of Mother Church (the other major artistic patron), virtually guaranteed results.

Not that these were without their obsessions of the time: Leda and the Swan loomed strangely large in the exhibition. The signature of babies breaking out of eggs, you see. But it has to be said that mediaeval erotica is very restrained - lots of heavy allegorical allusions but practically no explicitness. Mother Church might not have approved of the exhibits, but she would surely be pleased with the extent to which the artists had internalised her messages.

Deciding against another Duomo climb (Florence's magnificent Saint Maria del Fiore cathedral has a renowned dome by Brunelleschi) on the grounds that the Boboli was higher and was a bloody long way to have walked, we amble back via this cathedral and the shopping streets. The church has a superb facade, of white, red and green marble, used in a large mosiac to stunning effect. Tesellated and inlaid columns everywhere outside, but very austere inside.

The shops entrance us: the number and variety, plus the specialisation. Florence is a city to come back to: we regret not allowing more time.

Firenze - Day 19

The Intercity stops at each major station, and our compartment is occupied with four Italian women who gossip non-stop from Roma to Firenze. They quickly establish that we have less Italian than would be useful, but one does kindly offer us fresh mandarins along the way. Firenze charms us immediately, the more so when our LastMinute hotel in Via Nazionale regretfully tells us that the room has plumbing problems, and directs us just around the corner in Via Guelfa to a family hotel run by an archetypal Italian matron.

We have a late-afternoon stroll round the block, find an Internet point, and have a quick snacketto. Already, the Cow Parade - identical cast fibreglass cows, painted up and variously altered by local artists, has impressed us. And the city is chock full of leathergoods shops - Pelle Verre - so the smell of leather is never far away.

We are of course in the Old City, a few hundred metres away from the treno (train), but unlike Rome, we feel safe and a little observation over the next two days confirms this. Firenze is a nice, family city with lots of children, lots of workers, and is cleaner. Although the old drains do smell a little in places. Can't have everything. A great pizza in a back-room frequented almost exclusively by locals (always a good sign) tops off the night. We have fallen in to the local habit of a small carafe of vino, plus a large bottle of carbonated mineral water, with our evening meals. Rehydrates, and refreshes.

Rome - last day (18)

The Metro beckons, and day tickets are only 4 Euro. So it's off to the Vatican, Cipro stop. Where the Church's profit motive and trade in religious artefacts continues. But the Vatican Musuem is a wonderful and eclectic collection of decidedly non-religious artefacts, from Egyptian figures, through the whole Graeco-Roman early periods, to the Church proper in the single-digit A.D's. The Sistine Chapel, by contrast, was a let-down: Michelangelo's ceiling is positively familiar through endless reproductions, and the walls, even though by Botticelli et al, are just standard religious kitsch. And the chapel is infested with two types of repellent turisto: the overawed Catholics, who sit around the sides and just gawp, overwhelmed; and the illiterate, who have not figured out what signs saying in words and pictures "No cameras/videos/flash", actually mean.

The sheer length and opulence of the galleries leading to and from the Sistine are the main impression. But it is an ossified exhibit: there is little life, relevance to these times, or attempt to draw parallels. Very much a case of 'look how powerful we were and still are'.

The Vatican equivalent of the Bungy Jump is of course the climb up the Duomo, the viewing gallery near the very top of St Peter's dome. We take the lift to the gallery after coughing up the obligatory indulgence fee, and being warned that the climnb is not for those of 'cardiopatic tendencies'. In the gallery, there is the sound, far below, of an ending Mass, with organ accompaniment, which puts us very much in mind of Evensongs past. Onwards and upwards: the first part of the ascent is an internal spiral stair to the base of the Dome (itself - the Dome - another Michelangelo design), then a narrow, and increasingly tilted/inclined stair around and up the Dome itself. Which is built with a double-skin, these stairs being between the two. Then, finally, a straight climb over the Dome's upper slopes, and then outside onto the viewing gallery itself. With reputedly the best view in Rome.

And a couple of things become clear. The profit motive in the Vatican fee structure may be somewhat repellent in religious terms, but it certainly funds an impressive maintenance and conservation effort. From the Duomo, Vatican City is clean, gardened, mown, clipped and litter-free in exactly the way the rest of Rome, frankly, is not, but should be. And the genuine feeling from the pilgrims to this holy place leaves it's mark: there's a civitas which is very absent from the rest of Rome.

We descend onto the roof of St Peter's, where an iced tea goes down very well. Souvenirs (yes, there are shops and loos on the very roof of the Pope's church) are purchased. And so, down again to floor level, but we are elevated by the whole experience. A morning well spent.

As always, the little vignettes amuse us. The four-wheel-drive tractor, driven straight down the (ramped) steps in front of St Peter's with bits of the papal platform in tow, after the usual 1100 Wednesday Papal appearance. The throngs of slightly unruly pilgrims leaving after this event, complete with costumes and props right out of the Pythons' Life of Brian. The obelisk in St Peter's Square: an Egyptian artefact lifted from Heliopolis, by the Roman emperor Caligula. Sanctified, it is said, by a fragment of the true cross somewhere on top. Funny thing, belief.

Metro back to Spagna, and the famed Spanish Steps. Which turn out to be just awful: thronged by tourists just like us, and the church above under renovation and scaffolding. Which latter would not be so bad if a massive Rolex ad had not been plastered all across it. It is the usual fashion now to drape such work with a trompe l'oeil wrapping which replicates the facade of the building under restoration. It's just so tawdry having advertisements instead, so we leave in disgust.

Which is only heightened when, one crowded tube trip of a single stop later, we alight to realise M's bag has been sliced, in an abortive attempt to get inside. Nothing lost, and nothing of value there anyway. But it does mean a hurried replacement bag shop, and a nasty taste left. Lack of civitas, you see. Kiwis do not easily get used to seeing themselves others can see them - as prey - and our inclination to see the best in people makes us targets. But why live this way - having to constantly scan for the predators? Still, as one of the untouched souvenirs in the bag is a pair of St Christopher medallions, we allow ourselves a superstitious and perhaps smug thought, that the thieving insects didn't realise what they were up against.

We retire, a little disillusioned, to our round-the-corner ristorante, where we are greeted like old friends and set up for another glorious meal. But the wary feeling remains somewhat, and at Stazione Termini the next morning, we see a number of pickpockets cruising. Funny thing is, a high percentage wear white trainers. Everyone has their uniform, it seems. And we have boned up on the polite and cruder forms of 'Go Away' and are happy to practise them on these low-lifes while waiting for our InterCity to Firenze.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Rome sights - Day 17

We are not about to tour sitting down today, so walk everywhere. Down to the Colosseum first, join a tour which is well worth the money, and then just wander. The Colosseum is still an amazing piece of engineering in stone, although like most of Rome, it is inadequately conserved, has little interpretative signage, is dirty and desperately needs the equivalent of the British National Trust and Heritage lottery money. Or just stop outsourcing the guding business, put things under one umbrella, and take a bigger clip of the tourist ticket for the work. But I suppose Rome has just so much heritage that knowing where to start must be quite an issue.

We wander up onto the Palatine Hill, where there are stunning views back over the Colosseum, the Forum and the ancient apartments and districts which surrounded them. Again, a distressing lack of maintenance: the gardens at the top are unkempt, littered, and signage, even of exits, is absent. But as the entire hill is a honeycomb of ruins, again, where to start? Still, cutting the grass and tending the plants do seem obvious jobs.

Down the (unmarked) back end of the Palatine, on past the Circus Maximus. Formerly Imperials Rome's chariot racetrack, it is now a jogging circuit! On to the River Tiber, which is flowing strong and dirty. We cross at Ponte Palatino, and go back over the pretty little twin-bridged Isola (Island) which houses - what else in Rome? - a church, a ristorante and a souvenir shop. Back up to the Campidoglio - a musuem and Government complex with beautiful facades and statues. Then nip around the back to the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, which has to be simply the most expansive and impressive memorial of this sort ever built. Trajan's Column off to one side. Photos ensue.

Caffeine deprivation starts to set in: we've had an indifferent pizza at the foot of Palatine to keep us going. Off in the general direction of the Trevi Fountain, picking the less travelled little streets. Arrive at a high-level entrance, and are amazed to realise that the Fountain is actually the front of an inhabited apartment block! You'd need a strong bladder to live there....

The Trevi was very controversial when built: it is scuplted as if from living rock. A glorious spectacle, once you subtract the touts, crowds and the inevitable graffiti, litter and general Roman lack of maintenance. We slip away in search of caffeine, but pick the Quirinale Hill to go over - a solid Government and Police/Defence block, it seems. So no coffee houses. We cut down through the Gardens, off the hill, onto Via Nazionale - a main drag with lots of shops, and have a very satisfactory fresh orange, and a cappo. Equilibrium is restored. There are glamorous Italian types all along this street, and a lot of clothing stores. Interesting to observe the fashions and take the odd photo of accessories and other useful bits.

Back over to the hotel area which is actually situated in a quite good area. Lonely Planet, sharpen up your locality descriptions! Theatre and Opera houses very close by, and a fascinating clutch of religious articles shops around the back of the former. We consider a Marian statue for the hall back home. Then look at the price. Around 1000 Euros... Nah. Thought the Church had stopped profiting from this sort of stuff.

We do however see, in a cheaper but similar shop, a glow-in-the-dark Joseph, Mary and kid statuette series, which prompts a small reminiscence from M:

"I don't mind if it rains or freezes
As long as I've got my plastic Jesus
My plastic Jesus on the dashboard of my car..."

We also discover an Internet cafe close by the hotel, so now have a place to post all of this....and to find ourselves a hotel in Firenze - Florence. We are rather last-minute, don't-plan-it-to-death folk, as might by now be apparent.

Both Glorious Ruin'ed out for the day, to the extent that choosing another ristorante is just too much. And it's just around the corner. And they don't laugh at our Italian: we've got a few words, and have found that, used judiciously, people appreciate the effort with a quick smile. Asking for a new word always goes down well too.

Although we don't ask for a translation of "Casa del Pudenzia", a sign just one street back from our hotel. It probably doesn't mean House of Puddings. Perhaps Lonely Planet was right, after all?

Rome - Day 16

The Easyjet flight has no hand baggage weight restriction, thank goodness. And is not very full, so we bag a window seat forard of the engines. It's a clear day, and the plane takes off westwards, circles over the Avon mouth, and describes a slow circle back up the Severn, crossing the Channel over Portsmouth. Then the cloud sets in a bit so I turn attention to figuring out where the hotel is. No luck: we isolate the general area, look in Lonely Planet, to discover that said area is the rough side of town, allegedly. Oops.

Off the plane and through the laughably absent border control. No luggage checks, Britain does not know that we even left, and we walk straight from a perfunctory passport check at Ciampino Airport, to the public land-side area. The 'something to declare' Customs lane is taped off. And bio-security aspects are confined to warning signs... There is a sole police officer with a machinegun. But the whole EU border control stuff is just daft in these times.

We catch a Terravision bus to the main train station (Termini), orient ourselves once we find the station itself, and immediately buy a Central Rome detailed map. Find our hotel street (Via Ruinaglia, which is just off a main drag, Via Cavour) and start walking. It's only 600m or so, but streets change names over major intersections, or are blocked off. Eventually we find the hotel, which turns out to be very well appointed for just 2 stars. Thanks, LastMinute.

The proprietor teaches me enough Italian to get by over the next couple of days, and recommends a ristorante just around the corner. As we have not eaten since breakfast, this works out very well. Good pasta, a quaffable red wine, and gelato. We retire happy, satisfied, and are lulled to sleep by the gentle rumble of the Linea Blue Metro (tube) trains which pass right under the hotel. Well, it is a 2 star...

Bristol Airport - Day 16

Trev runs us up to Bristol airport over the Mendip Hills - not that you'd actually spot them as such. We vsee them from the air later, and they are more like a limestone ridge. Down through Burrington Combe - a little gorge through the limestone cliffs. Gorge is a relative term: nothing to compare with say Arthur's pass and the Otira Gorge, but wild in a very British way. Complete with caves - the endearingly named Wookey Hole is hereabouts.

Bristol Airport itself sports a new and impressive terminal: pipe space-frame construction with big, airy lounges underneath. A lot of the budget airlines fly out of here: to New York, Dublin and of course the Continent. So a lot of activity. We're on EasyJet - 35 quid each to Rome. Even allowing for the dreadful exchange rate of the NZ Peso to the Pound, this is very cheap.

Devon Coast - Day 15

A family lunch at West Bay, just down from Bridport on the Devon coast. Jurassic fossil cliffs east and west of the town, and the restaurant has a great outlook over a river mouth, and the enclosed harbour beyond. Superb seafood: we have both revised our rather dim former view of Brit cooking on this trip: there is a pride in the locality and freshness of the food all through the South-west, from Cornish clotted cream to the local seafood, caught by small boats which sail straight out of the port in front of us at West Bay. New Zealand white wine arrives! Cat's pee on a gooseberry bush - a great accompaniment to the seafood.

A wander along the promenade to the western end cliffs - fossil territory, and we can see Lyme Regis to the west. Then back via a B-road overlook onto the back of Portland Bill and Chesil beach, which former we had seen close-up a few days ago. Then back through the B-roads (no lanes, oh no) and do the usual dump of the camera photos, and another write-up. It's been a classic day weather-wise again, and we can't really believe it's Rome in less than 24 hours.

Somerset - Day 14

Have to drop the renter back at Marksbury, just out of Bath, so we have a Bristol, Bath and Avon day. Trev takes us on from the Europcar dropoff, out to the Avonmouth area and we see the Second Severn Crossing bridge from Bristol to Wales - very graceful, and with surprisingly little development along the Severn Estuary edge - it is, after all, a water view. On to Bristol centre via Whiteladies road - a coffee-up and then on to Bath. We skirt around the top of Bath and, consulting a local map, discover that the famed Crescent is just three streets down.

The Crescent, while undeniably magnificent, is rather too severely formal for my tastes, but the Circus, a circular (of course) road just hard by, is charming and more intimate in its scale of buildings. The Bath stone is just glowing in this afternoon sun, and the weather is once again brilliant for this time of year. We go back through Bradford-on-Avon, the Kennet and Avon canal, and on through the lanes to Wincanton. A cruisy, magnificent day. Photos of ancient ancestors that night: we have scanned a bunch for Trev and go through these. The Peter Lehmann shiraz goes down, and we retire tired but happy. With cats, who have discovered our various possum/merino clothing pieces, and won't be moved from on them.

Cornwall - Devon - Somerset, Day 13

Up the A39 all the way up Cornwall, round the top of Devon, then cut across from Minehead to Taunton and on into deepest ZumerZet. A rainy, foggy day, so limited sightseeing. Lunch in Bude, a surfing and market town, where we pick up a very nice Peter Lehmann shiraz for 5 quid at the Co-op! Then up across Exmoor - which has lovely architecture in the town at Lynton - almost German.

Taunton is a traffic nightmare: the Brit penchant for stacking up closely spaced roundabouts, lights and (the crowning engineering glory) roundabouts with lights, which all jam up solid at the least provocation, is the cause. But then it's on to dual carrigaeway in the A303, sixth gear is engaged, and we make our destination (Wincanton) in good time.

Harbours and Mines - Cornwall - Day 12

We zip over the hill to Penzance, and immediately are drawn into the classic Cornish landscape: heathy hill with roofless engine house and chimney stack. Cripplesease, if memory serves. Penzance it is, and Newlyn just around the corner. Being on the sheltered side, the harbours in these two towns house the remnants of the Cornish fishing industry. Charming and a little sad. On round the corner to Mousehole (Mowzel) of book fame. Mowzel harbour's tiny entrance is boarded up for the winter, although this hasn't stopped the recent Channel storm from filling the harbour with quite a bit of weed. A bendy fish purchase - a toy/artwork that just glowed at us from the shelf.

Back to Newlyn and Penlee House for Cornish history and art: another find on the artistic front: Charles Simpson, especially the sea-bird paintings, especially the gouache and watercolours. Penlee house has a very good potted history of Cornwall: a very old region with a rich archaeological heritage and the exhibits were succinct, informative and just very well done. So many musuems succumb to the dumbing-down of such sequences, either for the perhaps laudable objective of appealing to school parties, but usually (one suspects) because of a jaundiced view of the average punter's IQ and attention span. Not Penlee. Thoroughly recommended.

On to Pendeen and the mines section. The weather is by now closing in, and so straight to the National Trust restored beam engine at Levant. Just after a school party has gone, mid-afternoon. The resident custodian tells me that the place is actually closed, but that the engine-house is open. I have a little wander round - a typical mining layout with a skip shaft for ore and tailings, a miner's ladder which goes down 320 fathoms - that's almost 2000 feet... and the beam engine itself which wound the cars up and down the skip shaft. The miners had a man-engine - a moving beam which lifted them 10-12 feet at a time - but that went down only 266 fathoms and the rest - around 400 feet - was climb the ladders. And all on your own time, in the dark...

After 15 minutes or so, the custodian comes in to see that I haven't fallen down a shaft, and then says that there's still 70 psi in the boiler, and maybe he can run up the beam engine. Why not? He unlocks the regulator, and after a little bit of coaxing (while the vacuum in the unused part of the cylinder builds up and helps things) the 1840 Cornish Beam engine spins up to full tilt of 60 rpm or so. Very quiet, unfussed, and that magic smell of steam and oil. After 5 minutes or so, steam pressure is dropping so my private show runs down quietly and he packs it away, stopping it at exactly the right spot to get it started again tomorrow. The flywheel is well out of true, relic of an 1860 accident where the unregulated engine spun out of control and fired the 14 foot diameter wheel, in several pieces, through the top of the engine house, and was subsequently repaired and ran on until 1930.

The mine itself ran out 1.25 miles under the Atlantic, was around 320 fathoms deep (1 fathom = 6 feet) and the main tramming level, which took out the ore in mine tubs, was around 240 fathoms. Staffed by 400 men, boys and pit ponies for the tramming, that far under the sea. Climbing ladders in the dark after a shift, picking out the rich but narrow ore veins by hand (hence the boys, who fit into narrower spaces) and denuding Cornwall of trees for pit props.

Tin/copper (indeed, all) mining was and is a notoriously boom and bust business, and the reason for all those glorious engine house remains everywhere in the mineral belt, is that the boom collapsed suddenly. Gold rushes in New Zealand and California mopped up a lot of the resulting miner diaspora, and Cornwall now remains unmined, full of gently decaying relics, still with very few trees, but an utterly ancient, bony, enduring landscape.

Back on the B-for Back road to St Ives, and through one of the ancient standing-stones areas around Zennor (love the names). Only 9 miles, but through these old, narrow lanes, it feels like 20. Road, as usual, goes through the middle of farmyards, abhors straightness (only the Romans did straight, it seems), and varies from 10 to 25 feet wide, between little stone walls. No place to pass, sight-see or daydream while driving. Love every second of this sort of travel.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Mugged in St Ives - Day 11

Yes, a mugging. In deepest Cornwall. By a large seagull, of my almost-entire genuine award-winning Cornish pasty. We had a day mooching round St Ives: photos, much walking, Tate St Ives, and shopping through the galleries. Which galleries, St Ives being a notable artists' haunt for over 100 years, could be said to infest the place.

The Tate was frankly a disappointment: artists-in-residence contributed the bulk of the work, and whatever their blurbs, words and justifications, there was just too much puffery and not enough apparent skill for our tastes. But a find: as there always is. Alfred Wallis - a retired fisherman and self-taught painter. A child-like style, no perspective, painted in household paints on odds and ends of flat surfaces. But it spoke to us, loudly.

A beautiful day here: after a little morning rain and a brief shower of hail. Everywhere, old people were sunning themselves like lizards on rocks. The light, renowned for its quality for artistic endeavours, was there as advertised. The layout of the town prevents much traffic: there is park-and-ride at the top of the downs above the town. Some of the little connecting passageways between the already narrow streets are only 2 feet wide. So it's a very intimate little place, at least in the older parts, and this has certainly helped the artist community. Some names: Bernard Leach, pottery, and Barbara Hepworth, sculpture.

n early evening beer and meal at the Sloop Inn - Circa 1312. Welll, some of it, anyway - the walls, maybe. The rest is Grandpa's axe: three new heads and seven new handles. But good beer, dogs allowed in the bar - how civilised... - and a great cod/parmesan/salad.

Weymouth to St Ives - Day 10

A spot of Internetting at a local cafe to get e-mails and some work away. Then out of the town and onto the A roads - which are slow, clogged, and wend through delightful Devon villages. Devon is such typically English countryside - rolling hills, the odd escarpment, and the odd moorland for relief. We pop in to Lyme Regis for a fossil or two: Mary Anning, the 18th century lady who had a knack for seeing fossils where everyone else had just seen rocks, made the place famous. And the Old Forge Fossil Shop has Madeleine Peyroux on the shop stereo. So we linger.

Those little villages may be photogenic and quaint but are hell on wheel to get through. Muttering Bah! and Humbug! we head for the nearest dual carriageway in sight, as the weather is closing in and it is a reasonable hop over to St Ives. The average speed rises satisfactorily, as yet again, despite a 70mph alleged limit on the motorways, the fast lane averages 80mph and our trusty 4 miles per inch map shows the location of every fixed speed camera. And the weather being what it is, there are no mobile cameras needed: the state of the road surface and natural caution act to limit speeds.

Then westward ho! Weather is now vile, so it's hammer down, traffic and road surface permitting. Make St Ives late afternoon, and are immediately captivated. Beautiful working harbour, and mediaeval fishing village streets. We ask around and select a family-run hotel up above the town with a great sea view. Mad has the knack for nosing out the right deal and right proprietor: some we have asked, just don't seem interested in making a sale. The service mentality in Britain is decidedly patchy..... We settle in, find our way down to the harbour and pick a restaurant. It's closed! Of course: even though it's picth dark, intermittently raining, the time is only 5.15pm... We walk around the harbour, explore one or two of the better-lit alley streets, and have a genuine Cornish pizza, Spanish and Italian beers. Find our way back up the hill to the hotel - not easy in these little, narrow winding streets, and watch an Irish race-totalisator programmer win 2005 MasterMind.

South Coast - Day 9

We check out, and head west along the coast. Which is built up right along: a working port just west of Hove, then Brit suburban housing and the occasional resort. We stop at one (Worthing) which has actual baches in one little corner. Photographic evidence ensues. At Worthing itself, a major apartment block has started: a graceful design which mixes Victorian and Art Deco elements. At least, that's what the pictures on the fence imply. Still boulder beaches on this stretch of coast, and groynes every couple of chains, to stop the longshore drift of their precious sand, where it exists. A beautiful sunny morning, dogs and people out walking. Another beach stop at Bognor Regis (with a name like that, had to do it). But here's the funny thing: we are now both completely unable to recall anyhting about Bognor Regis! Must be something in the water.

Needing to make some time, we head inland, hit the fast roads, and head to Portsmouth - a landmark port and still very much part of the British Navy. Not wanting to spend time and money at the usual tourist traps, we head for the fortified harbour entrance, and walk around the elaborate, ancient defensive towers, moats, walls. Recently restored and connected (another millenium project), with good interpretative signs.

The sheer energy that went into these things amazes us: it's really no wonder that the combination of industrial invention and the ending of long-running territorial disputes and political convulsions, released so much human and intellectual energy for what we now call the Industrial Revolution.

Back out to the A-roads, and head through the New Forest. Stop off at an Otter and Owl centre, and see owls up close for the first time. Such impassive, gorgeous creatures. A fox, too: so photos which we can associate with our Hugh St fox.

The entire South-west of England has had much rain, and there is a bridge out on our chosen A-road through the New Forest to Christchurch. The detours around take us on to a wilder, B road sector, and a sequence of little villages. Complete with beautifully thatched roofs, winding, narrow lanes, and a combination of forest and moor. Just a delight, but no photo stops - there's a lot of traffic, and almost no stopping places. One moor photo only.

Christchurch is supposed to be a charming place, but we manage to miss that entirely. We plough on through Poole, and then swing on south to Weymouth. We had planned to stay at either Swanage, Weymouth or Portland, but Swanage seemed too far east. We fall immediately for Weymouth: it is a traditional holiday resort town, charming river harbour complete with lifting bridge and defensive fort at the mouth. But I have to see Portland too. Portland is a massive chunk of limestone, vaguely connected to the mainland via a stony spit - longshore drift from Chesil Beach has connected what surely was formerly the island of Portland. We drive through Portland itself, then up and over through Easton, and down to Portland Bill - the southernmost point. There's a famous tidal race off Portland Bill, well known to mariners as a danger spot, and when we get there, the race is running at full strength. A confused, jumbly sea, vicious choppy waves, and a strong but mixed-up set of currents. A death spot for sailing ships of yore.

But Portland itself has been heavily quarried (Portland Cement...) and there is a devastated, sullen feel to the place, as so often happens in over-exploited areas. We abandon any thought of staying there, and head back through late afternoon traffic to Weymouth, and locate a charming beachfront hotel for the right price, with parking, at the second attempt.

The centre of Weymouth has tiny, mediaeval streets, but fortunately, on a grid pattern, so is easy to navigate. Our hotel owner confirms our feeling about Portland: she says some people have never left the island! We have a great, budget blowing meal at Mallam's, with quite the best pinot gris I've ever tasted. River and working boats view. The boats are very bluff-bowed, with wheel-houses well forard, and their windows just peeking over the bows. Obviously needed for punching through the steep, confused chops of the English Channel, which, after all, is not very deep, has a pronounced tidal race, is a wind funnel, so generates bad seas at the drop of a hat. Weave back to the hotel, well satisfied.

Brighton Piers - Day 8

We head for the sea-front, along with half of London, it seems. Just by the West Pier wreck, there's parking in a little square which we promptly snaffle. There's a strong onshore wind - around Beaufort 6-7 - mucho surf, and spectacular waves. The west End pier is a poignant iron skeleton, bits drop off every storm, we are told, and the main causeway back to the beach is long gone - a twisted mass of ironwork being moved up the beach with every storm. We walk up the beach boardwalk to the main Pier.

Which is endearingly tacky - Brighton Rock, souvenirs, restaurants, bars, pokies, and the amusement park right at the far end. Today's weather being of the horizontal variety, nothing is well patronised. The storm is sending gentle shudders through the Pier, and it really is very wet. And we haven't eaten since breakfast, some 6 hours ago. Having spotted a little cafe on terra firma, tucked under the main beach promenade, just adjacent to the main Pier, we retire there and have a superb late lunch.

And a Becks. And a Leffe. And then decide, WTF, let's stay in Brighton instead of braving the traffic, the dark (it's now 3.30 pm and a Dark and Stormy Night is imminent) and trying to locate a hotel. So back to the car in the Square, where we had previously spotted a little hotel a few doors down from our parking spot. Vacancies, check. Price right, check. Evening meal not required, check. Conti breakfast included, check. Serendipity has struck again.

Beachfront architecture varies from the delightful DeVere Hotel - very Victorian and lacy, to the stolidly monumental Brighton Centre, apparently designed in Stalingrad. Sea views sell rooms, and the seafront is 5-6 storeys solid as far as we can see (not far, in these conditions). Lots of public art, including a graceful bronze vertical doughnut near the end of a massively constructed stone groyne just by our late-lunch restaurant. Every few waves or so, a rather larger wave swamps the groyne end, drenching unwary punters, and coming right through the hole in the doughnut. Kinetic art......

We see one brave soul in jandals, shorts and t-shirt, but most people are layered underneath and wearing rain-shells on top like us. And we see a couple of younger kids racing the waves up and down the beach. Which, considering the surf - 2-4 metres - the fact that it's a boulder beach lying at a fair angle to the horizontal, with small, slippery stones underfoot, dumper waves, a vicious undertow, and a good-size Channel storm raging out there, does seem to us to be the height of foolishness. We blame the parents, of course. Where's Nanny State when you really need her?

London to Brighton Rally - Day 8

We pick up our car just around the corner (another of the real advantages of staying near a major rail hub) - it's a 6-speed VW 1.6 Golf with only 400 miles on the clock. Well, that's gonna change. But first, to get out of London. Vauxhall Bridge and then the A23 all the way, the Europcar staffer had said. So we do. But lo and behold, the Brighton Vintage rally is also on, the same route, lots of supporters..... So we kick back and cruise: no choice, really. Once we hit Brixton (for the second time actually, couldn't believe we were on the right road the first...) it's second gear mostly, but the occasional sprint in third. That, for the observant, is only half the gears available....

Once out of London (which took about 1.5 hours) we hit the M23 and can let the higher gears sing. By now the weather has closed right in and it's raining hard. Still, the fast-lane cohort which now includes us, zings along at 75-90 mph. The Golf is a joy to drive, handles well, 3500rpm at 80 mph in sixth. Noticeable that mainly the Euro cars are doing this speed: Audi, lots of VW, Peugeot, Citroen, Renault, occasional Merc and Beemers.

The Brit cars are of course the 1903 vintage rally jobs, trundling along in the slow lane. A marvellous selection of very early contraptions: some quite literally carriages derived from horse-drawn technology, with a motor tacked on. And given the conditions (much moisture), a lot of drop-outs along the way.

All too soon, the M23 gives way to an A-road, sixth gear is a fond memory, and we proceed into Brighton at a sedate pace. The jalopies are using the bus lane, so we see quite a lot of the ones which have survived the rather Darwinian trip. The drivers and passengers have rugged-up for the conditions, but there are some quite bedraggled looking souls aboard.

London Guy Fawkes - day 7

We do a bit of Web sleuthing (free wi-fi at the hotel, although frankly you gets what you pays for - it's intermittent and dodgy), and pick up a car for the South Coast to Cornwall leg, next week. Then off to the Musuems again, thus time with a card in the camera..... But first a leetle snack at Harrods, just by the gloriously over-the-top Egyptian Escalator. Serenaded by live orchestra and operatic selections from somewhere on a lower floor, which echoes up the escalator. Then light a candle at Brompton Oratory, and back to Natural History. Photos of the dinos, the terracota, and the main Hall.

We've been invited out to a North London address for fireworks and a Greek meal, so off we toddle to Finsbury Park via Victoria tube. And then the fun really starts. We buy Brit Rail tickets for Palmers Green, and wait an hour for the train. Serenaded by evening prayers from the now notorious Finsbury Park Mosque. The platform fills up, fills up more, we look at each other and wonder when it will stop. It doesn't. There is a lot of Arsenal merchanise being worn or toted - we have struck a football match buildup.... Train arrives and the entire platform (now full of football fans) tries to squeeze in. We're literally hanging out the doors (we haven't developed that London pushiness), and no amount of 'move on down the coach' will actually let more people on. So we drop off. Bloody Arsenal supporters.....

We catch a bus instead - the Oyster cards work on these too, it seems. The bus (surprise, surprise) is defective. Every couple of stops or so, the low-air warning sounds, the driver, worried about running out of brakes, stops to rev the motor to build up the air pressure again. Just for comic relief, the motor actually stops twice. We take ages to get to - Wood Green! But the destination sign had clearly said Palmers Green..... We are three stops short of where we need to be. Still, we have seen a cross-section of surface London we wouldn't normally have seen. Or now ever wish to see again.

So another bus, and we are there. A charming house, a great Greek meal, and being at some altitude, we hear Guys Fawkes celebrations across London. If a revolution needed to get rolling, this would be the night to do it: no amount of noise you made would be even faintly noticeable against the barrage of fireworks from 8 to late.

Trip home is by contrast a cakewalk: Piccadilly tube from Arnos Grove to Finsbury Park, walk across the platform to the Victoria line tube, and home to Victoria, all within 30 minutes. The trip out had taken 90. We are left with unused Brit Rail tickets. Consider a refund, but the need to take a number, queue, explain the situation to your average Brit Rail staffer, and go out of our way to do all this - nah. Only 14 quid. Life's too short. Chalk it up to experience.

Birmingham and Paris - Day 4/5

Later, a work trip to Birmingham: nice quick trip out of Euston on a fast train. Birmingham is a deeply unlovely city with a pronounced oik culture, but has a central canal system and some canalside restaurants which possess that old water-view magic. I have a mussels dish, they turn out to be the smallest shellfish imaginable: obviously no minimum size limit here. Or perhaps they just dredge them straight out of the canal....

A day at a user conference, and a return trip to London the next day. Which is very slow, because of 'extensive vandalism to West Midland rail signalling systems' as announced on the Virgin train itself. Funny, no mention of that in the papers the next day. At around the same time, the Mad side is on a day trip to Paris, where there is 'extensive rioting in the north-eastern suburbs'. Funny, played-down in the papers. Seems to be a pattern here - Don't Scare the Horses....or Sheep.

We have detected a funny tipping-point this trip: the welfare/nanny state, both in France and England, seems to be running out of gas. Expectations of entitlement amongst parts of the population are widespread and high. Tax revenues to support these are static or declining. Part of the population thus affected consists of 15-30 year old males, with no jobs, no prospects and no status. That's always a recipe for unrest, and frankly it seems to have started. The State in each country is vacillating between soothing noises and fierce actions to restore control, both of which simply act to increase the alienation quotient. Intellectually, neither State has any answers beyond more of the same, appeasements of various sorts, and public hand-wringing. In both countries, we feel a darker, bleaker future blowing in.

Museum Strip and Brompton Oratory - Day 3

We had planned to see Natural History, and to look inside the Oratory - the Roman Catholic Cathedral for London. Natural History is an absolutely glorious building: sandstone and blue colour stone, terracotta tiling and ornamentation inside, over an iron frame. Huge, too. The Diplodocus replica skeleton inside is 100 years old, and the dinosaurs display is fairly much compulsory to kids of all ages. So around we go, and love it. The Earth Science wing also gets a look in: very good earthquake and volcano displays. Very interactive and geared for school visits, but one of the better ones we have seen - plenty for adults as well.

Brompton Oratory is plain on the outside, but Spanish-style ornate on the inside. We walk in on the tail-end of a mid-day Mass, which has a good following of the faithful. The Piccadilly Tube underneath echoes through the interior somewhat, which does rather reduce the ambience.

Tailpiece - Reynard the Fox - Day 2

Thomas Bewick, the renowned 17th century woodcut artist, used to illustrate his work with a tailpiece - a small woodcut of a fanciful, solemn or amusing scene. Coming back from Victoria station to our new digs (we have returned to the Cheviot after extracting a tarriff concession), we have our own tail-piece to the day.

We are astounded to see a fox walking down Hugh Street - literally one block from Victoria Station. It's clearly a local: walking happily along the pavement, not very many people around, slipping quickly around the corner to the next stop. Which may, we surmise, be Eccleston Square. Where there's one fox, there's another, and after asking around, urban foxes do seem to be a common sight. No photos, but it does induce us to see a country sanctuary for otters, owls and foxes in the New Forest - later on in the week.

Abbey and Tate Modern - Day 2

Did the verger-guided tour round Westminster Abbey with a quinessentially English guide: who turned out to be a hotel manager in a former life. Abbey is chocka with tombs, history, and the depredations of generations of pilgrims, as witness the decoration still extant above outstretched arm height. Glorious architecure as always.

On to Tate Modern across the Millenium Bridge - bit of a disappointment, really. Displays are changing, exhibitions not really ready, and the Turbine Hall exhibit was (can't make this up...) stacks of polystrene packing cubes. Pish and tosh. An Henri Rousseau exhibition was coming, but then, we were going. Went through the exhibits (modern nude etc) but they were a bit patchy. One very amusing Rube Goldberg-style machine. Not a great haul. But great views of that classic London skyline from a viewing gallery, so photos and a walk back over that now somewhat slippery Millenium bridge.

Friday, November 04, 2005

London - Madeleine Peyroux

We snatch a couple of hour's worth of zee's and toddle up to the Barbican via Victoria and District tubes, and have a very well constructed salad. Then, fighting off jet-lag, stagger into our assigned seats. Which are - praise the InterWeb and ticket scalpers! - in the front row, centre stage. That's approximately 4 metres from the singer.

Who (the supporting act is entirely forgettable) is fabulous. Troubled (read the Grauniad piece), but fabulous. A great keyboards man, complete with vintage electronic organ and Leslie speaker, horn player, violinist, bass and drums as backing. Very quiet, intensely swinging jazz feel. Superb vocals from Miss Peyroux, and most songs are from the latest album (Careless Love). She does sound as though she has lived it all. A simply gorgeous night. Peak experience. We miss all the names of the backing group (announced last, obscured by foldback speaker noise plus audience wild applause throughout). Look for reviews but nothing sensible as yet.

Back via District Tube (how quickly the old patterns like Tube station sequences reassert themselves!). Ecstasy. The feeling, not the pill.

London - day 1 2005

In on the early flight - quick trip through what is laughingly referred to as Border Control - and on to the Piccadilly line after a bus transfer (they are making Terminal 5 at present, so according to hallowed Brit engineering tradition, have entirely dug up Terminal 4 Tube access), change at Hammersmith to District line, and on to our fleapit hotel. Quick shower, then onwards and upwards! London beckons. Specifically, Tate British and the Turner prize entrants.

Tate British also has a Degas - Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition, so we buy a joint ticket and brave the Turner entrants first. Four entrants, but only two worthy of the name: the other two encompass:

1. Simon Starling - yet another Installation - a charmingly decrepit German boatshed which was allegedly dismantled, made into a large canoe, paddled down the Rhine and thence as a dismantled stack of timber shipped to the Tate, reassembled as the boatshed. The 'art' in this journey rather escapes us, as the shed resembles a chicken coop on steroids. Or a Starling coop. It's endearingly dishevelled, but then so am I.

2. Darren Almond - a multiple-video presentation which tugs at the heartstrings via use of an elderly aunt's vist to the Blackpool of her youth and... that's it, actually. Quite weak, not a bad idea, poor execution. Thumbs down.

So the two real Turner contenders are (tada!):

- a clever installation of taped floor and painted found bird objects. Engaging, a Scottish artist (Jim Lambie), but specific to this place. Floor tape, in case you missed that.

- Gillian Carnegie (the one that deserves to win but probably won't. A painter! Just like Turner, no less. Just painting, No goofy commentary on the audio guide. No subtexts. No stupid captions. Just plain old skill, in a single, well chosen body of work. Including Bums paintings, always a personal favourite. And a gorgeous scuplted-black-paint woodland landscape, impassively titled 'Black Square' .. Cannot be photogrraphed - photos cannot pick up the 3-D aspect. Hooray!

But it probably won't win the Turner. Too little cleverness. Old JMW will revolve in his casket, but the chicken coop is our pick. The judges will admire the temporal nature, the metamorphosis, the zeitgeist and the frankfurter.

But we stand by our Black Square pick. Woodworm and the ever-alert cleaning crew will have disposed of the Starling coop long before Black Square bites the dust.

Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec are good but patchy: many of these Paris artists had a very ambivalent view of their subjects, and as always, overt politics in art does not wear well. Likes: Bonnard (a radiant, sunny view of his women subjects), TL's sketches, which reveal his warped but very characteristic view of the world, and some of the Degas.

Exit stage left, into light rain, and a few z's before Madeleine Peyroux at the Barbican.