Christmas is over for another year…

I’m not going to go into depth about what I do or don’t believe in about Christmas…..except of course that Santa really does exist….(cough cough). Christmas is a magical time of you have little kids to share that magic with……..otherwise, it does all seem to be a lot of work for one day of stuffing our faces and damaging our livers.

At our home, in the build up to Christmas, my wife had reeled off a list of things that “needed to be done before Christmas” and we sweated and toiled in order to get most of them done before the big day. We live in New Zealand so Christmas falls in our summer-time meaning that usually we can bask in sunshine with temperatures in the high 20’s or low 30’s Celsius. Christmas lunch is taken in the garden…..usually…..which is why a lot of the tasks tended to centre around the garden and lawns – making everything as neat as a pin and putting up an awning for a sun-shade and of course fairy lights – although with it being a lunch time feast, no one will see the lights against the bright daylight. BUT they were on the list so had to be put up and switched on.

So after a week of hard work and fraying tempers, completing our garden tasks, of course it absolutely poured down the day before Christmas and on the day itself. Oh JOY! As the front lawn gradually became a shallow lake, we dined inside and it was a bit of a crush squeezing 11 around the tables in the dining room. We had to arrange the tables diagonally – corner to corner – in order to fit everyone and everything in, as a rather large Christmas tree occupied much of one side of the room.

We all ate more than we should – naturally. AND one or two of “us” definitely drank more than was sensible….but we survived the day.

Honestly – next year I wouldn’t mind just disappearing to a Pacific island for the week instead – to chill out and recharge the batteries. My wife even suggested flying to Norway for Christmas…..about as far as you can get from NZ – where we would be completely off the radar….not to mention freezing cold.

It’s now 2 days later – the 27th and finally I am kicking back, chilling out. I’ve just had a coffee with a large chunk of Christmas cake and am contemplating either opening a beer…..or finishing off one of the many bottles of wine that were opened and left unfinished on Christmas day. Why do people do that? Why open a new bottle when there is already another one of exactly the same wine already opened and has only one glassful missing. Does anyone else find that frustrating or is it just me?

Anyhow…getting back to chilling out – I’m reading a book put together by a lady called Penelope Rowlands of 32 essays / short stories by 32 different writers, of a variety of nationalities, who have all lived, or been seduced to stay longer than they should have, in the European City of Lights – Paris. It’s called “Paris was Ours” and I picked it up second hand. It’s in very good condition and I was drawn to the book by the beautiful moody black and white photo on the front of a dimly lit, rainy street with people walking -mostly wearing raincoats and carrying umbrellas – lots of shadows but also reflections and rain spattered glowing pavements. By reading the inside back cover of the book it appears that the photo is from flickr by a Julien Brachhammer. Who-ever you are Julien, I love the photo.

Awesome photo on the cover and an interesting and entertaining read inside.

Inside the book the essays range from 3 pages long up to a maximum of around 16 or 17 pages, so it’s very easy to pick up and put down when you have spare moments…..or you can sit and binge read the essays – much like I was trying to do until I had the urge to share my experience of the book with you all – on here…WordPress.

All of the writers had been seduced by “the city of love” and all or almost all profess to still love it although some also claimed to have a love/hate relationship with a city that they found both passionately alluring, yet also one that theft them feeling lonely and blue. As one writer put it “Paris is a good place to be young and melancholy.” Another says “Paris steals in on you like fog.” Others refer to it as “the world capital of memory and desire” or insist that they were seduced by …”that siren, Paris.” I just love all these quotes – most are so poetic and I wished that I had written them first.

But living in Paris even for a short time – as a resident rather than a tourist – has been beneficial to the inner writer in all these essayists. As one put it “to be a writer you MUST come back to Paris.”

In her introduction to the book, the editor Penelope Rowlands speaks for most of the writers in this enthralling collection when she professes, “We hated Paris and loved it all at once.”

As writer and journalist Walter Wells wrote in his essay “I knew already that living in Paris would not be like visiting Paris, but I hadn’t appreciated what that really meant.” OR as Marcelle Clements attested – “Paris is a great place to fall in love, to eat, drink, and be merry. But it’s also the perfect city in which to be depressed or, even better, melancholy……You don’t have to be French to smoke a Gitane and notice the falling leaves drifting by your window.”

More than half of the essays have never appeared in any other publications and were written especially for this book. Some are well known writers, others – if you’re like me – you will never have heard of before, but all are intrepid men and women writing about their personal encounters with a magical yet uncompromising place – one that changes them indelibly and will stay with them forever – PARIS!

Most of these essays left me wanting to read more by each writer – to delve deeper into their backgrounds – and of course made me yearn to live for a year or more in that seductive city of lights, love and melancholy.

I’m not really a giver of stars to recommend books, as a book is a very subjective thing – what I love – you may hate. BUT if pushed….I would give this at least 4 out of 5.

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It must be BARCELONA! – home of Picasso, Gaudi and Olympic Gold Medalist Pickpockets.

Kind of a weird title, but it will become clear as you read the post.

Travel, from my own experience, has always been a very positive experience. I have met some wonderful people from all around the world, seen some marvelous sights and had some very positive, at times life-changing moments. In all my years of international travel (I first travelled overseas when I was 14 so that’s 45 years of experience), I have only had the displeasure to experience either muggers or pick-pockets three times. 

The first time was way back in the mid 1980’s in Harlem, New York City – partly my own fault as I was still a bit green and didn’t have much in the way of street smarts – when I encountered a couple of guys who wanted to relieve me of my bag – containing my camera, wallet and passport among other things. Fortunately I was young and fit and managed to turn heel and out run them….almost bowling over a railway security guard in my haste to get away.

The second and third times involved pick pockets or, I should say, attempted pick pockets. Once in Nice in the South of France and, yes you guessed it once in Barcelona and both within a month of one another….but we’ll get to that event later.

I had visited Barcelona very briefly over 40 years ago as a 16 year old and remember being propositioned by the prostitutes along the main street through the centre of Barcelona called las Ramblas. Other than that and the statue of Columbus at the sea shore end of las Ramblas along with the flower sellers stalls in the middle of the street, I can’t really remember much about it.

Columbus statue at the end of las Ramblas.

For our recent visit though I had a reason to be there, or two reasons to be exact – one being Pablo Picasso the world famous artist, and the other being Antoni Gaudi equally famous for his fantastic architecture…..or at least equally famous here in Barcelona.

I had bought a book “Gaudi – the Complete Works”- by Juan-Edwardo Cirlot, with photos by Pere Vivas and Ricard Pla –  on arrival in Barcelona and flicked through the pages in awe of the genius of the man.

But first Picasso. Picasso was born in Malaga, southern Spain in 1881, but in 1895 moved to Barcelona where he thrived. He looked upon Barcelona as his true home and it was here that he was accepted into the School of Fine Arts at the tender age of 13. At 16 his father and uncle decided it would be best for him to go to Madrid and attend Spains foremost art school the Real Academia de Belles Artes de San Fernando. He hated the structured regime there and quit soon after enrolling. He remained in Madrid though for a time visiting the museums and galleries for inspiration.

In 1900 he made his first visit to Paris and it was love at first sight…..as it is for many of us. He then divided his time between living and working in Paris and Barcelona. However in later years he lived prodominantly in France, which became his new adopted home.

It’s here though, in Barcelona, where you will find the museum completely dedicated to Picasso – The Museu Picasso – which opened in 1963 and houses over 4,000 pieces of Picasso’s work. Although he’s most famous as an artist and was a leader of the cubist movement, he was also a sculptor, ceramicist, printmaker, collagist, stage designer, poet and playwrite. A busy and versatile man!

entrance to the Picasso Museum.

The museum is very much worth visiting to view the range of his work. It is housed in 5 adjoining medieval palaces in Barcelona’s La Ribera district – a haven for artists, artisans, designers, tradesmen and merchants – on Montcada Street. The museum is open 6 days a week (closed Mondays). For full details of opening times and ticket prices see their website. http://www.museupicasso.bcn.cat/en

Even though Picasso is an artist of world renown, who’s works sell for millions of dollars, he is not my main reason for being here in Barcelona. The focus of my trip is another artistic genius, Antoni Gaudi. The difference being that his artistic genius manifests itself in architecture – amazing, imaginative, magical and almost mythical architecture.

The buildings he designed were highly individualised one off designs – very much stand-out buildings and a feast for the eyes. Having visited a number of his buildings in Barcelona, as well as Park Guell – a public park composed of gardens and architectural pieces – I can confirm the genius of this man. The park and the buildings he designed in Barcelona have been given USESCO World Heritage status. His most famous building, mainly due to the size and difficulty of building it, is without a doubt the still unfinished, massive church known as the Sagrada Familia.

To view many of Gaudi’s buildings in Barcelona we went on a “Free” walking tour with Runner Bean Tours. The tour is, as it says, free of charge…..but you can make a donation at the end if you thought the guide and the tour itself was good value. Some people take the tour and give nothing. Others, myself included, chipped in around $10 per head as a thank you for the almost 3 hour tour. Well worth at least $10….probably $20 would not be out of place. They also do paid tours for groups and for individuals. Website link is:  https://runnerbeantours.com/

Our guide was wonderful. Very clearly spoken, amusing, patient and knowledgeable. Our tour began at the meeting place just off las Ramblas, at the Placa Reial, by the water fountain. We were asked to look around the square and see if we could see anything that Gaudi may have designed. It was pretty obvious that the guide was referring to the ornate lamp posts – complete with serpents and winged helmets – so brightly coloured.

The tour took in several of Gaudi’s buildings – the first stop being Palau Guell – a building designed for The Guell family who were Gaudi’s primary patrons – very wealthy. As we were standing on the footpath opposite the building and our guide was giving us the spiel of all the facts and figures relating to the design and build of this amazing building, I noticed that 3 extra people who were not on our tour had tagged on to the back of the group. Two men and a woman. But, instead of looking at the building they seemed to be concentrating on the other people in the group. Naturally this was a signal to me that something wasn’t quite right. 

I had a rather expensive camera with me, but other than that only had a few euro’s in a zipped cargo pocket down by my knee. Of course our three tag alongs had no way of knowing that. As the tour guide wound up his talk and motioned for the group to follow him to the next destination we turned into a narrow alleyway and it was here that they made their move. I had hung back, at the back of the group and as soon as I entered the alley, the bigger of the men cut in front of me and immediately bent down as if picking something up that he’d dropped. It was such a sudden movement that I couldn’t stop myself from bumping into him and coming to a halt. The instant I bumped into him, the other two – the man and woman – “accidentally” crashed into me and the guys hand went straight into my my pocket. Although this was obviously a practiced move of theirs it was clumsy. I grabbed his wrist, spun around and started yelling obsenities at him to attract attention and hopefully that someone in our group would hear and come to the rescue. Pick pocketing is so common in Barcelona that no one even blinked at the incident unfolding in front of them.  Passers by just kept on their merry way, minding their own business. Three on one are not good odds and there was no way I could contain all three of them. As it turned out, once I had rumbled their plan they simply put up their hands in a “Woops OK you caught me” gesture, smiled and shrugged apologetically and turned and left in the other direction.

Once I had caught up with our tour leader I took him to one side to explain what had just happened and to suggest that maybe he should issue a warning to the rest of the group – just in case. During his warning speech that he gave at our next stop he commented that pick pocketing was so rife here in Barcelona that if it was to become an Olympic sport, Barcelona would become the undisputed Gold Medalists…..hence the title of this post. He also said that most pick pockets are not violent and unlike muggers will not resort to force…..and if caught are usually good natured and walk away.

Our tour continued taking in a number of Gaudi works and buildings of architectural merit of some of Gaudi’s competitors. All very interesting and beautiful to see unlike a lot of todays modern monstrosities which have cost as their primary concern. The building I was most interested in seeing though was Casa Batllo – with its dragonlike roof. It’s been called a number of names including “the fairytale in stone”, “the house of yawns” and even “the cat house”. You can see from the photos that follow how it got those names.

I was very keen to see inside this amazing building, but entry to the buildings is not included in the tour. Each Gaudi Building, being privately owned, cost pretty decent money to get in to do a tour of the interiors. My wife and I decided to come back the next day and pay whatever it cost to view the inside.

The tour concluded at the Sagrada Familia. Again only viewed from the outside. It’s amazing that when Gaudi died in 1926 the church was only about 15% to 25% completed. The building work began in 1882 and is not expected to finish until around 2026…..although the expected finish date has been pushed back several times already so don’t hold your breath.

If you’re wondering what the literary connection is in this post…..other than the Gaudi book I mentioned earlier – the Sagrada Familia was commissioned by a book seller named Josep Maria Bocabella, founder of Asociación Espiritual de Devotos de San José (Spiritual Association of Devotees of St. Joseph).

The next day we visited the interior of the Casa Batllo – and marveled at it’s hand carved staircase that looked like a huge curved spine as if it was made from bones, were frankly amazed at the amount of thought that went into this building particularly when it came to bringing daylight into the various rooms on each floor. There was a sort of central courtyard….just a few metres across that went from roof level all the way down to the ground floor. The walls of this “courtyard” were tiled in blue and white tiles and topped by a glass roof allowing light to enter the interior. The top floor was closest to the light, so this section of the courtyard walls were tiled mainly in dark blue tiles as the top floors were well lit and didn’t need to receive a lot of reflected light from the courtyard walls. As we travel downwards toward lower floors, more light is needed so the next floor down has a mixture of both blue and white tiles on the courtyard walls….lower still you see more white and less blue. There was also a ventilation system bringing in air from the outside and carrying it throughout every room of the house. These things may seem straight forward now but remember this building was built back in the early 1900’s.

There really are too many features to mention here, except to say that Gaudi was not a fan of the straight line. In his own words “There are no straight lines or sharp corners in nature, therefore there should be no straight lines or sharp corners in architecture”…and….”The straight line belongs to man, the curve belongs to god”. One feature that I will quickly mention – the roof – is said to be a nod by Gaudi to Catalonia’s saint, Saint George (also the saint of England). This is represented by the dragon-like roof and the turret with a cross on top. Said to represent the dragon killed by St. George – his sword being the cross on the turret. We don’t know for sure if this is correct as Gaudi refused to either confirm nor deny the speculation.

Our final place of interest in our search for everything Gaudi is Park Guell. Again commissioned initially by the wealthy Guell family. Actually Gaudi pretty much bankrupted them with his outlandish style and his habit of redoing work over and over again until it was absolutely perfect. Every job that Gaudi did, he blew the budget wide open. It is free to enter the park and to look at the gardens and architectural features created by Gaudi, but there is a small area that is reserved for paying customers. You can see into this area from the “free” area, but you don’t get the tactile experience of touching Gaudi’s creations or seeing them close up.

Words don’t really come close to describing the wonder of Gaudi’s creations so again I am putting here a gallery of photos to show the variety of his work within the Park Guell.

Just a couple of final observations. Within the park, officially you are not allowed to set up stalls and sell tourist merchandise – there are police patrols to enforce this. It doesn’t seem to stop dozens of entrepreneurs form laying out their wares on blankets along the pathways in the park. as soon as the police are in sight, they gather the corners of their blankets and disappear like smoke on the breeze – to return moments later when the police have gone by. It would seem also, by the grafitti on one of the picnic tables in the park that the locals are not 100% behind having tourists invade their space. See photo below.

Not exaclt a welcoming message.

We were in the great city of Barcelona for a week, so obviously saw more than the Picasso Museum and Gaudi’s buildings……so I may take another look at Barcelona in another post sometime along the way. Meantime, thank you for taking the time to read this post. If you liked it, please do click on the “Like” button and I have many more articles to share with you, so please feel free to also hit that “Follow” button. As usual any comments or constructive criticism are gratefully received. Adios for now.

Paris has it all….part 2

On my Euro-Trip I had tried many times to visit photography galleries or exhibitions featuring photography or photographers, but each time my good intentions were thwarted for one reason or another. Sometimes I arrived in a city on a day that the gallery didn’t open, or one exhibition had just finished and they were taking it down in readiness for the next, or it was reserved for a private showing, or the gallery had closed permanently, or it had moved to other premises…….and the other premises, even when armed with Google maps were impossible to locate.

It was a pleasant surprise then, during my week in Paris to view several exhibitions of photography and photographs. I almost went into shock!

The first gallery we visited was “A Gallery” as in Gallery “A”.
A. Gallery on Rue Léonce Reynaud, 4 – is a small gallery on the ground floor. Located in the 16th arrondissement, close to Pont de l’Alma, between the Palais de Tokyo and the Fondation Yves Saint-Laurent – no fee to look around. At the time there was an exhibition titled Best of the West featuring several top photographers. Photo portraits were of the likes of Mike Tyson, Barak Obama, Steve McQueen, Al Pacino, David Bowie etc. Quality detailed large format prints – very nicely displayed. The guy in charge of the gallery barely looked up when we walked in – he’d obviously realised with a mere glance at us that we were not there to buy, only to look.

Another gallery – Gallery Les Douches – is on a back street at 5 Rue Legouvé. When we arrived, the door was locked, but press the buzzer and they let you in. The gallery is on the first floor – no lift,  so no use for wheelchairs. Again it was free of charge and featured photos by two women photographers – Vivian Maier and Berenice Abbott.

Unlike at Gallery A, the staff here were very welcoming and issued us with brochures of the photographs on display and pointed us in the right direction. As well as the photos on the walls, there were also tables with photography books and we were invited to sit and peruse the books for as long as we liked.

I had not heard of Abbott before – she got her start in photography as a dark room assistant to Man Ray.
Man Ray wanted someone who had never been involved in photography before, so he could mould them to his way of doing things. She learned how he set up his photo shoots and went on from there to be a photographer in her own right……and a good one at that. After learning from Man Ray, she set up her own studio in Paris before re-locating to New York, which is where she came into her own as a photographer. Most of her more iconic photos were taken in the period between the two world wars. 

Abbott’s Manhattan Skyline – March 1936

Vivian Maier’s story is both amazing and sad at the same time. I have already mentioned her in an earlier post I wrote about women photographers. She was an unknown in the photographic world almost until her death. During her life she would come to amass a group of storage lockers stuffed to the brim with found items, art books, newspaper clippings, home films, as well as over 30,000 negatives and 3,000 prints and a huge quantity of undeveloped, exposed film. Due to non-payment of rent on her storage lockers, her property was forfeit and auctioned off.

Most of which was purchased – as an unknown item – by one John Maloof for the princely sum of US$400 at auction in Chicago in 2007.

Thankfully Maloof, a history and photography buff, went to great lengths (and personal expense)  to get Maier’s images out into the world.

At this time Vivian was still alive but almost destitute – bouncing from homelessness to a small studio apartment paid for by a family that she once worked for. In 2008 she slipped on a patch of ice and sustained a head injury. Although expected to recover she died in a nursing home in April 2009. She had no family.

I had already seen the documentary film – finding Vivian Maier and purchased one of the books of her photographs so I knew quite a lot about her. Her speciality was documentary / street photography. She worked as a nanny and would take the children in her care on field trips around the city and photograph anything that took her fancy. By accident almost she ended up documenting, in her photographs, over 40 years of american history. And yes….I am a fan.

The final photography gallery we visited was Maison Europeenne de la Photographie, Ville de Paris at 5/7 Rue de Fourcy, 75004 Paris. For the first time on this trip we had to queue (40 minutes) to get into a photo gallery……and pay 8 euros to get in.

But there were exhibits by 7 different photographers over several floors of the building…..the star of which was Herb Ritts.

Ritts was a friend of Richard Gere before either of them became famous. He took photos of Gere which later gave him a foot in the door of the world of photographing celebrities. In the 80’s and 90’s he took photos of many celebrities and also took a series of fashion and nude photographs of fashion models Naomi Campbell, Stephanie Seymour, Tatjana Patitz, Christy Turlington, and Cindy Crawford. He worked mainly in black and white and made some iconic images. Sadly on December 26, 2002, Ritts died of complications from pneumonia at the age of 50. 

So after having not much luck at finding photo galleries on the rest of this trip I almost overdose on them here in Paris. Wonderful!

Paris has it all. (Part one…)

My first ever overseas trip was a school exchange trip – to live with a German family in the town of Arnsberg in what was, at the time, West Germany. I was fourteen years old and although I was initially homesick and found actual spoken German, rather than school boy German, difficult to understand – in the end I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and became well and truly bitten by the travel bug.

Since then I have travelled all over Europe, the UK, the Mediterranean area including a couple of north African countries, Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, a few of the Pacific Islands, The USA, Canada and Mexico. I don’t have heaps of money so usually this means travelling on a tight budget – even backpacking and hitch hiking. Naturally I have my favourite places – places I would willingly return to time and time again. In general I try to avoid some of the busiest cities – countries capitals – BUT I must admit to having a love affair with the French capital Paris.

Getting an eyeful of the Eifel Tower

For me, Paris has everything. My passions are writing, photography, art, travel – not to mention good wine and rich strong coffee. Paris offers up all these and more. It’s been a magnet for writers and artists, connoisseurs of fine wines and foods, travellers, poets and of course, being the city of romance – lovers. 

All the best writers of old had lived and written in Paris – F Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway to name but two. Of course France produced many famous writers of its own including Proust, Dumas, Flaubert, Sartre and we can’t miss out Voltaire. Paris was and is still a breeding ground for literature, philosophy, art, fashion and new ideas of all kinds

I have only visited Paris once, for a week, back in 2016, but I am smitten. We stayed in a small AirBnB apartment in the 17th arrondissment. It was basic, but clean and tidy and served our needs – and being in the 17th it was far enough off the tourist track for us to be away from most of the hustle and bustle. By this time, we had been on the road for about four months, so had become adept at living on a budget and sourcing and cooking our own food – although we did indulge ourselves in the cafes and patisseries. Who can resist French pastries? 
We had started our journey in early July of 2016, setting off from New Zealand with our backpacks and romantic ideas of travel. By the time we reached Berlin at the end of August, any ideas that travelling with backpacks was romantic had been kicked into touch and our packs had been swapped for suitcases with wheels – why carry when you can wheel? Paris was our last stop in mainland europe before catching the Eurostar train under the English channel to England. Despite having lived in England for my first almost 30 years of life I had avoided visiting France. Now because of my interest of writing and books, and having recently seen the Woody Allen film “Midnight in Paris” I was quite keen to visit the “City of Lights”…..and track down some of the places that the movie was filmed.
 
We did a lot of the things on most tourists lists – went to see the Eifel Tower, Notre Dame, Arc de Triumph, Sacre Coeur, the museums and galleries, visited Printemps the big department store – partly to shop for a berret (the wife is so cliched) but also to visit the rooftop cafe which has some of the best views of Paris over the rooftops. The only downside was that on the day we went up to the roof it was overcast so Paris was not photographed at her best. However, what we enjoyed the most was just meandering through the streets and alleyways particularly around Montmartre – visiting the cemeteries and the final resting places of the famous (including writers – Proust and Wilde and composers Bizet and Chopin…and Jim Morrison of the Doors) and of course strolling the left bank of the Seine – perusing the wares of the book sellers lining the bank. Or simply enjoying a coffee in a cafe and watching the world rush by.

One of my highlights was visiting Shakespeare & Company book shop (twice). What an awesome book shop. A warren of rooms, packed bookshelves, books piled in every space, little sayings and quotes printed on the walls and stairs, and of course just breathing in the history of the place. The building used to be part of a 17th century monastery, although this particular shop was only opened in the 1950’s. Many famous writers, actors and artists have graced its rooms – Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Anaïs Nin, Richard Wright, William Styron, Julio Cortázar, Henry Miller, William Saroyan, Lawrence Durrell, James Jones, and James Baldwin were some of the first. As an english language book shop in the heart of Paris, it became a haven for American and British ex-pats. Some have even slept there amongst the books, early in their careers (such as Ethan Hawke and Geoffrey Rush) or when down on their luck. From day one owner George Whitman encouraged writers and artists to seek shelter in his shop – a place to sleep and eat a meagre meal, in exchange for a couple of hours of work (and they also had to write a short bio and promise to read a book a day while living there). It’s been estimated that over 30,000 people, over the years the shop has been in business, have taken up the offer of food and shelter. It’s been owned by the same family throughout. Opened by George Whitman in 1951 (originally under the name of Le Mistral) and run either by him or under his watchful eye until he died in 2011 aged 98. His daughter Sylvia – named after Sylvia Beach, who founded the original Shakespeare & Company in 1919 on rue de l’Odeon – took over management of the shop in 2006. In 1964 on Shakespeare’s 4ooth birthday, and with the blessing of Sylvia Beach, the name of the shop was changed to what it is today – Shakespeare & Company. On my first visit, to the shop, I bought “My Brain on Fire” by Leonard Pitt – about his experiences living in Paris as a young man. Of his struggles to become a writer, living in a garret – naturally – and his mishaps in romance. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and read it before leaving Paris, it was so enthralling. I was lucky enough to get a signed copy.

On my second visit a few days later I bought the book about the shop – “Shakespeare & Company Paris” and subtitled “A History of the Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart”. It’s been compiled partly from George Whitman’s notes and letters and partly by the many many people who have lived and worked in the shop over the years. It has photos, notes, receipts, short biographies and notices throughout its pages – edited by Krista Halverson – it’s a delightful book to own and to read. It gives a real understanding of life in the shop – bedbugs and all – and provides a window into the eccentricity of an interesting, passionate and complex man who’s dream and life this shop became. It is available from the many on-line retailers but my advice would be to go to the shop yourself, pick up a copy and absorb some of that magical atmosphere.

The two books purchased from Shakespeare & Co.

Part two to follow soon…….

A Rhapsody in Old Bohemia.

According to the dictionary Rhapsody means –

  1. Music. an instrumental composition irregular in form and suggestive of improvisation
  2. An ecstatic expression of feeling or enthusiasm.
  3. An epic poem, or a part of such a poem, as a book of the Iliad, suitable for recitation at one time.

For this post I’m going for meaning number 2, as I do get ecstatic and enthused about Cesky Krumlov.

Czech Pilsner beer is the best in the world. Little wonder, it was the Czechs who invented it in the town that bears it’s name (Plzen) and it’s amazingly cheap to buy here. But there are lots of reasons for visiting the Czech Republic other than for their magnificent amber Pilsner…..although that alone is reason enough.

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Most tourists when visiting the Czech Republic make a bee line for Prague and understandably so. It is the capital after all and has so much history and a whole heap of tourist sights including the castle and the Charles Bridge….and a really good tram network.
But I want to talk about another town in the south west of the country….Cesky Krumlov in the heart of southern Bohemia. It has all the history (built in the 1200’s) and architecture of Prague, on a smaller scale (population a little over thirteen thousand)….and a fairytale castle high on a hill overlooking the old town below – wrapped in the protective embrace of the Vltava river, which almost encircles it. It is compact, scenic and very walkable. It’s a gorgeous place, has UNESCO World heritage protection and has a lively arts and literature scene, which is to be the focus of this post.
We were very fortunate to meet with and stay in the home of Chilean born – Czech resident – writer Jorge Zuniga Pavlov – author of “La Casa Blů: historias del bajomundo latinoamericano” (Blue House: stories of Latin American Underworld). And “Stěhování a jiné po(c)hyby” – (Moving and other stories) – A selection of stories (some autobiographical) about how Prague was moved by the affect of communism on Chilean emigrants escaping from the agony of Pinochet’s dictatorship. But also about Prague in the nineties. Stories from the environment of the Chilean community in Paris. Stories about returning to the ocean and returns to Prague, traveling, meeting and passing.

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Jorge is one of the most welcoming, helpful, generous and humanitarian people I have ever met. I’m very proud and privileged to be able to call him a friend. He’s also a champion of literature….he has been very active in the promotion of writers and their work. Since 2014 he has been opening his home (Litera Krumlov) as a venue for writers to visit and read excerpts of their work to an eager and appreciative audience. There’s a bit of a tradition where authors who perform at his home sign in on the wall of the main room with their name and date.

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Writers and artists are also accommodated in his “Writers Residence” – where we stayed for the week – a lovely airy room on the lower floor of his historic home – built in the 1500’s. In fact as I write this, he tells me that he has Two Czech poets staying in the Writers Residence at the moment. His home is built on a hillside above, and overlooking, a bend in the Vltava river. It has two floors rising up from street level and another two lower floors – down the slope toward the river. It’s a quirky, wonderful old house with it’s own cave-cellar and a bathroom with walls made of books and wine bottles. The exterior walls of the house are over two feet thick and keep the house warm in the harsh Czech winters and cool in the summer.
Jorge is not only a writer and promoter of literature, he’s also a wonderful baker of bread which he served us fresh, daily at breakfast time. Just one of many items of food on our overloaded breakfast table. Like I said before he is a very generous man.
Under Jorge’s guidance we explored the “Arts” side of Cesky Krumlov.

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Firstly we’ll explore theatrical productions. Up the hill behind Jorge’s home is the castle garden. Formal gardens with fountains similar to those you’ll find in the grounds of most european stately homes, but uniquely here there is also an outdoor revolving theatre. Usually with revolving theatres it’s the stage that turns to reveal a new scene. Not here. In the castle gardens theatre it’s the audience who are seated on a giant turn-table. As each act unfolds, the audience are turned to face another part of the garden – another scene. It’s certainly a talking point and one to tick off anyones literary list. For more information about the theatre and the shows it puts on see link – https://www.otacivehlediste.cz/?&lang=en

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Speaking of theatres, there is also a Baroque theatre inside Krumlov Castle with a full set of scenery, props and costumes from the era. The decor inside the castle is a trip back in artistic time dating from the 1400’s in some parts and 16th, 18th and 19th century in others. It’s worth a visit.
https://www.zamek-ceskykrumlov.cz/en/about

The castle courtyard features a very ornate pink coloured tower.

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One of the claims to fame of the castle is that they have always kept bears in the castle moat….yes, bears. It’s a dry moat by the way…the bears aren’t swimming. It’s traditional and draws the tourists, but myself I’m not happy seeing animals in captivity. It was the only downside, for me, about the castle tour.

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On the plus side, just before entering the castle, from the gardens at the top end, there is a small cafe in a little courtyard which sells the cheapest glass of beer in Cesky Krumlov. It’s a locally brewed beer made in a brewery down by the river called Pivovar Eggenberg – which has been perfecting the craft, or should I say the art, of making beer since 1336. After wandering around the gardens on a hot summers day, it was just what the doctor ordered!
The old town its self is no less pretty than the castle. The main square is surrounded by pastel coloured buildings with a fountain in one corner.

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The narrow cobbled streets and alleys lead to an array of arty things to check out including sculptures, galleries and museums such as the one dedicated to artist Egon Schiele – Schiele Art Centrum. http://www.schieleartcentrum.cz/en/exhibitions/1/
Not only is this gallery dedicated to the art of Egon Schiele it is also a museum of his letters, furniture, business cards, photos and geneology of his family. As well as the permanent Schiele exhibits there are also revolving exhibitions of other historic and contemporary art….and naturally there’s the obligatory gallery shop which is well stocked with Schiele memorabilia and art books of all kinds… “please exit through the gift shop”. The reason that there is a Schiele gallery in Cesky Krumlov in the first place, is that his mother was born here, was resident here for many years and Schiele himself lived and worked here on and off. In fact…to connect the dots…. Jorge Pavlovs house features in one of Schiele’s works.

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Although Schiele is lauded here now, in his heyday he was once run out of town, by the equivalent of the town council, as they didn’t appreciate his desire to paint and draw the young girls of the town in the nude. He returned several times afterward as, he claimed, he simply loved the town and wanted to be here. As well as the gallery you can also visit Egon Schiele Atelier – the garden house where Schiele lived and worked. It is once again an artists residence and is leased out as an artists retreat.

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http://www.schieleartcentrum.cz/cs/zahradni-atelier/88/
If photography interests you, I’d definitely recommend a visit to Dum Fotografie (there’s nothing dumb about it ) http://www.dumfotografiekrumlov.cz/en/home/ which is a gallery dedicated to photography – primarily by Czech photographers. When we were there this included several rooms of photos by Jan Saudek who seems to specialise in theatrically staged nude and semi-nude works. https://www.saudek.com/ They also sell books, prints and posters, relating to the exhibits, in their little shop at the entrance of the gallery.
Another must for photographers is Museum Fotoatelier Seidel

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http://www.seidel.cz/cz/museum_fotoatelier_seidel_cesky_krumlov/  The tradition of photography was created in this unique building…which was both home and photo studio of the photographic Seidel family. It is like stepping back in time into a 19th century photo studio complete with all the equipment, vast quantities of unique period photographs, photo postcards and glass negatives. The museum/studio is open year round.

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The entire old town of Cesky Krumlov is a living monument to art, sculpture and architecture. You never know what you’ll find around the next corner.

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Down an alley into a small courtyard we came across some odd looking sculptures….one, a little like a steampunk version of Gollum from the Lord of the Rings movie (but with breasts), sits perched half way up the wall of what turns out to be a quirky looking bar owned by local sculptor Miroslav Páral…. Looking at his work he seems to have a thing about digits – fingers and toes – and indeed about hands and feet in general…and other body parts too. This is reflected in the sculptures dotted around both outside and inside the bar and includes a bench seat held up by huge metal human-like feet at either end.

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You can buy candles here in the shape of fingers. The bar is situated by the riverside and has a row of giant sized red metal chairs facing the river…again art work….and very hot to sit on on a sunny day.
Miroslav Paral (born 1955) is a very accomplished and highly respected sculptor who has exhibited his work all over the world and in 1993 received the Award for Culture of the town of Český Krumlov. http://www.ckrumlov.cz/uk/umelci/t_mirpar.htm and http://www.paral.cz/
This is only a snippet of what’s available in the historic town of Cesky Krumlov…..there is much, much more. Another theatre, live music, more writers retreats….And just one last thing before I finish…Behind the Schiele Art Centrum are a number of almost derelict buildings which are boarded up. Local artists have pasted works of art over the boarded up windows and doors….there’s also a bit of grafitti….it’s mostly interesting stuff and free to view!

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And I didn’t even mention any of the tourist activities such as rafting the river….or the churches, chapels and synagogue….food…drink and delicious icecreams….green solitude of the park

 

I hope you enjoy reading this. I enjoyed writing it as it combined my passions of writing, photography and travel. Until next post…..

My Top 10 – Travel Books.

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I mentioned in an earlier post that I am a big fan of travel books. Travel guides, travelogues and books relating to TV travel shows.

This is my Top 10 list of travelogues currently on my bookshelves. All have been read and some are starting to get pretty old, but remain favourites.

My absolute favourite of all time…..and I’m going to cheat a little on this one. Is Bill Bryson’s “The Complete Notes” – It’s actually two books in one, comprising Notes from a Small Island (about travel in the UK) and Notes from a Big Country (about re-visiting the land of his birth – the USA, after 17 years of living in the UK). I simply love Bryson’s style of writing. He’ll give a half a dozen rather dry facts about a place and then pitch in a one-liner that reduces me to fits of giggles. He’s the sort of person who can get lost anywhere and wears the mantle of the “confused traveler” extremely well.  His travel books are always informative….and humorous ( amusing, funny, entertaining, comic, comical, chucklesome, witty, jocular, light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek, wry, waggish, whimsical, playful – and other such synonyms). If you’ve never read Bryson – give him a go – you don’t know what you’re missing. BUT – word to the wise – stick with his travelogues, some of his other books, I feel, can be a little lacking.

I’m a huge fan of Michael Palin (former member of the Monty Python team) for his many TV travel series and accompanying travel books. Starting with “Around the World in 80 Days” – where he set off on a quest to replicate Phileas Fogg’s journey to travel right around the globe in only 80 days….not using planes. After that he went “Pole to Pole”  and “Full Circle”, before starting to specialize more in specific areas such as “Himalaya” and “Sahara”. The books of the series have all been worthy of space on my “Travel Bookcase”. Again, like Bryson, Palin delivers facts accompanied by wit. He writes well and is a really nice guy….coming from Sheffield (my place of birth) gains him extra points. The books are also well illustrated with beautiful photos – mostly taken by photographer Basil Pao. Actually Basil’s own book “Inside Sahara” is also well worth a look and has extra photos from Palin’s Sahara trip which were deemed worthy of their own book.

Next is a book given to me in 1986 when I backpacked coast to coast across the USA…and back again. Tina Winn who gave us a roof over our heads at Newport Beach, California, was the lady in question and she gave a book to me and a different one to my travel companion Chris. Mine was “Blue Highways” by William Least Heat-Moon, about a journey by van along the blue highways (back roads) that link up all the little towns and settlements across the USA. It was his curiousity to see “the Real America” that took him on the trip of a lifetime….where he meets and mostly brings out the best in people along the way. I don’t have the original copy given to me by Tina (I had to buy a new one) because I swapped it with Chris so I could read his book…..which comes in as my fourth pick.

John Steinbeck – “Travels with Charley” – subtitled “In Search of America”. At the age of sixty, John Steinbeck and his French Poodle “Charley” climbed in to a camper van and took off on a coast to coast and back again adventure. I have read some of Steinbecks novels, but this true story of his travels – giving not only details of the trip and what they saw and did, but also wry observations about what it is to be an American – I think is his best work. And having gone coast to coast and back myself I could relate to much of what’s in the book.

A purchase from a second hand book shop….Pete McCarthy’s hilarious “The Road To McCarthy” – should probably be higher on my list if I’m honest about it. This man is a very funny guy – or i should say WAS, as he died in 2004 after a struggle against cancer. The book takes Pete and us around the world in search of McCarthy – or to be more exact in search of quirky places around the world with odd links to Ireland, the Irish and the McCarthy name. It’s a follow up book to his highly successful “McCarthy’s Bar” – in which Pete McCarthy makes a simple rule – never pass a bar with your name on it. He was an incredibly talented writer and humorist and having only recently discovered his books I was devastated to learn that he’d died. Such a waste of talent – a sad loss……but great books.

Kevin McCloud’s “Grand Tour of Europe” – another book of a TV series (this one on the UK’s Channel 4). The Grand Tour was a rite of passage for the Nobles, minor nobility and upper class wealthy young men which began in the 17th and 18th century. These hedonists cut a swathe across europe, visiting all the fashionable great cities, ruins and architectural marvels…..and partaking in the delights offered by bath houses, bars and brothels along the way. It was an oportunity for these wealthy young men to educate themselves in the world of european art and literature…..and if they didn’t take precautions – to also contract syphilis. McCloud takes us along for the ride and shares snippets of knowledge with us – the audience and readership….some of it carnal – as we visit the culture and history of Europe.

Paul Theroux – “The GreatRailway Bazaar” is my next choice. Unfortunately I only have the Penguin paperback edition, I believe that there is also a large format hard cover book complete with accompanying photos…..quite magnificent photos I hasten to add…by Magnum photographer Steve McCurry. Having said that, Theroux’s text is extremely entertaining, amusing (in places) and informative. He takes us on a four month journey, on a series of trains from London, across Europe, the middle east and Asia, eloquently describing the people and places along the journey. It’s a well crafted book which as well as being a travelogue also discusses subjects such as poverty, ignorance, colonialism and (being an American writer) American Imperialism. It certainly inspires this reader to hop on board and “slow travel” across the continents.

Rolf Potts book “Vagabonding” is a book that I wished I had discovered years ago rather than more recently. It’s a “how to” guide to the art of long-term world travel. Most people, for some reason, see the idea of long-term travel to exotic out of the way lands as being either the thing of dreams, or as requiring oodles of money squirreled away in the bank. Potts shows us that neither of these are true. With common sense advice he walks us through the steps we need to take to make living the dream a reality. And it’s not rocket science!

Hap Cameron’s – “Hap Working the World” – is a book that show’s us just how far a simple thought can take us. In 2003 New Zealander Hap Cameron had an idea that he’d like to live and work on every continent before he turned thirty. Eight years later with all seven continents ticked off, he’s experienced more than most of us will in a lifetime  -including being locked in a jail cell in the USA and almost killed by gangsters in Africa. Of course it’s a “coming of age book” – a book that not only takes us on Hap’s journey of discovery of the seven continents, but also his journey of self discovery and of meeting the girl of his dreams. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and by the end I really did care what happened to Hap. It’s fun and it’s an adventure.

For my final choice – it’s more of a choice of writer rather than of a specific book. I’ve read a few of Christina Dodwell‘s books….starting with “An Explorer’s Handbook”. She is one impressive woman. I first came to know of her on a TV series called River Journeys where she tackled the white water of Papua New Guinea’s Sepik River….and allowed tribesmen to cut the diamond shaped pattern of the skin of the crocodile into her arm – to bring her good luck and protection. She puts the intrepid into Intrepid Explorer. She spent 3 years, traveling twenty thousand miles in Africa – by any means including horse, elephant and camel plus 7 weeks in a dug out canoe on the Congo river. Any of her books are a thrill to read. Maybe her first book “Travels with Fortune” about that African adventure would be the one to start with.

That complete’s my Top Ten. It was a difficult choice and I’ve tried to pick a cross section of the books that I hold dear. There were a few others that could easily have replaced others listed above…..like I said, it was a hard choice.

Just as a P.S. and because I feel bad about missing him off my list…..If you’re a Francophile, I recommend any of John Baxter’s books about Paris. Look him up on line.