Posts Tagged ‘Architecture’

So often when I’ve been thinking about something, the universe seems to conspire and that “something” crops up again in another context.

I had been bothered by the realisation that so much  great art and architecture has come at the expense or in the face of great poverty. Not long ago I started reading a biography of Michaelangelo.  He grew up in Florence where the Renaissance was born. Michaelangelo mixed with the scholars, painters, poets and philosophers of the time and admired and respected Lorenzo de’Medici (Lorenzo the Maginificent, the wealthy and influential “ruler” of Florence) who encouraged them. At the same time a Dominican friar, Savonarola, was vehemently preaching against the excesses of Florence and Rome.

The biographer, Bruno Nardini, describes the tension Michaelangelo felt. “As an artist he had no doubts. Art could only be nourished by intelligence and beauty, it could only unfold and flower around the Magnicent (Lorenzo). But as a Christian for whom life is only a moment of trial, he was forced to admit that Savonarola was right, that he was proclaiming against the vanity of all, the sinfulness of any idea that did not lead back to Christ.”

Nardini suggests that Michaelangelo, while continuing to study sculpture, also nurtured his soul through the scriptures and so was able to bridge the beauty of art, and the Christian message.

It had not occurred to me that the gifted creators of superb art might have to reconcile the excesses of their art with their spiritual beliefs.

My awareness of their potential dilemma makes me appreciate their talent and genius all the more.


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Much European art, particularly from earlier centuries, has been created at the behest of the rich and powerful often as propaganda. This raises the question, are we complicit in their manipulations when we admire and glorify these works of art?

Louis fourteenth built his superb palace at Versailles, with the great Hall of Mirrors, the Grand Canal, and the Neptune Statue. He built Triannon for he and his mistress to live in. Marie Antoinette built petit Triannon to was escape the pressures of officialdom, and the hamlet of Austrian style homes, so her children could experience “normal” life, and to assuage her homesickness. These whims were created while the people were starving. Yet we admire the extraordinarily beautiful architecture and the art within without a thought for the historical context, at least not in terms of the ordinary people.

Was it wrong to build these extravagances while the people starved? Would the world be poorer now if we didn’t have the palace of Versailles?

Catherine de Medici had a retrospective of her life created by the great Dutch artist, Rubens. It consists of twenty four huge paintings. It is possibly Ruben’s finest work. Yet Catherine de Medici was guilty of many crimes while she was regent of France. Does this is any way nullify our enjoyment of Ruben’s work? For me it doesn’t. In a perverse way it heightens my appreciation of the allegorical works, and adds another dimension to it. Does that mean I condone her actions?

Florence is a beautiful city, mostly because of the palaces and the buildings. Much of this building took place at the end of the fifteenth century. The government encouraged building by giving tax exemptions for forty years. So who paid the taxes? Probably the poor, who could not afford to build. So the rich were standing on the shoulders of the poor, who were staggering under the weight of their greed. Do we ever stop to think how this great architecture was paid for? How Michaelangelo’s genius work was paid for?

Venice was an egalitarian state at that time. Egalitarian for the rich and noble. The few thousand rich men met to make decisions in the Palace of the Doge. The Doge did not rule, he was a figurehead for these decision makers. But there was no equality for the workers. Who paid for the magnificent palace with it’s superb artwork by Titian, Tintoretto and Veronaze?

The superb art in the churches in both Florence and Venice usually includes figures of the patrons amongst the saints, usually showing the saints’ approval of them. Are we bothered by this propaganda, aimed at the workers?

There is certainly an amorality that can be disturbing. I don’t believe that great art should be nurtured and admired at any cost. But I do believe that knowing the historical context of this great work adds a dimension that increases my appreciation of it. I admire those geniuses.

But let’s not forget the little people.

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More than a week after returning from Europe I still feel as if I’ve lost something, but I’m not sure what.

Perhaps it’s the stimulation of doing something new and interesting every day. Perhaps it’s the company 24/7 of someone who shares my new interests in art history and architecture, who enables me to explore places that I’d otherwise be excluded from, and who is happy to match my pace, fast or slow.

It’s one thing to be aware of fabulous art and colourful history, but another to be immersed in it. To walk into a church not knowing what marvelous artwork I’ll find is to be filled with a sense of anticipation. To walk into a museum knowing I’ll see a famous work of art is to be filled with a sense of excitement. To see an eleventh century frieze i’ve been told i’ll find in a museum i’ve never heard of is to be filled with amazement at its unexpected beauty. To experience a Michaelangelo statue is to fill my senses … To see a Titian or Veronaze or Tintoretto in situ, and know that THIS is the only place I’ll ever see it is to be filled with awe. To have the audacity to rotate a Rodin statue on its plinth is to be filled with joy. To share these breathtaking moments with someone who is equally blown away is priceless.

I’ve combined the mundane with the famed … Had a picnic on the grass in front of the Eiffel Tower as the sun sets and watched the light show begin … People watched beside the Trevi Fountain … Had lunch on the steps of Sacre Coeur looking out across Paris … Bought a scarf from a street hawker in anticipation of a cool evening when we ‘ve decided to watch the magic fountain … Amused taxi drivers with our broken phrases in German, Italian, French, Spanish …

It’s been an experience, not only filled with wonder and awe and fun, but so much learning. Sometimes my head hurt with the amount of history and information I was desperate to process.

So what now?

I can plan weekends away with Peter so we can have more good times together; I can plan how to afford the time and costs of getting back to Europe, hungry for more art and history; I can learn to speak French because that’s somewhere we definitely want to explore more of; I can read more about what we have seen – my daughter has lent me book “Michaelangelo” and its opening pages take me straight to sixteenth century Florence.

We live in a world that has been shaped by the people and events that have gone before us. Learning something of these is almost an overwhelming task. I have touched on just a tiny portion of just one culture.

It’s like nibbling at a giant chocolate cake. Eat too much and I’ll be gorged, have too little and I’ll be unsatisfied, hungry for more. Right now, that’s where I am, unsatisfied. I can’t have it all, but I can have a little more!

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Europe Travel Log – Barcelona

Tuesday 27 September

Our hotel is in the gothic district, next to Las Ramblas. It’s vibrant and animated. It’s quirky and I don’t think we’ll be out late at night. I think it could be a little seedy later on … For now, it’s fun.

It’s still warm at 7.30pm when we leave our hotel for the markets about three hundred metres away. We take a diversion through the Placa Reial, a ninetenth century square with a fountain in the centre. Around the edges are cafes and diners, and there are buskers.

But we’re headed for the Mercat de la Boqueria, a fresh food market with everything from fromtages (sliced so thinly), to amazing fruit and vegetables. We are dining on fresh raspberries and strawberries, as well as the usual. And it all costs a pittance.

On our way back we see the usual beggars (they are everywhere we’ve been) as well as homeless people dossing down in doorways and it’s barely 8.30. There is such a mix of shops and people around our hotel it’s hard to know what to make of the area. There’s MacDonalds and KFC on the corner, Subway and Starbucks not far away, as well as swanky cafes. There are pawn brokers and tacky souvenir shops, as well as up-market jewelry and clothing stores. All still open. It’s interesting.

Wednesday 28 September

Our first stop has to be at Sagrada Familia.

The subway system seems straightforward, so we are using public transport rather than the hop on, hop off bus, recommended by the hotelier. Apart from faulty gates and faulty faults reporter, the metro is great.

We come out of the metro, pass the queue (disabled queue jumping freebie again), and, wham, there it is! The entrance to Sagrada Familia is breathtaking. This is the passion facade, with sculptures of Christ’s carrying of the cross, death, and resurrection. The sculptures are somewhat abstract, but the look of pain is vividly etched in my mind. It is hard to move on from these remarkable carvings, so moving and so wonderful.

Gaudi said that this was an opportunity to demonstrate faith through art. This reminds me of the Notre Dame cathedral we visited in Bordeaux. I had been impressed that a “frere” had completed all the paintings in the side chapels. No pride or power, simply an act of worship through art.

Gaudi’s commitment to art is evident in his unique architecture, a style that runs a thin line between wacky and genius.

Inside the Sagrada Familia is fantastic. The vaults rise nearly fifty metres. There is light everywhere. Columns that resemble huge tree trunks seem to disappear upwards. The rows of tiles, resembling flowers in the ceiling, are alight, and walls seem to be on fire with light shining through the stained glass windows.

Entering from the side (the main door will be below the glory facade, yet to be completed), Jesus on the cross seems to be suspended under a canopy or carousel of orange and yellow lights.

I sit in the nave, looking toward the altar. From the altar, to the crucifix, to the wall behind and the ceiling above seems as one, an illusion of light. The ceiling curves above me. Gaudi has built parabola to maximise the acoustics. There is room for a choir of 1000. The basilica will have room for 8000 worshippers. The scales are enormous but do not seem so.

Gaudi said “The intimacy combined with the spaciousness is that of the forest, which will be the interior of the church.” I remember that Gaudi began working on the church in the early 1880s. His concept is extraordinary for the time, and is even more relevant now in the context of world ecology.

His alignment of the church to capture the sunlight at different times of the day and at different times of the year was revolutionary at a time when architects of churches still struggled with the technical difficulties of letting light in.

It is impossible to overlook the more spiritual and fundamental symbolism of the placement of the facades, with the passion facade opposite the nativity facade. Other symbols on the outside are sculptures representing the Eucharist, the bread and wine.

But, overwhelmingly, it is the lightness of this vast structure that I remember.

I am truly fortunate to be able to witness the building of a true temple, at a time when the only temples that are being built are temples to gammon … casinos and shopping malls. This basilica is gift to generations to come.

Peter takes the lift to the nativity tower. For “safety reasons” I cannot. He takes photos of what he sees. The external sculptures symbolizing the Eucharist are amazing.

Now we are on a Gaudi roll. We hope to reach Parc Geull but we understand that once we get off the metro there is a long walk, much of it up a steep hill. We decide to try it. I use the wheelchair but have my crutches too.

Peter pushes me most of the way, I walk part way.

Parc Guell is a complete surprise! The two houses at the entry, and the monumental staircase at first glance look like part of an amusement arcade. The weird shapes, curves, mosaics, colours all look like something out of fairyland.

My first reaction is to think “from sacred to spoof”

However, the mosaics are superb, the buildings and features, works of art. The shapes that Gaudi has covered in mosaics are absolutely fantastic, as in fantasy and fabulous. I look closely at the mosaics. They are perfect in their detail.

Two buildings flank the entry. They seem to curve and sway. The mosaic patterns glisten in the sun. They lead to the monumental staicase, guarded by a dragon made of mosaics, and a waterfall. At the top of the staicase is a covered area. This is consists of a mosaic covered roof suspended on tree like columns. Above this is the Nature Square, edged in mosaics. Unfortunately, these areas are full of hawkers selling tacky souvenirs. I suspect they are not meant to be there because later on we see some of them running with their wares tied in bundles. We have seen illegal street hawkers run like this when the police arrive.

The really brilliant part for me is the area where a viaduct winds around the hill. Columns made of huge stones put together in mosaics and lattices support a ramp that takes us through a wonderful park of indigenous trees. It is quiet and peaceful. We walk near the top and see Casa Trias, which has many of Gaudi’s architectural features. There are magnificent views over Barcelona. We can see the towers of Sagrada Familia and the cranes around it way, way in the distance. Further still is the sea.

Walking down we see Casa Musee Gaudi which also has mosaics and glazed tiles.

This has been a wonderful day. First in the morning seeing Sagrada Familia, then this afternoon seeing Parc Guell. We would like to come back to the park and spend more time looking at Gaudi’s stone walls and infrastructures, and wandering through the trees.

Still, we have time for more Gaudi, so we take the metro and visit the Block of Discord. Here we see Casa Mila at 92 Placa de Gracia, and Casa Batilo at number 43. Both are fantastical buildings by Gaudi. By now I’m really enjoying his architecture. The other buildings on the street that were designed around the same time are much more formal, much less fun! Except for two, one at number 35, Casa Lleo Morera, and one next to Casa Batilo, Casa Amatller designed by Josep Puig i Cadafalch 1898 – 1900. They have similar elements to those of Gaudi’s funhouses, with painted patterns, curving shapes, stained glass in unexpected places and in unusual forms. Casa Amatller is being restored by a Barcelona Cultura and shows the value now placed on these amazing buildings. Would I like to live in one? I don’t think so. Would I like architecture like this in my city? Of course, in the right context. They are not just buildings, but works of art, especially those of Gaudi, and need to be placed where they let your heart sing, and fill you with joy.

Now it’s back to the markets for more fresh food. I see a young woman taking a photo of a fresh lobster sitting on ice. I’m tempted to take photos too. The food here, and its presentation, and the hundreds of stalls are amazing!

Thursday 29 September

Opposite our hotel is a church. We can only see the front facade because there are buildings on either side and it opens directly on to the street, which is unusual. Churches usually front onto a square. I am curious to know what it looks like inside because the gothic quarter has always been a very poor area, a ghetto even.

The exterior of St Jaume is not gothic and it has a squared Romanesque bell tower. The inside is of simple construction, stone with reasonably low ribbed vaults.

The decoration within the church is far from simple. Many of the statues are wearing clothes. In the pieta chapel, Mary is wearing full Spanish mourning of what I think is from the nineteenth century – full black dress with mantilla and comb. I suppose there is little difference between dressing Mary in this way than dressing her in Rennaisance clothes. Locked up in a rear chapel is a very ornate cart used for processions. It is covered in garlands of brightly clouded flowers and cloths.

The colour and expansive, loud decorations reflect a Spanish culture that celebrates the noisy and the brash. I hope that La Sagrada Familia is not decorated in the same way – just kidding. Good art and design can walk the fine line between bizarre and inspired. Gaudi did exactly that.

It’s fun walking/wheeling through the narrow alleys that are part of the character of the Gothic Quarter. In some lanes there is barely room to walk two abreast. The shops, and apartments above them, open directly on to the pathway. At times something catches your eye as the lane ends sharply or opens onto a square.

We then see the squared off sides of a church and the bell tower. The Basilica de Maria del Pi, probably built in the late seventeenth century, is an attractive looking Romanesque style church on the outside. Inside it is gloomy and gives me the heeby jeebies. Despite having a Romanesque exterior, inside there are high ribbed vaults. The keystones are elaborate. There is a bare wall behind the altar and has only a statue of Mary where the crucifix would normally be, but under this a cross is carved into a wooden door. Above the bare wall are lovely tall stained glass windows and above where the organ would normally be is a very nice stained glass rose window. Although these walls are bare there are many side chapels all ornately decorated with many statues, some of which are clothed. The side chapels are filthy. One chapel has a fully clothed statue of what appears to be Mary laid out as if dead. If it’s Mary, it’s heresy given that the Church teaches that she was assumed to heaven without dying. Whatever, I can’t get out of there fast enough. Peter tells me he feels the same.

We continue exploring the gothic quarter. We come across a fenced area where kids are playing a fierce game that looks like a modified form of soccer. A plaque nearby tells us that the wall against which they are kicking the ball is an ancient Roman wall built around the fourth century. Much of this area was built on by the Romans. Barcelona was an important trading port on the Mediterranean, and still is, so it makes sense that there would be Roman remains.

We look for the “new” cathedral. This is the Barcelona Cathedral, or the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia. It is called the new cathedral because, although it is very old, built in the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, it was built on the site of a (second) Romanesque church, a chapel built in 1058. All that remains of this chapel is a wall that forms part of the cathedral wall and is a sepulchre for the wealthy man who built the chapel. The site faces what would have been the Roman Forum.

Extensive renovations are underway, but we can walk around the cathedral and see it’s many features. It is very ornate. The keystones, high in the vaults, have elaborate scenes on them, something I have not seen before, and many are painted. The choir stalls are the most decorative and ornate I have seen. In front of the high altar is a wide, big opening and stairs down to a crypt … Surely a bit gruesome to have to look at every time you go to Mass!

There is a lift and steps that go to the roof of the cathedral. Unlike at Sagrada Familia, there are no concerns for my safety, despite it being a fairly open construction site up there! The view over Barcelona is fantastic, from the port to the hills. Everywhere there are towers and spires of churches. Barcelona must have the highest number of churches per capita of any city!

We leave the cathedral so we can visit the Picasso Museum which apparently has more than three thousand works by Picasso. On the way, opposite the Jaume 1 metro station, are Roman walls which formed part of Barcelona’s fortifications and city wall. Part of the original Roman building was adapted for use as a chapel and still stands.

The Picasso museum is down a maze of alleyways and occupies what was once a palace. The area does not look very palatial!

Before looking at the permanent exhibition we want to see the temporary showing of Picasso’s work when he first visited Paris, and the influence and inspiration he took from the masters at the time – van Gogh, Toulouse Loutrec, Matisse, Gaugin. Beside Picasso’s work, is a painting that may have inspired him. Here I see the best Toulouse Leutrec paintings I have ever seen! Van Gogh’s pieta is painted with his vivid colours and strong brush strokes. It is mainly in blues and yellow, but within each colour there are myriads of other colours. It does not move me in the way that Michaelangelo’s pieta moved me, but it is a glorious, memorable painting. I love it. The portrait of the Camille, the son of his landlord(?) is similarly striking.

I have never seen any of Picasso’s early work, not even in print. At fourteen he painted spectacular portraits. His much later work, juxtaposition and cubism are similarly impressive. After having seen so much of his masters’ works I’m in overload and tired.

So it’s off to the beach to re-energize! We go to the beach closest to the city, not far from the old port. It’s windy and 5pm, but the temperature is supposed to still be 30degrees. It feels more like 23 or 24 …. But who can complain! There are still sunbathers and people racing by on surf kites.

On the way back to our hotel we get off the metro near the Block of Discord so we can go to the top of Gaudi’s La Pedrera at sunset. The lift goes up to the top, and when I step out on to the roof I am totally floored. It is Mary Poppins magic! There soft serve ice creams rosy in the setting sun, white mosaic shapes, clay shapes, all sorts of curves and edges. It is a playground! Peter tells me to step over a ledge and not to look up until I am all the way through … I look up … Sagrada Familia is outlined in a white mosaic arch. It is truly magical. Gaudi could not have planned it, surely? We stay on the roof until an attendant tells us it is almost time to close and we should make a point of seeing an apartment that Gaudi designed and has been preserved.

It is a sobering reminder of the period in which Gaudi was working. Not now, not recently, but a century ago when mores and technology and design was so very different. I look to the ceilings to try and work out the shape of a room, but the parabolic curves make this impossible. There is one master bedroom, one child’s bedroom, one bedroom for the maid, and a kitchen that would have had all the mod cons of the time, but … It really brings home how innovative Gaudi was. And also how remarkable Barcelona is to have accepted his ideas for a grand cathedral. This apartment also makes Sagrada Familia seem all the more remarkable. His ideas and concepts of design incorporating nature are genius. So too, is Parc Guell put into context. It failed as a building development, but as a design that brings nature, art and architecture together it is unforgettable.

Once again, I am truly fortunate to have been able to see these things for myself, with Peter’s help.

Friday 30 September

After so many busy days, and such an outstanding evening on Thursday, we want to take it easy. So we take the metro, then the funicular, then the cable car up to the top of Castel Montjuic, Barcelona’s fortress. It has a 360 degree panoramic view over Barcelona, from the ocean to the hills. Enemies could not possibly advance without being seen.Cannon from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are still in place. Every part of the buildings are intact, although the rooms seem to be used for conferences. We walk along the ramparts. It’s easy to imagine the soldiers on the parade ground, or in their lookout positions, or defense positions.

We had spoken to an Australian couple yesterday at breakfast and they recommended seeing the National Museum of Cataluyan Art. Apparently there are outstanding examples of chuch friezes from the eleventh century.

We take the cable car back down. The views are great. They were great views on the way up too, but the morning haze has gone, and the angle of the gondola means we get a better view of the fortress as we leave, and of the NMAC which is an impressive domed building.

Entrance to the museum is again free for us! Barcelona is an extremely accessible city, and although the museum is an old building with limited lift access, stair climbers have been added everywhere.

We follow the museum guide and begin looking at the eleventh and twelfth century works. The friezes and sculptures have been removed from a few churches in the Pyrenees which have been isolated for centuries, and, in the early twentieth century were in danger of being pillaged. Because of the isolation the friezes are in astonishing condition. They are vibrant, some are complete or almost complete. They have been assembled in the way they had been found, ie in side chapels and as altars. The figures are beautifully proportioned, have perspective, depth, emotion … They are forceful works of art.

Columns and tops of columns had also been rescued. There is a beautiful carving in marble of a flower. It looks modern, but was done in the third century.

We spend hours here, expecting to race through the gothic exhibition, and perhaps spend a little time looking at modern art.

The medieval work is not like any work we have seen from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in Italy or France. The Byzantine influence is apparent (Barcelona is a trading port) but the work is carved on wood, then painted. The paint is vibrant and the figures natural, not flat as in the Italian gothic work. It is wonderful.

Apparently the Catalunyans place more emphasis on sculpture. This is why so much work is carved on wood, and why there are many statues. One stands out above all others, and could easily be favorably compared with work by Michaelangelo (at least by me … Haha). That is “head of Christ” attributed to Cascalls. It is superb, and is a different sculpture from every angle. I don’t want to leave it. Once gone, I’ll only be able to see it in my mind and in photo …

I am keen to see the fifteenth and sixteenth century work. This was the renaissance period in Italy. One artist from the fifteenth century stands out – Dalmau. The face of the “Virgin of the Councellors” could be Mona Lisa, but better! I had forgotten about El Greco. There are some superb paintings by him. The Italians didn’t have all the genius at the time, even though they perhaps got all the glory!

Nothing else really impresses, except for a Rubens! It must be one of his best!

I find an artist I have never heard of, and immediately admire, in the works from the eighteenth century … Melendez. It’s simple, still life, bowls of fruit, but rich and wonderful.

Then from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there are some real treasures. I cannot understand why these artists have not received more acclaim. Ramon Casas has a style similar to Toulouse-Letrec and his work has movement and power with just a few strokes. I am going to frame a small print of one that I like particularly. Two men, one the arist, on a bike. It is funny as well as clever.

Then I see some works that just make my heart sing. I don’t know why. They are dark. A figure or a feature or a background piece gradually takes form. They give me goosebumps. The artist is Nonell.

A sculpture “Desolation” is exactly that. I walk around and around it. It’s fantastic. The artist is Josep Llimona.

These Spanish artists need better PR. Picasso may be a genius, but he is a genius in one way, these other artists in other ways. Picasso may have inspired a whole new way of painting but that shouldn’t make the work if his contemporaries any less. Surely you don’t have to be an extreme groundbreaker to be noticed? But then it seems you do, now especially, with weird installations that get shown in world expos …..

There is a magnificent auditorium in the centre of the museum. It is oval with seats rising from a central oval. No idea what it would be used for, but it looks good! Peter says it looks like a sports stadium but how do you explain the cathedral like organ at one end?

Friezes painted under the domes are accompanied by stained glass and we spend time looking up!

We’ve been in the museum for five hours! It’s about to close. There’s a hawker selling scarves, I buy one, and an artist selling water colours. I buy two small pen and washes in blue-black ink. One is of Sagrada Familia, the other, of the Gothic Quarter (surprisingly recognizable).

We’re going to watch the magic fountain display that happens in front of the museum at 9pm every night. It’s about 7 so we head to the shopping centre in front of the fountain … It’s the old bull ring, the Barcelona Arena. Bullfighters would roll in their graves!

We’re going to picnic while we wait for the light show.

Wow! What a show. It’s like the fireworks over Wellington harbor at Guy Fawkes, only it’s water! And you can get a lot closer! It really is magic and it’s hard to leave.

Saturday 1 October

Today we really, really, really are going to go slow …

We know that there are benches and quiet spots at Parc Guell so we head there. But instead of heading straight to a picnic spot, we can’t help ourselves, we walk up to the Hill of Three Crosses. It’s obvious symbolism is Calvary. There’s a busker playing blues on a steel guitar at the base. It seems incongruous.

I climb the narrow steps. People must think I’m crazy, especially when to come down I have to drop onto my bottom to shuffle down the first few steps til I can stand up using the handrail. Gasps! Perhaps they think I’ve been evangelized and I’m on my knees! Perhaps they think I’m going to topple over the side! Perhaps they are shocked! Anyway, I come down no trouble and after a vain search for Peter’s coffee, we finally sit down.

There’s a busker here who’s quite good. (Barcelona must have the worst buskers ever. They seem to always use amplifiers and are very loud and not very good. We usually try to rush past them.) We even put some euros in his cap on the ground. He says he is from Brazil, has been playing in Barcelona for a few months and is leaving for Switzerland. The life of a busker!

It’s 5pm, and still hot, but the shadows are getting longer. I like Barcelona in the evening.

We start making our way down the hill toward the exit. I suggest that we walk down toward the Nature Square and the Monumental Staircase. Instead of going down the staircase we go down a long winding path. Peter is pushing my wheelchair and I am walking. We come to a path with rock columns on one side and a curved parabolic wave of rocks that forms the roof and the other side. I am definitely walking through this! The mathematics that must have been used to engineer this rock formation is mind boggling. The wave continues curving around the hill. Every column is different in some detail. The form of the columns changes until they resemble elongated screws. The rock formations look like part of the hill, as if they are as old as the hill itself. Yet they also look like a wonderful work of art. They also look like a feat of engineering. The viaduct is a remarkable blend of nature and design. Whichever way you look at it, however you see it, this is something of great beauty.

This is a fabulous way of leaving Parc Guell. It has taken an hour and a half to come down the hill, soaking up everything we see, stopping to admire and appreciate Gaudi’s vision of nature.

The sunsets in Barcelona seem to last forever, and are casting a rosy golden glow over everything. The golden light on the rocks, and on the fairyland buildings at the exit is a magical way of saying goodbye.

Sunday 2 October

We are lying on Bogatell beach, about twenty minutes by metro out of central Barcelona.

The water is a clear bright blue, the sand golden. The sun is warm and the sky cloudless.

There are several beaches next to each other. This is the longest at about six hundred metres. We arrive at about 11am. There are two or three dozen people lying on the sand along the water line.

Peter is excited to swim in the Meditteranean. I will paddle later.

I am not surprised to see topless women swimming and sunbathing. I am surprised that they are all middle-aged or “senior”!

By midday the beach is crowded. We use the wheelchair and crutches to spread out. People keep arriving, squeezing in where there is no space … Still, it’s warm and it’s Barcelona, and it’s the Mediterranean!

Starting exactly at noon we are treated to an airshow! Seven fighter jets fly in formations that leave the crowd gasping and clapping. The jets use vapour trails to emphasise their expertise. We are treated to a finale where five jets, in upward formation, each leave five flares bursting into stars. Magic!

Two prop engine planes drop three parachutists who glide in synchronised movements.

A stunt plane does loops and tricks.

The display continues. A parachutist descends holding the Barcelona flag.

The jets are back, this time leaving vapour trails of red, blue and white. They make shapes, a heart with an arrow through it. They corkscrew, blending red and blue to make purple. More formation flying using the colours to maximum effect. It’s clever!

Four biplanes fly over then a world war two vintage fighter plane …

A 737 flies over, so low it looks as if it will fall into the sea. Peter says it’s flying at a height of less than two hundred metres. It dips its wings to salute then flies away.

Something incredibly loud flies over. Peter says that it is flying at just below the speed of sound. It corkscrews, flies upside down, then seems to fly at an angle of forty five degrees. Peter says it is flying just above stall speed. It corkscrews upwards and releases flares that again burst into clusters of stars.

There is more precision flying in formation. More military planes. A pair of biplanes flies over. Someone is standing on the top of each. The planes loop.

An amphibious plane releases a spray of water into the sea, then descends, skimming the surface to collect more water and again sprays it back over the sea.

Military planes in formation release red and yellow vapors. Spain’s colours. The crowd cheers.

The show continues all afternoon. Peter gets a coffee. Finally, he says he gets a decent espresso. Barcelona just doesn’t do decent coffee, he says.

It’s time to read or sleep or both. The electronic sign that reports water temperature says that the water temperature is 24 degrees! I love Summer!

Before we leave I walk to the edge of where the sand suddenly drops steeply into the sea. I walk a few steps down and wait for a surge of water to cover my feet and calves. The water is so warm. It’s not exactly paddling, but for a few seconds I am in the Mediterranean Sea!

Monday 3 October

Peter needs a new pair of shoes. In the last six weeks not only have we walked/wheeled a lot, but the roads and paths have been dusty.

We walk up Las Ramblas toward Place de Catylunya where we can catch the metro. The stalls here are different from the ones near our hotel. I find a Gaudi mug that curves and twists like the walls of his buildings. I buy it.

We also pass a church, Bethlehem, built in 1643. It is different from other churches we have seen. First, it is Romanesque, not gothic, so favoured in Barcelona. Mostly, it is different because the crucifix stands to one side of a “canopied” altar, and above the altar, where the crucifix would normally be, is a statue of Mary holding baby Jesus. Most of the side chapels are in similar ways devoted to Mary and Jesus. The front door has the nativity scene carved in it.

Initially I had thought the building to be a synagogue because it seems that a star of David sits on top of it. I realise now that this is the star of Bethlehem. Barcelona does things its own way!

We find Peter’s new shoes in the Bullfighting arena! Now simply called The Arenas, this shopping mall opened six months ago.

Across the road is “Tapa Tapa”. We can’t come to Barcelona without trying tapas. There something like forty five choices. We stick to a selection. The experience is great … the food a little tasteless …

Place d’Espanya must be one of the busiest roundabouts in Barcelona (it has seven lanes!) yet less than a hundred metres away is a large park with palms and plenty of shade. The sound of bright green parrakeets can be heard over the traffic noise, baffled by the palms.

It’s the Joan Miro park for multi sports. There are areas for playing basketball, table tennis, running, walking dogs, just sitting, and a children’s playground … There’s probably more.

We’re sitting under bourganvillia that trails over stone columns. It’s nice. Mostly the ground is sand. I suppose Barcelona is too dry for grass. I do miss being able to sit or lie on the grass. Still, we’re sitting in the shade, in a park, in Barcelona!

The park is close to the Arenas, the shopping centre. There is also a lift there that takes people to the top for a panoramic view. With nothing better to do, we head there. The views are really interesting. They give us yet another perspective of Barcelona, especially where the fortress, the NMAC and Sagrada Familia and the other churches are in respect to each other.

We head back to Las Ramblas to explore the port end. We pass the artists, some drawing portraits and characatures, some selling original art, but most selling mass produced art they pass off as original.

The Christopher Colombus statue and column at the end is impressive. The port looks interesting and if we have time we will return tomorrow morning before we leave Barcelona … How sad that sounds …

Tuesday 4 October

We have found Amy’s lobster in Barcelona!

But to begin at the beginning … Our flight is not until late afternoon so after we check out we walk down Las Ramblas toward the port. The artists are out again, but an artist we have not seen before is sitting at his table painting. His art is similar to the mass produced pieces we have seen, however, his is clearly original. He tells us that he only comes to Las Ramblas on Sundays and Tuesdays, that he lives in Costa Brava, and that he has been selling his art here for twenty five years. He shows us photos of work he has sold over the years, and shows us a book of Picasso’s art that he uses for inspiration. I like his work very much and one piece in particular. It speaks to me of this vibrant, surprising, loud, energetic, in your face city. It is relatively expensive but I buy it. Peter likes it too, so despite it being quite large, we will fit it in our luggage … by hook or by crook. If space wasn’t a problem, I’d be tempted to buy more. I’ve no idea where we’ll hang it. I don’t really care. Just like we will squeeeeeze it into our luggage, we will squeeeeze it onto our walls. If art makes your heart sing …

We continue down to the Port Vell, cross the suspended bridge (it’s very cool to look at!) see two statues bobbing at either end of the lagoon (they’re also very cool to look at!), watch gazillions of fish, big fish, swim near the surface, then we head to the shops so Peter can get a coffee. On the way I see a shop called “lefties”, draw Peter’s attention to it, thinking that perhaps it has the same meaning as in English. But no, it’s a women’s clothing store! We’re outside again only one cardigan later (how restrained of me – actually I want to get back out into the sun … in a few days I’ll be back in winter).

We sit on a bench near the water and eat lunch, watching statue number two sway in the breeze. I want to walk for a while, we’re going to be sitting on planes and in airports for a long time. We continue walking around the edge of the water. By now we’ve walked three sides of a rectangle and we’re about three hundred metres from the bottom of Las Ramblas where we started. And then we see it! Well, the back of it … I’m so excited … I KNOW this is Amy’s lobster. And sure enough, after walking round the front of it I see the silly face on the lobster and I’m certain. (Ten euros if I’m wrong! I have a photo to compare it with.)

It may sound silly to get excited about something like this, but every time I see a monument or landmark that Amy or Michael has admired, or found funny, or absurd, or informative, or entertaining, or useful, I feel that I am sharing something. And I feel privileged to be sharing it. So thanks to both of you. And perhaps one day, we can tell you about places that might interest you.

I’m sure that every one of us has formed a different picture of a city or place. And none will draw more varying opinions than Barcelona.

For me, Barcelona is loud, colourful, animated and fun. The people are noisy and friendly. Their buildings are colourful, often painted with patterns. They do things in their own way. Architecture and churches are a great way of gaining an insight to the community’s psyche. In Barcelona, the churches are decorated ostentatiously and unselfconsciously way over the top. No idea seems too way out. They embrace Gaudi’s outrageous buildings. I love them too.

When I think of Barcelona I now think of Gaudi. Not just the Sagrada Familia, but his crazy buildings that are wondrous, creative works of art. Especially I think of his Parc Guell that combines wild, magical architecture with art and with nature.

Like Parc Guell, the roof top of La Pedrera, and the alleyways of the Gothic Quarter, in Barcelona there is a surprise round every corner. Going to the beach or down to the port is a relief from the intensity of experiences Barcelona offers just walking through her streets.

But I shan’t miss this vibrancy because I have a small piece of it to hang on my wall!

Notes On Accessibilty

Barcelona is very wheelchair friendly.

The metro is easy to access with lifts to most stations (avoid Place d’Espanya, there are no lifts). All trains have a wheelchair accessible carriage, it’s the first carriage. The station has a ramp at the end so the carriage can be accessed. It’s a little steep, and help to push up may be needed. Everything is well signposted – the lifts can be easily found both above and below ground.

I didn’t use buses, but I noticed that they all have symbols for wheelchair access.

As in France and Italy entry to national galleries and museums is free for the disabled person and guest. There are lifts and stairclimbers for access everywhere.

Beaches have ramps and boardwalks. There are special wheelchairs available to take those with reduced mobility into the water

Roads in central Barcelona have smooth kerb crossings that can be negotiated using momentum.

Public toilets have facilities for the disabled. If they are locked, either an attendant is nearby to unlock them or there are reliable instructions for finding the key holder.

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Sunday 25 September

Our hotel is fantastic! Limestone walls, wooden floors and our own balcony. Great location, near the vinotique (and also St Andre cathedral, the grand homme, and the river). It’s beside the Place Gambetta where numerous people were beheaded after the revolution. Now it’s mostly cafes gouging your pocket. It’s also near Cours de L’Intendance a wide pedestrian area with posh shops and beautiful old buildings.

It’s Sunday, so in some symbolic gesture we head to St Andre first. It’s facade is quite like that of Notre Dame, very gothic. It was built mostly in the thirteenth and fourteenth century. I am expecting a dark interior. Wow! Light is streaming in through the west windows onto the high, very high, vaulted ceilings, and shining on the most amazing organ that stretches across the entire width of the church. Some of the vaults have really complicated ribs, and some of the keystones are almost filigree, the most complicated I have seen. The rose windows and other stained glass are nice, what is remarkable is their age. There are no side chapels off the nave, but there are several off the high altar. The most rear chapel would originally have been the high altar where the priest said mass unseen. The choir stalls are beautiful. They are carved and each one sits in a stone arch. But it is the light that amazes me, and the light on the high vaults that I keep coming back to. They are magnificent. Some are made of a light colored stone, possibly limestone, some are of brown stone, and some are made of green and grey bricks.

Churches are supposed to be places of serenity and calm. But when I walk into this church I am excited. I love the structure and design. It may be a church, but it is also a very ancient building constructed by master craftsmen at a time when New Zealand was still unpopulated. Stirring stuff.

On the way down to the river we stop at a boulangerie. I spot a pastry basket with raspberries in it. It has my name on it – and Peter’s too, I can share! Delicious isn’t a strong enough word to describe this taste sensation of sweet and sharp. Yum.

The river is dirty, but even so, it is pleasant wheeling/walking along the wide boulevard next to it. We can see the Pont de Pierre, with its many arches, built in 1818 and still being used. There are gardens too. Everyone is out for a Sunday afternoon stroll. It’s hot. When we were in the taxi at 3.30pm the outside temperature was 31 degrees. At 6am it’s still hot, and kids are playing in some sort of water feature that extends alongside and above the boulevard. This is the Mirror D’eau.

We continue along the river until we arrive at the esplanade des quinconces and the monument aux Girondins. The top of this monument, a woman statue of gold, can be seen from all over the city. At the base on opposite sides are two bronze statues of women, horses and men from which water pours. These fountains represent Republic and Concordia. They are bizarre, but beautifully sculpted. On the third side is an elaborate white marble statue, and the fourth side has a white marble face. It seems to have something to do with freedom.

Back at the hotel we sit on our balcony in the sun eating dinner, Peter sipping a great Bordeaux merlot sauvignon (in Bordeaux). The sun is setting and everything glows. Our world is perfect!

Monday 26 September

We need another suitcase. Peter has already bought some wine and he plans buying more. There is a Gallerie Lafayette not far away so the first thing we do is buy something suitable. Done. Now we move quickly to the campanile at St Andre. We want to be there early. Yesterday the attendant told us to be there at 10am. He’s doubtful I can climb up … Huh!

Well, I knock that tower off! 231 steps. On the way up we see the large bell that is supposedly the largest in France. The sound must have been amazing because the conical spire soars above it. The first terrace is not far up, but the view is good, and I can see over the cathedral roof. The top terrace gives a fantastic view! I am leaning against the top spire, I can touch a gargoyle, and I am level with the minor spires. Bordeaux lies below, and I can see all the landmarks …

Ever since Amy told us about the vinotique, a wine shop with four floors, Peter has been looking forward to letting loose in it. There is one entire floor devoted to red Bordeaux wines! Rather than hold Peter back, I visit the tourism office, go sit by the Monument aux Girondins and look at what we might do in the afternoon. We’d already decided to visit the Musee Beaux Artes. It supposedly has works by Titian, Veronaze, Matisse and Picasso.

On the way we pass the Place de la Comedie, with its columns and on top the Romanesque statues standing in profile against the skyline.

At the musee Beaux Artes we almost immediately see the Titian and Veronaze, as well as a Caravagio, some Rubens and Delacroix. The Picasso isn’t there and the Matisse paintings are shown so you can’t really see them – they are lying flat on a table under glass, so you can’t get far enough away to see them properly. They are small and highly portable so this is probably the only secure way of showing them. It seems a shame though. I find an artist that is new to me, Redon, and I really like his impressionist painting. There’s always something magical about finding a new artist.

There are some nice paintings here, but after what we have seen in the last few weeks it’s hard to be impressed. The Titian and the Caravagio are fantastic though. The Titian is especially so given it’s recent history. The painting is “The Rape of Lucretia”. It’s not pleasant but it’s a brilliant painting. Until 1964, for thirty years, it hung in the Town Hall above where couples were married. Talk about inappropriate!

Peter needs something to read and we find a bookstore in the midle of Bordeaux that specializes in “livres Anglais”! Odd!

We walked/wheeled back to the river to see the Place de la Bourse. Originally it was Louis fifteenth’s royal palace. Three buildings in the seventeenth century classical French style face toward a fountain in the centre of the square. This style of building, with its sloping slate roof seems rare in Bordeaux. The buildings were not connected, the two outer ones curving away from the central triangular building. It’s quite attractive. (as you’d expect of a royal residence!)

Across the road is the Mirror D’eau that we had briefly seen yesterday. We take a closer look. What fun! It’s a long stretch of seemingly flat concrete slabs. The edges are only about one centimetre higher than what is a huge dish. First the dish seems just wet, then super fine sprays of water shoot out of discs all over it. The spray stops, then water bubbles up from cracks between the slabs, filling the dish. Then it drains away, to start all over again. When the water is still, it looks like a mirror. But mostly people, adults and kids are walking, running splashing and even aquaplaning on it. Peter takes off his shoes and stands in the fine spray. I take my shoes off and walk through the centimetre puddle, watching the ripples I make. Magic!

We continue walking along the river then turn toward the Jardin Public. It’s lovely. There’s a small lake in the middle with an island that has a merry go round in the middle. I wonder if this is where Amy had her photo taken when she was in Bordeaux! The trees are beautiful, especially as some are changing into their autumn colours. It’s peaceful and quiet, even the sound of children squealing us soaked up by the trees. There’s an archway through to an English garden. It’s so quiet, it’s hard to believe that this is a city of 750,000.

It’s still warm at 6.30pm and it would be easy to stay in the gardens longer but we head back to the hotel via Place de Tourny where there is a statue of Monsieur Tourny, a former Intendance, or governor (I finally know the meaning of Intendance) in front of a curved building in the style of French Classical.

Then its on to Marche des Grandes Hommes. This was originally a food market a century or more ago, but has been reborn, with the same name and shape, but all in glass. It is now a shopping centre but still has a food area in the basement. Fromage, tomatoes, grapes, poulet, jambon for dinner tonight. Oh, and Peter buys some more wine (for 4 euro). A stop at a boulangerie and dinner is complete – fresh, warm bread, and citrus tarts …

Tuesday 27 September

Breakfast on the hotel balcony! As the sun rises! I really like this hotel. In the evening we see the sunset, in the morning, the sunrise.

To get to the Notre Dame cathedral we walk again down the Cours L’Intendance, then pass through the Passage Sargent, a nineteenth century shopping arcade. It has a nice ambience with a carved cornices and a marble carving above the archway at the end of the arcade of expensive and specialist stores.

Notre Dame is far more interesting than I had expected. It is a small cathedral (as cathedrals go) but it has some beautiful features. To me it seems ironic that it is often the churches that offer the most interesting artistic, historic and design elements of the time. In France the chateaux were ransacked after the revolution so I suppose it is fortunate that the churches have been preserved and we have an opportunity to admire them. Also, the state and church have been intertwined, so the churches in Europe have not only been a means of worship, but have also demonstrated the power and wealth of the church, the state, or the patron. Advances in architecture and technology have occurred because of the need to solve design problems eg the duomo in Florence, and the Notre Dame in Paris.

Notre Dame in Bordeaux was built around 1700 and is renaissance style rather than gothic so no soaring spires. Instead the vaults are rounded. The church is made of white stone and the morning light streams in through the stained glass windows. The organ is the most ornate I have seen. It seems to be built within dark wood and has amazing wooden carvings on each layer of pipes, the edges, the centre and everywhere possible. It sounds tacky but I think it is wonderful. Looking down the nave I can see the arches, the vaults and the high altar. It is spectacular. There are side chapels off the nave and it is interesting to note that all the paintings were done by a Dominican ‘freer’ in the early 1700s. They may not be masters, but he obviously had talent. I think it is a nice touch to have been able to use the talent of a minor clergy.

We have an hour or so before we must leave for the airport to Barcelona so we take a tram to Place de Victoire, an area we have not explored. I see the sign “speed rabbit pizza” under which Amy had her photo taken. I think this is funny, because if I stand in the same place I can take a photo of the arch that frames the memorial to Victor Hugo!

Next we use the tram to get to Temple Ha. We had seen this from the top of the campanile and it looked interesting. It is one of the oldest structures in Bordeaux. We can’t get into the church but we can see the facade and the auxiliary buildings. The surrounding area is old and run down. There are ethic restaurants including Ethiopean and Lebanese. Yet only a block away is the back of Notre Dame, which is in a very upmarket area of posh shops.

We sit for a while in Place Gambetta where there is a pond surrounded by trees, shrubs and flowers. It’s lovely

There isn’t a lot to central Bordeaux. There’s plenty of opportunities to shop. There are many arcades, malls, galleries and street shops. There are also lots of statues, squares and parks to visit and relax in. St Andre and Notre Dame are gems. The mirror D’eau is brilliant. The best of Bordeaux is tasting the wine and perhaps seeing the chateaux where it is made.

I’m sure the highlights for Peter were being let loose in the vinotique, tasting great red wine, and finding good bordeaux wine in supermarkets for a fraction of the price he would pay in NZ! If we were to return to France, we would certainly tour the chateaux and their vineyards. It might be a toss up between a tour of the Loire Valley and the Bordeaux wine country. Bordeaux might just win.

Notes on Accessibilty

The trams are totally accessible by wheelchair, although there is no specific place to park when you’re on board.

Bordeaux is flat so it’s easy to wheel around. Most roads have kerb crossings that are easy to roll up or down, although sometimes they are too steep – just stay on the road it until you find a suitable crossing, it doesn’t seem to be a problem!

There are many pedestrian only malls that are easy to negotiate. Department stores have toilets for the disabled.

I noticed more people here in wheelchairs in one day than I have seen in the last five weeks.

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The Loire Valley

Saturday 17 September
We are on our way to the Loire Valley! In a big yellow bus! With a lot of other tourists!

This is the first time we are part of a tour group. There are guides for English speakers, Spanish and Italian speakers, and for French speakers. Our guide, who speaks excellent English, begins her commentary by explaining why there are so many chateaux. Apparently Kings had hunting lodges there and during the hundred year war with England, the Loire Valley became the official residence of the king and the administrative centre of France moved there from the Louvre in Paris. The war explains why there is little art in France from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries – all resources were directed to the war – and why the rennaisance style of art was absent. It was not until Frances the first visited Italy and brought back Italian sculptors and artists to the Loire Valley that the renaissance style was introduced to France. One of the artists who came was da Vinci (Michaelangelo was favoured in Italy). The Mona Lisa has been in the Louvre Palace, and now the Louvre museum, since then.

I love the way that art and history are intertwined. I knew nothing of the history of Italy and France, and now, through our interest in art and architecture we have learned so much. This holiday has been our “History Tour”!

We are to visit six chateaux over two days. Amboise, Close Luce, Villandry, Chenonceau, Cheverny and Chambord, all within close driving distance of Tours.

Halfway to Tours, we hear a big bang from under the bus. It is disconcerting. The driver slows down for a few km but does not stop. Soon after there is another sound from under the bus, a sort of ripping sound. The bus is shaking a little where we are in the front, but apparently at the back the vibrations are quite bad. The driver slows to a speed where the shaking is not too bad. We expect him to pull over and stop but the bus keeps going! Peter is convinced that one of the rear inner tyres has blown. When we stop at our destination he speaks to an American man on the bus with us. This man works with trucks and has spoken to the driver who confirms it is a burst tyre. Peter and I are to change buses but the American is on a tour that stays on the bus. He refuses to ride in it. The last we see of him, he is talking furiously to someone on the phone. Good luck!

First stop Amboise. I like this small chateau very much, with its simple white stone (limestone) walls, terra cotta floors, and ribbed vaults typical of gothic architecture. But the most interesting feature is the wide bricked spiral ramp with curved stone ceiling (inside the chateau) that the king used to ride up to the first floor, rather than walk!

We, on the other hand, enter by climbing up spiral steps, passing through the small guards’ room with flagstaff floors (and white bricked vault), and into the official’s room. This Iarge room has huge stone fireplaces at either end and white columns decorated with figures where they meet the ribbed vaults they support. This chateaux is apparently an example of early French renaissance. The king had visited Italy, liked their rrennaisance architecture and built the chateau combining the gothic features of medieval architecture with features of the Italian renaissance. There are Italian and French flags flying outside.

The other highlight for me are the tapestries from the early sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Not because I am a fan of tapestries, but because these genuine works of art are completely unprotected! I walk up to one and I touch it! I touch something beautiful that was made in the early 1500s!

From the roof we can look over the tiny town of Amboise which looks pretty much the way it did four centuries ago. We see the Loire River, unpolluted because it is very shallow at this point and can only be navigated by fishermen. We can also see close up the gargoyles on the roof, a remnant of the gothic style. We also see the verandah from which enemies of the king had been hanged then their bodies thrown in the Loire …

We descend via the tower which is made of limestone but this simplicity is wonderful. On the inside walls are windows through which we can see the central pole of the tower.

At this point our guide forgets about us, moves on quickly without us and when we emerge we are lost. This is not fun. We call, and call, and it is another group who point to where she is. She blames me for being slow. Thank god she is not our guide for the rest of the tour.

Our group is standing near the chapel which she tells us is da vinci’s tomb. Later our other guide tells us that da Vinci’s bones were scattered and mixed with those of many others. Some bones were picked at random and buried in the chapel. They are unlikely to be da Vinci’s bones!
After changing buses, our next stop is Close Luce, where da Vinci lived for the last three years of his life. Charles the first had lived here as a child, but it had originally been built as a fortress for a politician friend of Louis fourteenth.

The surrounding fortress had allowed the chateau to have windows facing into the courtyard, so is less austere looking than others. The highlight is easily the frieze that da Vinci painted in the chapel. It is amazing to think that he painted it, and that here it remains in good condition … Vibrant colours, beautiful faces and figures …

It is interesting to see the underground tunnel through which the king entered to visit da Vinci. Also of interest are the scale models that have been built based on da Vinci’s drawings. We see a gearing mechanism that he used to develop ideas such as a pump with an Archimedes screw, a car, a catapult, an armored tank … And more.

The best story involves that of his young lover, Franscesco, to whom he bequeathed the Mona Lisa. Franscesco promptly sold it to the king for lots of money. And that is how it ended up in the Louvre!

We’re back on the bus. Next chateau. I do not expect to enjoy Villandry and would not have chosen it as part of my itinerary. But, gosh, am I wrong! We are to see only the gardens, as an example of a Renaissance garden. Prior to this the French had only vegetable gardens to feed the household.

The primary function of a renaissance garden is to be beautiful. It is extremely geometric and very precise. But also whimsical. There is the Romance garden – tender love, tragic love, adulterous love, and a broken heart – using colours and shapes to develop a work of art. The vegetable garden is beautifully laid out using colours of vegetables to produce patterns. There is a herb garden, also laid out to please the eye. A maze and lawns are set against a backdrop of carefully maintained forest.

Once again, the Italian renaissance influenced France. Prior to this, Villandry had been a fortress with many towers. Now, only one tower remains, along with a moat full of carp.

We stop in the town of Tours before going to our hotel. Tours was built in the fifteenth century and some of the original houses remain despite many having been destroyed by bombing in WW2 . Some are made of slate, some of mud wood and look exactly like the English houses of Shakespeare’s time. The central square is full of tables, surrounded by cafes, and jam packed with tourists.

Over dinner we meet a delightful couple who live near Boston. Joanne suggests two museums to add to our list: L’Orangerie, and the Mamatot-Monet. We are to be extremely grateful!

Sunday 18 September
At 8.15am the temperature is 9 degrees!
I’m looking forward to seeing the Chateau de Chenonceau. I have seen many pictures of it, built on arched piers over the River Cher.

We approach by walking down along avenue of trees. It’s quiet, peaceful and how i imagine the road to a chateau should be. It’s easy to imagine carriages, men and women on horseback.

Chenonceau is built from the local limestone which lightens with age. The facade is absolutely beautiful. The arches over the river look exactly as I have seen them! So picturesque! The front entrance is topped by round balconies on either side. The door is sculpted wood, decoratively painted with golds and blues over green.

The chateau was built by the finance minister to Henri fourth who accused him of cheating the monarchy of taxes. Henri confiscated the chateau and put his own motto above the front door, something to do with him being king by god’s grace …

It is a mix of gothic and rennaissance design with ribbed vaults and arches. The huge fireplaces are decorative. There is a good art collection, thanks to Catherine de Medici, wife of Henri. Most has been removed to the Louvre, but a Rubens, Tintoretto, van Eyck, Veronaze, and a Mirillo remain, all originals. They are on the walls of Catherine’s study. There is also a marvellous florentine ebony and gold jewelry chest given to her by her home state, Florence, for her wedding.

There is a wonderful sculpted fireplace in Diane de Poitier’s room. It has the letters H, D and C intertwined in gold, placed regularly round the head. She was the king’s mistress and when Henri died as a result of an eye injury during a jousting match, she was bequeathed the chateau. The queen confiscated it! Surprise! Surprise!

The chateau is sometimes referred to as the three ladies because of their influence on it’s design. Unusually it has a central hall off which the rooms come. There is a long ball room with chandeliers and the original slate and stone floor. This had been a bridge, built by Diane to access the woods for hunting. Catherine walled it in and it became the venue for sumptuous parties about which much is known because of writers at the time recording the details. It is sobering to recall again that while the aristocracy lived lavishly it was at the expense of poor people who were taxed to pay for this lifestyle.

One tower remains from the original fortifications. There are colourful gardens with fountains. Beside is the River Cher. I could spend a day wandering through the chateau and gardens. If we ever return this chateau would be on my “must see” list.

Chiverny is completely different. It seems more of a stately home than a chateau. It is classical French seventeenth century architecture. The facade is made from long narrow limestone bricks-very regular and very precise. It is decorated with Roman style busts.
The roof is made of black slate and has the rounded domes and sloping gables with flat roof that I see everywhere in Paris. The buildings in Paris that I so admire are clearly classical French of the seventeenth century – it makes sense!

Chiverny is decorated in baroque style, very busy, flowing, and dynamic. It has a straight staircase rather than spiral, an Italian influence. The ceiling above the stairs retains the wonderful arching curve in limestone that is so beautiful.

Attention has been paid to letting light in, so it is south facing with many tall windows. The shutters are elaborately painted.

The king’s room is the largest. In every chateau, a room must be set aside in case the king visits. It must be appropriate for a king … This room has an Italian coffered ceiling, and tapestries completely cover the walls, floor to ceiling and around corners. I don’t really have an interest in tapestries, but these are remarkable and have retained their original vivid colours despite being four hundred years old.

A Sunday market has been going on just outside the chateau. Chiverny is known for it’s good wines. Perhaps we should have visited the market instead of the chateau …

Finally, the highlight of the tour – Chambord!

Built by Francis the first and his son Henri the fourth from 1519 to 1559, Chambord is the largest chateau in France. The wall around the chateau and grounds is 32 km, the wall around Paris is 35km! (the original wall around Paris is now the ring road.)

Chambord was never lived in … The rooms too high, too large to heat. The king built it to be the greatest hunting lodge ever. Unfortunately, the hunting season begins in November and the chateau was too cold!

From the road, having passed through the wall that encircles it, there are fabulous views of the chateau through the forest. Glimpses of medievil turrets and towers! Fairyland …

The chateau has a facade of limestone blocks, forming wide circular towers below, a terrace (Italiant Renaissance) and narrow pointed ones above (gothic).

Double spiral staircase, said to be inspired by da Vinci, beautiful in white stone and curving balustrades. I climb it to the Terrace! (quickly up, quickly down because I am with a group. Rush, rush. Without Peter I couldn’t do it!) I’m absolutely delighted to have climbed up one staircase and down the other. Especially under the pressure of not keeping the other members of the group waiting.

A room with panels from Versailles to show how the chateau would have looked when it was built. The chateau was stripped during the revolution.

Ceiling vaults stamped with Francis the first (F) combined with his emblem, the salamander.

The terrace from where the towers and turrets can be seen more closely, and a clear view of the canal that delivers water to the moats around the chateau. A fisherman can be seen in his boat.

I would love to spend more time at Chambord. I’d explore the chateau thoroughly and walk alongside the canal.

However, we are on a tight timetable. Our guide tells me that he would prefer to do ten day tours of the Loire Valley. He also says that he does tours of the Louvre – one and a half hours and two and a half hours. I tell him that that is madness. He agrees.

We are returning to Paris on Sunday evening and the guides expect there to be traffic delays as French families return home after a weekend away. They are right. The electronic warning system says a forty five minute delay. The driver gets off the motorway and drives through the back roads. It’s pretty, and we’re only thirty minutes late!

The Loire valley has three hundred chateau, makes wonderful wine and is the garden of France. A weekend scratches the surface of what can be seen and done. For me this tour has been a “Taste of the Loire”. Looked at this way it has been a wonderful few days, during which I have learnt a lot about French history, the scandals of its royalty, the beauty of it’s architecture, and a context for many other things I have seen.

If we return to France I would like to spend about four days in Tours, driving to the chateaux I want to see more of. I’d spend time walking in the gardens, enjoying the peace of the surrounding farmland and vineyards, tasting local food and exploring just a few chateaux.

A fabulous weekend nonetheless!

Notes on Accessibilty
The bus
Impossible to get a wheelchair on to the bus. High steps requiring strong upper body strength to climb.

The chateaux
Some have complete wheelchair access, some partial, and some none. Where ramps have been possible they have been incorporated.

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Monday 21st August

Arrive at Tegel airport. The driver of the airpor golf cart is even more wild than that one in Singapore. Faster, with less attention to travellers … And no beeping sound. She asks Peter to call out as we approach and weave through fellow passengers. I hear one man say in disgust, “English!”

There’s a car waiting to take us to hotel Circus. No English, uh oh … At least he knows where he’s going.

We’re very early at the hotel and I drink litres of water while we wait for our room and plan the day … Not a moment to miss. Just as well, because Berlin is intense.

It takes a while to work out access to the underground train station. Our hotel is on one corner and there are access points on the other three, but only one has a lift.

We think about using public transport to sightsee, but wimp out and catch a hop-on, hop-off sight-seeing bus. It stops supposedly near museum island but there are no directions. Funny how things work out though. We stumble on Neues museum of ancient antiquities. The architecture and design of the building uses lots of natural light, and everything is exhibited with drama.

Germans must have plundered pyramids big time – so many sarcophagi, body casings, pieces of relief from pyramids, personal treasures … And nerfertiti! She’s gazing into the uninterrupted distance at Helios, on the opposite side of the museum. It’s unforgettable!

And I feel so special! I need to use loo. An alert male security guard takes control, strides into the female toilet, orders the long line of women, already waiting, to stand back then he unlocks the disabled toilet for me!

The National art gallery next door is closed, so we hop back on sight seeing bus. It’s overcrowded, and worse, too many disabled people, not enough space. People on crutches are standing. Also, the commentary doesn’t match landmarks, but at least we see landmarks that we recognize, and can check out later.

We get off at the Brandenburg gate. We can see why speeches like Reagon’s “bring the wall down” speech have been performed here. We walk on (well, I wheel) to the Reichstag … CLOSED …. Some sort of construction, but we see it from every possible direction and can appreciate the glass dome on top.

Public transport is better than the sightseeing bus, because you’re sharing it with Berliners, not cocooned with tourists. And you can wander around looking at all sorts of things you wouldn’t otherwise see.

Cankles are bad. Bit of a worry so I sleep with my feet raised.

Tuesday 22nd

Big day. Checkpoint Charlie is first up. I can’t use the wheelchair in the museum because there’s flight after flight of stairs and it wouldn’t fit anyway because the exhibits are packed in and so are the visitors. So I use crutches up and down and around. It’s information overload, so many ingenious ways of escaping the east, not always successfully. Everything, all the gadgets used are homemade and improvised.

The Jewish museum is staffed by friendly, people, eager to help. There are lifts everywhere so I can mix up walking and wheeling. The Museum itself is deliberately disoreienting, especially the introduction through the axes, the Garden of Exile – 19 tall slabs of concrete laid in a square, and the holocaust concrete triangular tower with just one slit at the peak for light and sound. There’s a permanent exhibition of Jewish life and Judaism, and the long intertwined history of Germany and Jews. It’s the latter, and the crazy layout of the axes that interest me. The axes remind me of the spinal unit, not everyone adjusts, and that’s a big part of the message of disorientation.

It’s interesting that security here is tougher than at airports and has the same system with xray. There are Police outside guarding against terrorists.

Walked/wheeled to Topography of Terror and museum of the wall. Extraordinary monument to remind Berliners of the atrocities they allowed to happen, and the ordinary people who perpetrated them … Not psychopaths, just middle class people buying into an ideology. The concept of a Volk community is chilling … Every is equal, because those who are different will be eliminated. Creating a permanent reminder of the terrors that emanated from the ss headquarters is brilliant. The barren stony ground that is all that is left, along with one wall of its foundations, in front of a long section of the Berlin wall, along with the commentary outside suggests that Berliners are not prepared to let this happen again. Every time you walk or drive down this street you can see this outdoor monument.

I see it as a work of art as well, because at my seated level, the information appears almost stamped on the foundation wall.

The holocaust museum, with the very personal stories inside and the blocks of concrete outside is a moving reminder of the millions who were murdered. From the street the blocks seem innocuous, playful, but venturing inwards the mood becomes oppressive, dark, disorienting as the blocks get taller. (After visiting this and the Jewish museum, I cannot imagine how Amy could bear to visit the remains of a concentration camp. I already have a picture of such brutality, misery, deprivation and abuse that I couldn’t stand any more.) Jews still face persecution. Security here is even tighter than at the Jewish museum. The lift is not working when it’s time to leave. So i climb the steps using crutches. German efficiency a myth?

On the way home we see the Brandenburg gate at sunset. Lights on the gate. Buskers. Lovely.

Wednesday 23rd

We walk/wheel to Museum Island to visit the national art museum. It’s a gorgeous building with columns and statues. Inside there’s a special exhibition of Waggener’s, the founder’s, collection. He collected contemporary art, ie from the 1830s and 40s. It’s realism, much from the students of Dusseldorf’s school of art. Absolutely perfect detail, with magnificent use of light.

The permanent collection includes works of Monet, Manet, cezanne, Renoir and Rodin – the thinker. I hadn’t known it was here so it’s like a gift from out of the blue! It’s smaller in real life than I’d thought but so wonderful. I want to keep looking at it, especially with a Cezanne on one side and a Renoir on the other. When would I ever see that scene again? I don’t want to leave. There’s a Delacroix nude … Some paintings just have to be seen in the original … this is one.

The permanent collection is a history of German art, and includes a room devoted to Lieberman’s work. I feel privileged to have been able to see so many priceless works of art by so many geniuses (what’s the plural of genius?)

Lunch is against a backdrop of the Dom and the Spreig River. Relaxing, and with that view, provides space before visiting the Pergammon.

What a dramatic entrance! The alter of Pergammon is stunning, breathtaking. Germans were obviously not only leaders (pillagers?) in archaeology in the nineteenth century, but tremendous restorers of treasures from antiquity. The recreation of the Ishtar gate is another highlight, but walking into the room with the Islamic palace walls is as dramatic and surprising as the Pergamum altar. The palace was donated to the Germans because their archaeologists were regarded so highly and the king who donated it believed they could recover, restore and preserve large portions of the the palace walls. Looking at the other works on display I can see why they had such a reputation. From here on, could only be an anti-climax, but no!

The number one exhibit quietly sneaks up on you. As I enter the next room I’m not sure what I’m looking at. It’s the Islamic Aleppo Room. From Syria, built around 1600, the elaborately painted panels of wood look as if they have just been painted. Each panel is 2.5 metres high and laid out to form, not a square, but a series of walls (with intricately carved wooden doors) that would have surrounded a fountain. They are behind Perspex, in a temperature and humidity controlled environment to preserve them.

The museum has easy wheelchair access, lifts to every floor, but no accessible toilets… Who cares…

Thursday 25th August

We take Bus 100, a route we’ve been told is a good way to sightsee. We have a leaflet with all the landmarks and monuments listed. I’d recommend this to anyone, rather than a sightseeing bus.

I want to visit Bebelplatz to see the memorial to burning books. It’s a hole in the ground through which can be seen shelves in lining the walls of a cube. There are enough shelves to hold 20,000 books, the number burnt by the nazis 10 May 1933. It must have been a spectacle at the time – bebelplatz is bordered by the Humboldt University and the State Opera House. There’s a plaque beside the hole. On the plaque is written a poem dedicated to preventing something like this ever happening again.

Also in one corner is St Hedwig’s Church, the first Catholic church to be built in Berlin after the Reformation. It was built in the 1760s. It’s a circular church with an altar at ground level and another below ground, but completely open to view from above.

We wander around, not really looking for anything, just enjoying being in Berlin. We find the Shinkel museum. It was a church, Friedrichswaresche Kirke, that Shinkel designed but is now a museum dedicated to him. It’s officially the Staatliche museum of the Berlin National Gallery. Whatever, Shinkel designed and sculpted many of the ornamental statues inside and outside churches and important buildings. It’s a beautiful building inside, full of statues and with great acoustics – a woman, staff, is singing the same phrases over and over in English. A bit weird but it sounds wonderful.

Next, we find the new guardhouse. In it’s life it’s been used as a number of memorials, but is now dedicated to those who died in WW2. An unknown soldier, and a concentration camp victim are buried underground along with dirt from battlefields and concentration camps. A single sculpture, “Mother With Dead Son”, sits in the centre directly below a circle open to the sky.

It’s been an interesting way to see Berlin and to realize how many monuments there are, and how imposing the architecture is. It’s easy standing on Under den Linden opposite the university to look left then right and visualize how magnificent it must have been in the nineteenth century to walk or ride down this avenue lined with statues, churches, and monuments, all intricately detailed in the style of Greek and Roman sculpture. Every corner of every building, every column ornately sculpted …

The World Clock in alexanderplatz is kind of fun. We’ve been through the platz every day to catch the u Bahn and not noticed it. I’m delighted to see that it has Wellington time. It’s 3.30pm Thursday in Berlin, and 1.30am Friday in Wellington. The map below even shows NZ! Underneath the clock, a busker plays a semi-acoustic guitar. All Berlin buskers seem to play music from the 70s … Beatles, Bob Dylan, Bread, Rolling Stones … I love it, it’s my teenage music.

Our final view of Berlin is at the Haufbanholf, turning back to see the sun on the Reichstag dome … How appropriate!,

Berliners are friendly, smiling, wonderful people who are always eager to help and are not afraid to try and communicate, even if they don’t speak English. And always smiling, whether their English is good, limited or non-existent. So easy going! I’ll remember that while i’m waiting outside the Neuese museum a couple of security guards waiting near me, offer to share their “bon bons” with me. So nice …

Notes on accessibility:

Trains are not wheelchair accessible, nor are buses, even though they drop down. I think there’s a ramp but as long as I have someone to lift me in my chair, the drivers don’t bother. Lifts down to the ubahn, or underground train stations, are difficult to find and are often out of order. I walk up steps with crutches, someone carrying my wheelchair. There are plenty of offers to help. Or we use the escalator, my wheelchair held on a step with me tipped back in it. When things get messy, someone steps up to help. There’s a gap between the platform and the train, and a step up as well. It would be impossible to use a wheelchair on trains without help. It’s not easy to wheel everywhere because of crooked bricked or cobbled paths that trap the front castors of the wheelchair. There are some kerb crossings and sometimes there’s only a tiny step down to the road. Often the kerbs are high and would require much greater wheelchair skills than i have. The streets and transport within Berlin is not as friendly to people with limited mobility as I’d expected. I’d suggest that a person travelling independently in a wheelchair use taxis. They’re surprisingly cheap. Roughly a euro a kilometre. And the city is generous to the diabled. Often you have to pay to use public toilets or toilets in cafes, but toilets are free to the disabled! Entry fees to museums are often heavily discounted or free to the “severely” disabled ie 50% or more. ACC in NZ uses an American scale and according to it I’m over 80% disabled and I imagine that Berlin would use a similar scale.

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