30 September 2012

A quick stroll in Kew Gardens

Sunday morning is my favourite time to go to Kew Gardens.

I can get there around opening time (9:30am) and for a while the gardens are all but empty, especially at the southern end away from the main gates.

I had no great plan in mind, as is usual. With Autumn getting a grip on the trees it seemed a good idea to go to the Rhizotron and Xstrata Treetop Walkway to see the browning leaves close-up.

Getting there early meant not having to share the wobbly walkway with boisterous children intent on running past you too close to be safe and forcing you to fall over the edge. I still get very nervous every time that I do up there but it is more bearable when it is quiet and the views are always worth it.

Back on the safety of the ground I headed north a little way to the lake and the Sackler Crossing that curves across it.

From the middle of the crossing you get views like this one. In this case I am looking east towards the main road, not that there is any visual clue that you are anywhere near, let alone in, a city. There is an strong audible clue from the many airplanes descending on Heathrow and I live in hope of more quite days like the ones we had during the Icelandic ash cloud incident.

I only had time for a short walk this day so once across the lake I turned right back towards the main entrance.

It is not a direct route as there are some serious attractions along the way that diverted and delayed me.

The first of these was the small but magnificent Waterlily House.

There is something very special about the building and the quiet round pond within it that sucks me in every time that I walk close by. And I am glad that it does.

There is something rather wonderful about large round leaves sitting gently on the surface of the pond and with just a few bright flowers fighting for attention.

The Waterlily House can be easily overlooked because it is next to one of the gardens' two great glasshouses, the Palm House. And that is where I went next.

Inside the Palm House is thick with exotic trees whose extravagant large leaves push against the glass. Outside eyes are turned down to soak in the colour and decoration of the Parterre. The contrast is vast and appropriate.

And that was it. In little over an hour I had soared among trees, walked over water, trampled through grass and shared confined spaces with strange plants. I have been to Kew Gardens many times and tasted all of these attractions before yet they still excite me with ease as I am sure they will next time that I go.

29 September 2012

Julietta at the ENO

Julietta was bit of a whim.

I was looking through the ENO programme and ended up booking four operas. Julietta was included simply because it is by a Czech composer, Martinu, and the synopsis included the word "surrealist".

Without the constraint of friends' budgets this time I went for a seat in the front row of the Upper Circle which set me back around £65. I could have gone for something cheaper but that always carries the risk of getting somebody tall and/or awkward in front of me. It's worth paying the extra for peace of mind.

Julietta is surreal as promised.

A travelling salesman returns to a seaside town where he briefly met a girl, Julietta, only to discover that nobody in the town has any memories and they live like goldfish endless repeating their daily routines.

A story, or sorts, develops from this but it is too strange to provide any sort of narrative thread. Even the simple concept of time cannot be trusted. This comes to a head when the salesman heads in to the woods to find Julietta only to be confronted by other images of himself on the same quest.

There are other nice moments that play on the lack of continuity or history. In one another traveller sells fake histories and tells an old couple about the time that they first met, they, of course, cannot remember this themselves.

The music plays along with the theme, guiding and nudging the action almost unnoticed. This is like film music in that it tells you how to feel almost subliminally. There are no great tunes to hang on to but it is not that sort of music and they are not needed.

The highpoint of the production is the suitably surreal staging. We have this accordion that slides across the stage and, later on, the large typewriter that features in the poster.

The ending is as confused as the rest of it. I've since read the  synopsis on Wikipedia and I am not sure that helps. Suffice to say it is not happy and you never expect it to be.

The mood is slow and measured throughout. This is shown in the way the characters move, the dull colours they wear, the equally slow movement and dull colours in the set, and the subtle music.

And it is this mood that defines the opera, rather than the individual aspects of the story or the music. We are sleepwalking through somebody else's dream and we awake refreshed but unsure of what we have just witnessed.

28 September 2012

Friday Late at the V&A (September 2012)

Somehow the Friday Late nights at the V&A slipped from being a habit to an occasional event and I was shocked to learn that I had not been to one for just over two years.

Of course I had been to the V&A a few times meanwhile but that was either for the main exhibitions or just passing through, not for a late night.

I can only presume that the nights clashed with theatre dates or did not appeal to me for some reason. This one did though.

That was because there was a very full programme and a lot of it interested me, especially the rare chance to go up on the roof.

I expected the roof to be the main attraction of the evening so with a published start time of 6:30pm I was first in the queue not long after 6:00pm.

That proved to be a good move as they were only taking up ten people at a time and each tour lasted half an hour, that meant a maximum of around 70 people altogether.

Being there first also meant that I got to go up while there was still some light.

The part of the roof that we went on is not that special in itself but from there we could see the layout of the whole museum, and some of the related buildings in Exhibition Road.

Our guide gave us a comprehensive history of how the site grew out of the ideals of the Great Exhibition and has developed over the years with other buildings being built or assimilated in to the complex.

We also had excellent views down in to the John Madejski Garden and of the building that started life as the South Kensington Museum.

The people gathered in the emptied water feature below were doing something with hula-hoops, another of the events in the Friday Late programme. I was happy to miss that one. I've tried hoops on the Wii Fit and it is not my best exercise.

Every visit to the V&A includes a stop in the cafe and every visit to the cafe includes taking a few pictures of the spectacular rooms that house it.

I was a little surprised, and also pleased, at just how busy the cafe was. Clearly museums and galleries opening late is a popular idea.

As was making them free to go to. We have a lot to thank the last Labour Government for.

From there it was the usual semi-random exploration of the galleries. Those near to the cafe, such as the silver gallery above, are becoming almost familiar but I hope that I never see the day when I can find my way around the V&A with any degree of confidence. The certainty of getting lost and the unexpected discoveries that brings with it is what the V&A is all about.

By accident I discovered one of the evening's other main attractions, the Cloud Caves.

The caves were constructed of thin translucent plastic (frequently repaired with sticky tape) and were inflated by small fans.

The effect was suitably eerie with the other people clearly heard but only partially seen.

The caves were laid out as a small maze so just negotiating your way in and out was not trivial. I was not the only person who hit a dead-end and had to turn back.

Getting to the Cloud Caves and back was a slow task as the attractions of the V&A are effective sirens for anyone with a vaguely artistic eye. I stopped many times to look as silver, stained glass and paintings.

All that meant that it was time to look for a beer.

I headed toward the garden, despite the cold, but the corner bar there was not open so it was back to the main cafe. Fine with me.

Over the beer I looked at the Treasure Trail included in the programme for the evening. This gave a series of instructions and clues to send you around the museum to find specific objects.

It was not meant to be difficult and I could see that my earlier walk had taken me past a lot of them but there were more to do and so off I went again.

This time I found myself in the south-east corner of the complex, somewhere above the main exhibition space, where mysterious corridors led to mysterious places.

Not all of the rooms were open for the out-of-hours event, which is probably just as well as that put some constraint on how much I could be pulled away from whatever plan I was working to.

For some reason I kept finding dresses, and this was without going in to the exhibition on ballgowns that I must get to before in closes in January.

Surrounding the ballgowns exhibition is the fashion display and that is where I found these dresses. There were other dresses elsewhere, such as in the new arrivals display.

As always at the V&A, I saw and did far more in my time there, about four hours this time, than I could reasonably describe here and so I'll I've tried to do is to give a flavour of the activities and sights.

This was an exceptionally rewarding evening, even by the V&A's very high standards. I will, of course, be going back before too long, possibly to see the ballgowns, and I will definitely look out for future Friday Late's.

My only regret from the evening is that the V&A did not stick with the name the Museum of Artistic Excellence.

23 September 2012

Reims in (less than) a day

Reims was the final stop on my Summer Holiday by train across Europe that had previously taken me to Zurich, Vaduz, Salzburg, Munich and Strasbourg. And, it only got added at the last minute because, for some reason, I could not get a direct train from Strasbourg to Paris on the final Sunday.

I arrived in Reims on the Saturday evening and the place was humming, not least because the local football team had been playing at home that day.

The main road up from the station is wide, pedestrianised and full of busy cafes and restaurants. So busy, raucous even, that I was a little worried about the prospect of any sleep. A false worry as it turned out as the revellers drifted away fairly early and my room was right at the back of the hotel.

Sunday morning was very different and many of the main streets were all but deserted. The only thing moving in this typical street scene is the modern tram heading towards me.

The cathedral is why most tourists go to Reims and that is where I headed.

I found the appearance of the building a little disappointing but that was because I had been spoilt by spending the last two weeks doing little other than looking at spectacular old buildings.

The inside was more impressive, though the opportunity to explore all the nooks and crannies was somewhat limited by there being a church service on at the time.

Stained glass always appeals to me, because of the colours not the religious imagery, and this was no exception.

Reims has the usual large round window above the entrance but the glass that I wanted to see is at the back. This is by Marc Chagall and was installed just under forty years ago.

Sadly these windows were in the part of the cathedral where the service was being held and I could get no closer that this. Even from a distance the vibrancy stands out.

Reims Cathedral is suitably tall and the bare interior emphasises this in a way that the over fussy exterior does not.

Having done the Cathedral, there was not a lot more to see. There are tourist trails that point you to the other sights and these are worth seeing but there is nothing particularly special in-between them.

Not far from the Cathedral is Place Royale and this has the grandeur that its name suggests.

The square suffers a little from traffic, as too many places do, so a quiet Sunday morning is probably the best time to be there. It certainly makes it easier to stand in the middle of the road to take photographs.

Taking a circuitous route back towards the station brought me, intentionally, to Porte de Mars. This is what is left of the 3rd century Roman city wall.

It also marks one end of a garden that runs along the north-west boundary of the old town.

It is only 50m to 100m wide but that is enough flatness and greenery to make a pleasant divide between the old and new towns. I did not venture into the new town at all.

The gardens are mostly grass bordered by trees. Interest is provided by long flower beds, statues and a few fountains. A good spot for a Sunday walk.

Reims was consistently pleasant and I managed to take around 100 photos in the few hours that I had there, always a good sign that there was plenty to see. It had some hard acts to follow after the highlights of the previous days and while it did not reach those heights it did enough to fill half a day and to provide a neat coda to what had been an exceptionally good holiday.

22 September 2012

Saying farewell to Strasbourg

Careful planning again gave me some time to explore one city before catching a train to the next. This time I was leaving Strasbourg for Reims.

The extra stop at Reims was added to the trip at the last moment as I was unable to get a train from Strasbourg to Paris on the Sunday (the Eurostar to London was already booked) and I decided that a morning would be enough to see Reims (it only has a cathedral after all) and so I spent as much of Saturday in Strasbourg as possible.

The day started grey and wet but there was a city to see and little time left to see it in so I headed out anyway. Besides, the forecast for later in the day was promising.

I started on the north side of Grande Ile to revisit the old buildings in quiet street that I had first walked through a couple of days previously. It seemed so much longer than that because of all the other sights that had filled the hours in between.

The rain was a friend and kept all but the most ardent tourists off the streets. It's not that I do not like people, I just do not like the way that they wear bright clothes when I am trying to take pictures.

All roads lead to the Cathedral, and that is no bad thing. Its Gothic excess is wonderful and can only be appreciated from close up.

By then the tourists were growing in confidence, or they had tight schedules that they could not change, and the impressive cathedral square was getting uncomfortably busy. It was time to move on.

As before, the next steps were random. Any good town is porous, i.e. pedestrians can flow easily in any direction, so there are always decisions to make on where to head next and without a firm destination these are all problematic decisions to make. Beauty became the deciding factor and headed down the road that offered the most promise.

Somewhere along the way I found a not too touristy cafe to have a late breakfast of the, by then, usual coffee and croissant.

I always look up a lot to make sure that I do not miss the exciting shapes that roofs often make and was well rewarded for doing so.

This is a fairly typical view of a neat roof punctured by equally neat windows. Elsewhere the gables rose high in a series of steps and chimneys made bold shapes against the brightening sky.

Grande Ile is not that large and I was vaguely walking from north to south so it was somewhat inevitable that I would arrive at Petite France yet again. That was the third time in three days and deliberately so.

By then the sun had won its battle against the grey clouds and the city was bright. The main beneficiaries of this were the houses along the quays who could show-off their reflections.

The third day in Petite France was an exhilarating as the first two, may be more so because of the better light.

The reflections changed the character of the area and I found myself taking retracing previous routes and retaking previous pictures to capture those changes.

Just being there was immensely uplifting. If I were to design an ideal town from scratch it would look something like this.

The bridges not only allow you to progress easily through Petite France but they were also the best places to stop and savour the scene.

I was keeping an eye on the clock and what started as a generous four hours to revisit parts of an old town that I had been to twice before soon ebbed away and I had to head back to the station and my next trains.

There was so much that I loved about Strasbourg in my three days there, and I've tried to capture some of that in the three posts that I have written about my time there, and if I had to, Desert Island Discs style, keep just one memory of those three days then it would be this picture.

Strasbourg was so impressive that I am even contemplating going against all my prejudices and having another holiday in France (one day).

21 September 2012

Out and about in Strasbourg

My one full day in Strasbourg was an opportunity to explore further afield and that mean starting with a tram.

My hotel was next to the station, as usual, and so was convenient for trams too. I bought a 24 hour ticket and was off.

The plan was to head towards the European Parliament and then meander back. That meant changing trams at Republique where I swapped a B for an E.

All of the stops had maps, live tram information and ticket machines so getting around was easy.

The European Parliament sits on a wide bend on one of the many canals that circle the town. On the other bank is the European Court of Human Rights doing its best to look like an alien spacecraft.

The two iconic buildings apart, the European Parliament quarter lacks, well, everything. I am not sure what I was expecting, these are just offices after all and they are fairly exciting ones in a good location.

So having quickly satisfied my curiosity about the seat of European democracy I moved on, this time on foot.

Crossing the water took me to a large park that looked very inviting for somebody looking for somewhere to walk, somebody like me.

It started formally with flower beds and seating but soon I was among trees that had no stricture of their own and hid any structure deeper in the park. Not knowing what was ahead only made the walk more interesting.

There were more flower beds and more seats and then the first big surprise.

I was not expecting a Children's Zoo.

It was small with around twenty smallish pens with a mix of animals and birds, including a few vociferous apes and some colourful parakeets.

Storks are an emblem of Strasbourg so they get to appear here.

The pens were arranged so that all the animals can be seen from the park as you walk past, i.e. there is no zoo as such to go in to and, because of that, no entry fee.

A little further on and the park opened out and became formal again with a lake, a fountain, more flower beds, an artificial island and, thankfully, a cafe. It was time for a beer.

Rested and watered I took the small bridge on to the island. Looking back towards the cafe the scene was calm and peaceful, even the fountain seemed subdued. On the other side of the hill a waterfall ran noisily down some steps to a long pond.

Beyond the pond the garden had a final flourish with neatly trimmed lawns and a classic folly, an open temple of sorts, before giving way to roads, houses and shops.

With no trams going down that road it was time to give the buses ago.

And where better to go than another park.

This green water is in Parc de La Citadelle. The park was busy with people setting up a local community fair - it looked good.

In the centre of the park was a triangle of land, surrounded by water, that rose above the rest of the park offering views and tranquillity as it did so.

The combined effect of the two parks and the gentle strolling through them made for a peaceful morning and early afternoon, and the discoveries and few surprises made it an interesting one too.

Another tram took me back to the edge of the old town where I wanted to resume my explorations from the previous day with the added advantage of some good daylight.

This time I approached Petite France from the suburban south and first crossed the long bridge across the three artificial islands to the south-west tip of Grande Ile.

The buildings at the entrance to the town show signs of old conflicts with sturdy towers and thick walls. There is a long barrier across the water too but I do not know if it is there to deter marauders or rising water or both.

Turning away from the battlements Petite France shows off its comely side.

The shuttered buildings squeeze against each other to make the most of the limited access to the waterway that curves peacefully past them. The bridge built for trade is now strewn with flowers, as they all are in the town.

The houses leave no room for pedestrians, they must pass on the cobbled street behind, and a lone duck is all that breaks the stillness.

Under the trees, more flowers give hope of a beer garden.

The charm of Petite France is almost oppressive, in a good way. It is there wherever you look and there is no easy escape from it. Walking on just shows you even more of the same that seems even prettier than that just left behind.

It is only some time later that the walking does lead to escape and you can pause to catch your breath and to marvel at what you have just witnessed.

It is no coincidence that water features so much in this story of a day pootling around in Strasbourg. Water shapes the town and everywhere the town pays homage to it. And that gives the town its scale, charm and personality.

20 September 2012

Strasbourg is stunning

Again my refusal to do any serious research before booking my holiday turned up trumps.

The reasons that I chose to spend a couple of days in Strasbourg were because it is on the main train-line back from Munich and because I had heard of it.

I did not know then that the whole of the city centre is designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. I know now and can see why. It's very old and stupidly pretty.

The Cathedral is at the centre of the city. Around it is a ring of old timber-fronted buildings all contained within a ring of water. This is the Grande Ile.

The centre is largely pedestrianised with cars only allowed in shamefully to some areas while trams slide boldly through the centre. As in several of the cities that I visited on this tour, it is best travelled by tram. In Strasbourg the trams allow you to make the most of your journey by have extensive glass, so much so that it is unrealistic to call them windows. These are glass trams.

When you get among the old buildings the impact is amazing. It's as cute as, say, Ledbury but on a much grander scale and with water too. The streets encourage you to wander and explore in the way that all the best old cities do with roads that curve just for the amusement of it.

The water comes in to its own in the south-west corner, Petite France where the quays give evidence to the times when the waterways were a main trade route, the Rhine is but a hop and a step away and is the border between France and Germany.

Now it is mainly pleasure boats that circle the isle, passing through the locks as they do so.

There are three artificial islands with several bridges between them and other paths alongside the water.

This is ideal walking territory and the hordes of tourists know that. They are well prepared for too as this part of the two is rich with cafes and bars. This is a place where you want to sit and soak up the atmosphere and you are encouraged to do so. Not that I needed much encouragement.

There was so much to take in and to savour in my first afternoon in Strasbourg from the canals, the Cathedral, the trams, the timer-fronted buildings and the gentle paths that link everything.

Strasbourg really is stunning.

19 September 2012

A last look at Munich

After spending a long morning traipsing around the Residenz Museum it was time for a break. And what better than a beer at the Ratskeller.

The skilled linguists among you will have worked out that this is a beer cellar under the Rathaus. It's a lovely one too.

I got in there around 3pm on a Wednesday and it was packed. Luckily it is large, even by Weatherspoon standards, and I was able to get a good seat near the middle where I could observe the bustle without being dragged in to it.

The beer was very welcome, as was the apple strudel with ice cream. And the second beer.

I emerged from the cellar in to the courtyard in the centre of the Rathaus that looked all the more beautiful for being placed under a grey sky and coated with fresh rain. Gothic buildings should have Gothic weather.

From there I took the other main route that edges away from the city centre to the south-west.

This is another busy and pretty street sporting a fine set of statues and other decorations.

I took lots of pictures as I ambled along and while the black boy with the bells nearly made the final selection I settled for the safer classic angels instead, taking care not to blink as I did so.

I also found the Apple shop and popped in just for a minute to add it to my increasing, and pointless, collection of Apple Shops. I checked in on FourSquare and was relieved to find that I was the first of my friends to go there. The extra points awarded for that achievement do not matter either but collecting is compulsive.

One the edge of the old town is another gate to mark the passing from the old to the new.

To reinforce the point, on the other side of the gate are seven lanes of traffic and two sets of tram tracks. The change in energy and noise is dramatic and unwelcome.

What is welcome, once you have managed to cross the road, is the water feature in the middle of the tram turning circle.

There are a few flowers there too (Munich, like Zurich, does not really go in for flowers) and a few benches to sit on to enjoy the scene that somehow manages to defy the turbulence flowing all around it.

And that was it. A short walk to Max Pett for another excellent vegan meal (that's an excellent meal that happened to be vegan) then another short walk back to the hotel for a final sleep in Munich before another train the next day. And that's a story for another day.

Residenz Museum Munich

Day Three in Munich was a little damp, verging on wet, and having seen the main sights on the first two days it seemed sensible to find a museum or gallery.

I had passed the Residenz Museum in the city centre on my first day and the trams go near by so that was the decision made.

From the outside you can tell that the Residenz is large but there is no indication of how much of it is open to the public or of what to expect inside.

The alternative was walking in the rain so I paid my 7 euro and in I went.

The marked route started with a small hall and then a courtyard (the Residenz has many of them) before I hit the first "wow" room, the Fountain Court. This ticks all the palace buttons in that it is vast and beautifully decorated.

The red arrows took me through a bewildering collection of rooms, halls and corridors.

The layout of the palace is confusing because of the way it has expanded over the many years that it was in use. It is (basically) rectangular with rectangular courtyards in the centre but a few diagonal corridors have been added to mess things up.

There are also parallel corridors, presumably to allow servants to move around unseen, and various stairs with some rooms open to the public on the ground and first floors. If not for the guided route I think that I would still be walking around, lost but happy.

All sorts of rooms are open from the largest halls, through the formal state rooms and down the the living spaces for some of the lesser royals who lived there. One amazing suite was just for visiting Emperors.

A lot of the rooms are furnished in the style of the time and there are lots of paintings, tapestries, porcelain and even a dinner service.

I spent a lot of time looking up as the ceilings were consistently magnificent both in shape and decoration. It is no coincidence that ceilings feature prominently in four of these photos, including two of the large one.

The halls also impressed. Even the simpler ones had the scale and proportions to make you draw breath.

Even an hour in to the tour I was still being surprised by the grandeur of each new room.

And after an hour I was only about a third of the way along the tour. It takes so long simply because it is a long walk all the way around and there is so much to stop and see along the way.

A little allowance is made for those less able to walk that far and one part of the tour is optional, i.e. you can take a short cut that misses one of the corridors.

There are plenty of seats so the weary can rest and there is always something to look at as they do so.

Each room has a notice that tells you the history of the room, typically who commissioned it, who designed it and what use it was put too.

In some cases this also includes a description of the damage caused by bombing during the last war.

Without these notices, and the contemporary photographs with them, you would never know that it had been damaged at all, such is the extent and quality of the repairs.

Of course this raises the issue of the genuine article versus substantially restored one or even a modern copy. As with the old-look new buildings elsewhere in the city, I am in favour of repairing and replacing the old with the new provided it is done sympathetically and honesty.

The purpose of the Residenz Museum is to show you what the palace was like when the Bavarian Royalty lived there, not as it was after it was bombed. There are other museums for that sort of thing.

This statue of Perseus beheading Medusa is not necessarily typical of the few statues on display but you cannot argue with a severed head for dramatic effect.

The Residenz Museum took me about three hours to get around, and there are other museums in the same building, notably the Treasury. Three hours was enough for me though and I was perfectly delighted with just the one museum.

I said that Fountain Court was the first "wow" room and the tour finished with another.

This court is not as wide as the first and it compensates for this with its seriously over the top gold decoration. It is an astonishing end to a fascinating journey.

Outside the rain had slipped away leaving a cold grey day in its wake. That is ideal weather for walking through a strange city and I set off in search of a pint.