Monday, August 31, 2015

Antwerp in Flanders

I lived in Antwerp for 9 months when I was 22 and hadn't been back since. I had forgotten how pretty the city is, particularly the inner city.

Antwerp cathedral
A glorious cathedral, said to be the finest Gothic cathedral in Europe,  towers over the old town with its distinctive Flemish houses.
Antwerp inner city

I was told the houses are used, either for city administration or as private housing as that is the way to make sure they are maintained.

Side chapel in the Cathedral with
Our Lady of Antwerp.
Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp

It is a very religious city, is now Catholic but was Protestant in its past. Like much of Europe the religion changed with the overlords.

If you ask the people here where they come from they say they are Flemish or European, not Belgian.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Paris: the #42 bus

I discovered buses belatedly in Paris and became in instant fan. You use the same tickets as the Metro but you stay above ground, don't have to struggle with stairs and long corridors and you see the sights as you go. I took the bus from south Paris to Gare du Nord (the station where trains leave for the north and for London) and saw all the sights I had not had time to visit during my stay.

The #42 takes you along the Champs Elysée where you catch a glimpse of the Arc d'Triump then along to Lafayette and the astonishingly ornate Opera. Paris is a living museum, everywhere you look there are grand buildings.

Gare du Nord
In the Gare du Nord there are no seats and departure tracks are only announced 15 minutes before the train departs, so the station is full of people standing around looking up at the announcement boards.

Musée d'Orsay has it all

Art galleries today, like concert halls, are full of people taking pictures. Concert halls  try to limit their use but art galleries seem to welcome cameras and so they should since visual imagery is their reason d'être. The only exception I can recall is that small gem, the Dunedin Public Art Gallery in New Zealand.

At the Musée d'Orsay in Paris  you can't resist joining the photographers when you see the originals of works you have so often seen in books and find they are different in real life.  You take a photo, once again consigning the image to a different medium, one which may or may not look more like the original than the ones you've seen in books.  So here are a few photos from the Musée d'Orsay and the reason why I took them.

Main hall, Musée d'Orsay
When you walk into the gallery after queuing to get in (there is a sign at the end of the cordoned walkway saying "queue takes about 30 minutes from this point', and it is spot on) you think you are in a railway station with sculptures and you wonder where the paintings are. I discovered only later that the building was once a railway station, rescued from destruction and remodelled to show art. There is a set of internal stairs accessible from the fifth floor which you are invited to walk down to admire the architecture. 

5th floor poster promoting the internal staircase.
The structure, with paintings displayed in rooms along the length of the main gallery works well as there are lots of 'entrances' where important works can be displayed on the opposite wall to great effect. There are a lot of iconic works at the Musée d'Orsay! 

Paintings are shown in a way that makes them accessible. For example in a poster about the importance of the Salon, it is noted that the critics taste of the time largely determined the paintings now hanging, as the chosen work would be acquired by the state. 

I couldn't help thinking as I watched the eager throngs, what a wonderful investment art is for the State.

The Burial at Ornans, with viewers
I took this photo of A Burial at Ornans complete with frame and viewers on the seat below to show how big it is. The painting made Gustave Courbet famous and knowing it was made for a Salon should have told me it would be enormous, but still I was surprised. 
There are a lot of similarly enormous Salon works at the Musée d'Orsay but also smaller, though sometimes even more controversial, work.

People take pictures of the paintings they like and most often those are the famous ones.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir,
Les Baigneuses
There are a lot of less successful paintings by less famous artists or even by the well know artists themselves and I always like to see them on display because they remind us that making a successful painting is not so easy and seeing the less successful work helps us appreciate the work and practise that art requires.

I took a picture of Les Baigneuses by Renoir because, for me, it is a less successful work. In real life the painting makes the models look as if they are constructed from a set of pink tires.

Small crowd looking at small painting 
As I walked on through the galleries I noticed a small group clustered around a small painting positioned promenantly in front of an entrance. No one was looking at the paintings on the walls either side.

Yes, it was Gustave Courbet's cheeky L'Origine du Mond (Origin of the World) that was attracting so much attention.

L'Origins du Mond

Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Bastille in Red

The Bastille - I aimed my camera, pressed the button and got a picture of red.

It was a passing bus, but quite appropriate for the Bastille because this was where the Bastille prison was until the storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789. It was subsequently physically destroyed, with nothing remaining.

Instead there is the July Column which I had been trying to photograph.
July Column

The July Column was built in 1835-40 of 21 cast bronze drums with an interior staircase. On top stands the 'Spirit of Freedom', a large gilded figure you cannot overlook. He carries the torch of civilization and his broken chains.

'Spirit of Freedom'
'Spirit of Freedom', I don't suppose it ever looses its relevance. Perhaps they could erect another when Chelsea Manning, Julian Assauge and Edward Snowdon are released from their respective confinements.

Getting around Paris

Someone told me recently they had been to Paris 30 years ago and had
 decided then that they never wanted to return.
Looking back down the stairs
I have just climbed up .....
 Perhaps they tried taking their luggage on the Metro system, because that would put anyone off. The Paris Metro is a really good system of interconnection lines with excellent signage but there are a great many stairs to climb or descend and very few aids. Sometimes there are escalators but as often as not the are out of action.  It would be a nightmare with a pram and impossible with a wheelchair. It is also impossible with heavy bags and I saw a lot of tourists struggling with luggage on my way into the center of Paris from Gare de Lyon. Some were sitting defeated half way up or down long staircases. People with heavy luggage are advised to take a bus instead of train, but you have to do a bit of research to find that out.

For the fit and unencumbered the Metro is fantastic. It is on time, regular,  fast and efficient. It connects with the bus system and lets you use the same ticket for everything. You can even get off, run an errand then get back on again. I think tickets must work for a certain amount of time but I haven't figured out what the length of time is yet.

Where there is a junction in a corridor on the way to a particular Metro line and you have to decide which option to take there are lists of stations where each of the trains will stop, so you can check you are on the right path. (Despite all this assistance I have taken the train in the wrong direction several times. I tell myself it must have something to do with being in the wrong hemisphere!)
The stations distribute very handy free  maps showing all the transport options and marking significant landmarks. It's as good as a purchased guide book for helping you get where you want to go.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

They were clever in the 12th century

Notre Dame, Paris
We think we are pretty smart building skyscrapers nowadays and the higher they are the more we congratulate ourselves on our progress.

Enter a building like the Notre Dame in Paris though and you wonder if we have progressed or gone backwards in the 900 years since it was built.

The building was begun in 1163 and if you consider the tools the builders had at their disposal in the 12th century, the building of such structures surely beats anything we can manage today.
In the Cathedral there are a series of pictures showing the progress of the building as the decades passed. Bit by bit they put it together, and when it was finished they modified Ii, adding ever more features.

Build something beautiful and people will want to come and see it. The  queue stretches right down the large square in front and yesterday morning when I was there it was wet and blowing a gale.

Notre Dame in the wind
A lot of tourists were wearing those cheap plastic raincoats and the queue sounded like a plastic flapping washing line. The queue moves fairly quickly though and once you are inside the crowds disappear into the vast inside space. By the time I emerged the wind had blown away the rain.

Across the road is a warren of back streets with trinket shops and restaurants offering set price menus.

There among the many restaurants is another  church which is also large but tucked between the surrounding buildings so closely it could easily be overlooked. It is the church of Saint-Séverin and it is almost completely empty.  

Its many glass windows are as beautiful as those of it's more famous neighbour. They are also closer to eye level so easier to see.

Window in the Church of Saint-Séverin 
Notre Dame window

Notre Dame: The north transept rose

Monday, August 24, 2015

Goodbye Switzerland, hello France

My stay in Switzerland was a short one, just four days, but long enough to get over jet lag as well as hear two fantastic concerts. The weather was 17C one day and 30C the next, which was perhaps the reason so many people there seemed to have colds (including two staff at my hotel  - and now I have it as well).

Jurgen from the Rinderberg told me it had been a very hot summer and that the glaciers you could see from his restaurant had receded remarkably.

Typical Swiss house
drawn from the train
Farmers were working hard making hay during my stay. Where tractors would be used they were but as I swung up to the Rinderberg by gondola I noticed people mowing steeper slopes with hand held machines. There were also a lot of folk turning the grass by hand. That is hard work. In Switzerland you have the feeling that very little is wasted.  In some inaccessible wooded places along the rail track I noticed sticks sorted by size and neatly bundled.

Both trains down the mountain from Zweisimmen to Bern then along the flatlands between Bern and Basel were empty in comparison to the very fast train from Basel to Paris. I had 4 minutes to change trains. Unfortunately the Swiss don't have those information sheets every German station has that show where each carriage of the train stops but I was lucky and I still had one minute to run down the platform to my carriage. The train was so over-full that it would have been impossible to get through the carriages to my seat had I squeezed into any other carriage.
Luggage piled between seats

On the website they say seat reservations are obligatory but there seemed to be a lot of people without seats, or who had to vacate them when others with a reservation came to claim them. Luggage was piled high in the entry gangway, (not just a couple of bags, but lots of cases and boxes and bags stacked up to the roof) between seats and in the overhead racks. But whether we were sitting or standing, the train got us and all our luggage to Paris.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Seeing Kaufmann sing in Gstaad

Sometimes life delivers the unexpected. I went to Switzerland to hear Jonas Kaufmann sing and booked a second concert as an afterthought which turned out to be the one I enjoyed most.
Gstaad festival 
It was a complex mix of factors that made the difference, not the performers who were both exceptional. I went to Gstaad still tired  from the previous evening's concert and that may have contributed to my lack of enthusiasm for the place. Also I had loved the tiny church where the Sebastian Knauer piano concert was held. It had a charm which the huge festival tent at Gstaad lacked.

Kaufmann's marvellous voice is worth travelling for. It is extraordinary to hear a voice the fills such a large space, even when he sings softly.  However next time I will get a ticket to see him perform in an opera instead of a concert. I want to be immersed in the story when I hear the aria.

In the course of the evening I got to know one of Kaufmann's 'groupies', a Zurich woman who goes to see Kaufman sing wherever he is.  She told me that she had recently tried booking to hear him in Paris in June 2016 and had found the tickets were already sold out. I will have to plan well ahead if I want to hear him in an opera.

My new acquaintance offered to make a copy of the Fidelio Kaufmann sang in Salzberg last week which was broadcast and which she had taped. I missed it because I was in the air on the way here, so I accepted her offer with pleasure.

Kaufmann video you may not have seen!

Zweisimmen to Gstaad by rail

 Zweisimmen is half an hour by rail from Gstaad and I took the train there yesterday. It is a very curvy scenic journey up and over the hill.

Salzburg Elevation  = 424 m (1,391 ft)
Bern Elevation  = 542 m (1,778 ft)
Zweisimmen Elevation =  947 m (3,107 ft)
Gstaad Elevation = 1,050 metres (3,445 feet)

Zweisimmen to Gstaad by rail.
Now I have finally visited Gstaad I realise how lucky I was deciding to stay in Zweisimmen instead of Gstaad. Firstly that extra train change after a long haul flight would have been one too many. I would not have enjoyed the scenic journey.  But secondly,  Gstaad is like a large upmarket mall and I found it similarly sterile. It might be upmarket but it is not relaxing ( well perhaps it is for people who love shopping.)

Pretty Gstaad
Visitors were a mixture of Swiss in hiking gear and internationals/locals shopping in the swanky shops. Middle Eastern folk were noticable by their presence, carrying large shopping bags.
Art ...

Art too
I visited two art galleries which were full of the type of art made in workshops according to an artist's directions.

In short, I found Gstaad tiring and alienating. Good for a concert perhaps, but not for a holiday.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Sebastian Knauer wows his Zweisimmen audience

I came to the Menuhin Festival in Switzerland to hear Jonas Kaufman sing but on the way I have discovered another fantastic musician, a pianist called Sebastian Knauer.
Zweisimmen Church
I bought my ticket to Knauer's concert (Tribute to Wilhelm Kempf) because it was on the day before the Kaufmann concert and would be held in Zweisimmen Church which is a couple of streets from my hotel.

Stumbling over something remarkable quite by accident is such a joy. I had no idea who Wilhelm Kempf was (so much in music passed me by during my scientist years) nor Sebastian Knauer but you only have to listen to Knauer play for a few minutes to realise that he is one of a kind and I was fortunate enough to hear him at practise at the church for a little while in the morning. His playing sent me into a different dimension and I immediately went off to find out more about both he and Kempf.
Split in pole holding up
The balcony
Zweisimmen church

They are both from Hamburg (I studied there and still love the place), Knauer was something of a child protegy and Wilhelm Kempf was a renowned interpreter of Beethoven. So my ears had not deceived me; this was something special.

I have a feeling that Knauer must have learned from Kempf because during his performance of Beethoven in the evening it felt as if he was channelling the composer. He took us by the hand and led us on an emotional journey and you could have sworn Beethoven was in the room. I suppose that is how Kempf must have played and I was reminded of a piano teacher I knew in Hamburg who traced his lineage directly back to Mozart through a series of teachers. That sort of pedigree does make a difference.

Sebastian Knauer has the build of a sportsman and his playing is muscular while at the same time delicate and nuanced.

At the concert in Zweisimmen Church he played mostly Beethoven for the first half then included several Schubert pieces in the second. Two hours of playing to an audience that was captivated from the first moment and which gave him a heartfelt standing ovation.  There were several piles of his CDs available to purchase and every one was sold. I think that is the first time I have seen that happen and the audience was not particularly large. I bought his Schubert compilation so, like many, I am taking a little bit of Knauer home with me.

Swinging to the Rinderberg, Zweisimmen

So what do you do when you find yourself staying in a small Swiss village in a hotel about 100m from the base station of a  gondola? Well if you are like me, you make an unscheduled trip to the building next door which, luckily for you, houses a bank. With cash in hand you can take a trip to the top most station, the Rinderberg, for your Wurstchen & Roestli lunch.

As I sat swinging in the small red cabin I remembered I am not much good at heights, but the door was securely fastened and there was no way to either fall out or turn back so I concentrated on the view instead. I had the cabin to myself but I could well imagine it full of well padded people with snow goggles and skis when the very green fields below would be white.

Up and up we swung, over fields of grazing cows, over the treetops and up and up until Zweisimmen was a tiny spot in the landscape below.

I was the lone guest in the Rinderberg Restaurant and as my Wurstchen was being cooked the young owner Jurgen told me his story.

He was from Düsseldorf and had worked all over the world in other people's restaurants but he really wanted his own place.

Now this was his, the Rinderberg (cattle mountain) Restaurant and although it was a difficult place to make a living he was doing okay.
Zweisimmen is just to the right of the pylon.

He ran events. Next weekend is an event for 17 year olds then the following event was for 70 year olds. He wanted everyone to come, no matter what their age and sees his job as "making them happy". He shouted me a drink as we sat and chatted.... Vodka and green 'Spritze' - now that's novelty with a sausage lunch!

Jurgen said he had just run a four day Techno festival which had been really successful. He'd got a police licence so when the lone farmer with a shed nearby complained to the police they just said 'Well he has a licence, there's nothing we can do'.

" And anyway," said Jurgen, "the cows came to watch and I they stayed. I think they really enjoyed it too."

He said that he was now getting calls from other venues asking how he managed to get a licence and how he organised the party because they wanted to put on something similar.
The party finished last Monday ("I did 60 straight hours behind the bar" ) and they were still cleaning up. They had already cleaned three times and would do a fourth clean tomorrow. He obviously fits well into Swiss society. (I watched the cleaner do my room out yesterday and marvelled at her thoroughness, speed and efficiency. She'd win a competition hands down.)

I will remember my ride up to the Rinderberg with pleasure and I think the Swiss are lucky to have such a committed restaurateur as Jurgen in their midst.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Gstaad - playground of the 1%

I  have belatedly read the wikipedia entry for Gstaad:

"Gstaad... is a bilingual village in the German-speaking section of the Canton of Bern in southwestern Switzerland... and is known as a major ski resort and a popular destination amongst the high society and the international jet set."

So no wonder the prices are exorbitant and they have to bus people in for larger concerts.

Gstaad promenade (from Wikipedia)
"Gstaad is home to one of the largest ski areas in the Alps (220 km (137 mi) of slopes). The middle of the village features a picturesque promenade bounded by numerous shops, restaurants, art galleries, and hotels. Designer labels including Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Chopard, Brunello Cucinelli, Prada, Moncler, Ralph Lauren, and Cartier all have stores in Gstaad, while many smaller boutiques stock labels such as Chloe, Dolce & Gabbana, Tod's, Burberry, Dior, Oscar de la Renta, and Marc Jacobs."

Funny isn't it that shopping takes pride of place in the list of attractions. I guess you come here to buy the things that mark you out as one of the 1%, otherwise who would know?

Art galleries are included in the list above so I plan to do a gallery-crawl before the Kuafmann concert.


Zweisimmen is picturesque, even on a wet day, a perfect place to spend time recovering from a long haul flight.  

Everything is green, the wooden houses all have geranium filled window boxes and the vege patches in front gardens show how fertile the soil is. But it is cold, about 17C.  I see some locals still wearing T shirts which reminds me of Dunedin in New Zealand.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Gstaad, home of the Menuhin Festival

Where do you go if you want to hear tenor Jonas Kaufmann sing and you find all his opera performances are long since sold out? Well, if it's August, you go to Switzerland, to a tiny place called Gstaad, high up in the mountains.  The road/rail ends at Gstaad - it is as far as you can go before the rock face to the south cuts you off. Over the mountain is Italy.
Switzerland: Zweisimmen (red arrow left) and
Gstaad (red arrow right) and lots of ski-lifts

Gstaad seems an unlikely choice for a famous-tenor concert, particularly when you find Kaufmann is singing in a tent (yes really!), but then you discover this concert is part of the Menuhin Music Festival and that Yehudi Menuhin lived in Gstaad and it no longer seems so outlandish.

Festival Tent in Gstaad
I discovered this concert a few months ago when there were still tickets available and here I am, jetlagged but ready to listen.

I am not in Gstaad yet actually but in nearby  Zweisimmen. A bed in Gstaad costs CHF300 (AUD$412) - way too expensive for artists, or many people really.  There is a piano recital (also part of the Menuhin Festival) in the Zweisimmen church the night before Kaufmann sings, so it seemed an ideal place to stay. I did check the train timetables and yes, there is a late train back to Zweisimmen! I have since discovered that a shuttle bus services operates from Bern and Lausanne for the major concerts so perhaps even the Swiss find accommodation prices in Gstaad a little overwhelming.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Multi-tasking with Siegfried and Parsifal

ABC Classic FM is playing the Ring Cycle this week, courtesy of Bayerische Rundfunk (Bayern Radio) which announces each evening in three languages. Tonight is night three and Siegfried is singing his heart out. He has just discovered the wood bird as I write. The music under the direction of Kyril Petrenko is fantastic and well paced. No wonder the Berlin Philharmonic chose him as their next music director. He takes over from Simon Rattle and I think he will be equally successful. Lucky Berlin Philharmonic.

Next week I will be traveling and as I listen to Siegfried I am transferring some opera DVDs to a microSD card to take with me and watch on the way. It takes a while as you have to reformat them. First I tried transferring direct but the only one that worked was a Bolshoi recording of Tchaikovsky's Queens of Spades. Copyright protection was the problem with the others so I had to search around the internet to find a way to fix that and now my computer is working hard with the transfer. (Bravo Bolshoi on making their work accessible!)

Currently DVD#2 of Parsifal is being transferred and as Siegfried and the wood bird sing to each other I watch to make sure the computer doesn't turn itself off mid-transfer. I am knitting as I watch.

Surely that is multi-tasking?  I read that you can only do one thing really well when you multi-task, and for me that is currently listening to Siegfried. Everything else is on automatic.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Hilltop view: the Hawkesbury River

The view from the top of the hill at Pearl Beach is a stunner, especially on a calm clear day like the one this photo was taken. The clouds reflect in the water and you can see all the way up the Hawkesbury River. To the top left is Palm Beach, the northernmost tip of Sydney city.

It takes less than half an hour to travel by ferry across the water but an hour and a half (at least) by car.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

First Dog tells it like it is

Oh the humiliation!

Australia has been captured this last week by the controversy about crowds booing the aboriginal football player Adam Goodes. Goodes one of the best players in the game and was Australian of the Year in 2014, an honour he used to support his people and agitate for a change to the way Australian aboriginal peoples are treated.

Football fans have taken to booing Goodes and it has become so virulent and hateful that it is clear to everyone (no actually, not everyone - there is a sizable proportion of the population who thinks it is just fun) that there is a racist element to it. Our government has been acting as if there is nothing amiss and now Goodes has taken a break from football (for excellent comment see this interview with Stan Grant.)
From the cartoon by First Dog on the Moon
Now First Dog on the Moon has weighed in to the controversy. First Dog understands a thing or two about the Australian psyche and I am sure I am not the only New Zealand Australian who is reading today's cartoon with a wry smile.

There is intense competition between the two nations on sports fields which can become less than friendly.  In 2011 when New Zealand played France in the Rugby World Cup I watched the game at a local pub with an Australian friend. The jeering against NZ, the glee when a New Zealand player was injured and the savage anti-NZ venom spoiled the game for us and we decided not to watch games at a pub again.  (Her actual comment was, 'Now you understand why I don't identify with my own country.')

I thought maybe the pub crowd had been extreme, but in July this year I read about the art of 'niggle' in the Guardian and suddenly understood a lot about Australia that I had not understood before, despite living here since 1987. The 'niggle' is what I hadn't understood.

So for the booing public the thought of being sent to New Zealand to learn would be the ultimate humiliation.

New Zealand has been on a steep learning curve regarding race relations over the past forty years and it's cross Tasman friend has a lot of catching up to do.   I hope First Dog's treatment facility has accommodation for long term guests.

Addendum. 2/8/15 The Sydney Swans crowd today gave Goodes a standing ovation. A thousand T shirts with the number 37 printed on them (his number) were handed out and the crowd was a sea of red and white carrying messages of support. When our leaders don't lead, it is up to us.