Boston (Mass.)

I first came to Boston almost 40 years ago, then again the best part of a decade ago, when I simply walked from the North Station to the South Station – so it was good to stop over for a couple of nights and have a proper look around. In particular I wanted to visit a friend at MIT and to visit the new Harvard Art Museums (where a scheme by Renzo Piano in 2014 united the previously separate Fogg, Busch-Reisinger and Sackler Museums). This post will mainly be about Boston’s museums and public transport (so what’s new?).

Boston is often thought of as the most colonial of American cities (though I’d say that Philadelphia – and indeed Québec City – run it close), and also as a hard city full of boozey Irish, but nowadays it’s stuffed with high-powered academic – Harvard, MIT, Boston University, Tufts, Northeastern, UMass etc – and medical institutes – Mass Gen, Brigham & Women’s, Boston Children’s, Boston Medical Center, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute etc, which seem to be competing with each other for massive philanthropic gifts. It’s not Silicon Valley but it’s just as impressive. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg were both Harvard drop-outs, of course.

If the downtown area, between the North and South stations, is the equivalent of the City of London, with skyscraper banks, historic buildings and a chaotic streetplan, then Copley Square and beyond is Kensington – more regular, with parks and museums – and between them Chinatown and Theatreland are like Soho, along with Boston Common, in some ways equivalent to Hyde Park. Crossing the Charles River from downtown Boston to Cambridge (Massachusetts – not the Cambridge I live in) you come first to MIT, which turned out to be rather older than I thought, dating from 1861. Originally in Back Bay, the reclaimed land on the Boston side of the river, it moved to Cambridge in 1916. It’s always been renowned, but it’s its computer-based research that has really boosted it into the stratosphere, with the AI Lab (since 1959, amazingly) and the Media Lab (founded in 1985) leading the way. The MIT Museum doesn’t cover the whole story but homes in on specific projects such as COG and Haptics (both aspects of advanced robotics); it also holds the collection of the New York Museum of Holography (which closed in 1992), but I was struck especially by a map of Boston in 1630, with a shoreline scarily close to a projection for 2100, ie with the reclaimed areas re-reclaimed by a rising sea. There’s also a hotch-potch of high-tech new buildings here, by architects such as Alvar Aalto, Eero Saarinen, IM Pei and Frank Gehry.

Frank Gehry’s Stata Center, MIT

Continuing along Mass Ave (Massachusetts Avenue, of course) you come to Harvard Square and the little-known university of the same name, founded in 1636 and now consistently ranked as the world’s best – it’s also the best funded, with an endowment of US$34.5 billion, so deserving students study for free. It’s also increasingly expanding into Allston, just across the Charles River to the south. I’ll add my thoughts on the Harvard Art Museums at the end, I think, but I do recommend them. The Harvard Museum of Natural History is pretty amazing too.

In Fenway, beyond Copley Square and Northeastern University are the Museum of Fine Arts (which I didn’t revisit, it requires at least half a day – but I did see their famous Cézanne portrait of his wife in London anyway a few weeks later) and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, which I hadn’t visited before. It has some wonderful works of art, but I found it a bit annoying – dark, without captions (there are information sheets for each room) and cluttered with decorative arts trinkets and minor works of art that give a sense of Europe having been plundered by the new American tycoons. It also has an expensive but fairly pointless new extension. Gardner did have good taste, though, and was a friend of Whistler and Henry James, and especially of John Singer Sargent – there’s plenty of his work here (and at Harvard), not just portraits but also some landscapes. Oddly enough, it turns out that Sargent is buried in Brookwood Cemetery in Woking, which I mentioned in my last post.

The MFA opened the new Art of the Americas Wing in 2010 and the Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art in 2011; they’ve just been given two more collections of 17th-century Dutch and Flemish art and announced a US$24m project to create more galleries and a Conservation Center. No doubt I’ll get there next time I pass through. One other art museum that was recommended to me was the Institute of Contemporary Art, which had a prestigious history as the Boston offshoot of New York’s MOMA and has greatly expanded its activities since moving to its striking new waterfront building in the Seaport in 2006. This summer (2018) the ICA will open the Watershed, a free summer-only satellite in a former copper pipe factory in the East Boston Shipyard, which will be reached by boat from near the ICA.

Boston’s Irish and liberal-intellectual traditions come together in a left-leaning political tradition, and above all in the person of John F Kennedy, whose presidential library and museum (another striking waterfront building, this one by IM Pei) opened in 1979 a couple of miles south of the city centre (there’s a free shuttle bus from the JFK/UMass station on the Red Line). The museum is of course well presented and offers plenty of insights even if you think you know about JFK already. Of course he had a privileged upbringing, touring Europe and helping out at the US embassy in Paris while his father was ambassador in London, but while his father was tolerant of Hitler JFK took both the Nazi and Soviet threats very seriously. He’d grown up in and on the water and was on the Harvard swim team, so when his motor torpedo boat was rammed and sunk in the Pacific he was able to swim over three miles towing an injured crewman with his life-jacket strap between his teeth; he then led his crew from island to island for six days before meeting two natives in a canoe who took a message carved on a coconut (which is here in the museum) to get help. He came home with malaria and a bad back and, although he had been thinking of teaching as a career, went into politics in place of his older brother who had died when his bomber exploded over Suffolk. As president he remained focussed to a surprising degree on foreign affairs (the Civil Rights agenda was managed by his brother Bobby, the Attorney-General). Wisely, I think, the museum doesn’t touch upon JFK’s assassination. I was reminded how we feared for Obama when he was first elected – there was no need, as it turned out, but with hindsight we can see how thoroughly he fitted the JFK mould of seeking office in order to serve and make the world a better place, and his successor rather less so.

The JF Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
Public Transport and the youth hostel

Boston’s public transport system, run by the MBTA (known as the T), is a bit of a mess – yes, it looks good on paper, or on a map, with subway and ‘commuter rail’ lines covering a wide area, but timetabling and ticketing are very poor, and the trains are old and unattractive. The subway provides a decent all-day service, but the overground trains basically run into the city in the mornings and out in the afternoons (although other American cities are far more extreme cases) with virtually no service in the evenings or at weekends. Modern cities need frequent services all day every day, and not just to the central business district. They also need a fare system that encourages multiple trips and off-peak travel – in Boston a single ticket costs $2.25-2..75 and a day pass costs a stonking $12, which is basically telling people they’re not wanted beyond the basic commute. A day pass should cost little more than two singles. As so often in the US, ticket machines don’t accept non-American cards, but they did take my dollar bills, which isn’t always the case. But this is the city that spent $14.6 billion (almost double the budget) on the Big Dig, a project from 1991 to 2006 to put I-93, the Interstate highway through the heart of Boston, into a tunnel, and didn’t even manage to put a cycleway on top where the highway used to be. Instead there’s a dual carriageway and a linear park, the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, with a path and signs telling cyclists to use the on-road lanes. Yes, painted lines are good enough to protect cyclists here. That does absolutely nothing to get people out of their cars. I’m not even sure the authorities want to – maybe the Democrat machine here is like Old Labour in the UK and hasn’t quite embraced alternative ways of getting around yet.

At least it’s easy to get to the airport – in addition to the free shuttle bus from the Airport subway station, there’s also the relatively new Silver Line bus (SL1) through the new tunnel from South Station (which charges a standard subway fare), and the Airport Shuttle from Copley Square, clearly aimed at tourists (but payment can only be made by credit card so that it’ll end up costing close to US$9 for foreigners once bank fees are added in).

I stayed at the HI hostel which is clean, central, friendly and well organised, and fairly sustainability-minded – except that it was over-heated. Like all hostels nowadays, people don’t talk, they just spend their time on their laptop or phone.

The Harvard Art Museums

As seems to be the way nowadays, Renzo Piano’s transformation of the Harvard Art Museums involved turning an open courtyard into a glass-roofed atrium, with de rigueur café, as well as adding a new wing to the east, on Prescott St. Oddly, as my very last post was about the Lightbox Gallery in Woking (England), he added a ‘lightbox gallery’ at the top, looking down into the atrium, with exhibits exploring the intersections of art and technology (the whole collection is digitised, and you can use an interactive floorplan on your phone). To me it seems very successful, and the displays are certainly wonderful.

Start in room 1220 on the ground floor with the Wertheim Collection, Impressionist and PostImpressionist works donated on condition they’re displayed together in one room – there are pieces by Manet (a fine self-portrait), Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Dufy, Bonnard, Van Gogh, Matisse, Gauguin, Cézanne, Seurat, Maillol, Rousseau, and three Blue period Picassos. In general the museum’s captions are excellent, but I was taken aback by the claim that Pissarro was Danish – it turns out he was born to French parents in the Danish West Indies (now the US Virgin Islands) but there was nothing Danish about him. This seems odd because as a rule in the US it doesn’t matter where an artist was born, if they ever reached the US they’re instantly listed as American.

In the next rooms are four more Picassos, paintings by the likes of Braque, Feininger, Metzinger, Severini, Léger, Klee, de Kooning and O’Keeffe, three sculptures by Brâncusi and others by Henry Moore, Lynn Chadwick and Kenneth Armitage (all British). Then there’s Miró, Orozco, Siqueiros, Grosz, an early Liechtenstein (1953), Guston, Dubuffet, Calder (a combined mobile and stabile), Pollock, Rothko, Gorky, Stella, Nevelson, Albers, Ellsworth Kelley, Serra, Rauschenberg, Beuys, Nam June Paik, Baselitz, Ruscha, Neumann, Gordon Matta-Clark, Sol LeWitt, Gerhard Richter, Joseph Kosuth and Rachel Whiteread – a pretty solid coverage of twentieth-century American art, with a few outsiders. Also on the ground floor is a great collection of nineteenth- and twentieth-century German art (see my post on Berlin’s museums), plus a few Scandinavians, from Franz von Stuck through Corinth, Liebermann, Munch, Klimt, Pechstein, Heckel, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Nolde, Kirchner, Schmidt-Rotluff, Moholy-Nagy, Mondrian, Klee, Ernst, Grosz, Beckmann (his Self-portrait in a Tuxedo, 1927), Kandinsky, Münter, Johannes Malzahn, von Jawlensky and Marc, to a bronze relief by Käthe Kollwitz and a chair by Marcel Breuer. Finally on the ground floor are three rooms of early Chinese and Buddha sculptures, including two sixth-century Buddhas and two from Gandhara, as well as Neolithic jades, bronzes and Tang figures.

After taking the lift up to the Lightbox I went down to the third-floor gallery, where there are ancient treasures such as Assyrian and Persian reliefs (don’t miss Ahuramazda in the Winged Disk, 486-460 BC), superb Greek ceramics (including the ‘Berlin Painter’, who I missed when I was actually in Berlin), Roman glass and sculptures, Greco-Roman funerary portraits, Palmyran funerary heads and Egyptian bronzes, ceramics and (from the Byzantine period) tapestry.

The largely European displays on the second floor have a good selection from the early Italian Renaissance (but much less from the later Renaissance), with Bernardo Daddi, Taddeo di Bartolo, Cosme Tura, Matteo di Giovanni, Fra Angelico, both Ambrogio and Pietro Lorenzetti, Simone Martini, the workshop of Botticelli (there are lots here by ‘workshop of’, ‘after’, or anonymous ‘ Master of …’ – but they’re all very good), the circle of Giovanni Bellini, Ghirlandaio, Lorenzo Lotto, Tintoretto and the Master of the Fogg Pieta (c1330). From Northern Europe there’s a portrait of Luther by the older Cranach, then in the 17th- to 19th-century galleries works by Rubens, Jacob van Ruisdael, van Goyen, Philips Wouwermann, David Teniers II and Rembrandt, then Ribera, Orazio Gentileschi, Canaletto, Tiepolo and Guardi, and a swathe of French art by Poussin, Fragonard, Boucher, Greuze, David, lots by Ingres (including a self-portrait), Géricault, Delacroix, Courbet, Corot, Moreau, Chassériau, Redon, Monet, Cézanne, and Renoir (not fluffy soft-focus ones like on the ground floor – am I the only person who hates those?). There are also works by the American Mary Cassatt and the Belgian Alfred Stevens, both based in Paris, and three by Degas of New Orleans, where he visited family in 1872-3.

The American section starts with portraits by John Singleton Copley (of John Adams), Gilbert Stuart (of John Quincey Adams) and Charles Willson Peale (of George Washington in 1784), as well as his niece Sarah Miriam Peale (1800-85). Copley was the leading portrait painter in colonial Boston but moved to to London to escape the revolutionary turmoil – there are also three excellent big portraits by him of members of the Boylston family, and I couldn’t help noting that Copley and Boylston are both now Boston subway stops. There’s also a portrait of Washington (c1795-6) by Stuart, who painted a series of iconic portraits of the first president and, with his daughters, 130 copies of them – but this is one of the best. There are also works by Eakins, Bierstadt, Sargent (a landscape of the Simplon), Whistler, Winslow Homer and photos by Stieglitz, and British artists such as Lawrence (of the Persian ambassador to the court of George III), Holman Hunt, Ford Madox Brown, Rossetti, Watts, Bonington and Burne-Jones, and photos by Eadweard Muybridge.

And finally, there’s more Asian art, with Islamic ceramics, Indian stone-carvings and paintings, Japanese scrolls and screen, Chinese ceramics and scholar’s rocks (a fascinating discovery), plus murals from the Dunhuang temples. All in all, the HAM is not as comprehensive as the MFA, but the twentieth-century collection in particular is excellent.

Woking – halfway to Amazingstoke

Most people think of Woking just as a commuter town on the railway from London towards Basingstoke and deepest Hampshire; some will know it as home to Britain’s first mosque (founded in 1889) or as the site of the first Martian landing in HG Wells’s The War of the Worlds. However it does have other claims to fame, notably The Lightbox Gallery, opened in 2007, which puts on interesting little art exhibitions and has a small local history museum. My friends in Walton-on-Thames have no interest in visiting (they like larger shopping centres such as Kingston, Guildford and Oxford), but I like coming here, partly because it’s a pleasant cycle ride along the towpaths of the Thames, the River Wey Navigation and the Basingstoke Canal.

From the railway station in the present town centre, it’s just a mile southeast to the village of Old Woking: St Peter’s Church, just off the High St, dates from the 11th century, with its tower added in the 13th and 15th centuries, as well as 15th-century pews, 16th-century brasses and a 17th-century gallery. But its greatest treasure is the Great Oak Door, dating from the reign of Henry I, with its excellent medieval ironwork. The church is listed as Grade I, and nearby the Old Manor House, The Grange and Hoe Place are all Grade II or II*. Carters Lane continues east (past a 17th-century farmhouse) to the site of Woking Palace, dating from around AD 1200, which was taken over by Henry VII after 1502 and expanded by Henry VIII between 1515 and 1543; however it fell out of favour and was demolished by 1635. There’s now a grassy area within a moat, with a vaulted undercroft and some buried foundations. It was excavated in 2009-15, after some rather damaging poking-around by Rupert Guinness, who bought the estate in 1905 from his father-in-law the Earl of Onslow, who owned Clandon Park, just beyond Guildford, one of the National Trust’s treasures but closed since a fire in 2015. In 1910 Guinness went to Canada and then created the Woking Park Farm in order to train emigrants to farm in Canada (he became Earl of Iveagh in 1927 and died in 1967; there are still historical traces of the Guinness/Iveagh family in Vancouver BC).

Closer to the station and the present town centre, the Shah Jehan Mosque was founded in 1889 (and closed between 1899 and 1913); on the far side of the railway, towards Horsell Common where the Martians landed, the Muslim Burial Ground was established in 1915 (for soldiers from India who died in World War I) and beautifully restored for its centenary. Visitors are welcome at both the mosque and the burial ground.

The River Wey Navigation was built in the 1650s (adding weirs and locks to make the river navigable by barges), and the Basingstoke Canal opened in 1794. The London & Southampton Railway arrived in 1838 (its station was called Woking Common at first); in 1845 a branch opened to Guildford, extended in 1859 to Portsmouth. As a railway junction Woking developed far faster than it had as a canal town, with a huge surge in its population at the end of the 19th century; then the railway was electrified and the present somewhat Deco-style station built in 1937. Now there are no less than 14 trains an hour to London (taking 28-50 minutes) rather than the five a day provided when it opened in 1838.

The Lightbox

I came to The Lightbox to see an exhibition on JMW Turner in Surrey – there were none of his great paintings, but quite a few sketches and engravings that he made along the Rivers Thames, Wey and Mole – he lived most of his life near the Thames, settling in Twickenham, and used a boat to paint from; he was also a passionate fisherman. It made me think of JK Jerome, who began writing Three Men in a Boat as a serious travel guide, but ended up producing one of our finest comic novels – a lesson, perhaps, for guidebook writers like me.

In addition to temporary exhibitions, there are some works by major British sculptors on the ground floor and a selection of twentieth-century British works from the Ingram Collection, which might include David Jones, William Roberts, John Bellany, John Bratby, Edward Burra or Billy Childish. There’s also a good little history gallery, featuring the palace, the mosque, the railway, notable Wokingtonians (I just made that word up) such as the cricketing Bedser twins Eric and Alec, Rick Parfitt of Status Quo and rower James Cracknell. There’s coverage of the local army regiments – the First Tangier Regiment of Foot, founded in 1661, became the Queen’s Royal Regiment (the West Surreys), the oldest English infantry regiment of the British Army. The 31st Regiment of Foot was raised in 1702 as a Marines regiment to serve in the War of the Spanish Succession; in 1756, at the start of the Seven Years’ War, a second battalion was raised which became the 70th Regiment of Foot, and these merged again in 1881 to form the East Surrey Regiment. They became famous for the ‘football attack’ on the Somme in 1916, and defended the Dunkirk beaches and Singapore in World War II. In 1959 the East and West Surreys were amalgamated to form the Queen’s Royal Surrey Regiment, and in 1966 this amalgamated with various Kent, Sussex, Middlesex regiments to form the Queen’s Regiment; having merged again in 1992, it’s now the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment (Queen’s and Royal Hampshires). Anyway, I don’t think there’s any mention of RC Sherriff, an officer in the 9th East Surreys, who was wounded at Passchendaele and invalided home, where he eventually wrote the classic play Journey’s End (1928, filmed for the fifth time in 2018). He went up to my Oxford college (1931-4) and ended up writing movie scripts, including Goodbye Mr Chips (nominated for an Oscar in 1939) and The Dam Busters (1955).

Finally, the museum has coverage of Brookwood and Brooklands – on opposite sides of Woking (but both visible to the south of the railway), and not to be confused. Brookwood, a couple of miles west, was home to the London Necropolis, a private cemetery opened in 1854; this was once Europe’s largest cemetery, with space for Anglicans and Nonconformists, and had its own rail branch, with direct trains from Waterloo. Brooklands, just east near Weybridge, was the site of Britain’s first motor-racing circuit (1907-39) and an airfield and the Avro, Vickers and Hawker aircraft factories; there’s now a museum with various early cars and planes, as well as a Concorde. Next to this is Mercedes-Benz World, where you can see over 100 historic cars and drive on the original circuit. My local friends recommend the café – very popular with Weybridge’s community of Russian oligarchs, so they say.

Across the canal from The Lightbox is the Living Planet Centre, home of WWF-UK (what used to be the World Wildlife Fund); it keeps good shopkeeper’s hours of 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday so I haven’t been inside yet, but it’s apparently one of the greenest buildings in Britain, with a good education and visitor centre.

Paris (m’enfin)

It’s not easy to write about Paris, it’s just too big and too well known, but I think that – in the light of last year’s protests about overtourism in places such as Dubrovnik, Barcelona and Venice – it’s worth saying that tourism has improved Paris greatly. Some of us remember when Parisian waiters simply ignored tourists and anyone who didn’t speak French, and when most restaurants were in any case closed for the month of August while their owners relaxed on the beach. Nowadays Paris feels normally alive all through the summer, and its citizens have realised that tourism is their biggest industry and that they are perfectly capable of speaking a bit of English. It’s a huge improvement!

However the terrorist attacks of 2015, which killed over 200, did lead to a drop in tourist numbers – the Louvre saw a mere 5.3 million visitors in 2016 (down 20%) and the Musée d’Orsay saw 3 million visitors (down 13%). Hotel bookings overall were down 10% in 2016, but Paris remained the world’s third most visited city with just over 18 million arrivals (behind London with 19.8m and Bangkok with 21.5m). I assume the figures recovered a bit in 2017, but when one sees the serpentine hour-long queues to get into the Palace of Versailles or Notre-Dame cathedral it’s not hard to feel that Paris might benefit from less tourism. They could take the time to sort out their dreadful toilets, for one thing. And they could think how to make the odd sandwich (and quiche) without ham or chicken in it.

Anti-tourism protests may seem like a first-world problem (the third world being happy to take the money and the jobs) but it’s not really – Bali is now utterly unrecognisable from the island I saw in 1983, and the sex trade in Thailand and Cambodia is simply disgusting, just to pick a couple of random examples.

Anyway, I pass through Paris a lot but rarely stop overnight, and with baggage there’s a limit to what you can do. However I have managed a couple of stays recently and visited the Petit Palais for the first time – it’s a delightful space (built for the 1900 Paris Exhibition) with excellent mosaics in particular; the art exhibits seem very dull at first but then you come to the impressionists and post-impressionists and it’s suddenly worth the price of entry (which is in fact zero – it is a free gallery). Downstairs there are further galleries dedicated to Antiquity, the Eastern Christian World, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, which I will have to come back to.

Rodin’s statue of Balzac – who was born in Tours, though I didn’t mention that in my earlier post.

I also went to the Musée Rodin, or at least its lovely gardens (which cost €4, not €2 as our guidebook thought, but are still worth it). As well as lots of biographic information panels there are, as you’d hope, plenty of sculptures, many of them working models for the Burghers of Calais and others of Rodin’s great monumental ensembles.

And I revisited the lovely Musée de Cluny, which I hadn’t been to since my school days – the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries are still wonderful (six of them, made in about 1500 in Paris or the north of France, allegorising the five senses and the mysterious Mon Seul Désir, presumably referring to love (the unicorn is a symbol of chastity, but there’s also something undeniably phallic about it). The museum also houses stained glass from the Sainte-Chapelle, pieces of Nottingham alabaster, and sculpture fragments from Notre-Dame, lost when it was vandalised in 1793 and found in 1977 shoring up the foundations of a mansion); and it also incorporated the Bains de Lutèce, the remains of a huge third-century complex of Roman baths, notably the huge vaulted frigidarium, now used to house large chunks of medieval stonework.

The Cluny is quiet and feels like a bit of a backwater – it was the last Paris museum not to have been renovated since the 1950s, it seems, and the Cluny4 project will open it up a bit by 2020, with disabled access to a new welcome building; the museum is currently closed from March to mid-July 2018. With luck they’ll also provide a bit more information in foreign languages (there are a few English and Spanish information sheets, but otherwise it’s all in French.

New for 2018

More art galleries! Why does Paris need more art galleries, I hear you say – but there really are some quite exciting developments coming to fruition this year. It seems to be a rule now that French billionaires have to establish a foundation for contemporary art (the Fondation Cartier, the Fondation Ricard, the Fondation Louis Vuitton), incidentally giving starchitects like Jean Nouvel and Frank Gehry the chance to further boost their profiles; now Rem Koolhas has remodelled a building in the über-cool Marais district to house Lafayette Anticipations, a performance/exhibition space and art incubator that’s a spin-off from the Galerie des Galeries, the exhibition space of the Galeries Lafayette department store. And early in 2019 the Fondation Pinault will be opening a gallery in the striking Bourse de Commerce (Commodities Exchange, near Les Halles).

Something slightly different is the Atelier des Lumières, a digital museum of fine art, opening in April 2018 – this will stage exhibitions on specific artists, the huge digital versions of their paintings supposedly bringing new insights.

And finally, talking of department stores, La Samaritaine reopens in 2018 after a 500 million Euro refurbishment – a harmonious blend of Art Nouveau and Art Deco architecture, it was suddenly closed down in 2005 due to safety concerns, and it was assumed for a long time that this institution of bourgeois French life was gone for good. The glass ceiling and monumental staircase are as good as new, and there’ll also be a hotel, offices and some social housing.

Saumur (and Tours)

The small town of Saumur, on the Loire between Tours and Angers, is just outside the area of the most famous and most visited French châteaux, but there are some attractive ones in the area, including the dramatic castle looming over the town itself. It also has other attractions, notably its wineries (this is apparently France’s third largest wine-making area, although obviously Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, the Côtes du Rhône and various other areas come to mind first) and its equestrian attractions.

The area is characterised by its light yellow limestone, known as tuffeau (this is not what we call tuff in English, let alone tufa), which was quarried out of the hillsides along the Loire; there are now over 1,000km of tunnels in these hills, many of which are used as wine cellars and also for growing mushrooms (nothing exotic, alas, just your standard champignons de Paris). There are also troglodytic dwellings in the cliff-faces along the river. This rock gives its unique taste to Saumur’s wines – its speciality is sparkling wines, mainly white but also rosé and even red (not recommended), but they also make a pleasant light still red, mainly from Cabernet Franc grapes. We went tasting at Veuve Amiot, in the suburb of St Hilaire-St Florent, walkable from Saumur or served by the local Agglobus service – they do free tours (including in English) and tastings, while others in the area all charge (though only about €2). I’m never going to greatly enjoy sparkling wines, but it was a good experience.

I last visited Saumur on a family holiday in the 1970s, and I vaguely remember seeing the Cadre Noir horse-riding display then. We went again, having acquired another horse-mad family member, and it’s still impressive – I mean, how on earth do the riders communicate to the horses which fancy piece of footwork they want next? Saumur’s equestrian culture (there are lots of other stables, riding schools and saddle-makers dotted around outside the town) derives from the army’s cavalry school being established here in 1766 – the army fights in tanks now, but they still have a lot of horses here. We also wandered into the army’s stables, on the west edge of the town – our host happened to be a fairly senior officer, but it’s definitely not a secure area in any case. You might be turned away, but you’re not going to be shot at. But in fact we were taken aback by the amount of gunfire we heard – military horses have to be accustomed to it, after all.

The army stables, Saumur

The two main churches of Saumur, St-Pierre and Notre-Dame de Nantilly, are largely Romanesque, and bare and cold, but in summer they have 15th- and 16th-century tapestries on their walls. I also looked in to the church of St Nicolas, which is Gothic, but with very kitschy twentieth-century mosaics, and the very Classical pilgrimage chapel of Notre-Dame des Ardilliers. It’s not far east to the abbey of Fontevraud, supposedly Europe’s largest monastic complex, and resting place of Henry II of England, his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their son Richard Lionheart. It’s another cold bare Romanesque church, but it has been well restored in recent years and also houses some quite interesting temporary art displays, devised specifically for the setting by artists who’ve had a residency there. There are also displays on the period from 1804 to 1985 when the abbey served as a prison. I well remember visiting the spectacular kitchens, but these are closed for restoration – thoroughly recommended when they’re open again. A local bus from Saumur comes out here two or three times a day (Monday to Friday).

Fontevraud

As for châteaux, we visited Brézé, which I’d never heard of – and it turns out it hasn’t been open long. In the 15th century Gilles de Maillé-Brézé was Grand Master of the Hunt to René, Duke of Anjou (later Count of Provence and King of Naples), and a successor married the sister of Louis XIII’s chief minister, the Cardinal de Richelieu; from 1701 to 1830 the Marquis de Dreux-Brézé were continuously Grand Masters of Ceremonies to the kings of France. Oddly, in 1959 the last of the family married a descendant of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, who was Richelieu’s equivalent under Louis XIV, and it’s the Colbert family who opened the place to visitors in 1998. With that pedigree it’s actually a bit surprising that the place isn’t grander – rebuilt in the 16th century, it has an attractive Renaissance exterior, but the interior was decorated in a fairly tawdry NeoGothic style in the 1830s. The private apartments, still furnished in Renaissance style, are open only for guided tours.

Brézé

The château itself was founded in 1063, but in fact there’s an even older underground complex, the Roche de Brézé, beneath it and on the far side of the 15m-deep douve or dry moat. There are several kilometres of defensive tunnels and stores, as well as a kitchen and even a silkworm farm; there’s a large winery and cellar down there as well now. Well worth poking around.

Tours

In the interests of fairness and balance, I also visited Tours, an historic city which was effectively capital of France from 1444 to 1527, after Louis XI established himself in a château in what are now the city’s western suburbs. Touraine is famed as ‘the Garden of France’ (and they apparently speak the purest French here), but compared to tranquil Saumur, Tours seems like a big city, with traffic and Asian tourists and far more obese people (there didn’t seem to be any in Saumur – it must be all that horse-riding). There’s one modern tram line (and a new one being planned); like the one in Nice it uses overhead wires only outside the historic centre. Tours has a château, of course, or at least two medieval towers with an 18th-century barracks building between them, which is used for temporary art exhibitions. On the far side of the cathedral (known for its wonderful 13th- to 15th-century stained glass) the former bishops’ palace houses the Musée des Beaux Arts, the city’s permanent art collection. It’s not great but has a few fine paintings among the acres of 18th-century blandness – there’s a lovely Virgin by the studio of Albrecht Bouts (a copy of a work by his father Dirk Bouts), a Rubens, a Rembrandt (very early and of dubious authenticity), a Corot, a Monet and an unusual charcoal by Vuillard, as well as early Greek ceramics, Roman busts, and 15th-century English alabaster carvings. There are a few impressive sculptures by Marcel Gaumont (born in Tours in 1880) and Jo Davidson, an American who died in Tours in 1952. There are also large abstracts by Olivier Debré (1920-99) – see below.

Finally you can descend to some newly restored ground-floor rooms where the Octave Linet collection of Italian primitives went on display in May 2017. There’s some genuinely good stuff here, by Lodovico Veneziano, Antonio Vivarini, Bicci di Lorenzo, Niccolo di Tommaso and Giovanni di Paulo, and then the Mantegna room, with two paintings from his altarpiece for the church of St Zeno in Verona and Degas’ study of Mantegna’s Crucifixion, as well as a Moroni portrait and Cardinal Richelieu’s copy (probably the first) of Caravaggio’s Holy Family with John the Baptist (the original is in the Metropolitan Museum in New York).

Tours cathedral

The old town of Tours is a short distance west of the château/cathedral area, with half-timbered squares and the remains of medieval churches (the basilica of St Martin, over his tomb, was built in 1878-1902, but the towers of the medieval complex are still standing). In the cloister of the church of St Julien the Musée du Compagnonnage displays thousands of masterpieces – literally – the works produced by members of guilds to be accepted as masters of their craft. Fascinating stuff. This area is being redeveloped, including the Centre de Création Contemporaine Olivier Debré, a new space opened in 2017 to display for contemporary art, including the work of Olivier Debré – a respected figurative painter, he switched to abstract art during World War II (when he also won the Croix de Guerre fighting with the Résistance) and became known for his large and very brightly coloured works, while his brother became prime minister. He was very much a Parisian, but the family had a country house in Touraine, where he loved to paint.

The Basilica of St Martin and the Tour Charlemagne, Tours
Transport troubles

One might expect the Orléans-Tours-Angers-Nantes axis (ie following the lower Loire) to have an hourly service of express trains linking them (and Blois and Saumur) as well as local stopping trains – but no, there’s just a train every three or four hours. Saumur and points west are in the historic province of Anjou, now part of the Pays de la Loire region, while Touraine is part of the Centre-Val de Loire region. I’ve written before about the regionalisation of public transport in France, which is fine, but there really has to be a way to provide proper links between the regions. I can also report that the TER (Train Express Régional) systems are still a bit of a mess. Some surprisingly important stations don’t yet have ticket machines, for instance Chamonix, St Gervais, Sallanches and even Dieppe – you can collect internet tickets from the ticket offices, but only when they’re open. Arriving at Dieppe from an overnight ferry, I was a bit taken aback by this, but the office did open in plenty of time. Compostage, or time-stamping your ticket as you go onto the platform, is a French tradition, but it’s got slightly complicated of late – e-tickets don’t need to be stamped, but other tickets that are only valid for a specific train still do for some reason.

The tendency in France is always to provide fast links with Paris, and that’s the case here too – the high-speed line to Bordeaux passes close to Tours and some of the older TGV trains are now used to link the central station with Paris Montparnasse in just over an hour (without any food and drink service); older trains still come here from Paris Austerlitz via Orléans, but they take twice as long, despite running at 200km/h. Note that, in order to get to the Metro’s Line 4 to reach the Gare de Nord you literally have to walk 700 metres at Montparnasse (there’s a travelator, but it’s not working) – and from March 12 to June 12 (2018) Line 4 trains will not be stopping at the Gare du Nord anyway (and Châtelet is also closed). Ticketing is primitive too, as visitors still have to queue to buy paper tickets from machines – none of this contactless/smart card malarkey!

Saumur itself can be reached from Paris by taking a TGV to either Tours or Angers and changing there; the Pays de la Loire region does also operate some pretty nice buses from Le Mans via Saumur to La Roche sur Yon.

Public transport in France is supposedly set to be revolutionised by modern coach companies competing with the state railways now that they’ve lost the protection of their monopoly on long-distance travel. The truth is that OuiBus was set up by the state railway company to compete with… the state railways – and more importantly to block other potential competitors. Nevertheless the excellent FlixBus, already well established in Germany, and Isilines have appeared here (not to mention the BlaBlaCar car-sharing scheme). The TGV trains, a worldwide icon of Frenchness, are now for some reason being marketed as InOui, which means ‘unheard of’ but is dangerously close to ‘ennui’ or boredom. That may not work too well for them.

There are other oddities about the way they run the railways in France – it’s announced that a stop will be say four minutes long as the train approaches a station, and that timetabled four-minute stop will always be at least four minutes long even if the train is running late and ready to leave after two or three minutes. I put this down to the power of the unions to obstruct common sense, but this can also be helpful in the case of the all-too-common rail strikes. These are beautifully choreographed so that just a few trains a day run on major lines, notably the odd TGV to Paris – at least twice I’ve been caught by a strike on the far side of the country when I’ve needed to get home to Britain, but I’ve always found a way to get there.