Growing up in West Cornwall, I almost never went to Falmouth; my sister had friends who played in bands in sticky-floored pubs near the docks, but it wasn’t really for me. We’d go to Truro for shopping when our nearest town, Helston, fell short; we sometimes went to Penzance but I really didn’t know Falmouth, which required an awkward journey through the lanes around the Helford river. In those days it seemed thoroughly post-industrial (though admittedly never as run-down as Redruth and Camborne), but it has gentrified and the Sunday Times’ readers recently voted it their favourite town. It’s been hugely boosted by the transformation of the Art College (small but always prestigious enough) into a university (two in fact, as the University of Exeter shares its Tremough campus), so there are cool cafés and plenty of arty students (as boho as any in Dalston) to hang out in them, and the town even has a proper independent bookshop, something which much grander Truro can no longer support. The opening of the National Maritime Museum Cornwall in 2003 put Falmouth on all the tourist maps, but the real marker of gentrification was the opening of a seafood restaurant by Rick Stein in 2010. When I was there a few weeks ago the Spring Festival was under way, with Science in the Pub events exactly like those I’d left behind in Cambridge!
There was no town here in medieval times, as the site was too exposed to attack from the sea until Henry VIII built Pendennis and St Mawes castles; it really only came into being after 1688 when the Post Office chose Falmouth as the port for its Packet Service to Spain and Portugal, and later across the empire. In 1805 news arrived here of Nelson’s victory, and death, at Trafalgar, from where it was carried to London (271 miles away) in just 37 hours, with 21 changes of horse (at a cost of £46 19s 1d), and in 1836 the Beagle, with Charles Darwin aboard, arrived here at the end of her voyage of circumnavigation. These are mentioned on various plaques, and in The Levelling Sea, a superb account of Falmouth’s history by Philip Marsden, who lives just a few miles away across the harbour. A couple of weeks after my last visit to Falmouth I was, by chance, in Nelson’s home village, which I will mention in another post.
The port declined in the late twentieth century, but the docks seem livelier these days, repairing ships including the Navy’s Royal Fleet Auxiliaries, and cruise ships now come in to the world’s third largest natural harbour. Admittedly most of them just get on buses to the Eden Project and the Lost Gardens of Heligan, but one side effect may be that there’s still a good supply of public toilets, unlike the rest of Cornwall where the gruesomely penny-pinching county council is trying to close them or even to find private concerns willing to try to somehow keep them open.
The town centre loosely falls into two parts, the waterfront street from the Maritime Museum past the church, and The Moor, a square on the hillside just above. There are some great cafés and restaurants in the lower area, but the more hipster artisan coffee bars (and barbers) seem to be on The Moor and just above. I always pop in to Falmouth Art Gallery, at the bottom end of The Moor, because it’s free and has both interesting temporary shows and a permanent collection featuring leading Cornish artists (as well as John Singer Sargent and Tilly Kettle), but also because of their weird and wonderful automata. The most popular is the AutoWed, which you really can use for your wedding – it’s a product of Sam Lanyon’s Concept Shed, just a few hundred metres from the museum.
Pubs and restaurants
Falmouth still has plenty of pubs, and a remarkable number of them seem to be free houses, offering a wider choice of beers than those tied to one brewery. On the other hand, they tend not to bother much about food. For me, the best discovery recently in Falmouth has been Beerwolf Books, a pretty unique bookshop-pub in a eighteenth-century sea-captain’s house (I think). Surprisingly, it was once home to the Falmouth Working Men’s Club; it’s totally un-wheelchair accessible, alas. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but on balance you can ignore the bookshop room but you can’t ignore the bar, so it’s essentially a pub, and a very good one too. I was particularly pleased to find organic, vegetarian beer from my favourite Manchester brewery, Marble. They don’t do food, but next door in the same courtyard is the Courtyard Deli & Kitchen, using the finest local produce.
Other good pubs include the Boathouse, with stunning views across to Flushing and great beer, the Seven Stars on The Moor, with a lovely historic interior, and the ‘Front and the Working Boat, both by the harbour.
As for food, in addition to Stein’s and the Courtyard, a few other tempting options are Pea Souk, a veggie café tucked away up an alley near Beerwolf (they serve takeaway drinks only if you bring your own cup), Stones Bakery, Fuel, Provedore (which is good for breakfast and lunch, and superb for evening tapas – no bookings, so get there early) and Cribbs, a genuine Caribbean restaurant whose owner came from St Vincent as chef on a cruise liner (he’s also just opened Bahama Mamas, a new café-bar on The Moor).
And of course a few words on public transport – the university campus now seems to attract buses from all over west Cornwall, and the Truro-Falmouth railway now has two trains an hour each way, while the main Plymouth-Truro-Penzance line just has one an hour – although this is soon to be increased to two an hour after signalling improvements.
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.
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.
Public Transport and the youth hostel
Boston’s public transport system, run by the MBTA, 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 (the T) 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 $2.75 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 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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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 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).
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
I’ve been to Seattle and the major Californian cities a few times over the last couple of decades, but I hadn’t been to Portland since 1984. Then I spent my university vacation hitchhiking around North America and didn’t pay for a single night’s accommodation. This time I travelled by train and the odd plane and stayed in HI hostels, and I have to say, I’ve changed far less than Portland has. I recall that my main reason for visiting the city was a few showpieces of postmodern architecture, notably Michael Graves’ Portland Building (1982) and the KOIN Centre (1984), which failed to thrill me. I assume I did visit the Portland Art Museum because I remember being impressed by the wealth of Asian art in the museums up the West Coast from San Francisco to Vancouver – but now I can state that it must be one of the dozen or so best art collections in the USA (see below). It has expanded since my first visit, having marked its centennial in 1992 by expanding into a former Masonic temple next door – the two buildings are currently separated by a walkway, with a tunnel linking them, but the plan is to build a new pavilion to fill the gap.
Across the Park Blocks from the Art Museum is the Oregon Historical Society, with an excellent modern museum on the history of the state and the city which totally (alas) dominates it. As a fine port where the Willamette river (Goddammit Janet, it’s Willamette, if you’re having trouble remembering how to pronounce it – the original Clackamas name is Wal-lamt) meets the mighty Columbia, Portland developed as an industrial city but was then overtaken by Seattle and Tacoma; after a flurry of World War II ship-building it declined (apart from Nike being established here in 1964) and by the 1970s was marked by post-industrial decline, especially along the waterfront. However the city planners began a process of restoring historic buildings and converting rail yards into parks and museums, while also encouraging modern (and postmodern) developments, and creating a pedestrian-, cyclist- and public transport-focussed city centre. The Old Town/Chinatown area, largely warehouses and commercial buildings on reclaimed land along the Willamette, has been gentrified, and in the area just inland (south of Union Station), former railway sidings were developed into a residential zone known as the Pearl District from the mid-1990s; at the district’s north end are some modern parks such as the slightly Zen Tanner Springs Park (2005), and at the south end are the Brewery Blocks, now housing hip loft-style apartments as well as boutiques, bars and restaurants. On the less attractive east bank of the river, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry and the Oregon Rail Heritage Center are also on former industrial land.
So Portland had a reputation for being fairly green, liberal and arty long before hipsterdom was invented. Then came a TV series called Portlandia in 2011, which the locals, looking back, say is when the city was ruined for them; the series is coming to an end in 2018. Its satirical sketches, mocking a fantasyland of nerdy liberal narcissists, perversely led to everyone wanting to move to Portland, or at least to Portlandia, forcing rents up and driving the boho artists out. Bars were replaced by artisanal candle-makers, and something of what made Portland one of America’s most liveable cities has been lost. I saw hardly any lumberjack shirts or fixed-gear bicycles, but the city still seems a good place to be. That, plus the rising property prices, may partly explain the high numbers of homeless people on the streets – disproportionately African-American as one might expect.
In fact I was staggered to find that the original constitution of Oregon decreed that the state was to be a whites-only paradise (although, to be fair, slavery was banned too), and it was known as a racist city until at least the 1970s, with regular police shootings that of course couldn’t happen nowadays – could they? Minorities have grown from 3.6% of Oregon’s population in 1960 to 16.4% in 2010, and as the state grows from 4 million now to perhaps 6 million by 2050 the number of Latinos in particular is expected to increase disproportionately.
Food and drink
There’s been craft brewing here since the 1980s, and Portland now boasts both the highest number of breweries per capita in the US and the highest expenditure per capita on beer. There are now at least 70 craft breweries (plus 16 urban wineries!) – the oldest is the Bridgeport Brewery, founded in 1984 and now a pretty huge concern. I’ve visited the Deschutes Brewery in Bend, Oregon, which has a pub in Portland, and that’s also a pretty big operation now. They’re fine, of course, but I’d like to try something slightly more adventurous – one contender is Zoiglhaus (quite a way east of the centre, unfortunately), adapting German brewing techniques to hops-forward American tastes (they’ve even created a ‘German IPA’). You can take a pub tour with Brewvana Portland Brewery Tours. But don’t bother looking for downtown Portland’s oldest microbrewery, Tug Boat Brewing Company (founded in 1989), which closed in mid-2017, due to a never-ending saga of damage caused by businesses upstairs, apparently.
By the way, what is with the American puritan idea of having to be over 21 to even look at a brewery (or winery) website?? They’re legalising cannabis all over the place and the web is awash with pornography, but you might have to lie about your age to see a picture of a beer? Wineries in Georgia (the country) are adopting the same ridiculous idea, alas.
Food is a big deal here too – since 2012 Feast Portland has put on not only a huge annual food festival but also meals, classes and talks, and raises money to tackle child hunger. While there are lots of cafés, I spotted surprisingly few grocery stores downtown; but the Pine Street Market, opened in 2016, is a food hall in a historic (1886) building near the river – it has stalls with communal tables and more formal restaurants. I was also taken with the food stalls between Southwest Alder and Washington at 9th & 10th, including Ethiopian, Lebanese, Chinese and even a Russian-Vietnamese fusion offering, which I wouldn’t begin to know how to tackle. I also noticed quite a few Andean and Peruvian restaurants. I don’t like coffee, but that’s huge here too – the heart of Portland’s third-wave coffee culture is Stumptown, with various branches in town; its founder also owns the Woodsman Tavern, a log-cabin-style pub serving locally sourced food. Kingsland Kitchen, a British-owned brunch and sandwich place, opened in 2015 and is horribly meat-focussed but otherwise enjoyable enough, with fried eggs and toast from just $4 and a full English breakfast for $16.
Art, indoors and out
There’s a lot of public art in Portland, thanks to a tax on new developments – usually this is a recipe for bad art, but most of what’s been produced here is not too cheesey. A lot of it is along the Transit Mall (Southwest 5th and 6th Avenues). For me, the most interesting public art is the stumps of two pillars that supported the Lovejoy Ramp, a road bridge across the rail yards, which have been preserved because of the murals painted on them by railway worker Tom Stefopoulos between 1948 and 1952 – they’re definitely worth tracking down on Northwest 10th Avenue between Everett and Flanders. There’s also The People’s Bike Library of Portland, at Southwest 13th and Burnside, which looks more like the city’s abandoned bikes piled up randomly. There’s quite a bit of real (really good) sculpture outside the Portland Art Museum, notably Roy Liechtenstein’s giant Brushstrokes (three swooshes, in a way) and some rough steel by Anthony Caro (there’s more by him inside).
Inside PAM (this is the dull bit), the collection starts with Greek bowls and kraters, funerary heads from Palmyra (c150-200 BCE) and Etruscan ceramics; then there’s a Nativity (1335) by Taddeo Gatto (Giotto’s closest disciple), a cut-out Christ on the cross by Botticelli (from his weaker late Savonarola-esque period), a few more from the Italian Renaissance, a Brueghel and a Cranach, then a graphic circumcision (prefiguring the Passion) by Jacob Cornelisz Van Oostsanen, the first notable painter in Amsterdam, who was new to me. I guessed that van Dyck’s calculating Cardinal Domenico Rivarola (c1624) was from Genoa (see my post from there), and I was right. There’s a representative range of mainly French 18th- and 19h-century art, by Fragonard, Greuze, Boucher, de Largilliere, Bougereau, Monticelli, Ziem, Diaz de la Peña, Corot, Daubigny, Millet, Courbet (a mirror image of himself as a cellist), and Alexandre Calame (1810-64), who lost an eye at 10 but became the leading Swiss landscape painter of the 19th century. Upstairs, there’s a striking modern portrait by Kehinde Willey on the landing, then American art, starting with Gilbert Stuart (a pupil of Benjamin West, the American-born co-founder of the Royal Academy), Thomas Sulley, Rembrandt Peale, Daniel Huntington, George Inness, Sargent, Albert Bierstadt (a rather exaggerated version of Mount Hood, which Portlanders can see in the distance), Childe Hassam (who visited Portland in 1904 and 1908) and then more radical art in the 20th century, by Julian Alden Weir, Robert Henri, John Sloan, Milton Avery and Moses Soyer, as well as Diego Rivera.
There’s a great blend of traditional and contemporary Native American art and a good little room on Mesoamerica and Peru, Chinese funerary goods from the Warring States period, and Japanese prints. Through the tunnel in the Mark Building there are Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings by Monet, Gauguin, Pissarro, Degas, Sisley, Renoir, van Gogh, van Rysselberghe, Cézanne, Utrillo, Vlaminck, Rouault, Derain and van Doesberg. There are also photos by Eugène Atget and Julia Margaret Cameron and sculptures by Rodin and Brâncuși, and then slightly later works by Kokoschka, Kirchner, Beckmann, Léger, Lipschitz, Gabriele Münter, Naum Gabo, Philip Guston, Osip Zadkine and Josef Albers. In the ground-floor lobby are sculptures by Hepworth, Moore, Archipenko, Hans Arp, Calder and Isamu Noguchi, and a polyurethane car by Claes Oldenburg. The more contemporary work on display includes Warhol, Stella, Kenneth Noland, Helen Frankenthaler, Judy Chicago, Don Judd, Dan Flavin, Basquiat and Kiefer; there’s glassware by Lalique, Tiffany and William Morris, and ceramics by Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada. All in all, there’s a hint of collecting by numbers (we need one by him, one by her…) but the end result is certainly an impressively broad collection.
Under an hour southwest of Seattle, Tacoma is a relatively drab place, dominated by its huge container port, by the I-5 freeway and by heavy military jets taking off and landing, but it does have its attractions and a proud, if short, history. The Northern Pacific Railway chose Tacoma, not Seattle, as the western terminal of its transcontinental line, which opened in 1883 (the first transcontinental line had reached Oakland, near San Francisco, in 1869, and the Canadian Pacific route to Vancouver opened in 1886), even though it’s further from the open sea. In fact, if Seattle continues to develop as it is doing, the two cities will join up within a few decades, enveloping Sea-Tac Airport.
Tacoma’s main current claim to fame is the excellent Museum of Glass, created by celebrity glass artist Dale Chihuly (born in Tacoma in 1941) and designed by the splendid Vancouver architect Arthur Erickson – you can see some of Chihuly’s perhaps overblown, but very imaginative and colourful, works on the Bridge of Glass, leading across the railway to the museum. In fact Washington state, and the whole of the Pacific Northwest, have been very important in the development of modern glass art, and there are lots of galleries in Seattle too, including Chihuly Garden & Glass and Pilchuck Seattle, a gallery linked to the Pilchuck Glass School, 50 miles north of Seattle – both were co-founded by Chihuly.
On the town side of the Bridge of Glass are the former Union Station (1911, now a courthouse), which has some of his larger works on display, and the Washington State History Museum, designed to match the former station. This gives an impressive overview of the state’s history in a suitably non-Seattlecentric way, from the first native cultures to the establishment of the Hudson Bay Company’s trading post at Fort Nisqually (yes, this could have been part of Canada), the arrival of the railways and modern industrial development. On the other (north) side of the former station is the Tacoma Art Museum, which of course has more glass by Chihuly plus European and (western) American paintings and a striking collection of Japanese woodblock prints.
Buses from Seattle and further afield, and Sounder and Amtrak trains, halt near the Tacoma Dome, a largely wooden concert/sports arena on the southern edge of the city, from where the Tacoma Link streetcar runs into downtown – this is currently free, with fares paid by the Downtown Business Improvement Area (an industry grouping). However an extension is under construction, which will loop around to the left past the main hospital, and when this opens in 2022 fares will be charged. Currently Amtrak uses a station a couple of hundred yards away from the Dome, but a second platform at the Freighthouse Square station (used by Sounder commuter services to Seattle) should have been ready by the end of 2017, allowing Amtrak to move here. However it’s running late so in January 2018 I caught my train at the old station to take the slow coastal route past Point Defiance Park (the second largest urban park in the US, containing a replica of Fort Nisqually, not on its original site) and the Tacoma Narrows suspension bridge (rebuilt after it famously twisted itself apart in 1940); the freight line from the Sounder station has been fettled for 80mph running and Amtrak trains will go this way as soon as the new station opens. However the new route was launched in December 2017 with a publicity run that went horribly wrong, via the new station – the driver (engineer, as they say in the US) seems to have forgotten about the 30mph curves where the new line swerves across the I-5 freeway and the train left the tracks, killing three passengers. Amtrak is having a bad run of accidents at the moment, even as train travel is becoming ever safer elsewhere in the world; at the end of January 2018 a truck driver was killed by a train which, bizarrely, was carrying most of the Republican members of Congress (not known for their generosity to Amtrak) to a retreat, and four days later two Amtrak crewmen died when their train took the wrong track and hit a freight train. And then a few days later the entire Baltimore metro was closed to allow emergency repairs. Maintenance and lack of infrastructure are crucial, of course, but because Amtrak’s lines, outside the Washington-New York-Boston corridor, are owned by freight companies there’s been a huge reluctance to install the PTC (Positive Train Control) system which would prevent most of these accidents. It’s hardly new technology, and it definitely works.
It’s always a bit of a shock travelling from Vancouver BC to Seattle – the American accent (after the nice soft Canadian ‘oos’ and ‘ehs’), the repeated border checks, and when you get there, the ridiculous number of homeless people. Luckily I was only in safely blue Democrat-voting cities, the shock of meeting someone who actually voted for Trump might have been too much for me. In fact the cities I did visit were all fretting about the threat of a federal crackdown on their clearly lucrative cannabis industries – Seattle is in some ways the Amsterdam of the United States, and its free newspaper The Stranger is rather childishly obsessed with getting high and should, I think, just be called The Stoner.
The First Nations or Native Americans are not as visible as they are just to the north in British Columbia, and their culture is not treated with the same respect; there are totem poles in Seattle, but they’re typically made in Alaska or just appropriated. On the other hand, African-Americans are more visible, notably among the homeless community. The last overnight count found 11,643 homeless people in the Metro Seattle area, 5,485 of them without any shelter. In 2017 144 homeless people died here – 144!! It’s often been said that there is no safety net in the USA, and you really see what that means here. And it gets worse – in January 2018, days after I left, a homeless camp (in Belltown) was cleared and the city then put in cycle stands in a location where there was absolutely no need for them, to prevent anyone making camp there again; likewise public benches have arm rests to stop anyone from lying down.
Originally a pretty wild logging town, Seattle’s development was kick-started by (paradoxically) the Great Fire of 1889 and then the Klondike gold rush of 1897, when up to 30,000 obsessives mined the gold, and Seattle mined the miners, providing supplies, bars and gambling. Soon after this, a couple of hills were regraded (creating space for Chinatown to establish itself in what is now known as the International District) and the spoil was used to create the present waterfront, burying the original Skid Road – not Skid Row – which you can now see on underground tours. However it’s still a city of villages with names such as Capitol Hill and Beacon Hill.
Seattle’s twentieth-century history of attracting the new high-tech industries began as early as 1910 with the establishment of the Boeing Airplane Company (their first plane flew in 1916, so 2016 was marked as the centenary). The First and Second World Wars led to ship- and plane-building booms, continued by Boeing’s becoming the world’s leading manufacturer of jet planes. However modern Seattle was really born in 1979 when Bill Gates and Paul Allen moved the nascent Microsoft (founded in New Mexico in 1975) to their hometown of Seattle, which was soon home to lots of start-ups, many founded by the 12,000-odd millionaires created when Microsoft became a public company in 1986. In 1971 Starbucks was founded here, riding a coffee craze that shows no sign of abating, followed in 1994 by Amazon (which eventually made a profit in 2001, and now produces more, and hotter, start-ups than Microsoft). Nowadays Amazon and Microsoft’s cloud computing platforms are the market-leaders, and the Seattle area is likely to be the centre for developments in this area as well as in AI and biotech. Between 1990 and 2007 the population of Greater Seattle grew from 2.4 million to 3.3 million (it’s now 3.7 million, the 15th-largest conurbation in the US).
In November 2017 Microsoft announced plans to redevelop its Redmond campus over the next seven years, with pitches for soccer and cricket (for its many South Asian employees) at its heart; it’ll be designed around pedestrian and bike movements and will have its own light rail station. Likewise Amazon, the city’s largest private employer with 40,000 staff, is developing a sustainable Urban Campus close to downtown in the South Lake Union district (where the main property developer is Paul Allen’s Vulcan), although it would have been cheaper and easier to build out in the suburbs; Amazon is also subsidising light rail. Currently 20% of its staff walk to work, and ‘only’ 45% drive. Despite the lamentable weather on the ‘Wet Coast’, Seattle does share the trend for inhabitants of tech-savvy cities to favour cycling and public transport (as well as craft beer and third-wave coffee).
However the highest-profile infrastructure under way at the moment is the replacement of the Alaska Way freeway (State Highway 99), along the waterfront, by a two-mile tunnel – the existing viaduct not only cuts the city off from Puget Sound but is at risk of collapsing in an earthquake (and that’s a question of when, not if). There have been delays and cost over-runs, reminiscent of Boston’s ‘Big Dig’ but not nearly as bad, and it should open in 2019, allowing the city to build a linear park and, I would hope, a high-quality (and level) north-south cycleway. Because the tunnel won’t have the downtown exits that the present viaduct has there’s a parallel project, known as the Center City Connector, to join the city’s two existing streetcar lines, creating a new north-south link through downtown; this should open in 2020. This is not to be confused with the Link light rail service which already runs north-south through downtown, using what used to be called the Bus Tunnel (opened in 1990). Even worse than the Alaska Way viaduct was the decision to drive I-5 (the interstate highway that runs the length of the West Coast from Canada to Mexico) right through the east side of downtown; it now carries far more traffic than was ever envisaged and produces insane levels of noise and pollution. One effort at remediation was the Freeway Park, opened in 1976 and hailed as a masterpiece of Brutalism, all concrete blocks and rather sterile plantings above the freeway – the constant traffic noise now makes it less than restful. It’s next to the Convention Center, which is well worth walking through for its excellent displays of contemporary art (on several floors) and a café selling all kinds of weird and wonderful wraps, rice bowls, juices and smoothies.
As for more conventional tourist sights, Pike Place Market, the Space Needle, the Seattle Art Museum, the Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP) and the Museum of Flight are all well known, but there are many more: I enjoyed the Wing Luke Museum (of the Asian Pacific American Experience), with excellent exhibits (including on local boy Bruce Lee) and tours of the historic Freeman Hotel (1910), first home to many Asian immigrants to the US. There’s also the vaguely similar Northwest African American Museum , which opened in 2008. The main history museum (given that the state history museum is in Tacoma – see my forthcoming post) is the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI), which moved in 2012 to the former Naval Reserve Armoury in Lake Union Park; its main permanent exhibit, True Northwest: The Seattle Journey, includes the first Boeing plane. I’m also intrigued by the Center for Wooden Boats, also in Lake Union Park, which has exhibits on the area’s boat-building history but is also recommended by locals as a great place to rent rowing and sailing boats. History buffs should also not miss the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park, a brilliant little free museum in the former Cadillac Hotel (1889), downtown near Pioneer Square, which stresses Seattle’s rôle as jumping-off point for the gold rush and has information on visiting the Alaskan parts of the park (which I visited when writing the Rough Guide to Alaska, of course).
Of books and beer
It’s hard to believe now that until 1976 Seattle bars were not allowed to have windows, lest the sinners inside be visible to passers-by. Virtually all of America’s hops are grown in the Pacific Northwest, so it’s little surprise that nowadays there are craft breweries all over. This is also a great area for wine (Merlot being the big thing in Washington, and Pinot Noir in Oregon), and there are also new distilleries producing gin, vodka and even absinthe. Anyway, there are fourteen breweries in South Seattle (an area with an industrial brewing heritage), including half a dozen in the up-and-coming Georgetown area, on and near Airport Way South. They all have tasting rooms, in other words bars, but you should also make a point of stopping in at the Jules Maes Saloon – its website is still listing the gigs for April 2008, so better see their Facebook page. Lowercase Brewing is an excellent new place that has a growler-sealing machine for take-outs, while the Machine House Brewery makes the closest equivalent to English real ales, served from hand pumps in full-size imperial pint glasses. And then grab some tasty tacos at tiny Tu Cantinas at 6031 Airport Way South.
It’s a bit more of a surprise to learn that Seattle was designated a City of Literature by UNESCO in 2017. Of course there are good writers here (although it’s arguable that the best is actually the British Jonathan Raban) and the central library by Rem Koolhaas (opened in 2004) is great (go to the top and work your way down), but there are also lots of good bookshops and the Hugo House literary centre. This will move to a new permanent home on Capitol Hill in mid-2018, where they’ll be able to hold even more of their mostly free readings, launches and classes. There are also lots of readings and other events at the Elliott Bay Book Company and the Ballast Bar at Capitol Cider, and even a monthly Silent Reading Party at the Hotel Sorrento. Open Books is devoted purely to poetry, Kinokuniya to Japanese books and comics, and there are great second-hand bookshops on the lower level of Pike Place Market that the tourists never see. And being Seattle, many bookshops contain a congenial coffeeshop – Little Oddfellows at the Elliott Bay, Raconteur at Third Place Books, El Diablo at Queen Anne Books, and the Bookstore Bar & Café (more of a gimmick than a bookshop) at the Alexis Hotel on Pioneer Square.
Also in January 2018, a few days after I left, the first Amazon Go automated supermarket opened at 2131 7th Ave (near Blanchard, just north of downtown) – this has no checkouts, but customers tap in with a smartphone app and are then tracked by cameras and shelf sensors and billed automatically. The technology seems to be working fairly well, despite journalistic attempts to beat it, offering another alternative to queuing and dealing with human beings in shops. In 2017 Amazon bought the Whole Foods chain, beloved of the organic middle classes, and was soon generating bad publicity for introducing new stock-control technology which led to empty shelves and rotting food. Most amazing of all is that Amazon opened a genuine physical bookshop in Seattle (at the University Village shopping center) in 2015 – talk about reinventing the wheel.
I flew quite a few times with Alaska Airlines when I was writing the Rough Guide to Alaska, and they’ve always been one of the better US airlines – but they’re now very much a Pacific Northwest airline rather than an Alaskan one, firmly based in Seattle. So it’s a little surprising to see that they’re opening a new base in the area, at Everett – they’ll fly to eight cities from there, none in Alaska.
I have life membership of the Youth Hostels Association of England and Wales, which has been great value over the years – but for the last decade or so I really haven’t stayed in British hostels much. Recently I’ve stayed in official HI hostels in Italy, Paris and the USA, and whenever I’ve been updating the Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget the Swiss association has put me up in its lovely hostels (usually in a private room, thanks). But the England and Wales association has closed most of its more attractive hostels, concentrating on cities and large modern hostels that can take school groups. Indeed, one problem is that often, even when there is a hostel in the right place, it’s full because of a group booking. Closed or full, that seems to be the choice – not much use for the independent traveller. Any idea of a network of hostels within cycling distance of each other has also been lost, except in the Peak and the Lake District – you need a car nowadays. It’s incredible that second-tier destinations such as Salisbury and Lincoln are now hostel-less – how can a hostel in these tourist towns not cover its costs?
However the YHA has seemed more like an arm of the property business than a youth charity for years now, and one sometimes gets the sense that closing hostels down has become its purpose rather than an unfortunate side-effect of economic circumstances. It’s telling that when a new chief executive was appointed in April 2017 he said: ‘My initial priority as chief executive is to deliver the new business plan and lock in the success that has been achieved in recent years’.
The sense that the YHA has been taken over by bureaucrats and bean-counters was reinforced recently when I wanted to meet a friend in Milton Keynes. There is still a decent smallish hostel here, of all places, in Bradwell, one of the original villages swallowed up by the New Town, with a couple of cheery and remarkably cheap pubs nearby. But I booked for the wrong date and had to change it – I sent two emails to the hotel and had no reply at all, I phoned and had no answer, and the YHA’s call centre, which was meant to be open on Sundays according to the first webpage I found, wasn’t. When I called on Monday morning I was dealt with very professionally, but I had a strong sense of over-centralisation. And if they aren’t dealing with their emails and phone calls at the hostel, there needs to be an auto-reply or redirect to say so.
Once you get to the hostel, it’s absolutely fine, apart from the strange lack of hooks in the shower cubicles, and the manager is great. You also need to show photo ID to check into a hostel now – something to do with child protection, I suppose (there were no children around when I was in Milton Keynes) but it’s hard to see that it would actually make any difference.
As for Milton Keynes… the museum is only open weekends and half-term, which ruled that out. The World War II code-breaking museum at Bletchley Park is excellent, but I’d been there not too many years ago. So the high points were the Concrete Cows and the little robot vehicles that deliver fast food in the centre. I remember the concrete cows from years ago, reasonably lifelike and grazing in a field by the railway, but after years of decoration/vandalism these are now in the MK museum and they’ve been replaced by ‘replicas’ that look like rejects from someone’s GCSE art project. They’re not so visible from trains now and stand on wood chips rather than grass in the Loughton Valley Park. We had fun discussing their self-referentiality as meta artworks, or something.
As for the pods, they look like student bed-sit fridges on wheels and bustle around on the pedestrian/cycleways at a maximum 15mph. Apparently passenger-carrying pods are also on trial in central Milton Keynes (or centre:mk as it’s now been branded). But we in the tech hub of Cambridge are not at all jealous, because we have Amazon Prime deliveries by drone. Well, just two Beta customers, apparently, but the first delivery took just 13 minutes from final click to delivery. But apparently you still need to put out a welcome mat that the drone can recognise.
It felt like the end of an era when I left Vancouver BC – nothing to do with me personally, but because the city’s three-term mayor Gregor Robertson had announced that he would be standing down after ten years in office. Still absurdly young and good-looking (he was a proto-Justin Trudeau, and like him is known just by his first name), he presided over an era in which Vancouver became known as one of the planet’s most desirable places to live, with its amazing sea-and-skiing setting, its lively culture, its innovative bars and restaurants, its wealth of cycle lanes… But being perpetually atop the world liveability rankings does mean that the whole world wants to move there, and housing in Vancouver has become absurdly expensive, partly because a lot of wealthy Chinese in particular have invested in grand homes which are then often left empty. In 2017 the city introduced a tax on empty houses, and the province of British Columbia introduced a 15% tax on non-residents buying property. Meanwhile, the federal government has just increased the annual immigration rate from 280,000 a year to 340,000 by 2020, and the Metro Vancouver area is expected to see between 1 million and 1.2 million new residents over the next 30 years.
Not surprisingly there’s a homelessness crisis – Robertson pledged to end it, but soon found that the mild winter climate, among other things, meant that Canada’s homeless will just keep on moving west. This is linked with the opioid addiction crisis that is sweeping North America (to the bafflement of the rest of the world), and the fact that the provincial and federal governments were controlled for much of his time in office by unsympathetic right-wing parties (thankfully now removed). The Downtown Eastside district, very close to the city centre and yes, just to the east, has been associated with drugs for a long time, and is now being ravaged by the opioid crisis; between January and September 2017 over 1100 people died of suspected overdoses in British Columbia (mainly in the Vancouver area and Vancouver island), and the synthetic opioid Fentanyl was involved in 83% of those deaths.
But there’s no denying that something special has been created here – ‘Vancouverism’ is ‘characterized by a large population living in the city centre with mixed-use developments, …significant reliance on mass public transit, creation and maintenance of green park spaces, and preserving view corridors’. In other words, a city where people don’t feel the need to travel by car and live in the suburbs (it’s also very multicultural, but that’s another matter). So it’s no surprise that public transport is busy and expanding – frequencies and service hours are being increased on buses (including the B-Line express routes), the SeaBus ferry to North Vancouver (now every ten minutes at peak times) and the Skytrain automated metro. Now that Skytrain has reached the airport (though with a stonking add-on fare) the next priority has to be to serve UBC, the university that’s the size of a separate town on the coast southwest of the city, which is reached by frequent but overcrowded buses. Skytrain’s Millennium Line (which currently dead-ends in the middle of some railway yards at VCC/Clark) is to be extended west along Broadway as far as Arbutus St (in trendy Kitsilano), less than halfway to UBC, perhaps by 2024. The existing Skytrain lines are largely elevated, apart from some old railway routes, but this extension will largely be in tunnel, and thus much more expensive. There’s an aspiration to eventually push the Skytrain all the way to UBC, but that’s a long way off.
Vancouver’s equivalent to London’s Oyster Card is the Compass Card, introduced in 2015; after some teething problems, it’s working well, and allows hassle-free transfers and much cheaper fares than for cash.
Another aspect of Robertson’s legacy (omitted from the definition of ‘Vancouverism’ above) is a huge expansion in cycle facilities – the ten years to 2016 saw a rise in Greater Vancouver’s cycle-commuting rate from 1.7% to 2.3%, and in the city itself the rate is 6.1%. Hardly Dutch levels, but pretty good by North American standards. There’s also a high level of leisure cycling – the one-way loop around Stanley Park is legendary, and by June 2018 a new route should follow the coast from the Burrard Bridge through Kitsilano (‘Kits’) to Jericho Beach, giving a total of 28km of safe cycling from the downtown Convention Centre much of the way to UBC. Incidentally, the pedestrian/cycle promenade around the Convention Centre has some excellent panels with fascinating nuggets of historical information; you also get one of the quintessential Vancouver views here, with the cruise terminal to the right, the mountains and ski slopes of North Vancouver ahead, and Stanley Park and Coal Harbour (where the seaplanes and the V2V fast ferry mentioned in this post dock) to the left.
The cycle route to Jericho Beach mentioned above passes through Vanier Park, where the Museum of Vancouver has been revitalised in recent years. Like most of the Pacific North West museums, it now gives the First Nations their rightful place in local history, helped by recent research that’s revealed much more about their civilisations. It’s important to remember that, thanks to the plentiful salmon runs, these peoples had a much easier life than those inland, allowing them the leisure to develop a rich artistic culture, characterised by their ‘formline’ style of decoration on carvings and textiles. But it’s less well known that artistic production really exploded in scale after the arrival of Europeans created a retail market for the first time. Totem poles used to be pretty temporary constructions, their natural rotting and collapsing being part of the memorial process, but now far more are being made and they’re being preserved. What’s more, new crafts developed, such as argillite carving in Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands), and Salish basket weaving (previously the Salish people had just made hats). The best-known example, though not represented here, is Cape Dorset printmaking, which was created out of the blue in the 1950s when a government administrator in Baffin Island brought in materials and encouraged the Inuit people to discover their creativity.
The museum also has good coverage of the 1960s, when a popular uprising blocked a very destructive plan to build freeways through Gastown and Chinatown, linking to a third crossing to North Vancouver, when all the politicians were initially in favour. In 1972 a new party called TEAM (The Electors Action Movement) took control of the city council, eventually leading to Vision Vancouver and Gregor Robertson, which is where we started. Oh, and in 1969 a little pressure group called Greenpeace was formed in a Vancouver living room.
I don’t have a lot to say about food and drink here, but the current food fad is poké, a rice and fish bowl combo from Japan via Hawai’i which I don’t find very interesting (because I don’t eat meat or fish, and rice often doesn’t agree with me). I’d have been far more interested in sampling the many good local beers, but didn’t get around to it. Canada’s first microbrewery was founded at the Troller Bay pub in Horseshoe Bay, West Vancouver, back in 1982 when nothing but industrial lagers were available; it closed down around 2000, but only after spawning other very successful outfits such as Spinnakers and Hoyne Brewing (both in Victoria), Howe Sound Brewing (in Squamish) and Strange Fellows Brewing Company (in Vancouver). In 2013 the Troller Ale House opened close to the original pub, serving the original Troller Bay Ale as well as offerings from local craft breweries. Of course, every bar in the city now carries a range of interesting beers and ciders, not to mention gins.