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.
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.
Further to my previous post on Victoria BC, I want to add an update on more specific infrastructure-related matters, and also to mention the Saanich Peninsula, immediately to the north of the city. The big event while I was there was the arrival on a barge of the main span of the long-awaited new Johnson Street Bridge – the current bridge is a major bottleneck (carrying about 23,000 motor vehicles a day, 4000 pedestrians and 3000 cyclists – 3500 in summer). It’s particularly fearsome for cyclists since the original wooden deck was replaced in 1966 by steel latticework, so that water would drain and not add weight to the lifting span; it now gets slippery, with the added thrill of the view of the Inner Harbour below, and it’s not easy to see the lane markings. After many years of campaigning the city agreed to fund a new bridge, costed at C$53m in 2009; it will in fact have cost C$105m, despite having been gradually de-scoped, but nevertheless half its width will be for pedestrians and cyclists, with on-road cycle lanes, an off-road shared-use track and a pedestrian-only footway. Anyway, it should be open in March 2018.
Almost half the cost of the bridge is coming from the federal government, which is also paying big bucks for highway improvements, such as a big interchange on the Trans-Canada Highway to serve the rapidly growing suburb of Langford, but people are beginning to think that there may be better options than constantly adding to the road network, and hence to the traffic levels. For one thing, the former rail line is still available west from the Johnson Street Bridge – it was a miracle it kept working as long as it did, with a single railcar trundling out from Victoria in the mornings and back in the afternoons (yes, the wrong way around), but it could be used for an effective LRT service, with modern trams running frequently from the new suburbs as far as the bridge, if not across it. The Greater Victoria area is already well served by buses (some of which are nice new air-conditioned double-deckers), although I’ve never seen so many showing ‘Out of Service’ messages (or ‘Out / Of / Svc‘, or just ‘Off’). The ticketing system has recently changed, with free transfers (a North American custom) abolished – now you pay C$2.50 for a ride or C$5 for a day-pass. But it’s possible to buy a strip of ten tickets at some grocery stores for C$22.50, and you can give the driver two of these for a day-pass (ie $4.50). As yet there are no moves towards an Oyster-style smart card, although that is working well in Vancouver, after a lot of teething problems.
The other way to go is of course by bike, and new segregated cycle lanes are being built in the city centre and elsewhere. The new lanes on Pandora St seem to have boosted cycle numbers on the Johnson St bridge, even though it’s far less cycle-friendly than the one opening in March, and the Dobosala Cantina at 760 Pandora is installing a cycle-through serving window! This is a good place to cycle, as drivers are just ridiculously law-abiding and polite, and positively desperate to stop and let pedestrians and cyclists cross; more than anywhere, a mandatory helmet law seems pointless here. Saanich Municipality, immediately north of downtown Victoria, built (and paved) a good trail system to celebrate its centenary in 2006, and while the more rural municipalities of Central and North Saanich have done less, there’s still the lovely Lochside Trail on a former railway up the east side of the peninsula. It’s possible to make a loop via the cycle track around the airport and the Interurban Tail, also on a former railway on the west side of the peninsula, but that’s much more patchy and requires more riding on busyish roads. The Lochside Trail also connects to the Galloping Goose Regional Trail, another former railway running 55km west from Victoria to Sooke. Between 2011 and 2016 cycling levels rose 16% in the CRD, and from 5.4% to 6.3% in Saanich – the proportion commuting regularly by bike in the CRD grew from 5.9% to 6.6%, which is pretty high for North America.
As I noted in my previous post, many people walk daily, and new trails are being built and new pieces of parkland opened up to link them. The Sea to Sea Green Blue Belt is a corridor of protected green space between the Saanich Inlet and the Juan de Fuca Strait near Sooke, within which the Sea to Sea Regional Park Reserve is a large wilderness area that’s home to bears, wolves and cougars. It’s not continuous, but parcels of land are being bought as available. It’s also worth mentioning that the Trans-Canada Trail – an amazing project linking the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic Oceans, and passing through this area to finish in Victoria – is now branding itself as The Great Trail.
Also on the transport front, there’s the new V2V fast ferry service between Victoria and Vancouver harbours; it takes 3 hours and their cheapest fare (known as Premium?!) is C$110; this compares with four and a half hours on the BC Ferries Connector service ($66.58) or $21.50 for a DIY version of the same route using public buses and the ferry from Swartz Bay to Tsawwassen ($2.75 more if you catch a bus in Vancouver before 18.30 Monday to Friday). The priciest option, but one that I absolutely have to try one day, is one of the seaplanes that one constantly sees buzzing in and out of the harbours – Harbour Air charge from $119 for the 35-minute hop. One day I’ll do it! You can also fly from Vancouver Airport to Victoria Airport, but that doesn’t make much sense except as a long-haul connection.
The Steamship Building, the former ferry terminal on Victoria Harbour, re-opened in 2013 as the Robert Bateman Centre, showing the works of the very successful wildlife painter and conservationist Robert Bateman (b.1930). It’s close to the Royal BC Museum, which I’m glad to say is still as amazing as I recall from my childhood. The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, slightly out of the way to the east of the centre, is smallish but perfectly formed – as well as its famous collection by local artist Emily Carr (1871-1945), it has excellent contemporary and First Nations art, and a Japanese garden and shrine.
Actually, in a way the most exciting development for me was that the Anna’s hummingbird now stays here all year – it’s always been one of the unique features of this part of the world, but only in summer. For the last couple of decades it seems they’ve been over-wintering, due not only to the warming climate and the plentiful nectar feeders in gardens, but also to their ability to go into a state of torpor when it gets cold (reducing their metabolic rate up to 300-fold and breathing six times a minute instead of 250 times) and, it seems, to the spread of eucalyptus trees in California – although I can’t quite see how that helps them if they’re no longer migrating there.
Sidney and the Saanich Peninsula
The Saanich Peninsula was surveyed and sold to settlers in 1859, immediately after the 1858 Gold Rush that kick-started Victoria’s development. It remained a patchwork of forest and farms (and Anglican churches, dating from the 1860s) until relatively recently. Although parts are still surprisingly rural, it’s increasingly affected by suburban sprawl – though it’s a relatively elderly population, concerned about Medical Assistance in Dying laws and the facilities at Saan Pen Hospital. The only real town is Sidney, on the eastern side, which was linked to Victoria by rail from 1894 (closed in 1935). Now Victoria International Airport (created as an air force training base in 1939) sprawls across the width of the peninsula immediately west of the town, with one runway on the line of the rail branch to Patricia Bay, the seaplane base on the west shore (the modern Pat Bay Highway to Sidney and the Swartz Bay ferry terminal runs up the east side, oddly enough). It was named after Princess Patricia of Connaught, daughter of the Governor General of Canada from 1911 to 1916 – the Princess Pats (Canada’s most famous infantry regiment, properly Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry), was also named after her when it was raised in 1914; like her grandmother, Queen Victoria, she was long-lived, serving as colonel-in-chief for 60 years.
Sidney is still a quiet town, proud of its walkability (although it also provides huge free car parks – and doesn’t do much for cycling) and is Canada’s only Book Town – it has half a dozen bookshops, the oldest dating from 1947, so before Russell’s and Munro’s in Victoria (see my previous post) – but, to be honest, not nearly as good. Victoria Distillers (owned by a family friend) are on the waterfront, offering excellent tours and tasting opportunities (check out the gin that changes colour as you add tonic). Like the craft breweries, distillers here feel freer than those in the old country to create interesting combinations (and not just gin, but rum and whisky too), and their cocktail baristas follow suit with their creative mixes.
There are also various wineries on the peninsula that welcome tourists, and I was impressed by Sea Cider, by the Pat Bay Highway on the edge of Saanichton, which makes an excellent range of organic ciders and has a lovely tasting room and deck with views across the water to Mount Baker, a volcano that’s actually in the USA but is the iconic sight of this part of Vancouver Island.
Parma is a temple to Italy’s three great loves, food, music and art, and they like to cycle too (even the recent African immigrants, unlike elsewhere in Italy), so what’s not to like? And any town that has a bookshop that’s been open since 1829 (Libreria Fiaccadori, Via al Duomo 8 – open seven days a week, and to midnight from June to August!) is my kind of town.
Starting with food, the Slow Food movement (now prominent worldwide) may have started in Bra, in Piedmont (and been triggered by the opening of a McDonald’s in Rome in 1986), but nowadays Parma has a fair claim to be the epicentre of the movement towards sustainable production of traditional local food and drink, thanks above all to the global fame of its ham and cheese, and the measures put in place to protect them from competition, above all from the rapacious and unscrupulous global agroindustry. I speak, of course, of prosciutto crudo di Parma (Parma ham) and Parmigiano Reggiano (Parmesan cheese). I won’t go into details, but in order to gain the EU’s Denominazione d’Origine Protetta (Designation of Protected Origin), producers have to follow a very specific process for sourcing and processing these foodstuffs, and can then command a premium price for them. Parma has also been designated a UNESCO City of Gastronomy.
A similar concept to Slow Food is Cucina Povera or Poor Cooking – not just peasant cooking (which is usually great, worldwide, except perhaps in North Korea) but a specific adaptation to the poverty of peasants in Italy in the late nineteenth century (the time of the great migration to the USA. of course) and after the two world wars – people learnt to cook with the cheapest ingredients, such as potatoes, beans and lentils, with any meat used coming from offcuts. This has now become fashionable as a way to cut excess, to get back to a simple traditional lifestyle, and simply as a healthier option.
Anyway, the best Parma ham comes from the hills to the south of the city, especially the Langhirano valley, where there are around 500 authorised producers (and a ham museum in Langhirano village), and also to the north along the River Po, where the ultra-lean culatello ham is produced. Parmesan cheese is produced on the plains north of the city, and there’s also been a large tomato-processing industry in the area since the nineteenth century. Some local dishes include tortelli d’erbetta (ravioli stuffed with ricotta cheese, nutmeg and spinach), tortellini filled with pumpkin and savoury cheese and served with a butter sauce, and torta fritta, fried dough pillows served with thin slices of Parma ham. Some dishes come with an appropriate amount of shaved Parmesan on top – do not wantonly smother your food with grated Parrmesan, that’s as dumb as drowning it in ketchup. And putting Parmesan on pizza is a crime against gastronomy. Speaking of pizza, it’s acceptable to have a beer (just one) with pizza, but otherwise you should drink wine with Italian food. Quite right too. Lambrusco is one of the local wines, and nothing like what you imagine – it’s still spritzy (but many Italian table wines actually have a bit of fizz to them, surprisingly) but the dry and semi-dry (secco and semisecco) styles go really well with local food.
It’s easy to visit producers, especially with the TastyBus Foodseeing tour or similar. I’ll say more about Italian food (and beer) below.
As for music, Parma’s main claim to fame is that Guiseppe Verdi was born nearby, and there’s an annual festival of his music in the city – but the lyric soprano Renata Tebaldi was also born nearby and studied at Parma’s conservatoire. There was a Tebaldi exhibition in the castle of Torrechiara in Langhirano, but this was replaced in 2014 by a new museum dedicated to her at the Villa Pallavicino in Busseto. The great tenor Luciano Pavarotti and the soprano Mirella Freni were both born in Modena, just down the road.
And finally (and rather lengthily) art – the Galleria Nazionale has a great collection, including a simply perfect representation of ideal beauty by Leonardo da Vinci – there’s much less Flemish and Dutch art here then in Genova and Torino, and more Gothic and Renaissance Italian art. It’s housed in the huge red-brick Palazzo della Pilota, which was remodelled internally between the 1970s and 1990s by the local architect Guido Canali – you enter through the remarkably large Teatro Farnese, built in 1619 and rebuilt in 1956 after damage in World War II, then a funky metal walkway leads backstage and across to the gallery. The earlier old masters include Daddi and Gaddi, Veneziano, Spinello Aretino and Fra Angelico (his lovely Madonna of Humility) and Giovanni di Paolo, Bici di Lorenzo and Neri de Bici; there’s an Annunciation by someone close to Botticelli, and nice pieces by Jacopo Loschi, the leading Parmesan painter of the second half of the fifteenth century, straddling the Late Gothic and the early Renaissance. After La Scapiliata, Leonardo’s lovely head of a young girl, I found that the rooms beyond in the north wing were closed except for a group visit at 5pm – I don’t know if this is a permanent arrangement. Until then, I went out past some portraits of the later Bourbon rulers of Parma to a fine Neoclassical hall (1825, with Canova’s statue of Maria Luigia of Austria (Duchess of Parma 1816-47) and a massive muscular second-century Hercules found in 1724 on the Palatine Hill in Rome) and then the galleries created by Maria Luigia to display the works of Correggio (c.1489-1534), the leading painter of the Parma School, though these are too sentimental for my taste. There’s also work by Parmigianino (Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola, 1503-40), the leading early Mannerist painter (and one of the first etchers), who was as his nickname implies born in Parma. You’ll also see Agostino Carracci (brother of the better-known Anibale), who died in Parma in 1602.
Returning at 5pm, the lower part of the northwest wing houses less important fifteenth- and sixteenth-century artists from Parma and the Po area, such as Alessandro Araldi, Cristoforo Caselli, Filippo Mazzola (father of Parmigianino), Dosso Dossi and the rather twee Il Garofalo from Ferrara. Upstairs, there are works by Michelangelo Anselmi (1491-1554), who was born in Lucca only because his father was exiled from Parma, and was living here by 1520. Slightly surprisingly, there’s also a portrait of Erasmus by the studio of Holbein. Another metal walkway leads up to a former hayloft, now a great space for displaying larger paintings – there are portraits of the ruling Farnese family by Girolamo Mazzola Bedoli (c.1500-69), a Mannerist who was born and lived in Parma, marrying Parmigianino’s cousin, as well as works by Annibale Carracci (the better-known one – a small self-portrait and a big Dead Christ), Frans Pourbus the Older, Tintoretto, Palma Il Giovane, Agostino Carracci and Lambert Sustris – there must be a law that every gallery in northern Italy has exactly one work by this Venice-based Dutch painter. Don’t miss the small but very striking El Greco of Christ Healing the Blind (1573-6). Other local artists include Giovanni Battista Tinti (1558-1604) and Giovanni Lanfranco (1582-1647), who moved to Rome and adopted the new Baroque style.
Going down and back, there’s work by Guercino, various seventeenth-century portraits including some from the studio of van Dyck, then the usual slew of dull eighteenth-century paintings before reaching Tiepolo, Bellotto (four definitely by him plus two attributed) and Canaletto, with various views of Parma (from the 1860s) and prints from 1557 on as you head for the exit.
Parma’s second-best gallery is the Pinacoteca Stuard, in a wing of the tenth-century Benedictine nunnery of San Paolo, which has a less locally-focussed collection including works by Niccolo di Tommaso, Bicci di Lorenzo, Giovanni di Francesco (formerly attributed to Uccello), Van Eyck, a follower of Lippi, Parmigianino and Domenichino, and upstairs Lanfranco, Valerio Castello (from Genova) and a follower of Guercino. On the other side of the nunnery, you can visit the abbess’s rooms, decorated by Correggio et al in 1519 then shut up and forgotten from 1524 to 1774 – there’s a copy of the Last Supper by Alessandro Araldi, then after the chapterhouse (with good carved stalls), a room with the vault painted by Araldi and then the highlight, the Camera di San Paolo, where Correggio decorated the vault of the abbess’s private dining room to simulate a pergola with vivacious mythological frescoes that are considered one of the masterpieces of Renaissance art. The pagan subject matter seems out of place in a nunnery, but San Paolo’s convent was known for good living and lax rules. While there, it’s also worth popping into the Castello dei Burratini, a free museum of puppetry with a good video of a puppet playing the piano and puppeteers working and singing too.
In 1530-4 Correggio also painted the cupola of the duomo (cathedral), which was consecrated in about 1106, with a Gothic campanile added in 1284-94 and side chapels in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The apse was painted by Bedoli, as well as the vaults of the choir and the nave (c.1557). The interior is totally covered with frescoes, some very Mannerist in style; there are some older ones in side chapels such as the Capella del Comune. Alongside the duomo is the amazing Baptistery, a highlight of the transition from Romanesque to early Gothic architecture. It was built in 1196-1216 and decorated then with sculptures by Benedetto Antelanni and his workshop – the seemingly random sculptures in niches all around the base of the Baptistery is known as the Zooforo (or zoophorus), a series of 75 panels of symbolic and fantastical subjects. The highlight is its umbrella vault, frescoed in the 1220s with sixteen segments radiating from the keystone and six concentric horizontal bands, depicting scenes from the life of Abraham; the life of John the Baptist; Christ in Glory with the Virgin and the Baptist, prophets and kings; the Apostles and Evangelists; the celestial Jerusalem; and heaven with a red bullseye at the top representing the Empyrean.
Your ticket includes the Diocesan Museum, which is small but decent enough (with information in Italian only) – you’ll go down to the foundations of some third-century Roman walls and then see Roman coins and ceramics from the cathedral area, then carvings from the first churches, fairly simple mosaics – and thankfully no vestments, which are what I always expect to see in diocesan museums!
There’s more Correggio in the church of St John the Evangelist behind the duomo, where the cupola frescoes were painted by the man himself in 1520-24 and the nave frieze by his studio, while the Bono chapel (the fifth on the right) houses two Correggio canvases; the nave vault was painted by Anselmi (1521-3). The chancel is very Baroque, and the façade was added in 1607 and the 75m-high campanile in 1613. Finally, Pamigianino was commissioned to paint the frescoes of the cupola of Santa Maria della Steccata, built in 1521-39 – he only finished the Three Wise and Three Foolish Virgins (1526-7), high in front of the altar, which show remarkable skill in modelling.
A few thoughts about (salty and bitter) Italian food
When I travel in France or Switzerland I’m used to waking up a couple of times in the night to drink water, due to what is for me (who basically doesn’t use salt) over-salted cooking. In Italy I wake up five or six times a night, the food really is that salty. I do always claim that Italian food, especially in the south, is the world’s best food for vegetarians, but in the dark of the night it can seem like hard work. Of course, Italians also like bitter coffee (cappuccino is famously served only in the mornings, after that you have to take it strong and bitter) – happily there is an alternative, as Italy serves up the world’s best hot chocolates, some so thick you could almost stand a spoon up in the cup. (Forget about tea, they don’t have a clue.) They also have a thing about after-dinner digestivos, also known as amaro (‘bitter’), just to make the point clear.
Thankfully, there are some pleasantly light and sparkling pre-dinner drinks – the cocktail of the year seems to be the Hugo, a blend of gin, prosecco and elderflower cordial with tonic or soda water. You can also order a Black Hugo (reddish, really), with forest fruits. There are also some excessively sweet after-dinner drinks, such as moscato.
It is worth stressing that gelato is both unsalted and lower in fat than ice cream – definitely tasty and healthy, as far as pure indulgence goes. As it happens I’m writing this in Georgia, where the food is also wonderful for vegetarians (there’ll be a dish of meat, but it’s just set down on the table surrounded by wonderful salads and other vegetable dishes, and you just pick and choose what you want) – and most of the food is not particularly salty, apart from the cheese, which is … hard work.
Italian friends want me to mention that there’s been a craft beer revolution since the 1990s, but… no, I don’t think so. There are a few interesting breweries, some working closely with artisan food producers in the spirit of the Slow Food movement (see the Unionbirrai website), but basically beer remains something to be drunk with pizza, and Italian custom doesn’t really allow it to break out of that straightjacket. Having said that, it’s not just industrial yellow beer – acceptable red beers such as Moretti Rosso are widely available.
I spend a lot of time in Switzerland every summer (on expenses, thank goodness), usually going to familiar towns and hiking routes, and I have nothing new to say about them – but I did manage a quick visit to somewhere new and vaguely interesting this year. Davos used to be known for TB sanatoria and as the setting of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, and as a ski resort (some people confuse it with neighbouring Klosters, thinking this is where the British royal family ski). Now it seems to be better known for the World Economic Forum, where the likes of Bill Gates, George Soros and Bono confer with the world’s political and industrial leaders. We actually stayed in the Intercontinental, where the high-fliers stay during the WEF – it looms over the town like a cruise liner over Venice, but its design is actually said to be inspired by a pine-cone. It’s very comfortable, but you probably didn’t need to be told that. We usually stay in the more historic Hotel Schatzalp, also sitting a funicular ride above the town. There are plenty of other hotels, and a youth hostel, now rebranded as Youthpalace Davos.
However for me the main interest, apart from excellent hiking, was discovering that the painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner had lived here for the last two decades of his life. He came in 1917 after suffering a breakdown while serving in the German army, and lived here until his suicide in 1938 – he had been targeted by the Nazis in the notorious Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition of 1937, which attacked Jewish and modernist artists. I knew about Kirchner’s earlier career due to writing the Bradt guide to Dresden, where he had co-founded Die Brücke (The Bridge), the group which created German Expressionism. Here in Davos he developed a late style which was more abstract and emblematic, and much less angst-ridden than early Expressionism – I liked it very much. There’s a selection of these works in the small but perfectly formed Kirchner Museum, a simple glass-box design with bare concrete walls inside which has won various architectural awards.
There’s also the admirable Heimat Museum, covering traditional local life and history (and less than half the cost of the Kirchner Museum), and a Winter Sports Museum, which I haven’t visited.
Most of the town’s restaurants seem to be Italian – we ate at Da Elio and Der Pate (The Godfather, with plenty of moody shots of Marlon Brando), both busy and cheery and exactly what Italian restaurants should be. The food was excellent too (pizza, pasta and more), and the prices were fair for Switzerland. I couldn’t help noticing that there’s a large number of mini-supermarkets here (and bigger ones too) – there are multiple branches of Co-op, Spar, Migros and Migrolino (a mini-Migros, on railway stations and so on).
After a summer in which the media (the Guardian in particular – see this and this) carried regular reports on how cities like Venice (and Florence, and Barcelona, and others) were so overwhelmed by tourism that there are now anti-tourism protests and demands for local authorities to restrict tourist numbers, it seemed that I should suggest Genova as an alternative to Venice. (I prefer to use the local names, eg Genova, but it seems a bit pointless in the case of Venezia.) After all, they were the two great maritime trading republics of Renaissance Italy, and both have a wonderful legacy of art and architecture from their heydays. But in the end I have to admit that there are clear and obvious reasons why Venice is likely to receive (‘welcome’ would not be the right word) 20 million tourists this year and Genova is not. Venice is simply one of the most beautiful and magical places in the world, while Genova is a crowded workaday port where tourism is just a minor business.
While Venice was establishing colonies and trading settlements in the Adriatic and Eastern Mediterranean, Genova was doing the same, in the Black Sea and Crimea (where I came across their traces while writing my guides to Ukraine and Georgia) and also in Corsica, as mentioned here. By the mid-fourteenth century these had mostly been lost to the advancing Ottomans, and Genova’s merchants moved into banking, in particular providing the kingdom of Spain with large loans at very high interest rates, only affordable because of the flow of gold from South America. Spain gradually forced a change to longer-term loans at much lower rates, but Genova and its bankers became immensely rich and spent the wealth on art and culture, so that the period from 1560 to 1640 became known as the Genoese century.
This was when Genova’s own World Heritage Site, known as the Strade Nuove and the Palazzi dei Rolli, was created – the Strada Nouva or New Street (now Strada Garibaldi) was laid out after 1550 on the hilly edge of the then city (it has now climbed right up every available hill in the area, requiring a slightly Valparaíso-esque system of funiculars and escalators to reach them all), but the term Strade Nuove (plural) also includes Via Cairoli and Via Balbi. They were created to allow the city’s leading families to build immense new palaces – they were listed on official Rolls (Rolli) that obliged them to take turns hosting official guests to the city, rather than building an official government police. Now 42 palaces (of well over 100 in all) are on UNESCO’s World Heritage List; the tourist office organises regular tours, but the easiest and most obvious ones to visit are the three housing the city’s art galleries – get your ticket from the shop in the Palazzo Bianco then start with the Palazzo Rosso, across the road, before returning to the Palazzo Bianco and the linked Palazzo Tursi. Most of the palazzi were built by 1588, but the Rosso and Bianco were built a century later. In 1622 Rubens had published a famous and very influential book of engravings of the Palazzi di Genova, quite a feat seeing how hard it is to photograph the palazzi on this narrow street, less than 8m wide (see below).
The Palazzo Rosso was built for the two Brignole-Sale brothers, so it has two equally grand piani nobili or reception floors – the lower is a pure art gallery, while the upper has more of the original décor. They have some of the big names of the Italian Renaissance here – Andrea del Sarto, Bassano, Guercino, Sassoferrato, Titian, Tintoretto (circle of) and Veronese, as well as a surprisingly good portrait of a gentleman by an unknown Venetian from the end of the sixteenth century or the start of the seventeenth – scholars still have plenty of work to do. There are also, of course, various Genoese artists who weren’t bad at all, the best being Bernardo Strozzi (1581-1644), as well as Bernardo Castello (1557-1629), Cesare Corte (1550-1613), and the eighteenth-century sculptors Bernardo and Francesco Schiaffino. There’s also a good crop of Flemish art, as is quite normal in Italy due to the large numbers of northern artists travelling south. Here we have a good portrait by Willem Key (1515-68), who I hadn’t come across before, an uninspiring Deposition from the Cross by Rogier van der Weyden, who I usually find wonderful, plus Joos van der Cleve, Frans Pourbus, Hendrick Avercamp, Abraham Teniers, a series of the months of the year by Jan Wildens and, not exactly Flemish, a Dürer portrait of a young man. Upstairs they also have seven portraits of the Borgnone-Sale family by van Dyck, who spent the years 1621 to 1627 in Genova. Next you should take the lift to the 6th floor and go up to the rooftop viewpoint, for great photos of the city, and in particular the narrow Strada Nuova and its palaces. Then it’s down to the 4th floor to visit a couple of apartments, one with family portraits, big Chinese vases and library furniture (c.1840) by Henry Thomas Peters, and the other created in 1955 for the museum’s director, with a mix of modern (notably the fireplace) and ancient.
In the Palazzo Bianco (also built for the Brignone-Sale family) there are more paintings by Luca Cambiaso (including a self-portrait) and Veronese, plus Palma Il Giovane, Caravaggio and Simon Vouet; on the second floor the focus is on Tuscany, with a very striking Filippino Lippi (of Saints Sebastian, John the Baptist and Francis; 1503) facing the top of the stairs, and a Vasari portrait, as well as works by the three Spaniards Zurbarán, Ribera and Murillo, and more Flemish and Dutch art, including paintings by Gerard David, Jan Provoost, Joos van Cleve, Jan Matsys, Joos de Momper, Nicolaes Maes, Jan Steen and Aer van der Meer, as well as van Dyck, Rubens and Memling. There are more Genoese artists, Gioacchino Assereto (1600–49), Orazio de Ferrari (1606-57), and moving into the Baroque period Valerio Castello (son of Bernardo, 1624-59), Domenico Piola (1628-1703) and his son Pablo Gerolamo Piola (1666-1724). A modern tunnel (with exhibits of textiles and stone carvings) takes you to the Palazzo Tursi via the garden, with a few remains of the church of San Francisco in Castellotto (1255-1302), burial place of the first doge of Genova, Simone Boccanegra, and of the Empress Margaret of Brabant, who died of plague here in 1311.
The Palazzo Tursi (1565-79) has a few eighteenth-century works, including by the Genoese Gregorio de Ferrari (c.1647–1726) and Alessandro Magnasco (1667-1749), plus Canova’s sculpture of the Penitent Magdalene (c.1795), which was wildly popular at the time (Stendhal called it ‘the greatest work of modern times’) but also highly controversial due to the use of a metal crucifix and, apparently, waxed hair, blurring the boundaries of art and nature. There are also exhibits of weights and measures from the fifteenth century on, medals, coins, pharmacy jars and dishes, seventeenth-century Brussels tapestries and finally the Paganini room, celebrating the first great virtuoso violinist, born in Genova in 1782 – the centrepiece is his legendary Cannone (Canon) violin, made by Guarneri in 1743.
You can also visit a couple of palaces on via Balbi, notably the Palazzo Reale (or Palazzo Stefano Balbi), which was built between 1643 and 1650 and enlarged after 1824 when became the Genova home of the House of Savoy (rulers of Piedmont, Sardinia, and from 1861 of the united Italy). It probably retains more of its original furnishings and frescoes than any other of the city’s palaces (although they could do with sprucing up), and there’s a fine art collection here too, including paintings by Bernardo Strozzi, Bassano, Tintoretto, Luca Giordano, van Dyck and Guercino, and sculptures by Filippo Parodi. Across the road, it’s worth stepping into the courtyard of the Palazzo dell’Universita, built in 1634-40 for the Jesuits, and as grand a palace as any in the city – it’s no wonder they were expelled a century later. Since 1775 it has been the seat of the city’s university, and you’re free to look in and admire the lions on Parodi’s grand staircase.
It’s not far from via Balbi to the Villa Principe, also known as the Palazzo de Andrea Doria, near the railway station on Piazza del Principe – this was begun in 1529 by Andrea Doria, the great admiral of the Habsburg Empire, who was able to walk from the port to his palace through his magnificent gardens. After extensive bomb damage during World War II (hmmm, maybe being so close to the docks wasn’t such a great idea after all) the gardens have been beautifully restored to their seventeenth-century condition, with the imposing Fountain of Neptune (1601) as their centrepiece, and can be visited without payment. The villa (which you do have to pay to visit) was decorated internally with mythological frescoes and plasterwork by Perino del Vaga (a pupil of Raphael, who later became the leading painter in Rome), as well as seventeenth-century tapestries and paintings by del Piombo, Bronzino and Piola. The Habsburg emperor Charles V was a regular guest here of Andrea Doria, and in 1877 the villa became the winter home of the composer Giuseppe Verdi.
Finally, you shouldn’t miss the Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace), between Piazza Matteoti and Piazza De Ferrari, not because it is old and beautiful – it was largely rebuilt in Neoclassical style after a fire in 1777 – but because it houses an excellent programme of exhibitions and events.
Between Strada Garibaldi and the old port is the old town of Genova, a maze of alleys that used to be a filthy and dangerous no-go area; now it’s seeing some gentrification and has certainly been thoroughly cleaned up. At its heart is the duomo or cathedral of San Lorenzo, begun c.1098, consecrated in 1118 and partly rebuilt after a fire in 1296. The façade was completed in 1312, in what looks to me like a Pisan Gothic style (with a fine carving of the Martyrdom of San Lorenzo above the main door dating from c.1255), but much of the Romanesque interior remains. In the north aisle, the Chapel of St John the Baptist (1492-1608) is a little Renaissance masterpiece, with a statue by Domenico Gagini and a grand baldachino (1532-41). For a Brit, one interesting sight is an unexploded 15-inch shell near the southeastern corner of the cathedral – it was fired from HMS Malaya in a raid on the docks in February 1941, but went slightly astray. Naturally the fact that it failed to explode was ascribed to the Virgin Mary.
As for other churches, San Luca was rebuilt in 1626-50 and totally covered in frescoes by Piola, and there’s a sculpture of the Immaculate Conception by Filippo Parodi on the altar. And as Baroque monstrosities go, the Basilica dell’Annunziata isn’t too bad.
None of this adds up to a fraction of what’s on view in Venezia, and Genova doesn’t have that certa qualcosa (a certain something) that makes every visitor to Europe want to visit Venice, but still, it’s worth at least a day of anyone’s time.
Genova is far better than Venezia only in terms of its restaurants – there’s almost nothing left in Venice that isn’t a tourist trap, but Genova has some excellent restaurants serving authentic local food. The city is famous above all for pesto genovese, the basil and garlic paste that, with a little pasta, makes a wonderfully satisfying meal on its own, and also for foccacia, a herby flat bread like a very basic pizza, but many people come here simply to eat seafood, such as lobster with pasta or squid ink risotto. I have no personal recommendations, but friends have enjoyed Panson, San Giorgio and Il Genovino. One place that caught my eye is Tiflis, an Italian-Georgian fusion place that I shall have to try as and when I next stop over here. (I’m about to go to Georgia to research the sixth edition of my Bradt guidebook.)
I stayed at the official youth hostel, in a stunning location high above the city (with parakeets flying past, just like in London); it’s clean and decent enough but maintenance is not their strong point (that’s typically Italian, however). There’s a good bus service from the Brignole railway station, but if you walk up the steps cunningly concealed behind the hostel car park and walk to the right for ten minutes you’ll come to the top station of the Zecca-Righi funicular, which runs every 15 minutes (06.40 to midnight) down to the city centre with five stops (plus two in a tunnel where the balancing car is at a stop). It’s covered by the standard €1.50 AMT ticket which gives travel for 100 minutes on buses, funiculars and elevators, and the city’s rather basic metro, which covers a 7km route largely parallel to the waterfront from the Brignole railway station, via Piazza Principe, the city’s other main station, to Brin, just northwest of the centre. Principe is the station for the Stazione Marittima, which nowadays handles cruise ships (and there are usually one or two of them docked here), but the next station west, Dinegro, is the one for the ferry port, with ships leaving frequently for Corsica, Sardinia, Morocco, Tunisia and Malta. San Giorgio, between Brignole and Principe, is the station for the tourist information office, but the sign as you leave the metro sends you in diametrically the wrong direction – it’s to the right, not the left.
A new railway line, tunnelling through the hills just inland from the coast, should open in 2021 – in addition to linking to the high-speed network to Torino, Milano and beyond, it will also carry freight from the Ligurian ports and release capacity for the development of regional passenger services. I hope the new tunnels are maintained better than those along the coast towards the French border, through which trains travel fairly fast but rather bouncily.
For a long time I’ve wanted to visit Corsica (and Sardinia), above all to hike in the rugged and remote mountains – and that desire remains. When I did finally get there recently, family constraints meant that we managed one half-hour hike and barely stepped upon the legendary GR20, the trail that runs the length of Corsica’s mountains. We were based half an hour inland from Ajaccio, on the west coast, so there’s a lot of the north (apart from Bastia), east and south I haven’t yet seen.
Bastia (in the north) and Corte (in the centre) are small but reasonably interesting towns, but Ajaccio (in the southwest) has less going for it – the tiny old town is surrounded by a wide belt of big-box shops that generate ridiculous amounts of traffic. A Californian lifestyle is all very well when it refers to climate and outdoor activities, less so when it means a car-dominated sprawl. The smog over the Ajaccio area is very obvious from the hills.
Apart from urban services in Bastia and Ajaccio, there seem to be virtually no buses in Corsica – trains (operated by the Chemin de Fer de la Corse) link Bastia, Calvi, Corte and Ajaccio with reasonable efficiency, but they’re pretty slow (100km/h maximum in theory, and 50 or less on the tight curves of the central mountains) and a bit bouncy too. In fact many visitors come by ferry with motorbikes – there are far fewer cyclists, perhaps because they have a choice of the busy coast road or the hilly interior road, neither with any cycle facilities. In addition to the various ferry routes from France and Italy, there are four airports – the Ajaccio and Bastia airports are about a mile and a half’s easy walk from the railway stations at Ricanto and Lucciana-Olivella respectively (these are request stops – don’t forget to press the button in good time) – there are also buses to both. The other airports are less well served – Calvi, 7km from the town, is only reached by taxi, and Figari, in the far south, has a roughly hourly bus (not Sundays) to Porto-Vecchio and nothing at all to Bonifacio, the port for Sardinia. There are two buses a day (not Sundays) from Ajaccio to Porto-Vecchio, with connections to Bonifacio.
Megalithism and more modern history
The most worthwhile sight, for us, was Filitosa, a couple of hours south of Ajaccio, one of Europe’s major megalithic sites – not as huge as Carnac, not as imposing as Stonehenge, not as haunting as some of the stone circles such as Castlerigg or those in Orkney and Shetland, but almost unique because of its sculpted megaliths, standing stones with weapons and human features carved on them. These 2 to 3-metre-tall statue-menhirs were erected around 1500 BC, but then largely overthrown by a mysterious people now known as the Torréens, after the Torre or towers that they built – these are better known as nuraghi in Sardinia (and talayots in the Balearic islands). These people may be the same as the Shardanes or ‘people of the sea’ who are recorded as attacking Pharaonic Egypt in the same period, and who may have given their name to Sardinia.
Whereas at Carnac archeologists were scrupulous in recording which stones have been re-erected, at Filitosa it’s not at all obvious, though it seems clear that the site has been considerably tidied up since it was identified by the landowner in 1946.
After the megalithic period, the Greeks established coastal trading settlements, surviving for five centuries, despite Etruscan and Carthaginian incursions, until the Romans arrived in 238 BC, when the defeat of the Carthaginians in the First Punic War led to Corsica and Sardinia becoming a Roman province. This also marked the start of Roman domination of the Western Mediterranean (although Corsica was not wholly subjugated until 162 BC). From AD 450 regular Vandal raids became an invasion, although the Byzantine Empire ejected the Vandals in 534; Christianity, which first appeared here in the third century, was established in the seventh, and from 758 Corsica was under the control of the Pope, who first entrusted it to the Bishop of Pisa to administer, and then shared its six dioceses between Pisa and Genoa. In 1297 the Pope gave the island to the King of Aragon, then from 1358 it put itself under Genoese protection; from 1530 the Genoese erected 90 towers, many of which still remain, along the coast as a defence against Barbary pirates.
1729 marked the start of 25 years of sporadic uprisings against Genoese rule, and a fascinating series of experiments in democracy, including electing the German adventurer Theodor Neuhoff King in 1736 (he lasted 7 months), an Anglo-Sardinian intervention in 1745-48 followed by French intervention (on behalf of Genoa) from 1748 to 1753, and from 1755 independence under Pasquale Paoli (1725-1807), who created Europe’s most democratic constitution, with a National Assembly, a ban on blood vendettas. In 1768 Genoa finally ceded the island to France, which had taken total control, closing down the Assembly and university and banning the Corsican language, by 1769 (also the year in which a certain Napoléon Bonaparte was born in Ajaccio, although he left Corsica when he was nine, and his last visit to Corsica was in 1799). They were briefly evicted in 1794 with the help of the British (mainly Nelson and his naval gunners – it was at Calvi that he lost his eye), and a peculiar Anglo-Corsican kingdom was established with Sir Gilbert Elliot, later (as Lord Minto) governor-general of India, as viceroy. An early Brexit in 1796 let the French take full control, and they’ve been in charge ever since, apart from the Italian/German occupation of 1942-43.
After the French surrender of 1940, Corsica was initially left under the control of Pétain’s Vichy regime, but after the Allied landings in North Africa in November 1942 it was occupied by the Italian army, which failed to control the centre of the island, although there were soon almost 85,000 troops here, against a population of just 220,000. After the Italian surrender of September 1943, 12,000 German troops arrived, but many of the Italian forces sided with the local resistance, and Free French troops began to arrive to join the uprising. The situation was complicated by German and Italian forces retreating from Sardinia to Corsica, but the last German units left from Bastia on 4 October 1943, making Corsica the first part of France to be freed from Axis occupation.
Since the 1970s the generation that protested against the Vietnam war has also demanded independence for Corsica, and there were bombings and shootings for several decades. By the 1990s there was infighting between the various separatist factions, while the security forces had ever more efficient electronic surveillance, much as in Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, the assassination of the préfet, effectively the French governor, in 1998 was a major shock, and the central government soon offered limited autonomy in return for a cease-fire. This was blocked by the courts as breaching the principle of national unity, although it was permitted to teach the Corsican language (closer to the Genoese dialect of Italian than to French) in schools. A referendum in 2003 rejected proposals for further autonomy, as Corsicans refused to support the separatist Front de Libération Nationale de la Corse (FLNC), increasingly entangled with organised crime – finally in June 2014 the FLNC called a ceasefire. Times have changed – on the one hand a tourism boom has shown the economic benefits of sticking with France, but the threat of violence has prevented over-development along the coast,pleasing the Corsicans who are very proud of their island and keen to preserve its beauty. Even if the younger generation is less interested in separatism, there’s still a lot of anti-French graffiti and road sides are pitted with shotgun pellets.
Bastia, Corte and Ajaccio
Bastia was founded as a strongpoint in about 1378 – its name comes from bastiglia (Genoese for fortress) and has the same derivation as the Bastille in Paris – and the citadel was rebuilt in 1519-21, with ramparts added around the Terra Nova or upper town in 1576-1626 – the lower town or Terra Alta clusters around the little port and is the most picturesque part of the city. The citadel is now home to one of Corsica’s better museums, which explains much of the city’s history, notably its development from the 1830s, fuelled by vast fortunes made in Venezuela and by the production of the quinine-based Cap Corse apéritif from 1894. However there’s nothing on the British siege and capture of Bastia in 1794. There’s also a room of second-rate Italian art donated by Napoléon’s uncle, Cardinal Fesch – the bulk of his collection, with some far more interesting works, is in Ajaccio (see below). Bastia is the best base for visiting Cap Corse, the island’s northern promontory, and the Désert des Agriates, but there’s little else of interest here – other than the conning tower of the submarine Casabianca, next to the tourist office – she carried out seven missions from Algeria, bringing agents and weapons in the run-up to the island’s liberation in October 1943 (see above).
The ferry port is immediately north of the centre, with Avis, Hertz and Europcar offices nearby as well as a fairly notional bus station outside the Hotel Riviera, a decent ‘budget’ place to stay (there is nowhere cheap to stay on the island – I’ve no idea why no-one has opened hostels in the major towns).
Corte, the main town in the interior of the island, was capital of Corsica from 1755 to 69. It’s dominated by a dramatic citadel, with the Anthropology Museum of Corsica (opened in 1997) alongside it in a former military hospital. My ancient 1999 Rough Guide does mention the new Museu di a Corsica, but laments that ‘the exhibits – largely run-of-the-mill geological and ethnographic material such as farming implements, traditional costumes and craft tools – fail to measure up to the state-of-the-art design and decor’. You’ll be glad to hear that all traditional costumes and the like have been swept away, and the museum now claims to be aware that laying anything down as a definitive account of ethnography and folklore is impossible, so it offers a more tangential approach. To be honest I’m not sure what’s really gained by this. The focus is on the collecting activities of Père Louis Doazan, from the 1950s on.
One display did catch my attention – Père Doazan visited Corsica’s last transhumant goatherds in the Niolo valley southwest of Corte in 1974, when there were still ten flocks making the two-day (60km) trek over some high passes to spend the summer in the high pastures. The transhumant herders were apparently key to the rural culture of Corsica in the same way as they still are in Romania, which I’m far more familiar with. And in fact I did find that the Col de Vizzavuna, between Corte and Ajaccio, reminded me of Romania, with its extensive beech forests and the rather scrappy parking and snack stalls at the pass. Anyway, I was pleased to see signs at the Col de Vergio (Corsica’s highest road pass at 1478m) for the Sentier de la Transhumance, a hiking trail created in 2007.
From the Col de Vergio we continued west down to the dramatic Gorges de Spelunca, which my geologist brother-in-law said were as good as anything he’s seen in the US, apart from the Grand Canyon (the name does come from the same root as spelunking, the American word for pot-holing – the Latin (from Greek) spelunca, meaning cave or cavern).
We did discover an excellent little restaurant in Corte – A Casa di l’Orsu, at 4 rue Monseigneur Sauveur Casanova (halfway down the steps between the two touristy squares), serves remarkably good authentic Corsican food, and is not expensive at all, with good service.
In Ajaccio the only new feature of interest is the remains of Napoleon’s port (1814), discovered under a car park (in the manner of Richard III) opposite the tourist office. Otherwise, the old town is small and unexciting, the cathedral is Baroque (like every church we saw in Corsica) and unexciting, and the citadel is still occupied by the army, and is small and unexciting. The town does have a proper art museum, however, with the bulk of Cardinal Fesch’s collection (see above) in the Musée Fesch. The highlights are on the top floor, mainly Italian Renaissance art, above all a Giovanni Bellini and a Botticelli, as well as paintings by Nicolo Pisano and Lorenzo di Credi. There’s a fairly standard painting by Cosimo Rosselli, but the portrait of a woman discovered on its rear is stunning for the sense that this is a REAL person. There are also some interesting portraits by Carlo Portelli. From a slightly later period there are two Titians, one by Veronese and his studio, a Lodovico Carracci, two Luca Giordanos, and a big hall of dull altarpieces. Corsican art is hidden in the basement, but the main names are Jean-Baptiste Bassoul (1875-1934) and Lucien Peri (1880-1948), both pretty good (although Peri had a much more modern style). On the ground floor there’s some Napoleoniana on show, including a Canova bust of Fesch. Also in Ajaccio there’s the Maison Bonaparte, a museum in Napoléon Bonaparte’s birthplace – we didn’t visit, partly because we were uncomfortable with the Napoleonic cult. Actually Corsicans aren’t that bothered about him, seeing he left the island as a child – Ajaccio’s Campo dell’Oro airport has now been named after him, but that was controversial.
We did drive out along the coast road to the Parata peninsula, where one of the Genoese watchtowers sits on a lump of gabbro opposite the Îles Sanguinaires, also studded with towers – we saw Corsican finches here, as well as huge piles of a rather odd seaweed (we think) washed up onto the beaches.
We ate in Ajaccio at A Casa Leca, a good little organic restaurant on Rue de l’Assomption, actually a flight of steps off the pedestrianised Rue Cardinal Fesch. They wish you bio appetitu! which is a nice little pun – enjoy your organic meal.