Berlin – new museums for the cultural powerhouse of Europe

Berlin is positioning itself as the capital of post-Brexit Europe, in case you hadn’t noticed, the most culturally dynamic city at the heart of the continent’s most powerful economy. Huge amounts of money are being spent over long timescales to take the already wonderful cultural assets of two cities, East and West Berlin, and make them into a global powerhouse. The key to this is the Museumsinsel (Museum Island, just inside the former East Berlin), where a huge extension to the legendary Pergamon Gallery is being built in five phases between 2012 and 2025, including a fourth wing to the west as in Alfred Messel’s original plan. In 2017-9 visitor services are being transferred to the new James Simon Gallery, named after the Jewish businessman who gave huge and very important donations to the museum in 1904 and 1918. Designed by the British architect David Chipperfield, this will be a combined visitor centre for all the Museumsinsel museums. The new entrance will be on the south side, not far from the new U-Bahn station (on line U5, opening in mid-2019) at the west end of the Schlossbrücke (and next to the German History Museum). It will also give access to the Neues Museum, the second world-class archeology museum on the island – this was beautifully refurbished in 2003-9 by David Chipperfield, who has incorporated the damage caused in World War II rather than trying to remove or hide it.

 

There’s nowhere else like the Pergamon, with its full-size reconstructions of the Ishtar Gate of Nebuchadnezzar II and Processional Way of Babylon and the Market Gate of Miletus in the south wing, and the altar hall of Pergamon in the north wing, although this is closed for refurbishment from 2014 until 2019. It really will knock you sideways. Meanwhile the Neues Museum has beautifully presented displays of Heinrich Schliemann’s finds from the site of Troy (which he secretly removed from Turkey, having to pay a fine afterwards – it doesn’t seem so unfair that much of the collection was then seized by the Soviet Union in 1945, although it is about time that it was returned), as well as the iconic long-necked bust of Nefertiti and the Golden Hat of a Bronze Age Celtic priest, with a 19-year sun/moon cycle encoded on it.

 

Also here are the Altes Museum, the first museum built on the island (by Karl Friedrich Schinkel in 1823-30), housing classical antiquities; the Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery, displaying a wonderful collection of 19th-century German and French art) and the Bode Museum, home to Byzantine art and sculpture, including what is in my opinion a wonderful collection of Italian Renaissance altars by virtually unknown artists. Anywhere else these museums would be huge cultural draws, but here they tend to be overshadowed.

All this money being poured into the former East Berlin has left the former cultural hotspots of West Berlin looking rather sorry for themselves – the Kulturforum, around the Philharmonie concert hall (and near the horribly over-rated Potsdamer Platz), seems very uncared for, with lots of long grass and no signage. The Neues Nationalgalerie, one of Mies van der Rohe’s finest buildings, is closed for refurbishment (by the ubiquitous David Chipperfield) and won’t re-open before 2019; by 2027 it will be linked by a tunnel to the Museum of the 20th Century, a new museum of 20th-century art by Herzog & de Meuron. Yet the Gemälde Galerie probably has the most complete and wide-ranging collection of all Berlin’s art galleries, covering all of European painting from the 13th to the 18th centuries. All the Italian, Flemish and German masters of the Renaissance are here, followed by a superb group of 16 Rembrandts and a couple of Vermeers, as well as other 17th-century Dutch works; it’s pleasing to see a group of fine 18th-century British works, by Gainsborough, Reynolds, Raeburn, Lawrence and Hoppner, too. Allow plenty of time – a full tour will cover 2km, taking in 72 main galleries and lots of side rooms, with around 1,000 works on display, as well as 400 more in the lower-level study gallery (open Friday to Sunday only). It’s definitely one of Europe’s great galleries.
While you’re at the Gemälde Galerie, see what’s on at the Kupferstichkabinett (the Cabinet of Engravings), in the same building – for conservation reasons they only put on temporary shows, but they have an excellent collection to draw on.
For 20th- and 21st-century art, the place to go is the Berlinische Galerie, which has interesting temporary exhibits downstairs and its permanent collection upstairs (running up to 1980, not 1989 as one might have expected) – it’s a good representative overview, with one painting by just about everyone who should be represented, but it doesn’t really get excited and go into depth about anything in particular, especially not Expressionism, Germany’s main contribution to modern art.
I didn’t go back to Dahlem, in the southwestern suburbs, site of West Berlin’s other main grouping of museums, but I assume it has a similar uncared-for feel, as it’s intended to move the Museum of European Culture to the Kulturforum, and the Museums of Ethnography and Asian art to the Berliner Schloss, now being built immediately south of the Museumsinsel. This is a very controversial project to recreate the largely 18th-century palace of the Electors of Prussia, which was heavily damaged in World War II and demolished in 1950 by communist East Germany. They created the huge Marx-Engels Platz and the Palace of the Republic (1976), which was itself demolished in 2008, supposedly due to the presence of asbestos. There’s a strong feeling that this historic building, where German reunification was agreed and where East Germany’s first free parliament met, should have been preserved rather than being demolished for petty political point-scoring. Certainly the plan to rebuild the Schloss is backwards-looking and reeks of imperial bombast; nevertheless the concrete shell has been completed and a new north-south pedestrian axis created, from the Lustgarten to Breite Strasse, and it only remains to deck it out with Baroque features and to move the museums in, by 2019. One good sign is that the project is led by Neil MacGregor, the very successful director of the British Museum until 2015. It’s run by the private Humboldt Forum, which commemorates Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), the explorer and biologist, rather than his brother Wilhelm (1776-1835), politician, linguist and founder of the university now named after him, who is probably better known in Berlin; the temporary Humboldt Cube, on the north side, houses a general exhibition on the project and tasters of what’s to come (for instance ‘Frog Trading in Africa – the ecological effects’ – looking at the spread of malaria).
The historic centre of Berlin, from the 13th century, was the Nikolaiviertel, to the east of the Schloss near the Rathaus, and it was only after 1688 as the city expanded to the west that the area of the Schloss became central; in the 1730s Friedrichstrasse and Wilhelmstrasse were extended to Mehringplatz and Leipziger Platz, and in 1788 the Brandenburg Gate was erected. The Nikolaiviertel has been pedestrianised and prettified, with fairly generic new bars and terraces, as well as August Kiss’s statue of St George and the Dragon, and four museums, mostly remembering bourgeois life in the area.

Katy says the next bit is very boring (except the news of the new cycle scheme) unless you are a transport buff….so you have been warned!!

Berlin’s public transport system is of course also being unified and integrated – the huge Hauptbahnhof (Central Station), opened in 2006 where the city’s North-South and East-West lines cross, is just the latest stage in its evolution. The Lehrter Bahnhof, opened in 1871, was the terminus of the railway from Hannover, and from 1884 from Hamburg – this route was extended eastwards through the city and is now a four-track elevated line with one pair of tracks for long-distance trains and one pair for the Stadtbahn, carrying local S-Bahn services. The North-South line was created when various terminals north and south of the centre were closed (some architectural traces can still be identified) and mainly carries S-Bahn services. Meanwhile the city’s Ring line was completed by the DDR (to allow its trains to avoid West Berlin) and carries another useful range of S-Bahn services.

Construction of the U-Bahn (underground railway) began before World War I, but it took its present shape when the city was divided and West Berlin had to create new routes to avoid East Berlin; new routes into the East are now under construction (see above), but very slowly due to spending constraints.
   Trams, traditionally a feature of East Berlin, are slowly being extended into the West, with routes M5, M8 and M10 being extended to the Hauptbahnhof in 2014 and 2015. But cycling really is the best way to get around Berlin, with 620km of cycle tracks and 13% of journeys made by bike. In spring 2017 Germany’s largest bike-sharing scheme is due to go live here, with thousands of bikes at 700 rental stations, roughly 150m apart.

The ruins of the Anhalter Bahnhof, abandoned when the rail tracks were put underground to link the north and south of Berlin

Singapore – a new cultural dynamo

I like Singapore – it’s clean and efficient (if a bit hot and humid) and the people are friendly, businesslike and go-ahead. But I have to say, it’s changed a lot since I was last here in 1983 – for one thing, it’s literally grown 100 square kilometres in size since then, thanks to land reclamation at Changi airport at its eastern tip, at the Jurong industrial zone to the west and, most obviously, at Marina Bay immediately south of the historic city centre. The close-packed skyscrapers around the Downtown MRT (subway) station have only been there a few years, and there’s much more to come. The aim is for the island-state to be the size of New York City (789 square kilometres) by 2030.

Singapore’s amazing growth was built in the 1960s and ‘70s on manufacturing, then it moved into finance and transport (it’s the world’s second busiest port and busiest transhipment hub, with a ship arriving or departing every three minutes, and 1,000 vessels in port at any time), and recently it has decided to also establish itself as a tourism centre and also as a cultural hub for the region. On the downside that means it’s allowed two casinos to be established (each with a fairly poor museum set up as part of the deal), but on the other hand a huge amount of public money has gone into culture and beautification. A large chunk of Marina Bay (just over 100ha) has been used to create Gardens by The Bay, a public park with a difference, notably its artifical SuperTrees, huge sculptural forms with creepers growing up them and solar panels that light them up at night in a variety of crazy colours. There are two biodomes that you have to pay to vist, and a 128m-long Skywalk between some Supertrees, but otherwise this is free (5am-2am). There’s a 3.5km pedestrian route around Marina Bay, incorporating the high-tech Helix Bridge (although this and the Jubilee Bridge, also on the trail, are rather devalued by being alongside busy roads); it links to the 8km Jubilee Walk, created in 2015 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Singapore’s full independence, which follows the Singapore River from the bay to Fort Canning Hill, passing many historic buildings that have recently been repurposed for cultural activities.

Lots of new museums

The most impressive of these are right on North Boat Quay, in the heart of the Colonial District, notably the Court House (1867), which re-opened as the Asian Civilisations Museum in 2003, the Old Parliament House (1827), which became The Arts House after the current parliament opened in 1999, and the Town Hall (1862), which became the Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall in 2014. Immediately behind is the grandest of them all, the National Gallery Singapore, created in 2015 when the Supreme Court (the last of Singapore’s huge Neoclassical edifices to be built, in 1939) and the City Hall (1929) were linked by a modern atrium, giving access to the basement ticket desks and as far up as the rotundas and the roof terrace (don’t miss the great views over the Padang, the grassy expanse in the middle of the Colonial District). It houses a good spread of Singaporean art (first by Europeans, and then largely by Chinese artists until the 1970s, including some fine woodblock prints) and also comparative displays by artists from across South-East Asia, a good idea but slightly unfocussed.

Across the river to the south, the massive Fullerton Building was built in 1928 as the General Post Office, where virtually all the mail between Europe and Australasia was sorted, and was converted to a luxury hotel in 2001; it’s very imposing, but right next to it is the more charming Fullerton Waterboat House, a lovely piece of Art Deco from 1949 that’s now a restaurant. It’s so called because the main supplier of drinking water to ships in the harbour was based here.

The excellent Singapore National Museum was actually built as a museum, in 1887, but was also revamped for the Jubilee, with a new atrium and a children’s wing – it’s on the north side of Fort Canning Hill, at the inland end of the Jubilee Walk. Nearby, and also well worth looking out for, is the Peranakan Museum, built as a school in 1906-12, which opened in 2008 to commemorate the culture of the people who were known as Straits Chinese (and as Baba-Nyonya) last time I was here – the community formed since the 15th century by Chinese traders who settled here, in Melaka and Penang and across the wider region, and intermarried with Malays. Their furniture and other artefacts, in particular, are of very high quality.

Characteristic shophouses, characteristic apartment blocks

There are also heritage centres dedicated to the Chinese Indian and Malay communities, in the hearts of Chinatown, Little India and Kampong Glem respectively, three areas of two- and three-story shophouses that are now conservation areas amid the city’s modern skyscrapers. Shophouses, with accommodation above and behind a shopfront, originated in the 1840s, but many of the most spectacular ones date from 1900-40, with some fine Art Deco examples from the 1930s-60s. The centre of Chinatown is now horrendously crowded and touristy, but it’s worth pushing on south to Neil Road (also the place for Korean restaurants) and Blair Plain, to see terraces of shophouses that now house cool coffee houses and boutique guesthouses. The Baba House, at 157 Neil Road, was opened in 2008 by the National University and gives a fine insight into Baba-Nyonya culture, although this is now a less attractive  stretch of Neil Road.

Note that I’m talking about the Chinatown Heritage Centre, not the Chinese Heritage Centre at Nanyang Technological University, which does have a museum but is more of an academic centre. The Indian Heritage Centre opened in 2015 in a very striking modern building and has the most modern displays of the three; the Malay Heritage Centre opened in 2004 in the relatively dull palace of the Sultan in Singapore (NB not the Sultan OF Singapore –  this was a cunning ruse to allow the Sultan of Johore to be replaced by his chief minister in 1855, while the Sultan retired to Singapore).

Opened in April 2015, the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum claims to be the newest museum in Singapore, but the Indian Heritage Centre actually opened a month later, and in any case it inherited its collections from the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, which dates back to the original donation by Sir Stamford Raffles, founder of Singapore in 1819, to create a general museum for Singapore.

A non-governmental museum project – but seemingly just as well funded – is the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum – occupying a whole block of Chinatown, this was established to house a tooth of the Buddha found in Myanmar and donated in 2002 for safekeeping. Opened in 2007, the temple is largely in 7/8th-century Tang style, but the upper floors house a surprisingly good museum (free, and air-conditioned, of course) that tells the story of the historic Buddha along with an excellent selection of sculptures, including quite a few from Gandhara. I first came across these 2nd- and 3rd-century Buddha carvings in Pakistan in 1983, and have loved them ever since for their Oriental spirituality allied with an oddly Greek style, especially in the clothing. It’s also worth mentioning the ‘vegetarian dining hall for charity’ in the basement.

Another private venture is the Singapore Art Museum, opened in 1996 in a former mission school (1855 to 1990), which aims to be the regional centre for contemporary (edgy) art.

Finally, there are fifty World War II sites dotted about the island, twenty of them with plaques put up either in 1995 (the 40th anniversary of liberation) or in 2012 (the 70th anniversary of the Fall of Singapore). The Ford Factory at Bukit Timah, where the British surrendered in 1942, is apparently interesting, but is closed for renovation; otherwise I found Reflections at Bukit Chindu excellent (and the Canopy Walk at the start of the Southern Ridges Trail is right opposite the gate – see my next post, on natural Singapore). This is where soldiers of the Malay Regiment, founded only in 1933, put up heroic resistance to the Japanese on 14 February 1942, as they closed in on the city and pressed for a British surrender, which came the next day.

The Singapore Museum Guide, published in January 2016, includes virtually every little museum in town but, oddly, not the National Gallery; virtually all museums are free for Singapore citizens and residents, but others will pay around S$20 (£11) – don’t hesitate, these are easily the best museums in the region, with very professional standards of presentation.

Some practicalities

Singapore does, of course, have an excellent public transport system, with two companies operating a fully integrated system of buses and MRT trains. Most signs and notices are in English (but stations all have numbers, such as CC1 to CC29 (so far) on the Circle Line) and there are squeaky-clean public toilets at most stations. If you’re around for more than a day or so, you should buy an EZ-Link chip-card which costs S$5 (non-refundable) and can store as much credit as you want – and this can be refunded. With the EZ-Link card journeys are far cheaper than with the ‘standard’ ticket, a card with a chip which can store anything up to six trips; there’s also the Singapore Tourist Pass, which comes loaded on an EZ-Link card and gives free travel on MRT, LRT and basic bus services for up to three days (S$10 for one day, S$16 for two days and S$20 for three days). There’s a S$10 deposit for this which will be refunded if you return the card within five days of purchase, or you can simply top it up and use it like a regular EZ-Link card.

The MRT is undergoing a major expansion programme at the moment, aiming to double the system’s length by 2030, including a new 50km Cross Island Line from Changi to Jurong just north of the city. In the second quarter of 2017 the East-West Line will be extended west from Joo Koon to Tuas Link (adjacent to the Second Link to Malaysia), amd later in 2017 Stage 3 of the Downtown Line will open from Chinatown to Expo, out east near Changi Airport. In 2023 the North East Line will be extended 1.6km from Punggol to Pinggol Coast, to serve a new Digital District. It’s worth mentioning that the Circle Line will actually be a circle from 2025 when the 4km missing link from Marina Bay to Harbourfront, via Cantonment and Keppel, will open.

Singapore has an unspoken social contract – the infrastructure has to run well (for instance signal failures on the MRT are unacceptable) to compensate for loss of freedoms, if people are going to continue supporting the governing party – so the 2011 elections, when the opposition won six seats, came as a shock and forced the government to get a grip – it is now taking back control of the MRT stations, track and trains, and the operators will provide only the passenger services.

Given that public transport is so good, why do so many Singaporeans drive at all? From the 1960s to the 1980s Singapore built a system of expressways before realising that they were simply generating traffic. The first MRT line opened in 1989 (with the North-South and East-West lines both opening in 1990), and in 1990 the Vehicle Quota System was introduced – this limits the number of cars in Singapore by means of public auctions, twice a year, for a Certificate of Entitlement allowing one to own a car for a ten-year period. Currently this costs about S$5,000 (£32,000), although it has been twice as much, and on top of that cars are heavily taxed. There’s also Electronic Road Pricing (a congestion charge) to pay. The odd effect is that Singaporeans buy more top-end cars and SUVs than most other nations, because you might as well go the whole hog if you’re spending that sort of money, and it doesn’t seem very much more overall – and then of course having spent so much they’re impelled to use the car as much as possible when the MRT might well be easier. So the expressways are still ridiculously busy.

Florence – museums and much more

I visit Italy several times a year, but I’m normally stopping for one night in Courmayeur while leading hikers on the Tour du Mont Blanc. In the spring of 2016, however, I did manage to spend a couple of weeks in Tuscany and Umbria – we ate and drank (it’s easily the world’s best cuisine for vegetarians, in my opinion) and stayed in nice places, but this post is mainly about art and museums, and of course Florence is the world’s capital for these, with the Uffizi housing the world’s greatest collection of Italian Renaissance art. But there’s plenty of information on that in guidebooks and online.

In 2015 the Uffizi, the Pitti Palace and the Boboli Gardens were merged into one super-museum (with 3.4 million visitors and ticket revenue of €17.3 million per year); in 2016 the German Eike Schmidt was appointed as the first non-Italian director of the Uffizi, with a commitment to shake things up. Traditionally Italy’s leading museums were tightly controlled by the Ministry of Culture, but since the 1990s it has allowed private companies to provide various services, including putting on some temporary exhibitions, but while this did do something to open up the system’s sclerotic arteries it also introduced more conflicts of responsibility. Now the aim is to give powerful museum directors the chance to get a grip, but bureaucratic inertia and resistance are powerful. The single biggest challenge is being unable to freely recruit or dismiss staff – even persuading guards to rotate from room to room, rather than having a job for life in one favourite corner, involves tense negotiation with unions.

The Uffizi’s ticketing system is an unwieldy beast (I don’t have to tell you to book online in advance, I hope, rather than queueing for hours), but again private resellers and tour companies are keen to protect their profits from marking up the basic €8 cost.

Matteo Renzi was once mayor of Florence before becoming Prime Minster and trying to shake up the Italian state as a whole – alas, he resigned after losing a constitutional referendum in December 2016. Italian resident Tim Parks has written Italian Ways, a surprisingly fascinating account of the way the Italian railways are run, which serves as a template for Italian society as a whole.

One obvious fruit of the merger woud be to open up the the intriguing Vasari Corridor (built by Vasari in 1565), which leads at an upper level from the Uffizi, across the Ponte Vecchio, to the Pitti Palace. It houses a collection of over 700 self-portraits (by Titian, Carracci, Delacroix, Ingres, Sargent, Morandi, and more contemporary artists, as well as by female painters such as Angelica Kauffmann, Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun and the even less well-known Violante Beatrice Siries and Rosalba Carriera); only a few private tours companies currently have access it, and they are lobbying hard to keep their profitable venture for themselves. In any case it’s not the best place for paintings, due to the lack of temperature and humidity control, and Schmidt wants to move them to the main Uffizi building (where offices will be converted to galleries) and replace them with classical Greek and Roman inscriptions.

The Vasari Corridor and the Ponte Vecchio

While the Uffizi is swamped with visitors, the adjacent Bargello, renowned for its Renaissance sculpture and a great collection of Islamic art, is struggling to make people notice it; it recently merged with four smaller Florentine museums, which may either give it more visibility or dilute it. It too has a new director who has inherited a €2 million deficit and a museum without a proper catalogue database.

In more straightforwardly good news, two more of Florence’s museums, closed for many years, have reopened – the Museum of the Opera del Duomo, home to the cathedral’s greatest artworks, completed its refurbishment at the end of 2015. Housing the world’s largest collection of Florentine medieval and Renaissance sculpture, including a Michelangelo pietà, other works by Donatello, Andrea Pisano, Lorenzo Ghiberti and Luca della Robbia and almost seventy fragments from the cathedral’s lost medieval façade, it’s set to be one of the city’s unmissable sights (move over, Bargello). One €15 ticket covers the museum and all the other monuments around the duomo, such as the baptistry and campanile.

The Istituto degli Innocenti (Institute of the Innocents; daily 10am-7pm; €7), on Piazza Santissima Annunziata, was founded in 1445 as the first secular orphanage in Europe, and still works to protect children and families, with UNICEF’s research office based here. Brunelleschi’s building, one of the most important civil buildings of the Renaissance, with its two lovely cloisters, was closed from 2010 to 2016 for refurbishment. Luca della Robbia’s tondi of ceramic babies on the façade advertise the building’s purpose, and the building also houses an exceptional art collection on the first floor, including more works by Luca della Robbia plus Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Piero di Cosimo and many others.

The arcaded piazza itself is one of Florence’s more authentic and attractive. In the centre, the equestrian statue of Grand Duke Ferdinand I was Giambologna’s last work, cast from Turkish cannons captured at the battle of Lepanto. On the north side of the square, the church of the Annunciation was rebuilt by Michelozzo in the second half of the fifteenth century, but now has a heavily Baroque interior.

The Piazza Santissima Annunziata with Giambologna’s statue of Grand Duke Ferdinand I, the church of the Annunciation and Ithe Istituto degli Innocenti (right)

Also in June 2016, the historic Teatro Niccolini, the city’s oldest theatre, reopened after being closed for no less than twenty years. In other news from Florence, conservationists have finally figured out how to restore Vasari’s huge Last Supper from the Santa Croce church, badly damaged in the terrible flood of 1966; and McDonald’s is suing the city for €18m after the mayor blocked its plans for a ‘restaurant’ on the Piazza del Duomo (but one did open in December 2016 on Borgo Pio, just outside the Vatican in Rome, causing some minor scandal).

Look out for

Something to keep anyone young at heart amused, whilst seeing the sights in Florence, is spotting the plethora of defaced road signs by the French street artist Clet Abrahams.  He uses removable stickers and is tolerated, aided and abetted to various degrees by the authorities and his fans.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Some practicalities

Florence’s orange buses are changing to a red and white livery; the blue buses are for regional services out of the city. Florence is a hub of Italy’s flashy high-speed train service, but it’s worth knowing about the far cheaper regional Roma-Firenze train which runs every two hours and calls at fascinating places like Arezzo and Orvieto; this is also the easiest way to transport bikes.

We enjoyed discovering Cedrata Tassoni, a local soda drink, launched in 1956 (although the company had been selling a syrup since 1793), that’s made from the oil of the citron, similar to a lemon (originally they used Citrus Medici from the shores of Lake Garda, now it’s Citron Diamante from Calabria). It comes in a cute little bottle with a surface like citron peel and no label (all information is on the lid). Perfectly small enough to take home in your hand luggage!!

You’ll hear that the favourite Florentine sandwich (sold from stalls on city squares) is made of lampredotto, often translated as lamprey – however this is nothing to do with the parasitic fish, but is actually the fourth and final stomach of a cow. Tripe more generally is also popular here, in the form of trippa alla fiorentina – and bistecca alla fiorentina (ie steak) is even more popular. The Florentines really aren’t particularly veggie-minded.

Speaking of sandwiches, tramezzini are not triple-deckers, as some people seem to expect, just normal sandwiches, though with the crusts cut off. We ate some fantastic arancini (stuffed rice balls, coated with bread crumbs and then deep fried, usually filled with ragù, mozzarella and peas, originally from Sicily) – and then came home to find that suddenly they were everwhere in Britain, including a wedding and at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen. Definitely the flavour of the month. The best place to buy them is Ará (via degli Alfani 127, on the corner of via Ricasoli) – it has great cannoli and gelato too.

However we did also find two excellent vegetarian restaurants, notably Brac (via dei Vagellai 18), a bookshop which suggests sharing plates of pasta, salad and a sort of wrap – service is a bit random (be sure to book) but the food is fantastic. There’s also Simbiosi (via de’ Ginori 56), where I was particularly amused by the pea hummus pizza (topped with mushy peas, basically), the range of craft beers and organic wines, and indeed the hip English-speaking staff. I was curious about how the concept of ‘Zero Kilometre food’ could work in a city centre, but apparently it actually refers to a radius of 70km. Weak marketing, I feel, but the concept is great, derived from the Slow Food movement founded in northern Italy 30 years ago.

 A gourmet haven down on the border of Umbria

We stumbled across Borgo Cenaioli, an Agriturismo enterprise 15 km from Perugia, in a 16th-century hamlet of just 12 inhabitants near Lake Trasimeno. We were the only diners so had the delightful courtyard to ourselves and were offered a set menu, which was adapted for the vegetarian amongst us. It’s also possible to stay there but we didn’t see the accommodation.  A perfect spot to get off the road, relax and eat well.

Liège 2, museums – fuss and Boverie

Before I reached Liège I heard a lot of fuss about the Grand Curtius, a project to link a group of the city’s museums and to create a strong cultural hub, but I have to say I wasn’t that impressed. The €59 million project opened in 2009 (10am-6pm except Tuesdays; €9; www.grandcurtiusliege.be), but it’s not very well organised, with lots of dead-ends and poor signage, and there’s nothing particularly amazing to see anyway. The bright-red and remarkably tall mansion (built for the merchant Jean de Curte between 1597 and 1610, in Mosan Renaissance style) overlooks the Meuse, but it’s still basically empty (I saw a few grand fireplaces and a temporary show of contemporary art there) and the entrance to the complex is on the far side on Féronstrée – glazed walkways (see below) lead from the ticketing area to the four supposedly unified museums, of archeology, weaponry, decorative arts, and religious art and Mosan art. There’s information in four languages in the introductory section but after that it’s French only.

The Grand Curtius

There is an excellent collection of glasswork, from its origins 5,000 years ago in Mesopotamia and Egypt via medieval stained glass and Bohemian crystal to wonderful Art Nouveau and Deco creations; the weaponry collection includes some very odd-looking modern guns (all composites and electronics) made in nearby Herstal. Incidentally, Herstal is one of the possible birthplaces (c742) of Charlemagne, but I saw no mention of this. We are however promised an exhibition soon on Georges Nagelmackers, born in Liège in 1845, who invented the sleeper carriage in 1867 and developed it into a Europe-wide empire of trains such as the legendary Venice-Orient Express.

Your ticket also includes the Archéoorum (archeoforumdeliege.be), under the Place St-Lambert, where you can poke around among the foundations of Gallo-Roman buildings and the first cathedral; but I’d still say Le Grand Curtius is a great deal of fuss about not very much, and is also overpriced.

Nearby, at Féronstrée 114, the Musée d’Ansembourg (Thurs-Sun 10am-6pm; €5) is in an splendid townhouse, built for a banker in about 1740, that still has its original interiors, with fine plasterwork and wood carving, and a display of furniture, paintings, tapestries, clocks and chandeliers from the period of its construction, all in authentically liégeois style.

Liège-Guillemins station

I was much more impressed by the Boverie (Tues-Fri 9.30am-6pm, Sat/Sun 10am-6pm; en.laboverie.com), a new and expanded incarnation of Liège’s Palais des Beaux Arts (built in 1905 for the Exposition Universelle) that lies on a new axis from Liège-Guillemins (the stunning new station by Santiago Calatrava with its soaring birds-wing roof – see above and below) via a new foot/cycle bridge and the Boverie park (at the southern tip of the Outremeuse island) to the Mediacité centre (designed by Ron Arad, but basically a shopping centre with cinemas in the run-down Longdoz district). Opened in May 2016, the new Musée des Beaux-Arts de Liège (BAL) brings together the collections of the former Musée d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain, the Musée de l’Art Wallon and the Cabinet des Estampes et des Dessins, as well as a new space for international touring exhibitions. Visiting the permanent collection costs €5 (free on the first Sunday of each month), while temporary exhibitions cost between €12 and €17. The permanent collection, on the lower level, starts (chronologically speaking) with a portrait by the Köln painter Bartholomäus Bruyn (1493–1555), a fairly average portrait by Anthonis Mor (c1562) of Lambert Lombard, a real Renaissance man who was court painter to Prince-Bishop Érard de la Marck, a still life by Pieter Claesz, portraits of a man and a woman (1669) by Nicolas Maes, a portrait of the sculptor Jean Del Cour (1685) by his brother Jean-Gilles Del Cour and a portrait of Napoleon (1804) by Ingres. From the late 19th century come a Monet of the port of Le Havre, a lovely painting by Alfred Stevens (La Parisienne japonaise, c1873) and Meunier’s big view of the Seraing ironworks (c1880), as well as a Rodin sculpture.

Liège-Guillemins station

In the 20th century it was city policy to build a good contemporary collection, and they had an extraordinary stroke of luck when the Nazis sold off the paintings in the Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition, showing what was to them unacceptably modernist (and Jewish) art – nine paintings were bought at a sale in Luzern in 1939, by Chagall, Gauguin, Kokoschka, Laurencin, Liebermann, Marc, Pascin, Picasso and Ensor (who I could do without, frankly). How they then survived the German occupation is another matter that I haven’t investigated. In fact the city had spent less than a fifth of their available funds, so they also went to Paris to buy Post-impressionist works by Signac, Utrillo, Vlaminck, van Dongen, Guillaumin and Ensor again (but he was Belgian, so hard to avoid, I suppose). You’ll also see Post-impressionist paintings by Derain, Marquet and the Belgian Theo van Rhysselberghe, and also Magritte (another Belgian), Léger, de Stäel, Vasarely, Arp, Tàpies, Ben Nicholson and the Canadian Jean-Paul Riopelle.

Finally, the Galerie Noire (also on the lower level) displays prints and drawings by Millet, Delacroix, van Gogh, Jean & Jean-Gilles Del Cour, Meunier, Reps, Ensor, Marc, Matisse (a Tête de Jeune Fille from 1947), Sonia Delaunay-Terk and (being Belgium) a selection of comic strips, all in the usual low-light environment.

By the way, there’s a café called Madame Boverie, and the park, with wild rabbits hopping about, is popular for picnics.

Another exciting new project is La Cité Miroir (the last R is placed backwards), a new exhibition centre opened in 2014 in a former municipal swimming pool (a fine modernist building opened in 1939) at Place Xavier Neujean 22 (Mon-Fri 9am-6pm (from 10am in summer), Sat/Sun 10am-6pm (closed Sun in summer), citemiroir.be). The main hall (see below) makes a fine performance space, and usually houses a photo exhibition too, and a couple of permanent exhibitons (€5 each), Plus Jamais Ça! (Never Again!) on the Holocaust, and Lutte, Histoires d’Émancipation on the struggle for a fairer, more equal society.

La Cité Miroir

It’s also worth noting that the opera house (Opéra Royal de Wallonie) has been renovated, the Théâtre de Liège moved into new premises on the Place du 20-Août in 2013, and there’s a good arthouse cinema, the Sauvenière, at Place Xavier-Neujean 12.

Some practicalities

The Tourist Office has moved from Féronstrée 92 to the Halle aux Viandes (the former meat market; daily 9am-5pm, to 6pm June-Sept; liege.be/tourisme) at 13 Quai de la Goffe (though not actually on the quai).

I stayed in the very friendly youth hostel in the cloisters of St Nicholas church (where detective writer Georges Simenon, creator of Maigret, went to church as a boy), in the traditionally working-class Outremeuse district, now also busy with immigrants (more African than Arab). There are some nice Art Nouveau apartment buildings here, and, a block east of the hostel, the rather bizarre Tchantchès statue – Tchantchès (from the Flemish for ‘little Jean’, Jantches) is a folkloric figure, derived from a comic puppet who appeared between the acts in the early 19th-century marionnette theatre and is now a symbol of Liège and in particular the Outremeuse district. The bronze statue was erected in 1936, and giant puppets representing him and his gal Nanesse are now mainstays of street parades and festivals here.

The pedestrianised central area known as Le Carré is famed for its lively bars, but I didn’t find it very attractive. There are some nice cafés in cultural centres etc, but they and the few veggie places seem to close quite early, leaving just loud bars and formal restaurants. Opposite the youth hostel, La Cène (Rue Henri de Dinant 17; lacene.be) is a lively bistro, also serving Italian and Lebanese dishes.

On the transport front, a tramway (keskistram.be) is under construction along the left bank of the Meuse, to open in 2018 with luck. The 12.5km line will link the Standard Liège stadium in the west to Liège-Guillemins station and Coronmeuse in the centre, with a short branch to Bressoux station across the Meuse. There are already bus-only lanes in the centre of town, using a tunnel optimistically built for a metro in the 1970s.

The concept of Benelux (the union of the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg) doesn’t seem to have reached the SNCB, Belgium’s national railways. The ticket machines at Liège-Guillemins (2 of the 3 were out of action anyway) don’t sell tickets to Luxembourg, so you have to queue at the ticket desk – as a Belgian train runs through to Luxembourg every hour this seems bizarre; there’s no real cycle space on these IC trains either. The short hop north from Antwerp to the Netherlands is equally problematic in my experience.