Boston (Mass.)

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

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

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

Frank Gehry’s Stata Center, MIT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Harvard Art Museums

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saumur (and Tours)

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

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

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

The army stables, Saumur

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

Fontevraud

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

Brézé

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

Tours

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

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

Tours cathedral

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tacoma – still trying hard

Under an hour southwest of Seattle, Tacoma is a relatively drab place, dominated by its huge container port, by the I-5 freeway and by heavy military jets taking off and landing, but it does have its attractions and a proud, if short, history. The Northern Pacific Railway chose Tacoma, not Seattle, as the western terminal of its transcontinental line, which opened in 1883 (the first transcontinental line had reached Oakland, near San Francisco, in 1869, and the Canadian Pacific route to Vancouver opened in 1886), even though it’s further from the open sea. In fact, if Seattle continues to develop as it is doing, the two cities will join up within a few decades, enveloping Sea-Tac Airport.

Tacoma’s main current claim to fame is the excellent Museum of Glass, created by celebrity glass artist Dale Chihuly (born in Tacoma in 1941) and designed by the splendid Vancouver architect Arthur Erickson – you can see some of Chihuly’s perhaps overblown, but very imaginative and colourful, works on the Bridge of Glass, leading across the railway to the museum. In fact Washington state, and the whole of the Pacific Northwest, have been very important in the development of modern glass art, and there are lots of galleries in Seattle too, including Chihuly Garden & Glass and Pilchuck Seattle, a gallery linked to the Pilchuck Glass School, 50 miles north of Seattle – both were co-founded by Chihuly.

The ceiling of the Bridge of Glass

On the town side of the Bridge of Glass are the former Union Station (1911, now a courthouse), which has some of his larger works on display, and the Washington State History Museum, designed to match the former station. This gives an impressive overview of the state’s history in a suitably non-Seattlecentric way, from the first native cultures to the establishment of the Hudson Bay Company’s trading post at Fort Nisqually (yes, this could have been part of Canada), the arrival of the railways and modern industrial development. On the other (north) side of the former station is the Tacoma Art Museum, which of course has more glass by Chihuly plus European and (western) American paintings and a striking collection of Japanese woodblock prints.

There’s good craft beer here, naturally (glass… beer… of course they go together), notably Seven Seas Brewing, quite near the museums at 2101 Jefferson Avenue, and others just north of downtown including Odd Otter Brewing and Parkway Tavern, which is close to Hank’s Bar & Grill, where you can soak it up with good pizza.

Transport mishaps

Buses from Seattle and further afield, and Sounder and Amtrak trains, halt near the Tacoma Dome, a largely wooden concert/sports arena on the southern edge of the city, from where the Tacoma Link streetcar runs into downtown – this is currently free, with fares paid by the Downtown Business Improvement Area (an industry grouping). However an extension is under construction, which will loop around to the left past the main hospital, and when this opens in 2022 fares will be charged. Currently Amtrak uses a station a couple of hundred yards away from the Dome, but a second platform at the Freighthouse Square station (used by Sounder commuter services to Seattle) should have been ready by the end of 2017, allowing Amtrak to move here. However it’s running late so in January 2018 I caught my train at the old station to take the slow coastal route past Point Defiance Park (the second largest urban park in the US, containing a replica of Fort Nisqually, not on its original site) and the Tacoma Narrows suspension bridge (rebuilt after it famously twisted itself apart in 1940); the freight line from the Sounder station has been fettled for 80mph running and Amtrak trains will go this way as soon as the new station opens. However the new route was launched in December 2017 with a publicity run that went horribly wrong, via the new station – the driver (engineer, as they say in the US) seems to have forgotten about the 30mph curves where the new line swerves across the I-5 freeway and the train left the tracks, killing three passengers. Amtrak is having a bad run of accidents at the moment, even as train travel is becoming ever safer elsewhere in the world; at the end of January 2018 a truck driver was killed by a train which, bizarrely, was carrying most of the Republican members of Congress (not known for their generosity to Amtrak) to a retreat, and four days later two Amtrak crewmen died when their train took the wrong track and hit a freight train. And then a few days later the entire Baltimore metro was closed to allow emergency repairs. Maintenance and lack of infrastructure are crucial, of course, but because Amtrak’s lines, outside the Washington-New York-Boston corridor, are owned by freight companies there’s been a huge reluctance to install the PTC (Positive Train Control) system which would prevent most of these accidents. It’s hardly new technology, and it definitely works.

Bulletin from Batumi

Having posted about Tbilisi, I should say that I’m now in Batumi, Georgia’s second largest city, a pleasure resort on the Black Sea. It is totally unlike Tbilisi in most ways, although it does share some of its problems with traffic congestion and pollution – whereas English has become Tbilisi’s second language, here it’s Russian (and Turkish), and the city has much less of a European feel to it. Whereas visitors to Tbilisi come mostly for culture (including food and wine!), they come to Batumi for the casinos (not the beach, which is stoney and polluted). President Saakashvili (see my Tbilisi post), in his mad rush to boost the Georgian economy as fast as possible, decided that Batumi should become the Las Vegas of the Black Sea, and brought in major hotel and casino chains with massive tax breaks. He encouraged a surreal mishmash of exuberant architecture that (like Las Vegas) is definitely worth a flying visit at least. I’m not going to write a lot, but I will post some photos of these buildings below (loosely, from north to south).

While the over-the-top kitschy exuberance of Batumi’s new buildings still thrills, or at least provokes giggles, I do sense that the project has gone ever so slightly off the boil since Saakashvili left office (and the country – he moved to Ukraine to become governor of Odessa, but then fell out with the political establishment there and is currently stateless). The Chinese pagoda no longer houses a Chinese restaurant, the windmill restaurant is no longer Dutch-themed, the Tower Brewery no longer brews its own beer – they all now serve fairly basic Georgian food for holidaymakers. And the Chacha Fountain no longer flows with chacha (Georgian grappa) once a week (in fact it allegedly only worked once, as in one time only).

There are also hints of juicy scandal associated with Donald Trump, which I don’t think will make it into the book. In 2012 the future US president met Georgia’s President Saakashvili in Batumi to launch a Trump Tower project here – Trump was only going to sell his name rather than actually investing in the project, but it was a typical piece of grandstanding aimed at helping Saakashvili’s UNM party in upcoming elections. However in August 2017 a long investigative article in the New Yorker by Adam Davidson suggested there might be rather more to it, as part of a murky network of money-laundering and tax avoidance. It might, or might not, play a significant rôle in Robert Mueller’s investigation into Trump’s election campaign – it would also be pretty poor PR for Georgia, even though Saakashvili is long gone from the country. The Georgian developer, Silk Road Group, still hopes to build the tower – at one point they talked of calling it T Tower, so that Trump’s name could be attached after he leaves the presidency, but now it’s more likely to be called the Silk Road Tower.

Donald Trump Junior’s notorious June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower in New York City, when he hoped to buy Russian dirt on Hillary Clinton, was also attended by Irakli Kaveladze, a Moscow-based Georgian businessman representing the Russian oligarch who set up the meeting. Kaveladze has been accused by congressional investigators of a scheme to launder US$1.4 billion of largely Russian money through US banks (he denies the allegations and says he attended the meeting as a translator). I don’t think there’s any connection with Georgian-born New York property developer Tamir Sapir, who built a hotel-condo block that became Trump Soho after The Donald bought an 18% share of the project in 2005.

I remember walking past the site for the Trump Tower in Punta del Este, Uruguay, as well, but it seems that one really is being built and will be finished in 2018.

As for practical news, I’ll just say that trains are becoming a better and better alternative to marshrutka minibuses, especially for the Tbilisi-Batumi journey – you can take a sleeper, or a fast day train operated by double-deck electric-multiple-units (which were ordered from the Swiss company Stadler for Moscow’s airport express, but when the rouble lost value they couldn’t afford the whole fleet, and Georgia and Azerbaijan got together to make an offer that Stadler couldn’t refuse). Personally I don’t think marshrutka drivers are actually suicidal, but after four weeks travelling around Georgia I’m finding the marshrutka experience (the death-defying overtaking, in particular, as well as all the waiting around) just a bit wearying, and so I thoroughly recommend train travel instead.

A new station called Batumi Central opened out of the blue just as we were going to print with the last edition – we couldn’t cover it properly because the book would have needed re-indexing, but it got mentioned. It’s not at all central, being at least 2km north of town, but is still more convenient than the previous terminus at Makhindjauri (and it’s served by the same buses, which is handy).

People often ask why the trains don’t call at Kutaisi, Georgia’s third city, which is just off the main line, and I suggest getting off at the small station of Rioni, just south of the city, where taxis await. In fact by the summer of 2018 there will be a new 2-kilometre loop to a station at Kutaisi Airport (Georgia’s booming low-cost hub), where all trains will apparently stop. This isn’t so close to Kutaisi itself, but coming from Batumi it will be a handy place to change to a bus or taxi into the city.

Batumi from the north (near Batumi Central station), with the Alphabetic Tower to the right.
This was built to house a Technical University – with a Ferris Wheel in the façade, for some reason.
The Technical University building, with a statue of well-known child-murderer Medea.
Batumi’s award-winning on one side a petrol station, on the other a McDonalds building.
The Public Service Hall dwarfed by the Alliance Tower, floors 1 to 6 of which will house a Marriott Courtyard hotel.
The Parthenon – a restaurant, of course.
The Colosseum and the Upside-Down restaurant.

Normandy and Brittany

Just a few notes from my recent trip to western Normandy and eastern Brittany – a well-worn trail for me, with its highlights at Mont St Michel and Carnac. In particular, we were immensely privileged to be taken up through one of the flying buttresses to the roof level of the Abbey of Mont St Michel – something that’s only possible with a private guide that you’ve been working with for some years! So I’m afraid I can’t tell you who to contact.

The Mémorial de Caen now includes galleries on the weapons of the Cold War and Berlin in the Cold War – you might expect it just to deal with D-Day and the Battle of Normandy, but it now covers everything from the causes of Word War II in the Versailles Treaties of 1918-19 up to its consequences in the 1950s and 1960s. Also new in 2017 is a Résistance & Collaboration gallery and a new film on the Battle of Normandy (in French and English versions). There are lots of small private museums in the villages near in D-Day beaches, which have their own quirky individual charm, with lots of recovered artefacts, but none offers anything like the detail and context of the Mémorial de Caen. It’s not cheap though, at almost €20 (€51 for a family pass). Over to the west, the Utah Beach Museum reopened in 2011; originally in a German bunker, it now has a state-of-the-art building for its displays, including a B-26 Marauder bomber in a custom-built hangar. But the landings on Utah Beach (and Gold, Sword and Juno) were relatively straightforward – Omaha will always be the main focus of attention.

It’s worth mentioning that the city of Caen is planning to change from its unique and unreliable guided trolleybus system to a standard LRT tramway – the single central rail will be replaced by two running rails, so there will be construction chaos for quite a while once they get started.

It opened in 2006, but I hadn’t come across the Mémorial des Reporters in Bayeux before – in a lovely park-like setting near the British Cemetery (rue de Verdun, off Bd Fabien Ware), it remembers the more than 2000 journalists killed in the line of duty since 1944 with a gravestone for each year. It’s getting more dangerous to be a war reporter – in 2015 110 were killed, at least 67 of them deliberately targeted because of their work, according to Reporters sans Frontieres. Across the road from the British Cemetery is the Bayeux Memorial, a classical portico bearing the names of 1,808 men of the Commonwealth and Empire who died in the Battle of Normandy and who have no known grave. Above is a Latin inscription that translates as ‘We, once conquered by William, have now set free the Conqueror’s native land’.

Also in Bayeux, the new Villa Lara is a great hotel, with large stylish roosm and great service – although the first wi-fi log-in is unnecessarily complicated (and it’s not very fast); and every time you leave your bedroom it seems someone comes in and puts a sticker on the loose end of the loo roll – a bizarre obsession! But it’s great that they were able to get permission for a new building right in the centre of town (hidden away just off the main Rue St-Jean), and that they did such a good job. It’s not at all cheap, though. L’Angle St Laurent at 4 rue des Bouchers seems to still be the best restaurant in town – always fabulous. Down towards the Baie du Mont St Michel, the Auberge de Carolles is also much improved under its new management (though well out of the way for most tourists). I also have a new favourite crêperie in Dinan, Art-Bilig at 8 rue Ste-Claire – small, friendly and efficient, serving up excellent savoury brown galettes and white dessert crêpes, with local cider, of course.

Speaking of restaurants – I don’t know whether this was coincidence, but in many places where I’d asked for a set menu for our group I was given a choice of cabillaud ou canard (cod or duck) – last year (2016) every menu in Britain seemed to offer arancini as starters (or they appeared as amuses-bouches while we were studying the menus), this year wild mushroom is everywhere – but that’s the UK, and I don’t expect that kind of faddiness in France, where chefs have the confidence to just do what they feel they do best, and the public expect that. But I can’t help wondering just what ‘wild’ mushrooms really are – I’m sure they’re not all authentically foraged from the fields.

Brittany

In Brittany, Léhon, 2km south of Dinan, reminded me a bit of Todmorden, with Incredible Edible-style plantings (which I also saw in Liège) – but rather than being a community-based free food scheme, these are educational (and very decorative) displays of the sorts of medicinal and edible plants that would have been grown by medieval monks. There’s always been a beautiful display in the cloister of the simple largely twelfth-century abbey, but now it’s expanded out onto the streets; the abbey garden is also open now, with newly planted apple trees (rare local varieties, I imagine) and bug hotels. It leads down to the river and the simple bridge, blown up by the Germans in 1944 (the blast also shattered the abbey’s stained glass) and rebuilt. Léhon is an older crossing point of the Rance, superseded by Dinan, just downstream, from the eleventh century, and now it’s just a quiet little village, overlooked by the remains of its castle – the towpath between Léhon and Dinan, closed by rockfall for at least half a dozen years, has now reopened and makes for a lovely walk or cycle ride.

This interest in recreating monastic herb gardens is not new in France, and in fact I saw similar gardens at Fort La Latte and Poul-Fétan (where the whole village has been restored to its pre-industrial form). A little further west near Planguenoual, Herbarius is a garden of medicinal and edible plants that runs educational activities and grows plants to sell, aiming to preserve the biodiversity of the medieval ecosystem.

Rennes and the railways

Rennes is a large, unattractive and basically un-Breton sort of city now – although there are some lovely half-timbered buildings, and the modern Musée de Bretagne is excellent. When the new high-speed line from La Mans to Rennes opens in July 2017, with 20 trains a day bringing passengers from Paris in as little as 1hr 25min, they will be greeted by a building site. Work began in 2015 to build a second metro line and to create the shiney new EuroRennes interchange – both the main Place de la Gare, to the north, and the Parvis Sud, the convenient and less well-known southern entry, will be a mess until 2020, and the redevelopment of the area won’t be fully completed until 2027. But more importantly (it seems) the new shops in the station will open in 2018.

In the west of Brittany, Brest and Quimper will each have 9 TGVs a day reaching Paris in 3hr 15min; Lorient has an entirely new station, which opened in May 2017 (also part of a local regeneration scheme). It’s all being promoted as Bretagne Grande-Vitesse, aiming to provide faster, more frequent and better integrated rail transport across the region. It’s worth mentioning that the Sud-Europe-Atlantique high-speed line from Tours to Bordeaux will also open on July 2, bringing Paris-Bordeaux journeys down by 75 minutes to just over two hours (London to Bordeaux will take under six hours, with a change of train in Lille or Paris). And France’s TGV services will all then be branded as inOui (a pun on inouï, meaning unheard of or amazing).

Meanwhile, in 2020 Normandy will introduce its fleet of new double-deck trains (les Trains Normands) – paid for by the central government as part of the process of transferring unprofitable long-distance services from the SNCF to the regions (which already run local train and bus services under the TER (Transport Express Régional) brand. Normandy will now take responsibility for services from Paris to Caen/Cherbourg, Rouen/Le Havre, Trouville-Deauville, Granville and Serquigny, and from Caen to Le Mans and Tours, with the usual objective of boosting frequencies, speeds and connections.

If that all sounds like good news, I found I was unable to collect my ticket (booked online) as usual from the ticket machines at Rennes station – I was told the system had changed and now I was expected to print it myself, or have it on a phone. Luckily I was able to find wifi (the usual SNCF station wifi was down, perhaps because of the construction works) and download the ticket. Still, this seems unnecessarily obstructive.

I took the Brittany Ferries ship from Portsmouth to Ouistreham (15km north of Caen) and back – an excellent service,  and there’s usually a direct bus connection from the port to Caen station. However on Sundays the service is poor – arriving late in the evening there’s no connection (and the one taxi loaded up and left, so I hitched into town just as it got dark), and returning on a public holiday (ie the Sunday timetable) the last bus to Ouistreham (not to the ferry terminal, but near enough) is at 1814 – the ferry leaves at 2300, so there’s plenty of time for dinner, and plenty of decent places to eat just south of the ferry terminal.