Posts Tagged ‘Architecture’

My love affair with Spain continues. This is my 15th trip and I’ve now been to 14 of Spain’s 15 mainland provinces. This short visit to Northern Spain came mostly from a desire to see three of the four buildings by one of my architectural heroes, Antonio Gaudi, that aren’t in or near Barcelona. After researching it, a few more interesting ideas came up and, with a lot of Iberia miles burning a hole in my pocket, a 5–day trip beckoned.

I flew to Santander and picked up a brand new Toyota Yaris (I didn’t demand a safer car, Sian) that within an hour was less than new, having disagreed with the narrow cobbled streets of my first destination, Santillana del Mar, whilst trying to find the hotel. I thanked my lucky stars that I’d taken the unusual step of buying out the E675 excess for E50 thinking it was a bit, well, excessive. Perhaps the Yaris was grumpy that Santillana isn’t del Mar at all – it’s nowhere near the sea; funny bunch these Cantabrians.

A lovely place it is though – farms actually on the edge of the town where the animals return at the end of a grasing day, the aforementioned cobbled streets, lovely 15th to 17th century stone houses with balconies and original (huge) family crests in stone. I stayed on the main square in an 18th century noble’s house, which is now a Parador (government run hotels mostly in old buildings full of character – and staffed by civil servants with the customer service stills you expect of civil servants) and wandered around the town early evening and early morning before taking the long way to Leon, my second destination.

This proved to be a spectacular drive, starting along the Cantabrian coast via the lovely seaside towns of Comillas and San Vicente de la Barquera. I then climbed through the deep river gorge of Desfiladero de la Hermida to the picturesque market town of Potes, cut by a deep river with houses hanging onto the hillsides and surrounded by snow-capped mountains, where the market was indeed in action. From here it was an ear-popping climb through the snow line to the San Gloria pass at 5280 ft. By now I was beginning to think I might have made a mistake – there were no other cars on the road, the snow on both sides was occasionally encroaching onto the road, the temperature dropped to 0°C and snow started falling – but I hung on in there (didn’t really have much option by now) and was soon descending to better and safer driving conditions. The next phase was along reservoirs with spectacular views of the permanently snow-capped Picos de Europa, a mountain range of three mastiffs of jagged peaks rising from the Atlantic Ocean, separated by two river gorges of which today’s was one. The lowlands prior to Leon were a bit tame after all of this, but I was glad the drive was coming to an end. That’s how to turn a 150-mile journey into a 6.5-hour adventure.

Finding the Parador in Leon proved very difficult; I drove around the city a few times before I came across an enormous monastery with a stunning Renaissance façade and noticed the ‘Parador’ sign; it took a while for my jaw to close. I have stayed in some great hotels, but this one immediately entered the top ten. It was originally built 900 years ago as a hostel for the pilgrims on the road to St James, though the present building dates from the 16th century with additions up to the 18th century. It has a two-story baronial staircase that redefines ‘baronial’, sublime cloisters and an en suite 500-year old church with amazing carved choir stalls – spectacular! The (affordable) rooms are in an annex that doesn’t live up to the public areas, but it’s a gem nonetheless and I got my first ‘old man’ perk (well, not counting the free coffee at Clapham Picture House, but that was both a mistake and an insult); a 30% reduction beautifully categorized as the ‘golden years’ discount.

My first impressions of Leon, based on the drive in, were disappointing but in the morning when I headed into the old town on foot, these were quickly turned around. The first Gaudi building beckoned, an early work showing characteristics that were to be developed later, now used as the offices of a bank. It’s a stone gothic rectangular structure with turrets, wrought iron, much stained glass and a stylized statue of St. George slaying the dragon over the door. I sneaked inside to see the stained glass as it should be seen, but was thrown out by the security guard who was clearly used to such transgressions, trying to placate me with a leaflet in English (shame on you Caja Espana; may your bonuses shrivel and disappear forever!).

On to the enormous Cathedral, whose main claim to fame are 125 spectacular stained glass windows on a Chartres scale (you couldn’t take them all in, so I had to buy the ‘catalogue’) and the Basilica of San Isidro which houses the tombs of more than 20 kings and queens (Leon was once the most powerful kingdom in the Iberian peninsular) in a room whose vaulted ceiling is covered in frescos, a wonderful treasury with a small number of beautifully restored and well displayed items and a library where the ancient books and manuscripts hadn’t got the same attention and looked to be in a state of terminal decline. Back at the Parador, I visited the en suite museum in the church, one room of which was a riot of stunning 16th century sculpture and plasterwork.

I took the fast toll road to Astorga for the second Gaudi building and only passed / was passed by three cars in the 30 mile journey; I realised why when I had to pay £4 for said 30 miles! However it was worth it, because Gaudi’s Bishops Palace was wonderful; a four-story fairytale fantasy turreted stone structure with vaulted ceilings on each floor, stained glass-a-go-go, ceramic decoration and lots of nooks and crannies. Many of the shapes, motifs and colours that were later to become trademarks were being tried out here (including one which he either stole from Charles Rennie Mackintosh or CRM stole from him). Unlike the bankers, the Bishops allowed you in (for a small fee) but wouldn’t allow photos (may you be hounded by snapping paparazzi!). Whilst in Astorga I took in the Cathedral, but it was a bit tame after Leon’s.

The plan was to return to Santillana through the mountains by a different route, but when I awoke to drizzle and heavy clouds, I was in two minds. I decided to continue with the plan; another good decision! The (mostly) new route to Riano was more interesting than the one from Riano, though once I left the Oviedo road I hardly saw a car or person – most of the towns, mid-morning, seemed like ghost towns. Why? With no wind at all, the reflections of the mountains in the reservoirs around Riano were perfect and quite disorientating. The mountain crossing was much gentler this way, with the pass 1000 feet less at 4250 feet, the temperature didn’t drop below 5°C and it wasn’t snowing! The clouds were high, so the views were spectacular; a full 180° from the Ponton pass. The Desfiladero de los Beyos river gorge (aren’t these names lovely?), though shorter than the other route, was narrower and windier and I saw much more of it (when I wasn’t concentrating on the narrow road and double bends). Before we reached the end we had to contend with a crushed lorry blocking the road; the local police clearly thought I was a wimp slowly navigating the space they had created (which bigger vehicles had sailed through) but they hadn’t scraped their Yaris 3 days ago! The mountain journey ended at Cangas de Onis where there was a beautiful Roman bridge with three arches. Another lovely journey.

Back in Santillana, the last full day was spent catching up with the local sights. I started at the pre-historic caves of Altamira just a couple of kms up the road, where the rock paintings are 12,000 to 15,000 years old. Like Lascaux in the Dordogne, the cave itself is now closed to the public to preserve it and a replica has been created. This, and the excellent museum with everything in English as well as Spanish, exceeded expectations; I was enthralled. Back in Santillana, the collegiate church of Santa Juliana had some wonderful cloisters with intricately carved capitals.

The final Gaudi building beckoned – a working restaurant in Comillas and the plan was to have lunch there. I’d tried emailing in advance but didn’t receive a response. The reason became obvious when I arrived to a sign saying it had ‘permanently closed for holidays on 28th December’?! I managed to get a good exterior view but that was it (may your dishes burn to a cinder, El Capricho – if you ever reopen!). Apparently, though he designed it, he didn’t come north to supervise its building, yet it’s the most obviously Gaudi, very like Casa Vincens in Barcelona. My consolation prize was a tour of Palacio Sobrellano by another Catalan modernist. It was lovely and I’m puzzled why the guidebooks ignore it. I was the only visitor, the guide spoke slowly and even I was impressed at how much I understood (her illustrated tale of how they protected the Queens’ modesty when she bathed in the sea was priceless). The Gaudi connection became clear here. The palace was the home of the Marquis of Comillas who married the daughter of Gaudi’s Catalan patron, Guell. I loved Comillas and ended with a some ‘raciones’ in the bar of a very loud lady from the south whose Bellota ham, croquettas and welcome was lovely but would have benefitted from added ear plugs!

This is a long blog for a short trip, which says something about how much I enjoyed it. Here are rather a lot of photos for a short trip too…..

You are invited to view Gareth’s photo album: Northern Spain, March 2010

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A weekend in Leuven

I’ve had a love affair with Flanders since I visited Antwerp a while back. Subsequent visits to Bruges, Ghent, Ostende & the coast and a visit on business to Mechelen last November consolidated it. 

It’s seeped in merchant history much like the guilds of the City of London and was home to one of the great artistic movements of history. The architecture is varied, but there is an emphasis on gothic and classical. 

Leuven is a university city, much like Cambridge, with colleges around every corner and university life fully integrated in the city. It’s great to walk around (though there are a lot of cobbles to ‘massage’ the soles of your feet!) and unlike Cambridge, you are welcome to wander into the college courtyards. 

The grandest buildings are the 15th century gothic City Hall covered with statues, the 20th century classical University Library built as a commemoration of the first world war but ironically needing to be rebuilt after damage in the second world war, and St Peter’s church which dominates the Grote Markt, the focal point of the town. 

Last November they opened a new museum which they somewhat coolly called ‘M’ which takes the former College of Savoy and bolts on a faux Greek temple and a modern structure to great effect. The permanent collection of paintings, sculptures and restored rooms is small but beautiful. 

It’s a lovely little city and only 2.5 hours away from London by train. Here’s a link to some photos. 

You are invited to view Gareth’s photo album: Leuven Jan 2010
Leuven Jan 2010
Dec 31, 2001
by Gareth
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This was the second Sideways wine weekend of 2009; this time to Piedmont, Italy – home of Barolo and Barbaresco – and I used the opportunity to tag on a couple of days in Turin, a new city for me.

It’s proximity to France, but perhaps more importantly it’s history as the home of the Dukes of  Savoy, gives TURIN a hybrid Italian-French look and feel – colonnaded boulevards and huge piazzas with a combination of Romanesque, medieval and classical architecture. It’s a lovely city to explore on foot and the autumn weather was perfect for this.

The Palazzo Real is a grand affair, befitting a capital city, with a maze of opulent rooms and extensive grounds. It sits on one edge of Piazza Reale which adjoins Piazza Castello; this really is the heart of monumental Turin. The state apartments are a mixed bag with some badly in need of restoration. The armoury is a spectacular space, though it’s difficult to get excited about its content unless you’re turned on by a lot of swords! The high spot though is its long narrow Library, still in use as an archive.

The heart of working Turin is Piazza San Carlo, a vast rectangular colonnaded space with two churches at one end. The cafes around the collonade bring it to life and it’s en route to lots of places so it’s forever populated by people on the move or stopping to rest. The streets which lead to the square are populated by Turin’s finest shops; being born without the shopping gene, I gave those a miss.

Turin contains the finest collection of Egyptian antiquities outside Egypt (more impressive than Berlin or London) and they are housed in their own museum. It really is a stunning collection, particularly the statuary – two big rooms of them – but there’s also the complete contents of several tombs, lots of mummies and a spectacular Book of the Dead.

Most cities have a curiosity and here it’s a 19th century brick tower called the Mole Antonelliana (the tallest in its day) originally built as a synagogue and now housing a 21st century cinema museum. A free-standing glass elevator rises to a roof terrace from which the 360 degree view is spectacular (though on the day I went, the haze rather limited it). The museum is badly signed and curated so it’s hard to get the most out of it, but the building and the view (and a rather good antipasti buffet in the cafe!) make it a must.

Parco del Valentino, along the River Po, looked gorgeous in the autumn colours. It houses a medieval village and castle built for an 1884 exhibition; it’s a folly, but the craftsmanship of the day means it’s now a beautifully imagined antique theme park!

Add a few churches – particularly the riots of baroquery at Santuario della Consolata in Romanesque Turin and San Lorenzo in Piazza Reale – and GAM, a disappointing modern & contemporary art gallery, and you have a very enjoyable couple of days exploration.

Our PIEDMONT WINE WEEKEND started with a truffle hunt! The ease with which the dog found the truffles made us a bit suspicious, but if they were planted they were certainly well covered up! The manic way the dog behaves suggested to me she must be addicted to truffles (and she gets to eat the small ones) so I wasn’t sure what I thought about it all. It was white truffle season (the more expensive ones) and they were retailing at £5000 per kilo (ten times black truffles at a mere £500) so there’s clearly a rather good living to be made here. When we entered the shop, the smell was intense and overpowering. We tasted more than 10 truffle products – its fascinating how many uses they have – but I can’t say I entirely appreciated the taste or understood the value placed on it.

Piedmont is primarily known for three grape varieties – Dolcetto, Barbera and Nebbiolo – which make the renowned wines of Barolo and Barbaresco. Our first wine tasting was at the wonderfully named Conterno Fantino (www.conternofantino.it), a family winery on a hilltop overlooking Monforte, one of the 11 villages that comprise the Barolo DOC. The son showed us around the winery and mother led the tasting – until Dad turned up looking like he’d had a rather good and rather long lunch and proceeded to add a few more wines including a 99 Barolo Sori Ginestra and a preview of the 06 vintage! I love these family run businesses – they aren’t the most slick and you may find better wines elsewhere, but there’s a real sense of individuality, preserving tradition, innovation and living their passion.

Our hotel for two nights was Albergo Cantine Ascheri in Bra (www.ascherihotel.it), a modern 28-room 3-story hotel with en suite winery hidden in a courtyard on the outskirts of Bra. Winery owner Matteo Ascheri showed us around his sparkling modern facilities with a very compelling and lucid account of the history, tradition and modernisation of the Barolo region. After a ten wine tasting earlier at Conterno Fantino, this was a more modest four wine tasting in a lovely purpose-built tasting room in the cellars of the winery / hotel which was followed by dinner in their restaurant; this is a new breed of winemaker who sees the added value of providing dining and accommodation.

Our visit to the lovely hilltop village of Barberesco was a pilgrimage to meet the godfather of Italian wine, Angleo Gaja (www.gajawines.com). A larger-than-life character, he showed us around his impressive cellars and renovated castle and talked almost non-stop for 90 minutes. Though it was clearly an honour, he did bang on a lot in a rather pompous fashion! He left the tasting to his daughter and the five wines we tasted were spectacular, but I soon realised that they were so expensive I may never taste them again!

After a simple but delicious lunch in the village, we headed to the vineyards of Bruno Giacosa (www.brunogiacosa.it) on the hills overlooking Serralunga where the autumn colours took your breath away; a riot of reds, yellows, browns and greens. The tasting of six wines back at their premises included a sparkling white and our first white made with the local Arneis grape. It was another good selection which proved Piedmont holds its own as a region of fantastic reds; I think I’m about to enter my Barolo period…..

Here are some photos….. 

You are invited to view Gareth’s photo album: Turin & Piedmont Wine Weekend
Turin & Piedmont Wine Weekend
Nov 1, 2009
by Gareth
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Three nights after the Last Night of the Proms, the Last Night of the Poms was a huge disappointment – which surprised me as I had so enjoyed its first outing 27 years ago! After all too brief introductions, both Sir Les Patterson and Dame Edna Everage launch into musical pieces – in the former’s case it’s an Aussie Peter & The Wolf and in Dame Edna’s case it’s a cantata for Australia. Seriously unfunny, I’m afraid.

I thought I’d booked to see two different shows from campaigning comedian Mark Thomas this month – ‘It’s the Economy, Stupid’ where he interviews bankers and politicians about the credit crunch and ‘Manifesto’ where he asks the audience in advance for manifesto points and then proceeds to discuss them on stage. As it happens, it was the Manifesto show twice in different theatres! Even though parts are the same, such as sharing with you manifesto points from previous shows together will some recent satirical stunts (like kidnapping a swindling MP’s potted Bay Tree, sending her a terrorist video and ‘assassinating’ it live on the Trafalgar Square plinth!), each audience comes up with different points so each show is different and I didn’t regret my double-booking. You end by voting on the manifesto point that your show puts forward. A hoot!

I was working in Cambridge and managed to get the last seat to see Rob Brydon. His 90 minute show is mostly made up of conversations with people at the front, a little like Dame Edna. Enjoyable enough, but in truth it’s a bit of an easy option from a man who is a character comic actor rather than a stand-up.


The Prom’s Messiah paired the Northern Sinfonia with four first class soloists and seven (yes, seven!) youth choirs. A couple of the soloists – tenor John Mark Ainsley and mezzo Patricia Bardon – had shaky starts but recovered in Parts II and III. The real star of the evening though was the chorus of c.300 who sounded so fresh and enthusiastic. My fourth and final Prom was a lunchtime one of Purcell pieces (plus Blow’s tribute on his death). The harpsichord-only pieces seemed lost in Cadogan Hall, but the vocal pieces were lovely.

The South Bank’s Bernstein project launch concert was short but huge fun – members of three orchestras, 240 piece choir, the Grimethorpe Colliery Band, Folk Big Band Bellowhead, six soloists and two pipers! The Mass extracts were beautiful, the fanfares startlingly original and the whole lot doing Ode to Joy was a wonderful noise!

Another of those lovely song recitals at the Wigmore Hall, this time young tenor Andrew Kennedy and a programme of Purcell, Britten, Warlock, Barber and the world premiere of four songs set to Shakespeare sonnets by someone called Ned Rorem. They were really good and it was a shame he wasn’t there, but he is 86!

Topic records is the world’s oldest independent label and as part of their 70th birthday celebrations June Tabor gave a lovely concert of songs of the sea and sailors perfectly accompanied by piano, accordion, double bass and violin. No-one does melancholy as well as June; sad but gorgeous.


British Youth Opera put on a Rossini double-bill of rare but fun one-acters which made me wonder why opera houses continually revive the same old Rossini operas when they could try ones like these. Elena Sancho, who wowed me at the Guildhall earlier in the year, put in another fine performance and this time a young Welsh soprano called Natalya Romaniw (well, it says she’s from Morriston in the programme!) wowed me even more. You heard it here first!

Ligeti’s opera Le Grande Macabre at the ENO is an extraordinary surreal absurd fantasy, but the music is so inaccessible that’s all it is, I’m afraid. There’s little point in reading the synopsis or following the surtitles (it’s in English but even more unintelligible than usual), just gawp at the design (a woman’s body occupies and revolves on the vast stage with people coming out of every orifice and video projections onto its surface!) and try to guess which of a vast selection of percussion each sound is made by.


The problem with the Museum of Brands, Advertising  & Packaging is that it’s crammed with over 10,000 items in such a way that more is less. This makes it harder not easier to show the evolution of such things and after it became clear I couldn’t possible absorb it all, I just mooched through.

The Omega workshops were an early 20th century movement way ahead of its time. The exhibition of their work at the Courtauld Gallery was more of a display than an exhibition, but it was good to see their excellent permanent collection of impressionists and post-impressionists again.


My friend Jan invited me to a terrific evening at the British Library to hear three generations of theatre producers interviewed for their new theatre archive project. It was a fascinating insight into the producer’s role with lots of great luvvie anecdotes.

We went to five buildings at Open House this year – two re-built but still grand livery company halls (the Clothworkers and the Butchers), a learned society (Royal Astronomical Society) whose librarian banged on a lot, an extraordinary  pre-fabricated 3-story 2-bed wooden private home called Ed’s-Shed and the Olympic Park to see what they’d done since we were there a year ago. I’d been to the Clothworkers before with the Royal Academy Friends but had forgotten! The progress at the Olympic site is staggering – the stadium is at full height, you can see the shape of the Velodrome and the Aqua Centre roof is taking shape. Three years to go and I have to confess I’m excited.

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A catch-up month!

Telling Tales is a small exhibition at the V&A where contemporary designers respond to three themes – forest glades, enchanted castles and heaven & hell – with narrative art / design works. It was quirky and intriguing, but I’m not sure I got the point! Radical Nature at the Barbican is an even more off-the-wall exhibition that seeks to marry architecture, art and nature. I’m afraid a lot of it went over my head! Walking in my Mind at the Hayward Gallery is an extraordinary exhibition. Ten artists have created installations that seek to show you what’s in their mind. From a kitsch Wendy House to cardboard & tape tunnels to a pink polka dot playground, each experience is unique. I’ve thought that a lot of things at the Hayward of late were excuses for exhibitions, but this is an exception.

The BP Portrait Prize Exhibition at the NPG is always worth a visit, but the standard this year is astonishing, even if there is a stylistic uniformity (realism). At the British Museum, I was captivated by Garden & Cosmos, an exhibition of the 17th – 19th century Indian ‘Jodhpur paintings’. They were mostly 2-dimensional but the vivid colours were simply gorgeous. The Waterhouse exhibition at the Royal Academy was a revelation. Though I love the Pre-Raphaelites, I knew little of Waterhouse which may be why I found this comprehensive retrospective absolutely spellbinding. At the same venue, the annual Summer Exhibition is the usual combination of impossible-to-see floor-to-ceiling minor works with some less crowded and more impressive rooms. This year they’ve added a video room, though there are too many people to make this work. My normal favourite is the architecture room and there was a lot of great stuff this year but Will Alsop’s preposterous idea of three shelves meant you couldn’t really see most of it!

Suits, in a disused Fire Station near Baker Street, is a series of three installations of men’s clothing and associated items, like coat hangers, in miniature and set out as shop displays and a laundry room. The execution and attention to detail are impeccable, but again I’m not sure what the point is! David Byrne’s installation Playing the Building at the Roundhouse is exactly what it says. An old organ has been linked to a series of pumps, motors and strikers attached to various parts of the building and when you hit a key, you get a sound and off you go. Great fun and it looks cool too. The Rags Media Collective from Delhi have created an installation at Frith Street Gallery (which is confusing as it isn’t in Frith Street!) with 27 clocks each representing a different city (like you often see in places like hotel foyers) but with words for feelings instead of numbers. In Buenos Aires it’s just after ecstasy and in Mexico it’s quarter past fatigue!


David Byrne must be the coolest 57-yr old on the planet (well, apart from me, obviously) and he proved at his Barbican concert as well as his aforementioned installation that he’s still a pioneer. Though the selection (taken from his collaborations with Eno) wouldn’t be my favourite David Byrne songs, the whole thing was such a great experience. The 4-piece band, 3 singers and 3 dancers were all dressed in white. The dancers interacted with the musicians (at one point one leapfrogged Byrne), the music was infectiously movable and the whole thing just made me smile. The atmosphere was electric and at the end (s) Byrne couldn’t stop smiling. It was recorded for DVD and you got the distinct feeling it may have been a landmark concert.


Moon is an impressive film debut by David Bowie’s son, but it’s not an altogether satisfying film. It’s original and intriguing, but fails to captivate and / or entertain enough to justify two hours of your time. I’d have been happy to come across it on TV, but a paid trip to the cinema; I’m not so sure.

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This is only the second MIF. The first, two years ago (it’s biennial), had one big coup – Damon Albarn / Jamie Hewlett’s ‘opera’ Monkey. This one has lots!

My visit started with It Felt Like A Kiss, a site specific installation / film / journey from Punchdrunk. This is the fourth of their shows I’ve seen – The Firebird Ball was their take on Romeo & Juliet in a disused factory in Kennington, their version of Faust was in a warehouse in Docklands and The Mask of the Red Death, based on Poe stories, took over the entire Battersea Arts Centre building. This show covers six floors of an empty office block and starts with a walk through lots of rooms, initially 50s/60s Americana (the American Dream?) later becoming more mysterious (broken dream?). These take you to an extraordinary 35-minute film montage, which seems to show the American Dream unravelling, before you enter a more sinister phase where you are ‘processed’ in groups you are instructed to stay in but are prevented from doing so. I ended up being chased from the building by a man with a chainsaw! It has a great soundtrack of contemporary music plus an original score by Damon Albarn. I found it just as inventive but more accessible than their earlier work, largely because it was linear. A surreal 2 hours I suspect I will never forget.

I love the Royal Exchange Theatre; it’s like sitting in a spaceship which has landed inside a historic building. I haven’t been there for ages but have fond memories of Alan Price’s musical Lucky Man, an adaptation of Russell Hoban’s Ridley Walker and an all-day Count of Monte Cristo. Neil Bartlett’s Everybody Loves A Winner is a play about bingo and people who play bingo. They’ve turned the theatre into a seedy bingo hall and obtained a license so that the audience can play during the play (for a £200 jackpot!). It’s a great idea which at first seems just populist fun, but it also has a lot to say about the motivation of the players and their exploitation, without in any way patronising them. It was both entertaining and thought provoking – but I didn’t win the £200!

The Manchester City Art Gallery has put on a cracking festival exhibition called What Are You Like? based on the Victorian practice of drawing / painting your likes and dislikes. They’ve asked public figures to produce their own and, with no other rules, the variety is amazing. People like Andrew Marr and Anna Ford prove to be talented artists and there are hilarious contributions from cartoonists Glen Baxter & Peter Brookes. I’d never been to this gallery before so it was an opportunity to see their permanent collection, which majors on the Victorian period with a superb collection of Pre-Raphaelites and some good impressionists (including a wonderful one new to me, Adolphe Valette, who taught in Manchester and whose pupils included Lowry).

Rufus Wainwright is one of my favourite singers; he has an extraordinary voice and writes wonderful songs. His debut opera, Prima Donna, is a real coup for MIF and they’ve easily sold out the six performances. In many ways it’s an old fashioned opera, more like Puccini than anything else, which suits it’s subject matter – a Prima Donna who can no longer perform – as does its performance in French. There is much lush music and lovely tunes and the story (of why she can no longer perform) unfolds well. His lack of operatic experience shows as he writes beyond the range of his singers (though probably not beyond his own!) as does the lack of experience of director Daniel Kramer who sometimes gives the singers too much to do whilst they are trying to sing! It’s certainly not the finished article, but it is a most auspicious debut and suggests there is at least one masterpiece further down the line.

Architect Zaha Hadid has created a temporary chamber concert venue on the 2nd floor of the City Art Gallery specifically for the performance of solo pieces by Bach. On the evening I went it was four cello suites performed by young French cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras. In truth, 80 minutes of Bach solo cello meant it outstayed its welcome, but it was nevertheless a great experience.

This festival’s mission of only mounting commissions or other new work successfully differentiates it from others and based on this year’s programme, I shall certainly be back.

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At the Guildhall School of Music & Drama there was a pairing of Martinu and  Rossini one-act comic operas. I love these Guildhall opera evenings – always value and often a treat. I wasn’t mad keen on the music of the Martinu though I liked the production and performances (particularly Nicky Spence). The Rossini, an inspired setting in a lap dancing club, was a hoot, with Spanish soprano Elena Sancho-Pereg giving a sensational vocal performance. Who needs Covent Garden when you can have as much fun as this for a sixth of the price.

Roberto Devereaux at Opera Holland Park made for a nice summer evening. There’s something formulaic about Donizetti’s operas, his obsession with setting British history is intriguing, and the result – assorted queens, dukes and duchesses emoting histrionically in Italian – is somewhat incongruous. Having said that, this is the perfect opera for OHP’s backdrop and it looks both attractive & authentic, it was played and sung beautifully and a good time was had by all. OHP is a summer must and this rare outing of this opera was very welcome.

James MacMillan’s opera Parthenogenesis (fatherless conception) is based on a 2nd World War tale about a woman whose conception is triggered by a bomb blast. It’s an intriguing story but it makes for a slight 50-minute opera, which I’m not sure is worthy of the huge resources the ROH have heaped upon it. It has some lovely atmospheric music and passionate performances, but designing in restricted views for those at the side (well, certainly on the left) is unnecessary, inconsiderate and unforgivable.

I’d been so looking forward to Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Royal College of Music. As soon as I saw there was no designer credit in the programme, I groaned…..and so it was; an opera set in a forest without a tree, bush, branch or even leaf in sight. It’s not easy to enjoy Britten’s magical music in such an unmagical setting. It didn’t help that the Britten Theatre, with the most uncomfortable seats, was hot, stuffy and airless.


Another concert in Julius Drake’s English song series at the Wigmore Hall; this time with soprano, mezzo, clarinet and piano! The programme combined rarer pieces and curiosities with the usual suspects (which is probably why it was so empty) so it was different but complimented the earlier concerts in the series. I’ve really enjoyed these.

The programme for the City of London Choir’s concert of rarely performed English choral music was inspired – two works by Vaughan Williams & Holst bookending pieces by Britten, Parry & Foulds – with the symmetry of a secular first half with piano and harp accompaniment and a scared unaccompanied second half. Despite my love of British music, all bar VW’s Mass in G was new to me and it was an absolute treat.

I love work which breaks out of the theatre or concert hall, and this year Spitalfields Festival invited five extraordinary musicians and four composers from the Royal Academy of Music to create music in the old Huguenot houses of Spitalfields. We visited five houses in 100 minutes and were given solo Baroque Cello, Tuba, Flute, Clarinet and Violin (with electronic soundscape). In addition to four new pieces (all for violin) they included a whole range of composers from Bach to Turnage and I though the whole experience was enthralling, with a walk around the much gentrified Spitalfields a real bonus.

My only visit to this year’s City of London Festival was for a chamber programme by the Hebrides Ensemble at the wonderful Stationers’ Hall. The programme of this year’s festival is 60º North, linking music from Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Finland, St. Petersburg and the Scottish isles. Tonight’s programme had Sibelius, Shostakovich and Stravinsky plus three living Scots (or adopted Scots) Peter Maxwell Davies, James MacMillan and Judith Weir and a bonus from Iceland. It was inspired programming – challenging but thrilling – and the venue was terrific. I loved the way the organisers mingled with the punters over a (free) glass of wine in the interval. Bravo!


The one-room exhibition of Picasso prints at the NG complements the main exhibition, but it was a mixed bag. Next door at the NPG there was a small but brilliant exhibition of photos of Bob Dylan’s famous 1966 tour. I never saw the tour, but it still felt nostalgic. Richard Long is an eccentric Bristolian who travels the world carrying out obsessive walks, creating art from nature. The trouble is, photos and word descriptions don’t do this justice and in this huge Tate Britain exhibition the one room of stone sculptures just isn’t enough to capture your imagination. Also at Tate Britain, BP Connections is a slim contemporary art exhibition but it does deliver one coup – a room of (seemingly) ethnic sculptures collected from around the world by the Chapman family. They turn out to be modern creations with hidden references to a hamburger chain, its character for kids and hamburgers themselves! The exhibition of actor Anthony Sher’s paintings at the NT is wonderful; he’s as good an artist as he is an actor. The portraits in this exhibition include his family, but it is largely made up of fellow actors. At the same venue, the 30th anniversary of Greenwich Printmakers is celebrated by a lovely exhibition which shows just how under-rated printmaking is. The exhibition is made up of a very eclectic selection, but its more hit than miss. I ventured into another unexplored part of fast up-and-coming arty E1 / E2 for an exhibition of 60’s photos by ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins, an extraordinary man who founded International Times and set up the UFO club. The pictures, which ranged from street kids to The Beatles via demos and drugs, were terrific. Futurism at Tate Modern proved much more extensive and exciting than I was expecting; an amazing range of work that is mind-blowing today, so imagine seeing this for the first time 100 years ago. At the same venue, a major retrospective of Danish artist Per Kirkeby (who I’d never heard of) started with a yawn, but rather grew on me. The sculptures were awful but the big canvases splashed with colour were lovely – very Hodkinesque!


Two of Britain’s greatest film directors have tried lighter fare with their latest outings. Whereas Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky failed to impress me, Ken Loach’s Looking for Eric proved to be a real treat – utterly charming and ultimately hopeful. I have little interest in football, no interest in Man United and to me Eric Cantona is some idiosyncratic Frenchman who uttered quirky statements at press conferences, but even I was captivated by what is clearly a bizarre cult. Nick Moran’s Telstar was a good play with a sensational leading performance by Con O’Neil. The story of 60’s record producer Joe Meek, it makes a good film but somehow I think it could have been a great one if he’d handed it over to another director able to bring objectivity and a new perspective. Con O’Neill reprises his role (less sensationally on screen) and is accompanied by a superb collection of young actors and a surprisingly good retired army major from Kevin Spacey!


The prospect of a concert version of Kurt Weil’s first Broadway musical, after his exile from Nazi Germany, was a tempting one. It’s a First World War tale called Johnny Johnson which, for the 30’s, made very brave statements about young men as cannon fodder. In reality it’s a musical play, not a musical, and by including all of the dialogue it outstayed its welcome at over 3 hours. A curiosity, but not particularly entertaining.

I’ve got mixed views about classical ballet – I can’t stand the dancer hierarchies, the overly mannered performances, the sickly unnatural bows & curtain calls and the audience! – but when it’s good it takes your breath away as Jewels, a triple bill of Balanchine ballets to music by Faure, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky, did at Covent Garden. The costumes and sets were gorgeous, the three ballets were complimentary and much of the dancing – particularly from Carlos Acosta, Alexandra Ansanelli and Rupert Pennefather – really did take your breath away.

Taste of London in Regent’s Park has now become an annual must. It features 36 restaurants, each presenting 3-4 signature dishes for you to sample in small portions for between £3 and £6. It has grown to include cooking master classes, lectures, wine & other drinks, cooking shops etc. We found a nice place in the VIP enclosure and took it in turns to wander around and sample 10 dishes each. It has got very popular (it is now replicated around the world) and may become overstretched, but for now it’s still a fun afternoon.

Having heard about the completion of their renovations and added galleries etc., I couldn’t resist a trip to Northampton to see one of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s last commissions – 78 Derngate. It’s a small terraced house which is fascinating because it shows how he was evolving towards Art Deco – more geometric (triangles and straight lines) and stronger colouring (black combined with yellow, purple and turquoise). They have taken over two adjoining houses so that they can add galleries and the customary shop and restaurant. I particularly like the fact that they’ve given over galleries to modern designers for selling exhibitions.

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Only two operas and an oratorio in a musically lean two months! Dr Atomic at ENO would have been a much better opera if he’d cut it by 30 mins (especially in the more static first half). I liked the design and staging, the music is accessible and there are some very good performances (though Gerald Finley’s understudy didn’t really cut it and looked too young) but it’s a case of more is less. I saw the premiere of The King Goes Forth to France at Covent Garden in the 80’s, but enjoyed this revival at the wonderful Guildhall School so much more (or maybe I’ve grown into modern opera). This production seemed to lighten the fantasy and bring out the humour and the staging and performances were yet again exceptional for a conservatoire. Another conservatoire put on the hugely ambitious Britten War Requiem with considerable success. The venue was tiny so the singers and musicians outnumbered the audience but this gave this anti-war piece so much more power.

Maria Friedman’s Sondheim concert was the fourth I’ve seen by her in the last year. Her interpretations of Sondheim are as goods as any others and the selection was as inspired as the choice of cello and piano accompaniment.


I was put off Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino because I thought it was a classic revenge movie; I’m glad I gave in as it’s a lot more than that – and it may well be the last chance to see him act.

The Boat That Rocked was overlong and would have benefited from an independent director’s scrutiny. However, it was nowhere near as bad as the reviews and is worth the ticket price for the soundtrack alone.


Another dire month for ‘art’ though better for ‘other’ exhibitions. The only art exhibitions I enjoyed were Rodchenko / Popova at Tate Modern (way-ahead-of-its-time iconic design – the posters, pamphlets and other graphic designs were as captivating as the paintings), the Japanese painter /  illustrator Kyunoshi’s stunning range of work at the Royal Academy and the wonderful original artwork for London Travel Posters  at the London Transport Museum.

All of the contemporary stuff was disappointing – the middle eastern contemporaries at the Saatchi were patchy though there were a few crackers, the Annette Messager installations at the Hayward seemed to me to be the product of a disturbed mind and I found it impossible to like, and worst of all was Tate Britain’s dreadful After Modern; like walking through the cast-off’s in an art school after they’ve taken the good stuff out for an exhibition.

I’m afraid the oldies didn’t fare much better – Tate Britain’s Van Dyck exhibition was only for those who are prepared to view room after room of lifeless nobles in their finery in preposterous over-staged poses and Constable’s portraits at the NPG were even less interesting than his biscuit-tin landscapes.

Gerard Richter’s photo-paintings at the NPG didn’t do a lot for me either, I’m afraid, though the DeutscheBank Photo Prize finalists at the new Photographer’s Gallery as the best short-list in a while.

Of the two architecture exhibitions, I preferred Le Corbusier at The Barbican to Paladio at the RA, though there were too many drawings which may be fascinating to an architect but rather dull to a layman.

The Russian Linesman collection at the Hayward seemed to me to be another of those excuses-for-an-exhibition that the Hayward (and others) are rather too fond of.

I caught up with the British Museum’s Babylon just before it closed and even though it falls into the excuse-for-an-exhibition category, like the Queen if Sheba before it at the same museum, there were enough good exhibits to excuse it on this occasion. By the time I saw it the Shah Abbas exhibition had moved into the converted Reading Room and proved to be as good as The First Emperor and Hadrian before it with some terrific exhibits, but above all telling the story of a great leader very well.

The Natural History Museum’s Darwin exhibition was a huge disappointment – very static; you’d learn more and have more fun reading a book. The V&A’s contribution was an exhibition about Hats which I went to ‘passing through’ the museum but I’m afraid left me cold – it was crowded though, so its clearly up a lot of other people’s streets. I was there to see the new performance galleries and they proved to be a real treat – a superb collection of costumes, memorabilia, video clips really well curated in just four galleries (though rather hidden somewhere on the 3rd floor). We went to the new British Music Experience at the O2 in its first week. It’s a terrific interactive tribute to 50 years of popular music. You can learn to play instruments, watch and hear video and sound clips and view memorabilia and store what you like onto a web space you can then access at your leisure. I’m not sure I’ll access my attempts at drumming and keyboard playing much, but I did love the experience and could have stayed all day. Of course, you tend to concentrate on your favourite period – in my case 60’s and 70’s – and provided the visitor age range is as wide as it was the day we went that means the visitor numbers are managed well.


Eonnagata is a collaboration between a favourite dancer (Sylvie Guillem), a favourite theatre director (Robert Lepage) and a favourite choreographer (Russell Maliphant). I’m not sure the idea of staging a story of a transvestite 17th century French nobleman works, but the craftsmanship is unquestionable and the visual imagery stunning; I was spellbound for all 90  minutes.


Frank Skinner’s Credit Crunch Cabaret was a great idea – a variety show thrown together on the day for a tenner. It was a hit-and-miss affair but enough of a hit to make it a decent birthday treat. My other (surprise) birthday (and Christmas) treat was a visit to Simon Drake’s House of Magicwww.houseofmagic.co.uk – I think Lynne & Graham were as pleased that the surprise remained a surprise and that they’d found something in London I’d never heard of as they were that I enjoyed it so much – it’s a very original night out.

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‘Why?’ I hear you ask. Before I went I would have said ‘Why Not?’ After the visit, I can report lots of good reasons for visiting this welcoming and interesting city with lovely buildings, canals and green spaces.


I landed on my feet accommodation-wise at one of the best examples of the ‘boutique’ hotel in a nice part of town with bars, restaurants and excellent public transport (www.mozaic.nl). The rooms are spotless, stylish and comfortable and the (entirely female) staff couldn’t be more helpful. Though the exchange rate makes you wants to make you say ‘how much?’ to everything, the restaurants were very good; the highlight being a family-run Italian where you get what the lady of the house thought as best when she went shopping that day (though there’s a limited choice). It was a superb 4 courses, as good as any meal I’ve had in Italy, for 38 Euros.


The Dutch are very direct but they’re also very welcoming and tolerant. When I sat in 1st Class on the train in error the guard said, in perfect English, ‘never mind, don’t move, you’ll know next time’. My pre-booked tour of the parliament was in Dutch but they gave be a transcript in English, a simultaneous translation of the video and often stopped to ask if I had any questions. There were some sort of carnival celebrations while I was there and on my last evening there was a little bottle of wine and a bowl of Pringles in my room with a note ‘just in case you missed the carnival, have a drink on the house’. How thoughtful is that?!


The Parliament visit was very interesting, but the tour of the Peace Palace (home of the arbitration and mediation courts, but not the war crimes tribunals) was spectacular with sensational stained glass, silk wall coverings, paintings, ceramics, carved & painted ceilings and marble floors from all over the world. Such a beautiful building.


Art was another highlight, with the modern art museum proving particularly good. I’m not sure I liked the way the permanent collection was curated, with film and video in each room showing 20th Century events alongside the art, but there were a couple of special exhibitions – one showcasing a German artist called Christian Schad I’ve little knowledge of and another featuring artistic couples (O’Keefe / Stieglitz, Khalo/ Riviera etc.). The collection of Dutch art at the Maurithuis had its moments – Vermeer’s ‘Girl With A Pearl Earring’ and Rubens’ ‘Old Woman & A Boy With Candles’ – but a lot of mediocrity. The artistic highlight though was the Escher Museum; the most comprehensive collection of his work anywhere, in a palace with kitsch modern chandeliers. Talking of kitsch, I mustn’t forget Madurodam which is a miniature replica of most of Holland including cities, ports, airports and forests!


I made the mistake of choosing Sunday for a side trip to Delft which meant that you couldn’t visit it’s greatest attractions – The Old and New Churches. Still, it was a pretty town of canals just like you expect in Holland!


The Hague is a perfect weekend city which I would thoroughly recommend.

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I’ve got to like avoiding the excesses of a British Christmas and this was the 8th escape in the last nine years; the third to Italy. After a very busy two months, the sleep, fresh air and walking were particularly welcome (not that the food and drink were exactly unwelcome!).

I’d only been to Florence once before, something over 30 years ago, and hadn’t really liked it. This has proved a bit puzzling over the years, as so many friends have returned raving about it, so a 2nd visit seemed to be in order. I still stick to my view of the city as a city (though it didn’t help that last time I arrived straight from Venice!), but this time I appreciated what it contained.

We started with the architecture and statuary of Piazza della Signora, most notably a wonderful Neptune, a scary Perseus and The Rape of the Sabine Women (three intertwined bodies carved from a single piece of marble). These were eventually surpassed by Michelangelo’s David at the Accademia and by the sheer number of statues in the Bargello, but they’re out there where statues are supposed to be.

The highlights in a feast of frescos were in the priory cells at San Marco (though rather too many crucifixions and Madonna’s for my taste), in the Capella Brancacci hidden away south of the Arno, and in the Cappella Gozzoli in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi. The Medici’s were an extraordinary dynasty, a huge influence on Florence, great benefactors of the arts and apparently selected as royalty by the citizens themselves. Of course, this was accompanied by larger-than-life egos which means their crest appears absolutely everywhere and they turn up as ‘guests’ in works of art – looking modest whilst making it clear it was their cash what made it!

A side trip to Sienna brought us snow; atmospheric rather than restrictive. The Duomo is simply stunning and the frescos in it’s Libreria Piccolomini and a 13th century carved marble pulpit took my breath away, but there was also much pleasure to be gained from wandering the small streets and gasping at the scale of the Piazza del Campo.

Christmas lunch was at a restaurant on a hill overlooking the city – peccorino souffle, tiny ravioli floating in a capon consommé, roasted capon and chocolate cake washed down with copious quantities of prosecco and chianti – followed by a visit to the nearby San Miniatto del Monte to cleanse the soul and a long and much needed walk back to the hotel to cleans the body.

Though I enjoyed Christmas in Palermo and Rome more, I was glad I returned to Florence and those frescos and statues are now embedded in the memory.

Here’s a link to a small selection of photos:

You are invited to view Gareth’s photo album: Florence Christmas 2008
Florence Christmas 2008
Dec 22, 2008
by Gareth
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