Categories
Sky Full of Clouds

Sky Full of Clouds

Clouds shift, change shape, just as memories do. Here are some of the memories I’ve pinned down this year.. I hope they resonate with you.

From Sky Full of Clouds:

A Louder Silence 

The hearing of the greater wax moth is the most acute
in the animal kingdom—
this moth can hear an approaching bat.
Does the moth also hear,
I wonder,
the murmur of other insects,
a hum of traffic?
Cries for help,
the blaring of sirens?
Grass growing, hammering on the moon? And if the sounds stop,
would the moth be startled,
afraid for the moment
it was alone in the universe?
Today, for the first time,
when the postman rang,
I didn’t hear the bell. 

Available in paperback from Amazon and from the publisher, Cyberwit.

Categories
Africa

Out of Africa

She was known by two names, Karen Blixen and Isak Dinesen. She led two lives, Kenya coffee farmer and Danish literary celebrity. Many decades after her death in 1962 her home in Rungstedlund. near Copenhagen, and her home near Nairobi, Kenya, are both enduring tourist destinations, each called ‘the Karen Blixen Museum’.

If you’ve seen the film of Isak Dinesen’s memoirs, Out of Africa, a visit to the African Karen Museum will feel like a visit to a film set. At the end of the gravel drive sits the same low stone house, surrounded by a veranda, where Meryl Streep as the new Baroness Blixen, was welcomed by her African staff.  Inside the house you’ll see the folding screen, decorated with the Chinese figures that prompted the tales Karen Blixen spun, Scheherazade-like, for her lover Denys Finch Hatton, as played by Robert Redford in the film. Her polished riding boots are near her lace-covered bed and in the guest room, Denys Finch Hatton’s jodhpurs lie folded over a trunk.

But then the guide tells you that those boots belonged not to Karen Blixen but to Meryl Streep, and the jodhpurs belonged to Robert Redford. The painted screen is not the original but a gift from the producer of the film. The photograph of Denys Finch Hatton on Karen Blixen’s study wall is pointed out with a smile as that of the ‘original Robert Redford’.

This uninhibited mingling of fact and film should ring false but curiously, it doesn’t. It even seems oddly appropriate. No one could leaven reality with romance more freely than did Karen Blixen herself. Friend have recalled the rows of crystal wine glasses set out at dinner though there was seldom wine, the richly costumed servant who attended her even though she was bankrupt, her blind faith that her coffee farm would prove profitable even though planted in the wrong soil at the wrong altitude.

Most of her 5,000 acre farm has been developed as the affluent Nairobi suburb called Karen, but her house, a museum since 1985, is still set in wide lawns. An overgrown path through the surrounding forest leads to the rusted ruins of her coffee factory where pieces of abandoned machinery stand in a clearing. The blue knuckles of the Ngong Hills she loved so well, and where Finch Hatton lies buried, still dominate the horizon as they dominated her life.. ‘I have a feeling,’ she once wrote home to her mother in Rungstedlund,’ that wherever I am in the future I will be wondering whether there is rain at Ngong.’

This proved to be literally true. When the farm was finally lost in 1931, when her marriage to Baron Blor Blixen was long over and her lover, Denys Finch Hatton had just died in the crash of his airplane, she returned in despair to Rungstedlund. Adopting the pen name Isak Dinesen (Dinesen was her family name, Isak means ‘one who laughs’) the failed coffee farmer began to write. Books such as Seven Gothic Tales, Babette’s Feast, Shadows on the Grass and Out of Africa, eventually made her an acclaimed international literary figure. But every night of her long life she would stand for a moment on the sill of the south-facing door to look towards Africa and the Ngong HIlls.

‘It is a law of life’, she observed in her short story, The Poet, ‘that one thing amongst all that we meet must impress itself deeper upon our souls than any other.’ How deeply Kenya impressed itself on her soul can be seen in all the rooms of the Danish Karen Blixen Museum. The windows of her summer study overlook the blue waters of the Sound, but Masai spears and shields hang behind her desk.  In the Green Room, the wickerwork chair which was Denys Finch Hatton’s favourite on the farm is pulled up to the table. The gramophone he gave her is nearby. In the gilded drawing room from which the celebrated Isak Dinesen made her popular radio addresses, the painted screen (this one the French original) stands beside the marble fireplace. An ornate Zanzibar chest, the gift of her devoted Somali servant, Farah, holds an arrangement of flowers and leaves from the  Rungstedlund gardens and woodland as it did during her lifetime.

In Africa, Karen Blixen often thought of the beech woods of Rungstedlund. As a child she had wandered through them with her father, listening to stories of his life with the Indians of North America.  When she died in 1962, in the house in which she was born, she was buried in these woods under a giant beech tree.

All she owned of Africa, a handful of earth she had brought back with her to Denmark in a little wooden box, was mixed with the soil of Rungstedlund in her grave. The unadorned tombstone of Isak Dinesen, the world-famous author, is inscribed simply, ‘Karen Blixen’. 

Categories
France/Italy

Tower to Tower on the Paris Metro

La Defense, the last stop in the Western direction on Metro line 1,  was planned as a business park in 1989. With its iconic Grande Arche, it has become a tourist attraction in its own right.

The area also boasts “Europe’s largest shopping centre,” on 11 hectares of parks and gardens, with elaborate fountains and 60 modern sculptures, including the works of Calder, Miro and Richard Serra. The arch itself is a giant hollow cube spanning an open space large enough to accommodate Notre Dame Cathedral. Two panoramic lifts make the 110-metre ascent to the “Toit” in 66 seconds. Make the ascent to visit the computer museum, where over 200 pieces are displayed, documenting the computer’s evolution since World War II. Exhibits include an early computer so large you are invited “to come inside”, as well as the first desktop and first laptop. There is also a reconstruction of a teenager’s bedroom of 1980, complete with the equipment that he would have needed to download one song in 24 hours.

The Grande Arche itself is a prolongation of the “historic axis” that starts at the Louvre pyramid, continues through the Carrousel Arch, the Place le la Concorde, and the Arc de Triomphe. From the viewing terrace in front of the arch you can take in a spectacular vista that includes not only the axis, but the Seine valley, too.

Le Toit de la Grande Arche is open seven days a week from 10:00 to 19:00 from October through March and until 20:00 during the rest of the year. There’s a “water ballet” at the AGAM Fountain Monday to Friday from 17:00 to 19:00 and Friday and Saturday at 20:30. Download an audio guide to La Defense to your MP3 player from www.ladefense.fr.

 
There is something undeniably exotic about emerging from the Metro right at the foot of a castle; you need only cross a drawbridge over a wide stone-lined moat to enter the grounds of the Chateau de Vincennes. Now the last stop at the Eastern end of Metro number 1, this was the residence of French kings until Louis XIV moved the court to Versailles. It is complete with a medieval keep and dungeon and its own Sainte Chapelle built to house a fragment of the crown of thorns now kept in Paris.   The Chateau began as a Royal hunting lodge in 1150 and was enlarged and modified over the centuries. The picturesque 50-metre high tower was constructed in 1337, making it the tallest medieval fortified structure in Europe. Take a tour of the dungeon, one of whose prisoners was the Marquis de Sade. The Chateau is now the headquarters of the French Historical Service, which maintains a museum in the dungeon.

The Chateau is open every day from 10:00 to 17:00.
For details, visit www.chateaudeincennes.fr. Metro Line 1: La Defense-Chateau de Vincennes

Categories
France/Italy

Weekend with Vincent

WALK WITH THE MASTER

Van Gogh arrived in Auvers-sur-Oise by train from Paris on May 21, 1890. He rented an attic room in the Auberge Ravoux for 3.50 francs a week and immediately wrote to his brother Theo in Paris:  ‘Auvers is strikingly beautiful’. Vincent would still find Auvers beautiful and the scenes he immortalised – the church, the town hall, the fields, houses and village streets – very little changed.

Like Van Gogh, I arrived in Auvers on the Paris train and quickly settled into an inn. Not the Auberge Ravoux, because it is now a restaurant called ‘La Maison de Van Gogh’, but the 17th century Hostellerie du Nord, where Cezanne had stayed on his visits to Auvers.

Then I set out along the picturesque pathways of Auvers, eager to see for myself what had drawn so many Impressionists to the village. Reproductions of 19 canvasses, 12 by Van Gogh, are displayed on panels positioned where the originals were painted. It’s as if the artists themselves were pointing out the views that had appealed to them, inviting you to see the landscape through their eyes.

Auvers -only 35 kilometres from Paris -was ‘discovered’ by the painter, Charles-Francois Daubigny.  In Auvers, he built a floating studio on the river Oise,and in 1861 a house and atelier in the centre of the village. Cezanne, Pissarro, Corot, Daumier and Guillaumin were among those who joined him in Auvers, to make up a flourishing artists’ colony.

A Parisian doctor, Paul Gachet – who painted under the pseudonym of Paul van Riesel – also had a house in the village, where he entertained the leading Impressionists. It was the doctor’s kind assurance to Theo that he would keep an eye on his brother’s precarious health that led to Van Gogh’s stay in Auvers. The experiment, which began so promisingly in May, ended only 70 days later with Vincent’s self-inflicted death.

 But in that time he had produced 73 canvasses, drawings and sketches, among them the most celebrated of his works. In 1990, a Japanese businessman bought one of Van Gogh’s two very similar portraits of the physician for 82 million dollars. The other portrait of Dr. Gachet hangs in the Musee d’Orsay, Paris.

The story of Vincent’s time in Auvers is told in a short but moving video presentation at the Auvers Tourist Bureau. The bureau is also the place to pick up the useful maps, setting out three itineraries that retrace Van Gogh’s footsteps. Vincent walked as passionately as he painted, and to cover the entire circuit would take some seven hours. This is one reason not to limit your stay in Avers to a single day. Another is that, by staying the night, you have the chance to see the village in the early morning light and in the evening when it is free of day trippers And the third is that even two days is barely enough in which to see all there is to see.

Visit the early 17th century Chateau d’Auvers, viewing a 90-minute multimedia journey into the world of the Impressionists and a 20-minute 3D film of Van Gogh’s last days in Auvers. The Chateau figured in one of Van Gogh’s paintings and it was within its park that the tormented artist fired a bullet into his own chest. He died two days later in his room in the Auberge, attended by Dr. Gachet.

Spend a moment in Vincent’s room and visit Dr. Gachet’s house, where Van Gogh often shared a meal with the family. Daubigny’s home and atelier, still occupied by Daubigny’s descendants, is open at certain times, too. (Daubigny and his son, the artist Karl Daubigny, helped by Corot and Daumier, decorated its interior walls as a rainy day project! Van Gogh had deeply admired Daubigny and became friendly with the artist’s widow. Van Gogh painted Daubigny’s house and garden more than once.

On my last morning in town I followed the steep road behind the Hostellerie, past the Romano-Gothic church Van Gogh made famous, to the cemetery where Vincent is buried. Theo lies next to him, their twin graves blanketed in ivy and marked by the simplest of headstones. Across the road, stretches a broad field with a reproduction of a Van Gogh landscape posted beside it, a painting he completed 15 days before he fired the fatal bullet. Only here did I fail to share the artist’s vision. I saw a newly planted field on a sunny morning; he saw crows descending on ripe wheat under a doom-laden sky. In a letter to Theo, Vincent wrote of the painting: “ I did not have to go out of my way to express sadness and extreme loneliness.”

GETTING THERE:   A direct train from Paris to Avers operates weekends and holidays from the first weekend in April to the last weekend in October. Leaves Gare du Nord at 10:08 arrrives in Auvers at 10h43. Return leaves Auvers at 18h06, arrives Gare du ord at 18h39.

STAYING THERE: Joel Boilleaut’s Hostellerie du Nord has 8 individually decorated en suite rooms. The restaurant attracts food lovers from far and wide; book ahead.

To book hotel or restaurant visit the website: ww.hostelleriedunord.fr

AUVERS TOURIST BUREAU, rue de la Sansonne, Auvers-sur-Oise. www.auvers-sur-oise.com Open all year, Tuesday-Sunday and holidays (except  Dec 25 and Jan 1) From April through October from 9:30 to 12:30 and from 14h to 18h ;from November to March from 9:30 to 12:30 and from 14h to 17h.

Categories
USA

Manhattan to Savour

FROM DELANCEY STREET TO CHINA TOWN BY WAY OF LITTLE ITALY

The Italian-American, the Irish-American, the Spanish-American – all the hyphenated Americans together – are what give Manhattan its special flavour.

The Lower East Side is where this process began in earnest in the mid-1800s – and where it continues.A three-hour walk tells the story in a way no bus tour ever could. You could take the subway to Delancey Street and wander around by yourself. The area, once crime-ridden, is safe now and home to artists and media types. But the best way to take it all in, literally, is on the “Melting Pot Tour.” This fun and fact packed stroll of a kilometre or two, trails through the Jewish, Chinese, and Italian quarters with frequent stops for tastings of various ethnic specialties as you go.

Susan Rosenbaum,“the Enthusiastic Gourmet,” was my guide. Lively and knowledgeable, she tossed off nuggets of information on everything from the reason the Essex Street Market was opened in 1939 – to get the pushcarts off the streets – to what it takes to be kosher (don’t ask). I met Susan and my fellow tour members – a couple from Brussels and another from Amsterdam, plus a young woman from Philadelphia – at the Essex Street Market. This is a 15,000 square foot enclosed hall with the architectural appeal of a thirdworld bus terminal. But drab as the exterior is, the interior is a cauldron of colour and aromas and talkative people shopping for their everyday needs. In this neighbourhood at least, these can include items like yautia (a tuber from South America), quenepas (a Caribbean nut), octopus, banana leaves, or kosher wine. There are 26 vendors in the market, and we stopped for tastings at two of them: Rainbo’s, an unlikely combination of fish market and bakery, where we sampled only the extraordinary muffins.And the Saxelby Cheese stall which offered a knock-your socks-off introduction to what Americans can produce in the way of artisanal cheeses.

Then, walking backwards and sparking out more historical information at the same time, Susan led us to the Pickle Guys on Delancey Street, an open-fronted shop full of barrels of pickles and olives.There, green cucumbers soak in salt brine, garlic, and spices, for between a day and six months. Proper pickle people have their favourite: new, 1/2 sour, 3/4 sour and sour. We were briskly instructed in the skill of telling one from the other by sight, texture, and taste; they get yellower and softer with time, and more garlicky.

We followed that up with a stop at Kossar’s Bialys.A bialy, as the couple from Brussels knew – but which I didn’t – might look something like a bagel, and may sometimes be substituted for a bagel, but is no bagel. It is a Polish-Jewish delicacy that originated in the town of Bialystok where Bialy bakeries could be found at every street corner until the Nazis eliminated both the bakers and their customers.

Essentially, the differences are that bagels are boiled and baked while the bialy is simply baked and that a bagel has a hole in the middle where a bialy has an indentation. Each comes sprinkled with dried onion.
Standing in the incredibly busy bakeshop, we tasted them both and I now know that, given a choice, I’d go for a bialy over a bagel.

Yiddish shop signs were yielding to Chinese ones as we walked down Grand Street.Turning a corner, we were in Chinatown, and on our way to the Lucky King Bakery. Under dangling lanterns, we settled at a white plastic table while Susan ordered (in Chinese) our next tastings: steamed dumplings filled with pork and black sesame seed rolls. Novice ethnic epicureans, we discussed the offerings. I considered the dumpling filling delicious but the damp and gooey batter tasted raw. I privately noted that my neighbour’s teeth, and surely mine, were darkly freckled with sesame seeds.That’s all you really need to know about sesame seed rolls.

It was past noon (we’d started at 10) and we had only Little Italy to explore. My thoughts turned to wine.What, I wondered, would be the best accompaniment to blueberry muffins, assorted cheeses, pickles of three ages, onion-topped bialys, pork dumplings, and sesame seed rolls? Susan passed around bottles of mineral water, a fine choice.At Di Palo’s Dairy, a fourth generation shop specialising in imported cheese and charcuterie, we sampled Piave, a cow’s milk cheese from Veneto.At Alleva Dairy down the street, it was mozzarella meatballs and an olive from the olive bar.A Grande Finale? Standing in the shiny tile and brass interior of Ferrara’s Café, we sampled cannoli… incredibly delicious, crisp pastry tubes filled with sweetened ricotta cheese. And here the party ended.The others left, but I lingered behind for an espresso, and a second mini-cannoli, to round off the morning.

Later that same evening, the question was: where would dinner carry on the US theme and be served early enough to cope with post-cannoli hunger at say, 6pm? The answer was the funky, retro Ellen’s Stardust Diner. This is literally as American as apple pie, or a meat loaf blue-plate special or a mountainous ice cream sundae. It’s also a great and sometimes raucous evening out as the waiters and waitresses, in outfits harking back to the 50s (red and white poodle skirts or bowling shirts) sing and dance their way from the kitchen to your table, sometimes nearly onto your table. They are good, too.“Many a production on Broadway includes someone who’s worked at the Stardust,” our waiter informed me between songs.“It’s the perfect job for actors as we’re free to go on auditions, and after the run, it’s a place to come back to.” I’d go back myself.

Contacts:

The Enthusiastic Gourmet

Tel: +1 646 209 4724;
www.enthusiasticgourmet.com

The Essex Street Market

120 Essex Street at Delancey Street

www.essexstreetmarket.com

Ellen’s Stardust Diner

1650 Broadway and W.51St.
Tel: +1 212 956 5151;
www.ellensstardustdiner.com

While you’re there:

For an unforgettable glimpse of the harsh reality behind the American Dream, visit the Lower East Side Tenement Museum on Orchard Street. Built in 1867, it was one of thousands of run-down overcrowded buildings in which newly arrived immigrants fought for a foothold in the Promised Land.

The Tenement Museum offers tours of the various apartments in the building, bringing the life and times of these new Americans vividly, hauntingly, to life.

 The Tenement Museum. To book a tour in advance and for full details visit www.tenement.org.

For tickets for same-day tours, apply at 108 Orchard Street every day but Friday.
The office is open between 11:00 and 17:30 Monday, until 19:30 on Thursday and until 18:00 the other days. Tel: +1 212 982 8420 

Categories
Germany/Austria

New Wine in Vienna

A Viennese Treat

In 1784, Emperor Joseph II issued a decree allowing vintners to sell their newly fermented wine without tax and directly to the customer. An evergreen bough, a buschen, hanging outside the gate would signal that the wine was ready. Eventually the vintners began providing wooden tables under the arbors for their guests and setting out a variety of snacks to go with the wine. The rustic wine tavern that evolved from this is called a ‘heuriger’, meaning ‘this year’s’, referring to the young wine. Vienna is said to be the home of the heuriger and from there the concept spread across Austria.

A short taxi ride from the city centre brings you to Mayer am Pfarrplatz, a typical heuriger (and Vienna’s smallest vineyard). They mainly produce Gemischter Satz, a blended wine from two or more different grape varieties grown in the same vineyard and vinified together. This wine has gained DAC status. Other white varieties are Grüner Veltliner, Weissburgunder and Rheinriesling. Red wines to try are Blauer Zweigelt, Blauburgunder and Cabernet Sauvignon. Enjoy a relaxed meal or a simple snack with your wine.

Towards the rear of the garden is the entrance to a newly opened museum, the little house where Beethoven lived and worked in 1817 and where he created his Symphony No. 9. For details of the heuriger and of the Beethoven Museum visit: www.http://www.pfarrplatz.at/en/ 

Categories
UK/Ireland

A Walk Through English Maritime History

A QUICK TRIP BACK IN TIME

One of the most remarkable journeys you can make from London takes less than a half hour from the city centre and only 12 minutes from Canary Wharf. In that time you can travel by express ferry down the Thames to Greenwich to explore a world that has more in common with the 17th than with the 21st century.

 England’s maritime history seems to have come to rest in this green village on the water’s edge. From the Cutty Sark, the last and fastest tea clipper; to the Royal Observatory marking Prime Meridian it’s all here. . an overview of England’s maritime history that’s as enjoyable as a walk in a park. The park in question, Greenwich Park, dating from 1427, is the oldest enclosed Royal Park in the country. The buildings that tell the story are all within it, in easy walking distance of each other…the Queen’s House, the National Maritime Museum and the Royal Observatory.

The village of Greenwich is worth exploring too. Laid out in 1820, it has kept its old-fashioned atmosphere with meandering narrow streets, quirky shops, and the old covered market that comes alive with craft and collectibles stalls Thursday through Sunday.  There are pubs and restaurants including a famous tavern on the water’s edge, the Trafalgar.

Arriving by boat, you’ll see the masts, spars and rigging of the renowned tea clipper, the Cutty Sark, forming a tracery across the sky. Closed in 2007 after a disasterous fire, she has been restored and sits snug in her dry-dock again.  In 1885, the Cutty Sark set the record for a wind-powered voyage from Australia to England, 72 days via Cape Horn, just as the opening of the Suez Canal made her redundant.  Go aboard to see a collection of figureheads and learn something of life at sea in the late 1800s. Open every day (except Dec 24,25,26) from 10 am, last admission 16:30.

The Old Royal Naval College was installed infour symmetrical Baroque buildings designed by Christopher Wren on the bank of the Thames.

It’s at the heart of the most dramatic complex of architecture and landscaping in the British Isles, recognized by UNESCO as the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site.  Visit the chapel in the East Wing with its exquisite pastel plasterwork and the Painted Hall in the West Wing. It took 19 years to complete the allegorical paintings that cover its wall and ceilings. A plaque on the floor commemorates Admiral Nelson’s lying in state in this hall in 1806. The uniform jacket worn by Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar, with the fateful bullet hole clearly visible. is displayed in the nearby National Maritime Museum.  This is the biggest maritime museum in the world with three floors of absorbing displays covering a range of themes from explorers of the past to biodiversity. The museum takes full advantage of cutting-edge presentation to bring the story of the sea to life. You may get seasick but you won’t get bored.

 The exquisite ‘Queen’s House’, the first truly classical building in England, is set back from the river and enjoys a glorious view over the park. Designed by Inigo Jones in 1616 for Queen Anne, it was finished after her death by Charles 1st for his French wife, Henrietta Maria, who made it her home.  The Great Hall retains its original painted woodwork and the 1630 marble floor. The beautiful ‘tulip staircase’ was the first cantilevered staircase in Britain. Now part of the National Maritime Museum, the Queen’s House is used to display a selection of the maritime-related paintings and drawings belonging to the museum.

At the top of the hill, and at the top of the ‘must see’ list for Greenwich, stands the Royal Observatory, the home of the Prime Meridian of the World and of Greenwich Mean Time. The walk up the hill to the observatory offers marvelous panoramas but becomes very steep towards the end. An alternative approach is to take the little train that departs for the Observatory from in front of the Maritime Museum on the half hour.

If you have any interest in astronomy, navigation or in under-sung heroes, this is the place to come. The four great timepieces by John Harrison are here. It was Harrison who worked doggedly for 27 years to devise a timepiece accurate enough to determine longitude at sea.  There is also a fascinating collection of original telescopes and regulators in their original settings plus a selection of the museum’s 7,000 scientific instruments. You can visit the octagonal room designed by Christopher Wren in 1675 “for the observer’s habitation and a little for pompe’.

The first Astronomer Royal. Flamsteed worked not here, but in a shed in the garden from which he got a better view of the skies. . His job was to draw a map of the heavens sufficiently accurate for astronomical navigation and he worked at this task nightly for 47 years. This small building became the heart of the expanded observatory. A brass strip on the floor marks the first important Greenwich meridian where Flamsteed set his first astronomical quadrant. There are three later meridian lines, those of Halley, Bradley and Airy- the last was recognized in 1884 as the prime meridian of the world. Straddle it, and you have one foot in the western hemisphere and the other in eastern hemisphere.

A bright red ball on the northeastern turret of Flamsteed house climbs a mast at 12:58 and drops at 13:00 Greenwich Mean Time. So that ships on the River Thames could calibrate their chronometers by its fall, the ball was added to the turret in 1833.

NOTE: The museums are normally open daily from 10:00 with last admission at 18:30, but schedule sometimes varies.  Check with the official site: www.rmg.co.uk  for current information. 

GETTING TO GREENWICH: By far the most evocative way is to come downstream on the Thames Clipper Riverline. You can board near the Tower of London, or at later stops along the route such as Canary Wharf. Alternatively, Docklands Light Railway stops at ‘Cutty Sark’ for maritime Greenwich.

STAYING THERE: A modern 151-room hotel within an easy walk of all the sights of Greenwich is the London Greenwich Novotel. www.novotel.com.

Categories
Germany/Austria

Dresden, Lusting for Gold Discovering Porcelain

AUGUST THE STRONG AND HIS PORCELAIN DISEASE

Well over 300 years ago, the Saxon Elector Augustus the Strong developed what he called his “porcelain disease”. Obsessed, he squandered immense sums on importing pieces from China and Japan, at that time the only countries in the world with the secret of the manufacture of “white gold”. In 1701,Augustus learned that a 19-year-old apothecary, Johann Friedrich Böttger, claimed to be able to turn lead into gold.Augustus, badly in need of gold to underwrite his extravagant purchases of china, ordered the young man brought to Dresden to demonstrate.Not surprisingly, Böttger’s attempt failed.

 Augustus promptly imprisoned him in the Virgin’s Bastion – underneath today’s Bruhl Terrace.Not content to let Böttger lay idle, Augustus set up a laboratory in the depths of the bastion and instructed Böttger to discover the formula for producing porcelain. Six tormented years later, in December 1707, Böttger showed Augustus the results of the first successful firing of white porcelain. He gradually perfected his technique and in 1709, officially presented his invention.

The next year,Augustus founded a porcelain factory in Dresden.To protect the secret of its production from industrial espionage, the factory and the dwellings of the employees were eventually established at Albrechtsburg Castle in nearby Meissen.The Meissen Porcelain Manufactory is still there and makes a good day trip from Dresden.

For the full, fascinating story of the invention of European porcelain, read Janet Gleeson’s book,  The Arcanum.

Categories
Spain/Portugal

Porto and the Wine Lodges

VISIT PORTUGAL’S SECOND CITY

The town of Porto stretches for nine kilometres along the north shore of the Douro, at the point where the river merges with the Atlantic Ocean. Seen from the opposite river bank, from Vila da Gaia, Porto’s time-worn houses seem to puncture the granite bluffs like red-roofed swallow’s nests.  Portugal’s second city is densely populated,  and its manufacturing complexes and suburbs stretch into the hills, but the old town, the designated heritage site, is tidily compact and easily explored. The atmosphere of the late middle ages survives in the network of narrow streets and alleys tumbling down to the riverfront.  The first royal customs house, the 16th century building on the Rua da Alfandega, is said to be where Prince Henry the Navigator was born in 1594.

 The shadowy streets and tiny shops of the old town centre, along with the colourful waterfront of Porto’s Ribeira district, make for very satisfactory sightseeing in themselves, but there’s much more to see. Visit the 12th century fortress- cathedral and the 18th century former prison, which is now Portugal’s Photography Centre.  Climb the 240 steep steps to the top of 18th century Tower of Clerigos – the ‘symbol’ of Porto- for one of Porto’s best views.  Afterwards, cross the street to Lello’s bookshop for a glass of Port or a coffee. It has been described as  ‘the prettiest bookshop in the world’.  Step into the entrance hall of the Sao Bento Railway Station to view the panorama in tile that covers the walls from floor to ceiling.   Take a taxi to Boavista to visit the severely beautiful contemporary art museum set in the gardens of Serralves.  And while you’re in Boavista, make up your own mind about the controversial Casa da Musica. To me it looked like a cement fist bursting up through the pavement.

Back in the centre of the historic old town, not even the most uncommitted tourist should miss the Igreja de Sao Francisco. Gothic on the outside, baroque on the inside, it took hundreds of kilos of gold to make the interior of this plain-faced church look as if it were carved out of a solid gold nugget.   Literally around the corner is the entrance to the extraordinary mid-19th century stock exchange, the Palacio da Bolsa. You must join a guided tour to see the highlights but they include the stupendous Arab Room inspired by the Alhambra in Granada. This opulent ballroom is where Porto’s debutantes were once introduced to society and is now where visiting dignitaries are entertained.

Also inside the Palacio, you can watch a craftsman in a tiny atelier painstakingly producing Porto’s time-honoured gold filigree jewellery. When I was there, examples of his work included an enormous gold pendant priced at 345 euro and a small golden bowknot at 54 euro.

The art of the goldsmith has a long tradition in Porto. In  1521 the king, Dom Manuel I, ordered that a new street be built – Rua das Flores – with shops beneath and apartments above for the many goldsmiths, silversmiths, jewellers and shopkeepers of the wealthy, cosmopolitan city. Rua das Flores still retains its 16th century atmosphere with azulejo-clad facades, iron balconies and ornamental shop names.

This street, like all the streets in the Ribeira area, eventually slides back down to the river.  Here are the waterfront cafes and restaurants, the cheerful souvenir shops, the moorings for riverboats that offer an hour’s tour under the six bridges. A turn to the left brings you along the Cais de Ribeira to the two-level Dom Luis I bridge linking Porto with Vila Nova de Gaia where the port wine is stored. The views from the upper pedestrian walkway of the bridge are superb and those from the walkway on the lower level are almost as good.

But if the view from the top of the bridge is worth the vertigo, and the view from the tower of Clergos is worth the climb, the view of Porto from Vila Nova da Gaia is worth the journey!    Enjoy it from the grassy promenade that leads along the waterfront and from the restaurants and cafes that line the Rua Dr. Antonio Grenjo.  In the foreground are the picturesque old flat boats that once transported the casks of wine from the vineyards further up the Rio Douro. Now they bounce at their moorings, their dangerous work taken over by tanker trucks. Once a year those that are still seaworthy compete in a good-natured race, crewed by company officials.

Across the road from the promenade are some of the 37 port wine lodges of Vila Nova da Gaia. Other lodges range behind them on the hill.  In these cool dark buildings the wine from the designated Douro region ages in mammoth oaken casks until the addition of brandy stops the fermentation. Carefully judged periods of maturation – from three years to more than 20 years- produce the range of ports:  ruby, tawny, late bottled vintage and the sublime ‘vintage’. The wine lodge tour guide will walk you through the process and reward your attention with sips of the final products.

The export trade in port wine began in 1678 and became firmly established following a treaty between Portugal and England in 1703. Many of the port lodges belong to English families still. The house of Sandeman, for example was established by the Scotsman, George Sandeman in 1790 and is currently directed by his namesake, the seventh generation to manage the firm. The Sandeman lodge on Rua Dr. Antonio Grenjo includes a unique Port Museum tracing the history of port wine. It’s open 9:30 am to 12:30 pm and from 2.00 pm to 5.00pm every day of the week April to October but closed weekends November through March.

About half of Vila Nova da Gaia’s storehouses are open to visitors for a tour and a tasting.  Opening days and hours vary. A booklet with all the details, published by the Port Wine Association, is available free from their headquarters at Rua Dr. Antonio Granjo 207.    

Staying there: The four-star Casa Branca ‘Beach and Golf Hotel’ in Vila Nova da Gaia overlooks the Praia de Lavadores, the erstwhile ‘beach of the washer women’. The washerwomen are long gone and their beach transformed by a modest promenade, which runs between the hotel and the rocky shore.   The Casa Branca is tranquil, secluded and only a short taxi ride away from the Old Town, the port wine lodges and several golf courses www.casabranca.com.

Getting there: Porto has an international airport. Vila Nova da Gaia is a comfortable 3-hour train journey from Lisbon.

Categories
Spain/Portugal

Tee off in the Azores

GREAT VIEWS, PRISTINE COURSES

The Azores are a group of nine islands off the coast of Portugal . Way off. In fact, they are one third of the way to the United States. Volcanic islands, they surged from the sea millennia ago. The crest of Pico, rising 2,351 metres high out of the Atlantic, is the highest spot in Portugal.  Until recently they’ve been known principally as a sort of stepping stone in the Atlantic, a convenient port of call for everyone from Christopher Columbus to today’s long-distance yachtsmen.

Warmed by the Gulf Stream and favoured by an almost constant ridge of high pressure, the climate is temperate ranging from about 11 to 25C.If you knew the Algarve, back before the building boom transformed it, you’ll know what to expect:  a laid-back holiday with golf the primary attraction and seafood the daily dish.

There are two magnificent courses on Sao Miguel, the main island:  the 27 hole Batalha Golf Course designed by Cameron and Powell and the 18 hole Furnas Golf Course designed by MacKenzie Ross (9 holes) and Cameron Powell (9 holes).  Admittedly you’d want to bring your wets to play them, but that’s the price you pay for courses of dazzling lush green, with vistas so remarkable they could take your mind off your game. They are still so under utilised that they may be the most pristine you’ll ever set foot on.

The Batalha and Furnas, along with their clubhouses, are managed  by Verde Golf, part of Oceanico Developments, which is already a familiar name in the Algarve.

The proximity of the Batalha course to the San Miguel airport at Ponta Delgada is a big plus.  From hotel in to course is a mere 15-minute drive and you’ll tee off virtually without delay.

Take a break from golf and enjoy a bit of whale and dolphin watching. Ferry to the nearby island of Faial and join one of the  whale-watching boat trips leaving from the harbour at Horta. In June, July and August they make two trips a day, 8:30 and 16:30. While you’re on Horta be sure to stop at Peter’s Café for one of his famous gin and tonics. Horta is a stop on the international sailing circuit.  A long section of the marina is patterned with colourful paintings done by ship’s crews… a superstition holds it’s bad luck to depart Horta without ‘leaving your mark.’

Try out the other islands too, Hire a car, the roads are good and traffic light to non-existant.   Soak in a thermal pool. Walk or bike for miles in landscapes alive with wild hydrangea, camellia and azalea. Buy local cheeses. Try some of the wine produced on tiny pockets of earth parceled off in a network of lava –stonewalls. Enjoy a meal steamed in a geyser. Eat seafood everywhere. The flavour and texture of the fish from this unpolluted sea is unforgettable,

Staying There:

The nearest hotel to the Ponta Delgada airport and to the Batalha course is a modern 211-room 4 star hotel at the upper edge of town, the VIP Executive, Rotunda de Sao Goncalo Papa Terra, 9500 Ponta Delgada, Sao Miguel; email: crs@viphotels.com. Website: www.viphotels.com

The Camoes Hotel is a 35-room, four star hotel in a restored 19th century building.  In the centre of the old town it’s further from airport and golf course by 20 minutes or so but close to shops and a variety of restaurants. Camoes Hotel, Largo do Camoes 38, 9500-304 Ponta Delgada, Sao Miguel; email: info@hotelcomoes.net; website: www.hotelcamoes.net