Paris to Penzance

Paris at the end of April is like a beautiful woman with no expectations nor knowledge of her beauty. Lush and full of hope, the trees reach out with their fresh new leaves spreading their joy to create shade. Flowers are everywhere, the scent of Jasmine filling the senses. Tulips seem to be never-ending with colors so vibrant they glisten.

The weather, on the other hand, is like a moody teenager, clouds rolling in at a moment’s notice saying to the sun, “Not yet!” and briefly wetting the landscape pushing people toward the ‘shade.’ But just as quickly, the sun cuts through and the landscape sparkles with freshness.

Tour Eiffel through the trees

Tour Eiffel through the trees

Mark trains in from Stuttgart for a brief 36-hour sojourn in Paris … only enough time to walk the Seine and get a sense of what one might discover in this ancient and beautiful city. Isabelle comes up from Montpelier and with Thom and Eric, the five of us meet for a last dinner. Tomorrow we all part, each heading in different directions.

EuroStar to London and beyond

Thom and Eric leave the flat very early. We awake in time to see them off and wait for Alec to arrive and retrieve the keys before heading to the Metro and Gare du Nord for our EuroStar train to London.

I had previously checked parisbytrain.com to get a visual layout of Gare du Nord to save time once we arrive. Even though I have been here a number of times, I know the EuroStar is boarded in another part of the station and we are short on time.

I’m excited about going through the Chunnel, but as we leave the blue skies of France and enter the darkness, I ask myself what I expected? It’s rather like taking BART beneath the Bay, from San Francisco to Oakland, but with a travel time of a bit more than half an hour. As soon as we emerge into the rain and mist, I know we’re in England.

We have about an hour to transfer from London’s St. Pancras station via the Underground to Paddington for the next leg of our train trip. We have a few delays, but finally make it with, oh, quite possibly three minutes to spare!

We are traveling to Penzance on the First Great Western railway stopping frequently along the way. The trip takes about five hours and is memorable for the beautiful scenery, particularly as we get closer to the coast.

English coastline heading to Penzance

English coastline heading to Penzance

There’s nothing quite so beautiful as the English countryside, with its rolling hills and lush, light green fields crisscrossed with full, dark green hedgerows. Entering the small quaint villages with brick houses and church steeples pointing to the sky seems straight out of a Masterpiece Theatre BBC mystery. Narrow roads with carefully manicured bushes and trees keep the curious from seeing beyond.

English countryside

English countryside

Our first night in Penzance

We arrive at our lovely three bedroom cottage at 33 Chapel Street that Mark reserved through Classic Cottages. It’s perfectly situated on the historic Chapel Street within easy walking distance of the town centre. With a view of the bay and its very own private garden, we couldn’t be more pleased.

View of the harbor from the 3rd floor bedroom

View of the harbor from the bedroom

Fresh tulips are on the dining room table, and in the kitchen, we find a tray complete with a bottle of wine, a fresh loaf of bread and scones. Tea and coffee are provided and in the refrigerator we find butter, milk and the incomparable Cornish Clotted Cream.

Tray provided by our hosts

Tray provided by our hosts

The house is cozy and comfortable, but since it’s already nearly 8:00 p.m., we put our bags away and head out into the town to check out the neighborhood and have some dinner. We find a food cooperative at the top of the hill, many interesting shops closed due to the hour and several open and welcoming pubs.

When did the English learn to cook?

Now before you think I’m being a bit cocky here, my mother was English, so I’m pretty familiar with the cooking.

We enter the Turk’s Head, a lovely, warm and lively pub with a back room of tables making up the restaurant. Mark orders Fish and Chips with mushy peas and I the Asparagus Risotto.

The fish is freshly caught off the coast, deliciously battered and perfectly prepared. The mushy peas are creamy, smooth and a perfect companion. The Asparagus Risotto includes small slices of asparagus, English peas, a hint of mint and toasted pine nuts. The risotto is creamy and perfectly cooked with just the right amount of seasoning. Topped with two crunchy and tasteful asparagus and sprinkled with Parmesan, it just may be the best risotto I’ve ever tasted.

Turk's Head dinner

Turk’s Head dinner

We return to our home for this week and settle in for the night.

An auction for charity

On Saturday night, Mark and I attend a charity Art Auction at The Exchange to support the Cornwall Hospice Care. Over 100 pieces from local artists are being offered with a percentage of the proceeds donated to the charity. After champagne, hors d’oeuvres and music in the cafe, we take a seat with our personal auction numbers to see what we might take home.

The auctioneer is hilarious. Forgetting his microphone cord and gavel, he chooses to “speak up,” and uses an ice cream scoop, banging it loudly on the podium to end each sale. His quirky method of engaging the audience, getting bidders to raise the price and forgetting where he is in the bidding process makes for a very entertaining and fun evening. Mark bids on several items and goes home with a beautiful, original signed watercolor.

Impressions of Penzance

Penzance is a fishing village located along the southeast coast of Cornwall, tucked away in Mount’s Bay, which faces the English Channel. In early May, even though Cornwall is a temperate climate, the weather is cold and blustery. The rain has held off, but I feel like I’ve stepped into the land of Winnie the Pooh!

Despite the chill, Penzance is a lovely town. Possibly best known outside of the UK for the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera, Pirates of Penzance. However, this seaside town has nothing to do with pirates, although we did see several references including the Penzance Sailing Club, which uses a skull and crossbones as its emblem.

During our week-long stay, we walk the streets, finding hidden nooks and gardens and interesting historical sites. The cemetery in St. Mary’s church is very old, the markers blotched with moss and lichen, many lined with vines. Wild flowers are growing everywhere as are Palm trees. (Mark knows the scientific names of the palms, including the true palms home to this area and those imported from other parts of the world.)

Harbor through Chapel St. archway

Harbor through Chapel St. archway

St Mary's Church

St. Mary’s Church

St. Mary’s, located across the street from our cottage, sits high above the town and can be seen from practically everywhere, making it very easy to find our way home.

Top of St Mary's Church

Top of St Mary’s Church

The Jubilee Pool, an Art Deco seawater lido built when Penzance was a prosperous seaside resort is closed. Located between the promenade and the harbor, it experienced extensive damage from the horrendous storms that battered many parts of the UK and Europe this winter.

Jubilee Pool

Jubilee Pool

Nearby to our cottage we discover the Morrab Gardens, home to sub-tropical plants that you won’t find elsewhere in England.

Morrab Gardens

Morrab Gardens

Morrab Gardens: Pond

Morrab Gardens: Pond

There are wonderful galleries, boutiques and museums that will keep us busy. With an easy walk to the bus station, Penzance makes a perfect home base for jaunts to other parts of Cornwall.

A Weekend in the Country: Part 2, Troglodytes

A different kind of cave

I awake early to a silence so profound for a moment I forget where I am and wonder what has become of the kinetic city. The sun reaches its fingers across the sky painting it a myriad of pale colors as it does so. From the courtyard, the morning doves begin to chatter and I realize that the music of these French doves is much louder and the deep-throated cooing is a trifle more insistent.

After breakfast, Dolores and I head out toward Doué-la-Fontaine. We have decided to check out the famous troglodyte caves of the Loire Valley.

Millions of years ago, the sea covered this part of France and upon its retreat, it left a thick bed of white stone called tuffeau, the same stone that exists underneath Saumur. Soft and easy to carve, many buildings in the Loire Valley are built using this stone. One of the caves we will visit dates to 600 and it’s said that the quarrying of the tuffeau initially created the cavities that would become the troglodyte caves and homes.

We follow the river, heading west out of St-Martin-de-la-Place to a small village called Les Rosiers-Sur-Loire where, as its name implies, we see roses upon roses flourishing. Here, we cross the river and head south through the beautiful valleys lush with bright yellow rapeseed.

Rapeseed

Rapeseed

La Cave aux Sculptures

Upon entering the very small, but clearly ancient village of Dénezé-sous-Doué, we see a sign for La Cave aux Sculptures and make a last minute decision to stop. We head into a small wooden structure and pay for tickets, purchasing our tickets (at a discount) for a later tour of the Troglodytes et Sarcophages.

As it turns out, we are the only people here in this fairly small cave that dates back to the era of Catherine de Medici when the stone masons would meet secretly in the shadows and confines of this cave, making political statements in the form of these sculptures that line the walls of the large inner sanctum.

Unknown man

Unknown man

The young woman from whom we purchased tickets appears and serves as a spontaneous guide. She tells us the story of how the caves were hidden for several hundreds of years and discovered by two local children. She points out the ‘more important’ sculptures and reveals their meaning. These have been identified by archaeologists through carbon-dating and based on the political intrigues of that time period, the stories have been woven of these amazing works of hand-carved scenes.

The King's mistress

The King’s mistress

Our guide speaks to us about the lack of funds to continue excavating this particular site and how she is trying to draw attention and support to save the sculptures that are deteriorating due to the humidity in the open caves. It’s obvious that she is passionate about the past, this place, and preserving it for the future. It would be an excellent project for a university anthropology department and we leave with a sense that her optimism will be met with success.

Sculptures deteriorating

Sculptures deteriorating

Troglodytes et Sarcophages

We continue into the larger town of Doué-la-Fontaine, stopping for lunch and then skirting the carnival (American Circus) blocking several streets for entertainment on this Easter weekend. We wind our way through narrow streets to an extremely old area of town with walls dark and rustic that clearly have been standing for centuries. We park and head into the caves of the Troglodytes et Sarcophages, which date from the sixth century and were initially used in the carving of sarcophagi for the wealthy.

Main room with stone carvings

Main room with stone carvings

This cave is sandstone and we join a tour where the guide is speaking French to a number of tourists. Throughout the tour, he clarifies a few things to make sure we are following along. He speaks of the history of this place, painting a portrait of the past and describing those who worked in the caves and those who sleep in the coffins. He continues the story through the Norman and Viking invasions, speaking about the security that the people of this village found below ground and how they reconstructed the entrances to create a barrier that ultimately ensured their survival. And, he spoke about a return to the caves during WW2 where some villagers returned temporarily to the old Troglodyte ways.

Entrance to the chapel

Entrance to the chapel

This place was beautiful, much larger than we anticipated and filled with many more stories than we had expected. The cave openings now bring in the sunlight and reflect off the pale surfaces of stone, creating a golden glow through many rooms. Moss grows heavy in some areas creating an almost lush environment and an energy that resonates with the past.

Le village troglodytique de Rochemenier

As we head north, a short detour finds us at our final stop, the underground troglodyte village in Rochemenier.

This village is now set up as a museum of sorts that includes approximately 20 rooms and a very large underground chapel. The village presents the lives, complete with photographs, of those who lived here well into the 1930’s. Two ancient farms, replete with animal pens, can be viewed, along with the homes of those who were part of this thriving underground village.

Courtyard between dwellings

Courtyard between dwellings

At the end of the self-guided tour, we see two updated homes that are reminiscent of Earthships introduced in Taos, New Mexico, which are mostly built underground with only the front visible and facing the sun.

These newer, more modernized versions of the troglodyte homes are not quite as sustainably-designed, but with the consistent ambient temperatures below ground, you can see how one could easily be comfortable here.

Front of modern troglodyte home

Front of modern troglodyte home

While there are many, many more of these troglodyte dwellings carved into the rocks and slopes of the landscape of the Loire Valley, we felt that we experienced an excellent overview of the types of caves available and we drive back to our hotel excited about sharing our experiences.

Park in the Sky

One of my favorite places in Manhattan is the High Line,  an urban park built on a section of the elevated former New York Central Railroad. The park runs along the lower west side of Manhattan, beginning in the Meatpacking District and continuing through Chelsea to 30th Street and then around to 34th. It’s a beautiful green space and a wonderfully peaceful place to walk, sit or just get away from the activity on the ground.

In Paris, the Promenade Plantée was the inspiration for the repurposing of the New York railway spur. And so we set out to see for ourselves and to also peruse the artist shops of the Viaduc des Arts.  [From the Place de la Bastille, take Rue de Lyon (to the right of the Opéra Bastille) and stay left at Av. Daumesnil.]

Place de la Bastille

Place de la Bastille

The artists’ shops are located at street level on the Avenue Daumesnil in the arches of the former elevated railway viaduct, which supports the Promenade Plantée.

Artist shops at the Viaduc des Arts

Artist shops at the Viaduc des Arts

From jewelry to pottery and fine art to leather work, this avenue has an amazing array of art and artists.

Shop on the Viaduc des Arts

Shop on the Viaduc des Arts

In one shop, we saw a loom in the window with beautiful handmade clothes hanging about the ‘gallery.’ This shop was closed, so we didn’t get a chance to see the work up close, but the weave looked very delicate and well made.

The Michel Pintado gallery had some amazing sculptures of leaves, animals and other objects. The stone and metal elephants were simple, yet elegant and interestingly enticing. When I initially looked at the folded metal, I thought, “oh, interesting” followed by, “oh, it’s an elephant … WOW!”

By the time we reached the end of the galleries, we decided to stop for lunch. We were looking for a cafe and at the corner of Rue de Rambouillet and Av. Daumesnil, we happened to look up. To our astonishment, we saw statues built into the structure, running along each side of this corner building. Oh, and by the way, this building just happened to be a police station. We’re not sure why we looked up, but we could have easily missed this. The statues appeared to be very fine replicas of Michelangelo’s Dying Slave. [We did an online search later for the original, which is held at the Musée du Louvre.]

Corner view - atop a police station

Corner view – atop a police station

 

Statues along the building

Statues along the building

Following a very nice lunch, we took the steps up to the promenade.

To say this park is amazing is quite an understatement. It’s quiet, peaceful and overgrown, yet manicured (but not to the extreme). The walkway is lined on both sides with trees, bushes or ground cover, many with beautiful dainty flowers. Archways are present throughout the nearly mile-long walk.

Archway on promenade

Archway on promenade

Drooping casually over the sides or tops of the archways are wisteria, climbing roses (of all colors) or ‘snowdrift’ clematis.

Archway at the  Promenade entrance

Archway at the Promenade entrance

 

A trellis of roses

A trellis of roses

The walk was delightfully fragrant and at about a 3rd story level, the tops of buildings provide you with a unique look at the city.

Rooftops along the promenade

Rooftops along the promenade

Park benches are placed throughout the promenade, and during our walk, most were occupied by people sitting with their faces to the sun, reading or just relaxing. It didn’t take much to see that they were enjoying the beauty of this space and the warmth of this Spring day.

From the Bastille, we took a detour to the Place des Vosges, the oldest planned square in Paris. This residential square was completed in 1612 and is surrounded by houses all designed the same.

Where the rows of houses meet

Where the rows of houses meet

 

Houses on Place des Vosges

Houses on Place des Vosges

A bronze of Louis XIII sits in the middle of some very old Linden trees and the square itself is surrounded by Lindens trimmed into square shapes.

Henri XIII bronze

Henri XIII bronze

The square is open along one street, but if you want to exit the square through one of the other three sides, your only choice is the side opposite, through an archway that goes under the center houses with a roof line higher than the others.

Place des Vosges - Entrance  opposite

Place des Vosges – Entrance opposite

The warmth of the sun begged us to keep walking, so we continued through the Marais down Rue Saint-Antoine toward Rue de Rivoli. We stopped for an espresso at a cafe in a very old, small cobblestone square off Rue Caron called Place du Marché Sainte-Catherine before continuing on to the Hôtel de Ville metro and home.

A Biennale comes to Cochin

I’ve been fortunate to be here for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, India’s first. Although it kicked off before my arrival on 12/12/12, it lasted until 13/03/13 and so I got to see for myself what all the fuss was about.

A little history

Biennale is Italian for “every other year” and is commonly used in the art world to describe an ‘international manifestation of contemporary art.’ It purportedly stems from the Biennale di Venezia first held in 1895. The Venice Biennale includes contemporary art, film, dance and architecture (this one held in even years).

The Kochi-Muziris Biennale was set up mostly around Fort Kochi. It was established to support the more modern Kochi, but at the same time, not letting go of the past and the historical values and significance of its mythical predecessor, the ancient port of Muziris.

The Kochi-Muziris Biennale

When I heard about this, I asked around the office to see who might have a bit of information and was told to begin the journey at the Kashi Art Café, also a gallery.

The Kashi is a fabulous, warm and inviting converted house, off of a small street in Fort Kochi. The gallery serves as the entry point to this unique place, which is a combination of indoor and outdoor space, with a tree growing through the roof in one room and an open, partially walled-in area in the back. The space is not large, but the atmosphere has vast dimensions. The menu is light, with breakfast and lunch options and some fabulous desserts. The food is organic and flavorful and the ambience encourages you to linger. In addition to their wonderful omelets, they have brown bread that they bake on the premises, and the masala tea is the best I’ve had anywhere in the city. (I asked if they sold loaves of bread separately, but alas, they do not.)

Omelette - YUM

Omelette – YUM

At the Kashi we found out where to go for tickets and more information. So we headed out to the Aspinwall House to begin the official journey.

Overlooking the sea, the Aspinwall House was established in 1867 as a business that traded in coconut oil, pepper, timber, lemon grass oil, ginger, turmeric, spices, hides and later in coir, coffee, tea and rubber. Today, it is a large heritage property supporting numerous artists and exhibits for the Biennale.

There were nearly 80 artists with work presented at a variety of venues including current gallery spaces and halls, with additional site-specific installations in public buildings and outdoor spaces. In some places, they used areas that were unused or barren. We were able to visit only about 10 of the spaces, but we got a really good feel for the variety of the work, which was vast.

The art at the Biennale was diverse and interesting. Some of it made you pause and reflect …

The room was dark, along the back wall ‘pockets’ of wood holding various seeds and herbs were lined up in rows. If you closed your eyes, the jumble of scents was intense. Around a corner of the large room, there were video art displays, soft blue light emanating from open books with blank pages. Messages came and went (courtesy of the video above), some with photographs, some with quotes like:

if we could separate each glance from the next
then could we separate our perception
of what each consecutive glance is seeing

or …

if a crime continues to occur regardless
of the enormous evidence available
then is the crime invisible or the evidence invisible
or are both visible but not seen?

The constant flow of messages made you want to stick around and see what was next. At the other end, was a story told in books, video and art about a crime against a young African man and the questions that surrounded his demise. The entire room was intriguing and thought-provoking, although in some regards, also disturbing.

But what is art if not something that makes you feel?

As with a lot of modern art, you have to ask yourself, “What does this invoke within me?” It doesn’t matter that you don’t understand it. You might find it interesting, disturbing, beautiful, humdrum, absurd, comical, amazing. You might feel a sense of loss, wonder, sadness, awe, enlightenment. You could even feel cynical, angry, happy, or it might even make you weep or laugh aloud. It could take your breath away or leave you completely puzzled. If you have no reaction whatsoever, the artist clearly missed the mark.

People react differently based on what they see in the piece, or what they don’t see. A reaction could be based upon a long-ago memory not quite present, but only sensed. One of our group had to leave that dark room that many of us found fascinating because she felt a certain dread.

Who can really tell what will move us? I remember standing outside Antoni Gaudí’s Sagrada Família in Barcelona with Jennifer, one of my traveling companions. As both of us stared at this amazing sacred place, we turned to each other and both of us were weeping.

While the art of the Biennale didn’t bring me to tears, some of it evoked strong reactions.

All-in-all, it was a really great (albeit hot!) day. And from my point of view, congratulations must go out to the organizers of this amazing event!

Here are some additional photos:

The Perfect World

The Perfect World, by Uttam Duniya

Butterflies with no shoes (inset)

Butterflies with no shoes (inset)

I know nothing of the end (inset)

I know nothing of the end (inset), by Sudarshan Shetty

 

Birds on the wall (outside Kashi)
Birds on the wall (outside Kashi)

 

The book
The book
Carved swan

Carved swan, by Sudarshan Shetty

Megha at hanging wood

Megha at hanging wood

Painted tree near the Chinese Fishing Nets

Painted tree near the Chinese Fishing Nets