Monthly Archives: August 2010

Focus on Chagall

Getting close up to these glorious works of art was indeed a privilege

In my very limited experience there aren’t too many art galleries that allow visitors to take pictures of the exhibits. Thus exploring the Musee National Marc Chagall in Nice was particularly  exciting. I’ve always loved his paintings – I love the colours, the textures, the ethereal and whimsical nature of his art. And to be able to photograph added so much more to the whole experience.

The gallery in Nice exposes us also to other mediums he worked in – stained glass and sculpture. Set on a hillside above Nice, a short bus ride from the centre and one stop short of the famous Roland Garros tennis arena, it is surrounded by trees and quite unassuming from the outside. It was purpose built, designed by Chagall himself specifically to house his collection.

All the rooms in this light, airy and minimalist space have generous proportions and interesting shapes – no one room is the same. In one room two unadorned walls have a slit window for you to gaze through at an enclosed courtyard with sculptured walls – Chagall’s work of course.

Each painting has its own wall – the paintings have room to breathe, they spring to life.

There is also an 200-seat auditorium with an exterior wall in stained glass – predominantly azure blue.  A 20-minute film giving further insight into Chagall’s life plays onto a huge screen. Music underlies the narration. Serenity pervades – perfect.

We left, feeling an amazing sense of calm. I think somehow that by design, that was the intention.

No devil in the detail here!

And now – to stand back and see it all.

The big picture

Simply beautiful

Socks or not? The shoes are off …

First there were 'sneans', now there are 'sockles'

Brits wear hankies on their heads, Kiwis and Aussis wear thongs, and northern European men wear socks with sandals.

Now why is that?

We can forgive the Brits – its a ‘boys own’ sort of thing, very masculine – and they don’t have to worry about a harsh southern hemisphere sun; Kiwis and Aussis can’t be bothered doing up laces or buckles – we’ll forgive them too – it’s a macho thing. Sorry Pole, Czech, German and Dutch friends – I can’t think of any excuse for you lot.

In 35 degree heat, when your feet need as little covering them as possible … why on earth do you need socks? I just don’t get it. Give those feet some air!

The beauty about wearing sandals (from a mother’s perspective of course) is having no socks to wash – no searching fruitlessly through the washing basket trying to find a matching pair. I’m sure all the missing socks will be waiting for me in heaven.

No holes to darn either – as if I would!

No self-respecting kiwi wears socks with sandals. It’s just not done – and if it is, the hapless wearer is subjected to second glances, titters and jeers. Must be tourists!

Saves us from seeing ugly toenails maybe...

Now, this photo, with apologies for it not being as sharp as it should. I took it at Warsaw airport using my small pocket camera with the zoom zoomed as far as it would go. I just had to get a picture – surreptitiously.

If we want to be picky, after all we’re talking fashion here … grey and beige together? Mixing hiking-style sandals with business socks? (If anything sport socks would be more appropriate.) And then the turned-over top edge?

I think The Sartorialist would agree this fashion statement has no legs…it’s not going to be big on the runways.

At least I hope not!

A special brand of humour

Captive humour

Humour comes in many guises.

We’d taken directions to the main square from a local and found that instead of exiting the narrow alleyway into the square, we ended up back where we’d started.

Coming into the daylight, a local pounced on me from behind, cackling as he did so and saying:

“Didn’t you know us Czechs have a sense of humour!”

(Anyone knowing me well, knows how easy it is to give me a fright. My kids do it all the time – walking up behind me in the kitchen gives me a huge fright – its as simple as that.)

So my fright, while feeling confused in a foreign land, was genuine…my laugh came pretty quickly. He got me!

Yes, of course the Czechs have a sense of humour. That’ll explain the multitude of shops selling puppets. Not only the traditional witches, hags and goblins, but also characters more familiar to modern audiences – Marilyn Munro, President Kennedy, James Bond, Elvis Presley and of course Michael Jackson.

The photo above was taken outside a small Marionette shop in the shadow of the famous Charles Bridge. It had beautiful bright olive green doors with puppets on display outside. Inside looked like an enchanted cavern. We decided not to stop on the first day as we were on a mission to get to the old town – it was on our return route so plenty of opportunity to spend time lingering later.

That’s where we were wrong.

Returning the next morning (I wanted some really good photographs) because the displays in this shop were by far the best we’d seen, we found a note on the door:

Closed due to technical difficulty!

Yet again, the joke was on me.

Made in my own image!


Do not put off today, what you think you can do tomorrow!

Kutna Hora for that out of body experience

Recycling taken to the extreme

A morbid curiosity with the dark side?

Following on from our fascinating visit to the Torture Museum in the centre of the Prague’s old town, we were geared up for another dose of the macarbre. So, through our lovely hotel receptionist, we reserved  seats on a trip the next day to the medieval mining town of Kutna Hora – an hour long trip from the city centre. For centuries Kutna Hora had housed and operated the Royal mint.

Eager to see as much as we could in our short stay in the Czech Republic, we spent the next morning taking in the sights around the old Jewish Quarter, and only just made it back to the hotel for the 11.00am pick-up. The driver said nothing to us. He merely ushered us into the bus gruffly and then took off  on a very circuitous route picking up other passengers on route to the Tour Company office – we needed to pay for our tickets.

Having been told that there wouldn’t be any stops for refreshments, Ket decided to grab a hot-dog from one of the many street side stalls while I waited in line to hand over my Krona.

It was a a smallish bus, with about 20 passengers, a young and attractive tour guide called Katerina and a grumpy driver. Why grumpy? It wasn’t only the body language – he  wouldn’t allow Ket board the bus with her hot dog snack – didn’t want the smell, didn’t want the crumbs!

So she stood on the pavement and ate while we all looked on. I was all but drooling and I suspect all our co-passengers were drooling as well. The Czechs do know how to make  sausages – understatement!

Finally with Ket safely back in her seat, the bus took off  with everyone adjusting the air conditioning nozzles to get some cooler air in the 34+ heat.

When, a bit later on, one of the other passengers unwrapped her sandwiches our bus driver leaned over to the tour guide who promptly asked her over the microphone, to put her food away!

Anyway…I digress.

We’d heard from family back home that we had to make the trip to Kutna Hora – a UNESCO world heritage-listed town boasting amoung other things a most unusual church, the Sedlec Ossuary,  its interior decorated with the remains of 40,000 human skeletons! No wonder its also called the Bone Church.

It is an unassuming church – its exterior giving no hint of the unusual decor within.

As you descend the stone stairs into the church you see all around you artistically-designed bone  features – the most prominent one being the huge chandelier which apparently has one of at least every human bone. I suspect visiting medicos spend their time identifying the bodily origins. Tibea – tick – fibula – tick – rib – tick – clavicle – tick!

Not so me…I was more fascinated in how Frantisek Rint (in 1870) managed to put them all together. Such a goulish sense symmetry – maybe a ‘goth’ before his time.

A sense of the absurd!

The story as I understand it  is that in 1278 an abbot from the Sedlec Monastery went on a massive walkabout (or pilgrimage) and returned with a jar of  soil – reputedly from Golgotha. The soil (named the ‘Holy Soil”) was spread over the land and from then on, Sedlec became the place to be buried in. This meant a massive oversupply of bones – which became a big problem  for the small village which had insufficient flat land for burial. Creative thinking took over …

Not a bad idea really once you get your head around it.

Bones, bones dem dry bones...

I wonder if they operate night tours by candlelight?

The Czechs have a bizarre sense of humour - so they tell me!

At the home of the Phantom

Dominating the auditorium in perfect style

Since first being captivated by Lloyd-Webber’s ‘The Phantom of the Opera‘ I’ve wanted to visit the Paris Opera House. However, when I arrived in Paris recently, there was so much to see that I quite forgot about it.

So, imagine my delight when we happened to find ourselves in Place de L’Opera on our walk down from the Sacre Couer.

There she stood, partially swathed in tarps and scaffolding, in all her magnificent neo-Baroque glory. Nine euros seemed such a small price to pay to enter and marvel. Sadly, escorted tours were off for duration of the structural work.

The Opera House, opened in 1875, is the work of Charles Garnier – think Sarah J-P advertising Garnier Nutrisse with her irritating girlie accent! There’s probably a little less emphasis on the first ‘r’. It’s also known as Palais Garnier.

The first glimpse of the ornate vestibule took our breath away. A wide marble staircase curving up to the first floor with massive columns and sculptures at either side, deep mahogany doors leading to the auditorium and to the opera boxes, mirrored surfaces making it appear even bigger. A photo at every blink!

A vast ballroom with exquisite parquet flooring stretched along the first floor at the front of the Opera House – its chandeliers reflected in the highly polished floor. The word magnificent doesn’t do it justice.

Begging to be danced upon - the Paris Opera ballroom...

But, as if this wasn’t enough, the best part was yet to come. The auditorium. We just had to sit and soak in the beautiful warm glow of the upholstery and the wood, the glistening of the gold paint, the opulence of the surrounding sculptures, the stage with it’s backdrop of gothic columns, and framed on either side by two-tiers of curved opera boxes. The chandelier made famous in Lloyd-Webber’s ‘Phantom’ sat centre stage. Above us, where the notorious chandelier had been – the one that inspired part of the story for the Phantom (in 1896 a faulty counterweight caused the chandelier to fall killing one unfortunate soul)- was the newest version.

I’ve always had a particular love for the work of Marc Chagall – so imagine my delight when I looked up and saw his artwork surrounding the chandelier. Wistful and colourful – typical Chagall and totally gorgeous! He painted the ceiling in 1964 – goodness know how he did it. Did he lie on his back as Michelangelo had done in the Sistine Chapel? A labour of love…apparently not everyone shared my view when it was first seen.

The ceiling was/is spectacular.

When people ask me what the highlight of our visit to Paris was – and there many – the answer is without a doubt our visit to the Paris Opera House.

Opportunist at hand

Tasty market fare

Don’t you just love markets! The activity, the variety, the colour, the smells…

The Krakow Market was a real treat and ticked all the above boxes with humour to boot. In fact ‘ticked all the boxes’ really doesn’t do justice to the delights on offer there. The stalls were a myriad of colour – selling wooden toys, clay and enamel figurines, boiled lollies, ginger biscuits covered in candied icing, beautiful Polish crockery, artwork of all kinds, traditional Polish costume, bags, jewellery, scarves and of course food.

While Ket decided on sampling a salted halloumi-type delicacy that had been cooked over an open grill and served with cranberry sauce, I decided to indulge in a rather large grilled bratwurst with rye bread and, even though I wasn’t that partial to it as a child, a small helping of bigos. (Bigos is a sort of peasant hunters concoction which uses cabbage as its base.) They would have given me a much larger helping for my zlote, but I indicated using my best possible hand gestures that I only wanted a little. Seems that there’s no such portion as ‘a little’.

I thought that the real McCoy Polish version just might succeed in converting me where Mum’s had failed. It certainly looked and smelled delicious!

With tomato sauce - you can take the girl out of New Zealand but not New Zealand out of the girl!

I took my seat at a trestle table alongside a local family and duly began my step down memory lane with some trepidation. I soon realised that although I just loved the sausage – I was still not a big fan of bigos. Sorry Dad, but I did try. You always taught us that we couldn’t ever say we didn’t like something without trying it first. The rye bread had a fantastic taste though a little dry in texture – oh no, no butter!!!

I gave the meal my best shot but pushed the bigos around the plate trying to disguise the fact that I didn’t like it. I didn’t want to look like a ‘french poodle’. Spying Ket in the crowd, I waved (and called) to attract her attention thinking that she might like to sample the bigos. She didn’t see me, so I got up and took a few steps toward her.

When I turned back to show her ‘what I’d kept for her’ my place at the table had already been taken – and my plate!

Well, why not … saved …

Quick as a flash - he must've been watching me!

Locked in love

Locks? Longer lasting than bras

In New Zealand we have bras and knickers (not together) dangling from roadside fences and footwear hanging perilously from power lines – on the Cinque Terre walk (a drop-dead-gorgeous coastal hike), between Manarola and Riomaggiore, young couples seal their love by attaching a lock on any bit of fencing over about a 500m stretch. Some portions of the fence are thick with locks, others have plenty of breathing space between each.

Many are labelled with the names of the lovers … the belief goes that attaching your lock to fence will guarantee you enduring love. Your love is sealed.

You have to be organised to do this. You have to go prepared and with intent. Most locks are, I suspect, from locals – others are undoubtedly from young tourists familiar with the belief.

There were thousands of them, some hanging in such dense bundles that you would have needed very strong fingers to negotiate a space for the D ring. And some looked incredibly old – been hanging there for years, maybe even centuries!

I’m waiting for this to catch on in New Zealand. Where could we do it?  It can’t be somewhere that’s too easy to get to…got to make some sort of effort. Somewhere along the Hump Ridge Track could be good – that would  show dedication for sure. And undying love. There could even be a charge for attaching your lock to a rope slung between trees…think money-making venture.

Tourists would love it…

Better start writing a business plan.

Keep 'em dangling!

The perfect traveller’s breakfast

Breakfast in Vernazza - a far cry from Weetbix

Oh – my – god!

The first into each of these simple delicacies was sheer delight – foodie heaven (not that I’m a real foodie mind you, but I do appreciate tastes and textures especially when I haven’t done the cooking!) This was not quite my usual restrained breakfast of kiwifruit and cereal – let me describe …

Firstly, course one, the bruschetta – basil pesto (a specialty of the Cinque Terre region), basil, spinach (I think), heaps of flavoursome tomatoes, soft gooey mozzarella, cracked pepper – all on top of very light and crusty bread. Grilled to perfection as you can see. Totally melt in the mouth.

Just one piece of bruschetta would have been enough – along with my long black.

But, see that modest looking little pastry lurking behind? The one with icing sugar? Looks a bit like an armadillo?

Well – let me tell you … course two, heaven at first crunch.

I would happily race right back to Vernazza just to have another one. The only other detail I can give you is that the filling was lemon ricotta – so fresh, so soft, so sublime, so so so delicious. I have no idea why the pastry has such a gorgeous texture, such a memorable crunch…but take my word for it, it did.

Food for hiking. A tough life but someone's got to do it!

Our hosts (twin brothers) at ‘Il Pirata’ told us this. They hail from Sicily…and pastry is a Sicilian specialty just as pesto is in the Cinque Terre region. If we were to visit Sicily – pastries would be ‘de rigeur’. The brothers and their families, each year, spend six months at ‘Il Pirata’ and six months in Sicily. It obviously works for them.

They are continually surprised by travellers sitting down at their tables asking for bacon and eggs! No, it’s not on the menu…why on earth would you want bacon and eggs when the cafe boasts a cabinet filled with an array of tantalising pastries. He asked me what I would prefer to eat for breakfast – forget diabetes – my decision was a no-brainer.

His words of wisdom:

“When you walk you see the view all around you, when you eat you have the view on your plate.”

Getting down and dirty in Paris

Help, get me out of here!

In all the style, glamour and utter gorgeousness of Paris…we were unfortunate in finding Paris’s downside.

It happened after our breaths had been taken away by the beauty of the Saint Chappelle. We’d had a busy morning sight-seeing and in the 36 degree heat had been mindful of the need to keep hydrated. Well, without putting too fine a point on it…what goes in…

So, the mission to find public conveniences began. We were certain that in this high traffic area (Palais de Justice, Notre Dame Cathedral and Saint Chappelle) we would find some. And we did.

Nothing could have prepared us for the smell that greeted us when we descended the stairs. Disgusting doesn’t get anywhere near an apt description. I’m not going to describe the smell except to say, think of the worst loos you’ve smelled and multiply that by 100.

And if this wasn’t bad enough, it was unclear as to which loos were for the women and which were for the men. (I think I went into the mens – YUKKKK).

Guess what – we had to pay for the privilege of using these loos!!!

Needless to say, we didn’t linger.

Why French women don’t get fat

Subliminal messaging?

There’s been much talk – among us women – regarding the popular book ‘Why French women don’t get fat.’ From my few days spent in Paris recently, here are my observations.

1.  The French are pre-occupied with weight!

Our hotel room was tiny and basic. Barely enough room to swing the proverbial cat, and about 6 inches between the side of the bed and the bathroom. the bathroom was small but perfectly adequate…no frills – except for, you guessed it, bathroom scales!

No other hotel room on our travels (all far more luxurious than this fairly expensive one) boasted bathroom scales. And what self-respecting traveller needs to be reminded of excess baggage. One of the great joys of travelling is found in food, the best souvenirs are eaten…surely denying ourselves could be injurious to the french gastronomic economy.

2.  French women when taking breakfast do so slowly – one croissant and one cafe au lait – can last for hours. They nibble … morsel by morsel. If we ate at their rate, nothing would get done!

3.  Then everywhere they walk in the city French women are observed. All seating outside street side cafes faces the pavement and road. The street is like an ever-changing theatre, where people going about their daily business are the ‘actors’ on stage as they parade past (tottering on the cobblestones) with their well-trained dogs. One must be dressed appropriately for the parade….

She'd just been to the bakery - a croissant for dinner perhaps?

And finally 4.  They are just too busy walking their dogs, answering their texts and doing the family shopping – they forget to eat.

But I do have to agree, the French we saw women – of all ages – were extremely well-groomed and very trim. Of course (miaow miaow) – this did equate to a lot of lines on the older faces!