Category Archives: travel

Walking around a winter wonderland

It snowed in Luxembourg this morning.

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It was a rather lovely, peaceful snowy scene in the park near my apartment this morning so I took a walk around it before going in search of furniture. I wandered over to the lift down to Pfaffenthal but that was closed for some reason. I don’t know why.

This is what you could see from the Ville Haute near the lift anyway so you got the view even if you couldn’t get into the viewing platform.

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The bridge is called the Charlotte or the Red Bridge. I think they like the colour idea because the new bridge in the city centre is called the Blue Bridge. It was built because the main bridge, called the Adolphe Bridge, is in need of serious repair so it had to be closed. Imagine, if you will, closing O’Connell Bridge and building a temporary replacement almost right next to it. That’s what the Luxembourgers appeared to do.

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The glassy thing on the left is the elevator.

Anyway, flickr is not cooperating with me right now so I might add other photographs later.

Places you should consider visiting

Probably, if I were right and being right on and stuff, this would be illustrated with photographs (like I used to do) and drawings (oh wait, that we can manage) but…

Anyway, I was planning to go to Venice on my holidays to be all artistic and drink hot chocolate in this one café I hoped I’d be able to find having not seen it in ten years but I’m sure it’s near the university when events eventuated and I wound up not going to Venice on my holidays but going to a corner of Europe most people don’t usually holiday in, not from Ireland anyway. It’s best known for a few castles, and a lot of pan European administration. I started in Brussels and ended up in Frankfurt and went to Luxembourg on the way.

However, this allowed me to knock an item off my bucket list by visiting Trier and Heidelberg. Heidelberg has a Lamy flagship store which of course should be everyone’s number one reason for going there provided everyone has the taste to like their pens, but it also has one of the all time great castles in Europe. You should go.

Trier is, as far as I know, the northernmost Roman city on the European Mainland (I’m saying this because there’s almost certainly one further north in the UK somewhere, only that less of it remains that remains of Trier. It has quite a few Roman monuments still lying around, such as the Porta Nigra which:

 

I endeavoured to draw into my marker notebook. Later I shall try to put it in my travel notebook as well along with some words.

Trier is a lovely town. It is a university city and in addition to this, it also has a cathedral which is basically an epitome of what I feel cathedrals should look like. Worth visiting. ON the downside, I missed the Roman baths, and Considine’s Basilica although that was careless as I did pass right by it at some point, lost.

To get to Trier, you’ve a couple of options:

  1. fly into Brussels and get the train. This is likely to be your cheapest option courtesy of Ryanair.
  2. fly into Frankfurt Hahn and hire a care. This may be cheaper than (1) but I don’t know as I haven’t priced it.
  3. fly into Luxembourg and get the train. This has limited availability in that unlike Brussels, there are not six flights daily between Aer Lingus and RYanair, but one five or six times a week with Luxair.
  4. Fly into Frankfurt and get the train.

Once you’ve checked out Trier, it’s not that hard to get to Heidelberg. I recommend the castle in Heidelberg and the funicular (it’s only 12E and includes the top and the bottom and all stations in between and entry into the castle. I strongly recommend the castle in Heidelberg. I gather you can walk up (but get the funicular it’s easier).

I like holidays like this. You get to do stuff and no one is trying to ram cheap holiday cocktails down your throat.

Blavet

My mother spent years trying to get me to paint and I think she had oil paints in mind. When push came to shove, I went for water colours instead and now I have discovered that actually, art supplies are a much greater problem in my life than camera gear ever was.

Anyway. It’s pouring in Dublin today and I am feeling somewhat lethargic, so I am whiling away the time by occasionally doing some tidying and cleaning, and by reading a new drawing book (which is tempting me to buy even more drawing supplies) and doing some painting and drawing. I do not know how many sketchbooks I have on the go at the moment but I think 6 is not an over estimate.

I usually have no difficulty in identifying things I want to draw or paint when I am driving,. When confronted with a sketchbook and some of my art gear, it’s a different matter. The fear takes me.

For some reason, because I was traveling in my mind, I suppose, I decided to draw (let’s draw first anyway and see how I get on) and possibly paint one of those soul food places. Everyone has them. Mine include the point in Doolin (which was really gorgeous the last time I was down there), the Pointe du Raz at a pointy bit of Brittany and the boat graveyard on the Blavet river outside Lorient. I’d love to give you directions but I absolutely get lost every time I go looking for it. And I can’t remember the last time I was there but I have a nasty feeling it is at least five years.

Lorient is a fine big city so it comes as a surprise that you can be really near it – up the river from it more or less – and be completely immune to the feeling that you are anywhere much near civilisation. The Blavet is very wide at that point, so that probably explains why it became a place to come and scuttle boats. Most of the boats there are wooden and in varying states of decay. For me there is one iconic boat which, at high tide just has its prow sticking up out of the water. This part of the Blavet is also tidal.

Most of the time I’ve been there, I’ve been either on my own, or there has been at most 1 or 2 other persons there. I brought my mother once. There is reasonable amount of parking, and that is probably less to support the beauty spot that somehow, illogically, a dumping ground for boats who have outlived their usefulness (most of the boats if not all were working boats and the tuna fishing fleet was dumped there at the start of the 20th century). Really it should look like a scrapyard, and, somehow it doesn’t. I suspect the reason for that is that the overwhelming majority of the boats are not made from modern ship building materials like metal or fibre glass. There are a few, and yet they seem curiously out of place. The river side hosts an open air theatre and I suspect that is why there is sufficient parking there. It’s in a beautiful location.

I don’t know that we really have places like that, and where boats have been abandoned in harbours, they have often been cleaned up or taken away and broken up.

The boat I elected to draw was the sticky up prow which has a comparatively modern look about it in terms of having a reg number. But like all the others, it’s made of wood for the most part, with some metal that is gradually rusting away. Ironically, when I sketched it, I got the prow wrong (I call these learning experiences) but otherwise…I’m happy with it.

 

Somehow, the fact that it’s still raining in Dublin seems hardly relevant.

Other things I learned today – titanium white in the Sennelier half pan set is not fun to work with. I must see what WN has to offer on that front. I need something that doesn’t turn other colours into what looks like pottery clay.

Places in my time line

Most days, I listen to the radio on the way to work in the car, like most people. I don’t much like driving in Dublin but for all that, it’s ten thousand times better than getting the bus was. Out of ecological collective responsibility grounds I tried that for 4 months. It was not good.

But I have between 30 and 60 minutes in the car most mornings, depending on what time I leave home, and I listen to the radio because I can’t read, and I can’t do study, and I can’t do other things I might do with an hour free. For one thing, there are cyclists and for another there are Audi drivers. I maximise the use I get out of that time by listening to foreign language radio. I start off with NDR from Germany, and usually, around half way through the journey, or when the sports news comes on, I switch to France Info. Sometimes, on the way home I listen to RTBF. RTBF is the Belgian/French language equivalent of RTE and I listen to it because I used to live in Brussels. I don’t often care too much about the content of the news, but I value the fact that it forces me to keep a level of foreign language comprehension skills active. Switching between them is good for me too.

On Monday evening this week, I was listening to RTBF and for various reasons, in a rush, RTBF was what remained on the radio at twenty past seven on Tuesday morning. I never listen to it in the morning – my default is always NDR for the morning – so it was pure chance that I tuned in just as reports were starting to break about the explosions at the airport in Brussels. I can remember my blood running cold…I can remember the presenters frantically trying telling people not to go to the airport, that all access was closed, frantically trying to find out what had happened. They had no reporters on the ground at the airport and this was less than 30 minutes, I guess, after the first bomb had gone off. They had so little information at that point in time that they weren’t sure where in the airport the two bombs had gone off. Initially, there was a report that one might have gone off on the tarmac. I worked at an airport for more than 10 years of my life. How on earth, I wondered, in shock, could an explosion happen on the tarmac?

I drove to work not hearing the words “gas explosion” or “accident” but “people are being very careful not to identify the cause of these explosions”. I also learned that both explosions appeared to take place in the check in hall in the terminal building.

By the time I got to work, scant reports about Maalbeek were starting to come out and on that, it seemed clear that the odds of finding a benign – for want of a suitable term – cause of the incident at the airport – were growing much, much longer. Smoke pouring out of underground stations is not generally a good thing.

I’ve been over and back to Brussels a lot in the last 24 months. The last couple of times I had cause to stay overnight there, it’s been at the Thon Hotel in the EU quarter. It’s about 20 metres from Maalbeek. On Tuesday, its lobby became an A&E incident room for the casualties from the explosion below.  I lived 2 metro stops along the same line so pretty much everywhere I went by metro in Brussels when I was living there took me through Maalbeek. TBH, this felt awfully close to a person I used to be.

One of the running themes in the Vimes collection of Discworld books by Terry Pratchett talks about how, in staying alive in the face of an attractive bounty on his head for the Assassin’s Guild, he needs to be lucky every single day. The would be assassin only has to be lucky once. That’s the balance of luck between us, the public, and anyone who wants to cause chaos. And no matter how much work we do to minimise risk in the face of attacks like this, it’s still the case: terrorist only has to be lucky once, we have to be lucky all the time. No matter how much we balance the odds in our favour, they have to be lucky once.

I rail against calling them terrorists, as it happens. That gives them the status they are looking for. They are mass murdering criminals, and it is as criminals we should be treating them, not some special snowflakes.

Brussels is an extraordinary city. I loved it for the fact that pretty much anything I wanted to do, I could. I came home for family reasons in the end, but there are a lot of days – particularly sitting in the car watching yet another Audi A6 driver trying to whip off the front of my car – where I wish Dublin was more like Brussels. In the way of public transport, for example, in the way of shopping. It has a lot of the pluses of living somewhere like Paris without too many of the minuses, like scale. There are days I truly miss the smell of fresh bread from the bakery that was near my apartment.  I love that it has giant comicbook murals. I love some of its street art. I love the architecture of the buildings. And I love the shops.

I am immensely pissed off that anyone would bomb it. And I am heartbroken that the families of more than 30 people are coming to terms with a life less ordinary and that for 300 more people and their families, yesterday was a lot different to how all the tomorrows will be.

For all my friends in Belgium #brussels #bruxelles #brussel #lifeboat #friendship #birdsofaclef

A photo posted by Me (@wnbpaints) on

Bucket lists and dreams

IMG_4659A while ago, I realised that my life was going by and it was about time I started doing things rather than thinking about doing them. As a result, I spent the last week in Switzerland, primarily doing the Glacier Express train trip.

There were mountains. High mountains with big lots of trees and snow on them. It was wonderful.

There was also the Caran d’Ache shops in Geneva and Zurich. I have loved and adored Caran d’Ache writing instruments since I was 15 years old. The only place that really sells them in Dublin is the Pen Corner, and while they have accommodated me with special orders once in a while, they don’t do the art side of things. Kennedy have some of the pencils, but nowhere near to all of the pencils.

As a result, the Caran d’Ache shop in Geneva was the ultimate shop in the world for someone like me. Lots of limited edition fine writing implements, the sort with near annual income salary level pricing (there must be a lot of very, very wealthy people in Geneva). I bought two Paul Smith 849s which I wanted and which have the benefit of not being expensive, but not being cheap plastic either.

I like the 849 pens – I have about half a dozen at this stage and they are a nice weight in my hand. They are, perhaps, not as nice as the Ecridors themselves (130E if you’re buying – I was not on this occasion although I have a shopping list of 3 that I want – it never ends). And of course, there were the pencils.

All those Museum Aquarelles which I can’t get in Ireland, and the Luminance pencils, which I can’t get in Ireland. I had a dozen Aquarelles, and I picked up another half dozen colours which I like a lot, plus I picked up two or three Luminance pencils just to try them.

Plus there were a few Swiss Wood pencils, and series five of the woods of the world collections. I could have spent a lot of money in the Caran d’Ache shop just on art pencils. The truth is I was somewhat limited by the whole lugging thing – my holiday consisted of five days of travelling basically – so I was able to resist full boxes of their neocolor IIs and other water solubles.

I did buy a couple of brushes because they were the equivalent of 2 euro less expensive than they are here and brushes are always handy. In theory, I’m not really needing to buy pencils as I binge bought a bunch of Faber Castell Sparkles not so long ago (they tended to be very hard to get here for a while although since I stocked up, both Easons and the Art and Hobby Store have got in copious supplies).

But I found it very hard to say no to the Caran d’Ache Swiss wood basic HBs. Basic isn’t a great word – they are probably twice the price of the sparkles and you can’t get them here. I have five of them which should keep me going for a while. They have a most beautiful smell of wood.

Outside the shopping in Caran d’Ache’s shops, I spent time in Zermatt, Saint Moritz, Lugano, and especially, I spent time in Swiss trains. The Glacier Express is a 9 hour train journey which basically goes from Zermatt to Saint Moritz or vice versa. I was hoping to see the Matterhorn: IMG_20151019_185311

But it was covered in clouds/fog/hidingtypeweather for the day I was in Zermatt. This was regrettable.

The journey across Switzerland was amazing – we don’t do scenery like it and we certainly don’t do weather like it. The Glacier Express is certainly worth doing in the winter, and they will lay on lunch for you for a consideration – it’s around thirty francs and it is definitely worth doing it.

Saint Moritz was where I bought some non-Caran d’Ache writing tools, and had a walk around. It’s a lovely town, for what I saw of it, although it could be a very expensive place to be shopping given that the shops tend to the high income level brands rather than your average high street store.

From there, I took the scenic train back down to Chur, which I was hoping would be brighter than it had been the evening before but the fog never lifted. It was very atmospheric, but not very conducive to photographs.

I then took the long way to Lugano, via Zurich, which is a lovely train journey even in one of the high speed Intercity Express trains which run all the way to Hamburg.

Zurich is a lovely town. It took has a Caran d’Ache shop. The buildings are beautiful and the train station is especially beautiful as train stations go. It’s also really well located for shopping.

Lugano is beautifully situated on hills around a lake. Again, I wasn’t there for long as I was going onto Como and Lake Como which is a gorgeous, gorgeous town in Northern Italy. From there, I finished up in Milan.

In short, I did a lot of travelling on trains in the week and saw an awful lot of Switzerland plus a bit of Italy.

 

Main Railway Station, Helsinki

It’s three years since I was last in Finland – I’d say it was far too long but there was a 14 year gap prior to that.

Anyway, for various art related reasons I wanted a picture of an icebreaker and I knew there had been one near the hotel where I stayed the last time and given I was still dragging a large camera around then, I would have been surprised if I didn’t take a picture of it. So I rooted out the relevant hard drive to find the pictures from Helsinki, and while I was scrolling through them, I found this.

 

IMG_1080Basically, this is the railway station in Helsinki. It’s a rather austere looking building – a lot of discussions online suggest it’s a bit Soviet Union. The day I got the train to Tampere, there was, however, a train to Saint Petersburg on one of the quays. Finland does share a border with Russia. I’ve always remembered the other picture I took of the train station, or made anyway as the processing was rather unique IMG_1083

So I’d forgotten about this. Whether it is the passage of time, or the mood I find myself in now, I suddenly find I love the black and white picture now, and particularly, in full screen version as my desktop image. Helsinki is a lovely city. I really do want to go back.

For what it’s worth, I did take a picture of the icebreaker too. Here it is.

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Gorges du Verdon

Someone posted a link to my FaceBook newsfeed today of an Irish Times amateur travel writing competition. I didn’t read the instructions too carefully, but figured “I can do that”, and went off and wrote a six hundred word piece – this is not a lot of space by the way – about a trip which I felt was likely to be appropriate to enter, and then I read the conditions in more detail. There was a fairly significant rights grab and while I might consider it if I won, I felt it was unfair to take ownership of all entries, even those which the Irish Times might not see fit to publish. The only problem is I’d already written the piece and while I thought about entering it, you know for the power and the glory, there were some comments about any photographs submitted as well. This didn’t really make me very happy. I mean, technically speaking, the text around the rights meant that even if I didn’t win, I couldn’t actually publish the piece anywhere else myself.

So I decided not to enter, bearing in mind I have several blogs of which this handy one is not listed by Google, or wasn’t the last time I checked. Plus, I did actually have some photographs which I had scanned some years ago as they were shot on film. Here then is a 600 word piece about travelling in Provence, written for the Irish Times, but not submitted but since the 600 word limit no longer applies I’m also editing it a bit.

Driving the Gorges du Verdon in France

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Pont de l’Artuby

The girl at the car hire place at Nice Airport was a bit lost when I said I didn’t want the upgrade. She wasn’t used to this. Usually people were dying for the free upgrade, for the getting something for nothing lark. She categorically could not give me a small little Peugeot and now I found myself with an allegedly small Mercedes, on a hill, attempting hill start number four, because the wretched thing had cut out on me in a rather inopportune place. Several times.

The road ahead was at least a 45 degree angle and climbing, the road behind me disappeared downwards around a corner in a usefully invisible manner, and I, I now knew what a cold sweat really felt like. Behind me, only trees sloping a long way down. The car had already made several attempts to roll backwards in that direction too. I was a less than relaxed little camper. The hill start in my driving test was nothing like so stressful on a slip road outside Mallow. I had visions of winding up in the wreckage of a silver Mercedes A-Class tumbling down the side of a friendly Alp. As a way to go, it wasn’t what I would have wanted, per se.

Angles is a tiny village in the south of France. It very much is a handy place to base yourself if you want to visit the Gorges du Verdon, a site which is very often described as Europe’s Grand Canyon, somewhat unfairly I feel. They may both be fairly noticeable gashes in the rock we live on, but they are truly different from one another in terms of colour and feeling.

One of the things which has haunted me for years is the glittering turquoise water of the lakes in the region. I saw a picture once as a child and it took me fifteen years to find out that it was the Lac de Sainte Croix, easily accessible by car from Nice Airport.

For all that ease of accessibility, Angles, however, is truly isolated. I imagine it would be a hard place to live in the winter sometimes.

I am staying with very nice people who loan me a map and show me the small, narrow roads with the spectacular views to drive around the Gorges du Verdon. The small, narrow roads, incidentally, which are not on the map of the south of France which I may have bought in a leading Irish bookseller in the days before Google Maps and Garmins gave us directions.

The roads around the gorges themselves can be challenging and damaged but the department of Alpes de Haute Provence has provided viewing platforms all over the place. Stopping to look is never anything other than awe-inspiring, even if the roads to get to them can be a bit terror-inspiring.

On the day I drove them, some brave and foolhardy soul took a Ferrari up there. And people climb up the cliffs, casting occasional looks over their shoulders to the view. I would love to be the kind of person who could do it, but deep down, I know I might never have the nerve.

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The River Verdon is a long way down, a mere flicker of turquoise in the distance.

The high point – in more ways than one – of the trip is the Pointe Sublime, a stunning area where the cliffs on either side of the river seem to reach across and try to kiss. It is an extraordinary view, and the rocks are an unusual creamy colour for a tourist from Ireland where the mountains are generally grey, regardless of the rain or not.
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To come home I have to navigate the narrow road back in Angles. It never occurs to me that a car can cut out so often, especially when you absolutely, totally and utterly need it not to cut out but reader, I made it on attempt number 5.

Neolithic monuments in Ireland

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Newgrange is one of the highest profile historic sites which we have in the country and when most people talk about going to Newgrange, they mean they want to see this one.

When I go to Newgrange, I always go to Knowth as well. Yes, you can actually go into the passage in Newgrange, and yes, it’s extremely well done but it’s always very busy.

Knowth is generally much quieter and, on occasion, no matter how busy Newgrange might be, you might have the site at Knowth more or less to yourself. There’s a lot to be said for this.

Knowth is bigger than Newgrange, but it does not look anywhere near as perfect. It hasn’t been restored (or reconstructed) in the same way as Newgrange was, and some different decisions have been made about the site. A key one is the question of the quartz stone. At Newgrange, this was built up as a wall. At Knowth, the view was taken that it was probably a terrace around the entrances. I’ve mixed feelings. Certainly Newgrange looks more complete but….

That aside, the reason I would still favour Knowth over Newgrange is the art. Knowth has significantly more external art than Newgrange and it is stunning.

Yes, the entry stone for Newgrange is iconic:

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but then, there’s this:

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and this:

20150415_160718I find what’s around the base of Knowth simply to be on a scale which is borderline unimaginable at Newgrange.

I didn’t have time to go to Dowth yet and it’s not included amongst the options you can get to from Bru na Boinne. However, if you are interested in neolithic art in Ireland in that area, I would strongly recommend Knowth as a seriously underrated site. It is wonderful. You can actually look down the passageway although access down it is not permitted to the public and you can see some public access work done on the eastern end. You can also walk to the top of it and the view from it is quite impressive.

I find the whole idea of pre-history in Ireland fascinating. If you go to the National Museum on Kildare Street, you’ll find examples of 3 and 4 thousand year old jewellery which contains carvings not dissimilar to some of the carvings on these stones and it’s extraordinarily beautiful. I really do wonder about the societies that were able to access the gold, shape it, carve it. It seems to me those societies, however on a smaller scale than is currently on the case, must have been extremely sophisticated, particularly with respect to their ability to use tools to achieve tasks which would probably challenge us today.

 

 

 

Deutsches Museum

On an island in the middle of the River Isar in Munich is one of the greatest museums in the world. I can say that advisedly. The Deutsches Museum on Museum Island is overwhelming.

It is one of the earliest museums of science and technology in the world, and, I am told, if you were to walk every exhibit, you would walk more than 17km.

In truth, what happens is you walk into the first section, which is full of boats and model boats, you get knocked backwards, and never really recover. They have a terrific aviation section. They have an amazing aeronautical section. They have a mindblowing collection of clocks and weights and balances. They have every sort of textile weaving system. Every sort of printing press that you can imagine. Every sort of ceramic you can imagine. A terrific model railway. A terrific collection of keyboard instruments.

They have holograms.

Most importantly, they have 2 Enigma and one Lorenz cipher machine, plus a bunch of other cipher machines. And an IBM 360 with a punch card reader. Every sort of adding machine and calculus machine or analogue calculator that you can imagine.

The entry fee is eight euro fifty. It is worth every cent and you will come out a complete wreck having not seen everything.