Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Monday 31 August 2015

August Bank Holiday

So much for this morning's leisurely walk to the DIY shop:

Friday 28 August 2015

Obituary of the year

My newspaper has marked the passing of an evidently fertile musical legend:

"He is survived by four wives and 42 children, many of them percussionists."

Tuesday 25 August 2015

The downside of home exchanges


The laundry you hadn't time to do before you left, plus the laundry you didn't feel like doing in someone else's machine, plus the linens your visitors used in your place.

And that's just for me. Imagine if it were for a family. Heigh-ho.

Sunday 23 August 2015

Paris again

Six hours on a train may sound like a throwback to the days before cheap flights, but on a TGV through southern and central France six hours pass quickly enough. Even if you haven't brought enough to keep you occupied in the way of books and electronic entertainment, there's plenty of scenery to look at, and it's a very comfortable ride: to my mind, far more so than two hours in a plane. You can get up and walk along to the cafeteria car (not exactly a gourmet experience, but still a change of scene); and one advantage most people won't (I hope) have to experience is that if something you've eaten or a touch too much sun and heat have left you, as they did me, in a state of some intestinal uproar, then the double-decker TGVs have two loos per coach and lots of coaches. These things count.....

Planes turned out to be slightly on the agenda in Paris, though. I've been through the strikingly Jules Verne-ish Arts et Métiers metro station often enough, but I have no recollection of visiting the museum for which it's named. Although, literally, it means "Arts and Crafts" it's in fact a historical survey of scientific and industrial innovation in France - hence the place of honour for Blériot's cross-channel monoplane, not to mention an earlier bat-inspired, steam-powered plane that, well, didn't manage to cross the Channel.

The Vélosolex, on the left
Plenty of other forms of transport on display, including an array of bikes from different periods, among them a Vélosolex, with a little engine mounted on the front wheel. I remember riding around on one very nearly 50 years ago. Mind you, it was all fields then.

But just to show it wasn't just a relatively old-fashioned set of display cases and ancient relics, they had an interesting temporary exhibition about the impact of technical innovations on the process of design - and what does a designer do in the age of open source software and 3-D printers? All sorts of interesting new products and ideas on display, and more re-imagined bikes - some more practical than others:

Saturday 22 August 2015

Barcelona by the sea

For all the sights and attractions in the city centre of Barcelona (one of the first things I saw was a gleaming display, all black glass and steel, enticing the tourist in to the Jamon Experience - I passed), you can't escape the sea. As well as a huge trading port and several marinas, and what with the 1992 Olympics and such-like, it has miles and miles of beaches within a few minutes walk of the centre, or at least, bus and metro stops, which become packed with people as the working day ends.

So with so much of the city's prosperity depending on the different uses of the sea over the centuries,  it's no surprise that one of its biggest old churches is Santa Maria del Mar. It's dominated by soaring gothic columns, relatively austere with the usual Spanish baroquery confined to side chapels, and just a few painted ceiling bosses, some striking stained glass and the (relatively discreetly placed) votive candles to add a bit of colour.

And it also has a maritime museum. There are some video animations to tell you the stories of various developments in sea transport, illustrating the models and artefacts on display, and a fair range of different types of boat, but apart from the replica of the admiral's galley from the Battle of Lepanto, and this modern replica of a real nineteenth-century attempt at a submarine (apparently it did work), it's a little underwhelming.

Saturday 15 August 2015

Here's the saw-tooth crest that gives Montserrat its name. Originally it must have seemed a remote and difficult place to access, high up on a steep mountain. But it seems to have been venerated since pre-Christian times, and - this being Catholic Catalonia - acquired its statue of the Madonna very early (and a claim to be yet another home for the Holy Grail, it seems), so it has a long history of visits from the devout, which explains the impressive basilica beside the monastery.

Nowadays roads, rack railway and cable car bring up thousands of tourists to admire the views and gawp at the basilica, complete with the associated cafeterias, gift shops and so on.

But it doesn't actually take much exploring to find a path round the other side of the mountain, well away from the crush and the car-parks.

This one is lined with various signs and memorials from the many different parishes each with their own prayers to Mary.

Other paths also lead away to various points of interest, and include memorials to different local saints and heroes.  One such was the Catalan cellist Casals - and if you enlarge the photo and squint, you might just see the tiny image of some people climbing the peak above (sooner them than me).

Thursday 13 August 2015

Palau de la Musica

It's a useful reminder that anything old-fashioned was once the latest thing - when you're told that in Barcelona "Modernisme" doesn't mean the 20th century enjoyment of angles, discords and machinery, but rather what we know as 19th century Art Nouveau, all swirls and curves, flowers, greenery and all things natural.

In Barcelona, Gaudi is the most evident name, but his contemporary Lluis Domenech i Montaner wasn't to be outdone, as can be seen in the exuberance of his Palau de la Musica. Bach glowers down from amid florid tiling on the balconies, a stained class sunburst ceiling and large side windows flood the concert hall with daylight, the stage is framed by busts of a local composer and inspirer of choral societies (complete with burgeoning sculpted forest) on the one side, and on the other, what is claimed to be Beethoven (but looks to me like Wagner, at that time the latest thing), and a troop of Valkyries plunging down from the ceiling.

And if that weren't enough the performers on stage are watched by the figures of  sundry muses emerging from the ceramic sound-reflecting wall.

But all this nature worship was achieved by some up-to-the-minute industrial technicalities. The stairs and balconies are lined with small metal columns enclosed in glass: it's the architect's little hint as to how the floors and balconies are held up, on slender metal shafts hidden by all that decoration, thus freeing the walls to hold as much window as possible.

But why, given all that airiness and light, were the ticket clerks confined to a hobbit-hole?

Tuesday 11 August 2015

The area where I'm staying, though bordering on a classic wide continental avenue, consists of narrow streets of five or six storeys straggling up towards Montjuic. This means that one side or the other is in full shade for most of the day, but just to make sure, not only do residents leave a screen hanging over the balcony, but the street trees are pruned and pollarded into skinny trunks straining for the sky and leaning away from the buildings, with only the tops left to grow into a natural shady arch.

It's not as though this is the first time I've been in Barcelona, or in this sort of street, but it's one of those things that come as new every time. I shouldn't be surprised at Mediterranean night culture, either, especially in the 30+° heat and humidity; but it is a bit of a shock to see toddlers running around at nearly midnight, and to hear occasional bursts of noisy conversation from balconies and out in the street, far into the night. Last night I was awoken by some sort of machinery running outside. On it droned, like a car permanently stalling and with the repeated hissing of vacuum brakes: it was just the refuse lorry moving slowly up the street as the crew emptied the recycling bins.

At 3.45 a.m.

On the other hand, there is always something to see when so much life is lived on full view, as it were. Huddled under a café parasol during a very brief shower, I was entertained by the sight of a woman struggling to keep plastic booties on her tiny dog, who was clearly humouring her by even tolerating the things, but couldn't see the point of all the fuss when one or another came off (as they all did in the first few steps).

And down on the port, among the pompous public buildings, there are exotic flowers and giant bubbles to see:

Monday 10 August 2015

Trains and things

You need this display to realise how fast a TGV can go, when the views are of broad horizons and rolling plains.

When the option of a home exchange to Barcelona came up, I thought it worth trying to go by train. It's a long trip - six hours from Paris to Barcelona (one forgets just how large France is), and the logistics of exchanging keys and so on made an overnight break in Paris inevitable (oh, the hardship) as well as a more relaxed way to do it.

Until, that is, the Eurostar terminal announced a delay  because of a trespasser on the line in France. This must have been the day one of the desperate wouldbe migrants in Calais managed to walk into the tunnel (presumably the service tunnel) and well on the way to England; but in the event, although the train slowed down for the last mile or so in the tunnel, it arrived more or less on time in Paris. All that could be seen from the train at Calais was some military vehicles parked near the freight terminal area. Once again, cause to remember just how cocooned from the world's tribulations I've been fortunate to be.

Even more the case on the TGV, where the air-conditioning kept the blood-heat outside temperatures at a much more comfortable level. And after all that, on the Barcelona metro, they are at pains to reassure you that the next train will not be some gimcrack imitation: