A Weekend in Venice

This year’s winter escape was to Venice… where the cold was even more intense than Paris, but the sun shone all weekend, drowning the city in strong, diffuse light.

It was my first visit to city. One of the most striking qualities of the city is indeed its light… where the sky and lagoon meld into one, as if the city is riding on clouds, rather than sitting on the ocean.  In the view across the lagoon from the boatyard at Giudecca, the poles marking the shipping lanes slip quietly into the invisible horizon.

After the sun sank beneath the lagoon, we walked back across Venice, which had assumed the guise of some Expressionist horror film.  Emptied of tourists, small hidden squares awaited macabre intrigue involving Shylock or Donald Sutherland, and the dock of La Fenice theatre stood ready to receive phantom guests from the other side.

Somebody once wrote that Venice was the most beautiful city built by man.  Everybody should visit once, if they have the chance… by travelling in January, we missed the oppressive crowds of Carnavale and Summer, but there were still plenty of visitors, willing to part with their euros for a trip through the morning mist of the Grand Canal.

Wishing to save our money for food (and Venice provided some of the best seafood we’ve ever tasted), we contented ourselves with a short crossing by traghetto... the bare-bones gondolas that ferry passengers across the Grand Canal, charging just 50 cents a trip.

I cannot imagine that I will not be back.  For this first reconnaissance mission, we stuck to exploring the city, and travelling by vaporetto between the city’s islands. This was feast enough for us.  Next time, we might start digging into the art museums, or the churches, or the markets.

In Venice the light reached everywhere. It stabbed the heart of Palladio’s church of San Giorgio Maggiore, and glowed deep and green at night on the basin opposite St Mark’s Square.  When Thomas Mann’s composer Gustave von Aschenbach went searching for ideal beauty, it is no wonder that he found it in Venice.

Yes, we will be back.

3 Weeks in New Zealand

On Saturday an Air France 777 dropped me back into the greyness of a Paris January, after three weeks back in my island home.

Despite a very wet December, the consensus was that pohutukawa flowers this year were particularly spectacular.

However, the Hawke’s Bay region provided us with 6 days of perfect sunshine, and some wonderful scenery. It was my first visit to the east coast of the North Island.

At Cape Kidnappers, the gannet colony was noisy, smelly, and full of…  gannets.


The trip along State Highway 2 through the Waioeka Gorge was like driving back to before the arrival of humans.

In towns like Opotiki, the local colour reminds you that we are a Pacific nation…

It is a privilege to belong to the nation that invented the paua wonton!

Grazing in Switzerland

Summer holidays this year were spent in the Swiss Jura, just across the border from France.

We drove from Paris to Switzerland through some hidden corners of eastern France – like Bar-sur-Aube,

We camped by the Lac de Joux, at 1000 metres above sea level,

Where Camping Cat ruled the roost, and visited us around the campfire,

and visited the once Top Secret Fort de Pré-Giroud, built to defend Switzerland from Nazi invasion in WW2,

before climbing to the high meadows for view of Lake Geneva and the Alps…

Happy Summer, everyone!

Of Châteaux and Chavignol

We managed to escape Paris for a weekend in the Sancerrois – a miniature region of France between Bourges and the Loire valley. The place is famous for its white wines (sauvignon blanc for the most part) and the goat’s cheese made in the village of Chavignol: a product so highly regarded that it has its own appellation contrôlée.

We hunted the famous goats and took pictures of them.

We tasted wine from the Côtes des Monts Damnés – Sancerre’s most prized terroir…

We stayed here, at the Château de Beaujeu… built in 1560, and now accepting guests for Bed and Breakfast.

The château’s farm featured the largest pigeonnier (pigeon house) in the département… but no pigeons were in residence. Just one old owl.

Overall, the region around Sancerre turned out to be one of the loveliest parts of France I’ve seen so far!

Energy State: 4 Days in Saudi

Last December, I spent a few days in the Gulf – it was, as I mentioned at the time, a most intriguing experience.  Last week, I had the opportunity (and the visa) to go further down the rabbit hole: this time to Riyadh, the extraordinary capital of Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Riyadh is extraordinary, in the sense that in ordinary circumstances, the city should simply not exist. In Riyadh, 7 million people – the population of one and a half Scotlands – live at 600m above sea level, in the middle of one of the hottest deserts on the planet, with neither a river, port or a strategic geographic setting to recommend it. One can barely imagine the energy required to bring water, food, fuel and power to the place. And yet the city still grows, and the traffic gets worse, year after year.

For visitors (who are either businessmen or expatriate workers, the Kingdom does not welcome tourists), there is virtually nothing to do.  Saudi Arabia offers neither bars nor cinemas. Alcohol is contraband, and the outside temperature in summer (40-50 degrees) makes sport simply impossible. If my experience is typical, visitors spend their days shuttling between air-conditioned hotels and offices, in air-conditioned taxis, climb to the top of the Kingdom Tower to count the mosques, and then jump on the next plane home.

Even the shopping malls are strictly regulated, to prevent single men and women mixing. There are separate floors for women’s shops, and “family nights” are reserved for wives, husbands and their families: single people are turned away at the door. At prayer time, we saw shopkeepers closing their shutters, and Mutaween cars cruising the streets with loudhailers, apparently berating the backsliders and infidels for not attending prayers.

My hotel thoughtfully provided a prayer mat, in a bedside drawer, along with a sticker pointing the direction to “Holy Makkah”. In the privacy of your hotel room, there are thankfully no Mutaween: the instructions to face Makkah can be heeded or not, as one wishes.

After four days in the Kingdom,  although I had been fascinated by the experience and deeply appreciated the generous welcome given by our Saudi hosts, I was very happy to depart. It is a privilege to live in a place where there are trees, public transport, and where the media consisted of more than just koranic readings, propaganda and football. Allah may not have blessed our western countries with almost endless oil wealth, but in our own way, we are very blessed indeed.

Paris est à nous! (non, c’est à nous!)

Returning from a rather pleasant informal brunch yesterday, in the 19th arrondissement, a companion and I were entering the métro on rue de Belleville, heading towards Chatelet. I made the quite unconscious remark that we were “going back into Paris“. Which is a ridiculous statement, because we had never left Paris.

This is one of the paradoxes of a city like Paris: when you live near the centre, a journey of 20 minutes to the 19th arrondissment can feel like you’re heading into the countryside. Every part of town, despite being readily accessible by métro, feels distinct and somehow independent from every other district. Living and working here means that you might traverse several of these parallel universes every day.

As I’ve noted before on this blog, Paris is geographically a very small city,  you can walk the length and breadth of the city in around 4 hours. But unless you’re a taxi driver, most Paris residents have never visited the whole of their city.

As a relatively new arrival, I probably know less about Paris than most. But after 18 months, my Paris consists of a number distinct brightly-lit zones centred on metro stations and friends’ apartments,  some fuzzy grey bits in between, and some completely dark areas, which remain utterly unexplored and unknowable.

As most guidebooks will tell you, Paris revolves around neighbourhoods –  quartiers – of which there are an infinite number, because everyone will have a different sense of their own little neighbourhood.  My amateur definition of a quartier is a part of Paris within which you know where all the boulangeries are located: just in case your favourite one is closed, another has run out of baguettes tradition, and your third choice has a queue 20 metres long outside the door.

By this definition,  my own quartier stretches along the Left Bank from the Musée d’Orsay in the west to the far end of rue de Buci in the east, and as far south as Boulevard St Germain. South of Boulevard St Germain is also familiar territory, but I wouldn’t know where to buy bread: so it’s not my quartier.

Similarly, there are other parts of Paris I’ve come to know quite well: the eastern section of the 10th arrondissement, from Place de la République to the Canal St Martin; the streets of the Marais around métro St Paul and Place des Vosges;  rue Clerc in the western part of the 7th;  and a few avenues north of Etoile, heading towards Parc Monceau.  In these parts of town, I know where to find shops and certain cafés.

Additionally, I can also get myself to Fnac Montparnasse to buy bandes dessinées and find my way to Leroy-Merlin at Beaubourg to buy screwdrivers, lightbulbs and glue. But this hardly counts as an encyclopaedic knowledge of the city.

Place de Clichy and most of the 17th arrondissement, the métro 3bis, the towers of les Olympiades in the 13th… all these parts of Paris – only 20 minutes from my front door – remain as mysterious to me as Moscow or Seoul.

This sense of compartmentalisation is reflected in the way the city is administered – surely, only the French could take a small city of 2 million people, and divide it among 20 separate mayors . One mayor for each arrondissement.  Of course there is a SuperMayor of all of Paris, (our friend Plastic Bertrand), but I wonder whether the arrondissement system – created in the rationalist afterglow of revolution in 1795 – remains truly effective today.

Certainly the arrondissements emphasise the sense of separation between different parts of the city, each with its own “typical” resident profile. The 7th, (where I happen to live), is derided as being bourgeois, expensive, full of government ministries and overall, rather boring.  If you have Chinese or Vietnamese ancestry, the stereotype dictates that you must live in the 13th. The 11th is the place to be if you’re a young bobo media entrepreneur. For African groceries, head to the 10th around Gare du Nord and the parts of the 18th around Tati. And the 4th is where you hang out if you’re, well,  gay or Jewish.

Somehow all of these little districts fuse together – with varying degrees of success – to create a conglomerate whole which is a city called “Paris”. Figuring out how it all works (or doesn’t) is one of my constant fascinations.

I feel a little sorry for the tourists who jet in for a week of plastic Eiffel Towers, photos on the parvis du Notre Dame, and takeaway portraits sketched by the artists on Place du Tertre. I’m sure they all have a wonderful time, and tick all their boxes, but they haven’t really seen much. If anything, the problem about Paris is that there’s too much to see, and nobody can agree on what it is that you’re supposed to see, or why it looks that particular way.

Please excuse me, I’ve got to leave now. It’s Sunday, and I’m going to visit Paris  for the afternoon.

A Rainy Day in Caen

If posts have been few and far between, it’s because work has been very busy… I did however manage to spend some time in Normandy with my sister and her boyfriend a couple of weekends back. While they explored the D-Day beaches, I caught a train from Bayeux into Caen, to chase down a church that was sketched by an ancestor of mine in the 19th Century.

John Sell Cotman (who, I am told, is my great-great-great-uncle, or something like that), undertook three tours of Normandy from 1817 to 1820, sketching many of the notable ancient buildings of the region. It was quite a significant journey for a provincial English artist in the 19th Century – he travelled by ship from the south coast of England, and made his tour of Normandy by postal coach. The results of his tours were published in a book of engravings in 1822.

Chateau de Lillebonne (Seine-Maritime) by J.S. Cotman

I have one of the engravings, and it turns out my engraving is a depiction of the church of St Etienne de Caen, which is the abbey church founded by William the Conqueror in the 11th Century, and it also houses his tomb. During the Battle of Normandy, when Caen was almost completely flattened during weeks of bitter fighting between German and British forces in July 1944, many of the townspeople sheltered in the church for days at a time, and the building survived the battle largely unscathed.

On my way back to the train station, I bumped into the local Caennais, taking to the street to protest the Sarkozy government’s retirement reform plan. It was a Saturday march, so there were many families marching, alongside the usual union members. Despite the rain, the protestors seemed determined to send a message to Paris that they value their acquis sociaux


Even under heavy cloud and drifting rain, Trondheim gives the impression of being a pleasant and friendly small city. I passed through here in 2001 when heading to the Arctic Circle by train, but the light and the weather was so bad that I left my SLR in my bag and took no photos.

Last week however, I had an hour spare in between meetings and a digital camera, so with a little post-trip Photoshop magic I managed to get some reasonable images of the place: mostly taken during a rather damp and cold walk along the Nidelva, where old port warehouses line both banks.

The city was also the capital of Norway in the Middle Ages, and Nidaros Cathedral is the largest mediaeval cathedral in Scandanavia. Unfortunately it was late afternoon by the time I visited, and so the building was closed, and I walked back to my hotel in the gathering darkness.

Roman Interlude

I only had a couple of hours to see a small bit of Rome on Wednesday, but I took a few photos. To say the least, the place merits a return trip when I’m not travelling on business… so much to see, and the ochre, pink and yellow facades make for a much more colourful cityscape than Paris.

The Colosseum (72 AD) at sunset

Santa Maria Maggiore

The Arch of Constantine (315 AD)