Video: time-lapse mapping of European history from 1000 AD to 2003

This is excellent. It’s a time-lapse map of European history, from 1000 AD to 2003. It’s really quite amazing to see countries or parts of them change so much. It’s rather saddening too – many, perhaps most, of the changes came as the result of war and the subsequent land-grab.

I’ve posted the longer by clearer version, which contains dates and further annotations. You can find the shorter versions here. Both are well worth viewing full screen for the full effect.

The Cézanne trail at Aix-en-Provence: a photo diary

I was lucky enough to spend some time in Aix-en-Provence this weekend, to enjoy the city and to explore the life and work of Paul Cézanne. I have loved the work of Cézanne for some time now, so to visit the major locations in his life was a real pleasure. We took the Cézanne Trail, visited his atelier (studio), journeyed over to Mont Sainte-Victoire and – although not directly related to Cézanne but which I’m including for completeness – we visited the village of Gordes, one of the most picturesque in all of France. This is a brief guide, with photos.

The Cézanne Trail
The ‘Cézanne Trail’ runs throughout the city, an imaginary path that links the thirty or so significant places in his life – where he was born, the café where he met with friends, the cemetery where he is buried, and so on. It is almost impossible to lose the trail, since it is marked with beautifully detailed golden discs around one metre apart, like that shown above. (Despite this, we still managed to lose it – but that is a different story.)

Cézanne, outside the office de tourisme.

The trail begins (at what is, incidentally, perhaps the most impressive tourist office I have seen in any French city), with a familiar image of Cézanne in bronze: an older man, in working clothes, with a backpack full of artists’ materials (later, we would see that very backpack and other materials in the atelier, or workshop, where he painted later in his life: more on that below).

Exploring in Aix-en-Provence.

The wonder of a trail like this is that you get to see a great deal of what is a very beautiful city whilst having a purpose – a trail that doesn’t (often) repeat itself. Some of the places on the trail are less interesting than others, either because they are less directly linked to Cézanne’s life, or because they have been renovated and their original interestingness lost. The trail conveniently stops half way at Les Deux Garçons, a café where Cézanne used to meet friends and where you can watch the world go by.

The light is incredible in Provence.

One of the most impressive locations is the cemetery where the famille Cézanne are buried, Le Cimetière Saint-Pierre. Impressive, but alas for us not illuminating: the map at the entrance which should contain a numbered guide to the plots was incomplete. What’s more, the office was closed and the cemetery too large to explore in the hope to find it. In short, we couldn’t find the grave but wandered through the smartly tendered grounds in any case. (Even an internet search could not reveal the precise location – all I know is that it is in allée 6 according to this blog post. Too late for me but perhaps not for you.)

Le Cimetière Saint-Pierre. Cézanne and family are buried here - somewhere.

Atelier Cézanne: the workshop
Although not strictly a part of the Cézanne trail, the atelier or workshop, is a short walk up a hill, in a pleasant garden scattered with tables and chairs (and ideal for shade when it’s hot). Although there is only one room and a sizeable garden, it is most definitely worth visiting in my view.

Atelier Cézanne, interior. Copyright Atelier Cézanne

To stand where Cézanne stood; to take in the unique arrangement of sunshine and light through the enormous window of his studio; to be surrounded by the everyday objects of his life – some of which were painted in his most celebrated still life work – is really quite special and one that stays with me as unforgettably moving.

Mont Sainte-Victoire
It’s impossible not to visit what might be considered Cézanne’s muse, the Mont Sainte-Victoire, which he painted several times. Impossible because it is so central to his life and painting that any visit is incomplete without it; impossible too because it is so near to Aix itself.

Mont Sainte-Victoire can be seen from Aix - if you get high enough

You can see the mountain from Aix, in fact and from this perspective it has its distinctive triangular shape: one side steep,  another running slowly in a straight line – the outline in total described as an enormous wave.

Mont Sainte-Victoire, Cézanne's 'muse'

Gordes, in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region
Described in my tourist guide as one of the most photographed places in all of France – quite a feat in a country already packed with beauty – is the hillside village of Gordes. It is built into rock and looms impressively above the road and the plains below.

The hillside village of Gordes in Provence, from below

Close by is the Sénanque Abbey. When visited at the right time, when the lavender fields that surround the ancient abbey are in full bloom, it must be quite amazing. We visited just out of season but it was nevertheless impressive. The road nearby climbs steeply to take us north, back to the Alps, back to home.

The village of Gordes, carved into the rock

What remains almost unbelievable about the trip to Provence is the immense change in landscape from the green mountainous area of where I live in the Alps, to the red earth and mistrals of Provence. Cézanne country is unforgettable.

Senanque Abbey, Gordes. The fields are full of lavender.

Details: if you want to take the Cézanne trail, you can pick up free map at the Office de Tourisme, in the heart of Aix-en-Provence, or download it here. The office provide information on the other places I’ve detailed above, too.

A favourite place: Mont Blanc and the Alps

Image

I ride a scooter when I’m not on my bicycle but, since there has been quite heavy snow on the most interesting bits of where I live – that is, higher up, on the mountain – it has been difficult to get out and about. Today, for the first time in a while, I got the scooter going and set off up the mountain.

It was cold and some of the melt had turned to ice on the mountain road. But this is the vista I was rewarded with at the viewing point. I’ve seen this dozens of times but it never fails to fill me with awe, especially as you turn into a steeper section of the road and the sky is suddenly replaced with the Alps range as you level off.

Lake Annecy, easy to spot from here, was shrouded in mist. Only when I had taken several shots did I realise how cold it was there. I put my gloves and helmet on, and headed back down. I’ll return here from now on, all over the summer – it’s one of my favourite places.

Bartholdi’s famous statue fountain freezes in Lyon: photos

This weekend we visited Lyon. It was cold, certainly, but I didn’t expect to find the water that normally cascades from Frédéric Bartholdi‘s famous statue in Lyon’s main square to have frozen solid.

It’s one of France’s more famous statues, designed by Bartholdi after he had finished the Statue of Liberty. So, it normally attracts a decent crowd but there were more people than usual for a cold day.

The horses, already amazingly energetic, seemed to be racing to break free from the ice.

It was an unforgettable sight that perfectly ended a great weekend. We’ll always remember this trip to Lyon as the one where Bartholdi’s statue froze.

Writing about France

I’ve read some amazing books on France – notably, Graham Robb’s Discovery of France and his Parisians. Long live travel writing! But there’s been some horrors, too. Ah, the thwarted promise of Tim Moore’s French Revolutions (cycling and France, what can go wrong? Much, it seems).

So, it’s hard not to feel a little bit sceptical when one finds a new addition to the canon. It seems I’m not alone in my cynicism. John Crace in his (often comically irreverent) ‘Digested Reads’ series for The Guardian compresses Pamela Druckerman’s story of why she thinks French children are better behaved. Writing as if from Druckerman’s perspective, he chimes:

I came to motherhood late and, being a hack and not having much work on, I naturally decided to write a book about it. All I needed was an angle. And then I remembered I was living in France and could pass off some general observations about the few middle-class Parisians I knew as insight.

The tendency to ‘pass of some general observations’ based on limited experience is a compelling one and you’ll find me doing this most night about the French, the Swiss and the English as well as anything else that comes my way. Now, where’s my pen and paper…

These are a few of my favourite things – a cultural review of 2011

I won’t do anymore throat-clearing before starting the list other than to say that this list might equally (and more accurately) be called ‘stuff which I listened to / read / watched, etc but that didn’t come out in 2011’. Although many of them did appear for the first time in 2011, many didn’t – this list just means I encountered them in 2011. Since I have an almost preternatural way of seeking out and sharing what you’ve already seen / done /read, this comes as hardly a surprise.

So, that said, here they are, in no particular order…

Favourite song – ‘Video Games’ by Lana Del Rey

I read on Twitter from Caitlin Moran that she had more or less repeatedly listening to Lana Del Rey’s song, ‘Video Games’, all summer long. Clicking the link, I could hear why. It’s amazing. Best seen as well as heard – the video and song work seamlessly together – it has topped the polls for many others, so I’m hardly being original – a theme that perhaps is true of all my list. This piece nicely sums up why we like it. I like it because it will forever remind me of my little bike tour, where I sang it, if not word perfect then with gusto (and aloud), for most of the way.

Favourite album – The Courage of Others by Midlake

I started listening to The Courage of Others in 2010 and I haven’t stopped playing this regularly since. It was the same with Vanoccupanther in 2009. The Courage of Others might 2012’s favourite album, too – I wouldn’t bet against it. I know it will always remind of being here in France and the mountains in particular. It’s so tied up with memories it’s hard to think of anything else which has touched me like it.

Favourite book(s), article

Remainder by Tom McCarthy

Netherland by Joseph O’Neill

‘Two Paths for the Novel’ by Zadie Smith

I’m opening up the idea of a ‘favourite’ book by including two books, both published outside of 2011 and one of which I read in 2009; and by including an article. It’s a bit sneaky, I know. Bear with me and I’ll explain.

Remainder is one of those books that helps you rethink the boundaries of fiction and offer a glimpse of where it might be heading. There are problems with it: the forensics of assembling some of the scenes can drag and some of the red herrings seems a little contrived, by even both of those approaches illustrate how this book is different. That said, it is brilliantly conceived and is packed full of ideas – what time means; how we construct reality; the difficult of being authentic; public and private lives. There’s so much there to think about. Its style is deceptively light: it’s a complicated book with an unforgettable ending that seems to capture what it means to be living now.

I wouldn’t say that either book is ‘about’ cricket but both contain an element of the fine game, so that’s my ill-conceived ‘hook’ to bring them together. Netherland is a novel about being lost in a new country; about expatriation and changing identities; about new worlds and the old. As such, it spoke to me a little following my move to Switzerland, then France. The character of Ramkissoon is brilliantly drawn, the narrator convincing. Alas, it dies a little by the end; but what comes before is enough.

As good as these books are, I would suggest they are best read in conjunction with Zadie Smith’s perceptive work of comparative analysis which considers both books and their contribution to the identity of the contemporary novel. I think Smith (who also wrote a brilliant analysis of the effect that computers have on us, ostensibly as a discussion of Jaron Lanier’s book You are not a Gadget and David Fincher’s film, Social Network) offers two paths that fiction might take, illustrated by these two novels. Remainder and Netherland diverge in many ways, not least in realism and technique – one more conventional, the other ‘experimental’ (that dread word). It’s ok, though – we can read both.

Favourite internet meme – Ultimate dog tease (hungry dog)

In our house, something that is especially good is now referred to as ‘the maple kind’. If a video is good enough to get you starting you own, minor meme then it has my vote. Honourable mention goes to Fenton. Unusually, it’s dogs, not cats, that rule the roost.

Favourite restaurant – Bistrot des Halles de Rives

This unprepossessing place appears to offer very little if judging by appearances. Sandwiched between the stalls in the indoor (admittedly, gourmet) food market in Geneva,  there really is (for me) only one dish – the steak frites equivalent, served with buerre Parisien and garnish (a rather lonely half tomato). It is uniformly superb. I have to keep returning to make sure they retain their standards.

Favourite computer game – Dead Space 2 (Playstation 3)

I played Dead Space 2 before the first version and nearly didn’t play either. I played the first Dead Space in demo and thought to difficult and unexciting. I was wrong – the difficulty is just right in both games and it could hardly be said to be boring. Rather, the often samey scenes – both games are set onboard spaceships – are deliberately crafted to appear claustrophobic; their uniform design appears authentic and contrasts well with the horrors you find within. A superb game, superior in all departments to any other I’ve played this year.

Favourite Tweet / Status Update

This tweet made me laugh when I first read it – always a good sign:

tashapotamus
#midnight #snack

It introduced a whole new way of thinking about Twitter for me – no content, only metadata. Wow. Perhaps this is how we will communicate in the future – perhaps the modern aside (or soliloquy) will make the hashtag its vehicle? Who knows. This just made me laugh.

Favourite gadget – Apple iPad

I’ve used this more than any other single gadget, mostly for ebook reading, but also for travel – it’s 3G is useful for maps and for learning more about the place your in. I can’t imagine life without it now – and the new iBooks night reader has made it even more useful.

Favourite blog – ‘Heathen’s Progress’, Julian Baggini, The Guardian (Comment is Free)

The latter half of the year saw the start of philosopher Julian Baggini’s excellent blog on philosophy and belief, Heathen’s Progress. This series has sought to further understand the nature of belief as it is experienced. It suggests that rather than a single set fixed dogma, believers often have individual ideas about how to characterise their faith. It has sought to understand, if not to reconcile, without fundamental compromise. The comments are also unexpectedly good; like so many blogs, the author’s by line should be supplemented with a thanks to those who comment.

Favourite photo that I took – Tate Modern (version 5)

Tate modern (Version 5)

Tate modern (Version 5)

I had some trouble with this photo. I asked my Twitter contacts if they could help and they made some good suggestions. But still I couldn’t get the crop right. Even now, when I look carefully, it doesn’t fully work. Still, it’s an interesting image and one that I like because it happened completely spontaneously. They are sitting where I had just sat, to have a beer and a sandwich and watch people flow over the bridge across the Thames.

Favourite photo that someone else took – Black Macaque Self Portrait (David Slater)

You may have heard the story of a photographer – David Slater – who had his camera stolen by a black macaque, who then went on to take photographs of itself, like the one below. A great story – and some accomplished photos. Honourable mention to all those excellent photos I’ve seen on Flickr, too

Copyright David J Slater / Caters

Favourite television programme – The Hour

I think Mad Men was excellent again, now at Season 4. But the show that sticks in my mind was The Hour. It approached Mad Men’s mix of private and public politics – the grand and the great, the intimate and the secret – and I loved (again, like Mad Men) the period feel, only this time it British. Well worth seeing, I hope they make another series.

Favourite film – Rabbit Hole

I was completely surprised by Rabbit Hole (2010). I think Nicole Kidman plays some interesting parts and acts well but I was suspicious it might have suffered from the Hollywood gloss. It hasn’t. It’s very moving, horribly so around half way in – but it captures the horror that few of us will hopefully never know so beautiful and with such dignity. It was also superb at the dynamics of relationships and the sudden escalation of marital arguments.

Favourite artwork – Isenheim altarpiece

I saw the Isenheim altarpiece for the first time this year. I’ve written about it elsewhere (with photos) so I won’t repeat that, suffice to say it was incredible to see in the flesh.

Favourite memory – pitching a tent by the lakeside on my bike tour

Camping by the lake, Provence

Camping by the lake, Provence

Aside from all those wonderful times I have shared with Jennie (and which remain private), my bike tour provided me with the most pungent memories. But which one? Starting off, thinking I had forgotten to pack something – then relaxing and starting to enjoy it the ride? Arriving on a sweltering hot day in The Camargue, the journey over, and sitting in a bar to order a beer – when the waiter took my dry bidons and filled them with ice and water? All of these – but this one, moreso – making camp on the banks of a lake in Provence; cooking dinner on my portable stove; and looking over the lake, listening to the cricket on BBC TestMatch Special. Oh happy day.

England won, too.

 

That’s it. That was my 2011. Here comes 2012…

 

Art and ‘strangeness’: the Isenheim altarpiece at the Unterlinden Museum

I went to Colmar looking for something else but found the Isenheim altarpiece.

Planning a visit to Colmar, a small town in France’s Alsace region a few miles outside the border with Germany, I came across a guide to the Unterlinden Museum where the altarpiece is on show. It jogged a memory: I remembered reading somewhere that the Isenheim altarpiece is widely regarded as one of the most important works of Western art.

The Isenheim altarpiece, in the Unterlinden Museum

The Isenheim altarpiece, in the Unterlinden Museum

Despite this, few appear to have heard of it and fewer have seen it. Colmar is not central to the conventional tourist trail, except perhaps during December, where it gives itself entirely to Christmas celebration. In a quiet corner away from the colourful markets, the processions and performances, is a beautiful museum, of which the altarpiece is the jewel in the crown.

The resurrection panel, perhaps the strangest of all

The resurrection panel, perhaps the strangest of all

The altarpiece, thought to be the work of Matthias Grünewald and painted between 1506 and 1515. It is tied to the history of the Antonite Monks and particularly to Saint Anthony’s Fire, now known as ergotism, an often fatal disease caused by poisoning. There are several accounts of the altarpiece, including elaborate praise from J.K. Huysman. The altarpiece was once a series of panels that were configured according to the Christian calendar. The following model shows how those panels were once assembled.

The altarpiece was a series of panels, now separated. This model shows how they were originally assembled

The altarpiece was a series of panels, now separated. This model shows how they were originally assembled

The paintings are some of the most striking I have ever seen. Upon entering the long room where the altarpiece is kept, one meets the remarkable ‘crucifixion’ first panel.

The crucifixion panel. This had special resonance for Antonite Monks and their followers

The crucifixion panel. This had special resonance for Antonite Monks and their followers

I was left with the feeling that the paintings were ‘strange’ and that I was witnessing something outside of my experience of art (such as it is). I meant this both as a way of describing the effect they had on me – the are awe-inspiring, as well as quite unsettling. But it also captures their provenance and their reputation: they appear to have been created outside of the normal limits of the human imagination, outside of arts history almost, especially the resurrection panel.

I thought, too,  how right Harold Bloom was when he said that the defining principle of the greatest works of art is that they could be considered ‘strange’. Bloom, writing about literature in his notorious Western Canon, had Dante and Shakespare in mind, but I think it equally appropriate for the Isenheim altarpiece:

One mark of an originality that can win canonical status for a literary work is a strangeness that we either never altogether assimilate, or that becomes such a given that we are blinded to its idiosyncrasies.

I will ‘never altogether assimilate’ the strangeness of effect, form and history that I found in the altarpiece.