I went on my first summer trip alone at the beginning of July. My destination was Ledbury Poetry Festival. I was eager to meet some Italian poets who were reading on the Saturday. I had planned it two months in advance, booking the tickets for the train and the readings. The travel worried me a bit, not only because it lasted for four hours but because I had to change trains twice on the way out and four times on the way back. Would I get all the connections right?
I set out early. It was warm and sunny, I took poetry to read during the journey, my crochet work and the books I wanted the poets to sign. I had booked two readings: Jamie McKendrick and Judy Brown, and two Italian poets: Valerio Magrelli and Antonella Anedda, translated into English by Jamie McKendrick.
Ledbury is a pretty little town with neat gardens and charming shops. I reached the centre and venue easily: the idea of meeting some of my favourite poets in person was really exciting. I was especially happy to meet Valerio Magrelli. I read all the poetry collections he published and studied some of his poems for my MA in creative writing. He is beautifully translated by Jamie McKendrick in The Embrace (2009), but I also had my Italian edition published by Einaudi.
I never get tired of reading his witty, unusual poems. Irony, often self-irony, and cleverness are his main characteristics. His poems are detailed reports of our world seen through a magnifying glass and filtered by his brain, or should I say filtered by his body. There is an ‘intellectual physicality’ in his writing that I feel very Mediterranean. An acceptance of our body as a measure and a way to understand and explore reality. He is professor of French literature and sometimes this academic background comes out, but at the same time he keeps a realistic everyday vision of human experience, of this immeasurable, misleading world.
I was able to introduce myself and chat with him before leaving to catch the train back. I also enjoyed Antonella Anedda’s prose poems and Jamie McKendrick’s new book, Out There. I had already read Crocodiles and Obelisks, which I loved, and I seized the opportunity to speak Italian with him and have my books signed.
Between the two reading events, I had time to explore Ledbury High Street and visit two exhibitions on art books. It was engrossing. I spent over an hour talking with a lady who took part in one of the exhibitions and worked on some of the art books. As I did a course on art books and creative journals myself last year, I was overjoyed to find so many examples and creative ideas grouped together. Unfortunately I had forgotten my camera but I bought a few samples to bring back home. The most interesting pieces were travel journals with tickets, sketches and photos of the country visited, and also abstract paintings on cards and tickets to testify again an attempt to come to terms with, remember and understand the world around us.
The other exhibition was about textiles, books and cards with textile covers and concertina textile books. It had fewer items but all were interesting and beautifully made.
The travel back was smooth and relaxing. I caught all the trains in time and managed to make only three changes instead of four. An extraordinary, exalting day.
My nephew was visiting us from Italy in July. He attended an English course at Dallam School where he practised the language, took trips out and met nice people. We wanted to show him the beauty of the area so my children took him around Lancaster. They went to the Castle, the Priory, Williamson Park and the Butterfly House, and they had a walk around the centre (they took him to Greggs and Pound Land, two places he had to experience according to them).
On a sunny Sunday we asked him if he preferred to see a Museum, a Hall with gardens, or if he wished to walk in an area of natural beauty. He opted for a walk and we decided to take him to Malham. We couldn’t have chosen a better day: warm and sunny, with plenty of people around, but not so many daring to face the steep path and reach the top. To be honest I made very slow progress owing to my asthma, but finally managed to reach the goal. The view of the valley below was fantastic, a bit scary if you weren’t safely back from the edge of the cliff. The limestone pavement looked like a huge sculpture you could interact with: walking on it, jumping from one stone to the other, feeling it. It looked ancestral and contemporary at the same time, something eternal.
The walls of the cove (seventy metres high) are so steep and well modelled that they seem to be built on purpose by human hands. I can imagine people climbing it, but only thinking of doing it myself gives me the creeps.
We had our lunch in a pub with air conditioning, good, tasty English food, and an ice-cream (not Italian unfortunately). A very successful day I must say. I hope my nephew took the best of it.
My daughter and I decided to dedicate our holidays to art. Besides the week we had planned in Paris, we went to some exhibitions in England as well. At the Tate Liverpool there was Chagall. How could we miss that?
The exhibition showed Chagall’s development and traced his life and interests very well. It was a sort of introduction to our Parisian art tour.
Chagall’s life from provincial Russian countryside to bustling and artistically thriving Paris, the support of his family, his love for his wife, the dreamlike memories of his Jewish and Russian background, all were clearly and interestingly documented. It was a journey through the mind of an artist who was part of one of the most intense and fruitful artistic periods in the whole history of western art: the avant-garde movement of the beginning of the twentieth century.
What impressed me above all was the use he made of colours, as in I and the village (1911). He doesn’t use many colours, mainly primary: red, blue and yellow with occasional greens, browns and some greys. But they are so bright and at the same time their tones are so delicately shaded that they communicate artistry and masterly skill, They create all the beauty and pleasure typical of a real masterpiece.
His visionary, symbolic iconography (e.g. The War, 1964-66) is the other characteristic I greatly admire. Like all great artists, it’s not only his technique that counts but also a visionary awareness that shows us how the world is or is going to be.
I enjoyed my day out very much and being with my daughter was such a treat. Of course we did a bit of shopping afterwards!
My daughter spotted a brochure for the Bowes Museum, showing an exhibition of dresses. Considering her passion for fashion we planned to spend a whole day there.
The museum is in the beautiful French-style palace which belonged to the aristocrat John Bowes and his wife Joséphine. Throughout their lives they collected a wide range of antiques from pottery to porcelain, musical instruments, paintings, silver, toys and tapestries from around the world: beautiful objects everybody can now admire.
I was impressed by the huge variety of interests they had: shoes, furniture, unusual clocks, and paintings by Canaletto and El Greco. Unfortunately we missed the performance of the silver swan at about 2 pm. It is a musical automaton more or less the size of a real swan that moves its neck once a day and fishes in a silver pond. But we admired it in its glass cabinet all the same.
The fashion and textile exhibition was fascinating. Besides luxurious, unique gowns, there was a lace collar so precious and elaborate that it’s unthinkable that someone did really wear it and not just display it as it is today.
In one of the rooms there was also a pink gown, a copy of the dress worn by Joséphine in a famous portrait. It was made by an Italian designer (a video explains how he accomplished it). Her figure, wearing the dress, was so petite and the waist so tiny (there is an original metal belt part of the dress to testify to it) that I wondered how she could fit in it.
In a large dark room there was an interesting but slightly disturbing exhibition: Tim Walker’s Dreamscapes. He is a fashion photographer but his pictures are much more than that. His self-portrait in bed with eighty cakes around him, the bed hanging from the tree; the gigantic skeleton in a rose garden with a beautiful white-dressed red-haired model, represent surreal visions, reflecting dreams, or nightmares, obsessions, evoking archetypes. A brilliant exhibition.
After a few days we went to Brantwood. Our passion for Ruskin and his work had started with the visit to the Ruskin Museum in Coniston a month before. Brantwood, his house near the lake with its lovely garden, is an idyllic site. The day was perfect, sunny, warm, with a light breeze blowing from the lake. Visiting the house you have the impression the rooms and wide windows are positioned and built to let people admire the astonishing views. You experience Ruskin’s love of nature and his belief in its artistic and religious values when walking around the house and the gardens. The gardens inspire meditation in a special way. They are intimate, solitary and open to the mysteries of the world at the same time.
Our last trip before Paris was at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford to see the Master Drawings exhibition. The weather forecast said it might rain in the afternoon but it was hot and fairly crowded with tourists and students. And I was dressed in black, which didn’t help.
We spent most of our time inside the museum in the cool air conditioned rooms. The drawings were amazing, especially the Michelangelo ones. How could they be so impressive, even as quickly drawn sketches? They are masterpieces of proportion and chiaroscuro. I can imagine the long time the drawers spent working on them, learning the technique so well that they could reproduce them easily in frescoes and paintings.
I had never properly visited the Ashmolean before. It is like a little version of the British Museum, with archaeological artefacts, marble statues, porcelain, glass, furniture, fabrics and unique paintings. We admired Ruskin’s portrait by Millais and The Hunt by Paolo Uccello, such an elegant, almost miniaturistic kind of painting. We loved it.
We had a quick tour around Oxford’s main buildings and caught the train home.
Finally I had my week's holiday in Paris. My daughter and I packed one suitcase each, filling them with our favourite clothes, sketchbooks and books. The journey was comfortable, with air conditioning and only mildly noisy carriages, except for the fact that we arrived in Paris three and a half hours late, at about eleven at night. Outside the railway station night life was starting, taxis and cars were parked everywhere and what looked like smartly dressed girls were casually hanging about, the men looking on. We eventually spotted an awfully long queue outside a side exit, cabs flowing by and stopping. We patiently waited our turn and eventually reached our hotel in Rue de Brey.
The first places we visited were Notre Dame and Sainte Chapelle. The morning was warm but not too hot. A fresh breeze came from the Seine. The facade of the cathedral is impressive: the statues in the portals and the sculpted stories from the Bible, the slender columns, carved capitals and balustrades, the windows and rose windows encased in spiral and notched stone frames and the monster-like gargoyles. Taking sketches we realized how complex the structure is. It must have been a never-ending work for artisans, carvers and sculptors. The Virgin Mary, flanked by two angels above the main portal in front of the west rose window, looks so small and insignificant among such rich decorations.
Inside it was packed with tourists, especially Chinese: some Italians and Americans, but the Chinese groups were overwhelming. They were rural people and clearly enthusiastic at being in Paris and having the privilege to see such wonderful works of art. For me, it was my sixth time in Paris and I could afford to pay attention to details.
Our next step was Sainte Chapelle, one of my favourite places in Paris. The upper floor is absolutely astounding with its high Gothic stained glass windows along the walls, blue, red and yellow light filtering inside as in a kaleidoscope. It’s a unique experience. Outside I noticed posters publicising concerts with music by Bach and Vivaldi. I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to listen to classical music in such a place. I booked two tickets and a few days later we dressed smartly and went back in the evening for the Four Seasons. I loved it, the violin melody filling the high ceiling, the lively dense notes of Vivaldi’s music almost magically animating the colours and the figures of the windows. An enchanting evening.
After visiting Sainte Chapelle, we decided to head to a museum, Musée D’Orsay, which didn’t look so far in the map. We walked, and walked in a scorching sun, promising to ourselves never to do it again, not in the heat of the afternoon anyway. We had the chance to see the Bouquinistes along the left bank of the Seine (they sell old books, posters and souvenirs of Paris), and the Pont de l’Alma, a bridge where people lock padlocks on the grilles of the parapet with love vows written on them. The metal shapes reflected the sun, creating a stunning effect.
The Musée d’Orsay saved our day. Inside the air conditioning was heaven. We spent a long time on the ground floor, full of interesting sculptures and pictures from Realism (e.g. Gustave Courbet) and Symbolism (e.g. Odilon Redon), without realizing that the best pieces were upstairs.
The rooms showing Impressionist paintings were packed. You needed to queue to see each picture. I realized once more what a contrast they made to previous art work, not just in their figures and painting style (sketched, aiming to give the ‘impression’ they had of the subject) but especially in the colours they used. The Impressionists’ palette is much brighter, full of reds, pinks, yellows, light blues and glossy greens. Previous paintings are quite dull: their main colours are shades of brown, grey and dark green. This has a big impact on the viewer, much more than in the painters' ability to depict a landscape or a sitter with a few skilled brushstrokes.
When we had finished with the Impressionists on the upper floor, we didn’t have much time for the rest. We quickly looked at Van Gogh and Gauguin and headed, alas, to the exit as the museum was closing.
The following day we decided to tackle the big one: The Louvre. We left early and planned to spend the whole day there. We started slowly, savouring the medieval sculpture, Greek and Roman art (the room containing Venus of Milo was so crowded that you could look at the statue only by standing close to the walls), Mediterranean and Islamic art. When we reached the first floor, where the vast collection of paintings is, we became aware of how much we had still to see and we were already exhausted.
We caught a glimpse of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, which unfortunately is not a statue like the Venus of Milo so you can look at it only from the front, which was so full of people we couldn’t see much. And we dragged on from one room to the other filled with superlative paintings, which deserved much more attention and time; lagged along corridors with lovely watercolours and drawings, probably considered minor works but still superb. Finally, not to miss the most important pieces, as the closing time was approaching, we followed the museum map to spot the unmissable masterpieces before leaving. Honestly I didn’t remember there was so much to see at the Louvre, especially the painting section. We should have planned at least two days to cover it, considering that my daughter had free entrance (being an EU citizen under 26).
For dinner we spoiled ourselves, eating at an Italian restaurant in the same street as our hotel. It was a lucky choice because they had delicious food. Besides having the chance of ordering in Italian, we could taste fantastic tagliatelle and something really special: Sardinian ravioli and a tomato sauce with an orange aftertaste: exceptional! We couldn’t miss the dessert; we had panna cotta and millefoglie, a paradise of flavours.
I must say that after two days of warm (almost hot at times) weather, walking around museums and up and down the underground stairs (not many escalators in Paris, I’m afraid), I felt washed out. I wonder if I’m getting too old for Paris.
What struck me during my Paris holidays, besides the abundance of art work and the nice weather, were the homeless people or clochards. They are a different world, a parallel to the world of tourists and ordinary people, but with a quirky side. There was a clochard living at the corner where the street of our hotel met the main street leading to the Arc de Triomphe (an impressive site in Paris also called the Étoile, or star, from where one of the most elegant avenues, Champs Elisées, begins). He had his mobile phone glued to his ear, his mat and all his belongings complete with lively little dog. Another day, while I was queuing at the entrance of the Palais de Justice (the Tribunal) by the Sainte Chapelle, there was a homeless woman standing with a trolley full of plastic bags, her dog tied to the railing. She wore dark stockings and a red t-shirt with ‘revolution’ written on the back. Once, at the Ladies', a homeless woman was filling a plastic bottle with pink hand soap from the soap dispenser. But the most shocking was a woman lying on a mat over a ventilation grille. It was Sunday morning, she was completely unconscious and vulnerable, probably sleeping off her hangover.
Our art tour continued with a visit to the Beaubourg, also called Centre Pompidou, a contemporary art museum hosting a temporary exhibition on Roy Lichtenstein. The building itself is a work of art, with red, yellow and blue pipes exposed, metal structures uncovered, a stripped down, joyful, exciting building. Part of the collection inside is rather disturbing, especially the most recent works. Honestly, I couldn’t find bags of sand hanging from the ceiling interesting, or a room full of blankets, or canvasses of different sizes and shapes painted the same colour. There were a few interesting works, though. A sort of tapestry by Alighiero Boetti (title: Tutto, everything) with the shapes of different unrelated objects sewn or embroidered, their forms interlocking, the colours bright, catching the viewer's attention. There was also a picture with ten portraits of Liz Taylor by Andy Warhol, very appealing as usual. The most interesting work of art was in a dark room, where several objects rotated on small platforms lit by lamps, projecting their huge shadows on the wall. The title was Shadow Play by Hans Peter Feldman, 2011. The effect was fantastic. In the sombre room the shadows seemed engaged in a mysterious play, reflections of our own fears and dreams.
My favourite part of the museum was dedicated to modern art, the period of avant-garde movements in the first half of the twentieth century. Incredible, unique pictures by Picasso, Delaunay, Matisse, Kandinsky, Dubuffet, Chagall, sculptures by Henri Laurens, Brancusi, Derain. It was all so interesting, involving, communicating the new essence of art they were discovering in that revolutionary period. Such pieces you find only in Paris.
We then visited the exhibition dedicated to Roy Lichtenstein, the American Pop Art artist who painted comics. His apparently simple shapes and primary colours hide a humorous, ironic intent that teases American life in a friendly way.
We couldn’t miss the Musée Rodin, dedicated to the great sculptor. His iconic pieces like the Hands, the Thinker and the Kiss are not only beautiful but reflect a classical background, a tormented yet romantic attitude and openness to life.
We had a few diversions from museums from time to time. Besides the concert at the Sainte Chapelle, we went to the Gallerie Lafayette. The prices were so high we ended at the top floor, the books section, to find something affordable. While my daughter was browsing through recipe books, I rested on a comfortable chair under air conditioning's constant blast, and read a hilarious book about getting old (Les Vieilles by Pascale Gautier) which I eventually bought.
We also did some shopping here and there, when we found something we really liked, not too expensive and that fitted us. I found a delightful black dress with rose patterns on the sides and also a pair of glass earrings in a shop at Place de Vosges. We bought delicious macarons (sort of round shaped meringues with custard inside) in a chocolaterie in Avenue des Capucines, that looked like a jewellery shop. And bought presents for family and friends in the Carousel shopping centre.
In the city centre I noticed that sometimes a man pretended to pick up what seemed like a golden ring from the ground and asked tourists if it was theirs. It happened to me too and I ignored it. Luckily I knew it was a scam (I had read Simon Hoggart’s Week, The Guardian, where he explained it). The golden ring is actually made of plastic painted in gold. If you show interest, they ask you for money in exchange (five, ten Euros?). After all, it’s gold.
Other museums we visited were the one dedicated to Salvador Dali at Montmartre, with a good number of the artist’s weird surreal works and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, with an interesting exhibition of corsets, bras and other ‘mechanisms’ men and women used from the fourteenth century till today to shape their bodies under the garments to obtain hourglass waists, widened hips, or flattened breasts and stomach, or, for men, swell their chests and enhance virility. We had a guided tour of the Opéra (Palais Garnier), a heavily decorated edifice with coloured marble, golden plaster and old fashioned frescoes. One insuperable thing stood out: the painting by Chagall on the ceiling. Claude Monet’s paintings at the Orangerie were absolutely breathtaking, a symphony of colours. I wanted to go to the Musée de la Poupée (the museum of dolls) as well because of my passion for dolls and puppets. I found some of the dolls I already have, though the number of items they had at the museum was impressive compared to my small collection. The museum shop had second hand dolls, some of them on sale, a real bargain. I was able to add a few pieces to my collection.
Our last day in Paris was pretty hot. We went back to the hotel in the afternoon to pack and went out only to have dinner at our favourite Italian restaurant just down the road. We couldn’t leave without tasting its delicious food again.
The journey home was quick and easy. We were looking forward to having a rest.
My parents came to see us in August. They wanted to spend time with us but didn’t mind seeing new places. We planned only a few outings as they are in their eighties and tend to get tired easily. We had great fun watching some videos they brought, featuring my children when they were little. It was so enjoyable, sometimes moving, to see my kids when they were only two or four years old, so different from how they are today. My husband and I looked different as well: young, slim and much more energetic. There was a piece which I loved, filmed during the period we spent in Stockholm. The children were dressed up as elves and recited the nursery rhymes they had learned at the international school they were attending there. I remember I made the costumes myself using felt fabric: orange for my daughter, blue for my elder son and green for my youngest one (Valentina, my autistic daughter, was not with us yet. We adopted her later and my dad’s video camera was broken by that time). I had made the shoes too and had sewn little bells at the end of the short tunics and hats.
During my parents’ week with us, I spent a lot of time with my mum, chatting, cooking, baking, shopping in the centre of Lancaster and doing some knitting and sewing together. I had a green blouse and a purple silk waistcoat I had cut some months before but I couldn’t complete without her help and advice. I also planned to make a purple and blue evening dress with some fabric I had already bought. We set up work on the first day. I cut and basted the different pieces and my mum checked the skirt and the top when I tried them on. We had to make several changes to make it fit properly, because the skirt was made of two layers, lace and silk, and the piece of fabric I had bought was just enough. We tried and adapted it till it was perfectly shaped. We worked hard but I loved the final result (photo attached). The question now is: when ever shall I wear it? It needs to be a smart occasion and warm weather. Maybe the wedding of one of my children...if they marry in summer and if it will still fit!
On one of our tours round Lancaster centre I also found a nice piece of cream-coloured remnant, and lace, in a fabric shop and guess what: I made another skirt. The top in the photo is a lucky find in a vintage shop. Still I wonder when I’ll have the right occasion to wear it.
I loved being with my mum, listening to her stories about her hard childhood before and during the war. She can remember very clearly what occurred in the past but can have problems in remembering what you have just told her. Sometimes I feel she is like a child, spontaneous, naive and vulnerable.
In one of our outings we visited Leighton Hall, not far from Lancaster, on a gloomy wet day. The countryside around was what most Italian people think England looks like right through the year, which honestly is not always true...it can be much worse J...or much better, like last July. The house was fascinating with beautiful Robert Gillow furniture and some nice paintings. Outside, in the rain, there was a keeper with a hawk and an owl who described their lifestyle and showed us how they hunt. It was really interesting.
The other trip we took was to Leeds, where my daughter was starting her foundation course at Leeds College of Art. We spent the whole day in the city centre, buying everything she might need, that is filling her fridge and freezer as if we were leaving her on a desert island. It was a sunny, windy day, the streets were full of people, the food market displayed delicious stuff, baskets of bright flowers hung from posts and shops and shopping centres were busy and appealing. In spite of this holiday spirit I felt sad because my daughter was finally leaving, though not so far from home. My only comfort was that we could still share our passion for art during holiday time.
I was sorry when my parents left for Italy, I would have liked them to stay longer with us. I especially miss my mum and am sometimes worried about her health, which is pretty unstable at times. I am aware I can’t do much about it. She is getting old like all of us.