Monthly Archives: July 2013

Take the Long Way Home

“Travel does not exist without home….If we never return to the place we started, we would just be wandering, lost. Home is a reflecting surface, a place to measure our growth and enrich us after being infused with the outside world.” – Josh Gates

Mini Adventures: The Dust Settles

Mini Adventures: The Dust Settles

We set off almost 4 months ago with a pocketful of Euros, a tankful of petrol and heads full of possibilities. We could not have imagined the wonderful places we have been privileged to see and the delightful people we met along the way. Now we have come full circle and arrived home, enriched by our experiences.

“For an occurrence to become an adventure, it is necessary and sufficient for one to recount it.” – Jean-Paul Sartre

This – my first venture into the world of blogging – was a way to keep in touch with family and friends and to keep a record of our experiences. I could not have imagined the numerous people we didn’t know who joined us along the way and the great feedback provided by so many. The enthusiasm spurred me on.

“I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging, and it’s very difficult to find anyone.’
I should think so — in these parts! We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!” – J. R. R. Tolkein

Mio marito is not one of life’s natural adventurers, but once he had got used to the idea he threw himself into enjoying every moment with gusto! The majority of the photographs I have included on the blog are his, taken with his trusty Nikon D80 camera with an 18-135mm zoom lens. The remainder, including all the food photos, are mine, taken with my i-Phone.

“The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

This adventure may be over, but if I get my way there will be many more to come. I have loved writing this blog and so I intend to continue blogging under a different title; “Magic Spello” was a perfect descriptor for this particular experience but it will not best reflect future musings. I will post the name of my new blog on this page in case you want to follow it, otherwise ping me a message and I will let you know when it is live.

Until then, goodbye and good luck.

Post script: Join me on my latest blog at the link below.

“Every mountain top is within reach if you just keep climbing.” – Barry Finlay





To date, all of the visits and experiences described in this blog have been joyful and fun. Our final stop in France was something quite different: a pilgrimage to Ors in northern France where Wilfred Owen, the unsurpassed poet of the Great War, died in battle.

IMG_0995Wilfred Owen was born in Oswestry in North Wales and was educated at the Birkenhead Institute, close to where I grew up. He was drawn to poetry at an early age, inspired by John Keats and the Romantics.

In 1915 Owen enlisted in the British Army as a Second Lieutenant. He first saw active service in 1917 at the Somme, where he was badly concussed and spent several days in a bomb crater alongside the corpse of a fellow officer. Suffering from shell-shock, he returned to the UK.

Whilst recovering at Craiglockhart War Hospital he met Siegfried Sassoon and showed him some of his poems. Sassoon was a poet, a fellow officer and a decorated hero, but he had become disillusioned with the war. With encouragement from Sassoon, and more specifically his advice to Owen to use his own experiences, Owen found his true voice and over the next few months he wrote a series of poems for which he will forever be remembered, including Anthem for Doomed Youth and Strange Meeting.

DSC_0032Back at the front, he took part in the breaking of the Hindenburg Line and was awarded a Military Cross for his courage and leadership. In northern France he spent what was to be his last night in the cellar of the Forester’s House (La Maison Forestiere) near the small village of Ors. The next morning, November 4 1918, he led his men to the Sambre-Oise canal, and as they tried to cross it and engage the enemy, he was killed, along with many of his Company.

The Armistice was signed seven days later, and as the church bells pealed out across the UK, his parents received a telegram informing them of his death. He was just 25 years old.


Thanks to the combined efforts of the Wilfred Owen Association and the mayor and people of Ors, a permanent memorial to Wilfred Owen has been created at the Forester’s House which had remained virtually unchanged since 1918 and was semi-derilict. The British artist and Turner Prize nominee, Simon Patterson, came up with the design, and a French architect, Jean-Christophe Denise brought it alive.


The house is like a huge sculpture in eye-aching, stark white. Its roof is representative of an open book….


A circular ramp curves round to the cellar where Owen spent his last night. The cellar is just as it was: small, dark and damp. On the walls of the ramp is the text of Owen’s last letter to his mother. As you step inside, the letter is read by Kenneth Branagh; it sends shivers down the spine.


How cheerful he was – or appeared to be – even though he was one of 15 men crammed into the tiny space. How well he described his companions as they awaited their fate.



How optimistic he was, surrounded by the friends cemented together by hardship and peril. He writes to his mother that he is “…certain that you could never be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here.”


Inside, the building consists of a single room, double height, entirely white and covered with glass panels. Etched into the glass is the poem Dulce et Decorum Est in Owen’s hand, replicated from his original manuscript held in the British Museum.

In the dark silence the walls suddenly light up with the words of many of Owen’s poems. Some are read – again by Kenneth Branagh or, occasionally, a Frenchman.


Others hang in the air for quiet contemplation.


Its simplicity makes it all the more moving as the poems – and we, the observers – contemplate the futility of war, and the truth of Owen’s words:

“The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.” It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.

From the Forester’s House, still quiet and reflective, we went to the canal. On the towpath to the right of this picture Owen and his men were killed.


It is a tranquil spot today, interrupted only by the memories of battles fought and lives lost. There is just a small memorial here to mark the events of that fateful day.


Wilfred Owen is buried alongside his comrades in the military section of the Ors Communal Cemetery.


His simple gravestone carries a few words of his poetry, chosen by his mother.


Gone, but never forgotten. A hero in war and a hero for the enduring poetry that he left behind; he will live on.

Spello, walk, poppy fields

The Painter

One of the joys of travelling is the accidental discoveries, the unplanned moments that reward the traveller in an unexpected way. So it was that we arrived at the small town of Le Cateau Cambresis in northern France, seeking only a bed for a couple of nights. How delighted we were to discover that this drab little town was the birthplace of the artist Henri Matisse, and that just steps from our hotel was the Matisse Museum.

Le Cateau Cambresis: Matisse Museum

Le Cateau Cambresis: Matisse Museum

Matisse was born in the town in 1869, and he was still alive when this museum was inaugurated in 1952 (he died in 1954). There are around 100 of his works here from throughout his artistic life, estimated to be worth around £14,000,000 in total. Matisse himself directed how his works should be displayed.

In the courtyard were some wonderful bronzes….


….including “Great Woman III” by Alberto Giacometti….(I wonder where Great Women I and II are?)


It was no surprise to see that Matisse’s early works were rather dark and gloomy, given the influence of the Flemish masters and, perhaps, his own colourless surroundings. His style changed dramatically after he was introduced to the works of Van Gogh, Cezanne and Gauguin, resulting in the modern works more commonly associated with the artist.

matisse 1c

matisse 1b 001

The museum has a great cross-section of works by Matisse, including some beautiful pencil sketches.



The Teriade Collection features works by Matisse, Chagall and Picasso amongst others. Teriade founded the surrealist magazine “Minotaure” and counted a number of artists amongst his friends; many visited Teriade’s villa in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. The museum recreated the villa’s dining room where Matisse designed the stained glass “Chinese Fish” window….


….and painted “The Plane” in black enamel on ceramic tiles. The dishes were made by Giacometti.


Here too are works by Auguste Herbin, born in 1882 near Le Cateau Cambresis. He was particularly influenced by Cubism and in 1925 produced this colourful piano, just right for the jazz age!


There is also a reproduction of his stained glass window made for a local primary school, and again reflecting (no pun intended) the Cubist style….


The delightful circus-themed pictures by Chagall were lovely….




….as were these sketches, also with a circus theme….



The most poignant exhibit was the recreation of a ceiling in Matisse’s bedroom where he sketched the faces of his children, using a brush tied to a broom handle. The painter said it was so that he would not feel alone. A reflective end to an otherwise inspirational day.




The town of Troyes in the Champagne region of France is, by way of various modifications and fortifications throughout its history, in the shape of a champagne cork! So Troyes was an obvious choice for a stopover; a city settled in ancient times that remains a bustling hub today.

Troyes: Church Clock

Troyes: Church Clock

The history of Troyes is a complex one, so I will spare you the detail and give you some of the highlights. Its rivers and streams meant that crafts such as tanning, mills, weaving and paper manufacture grew up here. Troyes paper was known throughout Europe from the 14th century onwards. In the 15th century, the Treaty of Troyes handed over political control to the English, who carelessly renounced all their claims in France around a hundred years later. The great fire of 1524 destroyed a large part of the town, most of which was constructed in wood.


Although occupied by the Germans in the Second World War, Troyes escaped being bombed, so its medieval houses were undamaged, and many have since been sensitively restored. In the mid 1990s, colour washes made with natural pigments were introduced, replacing the medieval monochrome with bright colours; a real feast for the eye.


The Master Glassmakers created spectacular stained glass windows here, and Troyes was known as “a blessed town of stained glass.” There are several magnificent churches as well as a cathedral.


We visited Saint Urbain’s Basilica, a jewel of Gothic art built in the 13th century with the upper part of the nave being completed in the 19th century to the original plan. (Delays in major projects are not just a problem of modern times!).

Troyes: Basilica of Saint Urbain

Troyes: Basilica of Saint Urbain

Pope Urbain IV was born in Troyes, and the basilica was built on the site of the cobbler’s shop that belonged to his father. Its stained glass, much of which dates from the 13th century, is stunning.

Troyes: Basilica of Saint Urbain

Troyes: Basilica of Saint Urbain

Troyes: Basilica of Saint Urbain

Troyes: Basilica of Saint Urbain

Amongst the soaring spires, buttresses and pinnacles are wonderful gargoyles and water spouts. For how many years has this fine fellow been shouting from the rooftops? He certainly spoke to me.

Troyes: Basilica of Saint Urbain

Troyes: Basilica of Saint Urbain

Troyes’ narrow streets warrant hours of exploration. Buildings lean, almost touching.


The alleyway pictured below is called the “Rue des Chats” (Street of Cats)….


….we discovered why, high on the timbers of a house….

Troyes: Rue des Chats

Troyes: Rue des Chats

Tiny alleys opened up into surprising squares, such as this galleried delight, the “Cour du Mortier D’Or“.


And everywhere there were carvings of animals, mythical creatures, people….I particularly liked the devil….


….and the angel….


The 16th century Silversmith’s House has an external tower, added to provide extra space in this busy merchants’ quarter. Incidentally, the “Troyes ounce” – a percentage of the “marc de Troyes” used to weigh gold and silver in the Middle Ages – is still used today in many countries.

Troyes: The Silversmith's House

Troyes: The Silversmith’s House

The tower is supported by 3 caryatids in the form of animals.

Troyes: The Silversmith's House

Troyes: The Silversmith’s House

Opposite the Silversmith’s House is the Baker’s House, with its pulley under the roof for lifting bags of flour up to the attic.

Troyes: The Baker's House

Troyes: The Baker’s House

Troyes: Tool Museum

Troyes: Tool Museum

Down another small street is the Tool Museum. Housed in an attractive 16th century building, there is a collection of 30,000 tools dating from the 17th to 19th centuries.

Troyes: Tool Museum

Troyes: Tool Museum

Mio marito is a man who appreciates a good tool, so this one was designed for his enjoyment rather than mine. But I have to admit that it was fascinating; there were tools used for building, roofing, stone carving and woodwork, but there were also displays on leather working, lace making and wrought iron together with faded black and white photographs of craftsmen at work.

Troyes: Tool Museum

Troyes: Tool Museum


DSC_0304Our visit coincided with a celebration of folklore, and groups of musicians and dancers dressed in their traditional costumes were out on the streets providing great entertainment. It was heartening to see young and old involved. These wooden clogs or “sabots” were worn by many of the participants.


Here and there, a fleeting glimpse from the past was seen. Was she part of the folklore group, or a shadow from a different age?


Whilst Troyes makes much of its medieval streets and chequered history, it is a lively place full of modern shops with wonderful signs. A ladies fashion shop….


….and a shoe shop: a real contrast to the clogs!


Here too were lovely modern sculptures. This elegant lady sits on a bench by the waterside, reading her book and watching the world go by from under her brim….


And this young ballerina takes a bow; perhaps her performance merits it?


A colourful carousel spins, to the delight of the gathered small children, hopeful for a turn.



Lovers kiss….


As night falls, Troyes transforms into a town of light and shade.


An avenue of illuminated trees is reflected in a watery pool. This brought to mind a great post from the fabulous Pride in Photos blog:

So much to see, night and day.

Smoke on the Water

You can see the Alps for many miles before you reach the Swiss border. At first sight they are small and far away, but they loom ever larger, until the forbidding mountain ridges fill your view. We crossed the Alps via the Simplon Pass Road, one of the most scenic mountain passes in Europe.

Switzerland: Simplon Pass

Switzerland: Simplon Pass

The Simplon Pass was an ancient route used up to the 17th century by smugglers and mercenaries. Then, in the middle of the 17th century, it was used to bring salt from the Mediterranean on the back of mules. The first road suitable for vehicles was built for Napoleon to move his cannons southward which, incidentally, he did not do – at least not on this route.

Switzerland: Simplon Pass

Switzerland: Simplon Pass

For around 64km (40 miles) the road winds in lengthy curves up the mountain to its summit which lies at 2005 metres. A series of galleries and tunnels are cut through the rock; huge bridges span deep gorges and skim over tree tops. Even at this time of year the tallest peaks are topped with snow and the air is cool and fresh. Grey clouds swirled around menacing peaks.

Switzerland: Simplon Pass

Switzerland: Simplon Pass

We descended into Brig: German speaking, Swiss cleanliness and a welcoming bed. We don’t speak any German, had no Swiss currency and no map of Switzerland, but that’s all part of the adventure. This is the road coming into Brig pictured from the town.

Switzerland: Simplon Pass

Switzerland: Simplon Pass

Where else could we have been but Switzerland? We felt like Heidi and Peter!



Which direction now? We were in two minds….


So, “we all came out to Montreux, on the Lake Geneva shoreline”.… (Only those who remember the 1970s will understand why we diverted to Montreux). Lake Geneva is huge – it has an area of 224 square miles (581 square km), of which around 90 square miles are in France; the lion’s share is in Switzerland.  The Montreux shoreline is about 4 miles (6km) long, along the Lake’s eastern shore.

Switzerland: Montreux, Lake Geneva

Switzerland: Montreux, Lake Geneva

Along the shores there are many large mansions and tropical vegetation – it is a beautiful spot, overlooking the serene, rippling water. A perfect weekend retreat perhaps for the Gnomes of Zurich?

Switzerland: Montreux, Lake Geneva

Switzerland: Montreux, Lake Geneva

Switzerland: Lake Geneva

Switzerland: Montreux, Lake Geneva

“Smoke on the Water” connection aside, Freddy Mercury settled in Montreux and recorded his last album with Queen here; there is a commemorative statue of him on the lakeside. Lord Byron visited with his friends the Shelleys, and it was here that Mary Shelley wrote “Frankenstein” on a stormy night. Here also Byron penned his poem “The Prisoner of Chillon”, inspired by the 13th century Chillon Castle built on a rocky islet on the lake.

Switzerland: Montreux, Lake Geneva

Switzerland: Montreux, Lake Geneva

Life is Good in the Greenhouse

Urbino’s Botanical Gardens have been in existence for around 200 years. They are now managed by the University and have beds of flowers and herbs with medicinal properties amongst the horticultural treasures.

Leaving the bustling city behind, we stepped inside….

Urbino: botanical gardens

It’s an oasis of shade in the heat of the day….

Urbino: botanical gardens

A cool, calm paradise….

Urbino: botanical gardens

Miniature oriental parasols….

Urbino: botanical gardens

But beware the carnivorous corner: behind the wire, waiting, watching for prey….

Urbino: botanical gardens

Beware the pointed thorns….

Urbino: botanical gardens

And the cacti – spiky, spooky, sharp….

Urbino: botanical gardens

Handle this heart – like all hearts – with care….

Urbino: botanical gardens - handle this heart with care!

Like weapons of war….

Urbino: botanical gardens

Like palm trees….

Urbino: botanical gardens

Like sea urchins, crowned with light….

Urbino: botanical gardens

There are flowers too: some beautiful….


….and others disguising their thorns behind delicate, blood-red blooms….

Urbino: botanical gardens

And flowers that seem more leaf than flower….

Urbino: botanical gardens

Urbino: botanical gardens

Leaves veined in impossibly bright pink….

Urbino: botanical gardens

Berries: shiny red and green baubles….


Urbino: botanical gardens

Bark – a particular favourite of mine – landscapes of texture, colour, pattern….




Here and there are signs that someone works here…sometimes….


Urbino: botanical gardens

Everywhere, an air of neglect….


….and decay….


Flashes of colour….

Urbino: botanical gardens

…and mostly monochrome….



Father and Son

In my last post (“Duke”) I wrote about Urbino and the fabulous Ducal Palace. We had so many photos to share and there was so much to say that I decided to separate 2 other delicious Urbino experiences into their own posts. Once I get going I find it difficult to stop writing; I have not yet learned the bloggers’ rule of short, sharp posts. Perhaps I never will….

Urbino: Raphael's house

Urbino: Raphael’s house

One of Urbino’s most famous sons was Raphael who, together with Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, were surely the 3 greatest masters of Renaissance art.

Urbino: Raphael's house

Urbino: Raphael’s house

Raphael’s father, Giovanni Santi, was a well-regarded court painter in Urbino. Born in 1483, Raphael had a privileged upbringing in and around the court at the Ducal Palace. The family home, a smart 15th century building in the centre of the city, is now a museum.

Raphael’s parents both died when he was a child. His father was reasonably wealthy, and had managed to apprentice his son to Perugino, a highly successful painter from Umbria (see earlier posts). Perugino’s influence can be seen in Raphael’s work, although Raphael left for Florence and Rome in his early 20s and broadened his techniques to embrace the earthier styles of the Florentine and Rome masters.

Few traces of the artist remain in Raphael’s house, but it is well worth a visit for its evocative atmosphere.

Urbino: Raphael's house - sculpture of Raphael

Urbino: Raphael’s house – sculpture of Raphael

Giovanni Santi also used the house as his workshop, and the stone on which he mixed his paints can still be seen in the courtyard.

Urbino: Raphael's house - paint stone

Urbino: Raphael’s house – paint stone

Several of Santi’s paintings are in the National Gallery of Umbria within the Ducal Palace.

Urbino: Ducal Palace, painting by Giovanni Santi

Urbino: Ducal Palace, painting by Giovanni Santi

In one of the rooms in Raphael’s house is a charming fresco of the Madonna and Child. This had been attributed to Santi, but more recent scholars believe this is an early work by Raphael, due to the use of light in the picture which is evident in his later paintings.

Urbino: Raphael's house - early fresco?

Urbino: Raphael’s house – early fresco?

Other than this one (possible) original painting, the museum only has copies of Raphael’s works, but they do illustrate the diversity and talent of this man who died at the young age of 37 but who left a wonderful legacy behind him.

Urbino: Raphael's house - copy of  "La Fornarina"

Urbino: Raphael’s house – copy of “La Fornarina”