Category Archives: Art & Architecture

The perfect autumn day

It’s been a pretty grim start to the autumn in London so far, which has been particularly depressing for me – I carefully planned my trip to avoid cold weather everywhere in the world so the impending winter will be my first for nearly two years – and then suddenly, unexpectedly, yesterday turned out to be glorious.

Now you may call me biased, but in my opinion there is no more beautiful city in the world than London on a day like yesterday. The blue of the autumn sky is deeper and the sun more gentle which flatters the city’s buildings far more than the harsher summer light or the usual grey skies. And not only were the skies clear, but it was unseasonably warm too – over 20 degrees.

Hayward Gallery

Hayward Gallery

Knowing it might be the last warm day of the year I rushed out to enjoy the sunshine and went for a lovely long walk through the city, starting out at London Bridge, wandering along the Thames, stopping off here and there along the way for coffee and to read the papers, but mostly playing with my new toy – my iPhone (when I left the UK no-one I knew had one and I vowed I'd never get one; by the time I returned everyone I knew did so I eventually succumbed) and the marvellous Hipstamatic app that produces lovely retro-styled pics.
View from the Golden Jubilee bridge

View from the Golden Jubilee bridge

Every step of the way and London was looking ravishingly gorgeous, especially all along the South Bank. As I crossed the Thames towards Charing Cross the sun was starting to dip in the sky and I suddenly had the urge to catch the sun set, so headed up through Soho, along Piccadilly and into Hyde Park. Suddenly it was like being back the height of summer – the place was packed with people eating ice cream, boating on the lake, showing off on rollerblades, and even sunbathing with their shirts off.

Sun setting over the Embankment

Sun setting over the Embankment

The highlight of the day was still to come though, for as I crossed into Kensington Gardens I remembered that the new Anish Kapoor installation had just opened. It consists of four monumental, stainless steel sculptures that reflect their surroundings, changing in appearance with the time of day and the weather.

Sky Mirror

Sky Mirror

C-Curve

C-Curve

They were all stunning. I think my favourite may be Sky Mirror, a giant concave circle that sits facing out across the Serpentine. But each is quite different and I’m going to have to go back soon to see them at different times of the day (especially Sky Mirror, Red – with the sun setting behind, it just looked black rather than its normal red).

Sunset over the Round Pond

Sunset over the Round Pond

Sunset

The last of the sun

I’d made it just in time to see all four before the sun shone its last rays across the Round Pond and finally dipped behind Kensington Palace. It was the perfect London day, and after a week where I’d been missing travelling reminded me how lucky I am to be living here.

You can see the full set of photos from my walk here (oh and yes, I know I promised posts on Croatia at some point…I will get there soon – hopefully before my next trip!)

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Sculpture by the Sea

I’ve spent a fair bit of time in Sydney before, so there wasn’t a lot I wanted to see that I hadn’t already. But there was one thing that stood out that I wanted to give a go – the annual sculpture by the sea exhibition. It’s a huge selection of public sculpture, much of it site-specific, sitting all along the cliff walk between Bondi and Tamarama beaches (which is a walk worth doing at any time of the year, even without sculptures, especially as I reckon Tamarama is much nicer than Bondi anyway).

There must have been well over a hundred pieces in total – and with that number there are bound to be hits and misses. But luckily the hits outweighed the misses, and it was a lovely way to spend a morning before ending up at Bondi for lunch and a dip on the sea on my last day in Australia.

Some of my favourites were sitting in the sand on Tamarama beach itself – including a rather disturbing giant baby, and a giant pink diamond. Elsewhere I loved the series of fake directional signs (done so well that they seemed to be ignored by most people wandering around the exhibition) that were dotted around along the path.

Here’s a selection of some of my favourites. It’s finished now for the year, but if you happen to be in Sydney next November, it’s well worth checking out.

You can see all of my photos of the exhibition here.

Valparaiso Graffiti & Street Art

One of my favourite things about Valpo was the huge amount of fantastic graffiti and street art dotted around the walls of the city, which help make an already beautiful and colourful city even moreso.

Here’s a selection of some of my favourites:

You can see the full collection of my Valpo street art photos here

Art Deco Miami

Miami was never somewhere I was desperate to go to, but with my round the world ticket it was the easiest way to get from Central America down to South America. Once the ticket was booked I figured it would be nice to spend a weekend relaxing on the beach, and enjoying the benefits of being ina developed country for a few days, including things I used to take for granted like not worrying about tap water and flushing paper down the toilet. Other than that, I really didn’t know what to expect, other than being vaguely aware that it had some nice Art Deco buildings.

I had no idea there were quite so many – I spent most of sunday just wandering around the streets of South Beach, and there are hundreds of them. So many in fact, that despite being so beautiful there are actually quite a few, especially off the main streets, that are semi-derelict, which is a shame. Most of the rest have been very well-preserved and maintained, and it makes the whole area one of the most beautiful beach resorts I’ve seen.

Other than wandering around taking in the local architecture, I spent most of the rest of the time relaxing on the beach, which was mostly fantastic (the water was the warmest I’ve ever swam in), although I should have paid attention to the clouds on sunday afternoon, as when I was swimming quite far out from the beach a thunderstorm suddenly broke out, and by the time I made it back to the beach my stuff was soaked right through. Luckily my camera was wrapped in my towel and survived unscathed, but my ageing mobile wasn’t so lucky, and despite drying out for several days since, it’s not quite the same again and the battery dies very quickly after charging. Think I may need to invest in a new one (or maybe just buy a watch, seeing as that’s all I use it for).

The one big downside to my weekend was the cost. I knew it would be more expensive than Central America, and it was certainly a shock to the system: I totally blew my budget on every score – Transport costs were the highest yet ($14 a day), thanks to awkward flight times making public transport unfeasible and having to use an airport shuttle instead. $22 a day for the hotel is pretty reasonable for South Beach, but it’s still double what I spent in Mexico, my previous highest. Biggest of all was food and drink – nearly $70 a day, probably not helped by my Friday night out (at $7 a beer. Ouch). Total budget came in at $116 a day, which is not as bad as I was expecting, but quite a hit all the same.

You can see the full set of pictures here

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Mexico & Guatemala in pictures: Shop fronts

Mexico & Guatemala are very colourful countries in so many ways, from the food, to the landscapes and the traditional dress of the indigenous peoples. But my favourite of all are the hand-painted store fronts and advertising that brighten up … Continue reading

Mexico in pictures 2: Murals

Aside from Frida Kahlo, probably the most famous Mexican artists are the great Muralists of the early 20th century. In the 1920s, soon after the Mexican revolution, the education minister commissioned various artists to create a series of public murals to increase awareness of the country’s history and cultures amongst the population, and to help build a unified sense of national identity. Many of the best works (by Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo’s husband, and David Alvaro Siqueiros) have strongly left-wing message, including highlighting the past and ongoing repression of indigenous peoples.

The movement spread across the country, and I saw examples in Mexico City, Aguascalientes, Guadalajara and Oaxaca, in various public buildings. Normally huge and often brightly coloured, they are a great way to learn a bit more about the country’s history. The ones by Jose Clemente Orozco in Guadalajara’s Instituto Cultural Cabañas are so impressive and historically important, they are now a World Heritage site. Here are pictures of some of my favourites.





San Miguel de Allende

San Miguel de Allende

San Miguel de Allende


Queretaro was pretty stunning – full of pink-stoned baroque churches; a centre full of colonila buildings in shades of yellow, orange, red and pink; and graceful tree-lined squares that were full of families strolling and listening to music by night – so I wasn’t sure how San Miguel de Allende, the second of four cities I planned to visit in the colonial northern heartland would measure up.

I needn’t have worried – San Miguel takes everything Queretaro has to offer, and then ups the ante by throwing in cobbled streets, a hillier location (giving beautiful views), one of Mexico’s most thriving arts scenes, and a selection of natural hot springs just outside the city.

The art scene has attracted lots of older, american expats, who I must admit I was a bit less keen on (lots of them seemed to have lived there for years and were still insisting on speaking English to all the locals). But it was easy enough to escape them and soak up the atmosphere wandering around the pretty streets. Most of the city is pretty well-kept, but I was particularly attracted to the ones that were starting to crumble.

Just outside the city is the Santuario de Atotonilco, a historic church that played an important part in the drive for Mexico’s independence – the fighters fought under a banner of the Virgin Mary taken from the church. Being in this part of Mexico I’ve seen a lot of historic churches, particularly baroque ones, and to be honest they all start to blend into one after a while. Not this one though – every surface of the entire interior is painted with various religious motifs, and it’s stunning. Until recently it was in a terrible state, but in recent years they’ve started to restore it. The work isn’t finished yet, but I have to say it’s the most beautiful church interior I’ve ever seen.

The most enjoyale part of my visit was getting to spend time getting to know some Mexicans. Queretaro was beuatiful, but I was the only tourist in my hostel, so I didn’t get to socialise much. In San Miguel, my hostel was full of Mexican tourists visiting for holy week, and a lovely young couple from Toluca, Luis & Diana, took me under their wing and showed me the sights. Diana in particular really helped me with my spanish, always talking slowly and clearly and really encouraging me; over the course of the three days I was there I spoke far more spanish than English, and crucially my confidence improved enormously and now I’m happy to try and talk and not worry too much about mistakes, and I think people seem to appreciate my efforts.

It was while talking to Luis & Diana in the street that I ended up having my strangest experience so far in my travels – mid-sentence I was suddenly interrupted by a woman asking me if I was English (she could tell from my accent). It turned out she was from Yorkshire, and without waiting for a response, insisted on dragging me down the road to see her house.

It was quite an experience. On my way in, I explained I only had twenty minutes as I had to catch the bus on to Guanajuato. In that time, she managed to give me a full tour of the house (including the shrine her boyfriend had built to her on Valentine’s Day), give me her a glass of her homemade Agua de Jamaica (a sort of cold hibiscus-flower tea that is very popular here), tell me her full life story (twice divorced, lived all over the world, various scarcely believable adventures), read me the first chapter of her semi-autobiographical novel (which focused on meeting her Turkish mother-in-law for the first time) – which was interrupted by her rushing out in the street to feed carrots to the passing donkeys – and take my blood pressure. I barely got a word in edgeways (most memorably when she interrupted reading to ask me what type of women I liked. I replied that I preferred men, she laughed, shouted “up the arse!” and then carried on with her reading).

Cynthia is 73 (although she certainly doesn’t look it), and I’ll be amazed if I meet quite such a character for the rest of my trip. Absolutely lovely, and truly barking.

You can see all of my photos of San Miguel de Allende here

My own private world heritage site: the Plantin-Moretus museum

Now I’m not stupid enough to think that the list of World Heritage sites is flawless, or that it’s not skewed by national politics. But it is normally a pretty good guide to interesting places to see when visiting somewhere new (and I don’t think you can blame UNESCO for making potentially interesting sitesas dull as ditchwater by ruining them with compulsory snoozesome guided tours).

Book illustration by Rubens

Book illustration by Rubens

Despite that, I was a little underwhelmed by reading about Antwerp’s main one, the Plantin-Moretus museum. The prospect of visiting a small museum based in and on the subject of an old publishing house hardly generated the excitement I got from the thought of, say, climbing a Mayan temple in a jungle.

But thanks to a personal recommendation, we figured we might as well give it a go. Now I know I said that Antwerp was virtually empty of tourists; what I didn’t expect to find was there to be so few that we had one of the city’s most famous museums entirely to ourselves. And I mean *entirely*. It was like having a private visit. Just like the city as a whole, people are seriously missing out.

Central courtyard at the Plantin Moretus museum

Central courtyard at the Plantin Moretus museum

The museum is in a collection of 16th century buildings, surrounding a central courtyard, that housed a publishing house founded by Christophe Plantijn in 1576. The museum today houses all the artifacts of the old printing process, including the oldest surviving printing presses in the world and workshops where the presses were made.

The oldest printing presses in the world

The oldest printing presses in the world

As well as the print works, the building was also the home of the owners, and houses their hugely valuable library, many of which were printed on-site and on display in cabinets, including volumes illustrated by the city’s most famous son, Rubens (elsewhere in the house you can find various portraits of family members by him too), and the world’s first illustration of the potato.

Cabinet & Rubens portraits

Cabinet & Rubens portraits

The interior of the house is fascinating too, with some of the walls bound with leather decorated with gold leaf, original tapestries, and more portraits. The courtyard itself contains a quiet little garden too.

Tapestry detail

Tapestry detail

Best of all, for a geography geek like me, was the room full of old globes and maps from what was described as the golden age of Flemish cartography (1540-1590 apparently), including an early edition of a pocket-sized edition of Mercator’s maps. I could have spent hours in there, and would have loved to have had the chance to go through those old atlases in more detail.

16th Century map of Holland

16th Century map of Holland

I suppose it’s always good to places with low expectations, but in this case it really paid off. It’s one of the most unusual and fascinating museums I’ve ever been to, and if you’re a book lover, a geography geek or just have any interest in history, I’d heartily recommend it.

Martin Creed’s Work no. 850

The last thing you expect in an art gallery is to be nearly knocked off your feet by a man sprinting flat out down the main atrium, in full running gear. The look of shock on the faces of some of the visitors as they ducked out of the way was priceless (and infinitely better than the whole of the Turner Prize exhibition put together), so much so that it’s a shame I already knew what to expect, meaning I didn’t get to experience the shock myself. Martin Creed’s Work no. 850 consisted of a person running flat out through Tate Britain every thirty seconds, and is the most fun artwork I’ve seen in ages.

The work was inspired by the artist having to literally run through a museum to catch it all before closing time, prompting uncontrollable laughter:

I think it’s good to see museums at high speed. It leaves time for other things.

It’s a great philosophy I think. And one I might suggest the owners of the Wieliczka Salt Mines allow. It’d certainly liven the place up.

Tate Modern: TH.2058, Rothko and Cildo Meireles

After the relative disappointment of my trip to the National Gallery, I returned to more familiar territory: Tate Modern. I’ve been a member of the Tate almost since it opened, but this trip was one I was particularly looking forward to, as it was my first chance to see the newly-opened Rothko exhibition.

The Rothko room at the Tate has always been my favourite part of the gallery, so the chance to see an expanded exhibition, grouping them together for the first time with the other paintings originally designed to go in the restaurant at the Seagram building in New York was something I definitely didn’t want to miss. I find it hard to put into words exactly why I like his work so much, I just know they bring out quite a strong emotional response in me. There’s been a fair bit of criticism about the way the work has been hung (apparently in line with Rothko’s wishes, with low light, against off-white walls, and relatively high up on the wall) but to me it just seemed to enhance the power.

As well as the main room, there were several other rooms featuring other examples of his later, darker work – one of which had a series of paintings that were entirely black, which I loved. (Does this mean I’m going emo?). There’s also a little section where they show close-ups of sections of work as seen under UV light, which really shows up the complexities of the paintings, each one made up of numerous layers of brushstrokes running in different directions.

While I knew I’d love the Rothkos, I had no idea what to expect from the other main exhibition, focusing on Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles. As it was free (as a member), there was nothing to lose by popping in – and I’m glad we did, it turned out to be brilliant. In parts thought-provoking, serious, playful and subversive, it’s one of the most fun I’ve been to. Best of all were the more interactive bits – walking across layers of broken glass (‘Through’) was a strangely disconcerting experience; doing the same over 600,000 1p coins (‘Mission/Missions’) fun – until we got told off by the guard (how were we to know we could walk on the glass but not the coins??).

Detail of Mission / Missions (How to build cathedrals), 1967 - aka lots of shiny pennies

Detail of Mission / Missions (How to build cathedrals), 1967 - aka lots of shiny pennies

Sadly queues meant we missed out on what sounds like the best bit – ‘Volatile’, a room which is knee-deep in talcum powder, that you have to take your shoes off to go into, maximum four at a time. I’m definitely going back for that one.

Finally we headed down to the Turbine Hall to see the latest exhibit in the Unilever Series, TH.2058 by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster. And quite frankly it’s rubbish. Probably my least favourite so far (just beating my previous least-liked, Doris Salcedo’s ‘Shibboleth’, aka the Crack). It’s based around a distopian vision of the future. Being a bit of a sci-fi nerd, this should’ve been right up my street. But really – some metal bunk-beds, a series of clips of old sci-fi films and some giant reconstructions of London’s famous outdoor sculptures? As distopias go it’s pretty silly. You’d do better to pick up any of the similarly-themed books scattered across the beds and read them instead, which is what most of the visitors in fact seemed to be doing.

TH.2058 at Tate Modern

TH.2058 at Tate Modern


All in all a much more rewarding day than the trip to the National.