Weave and flow – extracts from a Sardinian holiday #2

“It should be just up here,” said Stefano, as we bounced along yet another dusty, isolated track at the base of Monte Nieddu.

As before, there was no signage to indicate if indeed, this was the right way to the swimming hole. All we had to go on from the beginning was word of mouth and the name of the nearest village. That, and some directions from an elderly woman who appeared to be the only resident in town on this particular day.

In the back, the children could barely keep their eyes open while Veronica and her sister leaned their heads wearily against the window like two convicts in cross-country transit.

Suddenly, a red estate appeared from the opposite direction. The driver stopped and exchanged words with Stefano. It turned out they were also looking for the elusive river and had information on its whereabouts. Stefano swung the car round at the nearest layby and headed back down the hill. By the side of the road, the driver and his son waved us down and pointed to a pathway heading through the pine woods.

With renewed vigour, we piled out of the car and followed them down a thin track. Before long, the trees petered out and we were surrounded by sun-bleached granite formations that seemed to weave  and flow almost like a river. The path began to descend into a blind gorge and then we were presented with that most precious of resources – water.

Despite the midsummer heat, a steady stream made its way between the rock and collected in a pool just right for jumping into. On the far side, the water continued its journey off the lip of a ravine and plummeted into another gorge where a group of climbers were following its course deeper into the landscape.

 

 

I could drive forever – extracts from a Sardinian holiday #1

The heat bore down on my head as I crossed the car park of Il Redentore. The door handle to the hire car was almost too hot to touch and the seat burned the backs of my legs as I sat down. I cranked up the air con to full blast, letting the coolness fill my lungs. Then I began to feel excited.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I wasn’t enjoying the festivities. After all, it’s not everyday you get invited to a traditional Sardinian wedding with all the wild boar, seafood and herbaceous liquors you could ask for being (literally) handed to you on a platter.

However, I was finding the 40 degree heat a struggle and the continuous effort to communicate as the only foreigner at the party was a strain. I needed a breather and the only escape was the road in this part of the island.

I took a right out of the gates and quickly realised I had made a mistake when the road veered towards the motorway. I imagined being forced miles away from my only reference point, before a slip road funnelled me, panicked and sweating, into the indistinguishable landscape.

Thankfully, this being the Sardinian countryside, I was the only car on the road so I casually swung it around and cruised off in the opposite direction.

No sooner had I passed by the venue than all signs of civilisation dissapeared.  On either side of me, burnt yellow fields rose up towards the hilltops. Tufts of greenery still peppered the scenery, however, and great bushes of magenta flowers were bursting from the roadside.

Further on, the road opened out on to a spectacular straight, its vanishing point nestled far within the hills. I considered I should probably turn back at this point. It was hardly the most sensible idea to be driving away from the only place I knew, alone, in a foreign wilderness. But I also knew that adventure doesn’t often come from being sensible. So I put my foot down.

Adela Breton: the life and work of an artist and explorer

It would have taken days, weeks even, to reach South America. Then followed a journey on horseback into the Mexican jungle to work in searing heat, all the while battling fever and bites from numerous insects.

This is something of what Adela Breton, the Victorian artist and explorer, describes about her travels to ancient Mexico in two exhibitions currently on show. The first, at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institute (BRLSI) looks at Breton’s personal life and her experiences working at the Mayan ruins.

Growing up in Bath, Breton began donating objects and works to the institute following her trips to Central America. Some of these are on display along with a timeline of her working life displayed on panels in the foyer of the institute.

One of the most interesting things are copies of her sketchbooks, which feature watercolours of the surrounding landscapes and people of Mexico as well as photos that give a real flavour of  life in some of the towns and villages during that period.

The second exhibition at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery looks at Breton’s artistic practice. It’s on a somewhat grander scale, showcasing some of the huge tracings and paintings she produced while visiting the ruins.

The exhibition is the culmination of a much larger project to conserve, store and digitise the collection of her works. Breton began passing on her findings and works to the museum after the BRLSI could no longer provide the space to look after them. Bristol’s collection stands at over 1400 items and prior to the exhibition, the conservation team spent four years restoring and preserving the huge range of artworks.

Harry Metcalf, Paper Conservator at the museum, was involved in the project and says how the process gave them an insight into Breton – the artist.

“What’s interesting is that she used a variety of methods to record the decoration and carvings, including prints, watercolours, sketches and notes. This has enabled us to understand how she went about working at the sites and the techniques that she used.”

Many clues are visible in the works such as various cuts she made in the paper, which Harry believes were done to create a ‘flap’ that she could lift up to view the wall beneath her drawings. The cuts were then sealed with brown paper tape which discoloured over time. The conservators left it in place however, as it gives a valuable indication to how Breton worked.

There are also many sections that have been left blank, leading curators to believe that she wanted to remain true to what she was copying where detail had already been eroded or damaged. This highlights how crucial her work was in capturing the details of the remains before some of them were lost forever.

“One of the most important aspects of her work is that very little of the original colour exists so this collection is supposedly now the most comprehensive record of how they would have looked at the turn of the 20th century.”

Mounting the pieces proved quite a challenge as Breton worked exactly to scale. Harry used a technique called strip-lining, where pieces of a Japanese paper were used to attach the edges of the drawings to a rigid backing board.Using a conventional picture frame would have added too much weight for them to be moved and would also have caused problems in displaying matching sections of paintings.

One piece consists of four sections and there wasn’t enough space in the gallery to display them one on top of the other. But the team were still able to hang two pairs close enough so that visitors can see where the details join up.

“It’s not often that works of this size are put on display. It’s a great opportunity for people to come and view these extraordinary works and learn about the life of a remarkable person.”

Part of this article together with pictures of the conservation project can be seen on the website of Bristol Museum & Art Gallery.

One for the road

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They say it’s the journey and not the destination that counts. But that’s not immediately obvious when you’re driving for six hours up a motorway.

We were on our way from Bristol to Newcastle to attend the opening of an exhibition that featured some of my partner’s work. Normally, I’m all for a good old road trip, but the endless winding grey punctuated by industrial sites and Costa/McDonalds/Subway combinations was starting to get to me.

Things changed, however, when we passed a slumbering power station, dressed murky gold by the afternoon sun. My partner took a few snaps of it and suddenly the road took on a different meaning.
Within the strange, alien landscape we found art. Brutal concrete shapes became contemporary wonders and boundaries walls formed painted lines along with the trees and the sky. Swooping power lines looked dramatic against shifting clouds and there was even the occasional splash of colour, such as the OK Diner just north of Middlesborough.

It made me think that even in the bleakest of locations or the dullest of prospects, it’s possible to find a creative spark. Sometimes all we need is a little shake up of our perceptions in order to see something in a new light. On other occasions, however, it’s more about shaking loose any assumptions we might have to see what’s really on offer.

This was very much the case when we finally arrived in Newcastle. Admittedly, my expectations were limited to a city of smokestacks, bad weather and a mildly irritating accent. But as we crossed the majestic Tyne Bridge, I was faced with a glittering city that was anything but the crumbling industrial hulk it had once been.

Like the transformation of numerous East London boroughs, redundant buildings had been turned into artspaces and studios while brand-new apartments and construction sites jostled each other for space. The gallery itself was situated in a former biscuit factory and the place was teeming with visitors excited to see the new season of work that was on display.

This experience brought home a realisation that, despite being nothing new, seemed pressingly relevant. When faced with something as devastating as the closure of businesses and loss of jobs, buildings and neighbourhoods require nothing short of a complete renewal in order that they don’t crumble and waste away. Much like industry, attitudes die hard, but it seemed clear that we need to be ready to embrace transitions rather than resist them in order that cities and society at large can move into the future in the best possible way.

I got the impression Newcastle was trying to do just that. And the accent wasn’t bad either.

Set sail for a new city

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It was back in the summer of ’14 when I got my hands on the Los Angeles edition of Boat Magazine. The hazy rays that came through the window of the bar I was in seemed to go well with the dusky image on the front cover.

I opened the pages and started to read. Like a good book that you just can’t put down, I quickly found myself  drawn in as discerning articles told of the extraordinariness of ordinary individuals living in the city. But more than that, it was the delicate composition of words that captivated me and a seemingly heightened awareness of the subject matter that isn’t generally found in your average travel magazine. 

From then on, I was hooked and am now the proud owner of six issues of Boat. Not to be confused with maritime glossies, the word ‘Boat’ refers to the ‘floating’ nature of the magazine. Twice a year the team behind it pack up their office and head off to a new city to seek out the stories and the people that help mould a sense of identity about the place. 

The secret to this seems to lie in their approach; by inviting local writers and artists to present their own view of the city they call home alongside visiting contributors, the magazine is able to provide a perspective from both inside and out.  

Invariably, this makes for some pretty diverse reading. My favourite issue on Kyoto, for example, opens with a complex introduction to the city from a resident of 25 years, detailing the intricacies of society and its ability to assimilate new culture. Then follows a feature on ancient forestry practices that are kept alive by a few committed workers while further on, a delicate set of interviews shed light on the hidden lives of the homeless population. 

Yet, for all their individuality, what’s prevalent is a sense of intimacy and sensitivity towards the nuances of place, which threads everything together. The result is a compilation of writing that not only informs, but leaves you with a sense of having glimpsed an inner nature that not many travellers, maybe even citizens, are likely to encounter. This is what keeps me coming back to the magazine rack every six months and its also the reason I’ve kept every issue, so that I might take one out and dip into it, like bottled essence, should life in my own corner of the world become a little dull. 

Off-peak

 

Image by Dominic Goodman
Image by Dominic Goodman

 

Hi, honey.

Yes, there is some wildlife, in a sense.

No, but I’m sure they’d fill it up if we asked them.

Well, it’s difficult to see past the road, but I’m bet there’s some lovely walks around.

I know it’s in the middle of nowhere. I thought that was the idea.

Look, I think you’re over reacting.

Well, I’ve booked it now.

Don’t call me that.

So, what am I going to do; stay here on my own?

I see.

All roots lead upwards – part one

Following a satisfyingly high-speed train journey from Lake Como to Florence, we begun the second part of our holiday in Italy. The first had involved the baptism of my 8 month old daughter and all the preparation, organising (and socialising!) had left us in need of a break. What better place to do it than in Tuscany!

Taking a local train out of Florence we arrived at the rural outpost of Sant’ Allero where the owner of our accommodation picked us up.  A five-minute drive brought us to Agriturismo Petrognano, a converted farmhouse in the hills of Tuscany where we were to stay for the next four nights. The place was idyllic and incredibly peaceful, not least because, being out of season, we were the only guests on site. 100 hectares to ourselves not to mention a swimming pool…

The first day we spent exploring the area’s fields and olive groves, which threw up the occasional surprise such as wild roe and an extremely aggressive cockerel (!) Then we treated ourselves to a four course dinner cooked by the host, Christiano, with cold meats, a pasta dish and meat platter followed strawberries and Chantilly cream.

The next day was the main event; a visit to the city of Florence. We took the train in and set about exploring the streets. The cathedral was the principal sight as we left the station and was probably one of the most impressive buildings in the city. But with queues around the block to see inside, this was no way to spend a day and with my mums original 1960’s map as our guide, we roamed the elegant streets.

Not long afterwards, however, we fell victim to a powerful thunderstorm, which had everyone, tourists and Firenzians alike, running for the coffee shops. A large ice-cream later and a barrage of street-sellers trying to flog us cheap umbrellas, we headed for a series of steps that rose up to Piazza De Michelangelo. It turned out that not only did this bring us to an unprecedented view of Florence, but also to a great area full of restaurants and local shops virtually devoid of tourists (all too busy walking over the nearby Pontevecchio).

On top of that, the sun came out, making the climb and the view all the more worthwhile.