Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Old French Cars

Walking through the Place de l’Horloge on my way to take photos of the famous Avignon bridge, I happened upon a vintage car show that was being held in front of the city hall.  It was part of a week-long celebration of seniors – evidently all kinds of seniors.  Small as the show was, it had some interesting relics.  I have an abiding love of classic cars.  I’ve been to classic car shows and museums, if I’ve got my camera with me, I always photograph an interesting old car on the street, and I used to drive a classic car myself – a 1964 Volvo P1800.

There is more to French cars than old Citroens as I quickly found out walking through the small display.   I am most familiar with the Citroen 2cv which, I just discovered, was made from 1948 until 1990 – 42 years!    It is the icon of French motoring, and is probably the image that comes to mind when any of us think of a French car.  Certainly every American or Brit going native in the French countryside drives one in films. 

And then there is the black Citroen Traction Avant, the first mass produced front wheel drive car.   First produced in 1934, these aren’t as common as the 2cvs, but if you’re an Inspector Maigret fan, you are familiar with them because they used to be the standard police cars and one or more always makes an appearance in any episode of any of the Maigret television series.  (The BBC production with Michael Gambon is great, as is the French series with Bruno Cremer.  If you haven't seen them, you can watch and decide for yourself which is the better of the two.  Both are available at my Amazon store).

There weren’t more than 20 cars in the show and they weren’t all French.  

The one that won first prize was, in my opinion, a fabulous little thing.  I asked the owner what it was and darn, I didn’t write it down, don’t remember what he said, and having scrolled through dozens of old French car photos on the internet, can't find it.  All I remember is that it was a 1954 model.  Renault?  Peugeot?  Do you know?

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

A Van Gogh Pilgrimage

As is sometimes the case when I travel, this year’s vacation included a pilgrimage.  Most years my vacation base is Avignon.  Avignon is a hub which makes it convenient for visiting other towns in the area, it has some great restaurants, it’s beautiful, provides for some great walks, and each time I go there it becomes more like a second home, so going there is enjoyable and comfortable.  The fact that it was once the papal seat means nothing to me except that it resulted in the monumental Pope’s Palace.

Arles, however, was always special because Vincent van Gogh lived there for 16 months and created 200 paintings and 100 drawings during that short time.  Many of these paintings are among his most famous.  It was where Gauguin came to live with him – a disaster of a visit that ended in Van Gogh’s mutilating his ear and setting off the series of his worst epileptic fits – what became the beginning of the end for him.

 I’ve walked in the Alyscamps, been to what was the hospital where he was treated, walked along the river where he painted his starry night over the Rhone.  Each time I visit, walking into town from the railway station, I pass by the square where his yellow house once stood, and I’ve passed many times by café of the café terrace at night.  What I never managed to do was find the Langlois Bridge – the bridge that he painted four times in oil, once in water color, and drew four times – the bridge that has become an icon.

Clearly the bridge sits across a waterway, but the road directions seemed to take you off onto some sort of highway that doesn’t run along the river.  Since I always go to Arles by train, I wanted to walk to the bridge.  I knew it was no longer in its original location, but I didn’t want to navigate along a highway full of traffic to get to it.  So this time I wrote in advance to the Arles tourist office to ask for directions to get there by foot.

I saved my visit to the fabulous Saturday market for after my pilgrimage, passing through it quickly and then off onto the footpath that followed a canal to my destination.  The nice man at the tourist office said would take 30-40 minutes to walk to. 

It’s 2.7 kilometers from Arles to the bridge, and it took me almost an hour.  But never mind.  It was a lovely walk along a canal and well worth the time.  Maybe it took me so long because I was constantly stopping to take pictures:  of the canal, of the boats and barges, of the fishermen, and of the old Citroens.

Coming around a bend and seeing the bridge from a distance was an “Oh my goodness” moment.    

Inspecting it at close quarters was a real pleasure.  No lines, no barriers, almost no people.  There were two young German families there too, so I just about had the place to myself.

The original bridge was built in the first half of the 19th century as part of a project to expand the networks of canals that go to the Mediterranean.  That was replaced in 1930 by a reinforced concrete bridge that in 1944, along with all but one of the other bridges along the canal, was blown up by the Germans.  The only surviving bridge was moved in 1959 to the site along the canal, a little outside of Arles, where it now sits and where people like me come to pay their respect.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

More Than Just Toys

For anyone who enjoys, toys, antiques and nostalgia, the Museu del Joguet (Toy Museum) in Figueres is the place to go.    Housed in a grand building dating from 1767, the collection is based on the donation of a local collector in 1982.   Since then the collection has grown with donations from many others.  In a way it is a personal museum where you can find among the ancient toys, vintage photos of some of the people whose toys were donated through the years and some who are sitting or playing with their toys.  Even if you live here, you might not be familiar with many of the people in the photos.  But some – including the present and former Presidents of the Catalan government – are familiar to everyone here.

Dolls are often weird.  Toy cars are great.  Miniature stage sets where you could stage your own play are delightful.  Stuffed animals are eternal.  Army and war toys are unfortunate, but a fact of life.  The photos of Catalans, some of them famous, taken when they were children, are priceless. 

A whole display case of caganers 

Not just any bear, this once belonged to
Anna Maria, Salvador Dali's sister
Salvador Dali, age 6
Carles Puigdemont, President of the
Generalitat of Catalunya

Artur Mas, former President of the
Generalitat of Catalunya

Either the father and uncle or grandfather
and great uncle of one of my friends
from the dog park!

There were two photos that were especially moving.  One was of Salvador Puig Antic, a young Catalan anarchist, born in Barcelona, who, in 1974, at age 25, was executed in Barcelona by the Franco regime, having been accused of killing a Guardia Civil.   His photo sits alongside his model train set that his family donated to the museum.

The second photo is of Muriel Casals i Couturier.  In it, at age six, she is sitting and reading Babar.  Muriel was the President of Omnium Cultural, a Catalan cultural organization for several years and became a household name when she became one of the two main driving forces – together with Carme Forcadell -- behind the grassroots Catalan independence movement.  Beloved by many people here, she died tragically in February 2016 after having been struck by a bicycle in Barcelona.  

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Path to Surrealism

Last Saturday my walking pal Jaume and I did our usual walk to Vilabertran, but this time it was without the dogs and with a group of people we didn’t know.  The event was sponsored by the Friends of the Dalí Museum, of which I am a member.  The purpose was to learn about the painter’s experiences in the nearby village, where one of his best friends lived.

Salvador Dalí was born and lived the early part of his life in Figueres.  His good friend Ramon Reig had a house in nearby Vilabertran and he went there often on weekends.  When there, he spent a fair amount of time painting.

On the way to Vilabertran you pass a stand of trees off to one side that seem to hide a house.  I’ve always been curious about that house which I figured was probably an old farmhouse and maybe one of those beautiful old stone constructions.  But there is no evident way to get to it.  There is one small path that cuts off in that direction, but then it is cut off by a wall.  I learned that near the house there is a spring.

As it turns out, that is the old path that Dalí would take when he went to Vilabertran.  Indeed, Jaume used to go there as a kid for picnics at the spring.  As happens here, someone who later owned the property put up walls so that people could no longer pass through.  But it turns out that the right-of-way is public, and the local governments have sued to have the path reopened.  This may even happen sometime soon.

In the village there is also a small lake, much talked about by Dalí and his sister, and much painted by the two boys.  But we couldn’t see that either.  Some other property owner has walled that off.  Peeking over the top, it seems to be a jungle, but the wall is too high to actually see inside.  We did, however, see images of the paintings done all those years ago when, evidently, there weren’t as many walls about.

We visited the church and cloister of Santa Maria, a beautiful medieval compound.  Of course Dalí must have been familiar with it, but I don’t recall any concrete reason for our visit except that it is the jewel of the village and is home to a rather impressive, large, gilded cross.

Dalí’s friend Ramon Reig, a youngster his own age, had inherited from an uncle the impressive modernist villa that still stands and that is now the Vilabertran city hall.  Reig was also a painter and when they were together, while the rest of the family chatted, ate, and drank, the two boys spent their time painting.  It was interesting, on our walk, to see images of a few of their paintings from that time, side by side.  It’s not like you would have any idea which ones were by the genius.  He had a long way to go before adopting surrealism as his way of expressing himself in art and in life.

While Dalí went on to become, well, Dalí.  Reig became an art teacher.  In fact, Reig was my friend Jaume’s art teacher when he was in school.  Jaume was thrilled to learn more about his old teacher directly from the man’s granddaughter.  And she seemed equally thrilled to chance upon someone on the tour who had known and studied with her grandfather.  And I could only marvel at how much a small town Figueres really is, where, as they always tell me, everyone knows everyone.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Sant Jordi: Roses and Books

People who can celebrate their patron saint with books and roses have to have something going for them.  Sant Jordi (Saint George) is Catalunya’s patron saint and celebrate with books and roses is exactly what Catalans do.

The reason for the rose is simple.  George killed the dragon (and saved the princess) and where the dragon’s blood fell a red rose grew.

Sant Jordi became a Catalan holiday in 1456 and ever since then men have been giving their loved one a red rose.

But the book?  Was George an avid reader?  Did he write?  The idea of the book came from a Barcelona bookseller way back in 1923 when he realized that William Shakespeare and Miquel Cervantes both died on 23 April 1616 (although it seems that Cervantes died on 22 April and was buried on the 23rd, but never mind) and thought maybe this coincidence would improve business.

And so it came to be that 23 April is celebrated with roses and books.  The tradition is that the man gives the woman a rose and the woman gives the man a book.  But in fact, it is much more free-form than that and there are lots of books for children as well as for adults.

Sant Jordi is lovely.  In any city, town, or village, the main street or square will be lined with stalls selling books and roses.  Some of the stands are from bookshops and florists, others are non-profit, community, and political organizations set up to sell flowers or books or both as fund-raisers.  As you'd expect, the biggest book and flower fair is on the Rambla in Barcelona which is packed down its length and from side to side with books and roses, and teaming with thousands of people.  The Rambla of Figueres was also teaming with people when I went at noon with Cupcake to visit the stand of the rescue group who brought him to me.  But it was so crowded that I couldn't walk comfortably with the dog.  When I returned later, closer to lunch time, it had thinned out and I could take some photos.  When I too left to return home for lunch, it was clouding up, and while I was still walking it started to rain.

In 1995, seeing the Catalan holiday and thinking that celebrating books (and the death of two of literature's greatest) was a good idea, UNESCO declared 23 April World Book Day.  And so now, it is possible that in any city anywhere you might find a book celebration, especially this year, the 400th anniversary of the death of the two greats.  If you don’t find one, you might want to help instigate one for next year.  It’s never too late to celebrate.