City dreams

July 17, 2014

Photo by Marie Laigneau

Photo by Marie Laigneau

Some cities (Paris, Vienna) are naturally beautiful and seem to photograph well from just about every angle. It takes a perceptive, creative, and imaginative eye to locate the particular appeal of cities whose beauty is less ubiquitous or obvious, however, especially American urban centers, which most often were built with function rather than form in mind. Her gaze trained on Chicago, French-born photographer Marie Laigneau captures quiet moments and soft details amidst a landscape of hard angles and intimidating, angular skyscrapers. Her exhibit, Fragments of dreams, runs through July 18 at the Harold Washington Library (400 S. State Street).

A room, but which view?

June 18, 2014

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View from Piazzale Michelangelo

“It was pleasant to wake up in Florence…to fling wide the windows, pinching fingers in unfamiliar fastenings, to lean out into the sunshine with beautiful hills and trees and marble churches opposite, and close below, the Arno, gurgling against the embankment of the road.”

In the 1985 and 2007 film versions based on E.M. Forster’s lovely novel ‘A room with a view’ the titular view is from the Oltrarno side of the river. The first paragraph of the novel, however, states that Lucy Honeychurch (what a name!) and her cousin Miss Bartlett were promised ‘south rooms with a view’. Might Forster have been invoking a view closer to this?

 

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Forster modeled the Pensione Bertolini on the Pensione Simi at 2 Lungarno delle Grazie*, which is indeed on the north side of the Arno, and just around the corner from Santa Croce, Lucy’s first stop in Florence. The photo below, taken from Ponte alle Grazie, offers a view from nearby to where the Pensione Simi once stood.

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The last time I was in Florence my view was what Miss Lavish might call that of “the true Italy”, or what Miss Bartlett might call”a failure”. But in Florence, pretty much any view will do for me.

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A view of “the true Italy”

*According to ‘Florence and Tuscany: a literary guide for travellers’ by Ted Jones.

This site is a great resource on the film locations for Merchant Ivory’s ‘A room with a view’ adaptation.

While the views aren’t spectacular, I’d recommend Home in Florence, a B&B, to anyone going to Florence. It’s in the Oltrarno area, just a few steps from the Boboli and lots of great restaurants. The proprietors were always helpful, our room was spacious, and the breakfast room was open all day, so you could always pop in for a snack or espresso.

Temple of Vesta, Rome

Temple of Vesta

“Rome living was the world’s sole ornament, and dead is now the world’s sole monument.” – Edmund Spenser, Ruins of Rome

via Sacra

The ruins of Rome lie scattered throughout the city, a few of their intricate details still in place, but mostly fragments of a once greater whole.

Temple of Saturn

Temple facades stand along the remaining streets of the Forum, proud and resolute against the passing of time.

Colosseum

Symbols, attractions, ornaments, marvels, wonders of the world…

sky above the Roman Forum

They will emerge with the dawn for another day, and another, long after we’re gone.

all good things

Australian journalist Sarah Turnbull’s ‘All good things: from Paris to Tahiti, life and longing‘ chronicles her journey from the City of Light to an island synonymous with paradise. The move is the result of a job transfer, but was eagerly embraced following a period of creative and professional stagnancy.

Perhaps because of her relatability, Sarah Turnbull’s previous memoir ‘Almost French‘ stood out from other “Anglophone moves to Paris and discovers great food, bewildering cultural differences, inner joie de vivre, and the secret of French style” tomes that were pretty popular a few years back. But ‘All good things’ is a different sort of book than ‘Almost French’. While it explores cultural differences from an astute and honest perspective, there’s less lightness and humor and, perhaps, deeper reflection. I admit that the sections detailing scuba diving and the natural wonders of the island had my eyes glazing over bit, but I was wholly captivated by the sections that dealt with longing: for inspiration, understanding, and new life.

I was moved by Sarah’s descriptions of the complexity of feelings that arise when facing what seem to be (and sometimes are) insurmountable barriers between herself and motherhood. She is also adept at capturing the isolation and claustrophobia that can be just as potent to life on an island as the dreamy sunsets and glorious flora. The Polynesians Sarah befriends are also vividly rendered; kind, generous, and open, they represent the beauty of Tahiti as much as warm breezes off a glimmering, turquoise sea.

London view

View from “our” flat in Chelsea

Vacation apartment rentals in Europe can be a great choice economically as well as practically: most units come equipped with kitchens and washer/dryer combos, so you can potentially save money on food by eating some meals in, and save space in your bags for souvenirs by packing less. But my favorite aspect of short-term vacation rentals is the local experience factor; whenever I’m in a cool city or town I like to play the ‘what-if-I-lived-here’ game, and renting a place makes that game come alive.

When I began looking for apartment rentals for our trip to London in June, I didn’t have much time. The trip was rather last minute (due to factors I’ll divulge in a later post), and while we wanted to see a few places in England, it would center around London, a notoriously expensive city. If I could find a deal on lodging, we’d have more freedom to indulge in other areas.

Pillows

Details that make a vacation rental a temporary home.

Short-term apartment rentals or private room rentals can be found via independent owners (airbnb, for example, lists over 5,000 places to stay throughout London), but I decided to start with an agency. There are loads and loads of good, well-reviewed short-term apartment rental agencies for London, and it was tough narrowing my focus down to just a few. It helped that I had an idea of where I wanted to stay (near Hyde Park or in or near Bloomsbury), so if an agency didn’t offer anything I liked in either of those areas, I would move on to the next one. Once I found apartments that I was interested in, I contacted the agencies with my dates and waited for a quote.

South Ken tube stop

Shops and restaurants abound around the South Kensington tube stop

All of the agencies listed below responded quickly and if they didn’t have anything for my specific dates, offered an alternative.

Rental agencies in London: 

Coach house rentals – They don’t have the flashiest web site out there, but they offer some really nice looking apartments in good locations throughout London, and the reps were great in getting back to me and in following up. Here’s a list of highlighted properties, and here’s the flat I was dreaming about.

London Perfect - I’d heard of Paris Perfect before, but didn’t realize until I started trip planning for London that they had a London branch as well. This agency seems to specialize in, well, special places for those with a generous budget. Still, I found a couple of nice looking studios that wouldn’t have broken the bank, and the staff were helpful and prompt in my communications with them.

The London Agent – Another agency with properties all over the city. When none of the properties in Bloomsbury I was interested in were available, the rep suggested a nearby flat at a reasonable rate as an alternative. They also followed up with me closer to my trip to see if I was still looking, and to offer a couple of other alternatives.

A Place Like Home - None of the properties I was interested in were available (I wasn’t booking completely last minute, but definitely not as far out as I normally would), but like The London Agent the Place Like Home rep sent a few flats a comparable price.

In the end, I didn’t rent through an agency but rather went with a private owner I found on Homeaway. Renting with Homeaway and VRBO can be riskier than using an agency, but you’ll also pay a little (or sometimes a lot) less. Our temporary home in London was a tiny, well-appointed and well-equipped studio in Chelsea, near the South Kensington tube stop. I had contacted the owner of this flat in the same building, but as it was booked, she offered another studio a floor or so higher up with a similar layout. The owner was attentive and readily available during our stay, and the price was just unbeatable, especially for the location.  I would easily recommend the flat to a single person or a couple that doesn’t mind being in close contact.

Mont-St-Michel

April 21, 2013

Mont-St-Michel

Mont-St-Michel is an occasional island in Normandy, France that is so stunning it’s worth battling the hordes inching their way up the Grand Rue to reach La Merveille (“the miracle”). The three tiers of thirteenth century buildings surrounding an abbey topped with a golden statue of Saint Michael, his posture combative, are indeed a marvel and a vision of strength and simplicity.

crowded Grand Rue

In summer, the Mont is crowded with tourists arriving by bus or car before making their way across the ramparts to clog the streets on their slow journey up to the abbey, whose spire dramatically crowns the Mont.

Hotel Croix Blanche

A cacophony of voices in innumerable languages mingle their way up and up. “Doucement, doucement,” French mothers advise small children and they climb the old stone steps: softly, softly.

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The Abbey moves closer into view.

from the abbey at Mont-St-MichelAlong the way are glimpses are calm, stark beauty.

abbey at Mont-St-MichelFinally, the abbey. The Eglise Abbatiale doesn’t impress with ornate stained glass or artwork. In fact, it is surprisingly sparse and simple and quiet and, like a sudden silence after constant, unrelenting noise it calls the pilgrim to attention and contemplation.

cloisters at Mont-St-Michel

The cloisters provide another opportunity for contemplation, and a welcome bit of green: lush life among all the stone and sand.

from the abbey on Mont-St-Michel Pilgrims, having earned a rest, gaze out at the bay and the ocean beyond.

evening at Mont-St-MichelAs darkness falls the Grand Rue slowly empties, the tourists retreating. Those who remain are treated to the magic of a medieval monument, a wonder, a miracle.

We stayed on the Mont, at the Hotel Croix Blanche, in August. The Mont was heavily, heavily touristed at that point, and our stay was only bearable because we had the Mont nearly to ourselves after dark. In the early morning, we again climbed up to the abbey, this time by ourselves, lingering at the bay views and admiring the tiny, winding streets.

Le Quattro Volte

March 27, 2013

As Easter approaches, I’m thinking about the themes of life, death, and resurrection (of a kind) in the 2010 Italian film ‘Le Quattro Volte’. In its press release, the director paraphrases Pythagoras, who lived in the 6th century, BC in what is now Calabria, Italy: “Each of us has four lives inside us which fit into one another. Man is mineral because his skeleton is made of salt; man is also vegetable because his blood flows like sap; he is animal in as much he is endowed with motility and knowledge of the outside world. Finally, man is human because he has the gifts of will and reason. Thus, we must know ourselves four times.”

Regardless of whether Pythagoras philosophy resonates, the film moved me as a meditation on life and death and time and beauty in a village up in the hills of Calabria. It’s tempting to say that the village is “isolated” and “remote” and “forgotten by time”, but these platitudes are not only cliché but untrue. Read the rest of this entry »

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