Monday, August 29, 2016

The Way to the Woods and Other Horizons...

Over the past months, my chief motivation to plough through all the dull rules and regulations concerning the Code de la Route (Highway Code) has been the thought of all the places I would like to visit, but can't at the present time.

I am absolutely not interested in having a car for day-to-day, bread-and-butter trips, to-and-fro work and/or shops. Public transport suits me fine.

However, it would be great to trek off and take the high road once in a while, or just get within stomping distance of all those paths that are just inaccessible right now.

Someone asked me recently where I would spend time for an ideal holiday. I felt a bit embarrassed to say that I would just love to visit certain parts of England.

I can understand that we set our sights on far-flung destinations, but why is it that in so doing we seem to overlook what's on our own doorstep? Or what was once on the doorstep, in my case.

All those places that are simply not fully registered until distance in time and space brings about the realisation that things of beauty and wonder can be found far closer to home!

For all the years spent in Cornwall, I hardly know anything other than the set-in-stone choices for the compulsory family walks and later on, sites that could be reached on bike.

So these regrets are my spur and my ever-growing list of places-to-see is my enticement to obtain that elusive driving licence. The Undercliff area of Dorset, the Lake District, the Yorkshire Moors, the Fens, any wilderness in Wales, Devon and Cornwall... It goes on and on and I haven't even started on France!

The photos here are of woodland in the mountainous Vosges region of Eastern France, bordering the Black Forest of Germany.

These woods are beautifully mossy, murky and mysterious and you encounter them as you follow the meandering paths along the crêtes.

These lead you along such a varied landscape.

Rocky outcrops mark the way, tracing across plains of  rich pasture, speckled with wild alpine flowers and grazed by cows, overlooking the distant, shady outlines of the mountain massif and the silhouettes of fir trees.

The weather seems to be just as varied; bright sunshine, cloudy overcast horizons and a considerable amount of snow in winter, of course. It was all beautiful, needless to say, and the towns are just ridiculously idyllic. But more about that in another post...

Other mysterious, magical woodlands and strange geological formations that I am intent on visiting are ones that I actually learnt of via the radio. The description of this incredible part of the Forest of Dean (back to England again!) was so vivid that I just had to google 'The Scowles' to see what it looked like. That this amazing landscape of gnarled yew trees, overgrown craters and caverns (Scowles) with stalactitic haematites, should have inspired Tolkien's Middle-earth forests in The Lord of the Rings did not surprise me in the least. It has likewise since attracted the producers of TV series and big-screen fims - Dr Who and Star Wars, no less! In fact, the whole area has been of interest since the late Stone Age, offering iron ore, ochre, charcoal and deposits of coal. And all that beauty that I hope to be able to capture on camera one of these days.

So, having finally taken and passed the theoretical part of the driving test, I now have to tackle the practical aspect. Hmm! Then I hit the road...

Friday, August 26, 2016

Grey Skies before the Sunshine...

Early morning fishing

Just back from Cornwall, where the weather was very variable, as is generally the case in coastal areas. I vowed to go out for mornings walks, whatever the conditions, from Penzance. This resolution proved a little difficult to carry out fully, as those conditions were quite challenging!

Mount's Bay
Reaching Mousehole was fairly easy, along those familar routes, with St Michael's Mount on the horizon, either streaked with sheets of rain, or highlighted by beams of light or else shrouded in or obscured by mist,

Newlyn harbour
I love passing the fleets of fishing boats at Newlyn, which look majestic in any conditions, and in fact look even more striking with a backcloth of extreme weather.

Cormorant at Newlyn
It took three attempts to finally get to Marazion! Determined drizzle and gusts of wiind somehow seem to be just as efficient at drenching you as heavy rain...

On the path from Penzance
One of the best aspects of the walk is the exchange of greetings (Mornin') with the people you encounter all along, not to mention the pleasure of seeing dogs running freely and rabbits darting off across the marshlands on the outskirts of Marazion.

And of course, the pleasure of walking on the pebbles, with their particular flinty crunch and slide, eyes ever on the look-out for the special one to retrieve and gloat over...

Seaholly en route to Longrock
And beyond the blocks of granite, The Mount. I really did want to capture it in the mist and rain, but the camera couldn't rise to the climatic challenge and nor could I.

The Mount
On leaving Cornwall, the temperature crept up and the heat on the London pavements made Penzance seem distant in every sense. Since then, back in France, 34° has become a constant, completing the cultural shock of returning to city life in another country. However, even as I write, I have this year's special pebble with me, its smooth shape fitting perfectly into the palm, speckled like some kind of granite seagull's egg. In this crazy, concrete sprawl of searing heat and soaring temperatures, this sleek piece of Cornwall is keeping me grounded. Its strange streak of black running throughout the stone underlines all its history and is a perfect foil to all the mad modernity of urban life, zooming past outside.

The 'one'.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Town Hall at Saint Quentin - Hôtel de Ville Saint Quentin

I recently heard of the beautiful Art Déco buildings in the town of Saint Quentin in the region Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardy, so was curious to see these.

 As it turned out, on the grey, overcast day that I visited, I didn't come across anything remarkable.

However, that may be because there are a number of very striking buildings and façades here in Reims so that has made me more difficult to impress.

Also, I might not have found the area where the best Art Déco examples actually were.

The weather did nothing to encourage any kind of wandering; quite the contrary. Nevertheless, the trip was certainly not wasted as I did see the magnificent Hôtel de Ville.

This town hall dates back to the 16th century, although prior to that, the site was occupied by another building of civic function, as aldermen gathered to discuss various affairs.

The current edifice was completed in 1509, and its flamboyant Gothic style dominates the work, whilst reflecting the transition towards the Renaissance.

 The whole is quite harmonious, with the façade divided by six octagonal pillars on the ground floor, creating seven arcades of unequal width. Above this, there is the 'noble' floor, with its nine window openings and finally the three gables that look over the town square.

While the overall effect is sober and elegant, on drawing nearer to the façade the visitor is amazed by the wealth of detail, and its very nature.

Perhaps the most surprising of all, is the mere fact that the hôtel has managed to survive the turbulent 500 years of its existence.

The bell tower that we see above the central gable today, is but one of a succession since the mid-17th century. It houses an impressive thirty-seven bells which mark a triumph over the destructive years of the First World War when the citizens left the occupied town and the bells fell silent.

Incredibly, most of the façade today is much as it was in its heyday - quite some feat. The fate of Saint Quentin during the Great War years was like that of other towns.

Many of the buildings surrounding the hôtel were flattened, hence the emergence of the Art Déco architecture to mark the rebirth of the city. The townhall itself suffered minimal damage.

This was not the first time that the saint-quentinais had undergone great hardship. The symbolic imagery of the dog and the monkey that decorates the hôtel testifies to the fidelity, tenacity and ingenuity of the town inhabitants.

In 1557, the advancing troups of the Spanish king, Philip II, fought to overpower Saint Quentin in their march towards Paris to triumph over Henry II. The people of Saint Quentin resisted valiantly and the ensuing siege meant that the Spanish lost valuable momentum in the battle strategy.

Saint Quentin made huge sacrifices, but in so doing, it saved France from greater losses still. Inside the arcade of the hôtel de ville, a marble plaque bearing a Latin inscription immortalizes the bravery of Saint Quentin.

The devastation at Saint Quentin left its mark on Philip II himself and he decided to construct an expiatory monument; the Royal Site of San Lorenzo de El Escorial,near Madrid...

I just loved looking at all the details of the façade - to the point that I literally had pains in my neck from all the contortions.

Since the sculpture is not specifically religious, the works have not suffered the same fate as the many that had adorned places of worship, with decapitated and truncated bodies that mark the Revolutionary years from 1789 onwards.

Here, the bawdy tone of some of the sculpted works seems to celebrate the foibles of Man and Beast and bears a general fascination for life, that even encompasses its lewdness and lasciviousness.

Musicians lean over to welcome you along the arcades, whilst more sober characters carry out their serious civic functions and administrative tasks to maintain order amongst the somewhat mischievious town-dwellers.

Various creatures inhabit the creeping, crawling foliage around the façade and either look down at you in mocking defiance or seem to ignore you and any restrictions you might wish to lay down.

The vitality of the façade just seems to bridge the centuries that separate us today and all those who must have acted as models for the sculptors, acting out all those weakenesses that make us so human...