Catching our Breath in Nice

It’s been a year since the Artist and I left for Europe. In looking back at my posts, I’ve realized I haven’t written about one of the eight places we visited. So, last but not least . . . Nice.

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Nice felt like the Waikiki of France. Tropical. Laid-back. Beautiful views and turquoise blues. Hotels slung along the shore, such as Hotel Negresco with its signature pink dome.

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Nice was a perfect place to catch our breath after the bustle of Paris. We had two nights here before moving on to the Cinque Terre. Our only agenda was to walk la Promenade des Anglais, explore le Parc de la Colline du Château (Castle Hill), and relax.

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As you can tell by the photos, Nice is sunny and warm, even in October. We climbed the winding steps at the eastern end of la Promenade which brings you to the 16th-century Tour Bellanda, the only remaining part of a medieval castle that stood atop this hill (you can see it in the photograph above).

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Castle Hill was the city’s original site. It was dismantled by soldiers during the French occupation under King Louis XIV in 1706. This limestone rock is a natural formation standing 93 metres tall. There are plenty of footpaths at the top, castle remnants, an impressive waterfall built in the 18th century, playgrounds, and cafés.

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It’s a beautiful place to wander, have a picnic under a tree, and take in the views of la Baie des Anges (Bay of Angels) to the west and the Port of Nice to the east. You can also see inland to the red-tiled roofs of the city and the Provençal hills further beyond.

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The cherry and cream-coloured Hôtel Suisse at the base of Castle Hill drew my attention with this plaque honouring James Joyce’s sojourn in the city, where he began Finnegans Wake. I’m wrapping up my project of writing a poem for every place we visited on our trip and this plaque provided the inspiration for my Nice poem which I’m quite excited about. It’s a departure from my usual style.

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La Promenade is dotted with beaches. We couldn’t stay here and not hop in the water, though we got about as far as our knees before the wind proved too much. We found Cinque Terre a better/warmer spot for actually swimming in the Mediterranean.

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We ate our favourite dinner of the whole trip in Vieux Nice at a restaurant called Le Tire Bouchon. We stumbled upon this place and felt especially lucky when a British couple at the table beside us told us that this is the best spot to dine in the city (apparently they come to Nice often and have tried a lot of restaurants). The Artist ordered steak and I had a lamb shank served on the creamiest bed of mashed potatoes. Quelle présentation!

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There’s a wonderful flower and produce market called cours Saleya that we enjoyed wandering through and buying some fresh fruit. The streets in this old part of town never cease to surprise with their unexpected turns, oddly shaped and squished buildings, and peek-a-boo glimpses of architectural gems. And with colourful flags overhead, the streets exude vibrance and cheer. We didn’t know if it always looked this way or if there was a festival happening at that time, but we really loved the vibe in Vieux Nice.

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Aimless in Amsterdam

Amsterdam is extremely photogenic. If it’s not the onion-ring canals, it’s the assortment of gables on gingerbread houses, a delight for any architecture lover.

My neck was a little sore after three days, craning to look up from cobblestone streets.

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From left, every other house: bell gable, neck gable, pointed gable

I can only imagine how steep the staircases inside must be. Hotel Museumzicht gave us a good indication. This lodging was a great spot to watch tourists come and go from the Rijksmuseum and play on the iconic I Amsterdam letters as we ate breakfast and planned our wanderings for the day.

 

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We walked by poems waiting to be finished.

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Old buildings with sun-kissed bricks.

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Tulips like lipstick shades.

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Bicycles everywhere: parked, ridden, dodged. Apparently there are about 600 000 bikes in Amsterdam on a given day. We didn’t dare bike in the city but we took a lovely excursion to the country which I’ll write about later.

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The holy and the profane keep company mere steps from each other. We walked towards the Oude Kirk (city’s oldest church, built in 1213) in broad daylight to stumble upon women in windows scantily clad, a red light emanating above the glass. Hello Red Light District.

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Oude Kirk

Whereas the Red Light District is easy to find, the Anne Frank House (turned into a museum) is remarkably camouflaged. The tour guide on our nighttime canal boat tour pointed it out and I would be hard pressed to find it again. No distinct gable or sign. The only giveaway is the often long line. Visiting the house is a sobering, moving experience well worth the wait. I had reread Anne’s diary upon arriving in Amsterdam and many of the quotes from it were projected on the walls. You get to walk behind the moveable bookcase into the cramped quarters of the Secret Annex where the Franks, along with four other Jews, hid for two years before being anonymously betrayed to the Nazis. I reflected in my journal afterwards that it was heavy but also hopeful. The haunting words of a thirteen-year-old girl have left their mark on the world.

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Anne Frank’s House is the one right in the middle with the straight roof and tree in front.

Right around the corner, near the Westerkerk (West Church) is a sight with a very different mood. Irreverent Dutch humour at its best.

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Frites stand parodying Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam from the Sistine Chapel

Amsterdam closed out our trip to Europe, and it was a great place to end. People were friendly, food was delicious, art was incredible, and the city was easily walkable. I’m obviously not featuring the cities we visited in order because Nice and Venice are still to come, but hopefully you enjoyed some snapshots of the fascinating place that is Amsterdam.

Walking Munich’s Nazi Past

On a grassy lawn in Munich ripe with autumn’s freshness, I stood where the smell of ash and burnt paper once choked the air and learned about the courage of twenty-one-year-old Sophie Scholl.

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Ashamedly and shockingly, I had never met her in a classroom, never read her story in history books. It was at the end of a Third Reich walking tour that introduced me to her and the other members of the White Rose, a non-violent Nazi resistance group of students from the University of Munich.

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Our tour guide Tom, who led the provocative, information-packed three-hour walking tour without once referring to his notes, quoted 19th century German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine who predicted:

Wherever books are burned, human beings are destined to be burned too.

He showed us a picture of Sophie, executed by guillotine on February 22, 1943, along with her older brother Hans and another White Rose member, Christoph Probst, after being caught distributing pamphlets at the university.

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Her last words before heading to her death:

Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go. But what does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?

A big question Sophie wrestled with (she studied biology and philosophy) was how to live in the face of a dictatorship? 

Her courage is echoed in Müncheners who took a back street (Viscardigasse) nicknamed Dodgers’ Ally to avoid saluting to Hitler when passing the Feldherrnhalle on the Odeonsplatz that commemorated the death of Nazi soldiers during Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Putsch in 1923. The pedestrian-only street is marked with a meandering trail of bronze bricks to remember these small but significant acts by ordinary people.

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Dodgers’ Ally

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Tom said Munich hasn’t been as active in erecting monuments as the capital Berlin to remember its dark past as the hotbed of Naziism (Hitler even referred to Munich as “The Capital of the Movement”), but that it is making strides to change this.

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In recent years, a Third Reich documentation centre (above) was built on the site of the Brown House, the building that housed the National Socialist German Workers’ Party headquarters in the 1930s, and which was destroyed during the war. Nearby was the Führerbau that contained Hitler’s office, now the site of a music and theatre school. (If you look closely at the image below, you can see marks over the door on the top floor where a Nazi Eagle used to hang.)

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Near the Marienplatz we looked at a controversial plaque to German women and children mourning the loss of their husbands/fathers during WWII that raises the question, Were they victims or accomplices? And is the answer an easy either/or? No.

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Tom challenged our tour group: How would we live in the face of dictatorship? Would we capitulate or resist? And how can we judge others what we know from hindsight when we haven’t walked in their horrific shoes? As I wrote in my journal after the tour, “I think his point was that it takes a people to let something like Naziism take root—not just one man.”

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One German artist, since 1995, has created his own tradition of remembering. Wolfram Kastner burns a black circle into the Königsplatz lawn to commemorate the original Nazi book burning there on May 10, 1933. He says in this article written by Tony Sonneman:

There is so much systematic forgetting. I think it’s necessary to remember without covering history with grass.

Kastner also organizes a day-long “Reading Against Forgetting” event in the same spot where students, professors, actors, writers, politicians, and the public gather to read excerpts from the forbidden “nation-corrupting” books that were burnt, including those of Heinrich Heine.

The walking tour was a sobering experience, but one that impacted me most out of anything my husband and I did on our Europe trip.

This is an unsolicited post but I highly recommend the Sandemans Third Reich Tour  if you’re heading to Munich and want a deeper experience of the city. The cost is well worth what you learn and you don’t have to be a history buff to follow along.

Salt Spring

On the weekend the Artist and I took a little getaway to Salt Spring Island. I had been as a child but had no memories of it so it was like going for the first time. The connotations I had in my mind though: hippies, arbutus trees, artist studios.

We saw a good share of all three plus a whole lot more, which I tried to reflect in the photos below. We loved our three and a half days there walking on trails, reading at the beach, eating artisan foods, going to the legendary Saturday Market, and driving till roads dead ended, stopping at artist studios and enjoying the overall quirkiness of the island. We were very thankful the weather cooperated. Could it be actual spring at last?

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Store sign in town

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Ruckle Provincial Park

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One of favourite flower photographs

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Trail in Burgoyne Bay Provincial Park leading to Daffodil Point

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Daffodil Point

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Daffodils were dead but the view was great!

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Very alive daffodils in front of a derelict house

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The Saturday Market was overwhelming with how many artisan foods I wanted to try (and buy)

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These egg stands are everywhere and operate by the honour system

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Speaking of eggs…

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Adorable kids at the Salt Spring Cheese Farm, where I tasted the best goat cheese of my life

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We were welcomed to the island with this basket of fabulous local goodies from our hosts!

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Earth Day poem

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Creative way to mark your property

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I’m not so keen on crabs but I like this photo (credit to my husband)

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St Paul’s Catholic Church, oldest church on the island (1878)

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These trees look like they’re holding a conference

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Going on a limb here

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Till next time, Salt Spring!

Finding the Silver Lining in Florence

Florence was our least favourite city visited on our European trip last fall. I say that reluctantly because of its fame and hey, it’s Europe and aren’t all European cities supposed to be charming? But when we divulged this opinion to other travellers near the end of our journey, it turns out we weren’t the only ones.

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View of Brunelleschi’s dome and the terracotta roofs from Giotto’s bell tower

After coming from the delightfully colourful Cinque Terre, we found Florence uniformly dull. Brown as far as the eye can see (except for those hills in the distance). And no green space. I suppose it also didn’t help that Paris was our introduction to Europe where patches of green abounded and the Seine was as animated as a grand boulevard. Hardly anyone walked along the Arno, and it seemed more like a ditch than a river in some places.

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Ponte Vecchio spanning the Arno River. I do love the light in this photograph though.

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Ground and building blend into each other at Pitti Palace. Also, where are the benches?

Negative comments aside, we did enjoy Florence for its art (and gelato). This is the place to see Renaissance art. I’ll highlight a few works we stared at for awhile.

Michelangelo’s Deposition (or Florentine Pietà)

Florence is a crowded mid-sized city. We noticed the tourists here more than anywhere else on our trip. So when we had almost ten minutes alone with this sculpture in the Duomo Cathedral Museum, it felt nothing short of miraculous. Depicting Jesus’ removal from the cross, Michelangelo’s figures encircle Jesus’ limp body slumping towards earth—the pained Virgin Mary on his left, a mysterious-looking figure above (believed to be Nicodemus), and a very dwarfed Mary Magdalene on Jesus’ right. All four figures look a different direction, in their own worlds with grief, yet your eye tends to circle the group counter-clockwise, starting in the middle with Jesus’ serpentine form. The work is captivating in its gravity, how three figures struggle to support the weight of a dead body. Interesting to note is that Michelangelo is said to have carved his own features into the face of the hooded man. This was his final sculpture, and he never finished it.

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Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise

Ghiberti’s bronze doors for the Baptistery of the Duomo Cathedral formally launched the Renaissance in Italy. They were so popular he was commissioned to create this second set depicting scenes from the Old Testament. The originals are in the Duomo Cathedral Museum. We had great fun studying and guessing, along with another keen tourist, which story each panel depicted. I love how Ghiberti packed so many narrative details into the tiny frames, showing off the new technique of linear perspective developed by Brunelleschi and employed by Masaccio. For example, look at the depth of the space in the bottom left panel, showing Isaac blessing his younger son Jacob.

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A replica of Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise on the east doors of the Baptistery

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Ghiberti’s original two sets of bronze doors in the Duomo Cathedral Museum

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The Baptistery with Giotto’s Bell Tower on the right in the background

Michelangelo’s David

He’s situated like the bride at the end of a church aisle. I felt so much expectation walking towards him, and for good reason. Everything about this sculpture is big and invites a full walk-around: What’s that expression in his eyes? Is this before or after the battle with Goliath? How does that sling work? This masterpiece is the reason to go to the Accademia Gallery.

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Fra Angelico’s Annunciation

We saw many Annunciation paintings on our trip. This is one of my favourites because of its simplicity and how the artist, a Dominican friar, situated the Virgin Mary and the angel Gabriel in a vaulted space very similar to the architecture of the convent he lived in—San Marco. No gilded hall pregnant with symbols, just a bare room emphasizing Mary’s ordinariness. The figures mirror each other in terms of their folded hands and bent torsos, a posture of divine submission. In religious communities, artwork like this aimed to enhance a life of prayer and contemplation for the friars. There’s also something special about seeing artwork in the location it was made for (usually a church or in this case, a convent) and beats the walls of a museum almost anytime.

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This work is the first thing you notice when you enter the dormitory of San Marco

More artwork to come in another post. Have you been to Florence? How did it rank in your books?

A Visit to the Audain Art Museum

I’m rarely ever one of those people who see things as soon as they’re open (whether it’s movies, plays, exhibits, etc.), but it just so happened that I was in Whistler the 2nd weekend since the Audain Art Museum opened, and so I visited it, and I’m glad I did.

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I was a little put off by the steep admission price ($18) but was pleasantly surprised to discover that there was a lot more art inside than I was expecting, even though the 2nd floor wasn’t open to the public yet. The permanent collection comprises 14 000 square feet and the temporary exhibition space (currently showcasing Mexican Modernists) has a generous 6000 square feet.

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I spent about two hours in these two sections, with the majority of that time in the permanent collection. One of my first thoughts: “Wow, this is a lot of art for one individual to own!” The artworks are curated from the private collection of Vancouver homebuilder and philanthropist Michael Audain and his wife Yoshiko Karasawa.

I’m thankful they’re sharing their collection with the public. It’s quite diverse, in media and time periods.

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When you first walk in to the permanent collection, you enter The Art of Coastal First Nations, a gallery full of masks and an impressive floor-to-ceiling wood sculpture called The Dance Screen (The Scream Too) by James Hart that expresses traditional Haida beliefs.

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Passing through this room, you then find yourself in the Emily Carr and Art of the Coastal First Nations gallery, where dozens of paintings by the famous BC artist are displayed, along with objects from the Gitxsan and Kwakwaka’wakw First Nations that she may have encountered on her trip up the coast. On the didactic panel, it says, “Emily Carr paved a different way for many Modernists to experience and depict the British Columbia landscape.”

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On display are Carr’s quintessential dark, brooding forest scenes and her more colourful trees and seaside images, which are actually my preferred ones.

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From here, the next gallery is E.J. Hughes and Depictions of Place. I had never heard of Edward John Hughes (1913-2007) before, but this is the only single artist room in the Audain Art Museum. Hughes is known for his distinctive, colourful depictions of maritime life on BC’s coast, blending the natural with the industrial.

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What came next was my favourite gallery: Exploring Land, People and Ideas. Even though the permanent collection is divided into galleries so you can do bits here and there, there was a strong chronological and historical flow to it if you go from beginning to end. The works in this section reflect the Modernist movement sweeping through the Western world leading up to WWII. Artists explored new modes of expression in the 1920s and 30s, such as “the spiritual aspects of nature and how to represent, in art, a personal response to the vastness of British Columbia” (didactic panel).

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Winter Landscape by Gordon Smith was one of my favourites . . .

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. . . as well as this mesmerizing Jack Shadbolt painting called Butterfly Transformation Theme (1981, 1982) which very much reminded me of his similarly vibrant wall-length work at VGH.

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I also like the Mondrian-esque qualities to this oil on board, Comment on Horseshoe Bay by Charles Bertrum (B.C.) Binning from 1949.

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Step into the next gallery, Photography and Vancouver, and you have firmly landed in modern/postmodern BC. It is the 1980s and Vancouver is at the forefront of Photo-conceptualism, a blend of photography and idea-based art. Artists shown here include Stan Douglas, Rodney Graham, Ken Lum, Ian Wallace, and Jeff Wall who turned to the city as their subject and sought to communicate larger ideas of its changing political, social, economic status through the camera lens.

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I like the ephemeral, poetic quality of Schoolyard Tree by Rodney Graham, which kind of looks like a heart (and no, I didn’t take this picture upside down).

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Last, but certainly not least, comes Art of Our Time, celebrating BC’s thought-provoking artists and the different forms they use to express their ideas, whether it be through newer forms (like photography) or classic forms like painting, sculpture, installation, or what I like to call “classic with a twist.” Among the artists featured here are Dana Claxton, Brian Jungen, Tim Lee, Landon Mackenzie, Sonny Assu, Arabella Campbell, Attila Richard Lukacs, and Marianne Nicolson.

Grande-sized coffee cups take on new meaning in this copper installation 1884-1951 by Sonny Assu:

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Marianne Nicolson combines glass and wood in this sculpture Max’inus – Killer Whale (Fin #2):

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Pictured in the foreground is a pyramid of snowballs (bronze with white patina) stacked up like munition. It’s called Arsenal by Gathie Falk.

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Brian Jungen’s towers of golf bags are one of the more obvious examples of “classic with a twist”—a contemporary take on the totem pole:

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And that’s a quick tour of the permanent collection in the Audain Art Museum.

Would I go back again? Absolutely. My days of snowboarding are over so it’s nice that Whistler has an art destination of this calibre to give me another reason to visit.