Category Archives: Museums
A luxury hotel, lashings of fine dining and a whirlwind of contemporary art? Chez Epicurienne, that’s what I call a killer combination that I’d be happy to dive into on any day of the week. Courtesy of the Le Méridien hotel group, I was recently invited to partake of just such a tantalising synthesis of sensory stimulants during an arts-focussed stay-cation, based at their landmark hotel in London’s Piccadilly. I’m still recovering, in a good way.
A top hotel’s relationship to food is a no-brainer; the two go hand-in-hand, but where does art enter the equation? In this case, Le Méridien, the forty-year old international hotel chain, has incorporated art into its properties so that wherever guests look, art will meet their eyes – be it on arrival, on relaxing, even on using their key card. Steering Le Méridien’s artistic intentions is Jérôme Sans, the French art curator and critic, in his capacity as the LM Cultural Curator. What’s more, for the past five years Le Méridien has been a principle partner and supporter of an arts initiative called OFT – the Outset/ Frieze Art Fair Fund to Benefit the Tate Collection. Through OFT, the Tate is able to bypass purchasing bureaucracy to acquire work by emerging artists featured at the annual London fair for contemporary art: Frieze.
Over two days, our small group of bloggers along with various members of hotel management and Le Meridien’s PR company, Fleishman Hillard, managed to experience one art discussion panel, several types of unforgettable hors d’oeuvre, one unusual afternoon tea, six delicious meals, one international art fair, three world-famous art galleries, exhibitions various, two nights of sumptuous sleep, meetings with key art experts and personalities, a lesson in Le Méridien’s history and brand and various forms of London transport – including the water kind. For obvious reasons, I will not attempt to squeeze everything listed above into one post, lest it resemble a hefty artistic monograph. Instead, I invite you to join me on a multi-post tour of Le Méridien’s London art-u-cation. It’ll be an inspiration – for locals and visitors alike.
Photo above courtesy of the Le Meridien website, http://www.lemeridienpiccadilly.co.uk
We’ve been to the Red Flame Diner, the Frick Collection and the Whitney. Now it’s time to clear our heads of comfort food and culture so Monsieur and I head across to Central Park. Every time we’ve visited together, we’ve spent a little time in this glorious lung for the island of Manhattan, and every time, we’ve discovered new sights to enthrall. The last visit saw us wading through drifts of newly-fallen snow; this time, the sun was shining and New Yorkers were out in droves, soaking up the vitamin D.
Do you think this runner stopped for some Gatorade or a big, fat pretzel after his run?
This pair looked slightly uncomfortable on their carriage ride:
Their wives, hidden by the hood, looked far more enthused. Monsieur and I didn’t feel the need for wheels, no matter how romantic the notion of a horse-drawn carriage in Central Park, so on we walked.
The paths were busy with happy wanderers, like ourselves:
And then, in the midst of everything, we found our old pal, Rabbie Burns:
We passed the place where people’s endowments of trees for the park are honoured by plaques in a place called Literary Walk:
Further along, we found people sunning themselves like seals on a giant rock. We climbed up to see what they were watching and found the Wollman skating rink beneath the Midtown skyline. There was no mistaking who operates it these days – Donald Trump, his name emblazoned all around the rink:
We then headed for the Plaza Hotel and Fifth Avenue, spotting this colourful line up of carriages en route:
Now the carriages and tree-lined walks would be replaced by skyscrapers and New York yellow cabs, but not before we glimpse a horse proudly sprouting a bright purple feather from its bridle. It seems that even the horses in Manhattan know that in this part of world, anything goes.
Even as a child, I didn’t have much patience for sand castles. ‘What’s the point?’ I wondered, ‘in spending painstaking hours building crenellations, filling moats and adorning walls with shells, when all the effort would only be destroyed by (a) someone’s careless foot, (b) a galumphing dog off its lead or (c) the incoming tide?’ I was far happier torturing hermit crabs or sea anemones in rock pools.
Even so, there are some talented folk out there who both possess the patience for sculpting sand and artistic skill. Two such folk create masterpieces of sand far from any beach in Giverny, the village where pilgrims paying homage to the late, great Claude Monet flock in their hundreds of thousands each year. They are Chris Avril and Jean-Pierre Porchez, whose compositions exhibit talent, perseverance and poise. To stumble upon their sculptures is a pleasant surprise in a place like Giverny, where there are altogether too many mediocre art works hanging in galleries designed to lure the tourist.
Here are the artistes:
And this is their new take on The Last Supper:
A close up of Christ and friends:
I think the bulbous items on the ‘table’ may be a carafe of wine and a bread roll, but can’t be certain. In any case, it’s hardly enough to sustain a group of thirteen.
Across the way we spot some more bearded chaps – this time, artistic heroes.
This man with palette in hand is Renoir.
And this is Monsieur Monet, the reason we were all in Giverny that late September day. To the left is Gustave Caillebotte, a great friend and contemporary of Monet, and to the right is the poor, tortured Vincent Van Gogh.
From left to right we have Renoir, Pissaro, Berthe Morisot ( a female impressionist cleverly breaking up all that maleness exuding from the sand), Sisley and Caillebotte again.
The exhibition of sand sculptures was free to view and no one seemed to be guarding the fragile creations, yet thankfully there were no galumphing dogs in sight, and all who stepped in to visit left their careless feet at the gate. In fact, when Monsieur and I were there, all were speechless with awe at the hours of painstaking work on display. The question that nobody dared ask, however, was ‘what’ll happen when it rains?’ and this is Normandy, so rain it will. My guess is that Chris and Jean-Pierre will wait for the storm to pass before quietly fetching their buckets and spades and starting from scratch. Admirable, really, to be that patient, not to mention ingenious to create a gallery of sand in a painter’s village.
Think of some of the world’s record-breaking works of art at point of sale, and paintings from Claude Monet’s Water Lilies series will no doubt feature on the list. Ever since I first saw a Monet in the flesh in the eighties, during a touring exhibition that actually made it the extra xxxx miles to far-flung New Zealand (a rarity at the time), I have always dreamed of visiting Monet’s home at Giverny, to see the artist’s famed gardens for myself. In October just past, that dream came true. I had to pinch myself repeatedly, it was such a thrill to finally be in such an art-lover’s mecca.
Monsieur and I arrived in the small village of Giverny on a dull autumn day, amidst a steady Norman drizzle. I’d always thought that May would be the optimum time to see Monet’s gardens, as they’d be in the prime of spring blossom and bloom, but apparently the little village is overrun with international fans of Impressionism in springtime, so by coming later in the year, we’d wisely sidestepped the push and shove of tourist hordes. Would the effort be worth it? Would we see any flowers? Or would we curse our autumn plans and wish we’d come in spring or summer, with the world, his wife and their dog?
The weather was certainly disappointing on the morning of our visit but, ever the optimists, we still hoped there might be some sort of floral leftovers from the finer seasons just past.
Here’s a sample of what Monsieur and I found in Monet’s garden at Giverny. Our hopes were rewarded with late-bloomers in every direction.
I love pink flowers and these were among my favourites in Monet’s garden.
These fellows were drooping with the rainfall but still managed to remind me of a blazing sunset on a hot summer’s evening (even if I were wrapped up in coat and scarf at the time!)
The path from Monet’s house down to the end of the garden was wild with a carpet of nasturtiums – as a small girl, I used to pick nasturtiums from the school hedge suck ‘honey’ from the point beneath the bloom. Ever since, they’ve remained a favourite flower. At Giverny, their colours only seemed brightened by the grey day.
We wandered down aisles of flourishing flora and through an underground tunnel to reach Monet’s water lily ponds. So this was where the great painter created some of the greatest impressionist artworks known to man.
The artist said of his water lilies: “It took me time to understand my water lilies. I had planted them for the pleasure of it; I grew them without ever thinking of painting them”. Little did he know that through his paintings these would arguably become the most famous water lilies in the world.
It may have been gloomy when we saw them, but the ponds were still beautiful and, believe it or not, there was the occasional freshly-opened flower sitting on the lily pads.
The poor chap in red jacket waited patiently with his tripod as I photographed the ponds, but unfortunately for him, I wasn’t the only one annoying his view.
Imperceptible here are the water-lubbing insects who walk across the water on spindly wee legs. The pond life is happy and rampant.
As we left the ponds, returning to the main gardens, the sun decided to pop its head out from behind the clouds. This flower looked like a sunburst in its own right.
Sunshine on a rainy day…
The perfect lawn for picnicking.
This old wheel barrow must have worked hard in its past life, carrying plants and trees and soil and vegetables from the potager (vege garden). Now it sits in peaceful retirement.
There’s one word for flowers like this: happy. Monet said “I am following Nature without being able to grasp her… I perhaps owe having become a painter to flowers.” With floral optimism such as this in one’s garden, it’s little wonder, although the great man started his life as an artist drawing caricatures, not a petal in sight.
This is one of the prettiest exit signs I’ve ever seen.
We were lucky with our Giverny expedition; it may have been raining when we arrived, but the sun appeared for just long enough to give us a taste of what it must be like to visit on a Halcyon day. Claude Monet once said “I am only good at two things, and those are: gardening and painting”.
This is not entirely true. He was also very good at what we were about to do next: eating.
When I was a child, we always had prints of famous paintings on various of the walls at home. It’s little wonder I grew up with a taste for things French (including a certain man), because most of these prints were of works by French painters – from Chardin to Lautrec.
One of my favourites was the depiction of a nineteenth century couple walking along a Paris street in the rain. The man holds up a large black umbrella to shield the pair against the downpour and the streets are cobbled in that tell-tale European way, evoking daydreams of times of yore. I always loved looking at a particular building in the background, which is shaped like a piece of pie, the point of which is aimed directly at the viewer. “Why would an architect make a building that shape?” I’d ask, “To fit the parcel of land, I suppose, but it’s not very practical. How on earth would you furnish the triangular rooms in the point?” No one ever had an answer for me, but it didn’t matter one jot. I loved that painting regardless of the fact that I didn’t understand the reasoning behind triangular buildings, or why the beautiful woman wears black. Had she and her husband been to a funeral? Or perhaps were they in mourning? Regardless, as an artistic device their sombre clothes match well the drizzle of the day. Yes, it was likely that they were sad about something and that gave me yet another mystery to ponder.
Gustave Caillebotte was the artist responsible for this work, named ‘Rue de Paris; temps de pluie’, or ‘Rainy Day in Paris’, the original of which now hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago. Those In The Know refer to Caillebotte as an impressionist, yet there’s a realism in his work that the Seurats and Monets lack. Caillebotte’s paintings are like snapshots of the époque in which he lived. You could almost walk into them, they’re so lifelike.
Given my interest in Caillebotte you can imagine my excitement when Monsieur’s Maman suggested lunch at the Parc Caillebotte in Yerres. Caillebotte had been born into a well-to-do Parisian family that spent many of their summers at the family property in Yerres, a small town on the Yerres River, to the south of Paris. This property has been named Parc Caillebotte for its former owners and appears in various of Caillebotte’s paintings, such as Les Oragers (The Orange Trees).
Le Casin at Parc Caillebotte
The ‘Mairie’, or Mayor’s office, for Yerres has invested much time and effort in restoring the Parc to create a leisure destination which successfully blends culture, relaxation, and natural beauty, whilst celebrating the work of its famous son. Sadly, it was a grey February day when we made our visit to the Parc, but that didn’t detract from its interest. The large, white Caillebotte family house known as ‘le Casin’ stands proud at the entrance to the Parc. It is home to two permanent exhibitions, but was closed when we visited. Outside, there are various buildings of different styles and purposes dotted around the grounds, like the funny little pagoda atop a rockery with grotto beneath. This was also closed but in the summer months it serves as a refreshments kiosk. On a day like this, there was little need for a bottle of something refreshing. The weather was fresh enough.
Down by the river, there’s a long, white orangery with outdoor seats, where a couple of local dames sat and gossiped, quite oblivious to the chill in the air. Monsieur’s Maman told us that further afield lay a chapel and vegetable garden, but we all agreed that, on this occasion, it was too cold to hang about and explore. Warm interiors beckoned.
“It’s true, I swear. Marie-Claude buys the Chinese escargots. Quelle horreur!”
At the Parc I did, however, talk to the animals again. There are hens of all descriptions and a pair of flopsy white rabbits in a large chicken coop behind the Parc’s restaurant, Chalet du Parc, so I clucked at them and they clucked back and Monsieur’s Maman must then have realised that her son is marrying a madwoman. As for Monsieur, well, he’s just used to it. His ears are now deaf to my clucking sounds.
I loved these cotton wool hens with their little blue faces. And so did the four year-old next to me!
One day, when the sun shines and the arctic air has gone, I hope we will all return to the Parc Caillebotte. There are the exhibitions to see, naturally, but on the Halcyon day that I imagine, we won’t want to linger indoors. We’ll buy cold drinks at the Pagoda kiosk, picnic on the broad lawn and then perhaps rent a couple of canoes to paddle up and down the river, just like the man in Caillebotte’s painting, ‘Les Périssoires sur l’Yerres’ (‘Oarsmen on the Yerres). To that day I do look forward, very much indeed, but first I should really tell you all about LUNCH.
When I was about eleven, I started home ec classes at school. My classmates and I then spent the next two years fighting over ingredients in these core classes as we perfected the mangling of simple dishes such as scrambled eggs and kedgeree. The worst part of these classes, however, was post-cooking when we had to sit and EAT what we’d just burned, undercooked or over-salted. At this key time in my culinary development I learned precisely how not to cook in class; conversely I learned how better to cook at home, where I’d help in the kitchen and sit with my mother in front of afternoon TV shows of Julia Child slamming food around her studio kitchen amidst what could only be described as a slightly awkward, inelegant presentation. Part of me loved watching her infectious passion for food and admired the results, wishing she could visit our dated home ec kitchen to inspire our prematurely-jaded attempts at food preparation; another part of me sat glued to the set in awe of the hulking woman who obviously knew her onions when it came to food, but whose booming voice and giant stature were more than a little intimidating. In case you need reminding, here’s a clip of La Child in action:
Cue a bout of Julia Child amnesia, until last year, when I bought Julia Child’s memoir, My Life in France, written in conjunction with her great nephew, Alex Prud’homme. I’m embarrassed to say that it sat in my ‘to read’ pile for some time until recently, when I quite literally devoured it. Once more, I was mesmerised by this towering doyenne of cuisine as I learned that there was so much more to her own personal history than is first apparent when you think of an acclaimed author of cookbooks. For a start, she wasn’t born with a wooden spoon in her hand, nor could she bake soufflés before she could walk. Au contraire; Julia Child didn’t start cooking until she was 37 years old, when she moved to post-war France with her adored husband Paul. Once there, her love of eating and a fascination with French food led her to the Cordon Bleu school, where she studied food and its preparation. Julia also spent time getting to know the local market vendors, finding the best produce, learning French and experimenting in her own kitchen in an odd apartment on the ‘rue de Loo’, as she called the rue de l’Université. On top of all of the above, the tireless Julia somehow found the time to socialise with Paris-based foodies. She taught, gave dinner parties, helped a couple of new friends with their attempt at ‘cookbookery’, and it is this latter activity that eventually developed into Child’s weighty mega-oeuvre, Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961), which brought truly French methods and cuisine into the American kitchen and subsequently revolutionised many kitchens all around the world.
This new-found passion for French cuisine changed Julia’s life, but not without hard graft did she become a published household name with her own TV show. I dare not give too much away, as this book is filled with such characters and surprises and inside knowledge of famous restaurants, critics and foods (I yelped with delight at the part where she visits the original Poilâne bakery in the name of breadmaking research) that it demands a reader’s first-hand attention, rather than a second-hand account. However, to whet your appetite, I will say that the complex politics of the time does not escape mention and honest accounts of strain on a workaholic’s interpersonal relationships, a quite unexpected picture of Julia in the bath with her husband and the down-to-earth description of universal frustrations and disappointments can only add to the admiration which Julia fans will feel on reading what she referred to as ‘The French Book’.
My Life in France was the sort of book that pained me to finish. There was only one thing to be done: I’d been bitten by the bug and now simply had to read more Julia. So, as you do, I popped onto Amazon, where Julie and Julia – My Year of Cooking Dangerously by Julie Powell came to my attention. I’d heard of it; in fact, one of my grub-loving friends had recommended it to me; I just hadn’t bought it yet. One click later and the book was delivered to me at the end of last week, just in time for the May Bank Holiday weekend – a blissful three days of Nothing Planned. Julie and Julia arrived with impeccable timing because on commencing to read this book I experienced the startling result of waking up well before I would normally have roused myself on a long weekend. Why? To read The Book, of course, and for once I’m not complaining about waking early. Not at all.
So, every morning for the past three days, as Monsieur slumbered on next to me, my first waking thought was “I wonder what Julie does next?” as I grabbed the book and read as quietly as possible so that Monsieur wouldn’t wake up and disturb this precious reading time. You see, this Julie Powell person had decided on a whim to cook every single one of the 524 recipes in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a mere 365 days. AND she had a full-time job, AND a tiny kitchen AND lived in Long Island City, which isn’t the best place to find some of the more unusual ingredients commanded by such recipes. To call this book entertaining is quite the culinary understatement. Refreshingly, there’s zero pretension. If the aspic doesn’t set or if murdering lobsters keeps Powell awake at night, we hear about it. Some recipes work, others don’t, and at times Powell enlists a search party to track down some strange foodstuff or other. Oh my Heavens, how I am loving this book, right down to the plumbing issues and day job and the strain that an obsession with cooking can place on a relationship.
As veteran Googlers tend to do, I’ve also spent some time reading the Julie and Julia Project blog, which is the unwitting inspiration for the book. There’s also the current Julie Powell blog to salivate over and on You Tube, there’s a trailer for THE FILM (see end of post), starring none other than Meryl Streep as Julia Child and Amy Adams as frustrated cooking-by-night-to-save-own-sanity government agency temp, Julie Powell. Now we just have to wait until it’s released on 7 August (I’m counting the days and if you know someone who can donate preview tickets to this particularly enthusiastic fan, then please please pretty please would you let me know?).
Believe it or not, you can also follow @Julia_Child on Twitter, only it’s not REALLY Julia (unless there’s a new app allowing us to tweet from beyond the grave), because she passed away in 2004, aged an astonishing 91. Following this sad date on the Child fan’s calenday, The Smithsonian was lucky enough to be given her kitchen, copper pans, units, books ‘n’ all and it’s now a crowd-drawing exhibit. (The Smithsonian has been added to my Bucket List. )
So, to sum up, unless I’m mistaken, it would seem that we’re in a mid-Julia Child revival and we just might have former government drone, Julie Powell to thank for that. Personally, I love the fact that courtesy of Powell I’ve now learned what a gimlet is and have added kattywhompus to my vocabulary.
In the meantime, here’s the trailer for the film of Julie and Julia:
So dark was our room at the Vecellio that Monsieur and I found it difficult to predict the outside weather when we woke each morning. Today, our third together in Venice, saw the curtains draw back to reveal a glimpse of the lagoon and a blue (yes, blue!) sky. This was indeed fortunate as we wouldn’t spend precious hours squelching about in puddles, but it also meant that the air was even more icy than before.
Monsieur and I ducked out of the toasty hotel, into a very different Algiubagio – that of the day time, when the bar is stocked with snacks and locals stand about stylishly sipping on their first coffees of the weekend as they share local chit chat with their neighbours. I was dying for a tramezzino, or layered sandwich half in soft white crustless bread. The fillings are spread so thick that the sandwiches bulge inelegantly at their centre. The combinations are endless – tuna with baby onions, tuna with egg mayonnaise, cream cheese with grapes, ham and cheese, tomato and egg mayo… This morning’s choice would be tuna and onion, a savoury bite to start the day’s adventures. Monsieur, meanwhile, a creature of habit, remained unmoved from his desire for something more familiar, taking his staple breakfast of a croissant and coffee.
Now running on full tanks, so to speak, we took a vaporetto out across the lagoon to Burano. Being Sunday, there were lots of people dressed in their Sunday best, travelling to the islands to spend time with relatives and friends. This was a festive bunch, mingling alongside the tourists replete with signature baseball caps and gigantic cameras, or the likes of ourselves, relaxed to the point of nodding off at intervals on the long boat ride. As I took photos of San Michele and some abandoned islands, Monsieur dozed on my shoulder. Now and then, mist would descend on a patch of water, but mostly the weather and conditions were fine. In fact, our eyes ached with the brightness of light, having spent two days in the lifeless grey of winter and rain. We stopped twice at Murano to let people off and others on, and did the same at a place called Mazzorbo. From the vaporetto stop at the latter I noticed the houses, neatly lined up in colourful rows, the rainbow increasing as we pulled into Burano.
Although excited to be there and show Monsieur the fisherfolks’ houses, each painted a different hue to allow their owners to find their way home in heavy Venetian fog, it was a wrench to leave the warmth of the boat and be back outside in the bitter air. A path of Astroturf led away from the water, towards the centre of the island. Along the way we passed a house with ample front garden, boasting a couple of mature fruit trees and a resident cat on the prowl. Apparently, this house was for sale, or so said a sign hung on its gates. I wondered who would buy it. The commute into Venice proper would take a while, unless you ignored all the speed restrictions to zoom about in your own, private boat. Besides which, living in the relative isolation of Burano would drive most people slightly potty, no matter how picturesque it may be.
Monsieur and I wandered past the souvenir shops selling Burano lace table cloths and parasols, Murano beads and vases of glass, plates and goblets and more tacky tees. Following a twist of canals, we saw the houses for which this place is so renowned; red, blue and green of various depths, next to pastel pink, lemon yellow and terracotta. The fine day allowed us to take some wonderful photos. Here, with such bright subjects, it seems impossible to be a bad photographer. Considering this, we looked up at the wall of a green house overlooking a tiny communal square. There was a shrine to the Virgin Mary, fresh flowers laid at her feet by some reverent local. Returning to Burano’s main square, we were no longer alone. The islanders strolled around, going about their Sunday business, tourists seeking inspiration stared at menus outside restaurants and others fingered lace-trimmed tableware on display outside specialist shops. The proprietors must have been only too happy of the potential to make a few Euros in the off-season. In spite of the fine, blue sky, the air was still arctic, so we trudged back to the vaporetto stop, huddling in the shelter until our transport arrived.
Back on the boat, we traversed the lagoon, this time visiting Murano. A fellow passenger took advantage of the longish journey to apply a full face of make up without a single smudge. By the time Murano came into view, she was transformed from blank canvas to a blue eyeshadowed diva with fire engine-red lips. I wondered where she was going; hot date with a member of the Vigili del Fuoco, perhaps? Such saucy lips would certainly match his fire boat.
On the glass-making island, we shivered in the already-fading sunlight and walked briskly in search of a restaurant for lunch. Ai Frati had been recommended by one of our guides so once we found it, in we went. The dining room was large and somewhat Spartan, with a tiled floor and simple wood furniture. Our table looked into the open kitchen, with the ruddy chefs working at speed to create meals to satisfy the extended families seated around us. So far, it looked as if our tastebuds would be safe here. Wrong again. To start, we ordered gamberetti (tiny prawns) with polenta. Although tasty, it looked like fake plastic prawn babies on a big block of Styrofoam with vague grill marks. It could even have been toy food created to go into a toy oven on a pink plastic plate so I prayed that the main course would be more inspiring. My spaghetti alle vongole was a reliable choice, tasted exactly as I’d expected it to and disappeared down a satisfied throat, mind you, in Venice it’s hard to find a bad spag vongole. Monsieur’s meal, a plate of ravioli Bolognese, had the air of something bought off a supermarket shelf, added to which, it was depressingly small. Need I say here that the disappointment of the lunch had a direct effect on the mood of that afternoon? Shame on you, Ai Frati! You should know better than to cheat a Frenchman out of a decent lunch. You should know that this is capable of ruining his day. Frenchmen in Venice, be warned. The ravioli at this place will not make you glow with gastronomic pleasure. Head back to Algiubagio for a more reliable feast.
Forcing smiles as we braved the great Venetian outdoors, we walked to the nearby Glass Museum. The highlight of this was that Monsieur immediately homed in on a warm spot in the stairwell, so we basked there for a good few minutes before entering the much cooler exhibition areas. In one room to the rear of the building I stood at a window and gazed out at a cluster of gardens. They’re such a rare delight in Venice that I was curious to peep over the walls from an advantageous height, before continuing to learn about glass from its ancient beginnings through to pretty millefiori paperweights and elaborate chandeliers. It amazes me how sand and heat can create something so beautiful, that is, when you look at tasteful glass items. I coveted the crystal clear wine glasses with a curl of opaque white climbing up their stems like twists of DNA and feared for the contents of certain display cases as our footsteps caused them to rattle in an ominous fashion. There were glass table services causing me to imagine what damage could be done to such plates whilst dragging a knife through a cut of meat. Only the seriously wealthy could afford such risk.
Back outside in the late afternoon we took photos of the canal with its pretty row of houses and the nearby Romanesque church of Santo Donato. “Can you SMILE, please?” urged Monsieur as the camera pointed my way. I hadn’t realised that my face had frozen into a frown.
We were now too late for the glass-blowing demonstrations at the big furnaces on Murano, but that saved us the awkwardness of the hard-sell at the end. In a bead shop, we smiled at how the displays looked edible, more like buckets of hard-boiled sweets in a confectioner’s than glass accessories aimed at tourists, but we could tarry no longer. The sun was now sinking so it was back to Venice proper for us, for yet another culinary adventure, Venetian style.
Monsieur and I were certainly getting our feet wet in more ways than one, as I guided him around Venice. Having visited the Guggenheim Collection, where I’d once spent my days as an intern, we then headed for the Rialto area – famed for its market and covered bridge. In fine weather, this would have been a lovely walk, but the rain was pelting down and the afternoon was already dark so we tried to keep dry by hopping onto a vaporetto. Unfortunately, the crush of smelly and sopping tourists forced us off at San Silvestro, a couple of stops earlier than we’d anticipated. From there we followed the lonely, narrow calli (alleys) reminiscent of Death in Venice, towards the bustling Rialto, the more frequent appearance of mask and souvenir shops once more indicating that we were approaching a tourist zone. In between the tee shirt vendors and the snow shaker shops were windows filled with an enticement of pastries and boxes of Baci; others displayed strange assortments of clothes that older Italian mammas might buy, the large, natural-coloured undergarments making Bridget Jones’s ‘big knickers’ look small. A few pairs of pants and a couple of bras later, Monsieur and I found ourselves in the thick of Venetian tack-dom: Rialto. This is the place to look for a stunning polyester scarf covered in blurry prints of gondolas and yet more masks. Perhaps it’s the I LOVE VENICE tee shirt that you’ve always craved, or the miniature gold plastic model of St Mark’s Basilica with the teeny ‘Made in China’ sticker on its base. Whatever your memento of choice, it’s all right there in Rialto.
Shielding the lens from the rain I stopped to photograph the market stalls which remained bravely open beneath the bridge. Their brightly-coloured fruit and vegetables provided a shot of optimism on such a dull evening. Up the bridge we went, then down the other side and through to Salizzada San Canciano, where we ducked into a bar, wrapping our ice block hands around the warmth of our coffee cups, the strangers at a corner table whilst local men lounged against the bar, mid-passionate discussion with the proprietor.
The grocery shops across the calle lured us out of our toasty haven and into a couple of delightfully well-stocked delis. The shelves were filled with fascinating arrays of grissini (bread sticks) flavoured with herbs or rock salt, pastas of all descriptions including shapes I didn’t recognise, thick pear juice in little bottles, apricot nectar and the omnipresent cans of coke. Side by side stood containers of artichokes and clams and the couple behind the deli counter dished out slices of prosciutto and fresh buffalo mozzarella from a large white bowl of milky liquid. Monsieur and I so love our food that visiting the Venetian version of a corner store is as much a pleasure for us as gazing at a famed work of art. Dazzled by the options before us, we were unable to choose anything more exciting than bottled water for the hotel room before heading back to the windswept Fondamenta Nuove.
It was time to rest our feet numbed from a long day’s walking in the cold and we were grateful to walk into our cosy room, a wall of warmth blasting us as we opened the door. Even so, it took us ages to warm up, shivering yet fully-clothed, beneath blankets. For this reason, we decided to ditch the idea of walking back to the restaurant at Tre Archi, opting instead to dine again at Algiubagio.
For returning to Algiubagio so immediately we received a hero’s welcome at the door and our waiter of the previous evening poured us glasses of complimentary prosecco to show his appreciation of such budding loyalty. Then he put us into the capable hands of his sommelier colleague, who helped Monsieur choose a bottle of red wine. The label on the 2001 merlot told us it was Piovene Porto Godi, by Fra I Broli, a pleasant drop on a winter’s night. Then the deliberation over what to eat began.
We started with handmade pasta twirls tossed simply with cherry tomatoes, fresh parsley and small chunks of buffalo mozzarella. To this the waiter added a drizzle of the sought-after Sicilian olive oil called Planeta; the result was a plateful of springtime which we demolished all too quickly.
As a main, Monsieur tried the house specialty of Angus steak. He could have chosen the chocolate sauce to go with it, an absolute delicacy to many carnivores, but the conservative in him favoured the pepper sauce. He mmm-ed his approval throughout.
I went for the duck with mango salad, small, soft slices of meat in a fruity sauce. Although an intriguing blend of tastes, it wasn’t really me, and I silently wished I’d had another portion of that twirly pasta. Once more, we decided to leave without dessert. Perhaps if we came back we could try something sweet?
Once more we sleep heavily and I dream strange scenes of drinking Campari with Monsieur at a bar behind the train station. I don’t even DRINK Campari. How strangely the subconscious works.
Once upon a time in Venice, I was a museum intern, and once upon that long time ago I fell in love with this dreamy little metropolis of canals and palaces and chilled glasses of sgroppini and steaming plates of fresh spaghetti alle vongole. How can one not fall for a place where you wake to the sound of church bells, where angelic music wafts out of buildings as you pass by or where art is everywhere, even in the paving stones? When I left, I thought I’d be back within a year, but real life got in the way so I wasn’t back for the longest time. It would take me more than a decade to return, but when I did, it was with a man we’ll call Monsieur.
Bar da Gino
I felt a little nervous as we wended our way along the Dorsoduro calli to the Guggenheim Collection where I’d once dressed and undressed the artworks, told visitors “Please don’t touch!” in umpteen different languages and giggled at the Marino Marini with the unmissable erection. Along the way I showed Monsieur the cafe where I’d seen Woody Allen when he was filming ‘Everybody Says I Love You’, and pointed out the bank where interns cashed their monthly stipend cheques, becoming millionaires for a day because the Italian currency was still lira back then and because we hadn’t yet paid our rents. Then, there it was: Bar da Gino, the witness to many pre-, post- and during work snacks. This was where Kim bought her morning coffee, where I’d hum and ha over which tramezzini sandwich to have for lunch or groan if my lunch break was late and they’d all been sold. It was also where we’d take empty water bottles to be filled with table wine for a couple of thousand lira (roughly 80 pence) a time, and we’re not talking small bottles here. Across the way, the tabacchi where I used to buy stamps and phone cards and Baci chocolates wrapped in love messages was still there, and further along, near the Anglican Church there was the Aladdin’s Cave grocery store, filled with pyramids of Ritz cracker boxes, Cipster potato snacks and Kinder Sorpresa eggs, just as it always was. A jumble of happy memories returned with a rush as if I’d only left Venice yesterday.
The Guggenheim Collection lives in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, a squat white palace of one tier only, slightly reminiscent of a half-eaten wedding cake as it looks out at the Grand Canal. For many years it was the home of art collector heiress, Peggy Guggenheim, whose patronage of many of the great artists of the early twentieth century helped build one of the best collections of art from that era. In her lifetime Peggy was a character, to say the least. She had two children with her first husband, Laurence Vail, before divorcing with Olympian acrimony and going on to marry surrealist painter, Max Ernst. That marriage wasn’t destined to last, however, besides which Peggy had affairs with almost every man she ever took a liking to, including Jackson Pollock and the husband of her daughter, Pegeen. Pegeen died young, nurturing the rumour that she’d taken her own life as a result of her mother’s inability to steer clear of her son-in-law. Others say she died mysteriously. Either way, Pegeen’s story is sad. Regarding her mother, whether or not she was the most faithful or amiable of characters as far as people were concerned, she certainly enjoyed her Tibetan terriers, calling them her ‘babies’ and as their respective doggie lives ended, Peggy had each successive dog under interred beneath the paving stones at the back of the Palazzo, before being buried there herself.
Peggy and ‘babies’ in her own, private gondola
As I led Monsieur through the new entrance to the Collection, it was already dark outside and the bright lights of the tickets area made us squint. We bought our tickets and an up-to-date guide, casting a glance at the Guardaroba or wardrobe area. The Guardaroba intern’s face showed misery, pure and simple. In spite of the new entrance and other developments in the gallery’s layout, Guardaroba had obviously not changed that much since I was there. On wet days it used to fill up with umbrellas, dripping backpacks and coats within minutes of opening. Tempers would fray because once the area had reached capacity, we couldn’t take any more belongings from visitors, yet we also couldn’t admit them with bulky day packs or shopping. Arguments were inevitable. Today, Guardaroba certainly looked busy, thanks to the rain outside, but I thought I’d ask anyway. Our coats were drenched through. But before I even opened my mouth to speak, the intern pre-empted my question:
“We’re full already,” he said, with a voice so flat that he might just have been more miserable than he looked.
That settled, we’d just have to try hard not to drip all over the artworks.
To the side of the garden is the gate by Clare Falkenstein that used to be the entrance point for all visitors to the Collection and my way both into and out of work. Made especially for Peggy Guggenheim in 1961, it’s a big, rectangular web of blackened metal, with orbs of glass in different colours appearing at intervals within the web. Then, in the freezing drizzle, we scuttled through the garden and up the stairs into the Palazzo proper. There was the Calder mobile, just where I’d left it, dangling from the ceiling in front of the doors opening onto the terrace. Then we wandered through the room filled with splashy Jackson Pollocks before visiting the old Barchessa, or boat house, which now houses visiting exhibitions. It was crowded down there. We didn’t have much patience for our fellow visitors today, elbowing their way as they were into viewing positions, where they’d take forever ruminating over some technique or muse or artistic attribute, thereby blocking the flow of visitors (including us) behind them. Back in the main palazzo, we found it less oppressive. The fabulous Calder bedhead was still on display in Peggy’s former bedroom and the dressing room was still a shrine to Pegeen and her naive paintings of gondoliers and palazzi. In the past, I’d stare hard at these splashy artworks, trying to imagine Pegeen’s life. The paintings, so bright and child-like, indicate innocence and positivity. Discovering her husband’s affair with her mother must have devastated that part of her personality.
In another room, we considered the use of light in the Magritte canvas of a lit lamppost at dusk, and the whacky imagination present in Max Ernst’s paintings, before stepping through the doors onto the slippery terrace for wicked photos with the Marino Marini bronze of a naked rider with a rather noticeable erection. “People kept pulling it off and it was misplaced,” I explained to Monsieur, “so Peggy finally had the rider’s member soldered on.” From the way he looked at me, I’m sure Monsieur wonders where on earth my next comment is going to come from.
The Marino Marini sculpture, Angel of the City (1948)
Back inside we saw the cubists on display, including works by Picasso and Braques, before braving the garden yet again. We had to. There’s no other way of reaching the New Wing, a separate building at the rear of the property. En route, I showed Monsieur where Peggy lies with her thirteen Tibetan Terrier ‘babies’, and patted Jean Arp’s bronze called ‘Fruit Amphora’, which has always reminded me of a flipperless seal pup.
Shaking off the fresh splattering of rain, I looked hard at New Wing. It had changed completely. Now much larger than when I’d been in residence, it houses a cafe/ restaurant, sizeable boutique and a large exhibition space where a fantastic array of photography was being shown during our visit. But Monsieur and I had places to go and Venetians to meet so back to the ticket counter we went to ask the interns’ advice. “We’re staying on the Fondamenta Nuove,” I explained, “and we’d love to find a good restaurant near there that’s not touristy and not too expensive.” This is just the sort of question that Guggenheim interns love, so we soon had recommendations flying at us. “What about that place near Tre Archi?” proffered one, “oh, yeah. D’you think it’s still open?” asked another. “Sure it is. I was just there the other night.” “Mmm hmmm, you’ll love this place.” Everyone was in agreement, drawing maps and scribbling directions for us on the back of a museum leaflet. “It’s walking distance to your hotel, locals love it, it’s off the beaten track so not that many tourists even find it, and the food’s great.” We were sold. We visit an art collection for the culture and leave with a restaurant recommendation. Well, you can’t get much more Italian than that.
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