Friday 15 June 2012


Without looking it up, I bet you don’t know what boustrophedonically means.  If you do, you must be super smart, really pedantic or you cheated.  I mean it sounds like a made up word; a drug induced construct.  Or something only an engineer or scientist would understand.  But actually, it’s a quasi literary/artistic term which, until I explored Paris with my sister-in-law Julia, was well beyond my grasp.  The experience went like this.

As Paris is one of those cities you can never expect to complete, I was delighted when Julia took me somewhere special in the French Capital that I hadn’t previously visited.  Sainte-Chapelle is a gem of High Gothic architecture situated not far from Notre-Dame, on Ile-de-la-Cité, the small island in the middle of the Seine. Along with the Conciergerie (the Prison) and Palais de Justice (the Law Courts) it is all that remains of the oldest palace of the first Kings of France; established by Clovis and developed by his son Childebert from the sixth century. 

Sainte-Chapelle itself was founded by Louis IX in 1248 to house the relics of the Passion of Christ.  The most famous of these relics was the Crown of Thorns, acquired in 1239 for an amount of money that apparently exceeded the cost of building the chapel itself.  Though Sainte-Chapelle was completely restored in the mid-nineteenth century, it is quite remarkable that the original stained-glass windows, which are the reliquary chapel’s unique signature, survived a wave of destruction throughout the revolutionary period and two world wars. 

If you’re inclined to think “oh yeah, seen one stained-glass window, seen them all” then think again.  The first floor of Sainte-Chapelle is adorned with fifteen of the largest and most spectacular windows you will ever see.  And as the buttresses and supporting columns of the building have been positioned externally, when you step out of the spiral staircase into the single nave chapel you are entirely surrounded with bright-coloured glass.  It is literally like finding yourself in the middle of a kaleidoscope.  And you have to pinch yourself to be sure it isn’t a dream. 

I’m sure I’m not the first or last tourist to well with tears at the sight of such magic.  Yet before I could begin to comprehend the detail of the 1,113 bible scenes depicted in the glass panels, my pleasure was enhanced by my nephew Noah’s hand tugging at mine: “isn’t it beautiful Aunty Julie… I nearly cried too when I first saw it”.  Out of the mouths of babes - for children’s ability to perceive beauty and embrace tenderness in all its forms is another thing of great wonder. 

I spent considerable time in Sainte-Chapelle trying to follow the bible stories, which on fourteen windows are ‘read’ from the bottom upwards.  Unfortunately my Old Testament knowledge is not as good as it should be and I got lost somewhere between Ezekiel and Job.  Nevertheless I thoroughly enjoyed the images for their own sake. 

Particularly fascinating is the window which tells the story of the relics, from their discovery by Saint Helen in Jerusalem to their arrival in France.  It is this window which is read 'boustrophedonically' - which I learnt means to be read from the bottom upwards but with alternate lines read in opposite directions, right to left then left to right.  I have no idea who invented such a practice, or why, but it was rather like playing snakes and ladders and continually losing your place.  Or perhaps trying to read the newspaper after the chardonnay has gone to your head.  With a little effort, however, I think I got the general gist and frankly enjoyed the challenge. 

Afterwards I sat down on a bench and sank into the stunning atmosphere which is actually the more important point.  Then I noticed other attractive decorations in the chapel, such as thirteenth century statues of the apostles, and a diverse array of carved capitals, painted ‘arcatures’ and attractive ‘quatrefoils’… more context specific lingo, this time of an architectural nature.

After a blissful period of time wrapped in this unusual kaleidoscope of colour and sensation, I eventually moved downstairs to find a Lower Chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary.  The beautifully restored polychrome decorations with an azure background covered in fleur-de-lys, is much simpler than the main attraction upstairs but it is quietly pretty.  I was interested to see a thirteenth century Annunciation fresco above the door to the former Sacristy, for it’s reputed to be the oldest wall painting in Paris.  And on the chapel’s columns, decorated with towers on a purple background, are the Arms of Queen Blanche of Castile, Louis IX’s mother.  I soon learnt Louis IX’s reign was marked not only by the highly commendable construction of Sainte Chapelle, but for numerous Christian Crusades and general piety.  In fact he was the only King of France to be canonized, referred to thereafter as Saint Louis, so as his mother was devout one imagines she must have been very proud of him. 

I left the elevated culture of Sainte Chapelle and adjourned across the Seine to a pet shop with my nephews Noah and Cameron.  We were soon determined to take home the cutest little Border Collie puppy with eyes which called out to be loved.  But I suppose someone had to act like a grown-up, so when Julia joined us she put a stop to our pleading by giving me ‘the look’ – the one which says “it’s all very well to be the cool and indulgent aunty but someone around here has to shepherd these children along the straight and narrow”.  I have a lot of nieces and nephews so I’ve seen that look many times before. 

Can anyone think up one word which might describe it?

Wednesday 13 June 2012


The beautiful and ancient city of Albi is situated on the River Tarn, in the southern wine-growing region of France known as Gaillac.  I’ve visited often as my brother, Sean, lives nearby, and have gradually absorbed details about the area’s history.  Just in case you think the only thing I do is eat, drink, flirt and play havoc… this blog is more serious tourism.

One of Albi’s famous children was Jean-François Galaup, Comte de Lapérouse (1741-1788), the Pacific Explorer who disappeared in mysterious circumstances when his two large vessels, the Astrolabe and the Boussole, were shipwrecked and subsequently attacked off the islands of Santa Cruz. 

I’ve always found it interesting that Lapérouse’s French Fleet arrived on the East Coast of Australia at practically the same time as Britain’s First Fleet, led by the Englishman Captain Arthur Phillip.  So much would have been different if their timing had been ever so slightly reversed… but as it was the great seamen met in Botany Bay on the 26th January 1788, just as Phillip was preparing to move the new colony north into the harbour to settle at Port Jackson (ie Sydney’s Rocks district). 

By all reports it was a cordial meeting and the brave French explorer’s name is honoured in the southern Sydney suburb of La Perouse.  Very thankfully, Lapérouse gave his important letters and documents to a ship heading directly back to England at this time, so despite his tragic end the historical records of his voyage prior to Botany Bay were saved for posterity.

Another famous son from this part of France (his courage of the artistic variety) is remembered in Musée Toulouse-Lautrec.  Like most people, I enjoy Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s vivid portraits of characters such as Yvette Guilbert and Jane Avril.  I admire, too, his self-portraits and brothel paintings, particularly those which allow you to observe multiple treatments on a theme - such as the different renditions of Salon de la rue des moulins, revealing much about the artist’s deliberations over fusion and colour. 

The Art Posters designed for Parisian theatres and musical cafés like the Moulin Rouge, always keep me entertained.  Famously, they include: Ambassadeurs; El Dorado; La Goulue; and Bal Masque, in which I adore the man with a distinctively crooked nose surrounded by silhouettes of spectators and dancers doing the can-can.  I also find memorable various sketches done on cardboard.  The most charming to my mind, by virtue of its subtlety and gentle evocation of sensuality, is Etude pour femme tirant son bas (1894).   A dear friend, Fiona, gave me a souvenir fridge magnet of the image after visiting Albi together and it never fails to make me smile.

The Toulouse-Lautrec Museum is situated in a section of Palais de la Berbie on the edge of Le Tarn immediately below the impressive French-Gothic styled La Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile.  This historic part of Albi is not to be missed - its militant architecture intended as a statement of strength by the Catholic Church against the Cathar heresy which raged in the south of France in the 13th century. 

Extremely impressive are the thick towering walls of the Cathedral and Bishop’s House, standing fortress-like over magnificent gardens and shading Albi’s oldest bridge, Pont Vieux, constructed in 1035.  In addition to sheer walls and towers there are protective fortifications or ‘curtains’ built by Bishop Bernard de Castanet (between 1277 and 1306) during particularly tense times with the ‘Albigensians’.  They provided him with a safe escape route via the river in the event the peasant hatred of him turned riotous. 

I haven’t uncovered yet why they hated him so much… but anyway this part of Albi is, for me, a romantic place, because Sean and Muriel had their wedding photos taken in the Bishop’s lovely gardens.  I always go to the corner viewing platform and watch the mighty Tarn River surging against ancient rocks overlooked by verdant branches bursting impatiently into life. 

It’s a nice counterpoint to the inside of Albi’s Cathedral, where a dramatic Last Judgment scene (circa 1477-1484) is situated on a two hundred square meter rood screen immediately behind the modern altar.  As it hangs close to the congregation - unlike, for example, Vasari’s Last Judgement inside Brunelleschi’s Dome in Firenze - it is likely to fill even the least pious visitor with humble dread.  Indeed the scene is so confronting I wonder if it’s counter-productive.  For sheer fright drives any recollection of the seven deadly sins straight out of your head!  (Well, that’s my excuse anyway.) 

My mother pointed out that one of the reasons for this ominous impression is that there’s no image of the Saviour to balance the vileness of hell and its devils.  For a hole was cut into the rood screen to make way for the repositioning of the modern altar, and consequently it lacks the figure of Jesus and therefore hope for Redemption. 

It provides an insight, anyway, into the sobriety of the Old Testament and dour Medieval-Christian interpretations of the Bible… before subsequent generations, particularly post-Vatican II, were encouraged to trust in the overwhelming love of Christ and a generous, forgiving Father.  Thank God for the timing of my birth is all I can say.  Until I’d seen that screen I thought my twentieth century advantage had been the discovery of penicillin!

Albi’s Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile is also memorable for its flamboyant chancel screen and Grand Choeur (circa 1477-1484).  Situated in what is now the rear of the church, it contains an abundance of Gothic statuary, polychromatic figures, carved motifs and filigree to rival the famous Notre Dame Choirs in Paris and Chartres. 

Also of significance, is that a number of chapels and the striking azure-blue ceiling vaults (coloured with dye from the locally grown woad plant) were covered between 1509 and 1512 with frescoes, putti and other Renaissance motifs.  One of the largest collections of Italian paintings in France, it is a legacy of the city’s Renaissance Bishops, Louis I and Louis II of Amboise. 

If this isn’t enough to make you think Albi’s one-hundred-and-thirteen metre long Cathedral is auspicious, you only have to stand outside Sainte-Cécile and consider the engineering feat of holding up incredibly sheer walls without flying buttresses; buttresses being typical of later Gothic design.  A notable point is that the imposing forty metres to the roof, and seventy-eight metres to the top of the tower, were made from thousands upon thousands of small, red, baked bricks.  Indeed Albi has the world’s largest brick Cathedral and the old city retains much of its character by virtue of the widespread use of these bricks in areas including Bourg Saint-Salvy, Castelviel, Castelnau, Lices-Vigan, Lices-Georges Pompidou, and the Cathedral Close and Tarn Riverbank districts. 

In warm weather I’ve often been lulled into a stupor by wandering along attractive, shaded riverbanks, looking at rusty reflections of the old town in the water, and on each occasion wondering how time, in many ways, appears to have stood still in Albi.

Tuesday 12 June 2012


A couple of weeks ago I was jogging along a country road outside Marssac sur Tarn in the south of France, and had to duck behind a bush to pee.  As I stood from the squat, happy to have avoided peeing on my shoes, I looked up to see a crowd of cows watching me from the opposite paddock. Seriously, every single cow had its head turned in my direction.  As cows go they were lovely: a uniform, warm orange/red, the colour of a King Charles Spaniel, fine boned, apparently meek in nature, and probably dairy.  (I later tried to identify the breed but not even the internet could help.)

As I moved off up the road they turned their heads and continued to follow me, as if I were the most interesting creature to pass all day.  It was siesta, and too hot to be running, so perhaps they were waiting for me to keel over - which I very nearly did, on account of the alcohol streaming through my bloodstream from the night before, chased by an excessive amount of cholesterol from cheese, sausage and the dessert I just had to have to avoid offending my hosts. 

I turned and ran up a dirt lane unsure where it would lead.  Right along the path a man half way up a tree was watching me.  I thought he was spreading nets across the branches to keep birds from his fruit, but in fact he was waiting to tell me that it was private property and I needed to turn around and go back.  Well, he spoke in French so I guessed that’s what his gesticulating meant. 

Back I trod and found the cows waiting.  They weren’t very talkative but I found them endearing, especially as they were bordered by green fields, rich with golden-topped crops on account of all the rain, and a soothing smattering of listless red poppies.  For not the first or last time I wished I could paint, as the scene was idyllic.

It got me thinking about the fact that actors and performers love to be watched.  Maybe that’s why I loved the old Guinness commercials so much… peering eyes from the guy who only ever said “I like to watch”… the pint itself taking on the characteristics and aura of a watchable star.  Indeed many artists are crippled without an audience… which is perhaps why we fill our non-working time writing blogs or telling funny stories to our friends.  This is hard for introverts or non-exhibitionists to understand, except of course if you get them onto a subject about which they are passionate. 

Take my brother Sean, for instance, he loves to be watched when playing the guitar or Rugby.  But put him in a shop or at a party and he will do everything to sink into the furniture.  Seriously, in all the years I’ve visited him in France I have never been allowed to speak English to him in a bank or shop.  He wants to be French and I, it would seem, am a huge handicap.  So he makes me tell him what I want and then shushes me as we walk through the door.  As if I hadn’t yet learnt this routine, he did it to me again recently.  In fact I suspect he doesn’t really want me to go into ‘his shops’ at all unaccompanied, for fear they’ll make the connection.  He doesn’t say that of course… probably knowing I’d tease him too much and the thrown gauntlet would be far too tempting.  I am impressed he has assimilated well into this community by being so stubborn, dare I say French?  But I did have to laugh when his lovely wife, Muriel, came back to the house with a packet of Vitamin C - for Sean had known I was planning to pop into the local Pharmacy for it.  Oh well, saved me a trip and a few Euros so I wasn't complaining. 

At a party it’s much the same, for Sean is not a big conversationalist – in fact a man of rather few words.  Indeed I think he’s spent his life wondering how the hell he got such a loquacious sister.  God love him though, for he’s happy to take me to meet his friends, proud even, but he really does not want to have to spend the evening translating for me.  He’s a little more accommodating when the dinner party is at his own home, or if we meet just a couple of people, but if it’s going to be a large group the strain of the threatened need to translate is etched on his brow as we mooch toward the threshold.  I tell him not to worry, “I’ll be fine”, but he knows I won’t be able to keep quiet for long. 

His strategy for one evening - a surprise party thrown by my Muriel’s cousin for her Aunty - was that I use sign-language and a gaggle of disconnected French words to talk to the person immediately next to me; rather than try to join the big table conversation if I didn’t understand it.  “Fair enough” I said, particularly as Sean hasn’t been at all well lately and it’s not the time to provoke him.

This approach was a good idea in theory, but of course I’m a performer whether or not the lights are on me and social butterfly could be my middle name.  So if I pick up on a joke or am attracted by the energy of a conversation, I simply can not hold back my curiosity and inevitably look to someone for clarification.  Thus it was this evening, and to my relief (as much as Sean’s) the lady beside me at the table for a time spoke Italian!  She was delighted to translate the conversation into Italian, then translate my comments back into French for the table, such that I got the requisite number of laughs from the evening’s banter not to feel like a social outcast; or God Forbid boring.  Sean just shook his head in disbelief every time my side-kick and I managed to hold centre stage, but at least he’d not been directly implicated.

 This was how I always got by during my early months living in Italy.  I’d find someone who spoke even a little English and would wind up my social interactions from there.  It’s how I get on still when I’ve been away from Italy too long and forget much of what I’ve learnt.  Nevertheless manners often decree that an evening be allowed to take its natural flow without a constant demand for translation, so I did what I always do when I don’t have sufficient language in a foreign country: I found something to read in English; I played with the children (always a winner for they are without judgement and wonderfully imaginative); I ate and drank to excess; and then fell asleep on the sofa near midnight. 

At 2am I woke up.  And they were all standing above me, watching.