Category Archives: Urban Art

On This Day – An Unexpected Meeting With Marilyn Monroe

January 15th 2011 and I was in the Norwegian City of Haugesund on the North Sea coast…

In the morning by a minor miracle the rain had stopped and the pavements had been dried off by the piercing wind so when we woke and discovered this we were hopeful of a dry day.

Breakfast turned out to be an excellent affair with a good cold buffet and a hot egg and bacon selection as well. There was a lot of chopped up fish, which, quite frankly, I could have happily managed without and some brown cheese, which is apparently quite popular in Norway, so I tried some and regretted it almost immediately. I think brown cheese is what you call an acquired taste and quite clearly two days was not going to sufficient time to get anywhere close.

We stepped out of the hotel into a drab world of semi-darkness that was just overwhelmingly grey and sad. Along the waterfront boats bobbing gently on the calm waters and except for the occasional piercing squawk of a seagull it was eerily quiet for a Saturday morning.

The best thing to do was to walk back towards the centre and soon we were on Haraldsgate, the main shopping area and the longest pedestrianised street in Norway but even though it was the weekend the streets were empty and the shops were seriously short of customers.

Even at midday it was still quite dark and although the Christmas lights were still twinkling this was doing little to lift the gloom and the overall impression on this mid January Saturday was that this is a town teetering on the edge of  terminal dullness.

I amused myself by taking pictures of frost picked windows…

We didn’t spend much longer in the shopping centre and were soon back on the main street where we noticed that the people seemed to be outnumbered by the statues. Every few yards there was a bust or a figurine of some kind or another and I was left with the impression that the city council must spend a considerable amount of its budget on sculptures and street art.

There were a few spots of rain now so we headed back in the direction of the waterfront and the hotel just in case we might have to make a run for cover and down at the harbour side we came across a statue of a young and flirty Marilyn Monroe.

The reason it seems that she should surprisingly turn up here is that her father, Martin Mortensen lived in Haugesund before emigrating to America in about 1880. After abandoning his family after only six months of marriage, he was killed in a motorcycle crash without ever seeing his daughter – Norma Jean Mortensen.  There is some dispute about this I am  obliged to add and there are alternative theories about Marilyn’s paternal heritage – no one really knows for sure.

The rain was getting heavier so as we had been walking for a couple of hours or so we went back to the hotel to shelter. Another really good thing about the Hotel Amanda was complimentary tea and coffee throughout the day so we were saving money all the time as we sat in the lounge to warm up and enjoyed a hot drink.

I usually prefer a beer at about this time when I am on holiday and because I thought it was rude not to sample a genuine Norwegian brew I slipped back to the co-op and spent my children’s inheritance on three small cans at a massive £3 each and returned with my purchases just hoping that the Frydenlund Pilsner and the original Hansa Fatøl would be worth every øre.

Suddenly the sky brightened a couple of shades of grey and the rain stopped so not having travelled eight hundred miles to Haugesund to watch television we found our coats and returned to the streets.

The wind buffeted us about and rearranged our clothing as we crossed back over the bridge and slipped into the shelter of the shopping streets again. Old photographs of Haugesund show Haraldsgate as a row of attractive timber buildings but over the years some of these have disappeared and have been sadly replaced with later inappropriate concrete and glass additions, a bit like any modern English town scarred forever by 1960s town planners.

It was still light and dry so we went on a rather pointless walk to a pretty church and then returned to the warmth of the hotel via the waterfront. We opened the wine and I had a can of Norwegian beer, taking care to enjoy every expensive drop and when the waffle machine was wheeled into action at three o’clock we were first in the queue at the trough of batter mix and prepared ourselves a tasty snack. I finished the Norwegian beer and I instinctively knew that I should have bought more.

Tonight the dining room was busy with Norwegian guests most of whom looked as though they were attending a tribute band retro rock concert, especially the men with their pony tails and platted beards. We were the only English people in the hotel and the Norwegians treated us with a sort of arms length curiosity because they were probably wondering what on earth we were doing there.

It was pouring with rain now so this ruled out any evening walk option so instead we made ourselves comfortable in the lounge, claimed possession of the television remote controller which put us in charge of channel selection and choose an English speaking film. Some Norwegian guests turned up but didn’t stay and this time unlike the Scott of the Antarctic story – arriving second at the south pole after the Norwegian Roald Amudsen, this time the English were there first and we were staying put.

Travels in Portugal, The Garrison Town of Elvas

Centro-Histórico-Elvas

Very close to the border with Spain is the fortress city of Elvas and after leaving the delightful city of Beja we stopped off there on our way to an overnight stay in Estremoz.

As it turned out my pre-travel research let me down rather badly on this occasion because this was a place that would have been good to stay longer but we found ourselves restricted to only an hour or so in what had become at this point a bit of a cramped and overly ambitious schedule.

We arrived around mid morning and parked the car close by to the impressive city aqueduct.  The Amoreira Aqueduct has a length of over seven thousand metres from its spring in the nearby mountains.  It is the longest and tallest aqueduct in Iberia. It is a truly impressive piece of sixteenth century architecture that was constructed to supply the frontier garrison with fresh water as the city wells became inadequate and one-by-one dried up.

Elvas Aqueduct

To reach the centre we passed through one of the many garrison gates that were designed originally to keep people out but were now easily accessible and we quickly discovered that we were in one of Portugal’s hidden gems.  Elvas is located in the far east of the country and of the Alentejo region and it seems that many tourists rarely consider visiting which is a shame because those like us who make the journey are rewarded with a fascinating town rich in history and beauty.

But wait just a minute because that would make it one of those Instagram destinations that I have previously complained about?

A border fortress city naturally required strong defences to protect the country and Elvas is among the finest examples of intensive usage of the trace italienne (a star fort) in military architecture, and has been a World Heritage Site since 2012.  A star fort is just that, a celestial shaped design which made it easier to defend and difficult for besieging armies to successfully attack it.

Elvas, it turns out is the biggest fortified town not only in Portugal but all of Europe. Inside the fortress town we walked through the ancient whitewashed streets, cobbled streets which were painful to negotiate in tourist sandals.  Along narrow passages lined by houses with blistered wooden doors,  Shutters thrown back like the wings of butterflies basking in the midday sunshine.  Sagging washing lines groaning under the weight of the dripping laundry.  The rich aroma of lunch time cooking seeping out from open windows.  Outside of the front doors pots of flowers in various stages of bloom and decay.  Fabulous.

Elvas Street 01

At the top of the town we arrived at the ancient Moorish castle which has had the benefit of considerable and extensive renovation and we paid the modest fee to climb to the top of the battlements and enjoyed expansive views over the plains of Alentejo and the neighbouring country of Spain.

Walking down from the castle we made our way to the Praça da República, which in Portugal is sort of the equivalent to the Plaza Mayor in Spain but rarely ever so noisy or busy and we found a spot in the sunshine to join local people for a lunch time drink and a simple lunch before it was time to move on.

Much too soon really, I would gladly have stayed in Elvas for much longer and an overnight stay but we couldn’t rearrange our schedule now so we returned to the car and headed in the direction of nearby Estremoz.

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Travels in Spain – Statues

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Travels in Spain, Valencia Old Town

Two years ago I visited the Spanish city of Valencia.  I liked it, I liked it a lot and said that I would like to return quite quickly so this year I did just that.

Here are some new pictures.  Click on an image to scroll through the Gallery…

I did mostly the same things so instead of repeating myself you can find my previous post about Valencia here.

Travels in Italy, Graffiti and A Load of Baloney

Bologna Grafitt1 01

My first impressions of Bologna were not especially positive I have to say.

We arrived in the late afternoon and after we had settled into our accommodation we walked the short distance to the city centre.  What a shock.  I can hand on heart say that I have never seen so much horrible graffiti anywhere else on my travels.  Not in Lisbon, not in Ljubljana, not even in Naples.  If I lived in Bologna I would open a spray paint shop and make an absolute fortune!

Should I have been surprised? Probably not, graffiti is after all an Italian word that has found its way into World-wide vocabulary. Bologna has a history and reputation for insurrection and disobedience.  Graffiti generally betrays anger and distress.

Everywhere was daubed with paint and mindless slogans and I couldn’t help wondering which part of a moron’s brain doesn’t develop properly which allows them to think that this appalling behavior is acceptable.  The famous colonnades and porticos daubed in paint, doorways disfigured and shop fronts vandalised.  It was bad, very bad and it made me feel sad, very sad.

So we walked for a while and eventually found a restaurant that served good food that filled our appetites and cheap house wine that stained our lips and after a hearty meal my mood improved and I looked forward to seeing the city in the morning.  We had walked nearly six miles today which wasn’t so bad considering the fact that we had spent almost four hours on the trains.

Bologna TowersIn the morning I have to say that the graffiti didn’t appear quite so bad, it seemed to get swept away by the bright sunlight that percolated through the colonnades, soaked up and washed away by the activity of the day but then the problem was beggars and looky-looky men on every street corner.  Later I looked in a mirror in the room to see if I had got a neon-sign on my head that said ‘please pester me’

Almost at the centre we came to the landmark site of the city – the two towers.  In the early middle ages there was a frenzy of tower building in Italy and nowhere more so than in Bologna and by 1400 it is estimated that there were as many as one hundred and eighty of them.

The tallest one remaining is called Asinelli (after the family that built it) and for a modest fee of €5 it was possible to climb the four hundred and ninety eight steps to the top of the three hundred foot tower. I can’t help thinking that what a shame they didn’t make it a round five hundred. I like round numbers.  It leans in an alarming way similar to the Leaning Tower of Pisa but this one is nearly twice as tall. In fact it is one of the highest towers in Italy, second only to the one in nearby Cremona which is about fifty feet taller.

Getting to the top was a bit of an effort, hard work with knees trembling, muscles straining and a heart ticking over faster than an Italian taxi driver’s charging meter but at the top it was all worthwhile with wonderful views over all of the city below and the countryside beyond.

Bologna Panorama

Back down at street level we walked the city and made our way to an area called the Quadrilateral which is a maze of streets dedicated to food.  Meat, fish, vegetables, bread and cakes, here there was Parma Ham, Balsamic Vinegar from Modena and cheese shops dedicated only to Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Here too was the speciality of Bologna called Mortadella which according to Wikipedia is a large Italian sausage or luncheon meat made of finely hashed or ground, heat-cured pork, which incorporates small cubes of pork fat and is flavoured with spices”

I bought some of course, it would have been rude not to and later we tried it back in the hotel room.

Mortadella let me tell you is what we call SPAM, it is just processed meat that is tasteless and nasty and is a curious pink colour as though part of an unpleasant medical procedure.  And this is supposed to be the gastronomic speciality of Bologna.  I can remember SPAM when I was a boy, it was horrible then and it was just as horrible now. It tasted like a bicycle tyre inner-tube.

We threw half of it away.  Well, almost all of it actually.

Mort translated to English is dead so I can only suppose that Mortadella means ‘Dead Delli’, I don’t think that I will ever try it again. Rather a disappointment I thought, this region of Italy is supposedly famous for food but Bologna has only horrible SPAM!

This is interesting however, how many times do we use an everyday phrase without really understanding where it came from?  Mortadella, or Bologna Sausage is so full of crap that this is where we get the expression ‘ A load of old Baloney’.

Bologna Mortadella

After the Quadrilateral we walked some more and found ourselves near to some canals. Apparently Bologna used to have a large network of transport waterways but these were filled in and paved over in a 1950s building boom. We found the one or two that survived the post-war reconstruction and inevitably it is called ‘Little Venice’

Other places have their own versions of ‘Little Venice’, London, Birmingham, Amsterdam, St Petersburg and Prague are examples, in fact almost anywhere with a little stretch of canal.

There is a Little Venice in Michigan USA and another in Bavaria in Germany and there is even one entire country that is called ‘Little Venice’.  The name ‘Venezuela’ originated from the Italian explorer and cartographer Amerigo Vespucci who led a 1499 naval expedition along the northwestern coast of South America.  When he landed he saw natives living in houses on stilts and using boats that were shaped like gondolas. He thought that the place resembled Venice so named it Venezuela, which means ‘Little Venice’.

Bologna Canal

By late afternoon our day was nearly done but before we finished I was determined to find the inevitable statue of Giuseppe Garibaldi and an especially fine statue it turned out to be and after we had found it we wandered back to the accommodation and ignoring the graffiti found history on every street corner with a time-line stretching from Romans through Popes, Revolutionaries, Communists and the terrorist Red Brigade.

Later we dined in the same restaurant and had pasta and house wine.  We walked nine and a half miles today.  I enjoyed the day in Bologna but I have to say that it is never going to get into my list of top ten of Italian towns and cities…

Naples, Palermo, Verona, Lecce, Bari, Padua,  Alghero, Lucca, Florence, Rome

 

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Travels in Italy, Balconies of Milan

Milan Balcony 1

Rather sad and neglected.  In Milan balcony flowers are not a priority it seems.

Milan Balcony 2Milan Balcony 3

Except for the modern business district…

Garden in the Sky Milan

Travels in Spain, Barcelona in Pictures

Click on an image to scroll through the pictures of Barcelona…

Travels in Spain, Alternative Images of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

Sagrada Familia Sand Castle

Spotted on a nearby beach constructed by two children with the same imagination as Antoni Gaudi.

Travels in Spain, Body Art on the Streets of the Barcelona Gothic Quarter

Gothic Quarter 4Gothic Quarter 1Gothic Quarter 3

Naples, The Back Streets

Naples Backstreets 02

“To see Naples as we saw it in the early dawn from far up on the side of Vesuvius, is to see a picture of wonderful beauty. At that distance its dingy buildings looked white, rank on rank of balconies, windows and roofs, they piled themselves up from the blue ocean till the colossal castle of St. Elmo topped the grand white pyramid and gave the picture symmetry, emphasis and completeness

But do not go within the walls and look at it in detail. That takes away some of the romance of the thing.”

Mark Twain – The Innocents Abroad

Naples Backstreets 06Naples Backstreets 05

On this point I have to disagree with Mark Twain, the back streets are the romance of the thing!

Naples Backstreets 04