So much beauty out there

August 10, 2010

The West Highlands

Filed under: All,Dear Diary,Travel — Josh @ 5:50 pm
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Last weekend, my flat was hosting a hen party for the best friend of one of my flatmates. While I said bravely that I honestly didn’t mind sharing my flat with 16 drunk young women, I was gently persuaded that heading off for the weekend would be better. So I spent the last weekend in the Highlands, around Loch Ossian. Here’s what happened: (more…)


February 17, 2010

Art in Montreal

Filed under: All,Dear Diary,Travel — Josh @ 6:24 pm
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There was a collection of sculptures by Alfred Laliberte, which were mostly fine (though I’m not much of a conneisseur of sculpture), but as usual, my eye was more drawn towards the comical – which in this instance was one entitled “Edouard Tasse fights the Devil”. No symbolism here, it was a straight punch up between the two of them. I’ve no idea who Tasse is or was, but he seemed to have Satan on the ropes, perhaps surprising given that Beezlebub has a bit of a reputation, but perhaps he’d had word to take a dive in the fifth round. Or maybe it was because Tasse’s right fist was almost as big as his head. I was also amused by the fact that the Devil had a cloak artfully arranged to cover his privates.

Possibly even funnier was a work by Frederick B Taylor which sought to warn the people of Quebec of the dangers of fascism by depicting a swastika in the sky. Not the most intrinsically hilarious of subjects, you might think, until you saw the date: 1942-1948(!). Given the urgency of the message, you might think Taylor might have upped his work rate (or else left it unfinished in 1945).

There was, of course, some great stuff there too. Rembrandt’s Portrait of a Young Woman and de Vlaminck’s Rueil près de Paris in particular. I also liked Valentin’s Abraham sacrificing Isaac though Abe doesn’t look too chuffed at being told he can spare his son, in fact he looks like he fully intends to slay the angel as well.

I’ve not been too complimentary about Canadian art, but I did like Dorian Fitzgerald’s, I guess neo-impressionist, Throne Room, Queluz Palace. I doubt it’s cool to admire contemporary representational art, but it’s very effective.

Then I went to the Contemporary Art Gallery and liked some more Canadian artists. The gallery is mainly devoted to temporary exhibitions, so it’s appeal is very much predicated on the quality of those. Fortunately for me, I liked both the Etienne Zack and Marcel Dzama shows. Dzama uses a limited number of motifs repeatedly (animals, guns, ballet dancers, soldiers, urophagia) but it’s very effective.

February 8, 2010

Last Days in Canada

Filed under: All,Dear Diary,Travel — Josh @ 5:54 pm
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The last couple of days I had in Montreal were pretty cool. I really liked the Plateau area. Downtown gives the impression of competing aspirations as to whether be a modern American city or a traditional European one and falls between the stools, this part of town feels individual to Montreal and is all the better for it. Square houses, with lots of bright colour and fancy windows and steps. It doesn’t come off in every case, but the overall effect is charming. Plus I had a flan on Avenue Laval (I assume Rue Quisling is round the corner) that was so good, it tasted like falling in love. Also in the area I saw a particularly Canadian sign, which read (in French) “this hill is our street, please don’t use it as a ski run”. Perhaps “Don’t take the piste” would be a more concise translation.

The French speaking thing in Montreal is a bit odd really. Although French is the main language in the city, pretty much everyone speaks English as well, and with lots of Anglophones at McGill and Concordia Universities as well as tourists and other interlopers it was difficult to know whether someone would speak to you in English or French. My French is OK if I’m ready for it, but when it’s sprung on me I tend to go blank. So, I spent a lot of the time there looking vacuous (or more son than usual).

I went to the Canadian Centre for Architecture too, which didn’t have much about architecture on public view (thankfully, as what it did have was way over my head), but did have a big collection of short films to watch on technology, transport and futuristic ideas. Best bits, a very funny public information film from about 1950 called Gentleman Jekyll and Driver Hyde which depicted the transformation of a decent, considerate guy to a rude, dangerous driver. Good to know that road rage is not a recent phenomenon. Also a documentary on the 1965 Tour de Saint-Laurent, including a bit where one of the two leading cyclists, obviously not used to being filmed, turned to look at the camera as it pulled up alongside him – whereupon the other rider took the opportunity to launch an attack and left him trailing behind. Best of all, some amazing film from the videos taken by the astronauts in the Apollo flights.

Overall, I had a good time in Canada. If it didn’t quite measure up to what I hoped for, it had lots of plus points too. Hopefully I’ll be back sometime.

February 3, 2010

Keeping it Montréal

Filed under: All,Dear Diary,Travel — Josh @ 12:28 am

On four days acquaintance with Montreal, I like it quite a lot, but I’m not sure exactly why. Some kind of intangible quality, more than the sum of its parts? I don’t know.

Firstly, the weather. It’s been between -5 and -15 most of the time I’ve been here, and honestly I’m loving it. Makes me feel fresh and alive and so on. Plus, no rain. It’s either sunny or snowing. And it’s great to be able to appreciate the beauty of the snow without feeling guilty that it’s going to be causing economic and social meltdown, as happens when more than an inch falls in the UK. Here, they can handle it. But when you’re walking around, with the wind whistling into your face, and your feet looking down to make sure that the ice/snow/slush underfoot isn’t too treacherous dangerous, it isn’t conducive to properly appreciating your surroundings. So, while I never pretend to definitiveness in my statements, what follows is even more based on snap judgements than usual!

Christ Church Cathedral

Architecturally, it’s all over the place. Some very nice buildings are scattered all over the place – the McGill campus around Parc Rutherford is lovely, as is Rue St Paul for instance, but there’s lots of plain buildings around too. There are weird juxtapositions like on Rue St Catherine where Christ Church Cathedral has a huge skyscraper right behind. If there aren’t many similar divergences of scale, there are plenty of style.

One common trait that I’m not keen on is buildings designed to look older than they are. These typically look pretty good from a distance, and bloody awful from up close.

Vieux Montreal has the highest concentration of prettiness and it is an agreeable neighbourhood to walk round in, but (and I’ve re-drafted this line multiple times in order to avoid sounding like some kind of eurosnob, and I just can’t do it) it wouldn’t be considered anything special in most of the great European cities.

Where Montreal does score big is with the Mont-Royal Park. I’ve gone on before about how much I think hills can add to a city’s attractiveness and Toronto suffers from only having man-made vantage points. By contrast, the hill that gives Montreal it’s name is not just a great view over the city, but like Montjuif in Barcelona or Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh gives an easily accessible escape route from the city. 15 minutes from downtown, and I was walking for half an hour without seeing more than two people. Sure, it was a work day, out of season, but that’s still a great option. Snow-covered it looked gorgeous, but it’s also covered in trees so I’m sure it looks great all year round.

Croix du Mont Royal

The best vantage point over the city is from the Chateau on the hill. It’s all a nice building, as well as a welcome warm refuge, though it’s decorated with some heroically bad paintings illustrating the history of Montreal. The accompanying text says that the commission was a welcome one for artists struggling with the economic climate during the Great Depression. I have to say, I’d have been surprised if they were well off in any circumstances. Nearby the Chateau is a big metal cross, which actually looks great.

From the other side of the hill the view is even better, with the colossal basilica of the St Joseph Oratory (second in size only to St Peter’s in Rome) prominent.

One thing that is often said about Montreal compared to Toronto is that it is a more egalitarian, less money obsessed society. Obviously I’ve not been here long enough to form any sort of a view on that, but one thing that is noticeable is that in January in Montreal it’s very difficult to ostentatiously display your wealth. The cars are all covered with dirt from the snow, while most everyone walking has to wear a big coat and sturdy boots, while the latest fashionable haircut isn’t going to survive for long even if you do bravely choose to go without a hat. Now, even Pop Sociology 101 might hesitate to suggest that there might be some correllation between equality in appearance and equality in society, but I think there might be something in that.

Only other thing I’ve done really is to go to the Fine Arts Museum, but will keep that for a separate post.

February 1, 2010

En Route, Montreal

Filed under: All,Dear Diary,Travel — Josh @ 12:45 am
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When my brother travelled across Canada, he managed to fall in love on the bus, as documented in the lovely Elodie (I’ll stick a link in here somepoint!) so I was alert to the possibilities of high romance on the road to Montreal. Unfortunately no-one caught my eye, so I had to look out of the window instead.

I think I decided that I wasn’t going to stay in Canada on the road to Niagara, an ugly highway decorated by strip malls, it just made me think that this is not how a country should be. By contrast, heading north there was more snow, more trees, the occasional frozen lake and it was all very scenic. Add a hill or two and it would have been beautiful.

Another example of the divided by a common language thing, we passed a sign for Tippers Family Campground. At least I assume it was, maybe the families are all having their picnics amongst burnt out cars and rusting fridges.

Got stuck for a while at Ottawa bus station waiting for my connection. Apparently someone had cleaned the engine, the water had then frozen and put the engine out of action. I guess public transport has problems the world over, but this seemed a properly Canadian reason. After we left Ottawa for Montreal it got dark so I couldn’t see any more of the scenery from there on. I’ll assume it was all lovely.

Got to Montreal and the hostel about 8ish and was soon drinking with some of the other guests there, culminating in heading out to Igloofest. I didn’t see much evidence of igloos, but there was some very impressive ice sculpture’s. But it was really just a big outdoor disco. Given the temperature was about -15, dancing to keep warm was pretty much compulsory, and having to wear about seven layers had the added benefit of masking my terrible dancing at least to a certain extent. It was a really good night, and today has been mainly recuperation. Looking forward to heading out tomorrow to see the city.

January 23, 2010

A Bride’s Second Great Disappointment

Filed under: All,Dear Diary,Travel — Josh @ 3:39 am
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Apparently Oscar Wilde never actually said that about Niagara Falls – he called them one of the “keenest and earliest disappointments” which is not quite as pointed. Anyway, today I went to see them. What with Oscar’s comment and every guide book ever decrying the tacky and touristy building around the falls my expectations were not that high. But in fact, the falls are very impressive and although the surrounding buildings are horribly tacky (the US side is even worse apparently, which I find hard to envisage) it doesn’t really affect your enjoyment of the view itself. Actually, the route down there was more depressing, particularly between Toronto and Burlington, which appears to be just one loooong strip mall. Yuk.

One brilliant thing I did see in Niagara Falls town was a bus which had as its destination “Hospital-Optimist”. Now, I’m going to assume that this means there  is also a “Hospital-Pessimist” bus, with one for people who are upbeat about their prognosis you know, I really think I’m going to beat this. OK, only 25% of people survive this operation, but why shouldn’t I be one of them? While the other bus has people saying things like Sure, my doc says that I’m going to be fine, but I don’t think she knows what she’s talking about. Heaven knows what would happen if you missed your bus and had to get the wrong one.

January 21, 2010

Culture Stuff

Wednesday evenings offers free admission to the two big cultural attractions in Toronto, the Royal Ontario Museum and the Art Gallery of Ontario. The museum only offers an hour, which really isn’t sufficient time to see everything, but I guess for locals that’s not an issue as they can always make more than one trip.

The general museum atmosphere is very much a “isn’t learning fun” one, with lots of interactivity and designs to make kids see how the exhibits relate to their daily life. In that respect it’s very well done, though as an adult I had more time for the Far Eastern Art which was presented in a more conventional museum atmosphere, presumably because they don’t think there’s any prospect of getting kids interested in it! The other thing I enjoyed was the amazingly beautiful collection of minerals there, though time didn’t really allow anything more than an appreciation of their appearance.

By contrast, the art gallery allows two and a half hours of free admission, which is more than enough time to see everything, particularly as the second floor is basically full of mediocre (and sometimes just plain bad) Canadian art. Paul-Emile Borduas was just about the only artist I liked.

Other than that, there’s a lot to enjoy. It’s a great building to start with, managing to combine modernity with a feeling of comfort. The collection of mainly European art is, understandably, a bit short of works for several periods/styles of painting and tries to make a virtue out of a necessity by taking a thematic approach instead. Some “themes”are pretty fluid, but it often works surprisingly well. The “herstory” room, primarily made up of portraits of women that span 200 years is really interesting.

Notable works:

Ribera’s – St Jerome. Now I love Ribera, and I like this piece, but the hands are really odd, It doesn’t fully come across in this link, but they look like baked apples or something.

Andre Derain- Still Life With Frying Pan

George Bellows – The Drunk. Gratuitous semi-nudity from the 1920s, posing as moral instruction.

Now for some blog interactivity. When I was young, I had a football management computer game (don’t all the best anecdotes start this way?) where the players abilities were described in words rather than, as is more normal, numbers. So you had to decide whether an “excellent” player was better than a “brilliant” one, or whether “decent” was worse than “good”. I was reminded of this when I saw all the categories by which the gallery listed its benefactors/founders. “First Founders” were top of the list, with mere “Founders” bottom. But in what order did these come in (I’ve alphabeticised them). A prize for anyone who gets it right, or is closest to doing so.

  • Distinguished
  • Grand
  • Landmark
  • Luminary
  • Milestone
  • Patron
  • Transforming
  • Visionary

Good luck.

January 19, 2010

More idle observations on Toronto

Ok. Now the big attraction in Toronto is the CN Tower. And when I say big, I mean big. Well, actually I mean tall. It’s very tall. In the last couple of years it’s been overtaken by the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, but until then it was the tallest building in the world. Actually, it being overtaken may cause some problems. The signs pointing to the CN tower say something along the lines of “this way to the top of the world”. Presumably they will have to be moved round to point to the airport.

However, although it’s very tall, and really rather pretty, it doesn’t look tall enough to be the tallest (or second tallest) building in the world. I imagine that being something you can barely see the top of. Perhaps it’s partly because it’s surrounded by lots of other tall buildings makes it stand out less. If it was the only structure above 2 stories, maybe it’d seem more incredible.

Speaking of other tall buildings, many of them have signs by them saying “Beware of falling ice”. This raises two questions for me. Firstly, what are you supposed to do about it? Walk with your head constantly looking upwards? That’d be pretty dangerous in itself, not to mention slightly impractical. Secondly, what exactly is the risk of being struck by falling ice? Do Canadian news programmes feature segments where the newsreader says “17 people were killed today on the streets of Toronto by falling ice. Experts explain this relatively low figure by saying that police advice to wear steel helmets whenever you go outside is being listened to.”

Also went to the distillery district, which isn’t as riotous as it sounds. Instead it’s some very attractive, old-fashioned Victorian red brick architecture which has been converted mainly into arts spaces. I really liked it. Obviously Toronto isn’t going to have medieval buildings, but even fairly recent historical architecture can be interesting as long as its sensibly adapted. Unfortunately, it’s a little too far from the centre for many people to just drop in on, and not quite big enough to be worth an excursion to, so I suspect it’s fairly quiet most of the time.

January 17, 2010

Phase 2

Filed under: All,Dear Diary,Travel — Josh @ 4:05 pm
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It’s taking me a little while to get used to the “Shoppers Drug Mart” signs. I guess cinema and TV have accustomed me to “drugstore”, but “drug mart” might as well say “needle exchange” in my mind. In another example of you can take the boy out of Cardiff…it took me a while to realise that the shards on the ground were ice, rather than broken bottles from last night’s glassings.

I managed to nick my thumb with my razor yesterday morning. After it had been bleeding for about 20 minutes I decided I’d have to buy some plaster for it. Which brand is the cheapest? Ah, it’ll be the kids friendly one with the Shrek motif. Will look ridiculous. But it is half the price. Rarely does that not clinch the argument. Not convinced whether my decision shows that I am confident and self-assured, not so image obsessed that I need to pay over the odds; or whether it means I’m cheap.

Objective Actually Talk To Canadians worked out well. Went for a meal with 2 guys at C’est What (that’s the sort of clever bilingual humour you get in a sophisticated country like Canada). Very good beer. So that’s one important criteria satisfied.

January 15, 2010

Toronto – First Impressions

Filed under: All,Dear Diary,Travel — Josh @ 11:27 pm

Actually my first impression is that its difficult to form a clear first impression. After spending much of the last year going round cities geared up for tourism, where its highlights were all nicely packaged for the flying visitor, Toronto just doesn’t have that sort of atmosphere. Possibly this is because January isn’t exactly tourist season here, possibly it’s just not a tourist town at all. So, I’m going to have to do leg work to discover its attractions, and use my own judgement to analyse it. It’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it.

Today was phase one, orienting myself.

Started off down to the harbour front. Lots of water (unsurprisingly) which is a plus, though I think you really need a bit of height to properly appreciate lakes. Reckon it probably looks better from the top of one of the many impressive skyscrapers behind me. The area was almost eerily deserted, even for a January weekday morning. But pretty cool. Then went through the commercial area, basically the same the world over. Think the city looks a bit like Oslo, but that may just be that my brain can’t get beyond the link between tall buildings and snow. Finally to Chinatown and then the Kensington street vintage shops. Think I’d spend some time and money here if I did become a permanent resident – not least because of the way I was shamelessly short-changed when I bought some gloves in Chinatown. It wasn’t the amount of money (about 75 cents) but the utterly obvious way it was done. Even though I have no idea what the individual Canadian coins look like it was clear that the combination I was getting was not the right amount, nor that she’d made an innocent mistake. It was too funny for me to bother complaining.

Already having some issues with Canadian sporting priorities. Everywhere is covered with advertising for Canada’s winter olympians, plus all the hockey stuff. And when I went passed an outdoor skating rink instead of people staggering about unsteadily and holding on to each other for support like you get at normal, British, outdoor rinks people were skating with control and skill. It’s all wrong, I tell you. If God had meant us to skate, He’d have given me basic co-ordination skills. My hopes did rise briefly when I heard cricket mentioned on the TV, but instead of being what you’d expect – an in depth analysis of Canada’s momentous win in the u19 World Cup over Zimbabwe – it was an advert for an internet service provider. One tries not to judge too harshly, but there has to be something fundamentally rotten in a society which has these priorities.

Tomorrow is phase 2 – actually talking to some Canadians.

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