Saturday, September 27, 2008

Photos from Land of the Cathars

I took around a hundred photos! These are just a sample.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

In the Land of the Cathars

Carcassone on Sunday - a walled city on the hill above the modern city. Walls, moats, wells, turrets, chateau, and lots of souvenir shops and cafes. For some reason, entrance to everything was free, which was a bonus. We spent about 5 hours there, wandering through the winding streets, and we also went through the chateau from top to bottom. Imagined being up the top, firing arrows at the people below, and living in the stone rooms. Cool in the summer but no doubt freezing in the winter. Much of the old city has been restored, but there are still original elements everywhere.

I loved Carcassonne - until I spent the whole day yesterday climbing mountains (literally) to see three Cathar chateaux (castles). Queribus, Peyerpeteuse and Puilaurens. All the stairs I climbed in Paris and Menton in no way prepared me for the rock clambering up to each of these 12th century fortresses. But each one was worth it. As I drove along the valley below and looked up, they appeared on the ridges just as they would have hundreds of years ago. Stunning. And seemingly impenetrable, unless you laid seige to them, I guess.

Peyerpeteuse is probably in the best condition (all are just remains now) but in each one there is enough of the original walls and rooms and stairways to imagine how it would have been to live there. I loved every minute of it (OK, I didn't love the last thirty metres or so of each climb, when I thought my heart was going to fall out of my chest and lie gasping on the rocks). I've taken a million photos, but can post none of them yet as the internet cafe doesn't have the capacity to upload stuff. Will put some up next week.

As for research for my novel, you can't beat it. All I have to do is close my eyes and I am back at the castles, wind whistling past my ears, as I gaze down across the valley...

Friday, September 19, 2008

In Katherine Mansfield territory

One of the reasons I came to Menton was because this was where Katherine Mansfield, the New Zealand writer, lived and wrote for some years. On the street map Avenue de Katherine Mansfield looks big and important, but when I trekked up there, it was not so. The avenue was a small hilly street that quickly turned into what was more like a driveway, and then actually became someone's driveway! But I did find the house where she lived, and this is the memorial. Two plaques, one which is about her birth and death dates and a quote from a letter to Middleton Murray.

The other plaque lists the books she wrote while living there. Of course, I wanted more. But this is all there is. And in the neighbouring street, Rue Webb-Ellis, there is no statue of Webb-Ellis that I could find, just a train station. Webb-Ellis, by the way, is credited with "inventing" the game of rugby union (go All Blacks!). Despite these two minimal tributes, which were the initial inspiration for coming here, I love Menton and can recommend it to anyone at all for a visit.
On the one hand, this is an awful photo - out of focus and hard to discern. On the other, I love it. On the way home from dinner last night, on impulse we decided to follow some stairs up from our street and see where they led. It turned into a fascinating journey through a labyrinth of steps, archways, twists and turns, unexpected doorways and more steps, and finally the church at the top. In the dark, despite some lighting along the way, I felt that sense of life in much earlier times, when narrow pathways and tall houses with barred windows were the essence of the village. Mysterious, evocative and entrancing.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Writing at the Coast

With a view like this from the window as I type, there really is no excuse for not feeling inspired, is there? Except there is so much to see and do and wonder over... and eat, of course. I am in Menton, right near the Italian border, and the weather is lovely. We are in an apartment high above the bay, but in the old quarter, so that to get to where we are staying, we climb up through a dark, narrow passageway of many steps, then a little way up our winding street, then through an iron gate and up four flights of stone steps that have felt probably millions of feet over the centuries.

So I am inspired, and have written more in my journal, and a new poem, and today I went to Nice and saw some Roman ruins that gave me more ideas. It's all about feeding the creativity, in many different ways, right down to the elderly men playing boules in the park who tried to persuade me to throw a few boules with them (I said no, thinking they probably couldn't move fast enough to get out of the way of my missiles!).
This is someone else's inspiration - an installation, for want of a better word, outside the Monte Carlo casino in Monaco. It's a huge shiny mirror (convex? or concave?) that shows both the fountain below it as well as the entrance to the casino. In front of the casino, where I managed to lose E10 on the poker machines, just so I could say I'd been there, you might be able to see a lot of tourists, but also a Bentley and an Aston Martin and a Lamborghini. None of which belonged to me.
Naturally, wherever I go I will find a pirate if there is one to be found. This handsome buccaneer stands outside the Pirate Lolly Shop in Menton, and very kindly allowed me to have my photo taken next to him without demanding any gold. Mind you, as he is a statue, he would've had a hard time getting his hand up to grab my money anyway.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Pope takes over Paris

We had Friday planned as the day to visit Notre Dame and the Crypt beneath, except the Pope arrived and was holding services at ND, so it was closed. All day and half the night. And the streets were filled with gendarmes standing on corners, blowing whistles in the middle of intersections, and roaring up and down the streets in small cavalcades of cars and vans with sirens going full volume. Luckily, Sainte Chappelle was not closed (possibly because it is inside the Conciergerie) and we were able to get in. It was the one place I really wanted to see, because I had heard so much about the beautiful stained glass windows.

The photo above - in fact, all of my photos - fail to do it justice. The whole chapel is stained glass, three walls of it plus a huge round window above the entrance door. Each window is a slightly different design shape, and each one tells a different part of the story. There are no pews inside, just chairs around the perimeter for you to sit and stare, mouth open.

I have managed to visit quite a few bookshops in Paris, and this is the most famous - Shakespeare and Company was operating before WWII and the original shop, so the story goes, was closed down by a German commander when the owner refused to sell him a book. This shop is opposite Notre Dame, near St Michel metro, and has a library of old books upstairs which is just for sitting and reading, not for sale.
I also visited Abbey's Bookshop (the smallest in the world?), and several other larger shops. And found The Red Wheelbarrow bookshop as well. It seems like the smaller the shop premises, the more books they cram in, so there are towering piles everywhere that threaten to topple over as you pass. In one shop, a woman did in fact knock over a huge pile, then apologised profusely, but the assistant just said, "Oh don't worry, I do that myself at least twice a day." I guess if you work there you would either have to have a very good memory of where books are, or be excellent at finding things!

Friday, September 12, 2008

Montmartre and the Arc

The first thing you discover about Montmartre is that it's on a hill. Which means either lots of steps, straight up, or steep streets. We found a street that curved around the back, a lot easier slope, and also found some other interesting sights as well. There's no way you can avoid the artists on the the hill, and in the main square, they are all wanting to draw your portrait.

This young woman here (like quite a few others) was sitting patiently being recreated on paper, while her boyfriend/husband stood behind the artist, filming it all. Made me wonder how I would be, writing while someone looked over my shoulder or filmed me. Actually, it would look pretty boring on film. There were many different styles of art for sale but a lot of the paintings were Montmartre street scenes, which didn't interest me at all.

Sacre Coeur was beautiful inside and out - they don't allow any photos inside the church itself, no doubt because nobody ever took any notice of the NO Flashes signs. I resisted the urge to climb up 300 more steps to the top of the dome, and contented myself with photos of gargoyles.

Later in the afternoon, we walked along the Champs Elysee (my brother has now joined me), which was filled with people on the footpaths and cars in the street. Lots of cars. At the Arc de Triomphe, there were more cars. And no lanes. People drove around and stopped when they thought they needed to wait their turn, or so it seemed. Nobody hit anyone's car, and things kept moving, but driving around there would be a nightmare to me.

I haven't been in a bookshop for three whole days - am starting to feel withdrawal symptoms! At the moment, I'm reading An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England by Brock Clarke, and although I enjoyed the first 50 pages, it's starting to feel a bit wearing. I'm not a big fan of main characters who freely profess they are bumblers and then bumble their way through a whole novel. The urge to give this character a kick in his rear end makes me have to put the book down every so often. Must be all this walking I am doing...

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Is This Art?

Today was Versailles day, and after accidentally getting on the wrong train (with a little quick backtracking) we arrived at the famous Chateau, stood in the queue for quite some time, and entered the building. We started with the Dauphin's quarters, which were quite plain and mostly held old paintings. Gradually the rooms became more and more ornate. The ceilings in particular are fantastic, with gilt carved architraves framing paintings that make your neck hurt to look up at them so far above you.

We'd kind of ignored a weird yellow thing in the front courtyard, but upstairs, there were more of them. Huge shiny objects that looked like helium balloons made out of aluminium, and plastic statues of things like Michael Jackson, and a bear with its arm around a policeman. I wouldn't have cared much, but they were in the king's and queen's rooms in the chateau, the ones we'd specifically come to see, and instead we had to crane around bits of bizarre plastic. Lucky us. We'd arrived on the first day of the Jeff Koons exhibition. Read all about it here.

In the article they talk about this: Last November Koons' "Hanging Heart" -- on show in Versailles -- became the most expensive work by a living artist when it was snapped up for 23.4 million dollars (15.1 million euros). Yep, saw that one too. Sorry, but it looked like it had escaped from the florists down the road on Valentine's Day. I am obviously a diehard Rodin fan, and Koons doesn't enthrall or excite me one tiny bit. The photo above is of his plastic red lobster, one of the less obstructive pieces (it was easier to dodge around).
The gardens are beautiful, and I really wished some of the fountains were working. This is Apollo, with horses, emerging out of the water. Imagine this at sunset with the water spouts going (this pool and the Grand Canal below it are aligned with the setting sun).

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Joys of Research

Now if you were writing a fantasy novel, how could you not be thrilled by room after room of arms and armour from 13th - 16th century? It's not my main genre (think pirates and muskets and pistols and swords), and this period is 700 or so years after the one I am researching while here, but it all feeds in somehow. And I kept thinking about my friend T, and taking photos so I could give them to her and say, "See? Look at all this iron and steel and stuff!" All of this, by the way, was in the Musee de L'Armee at the Hotel des Invalides (military museum going back to the 13th century). Some of my favourite things were the knight's armour with the little hooks and holders on the side (a bit like big cup hooks) that you rested your lance on, and the suits of armour made child-size. Got a kid who's a bit overly-energetic? Throw some armour on him and send him off to war!

I was also fascinated by the pistols and muskets from the 1600s. They did some serious experimenting with ratchets and wheels and hammers and levers, in order to create firearms that were more reliable and accurate. Of course, when you were relying on gunpowder and a spark, reliability was never guaranteed. I also found the crossbows to be incredibly lethal-looking - you'd have a hard time recovering from one of those arrows. OK, I will move on from my medieval weapons moment!

I can't remember when I became a Rodin "fan". Fan seems a paltry word. It was either late in high school or early in my years as a trainee librarian, let loose amongst a library full of books. Both The Thinker (above) and The Kiss (of course, I was a teenager) expressed everything to me, through bronze and marble. Today I visited the Musee Rodin, and could hardly believe I was seeing the original sculptures, as well as their early studies. It's a very strange feeling, to have almost idolised a collection of works of art for such a long time, and then finally get to see them for real. The passion and eloquence in his sculptures, and their effect on me, has not at all been diminished by seeing them today. And in this age of cynicism and "what's next" tourism, that is a wonderful thing.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

The Wandering Writer

I spent the first few days in Paris, rushing around, trying to fit in as much as I could. It was great, and I saw many things that I know will feed into my writing, and my stories. But it has gradually been filtering into my mind how much that rushing had become a habit in my "normal" life. Work consumed many of my hours, and sucked out a fair amount of creative energy too, and I'd got into the habit of rushing through life, trying to get all my work done in order to find time and space for writing. And then feeling pressured to make every writing minute count. Two hours to write? Better make sure I get at least 1000 words out of it.

So if you're wondering why there is a picture of a church up above, that's part of the slowing down. I was wandering on Saturday afternoon, knowing I had to collect my bags and find my next abode (an apartment this week) and not willing to cram in another museum. Instead, I walked around Les Halles and found this church. Well, "found" is probably the wrong word. It's a pretty big church!! St Eustache. You could be forgiven for thinking it was Notre Dame. Inside, the arched ceilings are several hundred feet above, and the organ at the other end is immense.

No wonder those who worshipped in cathedrals or churches like this maintained their awe. How could you not? The building itself is a wonder. And the sense of peace and quiet had me sitting and being quiet too for quite some time. That's a good thing for a writer.
One of the things I have discovered I really like about Paris is the squares and gardens. I can be walking anywhere, and turn a corner to find a garden like this, open to anyone to come in and sit for a while. Maybe it's because I've spent too long with gum trees and drought-tolerant gardens (which equates to very few flowers and pretty boring plants, let's face it). But every time I have found one of these spaces, I've had to stop and sit awhile.

In A Writer's Paris by Eric Maisel, he talks about writing in Paris, about finding places to sit and contemplate and write. I had such an amazing hot chocolate this morning that I just had to write about it! But it's not so much the experiences that are inspiring my writing. It is simply the time and the headspace. I have almost stopped myself clock-watching (not yet but I'm trying), but I am definitely becoming far more aware of how much I needed to slow down mentally, and just be in my own space at last.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Blogging from Paris

I was asked today, "Why do you want to go there?" Meaning Paris. As opposed to London, maybe, or Hawaii. I guess it goes back to high school. I learned French for four years (and am trying to put it into practice here) and always wanted to visit. I had a teacher in my fourth year who did lots of French things with us - we had a Bastille Day dinner, for instance. Then, when I was travelling in my early 20s, I ended up whizzing through France in a day. I could've been anywhere! (And it put me off travelling with other people for many, many years.)
So maybe France has always been "the thing I have to do".

Anyway, I'm here now, and am still having to tell myself every day, "I am in Paris, I am in Paris". Because I can't quite believe it. All the same, I have come home at the end of every day with very sore feet, and am usually asleep by 9pm. Restoring energy for the next day. Of course, one of the things on my Visit List was the Catacombs (hence the photo above of skulls and bones). What I didn't realise was that they are also part of the vast underground quarries from the 1800s, and you have to walk many hundreds of metres underground, through narrow tunnels with low roofs, to get to the actual Catacombs. Not an experience for the claustrophobic.

Suffice to say, when I emerged above ground again, I was two Metro stations away from where I started! I've also been to the Picasso museum (somehow ended up going around it backwards - chronologically that is - which gave me a whole new perspective on how his styles and subjects developed). The Museum of the Middle Ages was fantastic, and gave me lots of material for my new book, as well as ideas and images.

Today was Louvre Day. I started at the bottom end of the Tuileries garden and called in to the L'Orangerie, mainly because there were Monets there. Little did I know that there was actually an amazing exhibition of eight huge panels, in two oval rooms. The largest painting was around 20 metres long, the smallest about 8. The rest of the paintings on the floor below were a mix of Cezanne, Gaugin, Renoir and a few others. An excellent collection.

Then the Louvre. It took me half an hour to finally orient myself so I could work out where the things were that I wanted to see. This photo above is the Mona Lisa. Yes, that's her in the background somewhere. I thought it was more fascinating to watch the crowd pushing to get close and take "their own photo", even if it was with a mobile phone. The mythology around this painting is fascinating, and Dan Brown had added to it a thousand-fold. It's a painting. One among many, many paintings, just in the Louvre, let alone the rest of the world.

The Louvre itself was almost more interesting to me than the artworks. Many of the rooms have been restored to their original decor (or whatever you want to call it), which was stunning in many cases. I couldn't help thinking about today's architecture - the corners, clean lines, spare design, the total minimalism we think is style. And comparing it to, for example, Napoleon's quarters, where every surface is covered in paintings, gilt, carving, fabric wallpaper, more paintings, more gilt and ornamentation. And then there are the chandeliers!! I am writing in my journal, writing poems, soaking it all in - adding to what I feel has been a rather depleted imagination recently. We'll see what comes out at the other end.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Writing and Travelling

At my house right now, there are three To-Do lists in operation. That's because I'm about to fly off overseas for nearly four weeks, and the preparation is a nightmare (but only, I might add, because I am obsessive and have organised the whole trip myself, instead of leaving it in the hands of a travel agent - such are the self-induced nightmares of the person who wants to do their own thing). So today I have been cancelling newspapers (husband says he won't bother reading them), paying bills (husband won't notice they are overdue) and buying extra cat food (husband may send cats out to earn their own living, like the chooks).

But I know that once I actually climb onto the aeroplane, after having several hissy fits over things I think I have forgotten to organise, I will relax and all will be in the past. There is something about being out of tangible reach (urgent emails don't really count) that suddenly releases you from the real world. Once you have left, the most urgent thing is what movie to watch, or what book to read. Such a life of luxury, where the luxury is free time!

But I am travelling as a writer - not a travel writer, researching hotels and restaurants and finding bargains for others. I am a writer on the journey of discovery, of finding new places and seeing with new eyes, and writing about what stirs me, what makes me feel different. Some months ago, I read Eric Maisel's A Writer's Paris, and it was wonderful. Today I picked it up, flicked through some pages and thought, No, I can't bear to read one more thing about Paris. Now I want to be there for myself.

I have plans for very definite things I want to write, and also specific places and times I want to research for a book I am working on. But mostly I want to soak up the experience of a different world, and reflect it through both words and photographs. A book may come out of it, or two. But it is the immersion and dreaming that counts in a writer's life - the time when the urge to write takes over from everything else - deadlines, expectations, publishability. It's about flights of language and imagery, capturing the elusive, and carrying pen and notebook everywhere so as not to let that moment of fire escape without it first singeing the page.
Stay tuned. Who knows what will appear here in the coming weeks!