The Fox at Willian

Willian. To the right, The Fox. To the left th...Image via Wikipedia
The Fox at Willian
This is a fantastic place for a Sunday lunch or an afternoon drink. It is in a tiny wee village called Willian in North Hertfordshire. A village according to Wikipedia with a population of 326, but if you look at it on Google Maps, you will notice that it has been so engulfed by the much newer town of Letchworth that it could almost be considered as just another of the estates that make up Letchworth. Except that unlike Letchworth Garden City which was founded in 1903, Willian is a timeless English town, with a mention in the Domesday book, and which still retains the feel of an old medieval village.

A medieval village that fills up with Aston Martins and BMWs on the weekend that is. Willian is on the pretty and scenic edge of Letchworth and not at all far from Letchworth Golf Course and Letchworth Hall Hotel, the Letchworth greenway and Wymondley wood. With gentle cows grazing in the field opposing the main pub “The Fox” it makes an idyllic spot for Sunday drivers and England’s “leisured classes”. Nevertheless, as well as boasting, two pubs, a church and a post office it also has an excellent deli “The Food Barn” which sells produce of a strictly local provenance, including a delicious Bedfordshire strawberry jam.

Image via Tom Häkkinen
A Walk through the Garden City Greenway
There is a reason of course for Willian’s popularity with drivers of Aston Martins and that is that it is delightfully scenic. Especially Willian Pond when frozen over during winter time which I was lucky enough to witness when I first arrived in the UK this especially cold January and an image of which is one of the most popular post cards at Letchworth’s tourist information office (yes Letchworth actually has a tourist information office!).
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The Five Greatest Buildings in the World

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The Louvre city-facing side
Begun by French King Francis I, who returned from his campaigns in Italy with countless renaissance treasures which would later become the source of the Louvre’s impressive collection, the Louvre was also the site of one of the pivotal moments of the French revolution when the then adjoining Tuileries Palace was stormed by an angry and increasing confident Parisian working class. The Louvre is not just the greatest building in the world – it’s surely the greatest in the Universe! It’s gothic, it’s renaissance, it’s palatial opulence in the heart of Paris, but most of all it’s beautiful when beams of winter sunlight arc in from the south and animate its carved stone surfaces.

Image via Tom Häkkinen
The Louvre, Pavillion Sully, as seen from the Cour Carrée
I was lucky enough to witness this effect the first time I ever set eyes upon the Louvre on a frosty February day in 2005. And since then I’ve only had glimpses and reminders of that particular magic again. Note well: the effect isn’t the same in summer; the statues of France’s former heroes that sit atop the many pillars of its many arches lie dormant in the oppressive summer sun of August and September. Only under the perfect alignment of a crystal clear atmosphere, cool ambient temperature and a perfect arcing angle-of-incidence of the sun’s rays do the statues come alive and does the stone begin to breath with a life all of its own.

The principal building of the British Houses of Parliament the House of Lords and the House of Commons. Its spiky gothic towers and walls are just fantastic! It is gothic without being medieval and along with Big Ben it seems to somehow symbolise the exciting promise of a cosmopolitan big-city Europe as well as history and culture at the same time.

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The British Houses of Parliament
There was once an English King who had the audacity to march into the House of Commons and try to arrest some of its members by force – the example that was made of him was so resounding that I think it has had a tangible effect on the power of all kings everywhere since. Notwithstanding the fact that the English parliament has since then played a significant role in entrenching monarchical power from the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in France, to setting-up the House of Saud in Saudi Arabia to backing the Shah in Iran.

Sydney Opera HouseImage via Wikipedia
The Sydney Opera House - with a surface like
"hammered silver"
Australia’s very own great building. Why do I think it fits amongst the top five? Notwithstanding that it is a modern building and I generally have a predilection for buildings which have withstood the test of time I still find this building remarkably beautiful. Basically it is a beautiful building in all three levels of zoom: proportions, details and textures. That is to say, when looked from afar, looked from a medium distance and looked at up close, it is always beautiful.

As its popularity on postcards and tourist brochures for Australia attests to, it is a building with stunningly beautiful proportions, I think because it perfectly balances symmetry and random variation as if it were a thing of nature. Each building or shell is beautifully symmetrical, yet they all are a little different in terms of size and orientation. The chevron pattern of the tiles on the outside of the building give just the bare minimum amount of detail to stop the enormous white shells that are the walls of each building from seeming bare and unnatural. Finally the walls are made from porcelain and not simply painted or rendered white. In creating the tiles for the walls, architect Jörn Utzon wanted something very specific: a tile that "had gloss but did not have a mirror effect. A tile with a coarse structure that resembled hammered silver." This “hammered silver” look is really what makes the building complete and makes it blend into the harbour which surrounds it as if it were of a piece with the water itself.

Although you wouldn’t think it, I actually think this building is a winner for many of the same reasons as the Opera House mentioned above. It has extremely elegant proportions with the slender minarets complementing the bulk of the central building and is almost most beautiful when viewed from the other side of the river Yamuna that flows through Agra. In terms of details, the delicate marble lattice windows are beautiful enough to warrant this building’s inclusion in the list even if it was in the shape of a box and made out of concrete. And as for the texture of the materials, I think that not even great European cathedrals like Notre Dame in Paris and the Duomo in Florence with their incredible stone and marble masonry have been as painstakingly worked on as the inlaid marble of the Taj Mahal. In fact, it beats the Opera House on all three scores and I would probably put it second on the list were it not for one small but important facet of the building – it’s function.

Because great buildings are about people as much as anything else and whilst I do believe that there is a place for monuments to great events and even tombs to important people (whether that be important to just you and your family or the whole of humanity) this tomb seemed to me particularly dead. Walking up to the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal herself, I couldn’t help lose all attachment to the significance of the
building, crowded as I was amongst a throng of tourists, listening to them whistle more interested in hearing their own echoes than the memory of the person buried underneath. Because no-one respects or cares about Mumtaz Mahal anymore, the Taj Mahal is now more a tourist attraction than an important monument and I think that it is because of this disconnect between its original purpose and its present function that you can’t help feeling a little dejected upon finally reaching its centre – in fact I would advise you not to, it is better to simply appreciate it from the other side of the river and remember the former glory of the Mughal days. Because at the heart of this great monument lies an unfillable empty space.

5. The Chrysler Building

New Yorker Chrysler Building, oberer Gebäudete...Image via Wikipedia
The Chrysler Building
Burnished steel and elegant proportions – that’s why I nominate this building as the greatest skyscraper. It’s not the tallest and I think that there might exist some skyscrapers with even more elegant proportions (although none that I've ever seen), but the burnished steel cap on the top just makes this one a real gem! Steel is one of those fantastic materials that are just great. Great to look at, great to touch, great to think about because the very word has all sorts of great connotations about strength and solidity. I don’t know why some materials are simply more aesthetically pleasing than others – but it’s a fact, some just are: glass bottles although heavier and more expensive to produce are simply nicer than plastic ones, stone blocks always beat concrete, a beer that you’ve seen poured from a wooden barrel will taste nicer than one from a metal cask and no amount of concrete or render or paint can beat the polished shine of burnished steel.

Does this building deserve to be in the list? I really like skyscrapers and I think this is the best one, but does the number one skyscraper beat the third or fourth best castle or cathedral? Well, that’s the question.

Do you disagree with my definitive list? Please feel free to leave a comment - even if you're reading this blog weeks from when it was published, there's no such thing as necroposting on this blog as far as I'm concerned.

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The Pop-up Top

Where has the recent trend for pop-up tops in water bottle lids arisen from? Who likes them? I can’t stand the pop-up top and don’t see any benefits it might have against the old-fashioned screw-on lids.

I hate the way pop-out tops release their water so slowly into your mouth – if you’re thirsty you want a drink of water, not a suckle of mother’s milk from a modern artificial teat! The worst culprit I’ve come across so far was an olive-oil style drizzler from an Evian brand water bottle. This puritan Comptroller-General of water rationing took the “everything in moderation” motto so far as to only grudgingly release drops of its precious contents onto your tongue. The slow drip of water falling onto my tongue when drinking from this bottle reminded me of the punishment Hades conferred on Tantalus in Greek mythology – there I was with a gushing 600mL of water so close and yet as I tried to drink it receded into a mere dribble.
Of course there’s a really simple solution to my problem: just un-screw the pop-up top as if it were a normal top. But although useless as a means of delivering refreshment, these pop-up tops are nevertheless superior at coming open inside your bag and slowly but surely fertilising all paper products and any dormant mould spores with a healthy spring shower. Which if left overnight will leave your bag with the delightful verdant smell of new life.

 But all this begs the question: what purpose do pop-up tops truly serve? I fear the answer has something to do with marketing different water products to different consumers in such a way as to get the maximum out of those willing to pay more without losing those customers who aren’t. Because some people will pay more for something they don’t need if it differentiates itself as somehow better “quality” whilst others can’t afford to.

TantalusImage via Wikipedia
Tantalus - tantalisingly close to fruit and water
From this frivolous complaint I could make a serious environmental point on a wasteful society – pointless production and pointless consumption all in the name of marketing. But then that would lead us onto the question of why we’re bottling water and transporting it to different locations around the world in the first place.
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The Perfect Tuscany Escape

Image via Tom Häkkinen
One of Florence's innumerable beautiful streets
How we nailed Tuscany!

I am immensely pleased with our recent trip to Italy. Every moment was gold and we left with no regrets except perhaps how much we spent. Maybe, this is just Tuscany, and everyone feels like this after going there, but having had difficulties with trips to similarly “romantic” destinations, I would like to think that good planning and maybe a little luck also played a part and that is what this blog is going to be about.

My initial conclusion after the trip was that the little Tuscan town of Lucca would be the greatest place in the universe if only the Lucchese spoke French and not Italian. I’m not sure now – as beautiful as French is, you can’t have the whole world speaking French – but nevertheless I’m not ready to say that Lucca beats Avignon in Provençe. In either case, it’s a close call and Lucca is a big part of why our trip to Tuscany worked so well.

But first: some background

Image via Tom Häkkinen
A street in Pisa
Italy is the home of the Romans and like most westerners who know some history I have a passion for that unassuming republic which became an Empire. Furthermore, when the Roman Empire collapsed and Europe fell into the dark ages, it was also small Italian city-states that gave birth to the flourishing of Arts and Sciences, inspired by Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece, known as the Renaissance. So I find it bizarre that when Italians have such a rich cultural background, particularly in what is considered “high culture”, that you’ll find t-shirts with “Il Padrino” and a tommy-gun wielding Marlon Brandow on them in tourist shops in Italy. And likewise Italian cab-drivers in England and overseas will have the theme-song from the Godfather tinnily ringing out as their mobile phone ringtone. Italians seem to have no idea how blessed they are with such a rich cultural history and yet for some unfathomable they identify mostly with an American gangster.

Image via Tom Häkkinen
A famous Florentine
Perhaps for this reason I never had a great interest in travelling to Italy until I began studying French – that is, until the infectious enthusiasm of Stendhal and Dumas won me over to the land of the Ghibelline and Guelph, of condottieri and cardinals. And so, I became fascinated with the birthplace of the renaissance – Florence.

In travelling to Italy this world of renaissance splendour was the image of Italy that I had in the back of my head. And this passion for the Florentine Renaissance conditioned my expectations of Italy – travelling with my partner I wanted to arrive mysteriously like Edmond Dantès and to live like an aristocratic Italian count and countess and pretend to be liberal patrons of the arts and sciences.
To this end, art galleries and museums were in – but not too many! Nightlife was in – but not the cheap backpacker scene! Everything was to be sedate and relaxed and we were in search of “la dolce vita” and we wanted to discover “joie de vivre.”

So the Trip:

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The "Palazzo Tucci" in Lucca
First after a close reading of my Rough Guides Italy and a careful study of some maps and the Trenitalia website I decided to take a punt on staying at the “Palazzo Tucci” in Lucca rather than Florence. It turned out this was an inspired decision.

Whilst there are many hotels in Lucca, the “Palazzo Tucci” a “Residenza d’Epoca” or historic residence suited our aims perfectly. Its name is in no-way misleading, it essentially is a restored palace, presumably that of a noble Lucchese family. And although, it was more of a bed and breakfast than a four-star hotel – it was a bed and breakfast in a palace! The enormous ceilings with painted frescoes and massive “Juliet” balcony out the front really did make you feel like a Renaissance aristocrat.

Lucca is not far, only half an hour on the train, from Pisa and Pisa International Airport (Pisa Galileo Galilei). Regardless of whether you fly easyJet or British Airways, Pisa is a significantly cheaper route into Tuscany than Florence. And whilst you’re in Pisa you may as well take the opportunity to get some shots of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, although I have to admit that I don’t really like the building (it leans!).

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Michelangelo's "David" in the Accademia di Belle Arti Firenze
Likewise, Lucca is not too far from Florence for you to be able to visit an art gallery or two on a day-trip. Someone out there has probably choked on a pretzel and is in desperate need of the Heimlich manoeuvre having just read “Florence” and “on a day trip” in the same sentence but I’ll give my reasons. Whilst Florence is so overwhelmingly beautiful that at times it feels like it is more packed with beautiful buildings and monuments than the entirety of a New World country like Australia put together – it can sometimes feel like it’s likewise packed with Australia’s national quota of tourists as well. You have to book admission into famous galleries like the Uffizi and Accademia days in advance. Every street corner seems to have a beautiful statue or fountain and every street is lined with beautiful Italian buildings – but likewise each street corner is crowded with tourists taking shots and buying Gelatti as well. So for this reason I’m not sure if it’s possible to be able to visit the same Florence that Stendhal fell in love with. You can’t actually lose yourself in the magic and glamour of the city. It’s like an action film filled with glaring physically-impossible stunts – the “suspension of disbelief” keeps being broken by the inconsistent physical properties of a super-hero’s weapon or in the case of Florence by a mass of tourists cackling loudly with that raucous Miss-Magpie-laughter so peculiar to the English language.

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Lucca from atop the Torre Delle ore
This is why Lucca is such a perfect alternative. Lucca is a compact, walled, Tuscan town. From the top of the Torre Delle ore the town looks like it has just stepped-out of a San Remo pasta ad. The city also seems quite well-heeled and it doesn’t have any of the rundown look that affects parts of Pisa. But most important of all – it has nothing of the feel of a “tourist destination”, there’s no McDonalds anywhere, no tacky tourists shops selling bottles of olive oil shaped like the tower of Pisa. You don’t have to worry about breaking the suspension of disbelief because there is no suspension of disbelief – you’re in it and it is authentic!
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