French Country Life: Less Travelled By

If you think about France for a few seconds, what comes to mind? Wine, Fine Food, baguettes, croissants, Paris? Or TGV or Airbus in contemporary terms.

Three weeks in a country, happily, enables you to dig deeper than a quick business trip. There are special traits that will either endear you to a country or possibly irritate you. Just when you think the traits of a country you recall fondly from childhood are gone, you experience the mountains of Southern France and its people.

Continue reading French Country Life: Less Travelled By

Famous, Less Famous and Timeless in France

I have spent a lifetime living out of a suitcase. After fifty years I am still not a good packer – too many things, just in case! A bit like my home office.

It’s been two weeks and four locations so far. I know I have at least 4kg more clothing than I’ll need. And I really should have stuck to two lenses for my camera. Because in two weeks away that’s nearly all I have used. A magnificent set of Tamron twins: The Super Wide Angle 15-30mm f/2.8 VC, and the highly versatile new 28-300mm full-frame megazoom. The versatility of Nikon’s D750 camera has enabled some shots at ISO 6400 that I’d swear are as sharp and noise-free as images I used to sweat over, shot at ISO 800 just a decade ago.

I mention all this because in the last three days I’ve been exposed to hordes of  all-conquering tourists at the Musée D’Orsay and Versailles in and near Paris, a tiny and delightfully picturesque pair of small towns and villages in Sancerre and Apremont-Sur-Allier, and an even smaller village of Couzon some 30km’s further south. In each case I have had to make decisions on what to capture in pictures, what will be of meaning in some future years and to take enough time to let what I see soak in. But it’s more than just the sights.


As photographers it is so easy to just grab the camera, phone or tablet, point it at something and snap away. In the Musée D’Orsay I saw countless eager sightseers, on a pressed timeline, rush into the venue, grab endless selfies and dash off. They had hardly seen anything. In the famous street scenes people are obsessed with holding up a few buildings (Think Leaning Tower of Pisa outreached-arm shots.) Or they model in front of a famous statue. I saw one Chinese tourist acting out the same pose as the statue directly beside her, art-directed by a complicit partner.

Another method favoured by even more time-pressed tourists just landed on the red-eye from Asia, is to switch on their ageing video camera and walk with it vaguely in front of them, shaking it mercilessly, as they race to keep up with the flag-waving tour group leader, who plods relentlessly onwards. He knows he has to get his hapless protégés to the next commercial shop in order to get his commission.


It’s not until their return, if then, that they will actually begin to experience what they have seen. In fact most are not looking at all, except through a viewfinder or the screen of their phone/tablet. And in doing so they are failing to absorb that important moment of contemplation, of thought. In June through November this year they will look at the Sky mirror of British contemporary artist, Anish Kapoor, and see it as a simple mirror, unrelated to the wonderful hall of mirrors within the Château, and the other lateral mirror nearer the building, all great contemporary art.

Copyright, Anish Kapoor, 2015. Link to The Guardian)

At the Musée D’Orsay they will fail to understand the re-imagining of how a post-Impressionist Bonnard thought through the colours, tones and atmosphere of his scenes and portraits, dabbed away sometimes with a brush, sometimes with longer strokes; when to twist and rotate his brush and then when to use the flat knife to build layers of colour to create another effect entirely.

In an exhibition spanning his entire working life in multiple locations his style changed, the brush movement clearly became longer, with more economy. Was he getting tired? Was he better able to express his vision in less detail? His scale seemed to become grander, the Triptique at the exhibition’s end clearly suggests something broader. Without pausing, without reflecting or listening and then reading more later, the whole experience will have been but a multi-coloured blur, akin to a Jimmi Hendrix Album or Oz cover as created by the late Australian artist, Martin Sharp.

The visit to Versailles, something I had somehow managed to miss in 6 decades of trips to France, was even more remarkable for the pace at which people rushed through the great rooms of the Sun King. Versailles is to the west of the Seine river, distinctively not Paris. In the town itself there is a wonderful lazy air. On a baking hot 35 degree June day it was almost the pace of Mexico in summer.


The buses were parked in their dozens just outside the gates. As the bus-door opened they rushed out. It’s uphill to gain entrance to the Château, across unevenly cobbled granite-stone grounds. And yet they literally tumbled out and scrambled to get into formation to make a security-crushed entrance through the gates, to disappear in a cacophony of shouting to seek out the Hall of Mirrors and the King’s apartment. Ah, That box can be crossed off!


(Detail from below the centre of the Hall of Mirrors, looking directly upwards through the chandelier.)

When I asked one of the tolerant room attendants if this was the usual pace of visitors she told me that 90 minutes was a long visit for most. Le Château de Versailles has over 700 rooms and more than 2,000 windows. It took hundreds of years of development and was home to Louis XIV, the Prussians (In the siege of Paris) in the Franco-Prussian War a hundred years later, to Hitler’s occupying generals in the Second Wold War and now the people of the world as tourists. I took six hours and did about 20%. I walked a tiny part of the gardens on a wet Sunday a few days earlier. Never even got to see the amazing Theatre and so many other exhibits.

Just to take in the exterior façades of the building took me ninety minutes, to assess the relationships of the forms of each of the gardens, to detect the patterns of fleurs-de-lis, to take in the perspective and how their shape and form was viewed from the galleries within the Château, how it differed t ground level. All this would have been missed by these busy tourists ‘doing Versailles’.


From arguably the grandest gardens in the world to a series of simple decorative delights at the edge of the Allier river. It’s Two hours drive south of Paris. As it flows north, it leads to the magnificent Loire River. Here lies the village of Apremont-sur-Allier. We encountered an older tourist, mostly European, taking their time. You have to go deep into magnification on Google maps to locate this little gem. Here were cyclists ambling through and stopping for refreshment. They had to contend with a heatwave, so the shade of a large riverside tree and the softness of some newly-grown grass made the perfect afternoon repose. There were rows of flowers trained and grown through multiple decades, simply to delight visitors and the small local population. No wonder it’s rated as one of the most beautiful villages in France. The fragrance was magnificent and pervaded the streets. If you made time to pick up the scent and smell the roses.


Tourism can be experienced in so many different forms. In two weeks away I have started to appreciate the value of looking until I see; of pausing until I hear the subtleties of bird calls unfamiliar to one from the southern hemisphere; of slowing until I smell the roses. At the river-side garden with no walls outside a café hung a simple metal sign, with the words Carpe Diem. Seizing the day was to grasp at how precious time and reflection is in the balance of life.


Last night, standing at the edge of a small lake in the remotest of villages, Couzon, some 30 minutes west of Moulins at the heart of The Allier, I simply let the beauty of the fading like soak in. The ducks noisily waddled off in protest at my arrival, the trees hardly breathed in the still air. The golden flecks of cloud turned to red and the intensity of the blue at the top of the sky was palpably breathtaking. I reflected on the ability to pace oneself and re-connect. Not with a Facebook friend or to generate an Instagram hit. But to connect our souls and the world we have left, perhaps working to restore something lost in the post-industrial age.

sunset-on-the alier_JDS6951

All text and Photos © Copyright John Swainston, 2015, except where noted.

Paris in the Summertime: Fifty years on.

tour eiffel_silhouette_JDS5933-fb

June can be a wonderful season in Paris. It can also be bitterly cold. This year it’s also been bright, sunny and wonderfully warm too. That’s the way it’s always been. A bit like Melbourne really! Several seasons all in one day. Making my first extended visit to this inspiring City in more than twenty years, -a City so steeped in revolutionary history, made all those changes in temperature, wind, rain showers and glorious emerging sunshine seem so insignificant. It’s a chastening contrast to the rushed 24-hour stops I made to visit French suppliers. Paris is so special. At its heart it is still the Paris of my youth fifty years ago.

I first visited Paris when I was fifteen. I arrived after a rough Channel crossing on the old boat train, into the Gare du Nord station. In those days as you walked past the the engine driver, who would be hanging out of his train, you would bow in acknowledgement and say thank you! It was a fine April morning. I was accompanied by my chaperoning mother who was delivering me to an exchange family. I was near the bottom of the class in French and it was her stern resolve to see that situation changed. Immersion exposure to the French language in a family where no-one speaks any English, was the solution!

Before the handover we checked in at the Duminy Hôtel, just off the Rue du Rivoli opposite the Tuileries Gardens. In the mid-sixties this was a simple 2-star private hotel. Guests were largely people formerly of some means, immaculately dressed, but quite clearly needing to conserve their centimes. At least that’s my recollection. Today it’s very much a boutique hotel with 70 fully priced rooms to match.



(Picture supplied by Duminy Vendome Hotel)

Back then it was not the George Cinq! As part of familiarisation for our new digs I was introduced by the bellman to the “Winston Churchill” or “Le Double Vay Cay” (phonetically), some doors away down the hall from my room. No inbuilt bathrooms. Learning one’s way around the hallway was important. The French were appreciative of old Winnie’s conquering ways twenty years earlier. But, naming the smallest room in the house after the great wartime leader did not appeal to my very British upbringing. More on WSC later.

After walking through the nearby gardens, witnessing that famous round pond memorialised by Kertesz, we window-shopped the little antique stops and small galleries that then occupied the fine Rivoli arcade. Sadly today much of it is run down and occupied by money changers, gift shops and pop-ups, as well as far too many displaced or impoverished migrants seeking assistance.


That April 1965 evening my mother and I ate a quiet meal in the very small hotel dining room and made an early night of it. The hard tubular pillow was a new experience, but sleep came easily after the prior night’s travel adventures. Next day broke crisp and bright, though only discovered when we again ventured out. The little back room which I occupied allowed precious little light of any kind to enter from outside, tucked away as it was in the corner on the third floor overlooking the courtyard.

I was duly brushed up to look my best and at noon, a taxi was summoned for the short ride over the Pont d’Alexandre III, down the impressive drive approaching Les Invalides, and around the side of the great national war museum in the heart of Paris. It was just round that building and into a wonderful tree-lined street, the imposing Avenue Breteuil. We duly pulled up at Number 14 and my mother dismissed the taxi in her well-intentioned French.


(This picture is as close as I can recall, identical to a Kodachrome taken fifty years earlier which I have somewhere back in Sydney on an archive scan.)

After pressing the bell, we were ushered in by the Concierge. She was dressed in regulation black dress. She wore round-rimmed glasses, all-seeing. Such people know more about the goings-on of Parisian Society than any law-breaking newspaper hacker, or even the infamous Canard Enchaîné scandal sheet. A tiny two-person lift transported my mother and I and my bag upstairs to the second floor. The door, as if by magic, opened. We were duly ushered in.

This was, even to my young eyes, an old-money apartment. A long hallway with doors that stretched to the 3 metre ceilings. Eight bedrooms, a salon, a dining room, a smoking room and a study. It was a world completely new in every sense. I was to ‘endure’ this for two weeks, before also ‘enjoying’ a third week in their house in Val D’Isère for my one and only (failed) attempt at skiing. The treatment continues but little progress in fifty years! But that’s a story for another day.

All this came flooding back as I walked the same route I remember walking most mornings. I was allowed to venture out by my hosts and spent much of the day sitting on the banks of the Seine River. It flows through the heart of the city and still has working barges weaving between the Bateaux Mouches tourist variety.  I was equipped with camera and sketch pad, drawing (badly) and taking the odd picture with my Ilford Sportsman, a 35mm camera loaded with Kodachrome 25, – a 13th birthday present. Although I had been at boarding school since the age of six (yes, seems unthinkable today) I really was experiencing freedom for the first time.


The walk through the gardens is still breathtakingly beautiful. This year with my long-suffering French wife, I ventured further, discovering the beautiful Palais Royal for the first time. These days all the buildings are water-blasted to a pristine cleanliness that marks Paris out amongst European cities as something special. The Arrondissements around the centre of town, the 6th, 7th and 16th that I walked through in a four-hour re-discovery walk, have all maintained facade styles and height limits that were typical of the revolution period two hundred years earlier. Cobbled stones still pave much of Parisian streets. Scooters are everywhere, weaving within millimetres of buses and hapless tourist cyclists.

But for all that, Paris retains its essential character of superiority, history, reverence for its victorious armies and generals (and sometimes not,) as well as its royal history in the era of the Sun King and Versailles.

Going into Les Invalides on a Monday meant the main museum was closed. But still available was the great dome, containing Napolean’s casket, and other great heroes of five generations of La Grande République. There too the chapel within and its beautiful pipe organ, dating from the 1680’s. It produces a sound unique to French instruments, and no doubt a great inspiration to two great French composers, Saint Saens and Olivier Messiaen, in the twentieth century. The great Church and Cathedral Organs of Germany and England sound quite different.


And in the middle of it all was a special exhibition exploring the history and quality of the relationship between Charles de Gaulle and Winston Churchill. In my childhood De Gaulle was the French President who, after being hosted by Britain throughout the war to enable him to bring together the resistance and re-invading forces and eventually restore French government, had rejected England in the formation of Le Marché Common, The Six as it was subsequently called from 1957. Yet with the passage of time, here was an exhibition celebrating the lives in parallel of two heroes of France, their military careers and their ultimate political rejection in 1945 in the case of Churchill, and 1969 for De Gaulle.


(Source: French Government Picture)

And so it was that my first Parisian visit in which Churchill had been used to describe the Water Closet, fifty years on was to see his life celebrated in Paris in the holy-of-holies Musée des Armées, Invalides, alongside the greatest French leader of modern times, General François De Gaulle. A wonderful reminder that the benefit of time and distance allows people to be seen in true perspective and recognised for their true value.


(Part of the Exhibition, depicting De Gualle’s BBC broadcast room,
De Gaulle & Churchill, running at Les Invalides through the summer months of through July 26th, 2015.)

Text and Photo’s © Copyright John Swainston, 2015, except where stated otherwise.


Recycling Cities II: London’s King’s Cross, Euston and St. Pancras

June 2nd 2015

(To view pictures larger, double click and be a bit patient! Takes a short while to grab the 1200 pixel version.)

Today’s post came initially with no pictures. (Editor’s note in November 2015: Some months later I have remembered that this post went up with no pictures, which I am now correcting.)

My MacBookPro decided to die on me. Or rather the battery did. Known problem apparently. But then I am 10 days into a five-week trip, so something one could almost predict. A power shut-down and black screen, but with a battery signalling 92% power remaining, suggests all is not well.

I am now in Paris. I took it in to The Apple Store at L’Opéra. Within minutes of queuing at the Genius Bar, they could see I had a Worldwide Extended Waranty and today I will collect it in less than 24 hours.



It will be complete with replaced top cover, which I had damaged, a new keyboard which in two years I had hammered into several disappearing vowels, and new batteries. Yes, inconvenient, but another example of what I remarked on in my last post on Tesla: Apple, like  Tesla, is not just a product. It’s an integrated system that delivers, even when defective. And while I await collection, I can carry on writing up a WordPress post on my iPad. Now I get it. If I had all my photo’s in Apple Photos and not in Adobe Lightroom, you’d be seeing this with pictures stored in their cloud.

But for now, back to London and last Saturday afternoon, or perhaps to start with, a little bit further back. Fifty years in fact.

As a small boy, going to London’s Euston Station meant one thing. We were off to Scotland for the family holiday. Train was the only way it worked for me. Acute car sickness was an affliction that meant long journeys together in Dad’s ageing Mark 7 Jaguar were out of the question. He would drive up alone, my brother and I would go on our adventure with our mother.

We’d eagerly board the train at about 6.00pm. Soon after pulling out of the station, with an impressive outburst of mechanical strength, in a cloud of steam and soot, we’d be called to the restaurant car to eat a three-course dinner. It was such an adventure and so very grown up. We’d then retire to our seeminlgly sumptuous bunk beds for the night’s journey, often after a few rounds of Happy Families, a then-popular family card game. The night might be interrupted by the loss of motion from the long stop at Crewe, then British Railways big interchange station. Crewe linked the East and West Coast main trunk routes. It featured in songs by Flanagan and Allen and George Formby. A few carriages would be uncoupled and a few more added and after the shunting had finished, off we would go again.

When we woke the next morning and were summoned back to the restaurant coach for breakfast, the LMS steam engine was puffing its way around the West Coast lochs. I remember the long curves of the 10 or 12-carriage train, poking my head out of the window and feeling the exhilaration of the wind in my face, along with the inevitable grit in my eye from the steam train. We’d finally arrive in Argyle at little Dalmally station after more than 13 hours on board. Here the Station Master would personally welcome the ten to twelve passengers who alighted, as if members of his own family returning.

Revisiting London’s train stations today is a big cultural shock. As you approach from the City side to the south, on the face of things, nothing much appears to have changed. But get nearer to King’s Cross. The Great Northern Hotel has no soot on it!


It’s bright clean brickwork and neo-gothic styling from the 1890’s construction is supplemented with glass and steel structures as contemporary as any station in the world. Inside it’s all ultra-modern, with new-gen LCD displays everywhere.


Move over to St. Pancras and the old Station is now the Renaissance St. Pancras Hotel.


The old ticket office is now an upmarket restaurant, with contemporary bar and music systems to match. Below, via glass and stainless steel lifts and elevators is the smart new home of St. Pancras International, – the start of the EuroStar routes to Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam. The old tea room is replaced by a plethora of boutique restaurants, coffee shops and major brand gift stores. The restaurants serve top quality gourmet foods.


No room for PG Tips tea out of the old aluminium pot from an over-chatty East-end tea lady. No sign of a raincoat-wearing Trevor Howard or Celia Johnson and definitely no Rachmaninov 2nd Piano Concerto as background music. Brief Encounter has given way to Broadway and fine dining.

Euston Station itself is the missing link. In an area buzzing with cranes and visible success, Euston is like a time-warp. Its 1960’s terminus was scheduled for redevelopment as part of the now-ailing HS2 (High Speed 2) project. For now everything is on hold. Government, local council Camden, and the HS2 consortium are at loggerheads. The long-promised link from London through the West Midlands, Leeds and Manchester, due to start as early as next year, has no viable London terminus.

But at St. Pancras and King’s Cross it’s a different story. Walk out of St. Pancras and a host of new high-rise office blocks is already up. Cranes to the North around the Regent’s Canal reveal old warehouse facades backed by modern new creative arts spaces, housing and cafés. Some are still work in progress and evoke visions of the dark satanic mills of the Dickensian past.bw_stpancras_dock_JDS5138-fbBig open area play-spaces for kids, with fountains and skate board riding areas attract people from many miles away, as it’s served by nearly 15 different bus routes and of course the London Tube.


There really are cranes as far as the eye can see.  Even the old Gasometer that splits the St. Pancras and Euston rail lines is getting a preservation-led coat of paint alongside super new steel structures to eventully create new housing.


As I wander past the door of  an experimental theatre centre, I come across Chinese students playing touch football on a newly laid playing field, amidst copious garden plantings and mixed affordable council-owned and owner-occupier properties. Another sign board announces an Architecture exhibition and prize.


Busily working away are people who’ve created models of their planned buildings in the cleared space between old warehouse facades.

The only departure from solid signs of progress is a rather too large, too smart Mercedes for the district, with exceptionally dark windows. The unseasonably warm late May evening forces a window to be opened, and in passing one is uncomfortably aware of a financial transaction underway between two rather daunting gentlemen in dark sunglass cover, in return for provision of substances still illegal even in this progressive country.

Something made me turn south. And as I looked across the skyline of cranes, high rises and more signs of generational change in the use of urban space, I realised that the skyline was revealing to me over ten miles of view, over the Marylebone road trio of King’s Cross, Euston and St. Pancras stations, down over St. Paul’s in The City of London and way down south over the river, to London Bridge and the top of the remarkable Renzo Piano building, The Shard. When I grew up in London the air was seldom clean enough to see that far, heralding another change of environmental significance.


An Indian restaurant, Dishoom, has a queue of several dozen as I pass. From reviews and friend’s comments this is setting new highs in a food tradition long the backbone of many Londoners, now enjoying a renaissance. People are at last venturing beyond Vindaloo, Beef Madras and Buttered Chicken, to the delights of Punjabi flavours from the north and superb textures from South India. But, as with much in London for Antipodean travellers, all at a considerable price!

As I eventually draw closer to home, I pass back by the GridIron building that sits just to the east of St. Pancras and adjacent to King’s Cross.

looking_up_JDS5330-fbThe starkly striking scrolled columns add softness to an otherwise metal facia’d multi-story building, look quite at home in the re-born cityscape. I feel I have unwrapped a brave new world in my journey. I rejoice in how much more one sees on foot than rushing through by taxi or driving.


But on return, the comfort of familiarity in the converted St. Pancras Railway Hotel and its wonderfully converted grand spaces into today’s aptly named St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel, is soothing.


It’s so far removed from the bustling porters, the whistling fruit-stall vendor and the piercing paper boy calling out “Standard, Standard: Suez latest!” Today’s Evening Standard is now a free newspaper and the paper boy is now probably setting up a new incubator start-up in one of the emerging new creative business spaces within the area. He’d be finalising some new technology that will change the world as we know it and perhaps even make the wonders of today’s Apple System obsolete. “Plus ça change; toujours la même chose.”

(Updated and augmented 23rd November 2015 – John S.)

All text and Images are subject to Copyright of the Author. All Rights Reserved.