Thursday, June 27, 2013

Lost In Space

Have you ever walked into an urban space and felt awe and wonder, dumfounded by the work of man? You can feel the tug of vertigo as you stroll about, head tilted, staring into every nook and cranny trying to absorb what the space does to you. It tricks your senses and perspective, it diddles your brain, and it can and will challenge your conceptions about what the hand of man can do. On a recent trip from London to Milan we visited churches, museums, cathedrals and gallerias, each built for different purposes yet left us with lasting impressions, from religious awe to architectural giddiness. So let’s take a brief look.

St. Paul's - London
St. Paul’s Cathedral – London
To hear the boy’s and men’s choir in the great space of St. Paul’s has been a desire of mine since our first visit way back when. Those voices and the magnificent organ of the cathedral is more than enough to bring you to tears. The vaulted spaces and the detailing of the paintings and the carved woodwork would require weeks of study to appreciate this creation by Sir Christopher Wren in the late 17th century (a time when there were barely two story buildings in the colonies of America). Beyond its historical presence and iconic and real defiance of Nazism during the WWII blitz, its solemn funeral services for England’s great leaders and military commanders, it continues to stand as a reminder of Britain’s place in the world for over four hundred years. I suggest a Sunday morning service.
Covent Garden - London
Covent Garden, London
And for the complete opposite the small retail center of Covent Garden in London’s older city center has an historic place as a market and cultural center (London’s opera house is here). While today it seems to cater to touristy stuff, there still is a rabbit warren of flea market tables and crafts men and women displaying their goods. The iron and glass roof are from a period when this was the height of urban architecture and style, the quality of stores and shops in arcade have continuously upgraded (by market forces I’m sure) and seem to be different every time we visit.
Basilique du Sacre-Coeur - Paris
The Sacre-Coeur – Paris
As European cathedrals go, the Basilique du Sacre-Coeur is demur. But its placement, on the top of Montmatre overlooking all of Paris, is divine. On a sunny summer day the white travertine glows against the brilliant blue French sky. The style is a bit of a hodgepodge, Romano-Byzantine stands in contrast to Notre Dame and other Gothic confections sprinkled around the city. Its interior, not nearly so large as Notre Dame or St. Paul’s, is rich with gold and blue mosaics and, most prominently Christ in Majesty with his outstretched arms fills the dome within the apse. It is intimate and comfortable (for a basilica built at the turn of the 19th century), yet more religious than most cathedrals and churches.
Duomo - Milan

Duomo di Milan – Milan
It would take five people, hands linked, to enclose one of the interior pillars of Milan’s Duomo. This Gothic cathedral took over 600 years to build and is the fifth largest cathedral in the world. Its exterior is beyond description with its white marble overlaying a massive brick building. It has been ridiculed and praised for its architecture for hundreds of years. It was started in fourteenth century by an Italian archbishop in the French style and centuries later was finished by Napoleon. The interior space is so great that one could believe it might have its own weather. The mosaic stone floor has withstood centuries of visitors and worshipers and the wear patterns are evident from millions of footfalls through the cathedral. Its sculptures, there are thousands of figures, are lost amongst the Gothic arches and swags attached to the exterior. The stain glass windows are spectacular. This is not an intimate and comforting space; as intended it will scare the hell out of you.
Galleria - Milan

The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II – Milan
Literally at the door step to the Duomo, the entry to the Galleria Vitorio Emanuele II draws you into, in my opinion,  one of the great non-religious architectural spaces in the world. Built between 1865 and 1877, this “shopping mall” is a jewel for the city of Milan and it alone is worth a visit. Essentially a cross of two vaulted galleries four exceptional stories high it presents a scale and breath that is both comfortable and awe inspiring. The glass in the vaulted arcade changes color as the day passes, the building facades are in style and concert with each other (a mixture of stone and terra cotta), and the carpeting is a rich and varied mosaic of tiles and stone. It is as if the base of Eiffel Tower (1889) were enclosed and turned into a retail center, both are from the same era of architectural design and engineering. Whereas today’s shopping malls are boring and redundant, there are very few spaces in the world like this.

Stay Tuned . . . . . .

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Trains of Europe – A Mini Grand Tour

High Speed Milan - Trenitalia
For the past two weeks we've traveled Europe: London, Paris, Geneva, Montreux, Milan and Florence. All by using Europe’s elite high speed rail system, the Eurostar under the channel, the TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse) from Paris to Geneva, local to Montreux and another fast train from Montreux to Milan via Trenitalia Line (an Italian subsidary). It is without a doubt the most civil way to travel from one place to another that doesn’t include a cruise director. While I continue to rail (pun intended) about high speed rail in California, as you race through the spectacular scenery south of Paris and approach the Alps, you are mildly shocked at how nice it all is and quite. Tables, room to move around, power jacks, roomy toilets (such as they are). Delightful! And did I mention they leave on time.

My problem with the state of California version of HSR, as I have written, is that they haven’t a clue as to what it will cost. And remember that most of the countries that have these high speed rail systems are broke or very close to it. For them bankruptcy is not an issue, it’s a reality. But I whine and thus digress. The cost in 2008 for the Milan to Bologna portion of the trip cost 64.6 million dollars a mile to build (133.5 miles). Just the track construction from San Francisco to Los Angeles would then be 24.5 billion, I'm sure!

Milano Centrale
The terminals of major cities are magnificent and chaotic, the St. Pancras railway station in London (with the highest security – the others have almost none) is spectacular in its Victorian red brick and in the Eurostar waiting room, modern and efficient. The Paris Gare d’Austerlitz is the gateway to the south-east of France and the line to Geneva, it is old and very French in design but has evolved into a rabbit warren of walks and ramps because of the expansion of the lines. Milan’s is huge and you can still feel the exterior’s visual impact of the fascists and Mussolini when it was completed in 1931. The size and scale is something so Italian. Florence is disappointing considering the demand on its trains by the tourists. But Norman Foster is designing a new multi-level station.
Florence to Milan - 186 MPH - top speed can be 224 MPH

To the traveler in Europe it’s ho-hum, nothing special. It’s expected; trains leave and arrive on time, no big deal. For us American’s it’s unlike anything we know. It’s how AMTRAK should be if there were competent managers about, but since it’s not, it is on the bottom of long distance travel modes. In the U.S. its car, then plane, not much else works well enough except in the northeast corridor between Washington, NY and Boston. Trains are for local commuting – not long distance. Maybe that will change, maybe it won’t. But it won’t be during the next ten years.

We enjoyed it; wide roomy seats, places to store your luggage, convenient terminal location usually in the middle of the town, clean restrooms – what more to want. And ticket prices are competitive when compared against renting a car or trying to fly for distances less than 400 miles. After that time becomes the issue, not cost.

Over the next few weeks I’ll offer more insights into the state of things in Europe – at least from my perspective. One would think that Italy was about to implode from all the bad news – not so and the pizza is still spettacolare

By the way were were spared from even one strike across four countries - wow!

Stay tuned . . . . . . . . .