Feeling the magic of Peter Paul Rubens in Antwerp while sipping gluehwein

Miriam writes:

“Shortly before Christmas Jack and I spent a few days in Antwerp researching my next Let’s Trail travel guide which will  follow in the path of the artist Peter Paul Rubens. Antwerp was a great surprise; it really is a jewel of a city. The historical district has some wonderful architecture and there was a wealth of things to see which related to Rubens.

One of the highlights of the trip was a visit to the Rockox House, which I had never heard of prior to starting my research. The house was home to Nicholas Rockox a wealthy burgomaster of Antwerp and a major patron of the arts and of Rubens. As the Antwerp Museum of Fine Arts is closed for renovation until 2017, selected pieces from the Royal Collection have been put on display in this house, augmenting the already fine collection. Works from the Northern Renaissance are amongst my favourite paintings so I was thrilled to see works there by Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden and Hans Memling. There were also works by some of Rockox’s contemporaries including Anthony van Dyck, Jacques Jordaens and of course Peter Paul Rubens.

When we were finished sightseeing we sat at one of the city’s outdoor cafes. Kept warm by overhead heaters and the blankets provided while we sipped gluehwein and savoured the lovely Christmas atmosphere. Magic!”

photo antwerp

Argenteuil and Monet’s fascination with water

Aine writes:

‘Argenteuil with a Single Sailboat’ by Claude Monet was in the news again lately after a jury in Dublin failed to agree on verdict for a man accused of criminal damage by putting his fist through it at the National Gallery of Ireland.

Monet was fascinated with reflections on water and boating on the river Seine in the basin at Argenteuil was the subject of many of his paintings. I visited the town some time ago because to see the area for myself because I am writing about places in his life for ‘Lets Trail Monet’.

The densely populated grey suburban sprawl of Argenteuil today is certainly not lovely so finding the artist’s favourite places was never going to be easy but when I hopped off the RER after the short journey from Gare St Lazare in Paris I immediately found the house he lived in right where it always had been, directly opposite the railway station. Number 21 Boulevard Karl Marx is now the headquarters of the town’s Historical and Archaeological Society and they maintain its white walls and green shutters and have even replaced the wooden balconies. In fact it looks little changed from Monet’s time, except then of course the street was called Boulevard St Denis and the house was number five.

The name change says it all and a walk up town soon tells you why. A Communist council after the Second World War made Argenteuil the heart of the famous ‘ceinture rouge’ around Paris that celebrated the worker and the practical. Construction of a wide central boulevard effectively cut the town in two and with the development of huge tower blocks on either side the town that Monet knew disappeared forever. The river still flows powerfully past, but a very busy four lane highway means you cant get to it let alone stroll by the heavily industrialized water’s edge.

Interestingly though industry had already arrived in the area in Monet’s day and he liked ‘modern’ subjects often including the bridges rebuilt after the Franco Prussian war of 1870-71 in his Argenteuil paintings. The railway also made it very convenient for him to live there.

The six year period in the town was one of rare prosperity for him and he could at last provide a real home for his wife Camille and their young child. The house had a cellar, a main floor and bedrooms and best of all a garden, which became the focus of family life.

He often painted his wife among the profusions of fuchsias, geraniums and daisies but ‘The Artist’s House’ of 1873 captures a quite a simple moment. Camille appears at the doorway of the vine covered façade ready to step down to the terrace, where the blue and white Delft pots, bought by the couple during their short stay in Holland on their return from London after the war, are filled with summer blooms. Here young Jean Monet in a large straw hat plays with a hoop but the scene is also somewhat poignant considering his mother’s early death after a long and painful illness.

Monet’s second home in Argenteuil (the first house is long disappeared) is only open for visits on occasions but I was charmed to see it even from the street with its bright blossoms spilling over the fence. I thought of the artist who described his time in Argenteuil as one of the happiest and most fulfilled periods of his entire life.

house1Monet’s House at Argenteuil

by Áine Ni Chárthaigh

Manet, Paris, Passy Cemetery and Secrets! Secrets! Secrets!

Seán O’Leary writes:

Síle and I were in Paris recently visiting graveyards!  Not as creepy, scary or unromantic as it might sound.  The great, the good and the eccentric are buried in the well-known Père Lachaise cemetery but we were intent on seeing Édouard Manet’s grave in Passy cemetery, a smaller and more exclusive resting place in the wealthy 16th arrondissement.  Besides being one of the most important painters in 19th century France, Manet was also the quintessential charming urbane upper middle-class Parisian.  Posh Passy suits him well as a last resting place.

Intriguingly there are four people buried in the grave.  Manet himself was the first to go in followed by his brother Eugène.  Later the Impressionist painter Berthe Morisot, Eugène’s wife, was interred there.  Finally Manet’s own wife, Suzanne Leenhoff, completed the gathering.  In life the relationships between these four people were complicated and fractious.  That they should all lie at rest together, with their secrets intact, is fascinating.  Would they could speak!  Art historians would have to add footnotes to their books.

Berthe, who grew up in Passy, had a passion for Manet.  Despite his reputation as a ladies’ man, it may or may not have been reciprocated.  She sat for him as a model for a number of years.  They encouraged each other as painters.  But she was jealous of other ladies that he knew and disparaging, in private, about his wife Suzanne.  She finally married his brother Eugène in what she herself described as an arranged marriage.  It may have been a case of, if not the Manet, then the other Manet?

Intrigue surrounds his wife Suzanne as well.  Originally from the Netherlands, she was employed as a piano teacher in Manet’s parents’ household.  While there she became pregnant with her only child, a son, Léon.  Art historians debate whether it was Manet or his father Auguste who fathered the child.  Neither Manet or his father ever recognised the child as their’s.  However, ten years later, after Auguste’s death, Manet married Suzanne.  Secrets! Secrets! Secrets!

Enjoy more of Manet’s Paris in the forthcoming Let’s Trail, Manet’s Paris (expected publication, 2014 list)

Manet's resting place, Passy Cemetery, Paris

Manet’s resting place, Passy Cemetery, Paris


Napoleon, Marian Finucane, Airfix glue and Waterloo

When I heard Fiona’s call on the Marian Finucane Show, an Irish radio program, at the beginning of this year, I was immediately inspired. Here was an idea, to trail in the paths of great lives,  that would allow me to write (a childhood ambition in itself) about something that has fascinated me all my life — the Napoleonic era.
I grew up surrounded by the meticulously hand-painted Airfix armies of my older brother. He taught me all there is to know about the history of the Napoleonic wars and about the art of wargaming. We were joined in our enthusiasm by my cousin and my best friend René, and in an era before computer games, we spent entire school holidays amassing miniature armies and re-enacting historic battles in our attic in Rotterdam — my brother invariably emerging as the winner, but that’s another blogpost. Waterloo featured on a regular basis, needless to say — my brother even built a model of the battlefield. 

Our fascination with Waterloo extended beyond playing wargames — it also involved trips to the Army Museum in Leiden and the model soldiers shop “La Grande Armée” in The Hague, among other things. When my mother bought her first car in the early 70s, her first real trip took our family and my cousin — at this stage an honorary member of our family — to Waterloo. 

The proposition to write about a “great life” in the context of the Let’s Trail series left little doubt whom I should write about. Napoleon’s life touches on way too many locations to cover in any single trip or book, however. This is why I decided to write about the best known time in Napoleon’s life, the leadup to and the events surrounding the battle of Waterloo, known as The Hundred Days. The result will be published soon as another issue of the Let’s Trail series. 

Pier Kuipers, November 2013
chr-ncp03068815301_v1and Pier at Waterloo rotate
Napoleon and Pier at Waterloo
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Did Picasso see fireworks near Moulin de la Galette in Paris?

Miriam writes:

“I first visited Picasso’s, much loved, Moulin de la Galette restaurant in Montmartre on a lovely July evening about six years ago. This was before I started work on my travel guide Let’s Trail Picasso. I was with business colleagues, Craig and Jean-Marc and Jean-Marc’s wife Catherine. We ate outside in the garden and had a lovely time in this very charming restaurant which serves delicious French food. When dinner was over and it was starting to get dark we made our way to the steps of the Sacre Coeur which overlooks all of Paris. It was the evening   before Bastille Day and the tradition is that every town within the greater Paris area holds a fireworks display that evening. What a sight! Because Montmartre is the highest point in Paris we were overlooking a huge area of the city. Every few minutes fireworks would go off somewhere below us; one display more spectacular than the next. The area was thronged with spectators who had come to Montmartre to see these displays and the resulting atmosphere was tremendous. Serendipity to be in Paris on that evening and to have the opportunity to visit Picasso’s hang out and to be so well entertained afterwards”


Le Moulin de la Galette, le restaurant historique de Montmartre à Paris http://www.lemoulindelagalette.fr/en/#.UpYI3A1bYvw.twitter

Moulin de la Galette

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Einstein in Bern: Did river rides influence his theory of Brownian movement?

I felt dizzy looking down at them from high on the white iron bridge arching over the river Aare in Bern. The figures far below were being swept along in the fairytale- coloured  current, blue-green by its cargo of minerals carried down from  the high Alps. The air was warm, so warm that I envied them their freedom, frisson and coolth while I sweated high above them feeling trapped by the heat of a beating sun.

I couldn’t see their faces clearly, such was the drop to the river, but it was easy to tell they were having fun, great fun even when they were bundled by the torrent into each other’s paths. The relaxed arm gestures and the happy pitch of the rising voices communicated excitement not panic; the occasional languorous thrust of a limb stretched against the strong current showed that this was a river ride like no other.

And yet the Bernese take this for granted. They fearlessly jump into this long winding river and trust the current to deliver them to the bank at the point where it turns back on itself. In another country much tamer “to do’s” would have been horribly commercialised. Not here in Switzerland where the swimmers float along either on great rubber rings or just allow their bodies to be carried by the flow.  Occasionally they bump into each other until they reach a part of the river where they are delivered safely to the bank at a natural curve and through no effort of their own. Like young birds learning to fly on a warm summer breeze, these adult humans seemed to revel in their escape from life’s effort as they are carried along in this irresistible and careless flow.

I admit I wondered as I watched them, whether Einstein had also looked down from this very point on the bridge. His seminal work on the movement of particles in liquids was completed when he lived in Bern in 1905. Standing here looking down I couldn’t help thinking about his idea that Brownian movement – the constant movement of tiny particles in water —  occurs because the atoms bump into each other  and bounce off in random directions. But that idea applied to still water. So idly  I wondered if there is Brownian movement in a flowing current? If so it might look like the floaters below.

Einstein left a lot of traces in Bern and never was as happy as when he lived in this beautiful city – but I don’t know if he answered the question about such movement in flowing water. I will try to find out.  What a beautiful place in which to contemplate the idea.



river floaters 3Me on bridge at Bern

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Cadaques and Dali’s Phallic shaped swimming pool

Miriam writes:

“I featured Cadaques in Let’s Trail Picasso , not because it was central to his life, although he had holidayed there, but because I think it is a magical place, one of the best holiday locations ever. I had never heard of Cadaques  until my friend Anna, knowing that Jack and I were planning to drive to Spain, suggested a stop off there on the way. It is just over the border from France but be warned you have to drive over two mountain ranges to get there. I’m a bad passenger at the best of time but this journey was really hairy. Luckily we were in a right hand drive car which placed me in the centre of the road rather than overlooking the perilous drops as we crossed the mountains. But it was worth it! It’s a gorgeous little town with spectacular scenery. Dali lived just outside it in Port Lligat and the view of the bay from his house is featured in lots of his work. His house is so quirky that it is really hard to imagine anyone normal living in it (well I suppose he wasn’t exactly an average person). It features a phallic shaped swimming pool, sofas fashioned after Mae West’s lips and lots and lots of weird and wonderful decorations. A must see if you’re anywhere in that direction. It’s quite close to Barcelona so you could incorporate it into a visit to that wonderful city”.




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Els 4Gats, Picasso’s favourite restaurant in Barcelona

MB blogged this as she left Barca (Barcelona):

Jack and I went to Els 4Gats for lunch when we were in Barcelona researching for Let’s Trail Picasso. It was great fun. The restaurant is situated in a narrow street in Barcelona’s Gothic quarter. It is set on two levels and we were placed on the Mezzanine floor giving us a great view of the place. The decor is just as it was in Picasso’s time with multicoloured tiles, antique chandeliers and reproductions of Picasso’s work lining the walls and decorating the place mats and the menu. The A la Carte menu wasn’t cheap but the fixed menu was good value. The food was very Spanish, a bit oily for our liking but tasty nonetheless. Our waiter was a middle aged man and at first seemed quite unfriendly, slapping the menus on the table and grunting at us when requesting our orders. But he redeemed himself by jokingly giving me Jack’s large beer and him my wine and generally lightening up as our meal progressed. There was a great buzz about the place even if most of the customers were Japanese tourists and not avant garde artists and writers. Well worth a visit and was a great addition to our themed weekend in Barcelona.

Find more about “Let’s Trail Picasso” here:


Menu cover Els 4Gats

Menu cover Els 4Gats


The view from inside

The view from inside

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Buskers, Breathing Dragons, Einstein and Bern

I admit I got it wrong about Bern, capital of Switzerland.  If I thought about Bern at all only snow and banking came to mind. Ok then, maybe clocks and bears figured somewhere in my thinking too.  But for someone like me who doesn’t like climbing mountains, and who doesn’t like feeling cold, who likes the cultural aspects of travel and who loves a bit of safe Irish craic (fun), Bern did not seem like a prime holiday destination. How wrong I was!

Bern is an extraordinary city; it is old world, fun and a cultural destination not to be missed. We arrived in the middle of August into the world busker festival. The city was heaving with people and great music was being played on the streets late into the night. We ate food from the stalls offering an amazing selection of international foods and which lined the cobbled streets for the festival. What fun, what a buzz. The combination of music, fun and safety certainly appealed to us 50-something’s (who like to act as if we are not 50-something but to do so in a safe environment). Usually such a festival would mean drunk and disorderly crowds. Not so in Bern. We danced on the streets until late into the night despite the fact there were just two of us.

We had come to Bern, driving there from Dublin, which is not as hard or long as it sounds and I confess we had lost our car on the way. Coming out in the morning after a lovely evening in France, in Chalon En Champagne, a location chosen for an overnight stop only because that is as far as we got on the first night, we found in place of our car, a market stall- multiple market stalls in fact. But enough of that topic and back to Bern, where we arrived eventually after we paid an extortionate fee to retrieve our car from the French garage to which it had been removed.

Bern was a delight. As we had arrived in the middle of a busker festival we had a little difficulty finding a hotel. But we did. Bern is pricey for hotels, but that is normal by Swiss standards.

We were there to find what trace remains of the locations where Albert Einstein worked and developed his theory of relativity. The life of anyone who lived as an adult in the 20th century – and that after all is most of us – has been significantly changed by Einstein’s understanding of our universe. I am no scientist but this man seems to me to be the iconic figure representing the 20th century. His name at least is known to almost everyone everywhere. It was here in Bern that he developed those ideas and I wanted to understand something of that. We were not disappointed in what there is of our friend Albert in Bern. And we were not disappointed in Bern. But more of that later.  Fiona , Let’s Trail

.Breathing Dragon

Check out “Extreme motorcycles” on youtube to see this monster move at the busker music festival Bern 2013 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HbOYmGy6NG0

Bern blog picure

http://www.buskersbern.ch/en    Switzerland Tourism

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Van Gogh, Amsterdam and being pregnant on a canal

Miriam, creator of Let’s Trail Van Gogh, writes:

I have been a fairly frequent visitor to Amsterdam over the years. In fact I realised I was pregnant with my son John when I got queasy on a canal trip there about thirty years ago. I first visited the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam around 1996. At the time I didn’t know much about him except for Sunflowers and maybe Starry Night (and that only because of Don McLean). I was shocked by his early work, dark and dare I say ugly; his Potato Eaters struck me as repulsive and his depictions of peasants were far too gritty for my taste at the time. These raw and socially aware works were such a contrast to his later colourful and beautiful depictions of flowers, trees and open fields that I couldn’t believe they came from the same artist. Van Gogh’s development as an artist was truly extraordinary; the breakthrough coming in the years he spent in Paris when he was exposed to the use of colour by the Impressionists. The Van Gogh Museum is transformed from those days and is now one of the highlights of a trip to Amsterdam. My opinions have also been transformed and I now understand his early work as a means of a deeply troubled young man demonstrating his empathy with the poor and downtrodden.

.potato eaters for blog

The potato eaters

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