Berlin, Brussels and Paris: February to April 2013

Berlin

Travel thrusts the aging voyager emphatically into rude contact with the outside world.  The Berlin hotel is reached after twenty-five hours encapsulation within three different aeroplanes, navigating four airports, and finally the suburban bus, train then a walk: no taxis is the rule here whilst body and mind can cope.

Berlin is cold, and about to become colder; a burst of unseasonably freezing weather is to soon engulf northern Europeand stay for the next three weeks somewhat incommoding the traveller.  Whilst waiting for check-in, the first morning is spent walking near the hotel.

Berlinhas been a building site since 1945 after being razed by allied bombing during the war and the western sector had been essentially rebuilt by re-unification.  Now the Berliners are busily transforming the former eastern sector so the eastern sky is alive with cranes and the streets filled with machinery, barricades, detours and noise.  How sad the communist era public buildings are: heavy-handed and intrusive they were meant to project an image of strength, formality and indestructibility, and therefore play their part in moulding the population to Soviet ways.  Instead they loom clumsily over the streets.  Mildly humourous too in 2013!  You can only have so much in the way of strong verticals and horizontals, jutting window casements, sculptured pediments and murals around entrances showing diligent workers tilling the fields or radiant family groups clutching tools and about to advance the Soviet cause.

It’s mostly all coming down now as are the cheap accommodation blocks.  Dull or cheap, or both, the East German buildings ironically occupy extremely valuable real estate in the undivided city.  Their sites now paradoxically fuel that great driver of capitalism; the property market.

Day two is spent at the Gemaldegalerie:Berlin’s great picture gallery.  What a treasure-house and not on the travel itinerary of most.  In a day the art lover sees the best of German painting, the best of Low Country painting and a magnificent Italian collection-the best outside Florence perhaps.  Seven Botticellis!  The best of Carravagio’s works: ‘Cupid as Victor’ and three fine Raphaels. 

Another day is easily spent visiting the gallery of new art housed in a splendid Mies van der Rohe building near the Gemaldegalerie.  What a miracle of space use the building is: flat and low on approach and extended from both within and without by a large over-hanging roof with minimalist supports.  Walls are glass to bring the outside in and project the exhibition spaces outwards.  Much of the interior is below ground and is temporarily partitioned to suit changing curatorial use.  The collection is used to mount themed exhibitions the one seen by your traveller tracing the work of artists viewed as degenerate by the Nazis, with sympathetic international additions.  So in addition to German Expressionist painters of the twenties and thirties there were works out by Warhol, Bacon, Twombly, Polke, Baselitz, Appell, Klein and Giacometti to name a few.

German history is dominated by Nazi history and Berlinwas Hitler’s capital.  A visit to Berlin is incomplete without taking a tour of its Nazi past.  Our guide was a knowledgeable history PhD who spoke the careful English used by German academics.  Over three hours in deteriorating weather we toured building sites, processional routes and excavations.  The former Gestapo and SS headquarters buildings were completely destroyed after the war except for foundations and underground rooms.  These have now been exposed.  Ironically the Berlin Wall traversed one boundary of the site and a portion of the wall has been left.  A photographic museum now occupies the land and it will never be further built on. 

The tour ended on a square of soggy, trampled turf faced on three sides by nondescript dwellings.  There is a low fence and a plain board informing visitors they have arrived at the site of Hitler’s Bunker: the place where he, Eva Braun and the Goebels family died as the Russians approached.  The Germans go to great lengths not to eulogise Hitler and Nazism and this attitude to an infamous past is no better illustrated than by the appearance of this ugly, melancholy patch of waste ground.

Many of Berlin’s attractions are at either end of the Unter den Linden.  The historic Brandenburg Gate ends the boulevard and provides entrance to the Tiergarten; nearby is the Reichstag.  At the opposite end is Museum Island with its world-famous institutions.  Much of the great street is now under cranes, dodging the famous linden trees, and the thoroughfare is often blocked by building activity.  It was formerly in East Berlin.  Tourists still find room to assemble along the street though and patronise food stalls and souvenir shops; and be approached by scammers. The current iteration of scammer activity was young people pretending to be both deaf and dumb and flourishing donor sheets, showing generous contributions from worthy benefactors, as they entreated you by soundless gestures to sign up.  One apparently mute young man became so frustrated at refusal he allowed himself to tell me loudly my contribution would be ‘for the disabled’. 

Berlin’s Jewish museum describes the sweep of Jewish history from its earliest beginnings but being in Berlinmust always listen to the voice of the holocaust.  The building shapes the visitor’s experience from the first view on approach.  Inside architect Daniel Libeskind has created spaces and shapes which resonate despair, isolation, and resolve in equal measure.  Rooms open on to empty rooms, precipitate staircases end in blank walls, and chambers with floors of clanking sculptured metal faces spear triangularly upwards into soft, all-consuming, blackness.  Single high windows light otherwise empty bleak rooms.  Everywhere there is silence.  Visitors both absorb the quietness and make it; the busy world retreats but is part of an ongoing history with its solemn injunction not to forget.  Your stay in this evocative monument sees a moment in time stopped and you emerge aware of the magnitude of true wrong.  As you leave you discover the entire museum slopes upward from the entrance surely a spatial metaphor for struggle.

The fortnight in Berlin progressed smoothly despite the unseasonably cold weather and ice-covered footpaths.  There were visits to the City of Berlin Gallery and to a famous chocolate shop where a friend and I had a full-chocolate delicacy for afternoon tea and required nothing more to eat until the next morning.  Before that we had window shopped on the Kings Street and admired the latest Bugatti. 

Then a break to spend a day inLeipzig; my visit had a two-fold purpose: to visit the tomb of J.S. Bach and to see the city art gallery. Leipzig is 240 km from Berlin; just over an hour on the ICE train sweeping past mist rising off snow-covered fields in the morning and returning in the long light of a northern spring evening. Wind-turbines generate power all along the route their blades turning lazily alongside isolated houses, villages and straggled unkempt settlements; the journey and the city are in former East Germany.  My train deposits me at Leipzig then continues on to Nuremburg, the town ofDurer, before coming to rest in Munich.

In Leipzig Herr Bach now rests peacefully in St Thomas’ Lutheran church, the church he officiated in for much of his life as church musician.  He lies in the sanctuary, feet facing east.  Like most of Leipzig the church suffered heavily during the bombing but has been rebuilt and restored, as has the city.  As I moved quietly around the church having paid my respects to Bach, I was lucky enough to hear a practice session at a new organ, built in the musical style of the instrument Bach would have played.  Several other pilgrims were quietly appreciating the ambience on the morning I was there. St Thomas’ is off the tourist pathway and most visitors are genuine followers of history. 

The soul of Mendelssohn hovers too in the sanctuary of St Thomas’.  It was Mendelssohn who brought Bach’s music to the attention of the world and the Mendelssohn house is just a few streets away from the church.

The Leipzig gallery is brand new and even smells new!  Inside is a wonderland of painting and sculpture which easily consumed an afternoon.  There was time after the gallery to wander the streets of this ancient city and marvel at its rebirth after the disaster of its bombing. 

On the train back to Berlin I see the landscape painted by artists of the 17th century.  Land stretches away on every side of the railway; quite flat and flinging itself out to a horizon punctuated by trees, the occasional village and farm buildings.  Pink-edged clouds colour the join of land and sky and pile up over the train.

Two days later and after a visit to the Pergamon museum in Berlin with its Pergamon altar I head for Dresden. Dresden, all but destroyed by allied bombing and spending 45 years effectively behind the Iron Curtain is now the scene of frantic building.  It is as if the city authorities are trying to make up for lost time under the communists.  On the way down I pass still-used accommodation blocks beside the railway.  These bleak utilitarian structures discourage socializing and in fact the only signs of life I see are grazing deer. 

In Dresden I come across my first and only communist sympathizer- an elderly man in the town square with hammer and sickle flag earnestly debating with passers-by.   The next discovery is the closure of much the modern art gallery for maintenance- closures are an obvious travel hazard and one which can be circumvented by checking the website beforehand!  Nevertheless there was enough open in the gallery to keep me occupied and I saw some wonderful pictures.

Old Dresden was dominated by the Frauenkirche, the Churchof our Lady, and so is new Dresden.  The truly splendid structure has been completely re-built since re-unification to its 18th century glory.  You can see the building and the effect it has on the cityscape by Googling ‘Canaletto: The Neumarkt of Dresden’ to see a painting of the scene contemporary with the churches first incarnation. 

For a protestant church the interior of the Frauenkirche could only be described as flabbergasting and ebulliently baroque: statues, pictures, gold, silver, blazing candles; every delight to the Catholic eye.

As I leave Dresden my train passes another loaded with rubble:Dresden has been shifting its rubble since 1945.

One virtue of having a couple of weeks in a city is being able to take your ease occasionally, so before I headed off for a day in Hamburg I spent a day resting in my Berlin hotel then taking advantage of happy hour at the bar in the evening.  The next day my train travelled westwards to Hamburg under black, lowering skies.  The weather didn’t disappoint with heavy snow falling all day.  My plans to tour the city were not to unfold because of the conditions but with the greatest of luck the art hall turned out to be adjacent to the station so I spent the whole day there. 

The Hamburg collection is magnificent and, what luck, they had a retrospective of the Italian Sculptor, painter and draughtsman; Giacometti.  Unexpected largesse indeed!  Mr Giacometti’s work took my anxious mind off the weather and returning home by fast train.  These are stopped by the same weather conditions which ground aeroplanes and the planes were not flying so my lunch- café television said.  Nevertheless determined crew, fine machinery and well-made infrastructure combined to get us back to Berlin, albeit a fraction late with profuse apologies from conscientious staff. 

The Hamburg Kunsthalle is strong in early German and Flemish masterpieces which were a delight to see.  The Giacometti retrospective drew an appreciative audience despite the appalling weather and seeing it was a considerable privilege.

My stay in Berlin was coming to a close and it was time to go shopping, also to do some walking/site-seeing despite the cold.  I set off from the hotel on a freezing morning encumbered by scarf, beanie, gloves and full wind-proof gear over the top; hood up.  Local small fry were not deterred by the weather.  Half a dozen happily shrieking five-year-olds dangled from ice-covered climbing apparatus in a nearby playground.

I headed for the Kaiser Wilhelm Church and its nearby up-market shopping precinct, Kurfurstendamn, both near the zoo station on my line.  The old church was almost completely destroyed by bombing and has been left as it was after the raids.  A new structure has been cleverly built around it.  The new is a triumph of modern design and construction with a spectacular blue glass wall as its eastern side. 

The boulevard Kurfurstendamn does not subscribe to the doctrine of moderation which is presumably preached within the nearby church.  All the well-known luxury fashion houses line the wide street; not as hived off cells in a department store but standing persuasively on the footpath as institutions in their own right.  Clothes, jewellery, watches, fashion accessories, all at the top end of the asking were subtly displayed with coyly-lighted price tags.  Store windows are beaded with brass and premises entry is protected from the hurly burly of the foot trade by a recessed portal under-laid by crimson carpet, alas today soggy and needing relief from the weather. 

Lest undesirables (we might say those without the readies) attempt entry most emporia have suited heavies just inside the door primed with polite questions as to the prospective client’s circumstances.  Those whose credit is not deemed secure may apply elsewhere and are ushered back to the snowy reality of the footpath. 

Means-tested pension incomes would not go far, dear readers in this particular shopping environment.  Watches (Rolex) 52,000 Euro, Cartier necklaces, 442,000 Euros, and shoes (maker unknown to me), 950 Euros.  One could see the credit card maxing out quite quickly.

I spent the rest of the day returning to reality by visiting two churches near Museum Island: Marienkirch, 1240 build date and Nikolaikirche (1230).  Both are now firmly Lutheran after a Catholic start.  Mareinkirch was easily accessible and was as ornate and baroque as Dresden’s Church of our Lady.  Nikolaikirche was under the superintendence of a group of elderly toughs who discouraged any visitor not willing to pay the steep entry fee.

Eighteenth century Berlin was home to the Elector who built his good lady, Sophie Charlotte, a little place in which to spend her summer days: Schloss Charlottenburg.  I took myself to the schloss in the last week of my stay.  It is now enmeshed within suburban Berlin but the building is surrounded by sufficient parkland to survive the intrusion.  It is of course huge and quite magnificent despite having a bad time during the war.  Much irreplaceable building was destroyed.  Fortunately most of the porcelain and other collectables were stored during the fighting and are now back where the Elector and Sophie displayed them.  The wonderful chapel has been fully restored with a modern organ built to the same voice as the original.  I spent some time wandering the park in fairly deep snow taking photographs across unspoilt white ground.

I had given up on coffee variety in Berlinby my second week and now ordered espresso: i.e. pure coffee with no human hand interfering with it after brewing.  The last straw was ordering a Flat White at a respectable-looking establishment only to receive an utterly tasteless malted-milk sized glass of foaming boiling milk.  And that after a series of equally unfortunate earlier experiences!  The sad state of local baristering was amply illustrated by the queues at well-known American franchises!

In the second week I attended an evening concert given by the Berlin State Orchestra conducted by maestro Barenboim.  I took a late ticket in the choir facing the Conductor: what a revelation!  Daniel spent most of the first half leaning nonchalantly against the podium backrest while the orchestra essentially found its own way superbly through Liszt’s, Symphonic Poems and orchestra plus soloist, Ms Batiashvili, Brahms Violin Concerto.  The baton flicked only occasionally though there were smiles, nods, mobile eyebrows and, admittedly, ceaselessly moving eyes.  The conductor took the first half of the programme from memory. 

The second half: an Alban Berg orchestral suite, required music on the lectern and a little more physicality from the director.  The whole evening was a great musical experience however and presumably conductor and orchestra are so familiar with some works they operate by a sort of psychic communication.  A packed house gave Mr B a great reception on arrival at the lectern and a fine send-off.  It wouldn’t have happened under Hitler.

On my last day in Berlin I revisited the Gemaldegalerie and then stepped out to visit Alexanderplatz instead of merely whizzing under it on the train.  Poor Alexanderplatz and poor Berlin all I found was a building site.

 

Berlin, Brussels and Paris: February to April 2013

Brussels

Departure from Berlin is a bracing early-morning experience.  I had the metro station and train carriage to myself after towing my luggage through snow-covered streets at 0600.  The ICE train whisks me toward Cologne at 250kph and in the first hour I see one woman walking her dog and a rabbit as the only signs of life in the wintry landscape.  We head out through Dambuster country: Essen, Düsseldorf,Dortmund, and the RuhrValley all places which resonate from youthful reading of Paul Brickhill’s book.  I have now seen for myself the damage these young men and their flying machines did in the 1940s.  As the train travels westwards we are leaving the old East Germany and I see a concomitant improvement in housing, more secondary industry and generally better roads. 

I arrive at Cologne station where the very big question is; will the train to Brussels be running.  The weather is inclement even by European standards.  My train does turn out to be going; but Eurostar passengers were not so lucky.  Fabulous Cologne Cathedral is right adjacent to the station and this is as close as I am to get to it as the weather prevents my returning from Brussels for a planned day visit. 

Brussels is quite a change from Berlin.  Trams, narrower streets, no bomb damage, and a multiplicity of languages: both Belgian dialects, French, German, Dutch, Moroccan, Tunisian, Bulgarian, Turkish, Lebanese and not a lot of English.  

Day one is spent investigating the Royal Museums of Fine Arts; I take in theMuseumofAncient Artand theMagritteMuseum.  As you might expect in the Old Master gallery the emphasis is on Low Country painting, though there are good German pictures too. So as well as the Breughels and Memling, I see magnificent large Van der Weyden and Bosch hinged triptychs, the Bosch full of his usual demonic creatures, Van Dyke again exhibited with Rubens; student and teacher, and of course Rembrandt; multiple canvasses.  Amongst the Germans the best pictures were works by both Cranachs.  I also see works by painters held in Melbourne: Steen, Hals, Jordeans, Hobbema and both Ruysdaels.    Our holdings stand up very well against these home-town offerings and I did not see a better Rembrandt than either of the two we have. 

Magritte has his own museum in Brussels.  The exhibition space is not overly large and a booking is usually necessary.  In unseasonably freezing March there was little competition so gaining entry was no trouble.  None of the works out were familiar and they probably rarely travel.  What a privilege it was to see so many new pictures by the master in one place, together with pertinent historical text, especially that dealing with Magritte the left-wing intellectual.

I return to the hotel along cobbled streets and through cobbled squares; in the days of iron-shod carriage wheels the noise level must have been quite high.  The narrow streets are quite charming and easily handle modern-day traffic as they must have easily handled horse-dawn vehicles.  Housing is up to seven stories high with dormer windows showing use of roof space.  Buildings line the winding streets without clutter; the early planners had a fine sense of space to height and nowhere in the old parts of the city does one feel overpowered by looming overhead structures as one frequently does in the modern high rise city.

Day two and I head back to the gallery district to take in a Kandinsky retrospective.  Kandinsky is said to have painted the first ever abstract picture and this early work was in the show surrounded five deep by patrons more interested in its history than its content.  The rest of the exhibition was a most wonderful exposition of the life and work of this fabulous artist- how fortunate I was to be in Brussels at the right time.  I lunch at the gallery restaurant and my North Sea Casserole is cooked before my very eyes. 

Sunday and St Patricks Day and as I head off for church I come across a bevy of green stove-pipe hatted leprechauns relieving themselves against trees in a local park.  When I call out greetings they reply in Serbian.  At 9am great bells begin to sound across the city; in the cathedral a wild carillon subsides to a single tolling bell as 10AM approaches.  After church I head a few streets away to the old town square with its spectacular medieval buildings; I note a Hard Rock Café cunningly secreted in a 15th century corner. 

Then to the local military museum; the Belgians have been makers of weapons for centuries especially small arms so there is plenty to see.  However I must parochially tell you that good as it is the museum is not a patch on our national war memorial in Canberra which has to be amongst the best of its kind.  I did see a drum belonging to the 11th battalion 1stAIF which was a nice note from home and a tri-motor all corrugated metal Junkers similar to the one Herr Hitler was ferried around in.  They also had a late spitfire, early hurricane and well preserved de Havilland mosquito.

Across the great square from the military museum in Cinquantenair Park is a quite magnificent car museum to which I eagerly take myself and find a sensational collection of motoring exotica including Queen Mary’s Daimler (up to George VI the Royals preferred Daimler); the rear seat in HRH’s sumptuous vehicle was shod in snakeskin from the sub-continent.

Next day when I line up to buy my ticket to Bruges the selling clerk says rather abruptly, “How old are you”? Which I thought rather forward until I realised English was probably her fourth language. 

What a difference not being carpet bombed makes. Belgium was overrun quite quickly in WW2 with few subsequent air raids.  My journey to Bruges passes neat villages, extensive old farm buildings and townscapes of lovely two-storied, bow windowed houses with landscaped gardens. 

Central Bruges is largely as it was 500 years’ ago.  Medieval buildings were built to inspire and they still do.  The old houses are delightfully utilitarian: filling their space rather than dominating it, multiply storied, dormer windowed to use ceiling space and designed to create a liveable townscape.  Roofs are precipitately steep to discharge snow. 

I head first for theChurch of Our Lady which is mostly closed for renovation but their iconic Michelangelo Madonna and Child sculpture is out, presumably to help with fund raising.  This is an extraordinary work; the child is about to step out away from his mother and into the world; a poignant visual metaphor for His earthly life. 

From there it is an easy walk to the old town centre with its two important spaces: the Markt and the Burgh.  Both have fine early buildings and facades: the Burgh town hall dates from 1376 and the octagonal belfry in the Markt from the 1200s.  Once again in these cities it is very apparent the medieval architects had an eye for vertical and lateral space balance something we have lost since buildings began to be more equated with money and we gave up on town planning.

After a very fast-food lunch which seemed somehow at odds with the ancient architecture outside I headed for the Heilig Blood Basilik a place of veneration for devout Catholics.  The 12th century church, though small, is choice: the ambiance is subdued gold and amber with contemporary murals and a line of quite splendid Romanesque arcading separating the nave from the veneration chapel. 

I finish the day at Bruges’ Groeninge museum; the city’s premier art gallery where I see the very famous Van der Weyden, ‘St Luke Painting The Virgin’, also a magnificent three-piece altar retable by Van Eyck.  Then back out into a freezing wind coming in directly from theAtlanticand losing even more heat as it passes over snow-covered streets.  The fast train to Brussels the next day copes well with the appalling weather.

 

Berlin, Brussels and Paris: February to April 2013

Paris

Then to Paris fabled for its balmy evocative spring weather but quite deep snow is visible though from my train window as I swoop south on the TGV. 

I begin my stay in the city of light with a familiarisation walk.  From my digs near Pierre La Chaise cemetery I head off on foot along the Avenue Republic to the great Republic square, now hectic with motor traffic, then to the river and Notre Dame then along the Quay d Orsay to the museum.  From there to the Invalides and then on to the Eiffel Tower, across the river to The Trocadero then up to the Arc d Triomphe.  From there down the Champs Elysees (an obligatory walk inParis) to the Louvre then home again via the Place de Republique and the great avenue.  If you know your Paris you will not be surprised to know all this took a day. 

I notice large crowds of tourists at all the popular venues despite the chilly weather.  At all crowded attractions young sub-machine gun armed soldiers supplemented the gendarmes.  I also notice good food is almost absurdly cheap and I begin three weeks of dining out to the tune of two courses and a glass of wine often costing less than 15 Euros.

Paris probably has the world’s greatest art collection and the aficionado is spoilt for choice.  I begin at the Pompidou Centre.  This amazing building has all its services on the outside including the escalator.  For the vertigo sufferer a diminishing piazza as you ascend in the fresh air is an unsettling start especially as the final stage yields an upward view of uninterrupted sky.  I dismount at level four and take the safe interior stairs to the top at level five. 

Inside one is spoiled for choice: French, Italian, German, American, all the best work from the 20th century and some from the 21st.  The Pompidou is extraordinary and you need a day there.  Outside is the studio of the Romanian sculptor Brancusi; the contents of Brancusi’s studio came to the state upon his death.  On display are tools, studies and completed work which hadn’t left the studio when the sculptor died.

I attend church at St Eustace the next day, a Sunday, and decide this is also to be my Easter home.  Music for today’s service courtesy Messrs Bach, Langlais, Brahms, and Morley; and Jean Guillou, church organist, gave a thrilling set of improvisations as postlude.  St Eustace, just opposite the Parismarket, is a 12th century foundation and has the largest pipe organ inParis.  Richelieu, Moliere and Mm Pompadour were all baptised here.  I head for the Louvre for the afternoon.

Because the Louvre is vast and eclectic one needs to arrive with a plan and stick to it.  Apart from the obvious tourists who have come to see La Giaconda the Louvre is full of randomly wandering visitors, hopelessly lost and looking at whatever happens to float into view as they pass; I had determined this was not going to happen to me.  My plan was to see the French Colourists (Delacroix, Gericault, David et al), the Barbizon School painters (Corot, Rousseau etc), Flemish work, especially Vermeer, de Hooch and Rembrandt, then the Italians most certainly Raphael.  Without going into the details I did achieve my objective and of course saw great and marvellous canvasses besides.  A great thrill was to see not one but two Vermeers to take my total to 21 Vermeers seen out of the 35 known to be extant.  I also saw several real masterpieces by Raphael- what a loss that he died so young.

The next day I joined about 2000 others who had made it to the Musee d Orsay at opening time under the misapprehension an early start would avoid the crowds.  We queued in a freezing wind for 75 minutes to get in.  (For my next visit I turned up after lunch and was warmly ensconced inside within ten!) 

Once past the security people, including ferociously armed military personnel, the inside of the one-time station receives its guests into a spacious great hall and you make your way around the picture galleries from there.  The entire museum space handles its multitudinous patrons quietly and well.  What pictorial wonders there are to see; no wonder visitors flock here!  All the great Impressionist painters, Pointillists, Fauvists, Cubists Futurists, Surrealists, German Expressionists, Abstract Expressionists, Pop Artists and so on.  Highlights for me were  Millet’s famous, much-reproduced work, ‘The Angelus’, Manet’s lunch party picture which scandalised Paris when it was first shown, Cezanne self-portraits, his card-player and still life pictures, Degas his ‘Absinthe Drinker’  and the great Rouen Cathedral pictures of Monet.  One leaves the museum eternally grateful these wonderful works were gathered under one roof from other venues.

The next day I fulfil a long-term ambition to re-visit the Invalides and see both of the churches and the military museum.  I last visited the late emperor 35 years ago but then had no time to explore further.  I begin this visit today by dropping in on him again. One descends to floor minus one to be on the same level as the actual corpse encased Egyptian fashion in six coffins, the outer mahogany sarcophagus resting on a splendid plinth.  I wondered what Napoleon would have thought of the populace looking down on his remains from ground level and having to descend to pay a visit!  J. L. David’s masterpiece ‘Napoleon Crossing theAlps’ was on display nearby, on loan from Versailles.  The Paris picture is a magnificent work and one of five versions.

The dome of The Invalides dominates river-level Paris, Sacre Coeur has the high ground on Montmartre.  Invalides’ dome rises up over the king’s church to create a vast upward space from inside.  Next door is the less opulent devotional church for his employees.  After the two churches the rest of the magnificent 17th century court-yarded building is given over to the Musee d Armee though some space is reserved for wounded war veterans for which the entire complex was first constructed 1670-76.  The military museum is extraordinary though not strong on the 20th century perhaps reflecting Frances rather slender later military achievements.  The uniform and weapon collection is vast and takes as long or as little time as one wants to spend to see.  I noted some rather tough-looking young men photographing themselves striking poses in front of a picture of Herr Hitler as I left which took a little from the day.

Continuing the association with the dead the next day I visited the Pierre La Chaise cemetery paying homage to an old friend Oscar Wilde and, amongst others, Delacroix and Modigliani.  Because admirers were smothering his marvellous art deco tomb with lipstick, Mr Wilde is now protected by a wall of Perspex.  This hasn’t deterred visitors who continue to flock to his final resting place.  I found Modigliani after a search, also Corot, Ingres and Daubigny.  No need to search for Delacroix; his sarcophagus stands proud of ground level, his name in gold letters spaced across smoothly-finished stoneware.  On the way out I passed Chopin, his finely wrought monument covered in flowers.  I approachedFrederick’s monument from behind and disturbed two teenagers quietly texting on the other side.  Both went momentarily very pale, perhaps they believe in ghosts.

Easter I spent at St Eustace the whole experience a triumph.

Post Easter and I set off for the Musee Nissim de Camondo at 63 rue de Monceau.  Charles Ephrussi from Edmund de Waal’s ‘The Hare with Amber Eyes’ lived at number 81.  The Ephrussi mansion is alas gone but 63 was contemporary with it.  Rue de Monceau was a stronghold of the 19th century Parisian rich and famous and each plot sold along it overlooked the park from the rear.  The park received the first silk parachute jump in 1797.  The museum at number 63 shows 18th century pictures and artefacts collected by Count Moise de Camondo and stands as a memorial to his son Nissim killed in the Great War.  If you enjoy French Empire furniture, china, tapestries, carpets and ebullient barouche room decoration do go to the Camondo when you are next inParis. 

I noticed most rooms in the house had a writing desk at which the occupant would have sat penning letters to catch one of the two or three posts a day.  Smart ‘phones have done away with all that. 

After the 18th century I move to the 19th the next day, visiting the home of M Delacroix; he lived in some style on the Left bank.  On the way I walk past the Pompidou and see a young Gypsy woman in the Piazza playing a didgeridoo.

Delacroix’s studio, part of a commodious apartment, is as he left it with pictures, drawings and props; the large north-facing windows looking on to the garden where fruit trees were showing scatters of early blossom and spring bulbs were just beginning to appear.

In the afternoon we ascend to Sacre Coeur in the 18th Arrondissment of Montmartre to take in the fine view ofParis from the top of the hill.  We are to attempt entry to the basilica if tourist numbers permit.  We use our time viewing the city to trace movements over the last week or so and also to note the city’s poor air quality, then join a slowly-moving queue to enter the famous domed church.  The interior is a blaze of light as instead of charging entry the church authorities have placed rank upon rank of votive candle stands throughout the nave and most visitors bought a candle and lighted it.  Flickering brilliant orange from the flames mixed with light streaming in from the magnificent stained glass windows to create pools of radiant mobile colour on ceilings, floors and walls. 

Melbourne is currently (June 2013) showing Monet’s pictures from the Marmottan Museum Monet and a day later we were lucky enough to visit the museum just before the pictures left on their journey across the world.  We saw the quite splendid works which will tour, and a show of Berthe Morisot; a woman who held her own within the boy’s world of the Impressionists. 

After Marmottan we headed for Rodin’s house near The Invalides.  The house is also a Rodin Museum.  No ordinary gallery this and very few casual visitors following flag-carrying guides.  We saw real pilgrims who knew their Rodin.  Outside there is an edition of ‘The Thinker’ but also ‘The Gates of Hell’ and a fine edition of ‘The Burghers of Calais’ which we also have in Canberra.  Inside the house Rodin’s teaching materials are on show together with many small-scale works by him and some fine pictures by Renoir, Monet, Sargent and Munch; this latter a painting of ‘The Thinker’ in its spot in the garden outside.  Rodin was to sculpture what the Impressionists were to painting.  After Rodin, sculpture was liberated from Greece and Rome and artists were creating works of the instant, stopping fleeting moments and recording them in immovable stone.  Rodin kept the best of the past though.  His slave figures shown partially emerging from their stone prisons hark directly back to Michelangelo.

Having three weeks in Paris meant time was available to leave my metropolitan digs and head out to tour the western battlefields of 1914-18.  I choose to start from Arras and to join a day trip organised by an Australian couple so the day will have an Australian emphasis.  My TGV train fromParisglides through undulating country where newly-sown fields encourage the appearance of spring.  I arrive at Arras with the afternoon to tour the town before taking in the western front the next day. 

Arras is a lovely old settlement; serried rows of Flemish gables rhythmically etching skylines above winding narrow streets.  Harmonious architectural patterns recur throughout the old parts of the town.  There is a splendid cathedral and the nearby Abbey building now houses civic institutions.  The cathedral has had a turbulent history: built 1030-1396 as the seat of the Bishop of Arras it was described in contemporary writing as one of the most beautiful gothic structures in northern France.  That building was destroyed during the revolution and a new building erected in the style of the 18th century.  It was destroyed by shell fire in 1917 but rebuilt, in the classical, style after the war.  The interior has been left relatively unadorned but I did see fine reliquary chests and a splendid life-size bronze of The Baptist baptising Christ. There are fine chapels and a commodious oval sanctuary.  The town has two main medieval squares near the cathedral, both bordered by ornate facades and one dominated by the grand Hotel de Ville; the town hall.

Our battlefields tour starts in Northern France and finishes in Flanders at the Menin Gate.  After years of reading war history the country is a surprise.  ‘High ground’ is likely to be no more than a few metres above the lower land and after the passage of nearly a hundred years one can only mourn the carnage as battles crawled back and forth merely to secure these slight altitudes.  Cemeteries dot the landscape; some neatly organised others impromptu graves where men were buried quickly.  A few German graves are to be found amongst some allied burials; these often show signs of contemporary desecration by locals. 

Late in the day we arrive at Frommelles and its cemetery which has an edition of the sculpture we have on the corner of St Kilda and Domain roads.  Frommelles was a disaster for the Australians and thousands from the 5th Division were killed when a suicidal advance was ordered by the British commanding divisional general.  Australian Brigadier ‘Pompey’ Elliot opposed the plan but was overruled.

Before heading to Ypres for dinner and the Menin Gate we stop at the massive Tyne Cot war cemetery near Passchendale and spend some time walking amongst the many graves.  We have some inkling of the hardships endured by the soldiers today as the weather is freezing and just a few miles over the sea  England is having its coldest March day for 50 years.  We end the tour at the Menin Gate for the 8 PM memorial service and stand quietly in the icy wind with several hundred others waiting for the service to start, gazing at the 56,000 names on the memorial.  The names are those of soldiers whose bodies were never recovered after the battles aroundYpres. 

Firemen from Ypres have played the last Post and Reveille at the Menin Gate every night since 1928 only missing time during the Nazi occupation.  This night’s ceremony was joined by a well-rehearsed air cadet band and a young piper who played a lament.  Being March and a freezing day the audience was mostly pilgrims rather than tourists; all stood quietly and reverently during the solemnities.

Back in Paris the weather had improved and blue sky appeared patchily above the streets; in the Tuilleries outdoor coffee-booth patrons sit facing south to take in the rarely-seen sunlight.  I visit the Left Bank after a walk and head for the illustrious Shakespeare and Company bookshop.  This English language institution was begun in the 30s by a Ms Sylvia Beach and was a meeting place for Hemmingway’s lost generation.  She also published Ulysses when Joyce could not find a publisher. The present shop with its intriguing staircases, nooks and crannies was opened on the current site in 1951 by George Whitman who my guide-book says is still with us now in his 90s.  It became a mecca for the Beat Generation and Mr Henry Miller described it as a ‘wonderland of books’.  My visit coincided with a group of rather loud young English bibliophiles who stood about in pretentious groups exclaiming how wonderful it was to be out ofLondon.  I lunched in the Latin Quarter now heavily buried under tourist kitsch.  As an aside I do notice the French take reading very seriously; and this is unfashionable reading from books: not an e-book to be seen.  Metro carriages, stations, park benches, coffee houses all have their literature devotees, faces buried in a volume of something substantial.  Magazine stands have editions dealing with philosophy, science, and books and writing rather than groaning under the load of car and house material we are used to at home.

Church the next day was interrupted, some might say enlivened, by a very late elderly, unkempt parishioner who entered via the sanctuary during the Gospel, shaking hands and murmuring blessings to the devoutly seated clergy as he made his way west through the solemnities to the nave. 

But at last the weather is suitable for comfortable outside dining, I take a prominent table in the Tuilleries and dine well.  A young American boy nearby has his meal embellished by the droppings of a passing pigeon and I take it upon myself to advise not dining near the lions in case the same thing happens on a larger scale.

Then to The Orangerie which by happy chance has free admission today: here the greatest of Monet’s large waterlilies works are shown in curved spaces each leading one to the other.  As Monet aged and became less able to move comfortably around the landscape he narrowed his vision to his garden and chose small-scale subjects paradoxically painted in very large scale.  The pictures are magnificent sympathetic studies of the colour and light-altering qualities of the landscape: flickering blues, pinks, indigos, greens and yellows advance and recede from the canvases; all we need do is wait an instant for everything to change.  Monet took days to complete each work retaining in his fertile mind the confluences of colour and light of the moment. 

Other galleries in the building showed works from the collection of Paul Guillaume: Derain, Sisley, Modigliani, Gaugin, Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne, Renoir, H. Rousseau, Utrillo and Soutine were all on show today.  How extraordinary to have been a collector in the early 20th century and have had the choice of painters whom today we revere.  I return home this evening on a driverless Metro train- a first.

My final day in Paris is spent paying a call on the wealthy living in the Place des Vosges, then skipping across the street to their department store; Les Galleries Lafayette.  Here we see unfamiliar, costly merchandise displayed to perfection.  Myers and DJs have a way to go.  In the department store we come into first contact with the very wealthy Asian shopper and are unceremoniously elbowed out of the way if we dare get too close.  They pay in cash peeled from substantial rolls fetched from the latest-fashion shoulder-bag.

Then to Frankfurton in the very-comfortable, very-fast train and where I have again chosen a hotel adjacent to the station so finding ‘home’ is no trouble. Frankfurt was re-built after the bombing in the modern style and from the banks of the river Main, looking across to the city, I was struck by the similarity with the view across the Yarra from Southbank.

I have one complete day in Frankfurtbefore leaving for Melbourne so visit the magnificent Stadel gallery where amongst other wonders I see two important works by Botticelli.