Category Archives: Explore Europe

Easter Time in Helsinki


Helsinki in early April is chilly and blustery.  All the children are bundled up in one-piece snow suits. I was wishing I had one! Finland is not a place for religious pageantry and parades as in Southern Europe.


The Lutheran Helsinki Cathedral is impressive in its grand spaces, but very austere. Aside from Martin Luther gazing skyward, there’s not much to look at. And (at least on an admittedly quick stop) I didn’t see a children’s corner with little chairs, or posters about bake sales, or ladies dusting things, or a single clergy person.


The National Museum of Finland was a much more church-like experience. This pulpit is from the church in Parainen, Finland, dated 1650. At the time, Finland was a frontier to the west of Sweden–and very handy as a buffer between Sweden and Russia. Newly built churches were required to have pulpits. Lutheranism was the state religion of Sweden, and everybody was expected to sit still for it or else.


This pulpit is from the Kalvia Church, around 1726.  I like the cloudy heavens painted on its ceiling just above the preacher’s head.


Wait, there are hourglasses? Four of them? How long is this sermon going to be, anyway? Better not ask.


My favorite item was an altarpiece depicting the Last Supper. It’s from the Ylane Church, dated around 1675.


The faces are friendly and everyone is having a nice time together. There seem to be only 11 apostles. Apparently Judas has already left the building.


Jesus (with spiky sun-ray halo) seems to be holding a child in his lap. So the story is maybe doing double duty here: “Let the little children come unto me.”

The museum also had wonderful religious wood carvings dating back as far as the 1200s. I liked St. Martin on his horse, about to share his warm cloak with a beggar. He was carved and assembled from several pieces of wood around 1320.


I gazed for awhile at the Archangel Gabriel, carved and gilded around 1500.


Then I was back on the friendly but chilly streets of Helsinki, wishing I had a striped snowsuit and a red polka-dotted hat with flower ears.

Stockholm Subway Art

 

img_2795It goes without saying that Stockholm metro trains are clean, bright and efficient.

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But the subway experience is also artful, like so much else in Sweden.

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All subway stations have some kind of cheerful art.

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It might be on tunnel walls.

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Or it might be on the floor. And the floor is almost always clean enough to drop something without worrying about the 5-second rule.

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A piece of sculpture might greet you as you enter.

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Or museum artifacts might have a special spot in a station.

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In beautiful art-filled Stockholm, there’s always something to see–even underground.

Affordable Europe: Hotel la Roseraie in Chenonceaux

 

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The town of Chenonceaux has, somewhat confusingly, a spectacular chateau called Chenonceau–without the X. Many people consider Chenonceau the most beautiful chateau in the Loire Valley.  It’s certainly the most unique:  it is actually built on a bridge that crosses the river.  It’s understandably popular. The thing to do is to stay in the little village of Chenonceaux so as to arrive early. The town makes a perfect base for driving around the Loire Valley.

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I generally avoid hotels recommended in Rick Steves guidebooks. They’re nice, but occupied by large numbers of Americans.  I would rather be rubbing elbows with Europeans when I travel to Europe, even if I can’t understand much of what they’re saying.  But Rick-recommended Hotel la Roseraie is a winner.  It’s a small hotel, with only 17 rooms.  It’s not the fanciest hotel in town, but it’s surely the friendliest.

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Rooms are warmly decorated. Ours had walls that had been laboriously covered with the very same sprigged fabric that made up the curtains. Dated? I prefer the term “faded elegance.”

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The bathroom was totally up-to-date, though; it would pass muster any day on HGTV.

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The owners, Sabine and Jerome, welcome returning guests as family.  Guests do return again and again to enjoy the leafy terrace and flower gardens.

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There’s a charming little restaurant which needs to be booked because it’s popular even with people not staying in the hotel.  I don’t like the feeling of being obligated to eat in a hotel’s restaurant, but this was a delightful experience.  It was traditional but not too formal, the food was fresh and delicious, and no one looked askance at my admittedly fussy vegetarian requirements.

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Just outside town, there are Roman ruins.  Julius Caesar is known to have actually slept there–or so the locals say. When I was there, the ruins were partially covered with plastic.  Maybe next time, there’ll be a little visitor center.

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The village, like all French villages, has a top-class bakery.  One of those strawberry tarts is waiting for me!

 

Petit Trianon: It’s All in the Details

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Not that many tourists make the trek from the over-the-top Palace of Versailles to the much smaller Petit Trianon, built as a retreat from the crowds that filled the main palace as soon as it was built.

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I like the much-more-human scale of the Petit Trianon. So did Marie Antoinette.  OK, I’m sure her critics were correct in accusing her of hosting raucous parties there, but I’m sure she also appreciated the details in her more quiet moments.

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There’s a round salon with exquisite, soothing painted panels.

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The salon has a patterned marble floor, still pristine.

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A long gallery is a mostly-white version of the main palace’s Hall of Mirrors.  It’s calming, not frenetic. I think it’s too bad the royals who succeeded the glory days of the Sun King did not use the peace and quiet of their retreats to think about how they could sustain the monarchy.  In nearby Paris, daring thinkers were meeting in obscure coffeehouses, sowing the seeds of revolution.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!

 

 

My Own Private Odalisque

"La Grande Odalisque," Ingres, 1814, Public Domain

“La Grande Odalisque,” Ingres, 1814, Public Domain

I have a special fondness for a particular painting in the Louvre Museum in Paris: “La Grande Odalisque,” painted by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres in 1814.  The original painting was commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister, Queen Caroline Murat of Naples. (Early Popes invented “nepotism,” installing their nephews as Cardinals.  But Napoleon I took nepotism many steps further, installing family members on thrones all over Europe during the ten-year period when he was Emperor).

There is something a little off-kilter about this image.  Scientific analysis provided the reason, shortly after the painting first appeared in public: too much backbone. The painter Ingres defied all the known laws of anatomy and classical beauty in order to create a romanticized exotic image from an imagined Sultan’s harem. In order to enhance the sensuous curves of the woman’s body, Ingres painted this lady with at least five extra vertebrae. I guess she is alluring, if a little disconcerting. If you ask me, she looks quite a bit like a weasel.

Photo by Keven Law, Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike2.0

Photo by Keven Law, Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike2.0

I prefer my own Odalisque, a lady I rescued from a garage sale one fall afternoon.

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The artist who painted this very good copy was one M. Feste, signed in red in the corner. The copy shows just the Odalisque’s head and shoulder. I found her canvas leaning against a wall, in danger of being stepped on. My private Odalisque doesn’t suffer the indignity of having a ridiculously elongated backside. Now she just gazes calmly back over her shoulder at anyone entering my bathroom, confident in her exotic beauty.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!

 

 

 

Top Hats and Toppled Trees

Recently I went running in Minnesota and encountered a beaver-chewed tree.  Where was the beaver? Scared off? On a coffee break? Sent off by the Chief Beaver to chew another tree instead? This particular beaver never did return.  Alas, the tree is done for.  It fell over in the last high wind.

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Beaver-chewed tree

The expression “beaver hat” came to mind, the kind of hat I would call a “top hat.”

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I noticed that at the recent wedding of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, the children were allowed to choose what to wear, and one of the boys chose a black top hat, which he wore, elegantly, with shorts. (I’m also going to go out out a limb and say that Angelina’s wedding dress and veil, embroidered with drawings by her six children, was the most beautiful and meaningful wedding attire I’ve ever seen.  What an inspired use for refrigerator art!)

I started wondering why hats in the past couple of centuries were made from beaver fur. I learned that the beaver’s fur, sheared off, boiled, and pressed into thick felt, was so pliable it could be made into almost any shape of hat.  Beaver hats were warm, soft, and resistant to water. Between 1550 and about 1850, huge numbers of such hats were made, for both civilian and military use.

Some varieties of the beaver hat

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Everyone had to have at least one. Wealthy men, like Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy, had several. The European beaver was hunted and trapped to near-extinction.  Traders turned to North America, where the American beaver was plentiful. In fact, demand for beaver pelts was a big factor in colonial expansion in the New World, especially in Canada.  The Hudson’s Bay Company, founded in 1670, made a fortune in the beaver trade.  The company still exists today.

Finally, in the mid-1850’s, silk hats became more fashionable.  The beaver could relax a bit.

American Beaver by Steve, Creative Commons Share Alike 2.0

American Beaver by Steve, Creative Commons Share Alike 2.0

As far as I can see, the American beaver is thriving wherever there is water. I encountered this beaver-chewed tree in the middle of winter next to a stream in Colorado.

Beaver-chewed tree on Yampa River in Steamboat Springs

Beaver-chewed tree on stream in Colorado

People trying to maintain waterside property are not fond of the beaver.  Still, I have to admire the little guy’s energy and ambition.

Join me next time for more explorations into the art and history of Europe, and the many connections with development elsewhere in the world.

“The Age of Innocence”

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One movie I’ll watch over and over:  “The Age of Innocence,” directed by Martin Scorcese in 1993.  It’s a gorgeously realized version of the great novel by Edith Wharton.

It stars Daniel Day-Lewis as Newland Archer, a passionate but repressed man of New York’s upper classes.  His life seems tranquil, with its course set in stone by his engagement to the lovely and sweet May Welland, played fetchingly by Winona Ryder. But her beautiful cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, returns to New York in flight from a terrible marriage to a Polish count who has stolen her fortune and abused her.

Newland, the family lawyer, helps the Countess get legally free of the Count, but falls hopelessly in love with her, and she with him.  It’s touch and go, but he honorably chooses to marry May as planned. The story is about the terrible costs of following social convention instead of following one’s heart.

The movie was nominated for several Academy awards, and won for Best Costume Design.  The acting and storytelling are flawless.  The fine actress Joanne Woodward supplies the ironic but compassionate narration, beautifully weaving in the words of Edith Wharton herself. After several viewings, I still tear up at certain points.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe, which has often intertwined with American history.