Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Street art, Part 2

As I mentioned in my previous post, most of the street art works we saw in Barcelona were on shop shutters and the large ground-floor double doors so customary to the old town. Some works were clearly commissioned and also had a signature. The below shutters were signed by the artist Ivana Flores.

We were glad to notice there was very little messing up made by the random passers-by on the commissioned works. I suppose when your city offers so much to spray on you don’t need to make your mark on someone’s complete piece of art.

The commissioned works generally gave an indication about the line of business behind the shutters. There is not much speculating about the kind of shops revealed when the below roller shutters are pushed up. Definitely something to do with filling your stomach with food and drink.

We also saw a few art works the size of a whole building wall. I am not particularly keen on such pieces of modern art as the blue wall with the dozens of eyeballs sticking out by Frederic Aman on the side wall of the five-star Ohla Hotel in the Gothic Quarter. It certainly catches your eye and will probably serve its purpose very well. Nevertheless, I prefer the cozy mural with stylized cats facing a little square in the Raval.

Have a look also on the post Street art, Part 1 here.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Street art, Part 1

Banksy, probably the most celebrated street artist of the world, is once again very topical because of the critical works on the London Olympics he revealed on his personal website on Monday. London has been busy cleaning up the streets before the Games. The precautions went even so far that a few street artists were prohibited from owning any spray and being within one mile of any Olympic venue. So I guess it will be only a matter of days when Banksy’s great works will be found and painted over.

Some time ago when I spent the day in Helsinki I saw the above fabulous street art work on such a location – on the street-level rooftop piazza of the Forum shopping centre – that I immediately realized it must have been commissioned. Helsinki used to have zero tolerance for graffiti and street art but fortunately things are a-changing.

The large tag in the middle reveals this is a piece by Jussi TwoSeven, a talented local street artist Jussi P. Koistinen who took some art classes when he was a schoolboy but lacks any formal education in art. Instead, he studied at the Helsinki University of Technology. You wouldn’t be able to tell he is an engineer and not an artist when looking at this sweet work called ‘Family portrait: little vandals’.

The vandals slightly resemble some street art pieces we saw in Barcelona when we stayed there for a few days in late April, especially some stencil work by SM172, a local artist by the name of Caesar Baetulo. If I have done my homework correctly the following photos show his work.

We had an apartment (found through Homelidays, naturally) in the Raval, which is the district to the west of Las Ramblas. It is regarded as a rather seedy and dark area not to be recommended for the unseasoned traveller. Most of the people living on our street were immigrants and I dare say the stairway leading to the apartment was seedy. However, we were completely happy with the neighbourhood, neighbours and apartment, which was simple but comfortable enough and not even noisy at night as there weren’t any restaurants too close.

Moreover, we saw very little red-lights activity which used to prevail in the Raval. These days the area was clean, too. Cleaning vehicles were washing our street at least once if not twice daily. We found the Raval a lively and colourful district with nice uncomplicated little restaurants and cafés full of locals, with lots of small one-off boutiques and workshops selling their own unique products and with an abundance of graffiti and street art. There were so many of them I decided to limit my photographing to the ones representing a person.

I knew street art is flourishing in Barcelona. However, I didn’t know there would be so many fascinating pieces, often on top of each other in such a colourful mess that every now and then you just had to take a moment to admire the details on a ground-floor door or a shop shutter.

Tagging is a field I knew nothing about but C215 was another one easy to recognize. The artist behind this tag is the Paris-based Christian Guémy, sometimes called France’s answer to Banksy. He has studied art history at the Sorbonne, has been a graffiti artist for more than 20 years and has in recent years turned into stencils, mostly portraying the down-and-out kind of people. The whole does tend to be a terrible mess but the individual works are fascinating.

Alicè or the Italian artist Alice Pasquini, on the other hand, uses spray paint and acrylics. The Huffington Post recently featured her in an article stating that her feminist work proves street art can be subtle. We happened to see only one piece by her in Barcelona. Again, I was impressed. I want to learn more about this art form.

Have a look also on Street art, Part 2 here.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

At the last moment

It is less than a week to our holiday in France and my mental pre-journey activity has begun – the only recurring nightmare I ever had is here. It usually goes like this: I am going to the airport to take a flight but it is uncertain whether or not I will actually make it because, 1) I (may) have forgotten my passport or some other important document you should have with you on this trip; 2) I (may) have forgotten to do the packing or take the suitcase with me; 3) I (may) have forgotten to do something I should absolutely do before the trip; or 4) I am so late I may miss the plane even without any of the above reasons.

This time, however, I had reached the destination but hadn’t done any packing and hadn’t remembered to take the map with me although I had been talking about it the night before. There was a point to this dream. The Michelin road map did prove very handy complementing the navigator during my latest trip to the Riviera three years ago so I must not forget that.

I am not in the habit of missing flights, trains or any other means of transport with a fixed schedule. But I am in the habit of always being late wherever I’m going. Judged from the plot of my repeated nightmare, it is bothering me more than I care to let out.

They say that being late demonstrates the person’s lack of respect to the company he/she is late from. I’m afraid I must disagree. With me, being late or coming at the last moment has nothing to do with that but everything to do with my super-optimistic attitude towards life in general and my unrealistic perception of time in particular. No matter how consciously I try to calculate the time required for any function that needs to be completed before reaching a place or completing a job it seems I will never get it right. Thus you will always imagine there is enough time to do just one more little thing before the final deadline.

Nevertheless, I am inclined to believe this bad habit is not innate, at least not entirely, but much of it is acquired. When I was a child our family was always late. When the neighbours’ kids were already on their way to the school party my mother was still pressing and ironing the brand new dresses she had sewn for us. So things were always completed at the last moment and we were always the last ones to arrive. And we still are, more or less, me and all the three siblings of mine.

I don’t mind myself. I can live with that the few decades I may still have. At this age when you are past 50 you may even start making some improvement as years go by. But I do regret my bad example must have promoted this habit in my children. Life would be so much more harmonious without the stress and potential embarrassment of the last moment. Any partner can confirm that.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

By the basin covers

Clouds have continued to travel our way and I have been keeping an eye on the old mock-orange (Philadelphus) (jasmike) that has been blooming for the past couple of weeks. I was waiting for the clouds to disappear at least for a moment to be able to take a few photos of the flowers against the blue but this time it never happened. The petals are now turning brown and falling down. Nevertheless, the white flowers do look and smell wonderful even when you have a summer with hardly any full days of sunshine.

The orange lily (Lilium bulbiferum) (ruskolilja) is another plant I have been admiring recently by the concrete covers of our sewage basins. (As we live in a sparsely populated area without public utilities we have an on-site sewage treatment system with three basins or septic tanks and a drain field.) Also their blossom faded before proper sunshine but I couldn’t help shooting them every now and then because I love all sorts of lilies.

Moreover, orange lilies remind me of childhood. We had those in our garden when I was young. In those days photographing was not that commonplace but my mother used to take a photo of the birthday child on each of our anniversaries. I believe one of my pictures was taken with orange lilies that were already flowering at the time of my birthday in early June.

However, as much as I have breathed in the everyday beauty of the mock-orange, orange lilies and the brilliantly yellow loosestrifes (Lysimachia punctata) (tarha-alpi) our good old Jack is the one who knows how to take the most of our unromantic wastewater disposal area. When he is warming his body against one of the concrete covers or sleeping in the shade in a hole under the mock-orange the unsightly spot immediately turns into rustic romantic. Aren’t cats useful!

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Homely holidays

It seems I have a lot to say about this subject so here is a short summary: When we are travelling abroad we prefer to stay at private apartments. As we generally travel in Europe most often in the Mediterranean, we have found the best sites for privately owned holiday rentals to be Homelidays.com and Interhome.com. However, when I can’t avoid staying at a hotel I always book it through Booking.com.

When your children’s school semesters or your employer no longer dictate your holiday schedules you will not only have the advantage to avoid the biggest crowds. You will, of course, have much more options to choose accommodation from if you are having your vacation out of season.

Nevertheless, I’m not at all keen on supporting any multinational enterprises or any other faceless replicas that cannot be distinguished from each other in any way. Not to mention that the kind of market concentration to the hands of a few giants we have seen globally in so many fields in the past few decades or so is, in my opinion, an unhealthy development.

I’m not planning to rise to the barricades any time soon. I’m simply doing the little deeds a single person can do to demonstrate his/her values. Therefore, when we travel we always try to support small family-owned places or privately owned apartments and have stayed in one whenever it was possible since we booked our first private flat online almost 10 years ago. In the digital age, it is not that hard to find holiday rentals to fulfill almost any requirements. It does take some more time and effort than booking a hotel but I’m crazy enough to enjoy that kind of preparation, sometimes up to the point my bones need to remind me about the human necessity of sleep.

The first apartment we booked through Homelidays was in Trastevere, Rome.
In 2005, I discovered Homelidays.com which is a great site putting holidaymakers in direct contact with private holiday rentals and Bed & Breakfasts. The owners pay a fee to have their property listed on the site but all the services provided to the renters are free. Anyone can browse the site and if you have registered as a user you are free to contact owners or select properties to you personal dossier for future reference. Quite a nice feature even if you weren’t in immediate need of a place to stay.

The site also provides a testimonial service for both the renter and the owner, which is a very useful tool helping both parties to avoid any unpleasant surprises. (Needless to say we have received highest points from all owners who have given a testimonial about us as renters.)

There might be risks with smaller service providers like this but Homelidays is such an established site you need not worry. We have never been disappointed with any apartment or B&B booked based on an advert on their site either in Italy, France or Spain. Neither did we have anything to complain about the B&B we found through their site in Croatia. The owners descriptions and photos of the flats have been accurate and there has never been any trouble with money with any of the more than dozen owners we have dealt with.

Naturally, when you are renting a private apartment you have to pay a downpayment in advance to confirm your booking. It is also customary that you will need to pay a deposit of a few hundred Euros upon arrival to be returned upon departure if no damages are caused to the property during your stay.

Homelidays was launched by a Frenchman in 2001 and it currently features some 3,000 B&Bs and more than 80,000 private rentals from around the world, including some 40,000 in France, 20,000 in Italy and 13,000 in Spain, which are the most popular destinations. However, it was acquired by the American giant HomeAway Inc. a few years ago, which slightly diminishes its glory in my eyes, but at least thus far there haven’t been any changes for the worse since then.

Another private rental service we have used several times without any problems is Interhome. It has grown from a small Swiss business renting chalets in the 1960s to one of the leading rental sites providing some 32,000 holiday homes and apartments mainly in European destinations.

We booked our first Interhome holiday home in Switzerland before the digital era in the early 1990s. In those days, their marketing was done through distributing 2 million printed copies of brochures! We have returned to Interhome.com every now and then and have always been happy.

Their service goes a bit further than simply bringing the renters and owners together. Therefore, if you want to be absolutely sure that the property you are renting has been quality-checked to comply with every single detail in the description provided, e.g. if you are renting a house or villa for a larger group for a special occasion, Interhome will offer the safest alternative. It remains a Swiss company but is now owned by Migros, Switzerland’s largest retail corporation.

Lastly, every now and then even I need to find a place to stay at such a short notice I’ll have to rely on a hotel. In those cases I have found the world’s leading online hotel reservations agency Booking.com the most comprehensive, flexible, reliable and user-friendly site for bookings. It is a Dutch company but these days owned by an American giant Priceline.com. I guess you just cant avoid the multinationals if you are looking for the best online services. Reluctantly, I have to admit that size does provide resources and resources may generate a better outcome sometimes.

To sum it up, if you are planning a holiday in any of the Mediterranean countries Homelidays.com is the place to find a nice private studio, apartment or villa for your stay. I just booked a flat for four in Nice. Had I a place to rent I would certainly advertise it through Homelidays. In my view, it is the best site for homely holidays. Anything more homespun than that would be couch surfing and we are too old and too comfort-loving for that kind of travel however tempting it may sound.

Unless otherwise stated, the photos in this post were taken in Porto Santo Stefano on the peninsula of Monte Argentario on the coast of Tuscany where we had a most wonderful holiday last September. Four months later survivors of the Costa Concordia that ran aground and keeled over off the coast of the nearby Giglio island were evacuated to this town.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Côte d'Azur calling

Now that we are free to choose, we usually make our trips abroad outside the highest seasons. Moreover, we generally travel to the Mediterranean, which is such a popular holiday destination that even off-season is quite crowded around the best attractions, such as Florence we visited last September. So we try to avoid the peaks and most often travel during the spring and autumn months – together with an ever-increasing number of other well-preserved mature couples and retirees. It is starting to feel there will soon be no low season at all because of this group of travellers.

It sometimes happens, however, that we are invited to join someone who still has to follow a more precise schedule regarding when to take a holiday. In fact, my sister recently asked us to travel with her and her teen-aged daughter to the south of France. We are flying to Nice in about two weeks and will arrive there just when the bulk of the French holidaymakers start pouring to the seaside, not to mention the other visitors from all over the world enjoying the French Riviera in early August.

Well, I did tell in an earlier post about my desire  to visit France, instead of our present favourite Italy, one of these days soon and I did confess missing the feeling when you can be certain tomorrow will be warm, too. But in August Côte d’Azur is hot. On the other hand, the rather poor weather conditions at home this season certainly call for some improvement. Thanks to my sister we are sure to have lots of more sun this summer.