All the greats in one estate, France
When you have a partner obsessed with architecture, you can’t expect to go on holiday without a detour to see some building or another. So if it’s a city break, that usually means a walking tour of the architectural highlights interspersed with visits to art galleries.
But when we heard about Château La Coste it became clear that this would not be a mere detour but the entire reason for our trip to Provence. The sculpture park, art destination and wine estate is a roll call of many of the world’s greatest architects, including Richard Rogers, Oscar Niemeyer, Kengo Kuma and Renzo Piano, as well as home to installations by contemporary figures such as Richard Serra and Ai Weiwei.
So in 2017 we arrived at the 200-hectare estate through Tadao Ando’s concrete gates to be greeted by the Japanese architect’s arts centre, a building of glass and concrete shimmering in a pool of water. We stopped to admire Louise Bourgeois’s Crouching Spider and Alexander Calder’s Small Crinkly mobile before setting off on a two-hour trek through the estate, where we stumbled on a panoply of sculptures and buildings, including Sean Scully’s Boxes Full of Air, Tracey Emin’s playful Cat Inside a Barrel, plus the promised architectural highlights of Ando’s chapel and Frank Gehry’s Pavillon de Musique.
Once we’d worked up an appetite, we headed to the chateau’s outdoor restaurant, La Terrasse. Sitting under the vines enjoying a glass of ice-cold rosé (made on the estate) and a plate of cheese, we argued – and disagreed – passionately about what we thought were the best pieces. Then we paid the bill and did it all again through rosé-tinted glasses.
Château La Coste is a 30-minute drive from Aix-en-Provence TGV train station, which means Paris is a three-hour train ride away.
Spaghetti western homage, Spain
It was 1975, a school night. My parents had gone out and left my elder brother babysitting me. I knew the routine, bed by 8.30pm, lights out at 9. It was a Monday and BBC One had a tradition of the Monday Night Film. My mum had never allowed me to watch one of these screenings. However, my brother played by different rules …
“You should watch this movie, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” he said as I brushed my teeth. “Don’t worry, Mum and Dad won’t be back for ages.” I settled into the couch, intrigued and excited.
The film and its music blew my mind. Now, aged 58, I realise that this innocuous evening was a turning point that defined the rest of my life. I was shocked by how exciting it was but the climax of the film – in a massive deserted civil war graveyard – really sent me into a spin. Nowadays it’s regarded as the definitive example of how to combine music, framing and editing to create an effect that adds up to stratospherically more than the sum of its parts. I didn’t know that then. I just sat there and tingled. But from that day on I was obsessed.
As an adult I found out the long-lost exact location of the graveyard in the northern province of Burgos in the Castile and León region of northwest Spain – and discovered it had a name: Sad Hill Cemetery.
I was soon disembarking from a ferry at Bilbao and heading south to the town of Santo Domingo de Silos, where an old man in a bar said his brother had been an extra in the film and pointed me in the right direction. A dirt track led me there, my excitement mounting. No signposts, no visitor centre, no information boards, just the overgrown graves, abandoned since 1966. I was in awe. Wow, this was actually it.
Because it is hemmed in by limestone crags, there’s a sense of being in an amphitheatre. I stumbled down to the rough rocky circle – the central hub of the cemetery – and spun around, reeling. It was completely silent.
However, I could see exactly where Clint Eastwood had stood. Ennio Morricone’s music played in my mind and suddenly it all made sense.
Today I lead motorbike adventure tours in the Pyrenees. It didn’t take me long to design a route to a destination that I simply had to share – Sad Hill.
Secret Caravaggios in Rome
Caravaggio’s swaggeringly misspent youth in 16th-century Rome included brushes with the law for fighting with waiters, swearing at a policeman, carrying an unlicensed sword, and enraging his landlord by cutting a hole in a ceiling to let in more light to paint by. He was exiled from the city after a tennis match that descended into a violent duel that may or may not have ended with him committing murder.
He painted like an angel, if that angel had watched a lot of Martin Scorsese films.
In Rome, there are Caravaggios in galleries but there are also fabulous paintings semi-hidden in dark corners of churches, which you can visit for free – if you can find them.
On a recent family trip with young kids in tow, I wasn’t to be deflected from my mission to track down these paintings, so we turned this into a kind of treasure trail, to track down masterpieces lurking behind creaky wooden church doors. Think Da Vinci Code, with a dash of Easter egg hunt for the kids. (There may or may not have been a gelato prize for the first to spot a painting.)
And, oh, it was magic. Dark churches where we could scarcely see our own hands in the candlelit gloaming – until we located the boxes on the walls where you could push in a euro coin and get the lights turned on for 30 seconds, at which point the walls came to life, in glorious oil paint. A triumph. Be prepared for esoteric opening hours, churches closed for weddings, impenetrable scaffolding and non-existent signposts, all of which add to the drama and jeopardy.
The church at Piazza di San Luigi de’ Francesi has three Caravaggios; the Basilica of Santa Maria at Piazza del Popolo two; the Basilica di Sant’ Agostino near Campo Marzio has one.
Bowie in Berlin
As an ardent fan of David Bowie, I had long been fascinated by the Dame’s love affair with Berlin. From Marlene Dietrich to Bertolt Brecht, Bowie’s tastes had always informed my own, and of course it was here he composed his Berlin trilogy of albums: Low, “Heroes” (with the title track’s heart-stirring cry for freedom) and Lodger.
In 2014, I found myself in the German capital, shepherding an unruly gaggle of journalism students around its streets in search of history and romance. When they rebelled against the carefully planned itinerary and took off to a bierkeller, I seized the opportunity to search out the places and spaces Bowie had made his own.
He decamped to Berlin in 1976, escaping the druggy excesses of Los Angeles, and remained until 1978, residing in the low-key Schöneberg district. Sharing a modest apartment above a bicycle repair shop with fellow rock casualty Iggy Pop, these were golden years. Days passed by in the nearby bohemian cafe Anderes Ufer (still there), while nights stretched into oblivion at the avant-sexual nightclub Chez Romy Haag (now a gay disco). You can visit the legendary Hansa recording studios in Kreuzberg.
The apartment building itself, on Hauptstrasse, is as nondescript as the one Bowie sought 40 years earlier. He found the anonymity he craved in this laid-back neighbourhood. On the day I visited, there remained little interest from passersby, only those looking for the physiotherapy clinic it now housed at pavement level.
The residents’ entrance was open, an invitation of sorts to step inside. A few secret snaps later and I was up on the first floor where, with consummate timing, an elderly hausfrau opened her door – the Bowie door no less – and stood looking at me, remarkably unfazed. She knew why I was there. Would I like a quick peek inside?
Needless to say my brief private view, revealing the original wood-panelled walls and Belfast sink (did Iggy wash his smalls in there?) was a complete fluke. This is not a public museum, and I often wonder if I dreamt the experience.
Bowie once said Berlin was “the greatest cultural extravagance that one could imagine”. My short time in his flat felt much the same.
William Morris’s Cotswolds retreat
The visionary designer William Morris wrote News from Nowhere in 1890. In it the narrator falls asleep after a lively discussion at the Socialist League and wakes up to find smoggy Victorian London transformed into a pastoral utopia. As an idealistic teenager in the 1990s, I wrote a thesis about this novel. Ever since, I’ve carried around a postcard of the book’s frontispiece, an engraving of Kelmscott Manor. Morris rented this Oxfordshire house for 25 years, using it as a retreat from London until he died and was buried nearby.
Kelmscott is more than a house. For Morris it was a kind of architectural muse, inspiring famous designs like the Strawberry Thief. News from Nowhere’s narrator and his new utopian friends row up the Thames to a “many-gabled old house”, which prompts one character to declare her love for “the Earth, and the seasons, and weather … and all things that grow out of it – as this has done”. They wander “from the rose-covered porch to the strange and quaint garrets among the great timbers of the roof”.
Decades after I wrote my thesis, I finally set off with friends to walk the Thames Path from London. About 150 miles from the Thames Barrier where our walk had begun, we reached Kelmscott on a day of dragonflies, apple blossom and forget-me-nots. The fields were gold with buttercups under lime green willows. We ate homegrown rhubarb fool in the sunshine near the stone-walled tea barn and felt as if we’d wandered into News from Nowhere’s fictional idyll.
The manor’s once-derelict interior has been restored to Arts and Crafts glory with carved wooden furniture, tapestries and hand-printed wallpapers. The pelmet and curtains round his 17th-century oak four-poster were embroidered by Morris’s family with roses, apple trees, songbirds, and with lines from one of his verses. In the novel, Kelmscott is a place where “my heart is warm” on winter nights when the Thames runs chill and the wind blows over the Cotswolds.
Kelmscott Manor is open 1 April-31 October, £14.50 adults, £8.75 children.
Niki de Saint Phalle’s Tuscany
It’s the Magician and the High Priestess you spy first, two enormous masks rising above a giant fountain shaped like a snake. Then you gaze to the left and there she is, the Empress – a sphinx made of rainbow mosaic with enormous breasts and portholes for nipples. Her left areola is a flower, her right a giant heart.
What a badass Saint Phalle was for having this kernel of an idea then actually seeing it through, building up such a vast, beautiful park over decades while beset with arthritis.
Ever since I heard about the Tarot Garden in 2015, I’ve been desperate to go. When I went to an exhibition and saw Saint Phalle’s sketches of this wild place full of mammoth sculptures that she’d dreamed up in the middle of nowhere, I had to see it for myself.
I finally visited in July as a 40th birthday gift on a day trip from Florence, and it did not disappoint. A riotous beacon of rainbow joy in an arid landscape, I was moved to tears multiple times walking around it.
Everywhere you turn there are angels, shrines, hearts, skulls, masks, endless shattered-mirror mosaics you can either catch a glimpse of yourself in, or get lost in.
There are dragons with multicoloured wings, devils that greet you down paths you didn’t even know were there. There is a huge many-headed snake known as the Tree of Life with tiles at its base full of love letters. If you look closely enough, you’ll even find a hanged man.
The Tarot Garden is a total marvel. For the whole day, I sat in this place where any future felt possible and imagined I was free and unencumbered, just like Saint Phalle was. Perhaps by the time I’m 50 I’ll make it to her Queen Califia’s Magical Circle in San Diego. I can but dream.
A saga brought to life, Crete
When I read Victoria Hislop’s bestselling novel The Island, I couldn’t believe the family saga was inspired by true events – and set in a real place. The island in question is Spinalonga, a tiny speck off Crete’s north-eastern coast. Hundreds of people were banished here in the 20th century, living and dying a short boat ride from Crete, but unable to return. Their crime? Having leprosy. Spinalonga was Greece’s official leper colony from 1903 to 1957 – one of the last in Europe. At the time, the disease was thought to be highly contagious and had no cure.
I had to see the place for myself. A former leper colony might seem a strange place for a holiday, but I wasn’t alone. After the success of the book, and a Greek TV adaptation, hundreds of thousands of tourists visit Spinalonga every year. Unesco is considering an application to make it a world heritage site. The island is now uninhabited – the last resident, a priest, left in 1962 – but it is open to visitors daily from April to October, who book boat trips from Plaka, Agios Nikolaos or Elounda, east Crete.
A mile-long path encircles the island. On arrival, I passed through Dante’s Gate and headed to the main street, where time has stopped and the houses, shops, school and tavernas look much as they did nearly 70 years ago – and as they are described in the novel. Further on is the hospital, theatre, church and cemetery.
But the history of Spinalonga stretches back much further than the leper colony. It was fortified by the Venetians in the 16th century; refugees and rebels sheltered there during the Cretan Wars (1645-1669); and it was settled by the Ottomans from 1715. There are large and small remnants of these centuries of settlement: much of the mighty fortress remains, but so do traces of the games played by the lepers on their front steps. Like any abandoned place, there is a sense of sadness, heightened by the knowledge that former inhabitants lived here against their will.
Despite all that, the little island has its own beauty, as well as a spectacular setting in the Mirabello Bay. I spent the rest of my holiday exploring Crete, but my thoughts always drifted back across the water to Spinalonga.
Boat crossing from €10 adults, €5 children, entrance €8/€4 children, discovergreece.com
Marc Chagall church in Kent
It began 33 years ago in execrable French. I was on a train from Paris to Boulogne and got talking (well, mostly listening) to a fellow passenger, a local who was poring over a large book of the paintings of Marc Chagall. As he turned the pages, he talked me through the artist’s life. I recall luscious blues, reds and greens, and a couple riding a naively drawn horse. I was captivated – there was something mysterious and yet innocent about them that spoke to me.
During our encounter I’d gained the mistaken impression that, to see Chagall’s work in the flesh, I’d have to visit St Petersburg. I duly promised myself that some day I would. Yet that day has never dawned. So my ears pricked up when my beloved happened to ask me last winter if I’d “ever seen the little Chagall church?” I had not. And yet it was not far from where we live.
Soon afterwards we were heading out from Tonbridge station, walking across squelchy fields to the hamlet of Tudeley. Our first glimpse of the little church with its squat brick-built tower was, I confess, a disappointment. But that all changed once we went inside.
All Saints is the only church in the world for which Chagall designed every single window. There are 12 in all. The first was a commissioned tribute to a young local woman who had drowned in a sailing accident in 1963. When the artist visited for the window’s installation, he fell in love with the church, proclaiming: “It’s magnificent, I will do them all.”
There were those luscious colours I’d seen on the train, with the low winter light bathing us in great washes of blues. They almost swamped his trademark scribblings of people and animals on the move, some restless, some serene. There was a surprise too: a pair of large windows – each a sort of triptych – that were a blur of pale yellows that appeared to depict some kind of wild vegetation. An hour later, we came away a little awestruck. Chagall had clearly left something of himself there. And I hadn’t had to cross the continent to see him after all. He’d come to me.
Museum of lost love, Istanbul
A year or two after it was published in 2009, I read Maureen Freely’s translation of Orhan Pamuk’s novel The Museum of Innocence and found myself captivated. An elegiac love story, it begins in 1970s Istanbul, in what seems like a freer, more secular city than it is now, and tells the story of a doomed affair between a wealthy young man, Kemal, who manages a firm owned by his father, and Füsun, a distant relative from the less well-off side of the family, who works in a shop to support herself while she studies for her university entrance exams.
But Kemal is engaged to Sibel; his relationship with Füsun cannot last. So to hold on to memories of her that he knows will fade, he begins to collect souvenirs of their time together: an earring she’s lost amid a tangle of sheets, a tea glass she’s drunk from, a matchbook, a comb … His plan is to commemorate their love by creating a museum, and towards the end, on page 713, there is what I took to be an illustration of a ticket.
“Let those who have read the book enjoy free admission when they visit the first time,” he writes. What an ingenious conceit for a novel, I thought, assuming that was all it was. And then in 2012, the actual Museum of Innocence opened in a 19th-century house in the Çukurcuma neighbourhood, where Pamuk imagined the fictional Füsun lived.
Almost the first thing you see as you enter is an arrangement of 4,213 cigarette stubs, all labelled and dated, some smudged with lipstick, that Füsun has smoked. Ascend the stairs and the rooms are filled with 83 vitrines, each one corresponding to a chapter in the book and containing artful arrangements of things mentioned – clothes, photographs, postcards, maps, a toothbrush, just ordinary objects of everyday life – like a selection of Joseph Cornell shadow boxes.
I first visited a decade ago and found it intensely affecting. Last summer, I went back and was no less moved. For the novel and museum combine to create as ambitious, audacious and absorbing a work of conceptual art as I’ve ever encountered; a thought-provoking meditation not just on lost love, but obsession, the fetishisation of objects, the value of museums as repositories of memory and, ultimately, what it is to be human.
Portrait of a poet, London
There is a portrait of John Donne in London’s National Portrait Gallery. If you’ve seen an image of him, it’s probably this one: enormous hat, moustache as thin as a blade of grass, red lips, just-barely-visible sword. Painted around 1595, and sold to the gallery for more than £1m in 2006, it’s known as the Lothian Portrait – the legend was that the Lothian family who owned the painting had mislabelled it as a portrait of John Duns Scotus.
I’ve always been sceptical of this story: Duns Scotus, a theologian from the 13th century, is usually painted with a monk’s tonsure and an expression of rage sufficient to power a car. He and Donne look as different as it is possible to look while still being of the same species.
Donne was beautiful: the portrait shows it. It colours his poetry, and his life; it’s one of the reasons he was able to charm people. He is my vote for the greatest poet of desire in the English language – one who was able to write about joy, spite, glory, envy, fear, passion, exhaustion and transformation.
I went to see the portrait when, many years ago, I began the work towards writing a book about Donne. It was both a pilgrimage and a salute. When you write a biography, you take on a promise, to work with care and scrupulous attention, and to remember they were once as alive as you are, and to try to make them vivid.
Proust wrote that “people of bygone ages seem infinitely remote from us … we are amazed when we come across an emotion more or less like we feel today in a Homeric hero.” It is, I think, the job of a biographer to send a fishing line flying through that thickness of time, and pull their humanity, their complexity, into the light. The portrait does that. It’s worth your time for that reason: and, too, for the really excellent moustache.
Katherine Rundell, author of Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne (Faber & Faber)
Labyrinth of baths, Switzerland
“They have a no photo policy,” said the lecturer, as he clicked through slides of a sequence of steamy stone chambers, glowing with atmospheric turquoise light. “But I smuggled in my camera under my dressing gown.”
It was the early 2000s, and a rapt audience of architecture students had assembled to hear about our professor’s trip to Switzerland, to visit the hallowed 7132 Thermal Baths designed by the reclusive architect Peter Zumthor.
More than any other, this project defined the stripped-back, neo-modernist aesthetic of the turn of the 21st century, launching a thousand minimalist hotel bathrooms and aspirational slate splashbacks. It was the ultimate in ascetic luxury, nothing but raw slabs of stone, bronze ironmongery and pools of hot water.
A few years later, on my first assignment for a magazine to interview another Swiss architect, I stopped off in Vals, following the pilgrimage route of countless architects before me, driving deep into a snowy valley dotted with shepherd huts. My first impression was: this is much more tacky than it looks in the pictures. Walking into an unremarkable hotel lobby, lit with naff blue lights, I wondered if I had the right place. From the outside, it looked like a grim bunker, streaked with stains.
But once inside, it didn’t disappoint. Entering the baths – through some decidedly kinky leather curtains – I descended the slow, ritualistic staircase, and submerged myself in a sequence of pools, exploring a labyrinthine world of chambers that felt like they had been carved out of the mountain itself. Some were lit from above, some from below, one was almost pitch black and filled with rose petals. One passage led to an outdoor pool, surrounded by a high perimeter wall above which snowcapped peaks poked up against a pure white sky. My aversion to minimalism – and the £70 price tag – briefly dissolved into the bubbling mineral waters.
High art among the ruins, Sicily
Draw a line south-west from Palermo. You are in the hills of western Sicily, not so far, at least as the crow flies, from the grand Greek temple of Segesta. It is earthquake land. In 1968, an entire village, Gibellina, was completely destroyed in a disaster that killed more than 200 people and left 100,000 homeless. The mayor had a new village built about 15 miles away, commissioning a stellar cast of architects and artists to create it. He invited the Umbrian painter Alberto Burri to contribute. Burri – maker of thickly textured paintings incorporating jute sacks, or blowtorched to open up deep fissures and cracks in a work’s surface – refused. Instead, he offered to make a work of art in the destroyed village. The offer was accepted. The result is one of the most striking pieces of land art in the world.
No one needs a cultural excuse to visit western Sicily. There is a bewildering wealth of things to see, from the blindingly brilliant mosaics in the Norman cathedral at Monreale to the ecstatic ancient Greek bronze “dancing satyr” that has its own museum in Mazara del Vallo. But the Cretto di Burri (Crack of Burri) – as it is known – is something quite different, a modern artwork that covers an entire remote hillside.
In 1984, Burri took the ruins of the settlement and covered them in white concrete, leaving the streets and alleyways clear. Or he began to. Funds ran out and the work stood incomplete when he died in 1995, until in 2015, to mark what would have been his 100th birthday, it was finally finished.
The result, a memorial to the lost village, is a kind of maze. From a distance, it resembles a dirty handkerchief draped over the hillside which then resolves, as you approach, into something that looks like a giant version of one of Burri’s cracked-surface paintings.
You can wander through it – and like a maze it is confounding and strange, hard to navigate. Sound travels through it oddly. It has something of the stateliness of Sicily’s ancient Greek temples. As with a proper pilgrimage, it rewards the visitor with something a little more than earthly. Its ghostly grandeur offers something to the soul.
The Ghent Altarpiece, Belgium
A few years ago, I watched a documentary called The World’s Most Expensive Stolen Paintings. Three-quarters of the way through, the presenter went to Belgium to see “what some consider to be the most important painting ever”. And he added: “Perhaps that’s why it’s the most stolen painting in history.”
The Ghent Altarpiece in St Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent has been stolen, whole or in part, seven times, most notably by Napoleon. The Nazis were desperate to add it to their collection. Why? You only had to witness the presenter’s reaction when he first sees the altarpiece – he spins around, hops on one foot and catches his breath, before saying: “I’m bowled over by the scale. That initial impact … nothing can quite prepare you for that.”
It was a reaction so visceral that it leapt through the screen and grabbed me. I had to see it for myself.
But I had to wait a while for the perfect opportunity to present itself. In 2016, it was the 100th edition of the Tour of Flanders, the one-day Belgian classic cycling race that is like the FA Cup final for fanatical Flandriens. To coincide, there would be a temporary exhibition in a church in Roeselare called Koers is Religie (Cycling is Religion). A holy trinity of sorts had fallen into my lap, and they were all achievable in one pilgrimage.
The cycle race was epic – all grit, grind and cobbles – as thousands of tipsy road-side fans cheered on the riders. The exhibition was provocative, likening past cycling greats to saints and sinners, from Eddy Merckx (saint) to Lance Armstrong (sinner). But the Ghent Altarpiece was divine.
Aside from the scale – its 12 panels have an upper and lower register with wings and it measures roughly 3.5 by 4.6 metres – it is the sheer luminosity and brilliance of the details that take the breath away. The Ghent Altarpiece is also known as the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb for its lower central panel which shows a sacrificial lamb on an altar bleeding into a chalice. The scene is illuminated by a brilliant sun surrounding a dove and appears to glow. Above it sits God/Christ on his throne, and in the wings are a naked Adam and Eve.
The realism and detail in these scenes are a first in art, coming at the end of the medieval period and before the Renaissance. It was started in the 1420s by Hubert van Eyck, and only completed after his death by his brother Jan van Eyck – so even the provenance of the work appears to be a miraculous conception.
Seeing it, even behind bullet-proof glass, was a spiritual experience. And knowing that one of the 12 panels (the Just Judges) is a copy of the original that was stolen in the 1930s only adds to its mystique.