Travels with Tim and Lisa

"If my discoveries are other people's commonplaces I cannot help it – for me they retain a momentous freshness" (Elizabeth Bowen)

Archive for the ‘Cathedrals & churches’ Category

Lier, June 11th 2015

Posted by Lisa Hill on June 12, 2015

Tonight we’re in Brussels, just round the corner from the European Parliament (in session, which explains the massive security force and the traffic jams), but we travelled her via the small town of Lier, not far from the border of the Netherlands and Belgium.   Although they speak Flemish, the town feels more Dutch than Holland does because they go out of their way not to speak English or French, and Flemish is just Dutch pronounced in a different way and with some slightly different words.

We had planned to visit the Lier Cathedral but (much like everything else in the town) they close very promptly at noon for lunch, so they threw us out after five minutes.  Still we were able to scamper around and take some nice photos, including the grandiose silver reliquary of St Thingamabob which features in the town’s Big Deal procession every October.  BTW I think that tombstone includes the body of Johanna The Mad, one of the more interesting of this region’s women…

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Van Ouytsels Koffiehoekje

Van Ouytsels Koffiehoekje

We had a nice lunch at a restaurant called Van Ouytsels Koffiehoekje. Like the church there were no concessions to non-Dutch speaking visitors – everything was written in Dutch. But we made a reasonable effort at translating and only needed a little help from the very helpful staff, and Tim enjoyed a local beer called Caves which we wouldn’t have known about without her recommendation.

And then we went to the Brueghel exhibition at the municipal museum.  Apparently the major Brueghel gallery at Antwerp has been closed for renovations for ages, and won’t re-open for ages more, so they have farmed out their artworks far and wide, and some of them are in Lier for the duration.   Not all of them are Brueghels, some are done by the Elder’s Offspring, and some by other enthusiasts, but whatever, we enjoyed the exhibition immensely.

Two versions of Proverbs (Breughel, maybe)

Two versions of Proverbs (Breughel, maybe)

The guide was a wealth of information, especially about this picture called Proverbs.  There were actually two versions of it, almost exactly the same except that one was darker than the other, maybe because it needs cleaning,  but I have no idea which one was which, and frankly I don’t think it matters.  Tim looked it up on Google afterwards and apparently there are over 100 depictions of old proverbs in it, though she only told us about 25 of them or so.  If you are like me and you just thought that Breughel was an artist who did beaut scenes of cheery peasant life with a bit of naughtiness thrown in, then it is a bit of a revelation to discover that he is much cleverer than that and his work is really sophisticated in intent and execution.

There were lots of other lovely pictures to look at as well, though the less said about the contemporary photo exhibition, the better.  Apparently they feel that they can’t just show these Breughels for three years, so they commissioned a local to interpret the concept of ‘procession’ in photos, and the only word I can think of describe them is lame.  I almost resented being made to spend time having them explained to me, except that I understood that the guide was being loyal to her local artistic community…

These pictures aren’t named because the gallery very cunningly hasn’t named them so that you can’t tell which are real Brueghels and which ones aren’t.  Maybe when I get home I will do some Google image searches, but in the meantime, enjoy!

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Posted in Art Galleries, Belgium, Cathedrals & churches, Europe 2015, Lier | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »

Utrecht, Sunday June 7th 2015

Posted by Lisa Hill on June 8, 2015

Utrecht is a university town southeast of Amsterdam, about 45 minutes by bus.   It is a lovely place to explore, and we were fortunate to have an expert guide called Ingeborg Behari to show us around.

We started off in the Railway Museum Het Spoorwegmuseum where Ingeborg volunteers as a guide.   We were not interested in the trains, it was the beautiful building that was so captivating.  Typical of many of these grand railway stations built in the 19th century it featured stunning architecture and grand interiors, and this one even has a Royal Waiting Room.  (Though truth be told, this room was actually somewhere else to start with, but was transplanted here to the railway station when it became a museum.  BTW, do check out the height of the mirror in that Royal Waiting Room.   It is absurdly high, impossible even for tall people so its purpose was really to make the room look larger.)

PS (Tuesday)  I had an email from Ingeborg with some extra info about the ceiling of the Royal waiting room.

“Because there were no photos of the original ceiling and the year is the same as Kasteel de Haar (1892) the architects who restored Kasteel de Haar decided the ceiling could have looked like this.”
Thanks, Ingeborg!

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After that, we took a stroll through the canal districts, where Ingeborg regaled us with all kinds of interesting stories about the rich, the famous and the ones who wanted to be.   But one who definitely deserves to be famous is Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen who won a Nobel Prize for discovering X-rays, and you will see a tiled image of him in the slide show below. Utrecht encourages its citizens to come up with good ideas to enhance the city, and as well as ones like this that commemorate its most eminent citizens, there are also some that show paintings from past times, sited in the same place so that visitors can see the place both then and now. The best of these is the one that shows the cathedral before the tornado blew half of it away in 1674.

Utrecht is also very excited about two major events this year. They are hosting the start of the Tour de France, and they are celebrating the 60th ‘birthday’ of Miffy. If you don’t know who Miffy is, you had a deprived childhood, because the Miffy books are enchanting.  There are large Miffys all over the city, decorated by various artists, but this one is wearing a cape to keep it warm, courtesy of university students who play all kinds of pranks in the city, including chucking some of the ubiquitous bikes into the canals, so much so that they have had to increase the depth!

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We were sorry to come to the end of the tour, but we enjoyed a nice lunch at Graaf Floris.  Tim had Kroketten (which are, you guessed it, croquettes) and I had pork satays.  He also sampled two of the local beers including one drunk with a slice of lemon in it, and I had a cup of honeybush tea which was divine.  I haven’t had a decent coffee in the Netherlands yet, but their herbal teas are really nice.

We had just enough time to buy some bread, cheese and sausage at the Farmers’ Market for an in-hotel meal tonight and to duck into the cathedral before it was time to go.  The cathedral is gorgeous, restrained and elegant by comparison with the more extravagant Catholic cathedrals, and I was especially impressed by the altar which looks from a distance as if it is made of ivory.

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And then we were off to see Kasteel de Haar…

Posted in Cathedrals & churches, Dining out, Europe 2015, Historic buildings, Museums, Netherlands, Utrecht | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

Amsterdam June 5 & 6, 2015

Posted by Lisa Hill on June 7, 2015

Well, here we are in Amsterdam, and it’s all been very interesting so far. We flew in from London at lunchtime yesterday and were met by the tour leader, a nice young man called Nick Gordon who has a PhD in history but escaped from academia and is now making a living as a tour guide. We were escorted to our hotel in a swish Mercedes Benz, but things went downhill from there because the hotel is disorganised and they didn’t manage to get our room ready until late in the afternoon.  These things happen, I know, but it was hard not to be a bit fed up – and we weren’t the only ones…

But apart from that it’s been very nice. Nick took us on a walk around the historic canals area and pointed out various palaces – though as you’ll know if you’ve been to Amsterdam, a Dutch palace is quite modest compared to everything else in Europe. Most of them are five stories high but they are narrow and if they have any gardens at all they are around the back of the building where you can’t see them. Missing also are the grand churches that you see in Europe’s capitals, I’ve only seen one church and it was quite ordinary.

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Anyway, after the walk we had a ‘welcome’ dinner which was very nice and (based on previous experiences of Dutch domestic cuisine) not how I expected Dutch cooking to be.  Alas I forgot to take my camera so I have no pictures, but we had numerous small courses, beautifully cooked and creatively presented.  We were very impressed!

In the morning Nick gave a talk about the long and complicated history of the Netherlands, and then – armed with knowledge about the hostility to Catholic Spain – we visited the Church in the Attic. This was a hidden church where worshippers came together in secret to avoid persecution. There was even a small confessional, and a little baptismal font. I know that religious persecution was widespread all over Europe, but still this little church was a vivid reminder that certain kinds of worship could result in a visit from the Inquisition during the period that the Spanish were in control here.

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From there we went to Rembrandt’s House, bursting with wonderful paintings and portraits and drawings by the great man.   They have tried to recreate the house as it was in his time, using the documentation from when he was made bankrupt to know how it was furnished.  There are paintings hanging on the walls as they would have done in his day, when apparently he displayed his work in the front rooms of the house for buyers to come and purchase.  You can see some of them here,  but of course it is nothing like actually being there.  I didn’t take photos because I thought we weren’t allowed to, but I have some postcards to use when I scrapbook this trip when I get home. My favourite room was his studio, which is a lovely light-filled space near the top of the house, and you can stand right there in the same place that he stood beside his easel. I wonder what he would have made of his home becoming a tourist attraction…

We had lunch at a restaurant called Senses and once again the food was excellent. All my preconceptions about Dutch food have now been laid to rest!

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We now have the rest of the day at leisure. So we’re putting our feet up for a bit, and will go out again later on, to brave the Saturday night crowds and the young people whizzing about everywhere on bicycles.

Posted in Amsterdam, Cathedrals & churches, Dining out, Europe 2015, Historic buildings, Netherlands | Tagged: , , | 6 Comments »

St Petersburg: St Isaac’s Cathedral

Posted by Lisa Hill on August 29, 2012

St Isaac’s Cathedral is just around the corner from our hotel, the Renaissance Baltic, and like all the other churches we’ve seen today it’s splendid.  Unlike the others, however, it’s a museum, not a religious building, though apparently church leaders are campaigning to have it returned to them.

Among the many impressive aspects are the massive doors.  There are three of them, carved  by Ivan Vitali, with reliefs of Christ and the saints, and the main ones weigh 20 tons.  Understandably they’re not opened very often, most recently on the 300th anniversary of the city, and before that in 1917 during the Revolution.   Unusual in a Russian church, there is also a stained glass window which is the centrepiece of the iconostasis (the royal doors, which correspond to where an altar would be in a Christian church).  Again there are all kinds of precious stones but the most amazing of all are two priceless columns of lapiz lazuli, some of which had to be imported from Afghanistan.  When you think how expensive a small piece of lapis lazuli jewellery is, these columns must be worth a king’s ransom.

All these splendours, however, were created at enormous human cost.  The gold leaf on the turrets was applied by to a mercury base which was heated to secure the gold leaf – and the serfs who worked on it all died from mercury poisoning.  Building went on all year round, right throughout Russia’s frigid winter, and hundreds of serfs perished in the cold and damp.  And, while not the same kind of tragedy, the architect who came from Italy as a young man and spent his entire life building it, was denied his last request to be buried there because it was against Russian church tradition.  His widow took his body back to Italy where he lies in an unknown grave.   You can see a bust of this remarkable man, Auguste de Montferrard, in the slideshow.

St Isaac’s was our last stop for the day.  After a short rest we went out for dinner to Gogol’s – a gorgeous restaurant where Gogol the author wrote Dead Souls. My other bookish moment for the day was a glimpse of the monument to Peter the Great, which I read about it Andrei Bely’s Petersburg.  Hopefully I’ll get back there to take a proper picture in due course.

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St Petersburg: Saints Peter and Paul Fortress

Posted by Lisa Hill on August 29, 2012

The fortress of Saints Peter and Paul is the original citadel of the city which was founded by Peter the Great in 1703.  At the time, Russia was fighting off Sweden, which was then a great power, and this spot was chosen as a strategic defence post, though it was never actually used for that purpose.  The still-operational Russian Mint is within its walls, but (as you’d expect)  it’s not open to tourists, and there were no free samples.  (Actually, it’s quite interesting to compare Russian banknotes with Australian ones: ours are full of all kinds of encrypted whatnots to prevent forgery, but Russian ones don’t seem to have the same inbuilt protections).

Many famous people have been imprisoned here, including assorted revolutionaries such as Trotsky and Tito, but also Fyodor Dostoevsky, who was released after a very short time because of the international uproar.  Apparently he suffered from lung disease and it was feared that the appalling conditions would be fatal to one of Russia’s great writers.  The fate of other prisoners was very different though the situation was reversed in 1917 when the revolutionaries were freed and the tsar’s supporters were imprisoned there instead.

The Cathedral is different because Peter the Great hired an Italian architect called Domenico Trezzini to design it: it’s not a traditional Russian church architecture with icons all over the place, it’s got frescos all over the ceiling and a golden spire instead of the typical onion shaped turrets.  It was converted to a museum under the Soviets, and suffered considerable damage from bombardment during WW2, but has been beautifully restored.

It’s also the last resting place of the Tsars.  All the sarcophagi are white marble except for two, Alexander II and his wife Maria’s which are carved from jasper and rhodonite.   Most poignant is the burial chapel of the last of the Romanovs, who were executed during the revolution.  Nicholas, his wife and children, and their loyal servants were all finally laid to rest here in 1998.

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Posted in Cathedrals & churches, Historic buildings, Museums, Russia 2012, St Petersburg 2012 | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

St Petersburg: Church on Spilled Blood

Posted by Lisa Hill on August 29, 2012

The Church on Spilled Blood was built on the spot where the Tsar Alexander II was assassinated.  In the slide show, the canopy is the actual place where it happened.  What ever you think about the tsars, it is chastening to see any site of a cold-blooded murder. ..

Alexander II was not such a bad tsar, as tsars go.  He emancipated the serfs and he was toying with the idea of a Russian parliament at the time of his death.  But compared to Britain and the rest of Europe Russia was still firmly in the grip of autocratic rule and so he was murdered by revolutionaries in 1881.   The church was built amidst revolutionary fervour which continued despite strict censorship and repression: in 1887 Lenin’s brother was hanged for plotting an attempt on the life of Alexander II’s successor, Alexander III.

As you can see from the slide show, the Church on Spilled Blood is florid, to say the least.  It’s built in what’s called Russian Revival style with lavish mosaics and extensive use of precious minerals such as jasper, rhodondite and porphyry, not to mention heaps of Italian marble.  (Russia at this time was, according to our guide Igor, the richest country in the world so no expense was spared.)

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St Petersburg Tour: St Nicholas Church

Posted by Lisa Hill on August 29, 2012

Day 1 of our stay in St Petersburg and we had a wonderful time.  St Peterburg is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, built around a series of canals and rich with exquisite 18th and 19th century apartment blocks build along wide boulevardes intersecting with a network of canals.

Our first stop was St Nicholas Church – a double storey church where there just happened to be a service on the upper storey.  We weren’t allowed to take photos because of the service, but you can enjoy the pictures we took of the outside.

We also enjoyed a special performance of an a cappella five voice choir which was wonderful   Yes, we bought the CD to play at home!

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Posted in Cathedrals & churches, Russia 2012, St Petersburg 2012 | 1 Comment »

Moscow Kremlin, and on to St Petersburg!

Posted by Lisa Hill on August 28, 2012

KremlinToday we visited the Kremlin, home of the bogeymen and heart of the Evil Empire during the Cold War. KrKremlinemlin means fortress,  and the images of the Soviet Union that we grew up with were of this fortress – these massive stone walls of sombre red; intimidating displays of military hardware that were a powerful allusion to nuclear armaments that threatened world annihilation; endless formations of grim  soldiers; and the Soviet leadership basking in their unadulterated power.

Today the Kremlin is full of tourists gawking at the ancient cathedrals that so unexpectedly lie within its walls. In the days of the Tsars, they built these churches and chapels for different purposes – weddings, funerals, private prayers and so on, because even though Ivan the Terrible was a very cruel man and the lust for power had the same effect on some of the female rulers too, they were still very religious and hoped that erecting magnificent churches would absolve their sins.

The complex is much bigger than I had expected.  There are buildings from all different periodKremlin (Stalin's building)s, including the ugly Stalinist one that confronts the visitor at the entrance.  Stalin lived there for a while until his wife committed suicide and then he apparently couldn’t bear it.  Putin doesn’t live there either, apparently he has a posh apartment somewhere on the swanky side of town.  So it’s just used for administrative purposes.

KremlinThere are lovely gardens which include a monstrous broken bell commissioned by the Empress Anna and a beautifully decorated cannon, which (like the bell) has never been used.  Why something intended to be used to kill a lot of people should have been cast with gorgeous decorations I do not know.  It seems rather odd to me…

The Armoury is now a museum full of Russia’s treasures: gowns that belonged to Catherine the Great and other members of the royal family; splendid vestments belonging to the Patriarchs; magnificent carriages; chain mail suits of armour and swords and of course the fabled collection of Faberge Easter eggs.  Alas I have no photos of any of these marvels because we weren’t allowed to take any (but I have a souvenir book instead).

KremlinThe best thing about this whole experience is that it’s a reminder that the world can change.  People my age grew up terrified of the Soviets and all that they represented.  Visiting Russia was an impossibility for all but diplomats, journalists and spies.  And now ordinary people like me can visit as tourists and make friends with ordinary Russians. The new Russia is a symbol of hope which shows that countries and cultures which seem hostile and alien don’t have to stay that way, not if the people will it otherwise.

In the afternoon we said farewell to our wonderful guide Irina who did so much to make our stay interesting and enjoyable, and then took a clean, comfortable, high speed train to St Petersburg.  More tomorrow!

Posted in Cathedrals & churches, Historic buildings, Moscow 2012, Museums, Russia 2012 | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Sergei Posad, and Kostroma Folk Dance, Moscow 26.8.12

Posted by Lisa Hill on August 27, 2012

We were met by Mikhail, a young seminarian not far off his ordination, and our tour guide Irina translated for us when his English failed him.  He was a lovely young man, still tossing up whether to become a monk or a priest, and the decision is a fateful one because in the Russian Orthodox Church priests must marry.  He is an only child, so I expect his parents would prefer the latter.

Moscow Sergiev Posad 001If he does marry, he and his bride can be sent anywhere in Russia, and it will be a case of the Lord will provide.  If he is sent to a remote village somewhere like Siberia, he will have a house to live in and a garden plot to raise vegetables and perhaps keep a cow and some chickens, but apart from that he will rely on the generosity of his parishioners, because unlike the wealthy churches of the west, the Russian Orthodox church has no funds of its own.  Tourists’ entrance fees and the permit to take photos help to raise funds for a monastery of historic significance like Sergei Posad, but there is no money to spare to support priests anywhere else.  (And it is highly unlikely that Mikhail would have a house like this enchanting one that we saw along the highway en route).

Moscow Sergiev Posad 008It’s a functioning monastery, and today was a Sunday so it was crowded with pilgrims and worshippers.  Services start at 5.30 am and continue till late in the evening, and I wasn’t the only one in our group who felt a bit like an interloper when surrounded by so many people who were there to light candles and to pray.  I felt more comfortable in the church where there were no services at the time, but I must admit that it was lovely to hear the congregation in song. Quite different to the professionals we heard yesterday, but very touching.

Moscow Sergiev Posad 020

The art works are lovely. Not all of them are originals; some are restorations, late additions and substitutes but in the end it doesn’t really matter, (or not to me, anyway).  They are lovely to look at, and they are symbols of a faith that means a great deal to the people here.  After all those years when these believers were denied their churches, when aggressive atheism meant that many of the churches were stripped of their artworks to be sold off or destroyed, and when the buildings were used as storehouses and museums, well, even a non-believer like me respects the value of these churches.

Moscow Sergiev Posad 014This rather unimpressive edifice is the tomb of Boris Godunov, the subject of Mussorgsky’s opera but also Tsar of Russia in the 16th century.  I can’t remember why he is buried here and not somewhere else, I’ll have to look it up to find out when I have more time.  but whatever the reason, you’d think a Tsar would have a statue at the very least but no, just this box which looks more like a potato storehouse to me.

Alas, I don’t have any pictures of the highlight of the day, the performance of the National Russian Dance Show, Kostroma.  The first half of the show was a series of tableaux depicting the history of Russia, and after interval there were traditional folk dances from all over the Russian federation. The costumes were gorgeous and the dancers were superb.  But if you hunt around on You Tube you are bound to find a clip.

Update (back at home)

Here are a couple of links:

It’s late now, very late and tomorrow we are off to see the Armoury and the Kremlin and then we’re off to St Petersburg on the train.  The plan is to upload this in the morning after breakfast!

Posted in Cathedrals & churches, Gardens, Historic buildings, LitLovers pilgrimage, Moscow 2012, Museums, Russia 2012, Sergei Posad 2012 | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Grand Tour of Moscow 25.8.12

Posted by Lisa Hill on August 26, 2012

This was the first day of our tour with Cox and Kings and so we met up with Irina our guide and set off on the coach with our driver Sergei for the Grand Tour of Moscow.  I think we saw everything of significance that there was to see – the Seven Sisters which are mega buildings commissioned by Stalin, Moscow University, the ring roads, assorted bridges, lots of gorgeous churches and many fine buildings dating from the 18th century and so on.  We went to the Arbat which is a pedestrianised street in central Moscow where tourists like us buy silly Russian hats and drink complementary shots of Vodka (and yes, we did both, and bought some nice presents for our friends), but we resisted buying any Babushkas.  It’s very late now and I’ve had a cocktail or two so it’s all a bit of a blur, but what stands out is the extraordinary way that the Russians have rebuilt churches that the Soviets demolished, the magnificence of Red Square and the artwork in the Metro stations.

The first church we visited was the restored Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.  The Soviets blew up the original in 1931 – there are photos of it on Wikipedia and also this excellent video at YouTube – like those amazing restorations in Barcelona, it’s very hard for the general tourist to tell the difference.   We went to St Basil’s too, (that’s the one with the brightly coloured domes that everyone associates with Moscow) and saw some gorgeous icons in situ.  We were also treated to a glorious a cappella male choir performance while we were there, just five voices but it was spine-tingling, especially the bass.

Red Square, to people of my generation, is associated with those ominous displays of Soviet military power during the Cold War.  But to people here, it’s associated with celebrations of victories over assorted interlopers, most notably Napoleon who left with his tail between his legs in 1812.  There will be mighty celebrations on the 200th anniversary of this event this year because in a city as old as Moscow, this is recent history and it’s well worth having a party!  There are also surprising examples of Soviet humour: Stalin and Lenin lookalikes posing for photos, and people joking about how they queue up to see Lenin’s mausoleum to make sure he’s really dead.

We saw the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts  – to which we hope to return later in our stay if we have time.  It turns out that I was completely wrong about the availability of Western artworks here, it’s just that they’re not at the Tretyakov.  At the Pushkin, there’s Goya, Matisse, Manet, and all the rest, and we discovered this when we went in to use the loo and saw the museum plan but there wasn’t time to go in and see them all.  We whizzed past the Moscow Library and a statue of Dostoyevsky, and also a huge bookshop which apparently stocks books in English too.   We spent a bit of time in the local temple of commerce, ‘Gum’ which is a massive shopping complex full of international designer brands and a lot of window-shoppers and then we did the trains.

It’s probably really hard for anyone in Melbourne to imagine that we spent two hours riding around on the subway looking at stations, but that is exactly what we did.  It turns out that the station we used the other day was one of the shabbier ones, the main stations are magnificent, each one done in a different style focussing in some on Soviet heroes or history and in others on the culture of the Soviet republics.

More tomorrow!

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Posted in Cathedrals & churches, Historic buildings, Moscow 2012, Russia 2012 | Tagged: | 3 Comments »