Category Archives: EUROPEAN TRAVEL

London Slant: The Lady and the Unicorn are back—in glory

I’m always on the lookout for an excuse to revisit Paris’ Museum of the Middle Ages.  It’s full of treasures that culminate in its six exquisite Lady and the Unicorn tapestries. To me, they’re the most wonderful woven works of art ever.

Lady and Unicorn tapestries

“To my only desire”, the most celebrated—and mysterious—of the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries.

So imagine my excitement on my recent Paris trip when I spotted posters up and down Boulevard St Michel emblazoned with the words “The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, as you’ve never seen them before”. Yes, these medieval gems had just been conserved and redisplayed. I couldn’t have dreamt up a better reason to go and lap them up again.

The museum itself is a fascinating Gothic-Renaissance mansion, built over Roman baths. Just stepping inside is like entering a swirl of French history, from the ruins of the calderium (hot chamber) to rooms displaying brilliant stained glass panels, gold caskets, illuminated books and marble sculptures. There’s even a medieval-style garden outside.

Cluny Museum Paris

Heads of French kings displayed in the remains of the Roman baths.

But I was here to enjoy the mysteries of the Lady and her mythical beast. The six hangings show the pair surrounded by trees, flowers and other animals. Five appear to depict the five senses, while the sixth  is enigmatically entitled A mon seul désir  (To my only desire).

Freshly cleaned, their rich colours sing out from their crimson backgrounds. Hi-tech lighting picks out every thread. There are dozens of different recognisable flowers: chrysanthemums, roses, daisies, bluebells. Luscious fruit is plentiful: on strawberry plants and orange tress. Rabbits play in the grass. Foxes, deer and dogs leap and pose. If the statuesque central figures and heraldic animals seem straight out of a fairy tale, these delights of nature are instantly recognisable as something we might spot on a country walk today.

A new, circular display enables visitors to stand among the tapestries and be absorbed into the action. We might wonder at the mystery of this ethereal lady in her gorgeous robes, yet instantly relate to the birds fluttering over her head and feel a part of this sylvan scene.

Lady and Unicorn Music

Hearing: the Lady plays a portable organ, powered by bellows.

Lady and the Unicorn

Touch: the Lady holds the unicorn’s tusk.

Lady and Unicorn tapestries

Taste: the Lady is offered a tempting dish.

I spent far too long relishing every holly berry and pine cone, every naughty monkey and snooty stoat. Now I have just one problem. How can the museum come up with a better reason to draw me back again?

More details: Musée National du Moyen Age (Museum of the Middle Ages, in the Hôtel de Cluny)

Images of tapestries courtesy of RMN-Grand Palais/Michel Urtado

London Slant: The Greek Cathedral—music, mosaics and a museum

I’d always longed to go inside London’s Greek Cathedral but when I’d passed by the door was always locked. So when I was invited to a concert there I leapt at the chance. A few steps from Queensway’s hubble bubble cafes and Chinese foodie hotspots, it’s a landmark in an area known for its exotic Eastern mix.

London Greek cathedral nave

The nave of London’s Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Saint Sophia.

I struggled through the wet, windy night to this Byzantine-style building designed like a cross around a central dome. Then wow—it was as if I’d arrived in Istanbul. The scent of incense hit me and there were glittering mosaics everywhere.

London's Greek cathedral

The mosaic-covered entrance hall.

I took my seat for an evening that charted the journey of Greek music over two millennia. It began with centuries-old sacred chants by the cathedral choir and led up to contemporary pieces including a string quartet world premiere. It was magical to hear the melodic story unfold as candles burned in the silver cross overhead and mosaics glimmered in their flickering light.

London Greek cathedral dome

The dome and silver cross filled with candles.

After the concert I admired the paintings of saints covering the iconostasis and the gorgeously patterned marble floors. Then I tipped back my head to gaze at the mosaics in the dome. I imagined how overwhelmed London’s Greek community must have been when they first came to worship here in 1879. The cathedral’s architect, John Oldrid Scott, had given them a masterpiece that was the inspiration for Britain’s Arts and Crafts style.

Then, as I prepared to leave, I came across the cathedral’s hidden jewel: a tiny museum tucked away in a crypt-like space. On display were church treasures and objects donated by wealthy families. Among them were a solid gold chalice and pair of huge candlesticks standing next to a print showing them in use when King George of the Hellenes visited in 1863.

London Greek cathedral museum

An exotic gold chalice, stamped “Made in England”.

But what most caught my eye was a gold icon left by a man whose mother had bequeathed it to him, presumably shortly before she died. It is displayed next to her handwritten note, urging him never to remove the diamonds, and in turn to leave it where it would be respected. Her final wish was that he would “wed a noble maiden”.

London Greek Cathedral museum

The icon bequeathed by a mother to her son with its accompanying note.

Saint Sophia Cathedral is open for Sunday morning worship; the museum can be viewed after the service on the last Sunday of each month.

London Slant: Hunting down surreal animals in Paris

Did you know that most museums in Paris are free on the first Sunday of the month? Remember this when planning your next budget cultural weekend. Plus there’s no queuing at ticket desks, which means more time to track down off-piste treats.

I began my pursuit of the unexpected at the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature (Museum of Hunting and Nature). Now, a place with this name wouldn’t normally get my guns firing. But “freedom Sunday” encouraged me to try it out.

It’s an old-established collection in a 17th-century residence; I’d envisaged wood-panelled walls, antique pictures and stuffed animals beneath glass domes. I wasn’t wrong (although it’s had a fresh and funky makeover), but what hit me as I stepped inside was its joyful family atmosphere. As I ventured into the shadowy Room of the Wild Boar a grandfather was eagerly asking a child “Are you afraid?” Both were clearly relishing the bristly creature facing them down.

Un aigle et une colombe se transforment l]un dans l'autre

A dazzling installation: an eagle and a dove become one another

I continued to a side room with a ceiling covered in owl heads and wings. Then I discovered a stag that had been turned into bagpipes. An adjacent video showed how the carcass could be inflated to play a wailing lament when pressed. I watched as a mother had to drag her two transfixed offspring away and on to the Room of the Unicorn (or was it the Wolf?).

A stairwell was illuminated by flickering candelabra. Stuffed panthers were poised to pounce out of the gloom. A delight in the natural world was balanced by glimpses of a darker side, both its threatening recesses and how humans menace it in return.

Migratory bird machine Paris

A machine made of feathers for meditating on migratory birds

Part of the eccentricity derived from a temporary exhibition, Art Orienté Objet, of strange animal artworks inserted throughout the museum’s permanent display. Inspired by the weird world of Hieronymus Bosch’s painting The Garden of Earthly Delights, they focused on unexpected aspects of the relationship between animals, nature and man.

If you visit Paris before the exhibition closes do drop by. It’s just behind the Pompidou Centre, among quirky boutiques, cafes and townhouses with notable residents (I saw the name Renzo Piano on a door). But the museum’s collection of art and artefacts is fascinating in itself. And no doubt there’ll soon be another offbeat exhibition to plumb the more macabre realms of our natural world.

Art Orienté Objet by Marion Laval-Jeantet & Benoît Mangin, until 2 March.  Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, 62 rue des Archives – 75003 Paris.

Photographs by Nicolas Hoffmann

London Slant: a king-size bed and Lady Gaga at the Louvre. Ça c’est Paris!

I was walking along the St Pancras platform to board my train to Paris when urgent steps came rushing up behind. I turned to face a Eurostar official brandishing a clipboard. My heart sank.

But then, unbelievably, came the question every budget traveller longs to hear: “Would you like to upgrade—free—to First Class?”

As I settled into my extra-wide seat it was clear I was on course for a great weekend. It also turned out to be as unexpected as it began.

It’s usually deemed that for quirky originality London trumps Paris every time. But on this trip our Gallic friends had put on an exhibition with more than a nod to us eccentric Brits. Our current fondness for “cabinets of curiosities” has certainly travelled south.

Robert Wilson's bed at the Louvre, Paris

Robert Wilson’s bed in Living Rooms at the Louvre

The Louvre, touchstone of French culture, can be an exhausting place: galleries and sculpture courts packed with instantly-recognisable treasures from the Mona Lisa to Michelangelo’s Slaves. So when I stumbled upon a king-size bed in one of its rooms I wasn’t just taken aback—I’d have loved to collapse onto it and curl up. Two silver boots lay discarded at its side.

Robert Wilson, Louvre, Paris

Ordered chaos in Robert Wilson’s Living Rooms at the Louvre

All around was an array of quirky objects: masks, gourds, plastic toys, strange pieces of furniture. But if you’re thinking Tracey Emin mark II, think again. All were exquisitely arranged, ordered and pristine.

Robert Wilson's Living Rooms at the Louvre, Paris

A corner of Robert Wilson’s Living Rooms at the Louvre

It turned out to be US theatre designer Robert Wilson’s recreation of his Long Island home and studio, a mass of items that inspire him—in bizarre juxtapositions. I could see how his creativity would be unleashed by lying in the timber bath with a view of the Louvre’s glass pyramid—and then stimulated by the melange of paraphernalia hanging above. I loved moving among white shelves displaying a stuffed rabbit next to a pre-Columbian pot, an elegant Asian buddha next to a contemporary American art photograph. And most of all I was intrigued by the many chairs in styles from Shaker to 1950s’ kitchen, several suspended on the walls upside down.

I moved on to a room of Wilson’s video portraits of Lady Gaga depicted as well-known works of art. There was Gaga as the head of John the Baptist and again as Mademoiselle Caroline Rivière. The near-static scenes had sudden flickers of movement: eyelids fluttering or a bird flitting behind.  I guess the original works that inspired the videos have celebrity status in their own right, and were therefore ripe for reinterpretation by today’s cult star.

Lady Gaga as the head of John the Baptist.

Recognise this person? It’s Lady Gaga as the head of John the Baptist. Of course!

Lady Gaga at Caroline Riviere

Lady Gaga as Mademoiselle Caroline Riviere by Robert Wilson

I continued my Louvre journey past its most famous female image. My best view of her was on a video being filmed on an  iPhone held above the scrum. I wondered whether she might wink, or least break into a grin.

Mona Lisa at Louvre

View of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, best seen by iPhone

Living Rooms and Lady Gaga by Robert Wilson is at the Louvre, until 17 February

London Slant: Art lovers! Dare you visit the dairy with bottle?

I must confess that I had never read Aldous Huxley’s Island. But after an encounter with some giant purple mushrooms at the Dairy Art Centre, I now feel as though I have.

London Slant: The Dairy Art Centre

Surreal sculptures at the Dairy Art Centre.

To explain. Huxley’s 1962 novel concerns a utopia where exotic religions and psychedelia rule. It’s the inspiration behind a similarly named exhibition at the recently opened Dairy Art Centre in Bloomsbury, a gallery of contemporary art.

Tucked away in a tiny backstreet a few steps from the Brunswick Centre bustle, the building is a squat brick structure that once was a milk depository. A suitably white interior shelters behind a chic glass facade fronted by a small sculpture garden.

But if the walls are plain, the exhibition adds pops of colour and excitement, with 70 works by 40 artists including Jake and Dinos Chapman, Peter Doig and Cindy Sherman. This non-selling show spans an eclectic range from sound to mixed media, courtesy of collectors Frank Cohen and Nicolai Frahm.

Immediately inside is Ai Weiwei’s Map of China, hewn from a Qing Dynasty block of wood. I loved its combination of brutish force and the way its folds and rings suggest a rich past and diversity. Another favourite was Takashi Murakami’s Army of Mushrooms (yes, it was those fun fungi again).

Some works, such as Fang Lijun’s 2007-2008, obviously channel the kaleidoscopic, tropical Island theme. Likewise, Tomas Saraceno’s delightful Flying Garden, made of transparent pillows, was suggestive of a hippy drippy world. Then there was Douglas White’s Crow’s Stove, rearing up like a malevolent palm tree about to transform into a fearful bird.

The relevance of others, such as Adriana Lara’s ink print of a Dunhill cigarette packet, Smoking Kills, was harder to fathom. But that, and works like John Armleder’s handless clocks, were no less intriguing and worthy of their place.

I’ll let my photographs tell the rest of this very visual story, but just add that the gallery offers free guided tours at 3pm on weekends. I can think of no better antidote to the winter chill than casting your mind adrift and becoming marooned on this island of brilliance and wit.

London slant, The Dairy

Works including Cyprien Gaillard’s Untitled (Rim Structure), Sterling Ruby’s RED.R.I.P. and, popping up behind, more of those magic ‘shrooms.

London slant The Dairy Art Centre

Gorgeous creatures float and fly across Fang Lijun’s vast canvas.

London Slant, The Dairy Art Centre

Douglas White’s Crow’s Stone: suggestive of the horrors that might lurk on an island paradise.

London Slant, Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei’s Coca-Cola vase: a Neolithic pot painted by the artist.

London slant, Tomas Saraceno

Flying Garden/Air-Port-City/12SW by Thomas Saraceno: two shiny confections of 12 pillows suspended in space.

The Dairy Art Centre, 7a Wakefield Street, Bloomsbury, WC1N 1PG 020 7713 8900, free, until 1 December.

London Slant: Rush to Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum

While Britain dithers over whether to build Boris Island or expand Heathrow I hear that Holland’s Schipol is positioning itself as London’s major airport. If so, maybe the reopening of the Rijksmuseum can be considered London’s hottest new cultural event.

Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

Henry Moore exhibition in the gardens of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum.

So hop on a plane and head to Amsterdam fast. Because the museum has reopened after a 12-year closure with a stunning temporary Henry Moore show. It’s the icing on the rich and delicious cake that’s the makeover of the museum itself.

I arrived at the Rijksmuseum entrance as a rush hour stream of cyclists pedalled past. Their campaign to stop the proposed blocking of this route through the heart of the building was partly why the museum remained closed so long. I’d been warned there were huge queues to enter, but when I arrived at 9.05 I walked straight in.

Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

The Gallery of Honour, with Rembrandt’s Night Watch at the far end.

I hot-footed it to the Gallery of Honour where Dutch old masters are arrayed. It’s a magnificent sight, with alcoves of Golden Age works leading up to Rembrandt’s Night Watch, dramatically displayed at the far end.

When the museum was built in 1885  the names of featured artists were inscribed high on this gallery’s walls. The rehang of this revered space reveals a fascinating change of tastes. Frans Hals and Jan Steen are still here, Hobbema has gone and Vermeer (who, unbelievably, was unrated) has now been brought in. It’s wonderful to see his milkmaid calmly pouring from her jug centre stage—especially since I’d pipped the heaving scrum and had her all to myself.

The entire museum gets my resounding thumbs up for its brilliant integration of fine and decorative arts. The story of the Netherlands, against the backdrop of the sea, is vividly conveyed through skilful juxtapositions of paintings and objets d’art. Showcases of vases, clocks and pieces of furniture are set among pictures of similar age and style. I thrilled to items that would never normally grip me, such as silverware and porcelain.

The building itself is a treat. I followed an architecture trail that led from the decorative neo-Gothic Great Hall, with its stained glass windows, to the new Asian Pavilion, where works are displayed in zen-like calm.

Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

Holland’s ties to the sea are visible throughout the Rijksmuseum. Objects mirror paintings throughout.

Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

Paintings are matched with fabulous drinking cups covered in swirling sea creatures emerging from the waves.

Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

Shiva Nataraja (King of the Dance), part of the excellent Asian collection, now has a stylish, light-flooded home.

Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

A row of dazzling kimonos, ancient and modern.

Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

The greenhouse supplies salads for the museum cafe.

When the Rijksmuseum closed for the evening I headed into its gardens, where the Moores were bathed in sun. I peeped into the greenhouse where vegetables for the lunches served in the museum cafe are grown. Then it was on to Sama Sebo, the Indonesian restaurant next door, for a first rate rijstafel. Fortunately I’d booked a table: it was shoulder-to-shoulder—just as the space in front of the Night Watch had become.

*Check out City Airport for an Amsterdam flight: save time and outrageous train fares to larger airports. Henry Moore is on until 29 September.


This week saw me muffle up and head to Wembley Stadium to watch England play Brazil. It’s often said that football is the new religion and as I stepped off the tube and into the 88,000-strong crowd it was as if I was being swept back in time to when I visited Nepal’s Pashupatinath temple for the holy Shiva’s Night festival.

It all came flooding back. The long, dark walkway towards the inner sanctum lined by food stalls issuing pungent smells. A cluster of striking architectural features lit in an other-worldly glow. People jostling and besieging me for money (albeit to buy black market tickets rather than for baksheesh). Music playing, drums beating, men chanting, dancers in outrageous headgear and whiffs of wacky baccy.

And there, at the end of the Olympic Way, was the god of English football himself. While Nandi the giant bull presides outside Pashupatinath, here was a double life-sized statue of Bobby Moore bathed in golden light. I didn’t see any flowers or offerings at his feet, but I can’t imagine that cuddly toys and other trinkets aren’t left here from time to time.

Wembley Stadium

The temple of English football, Wembley Stadium, on the night of the England v. Brazil match. The statue of Bobby Moore is at centre, beneath the blue light.

You might guess from this that I’m not a regular football fan. But I rate a visit to Wembley a must for the experience and emotion alone. I was lucky because Continue reading