A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Days 28 & 29: Pisa, Milan, Paris

Pisa's Cathedral Square (or Square of Miracles). Here you can see, from left to right, the Baptistry, the Cathedral and the Leaning Tower. Why does the tower tilt? Because it was built on ground too soft on one side to support its weight! (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

The old year is coming to an end and so is this retrospective journey. Events at home were getting steadily worse, and it became clear that I would have to return to England sooner than planned. The final leg to Rome would have to wait until another day. 

I said goodbye to Margarethe, then Benji walked with me through Lucca's early-morning streets to the bus station. In less than an hour I was in Pisa. It's a magnificent city with a really ancient feel, and, like Florence, is bisected by the river Arno, the most important Italian river after the Tiber. I hadn't realised how big Pisa was — it has a population of 200,000 if you include all the suburbs. I also hadn't realised how much there was to see apart from the cathedral with its famous crooked campanile. I could have spent a lot longer visiting Pisa's numerous historic churches and medieval palaces, but I had a train to catch.

Milan's Piazza del Duomo (Cathedral Square) in front of one of the grand arched entrances to the 19th-century Vittorio Emmanuele shopping mall. The cathedral, out of sight on the right, is the fifth largest cathedral in the world. Milan, with a population of three million, is a huge industrial, commercial and financial centre, with the third largest economy of all the EU cities, and is the second biggest Italian metropolis after Rome. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.) 

In a few hours I had arrived in Milan. I had some time to kill before catching my next train, so I walked from the Art Deco and Fascist-inspired railway station into the heart of the city. It was dark, but no longer pouring with rain as it had been in Pisa. I passed La Scala opera house, then entered Cathedral Square through the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a four-storey double arcade which was constructed between 1865 and 1877 and is one of the world's oldest shopping centres. I'd seen something similar before in Naples — the Galleria Umberto I, which opened in 1890. As you might imagine, the retailers here are the famous names of jewellery and haute couture. I found it all rather alienating and intimidating, especially in the dark. I felt dwarfed by the austere and monumental architecture, and unsettled by the fabulously expensive luxury items displayed in the shops — the icy, inhuman touch of wealth and commerce. The Camino seemed far away. Milan is, of course, a world capital of style and fashion, and I definitely did not fit in, what with my weatherbeaten pack and my mud-stained boots and the distant look in my eye.

The rooftops of Paris from the Butte Montmartre.

I took the overnight sleeper to Paris. At the French border we were woken (that is those of us who were asleep — it was a cramped, uncomfortable compartment) by customs officers and border police, who examined our passports and identity cards. A few people were turfed off the train. Border controls were obviously getting more stringent because of the increasing European refugee crisis and extremist threat.

I did manage a surprising amount of sleep, and before long it was early morning in Paris and I was walking across the Place de la Bastille and the Place de la République — soon to be shown on millions of TV sets as the national focus of mourning after the Paris terror attacks of 13 November (also my birthday, as it happens). I checked in to a cheap hotel just off the Rue Saint-Denis. 

For the rest of the day I simply walked — through the Marais and the Place des Vosges, along the Rue de Rivoli, by the Louvre and in the Tuileries Garden, up to Montmartre and the magical snow-white Basilica of Sacré-Coeur. I admired the view of Paris from the Butte Montmartre, astonished as always at the lack of skyscrapers. I watched the artists, buskers and street performers in the Place du Tertre. And I spent a long time wandering round Montmartre Cemetery, discovering the graves of Berlioz, Dumas, Heine, Stendhal, Truffaut and Zola. 

The Musée d'Orsay on the river Seine. The bridge you can see is the Pont Royal.

Before taking the Eurostar train back to London the next day, I spent a few wonderful but exhausting hours looking at the paintings and sculptures in the Musée d'Orsay — which is housed in the Gare d'Orsay, a former railway station on the left bank of the Seine. Here you can find the largest collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masterpieces in the world (these were originally held in the Jeu de Paume gallery on the other side of the river, where I'd first seen them in the early 1970s).

The Main Hall of the Musée d'Orsay. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

I can't even begin to describe the treasures contained in this museum, so here's just a brief visual taste . . .

Dr Paul Gachet by Vincent van Gogh. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Alone by Toulouse-Lautrec. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Apples and Oranges by Paul Cézanne. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Renoir's Bal du Moulin de la Galette. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Monet's The Magpie. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Arearea by Paul Gauguin. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)


George said...

Reading this post is a wonderful way to end the year, Robert. You've had a fabulous journey that will remain one of the cornerstones of your memory for years to come. Thanks so much for sharing your experience. Thanks also for posting images of some of the wonderful paintings of the Musee d'Orsay. Van Gogh, Lautrec, Renoir, Cezanne, Gauguin — their works remain absolutely breathtaking after all these years, even when viewed in small format on a computer screen.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for reading, George, and I hope the New Year brings you much peace and fulfilment.

The Musée d'Orsay is outstanding — but there was just too much to take in in a few hours. I seem to like the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists more and more, and seeing the actual paintings rather than reproductions was pretty stunning.

dritanje said...

Gorgeous images from the Musee d'Orsay, thank you! It has been a while since I visited it but remember the amazing feeling of seeing these actual paintings, the real in-the-flesh paintings, whose images are so familiar to us from reproductions.

So your journey has come to an end. The re-living, writing and posting of the journey that came to an end in the summer. Do you sometimes feel, when writing about the past, in the present, that you are living and experiencing in 2 times, or - that the past (as someone said, I forget who,) is not past? Or that 'the past is a foreign country'? (LP Hartley). I change my mind often about what the past 'actually is' but it certainly seems to have its own - changing - life, as it circles around, entwines and interpenetrates and affects what we please to call the 'present'. I don't know what that is either..... But I'm continually fascinated by what we call the past because when we write about it (and maybe when we think about it too) it is very much a part of the present.

The Solitary Walker said...

"I change my mind often about what the past 'actually is' but it certainly seems to have its own - changing - life, as it circles around, entwines and interpenetrates and affects what we please to call the 'present'."

Indeed. Of course, this is the subject of many novels and poems, not least Murakami's 'Wind-up Bird Chronicle' which I've just finished. And Proust is the great example. Yes, the past is inescapable, but always changing in our memories. Sometimes we forget the details (though we may convince ourselves they are correct!) but remember the feelings (or do we really recall the feelings accurately?). Sometimes we seem to remember fine details but can't recall our reactions and state of mind — until something (like a madeleine cake, perhaps) stimulates a synapse in our mind. It's all very mysterious.

However, although we are certainly bound up with the past, and the past continually surfaces in the present, I like to believe we are capable of transformation, of ridding ourselves to some extent of the past, in order to start anew — in an existentialist kind of way.