New Year, New Look


I’m not making a resolution, but I am setting a goal: to post here once a week.  This blog is mainly for me (though I know a few souls follow it), and I realized that I rely on it to remind me of trips as well as of planting schemes and results.  That doesn’t work if I post only every few months.  So here, I’ve said it!

Although this is called a garden record, you may have noticed that there are more travel posts than garden posts.  So I’ve expanded the subtitle to reflect that.  The occasional quilt is seen more frequently on Instagram (scroll down for a link to my account), so I won’t post too many here, but they may pop up, especially if I’ve got a lot of images from a show.

You may also notice a new image when you land here. To reflect the actual content, I’ve chosen three photos that should randomly appear.  If I had more skill, I would combine them into one (a goal for another day).

So, with renewed vigor, onward! (And thanks to George Booth and The New Yorker for the image)

Discovering stained glass

Another gloriously sunny day to visit the colleges.  On the way to Christchurch we went in search of University College and its chapel. Although it was closed to visitors, the disappointed old ladies must have moved his heart, because the nice porter let us in anyway.

I had read Jane Brocket’s How to Look at Stained Glass before our trip and made notes on places she mentions, this being one. The 17th century windows include a very fleshy Adam and Eve, Jacob dreaming of the ladder to heaven “while the dreamscape action of angels ascending and descending whirs around him with angels on a grand staircase like an early Astaire/Rogers musical,” says Jane;and this fierce whale threatening Jonah. Very well worth the stop.

Christchurch begins with these gorgeous borders, asters and grasses and sedums and more. Once inside the college, the staircase ceiling is lovely, the dining hall impressive with Alice references in the windows as pointed out by a porter (look closely to see Alice and other characters hiding at the bottom of each window).And here is Alison with Carroll himself! Though I had been here ten years ago, I didn’t remember seeing the cathedral, our  next stop.  We were on the lookout for Burne-Jones’s windows, which did not disappoint. Here is St. Frideswide, patron saint of Oxford, hiding in the pigsty from the rapacious King Algar, here is St. Cecilia being beheaded, here are swirling clusters of grapes above the heads of the saints. After the tour we visited The Picture Gallery, which I found pleasant but underwhelming.

We rested up a bit and ventured out again for the Bodleian tour, which you must book in advance and is highly regulated as to what you can see (and no pictures!). We learned more about Duke Humfrey’s library – the money ran out partway through, which you can see if you look closely at the stonework and notice where the decorations stop, but it’s a beautiful space much seen in film (see yesterday’s entry). Then we walked up and up the stairs to the library itself. No flames allowed and no electric light or heat till the 21st century, so hours were limited. Until a few years ago, scholars placed their book requests through a pneumatic tube system, which meant you waited about three hours before your books arrived at your desk. The system is online now, so much faster. Shelves and shelves of ancient books, some rows turned spines in because of the way the chains were attached, with one chain still extant to show visitors.  And notice the ceiling!Another HP filming site, of course. A short tour but very interesting.

From here we went across to the new Weston Library building, renovated at great expense several years ago, now featuring a vast open expanse with views of the stacks on the floor above (reminiscent of the Library of Virginia building).  Then another visit to Blackwell’s, which is even more wonderful than you can imagine. I came away with Clare Tomalin’s bio of Dickens (the biography project) and a Mick Herron set in Oxford. Yum!

Tonight we had dinner at a Thai place on the High Street, which was a delicious change from the pub food we’ve had so far. Vegetables! And so to bed.


Walking and looking

I was looking forward to the Ashmolean, which had been closed for renovations on my last visit ten years ago. But first, a quick detour to Rewley House, where I had studied Darwin with Emma Townshend for a week in 2009 at an Oxford Continuing Education course.

The Ashmolean originated with Mr. Ashmole and his collection, augmented by those of the Tradescant family (thanks for the flowers). Alison and I visited the Italian galleries together so that we could see the Uccello nighttime painting, then parted ways for an hour to indulge our own special interests. Highlights  for me included the robes T E. Lawrence wore in Arabia; the Powhatan Mantle, made as a ceremonial piece by Algonquian Indians in the Chesapeake Bay in the 16th century and possibly presented by Powhatan to Captain Newport for King James I; and the Islamic galleries with gorgeous tiles.We also made a quick visit to the Alfred Jewel, which I know from Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon series, and whose purpose is still a bit of a mystery.

Lunch was at the Lamb & Flag instead of the Eagle and Child (too touristy), and we had a half pint (me) and prawn sandwiches (both of us). Restored, we walked along the Lamb and Flag passage to Parks Road and the Natural History Museum. We made our way directly to the dodo, which is well placed toward the entrance, and wandered along the galleries, appreciating the scale and space of the secular  cathedral.Then we walked through to the Pitt Rivers Museum, the archaeological and anthropological collections of the University of Oxford in England, and the equal of the Mercer Museum in Doylestown when it comes to collecting lots of things and putting them on display.  Imagine  that each one of these cabinets contains a zillion objects,  each  linked  by  its use.Capes made from seal intestines; barkcloth on the bolt  from  Captain  Cook’s  voyages;meticulously hand-written tags;
a German Noah’s ark;
and zillions of other items, all arranged by use rather than by origin. Fascinating and overwhelming. We did particularly enjoy the items from Cook’s voyages, which are to be found, in a very Pitt-Rivers way, by taking the elevator up to the Lower Level.

Walking back to our hotel, we passed by Wadham College and took a few pictures of the beautifully green lawn and the quad. After a restorative lie-down, we met our guide at Trinity for an Oxford Walking Tour. We were the only participants, which we liked though I think our guide was disappointed. It turns out that he is the same guide I had ten years ago! After a look at the Sheldonian, he took us down the street to New College, where we saw the dining hall,

the gorgeous gardens (need to return for a closer look), and the mysterious 16th century Mound,which is just for fun as far as I can tell,then went into the Chapel. He pointed out the sculpture of Lazarus by Jacob Epstein, the beautiful carved stone reredos,

and the holm oak in the cloister (in which Draco Malfoy was turned into a ferret!).

On to the Bodleian, which we will see more of tomorrow. The statue of Duke Humphrey has quite a story attached, of which I remember mainly that he did not want to get married, so Shakespeare wrote some sonnets to persuade him (it didn’t work). We left Simon soon after, a knowledgeable guide though he name-dropped mercilessly and kept wiping his mustache in an off-putting way.

By now we were knackered, so we made our way back home (fortunately only five minutes walk) and crawled up the steep stairs to our lair overlooking the New College bell tower. A good day, even if it wore us out!

England again!

This year’s trip was a mix of the familiar – Oxford (which I visited ten years ago) and the Cotswolds (we both visited here with Alison’s mother and aunt in the early ’90s) – and the new –  Ely, just outside Cambridge, featuring the fens and the Norfolk Broads.

After arriving in Oxford by bus from Heathrow, we dropped our bags at the Bath Place Hotel, Bath Place Hotelthen walked back down Broad Street to Blackwell’s, as much of a rabbit warren as ever and with so many books we both wanted to buy (only two for me, I was very proud of my restraint).  Lunch at the Turl Street Kitchen hit the spot, two orange-yolked eggs over English muffins, then back to the Bath to check in and take a two-hour jet-lag nap.

The hotel is a 17th century muddle of little buildings with our room on the top floor above steep, twisty stairs.  Bath Place stairsIt has an interesting history, with Dorothy Sayers among the famous residents.  Bath PlaceOur room is tiny but charming, with a view of New College from the window.  New College towerThe bathroom was quintessentially British:  a tub with a shower spray, which meant you either knelt in the tub to wash your hair (hard on the knees), stood up and sprayed your hair and all the surroundings, or knelt on the floor and leaned into the tub.  None was entirely satisfactory (shades of our Paris apartment!), but for three days we could manage.

Awakening restored and refreshed, we walked down Turl Street to the Oxford Wine Shop, a lovely place, then to a few high-end shops selling historic maps and prints and beautiful old jewels. On the way back, we came to the Radcliffe Camera in the late afternoon sunshine. Radcliffe CameraDinner tonight was literally around the corner at the renowned Turf Tavern, where we had steak and ale pies and french fries that made us both very happy. We admired the hanging baskets of flowers and the late sun on the New College bell tower. Turf tavernAnd so to bed.

Walking in Granada

albaicinThere is so much to see, and we have so little fluency in Spanish, that we have booked lots of tours on this trip.  Too many? Time will tell. Today we started off with a walking tour of the lower Albaicin (another World Heritage Site on the list!) and the old city with Senna, a delightful young Belgian with impeccable English and what sounded to me like a perfect Spanish accent.  He began by explaining the history of the Muslims in Spain and pointed out that, as I have discovered, if you are a progressive you tend to think that the three religions coexisted happily, and if you’re a conservative, not. He led us up steep streets lined with shops just like in Morocco, offering leather, textiles, jewelry, etc.  We stopped at the top of a hill at a Catholic church run by the Clare Sisters, who pray unceasingly. And indeed we saw a white-clad figure, immovable in front of the altar, and a similar figure took her place as we watched.


Everywhere we went we saw pomegranates, the symbol of Granada. 

Narrow streets, some made narrower because people had been allowed to extend their houses into the streets as long as they left room for a man and a donkey to pass. And when the Muslims were expelled, Christians took over their houses and turned them into spacious buildings with gardens and vineyards. We ended this part of the tour at an overlook where we could see the Alhambra and the white palace.

Walking back down the hill, we came to Plaza Nueva and admired the Christian church with Muslim elements (notice the tiles and the arched windows). Down the street we came upon a massive monument to Isabella and Columbus (they are buried in Granada), then we turned down a side street to the souk, reconstructed after a nineteenth century fire, thanks to the romantic admiration for the Muslim era (due in part to Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra).

We wended our way through the narrow streets to the cathedral, a Gothic presence in the midst of everything else.  Off to one side is a building used by the University of Granada, that has preserved a room of the original 14th century madrassa, complete with mihrab.  This was, again, just like Morocco.  I couldn’t resist several photos.

As we walked back towards the cathedral, we noticed this wall with someone’s name partly obscured by red paint.  Senna lowered his voice in deference to the many church people who might be passing by (we were opposite the archbishop’s palace) and explained that this was the name of a noted Fascist active during the Civil War, honored by the church but to this day abhorred by many.

We left Senna here and walked back to the Plaza Nueva for a pizza lunch and a brief rest before our afternoon tour of the cathedral and chapel. Our guide for just the two of us was Violetta, whose English was wonderful though sometimes oddly pronounced (as is my Spanish, I’m sure).  More about the tour here.

Dinner tonight was at La Fontana, a tapas place just around the corner from our hotel, facing the Rio Darro.  We are still tapas novices, as evidenced by our behavior: we ordered wine and a hummus tapa to start and were surprised to see two little containers of couscous arrive.  We tried to take it back only to learn that this was the tapa libre! Lo siento!! It was delicious, as was the hummus we ordered. All the tapas here were so good that, even though the waitrons as aways do not like to deliver the bill, to Alison’s frustration, we vowed to return tomorrow.

The train that’s a bus

Sometimes, it’s all about the transportation.  We went to the Atocha train station to leave Madrid for Granada, the first leg by train and the second by bus.  The first part was easy, assigned seats, a quiet train, and an arid, bleak landscape passing by. We dutifully got off at Antequera to catch the bus to Granada, but were stopped by the train people.  They explained that for some reason we didn’t catch we would have to get back on the train, go to Malaga, about twenty minutes on, and get the bus to Granada there. We were to look out for them at the head of the train in Malaga.

Well, they were strolling along the platform without us when we arrived and raced to catch up.  The man said, “follow the chicas” and we zipped along behind a young couple and a young woman, in and out, over streets, through buildings until we came to the bus station.  Bought our tickets and eventually boarded a comfortable bus for the 90 minute trip to Granada.

But our adventures were not yet over, because the cab we took ripped us off.  He sped off to our hotel, then deliberately confused Alison about the change he owed her.  With any luck, he will come to a bad end! I’m glad to say that this was the only bad incident we had in two weeks.

We trundled up the cobbled pedestrian street to our hotel, Casa del Capitel Nazari, described on their website as “an ancient Renaissance palace built in 1503 and located in the picturesque area of the Albaicin, in front of the Alhambra in Granada and in the city centre, close to the cathedral. It is a palace with lintels and Tuscan columns, Corinth capitals, Arabic chromium-plated beams; Renaissance decorated wooden ceiling and two Roman columns.”  All true, and was very reminiscent of Morocco:  little courtyards, wooden ceilings, tiled floors, and all. We have a large room with a mini-kitchen and a dining room table, very comfortable.  We walked down to the Plaza Nueva, a busy square with several restaurants, and had a strange dinner, large platters of fried spaghetti sprinkled with a few shrimps, and lots of pork and potatoes. And so to bed.

Art art art, part two

Today we met Barbara, our Toledo guide, for the Prado tour, three hours of amazing art, Barbara’s knowledgeable insights and lots of standing. Tiring but so worth it!

Bosch’s triptych ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ started us off with a powerful, detailed religious painting famously  filled with crazy details, especially of the Hell that awaits the wicked.  I was particularly struck by its bubblegum pink Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, c. 1480-1505, oil on panel, 220 x 390 cm (Prado)details, which don’t really show up in this tiny image, but you get the drift.

From here, Barbara took us chronologically through the collection. Roger van der Weiden’s Deposition of Jesus is the best painting I’ve ever seen that I knew nothing about (not that that’s unusual, I am still a novice when it comes to art).Image result for roger van der weiden death of jesusLarge figures, faces each individualized, richly colored clothing, and a human sense of scale. It’s truly stunning in person.

We saw lots of Rubens, who I must remember is Flemish. I asked Barbara how to know a Rubens (especially for those of us think of Renoir when we hear his name) and she said to look for lots of color and a dynamic design with lots of movement. Got it!  Here’s an example:Image result for rubens prado madrid

The real highlight for me was the Velazquez collection, now that I’ve read The Vanishing Velazquez. The small painting of a wall in Italy was as wonderful as the author had promised, very reminiscent in its stillness and gem-like quality of Vermeer’s The Little Street.  It really has to be seen in person.Image result for velazquez view of the garden of the villa medici I also admired the man with outflung arm.   Is he an actor?Image result for velazquez portraits pradoLas Meninas is a puzzle picture – who are these people and what are they doing? – more than an emotional one.  Image result for las meninasCumming describes it beautifully in her book, and it’s one to go back to over and over.

That room is also filled with portraits of Habsburgs with their unfortunate chins.Image result for velazquez portraits prado

At the end of the tour, we bade farewell to Barbara, who told Alison about a Fra Angelico exhibit coming to the Prado next year – will we come back? – and we had lunch in the cafeteria before going back to revisit Senor V. We found The Surrender at Breda

Image result for velazquez surrender at breda

plus the so-called “buffoons” or dwarves in all their humanity.Image result for velazquez buffoons

Despite our museum fatigue, we headed for the Reina Sofia museum around the corner and its modern art. We started dutifully with the Surrealists and then went straight to Guernica, whose scale is not conveyed with this thumbnail image.

Image result for guernica painting

There’s a big buildup to the painting, which I had last seen in New York when I was a teenager, diaplaying Dora Maas’s photos of the work in progress and plenty of political and artistic runups to the art. Guernica (Ger NEEK a) was one of the first mass casualties of civilians, carried out by Hitler with Franco’s assent, a truly horrendous act. I’m so glad to have seen it again and must find a good book on the Spanish Civil War to understand the whole thing better.

We were truly exhausted by this point, so we had a drink and went back to our old favorite tapas place, La Abuela, for shrimp, followed by a second trip to Toni’s. I meant to order mussels but ended up with anchovies, which luckily were quite good. On the way home we ran into a protest in the street about sex trafficking. This in addition to a protest in the Puerto related to the disinterring of Franco from the valley of heroes to Madrid, and another one by young people in matching T-shirts to do with prisoners. Democracy is alive and well here!

[Note: Because the Prado prohibits all photos in all parts of the building, including the gift shop, these images are not mine but probably better than I would have managed.]

Toledo with Context

Above: what we didn’t do!

One of our favorite things when we’re abroad is a tour with Context Travel. The guides are usually excellent, the groups are small, and we learn a lot.  For this trip we met at the Madrid train station, which features a wonderful botanical garden right in the middle of it (see earlier post), where our guide said people have been (illegally) dropping off their unwanted turtles!

Our guide, Barbara, is a young Polish woman with a PhD in art history, specifically in medieval manuscripts.  During our 30 minute ride she gave us the highlights of our day.

We arrived at the Toledo train station, built in the early 20th century in the mudejar style, “a style of ornamentation and decoration in post-Islamic Christian Iberia that was strongly influenced by Moorish taste and workmanship,” according to Wikipedia. I especially liked the flat screen TV bordered by traditional tiles. Toledo is built on 12 hills and protected on three sides by the Tagus River, so we needed to cross the river the get to the city. We got cabs and enjoyed the beautiful views of the city, stopping at a viewpoint for some great photos, then crossed the bridge and began walking uphill.

Toledo provides a great example of the layers of history in Andalusia.  We saw a synagogue, a mosque turned into a church, and more.   First up was one of the original gates in the wall around Toledo, displaying a combination of keyhole and Gothic arches. 

Next we came to a a mosque that was turned into a church, Cristo de Luz, with the remains of a Roman road on display just below our feet. The columns inside were scavenged from Roman ruins. As evidence of the mixing of cultures, the Christian inscriptions were written in Arabic leading to this interesting juxtaposition of the shadow of Christ on the cross surrounded by Arabic text.

Outside again, the narrow streets were very reminiscent of Morocco. This one had a roofed room connecting two separate houses above the street. Only a few are left, since one of the kings decreed that these structures, resulting in dark tunnels throughout the city, should be destroyed. Then to a(nother) convent with cloistered nuns, where marzipan is said to have been invented – Toledo is famous for it – and then the spires of the San Juan de los Reyes Monasterio. Ferdinand and Isabella were to be buried here, but after they conquered Granada they changed their minds.


On the outside of the monastery are chains that once belonged to Christian prisoners liberated from Muslim Granada. (Click through for a good view on the bottom left.)  Inside is a beautiful French Gothic structure, with soaring arches and a lovely cloister (all that’s left after a fire), featuring darling little carved animals and plants along with the saints.

Next on to a synagogue that was taken over by the Christians, leading to the odd name of Sinagoga de Santa Maria la Blanca. The columns are newly repainted white, with beautifully carved decorations of pineapples. The floor was tiled (no Jewish symbols here), and the apses have been turned into Christian chapels. The wooden ceiling was again very Moroccan. The whole thing very clean, light and austere.

These tiles set into the roads indicate that we’re in the Jewish quarter, although there are no Jews in Toledo any more.

The Museum of The Sephardic Jews was our last stop in the Jewish Quarter. This was a former synagogue that’s been reconstituted as a museum of the Sephardic Jews, defined as Spanish Jews who have left the country (which they all did in 1492, and to say they left is to minimize the pain and terror of being thrown out). There are still some carvings and decorations from the original synagogue, and displays of Jewish memorabilia from ancient times up to now.

After a quick snack break (where we learned that the Spanish put cooked tomatoes on toast the way we would use jam), we came to the cathedral, the jewel in the crown of Toledo. Its Baroque altarpiece and Transparente are over the top, until you come to the enormous gold and silver Monstrance and you know that there’s always one step more in the gaudiness sweepstakes.  Plus, the Monstrance is paraded through the streets during Holy Week, and I can only imagine how they do that.

Also here were more lovely carved animals,

and a painting by my frenemy, El Greco.  This is the Disrobing of Christ.

It was a good day, and Barbara was a terrific guide, very knowledgeable but not overwhelming us with information. It turns out that she will be our guide at the Prada tomorrow, and Larry and Tatiana from this group will be along.

Dinner tonight was at a place recommended by RS for its cod. But, unfortunately, hearing bad news from Marshelle about Weezer’s situation plunged me into darkness. Plus, the waiter rushed us and our order was a mess! We ended up with two cod tapas, neither very good, and an enormous salad with big chunks of tomatoes (not terribly ripe) and tuna. We bailed at this point, after confusing the waiter with our order – first jamón, then not jamón, then jamón after all and then no jamón! – and went back to the Europa. A comforting bowl of soup and glass of wine did a lot to restore my spirits.

Here’s a view of the train station tiles to finish off the day!

Summer seeds

Just a quick note to self about summer seeds sown to date:

  • Black-eyed Susan vine ‘African Sunset’ on the trellis against the shed (also dug up quite a few hellebores there which have self-seeded with abandon, passed on a few to Ann), hoping that they will do as well in part sun as in part shade
  • Zinnia ‘White Star’ and ‘Oklahoma Mix’ in the raised bed and in the sunny bed (the latter do not seem to be coming up)
  • Zinnia ‘Violet Queen’ passed on from the Master Gardeners, also slow to come up or perhaps not going to
  • Marigold ‘Gem Mixture’ in the raised bed, ditto
  • Basil ‘Genovese’ in the raised bed
  • Morning Glory ‘Heavenly Blue’ on the mailbox trellis
  • ‘Purity White’ Cosmos near the Souvenir de Ste. Anne rose
  • Cornflower ‘Black Ball’ that I sowed just for fun, since the seed is pretty old.  Lo and behold, I now have two clumps!  A very striking color.  It seems they need to be staked since they are quite tall and are now flopping.  They’re a cut and come again flower, so I may cut one of them way back and see how it does.  Here it is about a month ago.cornflower 'black ball'
  • Shirley Poppy in the sunny bed (white, rose, pink, coral) sown in late winter and blooming now! 


Art art art, part I

We usually look for history, art and nature when we travel.  This trip was no exception, except that the paintings were mostly at the beginning of the trip.  First, the Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum in Madrid on our first day there.  Sadly, the Metro ticket operation was so confusing that we had to ask for help, and I’m still not sure we could do it again.  But once we got the tickets, it worked well. We walked down the Paseo del Prado to the museum, spotting a magpie on the way, bathing in a fountain.magpie

The Thyssen is a private collection started by the Thyssen and Bornemisza families in the early twentieth century,  bought by the Spanish government and housed in a former palace.  The website touts paintings by “Dürer, Rafael, Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Manet, Renoir, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Kandinsky, Picasso, Hopper, Rothko.”  They were all there although, as Rick Steves says, it’s a collection of minor works by major artists.  But we very much enjoyed it.

Our old friend Memlingmemling

Holbein’s Henry VIII in a lovely frameHolbein

El Greco, who is an acquired taste which I hadn’t yet acquired at this point in the tripEl Greco 1

a RembrandtRembrandt

Kirchner, whom I remember from SwitzerlandKirchner

and this lovely orange dress on St. Casilda, by the Spanish painter Zurbaran.Zurbaran

Unfortunately, the Caravaggio we wanted to see was not on display.  

It was a LOT of art to see at the end of the day, but it was just right.

We Metro’d back and all was well until we tried to leave the station.  Many signs saying Salida but no way out! We finally found our way and walked back through the Puerto to a restorative glass of wine outside the hotel. wine after art