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The colour of life

semi-overcast 11 °C


I may not know why I like art but I do know that I have always loved it. Something not a lot of people know about me is that before I wanted to be a writer, I wanted to be a painter. And I have wanted to be writer since I was eight, lost in the otherworldy dreamscapes of Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach, C.S. Lewis' Narnia and Mary Norton's The Borrowers, curled up in bed encircled by the red bricks and rowan trees of Rathfarnham dreaming of making imaginary worlds of my own. I dream of that still.

Before even then, I was an enormous fan of colour. Sometimes I think I liked blue before anything else on this Earth. My overriding sensory memory of my first years at school is the smell of school-supply paints and chalks. My earliest memory of all is of my mother taking me down the corridor of a grey and crappy but then stlll-new prefabricated building as a very small child of four or five to meet my teacher, the round-spectacled, white-bloused, blue Hillary Clinton-jacketed Mrs Donnelly. I don't remember if it was my first day of school or some other day, only the vibrant red of the floor and how it shimmered in the morning sun. A few years later, my parents were so proud of a oil painting I made when I was about 11 of a canal barge they bought a frame for it and hung it up on the wall, even though it was colour by numbers. It's still there, and I'm proud of it too.

In time, my interest in writing grew as my vocabulary swelled and I started to become known as the boy who was the best at English - a title I held on to all the way through to the end of school when I got the A1 grade everyone said was impossible to get because they gave it to no one - and I forgot about paintings, thinking I wasn't really that good at it anyways. When at secondary school and given the choice of Art, History or Music I went for Music and traded the paintbrush for a clarinet and that was it. Looking at the tubes of paint above I can't help but feel nostalgic, though it must be more than 20 years since I held one of them.


Still, you never lose an eye for art once you have it. Other people yawn through art galleries and delight in history museums, I yawn at museums and eagerly await the gallery. The first thing I look up about a city when I'm going or thinking of going there for holiday is - does it have a good modern art gallery? Every time. I once visited the medieval town of Albi in southwest France because it's the hometown of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and has a nice little gallery devoted to him. What else is there? Aside from a train station, which I know because that's how I get there, I have literally no idea. It applies to daily life to: I have lunch in the Barbican almost every day now just so I have an hour to feel cultural amidst the City hubbub

Travel for everyone is about sights, but which kind of sights varies more than you might think. I saw a listing for an animal theme park in Tenerife the other day and was little short of revulsed. And it's #1 on Tripadvisor. My kind of travel is to go to a place, learn about the people there and their culture and try to experience a little of the life they live. You can do a lot of this through art because it gives you a view of what inspires them, what they like to look at and what they choose to immortalize in pigment. Picasso will give you visions of Spain (along with his adopted Paris of course), and Canaletto's paintings are more Venice than Venice itself. And while his brother William Butler vies for attention in the crowded Irish canon of poets, authors and playwrights, Jack Butler Yeats stands alone in his many paintings chronicling Irish life.


Plus when you travel you can see a hell of a lot of nice art. The Chagall stained-glass windows of the Fraumünster are one of Zurich's finest assets, to name one of many I've seen all around Europe and further afield at this stage. I'm glad I queued for two hours in the August sun to get into the Uffizi in Florence and see its many artistic delights at the age of 21, because if i tried to do that again I would probably faint from heatstroke. Aside from the many amazing Japanese things I saw on my first trip to Tokyo in 2006, obviously, another memory that sticks out strongly is going to Africa Remix at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo. A truly fabulous collection of art from all over Africa, I had no idea until afterwards it had already been on show in London, Paris and Hamburg before I travelled from Dublin half way round the world to see it and love it in Asia. Of course some paintings are so powerful they transcend location. After all Van Gogh's Cafe Terrace at Night is for many the timeless epitomy of the Paris cafe scene even though you have to go to a gallery in Otterlo, Netherlands to see it and it actually depicts a cafe in Arles.


Art is different for everyone, and as much as people may love portraits of 17th century royals of various hues, I think they're vacuous and vanishingly dull. The National Portrait Gallery, sitting proudly in the centre of Trafalgar Square, is London's least interesting art gallery by my reckoning, especially while the city boasts a regular program of visiting exhibitions at galleries all over town to rival any other city in the world. Give me Mark Rothko's visionary monochrome of the Moon that recently landed in the Royal Academy or Kazemir Malevich's many Suprematist masterpieces that lit up the Tate Modern last year any day.

As much as the temptation may be to list out your favourites, the best painting for me, I'm sure, will always be the next one. I'm really looking forward to seeing Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 at the RA, and am currently waiting like a sleeper cell of art fandom for a quiet Tuesday some weeks after the opening to see it and have the room all but to myself. Ditto America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s. And so on. How lucky I am to live in London and have the luxury of waiting for the right moment. After all that's art itself, life at the right moment. Grab it while you still can.

Posted by BillLehane 09:09 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged art london france colour holidays youth painting irish blog Comments (0)

Bill's European Adventure, 2001. Part 6: Ljubljana

Cheap drinks, a great night out and some dated remarks about smoking

Aug 31

Up out of our wet beds at 6.45 to pack up the miserable, cramped contraption allegedly called a 'tent', and get a bus to Mestre station and the 08.25 train to Ljubljana. To our delight, it's empty, and our biggest problems are 1) it's freezing, and my only jumper got soaked the night before and 2) we're starving, and we have no food and no Italian money.

So we froze and starved and didn't sleep, and after two ticket checks and three passport checks by armed men in variously-coloured uniforms, we arrived in the capital of Slovenia at 13.40. It was pissing rain! Stomping aroudn the city in t-shirt and sandals with full packs, we discover that all the hostels closed in the last few days as the tourist season is over - aargh!

After nearly paying £22 each for a three-star hotel, we end up in one-star Hotel Park for £13 each. Some confusion over which corridor-showers were which followed, and then our faithful trio all fell asleep at 6pm! I wake up at 7.20, have a smoke on the balcony, a shower, and a cup of coffee (nice, 86p) and here I am at 8.30 in the room and the other two are still asleep and it's still raining!

So then we had coffee in the hotel bar (which shut at 11pm ?) and went to the local 'Trubar', where 500ml Union beer was £1.16! That was shutting too, so we went to Bar Sodcek, a rocker bar! Headbangers were pouring entire short glasses into their beers (yes, the glass with the shot inside). We drank Zlatorog (£1.40), the label of which had a goat on it!

Sep 1

Awoken by the cleaning lady just in time to make free breakfast buffet (cornflakes, iffy coffee, marmalade and bread), then went out with Julie for a walkabout while Ollie wrote his journal. Saw what looked like a Russian national football team - I wonder is it the real one? Bought Slovenian Dunnes Stores cola (Mercator) 500ml, 20p! Browsed market later in the afternoon, then had a late lunch which was tasty and very cheap. Struck by how Irish Ljubljana seems - it's like Cork or something! Everybody's very laid back, and today was so like a Saturday afternoon in Ireland. Stopped for a vanilla ice cream cone beside the river (48p), and strolled back to the hotel to plan our cheap night out.

A bizarre night was to follow. We originally decided to try and find The Brewery Pub, which the book told us had a good atmosphere, but when we couldn't find it a local told us it was miles away so we stopped at a super-trendy ultra-modern bar/restaurant called Cafe Romeo that only served tortillas, burrittos and savoury pancakes (and drink of course). Only when the lack of ashtrays became apparent and Julie asked the barman did it become clear that I was in my own personal hell, a no-smoking bar!

Rushed my pint and sat on a three-foot wall outside while Ollie and Julie had savoury pancakes and burritos. Then we promptly left for bar Kurlinca on the riverbank, where Ollie ordered two shots because they were only £1 each and the barman came back with two 50ml glasses (a double is 66) and two tumblers of water! We got out of our canopied seats to watch the fireworks that marked the end of some summer festival, and eventually left after one when it was too cold. On our way home we stopped at another bar, and left just before three with locals drinking quite contentedly, inside and outside, with no obvious inclination to leave!

But I left a bit out - in between looking for that other pub and going to Kurlinca we stumbled upon a free rock concert featuring the funniest, most 1985 band seen since, well, 1985. The more the locals sang along to this sub-Status Quo gibberish, the more we laughed!

Sep 2

A typical lazy Sunday in some ways, except that I got up at 9.45 to get breakfast, had a shower, and then seeing that the other two were still asleep, lay back down on my bed and slept until 13.45! Groggy and lazy, the most significant things we did were to have lunch in the hotel, and find the only supermarket open in this Sunday ghost town and buy snacks n' beer to consume before it, as Ollie put it, "was a respectable time to start drinking"!

Uninspired by the few restaurants that were open, we went back to Cafe Romeo, and sat outside this time. I experimented with a chicken burrito, which was tasty - a bit like eating a curry out of a piece of pitta bread! We even stole an ashtray - the irony!

We ended up at another riverside pub, where we had a few leisurely pints as our tolars were beginning to run dry. Back early enought, around midnight, and had a great night's sleep under two furry blankets - the cold weather has taken readjusting to!

Posted by BillLehane 10:00 Archived in Slovenia Tagged trains travel youth europe slovenia ljubljana european blog interrail writing Comments (0)

Bill's European Adventure, 2001. Part 5: Verona and Venice

Showers, rain and liquid meals


While this pic looks like we were arguing, we were actually trying to get the gondola in the shot!

Aug 27

Bought cheap fruit and bread on our way out of the hostel, which came in handy on the four-hour train to Bologna, for which we had to sit in the gangway, between carriages, and even then the inspector charged us a supplement, though he pretended we got on at Arrezzo, which made it a bit less severe. After seven minutes in Bologna we got on the short hop to Verona (1.5 hours), for which we did get a seat, and bussed and walked to the hostel up the hill where we were told there was beds free at the other hostel at the bottom of the hill - d'oh! It was brand new though, and the dorms were nice (and three-quarters empty!), the only problem was the showers, which consisted of a single pole with four shower heads pointing out - I'm no shrinking violet or whatever the phrase is but let's just say for two nights and two days myself and Ollie showered at different times!

We settled outside at a picnic table, where a Cork girl who just finished a degree in Italian and Latin guessed Julie was Irish without speaking because she was making a crisp sandwich! I had four more Splugen (u umlaut) 66CL bottles, and then myself and Ollie tucked into a IR6 700ml bottle of vodka, having grown our drinking group into us three, Irish girl, two New Zealanders, two Australians and two Germans. Though the curfew was 11.30pm, weren't kicked inside until 12.30am, where we drank until 2am even though the night guard turned the lights out at 1am! At least the bed was comfortable, though too hot as ever.

Aug 28

What a day - booted out of the hostel at 9am, and it was closed until 5pm then - so we went for a stroll around Verona, and decided to look for a tent shop, as three into a two-man tent doesn't go (!), and we planned to camp in Venice. The idiot bitch in the Tourist office gave us the wrong directions to the camping store twice in one sitting - we got a bus to the south of the city where a woman told us there was no via Antonio da Legado, so we got a bus to the train station, where they told us that street was on a different route. We ended up outside the city altogether to the west, where a kind hotel porter told us that we were on the right street, but that the camp store was on Via Legado, an entirely different road way, way to the southeast!

Got back to the hostel, had a quick cattle wash (shower), and headed out to dinner before the opera Nabucco at the Arena, which I finally persuaded the other two to go to - tickets only 28,000 (a tenner), and we had a great view of an open-air, Babylonian, fully-orchestrated performance of Verdi's Nabucco that we didn't understand a word of, but it was brilliant! Divided into acts of 50-sih minutes, which made it handy for getting more beer. The highlight was the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves (Va Pensiero), which was encored even though it was only three quarters through the show!)

Photo Credit: Camping-fusina.com

Aug 29

After some bother getting to the train station, we now have to wait until 1.10pm (it's 10am) for a slow train that doesn't incur a supplement (personally, I'd just get the Intercity train and pay the £4, but democracy rules on this trip!)

We arrive in Venice anyway, and after a trip to the tourist office we get a bus to Camping Fusina, out right by the sea in Mestre, the industrial mainland area of Venice (I discover that Venice is 117 small islands, connected by 400 bridges - the map resembles one of those puzzles where you draw a line through the maze to the other side!)

We set up the tent, have supermarcato grub, and take a ferry to Venice. 30 mins later, having seen the Basilica di San Marco by accident [Aside: we're now collecting apostles, now having been at the tombs of St Peter and St Mark], we're hopelessly lost! Without anything other than our noses we miraculously return to our little dock bang on time for the next boat, and get back to our tent, which is pitched 15 feet from the water's edge (several gigantic freight ships passed right by us) with 2 bottles of chianti and a double bottle of rose. Got mildly drunk, yet still manage to talk so much shit so loudly, arguing for two hours after Ollie said 'exhaustive' instead of 'exhausting', so much so that a German girl gets out of her tent and asks us to be quiet! Me and Julie sleep in relative comfort in the tent (amazingly, it's too cold) while Ollie sleeps in the open air, whch turned out to be a bad decision.

Aug 30

Awoken at 9am by the freezing cold inside the tent, I get up in search of breakfast. I get ripped off in the campsite breakfast bar (8000 lira, £3.20, for a bowl of cornflakes and coffee) and return to the tent. And then it rained - aargh! Three people and every possession we had inside the tent waiting for it to stop raining for an hour.

Amazed at the bad weather we lounge around the campsite, eventually deciding to return to Venice proper on the ferry to find out details of how to get a train to Slovenia. In true professional style, we get off the boat at 4pm, make our way through the labyrinth city to the Stazionne FS, get the info and make it back the way we came for the 6.10pm boat back (there's only one per hour).

Stuck to a minimal residue of lira, our only nightcap is a bottle of wine between three, my part of which is drank through the sawn-off bottom of a plastic water bottle! We go to bed early, partly in anticipation of getting up early and partly through lack of drink, and the tight squeeze in the tent, even with the rucksacks outside, becomes a nightmare when it starts to rain and doesn't stop all night. Unable to move to one side as Julie is there, and the drenched wall of the tent to my left, I lie perfectly still waiting for the morning.

As it turns out, I wake with a headache from using my towel as a pillow, and clamber out of a soaked sleeping bag to a miserable Venetian dawn, though we can't help gawking at the amazing sunrise.

Posted by BillLehane 09:19 Archived in Italy Tagged churches trains food venice religion verona italy wine holidays europe rail blog interrail Comments (0)

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