Friday, December 31, 2004

The Accidental Pilgrim

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There are an awful lot of books around about the journey to Santiago de Compostela in particular, and pilgrimages in general; and let’s be quite truthful a lot of them are rather average. But one that stood out from the crowd for me was David Moore’s The Accidental Pilgrim which was published in 2004 as a paperback by Hodder Headline Ireland, and is available in both the UK and US. The serendipitous path that links these posts meant that I bought this book in the departures lounge at Stansted Airport en route to the Danish Thread

Subtitled 'Travels with a Celtic Saint', The Accidental Pilgrim is the story of a 1500 mile bike ride by the author from Bangor in Northern Ireland to Bobbio in northern Italy via France and Switzerland. The journey follows in the footsteps of the Irish missionary Saint Columbanus who made the journey in the 6th Century. (Which coincidentally, and linked to other threads, was around the time that Gregorian Chant was emerging as the official music of the Christian Liturgy, in fact Columbanus took issue with Pope Gregory - who is incorrectly credited with formalising chant, hence 'Gregorian Chant' - in 600 over the calculation of the date of Easter). Although Saint Columbanus’ missionary work on mainland Europe ended under something of a cloud, within 50 years of his death there were over 100 foundations with ties to the Columbanian mother houses of Luxeuil in France and Bobbio in Italy.

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In his book dot com escapee David Moore manages to balance scholarship (he is a graduate of Cambridge and Trinity College, Dublin, but wears his academic background lightly) with readability, while managing to avoid the leaden ‘I am a dumb traveller, and these are the dumb things that happened to me’ style of humour regularly served up by Bill Bryson, namesake Tim Moore, and so many others (although US readers, and non-football fans like me will be left puzzled by the numerous references to Roy Keane). The book also manages to avoid the trap of simply being a diary of places, journeys and punctures. In this his first book Moore manages to include enough personal detail to make the author as well as the journey come alive, and that is a difficult thing to achieve.

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What makes the book even more noteworthy is the web content that is linked to it. There is a really useful book web site of related material. In particular it is a brilliant idea putting the original proposal for the book on the site. This is a first class example of a published first time author using the web to share his experiences. David Moore also has a personal web site which is well worth a visit. (See also his blog).

The Accidental Pilgrim is a great read. It is also a first class example of the benefits of adding value to a conventional book by supplementing it with additional and dynamic online material. Recommended, and if you want to find out more about the book click here to read the first two chapters online, and for free.

The Accidental Pilgrim is a rare kind of book as it provides more than a great read, it also makes you think with words like the following......

Columbanus wrote "Therefore let this principle abide with us, that on the road we so live as travellers, as pilgrims, as guests of the world."
Maybe you should enjoy the journey on the road of life wherever it takes you. It's a powerful way to live, as a guest of the world.
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Monday, December 27, 2004

The drinking habit

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The Carthusian Order of cloistered monks combines two fascinating threads. On the one hand the Carthusians are contemplatives who live under austere conditions while dedicating their lives to living in solitude, and listening in silence to God. On the other hand three monks of the order are entrusted with the formula and key production process for creating the hugely popular Chartreuse liqueur which is named after their mother house.

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In June 1084 a German monk called Bruno (later Saint Bruno) with six companions founded the refuge that was to become the monastery of La Grande Chartreuse in the mountains near Grenoble. This was followed by a monastery at Calibria in Italy in 1101. At the time of the dissolution of the monasteries in England in 1535 monks from the Carthusian London Charterhouse and its sister houses uniquely refused to reject papal authority as demanded by the Treason Act passed by Henry Vlllth and Thomas Cromwell. As a result six of the monks were cruelly executed in their white habits in the Tower of London.

Today the Carthusians still follow their regime of solitude and silence alone in self-contained cells, with food being passed to them through hatchways. Except for when they attend Mass, Vespers, and the evening Office the monks spend their time working, praying, and eating alone. This austerity is carried through to their sung liturgy with the organ and polyphony expressly forbidden from the Holy Offices.

This severe lifestyle seems to do little harm. According to a story told by the Carthusians a pope felt the rule was too severe, and asked for it to be modified. To defend themselves from the changes a delegation of twenty-seven Carthusians travelled to Rome. When the pontiff found that the youngest in the group was eighty-eight years old, and the oldest ninety-five he dropped his request for reform.

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The Carthusian's life of contemplation has remained virtually unchanged over the last 900 years, whereas the history of Chartreuse liqueur has been somewhat more chequered. In 1605 a Carthusian monastery at Vauvert near Paris was given an ancient manuscript recording the formula for 'an elixir for long life'. The complexity of the formula was beyond the monk's capabilites, and it was not until 1737 that the first Chartreuse was successfully distilled. The original formula is still used by the monks to produce the exclusive Elixir Vegetal de la Grande-Chartreuse which is 71% alcohol by volume, 142 proof!

The monks adapted this formula to make the liqueur we know today as Green Chartresuse which is 55% alcohol and 110 proof. When the French Revolution erupted in 1789 the monks were dispersed, and the formula was hidden until production restarted in 1816. But in 1903 the monastic brew was again under threat as the French government nationalised the distillery and monastery, and sold the traemark to a private distillery. With typically Gallic flair for the absurd the privatised enterprise then went bankrupt; and supporters of the monks bought the moribund business and presented it back to the monks where it has remained to today. A new distillery was built in Voiron in the 1930's, but the selection of the secret herbs, plants and other ingredients remains safely in the monastery in the hands of just three monks.

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Tuesday, December 14, 2004

12 days of Christmas

Christmas is a time of celebration. First, and foremost (and often forgotten) it is the time to celebrate the birth of Jesus, and the arrival of God on earth.

It is also a time to celebrate other events, here is a personal list of those that Pliable stumbled across on the Overgrown Path in the last twelve months.

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First day of Christmas - Welsh National Opera's Parsifal, particularly Anthony Negus' inspired conducting

Second day of Christmas - The Borodin Quartet's cycle of the Beethoven Quartets in Norwich

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Third day of Christmas - Mont Ventoux, particularly the off-road downhill.

Fourth day of Christmas - The Brahms Clarinet Quintet in the cellar of the ruined Chateau, Chateauneuf du Pape,Provence


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Fifth day of Christmas - The final scene of Gottedamerung at Longborough Opera again with Anthony Negus conducting

Sixth day of Christmas - The hospitality and example of the monks at the Abbey of Ste Madeleine Le Barroux, Provence

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Seventh day of Christmas - David Begbie's Crucifixion at the Walsingham Shrine

Eight day of Christmas - Ron Mueck's sculpture The Boy in the Aros Gallery, Arhus, Denmark

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Ninth day of Christmas - Hinges Antikvariat bookshop Banegardsgade 27-29, Arhus, Denmark

Tenth day of Christmas - Raphael's Self Portrait in the National Gallery London exhibition.

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Eleventh day of Christmas - the Sacconi String Quartet playing Schumann's Third Quartet in Halesworth

Twelth day of Christmas - Santiago a Cappella. sung by the Monteverdi Choir conducted by John Elliot Gardiner, my CD of the year.

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Images of the Divine Offices from the Anglican Breviary

Monday, December 13, 2004

Keeping up with Lance Armstrong

Pliable descending Mont Ventoux

On a very hot Wednesday last June I rode the notorious Mont Ventoux in ninety minutes. The following day Lance Armstrong rode it in almost exactly the same time. The only difference was that I rode it downhill on dirt, while Lance and the professionals climbed it on tarmac as part of Le Dauphine, one of the last stage races before the start of Le Tour.

For the past five years I have been making an annual pilgrimage to the Vaucluse region of France, and taking in some serious (by my standards) mountain biking. Over the years I’ve come up with my own definition of a serious ride – the pee test. If nerves don’t send me behind the nearest bush several times just before I start the ride the test is failed. This year two rides pass the pee test.


The first is one of those uniquely French events, La Nougatlopett, a randonée starting in Montelimar and organised by the admirable Saint James Velo Club (which provides an extraordinary link to the various Santiago de Compostela mentions on this site, Santiago of course being the Spanish for Saint James). La Nougatlopett is a non-competitive event, although there are some very serious mountain bikers taking part among the four hundred riders. I choose the 28 mile option with 1200 foot of serious climbing up from the Rhone valley into the foothills of the Ardeche mountains, and back down again.

The climbing is tough, but staying calm when impatient French teenage riders on department store bikes buzz my back tyre on the highly technical, rocky single track is even tougher. The prize for finishing the course puts all those tacky T-shirts and cheap medals in the shade - every finisher gets a bag of nougat, because of course Montelimar is the nougat capital of the world.

The second candidate that passes the pee test in bucket loads is a descent of Mont Ventoux. In past years I’ve done part of the climb on road on a mountain bike complete with nobblies (definitiely not recommended), and have ridden extensively in the foothills. But the big one this year is a full-on descent from the ski station at Chalet Reynard off-road all the way to Bedoin, a descent of 3500 feet in fifteen miles. Chalet Reynard is actually 1000 feet below the summit, but the descent from the very top involves a lot of very loose scree above the tree line, and that means a serious downhill rig and descending skills which I don’t have.


My ride for the trip is a Bianchi hardtail set up for cross country (see header photo) with an 80mm travel Marzocchi fork up front, and Avid V-brakes all round. I’m not really a retrogrouche, I just like tried and tested kit. I may ride three bikes with XT thumbshifters (not the Bianchi which has LX Rapidfire plastic numbers), but I bought my first full suspension bike 1993 – that was a Moulton APB which I am still happily racking up miles on (every time I ride it I wonder why leading link front forks aren’t more common - Whyte bikes excepted).

My better half has wisely chosen to stay by the pool, so I ride in 30 degree C heat to the bike shop Bedoin Location who run a shuttle service up Ventoux. It is Wednesday afternoon, which French school children have off for sports activities. My companions in the shuttle van are French teenagers who will be attending mountain bike school on Ventoux for the afternoon. Is it any surprise that France produces so many great riders, and the whole attitude towards cycling is so much more positive than in the UK? Discretion being the better part of valour I have chosen the ‘easy’ option for the descent. The shuttle drops me at the Chalet Reynard ski area, then it is 200 yards on road towards the summit, and the jeep track descent starts on the left.


At this point the nerves are still there, particularly as this is a solo ride. This is seriously exposed mountain country (wind speeds of more than 150 mph have been recorded at the summit), and it is a very long walk out in the event of a serious mechanical. In the whole fifteen mile descent I only see one other person, the driver of a French Forestry Service jeep on the lower slopes. The first three miles of the ride are almost level as the track traverses the upper slopes just below the tree line. This is the old road to the top, and there are patches of broken tarmac in a few places. On the left hand side is the most amazing view (and drop), it is a novel and slightly worrying experience to peer over the edge and see my ultimate destination more than 3000 feet below me, together with in the far distance the Benedictine Abbey of St Madeleine at Le Barroux where I am to spend a a week on retreat later in the year.


As well as worries about mechanicals I am also concerned about taking a wrong track, as getting lost on the higher slopes would have some pretty serious consequences. Fortunately I have marked the route up on a 1 to 25,000 IGN map, and no mistakes are made. Three miles into the ride at les Grands Pins the track really starts to go down, and for the next twelve miles I hardly pedal. Surely this is one of the longest uninterrupted descents in Europe? The riding is all on a jeep track, but the surface keeps varying from rocky but ridable to very rocky, loose, and for me very challenging. As I get into the rhythm my nerves disappear, and confidence increases. This brings risks, on the lower slopes I start to speed up between hairpins only to find that after an hours constant use (aka being scared and keeping the brakes on too much) there is noticeable brake fade as I hurtle into hairpins with 1000 foot drops on the outside.

After ninety minutes white knuckle riding, and with hands and feet literally numb from vibration I finish the descent safely by dropping right down to our poolside where medicinal beers are on hand. Good preparation (or good luck) prevailed, no mechanicals and no wrong turnings. But a few days later though I blow the back tyre out when I hook it on a particularly jagged rock in the forest below Chalet Reynard, a gentle reminder that the terrain around Ventoux is a lot more demanding than my native Norfolk.

It is kick back time the next day as the professionals come to town for Le Dauphine time trial up Ventoux. All the top riders including Lance Armstrong are competing as it is just two weeks to the start of the Le Tour. There is a carnival atmosphere in town, and the riders mix with the spectators in a way fans of other sports can only dream of. Riding down Ventoux downhill is difficult enough, but riding up it in 32 degrees C against the clock is a superhuman achievement.

The use of performance enhancing drugs in sport is absolutely wrong. But spending a day on Ventoux brought home to me how truly remarkable are the achievements of David Millar and others, with or without chemical assistance. Does David Millar's admission of taking three courses of EPO in 2001 and 2003, and the consequent effective ending of his cycling career really make him any more guilty than the millions who are hopelessly addicted to the daily use of socially acceptable drugs such as fast cars, mobile phones or reality TV?

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Man in the Holocene

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Graphic by M C Escher


Birds that feed on fish; their excrement will form the beginning of an oasis in which human beings can live, until the next stream of lava smothers it all.


Max Frisch - Man in the Holocene

Friday, December 10, 2004

Raphael

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And next to the National Gallery London for the Raphael exhibition. It covers Raphael's artistic journey from the Duchy of Urbino where he was born in 1483, to the papal Court in Rome.

The two 'show stopping' exhibits are the Mond Crucifixion (see below - but is this work over-restored, are the colours just too good to be true, is it like Vivaldi played on modern instruments?), and of course the extraordinary portrait of Pope Julius II.

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But for me the highlights were not the show stoppers but the smaller works, particulalrly the studies and sketches which show Raphael's exquisite technique which recalls Michalangelo.

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The most thought provoking work is the haunting self portrait depicting Raphael in his early 20's (shown at the top of this post). This work reminds us that the artist painted his portrait of Pope Julius II. when he was just 28, and nine years later he was dead. A real case of 'smile why it has been'.

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Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Danish thread


The thread continued through a visit to Denmark last week. We flew Ryanair to the university city of Arhus. After getting off the airport bus in the city centre we set off on foot to the SAS Radisson Hotel, (which was very comfortable but is a typical convention hotel, although we weren't there for a convention, just got a great deal from Expedia - this post is starting to sound like all those other geeklogs about open source conferences in San Francisco isn't it?).

Our route took us straight past an excellent bookshop, Hinges Antikvariat in Banegardsgade, which had displayed in the window Monasteries of the world: the rise and development of the monastic tradition by Christopher Brooke (photographs by Wim SwaanPublisher: Ware, Hertfordshire : Omega Books, 1982, c1974.ISBN: 0-90785-330-7 DDC: 271.0094) which I swiftly vacuumed up for 200 Danish Kroner. A wonderful book, with a very good text supported by excellent photographs and really good plans.

The main reason for visiting Arhus was to take in the new Aros Gallery which opened earlier this year, and as a building manages to deliver that unique Scandinavian combination of style and function, see photo below.


It is a must visit for its collection of twentieth-century Danish art, but the unexpected show stopper was Ron Mueck's five metre high sculpture 'Boy'. Modern works of art that stop you dead in your tracks are rare; this one was surrounded by gawping visitors of all ages. The header photo shows 'Boy' on display at the gallery.

Musically it was also an interesting visit. I picked up Danish composer's Johann Ernst Hartmann's complete symphonies on the German label CPO, an 18th century Danish composer that is well worth exploring.


I also picked up Spanish composer's Fredirico Mompou's complete piano works in a 4 CD set - nothing at all to do with Denmark other than that it was on the shelf in a music store. This recording comes from the Dutch label Brilliant Classics which is well worth exploring, they are a budget label but seem to be very smart at licensing (or recording) artistically worthwhile recordings. I have got a lot out their release of the Rubio Quartet recordings of the complete Shostakovich String Quartets , an excellent 5 CD set at a ridiculously low price.

We even managed to fit in alive performance of an excellent string quartet comprising Principals from the Arhus Symphony Orchestra. We didn't know until we arrived that the concert was in the 200 year old reconsructed Elsinore Theatre in the 'Old Town' (Den Gamle By) which is a wonderful open air museum a short walk from Arhus City Centre. The acoustics of the old wooden theatre, but the programme (apart from an excellent Haydn early quartet) of Verdi and Kreisler quartets fell into the category of justly neglected masterpieces!

Also visited Arhus Cathedral (Arhus Domkirke) which dates from the 13th Century. Its' many fine wall paintings were white washed over in the Reformation giving a striking stark simplicity to the interior (although thankfully some of the paintings have been incovered and restored). A noteable feature of the Domkirke is the Frobenius Organ which has been used for many famous recordings, including Dame Gillian Weir's Messiaen Cycle

A memorable visit, and the power of Ron Mueck's work will stay with us for some time.
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Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Pilgrimage

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Went to the Anglican shrine at Walsingham in Norfolk to view David Begbie's immensely powerful Crucifixion (see image below) which has been installed in the Barn Chapel.

Visiting this great pilgrimage centre ("England's Nazareth") made me think how in France the ancient pilgrim path to Santiago is called the chemin, in Spanish the camino. Both terms have a double meaning: the physical route on the ground through the mountains and across the plains, and the reflective internal journey the pilgrim makes in his mind as he travels.

For another take on pilgrimage visit the Monteverdi Choir's web site to read a fascinating account of their musical pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella. Or even better contact them to order a copy of their superb CD Santiago a Cappella. which shamefully doesn't seem to have any trade distribution, but you can (and should) buy it direct from the Monteverdi Choir's London office (details from their web site).

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Journey and home are indivisible. We are not by nature, by evolution and genetic inheritance rooted dwellings in a single place. We are instinctive nomads. We have an urge to roam - it takes us out on the roads. That's where, even if the roads are unmarked we belong.

Paraphrase of Laurens van der Post (who somewhat amazingly doesn't seem to have an entry in Wikipedia , whereas Kylie Minogue has a huge entry including a complete singles discography, although there is a good entry for Santiago de Compostela)

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