never mind the lovelocks

arboretum bridge with padlocks
And so August began, and a new sketchbook was opened. I bought a softcover Stillman and Birn Alpha landscape book from the UC Davis bookstore – I do like that paper a lot, and the softcover is slightly smaller than the hardcover making panoramas a little faster – more on those later. However it is a bit more difficult to hold in the way that I hold my sketchbooks, trying to keep them flat and sturdy, but it’s not impossible. The dark red cover is very nice. It was the first day of August, my sketching muscles were twitching, the weather was unbearably hot, my inbox was overflowing. On this particular lunchtime I took myself into the Arboretum and sketched one of the bridges over Putah Creek. This one has a lot of those padlocks attached to it. You know the ones, like on that bridge in Paris, the one which got so overrun with these ‘love-locks’ that they were worried the weight would drag the bridge into the Seine and they were removed. There are a few such love-locked bridges in the Arboretum. So if you are unfamiliar with the concept, what people do is they carve their initials or their names into a padlock, and then attach it to a bridge, so that they can come back some day and say, oh look it’s still there, amazingly. Or they can come back with a future girlfriend/boyfriend and say, “no, that isn’t me, that’s another person with the same name/initial.” Or, more plausibly, they can come back with a future boyfriend/girlfriend and say, “yah, this was probably me, I don’t remember, this one too, and this one, you don’t know them, they went to a different UC” to which the boyfriend/girlfriend can roll their eyes and say “yeah right, you put these here yourself”. You get the picture.

Whenever I see these ‘love-locks’, my inner Severus Snape always comes out, curling his lip, “Hoooow … Romantic. Ten points from Gryffindor.”

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to warwick and stratford

Warwick Castle
And now for the final part of our recent trip to Europe. I was determined that we’d visit a historic castle, something we don’t have many of here in California (sorry Mr Hearst, Mr Disney, but those ain’t castles). So we hit the motorway (thanks to my mum for driving us) up to Warwick, in central England. I had been there a few years ago, and knew it was a pretty great sight. Warwick Castle is a little theme-y (being owned by Merlin Entertainment now) but as it has a Horrible Histories maze and some fun jousting entertainment that doesn’t matter. Actually, we missed the jousting as it’s not every day (though I did see some four years ago, and it was fun). Warwick Castle is in a beautiful location on the banks of the Avon river, and a historically significant geopolitical spot, being in the middle of the country and therefore an important stronghold for the balance of power. The Earl of Warwick in the late middle ages was known as the ‘Kingmaker’, not without exaggeration. The site of Warwick Castle was founded as a ‘burh’ by the formidable Anglo-Saxon lady Æthelflæd, ruler of Mercia (also ‘Ethelfelda’). She fought against the invading Danes and the Welsh, she was also a daughter of Alfred the Great, and in fact there was a re-enactment of her funeral in June 2018 in nearby Gloucester. When William the Conqueror invaded in 1066, the Normans built a motte-and-bailey castle here on ‘Ethelfleda’s Mound’, and Warwick Castle was subsequently built up over the next few centuries by later lords and earls. The first Earl of Warwick was Henry de Beaumont, from 1088, and the 16th Earl, Richard Neville (who gained the title through marriage to Anne de Beauchamp) was the famed Warwick the Kingmaker, who rose to prominence during the Wars of the Roses before dying at the Battle of Barnet in 1471. There’s a lot more history too, but I was interested in the old armoury. The suit of armour below is actually a child’s armour, likely for ornamental purposes. I sketched the castle above while taking a break with my son, who didn’t want to walk around the dungeons.
Warwick Castle Armoury
We didn’t stay in Warwick, though I’d love to sketch that old city some day. Instead, we stayed the night in Stratford upon Avon at a place called Alveston Manor, a large country house converted into a hotel just a short walk from central Stratford. It was lovely, and I love drawing buildings like that. Stratford is Shakespeare’s town, and they do not ever let you forget it here. We did walk up to see Shakespeare’s birthplace, and walk along the Avon, and I had a huge knickerbocker glory (with extra chocolate) at a local pub. So good.
Stratford Upon Avon Alveston Manor
In the evening after watching France knock Belgium out of the World Cup, I walked down to the riverside as the last mid-summer light faded away, and sketched the bridge below. This was around 9:30pm at night. I decided to walk across the other bridge to get back to the hotel, whcih was a mistake. It was a logn bridge along a road with a fairly narrow path for pedestrians, and lots of cobwebs. During the day the cobwebs were quaint. In the evening they were covered with thousands of busy, chubby spiders, loving their little legs and spinning and completely freaking me out. They weren’t dangerous, unlike the ones in my Davis back yard right now, but so many of them moving all around me was pretty much the creepiest thing ever. I ran as quickly as I could, but it was a long bridge. Yeah, I’m not into spiders.
Stratford Upon Avon

porto panoramic

Porto view from Vila Nova de Gaia

Picture postcard Porto. Pretty, panoramic, picturesque. I could go on. I think I’m most happy with the sketch above, of all the stuff I drew in Porto, this is the postcard scene. It was my free, non-workshop day, no obligations to be anywhere. I slept in a bit longer than I had intended (until almost 9), but my feet were happy for the extra rest. On this day I was heading over the river for the first time to Vila Nova de Gaia. I was interested to explore Gaia, and looking back I wish I had explored more but you sacrifice some wandering time for sketching time, and I really like sketching. The scene above took two full hours, as I added the paint on site (instead of the old colour-in-later thing), and it was beautiful there. I was under the shade of a tree, on a solo bench, and the weather was beautiful, sunny and warm but breezy. Views like this are there to be enjoyed.

So Vila Nova de Gaia. First of all, the boat – there are lots of these old boats along the banks of the Douro, loaded with barrels, each belonging to one of the many Porto wineries that dot the shores of Gaia. Most have English names and origins, as mentioned in my last post, and in fact these boats have a race up the river each year. It’s called the ‘Douro Rabelo Port Wine Boat Regatta’, which may not be easy to say after a few glasses of Sandeman Tawny. the ‘Rabelo’ is what these little boats are called. They are used to transport wine to Porto from the Douro valley. They’re flat bottomed, and that long piece of wood at the back (the ‘little tail’; that’s what ‘rabela’ means in Portuguese) is used to steer it.

Porto view from Vila Nova de Gaia

I drew the one above first, and intended to colour this one in but the wind on top of the hillside got the better of me. It’s a long way up. I had crossed the Ponte Luiz I bridge via the top, sensibly. My plan was originally to cross over here, go down to the riverside, sketch there, look at wineries, come back up and get the metro to the Dragao Stadium, home of FC Porto. I never did that last bit, because I was moving a lot more slowly, what with sketching these complicated detailed scenes. But what fun!! I never get to draw scenes like this back in Davis. Those bridges in the Arboretum just aren’t the same. I must say though, if there is a quick way down to the riverbank I didn’t find it, I took a long way, walking down a steep winding path. That’s why I never went back that way, but crossed the river at the base of the bridge instead (and then took an even steeper trek up the hill in Ribeira).

Now Vila Nova de Gaia has an interesting history, aside from being where the wineries sell their Port. First of all, it is actually a separate city from Porto itself. The hydrants look a bit different for one thing. Now this settlement existed in Roman times where it was known as Cale, or Portus Cale. Yes, it’s from this that we get the name ‘Portugal’, which was originally the large county around this area which expanded during the Reconquest of the middle ages to what we now know as Portugal. The port area was on the other side of the river, now called Porto (or ‘O Porto’, the port).

Cais do Ribeiro, Porto

Here is another rabela, this one moored on the Ribeira side of the Douro. I love drawing that bridge. This was done a couple of days before, during the Sketchwalk (in which I didn’t really take part as a group activity – there were a lot of people – and missed the final group photo, comme d’habitude eh). I did have to rush back to the Alfandega though for the opening reception of the Symposium.

Porto panorama sm

Now this final drawing I am showing also took a couple of hours, and is themed like the others in the it shows the river Douro and the Ponte Luiz I bridge, but this one is even more panoramic, being one of those double-page spreads I like. Click on the image to get a closer view. I really enjoyed sketching this, though I was standing when I did. Before I began I actually did try to sit at a cafe to rest and have a beer while I got started, but the waiter actually refused to serve me when he saw I had a sketchbook. “Are you going to paint here all afternoon?” he said gruffly. “Well I’m going to draw for about half an hour while I have that beer, yes.” “It is not allowed!” he responded with a mean look. “Fair enough,” I said, I mean there were only a few tables on a very narrow strip and I chose the one with the best view, but this Portuguese Basil Fawlty did irk me a little, I was a paying customer, and didn’t intend on being there for long; I had somewhere to be, and I wanted to sit down and have a cold Super Bock. I’m sure he had had many, many, many others doing the same and it irritated him. So I stood around the corner, where there were other sketchers, and I drew for about half an hour, and then went off to see Gabi’s demo, and then came back to draw the rest for about an hour and a half. I never got to finish the colour, and I do intend on adding it, at some point, but for now I’m leaving it as it is. Just imagine the colourful scene. The sound of seagulls, the chatter of tourists, the silent concentration of sketchers, and of course, the completely irritating sound of street musicians, playing ‘Besame Mucho’ over and over and over again. There are a lot of street musicians – you know how much I love those – and they all seem to play Besame Mucho way too much. There was one though that turned up while I was sketching this who wasn’t actually that bad – he didn’t play Besame bloody Mucho anyway – but then he started playing Oasis songs, but really, really slowly for some reason. “stop Crying Your Heart Out” took about eight minutes, as he warbled on “Hooooowwwwllld Oooowwwwooonnnn,” like a tortured coyote. I don’t think this was exactly Fado, but I can understand Saudade a bit more now, the feeling of sadness after listening to these terrible musicians all day long. Maybe that’s why the wait said it wasn’t allowed, maybe he was warning me of the bad music, like it was for my own good. Ok, I’m exaggerating my own grumpiness for amusing effect (that’s my story). Standing and sketching big detailed scenes is one of the things that makes me most happy, and puts me in a ridiculously good mood despite bad street musicians and grouchy moustachioed waiters. I chatted to some other sketchers I had never met when I was done, and then went off to Ribeira square to meet all the other sketchers for Drink’n’Draw.

One more post of Porto sketches to go! So this is the Penultimate Porto Pictures Post.

holy toledo!

Toledo Puente de San Martin

I expected Toledo to be full of holes. Or I expected it to be completely and utterly Toledo. I don’t know exactly where the phrase originates from but ‘Holy Toledo!’ is one of those American exclamations you don’t hear very often now, and is often confused with all the various ‘Holy’ exclamations used by Robin in the Batman TV series of the 1960s. Those I think were derived from ‘Holy Toledo’. Oh hold on, this just in, Toledo was a very holy city historically in Spain. There is a big cathedral there after all. There is a Toledo in Ohio, and if you say ‘Ohio Toledo’ quickly it sounds a bit like ‘Holy Toledo’ but no, no it doesn’t really. I think it has some relevance to baseball announcers, “Holy Toledo, what a hit!” or similar. So with all that on my mind, we got on a train from Madrid, and we went to Toledo.

I think ‘Hilly Toledo’ is a more accurate phrase. That place was full of steep streets and winding narrow alleys. We arrived and jumped onto one of those open top tour buses outside the station, not a cheap ride, but it went all around the edge of the town for all the amazing views over this well-contained citadel perched on a hill in a bend of the Tagus river. It is a beautiful sight, a medieval city preserved in all its old Castilian glory. The droning voice on the headphones told us about the Moors, and the old Visigothic Kings, and how Toledo was the ‘City of the Three Cultures’ for its blend of Muslim, Jewish and Christian populations, and lots of other interesting facts presented in a dull, sleepy way. I mimicked it which was not too hard as I too am dull and sleepy. Well, in real life perhaps, but when I was an open-top-bus tour guide in London I was much more animated about presenting history. One of the spots I liked most was the Puente de San Martin, above, a 14th century stone bridge. I sketched it from a bus stop on the other side of the river while waiting for the tour bus to pick us up again after I had literally flown across the Tagus…more on that later. Not too far from here is a church where the great El Greco painting ‘The Burial of the Count of Orgaz‘ is displayed. El Greco, the great painter of the Spanish Renaissance, lived in Toledo. El Greco wasn’t of course his real name, he was just called that because he was Greek. A bit like Nick The Greek from Lock Stock, I suppose. Anyway it was very impressive.

Toledo Don Quixote

Also associated with Toledo are two things – steel, and Don Quixote. You see him everywhere. You also see shops selling knives and swords everywhere, often with a figure of don Quixote outside, or maybe a knight in armour. I mean, a LOT of knife shops. They must love cutting things there. We were waiting for a tour of the cathedral, and while I was waiting I decided to do a quick sketch of the Don Quixote at the knife store next to us. He looked like a surprised Count Dooku, like when Dooku had his hands cut off by Anakin Skywalker and Chancellor Palpatine said “Kill him, Anakin. Kill him now.” After about 30 seconds of sketching a woman who worked in the store came out and looked at me quickly before going back inside. She came back out a minute later and said I couldn’t sketch there because people wouldn’t be able to see the knives in the window. There was a massive window next to me full of knives. She said I could come in and draw the other Dooku – I mean, Don Quixote – inside the shop, but I was like, I will be sketching for maybe another 30 seconds and can also just step back one step if standing here is bothering you. Bear in mind there were lots of other people standing there waiting for the tour to start as well, none of them were holding a sketchbook so none of them got asked to move. And before you knew it, I was done. It’s almost like I have written a book about drawing people quickly or something.

Toledo cathedral interior sm

Next, we took a tour of Toledo Cathedral. That place was amazing! So many ornate details inside. Our tour guide was giving us a lot of the history, but he was speaking in English and Spanish simultaneously, switching language several times in the same sentence, which was starting to get a little distracting. My son was getting a bit antsy as well, so we left my wife on the tour and went off to do a bit of sketching. Just in pencil, I wanted to sketch fast and I had intended on adding paint, but never got around to it. My son drew the same scene below. Not every day we get to sketch a massive historic cathedral together!

IMG_8086 There was no way I was going to tackle sketching all the ornate sculpture of this place. Look at the shot below, with the light coming in from the ceiling. This place was amazing.

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I did draw outside though. We had a little bit of time before we needed to get back to the train so we took that time to grab a Pepsi Max and sit in the shade, resting our legs, while I drew the cathedral. I couldn’t get too far though, so drew the outline and about half of the details, the important ones – I added the rest along with the colour later.
Toledo cathedral sm

This is the Toledo train station, which I sketched while waiting for our Madrid-bound train.

Toledo train station sm

And below, here am I ‘flying’ over the river. I ziplined across thanks to a company called ‘Fly Toledo‘ which operates a zipline near the San Martin bridge. That was exciting. I had to walk the equipment back over the bridge afterwards but I got a photo of me posing at the end as if in mid flight. I suppose at that point I could have, like all the other photos, appeared to be more of a daredevil and had my hands free but I’m not a daredevil am I. It was the first time I had ziplined since I was 17, so yeah, not really a daredevil. It was exciting though. (Photo by Fly Toledo)

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We didn’t have time to go to Segovia on our Madrid trip, but that is the other day excursion I would have liked to do. Not only because it is another beautiful historic and of course Roman town, but also because it sounds like that place in Avengers that Ultron lifted into the sky and threw back to the ground. Next time perhaps!

cooling off at baker beach

Baker Beach San Francisco
Summers in Davis, California are ridiculously hot. I know that to you back in Blighty that means little comfort while you have the usual soggy British summertime, but it’s honestly too hot in Davis. Oh it’s a ‘dry heat’ which means you don’t sweat constantly, as we do when it gets hot in London, but still it’s too hot to do anything. You don’t want to leave the cool air-conditioned house, which can then make you go stir-crazy. Davis is too hot. The first summer I had in Davis back in 2006 was so hot that air-conditioning units crashed the local power grids several times; though ours was fine, many people in Davis would escape the hot evenings and go to the bookshop I was working in, just to cool off. Even my nice office was not immune during the day – the power would go down, and the building would gradually heat up, until everyone was just sent home. Davis summers don’t see as many power outages these days (usually they happen during storms now) but the summers are still ridiculous, and our PG&E bills certainly reflect that. However there is one way to beat the heat – get out of town and drive west to the San Francisco Bay Area. That first summer, it was on a Davis day of 115 degrees Fahrenheit that I first realized how different our climates were, the Central Valley and the Bay Area – on that day it was around 65 – 70 degrees in Berkeley. Quite a difference. And so, a few weeks ago, we decided to leave the boredom and heat and drove one Sunday down to Baker Beach in San Francisco, where the air was cool and the sky was blanketed with fog. Yes in California we leave the sunshine and heat and head to the coast to cool off beneath overcast skies and this is normal – I truly have moved across the world, and found my people. There we all were enjoying the foggy skies, in full view of the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge – full view, except for the top, obscured by rolling waves of fog. It was heaven. Of course, those harmful rays can easily get through that fog (I only ever get sunburnt in San Francisco, it’s deceptive) so we were still lathered in sun-screen. We hung out at the beach for a few hours until we got hungry for cheesecake, and then attempted to drive home. That took a very, very long time. First of all, we left the beach at 3:30pm, but did not reach the Golden Gate Bridge until 5pm, and you can see how near it is. Traffic was completely stuck. Over the bridge we stopped for dinner at the Cheesecake Factory, hoping the traffic would ease off, but it didn’t – after another long wait in unmoving traffic we abandoned all hope of crossing the Richmond – San Rafael bridge, and headed north to sit in more traffic along Highway 37. We weren’t home until 9pm, five and a half long hours later. And of course, Davis was still hot. So it is worth it to get out of town and cool down, but you might end up in a car for a very long time.

sense and serenissima

Fondamenta del Piovan Venice sm

I wonder what my Venice ‘limit’ is? How long could I be in Venice before I got bored by the bridges, confounded by the canals, tired of the tourists, frustrated by the flooding, and hounded by the humidity? Maybe never, and maybe always? Maybe all of that is the charm of Venice, and maybe it is something I don’t notice when by myself but becomes more prominent when with others? It’s hard to tell. I’ll always love Venice, always be amazed by its very existence and history, that is is an eternally crumbling yet living and breathing beauty? I could spend a long time there wandering and sketching, but even Venice would end up feeling small and familiar. Other cities may not be as pound-for-pound beautiful, but may have a more lasting attraction – Paris, for example. Over the course of three days however Venice is magnificent and divine, and every scene is a potential watercolour. The morning light in Venice beats everywhere I have ever been. The sketch above was done on my second morning in Venice, while wandering about the narrow paths of the sestiere of Cannaregio, looking for a specific spot which I knew to be nearby the place we stayed in 2003. I found it – the shiny marble church known as Chiesa di Santa Maria dei Miracoli, which I remembered to be surrounded by cats the first time I saw it. There were no cats this time. I sat on the steps of a bridge on the Fondamenta del Piovan and sketched the above scene, painting the colourful reflection in the soft morning light, before wandering back to the apartment, Venetian breakfast pastries in hand.

Grand Canal Venice sm

Later that day, we had a morning and afternoon of slow wandering around the two sestieri on the other side of the Grand Canal, San Polo and Santa Croce. We took a traghetto over, looking for the natural history museum, but spent ages getting lost among the alleys and courtyards. This was a much more residential area than I had expected, and while we were lost (because we were a bit lost, we never found that museum) my son watched local kids playing football in the small squares (though he was a bit shy to join in). I did get one sketch done, looking for a route to the Grand Canal, sketching the magnificently domed Chiesa di San Geremia across the wide turquoise canal. Scenes like this make Venice feel like a made-up city, a pretend place, but it’s very real, and boatmen moored up bringing their goods onto the fondamenta. This was actually my last sketch in Venice and tired feet were not looking forward to the journey back to England, but we were all ready to come back by that point. Venice is beautiful and fun, as is Rome, but there is a lot of walking. Our next vacation will involve a little more beach and pool.  Rio de S Fosca Venice sm

One last sketch though, a quick pencil sketch of the Rio de S. Fosca, in Cannaregio, drawn quickly the evening before, after dinner. I didn’t want to be out sketching after dark so drew this as the sun set and went back to settle into the apartment with thoughts of future Italian trips in my head. Next time, Florence, Tuscany, and maybe the Italian Lakes. I’d like to visit the Ligurian coast, all the way down to the Cinqueterre. Genoa has always sounded interesting to me, and Bologna. Naples scares me a bit, but I had a pen-pal from Naples when I was about 13 (we never met, but she would write to me all about the south of Italy, and I’d write back all about London). Similarly, Sicily always seemed wild and distant, but I would love to explore its villages and coastal towns. I don’t know; I want to go everywhere, I guess. At least we were able to go to Rome and Venice, and that was worth it. Arrivederci Italia. Ciao!

canalside in cannaregio

Fondamenta Moro Venice sm
We stayed in Cannaregio, the northern quarter of Venice, a neighbourhood of canals north of the Grand Canal and east of the train station. I kept spelling it Canareggio, which is wrong. I also spelled it Cannareggio, which is also wrong. I never spelled it Canaregio because that just seemed obviously wrong. We arrived on our train from Rome in good time, that trip across the lagoon making the old heart thump around with excitement. We were staying in an apartment we had booked online, and we had the address, and we had even looked for it on maps online, and here is the thing – Venice makes no sense to anyone except Venetians. They don’t have streets, you see. That might seem obviosu, because they have canals, but they literally don’t have streets – what they have are Calles and Fondamenti and Campi, but if you have an address it’s not like, 52 Gondola Road, Venice. Instead each address is a number, followed by the name of the area. For example, the address of the church Madonna dell’Orto is Cannaregio 3512. It’s a bit like saying you live in “Willesden 4586” without giving any street name or other distinguishing feature – people just know where it is, and to locals it makes a lot of sense. To the outsider however, it can be very confusing, and Venice is like a labyrinth anyway. In fact, while all those Calles and Fondamenti have big signs letting you know at least vaguely where you are, it turns out those were added by the Austrians years ago to stop themselves getting lost, Venetians had never needed them.

Fondamenta Misericordia Venice sm

What I am saying is, yes we totally got lost trying to find the place. ‘Fondamenta Moro’ is also very similar sounding to ‘Fondamenta dei Mori’, two canals over. We hadn’t been to Venice in 14 years and I think had forgotten how much it can turn you around. We got there in the end, and it was a nice neighbourhood not too far from Strada Nuova, which actually is more of a street and has a good supermarket for stocking up on supplies (dio mio, I love Italian food!). It was an apartment we reached through a dark and slightly slanted covered alleyway, and the narrow canals were right outside our windows, boats and gondolas drifting by quietly. It was a world away from the Rome apartment with its spectacular view and exhausting staircase, but peaceful and homely, with a row of canalside restaurants and gelaterias nearby. The top sketch was done out the front of the building, stood by the bridge in the early evening, Venice at its most serene. The sketch in color above was done at dinner, and you can see the back of our apartment on the corner of the building’s ground floor. That’s my son, sketching a boat. We ate at the Trattoria Misericordia, and the food was decent (not as good as Rome but pretty good), but the waiter fancied himself as some sort of comedian, but came across as, well, not a comedian anyway. We ate while the sun cast long yellow streaks in the sky and then walked home across the bridge.

Hydrant in Venice

Cannaregio means ‘Royal Canal’, as it was the main route into the city before the railways were built across the lagoon. These days it is the northernmost of the ‘Sestieri’, the six areas of Venice. Above, a Venetian fire hydrant, covered up like those ones I drew in Lisbon years ago, remember? Now it isn’t the exact same one as below, which was nearby on the Campiello Diedo, but I thought you might like to see it because it is quite similar in many respects.

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