pottering about paris

Paris Moulin Rouge
I really like Paris, but it has always felt like the city I never really got to know very well, and is better friends with other people. It’s not really very far from London, its history has long been bound up with every other country around it in some way – if Paris sneezes, Europe catches [insert whichever virus is trending that year], and yet from Britain it felt a world away; funny how the British see near neighbours. “Paris m’est inconnue“, a line I remember from Cyrano. My time spent in France was mostly down in the far south, which is why my French accent is so different (see also my time in Belgium, more on that in the next posts) (actually the real reason is that I’m just not that good at French) (I do have a degree in French though). But in all the times I have been to Paris, I realized that I’d only ever been there by myself once, and that was over 20 years ago, for the day, on my way elsewhere. I had been as a 13 year old kid on a day-trip with school, when I first entered Notre Dame and felt the cold ancient stone, and our bus went past the Moulin Rouge. I went when I was about 20 with a girl, that didn’t really work out, and all I really remember now is when I decided to go for a late night wander by myself and walked all over the city, exploring Paris after dark fearlessly and completely without any sort of map. I went another time (with another girl) and I remember going to Pere Lachaise and up Montmartre but little else, it was a long time ago. My solo visit was during the World Cup 1998, as the opening part of my summer-long European rail journey, and I spent the evening watching Brazil beat Holland on a big screen in front of the Hotel de Ville. I never went back, save for changing trains to catch the Eurostar, until my family and I went in 2012 when my son was quite young, and that was my favourite Paris visit, hitting many of the sights, watching Les Guignols in the Jardins de Luxembourg, and taking my son on all the metro lines because he liked being on the train. I really like Paris but have rarely been on a solo trip. And this day, well I was by myself, but it was another day trip. However I was determined to just wander about one area only, the steep hill of Montmartre. I landed at CDG, took an RER to Paris Nord, and set out on foot. And when I arrived on rue Pigalle, on the leafy traffic islands flanked by sexy DVD shops and nightclubs, I saw the one thing that reminded me I am back in France – a man pissing openly in the street, and nobody caring. Some things don’t change. That was a fairly common sight when I lived in Aix, but back then I was not Californian, and didn’t think anything of it. But hey when you gotta go you gotta go. Later that same day I went to Brussels, whose most famous statue is a boy very happily having a public wee.

So anyway, as you can see above, I stopped on Pigalle, and drew the famous Moulin Rouge. It’s so famous that Nicole Kidman made a film about it. It’s so famous that Rod Hull made a TV show about it, although he watered it down a bit. As I mentioned my French isn’t as great as it should be so I think Moulin Rouge means ‘Mussels in Lipstick’ but I didn’t go in to find out, so instead I just drew the big red windmill that is for some reason on the top. I know that the famous ‘can-can’ dance has something to do with this place, presumably it’s about canned mussels (which btw are fine but not as nice as fresh mussels). The can-can was very popular when I was a kid in around 1980-81, I think it had been released in the charts to compete with Shakin’ Stevens, and I remember at parties in our street people attempting to dance a can-can and kick their legs up high. So anyway I drew the windmill because I figured, I am going to be spending a good amount of time in the Netherlands on this trip, this will be the first windmill of many. Spoiler alert, this was the only one I drew. Incidentally, I decided to put a Gnome – a ‘Nain de Jardin’ – on my sketchbook. We all remember that film Amelie, in which there was a gnome that disappeared and traveled the world sending postcards back as you do. That film was set around here, so there’s a photo of me trying to do as the gnomes do (“when in Gnome…”), and failing because I couldn’t get the focus right on the background. This is filed under the chapter “Why I Am An Urban Sketcher (And Not An Instagram Photographer)”. All that said, I will intersperse these stories with the odd photo, such as this one and also the one of the little pixelated wall-sprite, to flesh out the experience. My little gnome, he is in French colours (or maybe Dutch flag colours), and has the sign of the Euro on his belt.
Paris Montmarte Cemetery
I love the big city. The big city is my natural environment. Put me in a big city and I’m like that video that always gets shared of a dog running out of a car into a lake and splashing around. Not that I splashed around in that bloke’s wee, but I just feel energized being back in the urban environment again. Davis, you ain’t Paris. But even I need some quiet time, so I went to Montmartre Cemetery and got all the quiet time I could want. I had never been there before, and it is quite a place, small and yet massive, with secluded corners and grand boulevards. Part of it runs underneath a bridge. I found a bench and sketched while the sound of trees and wind and crows gently muffled out the distant traffic. Peace and calm. Speaking of crows, seeing crows on gravestones was, I thought, the most gothic thing ever. Until I saw a dead crow on a gravestone. I like cemeteries, I am always careful not to walk across any graves and I’m solemn around the dead. We’re all going where they have gone, some way or other. Maybe not this cemetery though, you might have to be quite famous and French to end up here. I looked at the map showing where all the famous corpses were, most of whom I did not know. Except Adolphe Sax, Belgian inventor of the Saxophone. Francois Truffaut is buried here too, but I never watched his films, despite my degree in French, I kinda turned my nose up haughtily at Truffaut, as one of those film-makers that the university wannabes all said they loved at the pub when comparing coolness. “Oh you think that thing’s cool? Then I don’t,” was how I went about things. Even choosing my location for a year abroad, everyone went to France, so I went to Belgium, to be different. So anyway, I didn’t find Truffaut’s grave, and one day I might watch his films. Whoah…Edgar Degas was buried there. I found his grave. Foucault, he’s there too, though admittedly I know Foucault about him. And Emile Zola! I was impressed there. And Stendhal, I looked for his grave too. And the last name I had heard of was Nijinski, though I thought that was a racehorse.

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After a couple of hours spent among the dead, it was time for lunch. I climbed uphill into the windy streets of Montmartre, and found a nice little restaurant called Au Claire De La Lune, on Rue Poulbot. I sat outside, the most Parisian of settings, with a surprising lack of foreign tourists, everyone around me was French. I had sole with bearnaise sauce, and a Kronenbourg 1664. This was a good day.
Paris Rue Poulbot

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And finally I had to wander the streets around Sacre Coeur. I’m a big fan of Sacre Coeur, although I must admit, I have never been inside. I never gave myself time. I had time to sketch though, and I was pretty pleased with what I drew. The sky had character, and the view up to those white domes is one of the most iconic in the world. The view across Paris is jaw-dropping, but you can see the fire-damaged Notre Dame, missing the famous central spire. I didn’t go down to see what has happened to those ancient stones in that awful fire, but I gave her a nod of respect from afar.


Paris Sacre Coeur

And that was all the time I had. There was a train to catch, the high-speed Thalys, taking me to Brussels, a city I had a lot more history in, a springboard for a few days jaunting about Belgium, that country of rain, chocolate, frites, rain, moules, beer, and rain.

What I didn’t know was that it wasn’t going to rain, but it was going to get hot –  very, very hot.

 

Westminster Cathedral, stripes and domes

Westminster cathedral , London
The only rainy day on my visit back to England was the day I dedicated to doing the most sketching, but I don’t mind the rain, and I wanted to explore anyway. A slightly later start than I had wanted (due to waking up super early – jetlag – after a night out seeing an old friend in Borough – hangover – meaning I stayed in bed trying to get back to sleep a bit more, rather than dashing out at 8am to sketch every inch – or centimetre – of the city). I wanted to explore Victoria – the area not the person – and maybe draw a map of the neighbourhood showing people all the interesting things to sketch around there. I haven’t drawn the map yet, and in fact Victoria has changed a lot since I last spent time around there, which was almost 20 years ago when I was a tour guide based out of there. It’s really different there now. I don’t know what has happened to New Scotland Yard but it’s an empty building site now. Lots of modern buildings have risen up. One building I have always been interested in but never sketched nor been inside was Westminster Cathedral. My old tour bus used to swing past this building while I gave a courteous nod to the recent history of Catholicism in England, on the way to (or was it from?) the much more illustrious and ancient Westminster Abbey, further up the road (which is not technically a Cathedral but a Royal Peculiar, our highly knowledgeable tour guide instructor instructed us to say. Regardless, only one of these buildings gave the City of Westminster its name and it wasn’t stripey boy here). I stood opposite Westminster Cathedral, in the light rain, my London Underground umbrella firmly stashed inside my jacket hands-free, sketching in the Stillman and Birn Alpha book. The tower had to be squashed ever so slightly because it’s actually very tall, but you wouldn’t notice unless I tell you, so I’ll keep quiet. I like the stiripes; some of the older buildings around the back of it have similar horizontal stripes either in mimicry or as a survival instinct to blend in; it’s nature’s way. The long name of this building is the “Metropolitan Cathedral of the Precious Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ”. Or “No not Westminster Abbey, the stripey one around the corner”. It was built in 1903 out of brick with no steel reinforcements, none of your steel reinforcements, proper brick done properly. The flags waving above the entrance are that of the United Kingdom and that of the Vatican City. The domes and curves brought to mind the St Mark’s Basilica in Venice, but less glitzy. I had never been inside though, and so after a sandwich from Boots (Meal Deal of course – I love the Meal Deals in England) I went in and had a look around. I was very impressed, there was a lot to see and it had a fair bit of glitz itself (it’s the big Catholic church of the country, you need some glitz) such as golden neo-Byzantine mosaics, but most exciting was that for the tidy sum of six quid I could go up the tower.
View from Westminster cathedral's tower

“It’s very foggy today,” said the man in the gift shop who operated the elevator,  “you won’t see much.” Oh I don’t mind that, I said, thinking it might make drawing a bit easier if I can’t see all the details. It was a really good view (for six quid it had to be, but it supports keeping the elevator open so I’m all for it), and the wind did blow some of the rain in towards me, I stood pretty sheltered and draw as much as I could. The growing pattern of skyscrapers in the distance was a ghostly silhouette, dominated by the Shard. The Palace of Westminster’s Victoria Tower stands tall in the middle, and just behind Westminster Abbey you can see Big Ben still covered in scaffolding. I enjoyed drawing this so much. There’s nothing like drawing a city from a high perch, and I did it again a couple of days later at the Tate. If you like perspective drawing this is like a dream job. When I was done, I wandered about the streets of Victoria for a bit more, before heading back over towards the shops of Covent Garden. It’s times like this when I feel such an affection for London, the unbeatable metropolis that can never be completely discovered. I’ve always liked this building but never been in, and now I have.

lisbon and her histories

Lisbon Street tiles sm
I intended on waking up early, as I like to do when I travel, and wander Lisbon’s streets in the dawn light, try to find a little bakery with amazing delicious pastries. However my bed was just too comfortable, so I stayed there. It was the last full day of my three-week trip before I would be flying back to America. I’d been to London, Warwick/Stratford-upon-Avon, Madrid, Toledo, Porto, and Lisbon. I was overdue a long lie-in. But I had a Lisbon to sketch, so eventually I dragged myself out from the comfy covers and headed towards Alfama. I walked through the long grid system of Baixa, which owes its layout to the massive rebuilding of Lisbon after its devastating earthquake in 1755. That earthquake really was devastating – it is estimated to have been between 8.5 and 9 on the Richter scale, and resulted in the deaths of anywhere between 30,000 to 40,000 people in Lisbon alone, most of whom died in the resulting firestorm and tsunami caused by the quake. Lisbon was rebuilt, but the Baixa area is sometimes called Baixa Pombalina, after the Marquis of Pombal who led the reconstruction and was responsible for a more earthquake resistant architecture. Now I didn’t end up do any sketching around here, except for the man above, a workman repairing some of the mosaic pavement tiles. So I also drew some of the various mosaic pavements I came across in Lisbon. This style is ubiquitously Portuguese, black and white square tiles, often laid out in intricate patterns, a feature especially common in Lisbon but also found in far-flung former Portuguese colonies, like Brazil and Macau.
Lisbon Se Cathedral sm
I passed into the Alfama district, which I did not visit back in 2011, and headed up to the cathedral, the Sé. You’ll remember that the cathedral in Porto was also called the Sé. IT is related to the English word ‘See’, as in the ‘Holy See’. Do you see? Anyway it shares some similarities (or “Sé-milarities”, eh) with the Sé in Porto, well I think they look alike, I don’t care what you sé. Anyway I sketched outside next to a statue of a famous actor (I’ve never heard of him) and walked around inside. It turns out the proper name is Santa Maria Maior de Lisboa and it dates back to 1147, when the city was retaken from the Moors. Actually the cathedral was built on the site of the city’s largest mosque. The doors were interesting, and as you can see from the inscription on the metal part, they date I think from 1933, made by a bloke called Vicent Esteves, aka Vince Stevens, old Vinnie Steves. I am assuming the doors are from 1933, that is, for all I know the cathedral was built then and the whole of Lisbon was built then too. In the post-truth era people might believe this. There was another symbol in the masonry on the wall, a circle with a greek cross, although it might be the view you see when being thrown down a well by four radishes.
Lisbon Se Cathedral details sm
Ok enough cathedral based silliness. So I started walking around Alfama, an old windy-street hilly part of town with red rooftops and twisty alleys. Then I stopped and ate some sardines for lunch, the classic Lisbon food, I had forgotten how many bones are in those. I found this post-box, next to a similar looking blue one. I only drew the red one. Speaking of the post, can I just point out that I sent a postcard home from Spain and thus far it has not arrived, but we received the postcard I sent from Porto already so that’s 1-0 to Portugal in the postcard wars. Well, last year we sent a card from the Vatican City State which got here super fast, but thirteen months later we are still waiting for the Italian postcard from Rome.
Lisbon Postbox in Alfama sm
I liked walking around Alfama. There’s so much history around here, it’s hard to believe Lisbon was only built in 1933. Only joking. Actually much of this neighbourhood was apparently spared widespread destruction in the 1755 quake. This was the stronghold of the Moors, but they don’t live there any moor. (Travels with me is an endless series of admittedly excellent puns) Alfama the name is itself Moorish deriving from the Arabic “al-hamma”, which means thermal baths or fountains. Before them, the Visigoths. Before the Visigoths, the Suebi, the Alans (“Ah-Ha!”) and the Vandals (such as our old pal Vinnie Stevens), and before them of course were the Romans, when Lisbon was known as ‘Olisipo’. And before the Romans, it was the Celts who lived here. The area around the Castelo de São Jorge was (it is thought) home to a Celtic fortification, and archaeological excavations even suggest a Phoenician trading post here dating back to around 1200 BC. And before the Phoenicians, there were the Oestrimni, and the Beaker people, the old Bell Beaker culture. And before them, the Neanderthals, living around the Tagus estuary 30,000 years ago or so. I could go on but I’m just not sure which dinosaurs exactly had nesting sites in the Alfama area so perhaps we’ll just carry on our story from here.
Lisbon Alfama Street sm
This scene was drawn near the Castelo, in the winding maze of streets around the castle hill. As I was drawing, I (again) bumped into fellow urban sketcher Genine Carvalheira, with her girlfriend. She may have thought I was just one of many Pete clones dotted around Lisbon with sketchbooks (I wish I had access to that sort of technology, can you imagine how many sketches I would get done?). It was a hot afternoon and I stood in the shade.
Lisbon Alfama View sm

And here is the view from the shady leafy gardens of the Miradouro de Santa Luzia. Those red rooftops of Alfama, that blue Tagus river, it was a gorgeous day in a gorgeous – and very historic – city.

porto parochial

Santo Ildefonso, Porto

It was a bit of a race for me: will I draw more fire hydrants or more churches? Fire hydrants was always going to win because of the ease/speed factor, but by day two it was neck and neck and if I hadn’t spent so much time schlepping up and down hills I might have spent that drawing even more Porto churches. There are so many beautiful ecclesiastical buildings in Porto, with accompanying dizzying views, sculpted masonry and often those very Porto-esque blue and white tiles. Above is the church of Igreja Paroquial de Santo Ildefonso, at Praça Batalha, which was right outside my hotel (I drew a map, below) and on the other side of a deep valley facing the iconic Torre Clerigos. A lot of sketchers drew this church. I never went inside, but I loved all of the tiles outside. This was the first sketch I did in Porto, sat outside my hotel eating a couple of ‘Natas’ and drinking a Fanta Orange.
Porto Map Batalha

Below is the Cathedral of Porto, the Sé, another magnet for sketchers, not least for its incredible views over the city. I do wish I had drawn it more than once from another angle, as I really liked the views approaching the cathedral from behind. I wanted that view of the front with the sun shining down on it. I stood outside some houses in the shade, looking up, a group of older Portuguese men stood to my left just chatting and smoking, and shaking hands with the occasional local passer-by, while an old lady sat outside her house to my right yelling at pigeons while another one (or maybe the same one, I wasn’t paying much attention) threw things at pigeons from an upstairs window while hanging out laundry. Ok, why am I drawing cathedrals? I should be drawing that. The Sé building dates from 1737.

Se do Porto

Now below is the one that, if you were an urban sketcher and didn’t sketch this at the symposium, you weren’t really there. Ok that’s how it seemed anyway. The Torre Clérigos was used as the symbol of the Symposium and was that one tall tower visible from everywhere. I sketched this one (below) on the last Saturday of the Symposium, making sure I managed to get it in before I left the city, forgetting I had actually drawn it three or four times already from a distance. It’s on a very, very steep slope which is great for the perspective sketching, and I sat in the afternoon sunshine with a wide-brimmed hat on to draw this. The Clérigos was built by renowned baroque architect Nicolau Nasoni, who designed many other grand buildings in Porto.

Clerigos Porto

Below was one of the more spectacular churches I saw. The building shape itself was not inspiring, but you don’t look at a painting and say, yeah but it’s just a rectangle of canvas. It was the amazing decoration, covered completely in smooth blue and white tiles, covered in beautiful ornate paintings. It was like the Sao Bento train station but inside out. I didn’t have time to go inside. I came across this church, while walking around late at night looking for an easier way back to the hotel that involved no mountaineering. By the way it is called the ‘Capela das Almas’ and is located on Rua Santa Catarina, opposite the Bolhao Metro station (Santa Catarina is actually one of the few I walked down that was actually a flat surface). This church dates from the 18th century but the tiles were added in 1929 by Eduardo Leite. At night it was lit from outside and so it shone like a beacon, with all those smooth tiles, but I was tired so drew it in the daytime, my last sketch in Porto before leaving. In fact I only had time to draw the lines, I added the paint afterwards. This would be an amazing one to do a huge drawing of, spending a long time with intricate details, but I would need (a) better glasses, (b) loads more time and (c) loads more natas.

Capela Das Almas, Porto

 

Here it is in the flesh, at night:

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There were so many other church buildings I did not get to sketch, such as this one below. Actually it is two, right next to each other, located near Porto University. Perhaps next time I’ll draw all the ones I missed this time.

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Stay tuned for more Porto sketches!

 

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!

veni vidi venezia

Rialto Venice
It was a trip to Venice at the end of my undergraduate degree in 2001 that got me into what we now call ‘urban sketching’. I had always drawn stuff, but drawing the world around me just wasn’t something I did. Oh except those few times in my teens, usually for art homework, plus a poorly scribbled panorama of Prague that I did sitting on a hill during my 1998 European railway adventure. I planned a few days in Venice after finishing my final exams – my degree was in French and Drama – and at the end of year party in the Modern Languages department at Queen Mary University of London one of my French professors (Marian Hobson) talked to me about how much she liked exploring Venice, and she recommended that rather than take a load of photos I should consider drawing while I travelled, because I would really see with my own eyes. I am paraphrasing a bit but I remember that conversation, and when I flew out to Italy I took extra pens and some coloured pencils (no sketchbook, didn’t bring one of those) and drew a few pictures on location in the white pages at the end of my Lonely Planet guidebook. Venice was too amazing not to draw, and too different from Mile End not to savour every moment. I explored early in the morning, getting up as the sun rose, before the tourists, before even the pigeons, while tradesmen moored their boats on jetties delivering to the local shops. Venice really was an impenetrable labyrinth, like nowhere I had ever been. I don’t even have that guidebook now and the sketches were small and not hugely detailed but I never forgot that feeling, and carry that sentiment with me whenever I sketch, even Davis, that I am using my own eyes to see things as they are.

I went back to Venice a year later, but did no sketching as it was February which meant thick dense freezing fog, thick dense Carnevale crowds, and more thick dense freezing fog. I went back a year after that, with my future wife, and we got engaged in the middle of Piazza San Marco. That was an amazing and memorable trip, in the sticky depths of August. I would also get up early and wander Venice with a sketchbook, free of the crowds, drawing what I could. Venice is an unusual city, but I always loved it and thought that we would be back sooner – if not every year, then maybe every couple of years. Then we moved to America, and so it was that we didn’t return for 14 years. Venice is still there, it hasn’t sunk yet (“oh you’d better go now,” people say, “I heard it’s sinking and it’ll be too late!” Venice has been sinking, or rather flooding, forever. Venice is still here.) When the chance came this year to finally return we jumped at it. We were going to Rome, so why not get a train up north back to old Venice?

And of course, I could get back to the early morning wandering and sketching. After 14 years away my sketching had improved somewhat so I was eager to try out my more developed sketching skills on Venice. Before the family were awake, I would get up and wander the labyrinthine calles and alleys looking for a place to sketch, returning to our Cannaregio apartment with Venetian pastries for breakfast. The sketch at the top of the famous Rialto bridge was done at about 7am, when the canalsides were calmer and the local traders carted goods ashore, and postmen wheeled little carts up and down the stepped bridges. You can see the golden light peering onto the water beneath the Rialto bridge; I can tell you that the view from the bridge itself of that other side at 7 in the morning is one of the truly magnificent sights to behold. I’ll draw that on the next trip, if I dare, when I’m a bit better at it. There is nothing like standing by the Grand Canal listening to the Venetian morning sounds and drawing in a sketchbook.

I have a good few sketches to show you and I’ll try to keep the storytelling concise but here is one more, of that very Piazza San Marco. It was pretty incredible to be back here in the spot where we got engaged, but this time as a family. I did a quick sketch of the Campanile and the Basilica San Marco while my son rested his tired legs (Venice equals a lot of walking). It wasn’t yet too crowded, but it was getting busier, so we got a Vaporetto back to Cannaregio and had a rest. And, of course, a gelato.
Piazza San Marco sm

big dome in a little country

The Vatican sm
We didn’t see the Sistine Chapel. We didn’t see the Pope on his balcony. We didn’t look inside St.Peter’s, and we didn’t climb up the Basilica’s massive dome. But the Vatican City State was still pretty great! We walked there from our apartment, crossing the Tiber, my son super excited at the possibility of checking another country off of his list of visited countries, and the smallest recognized one at that. Sorry Sealand! Ok, so before I tell you all about the Vatican, I’m going to say that I promise not to make any puns or word-play jokes, not out of any reverence (careful now, that was nearly one) or respect, but because pope-based puns are just too easy, even for me. I’m not promising but I vill see Vatican do (dammit, promise broken). So, approaching the Vatican, you can always tell how close you are by the number of people coming up to you offering you special deals to beat the line, look at that line, I can help you beat the line. By the time you get up to the little boundary that is the border between Italy and Vatican, it becomes unbearable. You only have to turn your head and look at the big line and someone will notice and pounce, “I can help you beat the line! Don’t you want this special deal?” So many of them. They would not leave us alone. I expected devout Catholics everywhere praying n the street (no idea why I had that impression), but it was mostly aggressive unofficial tour-guides with tricks on getting past the big line. So, what I love about the Vatican – as soon as you reach that frontier, they vanish. Like cursed ghouls they are unable to cross the invisible holy line. It’s incredible actually. Now I’m not religious, I don’t believe in God or any of that stuff, but being able to banish all annoying tour-guide-line-jumping-irritants with one magic line is pretty much magic in my book. So we went into the Vatican City-State, no passports or visas required, but we did not enter the Vatican building itself (if only there was a way to beat that line! Why didn’t I listen?), and I took in the experience by sitting and sketching it. I love to sketch a cathedral, big church, basilica etc when I can, and like, dudes, this is the big one. It is massive. The dome of St. Peter’s! My name-sake. (The ‘r’ is silent in my name, as is the St.) We bought postcards, and sent ourselves a postcard from the little Vatican post-office (and by the way, it arrived very quickly, unlike the one from Venice which I am still waiting for, so score one for Vatican Mail. I was disappointed to see that it wasn’t called the ‘Holy Post’ though). I’d like to go back and see all of it some day, but reserving tickets ahead of time is the way to go. We had a lot more sightseeing in Rome planned, so we moved along.
The Tiber sm

Easy, Tiber. I did come back to the river early the next morning to sketch the view of the Vatican, along with the Pont Sant’Angelo, from the Ponte Umberto I. That bridge you see actually dates from the Roman Empire (it is also known as the Pons Aelius) and was built in 134 AD by Emperor Hadrian. Ok wait what, 134 AD? Rome has a lot of ancient buildings, but a bridge that old?? Remember how I said the Romans built London Bridge? Yeah that one didn’t survive obviously (there is a famous song you may have heard about the problems you get with different building materials, but I don’t know how true to reality the song is given that at one point they suggest building a bridge across a wide river in a major metropolitan centre by using ‘silver and gold’, though to be fair they do concede that the people of London may be inclined to strip the bridge of its valuable metal). Well anyway, back on point, this bridge was also built by the Romans and there it is still, to this day. That is impressive. It leads over to the Castel Sant’Angelo, where the Emperor Hadrian has his tomb. The early June morning light reflecting against the waters of the Tevere was so gentle, serene, despite the buzz of mopeds on the street behind me, and the morning tourists posing for selfies. I miss Rome already. I did throw a coin into the Trevi fountain, which means I will definitely, absolutely return to Rome. By the way I still have more Rome posts so don’t go away. Rome wasn’t sketched in a day.