Sir Francis Drake was born on a farm just a few miles from Buckland Abbey in Devon, a National Trust property that we visited while staying for the weekend at the Moorland Garden Hotel. From modest beginnings, ‘El Draco’ had grown up to become a buccaneer (that’s a polite word for pirate), great Elizabethan naval commander and scourge of the Spanish Empire in Central America where he attacked their ships and stole their gold at every opportunity.
Since Queen Elizabeth I was one of his backers, she was thrilled when Drake returned to England in 1580 with his ship, the Golden Hind, laden with Spanish treasure, of which she would take the lion’s share. Drake was knighted as a reward and bought Buckland Abbey with just a small part of his bounty, adopting as his motto ‘Sic Parvis Magna’ – from small beginnings come great things.
Buckland Abbey’s more recent claim to fame is the Rembrandt self-portrait which came to the property in 2010 as a legacy. Until recently the painting was thought to be a portrait of the artist by one of his pupils or a copy of one of his originals. A visit by the Rembrandt expert, Professor Ernst van de Wetering, prompted a reconsideration of the painting and investigations started to see if it could be a genuine self-portrait.
The now confirmed Rembrandt ‘Selfie’ is housed in a ground floor exhibition room at the abbey, with fascinating information about all the detective work that went into establishing that it was the real thing. The portrait has an element of the dressing up box about it, with the artist in a flamboyant cap with ostrich feather, flowing velvet cape and gold chain, using the ‘Tronie’ style of Dutch painting in which people were portrayed as historic or mythological characters.
We watched a video explaining the reasons that the portrait was agreed by art experts to be genuine, such as the fact that the signature had been made when the rest of the paint was still wet, rather than added afterwards. It also appears to have been written rather carelessly, with the artist running out of space so that he left off the D in his name, something you might not dare do if you were a forger.
Xrays and infra-red photography showed how the shape of the figure was blocked out on the canvas, which was a typical technique Rembrandt used and an analysis of the pigments showed they were consistent for the period.
After painstaking research, analysis and cleaning, the self-portrait was found to be genuine and now takes pride of pace in the centre of the exhibition room, where you can see the back with original labels and markings, as well as the front.
On arrival at Buckland Abbey we walked down into the Ox Yard, where old farm buildings now house craft workshops and a room where you can see a video about Sir Francis Drake. The shop and restaurant are in what was once the old monastic guest house.
Buckland Abbey was, as the name suggests, originally founded in 1273 as a monastery by Amicia, the Countess of Devon, in memory of her son who had been murdered. She endowed the monastery and large estates in Devon to the Cistercian order who divided their time between spiritual devotions and agricultural labours, especially sheep farming.
The Great Barn, which sits right beside the main house, was built at this time and is one of the largest of the period with oak roof beams arching 60 feet above you as you enter. It was built to store the farm produce, its sheer size indicating the wealth and productivity of the abbey estates and is often used for workshops and events like carol singing at Christmas.
Since we were there in the late autumn, we found that apples from the estate were being pressed to make cider, the group of volunteers only taking up a small space of the huge barn.
After King Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in 1539, the abbey buildings and estate were sold to Sir Richard Grenville whose heirs converted the monastic buildings including the church into a private home. Sir Francis Drake moved to Buckland in 1582, the same year he became Mayor of Plymouth aged 39, already famous for his 3 year circumnavigation of the world and his exploits in the New World.
We enjoyed a look around the various galleries in the house where portraits and objects from the house’s history are on display. Pride of place in the Treasures Gallery on the first floor is taken by Drake’s Drum, which he took on his naval voyages and is said to sound whenever England is in danger. To the side of this main display room was the oak panelled Drake’s Chamber, filled with oak furniture and portraits of the period, just as it might have looked in Drake’s day.
Along the corridor we moved on 200 years as we walked into the Georgian Dining Room, while up the stairs to the top floor was the Long Gallery, dominated by a huge statue of Sir Francis Drake. This long, open space was used in Tudor times for the inhabitants to get some indoor exercise and we found information about life on board the ships that Drake might have sailed and the lives of the Cistercian monks.
Back on the ground floor were the Tudor kitchens, laid out with 18th century cooking utensils and foods as if preparing for the dinner party upstairs. The final part of the tour was through the Great Hall, created in 1576 by Sir Richard Grenville when he converted the monastery into a house. Apparently the nave of the old church where the monks were buried sits under the pink and white tiled floor of the Great Hall.
Our tour finished, we came out of the house and back into the beautiful formal gardens, inspired by Tudor knot hedges filled with roses and a small orchard of apple trees. If we’d had more time, we could also have taken a walk around the Buckland Abbey estate through the great deer park and woodland where wild garlic and bluebells bloom in the spring.
If you are on the western edge of Dartmoor visiting Tavistock or Plymouth, do stop in to Buckland Abbey for a big slice of Devon’s history and to find more about Sir Francis Drake and the Rembrandt selfie.
If you go: Buckland Abbey, Yelverton, Devon, PL20 6EY, Tel: 01822 853607
Closed in January, re-opens 14 February 2015. Open daily 11-4 in winter, 10:30-5:30 in spring/summer. Admission Adult £11, Child £5.50. (check website for more details) Follow on Social Media: Twitter @BucklandAbbeyNT | Facebook | Instagram |Thanks to the National Trust who gave Heather and Guy complimentary admission to Buckland Abbey.
Where to stay:
Heather and Guy stayed at Moorland Garden Hotel which is close by at Yelverton – read my review here. The hotel is an ideal base for those wanting to explore the area for walking on Dartmoor or to visit the Ocean City of Plymouth. The rooms are all decorated in colourful style using a garden and moorland theme and the award winning Wildflower restaurant is highly recommend for lunch, dinner or cream teas overlooking the lawns.
You’ll also find our sister blog with tips on how to build a successful travel blog at My Blogging Journey
Milan, Italy’s second city, is a complex paradox, the capital of Italian commerce, industry, finance and fashion (its design and fashion shows are actually big business trade fairs) yet for the cognoscenti it offers easily discovered cultural and epicurean treasures.
Perhaps this constant eye toward commerce is what makes the city, as a tourist destination, a little understated, a little too northern European with high-rise towers and banks that outnumber the churches. Yet when you walk the city’s streets, immersing yourself into a culture that is firmly rooted in fashion, art, opera and delicate aperitivos eaten al fresco atop cobbled streets, you come to realise that Milan is much more than the sum of its sometimes shallow parts.
The city hosts a little bit of something for every type of person – not just world-class shopping but a well-wired and vibrant cultural scene too. The undeniably creative atmosphere is a pleasure to explore and when you do, you’ll note that Milan has more history than the shiny skyscrapers, grimy backstreets and freshly manicured nails of its denizens tend to remember.
Fashion in the Rectangle of Gold
If it’s fashion that you want then point your Louboutin’s towards the Quadrilatero d’Oro – otherwise known as the Rectangle of Gold, to explore everything from Dior to Versace and all the usual suspects all within easy walking distance of each other. Be sure to take a well-heeled walk around the Gallerie Vittorio Emanuele II, which amongst other things is one of the oldest shopping malls in the world – with Prada’s flagship store now celebrating its 101st year there. Bargain hunters should take a look around the area for the outlets that stock floors of past seasons bargains. However if your tastes are slightly more avant garde then take a walk to Via P. Paoli 1, where you’ll find the Antonioli concept store – a unique space where you can shop contemporary designers such as Ann Demeulemeester, Rick Owens and Yohji Yamamoto in a beautifully designed store.
The shows in spring and summer are, to many, the highlight of the fashion calendar, with starlets from all corners of the world, heading to the Palazzo Reale or the Palazzo Serbelloni, to get a first look at the designs of the elites of Italian fashion such as Dolce & Gabbana, Marni and Moschino. If you don’t have an invite to a show then there are still plenty of opportunities to strut your stuff – whether outside the venues (prepare for the street-style paparazzi) or in one of the city’s trendy bars.
Culture in Milan
To some it’s surprising that this sometimes-grey city is where Leonardo da Vinci found the perfect setting to exercise his brilliance. You could spend days here retracing his footsteps – from the Sforza Castle with his painted Mulberry tree frescoes, to the various exhibits of both his work in art and science in the city’s museums. Best known is the breathtaking Last Supper fresco, which hides on a refectory wall behind the antique façade of the UNESCO listed Santa Maria delle Grazie church.
Aesthetes should dedicate time to the astounding gothic beauty of the Duomo. Its size is staggering, a construct which took 5 years to complete – it is the largest cathedral in Italy. Inside the looming façade, the numerous works of art and icons on offer create a brooding atmosphere – the most striking of which is the statue of Saint Bartholomew Flayed, by Marco d’Agrate.
The saint stands, muscle and tissue exposed, holding a book, his flayed skin thrown over his shoulder like a robe. Those with a love of opera should make reservations to the Teatro Alla Scala, though any one with even a passing interest in the arts and architecture should make an effort to see the impressive stage, which first raised its curtains in 1778. Art lovers shouldn’t miss Tiepolo’s frescoes at the Palazzo Clerici or the works of art concealed within the Pinacoteca di Brera.
It goes without saying that Italy is well known for its food – but Milan often, rather unfairly, slips under the radar. Let’s make it simple. When in Milan – sate your hunger with local cheeses, butters and milks – note that rice is more popular than pasta in many circles, it does absorb the creams and cheeses that bit better – and try local greats like gorgonzola, polenta topped with mushrooms and of course the famous Panettone cake – originally from Milan and generally reserved for Christmas in these parts.
Now let’s set the scene: Milan, 6pm, the bars and restaurants of the city are filled with locals and tourists alike for Aperitivo hour. Where do you go? For the classic experience I’d suggest the haute bars around the Piazzo Duomo, especially Zucca in the Galleria, which is where the likes of Giuseppe Verdi and Arturo Toscanini would dine after performances at La Scala next door – the historical ambience, and the view of the Duomo completes the authenticity. For those in need of a slightly more stylish setting then try Brera district, or, for something a little more elaborate, try the Navigli district, where the da Vinci designed canals wind along the narrow streets. Try one of the houseboats docked in the canals, where Aperitivo is often accompanied by live music.
But what is Aperitivo you ask? Aperitivo is a well-established northern Italian culinary tradition, and Milan (from the 1920’s anyway) is the capital of it. It’s about drinks and food. A harmony of flavours propelled to sainthood, through offers of after work relaxation and the pleasure of conversation paired with great, though simple food. Try a spritz or a Negroni sbagliato (a delicious mix of prosecco, red vermouth and Aperol instead of gin) paired with a smorgasbord of olives, nuts, bruschetta, cheeses and other stuzzichini (finger food).
Drinks cost anywhere from 7 to 15 euros and come with either a table mix of the above or, in some cases, all you can eat buffets – perhaps the last thing you would expect, when all around you, the Milanese strut in precision heels, pristinely turned out with perfectly pinched waistlines.
Take a few days to experience what the city has to offer – stay away, if you can, from the bustling Milano Centrale Station area, and instead stick to the Piazzas where you can sit in the company of history and simply watch the (Milanese) world go by, sipping your espresso, nibbling on a biscotti and absorbing the very special magic of Milan.
About the author: David Jacobs is a travel writer and editor of Euro Travel Magazine – an online publication which focuses on the whole of Europe, from the mysterious Orkneys to the wine dark seas of the Aegean.
Photo Credits: Shopping in Milan – Mike and Annabel Beales on Flickr, Castello Sforzesco, Milan – Mike and Annabel Beales on Flickr, Rooftop of Milan cathedral – Stefan Karpiniec, Saint Bartholomew – Antonio Trogu, Milan at night – Alex LA, Milan station – Richard Evea
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The modern glass cube of the Museion in Bolzano sits confidently facing the river, two pedestrian bridges snaking away from it, a contrast to the nondescript apartment buildings on either side. I visited the Museion when I was in South Tyrol in September, curious to see what a modern art museum was doing in this traditional Italian town in the Alps.
The Museion Museum of Modern Art reminded me very much of the Arnolfini centre for contemporary arts that sits beside the harbour in Bristol where I live. It’s a place that specialises in those conceptual art exhibitions that you go and see out of curiosity, to have a good laugh at the latest outlandish concept that is on show in the name of art.
Last time I was at the Anolfini, a whole gallery was flooded with a few inches of water, with slabs of what looked like tree trunks for you to cross the room. Then there was the performance of silent dancing, when the audience and performers wore headphones and the dancers shuffled and twisted their way around the room, seemingly in silence if you didn’t have the benefit of the headphones. But is it Art? Perhaps, but not as we know it!
At Museion, I met up with Sarah Greenwood, the English born Head of Marketing who told me how the Museion had caused quite a bit of local controversy when it was built in 2008 by Berlin architects KSV. “Couldn’t a local architect have been found?” asked the locals, and “how will this modern building fit with the older, more traditional buildings of Bolzano?”.
In a town that was once part of Austria, now part of Italy, it’s always a challenge to integrate the two cultures, so the two curving bridges across the river were built at the same time, to link the older German influenced part of town with the newer, Italian neighbourhood on the other side of the river.
Sarah told me how the Museion aims to be a catalyst for change, which is sometimes hard work in a conservative area and so the space is designed for locals to come in and get to know the Museion. The ground floor “Passage'” is an open space with light flowing from the glass fronts on each side of the building. It is designed to create a community and exhibition space where local groups can meet with courses, events and exhibitions being held here. On Thursday evenings, the facade that faces the river shows video art projections with the sound coming from speakers built into the benches outside, so that you can come with a picnic or glass of wine to enjoy the show.
If, like me, you are appreciative but not especially knowledgeable about the art world, you might need to understand the distinction between Contemporary Art – the work of living artists from the 1950s onwards, and Modern Art – the work of artists from 1900 to the 1950s.
If visiting Museion, you might also need to suspend any belief that Art is designed to be beautiful, to please the eye, to deliver a sigh of pleasure. In contrast, the Contemporary Art that Museion presents is conceptual in nature. That is to say that it aims to express what the artist feels or perceives and to provoke in you, the audience, some kind of emotion; happiness, curiosity, even disgust.
All of which means that it may challenge your concept of what Art is or should be. Understandable then, that the locals sometimes wonder if their tax-payer’s money is being well spent. But as Sarah told me, “Sometimes the people of Bolzano don’t realise that they can come here to see the top contemporary artists in the world who have shown in The Tate Modern in London or MoMA in New York”.
On the first floor of Museion when I visited was an exhibition of minimalist art “When now is minimal”, featuring pieces from the Goetz collection in Berlin, put together by an individual art collector, Mrs Ingvild Goetz. The idea of minimalist art is that it does not evoke anything but itself – what you see is what you see.
One of the most extreme examples of this was by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei; “Tea cube” was a brown pressed cube, a couple of feet square made of pressed tea. Mmm, while I like a nice cup of tea, I’m not quite sure about that as a piece of art.
Since the artist has been targeted by the Chinese government for his political views, I did have some affinity with the more attractive art-work named “Coloured”, a row of coloured vases on a shelf. To the untrained eye, these may look like brightly painted pots on a shelf. In fact they are Ming vases which have been painted with layers of coloured emulsion paint. You see, it’s all about what’s going on inside and outside, what’s being covered up.
In a room on its own was the piece by Martin Boyce; “We are resistant, we dry out in the sun (our dreams merge and hang in the air like chlorine vapours)”. The artificial setting of neon palm trees or perhaps sun umbrellas with coloured sun loungers was as far from the natural beauty of a holiday postcard as you could get. Ahh, but when did art have to be pretty?
Looking a bit like an optical illusion was the painting by Chinese artist, Wang Guangle which mounted on a white wall looked like a dark corridor or hole in the ground, depending on your point of view. I learned that the shaded effect is created by building up layers of paint over time, inspired by the tradition in the artist’s home town of Fujian of building up layers of laquer each year on your own coffin. Was it coincidence that the resulting painting reminded me of looking into my own grave or perhaps into my future?
Another favourite conceptual artist in the collection is Rosemary Trockel, something of an artistic feminist, her work making a comment on woman’s place in society or in the art-world itself. A giant red knitted panel 3 metres square, mounted on the wall was called “Old Friend”, but the piece de resistance was a white square with black circles, which on closer inspection turned out to be the artist’s interpretation of an electric hot-plate. Is the art-world sexist? Why can’t the everyday objects from womenkind’s experience be art too?
Upstairs the whole floor was dedicated to an exhibition of Tatiana Trouvé, a French/ Italian artist whose exhibition was entitled I Tempi Doppi exploring the theme of parallel worlds and Deja Vu. The major installation filling half of the open space was called 350 points towards infinity, with metal plumb lines strung at angles from the ceiling to the floor, like bullets frozen in flight. On looking closely, you realise that in an Alice-in-wonderland un-reality, the plum-lines hover mysteriously a couple of inches from the floor, the effect created by magnets hidden under a false floor.
Other works included a twist of metal wire, with light bulbs at either end, going from dark to light. Is good and bad, light and dark just two ends of the same reality?
Then there were those suitcases, just like the ordinary plastic suitcases that our parents used. Only these suitcases are cast from bronze and coloured to look like ordinary plastic suitcases. A cord attaches the suitcases to the ceiling where a number of luggage tags hang, 100 tags for 100 years perhaps? There’s only one tag on the suitcase though and it says; The Passing Past 2014, and it lists some everyday objects. A pencil, swimsuit, cushion, mattresses, brushes.
In the corner nearby is a pile of cardboard wrappings, folded up ready for recycling with some cloths that were used to wrap the artworks in transportation. But this is another artwork called “Refolding”, cast in bronze and representing the packaging that gets thrown away after an art exhibition. While I found beauty in the shooting shafts of the 350 points to infinity, I felt that Tatiana was pushing her luck here. As Dolly Parton said, “It costs a lot of money to look this cheap”.
I’ll finish our tour of Museion with a piece that did make me smile and bring out my inner child. A low, red rectangle sculpture on the floor turned out to be a pile of posters – shareable art from Felix Gonzalez-Torres that you are invited to take away. They even provide elastic bands so that you can roll up your poster and take it home. I can imagine that visiting school children are thrilled with the idea of taking a real piece of art home from their local art museum, their parents perhaps less so at having a big red rectangle to put on their living room wall!
If you visit the Museion, you’ll find different artwork and exhibitions from the ones I saw last September, but no doubt as beautiful, extreme and thought provoking as these. Suspend your ideas of what art may be and embrace the experience with an open mind. This is art that will make you laugh, make you puzzled, make you wonder whether it was worth the cost, but that’s the whole point after all.
If you go: Museion, Via Dante 6, 39100 Bolzano / Bozen, Italy. Open daily except Monday 10am-6pm, and 10am-10pm on Thursdays. Check the website to confirm opening times and times of any guided tours. Admission: Adults €7, children free. I highly recommend that you converse with the knowledgeable staff to discover more about the artworks, just so you understand more about the story behind them. Follow on Social Media: Twitter @MuseionBZ | Facebook | YouTube | Pinterest |
Information, articles and resources for South Tyrol
For more information to plan your own visit, find accommodation and discover all the things to do in South Tyrol, visit the South Tyrol Tourism website and watch videos about the region on their YouTube channel. For updates on things to do in South Tyrol follow the South Tyrol Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and Instagram pages
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