Cambridge University Botanic Garden

Monday, 1 May 2017

On my latest trip up to see family in Cambridge, I took advantage of an extra cheap, extra early train ticket to make the most of the day trip. I arrived with a couple of hours to kill before meeting my family and as all of the museums were shut I decided to have a look around the Cambridge University Botanic Garden. It's a little further out from the main town, so I'd never ventured there before, and didn't know what to expect given the chilly early-March weather - but I was rewarded with the most beautiful blossom trees! The gardens opened in 1846 after moving from a smaller site in the centre of the city, and the original teak structure of the Temperate House has recently been restored - you won't see another glass house like it, as it's the last of its kind in the UK. The tropical rainforest glass house is particularly beautiful, especially with the bizarre strongylodon macrobotrys (jade vine) which flowers in spring. I was intrigued to find a little cubby hole for reference books within the glass houses (though it's now sadly empty). Outside, there's forty acres to explore, from rock gardens and roses to plants in bogs or flowers for bees. 


30 Hours in Bologna, Italy

Monday, 24 April 2017

Last month, Ainsley and I decided to take a trip on a whim. Initially, we'd planned to catch the train to Manchester; but quickly we realised it was actually cheaper to go abroad (a recurring theme with the prices on Britain's rail network!) So, we ended up in Bologna. It couldn't have been a more perfect place to spend our thirty hours - the weather was perfect, the food was great, and the city is beautiful.

Wandering down from our hostel into the city centre, we couldn't find the Finistrella di via Piella, but we got to see Bologna's 'secret canal' from another street instead (via Guglielmo Oberdan), which was a little easier to get to. Our first real taste of the city's history was the Two Towers (le due Torri), the largest standing towers left of around one hundred which dotted the city during the medieval era, used as watchtowers but also as signifiers of noble families' wealth and power. The Two Towers were built in around the twelfth century, and whilst the Garisenda Tower has been closed off due to its severe tilt, the lesser-leaning but taller Asinelli Tower remains open to climb! We decided to give the few hundred stairs a go, and were rewarded with a perfect panoramic view over the entire city - well worth the €3 entry fee, and the aching legs. The main city square, the Piazza Maggiore, is a beautiful open space to sit and enjoy the sun, and take in the sights: the unfinished but beautiful Basilica di San Petronio, half brick and half pastel facade, and the four impressive palazzos which made this place centre of Bolognese life for centuries. It's also home to the Fontana del Nettuno, which we sadly missed as it's being restored, but is beautiful. We had a peek inside the quiet courtyard of the Palazzo Communale (home to the city's Civic Art Collection), but we arrived after closing - we'll save the interior for our next visit.

On day two we had our bearings - the city is small and easily walkable - so were able to pack in a few more of the sights. We walked the long way through the smaller streets to pay a second visit to the food markets, stopping by one of the many university museums, the Museo di Zoologia (via Selmi 3) in the university quarter. The museum's holdings are based on the collection of the pioneering sixteenth-century naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi; the place really retains a 'cabinet of curiosities' feel, including some fairly amusing taxidermy specimens! Our highlights were the two huge, bizarre sunfish which hang in the main gallery and on the staircase. Back in the centre, we went to the gothic Chiesa di Santa Maria dei Servi (Strada Maggiore 43), drawn in by the porticoes outside. Inside, you can see fourteenth century frescoes and several paintings by Bolognese masters. Just opposite is the Palazzo Bargellini (Strada Maggiore 44), housing the Museo Civico d'Arte Industriale e Galleria Davia Bargellini. The building features the most incredible white staircase, and the museum holds all kinds of items from elaborate wrought iron keys and ceramics to religious artwork and portraits; there's even a large gilded carriage! We didn't have time to visit the Museo Internazionale e Biblioteca della Musica (Strada Maggiore 34) just next door, but I had to pop in to take some photographs of the colourful courtyard filled with huge banana plants. Next on our list was the Complesso di Santo Stefano (via Santo Stefano 24), also known as the Seven Churches. Parts of the complex are thought to be from as early as the fifth century, and it's a beautiful place to spend some time. Our final stop in Bologna was the Archiginnasio (Piazza Galvani 1), the original seat of the University of Bologna, which is the oldest university in the world. The walls of the interiors are painted throughout, creating an enormous network of around six thousand coats of arms dating back as early as the 1500s. The building is home to a library of just under a million volumes, as well as the Teatro Anatomico, a beautiful wood-panelled lecture theatre used for anatomy classes. The ceiling is carved with figures representing the constellations, in the centre stands the marble dissection table and the canopy over the teacher's chair is held by two carved, 'skinned' men. If I had to choose, the Archiginnasio would be at the top of my list to visit in Bologna.

Bologna is known for its food: one of its nicknames is 'la Grassa' for a reason. The Quadrilatero brims with stalls of beautiful fruit and vegetables, handmade pasta and fresh seafood, and little restaurants filled with people enjoying platters of cured meats and cheese. My favourite stop here was La Baita Formaggi (via Pescherie Vecchie 3a), with its giant blocks of cheese and hanging legs of ham, where I stocked up on local parmigiano reggiano and dried pasta to take back home. I also picked up a punnet of tiny wild strawberries, which taste incredible - I've never seen them in the UK apart from growing in my childhood home, so I found that pretty exciting! We didn't have a lot of time for sit down meals, so I was thrilled to find tagliatelle ragu to go at the Mercato di Mezzo (via Clavature 12) and tortellini with sage butter at another takeaway. In thirty hours we managed three lots of gelato - twice at Gelatauro, which was so good we couldn't resist going back, and a total bargain at just over €2. Their strawberry sorbet was the best I've ever tasted (try it with the chocolate hazelnut gelato).

Travelling with a vegan, I was a little worried about the availability of food free from animal products in a city known for meat and cheese - but we were spoilt for choice, with a selection of vegan eateries to easily rival London's (and in a much, much smaller city). For dinner we headed to Botanica Lab (via Battibecco 4c), a solely plant-based restaurant which uses seasonal, organic and often gluten-free ingredients. The prices are reasonable, the interiors are beautiful, the staff are lovely, and the food is tasty and creative - it's not often we find somewhere that Ainsley can eat anything on the menu, and I think even the most narrow-minded meat eater could find something satisfying to eat. We also tried out La Margherita (via Nazario Sauro 28b), a little all-vegan bar, for a great seitan burger, and the vegan fast food outlet Universo Vegano (Largo Respighi 6) which I was impressed to find also makes an effort to have zero food miles and eliminate palm oil. In addition, we passed several other tasty-looking options: Cento3Cento Veg (via Centotrecento 12a), serving up seasonal vegan and vegetarian street food; the cafe and juice bar Centrifuga (via Nazario Sauro 23b); and Un'Altra Idea (via Marsala 29b), a vegan restaurant offering pizza and pasta. There's a whole host of other vegan and vegetarian-friendly options, too - Bologna seems to be a foodie city for pretty much everybody.

There are plenty of lovely hotels in the city, but we didn't want to spend much on a hotel we'd barely see - luckily, Bologna has great options for budget travellers. We stayed at Dopa Hostel (Via Irnerio, 41), which was only €24 each for a comfortable bed in a six person dorm. Situated in the university district about ten to fifteen minutes walk from the central Piazza Maggiore, it has a beautiful communal kitchen with breakfast included, a lounge with a record player, guitar and books, and decent bathrooms. The dorm beds are built like cubby holes, which give plenty of privacy and come with lockers for valuables. The staff were friendly and eager to advise us about the best bars and trips in the area, and all in all it had a lovely relaxed atmosphere.

We booked flights about a month in advance with Ryanair, flying from Stansted for less than £40 return. Bologna's airport is only a few kilometres from the city centre, and the €6 Aerobus runs into the city every 15 minutes. Coming into the city centre, it's best to get off at the stop near the Parco della Montagnola; we found that going back to the airport, it was easier to walk ten minutes through this park to Bologna Centrale station rather than work out where we could get on in the city.

Post-apocalyptic & Dystopian Reads #5

Monday, 17 April 2017

Cormac McCarthy
I've written about The Road before, but I recently revisited it and couldn't exclude it from my post-apocalyptic series. It was one of the first books in the genre that I encountered and remains one of my favourites across the board. Following a father and his son as they journey across a devastated America, The Road produces some of the most realistic, thoroughly frightening moments I've come across in post-apocalyptic fiction - but it was the simple, heartfelt portrayal of a father and son's devotion to each other which made this book so fantastic. 

Hari Kunzru
Hundreds of years in the future, a magnetic storm has wiped out all modern infrastructure and society is now ruled by a group who enforce a culture of 'forgetting' - no reading, writing, or art is permitted. Memory Palace tells the story of a man imprisoned for the crime of remembering, in an unusual format. The story originally shaped an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, where Kunzru's short, experimental tale was accompanied by artwork interpreting the narrative; a totally immersive and wonderful way of experiencing this future world. Since the exhibition is finished, the experience is slightly different, but the tale is still compelling and thought provoking (and you can see the artwork here).

P. D. James
The year is 2021, and it is twenty five years since a baby has been born on earth. Rather than a catastrophic event or plague, James' apocalypse is the slow extinction of humanity, as people the world over watch themselves age without hope of continuing the species. The doll industry has boomed as childless couples seek a surrogate, the population must submit to fertility testing to aid scientists, and most chillingly the elderly are required to report to the 'Quietus' to remove themselves as a burden. The premise is what had me hooked, but I just couldn't find myself caring much for the characters, especially our principal character Theodore. He was tiresome, self-involved and unlikeable, and made a lot of the book heavy going - I finished feeling like any other character would have been preferable as a narrator!

George Orwell
The novel on every school reading list and the metaphor rolled out whenever increasingly dubious surveillance laws are approved, no post-apocalyptic and dystopian reading list would be complete without it! Written in 1949, Orwell imagines a world tightly controlled by Big Brother, where every action and word is monitored to ensure adherence to the doctrine of the state. Our disillusioned narrator works for the Ministry of Truth, revising history as the regime sees fit, but becomes interested in the truth of the past and embarks upon a course of action which could see him punished with death. I really enjoyed this book on my first reading years ago, and a re-reading was just as entertaining: great, unnerving stuff.

Margaret Atwood
I've not yet encountered an Atwood book I haven't enjoyed, and the MaddAddam trilogy didn't buck the trend. I actually read these books 'out of order', first coming across The Year of the Flood soon after it came out in 2009. The novels deal with a future not too difficult to imagine: a world run by multinational corporations, sharply divided into the safe compound areas and the deprived neighbourhoods surrounding them, characterised by genetic experimentation - and its eventual destruction through a mysterious epidemic. Unsurprisingly, Atwood has created a fascinating world and compelling characters; it's imaginative, rich and exciting in a way which makes the reader question where this dystopia begins and ends.

See all my reviews of Post-Apocalyptic & Dystopian Reads here!

Making Nature at the Wellcome Collection

Friday, 24 March 2017

The Wellcome Collection is always a reliable source of interesting and thought-provoking exhibitions, and their last few have featured a lovely variety of subjects: from sex and forensics to sound and asylums. It's a special place for me especially because of the specific kind of fusion of science and art which it manages to create. I've always thought the two disciplines fit so well together, and historically they weren't considered in opposition as they seem to be currently.

Their current exhibition, Making Nature, opened in December and - in a year of great exhibitions - shot straight to the top of my favourites. I've been twice now, and I'd wager that it'll at least make it into my top five for 2017 too (and there's a lot of good stuff on my list to see this year). It explores the relationship between humans and other species in a way I can't recall ever seeing done before. Whilst the way we view animals might seem logical, natural and inevitable, Making Nature exposes the many ways in which we have built our views, consciously and unconsciously. We have observed, categorised, displayed, studied, changed - and exploited - animals for millennia, and those actions influence the way we see ourselves, too. Examining these relationships is fascinating, but it's not always particularly comfortable, and that's important.

Included in the exhibition are a huge range of the animal-related media which humans have produced over the years. Taxidermy specimens, sixteenth century accounts of species and material relating to natural history displays in museums sit alongside Beatrix Potter's sketches, modern film pieces and the frog which presented the first reliable pregnancy test. It's a testament to how animals impact and shape our lives across every aspect of science, culture, art and leisure. The exhibition opens with Allora & Calzadilla's collaboration with Ted Chiang, The Great Silence, one of the most effective video installations I've seen. The piece ties together footage of the critically endangered Puerto Rican parrot, and footage of the Arecibo Observatory, part of the search for intelligent extraterrestrial life, with Chiang's cleverly woven narrative of connection and loss. Humans look into the universe to connect intelligent life - and overlook, or devalue the potential that non-human species on earth could hold for that connection. In fact, like the parrot, we are often the cause of their extinction. The wordless film is powerful and thoughtful, and an excellent orientation into a different frame of mind to view the exhibition. What would the animal world look like to us, if we hadn't had our perceptions built in these ways?

With Making Nature, the Wellcome has put on yet another beautifully curated, thoughtful exhibition. I'd have gone for Gessner's Icones Animalium alone, but I came out having learned a huge amount about a surprisingly wide variety of subjects and extremely pleased at the straight forward acknowledgement of the role that institutions like the Wellcome Collection have themselves played (and continue to) in influencing the public's view of the animal world.

FIND 'MAKING NATURE' AT: The Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, London, NW1 2BE

Iceland Road Trip: Jökulsárlón, Skaftafell & Stokksnes

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Read the rest of my posts about our Iceland road trip here.

After our brief nighttime view of Jökulsárlón, we were a little worried we might see the lagoon with zero icebergs. However, our day dedicated to it was just as wonderful as I'd hoped it would be. Overnight a new crop of icebergs had appeared, and there were even a couple of seals bobbing around in the water. We spent the morning on the beach in front of the lagoon, known for good reason as 'Diamond Beach'; smaller icebergs float down from the lake into the sea, which breaks them up and deposits the large chunks left all over the black sand. Five or six people stood at intervals along the beach, trying to capture the glistening shards of blue and white ice. After we'd spent a couple of hours wandering around the beach, sitting on icebergs and generally enjoying the quiet view, we made our way back over to the lagoon to admire the icebergs and listen to the slow cracking of new icebergs calving from the glacier. We had planned on doing more driving, but we decided to stay on at the lake for a slow day instead. Some intrepid surfers appeared, playing music from their car and with surfboards strapped to the roof. They swam in the freezing water, yelling to each other and climbing onto the smaller icebergs to launch themselves off, laughing. It looked like fun, but shivering on the beach in five layers, I wasn't entirely jealous. As the sun went down, the lagoon changed through blues to golds to dusky pinks, and we sat on the black sand until nearly all the light had died away before heading back to the guesthouse. That evening we joined a couple we'd met, tucking into cured arctic char and rúgbrauð (rye bread), and steaming bowls okjötsúpa (a traditional lamb soup).

The following morning, we got up early, eating skyr, toast and tea whilst looking over our maps. We joined [] and [] on their trip to Skaftafell, a beautiful preservation area in thVatnajökull National Park. After some decidedly wintry days, pulling up to Skaftafell was like turning back the seasons to the best of sunny Autumn. The trees were covered in a blanket of bright yellow and orange leaves, the sky was a perfect blue, and little rock ptarmigans pecked at the grasses. As we made the short hike to Svartifoss we found ourselves stripping off our usual thick layers. The waterfall was spectacular, and we sat for hours in the sunshine in our t-shirts, eating cereal bars and trying to capture the rainbows appearing in the spray at the foot of the waterfall's columns. We hiked back via a different route, stopping off at the viewpoint at Sjonarsker for a panoramic view; then down to the old farmhouses at Sel, looking across Skeiðarársandur's kilometres of black sand straight to the sea. The little turf-roofed houses were abandoned in 1946, and are now frozen in time - little wooden beds with woollen blankets, original furniture and old farm equipment. 

Back at the car, we decided to push on to try and reach Stokksnes and Vestrahorn for sunset. We arrived just as the sun had set behind the mountain and sat in the dunes among the grasses, listening to the sea. The perfect finish to the evening was hearing the sound of hooves, and turning to see a local riding an Icelandic horse at tölt along the track, framed against the sun. We drove the few miles into Höfn and grabbed a hot dog and a few hours sleep before our pre-dawn start to catch Vesturhorn again at sunrise.