Tag Archives: Travel

Reaching the harbour

 

Portpatrick is a picturesque harbour town in the south-west of Scotland. In the past, as well as being a fishing port, it enjoyed a period as the ferry port to Ireland.

It features as a key location in the last section of the 1950s film Hunted, as a murderer, Chris Lloyd, played by Dirk Bogarde, escapes as far as possible from his crime in London.

The town is not actually named in the film, and we are not even told we are in Scotland: Lloyd says only that he is travelling “north” to where his brother lives. We see only a harbour crammed with fishing boats and hear Lloyd’s information that “the herring fleet’s in” so a boat might be commandeered for further escape. The film is sometimes compared to The 39 Steps , although, since Lloyd is accompanied by a young boy, I was also reminded of Kidnapped.

Seeing the film recently, I was struck how little Portpatrick has changed between its working heyday and its current life as a tourist destination.

 

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Where the journey is more important than the destination

 

One Holy Saturday morning some years ago, I was struck by a photograph on the Herald newspaper’s front page, showing a group of people from Northern Cross, carrying a wooden cross along the sands of the tidal island of Lindisfarne. (From memory, the picture was similar to this in the Newcastle Chronicle from another year.)

Northern Cross is an ecumenical Christian group which walks several pilgrim routes in Scotland and England every Holy Week, to arrive together at the ancient Christian site of Lindisfarne on Good Friday. To my mind, an inspiring and thrilling adventure.

 

One of the Christian pilgrimage sites featured in “Pilgrimage with Simon Reeve”. Lindisfarne Castle, seen from the church of St Mary the Virgin.

 

Advent and Lent are the Christian seasons of preparation. Appropriate therefore that BBC TV should have screened the travel documentary series Pilgrimage with Simon Reeve during Advent (in 2013) and repeated it during Lent (this year).

I am actually not a great fan of the modern style of television documentary, invariably built around a photogenic presenter endlessly on-screen, with a predictable template of short snippets of commentary mixed with ostentatious pictures, frequent introductions and summaries, aerial camera shots, and rousing music. I was attracted to Pilgrimage more than to Simon Reeve’s other series because of its more substantial and more stimulating narrative thread – as well as because it would feature some places I had visited.

Pilgrimage, making a journey to a place of religious history in order to gain personal spiritual benefit, has been part of all major religious faiths since their earliest days. For his three programmes, Reeve visited famous places of Christian pilgrimage in the UK, in continental Europe and in the Middle East: Lindisfarne, Walsingham, Canterbury, Santiago de Compostela, Rome, Bethlehem, Jerusalem.

One of Reeve’s repeated points was the different reasons for going on pilgrimage in past centuries. Many people were indeed motivated by Christian devotion, eager to visit places which held sacred relics, and many believed they could thus make amends for past sins. However, some were just looking for adventure (even sinful adventure!), an opportunity to break a monotonous routine, to explore beyond their own town or parish. This meant that a pilgrimage group might bring together people of widely different backgrounds, as shown in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.

 

The shrine to St Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral.

 

The growth in pilgrimage in medieval times provided economic benefits to the destinations and to inns and shops and merchants en route, even while pilgrims were sometimes exploited by the sale of false relics. Other secular cultural changes developed over the longer term, suggested Reeve: it was travels to the Holy Land which led Europeans to return to the habit of washing and bathing more regularly at home, and later to British support for Zionism and the Balfour Declaration.

The “golden age” of true pilgrimage ended with the Reformation and Reeve suggested that modern pilgrims are more often “well-off adventure hikers”, interested in the physical challenge as much as the opportunity for contemplation and solitude. However, he also made the thought-provoking point about how many of those medieval pilgrims would have been sick and dying – and therefore how fortunate we are that modern medicine has removed the sound of those desperate prayers for healing and recovery from cathedrals and shrines.

 

In St Peter’s Church in Rome, a plaque listing all of the popes of the Catholic church who are buried there.

 

Another modern pilgrim I am familiar with is Gerard Hughes, who walked from the south of England to Rome in 1975 and described the experience in his book In Search of a Way. Whereas Simon Reeve showed respect for fellow travellers but agnosticism about the Christianity which empowered them, Gerard Hughes, now deceased, was a Catholic Jesuit priest who was definitely making an inner spiritual journey as well as a physical one. Hughes repeated Robert Louis Stevenson’s quote, “To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive”, and added that, for the true pilgrim, “direction is much more important than destination” and that “searching for God is already to have found him.” Reeves extolled the “rhythm” of long-distance walking and one comparable comment by Hughes was appreciation of the Catholic prayer of the rosary, which is similarly rhythmic and repetitive and therefore particularly suited to pilgrims’ walking.

 

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

 

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Pilgrims at the Stone of Anointing, where, according to tradition, Jesus was brought down from the cross before being buried.

 

Although many of Reeve’s scenes and observations were unsurprising, his concluding observation made a strong impression. At the place of Jesus’ tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, he said that it was “the holiest site in the holiest shrine in the whole of Christianity… this is (the place where) Christianity was born …the birth of a culture, of a civilisation, so many paintings, so much music, so much joy, so much suffering, so many wars, so much of human history comes from here…”

Reeve’s series had started in Lindisfarne. The Northern Cross 2018 walks to Lindisfarne begin during the Palm Sunday weekend of 23-24 March. As their web-site says, their purpose is to “re-trace old pilgrim pathways…meet and be greeted by people on the way…(and) on Good Friday experience walking across the ancient causeway…”

 

Reference:  Hughes, Gerard W. (1986)  In Search of a Way (2nd ed)   London : Darton, Longman and Todd

 

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A splash of Spanish colour

 

Happy New 2018!

And, to welcome it in, some photographs of the beautiful Nativity and Epiphany tableaux in the 17th century Church of Santa Ursula in Adeje, Tenerife.

 

 

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One version of the 20th century

 

 

The drawing of Anthony Burgess by David Levine on the cover of Burgess’ journalism anthology “Homage to QWERTYUIOP“.

 

So finally, after owning a copy of the novel since 1983, I got around to reading Anthony Burgess’  Earthly Powers.

650 pages is a long volume for me nowadays, although it is certainly a readable 650 pages since its structure is largely chronological, as octogenarian writer Kenneth Toomey recounts his life, friendships and travels between World War One and the 1970s.

In many ways the novel is especially characteristic of Burgess both as writer and man, which perhaps explains its celebrity and its Booker Prize nomination. The narrative moves through many locations, and locations which Burgess knew well: Malaysia, North Africa, London; Italy including the Vatican, the USA including Hollywood, France including the Cannes Film Festival. The lead character name-drops many famous artists: James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Henry Havelock Ellis, Peter Warlock, JB Priestley, George Orwell. Literature and music are widely discussed. There are many detailed descriptions of food and drink, of fashions and furnishings.

Many characters and incidents are based on real-life examples which even the less informed reader enjoys identifying. Toomey is related through marriage to Carlo Campanati, the Catholic priest who becomes Pope Gregory XVII at the exact same time as did John XXIII, although his international fame also hints at the Pope at the time of the novel’s publication, John Paul II. The fictitious Nobel laureate Austrian writer Jakob Strehler whom Toomey greatly admires has written a novel sequence Vatertag which seems rather reminiscent of Earthly Powers itself in some ways – and certainly also of The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil and Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin, both rediscovered and fashionable at the time of Earthly Powers. The exploits of religious cult leader God Manning are clearly modelled on those of Jim Jones and Charles Manson. The Poet Laureate Dawson Wignall seems very similar to John Betjeman with his “themes derived from Anglican church services, the Christmas parties of his childhood, his public school pubescence…” A musical The Blooms of Dublin based on Ulysses is almost identical to a play by Burgess himself.

Although, as mentioned, Earthly Powers’ chronological structure makes it easy to follow and to stay with, it does include a few modernist flourishes which show off Toomey’s and Burgess’ Joycean influences. Vocabulary which is unfamiliar and demanding, some which may well be invented, omissions of punctuation, invented onomatopoeia like “at the card table, flicking a new pack of cards skrirr skrirr with powerful gambler’s fingers”, selections of Toomey’s own writing in different genres.

 

Waiting for Pope John Paul II in St Peter’s Square, Rome on Easter Sunday 2002. “Carlo…told the crowd briefly why he had chosen the name Gregory. It was primarily because of Gregory the Great, who had reformed the Church and spread the gospel.”

 

The entrance to Graumann’s Chinese Theatre in Hollwood, USA in 2010. “My situation in Hollywood was a comfortable one. I was glad to get money out of the industry but I did not really need it. I did not have to bow or yes or cringe…I was Kenneth M. Toomey, distinguished British novelist in distinguished early middle age…”

 

For me, one especially absorbing part of the narrative is the section about the Vatican as Carlo Campanati moves towards the Papacy. Campanati’s plans for the Catholic Church as revealed to Toomey could be seen as similar to John XXIII’s ideas: “the unification of the churches. The vernacularization of the liturgy” and the awareness of “capitalistic enemies, but … Marxist enemies too”. Around the time of the writing of Earthly Powers in 1978 came the drama of the deaths of both Pope Paul VI and John Paul I and the accession of John Paul II, the first non-Italian Pope in 400 years, a period which prompted regular discussion in the Catholic Church about the pontifical legacy of John XXIII. The vivid African image on the cover of my Penguin paperback edition seems out of place at first since it seems to give undue prominence to a tiny incident from a novel which takes place more often in Europe and the USA, until you notice that the figure in the wooden statue is undergoing a Christ-like crucifixion.

 

 

The night-time exterior of Teatro alla Scala in Milan in 2006.”I… telephoned La Scala to ensure that a ticket for the gallery was available for me and would be waiting at the box office.”

 

Barcelona in 2002 with Gaudi’s building La Pedrera on the left. “Ralph and I were at this time more or less domiciled in Barcelona… Why Spain, or rather Catalonia, which is not quite Spain? Because mild fascism seemed to me at the time to be better than confiscatory socialism. Because of the architecture of Gaudi…”

 

Another favourite strand throughout the novel is the descriptions of food and drink which showcase Burgess the bon viveur as well as the descriptive writer. For example, the expensive Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo where its restaurant serves “Saumon Fumé de Hollande, Velouté de Homard au Paprika, Tourte de Ris-de-Veau Brillat-Savarin, Selle d’Agneau de Lait Polignac…”, or “the crowded smoky (Paris) restaurant (with) potted shrimps, lobster Mornay, a carafe of house Chablis” followed by all brands of cigarettes such as “Gold Flake, Black Cat, Three Castles, Crumbs of Comfort” or Moneta in Italy with its “thick bean soup, tripe stew with gnocchi, fat sausages from the grill, the black wine that is Moneta’s pride”.

Although I did enjoy the belated company in a writer of whom I used to be such a fervent fan, I did feel just a little sense of anti-climax at the novel’s ending. Perhaps because it is the sort of novel which impresses an eager younger reader rather more than a jaundiced older one, and perhaps because of another stronger sense, that this reader and the world in which he was reading were so very different from what they would have been at the time of the book’s original publication.

Reference: Burgess, Anthony (1982)  Earthly Powers  Harmondsworth: Penguin

 

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The widespread influence of La Serenissima

 

Would it be fair to say that most people think of Venice in the Middle Ages as a powerful and successful republic but not as an imperial power? The mercantile background of The Merchant of Venice rather than the military one of Othello, in other words. In fact, Venice had a number of colonies around the Mediterranean, Adriatic and Aegean Seas. One of these, for more than 400 years, from 1204 to 1669, was Crete. On a recent trip, I was struck to hear our guide describe Rethymno in Crete as the most Venetian town outside Venice.

 

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The Fortezza (fortress) in Rethymno, built in the 16th century.

 

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The former Venetian Harbour, with its later lighthouse.

 

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The Rimondo Fountain, built in the 1620s.

 

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The Archaeological Museum is located in the former church of a Franciscan monastery.

 

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The Loggia was built around 1600 as a meeting place for the nobility of the period.

 

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The former Nerantzes Mosque was first built as a Catholic church.

 

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Porta Goura was built in the 16th century.

 

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The Catholic Church of St Anthony of Padua. Although built only at the end of the 19th century, the building shares some of the proportions of the grander Baroque churches of Venice.

 

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The Arsenale in Venice, part of its complex of former shipyards and armouries.

 

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A canal view in Venice.

 

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A church exterior in Venice. These three photographs of Venice were taken in 1994.

 

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The spiritual heart of Australia

 

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First named as Ayers Rock, now more often called Uluru, the vast red prehistoric rock in the middle of the Australian desert is, to reuse a cliché, an iconic sight.  The natural grandeur of the rock, and its surrounding open landscape, draws thousands of visitors, especially at dawn and dusk.

 

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It is frequently now described as “the spiritual heart of Australia” because it is part of the ancient desert lands of the Anangu tribe and is regarded by them as a special place in their understanding about how the world was created. It was formally handed back to them by the Australian government in 1985.

 

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However, during the past 30 years and at a discreet distance, a stylish tourist resort has taken shape among the sand-dunes and alongside the local community, with varied forms of accommodation, shops and services, and an airport which is less intrusive than the average bus station.

 

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At one time, the only reason anyone trekked the hundreds of miles across the desert to reach Ayers Rock was to climb it. Later generations appreciated that the rock was a sacred place to Australia’s native inhabitants, akin, in the description chosen by one of our guides, to a temple. Formal plans have been drawn up that climbing should be made illegal when the proportion of climbing visitors drops to 20%, although there have been signs that future governments may be reluctant to enforce that rule.

 

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In addition to the natural landscape, the Uluru resort showcases native arts and culture and also astronomy. A couple of theatre and community spaces have been built and this year it is also the location of a huge light installation by British artist Bruce Munro. It should be able to continue to combine a respectable range of middle-class tourist comforts and facilities while celebrating and protecting the world-famous local wilderness.

 

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Background music

 

It was a long time ago when I first joined the large group of people who carried out all activities to the background of pop and rock music –  so maybe it is understandable that the habit has gradually lost its allure.

During the 1970s, a certain type of easy school or university homework was regularly done to the music of BBC Radio 1 or to whatever new record or cassette you had recently acquired. Partly so that you could do two things at one time. In later years, house-keeping activities like cleaning, cooking and ironing could be conveniently carried out to background music. Travelling in cars always needed the accompaniment of a radio or cassette.

By my late 20s in the early 1980s, I was still overwhelmingly a pop/rock music listener struggling to expand my listening into classical or jazz. Working in Toronto, Canada, during the winter of 1983-84, I had the Damascene experience of visiting a second-hand bookshop in the city and hearing an opera performance emanate gently from a local classical radio station. The music was obviously the preferred listening of the proprietor, but its particular blend of human voice and orchestral strings seemed the natural, appropriate sound to accompany the leisurely activity of moving around shelves and glancing through the pages of volumes which you had no real need of. I am pleased that similar classical music always seems to be playing in the background during my occasional visits to the multiple-spaced Bookshop in Wigtown.

 

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College Street in Toronto in 2001. The Free Times Café was a popular haunt in 1984; happily it was still thriving in 2001 and now.

 

A striking and satisfying experience of background popular music was at the 1986 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. While we sat waiting in the former Gilded Balloon in the Cowgate for a comedy show to start (it was still dubbed “alternative” comedy in those days), some Aretha Franklin music came on the PA.  “Respect”, “Chain of Fools” etc… Here, too, as in the Toronto bookshop, it seemed like the absolutely correct aural backdrop: this time dark, smoky, sultry, sexy, edgy, of the past yet still modern. By coincidence, about 36 hours later and before another show at the Assembly Rooms in a totally different part of the city centre, Aretha Franklin was singing again. Many of the classic black artistes of the 1960s and 1970s were being accorded fresh attention around that time so perhaps that is the explanation of the mystery.  Aretha’s Greatest Hits was purchased soon afterwards and helped to fill a significant educational gap in my collection for several years.

 

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Canongate in Edinburgh in 1994.

 

Nowadays restaurants of all sorts usually play a soundtrack of pop/rock music. Especially by the modern generation of artistes who are influenced by Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Marvin Gaye, Roberta Flack etc, and who encase those influences in the sweet comfortable audio blanket which modern technology allows and perhaps enforces. It was a happy surprise to have such a blanket individualised recently at the Beacon Arts Centre in Greenock by Randy Newman’s  “Dixie Flyer”: similarly relaxing, yes, but made fresher by his distinctive drawling vocals.

Just as the ordinary buyer can buy mood music compilations of classical, pop, rock and jazz, bars and restaurants can probably buy similar collections, perhaps sub-titled “mellow”, “funky”, “edgy”. It makes me yearn nostalgically for that vegetarian restaurant in York in 1998 which played classical music the whole evening, and especially the Beethoven symphony I had just become acquainted with….

 

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York in 1998, possibly Bootham Bar?

 

 

 

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For humility and contentment

 

Robert Burns lived in many parts of Scotland in his short life and these places quite reasonably exploit their Burns connection for tourism purposes. For example, the Ayrshire towns of Ayr, Mauchline, Tarbolton and Irvine, where he grew up, worked, and socialised; Kilmarnock, where his poems were first published; the capital city of Edinburgh where he was feted; the town of Dumfries where he spent the last few years of his life.

 

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One of the more overlooked is Ellisland, the farm near Dumfries of which he was the tenant for three years from 1788 until 1791. The house he built was quite expansive for the period and indicates his relative prosperity, status and self-confidence at the time.  “Not a Palace to attract the train-attended steps of pride-swoln Greatness,” observed the bard wryly, “but a plain, simple Domicile for Humility & Contentment”. “Humility” – in the 21st century, one of the least valued and encouraged of personal qualities in anyone!

 

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This was the period when Burns was a well-paid excise-man as well as a struggling farmer, when he wrote the timeless “Tam O’Shanter” as well as other poems and song lyrics. As Maurice Lindsay describes, “The picture of Burns at Ellisland which emerges is one of a mature and passionate man, overworked, struggling with decreasing success against impoverished soil, yet playing a full part in communal life, espousing democratic causes (sometimes indiscreetly)… a kindly picture…”

 

Reference:   Lindsay, Maurice (1994)   Robert Burns: The Man, His Work, The Legend    London: Robert Hale

 

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London East

 

35 years ago, I visited London for the first time and I’ve been lucky to visit it many more times since.

On my first visit in 1980, it felt very large and overwhelming and I felt very young and parochially Scottish. On my most recent, in 2010, surrounded by so many young people of different ethnic backgrounds (many who were clearly residents rather than tourists) speaking so many languages, I felt very old and very British but still definitely not a proper Londoner!

I have always been fascinated by the history and geography of the East End of London: those names like Whitechapel, Bethnal Green, Stepney, Poplar, Limehouse, Rotherhithe, Deptford. My interest was certainly encouraged by early reading about the Jack the Ripper murders and the fact that the locations of those dark ghoulish crimes were so close to the wealthy privileged areas of the City. Later came the understanding that the districts in which the poor and underprivileged of London lived were not merely scenes of crime but also centres of political activism and working-class learning and culture.  Before the Industrial Revolution, at the time when Nicholas Hawksmoor was designing his churches, the East End was of course one of the parts of London where people of all classes and trades lived side by side.

I saw one tiny part of that East End,  Petticoat Lane market, on my very first visit to London,  and other places on subsequent trips. Regularly looking at the web-site Spitalfields Life keeps  the area in my mind.

 

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Nicholas Hawksmoor’s famous Christ Church in Spitalfields, in 1992

 

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Also in 1992, the property in Elder Street, Spitalfields, which was the former home of artist Mark Gertler.

 

Spitalfields Life is full of brilliant photographs and information about the present-day residents of the area but I do find it most fascinating on cultural and architectural topics.

Like many formerly working-class districts, Spitalfields has seen a good deal of gentrification over the decades. Although London is a city which usually appears to value its built heritage, recent reports in Spitalfields Life show that not all battles have been won. The Spitalfields Trust is currently striving to defend some streets in the district of Norton Folgate which are at renewed risk of unsympathetic development. The latest news, sadly, is that the first round of this battle has been lost.

 

 

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Folgate Street, Spitalfields, part of the old Liberty of Norton Folgate, looking west towards Bishopsgate, in 2010. The crowd is gathering for a visit to the brilliant Dennis Severs’ House.

 

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On the edge of Spitalfields, in 2010, lower buildings of various periods are dwarfed by the space-ship shape of Norman Foster’s “Gherkin” building, whose formal name is 30 St Mary Axe.

 

 

 

 

 

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Spanish modernism’s second stage

 

Barcelona is a city of such global celebrity that it is striking to discover that Mallorca, a less famous part of Spain, shares some of the same visual features.

Many of the buildings on the island which date from the turn of the 20th century were designed in the modernista style similar to that practised by Antoni Gaudi.

 

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The former Gran Hotel in Palma de Mallorca, now an art gallery. It was designed by Lluís Domènech i Montaner, a Barcelona architect who designed many buildings in that city.

 

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The adjoining buildings of Can Rei and L’Aguila in Palma. The latter was designed by Gaspar Bennassar.

 

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The two adjoining Modernist buildings in Placa Mercat were commissioned by the owner of a bakery business.

 

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The entrance to the Ca’n Prunera building in Soller. It was designed by Josep Rubio i Bellver who worked with Gaudi on many of his famous Barcelona projects. The former residence is now open to the public as a museum of modernism and art gallery.

 

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Another interior view of Ca’n Prunera in Soller.

 

 

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