Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Monet's Garden, Giverny in April

Ever since my niece Kristin spoke enthusiastically about visiting Monet's gardens at Giverny, I have wanted to see them for myself. Kristin was absolutely right; it is a fabulous garden.

We took the fast train from Paris, St Lazare to Vernon in about 42 minutes, where a shuttle bus was waiting to take us to the tiny village Giverny. The village is built around the themes of Monet and impressionism, with a touches of Normandy added. We had a very pleasant lunch outside in the village and walked through various village gardens before entering the best known gardens those maintained by the Fondation Monet (which has the best website).

The gardens open April 1st. We were visiting in mid April, ahead of the tourist rush and yet in time to see splendid displays of tulips and other early spring flowers. many of which were new to me. The pond was larger than I had envisioned, and the paths and gardens are more formal and better kept than those photographed when Monet's personal staff tended them. It is hard to imagine this outlay being enjoyed primarily by a single family and friends, but Monet was undeniably inspired by the water and plants, and by nature generally. The garden is carefully tended, even to the extent of keeping people off many stone paths during our visit, which let me take pictures of larger vistas without tourists interrupting everything. (The house is also worth a visit, but no photographs were allowed.)

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Golfing at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, Oregon

I have just returned from our third annual golfing extravaganza. This year, at Bob's suggestion, Ralph arranged for us to visit the spectacularly beautiful Oregon coast. Not far from Bandon and North Bend, Oregon, there is a relatively new resort featuring a group of four golf courses. Three are now fully open: Bandon Dunes (1999), Pacific Dunes, and Bandon Trails. The first two together have 12 holes running along the edges of the 100' cliffs along the Pacific Ocean, while Bandon Trails is a bit more inland, tucked into the west coast forests and dunes. A fourth called "Old Macdonald" will open fully in June of 2010, but this summer a few golfers are allowed to play its first 10 holes each day as a sort of preview.

Bandon Dunes was designed by a Scotsman in the links style, taking full advantage of natural Pacific sand dunes. Although "links" is a term used loosely these days, I understand there are only about 120 true links courses in the world.

The evening we arrived, we took a short twilight walk on the courses to imagine how the greens might putt and what special challenges the terrains would be offering our five games in next hectic 2.5 days.
Breakfasts were fortunately hearty affairs which can sustain golfers through their initial game of the day. (This picture only proves that we quaffed our initial coffees before the plates of food arrived.)

Power carts are not allowed on any of the four courses. This is golf in its pure state, as it was intended to be played at its inception in Scotland. Everybody walks the entire course. Pull carts are available, and caddies can be hired to carry clubs and offer advice. I felt sorry for the caddies (dressed in professional white coveralls) who were required to lug not one but two heavy golf bags as lazy tightwad amateur golfers shared their services, errant balls seldom heading for the same rough. Pulling carts was no problem, and we could study the booklets at each hole telling how far we had to hit the ball to clear each hazard, and how best to approach each green.

Our first game was Saturday morning at Pacific Dunes (Golf Digest ranked this as the 22nd best course in 2005). The weather was perfect, with a steady breeze keeping the ocean mists and fog away.
Pacific Dunes introduced us to par threes which hugged the cliffs. Shots to the left were goners, and the chasm had to be crossed with one swing, or else. It was amusing to see players consulting/commiserating before deciding how to attempt reaching the green with one assured swing. All sorts of things were taken into consideration--the wind, the choice of club, the distance, whether you had gone to church recently . . . .

I was also amused by the stakes declaring the 100' cliffs to be out-of-bounds. Fortunately, they were all red stakes, which means you just drop another ball at that point (assuming you haven't run out yet), put your ego in your pocket, and soldier on. These are among the most difficult courses I have ever played, and yet I cannot recall enjoying a course more. From pictures, it is difficult to tell that these cliffs soar 100 feet above the Pacific.
The scenery is the west coast at its best. At least when we were headed in this direction along the cliffs, the westerly winds encouraged balls to veer away from certain disaster. However, since golfers have swings which can overpower even the most persistent west-coast winds, I usually assumed I might be seeing each ball for the last time. Strangely, I lost very few. Fear can apparently induce concentration.

After a nice lunch (the resort's restaurant is excellent) and being fully warmed up, we strode out to face Bandon Dunes, our second 18 holes of the day. Bandon Dunes has been ranked No. 31 in America's top 100 golf courses. We would be playing it three times in two days.

In addition to cliffs, there were two other types of rough, the somewhat gentle grass which thrives in the sand and helps to hold it in place, and the very tough low-lying gorse, small shrubs which survive in these difficult conditions. I could find my balls and hit them out of the grass, but the gorse was absolutely punishing.

We saw members of a family of deer graze without worry on the various golf courses.

We saw some para-surfers performing with the considerable assistance of their kites pulled by the steady ocean wind. You have to look carefully to see the kite, even after clicking on the picture to enlarge it.

The next picture shows my favourite par 4 at Bandon Dunes. Your first shot has to cross the ravine, and should ideally clear the exposed sand dunes above the first strip of grass and come to rest on the grassy land just above the dunes. The distances are awesome, but the stiff back winds donated crucial additional yards to our efforts. One long hitter's drive reached the green while we were putting, or rather, his ball flew over it, past the next tee box and rested on the very edge of the cliff. He was most apologetic afterward. Here are two views of this hole, one in sunshine and the other in the sort of fog that went right through my shirt, two sweaters and windbreaker.

By mid afternoon, the weather began to change. The wind increased, the bright sunshine of the afternoon gave way to the famous coastal Oregon fog. As the warmer inland air continued to rise (as it was heated by the sun), the cooler ocean air was sucked towards land. I understood this better when I observed it from the airplane as we left North Bend, Oregon. Incidentally, until 2008 (when United started offering two daily non-stop flights to North Bend from San Francisco), you either arrived by car, private plane or chartered plane. As someone quipped, the difference between the link courses here and in Scotland is that it is easier to get to Scotland.
It was too foggy, windy and cold to appreciate fully the course's most famous Par 4. Instead of waves on the horizon, we had fog.

Our final game was at Bandon Trails Monday morning before returning home. This is more of a treed course, going through impressive dunes, across meadows, into the forest and then back to the coast. The fairways appeared to be more generous, yet some had slopes and hills which punished shots going to the wrong side. Rides were provided to one tee box which was too elevated to be reached in a timely fashion when carrying your clubs. We were the first group to start, which meant we could play the entire course at our own pace.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Notre-Dame de Chartres (Chartres Cathedral)

On Sunday, April 19th, 2009, we took the train from Paris to the medieval city of Chartres so that we could visit Notre-Dame de Chartres, one of the best known Gothic cathedrals and hear the organ at high Mass. Before purchasing train tickets, I was careful to checked various websites to see what was scheduled for the day and to learn what information they had to offer.

As soon as we entered the front door and stood inside, my heart sank. None of the websites mentioned anything about the cathedral's entire choir being blocked physically and--more importantly--visually. Scaffolding immediately behind the altar (under the crossing) rose from the medieval to the vaulted ceiling, and enormous sheets of plastic stretched the height of the majestic choir. Once built, cathedrals obviously require steady maintenance, but I only wish I had been warned. However, I hope that these pictures will also hopefully suggest that even with the heart of the cathedral unavailable, there is much that can be seen, enjoyed and treasured.

Challenges faced all visitors with cameras: on this cloudy rainy day, with many of the grand windows blocked, there was only a fraction of the customary natural light. I shot at ISO 1,600, hand-held without flash (in order to be unobtrusive). Once your eyes adjusted to the more dim light, you could see the outlines of the beautiful ribbed vaulting in the aisles.

A beggar patiently stood by the cathedral's open door, between the interior's darkness and the more bright daylight outside. Every cathedral has its faithful beggars, always has, always will.

During Mass, we sat near a beautiful candle on one of the nave's pillars. I liked the interplay of the candle's light and light coming through the cathedral's stained glass window, with its deep blues, reds and greens.
At the conclusion of the organ's performance after Mass, I went forward to the crossing to see the present altar area. I was worried to notice that one of the bishop's attendants had mistakenly left this beautiful silver vessel for incense at the base of one of the central pillars.
The beautiful lectern, from which the sermon was delivered, has gold sculptures which reflect light wonderfully.
Other pillars have bases which are about as high as a medieval person's waist. The stones have been highly polished by centuries of casual touching by millions of hands.

Given the dark lighting in the nave, I spent most of my time in the apsidal ambulatory which goes around the choir. A number of chapels radiate from this ambulatory. In the afternoon, light reflects softly from the well-worn paving stones in the ambulatory.

Most chapels are relatively open to the ambulatory, and several were important places for prayer throughout the day. There were many pilgrims that Sunday, not just tourists but people who came to pray.

Ever since cathedrals were built, candles have played an important role in cathedral life. So many were used for lighting in the middle ages that officials decreed all candles should be made of at least 50% bees wax, and preferably 100%. This was very expensive, but it cut down on the pollution caused by burning oil and fat, and kept the interiors brighter longer.

One apsidal chapel was closed for repairs, but the lighting coming through the protective plastic sheets was fascinating.

We did not have access to the Chapter House, but we could see the stairway leading from the apse's ambulatory to the higher, exterior Chapter House. This is where the monastic community met daily to hear someone read another chapter from the Rule of St Benedict. Those who follow the rule are generally known as Benedictines.