Art in Vienna

Vienna does not live up to expectations , it far exceeds them. I expect a city that is formal, reserved, serious. I find one that is accessible, amusing, friendly and appreciably surprising at every turn.
Vienna’s many parks and impressive architecture provide points of reference and interest that make walking an easy pleasure. The atmosphere is expansive, with distant sonorous bells playing counterpoint to the close up staccato of trundling trams.
Art and museums abound. There is an absence of pomposity. There are places to stroll and smile, discover and wonder , relax and unwind. The Leopold Museum is celebrating Egon Schiele. The challenging beauty of his portraits sit engagingly besidecaptivating landscapes. The space is generous.

”the cafes, all mahogany and brass, with long and patient Sunday queues. Waiters in mournful black…Women with elaborate chignons…”

It is a joy to visit.

A cross town journey takes me past the imposing Opera House, along Kartner Ring, down the length of Stadark to the MAK Museum. It is worth the adventure. I discover Stefan Sagmeister’s ‘The Happy Show’. The show explores the boundary between art and design and this masterful graphic artist’s attempts to increase his own happiness. He makes me laugh and reframe my idea of an art gallery. Two giant inflatable monkeys command the entrance court.

Here too, the fashion designer Helmut Lang’s archive is interred in a long grey casement. It is instantly resurrected by scanning the drawer codes, with the iPad provided, to discover garments in videos from his various fashion shows.
Back across the city, in the narrower medieval streets of the old town, a Sunday morning stroll unearths another gallery – the Albertina. Dozens of people are out early to explore the Munch exhibition. It is curious, somewhat cramped and more than a little crowded. It pales in comparison to a breath taking combination of artistic virtuosity by Picasso, Monet, Braque, Modigliani, Chagall, Kandinsky, Francis Bacon and others. They hang together in surprising harmony and in the comfort of more expansive galleries.
The Albertina also displays stunning large scale black & white photography from masters of the art like Irving Penn, Henri Cartier Bresson, William Klein and Helmut Newton.

Of course I stop by the cafes, all mahogany and brass, with long and patient Sunday queues. Waiters in mournful black suits wrapped in long white aprons carry trays aloft. Women with elaborate chignons and men wearing loden lounge with effortless elegance and ease. Artful pastries tempt , pungent coffee invigorates, lively chatter softens any formality.
Elsewhere Christmas markets twinkle under a winter afternoon’s silver sky and shimmer later on through the dusky blue pall of twilight. The best are secreted away in side streets, lanes and alleyways where the after work buzz is scented by Christmas spices and the toasty whiff of mulled wine. The street food is soulful and tasty. Car tyres squeak down damp streets, smeared by a halo of golden light. There is intrinsic warmth in the ordinary life of this winter city.

At the airport, even leaving has its pleasure, as I catch the first glimpse of snow, icing the caps of distant hills.


It is a perilous drive from Puigpuyent through rising corkscrew passes and hairpin bends, past layered terraces and walled estates that hang from the spine of the Tramuntana to the village of Elporles.

It is autumn in Majorca. The hills are lush with grasses, the olive trees laden with fruit. Leaves turn on the harvested vines. Nature knits its richest colours -saffron, lime, copper, emerald and fiery crimson – into an alluring patchwork across the lower slopes and valleys. The peaks of these ancient mountains rise defiantly stone faced.

”In dappled side streets, canopied by broad leaved trees,…Esporles is a living picture postcard… conceived in another era…”

In the fold of the hills the road widens alongside a ‘torrent’ as you enter Esporles.

Only the whisper of the water breaks the sound of silence as I step from my car. The door closes like a thunder clap in the quiet. I notice a tiny green bridge spanning the water course. It points to hewn steps and up to where the sun casts shadows, like discarded jigsaw pieces, along narrow streets and twisting lanes.
Silence pervades, broken once by the delighted chuckle of a baby behind louvered windows and later by the rattle of cutlery as it is set for lunch.
Down the long street another bridge, draped in bougainvillea, beckons back across the torrent to a shady stretch of cafes, bars, delis and restaurants. At the end is a long ‘square’. This is the heart of village life. In dappled side streets, canopied by broad leaved trees, parents chatter, children play. Even here excitement is whispered or so it seems. A sense of quiet heralds the afternoon.

Esporles is a living picture postcard. Terracotta urns overflow with rosemary and hibiscus under stories of iron balconies and olive shutters. Window boxes explode with white tipped scarlet, purple and pink flowers. Tiny shops, conceived in another era, accent the wonder of the place. Every stone has its own elegance.
Once in a while the eye wanders to catch a glimpse of greying olive wood, stacked for the approaching winter.

In the tiny shops and craft ateliers a mix of sign language, broken English and bad Spanish makes for good humour, great commerce and a promise to return. Cafe menus are rarely offered, instead the ‘carte’ is spoken softly as the day lingers or the dusky evening drifts in.
No need to hurry here in Esporles, the most peaceful village on earth.

La Dolce Vita

Mozzarella Bar Milan Italy

It is a Saturday evening in Milan. The air is dry under a silver sky. Despite a busy morning at the fair in Grazie and a 2 hour train journey I succumb to the temptation to wander out for dinner.

It is a decent walk from the Statione Centrale, through Piazza Della Republica, on along Basioni Porta Nuova to the top Corso Garibaldi.

”…grungy men in unsuitable shorts and sneakers from another planet… the woman beside me, for better or worse, looks like Donatella Versace.”

I wander and enjoy the freedom of summer in the city. Italy is on holidays, the sidewalks are empty.

Turning onto Garibaldi, I try to remember the cosy cafes and small restaurants that caught my eye some 72 hours earlier. All are bustling, most are full, several spill onto the pavement. They look like the well kept secrets of seasoned travellers.

I drift on and onto the Via Mercato with its cobblestones, iron balconies, peeling plaster and louvered shutters. Just as I am about to turn back I see a scattering of tables under a sign – Obica. Close up it looks like it belongs in a romantic novel.

The welcome is gentle, almost familiar. Everyone smiles. I like this place and settle easily at the table offered. A menu is fetched and a decent wine list. The food is light but interesting – foccassia with rosemary and salt, pizza verdure griglia with smoked mozzarella. The wine lives up to the waitress’s promise.

Trams, fiats and vespas clang and splutter by carrying grungy men in unsuitable shorts and sneakers from another planet. Dogs bark in the middle distance. For a while moving headlights burn away the falling twilight. The woman beside me, for better or worse, looks like Donatella Versace.

The temperature falls . Men bluff and shiver behind sandpaper beards at a nearby table. Women, dressed in a variety of denim, pull on soft cashmere sweaters. They whip their hair from scrubbed faces and sip straw coloured wine.

The evening drifts. A symphony of tinkling glasses and chattering voices makes me wish I had a later flight home in the morning. For a few easy hours I have enjoyed the good life in the heart of Milan.


fiera delle grazieFiera Delle Grazie is a four day festival, held in mid August, in the village of Grazie outside Mantova. It is rooted in the old Christian celebration of the Feast of the Assumption.

”…artists rub and scrape their pigments, chalks and crayons on the bare street surface… colours glow with an engaging intensity…”

The fair now features art, food and a meandering market that winds through and around the tiny hamlet. The centrepiece is a competition for pavement artists who come from Europe, the Americas and the East. They rub and scrape their pigments, chalks and crayons on the bare street surface, describing scenes from religious or secular life. Admirers stalk the slowly evolving narratives as colours glow with an engaging intensity. Garments flow or furl, skin radiates a medieval or more contemporary beauty.

A small town throws open its arms in welcome with real creativity and imagination.


Mozart on the Metro

It is just before 9 a.m. in Milan. I have walked in warm sunshine down the Via Manzoni, past a silent La Scala and into the morning quiet of the Duomo square.

”A man is playing Mozart on the Metro… a welcome counterpoint to the roar of metal on metal…”

Two tiers of steps later I am in the Metro station, taking the S1 line in the direction of RHO Fiera. The air is cool in the tunnels. The carriages rattle in a strange rhythm. Commuters sway in the aisles. Strangers look down.

After two stops the sound of vaguely familiar music drifts from somewhere distant. A man is playing Mozart on the Metro. He glides and weaves through the passengers. His bow draws a classic favourite from a well cared for violin. The Concerto No. 21 is a welcome counterpoint to the roar of metal on metal, as the steel wheels thunder and sway.

Images of Elvira Madigan flicker in the mind’s eye – moving pictures, artistic and cinematic, from the most beautiful film ever made. The camera often moving in contra flow to the action, catches the listless days of summer, the intoxication of love and a lovers pact that ends in tragedy.

The brakes screech and gasp, jarring us back to reality. Doors open, people smile, he smiles back. The musician bows and graciously takes his leave.

Luciano Lives

Luciano Pavorotti's House
Down a narrow country lane, between cornfields, outside Modena lies an understated but elegant house. A manicured driveway is barely noticed as the car negotiates a sweeping turn to the right. This is Luciano Pavorotti’s house, the house in which he lived and died.

Open until October of this year and maybe beyond, this is a family home. Cushions are scattered on a deep sofa. Books, art and a giant Jo Malone candle add sensibility. The tenor’s spirit and warmth pervade every room. You expect to see him smiling in the doorway or sitting by the polished ebony piano.

”This is Luciano Pavorotti’s house, the house in which he lived and died…”

Here a great man is cherished softly through the memories he left. Here his voice and the music are full yet gentle. Here the achievements, awards and orders of merit simply describe a person rather than shout for attention. Only once before – in the poet Robert Graves house in Deia, have I felt such closeness to someone I never knew.
Light pours in through a glazed roof. Galleries rise bathing bedrooms, a dressing room and a wonderful open space on the top floor . Many letters – some written in friendship, some in tribute, lie open. Bruce Springsteen, Frank Sinatra, Bono, Diana Princess of Wales are among the writers. Sting sends his appreciation for a Christmas cake that will easily last a year.

Posters recording the performances of a career without equal and football jerseys, attesting to his passion for the game, hang on the walls like in any family den. Wonderful drawings and paintings of Pavorotti, sent by fans from all over the world form another layer of tribute.

His work for the children of Mostar is fondly recalled too. In the basement a fundraising concert video shows him smiling with real joy as he sings with Lionel Ritchie. His passion for helping those less fortunate pours forth.

Luciano lives, I expect him to be waiting at the top of the stairs.

Retail Sandcastles

Retail Real Estate

There still seems to be some confusion between real estate development and retail.

Retail is a complicated holistic operation. Once it was about the right product, in the right place, at the right time, with the right promotion and at the right price. Today’s savvy consumers want a more enriching return on their investment, they want an experience. Now we must add innovation, imagination, presentation, service, environment, emotion and seduction to the retail mix.

Real estate developers would have us believe that retail is all about footfall – build it and they will come and the bigger the better!

”…Ireland, in terms of population and shoppers, is just about the size of Manchester. It is not New York or London…”

Most of their efforts have left us with homogenous high streets and catatonic centres where sameness withers experience and consumers crave a point of difference.
In reality retail success is about conversion, conversion of footfall into sales and profits.

Some retailers must accept blame too. Ireland, in terms of population and shoppers, is just about the size of Manchester. It is not New York or London. Many retailers, greedy or inexperienced, chased their competitors up blind alleys. They believed projections rather than evidence. They opened multi branch networks , converted corner shops into chain stores. The country became ‘overshopped’.
Others understood the basic rules of retail engagement. They put the consumer at the centre of their propositions. They understood the difference between quick profits and long term rewards. They knew that customer loyalty must always be considered a challenge, never be an assumption.

Have sufficient lessons really been learned? Are we still building real estate sandcastles or sound retail propositions? As a customer I fear the worst.

Quality Counts!

Create Brown Thomas with Eddie Shanahan

Craftsmanship and imagination have always been the trademarks of our Irish knitters and weavers.

When I was growing up I was fascinated by the ability of my mother’s generation to knit creatively and at the speed of light. Later I became enthralled by the textile designers who conjured rivers of colour to run the length of a warp and used the inspiration of Irish landscapes to interrupt their flow, across wefts full of texture.

”…as borders opened, tariffs fell and the internet made distant markets local…”

In time my work brought me closer to the fashion designers who applied their ‘alchemy’ to add value to these crafts of ages as they created seasonal collections.

As borders opened, tariffs fell and the internet made distant markets local international competitive capability became the acid test. Once achieved we could overlay this with our Irishness, creating a distnguishing point of difference. The heritage and craftsmanship that were so long our trademarks could then become our trade.

The ‘Create’ project at Brown Thomas proves the point convincingly. Here Irish designers are encouraged to wear their Irishness as a badge of honour.

At ‘Create’ Irishness is about quality, creativity and the ability to compete. Ireland’s premier retailer generously offers Irish designers the opportunity to line up beside the best in the world. Several have done so convincingly and moved to permanent relationships with the store.

The project, now in its fifth year, has been about professionalism, innovation, imagination and standards. The store has been as demanding of its own contribution to the project as it has of the designers who have been chosen to participate.

Quality counts and brings a special reward.


Killary Harbour, Leenane, Co. Galway

”…embroidered by white foam, folds itself over a precipice and spreads like a rolling bolt of cloth across the copper toned river bed…”

Just out of Leenane is a bend in the road. Here a small bridge crosses the Erriff River where it twists and swells into Killary Harbour. In the fields on the eastern side of the bridge there is scarce pasture. There in the shadow of the Mweelrea mountains the river makes a statement.

The Aasleagh Falls tumbles, dramatic and mesmerising. A tapestry of blue water, embroidered by white foam, folds itself over a precipice and spreads like a rolling bolt of cloth across the copper toned river bed. The colours entwine and furl in the sunshine flagging a moment of magic in an Irish summer.

The ways of the West

leenane hotel

The Leenane Hotel sits shyly in a nook by the road that winds circumspectly along the edge of Killary harbour. I passed it with an unsatisfied curiosity for decades. Finally I came to stay.
Inside a hallowed afternoon quiet was broken only by the tinkle of silver plated spoons stirring china tea cups. It was 4 o’clock. Outside a wind raged, clouds scudded and the fjord corralled its white horses where hills fell steeply to the water’s edge.
After check in I climbed the stairs in both directions and wandered off towards the Field Bar.

 ”… a hallowed afternoon… it was 4 o’clock. Outside a wind raged, clouds scudded and the fjord corralled its white horses…” 

It sits low and cosy in what can barely be called the village. Inside three old ‘codgers’ sat, skirting warily around the idea of acquaintance. Words were offered sparingly, nothing given away. The arrival of a stranger gave them unity of purpose. Ireland of the welcomes indeed !, their greeting more like an inquisition.
As I return to the hotel night falls and the silence lifts. A group of ‘locals’ joins visitors in the hotel bar – wining, dining, drinking craft beer and strong porter. The generations mingle, hours run fast.
Next morning the West sleeps. Under my tiny balcony the fjord lies becalmed. The wind is nowhere to be heard. Quiet, warm sunshine stirs a passion for the unfolding day. Memories form.
The Leenane hotel may not be a place you visit often but in many ways it is a place you never leave.