Categories
Travel

Gardens of Liguria

Liguria is famous above all for its coastal towns and villages set between the blue waters of the Mediterranean and the green mountains inland. But this fascinating region offers many less familiar attractions, such as historic parks and gardens dating back to the romantic era of the 19th century, and even further back to the Renaissance. Here are five examples, all easily reached from Genoa either by road or by boat.

Villa Della Pergola, Alassio

The Gardens of Villa della Pergola in Alassio present a rare example of landscaped gardens in Italy, and they express the close contacts between England and Genova – which share the same flag – from the Crusades through to the age of the romantic poets. These gardens were commissioned by General McMurdo in 1875, and they were later owned by Virginia Woolf’s cousin Sir Walter Darlymple, and then by Daniel Hanbury who added many species to the gardens from 1922. Today the Park is famous for the diversity of its Mediterranean and exotic flora, and for its seasonal blossoms. Its collections include the glycine family with over 30 varieties, and the largest European collection of Agapanthus, with over 400 species.

Villa della Pergola Alassio

Villa Durazzo Pallavicini, Genova Pegli

The Pallavicini Park in Pegli dates back to the mid-19th century, and it represents a point of excellence amongst European romantic gardens. It covers eight hectares of hillside in Pegli, once a fishing village but now part of Genoa, and it is unusual in that it combines botany with philosophy, with a wealth of esoteric and masonic references. The landscapes comprise a series of lakes, streams, waterfalls, Arcadian buildings, and the oldest Italian collection of camellias.

Villa Pallavicini Genova Pegli

Villa Serra, Comago, Sant’Olcese

Not far from Genoa, the park of Villa Serra in Comago covers an area of nine hectares. Its construction dates back to the mid 19th-century, in the English-style landscaped gardens that were so popular at that time, and the buildings that were added include a Tudor-style cottage and a tower with battlements. The park was reopened in 1992 after restoration work that brought it back to its original appearance, with its delightful views in an evocative setting.

Villa Serra di Comago

La Cervara, Abbazia di San Girolamo al Monte di Portofino

Monte di Portofino, the hill above the eponymous village, is itself a beautiful setting. It was here that in 1361 a group of Benedictine monks founded a monastery which now includes the only Italianate garden in Liguria facing the sea. The Giardino Monumentale comprises the characteristically geometric borders typical of this style, and the ancient vineyard is cultivated in the same way. Highlights include a centennial glycine, a rhyncospermum, and the Herb Garden which features a collection of rare citrus species in pots.

Abbazia della Cervara Abbazia di San Girolamo al Monte di Portofino

Villa Durazzo, Santa Margherita Ligure

The park of Villa Durazzo covers three hectares at the centre of the attractive village of Santa Margherita. It comprises three areas, the Citrus Grove, the Italian-Style Garden, the landscaped Romantic Woodland, along with the delightful Secret Garden, and the Virna Lisi rose garden.

Villa Durazzo Pallavicini Santa Margherita Ligure

This heritage of Ligurian gardens has been enhanced and promoted by the partnership between Marina Genova (www.marinagenova.it) and Ligurian Gardens (www.liguriangardens.com) as part of the project “Le vie del mare.” All five gardens can be reached by boat, in cooperation with the charter organization AYT Associazione Yacht Travel.

Categories
Art

The renaissance of fountain pens

Mechanical watches. Vinyl records. Fountain pens. All things that were invented at some time in the past, developed into thriving industries, and were then swept away by new technology. The arrival of cheap quartz watches in the 1970s was like the cataclysm that led to the end of the dinosaurs, and it caused about two-thirds of Swiss watchmaking brands to go out of business. But mechanical watchmaking survived, and developed into something different: luxury products. Something similar happened for pens.

Fountain pens swept away by the biro

After centuries of history, the ballpoint pen changed handwriting for ever. Before the biro, every child learnt how to write with a pen. After, it became an unfamiliar object, used by presidents and by ordinary people only when signing documents in a notary’s office – using the notary’s pen. Digital technology also had a massive effect. Just as our smartphones show us the time far more accurately than any mechanical watch, computers have lessened our reliance on handwriting. Journalists can take notes on their laptop, artists can make their sketches on an iPad. Handwriting has been relegated to shopping lists. And so it come as a surprise to find that sales of quality fountain pens are rising.

Morgan pen craftsmanship
Morgan pen craftsmanship

Rediscovering the pleasure of writing

For new enthusiasts, writing with a fountain pen is like a rediscovery, a sensorial experience. It’s a bit like wine-tasting. Learning about how to recognize the hundreds of nuances of fragrance opens up a world of unexpected fascination and from then on, our enjoyment of everyday scents – a cup of tea, newly-mown grass, the earthy tang of a ploughed field – becomes an appreciation of beauty. The ink used for a fountain pen has an unmistakable smell, but it’s the way that the letters are formed on the paper that makes it special. The pen glides over the paper, the friction reduced by the perfectly-crafted tip of the nib, and by the liquid ink. No pressure is required, and you appreciate the instrument’s perfect weight and balance.

The action is concentrated on a tiny speck of metal

A pen is a very personal possession. You can choose from different materials, such as resin, wood, celluloid, ebonite, and metal, with all sorts of decorative effects. The weight and size of the pen are questions of taste. The fundamental component is the nib, which is generally gold in a quality pen, but it can also be made of steel or titanium. All nibs are tipped with a hard alloy made using metals from the platinum group, often described as iridium but usually made from an alloy containing osmium, ruthenium or tungsten. Nibs differ in width and flexibility. Most have round tips, varying from Extra Fine to Broad, that create uniform lines. Italic nibs, or stub nibs, have wider tips that create wide vertical strokes and narrow horizontal strokes, giving a calligraphic character to handwriting. Most nibs are firm, while semi-flex or flex ribs splay with pressure and so can be used to vary line thickness at will.

A wide range of choices

There are many filling systems, with some pens fitted with high-capacity vacuum arrangements that draw in a large quantity of ink with a single stroke of the plunger, making them ideal for journalists and novelists. The other major choices are between Japanese pens, typically smaller and with nibs of superb quality, and Western products; and between series-production and artisanal pens. For some of the smaller penmakers, just about all their products are customized for each customer.

Some pen-making brands – Aurora

The story of Italian brand Aurora is a good example of how fortunes have changed over the decades in this particular sector. The company was founded in 1919 in Turin, and it was part of an industrial cluster that developed in the 1910s, with many businesses changing production from buttons – no longer profitable – to pens, made using the same materials. Dozens of companies specialized in fountain pens, most of them converting to ball-point and felt-tip pens in the 1950s. The cluster’s total production reached 8 million pens a day, but from the 1980s, most companies suffered competition from Asia and today only a few still remain. Aurora is one of them, which continues to do what it has always done: making pens of medium, high and superlative quality. Looking forward to its anniversary, the company has opened its museum Officina della Scrittura, which illustrates the history of writing in a space of over 2,500 square metres. officinadellascrittura.it
In the photo, the superb Aurora 936, a solid silver pen with flame guilloché engraving, made to celebrate the 80th anniversary and still in production, with solid gold nib. aurorapen.it

Aurora 936
Aurora 936

Montegrappa

Montegrappa was founded in the north Italian town of Bassano del Grappa in 1912, and over the years its pens have been used by writers including Paulo Coelho and Ernest Hemingway, and personalities such as Pope John Paul II, King Juan Carlos of Spain and many others. For a few years, from 2000 to 2009, Montegrappa became part of the Richemont group to which Montblanc also belongs, but it has now returned to independence, owned by the Aquila family. In addition to its regular and special edition pens, its Atelier provides a service that enables anyone to create a personalized pen, with an emblem or motif painted onto the disc on the cap, or engraved or painted onto the barrel and cap. montegrappa.com

Montegrappa fountain pen
Montegrappa fountain pen

Montblanc

Montblanc was founded in Hamburg in 1906 specifically to manufacture pens, and the company’s name comes from the name of one of its first models, introduced in 1910. Today Montblanc has watchmaking plants in Switzerland and a leather workshop in Florence, but all its pens are still hand-crafted in Hamburg. Its most famous pen, the Meisterstück, has a nib hand-sculpted from gold, and each piece is tested before leaving the works. The nib grinder even listens to the sound each nib makes on the paper to ensure optimum smoothness. A recent special edition of the Meisterstück is dedicated to Le Petit Prince, with cap and barrel in night-blue resin creating a contrast with the platinum-coated fittings, and a sentence from the novel engraved into the crown. montblanc.com

Montblanc Petit Prince fountain pen
Montblanc Petit Prince fountain pen

Graf von Faber-Castell

Faber-Castell has a history that runs back to 1761, founded at Stein near Nuremberg by Kaspar Faber and still today a family-controlled business. Its products comprise pencils, office supplies and art products, and its finest pens are made under the brand name Graf von Faber-Castell. One of their latest products is a pen made in partnership with Bentley, with the elegance and meticulous detailing that hallmark the brand’s cars. One of the distinctive characteristics of Graf von Faber-Castell pens is the spring-loaded clip, and in this piece it is accompanied by platinum-finished coatings and a case in hand-sewn Italian calfskin. faber-castell.com

Graf von Faber Castell for Bentley Sequin Blue Fountain Pen
Graf von Faber Castell for Bentley Sequin Blue Fountain Pen

Edison Pen Co.

The Edison Pen Company is on a different scale, founded by Brian Gray in 2007 in his garage in Huron, Ohio, and now a thriving business. All their pens are hand-crafted, no two are the same, and so there is ample opportunity for personalization. edisonpen.com

Edison Pen Co. Pearl Limited Edition
Edison Pen Co. Pearl Limited Edition

Nakaya

Some of the finest fountain pens in the world come from Japan, and these products are exceptional for their fine, very smooth-writing nibs, and for the artistry of construction, with hand-turned barrels finished with multiple layers of Urushi lacquer. Nakaya was founded in the 1990s by Toshiya Nakata, whose family owned the large company Platinum Pen Co. He signed up pensioners who had retired from Platinum, and began a small-scale production of hand-crafted fountain pens. Today a Nakaya pen is a coveted item for pen collectors, with prices from around $650 to in excess of $10,000. nakaya.org

Nakaya fountain pen, Minamoto no Tametomo 3
Nakaya fountain pen, Minamoto no Tametomo 3
Categories
Travel

A different dimension of flight: the air taxi

An executive jet seems like something totally inaccessible for most people. But in actual fact there are some companies who run fleets of small jets providing interesting transport solutions for a variety of users. I was lucky enough to be able to try out this personalised form of of transport, on a trip from Linate airport in Milan to the Cannes Yachting Festival. The Cessna Citation Mustang operated by GlobeAir transports just four passengers, and its reduced size means that it can take off and land in some of the smallest airports, inaccessible to airliners. This more human dimension of air transport began at Linate airport where the Commander and Co-Pilot came to meet us in the building and took us to the aircraft. Soon we were climbing through the cloud towards the sunshine. After we had levelled out, the Commander turned to us and asked us if we wanted some coffee. For a man, the idea of being flown by a beautiful woman is like something out of James Bond movies, but in this case it was really happening to me. I was fascinated by everything that was going on in the cockpit just a few feet away, with Ana Borges dedicating constant attention to the controls and the avionic screens. I couldn’t resist the temptation of asking her a few questions about her life as a pilot.

Citation Mustang

Ana’s passion for flying began when she was very small. Her father was an aircraft technician at TAP Portugal, and he often took her to the maintenance hangars and showed her all the parts of the aeroplanes on which he was working, and she was fascinated. At the age of 17 Ana tried to join the Portuguese Air Force without success. So she studied engineering at university and began taking lessons for a Private Pilot’s Licence. That was just the start of a gruelling career path. I asked Anna about the difficulties of being a female commander.

“Being a commander is very challenging, both for men and women: there are a lot of responsibilities. For women it’s a bit more demanding, as I feel that we need to prove more than men to achieve the same goals and to see our professionalism and skills recognized. Fortunately, things are changing and now I’m in a company that respects women and men equally, and that is fighting to change the industry’s mentality. Last year our CEO, Bernhard Fragner, made one of his dreams came true: having a full female crew operating some of our flights. At GlobeAir there are now five female pilots and, in particular one of the commanders, Léa Thierry, apart from being an amazing colleague and inspiration, also holds the title of Line Training Commander and Safety Manager.”

Ana Borges

Flying along the south coast of Italy and France, the views were amazing. There was a strong Mistral blowing and the sunlight glinted off the waves. The plane seemed to move around a bit more than a big airliner. I asked her about the pleasure of flying this sort of plane.

“The Mustang is a compact jet. I think everyone dreams of flying the big jets, but I always wanted to fly in business aviation, which gives us the chance to fly to many different places and the opportunity to enjoy the pleasure of hand flying more often. And our destinations include some really interesting places, Zeltweg and Egelsbach in Germany, Lugano, Bolzano, Innsbruck, Samedan and Sion in the Alps, London City, Cannes and Le Castellet in France, to name just a few.”

GlobeAir Citation Mustang

It sounds like a glamorous life, I said. Ana replied, “There’s nothing glamorous about my life. Generally, we have a very busy schedule and a lot of responsibility, constant training and assessment, and we’re away from home a lot. It is a very tiring job. But it also means a dream come true: you can turn your passion into your profession.” The approach down to Cannes Airport was very exciting. The aircraft seemed to be yawing from side to side in the strong wind, but Ana had everything under control and after a perfect landing, soon we were taxiing towards the airport building. I had time to ask Anna just one last question. What are the main reasons why passengers choose a private jet?

“I think most of our passengers, business executives and entrepreneurs, value our service for the time-savings and flexibility that a flight operated on demand can offer. Our air taxi service works more or less like a luxury taxi. The entire process, from booking to take off, is very smooth. Travellers can book their jet in seconds on our website or via our 24/7 Customer Care service, and in a few hours an aircraft will be ready for take-off from their preferred airport. With 16 Citation Mustang jets, GlobeAir is able to position one of its aircrafts with very short notice anywhere in Europe, connecting more than 1,500 airports. Upon arrival, we can wait for their meeting to end and take them back and, within a certain margin, we can adjust the departure time, and even change the destination if necessary.”

So it’s a special service for passengers, and a special job for the pilot. As Ana said, “When pilots tell you what they have to do the next day, they don’t say ‘I’m going to work tomorrow,’ they say ‘I’m going to fly tomorrow’!”

Henry Neuteboom

Categories
Writing

The horse of kings

The Pura Raza Española is a very special horse. Originating from the Andalusians that were appreciated by the Ancient Romans, it became famous world-wide from the 16th century, a living expression of Spain’s Golden Age.

No ordinary horse. The Pura Raza Española (PRE), also known as the Andalusian, is a remarkable breed, for centuries considered as the finest warhorse but also the epitome of equine elegance. Their speed and manoeuvrability is accompanied by an exceptional temperament, calm and apparently oblivious to any sense of danger. Their regal, high-stepping carriage made it a favourite amongst Europe’s royalty and aristocracy, as can be seen from innumerable portraits in which the noble personage is mounted on a Pura Raza Española. They have been portrayed by Leonardo da Vinci, Velasquez, Van Dyck, Rembrandt and Rubens.

Cinema presence

The Pura Raza Española’s athletic ability is astounding. Still today they are used as bullfighting horses. But they also excel in dressage, jumping, driving and as working ranch horses. They enchant horse lovers with their looks, a beautifully-proportioned head on a powerful, elegantly arched neck, with a generous crest, and long, sometimes wavy mane and tail. Usually grey, other accepted colours are bay, black, chestnut and the lighter hues. Not surprisingly, they have progressed from the battlefields of centuries past to contemporary stardom at the cinema, ridden by Russell Crowe in Gladiator and Mel Gibson in Braveheart. They also appeared in Interview with the Vampire, The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Chronicles of Narnia. A Pura Raza Española horse also features in the largest equestrian statue in the world, at El Paso airport in Texas, depicting Spanish explorer Juan de Oñate y Salazar. The rearing stallion is an incredible 11 metres high.

Pura Raza Española horse
The horse of kings – Pura Raza Española – article published in Le Grand Mag

Sports instinct

The breed has reached the annals of sporting success. At the Atlanta 1996 Olympics, the Spanish dressage team reached the finals for the first time, and it took part with three Pura Raza Española horses. At the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, they finished 7th, and at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, the team won the bronze medal. One of the horses, Invasor, took part in all these editions. The breed excels in the Spanish Doma Vaquera, a sort of dressage inspired by the work of vaqueros who work with herds of cattle in Spain and Portugal. Iberian cattle can be unpredictable and even savage, and a horse that can instantly perform a side-pass, or hit a gallop, or stop and swerve instantly, can save the vaquero’s life. In Doma Vaquera competition, horses and riders perform the movements without cattle, evoking the unexpected situations that can occur on the ranch, requiring exceptional balance, obedience and agility from the horse.

A long pureblood history

Man’s aesthetic appreciation of horses has ancient roots, going back to the Ancient Greeks. Though originating from horses present in Andalusia since time immemorial, the Pura Raza Española was the result of a breeding programme conducted in order to create a new breed with certain well-defined traits of appearance and character. On 28 November 1567, King Felipe II ordered the Royal Horse Master in Córdoba, Diego Lopez de Haro, to buy 1,200 of the finest mares and stallions from the provinces bordering the Guadalquiver, in order to obtain a horse corresponding to what was considered as equine perfection. For over 30 years, the breed was developed in this city, originally intended for exclusive use by the Royal House, and soon becoming an emblem of the Spanish Empire. The project was a good expression of the Renaissance, a period in which horses and riding became aristocratic pursuits, no longer linked exclusively to military considerations. The horse became an object of beauty. But this new artistic sensitivity amongst the nobility was usually not matched by their riding skills, and the docile temperament of the new breed was particularly useful. In 1600, French riding master Salomon de la Broue wrote, “In a comparison of the finest horses, I would place the Spanish horse in first position, considering it the most beautiful, the most noble, the worthiest of being ridden by a king.”

Prestigious supporters for the breed

It was only natural that the Spanish royal family should give specimens of the Pura Raza Española as gifts to other European courts. As a result, it was crossed, and its genes contributed to the origin of other breeds such as the Lippizaner, Lusitano, Paso Fino, Neapolitan, and some of the German warmbloods such as Hanoverians, Oldenburgers and Holsteiners. Today, there are about 180,000 Pura Raza Española horses world-wide, and the breed is represented by the Asociación Nacional de Criadores de Caballos de Pura Raza Española, ANCCE (National Association of Purebred Spanish Horse Breeders), which holds the stud book, “Registro Matricula de Caballos y Yeguas de Pura Raza Española,” instituted in 1912 and marking the origin of the horse’s name, which was chosen to reflect the wave of national pride or “Regeneracionismo” that followed the disastrous Spanish-American war of 1898. From then on, the breed’s prestigious reputation has been carefully protected by Spanish institutions. King Felipe VI of Spain is honorary president of the board of the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art Foundation in Jerez, an institution dedicated to the protection of the Pura Raza Española since 1973. The role had previously been held by King Juan Carlos for almost 30 years.

Stars of a dedicated trade fair

Over the course of 500 years, the Pura Raza Española has undergone moments of crisis as well as fortune. Over the centuries, many of the bloodlines were diluted by crossbreeding, and in the 19th century, many horses were stolen during periods of war in the Iberian peninsula. The survival of the breed is in great part due to the Carthusian monks who bred them from the late Middle Ages on, and who succeeded in hiding small herds that could then be used to renew the breed. In 1832, an epidemic had a disastrous effect on Spain’s horses, and once again, only a small herd of Andalusians survived, at the Monastery of Cartuja. After the selection of the new name Pura Raza Española, exports of these horses was restricted until 1962. Today, it is a firm favourite amongst horse lovers, adored for its noble, docile temperament, willing to please, exceptionally intelligent, capable of forming powerful bonds with their owners. They love attention and they love showing off. Every year, they are celebrated at SICAB, an international trade fair held in Seville, dedicated entirely to the Pura Raza Española, with over 240,000 visitors. The thousand horses present also enjoy it: after such a long history, they take stardom in their stride.

Article published in Le Grand Mag, 2019

Categories
Watches

Forever higher – aviation watches

Watches have always had close links to the world of aviation, with many designs that have become legends, and new products every year. This article was published in the magazine Hors Ligne, May 2015.

hors ligne 147 May 2015
From the magazine Hors Ligne n° 147, May 2015

Origins of the pilot’s watch: Cartier and Santos-Dumont

There are several candidates for the first wristwatch in the world, such as Breguet’s watch delivered to Caroline Murat in 1812, but there is no doubt that it was Louis Cartier who established the popularity of wristwatches, as opposed to the pocket watches that were almost universally used up until then. Brazilian-born pioneer aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont was a friend of Cartier’s, and asked him to make a watch that he could wear on his wrist so that he could read the time without taking his hand off the control column. That was in 1904, when Santos-Dumont had already become a personality in Paris for his flying exploits, and his eccentric dress style, with high-collared shirts and Panama hat, became popular in high society. The wristwatch that Louis Cartier made for him, with leather strap and buckle, also became fashionable. The Santos is still part of Cartier’s range.

Cartier and the Santos-Dumont watch
Left, a modern version of the Santos-Dumont by Cartier. Right-hand image courtesy of santos-dumont.cartum.zip.net

Flieger watch

The classic pilot’s watch developed in the 1930s. It had to be easily legible in the cockpit, and so simplicity was essential. Black dial, white numerals, with luminescent coating for easy reading in the dark, a large conical crown for adjustment while wearing gloves: these are the features of the B-Uhr watches supplied to the Luftwaffe by A. Lange & Söhne, IWC, Wempe, Laco, and Stowa, and they live on today in watches by several brands. The “Beobachtungs-uhren,” or observation watches, are characteristic for the triangle at the 12 o’clock position, sometimes with two dots at the apex. Watches of this type are still made by German brands Mühle Glashütte, Tourby, Stowa and Archimede. They were also made by a few high-end brands such as Glashütte Original, but in today’s market, such a simple design leaves little room for the expression of brand personality and so Glashütte Original, like A. Lange & Söhne, have abandoned this area.

Stowa Flieger Klassik 40
Stowa Flieger Klassik 40

IWC Pilots Watch Mark XVII

IWC Schaffhausen is a brand for which pilot’s watches are still an important part of their range, and the Pilots Watch Mark XVII is a perfect expression of the classic pattern. It is based on the IWC Mark II model dating back to 1936, for many years the official service watch for R.A.F. pilots and navigators. It has an automatic 30110-calibre movement with 42 hours power reserve, a soft iron anti-magnetic inner case, and central seconds hand. The date display shows three visible figures aligned vertically against a red triangular index, a reference to a cockpit panel altimeter.

IWC Pilot's Watch Mark XVII
IWC Pilot’s Watch Mark XVII

Breitling Transocean Chronograph

Many other brands celebrate the link between timekeeping and flying. Breitling run a whole squadron of aircraft, including the world’s only professional civilian flight team performing on jets. The team routinely performs sequences in which fast and powerful L-39C Albatros Czech-made twin-seater military jets fly at almost 700 km/h to within less than 3 metres one from another, reaching dizzying 8G acceleration. The Breitling Jet Team performs about fifty demonstrations a year, at air shows, Formula 1 Grand Prix races, sports events and other occasions. Equally spectacular are the Breitling Wingwalkers, in which courageous acrobats ride on the top wing of two 1940s Boeing Stearman biplanes. The technique recalls the “barnstormers,” teams of pilots and stuntmen who performed worldwide between the wars. At the Baselworld 2015 show, Breitling present their Transocean Chronograph, a piece celebrating their 1915 model in which for the first time a separate pusher was provided for chronograph operation, rather than just the crown as had previously been the case.

Breitling Transocean Chronograph 1915
Breitling Transocean Chronograph 1915

Zenith Pilot Montre d’Aéronef Type 20 GMT 1903

Zenith has an important anniversary this year: 150 years since its foundation in Le Locle in 1865, and in 2014 they celebrated another significant date with their Pilot Montre d’Aéronef Type 20 GMT 1903. The watch, part of their extensive aviation collection, celebrates the first powered flight in history by Orville Wright in 1903, and it combines an ultra-modern black DLC-coated titanium case with some characteristically period features, such as the 48 mm case size, the large crown, and generously-sized Arabic numerals on which the SuperLuminova has an antique, mottled appearance, making each watch unique. The red GMT hand is easy to adjust with the pusher at 10 o’clock. The watch, powered by the Elite 693 automatic movement providing 50 hours power reserve, is mounted on a Bund-style leather wristband, a design that dates back to the German Luftwaffe. In the days of unheated cockpits in which the temperature dropped to well below freezing, a steel caseback could be extremely painful, and so the Bund strap, with its leather base, protected the pilot’s skin. In this commemorative piece, the caseback and wristband have embossed designs celebrating Orville’s 60-metre flight and Zenith’s long history of aviation watches.

Bell & Ross BR 126 Sport Heritage GMT & Flyback

Bell & Ross is a French company specialising in watches that are often very close to cockpit instruments. Their BR 126 Sport Heritage GMT & Flyback cleverly combines two functions eminently suited to an aviation watch: the chronograph, and a second time zone, ideal for frequent fliers.

Bell & Ross Vintage BR-126 Heritage GMT Flyback
Bell & Ross Vintage BR-126 Heritage GMT Flyback

Longines Avigation Watch Type A-7

Swiss brand Longines acquired its winged hourglass logo far before man had achieved his dream of powered flight, and it turned out to be a prophetic move, because Longines have created many lovely pilot’s timepieces such as the Lindbergh Hour Angle watch designed by Charles Lindbergh, who made the first solo non-stop flight across the Atlantic in 1927, and the deliciously eccentric Avigation Watch Type A-7 in which the dial is angled with respect to the dial. It was originally made for 1930s American aviators who wore it on the inside of the wrist, so that when their hands were on the control column, the watch was perfectly visible, and the dial was aligned with the instrument panel.

Longines Avigation Watch Type A-7 ref. L2.779.4.53.0
Longines Avigation Watch Type A-7 ref. L2.779.4.53.0

Bremont

In a way, aviators could be thought of as midway between men and angels, and perhaps the undying appeal of aviation-linked watches can be explained by the romantic appeal of carefree enjoyment, courage and the ever-present possibility of tragedy. Bremont is a British brand born in precisely this way, founded by Nick and Giles English following an air accident in which their father Euan was killed and Nick seriously injured. They decided to perpetuate Euan’s memory by making his hobby of restoring old clocks into a profession. Another essential ingredient of their company came from an incident in the late 1990s, when they had to force-land their 1930s biplane somewhere in France. They didn’t want any problems with the French authorities, and so they gratefully accepted the help of a farmer who hid their plane in a barn. Nick and Giles decided that they would not forget the farmer’s hospitality. His name: Antoine Bremont.

Bremont MB9
Bremont MB9

IWC and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

But perhaps the most evocative and romantic chronograph watch of all came from IWC in 2014, commemorating the last flight of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The writer had been flying since 1921, and had become famous for his books Vol de nuit (1931) and above all The Little Prince (1943). In 1944, he was not really cast in the mould of the dashing aviator, eight years over the limit for operational pilots, overweight and almost too large to squeeze into a cockpit, but nonetheless managed to secure a place in a squadron of P-38 Lightnings, where he continued his habit of reading novels while in the air, and even writing in the notebook that he always took with him in the cockpit. He took off from Corsica for a reconnaissance flight over the south of France on 31 July 1944, and never returned. Clues as to his last moments only emerged in 1998 when a fisherman found a bracelet marked with his name in the sea off Marseille; soon after, wreckage of his aircraft was discovered. IWC’s commemorative editions help keep the memory of Saint-Exupéry alive, and provide funds for the Antoine de Saint-Exupéry Foundation, a charity helping children and young people in many countries. Romanticism and precision are not all that far apart.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Categories
Cars

Maserati and four-wheel drift

The Maserati Ghibli, an exciting combination of luxury and sport driving. An article published on 15 November 2013 on luxos.com

In the corner of the showroom at the Maserati factory in Modena, there is a table set with glasses, and champagne on ice. A man, his steely blue-grey eyes framed by lines on a tanned skin bearing witness to many Los Angeles summers, is celebrating his new Maserati Ghibli. He decided to pick it up directly at the factory, before enjoying it on the twisting European roads for a few weeks with his wife. Only then will he have it shipped back to the States.

This is the only place and occasion where alcohol is allowed at the factory. At Maserati, everything is stringently checked from start to end of the manufacturing process. Twelve percent of the people working there are dedicated uniquely to quality control, and the car spends far more time being inspected than it does on the assembly line. In addition to the checks on every part and every step of construction, the complete car undergoes a 24-stage quality control procedure. Inspection of paintwork is a task entrusted to women, who have proven to be far more skilled than men in assessing the perfection of colour and finish.

Maserati Ghibli

One of the reasons why no few customers decide to collect their new car from the factory is because the vehicle is yours from the outset. All the cars on the production line have already been bought, and each is personalized with the many available options of colour, leather, even stitching. The number of permutations possible for a single model run into millions.

The Ghibli is part of Maserati’s ambitious plans to increase its luxury car production from the 2,600 vehicles manufactured in 2012 to the 50,000 forecast for 2015. By then, the range will have been completed, with the addition of the Levante crossover, so Maserati will cover the whole of the luxury market. I drove the Ghibli at a press presentation held in Modena in November 2013.

Alessandro Vai
On the left, Alessandro Vai, who seriously knows how to drive. He writes a blog, L’autocritico

The first thing that you notice when you get in is the high level of finish. There is a subtle fragrance from the leather seats, and a myriad of high-tech comfort features, such as the comprehensive seat adjustment, spacious compartments under the dash, and between driver and passenger. Other details reveal something of the Maserati racing DNA, such as the start button on the door side of the steering wheel. This is a throwback to the heroic racing days when drivers had to sprint to the car, start the engine and set off, and so the start button near the door left the other hand free for the gear lever.

When you’re on the road, another note of comfort is the superb sound-proofing. You can enjoy the massive sound of the Bowers & Wilkins stereo system with concert-hall clarity… but it’s more fun to switch off the music, and switch on the famous Sport button, which opens the exhaust baffles and lets you hear the fantastic Maserati sound, a satisfying rumble when cruising, a high-pitched roar when you’re accelerating with your foot on the floor, and the pops and grumbles on the overrun. Sounds a bit boisterous? No surprise: think of her as an Italian, talking to you…

It’s when you’re on the small winding roads of the Apennine countryside around Modena (or wherever you are) that the car becomes an amazing ride. Change from automatic to manual, harden up the suspension with another button, and use the paddles to handle the 8-speed gearbox. When you take her close to the limit on corners, the grip is incredible. As you go beyond, you can play with her through oversteering slides and four-wheel drift. The degree to which you can do this depends on the model. The Ghibli Q4 has all-wheel drive, with a system that balances torque between front and rear wheels with constant, split-second adjustment. In this case, the system is so efficient that as soon as the rear wheels start to slip, the torque is loaded up front, and the car remains glued to the asphalt. The models available for the Ghibli give you a choice of just how sporty you want your car to be.

Maserati Ghibli

The new Ghibli is a revolution in many ways: higher performance, more space, fun to drive. This reflects a whole series of design innovations, such as the relocated fuel tank which provides more room in the boot; an overall reduction of weight, with half the upper body in ultra-light aluminium, and the dashboard cross-beam in magnesium. The various power plants are all best-in-class, and likewise the weight/power ratios. But perhaps the biggest surprise is the diesel version of the Ghibli. This was necessary above all for the European market where petrol prices are higher than in the USA. It is the first diesel car in the history of Maserati, and the engineers have done a respectable job of giving the 275 hp engine the Maserati feel and sound. A special steel exhaust manifold keeps the exhaust gas hot for better turbocharger performance. The sound, of course, is different: deeper, throatier, with the same Sport button to amplify this baritone concert.

One thing that you won’t find in the Ghibli – or in any Maserati – are things like adaptive cruise control. With the top speeds of the Ghibli, there wouldn’t be much point, but above all, the Ghibli is a car for hands-on driving, and not one to be driven in. When you’ve reached your destination, you get out, admire the frameless windows and the bulging fender arches (both directly from the racing DNA), and the temptation to get back on the road is irresistible. The prices of the Ghibli put it into attractive competition with its German rivals, but to be honest, its handling, its looks and its voice give it ‘una marcia in più.’ An extra gear.

Categories
Writing

Space tourism

The flight to Mars is now boarding at gate 34…

A review of some of the projects designed to take ordinary people into space. This article was published in LUXOS Spain spring/summer 2014, before the crash of the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo VSS Enterprise on 31 October 2014.

“Sooner or later, we must expand life beyond this green and blue ball—or go extinct.” Elon Musk has done a great deal to help preserve our planet, by developing sexy electric sports cars with Tesla, solar power technology, and concepts for hyper-efficient mass transport systems. But he is convinced that the human race should have a Plan B, in case of inadvertent destruction of our planet by an asteroid, a miniature black hole or a killer virus, and that this back-up plan could be by colonizing other planets, and in particular Mars.

In 2001, he had the idea of sending an experimental greenhouse to the red planet, containing a miniature ecosystem, but he soon realized that he faced a problem: the lack of viable interplanetary commuter rockets. In 2002 he founded SpaceX, Space Exploration Technologies, to solve the problem. The company won commissions from NASA, and in 2012 its Dragon spacecraft successfully docked with the International Space Station (ISS). The stage is set for manned trips to ISS, and SpaceX has won many other contracts for the launch of satellites and other space missions, principally by virtue of its ability to provide a low price-per-payload ratio. One of the features of SpaceX’s approach is its vertical take-off, vertical landing system that reduces payload but greatly reduces total costs, making commercial space flight more competitive.

Falcon 9 and SES 8 lift off from the SpaceX launch pad at Cape Canaveral
Falcon 9 and SES 8 lift off from the SpaceX launch pad at Cape Canaveral

“If you can reduce the cost of a flight to Mars to around half a million dollars, I think enough people would buy a ticket and would move to Mars to be part of creating a new planet, part of a founding team for a new civilization. Even if just one in a million people decided to do that, that’s still 8,000 people. That’s the Mars business model.”

Richard Branson is working on sub-orbital space travel, with his company Virgin Galactic. “This will be a trip like no other. Our spacecraft have been designed so that each of our passengers will have the room and the freedom to enjoy the amazing sensation of weightlessness. Large panoramic windows will allow you to see clearly the curved earth over a hundred kilometres below, and the colours of the fragile atmosphere protecting our valuable planet,” said Branson. His project is based on a rocket, SpaceShip 2, with two pilots and six passengers, carried up to the height of 52 kilometres by a large jet plane, White Knight II. The carrier plane then releases the rocket, whose engines take it up to an altitude of 110 kilometres, therefore in space according to the conventional definition of where space begins, 100 kilometres up. The passengers can enjoy weightlessness for about 6 minutes before having to strap in again for the descent and landing. The whole flight, from take-off to landing, lasts about two and a half hours. Tickets are already on sale, and by June 2013 about 600 people had paid the $20,000 deposit on a total ticket price of $250,000.

Close-up of SS2 during the first rocket-powered flight

It will be an exciting ride. Brian Binnie, who piloted the X-prize-winning flight of SpaceShip 2, described the massive acceleration of the rocket after it detached from the mother ship, pinning him back into the seat, and the tremendous noise as the spaceship powered out of the atmosphere. Then suddenly, the dramatic and absolute silence of space. “At that point, it’s like someone has pulled back a stage curtain for your eyes only, and you’re looking at this black void of space,” said Binnie. It’s a mystery, but you get a sense of its majesty as well. There’s a panorama like you’ve never seen.”

Space XC is another company offering a brief taste of space, with flights in their Lynx Mark II spacecraft, in which there is just one passenger who flies alongside the pilot, and is in constant contact with the action. The cockpit canopy is generously sized for good views of space, and the Earth. Differently to the space shuttle and Virgin Galactic, there are no disposable carrier rockets, or mother ships. The Lynx Mark II is small, relatively light, and so takes off, ascends steeply, breaks the sound barrier after 58 seconds, and reaches Mach 2.9 after 3 minutes. The engines are switched off at an altitude of almost 60 kilometres, and the craft continues moving towards space on a parabolic course, reaching the 100 kilometre mark and remaining in space, weightless, for about five minutes. During the descent, there is a period of about 20 seconds when you will experience 4G, during a pullout manoeuvre to reduce speed. After this, there is a leisurely glide back down to the spaceport in Curaçao or Mojave. The whole flight lasts about an hour. Space XC say that the spacecraft is environmentally friendly, built of lightweight materials and powered by bio-fuels. The rocket engines are designed for over 5,000 flights. Safety is enhanced by the fact that the pilot can turn the rocket engine on again even during the gliding phase of the flight. Tickets cost $100,000, with flights to the 100-kilometre mark planned from late 2015.

There will be a cheaper option to get this privileged view of our planet. World View is working on the idea of using a massive helium balloon to take a capsule gently upwards. No special training is required, and, in the stylishly-appointed capsule for six passengers, you’ll reach the altitude of about 30 kilometres. So technically you’re not in space, and you won’t experience weightlessness, but you’re at the top of the atmosphere, and you’ll see the curvature of the earth, like Felix Baumgartner did in his epic balloon-jump. After a couple of hours, the pilot vents some helium from the balloon, which begins a slow descent. The balloon is then released, and a parawing takes the capsule back down, with a landing on skids. Flights are planned from 2016, at a price of $75,000.

LUXOS Spain spring/summer 2014

LUXOS Spain spring/summer 2014

Categories
Milan

Top 10 unusual sights in Milan

In addition to Milan’s most familiar landmarks, the Duomo, the Castle and Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, there are some other less familiar sights that are like clues helping you to fathom the city’s history and culture. Here are 10 of the less familiar, more unusual sights in Milan…

1. A ball that shouldn’t be there but is

The mid-1800s were hectic times for Milan, which at that time was part of the Austrian empire, and in March 1848 the tension between the population and the Austrian garrison exploded into street warfare. The battle lasted just five days, from 18 to 22 March, with the Milanese people inventing all sorts of systems for outwitting the occupants, such as building hot-air balloons to smuggle messages out of the city, enlisting the astronomers in their tower-top observatories to watch the Austrians’ movements, and building mobile barricades that could be rolled along the street. At Corso di Porta Romana 3 there is a remnant from this battle. Look up and you will see a cannonball stuck halfway into the wall, now labelled with a plaque with the date 20 March 1848.

milano unusual sights

2. Balls that should be there but aren’t

Perhaps a more obvious one. The poor bull in the mosaic floor of Galleria Vittorio Emanuele whose privates are used by all and sundry in the hope of receiving good luck. Find the emblem of Turin under the central dome, place your right heel on the spot, and spin round once clockwise.
The mosaics under the glass dome also have another curious feature, the abbreviation F.E.R.T. that accompanies the emblem of the Savoy family from which the kings of Milan came. The family has distant origins, running at least back to the 10th century, so distant that there are no records of what F.E.R.T. actually means. All suggestions are mere conjectures, such as Frappez, Entrez, Rompez Tout (knock, enter, destroy everything).

milano unusual sights
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, photo courtesy of Paolo Margari/flickr

3. The man who should be there but isn’t

The guy whose face is missing is Mussolini, shown in a mosaic in Milan’s Central Station, alongside platform 20. It was Mussolini and his regime that gave new impetus to the project for a new station that dated to before the First War, and it was inaugurated in 1931, complete with lots of decorations including this mosaic and various Fascist symbols. Many were removed, many still remain. Just look upwards while you’re walking around inside.

milano unusual sights

4. The man who shouldn’t be there but is

It’s Mussolini again, on one of the pinnacles of the Cathedral, in a double portrait with King Vittorio Emanuele II. Sculptors were working on statues for the Duomo from the late 1300s right through to the 20th century, and after 3,000 apostles, saints, martyrs, virgin, popes and bishops, they were running out of subjects. It is for this reason that Mussolini won immortality in the most prestigious location in the city. Other unexpected subjects include two boxers, Napoleon, and a host of cats, dogs and other animals. Climb to the rooftop, and when you emerge into the sunlight, turn left, look back northwest and downwards, and search for the double-headed pinnacle.

milano unusual sights

5. How to set your watch in the Cathedral

While you’re at the Duomo, take a look inside: as soon as you’ve entered the main door, turn right and look up to the vaults in the right-hand nave, and you’ll see a small hole. A ray of light from a hole in the south nave roof descends and reaches the floor, where there is a marble and brass line, with signs of the zodiac along it. It is a massive sundial, and the ray intercepts the line at astronomical noon. Nowadays, you can’t see it operating, with all the arc lights switched on inside, but for decades in the 19th century it was used for regulating the city’s mechanical clocks.

milano unusual sights

6. Lift up to cloud nine

The lift in the Duomo was built in the 1600s of wood and wicker and was decorated to resemble a cloud. It is still used twice a year, when the bishop of Milan gets in, is hoisted up 40 metres above the altar, and retrieves one of the Cathedral’s most precious possessions, a nail from the Crucifixion. Three days later, he goes up again to take it back. The tradition began because the pilgrims’ devotion for the nail, placed in its lofty position, seemed to be diminishing just because it was so high up, and so in 1576 the archbishop of Milan brought it down for the first time. Aspiring applicants to the position of archbishop are advised to write ‘good head for heights’ in their CV.

milano unusual sights

7. Nine metres in ninety centimetres

You thought virtual reality was a 21st century discovery? Take a look at the church of San Satiro, hidden away on Via Torino (about 80 metres down from Piazza Duomo, just after Via Speronari) where you’ll discover a Renaissance optical illusion that creates a virtual space nine metres long in a space of just 95 cm. It was designed by architect Donato Bramante in about 1480, and it solved several problems all at once: there wasn’t enough room to build a real apse because a road ran behind, Bramante wanted to build a central plan church with the altar at the centre of four identical transepts, and the clerics wanted the altar in the usual position on the east side. Talk about necessity being the mother of invention…

milano unusual sights

8. Humerus? Not very

Bones, thousands of them, cloak the walls of a small chapel in the church of San Bernardino alle Ossa, in Piazza Santo Stefano. When the tower of the adjacent church of Santo Stefano collapsed in 1642, they immediately started to dig deeper foundations for the new tower and uncovered lots of bones. You reach the chapel through a narrow corridor on the right after going in, and you’ll see the skulls and long bones incorporated into the Rococo decorations. According to tradition, the bones are of saints and martyrs; it’s more likely that they are just ordinary people who died in the hospital that was nearby in the Middle Ages.

milano unusual sights

9. Bomb damage

In Piazza della Repubblica, you can still see signs of the three air-raids in August 1943 that helped persuade Italy to sign an armistice with the Allies. The shrapnel from the bombs punched holes through the lamp-post, which has remained in position ever since. Probably the least fêted war memorial in the world.

milano unusual sights

10. When walls have ears

This sculpture is on a building in Via Serbelloni 10, named ‘Ca’ de l’oreggia’ (‘Ear House’ in Milanese dialect), right next to the front door. Made in bronze and complete with some tufts of curly hair above, it was installed in the mid-1920s as a housephone, and a pipe led from the ear to the porter’s office. When it was working visitors actually had to announce themselves into this giant ear, about 70 cm high. Even though the housephone is no longer in use, it has been retained in its position on the façade, in part because it was created by celebrated sculptor Adolfo Wildt.

milano unusual sights

Categories
Milan

The Cimitero Monumentale

Milan's Cimitero Monumentale
Milan’s Cimitero Monumentale

November starts with the ponte dei morti, which, literally translated, means the bridge of the dead. A horror movie? A natural disaster? No, just a long weekend, from Thursday 1 November 2012 to Sunday 4 November. Tutti i Santi, 1 November, is a public holiday in Italy. For many people, Friday gets thrown in free to bridge the gap. Then on Wednesday 2 November, there is the Commemorazione dei Defunti, which is not a holiday, but a day when many people visit cemeteries and put flowers on their family graves. For this reason, November is an excellent time in which to visit Milan’s Cimitero Monumentale, which is always spectacular, and even better when bedecked with crysanthemums and other blooms. Though externally it is obstructed by a building site for a new Metro line, access is still possible.

Cemetery visiting, in the sightseeing sense, is not really an Italian thing at all. Most Italian males, when faced with this sort of suggestion, would surreptitiously touch a certain dual part of their anatomy, and many Italian females would extend the second and fifth fingers of one or both hands in the unmistakable “horns” gesture that keeps calamity and death at an acceptable distance. But for many visitors from abroad, a visit to one of Italy’s monumental cemeteries is an essential part of a trip here.

Milan's Cimitero Monumentale
A sculpture in bronze in Milan’s Cimitero Monumentale

Probably the finest of all is Milan’s Monumentale, with Genoa’s Staglieno and Turin’s Monumentale close behind. Milan’s cemetery was built from 1866, on the wave of the “cemetery movement” that really started with Père Lachaise in Paris and spread all over Europe. After the Edict of St. Cloud had prohibited burial in churches, the time was ripe for the cimitero monumentale, an enclosed field in which there were no problems of space. Above all, this type of cemetery was a civic establishment, only partially controlled by the clerical authorities, and this meant that artists could indulge in extreme realism and images that would never be allowed in a church. In addition, Milan’s cemetery developed in the years during which the Romantic movement was at its height. For Romantic artists and writers, the concept of death was no longer associated with fear and horror, but with release, repose, rebirth, and even ecstasy of the most explicit variety. And so many of the tombs feature extraordinarily beautiful sculptures of lightly veiled, or totally naked, women. The cemetery is a huge – 250,000 square metres – open-air gallery, with over 6,000 pieces of sculpture in peaceful and green surroundings. It’s open from 8.30 to 17.30 every day except Monday.

There is lots more religious sculpture in the Cathedral, just opposite Palazzo Reale, where you can see a sculptural version of Saint Bartholomew post-martyrdom. This, just inside the entrance on the south side, is definitely not for the faint-hearted. The 16th-century sculptor Marco d’Agrate shows a
man whose skin has just been totally removed, and takes the opportunity to show off his skill at muscles, veins and tendons, which at that time was all the rage after Leonardo da Vinci’s pioneering anatomy studies.

San Bernardino, Piazza Santo Stefano, Milan
San Bernardino, Piazza Santo Stefano, Milan

Not far off, in Piazza Santo Stefano, there is one of the strangest sights in Milan. The largest church is Santo Stefano, and the church tower used to be on the left-hand side of the church. When it collapsed in 1642, it fell on top of a much smaller church, San Bernardino, nearby, which for centuries had been used to store human remains. And so San Bernardino was rebuilt, and the bones were used as an interior decoration material. The writing is on the wall, as one says, and in this case the writing is in femurs. To find this little chapel, look for the passage on the right after going in. The main church was built in the 1700s after the bone-lined chapel had become something of an attraction for the people of the city. San Bernardino is open from Monday to Saturday mornings (about 8.30 to 12.30) and it also opens for Mass on Sunday.

After all this culture, what about a little refreshment? Personally, at this time of year I can’t resist pane dei morti, little chocolatey cakes sprinkled with sugar, in all the pasticcerie. Delicious. And, to conclude, neither can I resist a couple of quotations on the subject. “Dying is a very dull, dreary affair. And my advice to you is to have nothing whatever to do with it”. (W. Somerset Maugham). “I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter”. (Winston Churchill). But my absolute favourite is not by a famous person at all, but by one of my ancestors. I have recently discovered that my great-grandfather Henry, when aged 84, wrote, in a letter to his local newspaper: “… and I do not expect to stop smoking until my cremation is over”. Actually my second favourite is also by the same venerable Henry who, having admitted to his partiality for beer, wrote, “When asked ‘Is life worth living?’ I reply that it depends on the liver!” Brilliant! Now why couldn’t I think of something like that? Unless he stole it from someone else, of course.

© Henry Neuteboom 2012