Most places where famous people once lived retain no trace of their former celebrity tenants, but that's not always so, and ones that have been kept or restored to how they once were and are now museums, are cracking places to visit on a holiday.

Wherever I travel to I find a good home museum to visit. It makes me feel like a time-travelling house guest of the world’s great artists, musicians, writers and politicians. If I know the person's life then visiting their former homes conjures terrific beyond-the-biographies vibrations, and gives insights into their personalties and the times they lived in.


 
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HOME MUSEUMS
If you are in Mexico City you should see how Trotsky spent his final years (and minutes)...
posted by Richard Green on 04/10/2016

Trotsky's study, portrait and memorial in the grounds

LEON TROTSKY's little fortress in Coyoacan, Mexico City.

Fleeing from the wrath of Stalin, Trotsky's exile saw him live for periods in Turkey, France and Norway, before arriving in Mexico in 1937. Fearing assassination by Stalin's henchmen, he converted the house into a mini fortress, with high walls, steel shutters and a watchtower. It's basic and quite homely inside, but thanks to many windows having been bricked up, there's a gloominess and a decidedly claustrophobic atmosphere. Stepping through his bedroom door made me feel like I was in a submarine, the door was large, hatch-like, raised off the floor, thick and heavy.

Trotsky's bedroom (with steel shutters) and bathroom

The place is much as Trotsky left it, even down to the smashed pair of spectacles that are lying on his study's desk that were knocked off during his assassination. The brutal attack happened here on August 20, 1940, when Trotsky sat down to read a manuscript from his secretary’s bogus boyfriend. But the boyfriend was in fact a Stalinist agent who then lunged at Trotsky with what must now be the world's most infamous ice pick. So Trotsky, the charismatic revolutionary, couldn't outrun Stalin's vengeance and he died the next day.

The fortified house seen from the street, Trotsky at peace with his rabbits, and the hutches today

A new wing has been added to house Trotsky’s archive — a large collection of photos, clippings and personal effects. But I suspect that it was probably in the courtyard, with his beloved rabbits and collection of rare rare cacti, that he found snatched moments of peace. His ashes now lie there, inside a stone memorial surrounded by cacti and with a hammer and sickle carved on the side.

A highlight of my visit was briefly meeting his grandson, Esteban Volkov, who was instrumental in preserving the home and Trotsky's memory in the city. He's still on the board of the museum and is 90 years old.

It's hard not to leave the house and it's hemmed in garden without feeling sombre, but a short walk away down the quiet wide streets of the posh suburb of Coyacan, is an altogether different house museum. The former home of Mexican painter Freda Kahlo is also now a museum. But whereas I was the only visitor inside Trotsky's home and had the place to myself, there were long queues and a happy buzz at Kahlo's colourful home and studio. As it happens Kahlo and Trotsky had an affair; reflected on in the 2002 film 'Freda', which incidentally has an excellent and haunting soundtrack. 

Trotsky with Freda Kahlo; and Kahlo's strikingly vivid house museum

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More information: For more information see Museo Trotsky and Museo Frida Kahlo. And for info on Mexico there's Visit Mexico 


 
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Maestro of modernism: a look at Erno Goldfinger's North London lair...
posted by Richard Green on 29/10/2017
 

The Man: Erno Goldfinger (1902-1987) was an architect synonymous with the most brutal of London's Brutalist tower blocks, and for inadvertantly giving his name to a James Bond novel and villain.

To park the last point first - Erno Goldfinger married Ursula Blackwell - heiress to the Crosse & Blackwell soup and pickle empire - and Ian Fleming heard the name during a round of golf with Ursula's cousin. When Goldfinger was published in 1959 the real Goldfinger (6'2" and donineering) spoke to his lawyers, asserting that the fictional namesake (5' and maniacal) was bringing his name into disrepute.

Fleming parried with the suggestion that he'd change the title to 'Goldprick' instead, but in the end, Erno Goldfinger settled for an 'all characters in this book are fictional' disclaimer, legal costs and six copies of the novel.  

By all accounts, Hungarian born Erno Goldfinger was a humourless man who was prone to impatient anger, especially with employees and associates. He progressed through the French Ecole Nationale, befriended notable architects like Le Corbusier, and then move to London with his wife.

The spiral staircase leading from the entrance to the living room. Photo My Bathroom Wall

Apart from his Hampstead flat, Goldfinger's London legacy is dominated by the Brutalist towers that he built to help solve the acute post war housing shortage - the 18-floor Alexander Fleming House at the Elephant and Castle, the 27-floor Balfron Tower in Poplar, and the 31-floor Trellick Tower in Ladbroke Grove are the most famous/infamous.

The towers proved immensley controversial and Goldfinger himself was moved to live in a top floor flat at Balfron Tower for two months in 1967 - just months after the explosion at the Ronan Point tower block. 

The excellent guided tours last about an hour and are booked on the day. Photo My Bathroom Wall

He held cocktail parties for other residents, which he was known to refer to as ' my tenants', to harvest their take on the tower's liveability. Imagining this dour urbane Magyar quaffing nibbles and booze with the tower's original East Ender inhabitants, it's hard not to recall J.G Ballard's main character (beside the building itself that is) of Anthony Royal, in his 1975 novel 'High Rise'. In the book, Ballard's fictional architect lives on the top floor of the doomed ivory tower, powerless to hold back the ensuing chaos. 

The concave fireplace in the lounge. Photo My Bathroom Wall

The controvery continues to this day at the Balfron Tower in London's East End district of Poplar. The National Trust - in conjunction with Bow Arts - opened flat 130 to the public for two weeks in October 2014, and kitted it out in period decor. This was possible because the block has been emptied of its social housing residents. They were promised they would return, but they never did. Instead, surprise surprise, the block is now being remodelled as luxury flats - the original occupants and their lack of riches deemed to be surplus to requirements presumably.

The National Trust and Bow Arts used perky period decor in their 2014 project

The House: the couple set up home in leafy Hampstead, in an apartment designed by Erno and completed in 1939. 1-3 Willow Road is a relatively modest four story Goldfinger building that houses three apartments - the central one was the home of Goldfinger and his wife Ursula, and children, while the smaller properties - one on either side - are private residences the sale of which was used to fund the development with.

Main settee and art enselmble in a wooden showcase. Photo My Bathroom Wall

It's possible to think of the National Trust - which now owns the Goldfinger flat - as the preserve only of large stately home style piles. But this intimate and wonderfully decorated home is a magnificent glimpse into the mind and lifestyle of of of the world's most famous modernist architects.

Willow Close defies its age and is a fascinating peek into the mind and lifestyle of this most controversial of architects. The view is pleasant and the aspect peaceful, but yet there is something rather blanched and cold about the interiors - a genius for functionality is at play indoors to be sure, but with so much wood and muted artworks, the effect is ever so slightly chilling.

The study area, with raised wooden platform leading to the lounge. Photo My Bathroom Wall

The locale: the property is on a small sidestreet in the very well-to-do north London village of Hampstead, and overlooking Hamspead Heath.

Hampstead gives the lie to London not being entirely flat. It's wealthy tangle of streets wind up toward the top of Hampsted Heath. The area has some lovely places to eat and some interesting boutiques, and is a delightful place to head for a stroll.

Nearby and directly across the Heath is the similarly affluent and interesting hilltop village suburb of Highgate, famous for the spooky and historic Highgate Cemetery, and Waterlow Park. In between them lies Kenwood House, a grand 17th century stately home with ancient woodland and large scale sculptures in the grounds.

After the house tour, I headed straight for Sunday Lunch and a pint at the decidedly cosy King William IV.

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Willow Road, Hampstead, faces Hampstead Heath and is a 5-minute walk from Hampsted Heath Overground station, and a 10-minute walk from Hampsted Tube Staion on the Nothern Line. Highgate is also on the Northern Line, though on a different branch.

35 It is run by the National Trust, which offeres guided tours at 11am, 12pm, 1pm and 2pm; and self guided viewing from 3-5pm. It costs £7.20pp to visit, and tickets can't be booked in adavance, but only from the entrace of the property on the day: see National Trust Willow Road. Other good pubs nearby include the Freemasons Arms, the Holly Bush, The Wells and The Spaniards Inn. See Hampsted Village for a taster.

 
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HOME MUSEUMS
The little cottage near Cape Town where Cecil Rhodes decamped to holiday, and where he died aged 49...
posted by Richard Green on 19/08/2017
 

Rhodes' pretty little thatched cottage overlooking a road, railway line and the sea in Muizenberg. Photo My Bathroom Wall

Cecil Rhodes was a life-force that bestrode the African continent at the height of European colonialism. His amoral ambition and belief in the primacy of the British Empire lead him to enormous wealth and power, yet he chose to holiday in a little thatched cottage on the far False Bay side of Table Mountain. It's where he spent summer holidays, and where just three years after buying the cottage he died in the front bedroom, aged 49, in March 1902. 

In the current parlance Cecil Rhodes is toxic, largely because he thought the Anglo-Saxon race was superior to others, and his sculduggery and deciept - especially in connection with the Jameson Raid, which was a Rhodes backed dash and grab incursion into Paul Kruger's Transvaal Republic that hoped to usurp the Transvaal into the Empire. It ended ignominiously in the raiding party's surrender and Rhodes retiring his Prime Ministership. Looking back from 2017, Cecil Rhodes is far from likeable, but his life was a product of his times and no less remarkable for that.

Portrait by Mortimer Menpes, and Punch magazine's Colossus of Rhodes cartoon 

Places like his cottage have been given heightened significance recently due to various controversies around keeping statues and memorials now that their subjects are loathed by significant chunks of society. Student bodies have faught to remove Rhodes statues from their campuses - though ironically they're there because Rhodes played a large role in setting up academic institutions and providing the Rhodes Scholarships, some of which are still active today. The protests have become violent in the USA where many pro-Confederacy statues in the south are being removed from display.    

Yet a former home of a famous (or infamous) figure seems a useful tool for scholars in their attempt to understand the past, for historians amatuer and otherwise, and to curious tourists prepared to scratch historical underbellies rather than sit on a beach. A good home museum provides context to a life and unlike any bronze bust, presents rather than glorifies someone's life and times. Certainly this undervisted little museum and its volunteer staff feel a harmless enough illumination of this deeply controversial man. 

The original De Beers boardroom table is in the cottage/ Photo My Bathroom Wall

Rhodes was born a vicar's son in the Hertfordshire town of Bishop's Stortford on July 5 1853. He developed tuberculosis and arrived in South Africa at the age of 17 in order to nurse his health on his brother's cotton farm, but both brothers abandoned the farm in favour of chancing their arms at the Griqualand West diamond rush. 

They established claims and struck lucky, and by the time Cecil was 35 he'd added another million square miles of Africa to British control - which included the creation of Rhodesia (namesd after him, and now Zimbabwe), he controlled De Beers (one of the largest diamond companies in the world), was Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, and was a good way to achieving his dream of a 'Cairo to Cape Town' railway running soley through territory of the British Empire.

He commissioned the young Herbert Baker, an English architect in the Arts and Craft Movement mould, to build the grand Groote Schuur in 1898 in Rondebosch, which was for a long time after his death the official residence of South Africa's president. But Rhodes had unusual tastes - his favourite lunch was cold mutton and champagne for example, and having cut his teeth rough-sleeping in Kimberly and the bush meant that he preferred the simplicity and almost Spartan surrounding of his Muizenberg cottage.

Is it me, or do Rhodes' legs look comically strewn over Jameson on his right. Photo My Bathroom Wall

It's the scale and atmosphere of the cottage that makes the impression, rather than the contents per se, feeling more of a museum than a home. But the property had fallen into extreme disrepeair after Rhodes' death and the contents have been added to from other Rhodes properties, including items likely to have been close to his heart, like his diamond-weighing scales and the personal carry chest that he first arrived to South Africa with. 

The narrow seaside strip at Muizenberg might seem an unlikely holiday venue for the imperial great and good, but the extention of the railway line from Cape Town to Muizenberg in 1882 led to many seaside cottages sprouting up in the area. Rudyard Kipling, George Bernard Shaw, and Agatha Christie were regular visitors too - Christie heading here to surf most days while she stayed in Cape Town apparently.

The cottage's front death-bedroom and exterior. Photos My Bathroom Wall

After a funeral service the coffin was taken by special train to Cape Town, and the carriage was draped in black velvet and purple silk. Carrying many of his close friends, the train made its way north through South Africa and on into Bulawayo, then in Rhodesia, and then by ox-wagon to his resting place in the Matopo Hills along a 25-kilometres long roadway dug in the preceding days by a throng of Matabele workers. The coffin was then set into the dome of rock at 'World's View', or what locals call Marindidzimu - 'the haunt of the ancestral spirits'.  

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One more thing....At this time of huge controversy in the US over its pro-Confederacy statues, the likenesses of Cecil Rhodes have also been envoloped in contentious fighting over their appropriateness in the 21st Century.

He was a man very concerned by his own legacy and despite being a mediocre student, put a great deal of thought, time and money into setting up an educational legacy.

Aerial view of the Rhodes Memorial at Cape Town's Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens 

Rhodes purchased Kirstenbosch in 1895 and was bequeathed to the nation in his will. Sir Herbert Baker and Rudyard Kipling chose the side on the slopes of the Devil's Peak, and Baker then designed the grandiose memorial that opened in 1912. The restaurant and tea room behind is well worth a visit Rhodes Memorial.

The thinking-pose statue of Rhodes on the day of its removal from the Cape Town University campus 

The bust of Rhodes inside the memorial has been vandalised, while the statue of Rhodes at the University of Cape Town's Jameson Hall steps became the focus of protests spearheaded by the 'Rhodes Must Fall' group, in March 2015. It has now been removed for 'safekeeping'.

The UK's Oriel College in Oxford also saw a campaign to remove the Rhodes statue there, but this was ultimately unsuccessful after pressure from donors threatening to withdraw their financial support to the college.
 

Rhodes protected by wire mesh - though probably from pigeons - at Oriel College Oxford

The Rhodes Museum in his home town of Bishop's Stortford illustrates the flux in feelings towards Rhodes. It incorporated the building where he was born, was only attracting a couple of visitors a week by the 1990s, and eventually closed and fell into disrepair. It's now the Rhodes Arts Complex and there's a plaque to commemorate his birth.

puzzle If visiting Cape Town you should definitely make the effort to drive the loop south around the Cape of Good Hope and the False Bay settlements of Simon's Town and Muizenberg. The large broad beach is home to surfing in South Africa and a great place to learn to surf. Surf schools include Gary's Surf School, Surf Shack, and Stoked Surf School. There are also many historic buildings, a surfie boho vibe, and good opportunities for whale watching, from stopping points on the coast road, or right from the beach. 
31 Cape Town Airport is 30 kilometres northeast of Muizenberg and handled 4.5 million passengers in 2016. There are flights across South Africa, Africa, Europe and the Middle East, with airlines including SA Express, Kulula, Mango and FlySafair.
weather The best time to visit the Cape Town area is during the dry summer months from October to April, with January and February being the warmest with an average of 25°C. Temperatures will likely be below 20 with more than 10 days rain per month in May-September. 
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The Rhodes Cottage is at 246 Main Road, in the small seaside village of Muizenberg, about a 30-minute drive south from Cape Town, or 20 minutes north from Simon's Town. See Muizenberg Tourism. Places to stay include the Bella Ev GuesthouseAdmiralty B&B, and the African Soul Surfer backpacker lodge.

Victorian beach huts at Muizenberg, now a hip beach resort


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  • "The aeroplane has unveiled for us the true face of the earth"
    Antoine de Saint-Exupery, French writer, poet and aviator