Amiens Cathedral – Sketches of Our First

Tim Bjella Sketches - Amiens, France

It’s date night with my wife, Robyn, out for sushi and a movie. So, I asked her if she remembered the first cathedral we ever visited together in our travels over the years, because that is what architects talk about. That, and curling (the sport, not the irons).

For those of you on the edge of your seats, the cathedral in the small town of Amiens, France was our first. Not the biggest, not the best, but it holds a special place in our hearts. Why? Because the hotel in which we stayed that night had its very own shower in the room! We still had to walk down the corridor to use the toilet and sink, but who cares when you have your own shower.

“Say Robyn, do you remember the cathedral in Amiens?”


“You know, the one where our hotel room had a shower?”

“Oh yeah, that one. I’ll never forget that.”

Memories are funny. They often piggyback on one another and you cannot separate them.

not simply a church,
but a pathway to heaven,
God? This thing is big!

Amiens Cathedral, France

Tim Bjella Sketches - Amiens Cathedral

Tim Bjella Sketches - Amiens Cathedral

Tim Bjella Sketches - Amiens, France

Amiens Canal

Amiens, France - Tim and Robyn Bjella
Isn’t it romantic? Two young kids, Robyn and Tim Bjella, backpacking through Europe – 1990.

Best Rooftop in Europe – Touring the Sacre Coeur Basilica

Sacre Coeur Silhouette

If you ever get to Paris, put down your glass of wine and hoof it over to the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. Ride the metro, hail a cab or build a small jetpack out of fire extinguishers if you need to, but just get there. Tour the interior and marvel at the nave and rotunda, but whatever you do, don’t miss the tour across the roof, between the domes. The views are stunning, which only makes sense since it’s built upon the second highest hill in Paris. It is a pretty roof, entirely clad in white stone, rather than the typical metal or tile. But what makes it more impressive to architects like myself are the stone details the masons carved in areas never intended to be seen by the public.

Tim Bjella Sketches - Sacre Coeur Cathedral

Sacre Coeur Cathedral

A stroll between domes,
Impressive is the detail,
Never meant for eyes.

Parisians have a love/hate relationship with the Sacre Coeur, referring to it as the alabaster wedding cake (in French, that means “church of the pale, tubby tourist”). It is glossed over or skipped entirely in most architectural history classes, as well, probably because of its curious blend of Romanesque and Byzantine domes, arches and gables. Not so much blended, but mashed and disproportionately squished together, with bits tacked on. But if you can get past all that, it is a lovely place to spend an afternoon, before dancing the evening away in Montmartre with artists like Picasso, van Gogh, Dali, and Monet, but less dead.

Check out this site for amazing 360 degree panoramic tours of the Sacre Coeur

Bring out your Dead! But use the Little Door, Please.

Gubbio, Italy

A quaint hill town in Italy called Gubbio sports a mystery. Why do many of the ancient houses lining the narrow, twisting streets have two front doors? Not a single double door, mind you, but two sets of doors, side by side, one diminutive.

The town is ancient, and the reason is long forgotten. Not even the town barber knows. I’m certain he doesn’t, because I asked him (although my Italian was a bit rusty, so I might have asked if his dog wears high heals while dancing in the refrigerator). To be honest, the only Italian I know is spaghetti, and that may be Chinese.

Some speculate these doors were used only when there was a death in the home, to carry out the body, an aporta dei morti (door of the dead). More likely there was a special on doors at the local Home Depotelli too good to pass up. “Well, I really need a window… but you just can’t beat the price of this door!”

Knowing a little about buildings, I personally think the first house built with an extra door was simply a construction error and the clever contractor convinced his client it was all the rage in Rome. Then the neighbors felt the need to keep up with the Jonesetti’s, and the fad caught on.

Doors for the Dead

Gubbio, Italy

Sorta Makes Me Want to Live in a Monastery

Tim Bjella Sketches - Le Mont Saint Michel

The island of Le Mont Saint Michel, France, leads the pack of the world’s most picturesque monasteries. I’ll have to add sketching the others to my bucket list. Hmm… never been to Tibet.

Can’t Get Enough Monastery Humor…

A young monk arrives at the monastery. He is assigned to help the other monks copy the old canons and laws by hand. He notices that all of the monks are copying from copies, not from the original manuscript.

Tim Bjella Sketches - Le Mont Saint MichelSo, the new monk goes to the head abbot to question this, pointing out that if someone had made even a small error in the first copy, it would never have been noticed! In fact, that error would be replicated in all of the subsequent copies.

The head monk, says, “We have been copying from the copies for centuries, but you make a good point, my son.” He goes down into the dark caves underneath the monastery where the original manuscripts are archived in a locked vault that hasn’t been opened for hundreds of years.

Hours go by and nobody sees the old abbot. The young monk gets worried and goes down to look for him. He sees him banging his head against the wall and wailing, “We missed the “R” ! , we missed the “R” !” He is crying uncontrollably. The young monk asks the old abbot, “What’s wrong, father?” With a choking voice, the old abbot replies, “The word was… CELEBRATE !!!

Le Mont Saint Michel Sunset

Tim Bjella Sketches - Le Mont Saint Michel

Sometimes Lazy Works

The sketch above was my second attempt to capture the essence of this extraordinary place. Partway through I downshifted into lazy gear and decided to skip drawing the foreground. Laziness is apparently a virtue as it resulted in an unexpectedly dynamic composition. Compare this sketch to my earlier one at the top of the page. That sketch emphasizes the charming, scenic character of the place, whereas the latter sketch captures the architectural spirit. Same pencil, two different interpretations of the same subject. I wish I could say that that was my intent. Lesson learned: What you leave out is as important as what you put in.

I needed more time here. Maybe not a lifetime as a monk, but at least enough for a few more sketches. Or, maybe Haiku?

Off to an abbey,
For a life, calm and serene,
Live it up now, boy!

Tim Bjella Sketches - Le Mont Saint Michel
A one minute speed-sketch of Le Mont Saint Michel
Remember when men's shorts were shorter than women's? Let's hope we never see those days again.
Remember when men’s shorts were shorter than women’s? Let’s hope we never see those days again. Robyn and Tim Bjella at Le Mont Saint Michel, 1990.

Sketched and Sketching in Firenze

Firenze Sketching - Robyn Bjella Street Portrait
Robyn Bjella, Firenze, Italy

You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a street artist in Firenze, Italy. And because of some warp in space-time, both “yes” and “no” mean “si” – and “si” means, “I’ll pay anything you ask, if you would only sketch me. Please, please sketch me.”

All the while, in the back of your mind you are thinking, “Is he going to draw a portrait or caricature? But, of course you do it anyway, knowing your loving and supportive husband will be watching in the background, along with hordes of passing strangers, definitely not pointing and sniggering.

Firenze Sketching - Robyn Bjella Street Portrait

Twenty minutes of pretending to be whomever it is the artist is sketching, and it is fini.

As you can see, the portrait turned out not entirely unlike Robyn, but not quite like her either. The artist was very talented, but portraits are unforgiving. I believe ‘portrait’ in French means ‘perfect subtlety’. If a single line is slightly off or a curve is a bit pronounced, voila, the subject is someone else. I guess that explains all the hoopla over the Mona Lisa, a painting I never (gasp) really appreciated, even after seeing it in person.


Well, technically I saw it, about as well as Helen Keller. It’s a tiny painting, much smaller than you imagine. See if you can spot it in the photo above. The painting is shielded behind bulletproof glass, reflecting just enough glare to obscure the painting’s finer detail (all of its detail, really). No worries, though. You won’t be bothered by the glorious detail because you are kept back ten feet by a wood railing (undoubtedly to protect the bulletproof glass), and then another ten feet by stanchions that protect the wood railing that protects the bulletproof glass that protects the painting. I think Dr. Seuss wrote a book about that. Or was it a song?

But it doesn’t end there. There’s still the throng of tourists, likely paid by the museum to keep you away from the lovely stanchions. I think there are guard dogs and lasers, too, but I couldn’t get close enough to see. Remember to bring binoculars and a ladder. And, a sharp stick to prod the crowd.

Mona Lisa at the Louvre
Mona Lisa at the Louvre – Look ma, it’s so close I can almost touch it!

It goes to show the French have a sublime sense of humor. Notice in the photo above how they tease you with a beautiful lunch table right beneath the painting, but you can’t eat there. I bet when lunchtime rolls around, the curators plop their brown bags on the table and gaze into Mona’s eyes for an hour, to the melodious background music of “Down in front!” Incidentally, the designers of this display are also renowned for their abattoirs.

imageDon’t be dismayed, however. The louvre is filled with other great, yet more accessible, art. Quite frankly, the Mona Lisa is just not that much of a babe anyway (you know you were thinking it. I just said it). Some experts believe it’s a self portrait of Leonardo da Vinci, with longer hair. If you visit Paris, you could safely give her/him a miss. Spend an hour with a croissant and a Sports Illustrated outside a cafe instead. Time better spent.

If you disregard my advice, at least don’t miss my favorite painting. We stumbled upon it on our first trip to Paris. I have never been the same since. See kids, museums can be fun!

Louvre Painting

Sorry about the detour. This post was about Firenze, right? OK, back to Italy…

We thanked the nice artist for the future memory, more so than the portrait (somehow it got lost on the way home), and went off to do some sketching of our own. What better subject than the picturesque Ponte Vecchio – much easier than sketching portraits. It almost sketches itself. Robyn’s sketch turned out better than mine, but at least I didn’t have to sit for half an hour with good posture.

Robyn Bjella - Sketching Firenze

Robyn Bjella Sketch - Firenze Ponte Vecchio
Ponte Vecchio by Robyn Bjella
Tim Bjella Sketches - Firenze Ponte Vecchio
Ponte Vecchio by Tim Bjella

Pen vs. Pencil, a Sketching Cage Match (Without the Cage)

With some credit also due his mother, the Renaissance hill town of Urbino, Italy gave birth to the renowned, Raphael (the painter, not the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle).

In homage to both Raphael’s, here are two of my sketches, one of pencil using a light hand ala Raphael the painter, the other of ink with the heavier hand of a Ninja Turtle. Let the match begin and may the best man, or cartoon reptile, win (betcha thought turtles were amphibians)!

Tim Bjella Sketches - Urbino Italy
Contender #1 – ala Raphael the Painter, using a Prismacolor Black Pencil
The subject – Urbino, a classic hill town in Italy
Tim Bjella Sketches - Urbino Italy
Contender #2 – ala Raphael the Ninja Turtle using a Sharpie Ultra-Fine Pen


And the winner is …………………….. ?    Raphael!

(didn’t see that coming, did you?)


Robyn Bjella doing her best Raphael, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle impression. Her heart just wasn't in it.
Robyn Bjella, doing her best Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle impression. Her heart just wasn’t in it.
That’s more like it!

A Great Place to Go, to Get to Someplace Else

Like pirates, boats and booty? Try Saint Malo – a medieval port town in northern France. Once the smarmy haunt of pirates (but not Johnny Depp, smarmy), there are still masts everywhere (but newer masts, and no sign of Johnny).

Tim Bjella Sketches - Fishing Boat at Saint Malo

Saint Malo - Tim Bjella
Tim Bjella, typical tourist

Robyn and I passed through Saint Malo back in 1990, a stepping stone on our way to the picturesque, but oh-so-touristy, Mont Saint Michel. We stopped here mainly to pick up some cheese and a loaf of French bread. After searching everywhere without success, a helpful Frenchman suggested, “We just call it bread here.”

Robyn Bjella - Saint Malo
Robyn Bjella, taking a break from taking a break

Saint Malo has great beaches, but cold water. It is a nice place to spend a few hours walking the ramparts and sketching the boats before moving on to somewhere else, possibly somewhere with more Johnny, and booty.

Tim Bjella Sketches - St. Malo, France

A loooooooooooooooong jetty protects the harbor

Amazingly, this town was reduced to rubble during World War II by an Allied mortar attack intended to oust thousands of reported Nazis who were barricaded within. Turns out the reports were incorrect. There were fewer than a hundred. Oops.

A Nice Walk Along the Breaker

A stroll along the ramparts (or jetty, or wall, or… well, you can walk on top of just about everything here)

Think glass is weak? Think again.

Willis Tower Glass Observation Pod

Despite years of practice, Robyn, Beck and I are not levitating 103 storeys above Chicago (20 feet is about our limit). And, no, our magic carpet didn’t suddenly vanish, either – if I had a magic carpet, I certainly wouldn’t be bragging about it on a blog. Obviously, I’d be planning world domination, so I could make all of you my minions. Let’s just take a moment to revel in that thought…

Willis Tower Above the CloudsAnyway. If you wake up in the middle of the night with an irrepressible urge to walk on glass that is higher than the clouds, Chicago’s Willis (formerly Sears) Tower is the place to be. You might want to wait until they open in the morning, though. I’d hate to read about your bullet ridden corpse in the paper. Not to mention, I’d have one less minion.

Seriously, though. I don’t have a magic carpet.

Once the tallest building in the world, the Willis skyscraper was recently retrofitted with glass boxes that project beyond its facade. While I understand the engineering behind this, it still makes me nervous. Maybe that’s why it makes me nervous.

The glass floor is not resting on a steel frame (i.e. strong and unbreakable) like you would expect. It is suspended by little bolts drilled through it and attached to the side panes of glass by a few moreWillis Tower Observation Pods bolts. So, the glass floor is actually supported by the glass walls. The glass walls are themselves supported by a steel frame at the top (finally, some steel!) via more holes and bolts. That’s a lot of holes between you and the pavement below. The glass floor relies on the integrity of the swiss-cheesy glass walls to support the entire weight of you, hordes of well fed tourists and the glass box. Hope you didn’t eat a big lunch, too!

Also, did I mention you are walking on glass? Yes, it’s thick and laminated, and a magnificent work of engineering, but it’s still glass.

Willis Tower Observation Pods from Above

Willis Tower