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Category: Travel

ART TOUR OF THE NETHERLANDS

Vienna, 9 August 2018

My wife and I have just finished a little holiday in the Netherlands. It was a birthday present for me, so we spent most of the time in art museums. A veritable smorgasbord of art my wife offered me! The Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum, and the Stedelijk Museum of contemporary art, all in Amsterdam; the Kröller-Müller Museum and sculpture park in Otterlo, close to Arnhem; the Mauritshuis and the Gemeente Museum in The Hague. The art we saw spanned some five centuries, from Rogier Van der Weyden’s Lamentation of Christ from about 1460

to Steven Aalders’s Phi Painting of 2016.

What this sensory overload has confirmed to me is that if I were asked the question “what of all this stuff would you want to hang on your walls?”, my very personal answer would be “pieces produced between about 1885 and the beginning of World War I”.

Don’t get me wrong, the paintings the Dutch produced during their Golden Age of the 17th Century, the kind of paintings which constitute the highlights of the Rijksmuseum and the Mauritshuis, are marvels of technique, of drama, of light effects, and I know not of what else. I mean, as you wander through the Rijksmuseum how can you not admire creations such as Rembrandt’s The Night Watch

or Jan Vermeer’s The Milkmaid

or Frans Hals’s Militiaman holding a Berkemeyer


or Adriaen Coorte’s Still Life with Asparagus?

And over at the Mauritshuis, how can you not murmur approvingly before Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp

or Vermeer’s View of Delft

or Rubens’s Old Woman and Boy with Candles?

Yes, all very impressive.

BUT, when push comes to shove I can’t say I would want any of these paintings on my wall. They just don’t make me vibrate internally. Not so with the best Van Goghs that we saw, bursting with colour and intensity! So what if the perspective wasn’t perfect, if the figures were not necessarily well-proportioned, if the finishing was rough. His paintings spoke to my soul. One of his many self-portraits, for instance, from the Van Gogh Museum, would be welcome on my wall

as would be this painting of his from the Kröller-Müller museum, of the café at Arles where he no doubt whiled away a good few hours

or this one of an olive grove somewhere around Arles, hanging in the same museum

or of this wonderful landscape hanging in the Van Gogh Museum, which he painted in the last few months of his life in Auvers-sur-Oise.

Younger painters were dazzled by Van Gogh’s use of colour and pushed through the door he opened, with some wonderful results. I could joyously put this lovely seascape on my wall; it’s Gale from the East, by Théo van Rysselberghe, and hangs in the Kröller-Müller museum

I would also willingly take this luminous Still Life with Fruits, by Leo Gestel, in the same museum

or this wonderfully brooding work by Kandinsky, exhibited in the Stedenlijk; he painted it before he went and spoiled everything by becoming an abstract artist.

I could even welcome this painting by the Russian Constructivist artist Kazimir Malevich, from the Stedenlijk (and titled, rather bizarrely, An Englishman in Moscow).

There is even a period in Mondrian’s long life when he turned out paintings which I would gladly hang on my walls. The Gemeente Museum has a particularly rich collection of Mondrians, running from his very first works like this Basket with Apples

to his very last works like this Victory Boogie-Woogie.

His very first paintings are quite standard and should be disregarded, while his last paintings – all those abstract works he is so famous for – should equally, in my humble opinion, be ignored. It is works like these that I would hang on my wall:
Trees on the Gein: Moonrise

Dunes near Domburg

Arum, Blue Flower

Mill in Sunlight

Yes, it is that period, when artists discovered pure undiluted colour and before they tumbled into meaningless abstraction, which would have pride of place on my wall. It is a relatively narrow window of time – only thirty years or so – but many jewels of paintings were created. I could have added many other paintings which we saw in our whirlwind tour of the Netherlands, but I shall desist otherwise I risk losing my readers. I will, though, in a later post take up another theme which I am very fond of and about which I have written an earlier post: the human face in art. I think that I would have to expand my answer to the question I posed myself at the beginning of this post, to say that in addition at least one of my walls would have to be devoted to portraits. I will give my readers a taste of the art of portraiture we came across in our six-day art blitz of the Netherlands.

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Roger Van der Weyden, “Descent from the Cross”: http://www.twgram.me/tag/lamentation/
Steven Aalders, “Phi Painting”: https://www.stedelijk.nl/en/collection/99578-steven-aalders-phi-painting-%28ryb%29
Rembrandt, “The Night Watch”: http://www.dutchamsterdam.nl/139-rembrandt-night-watch
Jan Vermeer, “The Milkmaid”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Milkmaid_(Vermeer)
Frans Hals, “Militiaman holding a Berkemeyer”: http://www.jiekley.com/product/a-militiaman-holding-a-berkemeyer-known-as-the-%C2%91merry-drinker%C2%92-karya-frans-hals-1628-1630/
Adriaen Coorte, “Still Life with Asparagus”: https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/collection/SK-A-2099
Rembrandt, “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp”: https://www.mauritshuis.nl/en/explore/the-collection/artworks/the-anatomy-lesson-of-dr-nicolaes-tulp-146/#
Jan Vermeer, “View of Delft”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/View_of_Delft
Peter Paul Rubens, “Old Woman and Boy with Candles”: https://www.mauritshuis.nl/en/explore/the-collection/artworks/old-woman-and-boy-with-candles-1150/
Van Gogh, “Self Portrait with a Grey Felt Hat”: https://vangoghmuseum.nl/en/search/collection?q=&artist=Vincent%20van%20Gogh&genre=self-portrait&_ga=2.88217629.705702266.1533842349-1924679497.1533842349
Van Gogh, “Place du Forum”: https://krollermuller.nl/en/vincent-van-gogh-terrace-of-a-cafe-at-night-place-du-forum-1
Van Gogh, “Olive Grove”: https://krollermuller.nl/en/vincent-van-gogh-olive-grove
Van Gogh, “Wheatfield under Thunderclouds”: https://vangoghmuseum.nl/en/collection/s0106V1962
Theo van Rysselberghe: https://krollermuller.nl/en/theo-van-rysselberghe-gale-from-the-east
Leo Gestel, “Still Life with Fruits”: https://krollermuller.nl/en/leo-gestel-still-life-with-fruits
Wassily Kandinsky, “Painting of Houses”: https://www.stedelijk.nl/en/collection/4540-wassily-kandinsky-bild-mit-hausern
Kazimir Malevich, “Englishman in Moscow”: https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/malevich/malevich-room-guide/malevich-room-4
Piet Mondrian, “Basket with Apples”: https://www.gemeentemuseum.nl/en/collection/basket-apples?origin=gm
Piet Mondrian, “Victory Boogie-Woogie”: https://www.piet-mondrian.org/victory-boogie-woogie.jsp
Piet Mondrian, “Trees on the Gein: Moonrise”: https://www.wikiart.org/en/piet-mondrian/trees-by-the-gein-at-moonrise-1908
Piet Mondrian, “Dunes near Domburg”: https://www.worldgallery.co.uk/art-print/piet-mondrian-dunes-near-domburg-1910-436728
Piet Mondrian, “Arum, Blue Flower”: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/424534702365855604/
Piet Mondrian, “Mill in Sunlight”: https://www.gemeentemuseum.nl/en/collection/molen-mill-mill-sunlight?origin=gm

WHITE SANDS NATIONAL MONUMENT

Los Angeles, 30 March 2018

Like most children who have spent holidays on a beach somewhere, both my wife and I have memories of playing in sand dunes, I in Norfolk

she along Italy’s Adriatic coast.

Then, after we met and started traveling the world we visited a number of large-scale sand dune systems, far away from any sea. The first we saw, at the start of our lives together, were the sand dunes of Death Valley.

On a business trip a few years ago, I visited the sand dunes of Inner Mongolia which are remorselessly engulfing farmland; I commented on these in an earlier post.

And then there were the sand dunes of Namibia, which we visited one Christmas some ten years ago with our children.

The most awesome of these dunes were a dull red, with the biggest towering over us.

But the blindingly white dunes of the White Sands National Monument in New Mexico, which we visited last week with our daughter and her boyfriend, are in a class of their own. The eerie beauty of these dunes has led better photographers than I to surpass themselves, and I have shamelessly pinched some of the best of their photos to insert here.



We walked in a big circle, from dune crest to dune crest, marveling at the vistas before us of undulating whiteness, all the way, so it seemed, to the surrounding mountain ranges.

I’ve been careful not to refer to these dunes as sand dunes, because they are not sand as we normally understand that term, that is to say silicate. These are dunes of gypsum (calcium sulphate to the chemically inclined of my readers).

In the morning, we had visited Lake Lucero, which lies to the southwest of the dunes. It is an evanescent lake; it appears during the rainy season in late summer and is gone by the time the windy season in the spring rolls around. When we visited it, there was no sign of any water.

Here we could see how the gypsum “sand” had been created. It all started 24,000 years ago, when a new ice age started and the climate in this corner of New Mexico began to be much wetter than it is today. For nigh on 14,000 years frequent rains lashed the nearby San Andres and Sacramento mountain ranges. The rainwater nibbled away at strata of gypsum which had been exposed by the mountains’ uplifting, and streams carried the dissolved gypsum into a lake at the foot of the mountains. This lake has been named Lake Otero. The lake had no exit, so it grew in size until the water evaporating balanced the stream water entering. But the gypsum (and other salts) carried into the lake remained and slowly concentrated. Then, some 10,000 years ago, the ice age came to an end, and the climate here became dryer. Less rainwater fell on the mountains, streams got smaller or disappeared, and Lake Otero began to shrink. As it shrunk, the dissolved gypsum became ever more concentrated until finally the lake water was saturated. The gypsum started precipitating out of the lake water, forming huge crystals of selenite in the process, which then settled onto the lake’s bed. This picture shows a very pure crystal of selenite, which is colourless.


But during our ramble along the shores of Lake Lucero we saw selenite crystals in their more natural state, jutting out of the ground. They were various shades of brown; other substances that were present in the lake water have colored the crystals.

 

And still Lake Otero kept shrinking, until nothing but Lake Lucero – sometimes there, often not – was left.

With the climate change of 10,000 years ago came strong winds. For the last 10,000 years they have been scouring the alkaline flats left bare when Lake Otero disappeared. They first carried away the thin crust of clay and fine particles, which exposed the selenite. Freezing and thawing cycles went to work on the crystals, breaking them along their weakest plane. The process continues to this day. We saw these crystals of selenite down at Lake Lucero being slowly split open.


The shores of Lake Lucero are littered with fragments of selenite crystals, broken up by wind, frost and heat.

On and on went the work of breaking down the crystals until they had become flakes light enough to be carried along by the prevailing southwesterly winds. As the flakes bowled along over the alkaline flats, tumbling over and over, they cracked and crumbled further until only small sand-like grains were left.

The winds have pushed the grains up into the dunes that we see today. And all that tumbling has so scratched and scarred and pitted the surface of the grains that they reflect back sunlight in all its wavelengths so that we see them as intensely white.

Unbeknownst to us, my wife and I have been living with selenite around us in the apartment in Milan, although in this case in the form of desert roses.

My mother-in-law picked them up in Algeria, where she visited some of the oases south of the Atlas Mountains and walked the dunes of the Saharan desert, like these at the Biskra oasis.

Another dune system for my wife and I to visit – once Isis no longer roams the Sahara desert, kidnapping and beheading hapless tourists.

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Norfolk dunes: http://www.bringingtheoutsidein.co.uk/landscape_photography/holkham.html
Dunes Adriatic coast: https://www.rentbyowner.com/property/hotel-le-dune/BC-268102
Sand dunes Death Valley: https://www.tripadvisor.com/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g143021-d2255762-i116167540-Mesquite_Flat_Sand_Dunes-Death_Valley_National_Park_California.html
Sand dunes Inner Mongolia: my picture
Sand dunes Namibia-1: https://it.pinterest.com/pin/6685099420949300/?lp=true
Sand dunes Namibia-2: https://travelservice.tips/attractions/africa/sossusvlei-dunes.html
White sands-1: https://www.nationalparks.org/connect/blog/wave-dunes-white-sands
White sands-2: http://www.magazinusa.com/us/states/show.aspx?state=nm&doc=10&dsc=White_Sands_National_Monument
White sands-3: http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20160517-the-beautiful-white-sand-dunes-that-should-not-exist
White sands-4: https://www.newmexico.org/listing/white-sands-national-monument/218/
Lake Lucero: my wife’s picture
Selenite-pure: http://www.crystallinephoenix.com
Selenite crystals in the ground: my pictures
Selenite crystals on Lake Lucero shore: my picture
Gypsum grains: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_Sands_National_Monument#/media/File%3AWhiteSandsGypsum.jpg
White sands-5: my picture
Desert rose: https://www.feelcrystals.com.au/product-category/crystal-meanings/desert-rose-crystal/
Tadrart, Algeria: https://www.tripadvisor.com/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g293717-d504734-i300952025-Algerian_Sahara-Algeria.html
Biskra oasis, Algeria: https://plus.google.com/105463517722617181754

SPARKLING RED ITALIAN WINES

Milan, 1 March 2018

Many, many years ago, when I first came to Italy, my wife to-be introduced me to a wine from the Oltrepo’ Pavese, that tongue of land in the south of Lombardy wedged between its sister regions of Piedmont, Liguria, and Emilia-Romagna. It was a Bonarda, a red wine. A sparkling red wine, to be precise.

This was a revelation to me. I had never known that red wines could be sparkling. Certainly, in France, land of my mother, I had never come across such a wine. It seemed to me almost a heresy to have red bubbly. But I was made to understand that Italy had a long tradition of sparkling red wines, so I tried it.

I can’t say I was bowled over. But I think that was simply an extension of my distaste for sparkling white wine. My New Year’s Eves have never been made jollier by having to quaff bubbly, and I try to avoid the stuff whenever I can. Over the years, I’ve experimented with various sparkling Italian reds, and it’s always been the same. The one exception is the sparkling sweet red wines, good as dessert wines. Lambrusco is probably the most well-known of these, its vineyards clustered around the town of Modena in Reggio-Emilia.

But there is also Brachetto d’Acqui from around Acqui Terme in Piedmont, a town known also for its thermal baths.

And then there is Sangue di Giuda, the Blood of Judas, made on the hills around Broni, a fairly nondescript place in the Oltrepo’ Pavese.

It was trying a bottle of Sangue di Giuda recently that set me off onto writing this post. As I sat there rolling this sweet wine around my mouth, I couldn’t understand how it could possibly have been given this name. I mean, the man who sold Christ to his enemies for thirty silver talents, who betrayed him with a kiss, the man whom early European artists depicted like so:

this man’s blood must have been dark, bitter, acidic, thoroughly undrinkable! In contrast, Sangue di Giuda tastes sweet and happy, and like all the sweet sparkling red wines, has a lovely dark red colour and a wonderfully dark pink foam.

The locals have come up with a thoroughly preposterous story to explain the name. According to them, Christ in his immense goodness resurrected Judas after he’d committed suicide by hanging himself, to give him a chance to redeem himself. Judas turned up – what a coincidence! – in Broni. The townspeople recognized him and wanted to kill him. Judas saved himself by curing the surrounding vineyards of some disease they had, and the Bronians, in their joy, named the wine after his blood. A completely silly story! I prefer an alternative explanation, which has it that the name was given to the wine by local monks, who believed that drinking the wine would lead you to betray yourself and do naughty things, especially of a sexual nature.

Or perhaps the name can be linked to a similar idea that floated around in Champagne, at a time when no-one had any idea of the chemistry behind wine-making. The seemingly random process by which bottles of wine sometimes turned out sparkling and, worse, could blow up, often in a chain reaction with one bottle setting off the others, was seen as the work of the devil. It’s no great step to go from devil to Judas.

Whatever the explanation, Sangue di Giuda is a delicious wine, and its grapes grow in a zone visible from the train line and motorway which lead from Milan to Genoa. Over the years, as we have sped by on our way to the sea, I have gazed at those vine-covered hills, thinking to myself that one day, one day, my wife and I would go for a nice little trip into those hills which so remind me of the vine-draped hills of the Beaujolais, home to my French ancestors, where I spent many a happy summer a-roaming. I have made a mental itinerary for this trip, and I insert here a map with its trace.

As readers can see, after starting in the Piedmontese pre-Alps, it would meander along the northern face of the Apennines. Taking sparkling red wines as our guide, we could start in Piedmont, at Alto Monferrato, whose surrounding vines make Barbera del Monferrato DOC frizzante.

After a glass of this Barbera (it would seem that Monferrato is the birthplace of the Barbera grape), we would move on to Acqui Terme.

I’m sure we could find a nice cafè on whose terrace we could dreamily sip on a glass of Brachetto d’Acqui.

After which, we would curve into the Oltrepo’ Pavese, home to Sangue di Giuda, but also to that Oltrepo’ Pavese Bonarda which I first tried so many years ago.

We would loop back around into the Colli Piacentini, the hills behind Piacenza.

We could find somewhere there a welcoming taverna and settle down to a nice glass of Colli Piacentini Gutturnio DOC frizzante.

After which, we would make our way along to the zone behind Modena.

There, we could ease ourselves into seats at a bar and order ourselves a glass or two of Lambrusco. Which one to try? Lambrusco di Sorbara? Or Lambrusco Salamino di Santa Croce, perhaps. Or, why not?, Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro.

Finally, we would wend our way, unsteadily no doubt by this point and hoping not to meet a police patrol with breathalyzer at the ready, to the Colli Bolognesi, the hills behind Bologna.

There, we could sink down onto a banquette in a restaurant and while we eat we could finish with a Barbera just as we started with one, trying a Barbera Colli Bolognesi frizzante.

Yes, I think this will do nicely. I will work on my wife to turn this little trip into reality. We can think of doing it in May perhaps, when the weather is good but not too hot.

________________

Glass of sparkling red wine: https://www.vinook.it/vino-rosso/curiosita-vino-rosso/il-vino-frizzante.asp
Modena: http://misure2017.ing.unimore.it/Modena.html
Acqui Terme: https://www.gogoterme.com/terme-di-acqui.html
Broni: http://ilpattodeibuongustai.it/broni-il-re-dei-paesi
Judas: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/biteintheapple/judas/
Sparkling red wine with foam: https://culturecheesemag.com/cheese-pairings/great-28-pairings-cheese-sparkling-red-wines
Medieval love-making: https://it.pinterest.com/jamieadairwrite/medieval-love-making/?lp=true
Northern Italy: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Northern_Italy_topographic_map-blank.png
Alto Monferrato: http://www.terredavino.it/en/il-territorio/lalto-monferrato-acqui-terme/
Acqui Terme vitigni: https://www.vinook.it/uva-e-vitigni/vitigni-rossi/brachetto-d-acqui.asp
Oltrepo’ Pavese: https://www.contevistarino.it/en/the-vineyards/
Colli Piacentini: http://www.rgvini.it/it/colli-piacentini
Lambrusco: https://www.vinook.it/vino-rosso/vino-rosso-emiliano-romagnolo/lambrusco-grasparossa-di-castelvetro.asp
Colli Bolognesi: http://www.spreafotografia.it/photo-7724-ma-come-bello-andare-in-giro-sui-colli-bolognesi.html

ROCKY OUTCROPS

Milan, 28 January 2018

I’ve just come back from Yangon, where I was giving a training course on the implementation of cleaner production methods. An interesting topic, but not actually the subject of this post. It so happens that on the first night I was there I stumbled across this picture.

This is Popa Taung Kalat, a monastery perched atop an old volcanic plug some 50 km away from Bagan. I immediately sent my wife a WhatsApp asking why we had not visited this place on our visit to Bagan. The question was rhetorical since I know the answer: we didn’t go because neither of us knew that Popa Taung Kalat existed until I came across this photo.

Which is a great pity, because I have a certain fascination for places perched on knolls, buttes, tors, or other rocky outcrops, especially if they sit in a flat plain and are visible from miles around. My wife and I recently spent a very pleasant evening in a similar place to Popa Taung Kalat, the small town of Laon close to Reims, when we did our tour of French battlefields of the First World War.

In this case, although it sports a magnificent 12th-13th Century cathedral

the outcrop’s original use by the Gauls was martial rather than religious; they built a fortress on the top. The outcrop’s military vocation continued for centuries thereafter. Given its position, this is not really surprising. Whoever commanded Laon controlled one of the major entry points into the Île de France.

Polignac, in the Auvergne, is another rocky outcrop where military considerations seem to have been paramount in its original colonization. The Velay family built the first castle in the 11th Century and continued to live there and rule the surrounding country for some six centuries.

Edinburgh, too, where my wife and I met more years ago than I care to remember, when we were both university students there, sports a magnificent castle atop an ancient volcanic plug.

Here, though, that rather special effect of being able to see it from miles away is lost, the old sight lines having been obscured by the urban jumble that has spread out from the historic core of the city which lay huddled at the base of the castle or which clustered along the long road, the Royal Mile, that led down from the castle to the royal palace below.

A similar stony promontory lies close to my French grandmother’s (now my sister’s) house near Mâcon, the Roche de Solutré, one which I spent many happy hours in my youth climbing.

It was first used by our ancestors 20,000 years ago to kill wild animals in large numbers. They would drive the poor beasts up towards the edge where, in their panic, they would fall off to their deaths below, to be butchered on the spot. The archaeological finds gave the name Solutrean to a phase in the Upper Paleolithic. But coming back to our martial theme, it is of greater interest that a certain Raoul de Bourgogne built a castle on its top in 930, and his descendants used its dominating position to harass those passing by and demand protection money. Philip the Fair, Duke of Burgundy, finally decided that enough was enough and ordered its destruction in 1434. Popular jubilation was such that several people were killed in the crazed desire to rip the castle apart, stone from stone. Since then, no human constructions have gone up on the Roche; as the picture above shows it only sports vineyards on its lower slopes, vineyards which, I may say, make excellent wines – Pouilly-Fuissé, Saint-Véran, Mâcon-Solutré – and which have made millionaires of the local viticulturists.

Thousands of kilometers away, in Sri Lanka, another outcrop similar to that of Popa Taung Kalat, Sigiriya, is now the site of peaceful gardens.

There was a time, though, back in the 5th Century, when it was a fortress built by King Kashyapa. But it seems he was also a lover of the arts. There is only a small piece of fresco left now in a concavity

but apparently the whole western side of the rock was once frescoed. It must have been an incredible sight. Perhaps for the good of his soul King Kashyapa turned his palace over to monks at his death, who installed a monastic community. They stayed until the 14th Century, then moved on. It’s a pity that the last time I was in Sri Lanka the country was still being torn apart by the civil war, making travel outside of the capital Colombo risky. Who knows, one day maybe I’ll go back there with my wife and we can go and visit this enchanting place.

But actually, coming back to where I started this piece, at Popa Taung Kalat in Myanmar, while I understand the cold logic which drove warlords to view these outcrops as natural fortresses, I prefer the more mystical impulses which have driven men, and sometimes women if they have been allowed to, to perch a monastery, a church, or just a simple hermitage on top of such outcrops, where they can pray in peace far from the madding crowd. It’s given us some wonderful blends of nature and architecture. There are the Orthodox monasteries in Meteora in Greece.

There is the chapel of Saint Michel d’Aiguilhe in Le Puy-en-Velay, in France, which was first established in 969.

There is the little hermitage/monastery in Katskhi, Georgia.

The last picture makes me think of Simeon Stylites, the 5th Century Christian monk who, it is reported, spent some 30 years on top of a column, and who started quite a craze in holy men perching themselves on columns. There is of course no picture from the period but this is an imaginative rendering.

As for his column, this is all that is left of it after centuries of devout pilgrims chipping off pieces as relics.

Over the ages, monks have shown an enduring enthusiasm to climb up to inaccessible places to be left alone, leaving behind wonderful creations in the process. When my wife and I were in China, we once visited the Hanging Temple near Datong, a Buddhist monastery literally clinging to the side of a cliff.

The monks had excavated a series of caves in the cliff face, connected by a series of suffocatingly narrow internal staircases or alarmingly rickety walkways pegged to the rock, and then had clamped a temple facade onto the exterior. The effect is quite magical.

Meanwhile, in Cappadocia in what is now Turkey, Christian monks had also burrowed into mountain sides to create their communities far from the world.

Some of the churches they dug out of the rock still carry their frescoes.

And up in the Ethiopian highlands monks have built their churches high up on cliff faces, like the Abuna Yemata Guh church in Tigray province, which can only be reached after an arduous climb

and some sphincter-clenching shuffling along narrow ledges with long, long, long falls if you take a false step.

But once there, you are greeted with delightful frescoes in the Ethiopian style.

How much trouble those monks went to to get away from it all! I can’t complain since they created such wonderful places for me to visit one day. But surely they could have made their lives a little bit easier and still managed to pray and contemplate to their heart’s content. But hey, who am I to judge? The contemplative life never attracted me; the real world, with all its troubles and vicissitudes, but also with all its joys and satisfactions, is much more my scene.

____________________

Popa Taung Kalat: http://www.wondermondo.com/Countries/As/Burma/Mandalay/PopaTaungKalat.htm
Laon: https://www.tourisme-paysdelaon.com/Cote-histoire/Historique-du-Pays-de-Laon/La-mutation-en-ville-prefectorale
Laon cathedral exterior: https://www.taringa.net/posts/info/18971189/A-que-no-sabias-esto-lince.html
Polignac: http://www.panoramio.com/photo/33272295
Edinburgh Castle: https://erasmusu.com/en/erasmus-edinburgh/erasmus-photos/princes-street-gardens-and-edinburgh-castle-75483
Old print of Edinburgh: https://phrenologyandcrime.com/2014/08/31/edinburgh/
Solutre: https://www.geo.fr/environnement/france-nature/les-paradis-nature-de-bourgogne/solutre-rocher
Sigiriya: http://www.gocaribou.com/blog/2015/7/4/the-cultural-triangle-of-sri-lanka
Sigiriya frescoes: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sigiriya#Frescoes
Holy Trinity Monastery, Meteora, Greece: http://www.touropia.com/meteora-monasteries/
St-Michel de l’Aiguilhe: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Le_Puy-en-Velay,_%C3%89glise_Saint-Laurent_et_Aiguilhe_PM_48569.jpg
Katskhi Pillar Church: http://orthochristian.com/89130.html
Simeon Stylites: https://www.vimaorthodoxias.gr/theologikos-logos-diafora/agios-simeon-o-stilitis/
Remains of the column of Simeon Stylites: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_of_Saint_Simeon_Stylites
Hanging temple, China: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanging_Temple
Cave churches of Cappadocia: https://www.expedia.com/things-to-do/full-day-tour-of-cappadocia-region-goreme-open-air-museum-with-lunch.a395058.activity-details
Cappadocia cave church frescoes: http://www.aydinligoremetravel.com/goreme-open-air-museum/
Climbing to Abuna Yemata Guh: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pN67Zsxx-Vo
Arriving to the Abuna Yemata Guh: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y_GxzdGS84M
Abuna Yemata Guh inside: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/travel_news/article-2823326/Abuna-Yemata-Guh-church-sky-Ethiopia-world-s-inaccessible-place-worship.html

FRAGMENTS OF A GREEK HOLIDAY

Milan, 20 September 2017

Fragments of memories from our brief trip to Greece:

– The constant presence above your head of the Parthenon on its Acropolis.

What a sight it must have been for people riding towards Athens across the plains of Attica 2,000 years ago!

– The Parthenon up close.

Like a famous actress from long ago, a bit of a shock to get too near and see the ravages of time.

– The new Acropolis museum.

It’s handsome – but that only makes it even more painful to look at the Parthenon’s smashed and crumbling architectural reliefs which it was built to house and preserve.

– The National Archaeological Museum, visited 40 years ago when I was a young teenager, but still with the power to fascinate:
The “face of Agamemnon”

The smiling, smiling, ever smiling Kouroi


Zeus calmly throwing his lightning bolt

The young jockey

Emperor Augustus, looking benign but whose empty eye sockets make him rather sinister.

– The Goulandris museum, with its collection of statues from the Cycladic islands

which so fascinated the likes of Modigliani, Hepworth, and Moore.

– On the outskirts of Athens, the remains of the monastery of Daphni; the few remaining shards of 11th Century Christian mosaics clinging to its walls have managed to withstand earthquakes, marauding Barbarian, Crusader, and Ottoman troops, and more recently just general indifference.



– The Byzantine and Christian museum, with its collection of icons.


– At the Islamic collection at the Benakis museum (a reminder of how close to the Muslim world Greece is), having an omg moment when I spotted the 16th Century Ottoman plates which look exactly like the plate I bought 12 years ago in New York.

– The kilometers of small streets, once no doubt bursting with local life but now bursting with tourist tat.

– The shocking amount of graffiti, disfiguring so many buildings.

– Empty shops everywhere, mute testimony to the country’s dire economic straits.

– The ridiculous marching by the two soldiers guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Parliament


so reminiscent of Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks.

– The island of Spetses

where the wedding which brought us to Greece in the first place was held, in this open air theatre overlooking the sea.

– The sea from the ridge running along the centre of the island


the sight of which brought to my mind the famous lines from Xenophon’s Anabasis. He is recounting how a Greek mercenary army, stranded in northern Mesopotamia by the death of their Persian employer, Cyrus the Younger, fights its way back to the safety of the Greek cities lying along the coast of the Black Sea: “When the men in front reached the summit … there was great shouting. Xenophon and the rearguard heard it and thought that there were some more enemies attacking in the front … So Xenophon mounted his horse and, taking Lycus and the cavalry with him, rode forward to give support, and, quite soon, they heard the soldiers shouting out “Thalassa! Thalassa! The sea! The sea!” and passing the word down the column. Then certainly they all began to run, the rearguard and all, and drove on the baggage animals and the horses at full speed; and when they had all got to the top, the soldiers, with tears in their eyes, embraced each other and their generals and captains …” They could finally believe that, like Odysseus, they would sail home.

___________________

Shards of Ancient Greek pottery: https://umfablog.wordpress.com/2011/01/13/collection-highlight-amphora-depicting-shrine-with-warrior-paying-respects-to-deceased-man/
Parthenon from streets below: https://brigitaozolins.wordpress.com/2013/10/02/athens-and-the-oracle-at-delphi/
Greek chariot: http://factsanddetails.com/world/cat56/sub367/item2000.html
Parthenon up close: https://www.hexapolis.com/2014/06/27/8-fascinating-facts-about-the-parthenon-the-cultural-icon-from-ancient-greece/
Acropolis museum: http://yourhellas.com/listings/acropolis-museum/
Museum contents: http://andrewprokos.com/photo/acropolis-museum-parthenon-gallery-athens/
Face of Agamemnon: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mask_of_Agamemnon
Kouros: https://www.athensguide.com/archaeology-museum/athens-national-museum050b_jpg_view.htm
Kouros close up: my wife’s photo
Zeus: http://ancientrome.ru/art/artworken/img.htm?id=6131
Young jockey: https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g189400-d198713-i237853952-National_Archaeological_Museum-Athens_Attica.html
Emperor Augustus: http://www.aviewoncities.com/gallery/showpicture.htm?key=kvegr1128
Cycladic statue: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/claude2744/cylades/?autologin=true
Modigliani portrait of a woman: https://www.wikiart.org/en/amedeo-modigliani/portrait-of-a-polish-woman
Daphni monastery mosaics: my photos
Byzantine and Christian museum : mine
Benakis museum: http://www.mesogeia.net/athens/places/thissio/islamikomousio_en.html
Tourist street: https://www.athensguide.com/ermou/index.htm
Graffiti: http://www.greece-is.com/news/athens-mayor-gets-tough-graffiti/
Empty shops: http://www.doomsteaddiner.net/blog/tag/troika/
Soldiers at the Tomb of Unknown Soldier-1: https://brigitaozolins.wordpress.com/2013/10/02/athens-and-the-oracle-at-delphi/
Soldiers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier-2: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-changing-of-the-evzon-honour-guard-tomb-of-unknown-soldier-athens-12450649.html
Ministry of Silly Walks: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.pinterest.com/amp/pin/453034043738797177/
Spetses: http://www.ermioni.info/spetses-island
Open air theatre Spetses: http://www.spetsesdirect.com/out-about/theatre/
Sea from Spetses: my photo
Sailing ships: http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/primaryhistory/ancient_greeks/sea_and_ships/

BERLIN

Vienna, 27 August 2017

Some fifteen years ago, during one of my periodic telephonic chats with my father, I was telling him about our recent visit to Berlin and how much we had enjoyed it. I suggested that he should go too. But after a short pause, he replied “Oh no, I wouldn’t want to visit Berlin”. At the time, his answer surprised me. But after some reflection, I could understand his reluctance. He was 16 when Hitler became Chancellor of Germany

18 when the Saarland voted overwhelmingly to rejoin Germany,

19 when Germany remilitarized the Rhineland,

21 when Germany annexed Austria

and occupied the Sudetenland after the Munich Accord

22 when Germany occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia,

then invaded Poland,

and the UK finally declared war on Germany,

23 when he was cut off from his French fiancé (and eventually my mother) by the German invasion of France,

28 when the war against Germany ended.

So it’s not surprising, really, that for him a visit to Berlin would bring back anguishing memories.

For me, it was different. Of course, the War was still very present when I was a boy – it had only finished nine years before I was born, after all – but in my case it was already history, a thing I lived through films such as The Dam Busters

The Great Escape

and the Battle of Britain

What was ever-present in my daily life was the Cold War. By the time I turned 16, East and West had been locked into the Cold War for some 20 years and there was no end in sight. Berlin, an island in a sea of communism, Berlin with its grim wall physically separating East from West, was the noble symbol of that confrontation.

It was also the location of thrilling spy stories-turned film like John Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In From The Cold

or Len Deighton’s Funeral in Berlin

a world of cross, double-cross, triple-cross, where it was no longer possible to understand who was Bad and who was Good.

It is difficult for me to escape these two pasts when I visit Berlin, as my wife and I did a month ago. The sheer newness of much of central Berlin’s building stock – very pleasant on the eye for the most part –

is a constant reminder of the fact that the city had been bombed and shelled into rubble by the end of the Battle of Berlin.

The pock marks and gouges in the stone work of many of the old buildings, a result of shrapnel flying around, are also mute testimony to that destruction.

Then there are the new memorials:

The Holocaust Memorial


the Jewish Museum

the Gleise 17 Memorial

the Sinti Roma Memorial

the Memorial to the Homosexuals

All bear witness to the mad, hateful, terrifying policies of racial discrimination and dominance which were at the heart of Nazism (whether they work as memorials is a matter for another day, but those who are interested in this debate can do no worse than read Victor Ripp’s slim volume Hell’s Traces).

As for the post War years, a double line of cobble stones running along the old border between East and West Berlin

is a constant reminder of the Berlin Wall which once ran there, as are pieces of the wall which stand in various parts of the city.

But stop a while.

Berlin is more than the Nazi period and the Cold War. It has a long history going back at least 700 years:
– Town at the crossroads of two trade routes

– Capital of the Margraviate of Brandenburg

– Then joint capital, with Königsberg, of Brandenburg-Prussia after Elector John Sigismund also became Duke of Prussia in 1618

– Then capital of unified Prussia after Frederick the Great’s wars of expansion in the mid to late 1700s had joined up the two separated parts of his lands

– And finally capital of unified Germany after 1870.
A process of growth which has left some handsome buildings behind:

Gendarmenmarkt Platz

Humboldt University

Berlin Cathedral

Charlottensburg Palace

Sansouci Palace

A capital which at the beginning of the 20th Century competed with Paris and London for smartness

and modernity.


But after the First World War, a capital of a broken Germany, a city full of unemployed, crippled soldiers, and of men on the make

and of seedy cabarets.

Fast forward to the present, it is now the capital of what is indisputably the most powerful state in Europe, as exemplified by its new Ministry of Finance.

It is becoming a centre of contemporary art, as exemplified by the old Hamburg Train Station turned into museum of contemporary art.

It has buildings by iconic architects.

It has a cool scene.

It has quiet, little corners, very restful on the nerves.

And much more, I’m sure.

We need to push our way past the Third Reich and the Cold War and look at the old and new Berlins. We must not – we cannot – forget what happened during my father’s youth and my youth; we must always remind ourselves of what can happen in any apparently decent, democratic country. But let’s not let this drown out the rest of Berlin.

_________________

Hitler becomes Chancellor: http://www.historyinanhour.com/2010/01/30/hitler-becomes-chancellor/
Saarland votes to rejoin Germany: https://www.deseretnews.com/article/865645404/This-week-in-history-The-Saarland-votes-to-rejoin-Germany.amp
German troops enter the Rhineland: https://germanwarmachine.com/timelines/third-reich-day-by-day/third-reich-1936/march-1936
Germany annexes Austria: https://ww2db.com/battle_spec.php?battle_id=86
Germany occupies the Sudetenland: https://historyimages.blogspot.co.at/2009/12/ww2-germany-takes-over-sudetenland.html?m=1
Germany occupies Czechoslovakia: https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/mobile/en/media_ph.php?ModuleId=0&MediaId=1875
Germany invades Poland: http://www.histogames.com/HTML/chronologie/epoque_contemporaine/deuxieme_guerre_mondiale/batailles/campagne-de-pologne.php
U.K. declares war on Germany: https://www.sutori.com/story/canada-wwii-2680
Germany invades France: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo/during-german-invasion.html
VE-day: http://thelondonsims.blogspot.co.at/2012/05/ve-day-celebrations.html?m=1
Dam Busters: https://dambustersblog.com/category/dam-busters-1955-film/page/2/
The Great Escape: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=mos0s0lZoY8
The Battle of Britain: https://www.pinterest.at/explore/battle-of-britain-movie/
Berlin Wall: http://sfppr.org/2014/12/twenty-five-years-after-the-fall-of-the-berlin-wall-a-realist-perspective/
The Spy who Came in from the Cold: https://fanart.tv/movie/13580/the-spy-who-came-in-from-the-cold/
Funeral in Berlin: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Funeral_in_Berlin_(film)
Leipziger Platz today: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-mall-of-berlin-leipziger-platz-berlin-germany-79017119.html
Berlin in ruins: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raising_a_flag_over_the_Reichstag
Shrapnel scars: http://ruby.colorado.edu/~smyth/Personal/travels/Berlin/Berlin.htm
Pieces of Berlin Wall today: https://www.travelblog.org/Photos/3478461
Holocaust Memorial-1: https://berlinonbike.de/en/walking-tours/modern-berlin-tour/
Holocaust Memorial-2: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Holocaust_memorial_Berlin.JPG
Jewish Museum: http://www.roadtripsaroundtheworld.com/3554-2/
Gleis 17 Memorial: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Berlin-Grunewald_Mahnmal_Gleis_17_02.jpg
Sinti Roma Memorial: http://jewish-voice-from-germany.de/cms/memorial-for-sinti-and-roma-in-berlin/
Memorial to Homosexuals: http://urbanlabsce.eu/memories-are-built-as-a-city-is-built-umberto-eco/
Trace of Berlin Wall: my photo
Pieces of Berlin Wall: https://www.travelblog.org/Photos/3478461
Berlin 1250: https://www.pinterest.com/amp/pin/507499451740810589/
Berlin ca. 1500: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-geography-travel-germany-berlin-city-views-cityscapes-berlin-and-clln-19751351.html
Berlin 1650: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-panoramic-view-of-the-berlin-skyline-berlin-germany-europe1650-17th-56917453.html
Berlin 1717: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:1717_in_Berlin#/media/File%3ABerlin%2C_Schiffbauerdamm2.jpg
Berlin ca. 1760: https://auktion.catawiki.de/kavels/3169247-deutschland-berling-j-wolff-g-b-probst-berlin-ca-1760
Berlin 1900s: https://www.amazon.com/Historic-Views-Berlin-Hannah-Schweizer/dp/3833157747
Gendarmenmarkt Platz: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gendarmenmarkt_berlin_2008_c_filtered.jpg
Humboldt University: http://www.uq.edu.au/uqabroad/humboldt-university-of-berlin
Berlin Cathedral: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo/lustgarten-berlin.html
Charlottenburg Palace: https://www.meetingsint.com/conferences/clinicalophthalmology/venue-hospitality
Sansouci palace: https://www.getyourguide.de/potsdam-l467/potsdamsanssouci-mit-eintritt-und-schlossfuehrung-t26520/
Max Lieberman, Terrasse im Restaurant Jacob in Nienstedten an der Elbe, 1902: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Liebermann_Restaurant_Jacob.jpg
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Berlin street scene, 1913: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/amp.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2013/oct/03/george-grosz-first-world-war-art-jonathan-jones
Georg Grosz: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2013/oct/03/george-grosz-first-world-war-art-jonathan-jones
Georg Grosz: https://animationresources.org/inbetweens-the-caricatures-of-george-grosz/
New Ministry of Finance: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo/federal-ministry-finance-berlin.html
Berlin Hamburger Bahnhof-1: http://u-in-u.com/magazine/articles/2011/tomas-saraceno/
Berlin Hamburger Bahnhof-2: http://forums.hipinion.com/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=94518&start=300
Richard Rogers building: http://footage.framepool.com/en/shot/977309967-daimler-chrysler-building-fence-richard-rogers-potsdamer-platz
Cool Berlin: http://www.traveller.com.au/cool-berlin-the-writings-on-the-wall-b49o
Quiet corner of Berlin: https://chroniclesofwanderlustdotcom.wordpress.com/2013/09/10/eurotrip-days-10-to-12-berlin-deutschland-und-prenzlauer-berg/amp/

A FLORENTINE HOLIDAY

Milan, 22 February 2017

We have just come back from a little holiday in Florence (ah, the joys of retirement! go where you like, when you like). Since neither my wife nor I had been back to Florence in the last 40-50 years (me, the former; my wife, the latter), we decided to celebrate her birthday by going on a little jaunt down there. We agreed that we wanted to visit at least the Uffizi galleries, to see what its new German director was up to, as well as Pitti Palace and its gardens, the Boboli gardens (neither of us having ever visited this complex, we discovered, after comparing notes). The rest would be up to chance and whatever took our fancy.

So decided, my wife took the management of the trip into her very capable hands. Having heard decades of horror stories about the queues to get into the Uffizi, she booked the tickets on-line, along with a time slot for the visit. To be on the safe side, she did the same for Pitti Palace and the Boboli gardens. She found a place to stay on the left bank of the Arno, a five-minute walk from Pitti Palace. And she booked tickets on the bus to get us there and back (much cheaper than the train; we are retirees, after all).

Thus prepared, we set off and spent five days in the city. We visited, in the following order, Pitti Palace; the Boboli gardens, the ticket for which included a visit to the gardens of the nearby Bardini Villa; the church of San Miniato; the Uffizi galleries; the church of Santo Spirito; the church of Santa Croce; the Cathedral, along with its Baptistery and museum; and, finally, on the way to catch the bus home, the church of San Lorenzo and its Medicean library. In between, we strolled through the streets of the city center, crossed the Arno several times a day using the Ponte Vecchio as well several of the other bridges which straddle the river, and last but not least enjoyed delectable dinners in a number of the trattorie located around where we were staying.

I will not bore readers with the details. Let me just point out what were some highlights for me, the things that come back to mind as I sit here writing this:

Bronzino’s Descent of Christ into Limbo, hanging in the church of Santa Croce.
img_1958
A magnificent painting, with this luminously serene Christ pulling the dead from their graves. All that more wonderful knowing that this painting was terribly badly damaged in the big floods which struck Florence in November of 1966.

img_1971

The mosaics in the dome of the Baptistery.
img_1959
I was not expecting to see such magnificent late Medieval mosaics in that beating heart of the Renaissance which is Florence (the church of San Miniato also has a great mosaic in its apse).
img_1960
A wooden crucifix carved by Michelangelo and tucked away in a corner chapel of the sacristy of the church of Santo Spirito.
img_1961
Absent are the finely sculpted muscles, the blood and the gore, that you find in most crucifixes. Just a slim body hanging on the cross.

Donatello’s take on the prophet Jeremiah: a tough, uncompromising figure.
img_1962
A copy can be seen on the Cathedral’s campanile, while the original is in the Museo del Duomo, the Cathedral Museum – a great museum, by the way, recently redesigned and now a really very pleasurable museum experience.
img_1963
In the same museum, the unfinished Pietà by Michelangelo.
img_1964
A statue which, as I have related in a previous post, transfixed me during me first visit to Florence forty years ago.

Botticelli’s Annunciation, in the Uffizi.
img_1966
With such grace does Mary suggest that she is not worthy!

Of course, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and his Spring, are also magnificent, but I have seen and re-seen them so many times now in a thousand pictures that my senses have been dulled towards them.

Also in the Uffizi, Piero della Francesca’s portrait of the Duke of Urbino and his wife
img_1965
That Duke, what a wonderful, wonderful face!

Talking of faces, look at those of the shepherds in Hugo van der Goes’s Adoration of the Shepherds, also in the Uffizi.

img_1967

Such rough and honest and simple faces!

The view of the Brunelleschi’s dome from the gardens of Villa Bardini.
img_1968
We were taken completely by surprise as we rounded the corner of the villa and found Florence at our feet, with Brunelleschi’s dome soaring above the houses. As Leon Battista Alberti wrote in 1435, one year before the dome was finished, in his book De Pictura, “who is so hard or so jealous as to not praise Pippo [Brunelleschi] the architect upon seeing that structure so large, erected above the sky, broad enough to cover all of the Tuscan populace with its shade?”

And who is so hard or so jealous as not to praise Giorgio Vasari the painter, for his fresco of the last judgement which covers the inside of that dome?
img_1969

_______________
Bronzino, Descent of Christ into Limbo: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/santacroceinflorence.wordpress.com/2014/03/18/bronzinos-1552-social-network-page/amp/
Floods, Florence: https://committeeforculturalpolicy.org/projects-for-50th-anniversary-of-florence-and-venice-floods/
Mosaics, Baptistery: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:File-_The_mosaic_ceiling_of_the_Baptistery_in_Florence.jpg
Mosaic, San Miniato: https://www.flickr.com/photos/edk7/16383376970
Michelangelo, crucifix: https://www.visitflorence.com/itineraries-in-florence/fifteenth-century-wooden-sculpture.html
Donatello, the prophet Jeremiah: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Donatello,_geremia,_1427-36,_dal_lato_ovest_del_campanile_02.JPG
Museo del Duomo: http://viaggi.corriere.it/viaggi/eventi-news/firenze-inaugura-il-nuovo-museo-dellopera-del-duomo/
Michelangelo, Pietà: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/297589487853635778/
Botticelli, Annunciation: http://historylink101.com/art/Sandro_Botticelli/pages/26_Annunciation_jpg.htm
Piero della Francesca, Duke of Urbino and wife: http://www.abcfirenze.com/musei/MuseiFoto_i.asp?N=238&Foto=Uffizi-D22.jpg
Hugo van der Goes, Adoration of the Shepherds: http://www.artbible.info/art/large/111.html
View of the cathedral’s dome: https://www.pinterest.com/enamoradoitalia/villa-bardini-firenze-florence/
Vasari, Internal fresco of cathedral dome: https://it.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cupola_del_Brunelleschi

A WALK FROM ONE SAINT TO ANOTHER

Sori, 10 December 2016

We started in San Rocco, which is perched on a rocky spur high above Camogli.

image
The last time we visited it, we huffed and we puffed our way up the old mule track that snakes its way up from Camogli. This time, we took it easy; we took the Recco-Rapallo bus and hopped off at Ruta, which lies on the saddle between Camogli on one side of Monte di Portofino and Santa Margherita on the other, and took another little bus from Ruta to San Rocco.

A little aside on the lives of obscure saints: San Rocco, known in English – if at all – as Saint Roch (I found traces of a couple of British churches named after him), lived in the late 1200s, early 1300s, dividing his time between what is now southern France and northern Italy. He is the patron saints of dogs and bachelors (a strange combination) and was especially invoked in times of the plague – hence this painting of the saint pensively pointing to a plague bubo on his leg.
image
In any event, fresh from our relaxing bus drive, and fortified by a cappuccino and a slice of focaccia, we set off down the path which led to Punta Chiappa, a low rocky ledge jutting out into the sea at the furthest reaches of Monte di Portofino. The idea was to have lunch in a restaurant down at the water’s edge just before Punta Chiappa and, suitably fuelled up, toil our way back up to San Rocco. We started losing height through a series of long flights of steps
image
we wended our way through woods
image
through which struggled a few remaining olive groves.
image
We finally arrived at San Nicolò, a small collection of houses clustered around a pretty little 12th Century church.
image
The original monks who had ministered to the small community of fisherfolk clinging on to this steep hillside finally moved away in the face of continuing depredations by Barabary pirates (I suppose church plate was considered good loot) and the church fell into disuse. Recently, suitable renovations have been undertaken, although there was little left of the original decorations to restore.

Another quick aside on the lives of obscure saints: San Nicolò, Saint Nicholas in English, lived at the juncture of the 3rd and 4th centuries. He was a bishop in Asia Minor and was famous for working miracles (he seems to have been particularly good at this). Of relevance to this story, he is the patron saint of sailors and fishermen.
image
But he also is responsible for a whole host of other professions including coopers, archers, pharmacists and – somewhat bizarrely – broadcasters. Somewhere along the line, no doubt because he is the patron saint of children, this very worthy saint morphed into that very heathen Santa Claus.

One of the few fragments of the original decorations left is this piece of fresco.
image
It shows St. Nicholas saving two sailors from drowning as their ship founders: that nightmare of all sailors and the subject of famous paintings
image
as well as a myriad of humbler ex-votos, normally dedicated as in this case to Mary in her role as Stella Maris, Star of the Seas.
image

I am moved to insert here those lovely lines from T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” in the short section of the poem entitled Death by Water:

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.
A current underseas
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

From San Nicolò, we got the first good view of the Golfo di Paradiso, the woods having obscured the view in the upper reaches of the walk.
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Hunger drove us on. We dropped still further towards the sea,
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finally reaching the restaurant. Alas! Contrary to what we had been assured in the café where we took our morning cappuccino and focaccia, it was closed. We were mournfully counting the tangerines we had brought with us and reckoning on the number of stairs we would need to climb to get back to San Rocco on a nearly empty stomach when we saw a boat coming in to dock. We hurried forward and discovered that by sheer serendipity we had arrived just in time to catch the boat to San Fruttuoso, from whence we could get a boat back to Camogli! Light of stomach, but also light of heart, we hopped on, took a seat, and admired the passing views as we rounded Punta Chiappa
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motored past forbidding headlands
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until the small fort protecting San Fruttuoso hove into sight,
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where we turned into San Fruttuoso’s bay and chugged in towards the village itself.
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Calling this a village is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration, composed as it is of the ancient abbey (currently under renovation)
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a somewhat less ancient watchtower
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and a few fishermen’s houses clustered in between.

It’s a charming site, much frequented in the summer by people who come to lie on the beach (as it was when we visited it, during a long weekend). We took the easy way in, but hardier folk can take one of a number of paths crisscrossing Monte di Portofino which pass through San Fruttuoso. Well rested and after eating our meager cache of tangerines I went off to visit the Abbey while my wife read her book on the beach.

A final note on the lives of obscure saints: San Fruttuoso, Saint Fructuosus in English (a saint so obscure in the English world that I could find no church named after him), was a bishop of Tarragona in Spain in the second half of the third century.
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His main, in fact his only, claim to fame was that he was martyred during the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. He is so obscure that no group has claimed him as their patron saint, which is a bit sad. Given his name, makers of fruit juices could perhaps apply …

How an abbey in Italy got to be dedicated to him is a bit of a mystery. The story goes that when the Vandals invaded Spain some monks from Tarragona, anxious that his remains not be despoliated, carried them off by sea. After a certain amount of wandering around the Mediterranean, they ended up on the Monte di Portofino. I find the story to have a lot of holes in it, but hey, who am I to question its veracity? Suffice to say that the Abbey grew quite wealthy from donations of land. Wealth put it in the sights of the Barabary pirates. Like San Nicolò, it went into decline after repeated depredations and was eventually abandoned.

In the early afternoon, our return boat docked. We piled in and returned to Camogli
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for a well-deserved late lunch of focaccia al formaggio.

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All photos: mine, except as follows

San Rocco: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Camogli-chiesa_di_San_Rocco_(Ruta)-DSCF0645.JPG
Saint Roch: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Roch
Le radeau de la méduse: https://fr.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Le_Radeau_de_La_Méduse
Ex-voto shipwreck: http://www.ottante.it
Saint Nicholas: http://aristidhmilaqi.blogspot.it/2011/06/saint-nicholas-patron-saint-of-sailors.html?m=1
Saint Fructuosus: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fructuosus
Camogli: http://www.cepolina.com/Camogli-sea-beach.html
Focaccia al formaggio: http://www.italianbotanicalheritage.com/it/scheda.php?struttura=499

A WALK IN THE SETTING SUN

Sori, 8 December 2016

We decided not to struggle up the path which leads from the railway station up along the spur of the hill to the small church of Sant’Apollinare at the top. We did it a few weeks ago and it’s brutally steep. Instead, we took the bus that starts from in front of the village fishmonger, timed to leave just after school breaks up. Together with one shy schoolgirl we zipped up the road which zigs and zags its way up the hillside. 10 minutes later, just shy of 4:30, we were deposited on the small parking area by the church. The sun was beginning to set over the Riviera on the other side of Genova, bathing the little church and the distant Monte di Portofino in its ruddy rays.

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We were taking the path that led down to the little town of Recco, nestled at the foot of the Monte di Portofino. We needed to get down before it got too dark. We started walking, passing through olive groves where the hillside’s exposure to the sun was good
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and through Mediterranean maquis where it was less good
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and where earlier farmers had not bothered to terrace the hillside and plant olive trees.
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We passed the Torre dei Saraceni, the Saracens’ Tower, which according to local legend was built as a lookout to warn local villages when raiding parties of Barbary pirates based in Northern Africa (or maybe closer in Corsica and Sardinia) were approaching, looking to carry away loot and people to be sold as slaves in the market places of Tunis and Algiers (a plague which Italy’s coastal communities suffered until the 1800s).
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When we were young and foolish, my wife and I had fantasized about living here, brushing aside such practical questions as where the nearest shop was to buy food.

On we hurried, with the Monte di Portofino looming larger.
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Out to sea, ships were hurrying also, to reach the safety of the port of Genova.
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We watched as the sun finally set across the Bay of Genova, silhouetting the Torre dei Saraceni.
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We went on in the sunset’s afterglow, down dimly-lit steps

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arriving finally in the small village of Polanesi on the outskirts of Recco. Our path skirted the parish church

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into whose dim interior we quickly dipped. Its floor hinted at some tragedy 200 years ago
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while its outer walls proclaimed a more recent tragedy, the retreat from Russia in 1942-3, in which many Italians died.
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The moon alone was now shining in the sky.

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By its dim light, and in places by the light of my phone, we stumbled down the last steps to finally reach the Via Aurelia.
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When I was young and foolish, I thought this really was the trace of the old Roman road, but I discovered later that the Romans never bothered to build a road through this wild and mountainous region; they just went by boat along the coast.

A short walk brought us to Recco, now enveloped in darkness.
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We lowered ourselves into the chairs of the nearest bar and had ourselves a well-merited Aperol Spritz.

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all photos: mine, except for

Aperol Spritz: http://www.aperolspritzsocials.com

TAKING THE D TRAM TO NUSSDORF

Vienna, 24 July 2016

We’re in Vienna briefly, on our way back to Bangkok from the annual training course I give in Budapest and using the occasion to visit the warehouse where our stuff has been stored away these last seven years to agree on when to start moving it, and to where, when I retire in a month’s time. We’ve used the occasion to spend the weekend here.

On Saturday morning, we visited an exhibition of Ai Wei Wei’s work, my wife’s favourite modern artist, which is spread between the 21er Haus and the Upper Belvedere. While we were at it, we also had a quick zip around the Upper Belvedere’s permanent collection – there is a lovely set of Schieles and Klimts. Then, footsore and thirsty, we took a D tram back into the city centre and headed for a café to have a drink and a rest.

Once revivified, we pondered where to go next. I suggested the Leopold Museum, which is holding an exhibition of a rather minor Austrian painter of the 19th Century, and so we dragged ourselves rather slowly in that direction. But on the way, we saw another D tram clank past, and since it was a glorious day we decided on the spur of the moment to hop on and ride to the end of the line, to Nussdorf, which lies at the foot of the hills that overlook the city. As the name suggests, Nussdorf, Nut Village, was indeed once an independent village but is now a suburb of Vienna. Presumably it once was known for its walnuts or hazelnuts, but several hundred years ago it planted vineyards on the slopes above it and thereby made its fortune selling thirsty Viennese Grüner Veltliner wines.

Now, as we got off the tram at the final stop, we trailed after our fellow passengers, all ramblers, who were making their way determinedly towards those vineyards and the woods beyond them, the Wienerwald. We found a path which followed a stream
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and started ambling slowly upwards – the walk was in no way strenuous.

The path first coasted houses buried at this time of year in luxuriant vegetation
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but then it became more solitary.
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At one point, we passed a little park dedicated to Beethoven.
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It is said that he used to come over from nearby Heiligenstadt, where he spent many summers in his later years, to walk along this same path, which of course the marketing-savvy locals have named Beethovengasse, Beethoven Lane.

Further on, we passed the dead of Nussdorf, sleeping their eternal sleep at the foot of the vineyards
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and now finally we were among the vineyards.
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A few yards further on, we arrived at our destination, a heuriger
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(a buschenschank in Styria; the owner of this heuriger must be a Styrian immigrant)

Heurigers, or wine taverns, dot the countryside around Vienna, selling the local wine, as well as simple food so that their patrons do not drink on an empty stomach. We had chosen this one from a map thoughtfully provided along the path by the local authorities, anxious to ensure that a good time was had by all.
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We settled down in the tavern’s garden
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and pleasantly whiled a way an hour or so, sipping on our wine-water mixes (it was a bit early for straight wine), nibbling at our dried sausages, cheese plate, and Greek salad, gazing out over the neighbouring vineyards
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and generally enjoying that sense of gemütlichkeit – warmth, friendliness, and good cheer – which is the trademark of heurigers.

Suitably refreshed, and full of good cheer, we ambled slowly down the hill again, where I for one took advantage of the old-fashioned toilets, or pissoirs as the Austrians so picturesquely call them, helpfully provided at the tram stop by the local authorities
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before climbing back into the D tram

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and clanking slowly back into the city centre.

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The stream Schreiberbach: https://www.tripadvisor.co.za/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g190454-d260626-i134059629-Vienna_Woods-Vienna.html
All other photos: ours