My wife and I are in the middle of a multi-day hike down the eastern shore of Lake Como, walking a 45-km long trail which links Colico, located more or less where the River Adda flows into the lake at its northern end, to Lecco which straddles the River Adda as it flows out of the southern end of the lake on its way to join the River Po. It’s called the Sentiero del Viandante, the Wayfarer’s Trail. For any of my readers who might be hikers, I throw in a couple photos to whet their appetite.
Since the trailheads feeding the trail can easily be reached by train from Milan, we’ve been doing it in stages, closely watching the weather forecasts and going only when the sun is predicted to be shining. We’ve done three stages so far, with one more to go.
On the latest stage, as we were crossing a clearing, we came across this flower.
Of course, it gladdens the heart to see flowers blooming in February. It tells us that the Earth – at least in the Northern hemisphere – is waking up from its winter slumber. But this flower was particularly beautiful: large white petals surrounding a yellow-green centre. It was also quirky: this large flower was perched on a tiny stem, with no leaves that I could discern; it seemed almost to spring straight out of the ground.
As usual, once we’d seen one we saw many. Some were just opening. In others, the petals looked fly-blown, ready to fall. In others again, the petals were pink-veined.
On the train back, we started chatting with another couple whom we’d met along the trail. Suddenly remembering the flower, I pulled out my phone and showed them the photo of the flower. Ah, they said, in Italian that’s called elleboro. Pulling up my trusty Google Translate, I discovered that its English name is hellebore.
Hellebore … this stirred up vague memories in me, of poison and death. As the train racketed along towards Milan Central Station, I passed the time reading up on hellebore and saw that the plant is indeed horribly poisonous. “All hellebores are toxic, and all parts of the hellebore plant are toxic”, I read in Wikipedia. “Poisonings will occur through ingestion or handling … Poisoning cases are most severe when the plants are eaten … causing tinnitus, vertigo, stupor, thirst, anaphylaxis, emesis (vomiting), catharsis, bradycardia (slowing of the heart rate), and finally, collapse and death from cardiac arrest.” Bloody charming … And it doesn’t finish there! “Dermatitis may also occur from handling the hellebore plants without protection. … The poison on the outside of the plant will cause irritation and burning sensations on the skin.” Jeez Louise …
Wikipedia also informed me that there are a good number of different hellebores. The particular hellebore we came across on the walk is the Helleborus niger, or black hellebore. I find this a strange name, given the snowy whiteness of the flower, seen here in a particularly appealing photo (also showing, incidentally, its natural range, the Alps, in the background).
The blackness, it seems, refers to its roots, which are indeed somewhat black.
It is the roots, suitably dried, that are ground to a powder and fed to unsuspecting victims: “hubble, bubble, toil and trouble…”, to misquote the three witches in Macbeth, whom we have here in an especially dramatic painting by a Victorian painter by the name of William Edward Frost.
I had hoped that Shakespeare might have had them mention hellebore as one of the ingredients in their magic brew. But no. They mention eye of newt, toe of frog, wool of bat, tongue of dog, adder’s fork, blind-worm’s sting, lizard’s leg, howlet’s wing. Oh, and fillet of fenny snake. But no hellebore. Nor is the plant mentioned in any of his other plays where magic and magicians play a part.
I was quite disappointed that the Bard passed hellebore over in silence. Because it did play a role in the magic of his time and earlier (and still does, if I’m to believe some of the web sites I’ve visited). It could be used to cause madness, or put a good curse on someone. It was good for both raising demons as well as banishing or exorcising them. Carrying it on your person could stop demons possessing you. Planting it near the entrance to your house would deter demons from entering. It was often planted in graveyards to gain the allegiance of the dead. It seemed especially popular in healing swine and cattle from illness and protecting them from evil spells (cast, no doubt, by jealous neighbours): “a piece of the root being drawne through a hole made in the eare of a beast troubled with cough or having taken any poisonous thing cureth it, if it be taken out the next day at the same houre”, wrote a certain Parkinson in 1641. Two properties attributed to it which I particularly like is the ability to make you invisible (scatter powdered hellebore in the air around you as you walk along) and to make you fly to witches’ sabbaths and suchlike (make an ointment of it and spread it liberally on yourself. There actually seem to have been quite a number of recipes for these so-called flying ointments; one I particularly like was given by Francis Bacon: “the fat of children digged out of their graves, of juices of smallage, wolfe-bane, and cinque foil, mingled with the meal of fine wheat”).
I have a great fondness of medieval witches and sorcerers, my vision of them having been determined by the comic books of my youth regaling me with the stories of two medieval boys by the names of Johan and Pirlouit. I throw in here a picture from the story “La Guerre des Sept Fontaines” to give an idea of the treatment of witches and sorcerers in these books.
But enough with this childishness! Let me finish on a more positive note. A legend about black hellebore revolves around another name for it, Christmas rose. We are in Palestine. The Christ child has recently been born. A poor shepherdess, Madelon by name, has seen the three Wise Men passing through on their way to see the child. She has followed them and seen them presenting him with their valuable gifts of myrrh, frankincense and gold. She also wants to give the child a gift, but being very poor cannot afford to. So she stands at the door of the manger, weeping quietly. The angel hovering over the manger takes pity on her and decides to help with a little miracle. He gently brushes aside the snow at her feet and where her tears have fallen, spring up a beautiful cluster of waxen white winter roses. Then he softly whispers into the shepherdess’s ear, “these Christmas roses are far more valuable than any myrrh, frankincense or gold, for they are pure and made of love”. Madelon joyfully gathers the flowers and offers them to the Holy Infant, who, seeing that the gift was reared with tears of love, smiles at her.
Hmm, having just read about all the dermatitis you can get from just touching these plants, I can only assume that Madelon, poor though she was, was wearing gloves … This irreverent thought leads to another. I took this photo of a modern take on the three Wise Men, painted on the wall of a Milan house by a wannabee Milanese Banksy.
My wife and I recently spent a long weekend on Traunsee (Lake Traun), which is one of several lakes which sprinkle the Salzkammergut region of Austria. Here is an aerial photo of the lake, looking from south to north.
Readers will notice that the topography around the lake is generally mountainous other than a section of relatively gentle hills on the lake’s northwestern shore. We were staying on the edges of the village of Traunkirchen, down south on the western shore, where gentle hill meets steep mountain. This gave us the opportunity to try out both topographies for our hikes, these being the main purpose of our visit.
Traunkirchen is wonderfully located, clustered as it is around a rocky spit perched on the edge of the lake – readers with sharp eyes may notice that spit in the photo above. I add in here a closer aerial view of the village.
On the afternoon we arrived, we took advantage of a pedal boat, which our hotel kept moored at its little piece of beachfront, to pedal slowly over to the spit and admire the church built on it from the water.
We later visited the church, whose interior was the usual Baroque confection. As I have frequently mentioned, the last time no later than my last post, I am no great fan of the Baroque. But this church does have one splendid piece, the pulpit. It is built in the form a boat, into which fishermen are hauling their catch.
An apt iconography for a village by a lake, but also no doubt the artist was recalling the words of Jesus on Lake Galilee: “As he was going along by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew, the brother of Simon, casting a net in the sea; for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed Him.”
Our visit to the church was part of a longer itinerary thoughtfully provided by the local tourist office to explore the village. Our next port of call was a small chapel on the highest point of the spit. Up close the chapel was no great shakes, but from afar it made for a wonderful view, as we saw the next day at the start of one of our hikes.
The local tourist office’s itinerary then carried us away from the water front and up the hill that backed the village. There, perched on a ridge, was a large house built in the early 1850s and known by the locals as the Russian Villa.
The house got its nickname from its first owner. She was the daughter of a Russian prince and went by the delightful name of Sophie Baroness Pantschoulidzeff. The name immediately evokes in me pictures of a languid lady with a Slavic cut to the cheekbones, toying with an enormously long cigarette holder and calling everyone “Daahlingh”. Despite my best efforts, I have been unable to discover anything about this Baroness on the internet. But she kept good company in her villa. Many of Vienna’s artistic elites spent time with her there.
After Baroness Pantschoulidzeff’s death, the villa passed through various hands. Whoever owns it now has a collection of Ancient Greek or Roman statues (or copies thereof) in the garden. Among these, there is one which is – how shall I put it? – particularly intriguing: it is a huge phallus. Of course I had to take a photo.
From writing which I glimpsed carved into its base, I think it also was of Graeco-Roman origin (or a copy of one such).
We saw it because the itinerary recommended by the tourist office took us along a path which passed by the gate to the villa’s garden. The path then went on to become Traunkirchen’s Via Crucis. I can only hope that anyone walking the path for religious purposes, and not – like us – to follow a tourist itinerary, will keep their eyes firmly fixed on the horizon and ignore that giant male member as they pass the villa’s garden gate.
After this glimpse of the surreal, we went on to follow the Via Crucis, which led us eventually to its final chapel in the woods.
After a look at the crucifixion scene in the chapel, we wended our way back down to the waterfront, where we sat down at the cafe outside the Hotel Post.
While we rested, we enjoyed a good cup of Earl Grey tea served to us by a very friendly waiter dressed in lederhosen – we were in Austria, after all – before we heaved ourselves back on our feet and headed back to our Pension.
Well, it’s taken me quite a while to get around to this post. We completed our hike in the Dolomites three weeks ago, but it’s only now that I’ve managed to put all our photos in order – there were three sets of photos to arrange, my wife’s, my daughter’s, and my own. But the work of electronic filing and folderizing is over and I can finally write this post.
My last post had us in Bolzano, visiting Ötzi the Iceman. From there, we took the bus over to the next valley, the Val di Fassa. Just to give readers an idea of this valley, here is one of those bird’s-eye-view maps that clever cartographers come up with. And here is the same map with a rather wonky red line put in by me showing our itinerary. We hiked for six days, staying for the most part in mountain huts. We had the pleasure of being joined by our daughter and her partner for three of those days.
The itinerary didn’t quite turn out as planned. The area had got hit by a terrible storm in October of last year, which brought down thousands of trees and blocked a good number of the paths. The authorities’ plan had been to start clean-up in May, but the valley suffered from unusually heavy late-season snowfalls that month, which meant that when we arrived not only many of the paths blocked by trees hadn’t been cleared but other paths were now blocked because of snow. The result was that we didn’t walk quite as long at high altitude as had originally been planned. But it was wonderful nevertheless.
I’ve done writing. I shall let our photos speak for themselves.
At the Passo di Carezza, we took refuge from the rain in a hotel’s restaurant, and drank a cup of tea while waiting for the bus to take us down to the Val di Fassa. The next day, we took the bus back to Bolzano, and from there made our way back to Milan.
We’ll be back in the Dolomites. It’s just too beautiful to pass up. We are still discussing where in the Dolomites to go next. Readers will have to wait with bated breath until next year’s post on the topic to know what we decided.
During the month of March, my wife and I went to Bologna for a short visit (I should have written up this post quite a while back; but hey, as they say, better late than never). It’s a nice little town, somewhat off the tourists’ beaten track, which makes it all the nicer. It had been decades since either of us had been back – my wife studied there for a year in the late 1970s, and I had visited her one Christmas before we went off for a little jaunt to Puglia. So it was nice to visit a few old haunts, although in truth her memories of the town were somewhat hazy and mine were almost non-existent.
But actually, what I had really been looking forward to visit was a Lamentation over the Dead Christ, by Niccolò dell’Arca from 1463, which is located in the Church of Santa Maria della Vita (tucked away behind Piazza del Nettuno). I had come across it a decade or so ago when I was methodically leafing through the 1,000 pages of the book 30,000 Years of Art: the story of human creativity across time and space.
This very – very – thick book purports to summarize the best art that we humans have created ever since we started making things: the first entry in the book is from c. 28000 BC, the last is from the mid-1990s. Its entry for the year 1463 is Niccolò dell’Arca’s Lamentation (on page 685, if anyone is interested). When I saw it, I said to myself, “One day, I must go to Bologna to see this!”
The Lamentation in question is not a painting. Rather, it is a collection of terracotta statues making up a sort of “tableau vivant” of the scene of sorrow around Jesus’s dead body, after he has been taken down from the cross and before he has been deposed in his tomb. It seems that Lamentations of this kind were quite common, at least in Italy (and not just in terracotta; I recently saw the remains of two other Lamentations made of wood, in the Pinacoteca of Milan’s castle). The statues represent a set of stock characters: Jesus, of course, lying on the ground after being taken down from the cross; Mary, the mother of Jesus (whom I shall henceforth refer to as the Madonna, to avoid confusion with the three other Marys); St. John the Evangelist; the three other Marys – Mary Magdalene, Mary of Cleophas, Mary Salome; Joseph of Arimathea; and Nicodemus. Here is a typical example of the form, which we also saw in Bologna, in the cathedral, made by the artist Alfonso Lombardi between 1522 and 1526.
Very nice, very dignified, very composed.
But now consider the Lamentation which I wanted to see.
Talk about lamentation! Look at the faces of the women!
Mary, mother of Jesus, first of all
Next to her, Mary Salome, gripping her thighs frenetically in her anguish
At the feet of Jesus, Mary of Cleophas, trying to shield herself from the awful truth
Finally, next to her, Mary Magdalene, shrieking out her horror at what she sees.
The weeping, the wailing – the shrieking – going on in that circle of people is all heightened by Mary Magdalene’s clothes streaming behind her in a most dramatic fashion.
The explanation given in the church is that she was running to the scene and the artist caught her – as if in a cinematic still – at the moment when she burst into the circle around the body and saw with horror that Jesus was dead.
In contrast, the two men in the group are quite subdued. St. John’s expression can only be described as that of someone who is feeling somewhat miserable
while Joseph of Arimathea simply looks phlegmatic.
(for those of my readers who might be asking themselves this, Nicodemus was either not part of this particular group or he disappeared in the intervening 400 years)
This male-female contrast in emotions brings to mind an exchange we as a family had on WhatsApp about Theresa May’s resignation speech in late May. Our son commented that it was somewhat embarrassing to see her cry, at which our daughter leaped to her defence. I quote: “I thought her speech was pretty good. She got emotional when talking about the honour of the job and the fact that she was the second ever female UK prime minister (and not the last) – I think it’s fair to get emotional at that stage! We need to stop vilifying emotional releases such as tears. Women are physiologically more prone to crying – our tear ducts open more easily. If we see tears as a sign of weakness we are inherently disadvantaging women. Anyway, the premise that being “strong” means being unemotional I also think should be changed. We don’t need to go to the opposite extreme but her release was very appropriate.”
Well, Nicolò dell’Arca certainly seemed to think that grown men don’t cry, but that women do, and copiously!
It struck me that I could use the various Lamentations paintings created over the centuries to explore how painters felt about this gender difference in the showing of emotions, or simply about the showing of emotions at all. I should add a warning here that my personal take on this is that in real life the scene at the centre of the Lamentations would have been highly emotional: your son, or your leader, who has had you believing that he is heralding the arrival of the end of time and the start of the reign of Yahweh, has instead been shamefully put to death by the colonial authorities and now lies before you, dead. All your hopes, all your beliefs, smashed to smithereens. If I had been there I would have been a total puddle, even if I am a man. But let’s see what painters thought.
We can start this exploration some two centuries before dell’Arca’s composition, with Giotto’s Lamentation of 1303, which is to be found in the Scrovegni chapel in Padova (and on page 615 of the Very, Very Thick Book).
Here, everyone who is gathered around the dead Jesus is crying – not wailing as the women are in dell’Arco’s composition, but definitely crying. Even St. John – the person standing over the women huddled around Jesus – is crying. In fact, I would say that St. John is in transports of sorrow, more so than the women. Even the angels are in anguish. It is true that the two fellows to the right – believed to be Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus – are quite composed, but one could argue that they were not close companions of Jesus and so not as committed to the cause that he represented. It could also show that Giotto thought it was OK for young men like St. John to show their emotions, but that older men should keep their upper lip well stiffened.
Jumping forward to 1440-42, we have a Lamentation by the Dominican monk Fra’ Angelico, in the Monastery of San Marco in Florence.
Here, no crying, just a gentle preparation of the body for the tomb behind, by the women and St. John (who has his back to us) (the fellow in the background is St. Dominic, seeing all this in a trance). A typical work of Fra’ Angelico, I would say, as gentle as the man himself. Maybe strong emotions frightened him. Maybe he preferred to choose a moment slightly after the tears and the wailing, when practical considerations kicked in: the dead body needed to be prepared for the grave.
We can go forward another fifty years, to Mantegna’s Lamentation of 1489, hanging on the walls of Milan’s Pinacoteca di Brera just up the road from where I write this (and which can be viewed on page 707 of the VVThB, by the way).
Looking at the painting, readers can see that next to Jesus there are three people – the Madonna, St. John next to her, and a third person you can just make out over the Madonna’s shoulder. They are all crying copiously. It seems that Mantegna, rather like Giotto, believed in everyone showing their emotions.
On the other hand, in Botticelli’s Lamentation of almost the same period (1490-92), now in Munich’s Alte Pinakothek, the artist only has the women lamenting (although in a very stylized way, it seems to me; shades of things to come). St. John simply looks grim. So Boticcelli appears to be with dell’Arco on this one: women show emotions, men don’t.
The painting also has that stock situation, common in later times, and which I must confess to find most irritating, of the Madonna fainting from the emotion of it all. This really is the male assumption about the weakness and frailty of women: when the going gets tough, women faint. The other men, saints of various kinds, are simply there to witness the scene, like St. Dominic in Fra’ Angelico’s version, so do not show much emotion (I do think, though, that Botticelli had some cheek in including St. Peter – the fellow to the right, clutching a big key – since according to the Gospels while Jesus was being taken down from the cross and being buried he and the other – male – disciples were all cowering in a room somewhere, in fear of imminent arrest).
This next Lamentation is by Bellini, executed at the same time as Botticelli’s (1485-95). It is one of many Lamentations which he painted. This particular one is in the Uffizi in Florence. Here, everyone is even more composed: the Madonna, Mary Magdalene, and St. John seem to be sniffling a little while everyone else is looking calmly noble. Bellini does not believe in showing emotions, it would seem (although in fairness to him, some of his other Lamentations seem somewhat more emotionally charged).
On the other hand, in this Lamentation by the Venetian painter Carlo Crivelli, from exactly the same period (1485) (and now in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts), both the Madonna and St. John are in absolute agony, with the latter literally howling (it is true to say, though, that Mary Magdalene is more contained).
It would seem that Crivelli was a believer in showing strong emotions, like dell’Arca, and was quite happy with men showing such emotions.
But now look at this Lamentation by Perugino, again from the same period, 1495 (and now in the Palazzo Pitti in Florence).
I mean, everyone, man and woman, looks ridiculously calm and noble! (there is one half-hearted attempt at gesticulation, by the lady in red at the back, but it’s very unconvincing). Perugino must have thought that emotions weren’t necessary to the scene.
From 50 years later, 1547, we have this Lamentation by Paolo Veronese (it seems that every artist worth his salt had a go at this theme), now in the Castelvecchio Museum in Verona.
Again, everyone looks calm and dignified. The Madonna looks a trifle pale, but that’s about it. No emotions please!
A decade on, 1560 or thereabouts, Tintoretto painted this Removal from the Cross bleeding into a Lamentation, now in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Venice.
This is best described as baroque, although it’s a bit early for that. We have a fainting Madonna, dramatic gesticulation, contorted clothing – but not a single tear. Drama is required, but not emotions.
The same message comes through 45 years later in Caravaggio’s Deposition of 1603-1604 (which also contains some Lamentation in it), now in the Pinacoteca Vaticana.
The drama here comes from the play of light and dark and the angle from which it was painted. But the women seem quite composed in their sorrow; the gesticulation of the girl at the back feels contrived.
If real emotions seem to have drained away from the Lamentations painted in Italy, to be replaced first by Olympian calm and then by drama, there never seems to have been any real emotions at all in the Lamentations painted north of the Alps. The genre crossed the Alps at about the time that Giotto painted his Lamentation in Padova and became very popular. I have not been able to find any tears, or even much emotion, in these Northern European versions of the genre. For instance, this Lamentation from 1455-60, by the Early Netherlandish painter Petrus Christus (and now in Brussel’s Royal Museum of Fine Art) has the Madonna in a tasteful swoon, a lady to the right possibly wiping away a tear, and a woman to the left meekly wringing her hands. But everyone else is quietly going about their business.
This Lamentation by the Burgundian Early Netherlandish painter Simon Marmion is from a little later, about 1476 (and now in New York’s Metropolitan Museum).
Not a shred of emotion here. No drama, either. “Oh dear, he’s dead” is all I get from it.
Dürer, a few decades later (c. 1500), managed to include one person in his Lamentation who is gesticulating, although in a quite contained manner (you almost feel that Dürer included her because it was the done thing to do). The other women just look a little sad, while all the men are simply standing around. (This is another painting in Munich’s Alte Pinakothek)
This next Lamentation, in London’s National Gallery, is by Gerard David, another Early Netherlandish painter, and is from a few decades later still, 1515-1523.
It looks a polished work, but I still see very little emotion. A certain quiet sadness is all I get from the painting, from everyone involved.
I could add more paintings – like I say, every painter worth his salt seems to have had a crack at this one – but I think we get the gist. If there is any trend in later paintings, it’s towards the dramatic – exaggerated gestures, contorted clothing – but with only the women showing – theatrical – emotion; the men simply look stolid.
So what conclusions can we draw? – because we have to draw some conclusion. I have to say that I agree with my daughter on this one. Perhaps it is physiologically easier for women to cry than men, but I also think that European culture (and possibly all cultures) have evolved and now strongly suggest that men should have stiff upper lips while it’s OK for women’s (and children’s, male and female) upper lips to tremble. I also think that it is expected for our leaders not to cry – stern anger, for instance against the enemy is OK, but no tears. Tears imply weakness, and our leaders must not be weak. Which is why the Renaissance painters stopped showing these ordinary people around Jesus, which Christianity had turned into leaders, crying – and why our son felt a certain embarrassment at seeing May crack up at her podium in front of No. 10. But I think we men should stop trying to look strong and weep and wail when we feel the need to, especially when we have lost someone very near and dear to us.
Oh, and do go to Bologna to see dell’Arco’s Lamentation. it’s really worth the visit – and Bologna is a nice place, with very good food.
I have a weakness for Japanese woodblock prints, that art form which we in the West tend to associate with Katsushika Hokusai. I mean, who hasn’t seen somewhere, in some form, his Great Wave off Kanagawa?
or his Fine Wind, Clear Morning? Or even his Kajikazawa in Kai Province
So when my wife and I were preparing for the week-long walk we undertook along the Nakasendo Way in Japan a few weeks ago it was with pleasure that I read that another artist well known for his woodblock prints, Utagawa Hiroshige, had, together with yet another artist, Keisai Eisen, made a series of prints specifically about this highway, The Sixty-nine Stations of the Kisokaido.
I should perhaps step back and explain to readers what the Nakasendo Way is. In Japan, as everywhere else where there has been a history of centralized government, rulers were anxious to build and maintain highways between important points in the country to ensure better control. The Japanese shogunate maintained a network of five such highways, all radiating out of the capital Edo (now Tokyo), with a series of officially-approved post towns along each route where the weary traveler could rest for the night, and change horses and obtain porters for the next stage of the journey.
Two of these highways led to Kyoto. One we could call the low road, because it ran along the coast (E in the map), and the other we could call the high road since it threaded its way through the Japanese Alps, a block of mountains standing between Edo/Tokyo and Kyoto (C and D in the map). The latter is the Nakasendo Way.
This print by Hiroshige, which shows a view across rice paddies of the post town of Nakatsugawa, gives a sense of what the road must have looked like in the shogunate period.
The prints were prepared in the late 1830s, early 1840s, in the dying days of the shogunate. Some ten years later, in 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry entered Tokyo Bay with his black ships and forced the country to open up.
This was the start of the cataclysmic changes which led to modern Japan. Much of the Nakasendo Way was wiped out in the country’s ensuing rush to modernity. This map, which overlays the trace of the Nakasendo Way on a modern map of Japan, shows the problem.
Many of the modern roads followed the course of the old road and thereby obliterated long stretches of it when they were built, while Japan’s skyrocketing population meant that every post town expanded way beyond its original limits, further obliterating the old road, and the calls for modern housing meant many of the old inns, shops, and houses in the post towns were razed to the ground to make way for brick and concrete.
If I write all this, it is because I had hoped to be able to match up at least some of views along our walk with Hiroshige’s and Eisen’s prints. We read that the portion of the Nakasendo Way which we were going to walk along, from Oi to Karuizawa, was the most unspoiled. So when, on the first day of our walk, my wife and I visited a museum dedicated to Hiroshige, I took photos of all the prints covering our section of the walk, in the pleasurable anticipation that at least at a few points along the way I would be able to stop and say “Ooh look, see how it’s changed since Hiroshige’s/Eisen’s time!”
Alas, it was not to be. We didn’t see a single view which I could relate in any way to any of the two men’s prints. Partly it was because so much has changed in the built environment along the route. Partly it was because the organizers of the walk actually made us do large chunks off the Nakasendo Way proper so that we wouldn’t be walking along modern roads and highways. But partly it was because, as I came to realize, the two artists were not interested in giving the viewer faithful renderings of places along the road; rather, they wanted to record the sensations of being a traveler on the road.
With that in mind, let me give the readers a sense of what my wife and I saw as we hiked along highway and byway from Oi to Karuizawa. We started in Oi on a beautiful day, not at all like the day Hiroshige chose for his print of Oi, where we see luckless travelers tramping along through deep snow.
Our guidance notes informed us that nowadays the trace of the Nakasendo Way is marked by the road sporting a special top of asphalt mixed with little yellow stones.
Following this trace (which in truth we really only had for the first day or two) made me feel a bit like Dorothy and her friends on the Yellow Brick Road.
Following our speckled roadway, we passed through the old post towns of Nakatsugawa and Ochiai. These were once two distinct post towns but now have expanded outwards and bled into each other, so it is difficult to know where one ends and the other begins. I have already inserted Hiroshige’s print of Nakasendo. Here is his print for Ochiai.
The two can be compared to this photo of the modern town of Nakatsugawa. It’s a little hard not to feel a sense of loss.
At the exit of Ochiai, we crossed a bridge from which we had this perspective of a waterfall.
Charming – but not as dramatic as this print by Eisen of the river at Nojiri Something has been lost in the taming of nature.
Thereafter, we climbed steadily up towards Magome Pass, along an old piece of flagged roadway through a pine forest
before stopping for the night at an inn.
As in all the inns we stayed at, we were invited to wash off the aches and pains of the journey in the common hot tub and change into yukatas for dinner – something travelers had been doing along the Nakasendo Way for centuries, as this print by Hiroshige attests (note the man at the back soaking in the tub).
From the window of our room – strictly tatami, and no en-suite bathroom – we had a view of the inn’s garden.
I was reminded of a haiku by the master poet Matsuo Bashō
furu ike ya kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto
an ancient pond
a frog jumps in
the splash of water
Bashō traveled the old highways of Japan in the late 1600s and composed haiku along the way. Two seem particularly apposite for this autumn walk of ours:
No one travels along
this way but I
this autumn evening
Autumn evening: on a withered bough
A solitary crow is sitting now.
The next morning, the weather had turned bad and we left the inn under the rain.
With all our modern gear, we had it much better than some of the poor travelers depicted by Hiroshige tramping along under the rain
or running for shelter in a downpour.
We passed a Shinto shrine buried deep in the trees, whose entrance was guarded by a torii gate.
The same timeIess torii gate worked its way into one of Hiroshige’s prints.
The happy peasants are not so timeless, it seems. We saw no-one, throughout our entire walk, working in the fields.
We arrived in the old post town of Magome which, our guidance notes observed, is one of the better preserved post towns. And we arrived early enough to avoid the hordes of tourists which normally flood the place.
Magome is the birthplace of the novelist Shimazaki Toson. One of his most famous novels, Before the Dawn, is set in Magome at the time of the wrenching change from the Tokugawa shogunate to Meiji Restoration. As one review puts it, “Shimazaki shows that the Tokugawa shogunate, for all its repressiveness, had much to commend it; that the restoration, for all its successes, created a great deal of frustration and disillusion.” I must confess to having never read the book, but now that I’ve walked the Walk and seen all the changes that Japan’s opening up has wrought I think it’s time for me to do so.
We now began the walk up to Magome Pass. The higher altitudes were finally bringing the autumns colours to us.
The Magome Pass is nothing today but a tricky point where the walker has to be careful in crossing the road so as not to end up as roadkill. But Eisen and Hiroshige each presented the pass as backbreaking work for those carrying heavy loads along the route.
As we walked down the other side, carrying just a small rucksack
I could not but reflect that our lives had been made much easier by the modern road: while we walked, the bulk of our luggage was being transferred from inn to inn by car.
We soon came across an old tea house, which has been serving weary travelers tea on their way up to, or down from, the Pass since time immemorial.
Hiroshige preserved one such stopping-off place in one of his prints.
Local volunteers keep the tea house going, offering tea (and, our guidance notes informed us, sometimes songs) to the walker who is willing to tarry a while, which we willingly did.
After a cup of tea, we were on our way again, reaching our inn on the outskirts of the old post town of Tsumago. As we saw later that afternoon, Tsumago was another post town which has elected to preserve itself for the tourist trade.
The only thing that struck me about the place was the strange habit which the locals had of hanging persimmons, ripe now all over Japan, outside their houses to dry. If nothing else, it made for a pretty photo.
After Tsumago, our walking deviated from the Nakasendo Way. The next day, on our walk from Tsumago to Kiso-Fukushima, we took an alternative route through the mountains, which in the old days was used when rock slides and other hazards blocked the normal route. Gone was the speckled roadway. It was rougher, wilder, and altogether more beautiful.
This brought us to Nojiri, from where, with a bow to modernity, we took a train to Kiso-Fukushima. Our entry to the town was this.
This is how the town’s entry looked like in Hiroshige’s time.
After an evening session in the inn’s Onsen (that Japanese institution of public bathing in mineral waters channeled from hot springs) and a good sleep, we started our next day with a visit to Kiso-Fukushima’s Zen rock garden, reputed to be the biggest in Japan. As an aficionado of rock gardens, I couldn’t miss it.
Well, as they say “bigger is not necessarily better”. I’m not sure I approve of that use of white lines in the design.
Here again, we strayed off the Nakasendo Way, taking the old Hida Way, a salt and medicinal herb trade route. We started at the Karasawa no taki falls.
We climbed up through some beautiful forest
to the Jizo Pass. It was marked by a little statue which someone had thoughtfully covered with a hat and a bib to keep it warm during the winter.
Just before heading down the other side, I gave a thought to those other travelers which Eisen had depicted also taking a break at the top of a pass.
After a lunch in beautiful sunshine gazing out at Mount Ontake in the distance (a volcano, I have since learned, which blew its top not too long ago)
we headed out for our afternoon walk over Nishino-toge pass, about which I have no memory and no photos – I must have been tired.
And so to our final day of walking, which saw us coming back to Kiso-Fukushima by bus, take a train to Yabuhara, and from there walk to the old post town of Narai. The walk took us to the top of Torii-toge Pass
and from there down to Narai. Narai is one long street of well preserved houses.
I could see no relation whatever with Eisen’s print of Narai
although what I saw rather reminded me of his print of another post town, Sakamoto.
A final reminder, if ever I needed one, that my initial dream of matching woodblock prints by either men to what I was seeing on the ground was an exercise doomed to failure.
After a late lunch, we hurried to the station to catch a series of trains to our final destination, the old post town of Karuizawa. As in Hiroshige’s print of Karuizawa
we arrived in darkness, although we enjoyed a slap-up meal at our inn rather than smoking what looks to me suspiciously like opium pipes. Perhaps the poor buggers didn’t have the cash for a good nosh.
The next day, we took that super-modern form of transportation, the bullet train, and headed to Osaka to catch our plane back home. My wife and I have already agreed that next year, if we go back to Japan, we will do another walk. The question is where.
Photos: all ours, except:
Hokusai, Great Wave off Kanagawa: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Great_Wave_off_Kanagawa
Hokusai, Fine Wind Clear Morning: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fine_Wind,_Clear_Morning
Hokusai, Kajikazawa in Kai Province: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/39656
Edo five routes: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edo_Five_Routes
Perry’s ship enters Tokyo Bay: https://medium.com/tomorrow-in-progress/when-black-ships-bring-the-future-9c7456050fcc
Nakasendo route on modern map: https://sites.google.com/site/kisokaido/presentation-nakasendo-kisokaido
Yellow Brick Road: http://fortune.com/2018/11/08/wizard-of-oz-script-auction/
Modern Nakatsugawa: https://photorator.com/photo/57577/spring-day-nakatsugawa-japan-
Kiso-Fuskushima station: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kiso-Fukushima_Station
Karasawa no Taki falls: https://www.getaway.co.za/travel-ideas/walking-through-japan/
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.
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
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.
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.
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 cathedral exterior: https://www.taringa.net/posts/info/18971189/A-que-no-sabias-esto-lince.html
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/
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 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.