Dubai is not one of my favourite places, but it’s a place that fascinates me. The most blingtastic city in the world, it outdoes anything you can think of. The excesses of Las Vegas or old Hollywood are as budget ventures besides the seemingly untold wealth on which Dubai runs.
This is so very obvious on its streets and in its architecture, whether you are walking through the gold souk or one of the outrageously expensive Malls, from the Bugatti in a roped-off area to the £105 it can cost you to reach the Top of the Burj to gaze out on the desert below.
How many of the thousands who ascend the famous ‘fastest lifts in the world’ having paid a couple of week’s salary of a local immigrant worker to do so, think that what they are looking out on is what was actually here before the ‘miracle’ of modern Dubai – desert. Is someone having a laugh?
Horse-racing, motor-racing, tennis and athletics featuring the world’s top sportsmen regularly amuse local and visiting wealthy patrons, operas featuring singers from the MET and the ROH, La Scala and Teatro Massino are constant events, and pop concerts where mega-stars rock up to perform for astronomical sums of money, mean that Dubai is no longer an isolated desert kingdom but a major player in the entertainment field.
Do you want to go skiing in the middle of a 45-degree summer? Dubai can accommodate that. Do you want to go Wadi-bashing in the desert in a 4WD at night? Ditto? Or how about sleeping under the stars (glamping, of course), eating in a restaurant with exotic fish swimming by, sailing along canals as though in Venice, or ballooning with a falcon? All of these Dubai can offer.
But if you can turn away from the glitz and glamour for a moment, there are quieter pleasures to be had. Swimming in the beautiful Arabian Sea (admittedly not so nice now that they have built The Palm and The World in the said sea), surfing, crisscrossing the Creek on Abras and just wandering, fingering the silks and satins and bartering with the shopkeepers in the old part of town, and watching the porters carry the heavy loads to the boats in the Creek getting ready for the journey across the sea to India.
Judge for yourself. You’ll love it or hate it, or like me be fascinated by it while being depressed by the knowledge that all this is built on the shoulders of immigrant workers from India & Pakistan, poorly paid and poorly housed. The argument that they might otherwise be starving in their home countries is used a lot in Dubai to justify the continued expansion of the city. That’s not a valid Aargument in this day and age, is it?
NB; Things are improving – somewhat. Only about 20 years ago, there used to be camel races where little boys of 4, 5 and 6 were velcroed to the saddles as jockeys. A great scandal rocked the kingdom when one of the camel owners left a boy to die in the desert (he’d becomet too old at eight to be light enough to ride the camel. Laws now state that no one under 14 can be employed as a camel-racer but rumours abound that there is still illegal racing in parts of the UAE.
And finally, an irresistible selection of lavatories. Spoilt for choice, aren’t you?
With the UK about to depart the EU after the 2016 Referendum, albeit with only an extremely narrow margin of Leave votes, my thoughts turned to my visit a few years ago to that lovely city, Strasbourg, site of the European Council and European Parliament.
This delightful city, full of medieval churches and half-timbered houses seems to have become a byword for what some in the UK see as a hijacker of British sovereignty. Which is a shame, because it is blinding people to an elegant, international city of great charm that in the Middle Ages was referred to as The Crossroads of Europe. At that time, goods from the Baltic, Britain, the Mediterranean and the Far East poured across the borders to be traded for wines, grain and fabrics and just like today, when the languages of the 46 member states can be heard in the squares and streets of the city, traders speaking a dozen different languages, met and conducted business. People from different countries working together and mingling in Strasbourg’s squares means that the city continues to be the crossroads of Europe.
Once a free city within the Holy Roman Empire, Strasbourg later came under periods of French and German rule, which has given the ancient centre a unique appeal, enhanced by the half-timbered Medieval houses that sit alongside elegant French-style mansions. In 1988, UNESCO classified Strasbourg as a World Monument, the first time such an honour was given to an entire city centre.
It is an easy place for visitors to discover, as the traffic problems that beset most big cities have been solved here with a combination of canal boats, a sleek and comfortable light rail system, local buses, and pedestrianised squares. Although it presents itself as a folksy-like small town, Strasbourg is very international, cosmopolitan and multilingual.
GRAND ILE ISLAND
This is the historic part of the city where you will find the main sights and using the 142-metre high spire of the Cathedral as your landmark, you will soon find your way around Strasbourg.
The city’s charm has much to do with its canals which surround the Grand Ill island where the Petite France, is located. A 70-minute boat trip (open-top in fine weather) on Batorama’s Twenty Centuries of History, circumnavigates the whole of the Grande-Île before skirting the 19th-century German Quarter. The turn-around point and good photo opportunity is where the European Parliament, Council of Europe and European Court of Human Rights are head-quartered, a magnificent architectural display of concrete, steel and glass.
If you take the boat cruise, the Vauban Dam will be pointed out, a defensive lock which allowed the entire southern part of the city to be flooded in times of war will be pointed out. It is near the confluence of canals by the Pont Couverts.
Walking around the canals, especially in the early part of the year when everything seems green and lush and the spring flowers are out in abundance, is an equally attractive method of seeing the main sights. This is a city that loves nature and it takes pride in decorating every bridge and windowsill with baskets of flowers, changed according to the seasons.
PETITE FRANCE, STRASBOURG (a UNESCO site)
The number one attraction in Strasbourg is Petite France, the historic part of town, a photographic cluster of 16th and 17th-century half-timbered houses reflected in the waters of the canal. These houses were originally built for the millers, fishermen and tanners who used to live and work in this part of town. If you have taken the boat tour, you may like also to take a tour of the historic centre with an audio guide (€5.50) from the Tourist Office which will introduce you, via a winding route through the narrow streets, to a truly fascinating old town.
NOTRE DAME CATHEDRAL Opening hours: 7am-7pm
The Cathedral, an imposing red sandstone edifice, stands alone in its square and towers above the city. It was the tallest building in the world until the 19th century and is the second most visited cathedral in France after Notre Dame in Paris, receiving 4 million visitors a year. Built in 1439 it is considered to be an outstanding masterpiece of Romanesque and late Gothic art with outstanding 12th-century stained glass windows. Inside is one of the world’s largest astronomical clocks.
Try to get to the cathedral by noon to get a good viewpoint for the 12.30 display of the famous Astronomical Clock. The procession of sixteenth-century automata was designed to remind us of our mortality. Afterwards, you can climb 332 steps to the platform below the cathedral’s twin towers for a stunning view.
The narrow street that leads to the cathedral and the Place de Cathedral is the liveliest place in Strasbourg, especially in summer, and are filled with outdoor restaurants that remain open late into the night. Entertainment is in the form of jazz musicians, mimes and clowns.
And finally, Strasbourg’s Christmas Market has a high reputation but its popularity may be its undoing. After a few evenings of mulled wine, yuletide cake, Silent Night and Adeste Fidelis, a spring or autumn visit begins to look very attractive.
But Strasbourg is a city that has a very special charm at any time of the year and the organisations that dominate its life are what still guarantees peace in Europe. If you are looking for culture, cuisine and character, Strasbourg is hard to beat.
A few recommended eating places: Expect the usual French coq au vin, boeuf bourguignon, crème Brulee and crepe Suzette, but be prepared also for the German influence of pork and sauerkraut.
First up though, is wine. Strasbourg is the capital of one of France’s premier wine regions and if you are in the mood to sample some of the best, head for Terres à Vin, 1 Rue du Miroir, tel +33 3 88 51 37 20, with several by-the-glass options from €3.20 to over €10).
Pain d’Epices, 14 Rue des Dentelles, for indulgent gingerbreads and cake and for the heady scents of spices.
Master-Patissier, Christian Mayer, offers a tea room second to none in Strasbourg at 10 Rue Mercière, just a few yards from the cathedral.
Maison Kammerzell 16 Place du Cathédrale, tel +33 3 88 32 42 14, where the oldest section dates back to 1427, is a Strasbourgeon institution. Occupying rooms on four floors, you can sample the house speciality of fish sauerkraut if you fancy that but there are many less thought-provoking dishes from which to choose, average €40 for three courses.
Au Pont Corbeau, 21 Quai Saint-Nicolas, tel +33 3 88 35 60 68, – a warm and welcoming place where the onion soup is so thick you could stand your spoon up in it. A modest but excellent wine list available. Average €32 for three courses.
If there’s a city in France that can offer more in the way of enjoyment, relaxation, places to visit outside the area than Montpelier, then I have yet to find it.
Known as the sunshine capital of France because of its 300 sunny days per year, Montpelier lies just 11 km from the Mediterranean coast and has its own wide sandy beach within an easy tram ride.
Montpelier combines recent history and old-fashioned elegance with a youthful feel, mostly due to its large student population and its university. It had the first medical school in France at which Nostradamus and Rabelais studied and is a delightful mix of old buildings in the centre, and major new-age industries in modern buildings around the edge. Lovely beaches are nearby at Palavas-les-Flots. What more could anyone want?
As easy town to get around, the places listed as ‘must-sees’ are more or less grouped together, the Place de la Comédie, the Peyrou garden, the Charles de Gaulle esplanade, t the Arc de Triomphe,.and the Saint-Roch church, all on the well-trodden tourist route. However, like European capital cities such as London, Madrid, or Paris, the city abounds with special neighbourhoods with individual identities, some specialising in artisan work, some in antiquities and others devoted to food and wine. Their social mix gives them a fascination lacking in other towns in the region.
The Three Graces Statue, Montpelier
The centre of the action and the beating heart of the pedestrianised centre is the Place de la Comédie. During the morning there is a market at one side of the Place where the local farmers set up stalls and sell fresh fruit and vegetables: off to one side of this is the flower market, a static garden of jewel-coloured blooms and plants. During the season an old-fashioned carousel is stationed at the other end of the square near the Opera House (a useful place to arrange to meet someone as is the statue of the Three Graces). In the middle of the square street artists demonstrate their talents as magicians, living statues, cycle gymnasts, mime artists and break dancers. Passengers coming from the St. Roch railway station with their wheeled luggage skirt around them as they dodge the colourful trams that glide over the yellow paving while students watch from the nearby cafes, their books open before them.
The large student population makes it a lively spot all year round and gives the city a buzz. The cafés, bars, and bistros in the pedestrianised city square which spill out onto the street are one of the attractions of Montpelier and it can be difficult to find a table at certain times. One of the busiest cafés, the Café Riche, is also the most popular and dominates the square with a grand awning bearing the name and date of its foundation.
Couer de Bouef Tomatoes – a Speciality of the Region
The Montpelier region is known for its local produce, its excellent wine, its fine dining and its farmers’ markets. It has 3 Michelin-starred restaurants in addition to other excellent eating places and bistros. Being right in the heart of the Languedoc, the opportunity to sample the luscious wines of the region as well as those of nearby Roussillon shouldn’t be missed, and tastings at nearby vineyards are easy to arrange.
The old town with its medieval narrow streets is lined with upmarket boutiques and antique shops interspersed with restaurants and typical houses of the area fronted by private courtyards, a world that sits quite comfortably with cutting-edge design and architecture in other parts of the city. Check out the mock-Gothic Pavilion Populaire and compare it with the modern, glass-clad town hall. Even transport gets into the act, with designer trams from the hand of no less than Christian Lacroix!
Wander along Rue Foch, a road carved through medieval Montpellier to the Arc-de-Triomphe, a glorious golden stone arch which could only be in France and which was built to honour Louis XIV. Just beyond this point, you will come upon the king mounted on a horse on the magnificent Peyrou Promenade.
King Louis XIV on Horse
Antigone is Montpelier’s new modern part of the city, is located to the east of the historic centre and is the biggest single development to be built in France. This extraordinary development which extends the city to the banks of the River Lez, has been designed by Catalan architect Ricardo Bofill and was completed in the 1980’s.
As it’s name implies, the area is based loosely on the architecture of Ancient Greece and a further link is apparent in the boulevards with names like Rue de L’Acropole and Rue de Thebes that open out and lead you into large squares with names redolent of famous Greek events, like Place de Marathon and Place de Sparte. The neoclassical design of the buildings, the sculptures, and the layout, are dramatically different to the architecture of the old town, and although on a larger than life scale, it is all well proportioned.
At the end of the Antigone district is the Place de Europe, a huge semi-circular area with a crescent of buildings. On the other side is the River Liz adding to the drama of the site and on the opposite bank the ‘Hotel de Region’ also built in the neo-classical style.
The fishing port of Palavas-les-Flots is worth a trip even if it’s only for a bowl of mussels served with chips (French fries to some) or garlic and herb breads in any one of the ways in which they are served here. The port is making great efforts to turn itself into a seaside resort but despite the attempts of the many boat owners to entice you aboard for a sea trip, a fishing trip or a tour around the lagoons, it remains firmly a place to visit for its great food. Bars, bistros, and ice-cream parlours line the central canal and you can walk a few miles along the spit of land to the medieval Maguelone cathedral which stands between sea and lagoon.
Best Guide Book
Montpelier and Beyond Travel Guide is a pocket guide to the best of Montpellier, written by two award-winning travel experts Donna Dailey and Mike Gerard and published by the team behind the successful Beyond London Travel. Available from Amazon as an e-book or a download for Kindle.
Castell Sant’Angelo across the Tiber – Photo Mari Nicholson
The Tiber has been the soul of Rome since the city’s inception, and it could be said that Rome owes its very existence to this strategically important river on whose banks the first settlements were built. The two sides of the river are joined by more than thirty bridges, creating a fascinating setting for the archeology and history of the eternal city.
Several of the old Roman bridges no longer exist, in Papal Rome and in the modern city seven were built in the 19th century and ten in the 20th century.
The Tiber (named after Tiberius who drowned in the river) is unlike rivers like The Danube, The Seine or The Thames as there is little activity on the water. In the summer, various boats convey tourists along the stretch of the river, but in general, it seems underused. However, along the Lungotevere, the boulevards that run alongside it, human traffic always seems to flow.
Flooding was a regular occurrence before the high embankments were built in the 19th century when there were houses located along the banks of this navigable river which was used for fishing and bathing. Over time, however, silting and Photography 101: Connectsediment build-up meant that the river became unsuitable for navigation.
Looking down to Cavour Bridge, Rome
As in other cities such as Bangkok, Seville, London and Paris, tour boats were introduced along the river to give locals and tourists a unique opportunity to view the city. This is a great way to take in the panorama, and immerse yourself in one of the most evocative cities in the world.
A stroll along the Boulevard is also a favourite pastime and a visit to Castell Sant’Angelo and the Jewish Ghetto and Synagogue, which are both situated along the Tiber can be combined in a “Tiber walk”. There are many restaurants, cafes, and bars down by the river so sustenance is not a problem: these are very noticeable at night when the warm lights from their windows illuminate the Boulevards.
The Tiber, Rome – Mari Nicholson
Whether you opt for a dinner cruise, a daytime hop-on-hop-off cruise, or a private jaunt, along the way you can admire the great Palace of Justice, designed by William Calderoni; Sant’Angelo Castle, one of the oldest monuments of Rome; St. Peter’s Basilica, Tiberina Island, a picturesque island linked by one of the most famous bridges in the city, and the innumerable bridges that span the Tiber.
Ponte Sant’Angelo Looking towards the Castle – Mari Nicholson
When the surface of the Tiber is calm and the monuments that span the river are reflected in the still waters, they increase one’s delight in the vista they offer across Rome. Ponte Sant’Angelo (by the castle of the same name), Ponte Fabricio, Ponte Rotto, Ponte Garibaldi, they all offer a sense of the history of the city.
The first named, Ponte Sant’Angela is the most spectacular, being embellished with angels carrying the instruments of Christ’s passion, and was designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini whose fountain in Piazza Navona is one of the most photographed in Rome.
The Ponte Sant’Angelo was erected to ease the movement between the Vatican (which was also connected to the Castell Sant’Angelo) and the commercial area across the river.
The Vatican City is the only zone controlled by the papacy today, but in earlier centuries papal dominion was exercised over the entire city, hence the need for easy connection with the commercial area of the settlement. Three energetic popes, Urban VIII (1623–44), Innocent X (1644–55), and Alexander VII (1655–67), harnessed the versatile talents of the great artists nd sculptors of the day to build monuments and beautify areas all over Rome but especially in the Vatican area.
A walk along the Tiber, and then up the imposing obelisk and olive-tree-lined road to the Vatican is an exercise in itself and you can be forgiven if you decide to postpone visiting St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museum until another day. It can take a long time to do justice to them both. A trip to the top of St. Peter’s is a worthwhile exercise but be warned, there are many steps to the top. A lift goes part way only.
Part of Bernini’s Magnificent 4-Rivers Fountain in Piazza Navona – Photo Mari Nicholson
How to get there: Ponte Sant’Angelo: Metro Line A, Lepanto stop. Boats leave from nearby. Buses 23, 34, 40, 49, 62, 280, 492, and 990. Tram 19.
Truly abstract I think. Love the subtle muddy colours and the starkness of the image.
This is a piece of graffiti on a wall in London’s East End (Brick Lane area). It’s a wonderful place in which to make artistic discoveries. This one comes from the camera of London photographer Steve Moore who has given me permission to use it.
Perhaps not the greatest interpretation of the challenge but I’ve lately been wanting to use one of the interesting tools in my imaging programme and thought this might be my opportunity.
This sculpture was done by marine woodcarver Norman Gaches, from a tree that was destroyed in the great storm of 1987, outside Barton Manor on the Isle of Wight, the then home of Impresario Robert Stigwood, who commissioned the work. At that time Barton Manor was producing wine and he wanted something to represent the grape. The result was a magnificent carving showing the family of Bacchus and these are just two of the photographs my husband took at the time. We followed the progress of the work with the sculptor over the months it took to finish it, and then did our best to interpret the art with camera and prose. A resultant article appeared in Woodcarving magazine and was subsequently syndicated in two other magazines.
It seems a shame that King Alfred, the man who defeated the Danes and united the English, has gone down in popular history merely as the man who burnt the cakes. But the city he made his capital does the man proud and it is impossible to stroll through the ancient streets of Winchester and not be aware of how “the Great” came to be added to Alfred’s name.
An unspoilt city and England’s ancient capital (the Court was mobile during the Anglo-Saxon period but the city was considered the capital of Wessex and England at the time), the cobblestones, buildings and monuments of Winchester, just an hour from London, ring with history. If you like big bangs and all things military, it is also home to a host of museums dedicated to all things warlike. Surrounded by water meadows and rolling downland, it offers the best of city life – modern shopping, quirky open air events, and great entertainment and it can be covered in a day (although a couple of days will show more of what is on offer and allow trips into the surrounding villages).
To get a panoramic view of the streets and buildings laid out according to the original Saxon plan, a good starting point is St. Giles’ Hill (a great spot for a picnic), from where you can pick out Hamo Thorneycroft’s famous statue of King Alfred. Then follow in the King’s footsteps from the walls erected to keep out the Danes to what is the largest medieval cathedral in the world. Famous for its treasures, from the sumptuously illustrated 12th century Bible to medieval paintings and a 16-metre stained-glass window 66% of which dates from medieval times, Winchester Cathedral is that much-overused word, awesome.
The newest acquisition is Sound ll, the Antony Gormley sculpture now permanently installed in the cathedral’s crypt where it looks particularly striking when the crypt floods which it frequently does. Even if you don’t make a habit of visiting cathedrals, do make an exception to view this magnificent Gormley work.
Fans of The Da Vinci Code will be interested to know that the cathedral’s North transept doubles as the Vatican in the film of the book, but those of a more classical bent will head for the tomb of Jane Austen which can be found in the nave where there is also a stained glass window to her memory.
The novelist died in Winchester on 18 July 1817 and is buried in the cathedral. While in this part of the cathedral, take note of the black font which depicts St. Nicholas of Smyrna giving an old man three bags of gold for his three daughters, said to be the forerunner of the pawnbrokers sign of three golden balls.
Continuing in the footsteps of King Alfred you could then head up the High Street to the Great Hall, all that remains of Winchester castle, and which for 700 years has housed the legendary Round Table. Old it certainly is, and round, but it hangs on a wall where with its red, black and white colouring it resembles an enormous dartboard. According to myth, the original was created by the wizard Merlin, but carbon dating in 1976 proved that this particular table was not made in the Arthurian 6th century but in the 13th, and this use of HyperPhysics sadly put paid to the legend.
The Round Table, High up on the Wall
Just outside the south door of the Great Hall, is Eleanor’s Garden, a re-creation of a medieval herbarium with turf seats and a camomile lawn, named after Eleanor, wife of Henry III, and Eleanor, wife of Edward I. All the plants you see would have been grown in the 13th century, when floral symbols had priority over design. The rose, lily, iris and strawberry plants represent aspects of religion while the greens – the grass, ivy, bay and holly represent faithfulness.
The oldest continuously running school in the country, 14th century Winchester College which became a model for Eton and for King’s College, Cambridge is nearby. You can join a guided tour for an intriguing glimpse into the medieval heart of the college, the 14th century Gothic chapel with its early example of a wooden vaulted roof, the cloisters (where graffiti carved into the stones during the 16th and 17th centuries is still visible) and the original scholars’ dining-room. As a complete contrast, you could later check out medieval Westgate, a fortified gateway which served as a debtors’ prison for 150 years and where prisoners graffiti is also still intact, albeit rather different from that of the scholars!
One expects to find ghosts in most ancient cities and Winchester is no exception. The most famous haunted Inn is The Eclipse in The Square, where the spectre of Alicia Lisle haunts the corridors. Seventy-one years old when she was found guilty of harbouring rebel cavaliers and sentenced to death by Hanging Judge Jeffreys, she spent her last night here in 1685 listening to the scaffold being erected for her hanging.
At the Theatre Royal in Jewry Street, a wandering apparition haunts the dress-circle and gallery looking for her long lost lover while in the 18th century High Street offices formerly occupied by the county newspaper, the rattling chains of a woman dressed in grey has been known to rattle the staff on more than one occasion.
Streams and waterways punctuate the streets of the city giving it a homely atmosphere – especially when you see someone hauling a fine trout out of the river – and the Bikeabout Scheme means that you can tour around for most of the day for the small registration fee of £10. Reflective jackets and helmets are also available.
You don’t need to cycle of course: there is a good transport system from Winchester to the picturesque villages of the Itchen and Meon Valleys, handsome Georgian colour-washed Alresford (pronounced Allsford) for instance, home of the famous Watercress Steam Railway where you can make a childhood dream come true by riding on the footplate. Later, stroll down the town’s elegant streets with their antique shops, and discreet fashion boutiques or along the riverside where the thatched timber-framed Fulling Mill straddles the River Arle. Alresford is the home of watercress farming in the UK, so expect to sample gourmet dishes made of the green stuff – watercress pudding, watercress quiche and even watercress scones with afternoon tea – in smart bistros, tea rooms and old-fashioned pubs like the Wykeham Arms with its award-winning menu.
If there are children in the party, then don’t miss Marwell Zoo. Home to over 200 species of animals and birds, from meerkats to sand cats, and some of the world’s rarest big cats including the Amur leopard and the snow leopard. There are volunteer guides around the park to help visitors and to explain and illustrate the efforts the zoo is making to rehabilitate endangered animals back in their habitat.
And after all that history and ancient stones, Winchester can still surprise you with its pedestrian-friendly streets, colourful markets and exquisite boutiques nestling beside large-scale stores. The High Street – once the Roman’s east-west route through the city – is home to stylish shops with Regency and Elizabethan bow-fronted windows, while The Square offers quaint pubs and restaurants after your exertions, and everywhere you’ll find bronze and stone carvings, many by famous sculptors. It lies just one hour by train from London, 40 minutes from Portsmouth Ferry Terminal, and 15 minutes from Southampton Airport.
Winchester’s a winner, and whether you taste runs to real ale or English wines, pub grub or gourmet dining, Goth outfits to designer chic, you’ll find it all here amidst the quiet stones that hold history’s secrets.
One hundred years ago Milan had a popular Expo when the city was in the forefront of the industrial boom and on its way to becoming Italy’s capital of finance. A century later and it is preparing for Expo 2015 but it can add to these attributes the fact that it is now an international centre of design and fashion to rival Paris, New York and London: and with 191 foreign communities in the city it can be considered one of the most cosmopolitan in Europe.
I’ve just recently returned from Lombardy where the preparations for the upcoming Expo 2015 has the region in a whirl. It will be big, Big, BIG! and it is already attracting unprecedented attention. With one and a half million tickets to the Expo already sold to China, something tells me this is going to beat not only the 1915 Expo but all the others in between. The site for Expo 2015, which is located on the outskirts of Milan, is themed around sustainability and the desire to guarantee everyone in the world a healthy, safe and adequate diet. To this end, many of the Pavilions will be devoted to food that lends itself to this idea and will give Lombardy a chance to show off its rich and fertile land and the produce that the region produces.
Entertainment in many forms is planned but perhaps the most spectacular will be the world famous Cirque du Soleil which is creating a unique show of music and dance taking its cue from “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life” and which will explore and celebrate the elements of culture, tradition, innovation and their relationship with food. Presented nightly, from May 6th to August 23rd, Allavita! will be performed in an open air theatre with a cast of over 50 Italian and international artists.
Of course Lombardy is going all out to showcase its beautiful towns and cities but these need little introduction to those who love food and fashion. When you think fashion you think Milan, the fashion capital of the country. A walk through any of the chic areas like Brera, or through the exclusive boutiques located on the Via Montenapoleone and Via della Spriga,and in the magnificent Galleria Victor Emanuele by the Duomo is an experience dear to the hearts of all fashionistas.
Lombardy’s fine foods and wines stem from the richness of the countryside and the husbandry of the land over many centuries.The feast of flavours that is risotto,osso buco and the casserole dish, cassoeula, accompanied by any one of the 42 wines bearing DOCG, DOC or IGT denomination and superb cheeses such as Taleggio, Pavano, Povolone and Gorgonzola will satisfy the most demanding bon vivant.
Cheeses in Market
Even snacking on antipasti dishes of salami and Parma hams dressed with local olive oils or their special oil flavoured with almonds, is guaranteed to impress.
Culture in Milan
Nor does Milan rely only in fashion and food to keep its visitors happy. That world renowned temple of culture, La Scala Opera House with its seasonal repertoire of ballets, operas and concerts, has just had an upgrade and now its acoustics and level of comfort rival any major opera house. For more experimental performances, film festivals and lectures, the first permanent theatre in Italy, the Piccolo of Milan which is an institution in itself, is where it all happens..
The immense Gothic Duomo of Milan deserves that must used and abused word, awesome, and if you take the lift to the first roof and the winding steps to the top from there, the view is magnificent. Stories of its construction are legendary but experts agree that work on it started round about 1386 and continued until the 19th century, leading to the phrase for a long awaited item “took as long as the Duomo”.
It’s a cliche I know, but one has to say that the jewel in Milan’s crown is undoubtedly Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, the exquisite fresco that even in its faded state, has a glory and a grandeur that draws one in to the scene. This fresco is housed in the refectory of the Renaissance gem that is the Convento of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Leonardo spent more than 20 years in Milan and there are various spots around the city which have connections to him, one being the innovative system of canal locks at the Alzaia del Naviglio Grande which were the first examples of hydraulic engineering in Lombardy and were partly conceived by him.
Worth visiting at night for the party atmosphere – BoHo Milano as it’s called – this area from dusk till after midnight is a world of party people strolling along canals lit by sidewalk lamps and the neon signs of the bars, cafes and restaurants that line the waterside.
Cremona: Violin Making Centre of Italy
Not far from Milan is Cremona, the cultural centre of Lombardy and important in Italy’s cultural life since Roman times. The narrow streets of the city are rich in history, the red brick medieval towers and the Renaissance buildings offering shade to the grateful Cremonese during the heat of summer. It is also the birthplace of the violin, the most famous centre in the world for the production of stringed instruments since 1566, when Andrea Amati invented the instrument based on the medieval viol. His grandson, Nicolo Amati, and his pupils Antonio Stradivari and Guiseppe Guarneri, then went on to make the best violins in history, but it is to the violin master of all time, Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) that the city owes its fame. The great man is reputed to have made 1,100 stringed instruments, mostly violins, over half of which are still in existence and which today sell for millions of dollars – when they come on the market.
The heirs to the great masters are today alive and well and I was lucky enough to be invited to visit the studio of one, Stefano Conia, a 42 year old master violin maker as was his father and grandfather before him, and I watched as he shaved the wood, varnished the violins and mixed the glues for instruments he was working on. Most luthiers produce only 10-12 instruments per year, most being commissioned and costing upwards of £12,000 each.
The Museum del Violin
Opened in 2013 this exhibition and concert hall is a stunning venue, displaying the magic and mystique of the stringed instruments in walk through sections that display the history of the violin. In the Museo Civico there is a world-renowned collection of more than 60 stringed instruments, early guitars, mandolins and lutes, the beautifully decorated violins of Amati and the inlaid masterpieces of Stradivari in ten rooms each one dedicated to a specific period.
On most days one can hear a short performance played on one of the violins from the collection by one of the young musicians from the Foundation, musicians at the very top of their profession. To hear Meditation from Thais by Massinet played on a 1727 Vesusius Stradivarius as I did, is something just short of magical.
What to See and Do Beyond the Museums
In the streets and piazzas you will find links to both Cremona’s commercial and cultural past, whether it’s the bronze statues of Stradivari in the Piazza of the same name, the house in Corso Garibaldi where he lived and worked from 1667 to 1680, the replica of his tombstone in the Piazza Roma, or the statue to the equally famous Claudio Monteverdi in Piazza Lodi.
Moneverdi, born in Cremona in 1576, wrote one of the world’s first full-scale operas, L’Orfeo, in 1607 and received his first musical training at the Duomo which no one visiting Cremona should fail to visit. The XVlll Ponchielli Theatre, only the third opera house to be built in Italy was named in honour of the Cremonese operatic composer Ponchielli who wrote his first symphony at the age of ten. Best known today as the composer of La Giaconda (Dance of the Hours) which as well as being a well-known ballet featured in the Disney film Fantasia half a century ago.
If it’s summer there is lots to do on the river, boating, excursions, canoeing etc., and if you have a few days to spare you can rent a floating houseboat and go right down to Venice, or next door to Padua for instance.
Expo 2015 will bring many more tourists to the towns and villages surrounding Milan – Cremona, Mantua and Padua. The food in this part of Lombardy is particularly wholesome and the slow-cooking revolution is growing fast. Hotels are plentiful and good but special mention should be made of the Agriturismo movement which has thrown up some superb b & bs in and around the towns where the food is produced, usually organically, on the farm stay.
Tourist Boards will be happy to help with addresses and ‘phone numbers and a useful website for information on what to see and do in Cremona during the Expo period:
The official tourist website of Milan and Lombardy containing information, updates, descriptions, images and videos about the beauties of the area,as well as a range of proposals of travel, accommodation and services offered by Lombardy.
Hotel recommendations in Milan and Cremona area:
Milan: 4* Anderson Hotel: http://www.starhotels.com/en/our-hotels/anderson-milan/
Once the centre of worship in Western Islam, the Mesquita in Cordoba, Spain, with its glorious exterior golden walls, is considered one of the architectural wonders of the world. Red and white striped arches as far as the eye can see, each one seemingly different, create patterns that leave one enchanted. More bizarre however, is the Catholic Church plonked down in the centre of the mosque, something which alone qualifies it as a most unusual place.
Originally built on the site of the Basilica of St Vincent the Martyr, a 6th century Visigothic church, then becoming a mosque and latterly a church (in use today) one can look down on the remains of the earlier building through a glass panel set in the floor, reminding us that this edifice has been owned and operated by 3 religious houses at different times.
From 785 when the Caliphate was powerful in the Iberian peninsula until the sack of the Moors in the 13th century, the Mesquita grew grander and larger under each succeeding Caliph but during all that time, all religions lived side by side in harmony, each sharing their knowledge of geometry, philosophy, algebra and other intellectual disciplines.
Caliph Abderramán 1 built the great hall in which there are 110 columns the capitals of which came from old Roman and Byzantine buildings Above this there is a second row of arches which creates a wonderful effect. Eight more arches were added in 833 by Abderramán II, the minaret, Mahrab and the Kliba in 962 by Alakem II. The mosque was doubled in size in 987 when Caliph Alamanzor added blue and red marble pillars and today the total of these endeavours is truly wondrous.
It is our good luck that the Christian conquerors didn’t destroy this magnificent building as they did so many others, but choose to place their church, consecrated in 1236, inside the walls of the mosque. This bizarre placing of one religious house inside another is just one of the things that makes the Cordoba Mezquita so unusual. Against the austerity of the pillars of the mosque, the chapels full of gold and silver decoration, statues of the Madonna, marble-swathed tombs and heavy wooden carved choirster stalls, stand out defiantly but somehow, the spellbinding beauty and simplicity of the arches puts the flamboyance of the christian church in the shade.
Florence is a place where art, culture, food and wine come together to create a city close to perfection. A medieval maze of ochre-coloured houses with the River Arno gliding beneath the ageless Ponte Vecchio, and Michaelangelo’s magnificent David dominating the Piazza della Signoria.
Florentines talk of the Stendhal Syndrome, a reaction to the city’s overwhelming beauty and romanticism that caused the writer Stendahl to swoon at the splendour of Santa Croce.
It takes a stretch of the imagination to accept that in this technological 21st century, doctors are still reporting cases of sensitive souls fainting through the sheer emotion of viewing the Duomo, the Baptistry, and the treasures of the Uffizi. But speak to those who live there and they will assure you that this is the case.
There is an unreality about Florence that causes the visitor to surrender sensible feelings and give in to a lightness of spirit. On a spring or summer evening, the city resembles an elaborate film set, and if the luscious Helen Bonham Carter were to stroll into view shading her fair skin with a parasol, it would not appear surprising.
The glittering cast of characters that inhabit Renaissance history can be imagined strolling through the piazzas and along the banks of the Arno – Dante and his Beatrice, Donatello, Dante, Brunelleschi, Botticelli, and of course the towering giants Michaelangelo and Leonardo.
No city on earth has so much art and architecture packed into such a small space, but not everyone has time to visit, or even wants to visit, the museums and galleries. Don’t fret about it, the city is a living museum and the streets and alleyways, the exteriors of the beautiful churches, the gardens, markets and outdoor statuary may be enough – the important thing is to experience Florence your way.
The true heart of the city is the Piazza della Signoria, centre of political activity since the Middle Ages. It was here that the monk Savanarola burned the books in the Bonfire of the Vanities and where he himself was burned at the stake in 1530, where the people of Florence proclaimed the return of the Medici from their own exile, and where in the 19th century Robert and Elizabeth Browning took hot chocolate on cold winter nights during their exile from England (their favourite cafe is still there serving hot coffee and chocolate).
Towering over the café-filled Piazza is the imposing Palazzo Vecchio which has remained virtually unchanged since it was built in 1299-1302, and still functions as the town hall. Outside is a massive marble copy of Michaelangelo’s David and if you don’t want to join the queues to see the original statue in the Galleria dell’Accademia, then this copy is as near perfect as you will get: more to the point, it places the statue where the artist originally meant it to stand.
Donatello’s exquisite, androgynous David is in the Uffizi Gallery just a few steps away and this must be seen too, if only to compare it with Michaelangelo’s monumental figure.
The wise visitor to the city will do as the Florentines do and spend time leisurely enjoying an espresso or an aperitivo, watching the world go by while deciding how to spend the day. Subtle and sedentary moments like this are essential if one is to survive the sightseeing marathon that Florence’s many attractions make necessary.
Fortunately, Florence is a compact city and you will pass and re-pass the most famous sights more than once as you stroll through the streets, contemplate nature in the Gardino di Boboli, Italy’s most visited garden, and marvel at the finest Renaissance sculptures in the Bargello, the oldest seat of government surviving in Florence and the place from which Dante’s banishment was proclaimed.
If Dante were to return to Florence today, much of the city would be familiar to him. El Duomo, one of the city’s oldest and most famous buildings and the building that broke all the rules when Brunelleschi designed it, is visible from virtually everywhere in Florence but the best view of it is from Giotto’s bell tower, Il Campanile, beside the Cathedral.
Brunellechi’s great rival was Lorenzo Ghiberti, who was responsible for the Baptistry Doors, the epitome of Renaissance art and before which one can stand for hours reading the story portrayed in bronze.
The East Door is considered his masterpiece, but again, these are not the originals: the originals are housed in the Museo dell’Opera dell’Duomo.
Away from the magnificence of its art and architecture, Florence is a shoppers’ paradise, the three big names being Emilio Pucci, Salvatore Ferragamo and Gucci who help keep alive the art of the Italian designers in this fashion conscious town. For goods with durability but exquisite design, visit the San Spirito neighbourhood where artisans still tool intricate designs on leather, and woodcarvers painstakingly apply whisper-thin layers of gold leaf to wooden statues.
At the other end of the spectrum is the Piazza Santa Croce, where the less wealthy Florentines go to shop for moderately priced goods and if you want to get up close and personal with the locals, head for San Lorenzo Market where the stalls sell everything from crafts to food.
Everyone, at least once, strolls across the Ponte Vecchio, the inimitable bridge near the site of the Roman crossing of the Arno which, from the 16th century until the late 19th, had been the place to shop for Florence’s spectacular jewellery. Today the array of shops can only be considered disappointing: much better to experience the romance of the bridge from the riverside.
Looking at it from a cafe or a gelateria below the bridge places it firmly in the Renaissance world, away from the tourists that crowd the shops selling cheap jewellery and trinkets. In the early evening when the sun is just about to set, look towards the bridge and imagine, if you will, Dante, Boccaccio, Machiavelli, or members of the Medici family, strolling across the bridge to visit the famous goldsmiths who carried on their trade there, their brilliantly coloured cloaks standing out against the blue sky and the distant Tuscan hills.
And after hours of Giottos and Ghilbertis, piazzos and palazzos, make sure you do as the Florentines do, sit at a sidewalk cafe and have a gelato or an espresso. The best time for this is during the passeggiata, the stylised evening parade beloved of the Italians, when the object is to see and be seen.
The centre for all this is on Piazza della Signoria, so grab a seat at one of the cafes there and, for a couple of hours at least, be wholeheartedly self-indulgent.