Category Archives: Italy

Towns, cities, historical sites, music, art and architecture in Italy.

Syracuse – The Other Bits

After my earlier Post on the Greek and Roman theatres in Syracuse, I thought I’d like to show you a few of the more colourful parts of the city.   I hope you’ll enjoy the photographs that follow of the transparent seas around the island, Piazza Archimede and its magnificent fountain, the food market, a few more ruins – for how could one not include them as they are part of the street furniture.

Just to recap.  In the 5th century, when Dionysus reigned, Syracuse was one of the biggest and most powerful cities in the Mediterranean, embellished by gardens, fountains, palaces and temples.   Plato called it “an ideal city”, one of enormous military power capable of withstanding the might of Athens and Carthage. 

Today, what remains of those days of glory, is preserved and presented to the visitor with pride, not hidden away or wrapped in cotton wool, but open to all who wish to, literally, enjoy touching the past, like the Temple of Apollo right in the middle of the city by the market-place.

With your back to the sea, you can walk either straight ahead to the old town and the Duomo, or to the left through the Porto Marina and into the old town and Ortygia.  Either way, strolling around Syracuse at your leisure is sheer pleasure.

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Although the image of the fishermen mending their nets is captioned, I hope you notice the massive cruise ship in the background, the old and the new side by side, the old struggling to make a living, the new a disaster, or a dividend to a city?  The jury is still out on that one in Sicily.

As you leave the ruins of the 7th-century Temple of Apollo you will find yourself in the Corso Matteotti with its 14th-century Greek palace, and from here it is a short walk to the Piazza Archimede, opened in 1878 and dedicated to the Greek mathematics and physics genius, Archimedes (287-212 BC), and one of Syracuse’s most illustrious sons.   

In the centre of the Piazza is the beautiful Artemis Fountain by Giulio Moschetti (1906) dedicated to Diana the goddess of the Hunt (Diana was the Roman name of the Goddess, Artemis the Greek).  Appalled by the erotic pursuit of Alpheus the river god, Arethusa had asked the Goddess Diana for help: Diana then transformed Arethusa into a fountain which emerged on the nearby island of Ortygia, the core and oldest part of the Sicilian city, where you will find the spring named after Arethusa.  In the fountain, Alpheus peers from behind the goddess while the nymph is about to slip into the water below where, as the tale goes, she will blend with the stream before re-emerging in Ortygia.  Charging horses, Tritons and nymphs splash in the waters of the fountain and a good hour can be spent just walking around the admiring the work.

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 If you choose to go through the Porta Marina you will find yourself surrounded by fading Baroque Villas and Palaces facing the sea and hidden in the narrow alleyways, secretive dwellings with shades of a once glorious past still clinging to them.  Along this long, narrow promenade you will pass the Church of the Holy Spirit which is worth a visit if time allows (but remember you have the Duomo and Santa Lucia alle Badia to explore as well).

Despite the lack of beach facilities the area around here is popular with swimmers, and often you will see people diving off the rocks into the near transparent waters or sunbathing in what looks like dangerous places along this rocky foreshore.  

There is another church right by the Duomo, often missed by visitors because of the wonderful golden-coloured Duomo with its complex history which stands beside it, and this is the Santa Lucia alla Badia church which houses The Burial of Santa Lucia by Caravaggio, above the altar.  Caravaggio had arrived in Messina from Malta in December 1608 where he was commissioned to paint the Burial of Santa Lucia for the church of the same name: he completed this in less than a month.

It is difficult to see this picture because the church is kept fairly dark – I presume to preserve the painting – and no photography is allowed.  

And with all the sight-seeing, don’t forget to stop occasionally for a snack at one of the many good cafes and restaurants around (very much cheaper in the modern part of the city, by the way), and make sure to have an ice-cream and that Sicilian favourite, a Granita.

 

 

 

SYRACUSE, SICILY

My recent trip to Syracuse gave me lots of material for posts but as I have written before about this Sicilian city I thought that this time I would hone in on the Archaeological Park of Neapolis which holds Syracuse’s most important Greek and Roman remains.  The Park covers approximately 240 square metres and the Greek and Roman periods are divided by a green, tranquil oasis in the midst of the ruins, called Viale Paradiso.

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Between the two cultures, through the Viale Paradaiso.

The Park came into being between 1952 and 1955 with the idea of bringing together all the monuments, pillars and stones which previously had been located on various private properties and were not accessible to the public.  The result has been an outstanding success.

The Roman part dates back to the 3rd century AD and the Amphitheatre (seen below) is the largest in Sicily at 140 x 190 metres, and it is recorded that the first performance of Aeschylus’ Etnean Women was performed here in 476 BC.  To avoid this turning into a history lesson, I shall leave the images, with captions, to speak for themselves.

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The Roman Amphitheatre which originally had a pool in the centre. Gladiators and animals entered from tunnels left and right.

Not only was the amphitheatre used for drama: political life was played out here too, especially the assemblies in which all citizens participated.

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One of the tunnels through which the animals and gladiators would have entered the amphitheatre.
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Part of the Roman remains at the Archeological Park of Syracuse, Sicily.

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The Greek Theatre has more to offer in the way of remains (but excavations are still ongoing on the Roman side), possibly because it is mostly carved from the rock and is in a certain sense permanent and incapable of being seriously damaged.  There are 8 stairways to the top of the theatre with various walkways running along the seats.  At the top is a rectangular terrace sculpted from the rock dating back to when it was first built. 

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Cave of the Nymphaeum

Caves and niches in the walls of the terrace would suggest offerings to honour the Gods or the Heroes, the above Cave of the Nymphaeum being one of them.  This 6-metre deep cave takes its name from the large basin covered with a vaulted ceiling in which a small waterfall tumbles originating from a branch of the ancient Greek aqueduct.  Statues discovered of the Muses dating from the 2nd-century BC are now on display in the Regional Archeological Museum.  

 

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The Spanish carried off much of the remains in the 16th century but what is left is still impressive

The Ear of Dionysius

Possibly the most interesting and popular sites in the Park.  While this looks like a natural cave it is really the result of tons of material having been extracted from the quarry of which it was a part, over many centuries.  The large cave known as the Ear of Dionysius is 65 metres long and 501 metres wide, narrowing towards the top.  The name was given to it by the painter Caravaggio who visited in the 17th century (and whose painting of St. Lucia hangs in the small church by the Duomo) and who thought its shape resembled that of a human ear.  Popular tradition has it that the cave had been used by a local tyrant to imprison his enemies whose whispers he could hear from the small opening at the top.  I like this version.  Myths are always more fascinating than facts.

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Another view of the Cave of the Nymphaeum

Castelmola, Sicily – Medieval Village

From the natural terrace built around the ruins of a Norman castle, you have a spectacular view of the Ionian coast, majestic Etna, Taormina, the Bay of Giardini-Naxos, the straits of Messina, and the Calabrian coast:  on a clear day you can even see way beyond Catania, as far as Syracuse.  You are nearly 2,000 feet above sea level, you are in Castelmola in Sicily.

Castelmoro from below

Part of the attraction of Castelmola is gazing up at it from Taormina (as in the featured photo taken from the main square in Taormina,  and above from another part of the town) and wondering how on earth you can get up there.  It looks like the top of the world, this tiny village perched on a craggy hilltop above Taormina.  Not so long ago the village was inaccessible, visited only by a few intrepid travellers who hiked up the seriously uphill mountain paths for about 90 minutes, or drove up the curving, almost perpendicular road, to the top.  Nowadays a bus makes the 15-minute journey every hour from Taormina and things are changing, although slowly.

 

The result of this remoteness is that the people of the village have kept their dialect, their customs and their lives entirely to themselves.

Casteldemoro

Founded in the 8th century BC it was first conquered by the Greeks and afterwards by Saracens and its interesting mix of customs and traditions reflect this history.  The entrance to the village is marked by an ancient arch of Greek-Roman origin, built in 900 BC, and this dominates the Piazza S. Antonino, the main square of the village.  In earlier times the entry was through a gate carved into the rock which was moved to the front of the castle in 1927.

 

This relatively modern Piazza Sant’Antonio, built in 1954, is one of the main squares of the town and attracts the local elders who like to sit on the benches in the square to watch the village activity and the arrival and departure of the buses.  From this Piazza of white and black lava stone, bordered by a white balustrade and tree-lined sidewalks, there is a panoramic view of Taormina, its town, beaches and islands.

 

From the Piazza, roads lead off to other parts of the village, every corner offering more spectacular views whether it’s over the velvety green mountains with their trails delineated as though someone had poured them in swirling patterns on the slopes or the craggy peaks of the barren side.  The street names, numbers and signs are locally crafted in stone and wrought iron, and the pastel-coloured houses range from palest primrose to sky blues and apple greens.  In fact, it is a typical Sicilian village, better preserved than most, as it has not lost all its inhabitants as have most of those in the interior of the island.

 

That said, a fair number of the inhabitants depart in the winter for the slightly warmer temperature along the coast but during the rest of the year, they man the restaurants, bars and lace and embroidery shops for which the village is famed.

One of the most famous and most eccentric attractions is the Turrisi Bar which has a bizarre display of phalluses in wood, clay and ceramic – a sign of abundance and a good omen as per the Hellenic tradition – in every size, from large stone sculptures to bathroom taps, paintings and wooden carvings.  This ancient emblem of fertility is celebrated here in flamboyant style, and among the gifts available from the shop is the locally produced almond wine in phallic-shaped bottles, referred to, of course, as the “elixir of love”.

As so often in Sicily one passes from the profane to the sacred in the blink of an eye and in just a few steps you arrive at the Cathedral which dates back to the 16th century (rebuilt in 1935), known otherwise as the Church of St. Nicholas of Bari, in the Piazza Duomo. There isn’t a lot to hold your attention here but it has a rather beautiful pulpit and a wooden statue of Mary Magdalene which, I am told, is of the school of Bagnasco.   I confess I had no knowledge of this sculptor but I found a reference to one Rosario Bagnasco who worked mainly in wood, and who was active mainly in Palermo, so I presume it is his work. Looking towards the Bell Tower Before you leave, look to the beautiful bell tower which offers a wonderful frame for a photograph of Mount Etna in the distance behind it.

CASTEL DEL MOLA

So if you find yourself with a day, or even a half day to spare when you are in Taormina, or if you want to see one of Sicily’s loveliest medieval villages, then be sure to visit Castelmola where you will find narrow streets and quiet solitude in a community of just over one thousand residents.  In fact, if you visit out of season and find your way up the mountain to Castelmola you may feel that you have the entire town to yourself.

 

 

 

Rain in Sicily

Marooned in my very nice hotel in Syracuse where it has rained now for 3 days.  And when I say rain, I mean torrential rain falling from the sky non-stop.  As most of what I’ve come here to see is outdoors, like the Roman and Greek theatres, that’s not good news, although I did manage some of the smaller sights before the deluge.  I’ve been here before so it’s not too bad for me but my travelling companion is very disappointed.

We were luckier in Taormina where, although we had heavy rain there too, we managed on the good days to do the essential sights.

To those bloggers with whom I usually keep in touch this is the reason for my silence.

To compound matters I left my ‘phone in the security section at the airport (now awaiting collection when I get back), my IPad locked me out, and as I can’t retrieve its text code on my mobile OR landline, it asked me the usual security questions like mother’s maiden name, first pet and first school: no probs.  Then it asked me when I opened my Google Account!  Can anyone remember when they opened theirs?  So I’m still locked out.

I always carry my little Kindle in my pocket for convenience and it has been my saviour.  It never asked me daft security questions and it just logged on to the hotel internet like a pro. when I remembered this morning that it also does emails.  WordPress needed my password which I couldn’t remember so it I’ve had to get another, but that’s OK, I’m online now and have read a few blogs.

I don’t think I can upload photos though, so will not be posting until I’m home again.

Meantime, here’s to the Kindle, much better value for money in my opinion, and a definite thumbs down for the IPad.  This is the second time the IPad has done this to me so I should have known better than to rely on it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Palermo: Caravaggio to be Returned?

You may remember that when I wrote about the Serpotta Stuccoes, I mentioned that the Caravaggio masterpiece, Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence, had been stolen from the altar of the Oratorio and that the replacement painting was not something one could really admire.

I was more than pleased, therefore, to read in The Guardian a few days ago, that there are hopes that the painting may be recovered soon as Italian investigators have received information that the painting, which was stolen in 1969, could be hidden in Switzerland.  The head of Italy’s anti-mafia commission last Thursday said that the information came from a former mobster-turned-informant who revealed that it had once been held by Gaetano Badalamenti, a ‘capo di capo’ (boss of bosses).  The informant told the mafia investigators that Badalamenti (who has since died in America where he had been convicted of heroin trafficking) had been in touch with an art dealer in Switzerland.

To have this masterpiece returned to the Oratorio of San Lorenzo would be something wondrous for the people of Palermo, as when the criminals stole the painting by cutting it from its frame with razorblades everyone presumed it was lost forever.

Rosy Bindi, the head of Italy’s anti-mafia commission, told The Guardian that they have collected enough evidence to launch a new investigation and to request the collaboration of foreign authorities, especially those in Switzerland.

Leoluca Orlando, mayor of Palermo, who has helped Palermo transform itself from a  stronghold of the mafia to a European Capital of Culture, said that the city was no longer dominated by mobsters and godfathers, that it has changed and now demands the return of everything the mafia had stolen from it.

The return of this painting to the Oratorio will be an event to be celebrated throughout Sicily.  I hope it happens soon.

Meantime, here are a few of the pictures of the 16th-century stuccoes from the Oratorio that I originally posted.

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Photo Challenge: Face in the Crowd

 

Like many people, I hesitate to photograph people without their knowledge.  Sometimes, if the mood is right, I ask permission, but then the people invariably strike poses or give an embarrassed smile for the camera.  So, the few I have are usually street scenes or action scenes.  Some I feel I couldn’t display publicly as they could be misinterpreted, have vulnerable children in them, or are otherwise not suitable.   Below are some I hope fit the challenge and I have captioned them.

Street scene, Tokyo
Tokyo’s Busiest Intersection at a Quiet Time

 

Street Barber in Hanoi, Vietnam
A Street Barber in Hanoi

 

Sicilian Afternoon
A Sicilian Afternoon – a Male only custom!

 

Asleep-on-the-boat,-Vietnam
Siesta on the Boat: a Trader takes a rest in Halong Bay, Vietnam

 

 

 

 

 

Serpotta’s Stucco in Palermo

Palermo is this year’s Italian City of Culture.  The city has stunning architecture, beautiful churches and art that is equal to that in many other parts of Italy, but for me, Palermo’s gem is the baroque Oratory of the Rosario in Santa Cita.

My favourite putti
The Playful Putti

Tucked away in a back street of the capital, this exuberant masterpiece is often overlooked as one stumbles from one opulent Baroque creation to the next in this very theatrical city.  The flamboyance is all inside the building, because the Oratory, by its nature, had to be simple.  Perhaps that is why it is often missed by visitors to Palermo.

Cherub from Serpotta's stuccoes

I first saw the Oratorio on the 1912 BBC series Unpacking Sicily, presented by art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon and chef Giorgio Locatelli.  As the presenters walked us into a room whose walls were covered with sparkling white putti climbing and curling around pillars, playing with and teasing the allegorical statues I fell in love with the place.  It seemed to me to be redolent of joy and happiness as the impossibly round and naked infants cavorted along the walls oblivious to saints or sinners.

Notice the devil above the statue
Two allegorical figures sit ledges while all around are figures, faces, leaves, fruit.

Giacomo Serpotta (1652-1732) the Sicilian artist responsible for the interior of the Oratory was a sculptor of genius whose work in stucco* produced a very distinctive style. His work was already sited all over Palermo when he was commissioned in 1699 to transform the Oratorio and according to art historian Anthony Blunt, he was provided with an artistically complex iconographical plan for the oratory.

In his use of stucco, he created a new art form.   Sacheverell Sitwell, who considered his female figures to be the equivalent of those in portraits by Gainsborough, states that the sculptor lifted a minor art “out of itself into an eminence of its own”.

Icons

One of three Oratorios (the others being San Dominico and Santa Zita a few metres away) the Oratorio of San Lorenzo is a masterpiece of Sicilian Baroque.   The artist worked on this interior between 1698 and 1710, and apart from the cavorting, mischievous cherubs, it features a series of 10 symbolic statues, plus panels detailing the lives of Christ, the lives of St. Francis and St. Lawrence, and one that tells the story of the Battle of Lepanto.

Of extraordinary elegance, white swathes of stucco supported by a swarm of putti flow over the walls;  life-size allegorical figures sit casually on ledges as though at a picnic while cherubs play with the draperies of their skirts and blow kisses, and a cornucopia of fruit and flowers adds joy to the scenes.

End Wall of Oratory.
The Battle of Lepanto panel. Below the ship sit two boys, one Christian and a victor, the other an Infidel and a loser in the battle, but they are alike in their sorrow.

Above Lepanto scene - one cherub foot missing, one crying, one supporting
A less-happy trio of cherubs, one has already lost a foot, one is supporting him and one is crying.

These could be today's urchins in Palermo
These could be today’s urchins from the streets around Palermo, clothes, stance, everything. In the middle the detritis of war.

The Battle of Lepanto is the panel in front of which people stand for a long time absorbing the detail of the battle, the virgin protecting the fleet, the stormy seas, and the two boys sitting on the edge of the panel, one Christian and one infidel, who resemble in every way – even down to their clothes – the street urchins one can still see playing in the streets of Palermo.

Centrepiece on a wall

The 16th century Battle of Lepanto was the largest naval battle since antiquity and the last major engagement fought between more than 400 rowing vessels.  A fleet of the Holy League, a coalition of European Catholic maritime states of which the Venetian and Spanish Empires were the main powers, inflicted a major defeat on the Ottoman Empire in the Gulf of Patras.   Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, was one of those injured in the battle.

I think it fair to say that Serpotta displays in this work, an anti-war sentiment, or if not anti-war then a compassion for the enemy unusual at that time.

Window wall with playing cherubs

The altar in the Oratory is disappointing after the sheer gorgeousness of the walls.  It was originally famous because it held a masterpiece by the great Caravaggio, a Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence (1609),  but this was stolen in 1969.  It has never been recovered despite a massive reward being offered.  It is presumed that the theft was the work of the Sicilian Mafia and the latest rumour is that it was shredded and fed to pigs.

In 2015 a rather poor digital copy of the altarpiece was placed in the vacant space but it cannot be considered even a good copy.

And now I’ll let the pictures fill in the gaps.

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*Stucco: The artist first constructed a model using frames of wood, wire and rags, held together by sand and lime. Over the model a mix of lime and plaster was applied, to which marble dust was added to achieve the smooth surface glaze,  This was the invention that lifted Stucco to a higher level and Giacomo Serpotta is credited with creating an original technique that imparted to his work a lustre, not unlike that of stone or marble.  Great skill and dexterity were needed as plaster mix dried very quickly but it was valued as it allows the artist not only to build up forms but to carve into them as well.

Address:  Via Immacolatella, 90133, Palermo.    Tel: 0921 582370

Majolica – Made in Faenza, Italy

Becky’s lovely Tavira vase post reminded me of the beautiful ceramics we saw a few years ago on a trip to Faenza in Italy, the town between Bologna and Florence which produces work of great originality from old, traditional, designs and occasional new designs.  These ceramics go by different names, depending on who is speaking about them: sometimes they are called Majolica ware, and sometimes they are called Faience, the French word for the ceramic, and the word from which the town derives its name.

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Faenza has been a flourishing city from the 2nd century AD; from the 11th century it started to really expand and grow and by the Renaissance period it had reached its peak, thanks to good relations with nearby Florence, the centre of Italian artistic life.  The city we see today with fine Renaissance architecture and Neo-classical monuments is a testament to this period of prosperity and growth.  P1090225

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Faenza majolica was born here because the land was rich in the type of clay needed for the production of fine pottery and because the inhabitants were able to mould the clay into beautiful objects.  Over the years the craftsmen absorbed the knowledge flowing from Florence and became experts in shape and line as they perfected the pottery and became artists.

Crowns, crowns and more crowns - a very popular subject
Crowns are one of the most popular objects and are very traditional

Majolica is terracotta clay, glazed with powder and water which makes the object waterproof and gives it a high gloss surface on which traditional designs are painted.  Sometimes the object is fired twice to give it strength and sometimes it is baked in a plaster cast which is then broken to expose the piece.

Crowns awaiting embellishment

The designs are etched on to the glaze, or sometimes the object is covered in paper on which pin-pricks are made, after which black coal-dust is used to stamp the lines through the pin-pricks – a form of stencilling.  Precious metals are also used and this makes the object more expensive, of course, as gold, silver and platinum need 3 firings and to be heated to 750 degrees.

Birthing set - for the new mother after baby is born
This set is given to a woman when she gives birth. It is for her first meal and includes a soup-bowl, egg-cups, plates, teapot etc.

One of the expert painters works on a design

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ceramic Plaque on Wall in Faenza

This is the sign for the oldest workshop in Faenza

Crowns are a very popular subject

In September and October international contemporary and classical ceramic art events draw majolica amateurs, collectors and artists to Faenza from all over the world.

This 'silver' decoration is pure platinum
The ‘silver’ stripe is actually platinum and the vase was priced at €1,400.

The ceramics alone make the trip to Faenza worthwhile and there are over 50 workshops most of which welcome visitors – look for the signs outside the shops (see one above).

However, Faenza is also a town of outstanding artistic and architectural features, two beautiful squares in Renaissance style, elegant arcaded streets, palaces, a 15th-century cathedral and an 18th-century theatre add to the aesthetic enjoyment while the food is superb.

Not to be missed:   The magnificent Museo Internazionale delle Ceramiche in Faenza has some of the world’s most beautiful pieces of majolica from every epoch and from all over the world, including a section dedicated to pottery from the Renaissance period.

A very expensive group of ceramics
Most items here are expensive.  For example,  the animal skin ceramic tea set was €400.

FOOTNOTE=

A ‘Majolica line’ can be traced from Faenza to the UK, through the centuries right up to the nineteenth when the technique of tin and lead glazing was further developed in London and Brighton before moving to Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire.   Herbert Minton’s porcelain factory in Stoke on Trent was already quite famous when, Leon Arnoux, the great French ceramic chemist joined it in 1841 to help regenerate the production of lead-glazed pottery based on Renaissance designs.

These early pieces were destined for English gardens as the lead glaze protected urns, fountains, garden seats and ornaments from the English weather.  Minton then used the same process for their fast-growing trade in culinary dishes, each piece descriptive of the food that would be served on it, oyster plates, fish platters crab, lobster and sardine boxes,  and game dishes showing rabbit, partridge, pheasant and quail.

(I have seen references to the effect that the word Majolica refers to the fact that the goods were first exported to Majorca and then re-imported,  It seems plausible but I haven’t been able to ascertain that this is, in fact, where the word came from).

 

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Orta San Giulio, Italian Lake town

One of the prettiest towns on Lake Orta, it charms with its pebble-studded lanes and stepped alleys branching off from Piazza Motta, the long narrow street behind the lakeshore with its wonderful selection of traditional food shops.  Rising high above it is the Monte Sacro (Sacred Mountain), a destination for pilgrims who come to pray at the many chapels on the hill.

Sitting facing the waters of the lake, shaded by chestnut trees and serenaded by the birds, I drank in the panoramic view of the tiny, but beautiful, Island of San Giulio which sits in the middle of the lake (which I had visited the previous day) and wondered if this perhaps, wasn’t the most beautiful spot along the lakes.

Isla-San-Giulio
Taken from top of Sacra Monte © Solange Hando

The town is a typical Italian town, narrow streets lined with ochre-coloured houses from which jutted wrought-iron balconies hung with geraniums and ferns.  The buildings date mainly from the 17th and 18th century but behind the main square, Piazza Motta, there are some dating back to medieval times.  These you will see if you make the climb up to the parish church of Santa Maria Assunta and to the SacroMonte.

 

There are small baroque palaces here and there with open galleries, pergolas and flower-filled balconies as well as hidden courtyards behind wrought-iron gates through which can be glimpsed lush vegetation.   On the corner of the square stands the little Palazzo della Comunita which bears the coat of arms of the lake communities that took part in its construction in the 11th century.

I have to confess that I didn’t make the trip to the top of the hill to visit the Santa Maria Assunta church.  The pebble-stoned pavements were very difficult to walk on, but when I got halfway up and turned to look around, my old friend vertigo decided to pay me a visit and I was halted in my steps and had to be helped down again!  Luckily, my friend and fellow-traveller, Solange Hando, was able to continue to the top and she has kindly allowed me to use some of the photographs she took from the top.

The-Vertigo-Inducing-steep-street-down-from-Santa-Maria-Assunto
Very Steep pebbled stoned street from Sacro Monte

The Sacro Monte’s most important building is the Sanctuary which is made up of 20 chapels built between 1591 and 1757, differing in style but blending well into the natural surroundings.  Originally it was intended to erect 30 chapels which would narrate the life of St. Francis of Assisi, but in the end only 20 were built.   The interior of the chapels are decorated with frescoes and sculptures most of which are the work of the early 17th century Milanese painters, Giovanni Battista, Giovanni Mauro della Rovere, Giovanni d’Enrico, and the sculptor Christoforo Prestinari.  In all, there are estimated to be 900 frescoes in the complex.

Santa-Maria-Assunta
Church of Santa Maria Assunta

I was sorry not to have seen these frescoes and to have missed walking in the tranquillity of this remarkable site, but perhaps another year I may have more luck.

Under-the-Chestnut-Trees-looking-Across-to-Isla-San-Giulio
Under the Spreading Chestnut Trees Looking Across to Isla San Giulio © Solange Hando

Meantime, here are some photographs of this beautiful town, and the food shops piled high with mushrooms of every type, truffles, olive oils, balsamic vinegars (I saw one priced at over £100), and breads of every shape and taste.

 

Isla-San-Giulio-taken-from-the-top-of-Monte-Sacro-by-Solange-Hando.
© Solange Hando

Lake Orta’s Walk of Silence & Meditation

It’s not a walk around Lake Orta, but rather a walk around the small Isola San Giulio (St. Julius’s island) a short boat ride from the town of the same name on the lake.  I have to confess it’s not up there with Jo’s Monday Walk, as it takes no more than ten minutes to walk around the entire island.  That said, I spent forty minutes on the walk as I stopped often to listen to the sounds and to think about the words printed on plaques high up on the walls in phrases like “Listen to the silence” and “The Walls are in your Mind”.

The Silent Way (2)

Lake Orta is one of the prettiest lakes in Northern Italy, as far from the touristy Lake Como as it’s possible to be, and San Giulio is possibly the prettiest town on the lake.   It is named after St. Giulio who is credited with expelling snakes and dragons from the island when he arrived in 390 AD (via a raft miraculously made from his cloak) in order that he could build his 100th church there.  The Basilica one sees today is dedicated to him and was built on that same site in the ninth century.

View of San Giulio island from hill - photo Solange Hando
Isola San Giulio taken from a hill opposite by Solange Hando

Today as one approaches the island, one sees a cluster of buildings built right at the edge of the water, private residences now but once the homes of priests who lived on the island.  Inside this ring of villas is the basilica and a Benedictine Abbey where 70 nuns dedicate themselves to silent contemplation and prayer.  In a world without words, they go about their work of repairing ecclesiastical garments.

Steep-steps-on-the-island-of-S.G

The entrance to the area is through a small arched doorway at the top of a set of stone steps and once through this one is faced with the Romanesque basilica which contains a feast of frescoes and sculpture.

Fading-Frescoes-encourage-prayers

Sometimes called The Way of Silence, other times The Walk of Meditation, it is a cobble-stoned alleyway that circles the island, enclosed by towering grey stone walls topped with green ferny plants that reach for the sky.  From the walls project ornamental signs in four languages, one side of which instructs you to listen out for particular sounds while the other side lays down inspirational advice –  ‘Listen to the water, the wind, your steps’.

Face-to-face-with-odd-statues

My interest was in the walk, however, so I didn’t spend much time in the church but hurried outside to the cool path that curved around the island, shaded by the buildings on one side and the outer wall of the monastery grounds on the other.  There were visitors aplenty on the walk, most observing silence, but there were pockets of noise from one or two groups who didn’t keep to the spirit of the place.  There was no discernible movement behind the windows overlooking the path so no doubt the nuns are used to a certain amount of noise.

I completed the loop in about 20 minutes by meandering rather slowly and absorbing the ambience. There are no benches or seats along the way on which to rest which seems a pity, not because I felt tired, but because I felt it would have added to the experience to be able to sit and meditate for a few minutes in these very special surroundings.

The-Silent-Walk

Having reached the end, I turned and walked back along the “Way of Meditation” in order to read the words from the other side of the plaques: then I exited through the arched door to board the boat that would take me back to the town of San Giulio for a much-needed café e gelato!

Part-of-the-Silent-Walk

Before I left the island I sat on a boulder overlooking the sea and listened to the silence, a silence only slightly disturbed by the lapping of the waves, the wind sighing in the trees and in the distance, the phut-phut of a motor-boat.  I tried to imagine what it would be like to sit here as dawn broke over the lake and the mist rose from the shoreline opposite.  The nuns sing Matins every day at 4.30 and in my mind I heard the sound of music drifting from the Abbey as day broke, and I promised myself that I would return one day to experience this moment.

There are a few rooms available and the Abbey welcomes visitors seeking a retreat from the world.

The round-trip fare is 5.50 Euros and the boats shuttle across the bay all day.

 

Plaque on Silent Way

End-of-Silenjt-Walk
The Exit from the Walk of Silence