AMALFI – Italy’s Gem

Amalfi, tiny and expensive is one of the easier coastal towns to walk around as it rises gently up the hillside from the waterfront rather than clinging vertically to it, like Positano for instance. 

Centreville, Amalfi

It is hard to believe that this very small town had a glorious history as a maritime republic on a par with Venice and Genoa, but Amalfi was a trade bridge between the Byzantine and western worlds for centuries with a population exceeding 70,000 (today, less than 5,000).   Unfortunately, there are very few historical buildings of note to see as most of the old city, and its inhabitants, slid into the sea during the 1343 earthquake.

There is a delightful promenade along the waterfront and a marina full of colorful boats but the focal point of the historic center is the Piazza del Duomo with its striking cathedral dedicated to St. Andrew. There are sixty steps leading up to the Byzantine-style church with its Moorish-influenced arches and decoration and inside the church is a forest of columns and Arabesque arches and the hidden Cloister of Paradise, dating to 1266.  The Piazza is lined with bars, cafes, gelaterias, artisan and tourist shops, and is a perfect place for people watching – if you can bag a table.  It seems to be permanently busy. Don’t forget the water if you decide to walk up the steps, those 65 can feel like 100 when the sun is out.

The Duomo

Famous for the manufactire pf paper, the Paper Museum (Museo della Carta) is well worth a visit to see how the products were made by hand. There are still some family-owned paper mills that carry on the tradition of hand-made paper which can be bought in some of the high-end shops – good, if expensive buys, for that special present for someone who still likes to write letters. 

How Many G & T’s could that Lemon serve?

However, the primary product of the area is lemons, enormous in size, picked fresh to make limoncello liqueur and to be used in local dishes.  Lemon ice-cream features a lot in restaurants and gelaterias, the one by the town gate serving quite the biggest lemon sorbet I have every seen (or eaten). 

Biggest Lemon Sorbet I’ve ever eaten

If you don’t spend too much time over lunch or coffee, there will still be time to visit hilltop Ravello, full of historic, artistic, monumental and architectural treasures – another expensive town but exquisite in its layout, and its 13th century Villa Rufolo which has breathtaking views from gardens overlooking the sea.  Famous names you’ll hear mentioned a lot in Ravello are Richard Wagner who was inspired by the Villa to compose some verses of the Parsifal, Boccaccio who stayed here while writing the Decameron, D. H. Lawrence who supposedly got inspiration for Lady Chatterley’s Lover while holidaying in the town and Gore Vidal who came for a visit and stayed for 30 years! 

Ravello

Shopping is rather special in Ravello too, as there are many craft and high-end fashion stops where you will find one-off garments – at a price, of course. Even the ice-cream advertises as ‘gourmet’ gelato though what that is I have no idea. 

Ideal spot for lunch in Ravello
Interesting items for sale in Ravello- Wine and Drugs. I hope it doesn’t mean what it says!

Restaurants bars and bistros abound, but walk around the interesting narrow backstreets of cobble-stones, peering in at dark interiors, looking over dry-stone walls fronting overgrown gardens and vegetable plots, if you want to see what this hill-top village is really like. Ravello is a great starting point for walks in the surrounding Lattari mountains along ancient paths.

Amalfi’s trading importance may have declined but its maritime importance continues, as you can hop ferries and hydrofoils to Capri, Salerno, and Positano.   For me, the best way to view Amalfi is from the sea and the best way to do that is to take a boat trip around the bay, either in one of the 45-minute trips or by hiring a boat to take you to hidden coves to enjoy some private sun and surf.  You will see the homes of Gina Llolabrigida, Sofia Loren, George Clooney (before he moved to Como I presume) and other famous names, smaller than you’d imagine because of their position built into the rocks.  In the above slide show of scenes from the sea, the blue and white house set ino the hillside is that of Sofia Loren.

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

In the Footsteps of The Impressionists

Looking through some images last night reminded me of a trip I took a few years ago visiting the places where the Impressionists had painted (sometimes standing exactly where they had stood as they worked), places like Rouen, Honfleur, Etretat and Le Havre in N. France.  The idea behind the trip was to look at the reality of what the artists had painted and then to make a connection with the painting by viewing it in a nearby gallery.

Where and what they painted at the time was a complete change in the art world, helped by pre-mixed paints in tubes and new vibrant hues like chromium yellow and French ultramarine that freed them from the chore of grinding up lapus lazuli and mixing dry pigment in linseed oil to make colour.  With these aids, their style of painting could now evolve and they were able to paint ordinary subject matter outdoors, capturing the momentary, transient aspects of light and the ever-changing colours of the clouds.

Claude Monet painted more than thirty versions of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Rouen, a church which is a mishmash of architectural styles spanning four centuries, but which is mesmerizing in its scale and grandeur.    As we stood facing the church from the opposite side of the square from where Monet had painted the church, rain was pouring down its exterior walls.  But Monet had painted many rain-washed scenes of the Cathedral so that was good.

Notre-Dame Cathedral, Rouen
Notre-Dame Cathederal, Rouen

The Musée des Beaux-Art in Rouen has a particularly fine collection of Impressionist paintings and when I came face to face with Monet’s misty, murky impression of the rainswept sumptuous west face of this massive Gothic structure, I was nearer understanding why so many were painted in the rain.

Rouen is a maze of cobbled streets lined with beautifully preserved or restored half-timbered houses that lean crookedly together: more than 100 of these houses date back to the Middle Ages.  Many of these streets lead from the Cathedral to the famous Rue du Gros Horloge with its lavish Renaissance clock centred in an elegantly carved arch, and then to the city’s hub, the Place du Vieux Marché ringed by cafés and restaurants housed in 16th – 18th century buildings, and famous as the place where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431.  An iron cross set in a simple little memorial garden marks the spot and a daringly designed slate-covered church dedicated to the saint stands next to it.

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Place Joan d’Arc, Rouen

Not far from Rouen is atmospheric little Honfleur, a town unlike any other in Normandy where the 10-storey high timber and slate-faced buildings that surround its 17th century Vieux Bassin has made it one of the most photographed towns on the Seine.   Bright trawlers jostle together in the old harbour to sell succulent seafood on the quayside, seafood which is later served up by the many waterside restaurants.

Honfleur 4

It is here that Eugène Boudin and a like-minded group of friends from Paris formed the Impressionist movement.  Attracted by the beauty of the town and the quality of its light they used to gather at the nearby Côte de Grace Hill above the town, and paint the scene before them, edging towards something experimental and new, using short, broken brushstrokes of untinted and unmixed colour, painting wet paint on to wet paint instead of waiting for one layer to dry, which led to intermingling of the colours.   Later, they would drink and dine in a simple 17th-century farm dwelling, Ferme St. Siméon, now a luxurious and very expensive hotel.

Honfleur

The delightful and intimate little art gallery, Musée Eugène Boudin, founded in 1868 by Honfleur’s best known artist, considered by many to be the father of Impressionism, has one of the best collections of Boudin’s own works – including the wonderful Port de Dieppe – as well as a vast collection of paintings by artists like Jongkind, Isabey, Monet, Dubourg, Mettling, Pissarro, Renoir and Dufy who came to be known as “the Honfleur school”.

Honfleur was also the birthplace in 1886 of the musician Erik Satie and it is worth spending an extra hour or two in the Maisons Satie where you are led from one room to another to the accompaniment of Satie’s music backed by a series of stunning Satie-esque visual effects – like the white piano in an all-white room that clanks and jangles maniacally.

The scene painted by Sisley at La Bouille
This is my picture of a scene painted by Sisley at La Bouille 

A surfeit of art and too many Museums can lead to an inability to be a discerning art critic, so a trip to La Bouille on the banks of the Seine, a favourite spot for Alfred Sisley to paint, came next.   Packed with art galleries and good restaurants, this charming village is a haven of peace.  To see it from the river, you can board a cruise from Rouen and enjoy the scenery along the way, the many little villages along the curves of the Seine and the village life of France.   Canoes and kayaks swish through the water, a little ferry chugs across the river transporting passengers and cars between Duclair and La Bouille, and Sahurs and La Bouille and if you stand by the landing stage and gaze downstream to the loop in the Seine, you are looking at a scene often painted by Sisley.

The quality of light that floods Normandy attracted the painters to the coast at Etretat where the spectacular setting between cliffs eroded into arc-like shapes brought Boudin, Monet, Courbet, Isabey, Delacroix, Degas and Matisse here when it was still a fishing village.  They came to paint the natural arches and stone outcrops (one needle rock stands 70 metres high) shaped by the thundering waves:  they came also to paint the beach scene, for Etretat was a fashionable town in the 19th century, popular with Parisians and writers like Flaubert, Gide and Maupassant were regular visitors.

La Porte d'Aval with L'Alguille (needle)
La Porte d’Aval avec L’Alguile (needle)

(It is still popular with visitors from Paris and Le Havre).  From every angle on the promenade, you can see the scenes the impressionists worked on, but the best view is found by climbing the steps from the promenade and walking along the path at the top of the cliff.

Etretat may have attracted many visitors from nearby Le Havre, but that port city has its own magnificent steel and glass Musée Malraux right on the waterfront, recently revamped to make use of the optimum light.

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The Beach at LeHavre 

Many people pass speedily through Le Havre without realizing that the local Museum houses an unbeatable collection of paintings by the local born Raoul Dufy, full of the dazzling blues and vibrant colours for which he is known.  Eugêne Boudin, the other impressionist who lived here, is represented in the Museum by over 200 canvasses.   Monet was brought up here from the age of five (and taken under Boudin’s wing when he was 15 years old), painted several masterpieces, including the one that some believe gave the name to the group, Impression Soleil Levant (Impression Sunrise) from a position just in front of the museum.  The collection includes the square Giverny waterlily painting and one of his brooding paintings of London’s Houses of Parliament.

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LeHavre 

I knew little of Impressionism before I went looking at the paintings with a ‘painterly’ eye but now I no longer view thundery skies with the jaundiced eye of the philistine.  If there is a bright yellow sun I know that the Impressionists would depict the shadows as violet, and if the shadows are blue I know that the sky must have had strong orange tints.  Now on my walks, when I see changeable and tumultuous clouds I think of the skies I saw, often stretched across half a canvas, and I think, “That’s a Boudin sky” and I don’t even mind that they herald rain.

Monet hated the tag “Impressionism” but whether he liked it or not, it was this that defined the movement.  Unspoilt Normandy, rich in beguiling light, ever-changing skies and the winding Seine made the perfect studio for the painters.

Notes:  I would hate people to think that Rouen’s Musée des Beaux-Art only has a collection of Impressionist paintings.  It also houses a fine collection of work by Renaissance and Flemish painters, plus a magnificent Caravaggio and a whole roomful of Veronese (plus it is rich in paintings of Monet’s vibrant poppies).

If time permits, do eat at one of the glass-screened restaurants in Etretat.

Le Havre had to be massively rebuilt after the city’s obliteration during the second world war, but it still retains some old Breton architecture in the St. Francois quarter.

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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Pézanas, where Molière Played

A town often overlooked in the Languedoc area is Pézenas, graced with elegant 17th and 18th-century houses of mellow, honey-coloured stone adorned with graceful, wrought iron balconies.

It was once the capital of Languedoc but lost that honour in the late 17th century although it continued to thrive as a trading centre for over 100 years afterwards: if you are there on a Saturday you should visit the market which hasn’t changed much since those days.  It further declined as a trading hub when it was bypassed by the railways in the 19th century and became something of a backwater.  This could be seen to have been to its benefit, however, as it has managed to preserve much of its charm from earlier days and to have escaped the ravages of over-development that have afflicted so many other French towns in the area.

During the town’s heyday, Pézenas was one of the favourite towns for the cosmopolitan elite to visit.  Travelling players made regular stops here and provided the main entertainment of the day, one of whom, Jean Baptiste Poquelin, known to us as Molière,  frequently made Pézanas his base.

Moliere statue in Pezanas
Homage to Molière in the centre of the town

The famous playwright toured with a  troupe of jobbing actors and in the process of acting and playwriting in Pézenas, he became the town’s favourite son.  In fact, so popular was he that he acquired the patronage of the Prince of Conti, governor of Languedoc, at whose court in Pézenas they often performed.

At the Place Gambetta lies the heart of this medieval town and this is where Molière would spend much of his day chatting and drinking coffee in the cafes, and visiting the tradesmen in the square among whom he had many friends.  Today, the square is a place of many delightful cafes and it gives one the chance to sit and relax while thinking about the famous resident, and maybe even reading some of his work which is available from many of the shops around.

As you wander through the old town you will sometimes find yourself in a different world, alleys lined with houses with chimneys, gables, arches, windows and doors dating from the 14th right up to the 19th  century.  It is here that you will find the medieval Jewish quarter, just one road where a few buildings carry a Jewish emblem.  Jews were able to live quietly here, in an amicable relationship with their Christian neighbours despite having been expelled from France in 1394 under the orders of King Charles Vl.  (When I was there a few years ago there was talk of a Jewish Museum being opened in the quarter).

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A shop full of handmade wooden toys

Pézenas has a tradition of fine craftsmanship and you will find many craft shops on your walks through the town, from woodwork to stone carving.  New crafts are well represented too in the form of boutique-style fashion shops where the designs range from quirky to haute couture.

The Tourist Office on Place des Etats du Languedoc is one of the most interesting I’ve ever come across, as it is contained, along with the town’s ancient prison, inside the Hôtel Peyrant on Place des Etats du Languedoc.

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The Tourist Office

The building is interesting in its own right, once offering accommodation to aristocrats as well as prisoners.  You can explore the old jail but to get the best out of a visit to the Hôtel, try to make time to see the wonderful Scenovision Moliere, a 3D show about the famous playwright that takes place over five acts, each performed in a different room of the building.   Details herewith.

Scenovision Moliere

The 3D film show in French and English is presented on the upper floors of the tourist office. daily 9am-noon and 2-6pm Monday to Saturday (from 10am on Sun) with a break for lunch, with extended hours over the peak summer season with no lunch break.  Adults €6: children €4:  families €15

Pézenas Tourist Office, Hotel Peyrat, Place des Etats du Languedoc

http://www.scenovcisionmoliere.com

If cruising the canals of France, it is easy to arrange a visit to Pezanas.

 

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In a town of old doors, this is the oldest

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Artisan chocolates – luscious

 

Among my (Japanese) Souveneirs

Having decided that sentimentality has to give way to practicality when one has downsized and lacks room, I am making strenuous efforts to clear away the bits and bobs that one brings back from one’s travels.  I’m not talking the sort of souvenir that one puts on the sideboard or has pride of place in the hall, I’m talking about things like programmes, tickets and other ephemera.

And none that I have short-listed to be disposed of are causing me such a problem as these below.

The Menu on the right is not crumpled, it is the style of paper on which it is printed.

Hand-painted menus are a feature of most of Japan’s Ryokens (traditional Japanese-style hotels) and it was one of the pleasures of the meal to be presented with these delightful examples of Japanese art.  Not only were the delicate floral designs lovely to look at but the papers were all of a high quality, often marbled or embossed.  The smaller paper was usually the actual menu, folded and tucked inside the larger menu page.

The dishes on which the food was served were equally beautiful, dainty, thin porcelain bowls and plates on which the food was arranged so artistically it seemed wrong to disturb it just to satisfy hunger.  I will confess, I didn’t always enjoy the food.  There was an amazing amount of small dishes but the texture of so many seemed slimy (an overabundance of abalone in many cases), and when I did get a dish I could enjoy it was of minuscule proportions.

However, here are some pictures of the food.  Enjoy these while I try and decide whether I can throw away these lovely menus, or if I can think of another use for them.

All these pictures were taken by one of my travelling companions, Steve Moore, who enjoyed the food on every occasion.  I think it shows in his compositions.

There was usually one dish that had to be cooked personally, so a miniature barbecue or a dish of oil would be on the table (one for each person).  Nothing too difficult, small pieces of Kobe beef, fish fillets, that sort of thing.

As the menus were in Japanese we were never sure of what we were eating.  The waiter/waitress took great care to explain each dish but sometimes there was no translation for what we were faced with, something very pink turned out to be ginger, something that looked like a bean was a paste formed into the shape of a bean.

Imagine the time it took just to arrange these items on the plate.

And now, for something completely different.