Strolling Through Venice Without A Camera

Venice
Wikimedia Commons

I’ve wanted to visit Venice all my life. Who wouldn’t? It has the reputation of being the most beautiful city in the world, and with my love of architecture my first glimpse of it was going to be a lifelong memory.

After a rainy week in Slovenia, I arrived in Venice on a gloriously cloudless afternoon. I had less than 24 hours in the city before family obligations would take me home. After checking into the Hotel Alex, a basic but wonderfully central one-star hotel, I left my camera in my room and headed out.

Wait, I left my camera in my room? Yep. I wanted to savor Venice without the distraction of trying to create abstract memories. Living in the moment is one of the five reasons to leave your camera at home.

(Of course I did take photos on my second day, otherwise my editor would have had an aneurysm. Those are coming up tomorrow.)

With so little time I was free to enjoy Venice without a must-see list. My time was too short to visit even a tenth of the places I knew I wanted to see, let alone all those I didn’t. So I saw nothing, or more precisely I saw whatever the city gave me. I decided to take a suggestion from Stephen Graham’s classic travel book The Gentle Art of Tramping and go on a zigzag walk. A zigzag walk is a simple travel plan. You start by taking a left. Then at the first opportunity take a right. Then left. Repeat. You will soon be happily lost and seeing things you never thought you would.

Taking a left out of the hotel brought me to a strange little bookshop with a “Going out of Business” sign in its window and a display of odd books with titles like Il Libro dei Vampiri. I’d come across Venice’s only occult bookshop, which was about to close after 24 years because the owner was retiring. I had a pleasant chat with one of the employees, helping him plan his first trip to London, and bought a worry stone for a friend. These are little jasper stones with a groove worn in one side. You rub the groove to reduce stress. My friend is a government employee in a European country and is inextricably linked to her nation’s slow slide into the Dark Ages. If anyone needs a worry stone, she does.The bookshop had sucked me in so quickly I hadn’t even seen anything of Venice yet, so I determined not to go into another shop for a while and wound my way through the city’s narrow lanes, my gaze lifting above the shopfronts to admire carved balustrades and Renaissance coats of arms set into a background of faded, flaked paint from which the rich Italian sunlight was able to coax a hint of its former brilliance.

Luckily I looked down as well as up, because another left took me down a dank little alley that ended abruptly at a narrow canal. There was no railing or sign. The pavement simply ended.

A gondola glided by so close I could have touched it, its wake slapping against the mossy stone foundations of the buildings to either side of me. Water dripped from a carved cornice above to fall into the canal with a loud ploink.

It was quiet here. I was alone and the sounds of the city sounded muffled and distant. Leaning against the wall, I looked out and saw a white marble bridge arching over the canal a few feet away. The map could have told me its name but I didn’t bother to check. People filed past while a gondolier wearing the trademark straw hat and black-and-white striped shirt sat on the railing calling out, “Gondola ride. . .gondola ride. . .”

On a zigzag walk if you come to a dead end you retrace your steps until you can make a another turn. That took me from the cool seclusion of the alley to the warm, crowded sunlit bridge. I sat down near the gondolier and looked down the canal flanked by tall, narrow houses decaying in that graceful Mediterranean manner. Burgundy and peach paint flaked off to reveal islands of plaster or brick, or clung onto their backing long enough to fade to near whiteness. On windowsills and rooftop terraces were sprays of greens and reds and yellows from carefully tended houseplants.

I sat there maybe five minutes and that gondolier must have had his picture taken a dozen times. Nobody took my picture. In fact I think they all framed me out of the shot. What, a dreamy eyed travel blogger doesn’t symbolize the essence of Venice?

Another zig and a zag brought me to San Paolo Apostolo with its unassuming 15th century exterior hiding a rich collection of art. But first I was drawn to the Romanesque bell tower, which for some reason was situated across the street from the church. Tufts of grass grew from between its crumbling bricks. A low door of thick, ancient oak barred entry. Above it was a Latin inscription. As the radio from the trinket shop across the street played Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds I ran my fingers over the faint letters, worn nearly smooth by centuries of weather and curious tourists. I made out the date 1459 and nothing more.

A pair of lions flanked the doorway. One was fighting a serpent, the other held in its forepaws a decapitated head that looked at me with a serene expression. I headed inside the church to admire the art, including a Last Supper by Tintoretto and Piazza’s St. Silvestri Baptizing the Emperor Constantine (an important moment in the death of paganism). Every church in Venice is an art gallery. Then I continued my jagged course across the city.

Or at least I tried. Canals and dead ends kept forcing me retrace my steps, and after another half hour I found myself back in front of my hotel just when I was in urgent need of a bathroom.

Angels watch over the tourist who abandons his timetable. Soon I was back on the streets. My camera remained in the hotel room.

Touring The World War One Battlefield Of Isonzo

World War One, Isonzo
Sean McLachlan from public domain image. Original photographer unknown.

Like every other nation involved in World War I, Italy suffered terribly. It joined the war in 1915, throwing its lot in with the Allies against the Central Powers. Italy’s most immediate threat was its neighbor the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The border was mostly in the Alps and soldiers on both sides carved out ice caves from which to snipe at one another and used artillery to fire above each other’s positions in over to create avalanches. To this day, almost 100 years later, bodies of dead soldiers are being found frozen in the ice.

The most active part of the front was along the Isonzo river valley, the border between Italy and what is now Slovenia. For most of its length it cuts between steep mountains on either side.

I toured the Isonzo front with an organized bus tour from Gorizia. Without a car it’s the only way to quickly visit this long and rugged battlefield. Unfortunately, the pouring rain that had been plaguing northeast Italy and western Slovenia for the previous few days didn’t let up. In the higher latitudes it turned into a driving snow. This meant that except for a few glimpses of the terrain, the tour was pretty much a washout. At least we got an inkling of what it was like to have been stationed up here, and we did get to visit the excellent Kobarid Museum in Slovenia.

This is one of the best military history museums I’ve seen anywhere. While there are the usual flags and uniforms and weapons, the bulk of the exhibition is a vast collection of period photographs. These bring the visitor face to face with life on that terrible battlefield where half a million men lost their lives. Both armies are treated impartially and instead of glorification of the war there’s a frank, human look at the people involved.

%Slideshow-82%We get to see them at the front lines, perched high up on alpine peaks or hunkering down in trenches carved into snow and ice. A great amount of detail goes into how the vast armies were supplied, with displays on everything from cooking to handling horses. We also see the soldiers’ more relaxed moments, writing letters home or goofing around behind the lines.

There are some surprises too. One small display is dedicated to Ernest Hemingway, who was a Red Cross ambulance driver at the front and who fell in love with a nurse there. He used these experiences to write “A Farewell to Arms.”

The battles were mostly bloody stalemates, with the Italians making their only significant gains in the sixth battle when they took Gorizia. That was all undone in the 12th battle, better known as the Battle of Caporetto, when the Austro-Hungarians and their German allies shattered the Italian army. “Caporetto” has entered the Italian lexicon as a word signifying any horrible defeat, from a politician losing a landslide election to a football team getting spanked by their rivals.

The museum doesn’t shrink from the true face of war. In one grim display, we see photos of the dead lying unburied on the battlefield, and the grim portraits of some of the mutilated survivors. Some of these images are included at the end of the slideshow here, preceded by a warning. They are not easy to look at but I included them because I think it’s important for civilians to see what war really looks like.

Anyone with an interest in military history will want to see this museum. While visiting the remaining trenches and bunkers along the Isonzo front gives a feel for the terrain, a visit to the Kobarid Museum is essential for putting it all together and understanding the terrible waste of World War I.

Gorizia: Italy’s Overlooked Historic Border City

Gorizia, Italy
Sean McLachlan

Visitors to Italy tend to skip Gorizia. Tucked away at the northeast edge of the country on the border with Slovenia, this small city tends to get bypassed on the way to Trieste or Slovenia.

I would have never gone there myself except that I was a guest author at the city’s annual history and book fair, the èStoria Festival. Now in its ninth year, the festival is drawing visitors from all over Italy. International visitors are few because the talks are mostly in Italian; mine was translated by a shockingly intelligent fellow who grew up speaking four languages and went on to learn a dozen more.

When I wasn’t needed at the fair I took some time to slip away and check out what the city has to offer international visitors. I found that this overlooked destination is definitely worth adding to your itinerary.

The city is situated in the verdant Isonzo river valley. Slovenia is just to the east, marked by steep green hills. Heading upriver towards the Julian Alps, mountains rise precipitously from both banks. It was here that the Italian and Austro-Hungarian armies fought the dozen Battles of Isonzo in World War I. Several tour operators offer visits to the battlefield and we’ll be looking at it in the next post.

The most obvious attraction within Gorizia can be seen from all across the city. Gorizia Castle sits atop of hill in the center of town and was the residence of the Counts of Gorizia and Tyrol, a powerful dynasty that owned much of the territory hereabouts. The first castle was built in the 11th century and was constantly expanded and updated, most recently to accommodate artillery. The castle got badly knocked about in World War I and was lovingly restored in the 1930s.

%Slideshow-86%From the battlements you get a fine view of the surrounding countryside and the distant snowcapped Alpine peaks. Inside the castle you’ll find the usual arms and armor as well as an excellent little museum on medieval music. Some of the rooms are adorned with faded frescoes showing religious themes. In the hamlet adjoining the castle you’ll find an excellent First World War Museum, the Museum of Fashion and Applied Arts, a picture gallery and the Archaeological Museum.

If the climb up the hill made you hungry, you’re in luck. Gorizia has several fine restaurants serving both Friulian regional cuisine as well as Slovenian dishes. Friuli is the northeastern region of Italy and as such was influenced by the cuisines of Hungary and Austria. Meals tend to be heavier, with more emphasis on meat. There’s plenty of pasta and pizza too, though. Slovenian cuisine has its own distinct style that I’ll get to in a later post as I explore that fascinating little country.

My favorite restaurant in Gorizia is Alla Luna at Via Oberdan 13 with its cozy interior crammed with local arts and crafts and its menu of regional dishes. Tre Soldi at Corso Italia 38 is a more formal affair that also serves regional cuisine. If you want pizza, try La Tarantella at Corso Italia 99/101 with its dozens of varieties. You can even order a “surprise pizza” and see what you get. For something more informal, try La Cicchetteria ai Giardini at Via Petrarca 1/A. It offers salads, paninis and other snacks. It’s a great place to go in good weather because they have outdoor seating right next to a park, where you can see the sun shine through the leaves and listen to the laughter of children at a nearby playground.

So if you’re looking for a quiet, undertouristed Italian destination with some good attractions, consider stopping off at Gorizia for a day or two.

Otranto Cathedral: Where You Can See The Remains Of Catholicism’s Newest Saints

Otranto Cathedral
Pope Francis has beatified a long list of religious figures in the first creation of saints of his papacy, the Guardian reports. Included in this list are the 813 Martyrs of Otranto. These were victims of a massacre in the southern Italian town in 1480 when Ottoman soldiers beheaded them for refusing to convert to Islam.

It was common in Medieval and Renaissance Europe to display the remains of martyrs and saints, and the Martyrs of Otranto were no exception. They are on display in a huge ossuary in the Cathedral of Otranto. It’s a fitting home since many Otranto residents took shelter in the cathedral during the Ottoman attack on their city. Eventually, the Ottomans broke in, took away the people and turned the cathedral into a stable. The cathedral was reconsecrated the following year when the Italians recaptured Otranto.

The cathedral, first consecrated in 1088, has more to offer than the arresting sight of hundreds of bones stacked up on a wall. The floor is covered with one of the most impressive medieval mosaics in Europe – a complex 12th-century work of art showing Biblical scenes, Heaven, Hell and the Garden of Eden. There are also traces of early frescoes on the wall, a gilded ceiling and some fine Gothic tracery.

Some of the remains of the Martyrs of Otranto are kept in Santa Caterina a Formiello in Naples. Italy is one of the best countries to see bits of holy people from the past. There are numerous saints’ relics in Rome, including a crypt of mummified monks. The city even has a Purgatory Museum. The Basilica of Mary Magdalene at Vézelay, France, has Mary’s bones. Further east in Sozopol, Bulgaria, is a church with the bones of John the Baptist.

[Photo courtesy Laurent Massoptier]

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British Museum Opens Exhibition On Life And Death In Pompeii And Herculaneum

Pompeii
Today the British Museum in London opens what is sure to be the hit exhibition of the year.

Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum” examines the daily life of the Roman world, as it was preserved in two cities buried under volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. Through fine art and mundane objects, we get to see what life was like for ordinary Romans.

Romans like the baker Terentius Neo and his wife, whose likenesses were preserved in a fresco on the wall of their house. “Baker” is a misleadingly humble term for Terentius, who was obviously well-to-do, and who had a literate wife who is shown as his business partner.

The exhibition is laid out like the House of the Tragic Poet, one of the homes excavated at Pompeii. A video reconstruction prepared by Giunta Regionale della Campania shows what it looked like when it was being used. As you wander through the atrium, bedroom, kitchen and garden, you learn about different aspects of Roman culture.

The ash that buried the cities and killed its inhabitants preserved frescoes and graffiti that show us a snapshot from the time. Slogans from an election held a few months before still adorn public walls, including a painting of a candidate distributing free bread. Other graffiti boasted of sexual conquests or lost love.

A large amount of the exhibition space is devoted to brightly colored frescoes that once decorated interior walls. Some show religious or natural scenes. One room that overlooked a garden had walls painted like a garden, giving the illusion of being outside.

%Gallery-183881%While much of the focus is on the upper classes, several displays show how the more common Romans lived. In the kitchen, for example, we see the workplace of the slaves. Here, there’s a simple altar for them to worship their gods, and a worktable covered in carbonized food. One blackened loaf of bread bears the stamp, “Made by Celer, the slave of Quintus Granius Verus.”

The kitchen also revealed an odd fact about Roman homes – it was where the toilet was usually located. One wonders how many Romans died because of this ignorance of microbiology.

Another oddity of Roman life was how sexual the art was. What we may see as crude today was considered funny or magical to the Romans. A young woman wore a pendent in the shape of a penis to ensure luck and fertility. A phallic wind chime was supposed to bring luck to the household. Then there’s the sculpture of the god Pan porking a goat. Nobody is sure what the Romans were thinking when they made that one.

The final part of the exhibition is dedicated to the sobering casts of the dead. When the citizens of Pompeii and Herculaneum were buried by the eruption, they rotted away, leaving their ghostly shapes in the hardened ash. Archaeologists have poured plaster into many of these cavities to reveal men, woman, and children in their death throes. A particularly poignant scene is of a family of four. One child still sits on the mother’s lap, while another, who could have been no more than four, lies nearby, her face so well preserved as to be recognizable.

These bodies will be one of the main draws to the exhibition, but I have to admit to a certain guilt at my voyeuristic fascination with them. What does our obsession with these casts say about ourselves? Cambridge historian Mary Beard has written a thoughtful essay on this and comes up with no easy answers.

This sort of blockbuster exhibition is something the British Museum does well, and this is one of their best yet. From the high art to crude graffiti, from naughty sculptures to a baby’s cradle, the breadth and richness of Roman life are brought to life in an experience no one with an interest in the ancient world will want to miss.

“Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum” runs until September 29.