Secret Toilet Discovered In Scottish Castle

castle, Drum Castle
Wikimedia Commons

Archaeologists working on a conservation project at Drum Castle near Aberdeen, Scotland, have discovered two secret chambers, one of which includes a medieval toilet complete with its wooden seat.

Drum Castle features a 13th-century castle keep that’s the oldest intact example in Scotland. Besides the hidden toilet, the team found a second secret chamber that’s reputed to have been where one of the men of the clan hid out for three years after the defeat at the Battle of Culloden. The chamber with the toilet was hidden by bookshelves installed in the 19th century, while the second chamber was a real-life safe room for rebellious Scots. Both were found in the medieval keep.

From 1323-1975, Drum Castle was the seat of the Chief of Clan Irvine. In addition to the keep, the property features Jacobean and Victorian additions. It is now open to visitors and is only 10 miles outside Aberdeen. Visitors can see the historic interior and stroll through the surrounding ancient oak woodland, a rare survival of primeval forest that’s been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

Venice: Grand Vistas And Little Details

Venice
Sean McLachlan

On my first day in Venice I walked the streets without a camera in order to savor the beauties of this unparalleled city. I was leaving the next afternoon so that morning I got up at dawn in order to catch Venice at its abandoned best.

It’s a different city, more peaceful. You can linger on a bridge or take a shot from the middle of a street without getting trampled. You can capture the way the light plays on the water or on the side of an old, crumbling building without half a dozen heads getting into the shot.

Venice has a different character in those early hours. Instead of gondolas, cargo vessels ply the canals making deliveries to this city without cars. The streets are empty but for local workmen cleaning up or getting ready to open up their shops and kiosks. The only other tourists are lone photographers like me. My idea was a pretty obvious one, after all.

The low-angled light makes for some nice play between the tops of the buildings shining golden in the morning and the still-dark recesses of the alleyways and narrow canals. The low-angled light puts faded details into higher relief, like the faded Latin inscriptions on the lintels of church doors or the weathered escutcheons on Renaissance palaces.

%Slideshow-693%The early hours are also the time for visiting the big attractions. There’s something eerie about seeing the Piazza San Marco with only half a dozen people in it. One pair was a newlywed couple. A tuxedoed man was fiddling with the camera while his stunningly beautiful wife, decked out in her bridal gown, gave instructions and adjusted her veil. Beyond them the Grand Canal shimmered in the early light. I’m sure their wedding photo is the envy of their friends.

As stunning as these broad vistas are, Venice rewards a close look. There are details in the buildings and streets that make for great close-ups. In the Piazza San Marco, for example, you have this little bronze figure, one of a set.

At the corner of St. Mark’s Basilica is the square’s most historically important work of art, a porphyry statue of four armored men clinging to one another in mutual defense. I’ve wanted to see these little guys for years.

They’re the Tetrarchs. In 293 A.D., the Roman Emperor Diocletian decided the empire was too big and had too many enemies for one man to rule. He created the Tetrarchy, with an Emperor and a Caesar for both the West and the East. They were supposed to rule in harmony but of course the rivalry more often than not led to civil wars. In another century the Western Empire was a nonentity, while the Eastern Empire, known today as Byzantium, lived on until the 15th century. This famous statue originally stood in Constantinople but was stolen during the Fourth Crusade in 1204 and brought here.

Many people photograph this statue, yet miss something even more interesting a few feet away. On a stone bench at the entrance to the basilica there’s a strange design scratched into the surface. It’s been almost worn away by centuries of bottoms, but you can make out a square within a square, partitioned into several segments. This was a Renaissance board game that people would play while whiling away the hours on the plaza. It’s a reminder of the regular folk who lived in Venice in the shadow of the great rulers, artists and priests.

This fired my imagination. Perhaps some other detail will fire yours: the dusty icons in an antique shop, the mosaic advertisement for a pension set into a street, the half-finished Renaissance fresco in the entryway of an obscure church. When you’re strolling around Venice or any great city, keep an eye out for those little details that catch your fancy as well as the grand views that everyone admires. That way you’ll end up with a photo album uniquely your own.

Madrid day trip: Romanesque churches and a Gothic cathedral in Segovia

Segovia, Madrid day tripSegovia is an easy day trip from Madrid and has plenty of medieval and Renaissance buildings to capture the imagination. Yesterday I talked about the Alcázar, the city’s castle, and today I’m looking at Segovia’s many churches.

Most of the churches are Romanesque in style, like Iglesia de la Veracruz, which was actually built outside the city walls in 1208. The signage says this church was owned by the Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, but local legend says it’s a Templar church. Who knows? The round floor plan imitates the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, something common in Templar churches, so the legend may be correct. Then again, the Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem would want to imitate that church too. Somebody call Dan Brown.

Romanesque architecture was hugely popular in Spain and many other parts of Europe from the 8th to the 12th centuries. In Spain it took the form of square towers punctured by arches like this one, and arched doorways filled with carvings of angels, devils, saints, and even signs of the zodiac.

The circular floor plan of Iglesia de la Veracruz is unusual. Most Romanesque churches had a rectangular nave like we’re familiar with in later churches. This gives plenty of room for stained glass windows, religious paintings, and other decoration. Many of Segovia’s churches are like art galleries!

%Gallery-128543%One actually is. San Juan de los Caballeros, which was founded by the Visigoths in the 5th century and later turned into a Romanesque church, became in the 20th century the workshop of the famous ceramicist Daniel Zuloaga. A museum highlights his work and there are interesting elements to the church itself, like rare remnants of early frescoes and well-preserved carvings on the facade.

Another fine church is Iglesia de San Martín, seen best from the Plazuela de San Martín. It dates to the 12th century and has a distinctive peaked tower visible from many parts of the city–a good landmark when you get lost in the maze of medieval streets! There’s a wonderful portico where every column capital is carved with a different scene. Weather has given the figures a kind of melted look, but you can still figure out what’s going on if you’ve read your Bible.

Next to the Plaza Mayor is the cathedral. Unlike most churches in Segovia, this one is in the later Gothic style. In fact, it may be the youngest Gothic church in the world, being started in 1525 and consecrated in 1768. It’s a bit chunkier than the soaring Gothic churches of France and Germany and so isn’t my favorite example of the style, but there are some nice touches like the main tower that turns golden at dusk and dawn, the intricate finials (those spiky things) at each corner and turret, and the many gargoyles and coats of arms adorning the exterior walls.

Most churches are free, but the cathedral charges a small fee. The churches are generally open all day except during masses. The times for those are posted on or near the front door.

The best views of Oxford, England

Oxford
Oxford is the most beautiful city in England. Its famous “dreaming spires” have inspired generations of writers, poets, and scholars. The problem is, there are only two easily accessible spots to get appreciate Oxford’s skyline at its best.

This photo shows the Radcliffe Camera, part of Oxford University’s Bodleian Library and where I work when I’m not feeding hyenas in Harar, Ethiopia. I took this from the top of the spire of the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin. The tower and spire were built between 1280 and 1325 and are the oldest parts of the church. It’s covered in ornate Gothic carvings and leering gargoyles so don’t forget to take a photo of the exterior before entering the church gift shop and buying your ticket to go up!

The stairs are steep and the staircase is narrow. If you are not reasonably fit do not try to go up. Once you huff and puff your way to the top, you’ll be treated to a 360 degree view of Oxford–its churches, its famous colleges, and the green countryside beyond. You’ll also see the gargoyles up close and personal. The nice folks at the gift shop will give you a free map showing you where everything is. After five years living part time in Oxford I still can’t name all the colleges!

%Gallery-122796%Once you come back down be sure to visit the rest of the church, most of which dates to the 16th century and features some beautiful stained glass. There’s also a cafe serving tasty and reasonably priced food and coffee. There’s something soothing about sipping a mocha under medieval arches. If the weather is good, you can sit in the garden and enjoy views of the Radcliffe Camera and All Souls College.

An even more interesting and much easier climb is up the Old Saxon Tower of St. Michael at the North Gate. While it’s not as high as the spire of St. Mary’s, it’s the oldest building in Oxford. It dates to the late Saxon times and was built around 1040. This used to guard the city gate of Oxford, but all that’s left is the tower. Climbing up here you’ll see a little museum filled with medieval and renaissance bric-a-brac, including a raunchy church sculpture I’ll blog about later. On one landing is an old clockwork mechanism. If you put 20 pence in it, the gears grind to life and chimes start to play. The last time I climbed this tower with a kid I spent a whole pound on it!

Peering over the parapet you can watch shoppers stroll along Cornmarket St., Oxford’s busiest pedestrian road, and you can see birds wheel and soar amidst the spires of nearby colleges. The 13th century church downstairs is worth a look for its rare medieval stained glass and a font that William Shakespeare stood next to as his godchild was baptized. It was the kid of a local innkeeper, and I hope The Bard got a few free pints for his trouble!

If you know anyone who works at or graduated from Oxford, try to get into their college and climb up one of the towers. While most colleges are open to visitors for at least part of the year, the “dreaming spires” generally aren’t, so you need an insider to gain access.