Posts Tagged ‘Italy’

16 May 2011 

We bid goodbye to the fantastic Castel Monastero in the morning and drove into Florence to catch our train to Venice. Once again, the GPS proved to be totally inadequate in the city centre and after going round and round in circles for about half an hour, we finally ended up at the car rental place. The journey to Venice was once again through the superfast train and it took us only two and a half hours. The scene we saw as we stepped out of the train station in Venice stopped us in our tracks. The steps from the train station ended at a canal and boats were plying up and down like cars on roads. There was no road or sign of any car. We secured a boat taxi and stepped in and that was when I felt I had to capture this in the camera. To my utter dismay, I discovered that I had left my camera in the train. Fortunately, a member of the cleaning staff had found the camera and was bringing it to the lost and found office when I got there. We had been warned against the pickpockets and other petty thieves in Italy who thrived on the tourists and here our experience was totally the opposite.

I have never been to a city where the transport is totally by waterways. The city is built on 117 islands connected by 400 bridges over 150 canals. There are no roads in the inner part of the city and everything is being transported by boats, be it goods or people. We were amused by speed limits, one way signs etc. In due course, we arrived at the doorstep of the hotel. Most of the journey was on the Grand Canal. The skill with which the drivers manage the boats is simply amazing – there are many narrow canals which require good level of dexterity to navigate. All along the Grand Canal one could see some really beautiful buildings.

Our hotel was quite close to the main square of Venice – Piazza San Marco. Napoleon described Piazza San Marco as the “finest drawing room in Europe”. It is indeed a very beautiful square with the Basilica di San Marco dominating one side of it, with a tall clock tower beside it. There are many cafes with live music along the square and the whole place seemed to pulsate with an abundance of energy as people continued to pour in as the evening wore on. The square sure seemed to have some special attraction that drew people in.

Basilica di San Marco is the pride of Venice and its claim to fame happened when some Venetian merchants stole St. Mark’s body out of Egypt in AD 828 and brought it to Venice. They also adopted St. Mark’s winged lion as the city’s symbol. Venice felt that it was an equal to Rome as it had its own Saint and so the authorities did not heed Rome’s call to shun all Pagan symbols. Hence, one can see many Greek statues and such on the façade of the church. There is also a very nice fresco above the entrance to the church and it looked quite attractive – I think there must have been some restoration work done on it.

In the evening, we went in search of the lone Indian restaurant in Venice and it was a great feeling to walk through the narrow lanes, some of which were just 6 feet wide. We passed by the famous Rialto Bridge and paused to take in the views. There are a lot of restaurants on the Grand Canal near the Rialto Bridge and I was surprised to hear snatches of Hindi as we passed by. On closer inspection, I found that many of the waiters in those restaurants were Indians and they were talking to each other in Hindi. The restaurants were serving Italian food and so we continued on our journey towards Indian food.

All along we saw people taking rides in colourful gondolas. This is supposed to be a very romantic thing to do in Venice and the boat men do also sing songs on request. Not being the romantic type, we passed on the ride.

On the way back, night had fallen and the city had taken on a special charm in the night. I got a beautiful shot from the Rialto Bridge by balancing the camera on the handrail.

17 May 2011

Venice is very famous for its glass making skills since the last ten centuries or so. In the thirteenth century the then Doge (Duke) of Venice ordered that all glass making facilities be moved out of Venice, as he feared that fire accidents could break out and destroy the city. That is how Murano shot into prominence as all glass making workshops were moved to this island, which is just a short ride from Venice. Another thought behind moving all glass making skills into a small island was to ensure that the secrets and knowledge did not leak beyond Venice. The masters were not allowed to leave Murano and had to stay there all their life. As a form of compensation, they were allowed to marry the ladies of the upper class families in Venice and this must have been very prestigious as these families had special privileges.

Murano glass is very well known all over the world today and they still use the techniques used centuries ago. We were warned against cheap imitation from China that pass off as Murano glass. We set off in a boat to Murano and visited a glass making workshop. A master demonstrated his skill and showed us how a small vase could be made. I was quite amazed at how malleable glass became when heated to high temperatures.

The workshop had a showroom as well, which had many beautiful pieces and they were actually pieces of art and priced as such. They did not allow photography as they were afraid of Chinese imitations. Jewellery made of Murano glass is quite attractive and was on display all over the island.

Our next port of call was Burano and we went there by public transport boat. Burano is known for its brightly painted little houses, which make the island very colourful. It was indeed very beautiful and I got a couple of nice shots. Burano is also known for its lace making skills.

After Burano, we went back to Venice and Piazza San Marco. On the square, is the very tall clock tower, which goes up to a height of 100m. It was originally built in AD 888 but has been rebuilt twice, the last time being in 1902.

A lift takes you up to a height of 60m and that is high as you can go. From that position, there are great views of Venice, especially as you look out to the sea.

In general, I have felt that punishments in medieval Europe were of a rather barbaric nature and that was borne out here too as I heard that they used to hang cages from the side of the clock tower and hold prisoners in those cages. Another comment I heard was about the Doge – the Doge was the ruler of Venice and hence powerful, but it seems that there are there are only two monuments that show the Doge. In both, he is shown as kneeling before St. Mark, the patron saint of Venice; another way of depicting that he is a public servant. I was profoundly impressed by this point that rulers in those medieval days had such an insightful approach – especially in those days when the practice was for rulers to have themselves painted and sculpted and to make grand monuments. This shows that they truly believed that they were servants of the city. The Doge’s palace is to one side of the square and did not look like an imposing building. Hence I had decided not to visit it but this comment made me change that and I penciled that in for the next day’s itinerary.

Venice was one of Ernest Hemingway’s favourite cities and he is said to have frequented a bar called “Harry’s Bar”, which is just a few minutes’ walk from Piazza San Marco. He wrote portions of his book “Across the river and into the trees” here and the bar itself finds mention in the book. This aroused my interest in the bar and I decided to visit the place, especially as that novel is a favourite of mine. I located the place without much difficulty and spent a quiet half an hour in there, thinking of Hemingway and his books. I do not know what is special about this bar but there must be something as it is also rumoured to have attracted some other famous personalities like Marconi, Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin, Baron Rothschild, Aristotle Onassis, Woody Allen etc.

18 May 2011

Venice was a republic from the eighth century till 1796 and had deep democratic traditions. Citizens from prominent families formed what was called the Great Council, which had more than 400 members. Only members of some certain families could be part of this council and the names of these families were registered in the “Golden Book”. There was another book called “Silver Book” which held the names of families that could make it to the Golden Book and when the city had some financial woes, some families were promoted, in exchange for tidy sums of money which they had to pay to the city! A senate was chosen from within this council and there were about 100 members in the senate. The Doge was chosen from the senate and held the office for life. There was also a council of ten that was chosen from the senate to help the Doge in day to day administration. The democratic traditions were very evident and they also had a legal system, which was based more on common law than on royal law.

The Doge was deemed as a public servant and public offices like administrative offices, courts, prison etc. were all attached to his palace. The palace itself was not very impressive.

When we went inside the palace, we found the place rather bare. On enquiry, it turned out that the Doge had to bring his own furniture when he was elected to office and so the family used to take back the furniture once the Doge passed away. The art works in the palace clearly showed the great pride and love that Venetians had for their city; Venice was shown in many paintings as Venus with kings and others bowing before her. Venice thrived as a republic for about 1000 years and had a very powerful navy which allowed it to rule the seas. Gradually, its power declined and the city was ravaged by plague two times. The last Doge dissolved the council and resigned from this position when he found that he could not defend Venice against the military might of Napoleon.

That was our last visit and the end of a very enjoyable trip. Italy is truly fantastic and I felt that there is much more to explore and experience. May be I will be back!


12 May 2011

We left Rome around mid morning and caught the fast train to Florence. The train journey was quite comfortable and we got to Florence just after noon. I had organized a rental car for our stay in Tuscany and we were soon on our way to our hotel in the heartland of Tuscany. Needless to say, there were some challenges with GPS initially and my mistake in selecting the “Short route” option instead of the “Fast route” one resulted in the drive taking an hour more than was actually needed. However, we passed through some great countryside and the views were just stunning. The Tuscan countryside is full of green, rolling hills. In due course of time, we arrived at our hotel. The hotel turned out to be a medieval monastery building, which has now been converted. We were a bit tired that day with the train journey and the longish drive and so decided to take it easy and just spent time around the hotel.

13 May 2011

We set out for Pisa in the morning and yet again, I took the scenic route and so it was a fairly longish drive to Pisa. The views were quite breath-taking but I could not take any photos as the roads were quite narrow and I felt content with just soaking the ambience in. One point I noticed was that many of the hill tops had a lonely house or fort or some structure of that nature. May be these were houses of landlords or forts of chieftains. In any case, it was quite an interesting sight.

We arrived at Pisa round noon and went to see the Leaning Tower. It is in a complex with a cathedral, which houses the body of a saint. The first view as you glimpse the tower through the arched entrance to the complex is quite stunning. I had seen many pictures of the Leaning Tower before but somehow, the sight caught me by surprise. May be it was the brilliant white structure set on a wonderfully green lawn at its best on a nice day; I don’t know what. I tried to capture the sight in my camera but I was not able to do justice.

The cathedral and the tower are both in white stone and marble and the detail on the structure is amazing. The tower was planned as an independent bell tower for the cathedral and work stared in 1173. The soil in Pisa is not very stable and the design did not adequately compensated for that fact as the foundation was only three metres deep. As a result, the tower started to sink soon after construction started and it tilted to one side. Work was abandoned after construction reached three floors. The tower stayed in that condition for about seventy five years. After that, architects added four more floors on top of the three floors and tried to compensate for the tilt by building the floors to be shorter on the downward leaning side, with the result that the tower became curved. There was repair work done on the tower between 1990 and 2001 and that corrected the tilt from 5.5 degrees to 4 degrees. Authorities believe that the tower is safe for another 300 years. On the tall side, the tower has a height of approximately 57 feet and it reduces by about a metre on the short side.

We went to the cathedral first. The patron saint of Pisa, St. Ranieri, is buried here as well as Henry VII and Pope Gregory VIII. I also read that there are also some relics like the remains of three saints (Abibo, Gamaliel and Nicodemus) and a vase used in the Feast of Cana, where Jesus performed his first miracle of turning water into wine. We did not see these relics as we were in a bit of a hurry, as we had booked a slot to go up the tower.

Visitors are let into the tower in batches and one felt the angle as soon as one entered the ground floor – you have to be conscious about not going to one side. The climb is rather steep and stairs got narrower and narrower as one went up; at some places there were not even enough space to pass another person. There is no lift and I could not but wonder what the situation would be if one were to break or sprain a leg at the top. There are some interesting views from the top (especially of the cathedral) and once can also see the huge bells installed on top, the largest of which weighs more than 3,000 kg – getting that up must have been an effort. Pisa is the birthplace of Galileo and he used to conduct many experiments on gravity by dropping objects from the top of the tower, as the tilt allows a free fall. As I was climbing the stairs, I was wondering how many times Galileo would have gone up those very steps; I guess he would have been physically fit!

In the compound, there is a pillar with the statue of a she-wolf suckling two young children. This is the legend behind the founding of Rome. It is said that twin children were born to a priestess, through a relationship with Mars. In those days, priestesses were supposed to be virgins and so the king ordered that the children be killed to erase all evidence and they were abandoned in a forest (or set adrift according to some versions). They were found by a she-wolf who took care of them. These twins, Romulus and Remus, killed the king when they grew up and later had a fall-out amongst themselves and that ended with Romulus killing Remus. Romulus brought together some tribal settlements and founded the kingdom of Rome (Roma) in 753 BC and became the first king. I was intrigued to see this statue that related to the founding of Rome in this faraway city of Pisa; all the more so when you consider that all these city states were constantly warring with each other before the founding of modern day Italy.

Next stop on the way back was the very picturesque and old town of San Gimignano.  This town has a population of about 8,000 people today and has its origin as an Etruscan village. Etruscans were the ancient tribe that dominated most parts of Italy and were quite a force in 8th century BC. The town derives its name from a bishop who supposedly saved it from Attila the Hun. The most interesting aspect of this small town is the presence of many towers that look like skyscrapers from afar. Most of those were built in the 13th century by rich families in a garish demonstration of their wealth. The town itself has many narrow, delightful streets that lead into a wonderful square with a well in the centre. We spent some time there drinking coffee on the square and wandering through many nice shops that seemed to have quite fascinating collections of porcelain.

14 May 2011

We set off for Florence in the morning. I was a bit apprehensive of driving in Florence as I had read about the no entry zones for visitors’ cars. The GPS was not very helpful as we got to the city centre and I soon found myself in some narrow streets and hit the dreaded no entry area as well. However, there was a very helpful policeman there who directed me to some parking. Our plan was to visit the Duomo and the Uffizi. According to the Lonely Planet, the Duomo (Cathedral) in Florence is among the “Big Three” in Italy, the other two being the Colosseum and the Leaning Tower.

The Duomo is quite imposing and the work is very detailed indeed. The effort that has gone into the sculptures, frescoes, door panels etc. is quite amazing. However, I felt that the guidebook was overrating the Duomo as I felt that the one in Milan is more impressive. It may well have been the sensory overload that we had been subjected to in the days just gone by! The walls of the Duomo are done in pink, white and green marble and do present a nice view.

There is a very tall bell tower right next to the Duomo and you can climb on to the top, if you are willing to put in the effort of going up 414 steep steps. Of course, you soon forget the effort of the climb as you get to the beautiful views at the top.

We spent some time walking around the square and then proceeded to the Uffizi Museum, where we had made a reservation. The Uffizi was first built to house various administrative offices (Uffizi means office in Italian) but was later converted to hold the private collection of the wealthy Medici family. The last member of the Medici family bequeathed the collection to the city of Florence in 1743, under the condition that the collection would stay in the city of Florence. There are more than 1500 items in this gallery, which occupies about 50 rooms. The focus here is on the Tuscan masters and personally I found that the museum is a bit overrated, possibly because I was expecting something on the lines of Louvre or the National Museum in London. The works are arranged in chronological order to reflect the evolution of various movements like Renaissance, Mannerism, Baroque, Neoclassicism etc. Needless to say, we did not spend the four hours in Uffizi that the guidebook had suggested.

As we stepped out, we ran right into a parade of old cars and Ferraris; they were part of a 1000 mile race. This was possibly the highpoint for Bharath and we stood there for twenty minutes or so, watching those gorgeous cars roll by.

We had been driving on the very same highway the day before and had noticed a small town called Monteriggioni and decided to drop in there on the way back; especially as we could not see this in the guidebook or the GPS. It turned out to be a very beautiful village with the mandatory square and three or four small alleys; with a wall running all around it. It was possibly the house of a large landlord and there is a church and a boutique hotel there now. The square had a nice café and we spent some time there. There was a wedding going on in the church and so there were a fair number of visitors in the place. We sat around for some time, taking in the fantastic views. I found myself sitting next to an old man and I tried to communicate with him but sign language could help me only in understanding that he lived there. I wonder how it would be to spend your days in a place like that, where time seems to stand still.

15 May 2011

Tuscany is very well known for its wines as it is home to the very famous Chianti Classico. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a wet day and that put paid to a lot of our plans. Our first stop was Chianti in Greve and that turned out to a very nice and small town. It was a bit cold and wet but the market around the square seemed to be doing well. There were many interesting things for sale in the square including some very old suitcases, telephones etc. I also found an old man making baskets out of some sort of grass or bamboo. He was happy enough to pose for a photo. While walking around the shops in the square, I noticed some graffiti asking for Tibet to be liberated. Some agonizing soul must have scribbled that in a moment of deep frustration.

Next stop was the famous city of Siena. This is a fantastic walled city with fabulous buildings, streets with old world charm and a great square. The cathedral is also very beautiful. Unfortunately, it was quite wet and so we could not really see the city.

I had read of a wine called Brunello and wanted to look it up and that meant a visit to a town called Montalcino. The rain had hardened by then and we drove through a raging storm to Montalcino. The drive was worth it as I got to taste the 2004 vintage Brunello in the shop and that turned out to be excellent; even I could appreciate the difference in quality between the 2004 and 2005 vintage.

09 May 2011 

Italy had always been a draw since my very first official trip there. The combination of history, culture and art makes Italy a great vacation destination. After much planning and waiting, we flew out of Bangalore early in the morning and reached Rome late in the evening, after transiting at London. We were quite tired by the time we reached our hotel as we had been travelling for the whole day; even though I have to say that the taxi driver tried his best to inject some excitement into us by living up to all I had heard about the driving skills of Italians. I must say that I found myself in full alert when this guy was just ten feet behind another car at a speed of 140 kmph but soon got used to it.

10 May 2011

We got up bright and early as we had planned a full agenda and were trying to squeeze in Rome and Vatican within just two days. Given the history of the city, that is quite a difficult task. Rome was once the centre of the civilized world and evidence of that is to be seen everywhere in the city. Italy was actually a collection of warring cities and Rome gained prominence by around 500 BC by winning many important wars. They set up a democratic form of governance, which was based upon a Senate which was elected from the people and then the Senate elected two Consuls from within the members of the Senate. Membership in Senate was for life whereas the Consul was for one year and could not be re-elected. They had a concept of emblazoning monuments and civil buildings with the initials SPQR which stood for Senatus Populusque Romanus (Senate and People of Rome). Quite obviously, their democratic traditions were very strong; of course, the rich and the powerful did get privileges and they controlled the Senate and the Government but even then to think they had such a form of governance 2500 years ago, with the foresight to put in a clause that one could be a Consul only for one term, is quite amazing. Probably, they understood the maxim that absolute power corrupts absolutely. In any case, the ambitious Julius Ceasar put an end to the Republican dreams of Rome. Ceasar had been growing in power because of some of his military victories and he wanted to be the supreme ruler without the restrictions imposed by the Senate. In those days, the Roman army was forbidden from entering the city and had to stay beyond the river called Rubicon – this was probably to minimize the interference of army in government. Ceasar crossed the Rubicon with his army in 49 BC (and hence the idiom “crossing the Rubicon”, which means crossing a point of no return) and that was the end of Rome as a republic. A group of Senators led by Brutus, rebelled and assassinated Ceasar in 44 BC but that was in vain as emperors continued one after the other.

These Emperors understood that they needed to keep their subjects entertained and engaged and so they built huge sporting arenas, the most famous of which – probably because it is still around – is the Colosseum. The Colosseum had a capacity of about 40,000 to 70,000 people and had 80 arches for people to enter. It was in the shape of an oval and had many levels of seating with the most important seats being closer to the action.

The floor where the gladiators fought was made up of wooden planks with sand spread over it. Under the floor, was a complex of rooms, cages for animals etc. These animals were brought up using a sophisticated system involving pulleys.

Today, the floor is completely destroyed as is the South side of the outer wall. The outer walls were 187 feet high and the arches in the higher levels were all filled with statues. There was also a bust of Emperor Nero inside the Colosseum.

After the Colosseum was shut down in the sixth century by the Christian emperors, it fell into a state of disrepair and it was used as a source for raw material for other projects. So, all the statues, marble etc. were ripped out and reused.

The Colossuem is proof of the engineering skill of the Romans. They seemed to be more adept at practical matters like building palaces, temples, houses, markets, sporting arenas, aqueducts etc. and not very advanced on arts, philosophy etc. The population of Rome in 100 AD was estimated to be 1.2 Million (it is 3 Million today, after 2000 years) and they had a stadium, Circo Massimo, which could seat 240,000 people!

Next stop was Trevi Fountain (Fontana di Trevi), the most famous fountain in Rome. Fountains were a feature of Rome while the empire was still functioning and were fed by many aqueducts. After the fall of the empire, many of the fountains and aqueducts fell into disrepair and it was only in 15th century that several projects were started to make these functional again. Trevi Fountain gained its name from the simple fact that it is at the junction of three roads. The idea for a fountain was conceived to mark the termination point of an aqueduct that brought water to Rome. After the aqueduct was repaired, a famous sculptor of those times, Bernini, was commissioned to redo Trevi Fountain but he did not finish it as the Pope, who was the sponsor, passed away. It was later torn down and rebuilt by another architect but some of the Bernini designs are still there. The fountain is very beautiful and is a must visit item on every tourist’s list. The water looked very clean and I guess it is possibly drinkable. There is a belief that if you toss a coin into the Trevi Fountain, you will return to Rome and many coins were seen inside the fountain. I read that the total money collected from the fountain in an average day is Euro 300!

From Trevi, we strolled on to the Pantheon. The ancient part of Rome is not very large and you can walk to most attractions. Pantheon is the oldest building in Rome, which is still quite intact. It was commissioned by Roman statesman Marcus Agrippa but it was ruined and later rebuilt in its present form by Emperor Hadiran around the year 126 AD.

It was meant as a temple for all the seven gods of Rome and hence called Pantheon. It is a very large circular room with a dome at the top; the dome is finished in concrete and has a hole in the centre. The hole at the top lets in sunlight and particular positions of the light that comes through the opening marks the days of summer and winter solstices.

It is the largest dome in Rome and has a diameter of 43.5 metres at the base, which then reduces to about 9 metres at the top. It is said that Michelangelo visited the Pantheon many times when he was rebuilding the dome at St. Peter’s Basilica and he was so impressed by the dome at Pantheon that he built the dome of St. Peter’s to be smaller than the one at Pantheon. The dome is built by using heavier materials at the bottom and thinner materials at the top – the base is about 6 metres thick and then falls to less than 2 metres at the top. The walls are made with handcut bricks and the columns are made of marble imported from Egypt.

In the seventh century, Pantheon was donated to the Pope Boniface IV and that marked the transition of Pantheon into a church – it is now the church of St. Mary and the Martyrs. There are many illustrious personalities buried in the Pantheon – this is a consistent theme with churches wherein they seemed to bury dignitaries in churches. The tombs in Pantheon include those of the great artist Raphael, first king of unified Italy, Vittorio Emanuele II etc. Raphael’s tomb has a statue of the Virgin and the Child and it seems Raphael had specifically asked the sculptor to make the statue for his tomb, before his death.

There are several important art pieces within the Pantheon including a 15th century statue of Christ on the Crucifix by Michelangelo, a 4th century image of the Virgin and the Child etc. The altar at the Pantheon is also an impressive sight.

We then proceeded to a 4D movie show, which was based on the history of Rome. This was a kind of cheesy thing to do but it did give a quick 20 minute perspective, in an enjoyable format.

After a brief rest, we proceeded to the Spanish Steps. This is the widest staircase in Europe and was built in the 18th century to connect Spanish embassy at the bottom of the steps with the church at the top. The embassy is in a square called Piazza di Spagna. This is a grand staircase and seems to attract a lot of people that visit the steps and the piazza for meeting and spending time together. Italy is full of these small squares that have a significant role to play as public spaces. I was quite impressed by this concept, may be because I was used to such public spaces when I was growing up. In our cities today, we are cooped up and there are very few public spaces and malls and shopping centres are taking over as poor substitutes. We saw many such squares throughout our stay in Italy, in all cities and small towns and people seemed to throng these places in the summer evenings. In the piazza, right next to the steps is the house where the poet John Keats lived and died.

There is a nice little church on top of the Spanish Steps and we went in for a quiet look. A service was in progress as we went in and I was most surprised to see that the dresses of the nuns and the priests resembled the Arabic traditional dress (dish-dash), quite a lot. May be there is a connection somewhere.

The last stop of the day was Piazza Navona, another one of those delightful public spaces. This was a circus (stadium) before and was converted to a square in the 15th century. The most important feature of Piazza Navona is the Fountain of the Four Rivers (Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi) by Bernini. The fountain has a basin as a base with a rock on it and an Egyptian obelisk that rises from the rock. There are also four river gods depicted on four sides of the rock. These rivers were supposed to represent four continents to which the Roman Catholic Church had spread – Ganges representing Asia, Nile representing Africa, Danube representing Europe and Rio de la Plata representing America.

This square was also filled with a lot of people with many artists displaying their wares and some playing music. Overall, the atmosphere was quite fun filled and enjoyable. We sat down at the piazza for some time and right next to us, an old man was singing Italian songs and his wife sat next to him. People were donating money to the couple. Even though the music did contribute to the ambience, one could not but help feeling sad for the old couple.

11 May 2011

We had made a booking for Vatican Museums for 9 am, as I was afraid of the possibility of a long queue. The advance booking saved us and we got in rather quickly. As you walked into the museum, the first thing that hit you was the vastness of the place. There was no way one could do justice to the place in a couple of days, let alone the couple of hours we had allotted for it. There are many, many art pieces here from various masters that Vatican acquired over the years. The lighting was not conducive to good photography and in Sistine Chapel, photography was not allowed at all.  Raphael had done a lot of work in Vatican and his last painting “The Transfiguration” can be seen here. Raphael was very a prolific artist and had produced many works and achieved great fame, even if he lived only for a short time (he died when he was thirty seven). In fact, in his sarcophagus, it is inscribed “Here lies that famous Raphael by whom Nature feared to be conquered while he lived, and when he was dying, feared herself to die.”

We saw an early work by Leonardo da Vinci and a painting by Caravaggio. As you see more and more art, one starts to appreciate the difference in the works of the masters but there is still a long way to go.

Ceilings of most rooms were painted with scenes from the Bible. The works were rather intricate and I could only wonder at the effort and time this must have consumed.

We did a whirlwind tour, pausing to take in views of some of the more important works. At some point we passed through the Gallery of maps, which had a splendid, ornate ceiling with rich carvings.

The most important attraction here is the Sistine Chapel. Sistine Chapel is well known for Michelangelo’s fresco “The Last Judgement” and this is considered as one of Michelangelo’s best works. After the Chapel was built, the walls were painted by famous artists like Botticelli, Perugino etc. Originally, the ceiling was a night sky scene but later, Michelangelo was commissioned to repaint the ceiling; a job that took him four years to finish. In the ceiling, he has captured the creation of Adam, the Original Sin and their punishment in the work named “Genesis”. It represents nine scenes from the book of Genesis: God separating Light from Darkness, Creation of the Sun, Moon and Planets, Separation of Land from Sea, Creation of Adam, Creation of Eve, Temptation and Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, Noah’s Sacrifice, The Flood and the Drunkenness of Noah.

Twenty three years later, he returned to start work on another fresco – The Last Judgement. This was planned on a grand scale and occupies the wall behind the altar, rising to the ceiling. The Pope chose the subject as a kind of warning to the Catholics to stay committed and not stray from the line of the Church, by depicting the grisly things that awaited them should they do so. It took six years for Michelangelo to finish this painting and it is said that the work was a matter of constant friction between the clergy and Michelangelo. The painting was done in a style unconventional at that time with Christ being shown with a muscular body (like that of Adam before he committed the Original Sin), angels were shown without wings etc. and that led to a lot of criticism. To make matters worse, many figures were naked but Michelangelo refused to make any changes. It is also said that he tried to bring in Pagan symbols into the painting, much to the chagrin of the Pope. He even painted some resemblance of one particular priest that criticized him and showed him as the judge of the underworld. After Michelangelo’s death, the painter Daniele da Volterra was commissioned to cover the genitals of the nude figures and he seems to have done that job well. Michelangelo’s work is so outstanding that one hardly notices the other masters like Botticelli. I must say that I was awe struck by the patience and need for perfection of a man willing to spend six years on one painting.

Sistine Chapel is where the Papal Conclave is held. After the Pope passes away, the Cardinals meet here to elect a new Pope and they are locked in till they elect a new one. Overall, the Vatican Museums look very rich and lavish and I started to get a sense of why this is so. Any visitor to Vatican will be awed by the splendour and wealth and I am sure that helped the Pope to extend his power by reinforcing faith. Most ordinary people would feel good to be part of something so obviously rich and powerful.

Every Wednesday, the Pope meets people at the St. Peter’s Square from 11 am and we landed smack in the middle of that when we exited the Vatican Museums. Some sort of a function was going on there with the Pope speaking at times along with some other priests. There was a huge gathering to witness that and they were all sitting patiently under the rather hot sun.

The square is very large and can easily hold tens of thousands of people. There is an obelisk right in the middle of the square and is supposed to have been used by Nero in one his circuses. The Egyptian obelisk seems to have been a favourite of the Roman Emperors.

The facade of St. Peter’s Basilica is very impressive and has an interesting story behind it. St. Peter, who is considered to be the first Pope, was persecuted by Nero. It seems that Nero blamed Christians for the famous fire in Rome though some stories say that he had started the fire himself to bring down some old buildings so that he could start making better ones. Unable to face the persecution, St. Peter left Rome and on the night that he left Rome, he had a dream. He saw Christ going to Rome and he asked him “Domine, quo vadis?” (Lord, where are you going) to which, Christ replied that he was going to Rome to be crucified a second time. St. Peter got the message behind the dream and went back to Rome and he was duly crucified, killed and buried at Ager Vaticanus, a stadium of Nero. The first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantin, built a church here in the 4th Century in St. Peter’s memory. The church fell into disrepair after sometime and a restoration project was started in the 15th century and it took 150 years to complete. Many well known sculptors and architects were associated with the Basilica but the one that is most credited is Michelangelo, who rebuilt the dome.

St. Peter’s Basilica is the second largest church in the world but it is not a Cathedral as it is not the seat of a Bishop. There are a lot of frescoes and paintings in the Basilica and it also has a small museum that holds various treasures, including a relic with a piece of the original wooden cross on which Christ was crucified. St. Peter’s bones are buried in the Basilica and there is a statue of St. Peter and he is holding the keys to heaven in his hand. The suggestion of a physical gate to heaven, which is locked and the keys held by a Saint seems to be an effort to convince people that there is indeed a heaven and entrance is strictly regulated. Christianity seems to have many such material aspects in its practice, possibly because it is a relatively new religion.

There is also a statue of the Virgin and the Son, depicting the scene of Christ being brought down from the cross. Mary looks younger than her Son as she is supposed to have never aged as she never committed any sin, including the original sin. Possibly, Christ looks older because he had taken on the sins of all mankind. Unfortunately, the light inside the Basilica was very dim and I could not get any decent photo of this statue.

An interesting point that I heard was about the altar facing east and supposedly, this was to show that even the Rising Sun bows to Christ, the Son of God. Most Pagan religions worshipped Sun and this was supposed to be an effort to establish Christianity’s superiority but I am not sure. Most Pagan temples also face East and for all we know, this might have been copied from that and a story developed at a later stage!

As we were leaving Vatican, we came close to the famous Swiss Guard of Vatican. They are practicing Catholics from Switzerland and act as the body guards of the Pope. They have been guarding the Pope and the Vatican from the 16th century. Their uniform is very colourful and does not convey the traditional formal message that army uniforms tend to.

Vatican consumed almost all of the day and we spent the evening at Piazza Venezia, which was very close to the hotel. Mussolini’s residence, Palazzo Venezia, is in Piazza Venezia and a picture is given below. He used to address crowds from the balcony that can be seen in the picture.

Another salient feature of the Piazza Venezia is “Vittoriano” a monument in the memory of unification of Italy and the first king – Vittorio Emanuele II. Vittorio himself is shown as seated on a horse. The monument also houses the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.




21 May 2010 

The work at Bern finished early and so I was able to catch an earlier flight into Milan and so was able to leave from Milan earlier than planned to Lake Como. I had booked a hotel in a village called Abbadia Lariana, which is on the eastern arm of the lake. I was hoping to get to the hotel by early evening so that I could take a look around when there was still some light. However, the GPS in the car ran out of power just after Milan and the car charger provided turned out to be faulty. Hence, I had to buy another charger and locating a shop proved quite tricky with no GPS, no map and no knowledge of Italian. Anyway, I managed to get one and arrived at Abbadia Lariana in due course of time. The hotel turned out to be quite okay and I was a bit apprehensive as I had done the booking in a hurry without much research.

Lake Como has an inverted Y shape with Como, at the base of the Western branch, being the most important town in the region. The lake itself is one of the three or four most important lakes in Italy and is 46 km long, 4.3 km at the widest point and has a surface area of 146 km. The town of Como is very ancient and was founded between 59 and 49 BC by Julius Ceasar.

Abbadia Lariana is very near a town called Lecco, which has a population of about 60,000. I went to Lecco for dinner and the weather being excellent, had it outside on the street in one of those European style places. The food was quite good and the wine and the ambience turned out to be even better. I like these European cafes where you can sit outside and eat or drink and watch people go by. Since there is hardly any dust or pollution, this is quite enjoyable.

22 May 2010

The hotel is on the lake shore and I awoke to a brilliant view. After breakfast, I checked with the receptionist on some suggestions of places to visit and she reeled out the normal touristy places like Como and Bellagio. However, I wanted to go to less crowded places the first day and luckily there was a good tourist guide provided by the district tourism authorities and that proved to be quite handy. I wanted to go up north to the top of the inverted Y and drive around the lake. The receptionist had no clue of what was up there as she had never gone there. Guess the story is the same everywhere; we never visit places close to where we stay!

My plan for the day was to drive around, touching upon places like Dongo (where Mussolini was captured after World War II), Stazzona, Colico etc. The idea was to go to small hillside villages, look at old churches, houses etc. and then drive along the western bank of the lake, go round the top and get back to the eastern bank. This meant I had to cross the lake in a ferry and I caught one at a town called Varenna. The drive upto Varenna was stunning and breathtakingly beautiful.  The road hugged the mountainside and twisted and turned. At best, it had just enough space for two cars to pass and at some places not even that. So driving was quite interesting and challenging. The weather was just perfect and that itself brought cheer to the heart. I have never driven in Italy before and had not done much research on parking rules etc. As a result, I parked in a paid parking area in the ferry terminal without paying the parking fees and thus got a ticket. I have no idea on how to pay the ticket and I guess the car rental company will bill me. Anyway, I got into the ferry and had a pleasant ride across the ferry to a place called Menaggio.

Menaggio turned out to be a nice little town but looked to be a bit too full of tourists for my liking and so, I continued on my way along the western bank of the lake. My immediate destination was the village of Rezzonico which had a very old castle built in the fourteenth century. When I arrived at the castle, I found out that it is a private residence now and hence not open to public. It looked impressive from outside, though not very big. I wonder how it will be to live in a medieval castle, in these times!

I decided to continue up the mountains and drove up to Stazzona. The tourist guide had mentioned that there were some restaurants in cave like surroundings called “Crotti”. I don’t know whether the restaurants had caved in or it was the imagination of the guy that wrote the guide or whether I missed it, I couldn’t find any. I stopped at a couple of other restaurants on the way but could not find out whether they were open or not as there was total misalignment on the lingua franca. I continued up the mountain and soon came to another delightful small town called Garzeno but could not find any open restaurant there. Soon thereafter, I came up on a small restaurant in the middle of nowhere; it was quite a way up the mountain. This turned out to be a very nice restaurant and more importantly, I could establish that they were open and willing to give me food. This place looked like a remote corner of Italy and I was sticking out like a sorethumb and was drawing curious glances. This was then it struck me as to how Westerners must be feeling when they visit remote places in Kerala. The menu was totally in Italian and for the people there, English did not seem to exist. So, I landed up with two huge dishes (one being a plate of cheese!) and a litre of wine; whereas I thought I was ordering a starter, main course and a glass of wine and cheese was nowhere in my mind. The wine was very nice and deceptive and served in a nice little jug. Hence, I was soon in a state of bliss and wondering why people wanted to stay in cities.

The thought of the difficult roads reined me in a bit and I decided not to finish the bliss inducing elixir. So, in due course of time, I parted company with the jug and drove to an Abbey called Abbazia di Piono. En route, I stopped at another nice little village called Peglio, which had an interesting complex of church, archway, assuary, rectory and cemetery. It was closed and so I could not go in. It was a very old building dating back to the VII Century.

After another spectacular, and at times hair-raising, drive I arrived at Abbazzia di Piona. The history of the place started in 610 AD and the abbey was thriving till the 16th Century. In the 18th Century it became a private property and was used as a farm. In the 20th Century, a wealthy family bought it and gave it to the Benedictine Cistercian congregation of Casamari. The current Abbey started functioning in the sixties. Many parts of the building date back to the twelve hundreds and there are some nice wall paintings in the courtyard.

Inside the abbey, there is a very nice courtyard with a tree and a hand pump. The chapel smelt of sandalwood and may be the wood linings and furniture are made of sandalwood. For some reason, I had not expected that sandalwood would be popular in Italy as I had associated Sandalwood with India and the tropics. One interesting aspect of the Abbey is that the priests distill their own liqueur even today and it is available for sale. At the store, I was subjected to the oddity of a priest in robes packaging and handing out liqueur. My curiosity got the better of me and I too bought a bottle. The liqueur is supposed to have some minor medicinal qualities and there are many flavours. The view around the Abbey is very beautiful and it is on the lake. Life in medieval times must have moved at a very slow, calming pace here. Today, the loud sound of some fast boat on the lake lends a jarring note to the atmosphere. I had parked the car in the village square and the walk to the Abbey was more than a kilometre and I met a couple from Milan on the way. They were impressed that someone from India had thought of visiting such a remote place.

The most noticeable aspect of the day was the beautiful scenery. It was absolutely gorgeous and while I have seen other places that are very beautiful, I have not experienced a whole day of such fantastic views. I drove for the whole day and it was beautiful everywhere – be it the quaint little villages or the mountain sides or the lake or the far of snow-capped peaks; it was just glorious. It was as if you want to take pictures all the time and that is all you want to do.

All the villages had a church in the centre and the churches were mostly medieval and built with stone – very, very nice. However, most of them were locked. I also noticed that many of these churches were built on hill tops – guess it was symbolic placement to show that God was above man! I have seen this approach in Indian temples too. Another aspect that struck me was about the cemeteries that were attached to these churches. All of them are maintained very well and have a peaceful, tranquil atmosphere. Having one’s loved ones being laid to rest in such surroundings seemed beautiful. Most graves had flowers on them and I guess one can feel the connection with those that have passed by, when there is a grave and in such calm environment. Another thing I noticed was that most tomb stones had pictures of the people buried there. I spent some time sitting in a cemetery and time seemed to stand still.

The night saw me at Lecco again and that was when I fully understood what madness football is for the Italians. Inter Milan were playing Bayern Munich in the European Champions League final and Inter Milan won the championship tonight. I was in Lecco when they won and soon the streets of Lecco were jammed full of people going around in their cars and walking around waving the Inter flags. They were honking incessantly and it was quite a cacophony and the traffic snarled up everywhere. The whole town seemed to go totally mad and it was quite an effort to get out!

23 May 2010

Today, my plans were to visit the tourist towns of Bellagio and Como and also take in some rural locales in between. Bellagio is located at the junction of the eastern and western branches and is quite an important point for tourists. Once again, the departure point of the ferry was from Varenna. Bellaggio looked very crowded and the streets that led to the town centre were very narrow, with space just enough for one car to pass. The receptionist had recommended some villa in Bellagio but after looking at the crowd, I decided to pass on it and went up the mountains to the village of Magreglio. Magreglio is interesting in that it has a church dedicated to cyclists, “Madonna del Ghisallo”. I had seen a lot of cyclists all around Lake Como and gathered that Italians were very keen on biking but I had not expected a patron saint and a church dedicated to cyclists. The church was built in the XVII century, which should be modern by the standards of the other churches I had seen! There is a picture of the virgin breast feeding above the altar and supposedly, it is greatly revered by the locals. What is most interesting is that the inside of the church is filled with medals, bicycles and other memorabilia donated by past champions. Most of the donors seem to be Italians and I could not find Lance Armstrong’s name there even though I looked for it – his was the only name I could readily recall!

From Magreglio, I decided to go further up to Asso and Canzo, which were referred to as places of “great interest” in the guide. All these fall under the Valassina area and the spectacular natural beauty continued here as well. On the way, I happened upon a very delightful old church and I could not resist stopping there to take a look. These unexpected opportunities are indeed the essence of such freewheeling drives.

Asso and Canzo turned out to be nothing more than small villages and in Canzo I came upon another church, which was open for a change. The interior looked quite rich with a very nice altar and well done ceilings, panels, organ etc.

By this time, I had less than half tank of petrol in the car and I was getting a bit worried that I may not find petrol stations in the mountains and since it was a Sunday, most places were self-service. Hence, I decided to drive on to Como as that is the largest town in the area. At Como, I parked near the Duomo (Cathedral) and had lunch at a nice pizzeria. Being wiser this time, I stuck to beer and ordered only one dish. The Duomo was closed and I could not go in. The building was not very impressive from the outside, especially as the word Duomo had automatically raised my mental reference to the one I had seen in Milan. The Duomo is very close to a nice square, where there were a lot of activities going on like music, dance etc. The one place that I wanted to visit in Como was the Volta Temple, dedicated to Alessandro Volta. He was born in Como in 1745. The museum itself was quite small and housed in a nice looking building.

Inside there were all sort of instruments that were used by Volta and in his time and also samples of his inventions. The most impressive was the various phases in the invention and development of the electric battery. Looking at the artifacts and reading through the text, I could not but be impressed at the amount of innovation and creative thought he had come up with. How could he have identified the proper materials for electrode, electrolyte etc.; what challenges he must have faced – I was left wondering about all that. In school when we learnt that he invented the battery, one almost took it as an everyday occurrence and never gave it a second thought! Given below are the various phases of the battery that were on display. Unfortunately, the artifacts were inside a glass cage and not well lit and I could not do much justice to the photographs.

There were also a few photographs and certificates and other documents but all of it were in Italian and I could not understand anything. It was an impressive experience overall and one felt an increased appreciation of Alessandro Volta.

At Como, there was also an exhibition of paintings by the Dutch artist Rubens and I wanted to see that. Unfortunately, there was a big crowd with the same idea and hence I could not get any parking. With that, I left Como and headed in the direction of another small village in the mountains called Palanzo, the main interest being the scenic drive. En route, I stopped at various petrol stations. At the first one, I could not find petrol mentioned and instead, found the word “gasolio” and that sounded close enough to gasoline for me. Fortunately, I decided to use my Blackberry and get an online translation and it turned out that gasolio was diesel and petrol was benzina in Italian. However, in all the gas stations I stopped, I found no mention of benzina and there were three or four different types of fuel with little price difference among and gasolio was present everywhere. All these petrol stations were unmanned and I was starting to get a feeling that Italians were very partial to diesel. After Palanzo, I did not want to take any more chances and decided to head to the next big town in the region – Bellagio. In the morning when I saw the town centre, it had looked like a nice to stop for a leisurely stroll in the evening.

At Bellagio, I located a petrol station (or rather, the GPS navigation tool did it for me) and fortunately, there was a person attending to the pump. Here again, I found no mention of benzina and I asked the guy where I could get some petrol. He seemed surprised at my question and pointed to one of his pumps that Super NB or something like that. That was when I realized that I had seen that at all the petrol stations I had stopped and this is how they referred to petrol. In any case, it was in a much relieved frame of mind that I drove off from the petrol station to the town centre.

It was very nice to walk through the narrow, winding lanes and it reminded me of the old town (Gamlastan) in Stockholm. Ice cream seems to be a big favourite among the Italians and it is referred to as gelato. I also tried a couple along the way and it was quite good; may be also because the day was quite warm. As in most lake side towns, Bellagio also has got a nice promenade along the shore, dotted with restaurants and bars. It was quite enjoyable to sit there quietly and watch people go by. It was starting to get late and the ferries had stopped operating. It was not very far to Abbadia Lariana by road and I was soon back at my hotel.

The two days were quite enjoyable with the great sceneries, weather and good food and I found the experience very nice even if I was by myself. Such a great place at such proximity to Milan must be a boon for all those that live in Milan. An hour and you are in this scenic setting – I guess many must have week-end homes in the Lake Como area. I felt very happy that I had decided to take this excursion in the week-end and not spent it wandering around Milan; there was no way that could have been as rewarding as this.