Saturday, March 28, 2009

Finished......finally

After three and a half years I have finally finished.

Lost, found, given away, rebought, stopped and started many a time, I have just read the final lines of J.M. Roberts' "History of the World". Probably the most remarkable bit of scholarship I have read. To deal with such an all encompassing subject without loss of interest or purpose and within only 1200 pages (of admittedly very small print) is a phenomnal achievement.

It is just a pity that this is the last version the author will ever write, passing away in May 2003. I feel compelled to recommend it to anyone who has an interest in the past and the influence it has on all our lives. A wonderful guide to how the ever entwining web of culture, politics and peoples fits together.

I conclude with his final, as ever, inciteful lines:

"...the past is with all of us, for good and ill. History, we must recognize, still clutters up our present and there is no sign that will come to an end."

Monday, March 23, 2009

Something brought this to mind...

"I don't know half of you half as well as I should like, and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve."

Nothing to cheer up the afternoon like an old quote that comes bungling out the recesses of the mind. Cheers JRRT.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Glorious Sienna

A sense of melancholy in leaving Venice was mixed with excitement at the road ahead. My first time at the wheel of a left-hand drive car and what a country to be doing it in - wonderful scenery and crazy drivers!

We sped across the flat of the Po Valley at quite a rate. Things slowed drastically as we climbed the Apennines. Sleet, fog and flailing lorries made the higher most section interesting as the road cut round and through many a mountain. After descending to grand vistas - the type your eyes are involuntarily drawn to even when you should be watching the road - and passing by Florence, we took the minor roads to Sienna. Through rugged valleys and small villages we arrived at the city state of old.
Rising out of the undulating Tuscan countryside and built of rocks of sandy hue, Sienna is a dream of a place. It has many a point of renown. Sienna is said to be founded by Remus, the brother of Romulus and as such the suckling wolf is as symbolic here as in Rome. It is home to the the oldest bank in the world, Monte dei Paschi, and a fascinating historical rivalry with its neighbour, Florence. It was though the feel of the place that captured me. Rarely, if ever, have I been so contently lost in company while wandering the streets of a far off city. At this time of year it is quiet and peaceful. Small winding streets are towered over by high medieval residences. At one point we even had the quintessential old buxom Italian lady hanging clothes from her upper window.
Sienna's highest point is adorned with a magnificent cathedral, planned to be the biggest in the world until funds ran out. A few streets below is the highlight of the city, Il Campo. That literally means "the square", in a modern context a brash and perhaps arrogant name rather like "the man", or indeed "the shit". But my word, like "the Dude" in the Big Lebowski, it more than justifies its lofty title.
I mean, on first sight you just can't believe it. Correct that, on tenth sight you can't believe it. Surrounded by grand buildings and shaped somewhat like a sink, from its zenith it runs down as it narrows to the town hall at the bottom. It is coloured by 9 two-tone-brown contracting sections enclosed by an outer byway. Twice a year this outer ring plays hosts to the wonderfully zany Palio. One of the most famous horse races in the world, it is an old style bareback race between brightly coloured representatives of 10 of the city wards.
video
Often brimming with tourists, on this day they were relatively sparse. Come a bit of hale and it emptied further leaving Christina and I perched in the middle with the setting all to ourselves - just one of those moments.

From there we braved the summit of the Torre del Mangia (Christina has vertigo). The fourteenth century bell tower is over 100m high and holds views beyond views.
video
The city plunges from its summit in a terracotta tiled flush until it hits the old town walls and lush Tuscan countryside beyond, whose rippled hills take over as far as the eye can see.
A sight I could not top, but back in the car and on to Rome to try...

Saturday, March 07, 2009

The Queen of the Adriatic

After the mild annoyance of Ryanair and their send you effing crazy elevator tunes while your face explodes into the dental abyss (the less said about that the better), we arrived in what many have descibed as the most beautiful city in the world - Venice.
In recollection, my mind starts with the wide panorama, exocets to the core and slowly zooms out.

The geographic setting of the city is unique, a stunning natutal stage. The Mediteranean fenced out by a string of thin curving islands that hold the lagoon and the old city at its heart. This satellite image is really worth a view:

http://maps.google.co.uk/maps?hl=en&q=venice&ie=UTF8&t=k&safe=on&ll=45.384948,12.365112&spn=0.671304,1.219482&z=10.

Like scrolling in on the emap, my mind moves to the Grand Canal. A snake of channel cutting back and forth through the centre of the city. Its emerald green waters lapping at the side of grand mansions, some rotting, but each individual. A vast array of boats chop up the water. From traditional gondola, via slick water taxis, to police and fire boats - even the mail is delivered by water.
Out from this main tributory branch numerous lesser canals, which in turn leaf into other waterways seperating the web of miniture islands. Here and there bridges of every design connect up the habitation. Some are simple wooden affairs, others rise in architectural glory. The Rialto Bridge, crossing the Grand Canal at a sharp inner coil, is famous for good reason. What a feeling to climb the middle stair lined with tack shops that hide the surrounding city and burst out onto the view from the open summit. We could not stop going back. Whether in the rain, shimmering sun or under a full moon reflecting in the water, the escalated view of the Grand Canal takes your breath away.
Looking back at my diary, one word dominates the pages, "charm". Days spent wandering were filled with discovering quiet back streets where barely a bird rustled and the over-packed centre full of bustle and brim. Unlike other cities that have a district, or two, of beauty, here it is endless. Yes, one can not deny the theme park element to a city purely given up for tourism, but the shere extent of its treasures allows you to brush this aside.
THE SEA GIVETH, THE SEA TAKETH

Venice's rise to prominence and huge power was aided by its shielded location. Like a miniature version of GB, its surrounding lagoon acted as a defensive moat against those tempted to attack. In modern times, this same thalassal setting continues to be a source of success. The challenge of bulding a cohesive city across hundreds of small islands and water has resulted in a uniqueness that draws millions to spend their dollar. This relationship though has increasing dangers.


05.30....niiiieeeeeeooorrrrrrr........niiiiieeeeeooorrrrrrrrrrr......a siren screams accross the city wrenching us from our sleep. What in the heck is going on? Try to focus. Out the window, the city is dark and an eery silence is rythmically violated to what I can only liken to an air raid siren. For a moment I have serious concern, but in the end I suppose the explanation was obvious. Flood.

This is by no means a new phenomena. There has been periodical severe flooding for centuries, but what has changed is the frequency. It is not rocket science to see that Venice is particularly vulnerable to global warming and the consequent rise in sea levels. If levels rise sufficiently, barring an extreme human effort to preserve the city, it will eventually be lost to the fate of Atlantis. In the short term, an ingenious system of floating barriers between the outerlying islands is proposed to hold off the highest tides, but locals seems sceptical about its effectiveness.
As we walked out of our hotel, the street was a good few inches under water. Where there were not barriers the water had flowed into houses - I dread to think what the foundations are like. As is often the case, when presented with a problem people eventually just get on with things, until the most serious of problems become everyday. Small bricks had been placed by the proprietor from the door of our hotel to the middle of the street where you could hop onto the raised walkways that criss-cross the city on such occurences. This could only get us so far. Eventually the walkways would run out and we would be faced with the choice of wading or turning back.
It came together to create a curious and quite comical atmosphere. On the one hand the locals were simply getting on with there every day things - still sitting at a cafe, or calmly pumping the water out of their shop floors. On the other hand, you had the tourists - some looking uncomfortable and upset, but by far the majority light heartedly enjoying the situation. Once kitted out with a pair of wellies (or poor plastic bag equivalents) they would transverse the city at will.

Along with the frivolity, one could not help bouts of concern. It is true that my first viewing of St Mark’s square as a lake with seagulls afloat is one I treasure, but think of all the damage to such a rare and beautiful place.
video
As you wander around the back streets or juttingly glide in a gondola along the canals, many of the buildings are in glorious condition, but many more are not. When you take a moment to look it is clear that much of the city is just rotting. A constant fight against the forces of nature in which there can only be one winner. Let’s just hope we hold up our end for a while yet.

GLORIES OF EMPIRE

When you wonder around the Palazzo Ducale, St Mark’s Basilica, the naval yard, or any one of a number of other magnificent sights this city has to offer, it is I would hope impossible not to be struck by the grandeur of Venice’s history. From the Sala del Maggior Consiglio (the Great Council Hall) adorned with the largest canvas painting in the world to the Triumphal Quadriga (Horses of St Mark) which has represented a baton of Roman civilisation.
While I was impressed, I viewed these relics in the light of a current passion of mine, Byzantium - the East Roman Empire that stood until Constantinople finally fell to the Ottaman Turks in 1453. My Western European education did not pay fair heed to the achievements and significance of this mighty power. Throughout history, it was in the interests of the Bishop of Rome to mask the achievements and status of Byzantium and the Greek Church such that it could sell itself as the “true” church and the successor of Rome.

The history of the Triumphal Quadriga reflects this in a microcosm. Remarkable pieces of art and engineering, they originate from Greco-Roman antiquity and represent the heights of that civilisation. For hundreds of years they stood at the Hippodrome of Constantinople representing the continuation of Roman civilisation. Only in 1204 during the disgraceful sack of the city by the crusaders were the horses spririted away to Venice. There they were shown for all to see. Venice (and the West) had taken on the baton. Napoleon himself illustrated the symbolic importance of these sculptures when, on marching into Venice and, as it happens, ending over 1,000 years of independence, he took the horses and placed them atop the Arc de Triumph. It was short-lived that France could hold on to this baton, but that is another story and the horses were returned to St Mark’s.
Byzantium acted as a buffer against the East. For centuries it protected Christendom and as its star waned Venice bit by bit stepped into the vacuum. Often as an ally, generally as a parasite, Venice became rich and expanded. My point is, to understand Venice, you have to understand its historical context. The magnificence you see around you is largely attributed to the abilities of the men who created it, but also to the opportunity that was there for the taking and that is where the Byzantine Empire played a part.

Ultimately, Venice’s finest moment came in 1571, when it played the central role in defeating the Ottaman Turks at the battle of Lepanto. With no Eastern Empire to act as protector, it was Venice that stepped into the breach, stopped the advance of the Turks and changed the face of history. Not until this current day were East to dominate West. But everything changes.

PASSING REMEBRANCE

Alongside triggering thought, Venice captured me. I simply fell in love with the place. Long will I look forward to again wander the endless back streets or float along its’ waterways. I fear that never again will I gorge on fine Italian food with the Rialto in front and the Grand Canal reflecting the full moon to my side. A truly romantic city. Where else in the world has man combined with nature to create beauty on this scale? I for one have seen no comparator.
I leave you with the view from the Campanile di San Marco and you can judge for yourselves.
video

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Taken aback by Bruges

Every so often a place knocks you for six. Sometimes unexpected, at others living up to hype. For me Bruges was a bit of both. Previous visitors I know wax lyrical about how marvellous it is, but for some reason such complements never transformed in my head to heightened expectation. They should have!
A near perfectly preserved medieval city, with misfortune as its guardian. The main artery of its trade and hence prosperity, the Zwin channel, silted up leaving the city frozen at its height of prosperity. No new grand buildings, just maintenance of the old. No doubt a disaster for the citizens of the time, but for the modern day tourist a God send.

Around every corner and across each bridge a new picture perfect image waited to impose itself. Rather than being quaint, the stonework and narrow canals maintain a rigid stoicism to the endless tourists.

A couple of said tourists - Felix and Fumie
Time fades memory. Things slowly shift from your forethoughts to ever further depths of the memory bank and eventually...gone. But, as this process runs, the mind grips hold of certain parts of an experience and refuses to let go. These parts become the slide-show you retell over and over. The crystal clear image from a heavy night out that still sticks years after the context has gone. Analogous to the the lime-stone stacks that remain stark and proud after the sea has removed all else - I am thinking Ko Phi Phi, Vang Vien, Vinales. Like those long-lasting remnants of memory, these stacks are distorted evidence of what once was. Think of your feelings towards an ex, then read your diary of what you thought at the time - correlation asplinter. Anyhow, the reason for this ramble is to highlight the two stacks of memory that I reckon will remain from this beautiful city....
One - Cutting through the narrow side-streets and entering the main square for the first time. High and grand, the surrounding buildings impose the success of their former patrons. Size is though only half the equation. As your eyes move from a wide perspective to scouring the particular, it is the fineness of the details that grabs. What architecture! Genuine exhilaration and surprise.
Two - A small table with wobbly chairs. A crisp Belgian beer slipping down the throat from a bulbous glass. Generous heating clashes with the cold from the windows and the outer door which refuses to stay shut. Beyond that frontier a cobbled road, bridge and canal. The water bends round an old building with little doors. Leafless trees and a faintly veiled bright-blue sky reflect in the distinct shards of ice. The civilization of winter.
Oh and the Dam

From Bruges, Amsterdam beckoned. Good, strange times in a city I have not been to for a while. Quite a combination of beauty, interest, fun and cool people. What made it all the better was meeting with a mate from travels past, Sumit (http://walter82.blogspot.com/2006/07/ko-chang.html ). It is great when, even after years, you still connect with people from brief times past. For that is what matters - connection. Regularity of social contact is simply no competitor. It was great to get a bit of a local's perspective, be introduced to "brown bars", reminisce of Power Girls and other things Ko Chang and knock back a few bevvies 'til the wee hours!