I love travelling. I love travelling by train in particular. I'm making my way across Europe in train after train, with the odd flight inbetween.
My travel methodology is never the same. Just as happy in a hostel with my trusty backpack as I am in a luxury hotel with Louis Vuitton trunks (if I owned any), on my own or with friends, no journey fits a template. It makes it exciting.
I moved to Spain to write my first book, a travelogue, City Chronicles: A Tale of Nine Cities. I have self-published and I am still enjoying Spain and have written aand published the second of the trilogy, City Chronicles: A Little Bit of Italy. I blog about my travels, writing, and life in general.
I am excited by the research that accompanies my books as well. With the knowledge that a degree in Humanities brings (literature, history and Classical Studies as specialities in my case) and an enquiring mind, I'm out to find the old, new and different in the world. Architecture, history and art adds colour to the different cultures I encounter.
Córdoba sits on the River Guadalquivir in the north of the Spanish province of Andalucía and is filled with the remnants of its rich history, a good portion of which can be found in La Judería - the Jewish Quarter.
The site to which most tourists flock to when first arriving in Córdoba is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Mosque/Cathedral and its surrounding streets. We made our way from our cheap and cheerful hotel on the far side of the river, across the much renovated Roman Bridge, past the statue of San Rafael in its centre, towards the the Jewish Quarter. To our left-hand side was the Alcázar of the Christian Monarchs, the Martos Water Mill and the Royal Stables, but swimming with the tourist tide we made our way to the Cathedral.
We jumped stream and dipped into the sixteenth century Palace of Congress. Currently a congress and exhibition centre, for two hundred years it had been the city's only health centre, the hospital of San Sebastian. Arriving two days after Christmas we were treated to a living Belén (nativity). Mary and Joseph had upped sticks and left Baby Jesus swaddled in his manger (not a real child I hasten to add) but the centre of the courtyard was alive with donkeys, sheep and lambs and ducks and turkeys. Having swept a few children to one side Stefano was soon waving a piece of hay in the direction of the lambs and was rewarded with the chance to tickle one under the chin. We then re-joined the flow around the side of the cathedral to enter the only 'mosque to cathedral' conversion in Spain and what had been the third largest mosque in the world.
We avoided the queues by purchasing our tickets from the machines (8€ each) then into the barely lit cathedral. It is indeed a huge building built on the site of the basilica of San Vicente and a previous, more primitive mosque with work starting in 785 under Ab'd al-Rahman I. Work continued over the coming two centuries with extensions by Ab'd al-Rahman II and III, Al-Hakam II and Almanzor. The striped arches of the mosque stretched away before our eyes, optical illusions created at every turn of the head and I found the initial view quite inspiring. But this is a very large building and after a while one can tire of the same look. Around the edges of the building are the Catholic shrines and chapels, many of them poorly lit, making viewing the details within very difficult. Our first lap of the site took us criss-crossing across the building so that we missed the cathedral built within the mosque. In the 16th century, Bishop Manrique convinced Carlos V to give him permission to build inside the mosque with the agreement that Alhaken II's extension should not be touched. The cathedral building spans nearly two centuries of changing architectural styles. The design of the cathedral is in the shape of a Latin cross and includes Gothic vaulting together with other Proto-Baroque vaults and a Renaissance cupola. The main altarpiece was sculpted in marble and finished in the 17th century, and the magnificent 18th century pulpits on either side of the main arch are in marble and mahogany, by the sculptor Miguel Verdiguer. From the same period come the impressive choir stalls, by Sevillan master sculptor Pedro Duque Cornejo, where almost every square inch of mahogany is carved with a wide range of images. As work took place on both aspects of the building over centuries the change in architectural styles, both Muslim and Western can be seen.
Back under the blue Andalucían sky we took to wandering around the streets of the La Judería peeking into some of Córdoba's renowned patios, which I have no doubt will look incredible when the flowers are in bloom, and eyeing up the prices of the menu del día advertised outside various restaurants. At prices between €8 and €10 for three courses and a drink we were pleasantly spoiled for choice.
On our wanders we stopped at the Mudejar House whose gateway dominates the facade at the end of the street in which it stands. Emerging from the winding streets we passed the Caliphal baths and headed towards the Alcázar. Once a Roman fortress, the castle became the residence of the Christian kings from whence the conquest of the Nasrid kingdom and the journey which led to the discovery of America were planned. Climbing the towers affords wonderful views across the Jewish Quarter, along the river, of the Royal Stables next door and the Moorish designed gardens with their water features. Inside the Mosaics Room are wonderful Roman mosaics from the second and third centuries AD mounted on the walls. A peek from the window of the Mosaics Room showed the excavated Roman Baths. Closer examination showed broken wooden walkways so I doubt that anyone will be able to walk above them in the near future and get a closer glimpse of how the baths were laid out. Mid-afternoon and the sun was at its zenith in a clear blue sky - a perfect day for enjoying the gardens of the Alcázar.
The water sparkled, the trees were laden with ripening oranges and the carp chased each other around the ponds rising up to pluck insects from the water's surface. Moorish gardens were modelled on the effects of irrigation in an otherwise dead, dry world. The vast green blanket of cropland between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers served as an example of what was possible when water was added. Early Islamic gardens were an idealization of this agricultural land; these small oases were crossed with water channels and filled with shade trees, uncommon features in a desert region. The Alcázar was no exception and sitting on a bench between tall evergreens watching the water spouts catch the sunlight was a relaxing experience. If you can ever find a quiet moment in the public Moorish gardens take advantage of it - the soothing sound of water and shade from the sun takes you far from the madding crowd and everyday pressures.
With the afternoon creeping on we re-entered the winding streets and headed past the synagogue (sadly closed) and the Sepharad House nearly missing the entrance to the Casa Andalusí - and that would have been a travesty. A 12th century house it has been renovated to showcase the Hispano-Islamic houses of Andalucía and does so very well. The intimate courtyards and rooms exhibit coins, books and a model of the first paper-making machines to arrive in the the West, with a description of how the process worked. Muslim art, decorative tiles and arches combined with the scent of lemons and incense-sticks and soothing Islamic music make this a serene experience. The cellar is not to be missed either. Past the utensils and wooden buckets is a Visigoth mosaic. This is a small but perfectly formed museum and was my personal highlight of the trip.
With a few miles under our belts (we had also walked from the train station to our hotel which the man at the Tourist office had told us was 'muy lejos' but we ignored him and carried on regardless) a fortifying drink was required. Just up from the Casa Andalusí was Bodega Guzman, a bar frequented by locals - my kind of watering hole. With a small glass of wine for a solitary €, served in what looked like a sherry schooner (the wine was local though it was not a sherry) we sat in a room decorated with bull-fighting memorabilia and soaked up the atmosphere as well as the wine. The men sat around the tables with their schooners and tapas of jamon and queso talking about the daily affairs of home and state.
The beauty of this part of Córdoba is that you can happily wile away the hours just wandering the twisting alleyways enjoying the architecture, the patios glimpsed through doorways, dipping into teterias to sip on mint tea or a bodega for a stronger tipple. And that is what we did until weariness took its toll and we headed back to the hotel. We re-emerged when the moon was climbing through the skies and the bridge and city was lit up.
The Marche region of Italy has a lot to offer in terms of small towns with medieval architecture and perfectly proportioned piazzas. Ascoli Piceno is no exception.
We had taken the train from Grottammare to Ascoli Piceno on a Friday morning as students made their way back from the university at Macerata to home for the weekend; some with pets in travel cages, all with a week's worth of laundry in their bags. The train stations were small, many unmanned and usually covered in graffiti as we trundled along the coast before turning inland.
From the train station the modern town leads uninspiringly past the Porta Maggiore, the town's mascot - the woodpecker - and a statue of Cecco but once you squeeze along the narrow cobbled streets and into one of the old town's squares you are transported. There are signs of modern life - cars zip along streets not much wider than themselves and helpful brown tourist plaques are stuck on walls - but the feeling is definitely of past times. First for us, and for any who wish to get information on the town was the Piazza Arringo, so named as the square held public assemblies after the founding of the free city-state. The tourist information office is through a driveway, which in turn leads to a pretty courtyard up the stairs from which is the Pinacoteca Civica.
The Pinacoteca is home to a number of art works from thirteenth century triptychs to nineteenth century secular pieces as well as sculptures. My favourite saint, Sebastian (who I adopted during my journey from Venice to Rome), was much in evidence and it was interesting to see how his depiction - particularly his hairstyle - changed through the ages. The sculpture of the Sleeping Shepherd in the Shepherd's Room was incredible. Not since I'd first met Bernini in the Piazza Navona had I been so struck by the detailing created in marble. The shepherd boy's belt looked as if it had just been tightened, the loose ends curving over his waist. The lacings and soles of the footwear were realistically tied around socks that gaped baggily at the knee. The boy's slightly open mouth seemed more than capable of gentle snoring as he slept. The softness of the boy contrasted with the harder elements of his clothing reflecting the harsh reality of shepherding work for such a young child - no wonder he slept.
We had purchased a three part ticket which covered the Pinacoteca, the Museum of Ceramics and the Museum of Contemporary Art. Our route took us through the Piazza del Popolo, one of the best proportioned piazzas in the central part of Italy. The piazza took on its rectangular appearance during the 1500s when the porticos were added to keep the artisan shops out of sight. I have little doubt that the proportions are pleasing and that the colonnades, church, Palazzo dei Capitani and Caffe Meletti go to create a wonderful ambience but sadly these were lost to me amidst the construction of an ice-rink. This made photographing equally difficult despite the boyfriend climbing as high as he could.
At one time Ascoli had two hundred patrician towers in its environs. King Frederic II ordered the destruction of ninety of them in 1252. Around fifty remain though many have been absorbed into other buildings or turned into bell towers. The Torres Gemelle (twin towers) in the Plaza S. Agostino are a perfectly preserved example of how the many towers would have been. Twenty-five metres high and with a slight lean to them (must be an Italian trait) they are annexed to the house of the Merli family.
The Ceramics Museum is a place to be enjoyed by those with a specific interest in said art. There are few exhibits and I was disappointed with the selection, but then my interest does not lie there. The most interesting display I found was that which consisted of modern work designed to celebrate the 150 years of Italy's unification. One piece in particular I thought summed up how the rest of the world sees Italy...
I was not, therefore, holding out much hope for the Galleria d'Arte Contemporanea (Gallery of Contemporary Art) and to start with it felt as if my fears were going to be met. Then we turned a corner, literally, and met with Ernesto Ercolani. Humour abounds in his work and it made the visit to the gallery worthwhile. A native of Ascoli, Ercolani was also the curator of the Pinacoteca for twenty years but his work is quite removed from that you would find there. Ercolani's work is a humourous look at some of life's events and type of people. 'Poet with Blue Dog' was amusing but the large 'Welcome' had so much going on that we could have stood there for hours continually finding new nuances.
Weaving our way back through the town we returned to the Piazza Arringo and entered the Cathedral which dominates one end of the square. Saint Emidio, after whom the cathedral is named, was a native of Trier in Germany and the first bishop of Ascoli. Emidio was beheaded by the Romans, too effective in his preaching by all accounts, but the miracle attested to him is that he picked up his head and carried it off for proper burial. Whatever the circumstance, Emidio is the patron of the town and protector against earthquakes. In 1703 earthquakes destroyed many cities in central Italy but Ascoli Piceno remained untouched. There is further 'proof' of Emidio's protectorship in the story of the earthquake that caused fleeing Germans to leave the town before they had finished destroying all the bridges in the town, at the end of World War II. The highlights of the Cathedral that bears this saint's name are the the crypt and the baldacchio over the altar. I found the crypt too well-lit to provide any atmosphere, and the statue of Emidio and some other areas were undergoing restoration work but it was an interesting chapel with burial chambers leading off of it. The golden baldacchio was also well-lit and so shone brilliantly making it a focal point of the church. At times the lighting overpowered areas and it was only afterwards, when looking at pictures that I realised how well decorated the area above the altar was.
I left Ascoli Piceno with a feeling of contentment. I had seen some wonderful art and a beautiful old town that had retained its Medieval and Renaissance architecture whilst not seeming like a living museum. As we neared the train station with the sun setting and the chill creeping upon us I had made my first successful and enjoyable foray into the Marche region of Italy.
In the hills above Grottammare is the town of Ripatransone. With breath-taking views of the Adriatic it is not only a pretty town with museums, churches and art gallery but also home to the claim of narrowest alley in Italy.
I must admit that the alleyway was our primary reason for going to Ripatransone, to see whether we could easily walk through a gap between two houses that was no wider than 43 cms (I'd seen videos on Youtube of slim people making the passage with apparent ease - I was not convinced I would do the same).
We arrived at 13.00, the start of siesta, the only people in the streets were the children going home from school. The smell of cooking and log fires wafted into the Marche air, but there was little visible sign of life. We wandered the streets, all cobbled, each exuding a different charm, until we came upon the square, Piazza Donna Bianca de Tharolis, with its war memorial and cannon. The cannon was an interesting artefact from WWI with seats and foot rests either side of the barrel. Not a seat I would like to fill.
From there we followed the plaques to the narrowest alley. As we wound our way down I thought we had found the alleyway. A pathway that looked too small, with steps going down between two buildings, met all the criteria except I could walk down it normally. At the bottom another brown sign pointed us in the right direction but if it had not been for the fact that I was looking for it, I would have missed it. The 43 cms relates to the point at which an average man's shoulders would pass through, further up it narrows to about 38 cm. So preoccupied were we with making our way down and taking pictures of Stefano trying to prise me out of the alley at the bottom (I promise I wasn't really stuck) that I neglected to take a picture of the alley itself!
We continued our wanderings around the town which remained as dead as a town of that size can be. All the buildings, even the churches remained resolutely shut - a reminder if one was needed that Italy shuts for lunch. That did mean, however, that we could enjoy the town for its architecture and ambience without interruption. We passed out of the town via the lower roads, beyond the medieval walls towards Le Fonti.
The buildings around the water source (Le Fonti) were created in the fourteenth century outside the boundary walls. The fountains were used as wash houses with the rinse cycle in one area, the soaping in another. Wonderfully they are still being used today; we found recently washed laundry hanging up to dry under the roof of one the wash houses. Above the fountains is an amphitheatre which is used for outside concerts and stage performances.
We wound round the edge of the town, along its medieval walls and headed back down towards the sea. We had been unable to see the museums and art galleries due to being pressed for time but the town was worth the trip for its look and the fun of making it through the narrowest alley in Italy.
With unerring lack of timing we arrived in Fermo just as everything started to shut. We did manage to slide into the tourist office before the key was turned and ascertained that 3.30pm was re-opening time. Just 3 hours to wait then! Fortunately the winter sun was high in a blue sky, a food market was in evidence and stone benches leaned against the Piazza del Popolo's colonnaded sides.
Food from across Italy was on offer - award winning salami, oranges from Sicily, cheeses from Sardinia, olives from all over and fresh from the fryer a local food, olive and meat fried balls. I did not stop with the local delicacy but tried the mozzarella and cremini (cream) versions as well. A tad pricey at 5 euros a pop but very tasty, though you need a sweet tooth for the cream version.
In between olives and fried balls we slowly roamed the streets of Fermo. Situated on the top of a hill the old town of Fermo is similar to many of the hill-top towns of central Italy. Within the town's walls are narrow winding streets that open up into pretty piazzas. Dark doorways lead into atmospheric churches, a glance up and you see pretty balconies and weathered statues whilst a peek down an alleyway can award the viewer with a pleasing view across the countryside - and so we passed some of the time.
The stallholders congregated on the sunny side of the square as trade slowed to a barely perceptible pulse and regaled each other with tales of mad cousins, aging grandmothers and alcohol-induced happenings. We watched the street cleaner armed with his broom and spade carefully sweep up invisible detritus as the hands of the clock slowly turned.
At 3.30 we were at the Tourist Information office's door filled with pent up enthusiasm. 3 part tickets purchased - Roman Cisterns, Pinacoteca and the Villa Vitali - we hastened next door for a 25 minute dash around the Palazzo dei Priori. This was not enough time to do the palace justice as it houses not only the Archaeology Museum on the first floor but the Pinacoteca and the Sala de Mappamondo upstairs (the police station is housed in the ground floor).
We skipped through the archaeological artefacts as our preference lay in the art upstairs. It is an impressive display considering we had already been spoiled by the Pinacoteca in Ascoli Piceno. The minatures telling the life-story of Saint Lucy are exquisite but when we walked into one of the rooms there was one picture that was head and shoulders above the rest, and we thought that before we realised it was a Rubens; but for me the best was yet to come...
When the attendant unlocked the heavy dark doors I was not ready for the assault on my senses - tears pricked my eyes. The scent of aging manuscripts and books filled my nostrils and I looked around a room that was filled from floor to ceiling with books. To one side stood a large globe made in 1713 by the Abbot Amanzio Moroncelli from strips of paper - a similar one stands in the Vatican and has been somewhat botched by previous years' attempts at restoration. I could quite happily have sat in the middle of the small roped area that we were confined to and inhaled the scent of centuries of writing for the remainder of the day. My enthusiasm must have been noticed by the attendant as she smiled for the first time as I gabbled away questions that Stefano translated into sensible Italian. I would have given anything to hold one of the manuscripts in my hands but instead made do with the digitalised copies that can be viewed on a large screen outside the room. As we looked at the rich colours and ornate decorations of an 11th century prayerbook we were called away to our next appointment.
Churches are not just places of spiritual contemplation, they reflect the architectural preferences of the times in which they were designed, built and often re-built. Sofia has a plethora of churches that range from the Roman times to the early twentieth century. I made what could be described as a valiant effort to see as many as possible in one day without boring my companions (or myself for that matter) or to the detriment of other Sofia sights. We managed by taking a route that led us from hotel to churches, a market and a lovely bar on a warm and sunny day that belied the previous day's greyness.
From our hotel we turned onto Bulevard Knyaginya Mariya Luiza and toward Sveta Nedelya church which stands on a plaza around which the traffic flowed. The snow on the mountains twinkled in the sun that was making a welcome appearance and the slush no longer stained our boots as we made our way to the church. We were at the hub of the historical Sofia with trams rattling past which we successfully managed to dodge.
Sveta Nedelya Church
Attribution: Plamen Agov • studiolemontree.com
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Sveta Nedelya stands on the site of a medieval church and has been damaged and rebuilt a number of times. At one time the body of the Serbian king Stefan Mulitin lay within its walls, but now only relics remain. In 1925 Communist insurgents tried to murder Tsar Boris III and his cabinet at a funeral mass but succeeded only in killing 123 others. This Saturday there was an altogether happier affair taking place as a wedding was in progress. The church is second only to the Aleksandar Nevsky Memorial church in its importance as a place to worship in Sofia. The wedding prevented our entrance and so we made our way to an altogether smaller building.
Sveta Petka of the Saddlers
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license
As we crossed the roads amongst bulldozers and men in day-glo waistcoats we could see the roof of the building of St Petka of the Saddlers situated below us. How to reach it was a different matter. We finally discovered the way in was via a subway and we entered what turned out to be the most arresting of all the churches in the city. Dark and atmospheric, with its vaulted apse and crypt it was in constant use by Sofian women in headscarves praying in front of saints. The unusual name arises from Petka being adopted as the patron saint of the Saddlers Guild who used the church for its rituals in the Middle Ages. The mural paintings are dark and brooding. It is definitely worth a look around this most spiritual of surroundings.
St George Rotunda
Photo in the public domain
Our next stop was the Rotunda of Sveti Georgi which is hidden behind the Sheraton Hotel.The hotel provides a contrasting backdrop to the round red brick of the fourth century church which holds incandescent frescoes under its small dome. Due to our arrival at the tail end of winter the church was not open for internal inspection, donations for heating are requested during the variable opening times. (Summer has fixed opening times).
It was a day of weddings; as we passed the Russian church a happy couple emerged into the afternoon sunshine. We left them to their celebrations and made our way to the park by the Aleksandar Nevsky Memorial Church. A market was in full swing selling everything from modern art, Nazi and Cold War memorabilia and silver jewellery. The good thing about backpacking is the disinclination to carry more than necessary and this prevented wanted but not needed purchases. Salvation from temptation came in the form of the Aleksandar Nevsky church which seems to have taken the best of Sofia's church architecture and created a masterpiece.
Aleksandar Nevsky Cathedral
Started in 1882 the majority of the construction was carried out between 1912 and 1914. The larger domes of the basilica form a cross and are mirrored in the smaller domes on the building. Some, including the main dome, shone bright gold whilst the others contrasted in green. Aleksandar Nevsky to whom the church is dedicated was a Russian prince in the thirteenth century who was cannonised by the Russian Orthodox Church in the sixteenth century. The church was financed by public subscription though who decided that God should glower down on the congregation below I could not find out. It is a cavernous church that is large enough to hold 5000 worshippers at one time most of whom stand or kneel. Royal visitors could have sat on what looked to be very uncomfortable marble thrones guarded by marble lions.
But by far and away my favourite church that we entered was the Russian Church. With the final vestiges of the wedding swept away I could appreciate the wacky architecture and colouring of the church with its green roofed porch, gilded pinnacles and emerald spire against the brilliant white of the main building. It is like a very elaborate wedding cake. Officially known as the church of St. Nicholas the Miracle-Maker (Blessed) the interior is in stark contrast to the outside. The inside of the church is smoke blackened and the smell of candle-wax and incense made for a heady scent. The murals were hard to make out as a result of the smoke damage so we headed into the crypt to see the tomb of Archbishop Serafim who was a much revered leader of the city's anti-Bolshevik, Russian emigre congregations. The contrast between the interior and exterior of the church was marked and added to its mysticism making it my favourite of all the churches we visited.
There are a good many more churches within Sofia, including the churches of St. Sofia, Sveti Sedmochislentski and the chapel of Sveta Petka Paraskeva which is not to be confused with the other Sveta Petka, which is difficult as they are both accessed from below street level and close to each other, but it wuld be remiss to miss out on them altogether.