Sunday, 30 December 2012

A Wonderful 2012 - Here's to an Equally Brilliant 2013


Looking back at my travels in 2012 I realised I've been to quite a few places.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Not Quite the Orient Express

We strolled along the platform at Sofia, past the modern, sleek, comfortable looking train, where passengers were already relaxing with a glass of wine. In the distance was a smaller, distinctly older cluster of carriages.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Ascoli Piceno - Cittá d'Arte

Cathedral of S. Emidio

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.

Friday, 26 October 2012

From Bristol with Bubbles and Bumble Boxes

Bristol Cathedral
©Deborah Cater

Gloriously half-empty, my flight from Bristol to Málaga yesterday was both enlightening and surprisingly tasty. As a frequent traveller who nonetheless has to count the pennies/cents/groszy, I take the cheapest flight available to get me to my destination (when I'm not on the train that is). This proved to be Easyjet. In need of some nibbles I perused the Boutique and Bistro brochure for the Snack Pack staple that has seen me right on previous flights. It was not there. It has been replaced by the appallingly named, though prettily decorated Yumble Bumble Snack Pack and the Feel Good Snack Box (£4/€5). Not being a fan of dried fruits but a cheese-aholic I plumped for the Yumble Bumble which offered hummus, mini grissini sticks, spreadable cheese, crackers, Spudmuckers crisps, a yoghurt and apricot bar and a Lindt chocolate.


One of Easyjet's tasty snack boxes

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

SOFIA (II) Churches

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.

Friday, 12 October 2012

SOFIA (I) Synagogue and Market


Sofia, capital of Bulgaria, a city that has been part of numerous empires and political and idealist states, is doing its best to rise phoenix-like from the ashes of communism. It has not been an easy task and Sofia's true colours are still a little besmirched from the post-WWII years but it is growing both physically and economically.

In March 2009 I arrived in Sofia as the last of the winter snow lay in grey heaps at the side of the roads and a pale sun did its best to lift the gloom. Our hotel was a small boutique establishment which on closer examination of the literature revealed itself to be the first gay hotel in Sofia. It was ideally positioned not far from the shopping district and within easy walking distance of the numerous churches and monuments of the city. Particularly easy to reach were the synagogue and market hall opposite the hotel.

Monday, 8 October 2012

The Beauty of Carmel and St. Teresa of Avila Medal


Whilst renovating a house in the Andalucían mountain village of Salares a friend discovered within one of the walls a religious medal. One evening I had a quick look to see if I could find out anything about it and was very pleased to be able to identify its potential age, its subject and a little of the background history.

Although the medal is worn it is still possible to make out the inscriptions on each side of the medal. On one side is a female saint with hands clasped together in prayer with the inscription .S.Teresia whilst on the other is the Virgin Mary holding the child Christ with the inscription Mater.Decor.Carmel. This provided a very good starting point and I set out to look for the most appropriate Saint Teresa.

I decided that the most likely of the saints was Saint Teresa of Avila who was a Spanish mystic and became one of the most revered women in the Catholic Church for her teachings and writings, becoming a Doctor of the Church which is an accolade attained by very few women. As Teresa was a Carmelite nun it gave greater credence to my having settled on the right saint as Carmel is part of the inscription. Teresa is the patron saint of headache sufferers, sick people, Spanish writers and lace makers amongst others.  Born in Toledo on 1515 she died in 1582 and was canonised in 1622. Lace-making is still a very popular craft in the mountain villages of the Axarquia region of Andalucía including Salares, Sedella and Competa and with that in mind I have hazarded a guess that this may well have been the reason that St. Teresa was chosen for the subject of the medal though further research would be required to make this a more definitive assumption.

As I looked for images of this medal or similar I was pleased to come across what was almost an exact replica of the one I had in front of me. Produced in the 1990s it was a copy of a medallion that had been among the cargo of a shipwreck in 1772 off the coast of Anguilla in the Caribbean. The ship El Buen Consejo left Cádiz bound for Vera Cruz on May 29th, 1772 and hit the reef off of Anguilla in the Caribbean on July 8th. On board were 52 Franciscan monks who were set to carry on from Vera Cruz to the Philippines on missionary work; with them they had a stock of bronze medallions. The contents that remained within the shipwreck were brought to the surface post 1986 having been out of sight for over 200 years. Contemporary reports of the shipwreck say that the ship was grounded in shallow waters allowing the Spaniards to remove a good deal of the cargo and supplies before the hurricane season hit and the ship was sent to the bottom of the sea with some, if not all, of the medallions on board.

Taking into account the dates of the canonization of St.Teresa, the shipwreck and rediscovery of El Buen Consejo, the place in which the medal was discovered and the amount of wear on the medal we can be very certain that the medal can be placed within the date ranges of 1622 and 1986. It would be fairly safe to reduce the time period still further. The earliest date cannot be before 1622 as that was when Teresa of Avila was canonized, that is therefore an unmoveable date. The wreck of El Buen Consejo was not rediscovered until 1986 (of course the medals may have continued to be produced so there may not be a definite link to El Buen Consejo) and combined with the fact that the medal was found within the wall of a house that had not had any renovation carried out in villagers’ memories, the medal can almost certainly be assumed to date from prior to 1900. A good number of the houses in the village of Salares date from about 200 years ago but the records are hard to find regarding specific properties. Stretching the hypothesis of the date of the medal even further it is possible that the medal could date from around the time of the shipwreck of El Buen Consejo in 1772 when we know for certain that medals of this description were being made. A conservative view therefore of the dating of the medal would be from 1622 to 1986 whilst an optimistic view would be from 1622 to 1772.

In order to fully ascertain the date of the medal more research needs to be carried out:
  •   The medal needs to be tested to discover the type of metal from which it is made (quite likely silver or a nickel based mix),
  • the date of construction of the house in which it was found needs to be ascertained
  •  more information on the production of the Beauty of St Teresa Carmel medal, i.e. which areas produced them, how were they distributed and so on.


In the meantime the medal is being cared for and enjoyed by its new owners.

Information on the shipwreck of El Buen Consejo can be found at http://www.ecu.edu/cs-cas/maritime/upload/ecur015.pdf



Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Mijas Pueblo



Off to the garage The Beast goes
Nestled into the foothills of the Sierra de Mijas is one of Andalucía’s well-known pueblos blancos or white villages. Just 8 kilometres from Fuengirola the village of Mijas has become a popular tourist destination. We had planned to arrive in the relative cool of the morning, take in the sights and then move on to the lesser visited but just as interesting Coín, but fate intervened. With steam issuing forth from the bonnet of The Beast I had no option other than to pull over and wait for the grua (Spanish equivalent of the AA/RAC but not as speedy and less likely to fix your vehicle) to tow my sickly vehicle to the garage. As luck would have it a friend was passing by and after waiting for help we were ferried to Mijas in a working car (many thanks Jan).




There was a settlement on the site of modern Mijas in prehistoric times. It became known as Tamisa during the Roman occupation and was a stopping point on the trade route between Málaga and Cádiz. Later Mijas came under the rule of the Moors and resisted the Catholic Kings attempts to remove the Moors from the peninsula and restore the country to Catholicism during the siege of Málaga in 1487. Eventually surrendering, and with many of the inhabitants sold as slaves, the village changed its allegiance and stayed loyal to the crown earning the title of ‘Muy Leal’ (very loyal) during the Revolt of the Comuneros a few years later. Evidence of all these parts of Mijas’ history are still there to be enjoyed along with the more modern industries of papermaking and of course tourism.

Fería decoration 
Dropped off at the entrance to the village we passed through a garishly decorated turreted arch that was a leftover from the village’s fería of the week before when the patron saint, Virgen de la Peña, was celebrated with flamenco, music and a party atmosphere. It was to her shrine that we made our way, past the burro (donkey) taxis. As with all legends there is conflict over the dates of discovery, miracles and attendant acts concerned with the shrine but the general consensus is that for five centuries an image of the Virgin Mary was hidden within the outcrop/hermitage/tower only being discovered when two shepherd boys were led there by a dove. It is now an intimate place of worship.
Shrine of the Virgen de la Pena















Donkey at rest
When tourism first hit the village of Mijas the men who returned from work on their burros were often stopped to have their photograph taken and the tips were generous compared to the daily wage they were earning at the time. With an entrepreneurial spirit they set up the Donkey Taxis which have become a tourist favourite. In recent years, after complaints of sick and maltreated donkeys the Refugio del Burrito (Donkey Sanctuary) have become involved and now monitor the well-being of the donkeys. I am all for seeing working animals worked so long as they are well-cared for.









Past the Miniature Museum, which houses a collection of miniatures once owned by a hypnotist known as Professor Max, we reached the Plaza de la Constitucíon. The fountain and benches were created from marble rocks that were deposited in the village after the flood of 1884. Restaurants and shops line the edge and walking through the shopping area we were stood at one of the viewing points of the village. The panaroma of the town and port of Fuengirola below with the Mediterranean Sea stretching out before us is worth taking the camera for. Sadly it was a rather hazy day on the coast so our pictures were not as effective as they could have been.
Plaza de la Constitucíon

I made a fatal mistake as far as my waistline is concerned by stopping in the chocolate factory, Mayan Monkey Mijas, which sits in the Constitution Square. Eli, the proprietress is knowledgeable and enthusiastic and as well as chocolates (of which you must try) there are smoothies and ice-creams and other chocolate influenced products to enjoy. If you want to avoid the sun for any time there are also short courses where you can make your very own chocolates that you get to take home; an interesting alternative to some of the more run of the mill activities on the Costa. With taste bids tingling from a ginger and chilli chocolate we climbed up the slope to the Plaza del Toros.
View of the Bullring from the 'sol' side 


View from the 'sombra' side, the Presidencia seat,
of the Church of the Immaculate Conception
Built in 1900 the bullring is a rather cosy affair and boasts of being unusual in having an oval form rather than the standard round ones. Fights are still staged there (I shall not get into a discussion of the whys and wherefores of bullfighting here, that is for another day) with tickets available for sol (sun) or ssombra (shade), and attached to the ring is a similarly small museum of bullfighting. Looking at the size of the matadors costumes these chaps are also on the small side. The view from the president’s seat in the bullring takes in the village rooftops, the Shrine of the Calvario which is on the side of the mountain and reached by a walk through thick woodland and the Church of the Immaculate Conception and the old defensive walls that sit next to the ring.

The Church of the Immaculate Conception is the Parish Church of Mijas and was built on the site of the Moorish castle. Three naves are supported by columns at the top of which are what looked at first glance to be copies of pictures stuck on as added decoration but are in fact frescoes of the apostles dating back to approximately 1632, a year after the church was completed. The frescoes were re-discovered during renovation works in the 1990s. We took lunch by the fountains outside the church in the shade of the trees. The central fountain has a changing display which made for a pretty spectacle with the dappled light dancing off of the water spumes. A bird poo-ed on us as we ate which, despite meaning I had to forego some of my pate on toast, I took to be a sign of good luck (which indeed it was as only a water pump had to be replaced on my car rather than a whole engine which was feared).

We wandered along the old walls past numerous scraggy cats afflicted with all sorts of mange, back through the Plaza de la Constitucíon and to San Sebastian church and the surrounding streets. The streets are cobbled and narrow giving a true feeling of the village as it would have been. With little time to spare as we needed to catch the bus and get back to the garage for a diagnosis on the car we were unable to view the Caves of the Old Forge or the Casa Museo (Folk Museum) both of which give an insight into the Mijas of old.

We caught the bus from opposite the town’s Ayuntamiento (town hall) back to Fuengirola, they also go to Benalmádena and Torremolinos, for the very reasonable sum of €1.45 each. I enjoyed returning to Mijas, a village that continues to embrace new ventures whilst still retaining some of its old world charm. There is something for everyone here and if the timing is right you can enjoy free Flamenco dances in the Plaza Virgen de la Peña (usually on a Tuesday) or purchase some of the local pottery and leather goods that are available in many of the shops. It is a pleasant change from the beach and more obvious tourist traps of the coast.

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Saturday, 15 September 2012

Ronda

One of Ronda's iconic images - Puente Nuevo


 Pine trees gripped onto the orange boulder-strewn sides as we curled up the mountain. The sea, once a hazy ribbon, became a memory hidden behind the peaks. As we snaked around the valleys into the Serranía Ronda the trees thinned to be replaced by shrubs amongst which could be seen the odd sheep grazing. The rocks took on a greyer hue as we neared the town of Ronda in the Andalucían province of Málaga, with areas of flat land dressed with weathered rocks. Life became more evident with a few small hotels and restaurants grouped at crossroads as we approached the outcrop of rock on which Ronda sits.

A billy goat chewed nonchalantly on a shrub next to a shrine, impassive as the bus sailed past him. Then in front of us the sprawling white town of Ronda, larger than I remembered from previous visits, sat perched as if a spaceship had landed and remained. On the outskirts a huge hospital is being built, or at least the shell is there but no workmen were evident and I wonder whether there is money enough to finish it, and housing estates have sprung up like mushrooms. The other side of the road remained farmland with farmsteads dotted about the land.

Ronda is one of the oldest towns in Spain with origins in Prehistory. The caves of Pileta are one of the most significant monuments from prehistory with its Stone Age art whilst other megalithic monuments are scattered about. Closer in history are the Roman remains which can be found dotted around the area including the town of Acinipo. There was not time enough, restricted as we were by bus timetables, to hire a taxi to take us to the town but there are the remains of the theatre that make it a worthwhile excursion if already in the Ronda area. It was under the Moorish influence that Ronda attained its status and some of its most impressive architecture. Ronda became one of the capitals of the five coras of Al-Andalus.

Convent of Mercy
The walk from the bus station took us through the new part of the town past the seventeenth century Church of La Merced which is said to house the ‘incorrupt hand’ of St. Theresa de Jesus and to the 19th century Alameda del Tajo Park. Consisting of tree-lined avenues the views from the balconies are worth a look. Along one avenue there is a celebration of 75 years of the Sur newspaper. It was interesting to see the front page coverages of the end of the Second World War, man landing on the moon and Franco’s funeral. From there it was only a few yards to one of the greatest symbols of the romantic era of Ronda – the Plaza de Toros.


The bullring has been recognised as the first purpose-built spaces for the fighting of bulls in the world. The first bullfight took place in 1785 in the ring that is surrounded by a two-storey arcade of Tuscan columns. The bullring also hosts museums of Antique firearms, harness and livery collections as well as to bullfighting and the riding school and stables of the Real Maestranza de Caballería de Ronda. The bull is not forgotten. A sculpture of the magnificent beast stands outside one of the puertas. Next to the bull was a chap with his horse (which looked bored beyond belief) ready to take money from tourists willing to shell out €2 to sit on his horse, waving his hat in the air, whilst their travelling companions took a photo. He did a relatively good trade during the early hours but when we returned in the early afternoon sun, when most sensible people were sat in the shade or taking lunch, both he and the horse looked as if they would rather be anywhere else.
 





The Puente Nuevo (New Bridge) is the most recognisable of the Ronda monuments as it spans the depth of the gorge. It is quite an extraordinary feat of engineering. The first attempt at a crossing at this part of the gorge, there were already two earlier bridges one from Arab times and the second from the seventeenth century (the Puente Viejo or Old Bridge), was begun in 1735. It consisted of one large arch and took eight months to build but only lasted for six years. The second and remaining attempt was started in 1758 and was finally completed in 1787. The opening of the bridge changed the nature of the city with the Muslim medina being replaced by the modern Mercadillo with life revolving around the Plaza de España which sits next to the Puente Nuevo. For €2 you enter the bridge where there are displays on the history of the bridge and the birds that live in and around it. It is also good to get another view from the bridge though understandably one is not allowed to open the windows to take a picture.

Over the Puente Nuevo and a cobbled street leads down towards the Casa del Rey Moro (House of the Moorish King), the Arab Baths, and the Old and Arab bridges. The Casa del Rey Moro was described on our tourist map as containing “Impressive Islamic work” which I took to be tiles, arches and decoration as well as the stylish gardens that one can see at palaces like the Alhambra in Granada and Alcazaba in Málaga. I was disappointed. The casa has fallen into serious disrepair with foliage growing out of the roof, the majority of the windows smashed and broken and little sign of anything remotely Islamic from the outside. This is because it is a fraud. It had never been the home to a Moorish king having been constructed in the eighteenth century when the time of the Moorish kings was but a distant memory. The gardens are even more modern having been designed by the Frenchman Forestier in 1912 along Moorish lines. They are quiet gardens offering shade in which it is pleasant to take a rest from the hot sun but the whole affair is tired and crumbling. The part of the gardens which is truly Moorish is La Mina Secreta but it requires lungs and legs that do not mind descending and then ascending a steep winding staircase of uneven steps that is poorly lit. One lady who was catching her breath at the top informed us that there were 194 steps to the bottom. I took her word for it as I concentrated on not breaking my neck as I made my descent (I am not goat-like in surety of foot).
Casa del Rey Moro
The descent


La Mina Secreta, a place to reflect
At the bottom of the steps is part of the river Guadelevin which barely flows but resembles a small lagoon from the bent and rickety metal platform upon which you stand. The water has a green turquoise hue to it with fish and crayfish living in its shallows and only the calls of the birds nesting in the gorge’s walls to disturb a time of quiet contemplation. Here you dream of a Moorish harem enjoying the cool waters or a princess enjoying time away from the court but the reality would have been something different. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries Ronda was caught in the crossfire between the Christians of Sevilla and the Moors of Granada and was frequently besieged. In the hot mountains of Andalucía the first target would have been the water supply. It is rumoured that the Moorish king Abolmelic used Christian slaves to cut the original steps down to the gorge in order that water could be brought up. The name La Mina Secreta, Secret Mine, would intimate that the stairway was a secret but as the Christians were known to say that “In Ronda you die carrying water skins” it must have been a very open secret.

We passed by a number of chambers built adjacent to the stairway including the Sala de Secretos (Room of Secrets), Terraza de la Conquista (Terrace of the Conquest) and Sala de las Armas (Armoury Room). Sadly I did not know at the time that the Sala de Secretos, which had formerly been another well, is a room in which a whisper made in one corner can be heard in the opposite corner but not by anybody stood in the middle; I like to try these things out for myself! The reason for not knowing: the only leaflets available were those in French and German and as between the two of us we can speak four languages we were rather unfortunate to be stuck with the only leaflets we could not understand.

The Learner Driver approaches the Philipe V arch
Down the hill to the arch of Philipe V and the Arab Baths we walked on a cobbled street so worn that the stones shone. Cars sped up the hill which they had no option to do as stopping would not be a wise move on a hill so steep, beeping at the corners to give tourists time to move out of the way. Incredibly a Learner driver was being initiated in the ‘driving with foot to the floor’ style of motoring, and unfortunately for her when she failed on the lower part of the hill to maintain momentum, on hill-start motoring as well. The learner smiled broadly as her instructor encouraged more power and an abandonment that would send UK instructors to the nearest asylum.

The Arab Baths were not worth their €3 entrance fee. 90% of the baths could be photographed from the road, informative signs were almost non-existent and the garden area that I assume was meant to resemble a Moorish garden was a forlorn example of horticulture with a couple of sad young almond trees, a few thriving rosemary bushes and plethora of dried and dying weeds filling the spaces between the pathways. A screen was playing a history lesson on bathing culture in one the rooms. The couple who stayed to watch it for a second time must have determined that they were going to get their money’s worth as well as take respite from the now beating sun.
Arab Baths, Ronda

Climbing the gorge, having crossed over the Puente Viejo, we were able to see the full extent of the dilapidation of the Moorish King’s house. I find it sad to see once elegant buildings fall into disrepair especially when money is coming into the coffers in some form or another. Having reached the Puente Nuevo once again we crossed over but this time made a right turn towards the Mondragón Palace past the Casa de Don Bosco. Our luck was in as it was a free entrance day into the palace which houses the headquarters of the Museum of Ronda.

Mondragón Palace
 

The building is an example of the Mudéjar style of architecture. Mudéjar is a symbiosis of Muslim and Christian cultures that is shown in architectural ways. The buildings were mainly of brick and interpreted Christian styles with an Islamic influence. The courtyards with their arches and galleries link the different areas of the palace and lead out into the gardens which also offer views across the plains and the gorge. The museum has displays on the history of the area, funeral rites and the Roman town of Ancipio. It is an informative and attractive palace to visit.

As the time drew near for us to start our walk back to the bus station we took the scenic route via Saint Mary’s Church. Dating from the fifteenth century it had been the principal mosque before being converted into a church by Fernando ‘El Catolico’.  The only remaining element of that time is the arch of Mirhab and part of its walls which is hidden behind the tabernacle’s altar. Part of the Gothic style of the original church is retained through the columns and arches (part of the church was destroyed by an earthquake in 1580). We did not feel inclined to pay €4 each to enter the church and so missed the ostentatious altar of the Virgin that I remember from previous visits as being blindingly golden.

My thirst from walking up and down the sides of Ronda was suitably quenched as we neared the bus station and dipped into ‘El Purto’ bar. Clean, with good service and free from tourist prices (only €1 for a bottle of beer) with tapas available, I would highly recommend it to the weary day tripper.

Ronda has a lot to offer and we did not see many of the places open to us, so if you are tied down by the number of visiting hours available to you, select wisely and be aware that most sites charge at least €2 and you may not get to see very much for your money. A good pair of shoes is essential especially if descending into the gorge or walking up and down the cobbled streets that line its side.

The Ronda Tourist site has information available in Español, English and Deutsch. 

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Marbella - A Disappointing Experience

It had been over a decade since I last visited Marbella and my memory of the town was hazy to say the least.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Pompeii - Roof Collapse in the Villa of Mysteries


Once again there is damage to parts of the ancient city of Pompeii, this time a supporting beam collapsed bringing part of the roof of the Villa of Mysteries with it.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Church of Saint Stefano - Venice

I am venturing into the murky world of fiction, and one of my characters is based in Venice. This naturally led me to think of parts of Venice that are often passed by, or seldom mentioned.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

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Thursday, 19 July 2012

From Istanbul, With Love

Dun da la dun dun dun da, dun da la dun dun da, dun de la dun dun da, DADAH de la Dah! (The James Bond theme, in case you missed it).

Monday, 16 July 2012

Palladio - Veneto's Architect

One of the jewels in Veneto's crown is the presence of the villas of Palladio.

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Sunday, 15 July 2012

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Sleepy Italy

It was a hot couple of weeks in Veneto in  June. Humidity was high, the sun was merciless and all I wanted to do was sit in a bath of cold water. I found it too hot to sleep; many Italians did not.

Apart from the libraries, where most people tend to be asleep anyway, shops and offices emptied somewhere between midday and 1pm and remained closed until around 4pm. Italy went into a self-induced slumber from which nothing was going to rouse it. 

While many sought the shade to pass the hours, some lay in the full glare of the sun, managing to combine rest with tanning.

Some created footrests from borrowed chairs.











Whilst others, despite the noise of a busy station, dropped off and stayed fast asleep for the duration of my time there.

In the village of Grignano Polesine, half day closing is still a strictly adhered to pleasure. I am used to shops being closed on Sundays, and the long afternoon breaks, from living in Spain (the bonus is late opening), but a half day as well? It is like stepping back to the England of the 1970s. Without fail we saved our shopping until Wednesday afternoon, only to have to cycle back to the house with baskets empty of provisions. It was just a trifle annoying!

The slow pace of life does have its upsides - few people rush, sitting for two hours with a book in the afternoon is not a guilty pleasure - just pleasure, and the heat of the day can be passed with minimal effort and movement. When we weren't out and about I made the most of those few hours of peace and relaxation and lay sprawled in front of a fan, eyes shut, praying for rain.

Tip - Monuments open on a Monday are few and far between, so always check before you head off to avoid disappointment.

Away from the Madding Crowds of Italy (II) - Palladio and Palazzos of Fratta Polesine

View of Fratta Polesine from Villa Badoer
As the train pulled away from the deserted train station, where weeds push through the cracks in the platform and hug the rail tracks, we headed down the dusty road lined with trees and concrete buildings that slept behind plastic shuttered eyes.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Far from the Madding Crowds of Italy (I) - Lendinara, 'Little Athens'

The Adigetto flowed towards the centre of the town; black dragonflies, with feathery wings, danced across the water. The far side of the river played host to the eighteenth century Teatro Ballarin, formerly a storehouse dating from the fifteenth century, and a statue of the locally born sculptor and artist Lorenzo Canozi. The air rippled with the sound of cobbles being shaped for the restored road otherwise, silence. We had arrived in Lendinara, once known as 'little Athens' a priest at the Sanctuary later told us, as it held so many sights in such a small space. 

We had taken a local train, decorated with red and purple graffiti from Rovigo to Lendinara, along tracks and to stations that did not seem to have seen traffic for some time. But at every stop there was passenger movement. The stations may not be manned, a disembodied voice announces the comings and goings of trains - we walked across the one line to catch the train on the sliver of a platform on the other - but they are utilised. 

Risorgimento Piazza, Lendinara

Crossing a cobbled footbridge we entered the medieval piazza of Lendinara. An eleventh century document shows that the town was replete with castle, towers, factories and a cultured population at that time. The Palazzo Pretorio that stands in the piazza dates from the 1300s and had been used as a gaol among other things. The Torre dell' Orologico was originally a gateway into the fortified town but was turned into a clock in the 1500s. 

The duomo, campanile and to the right, the towers of the
church of S. Giuseppe and the Sanctuary.




From the centre we followed the myriad of brown signs that point the way to the numerous churches that this small town boasts. In close proximity we found the duomo of Santa Sofia, the Chiesa de Santo Giuseppe and the Sanctuary, officially known as the Chiesa of Our Lady of Pilastrello. The duomo boasts a separate campanile that is one of the tallest in Italy at 101 metres high. Unfortunately the opening times of the duomo were not as advertised, so we passed to the Sanctuary along quiet cobbled streets, hugging the shade wherever possible as the afternoon sun beat down. 


The Sanctuary is home to a statue of the Madonna made out of dark olive wood. Beneath a large replica 'miracle healing' water is dispensed. We each took a cup full of the water, just in case, and asked a rather smiley and helpful priest as to the story behind it. 

On the night of the 8th and 9th May 1509 the house of Giovanni Borezzo was destroyed during a storm. A survivor from the house was a small statue of the Virgin with Child which was found radiating a strange light. The tale of the statue attracted a number of visitors and a small column (the Pilastrello) was built on the spot to house the statue. In 1576 Ludovico Borezzo, a descendant of the statue's owner Giovanni, started to renovate the damaged pillar, taking from a nearby fountain spring water for the masonry work. The clear water become red, as if with blood. This was seen as a miracle and miracle healing powers were attributed to the water. The site became a popular destination for sick people. The sanctuary was built between 1577 and 1583 and the spring was deviated into it. 

The original statue is held in an elevated position at the tops of stairs above the altar, behind glass and surrounded by angels. The afternoon sun made it dazzle. The Sanctuary is also home to some wonderful frescos and works of art. As we stood admiring them we could hear the singing of the Benedictine monks as they held their mid-afternoon prayer (Vespers). There is something very soothing to the sound of their prayer.

Where the 'miracle water' is dispensed
from in the Sanctuary.


As we wandered the town, small squares opening up before us, a church on almost every corner, we could imagine how the town would have been in its heyday. It is nice to see towns that are not over-run with tourist shops, and no sign of a dreaded fast food place, but I wonder if they are missing out on potential business at a time when income streams should not be overlooked. The presence of the brown signs indicating the way to the historical sites is evidence that the town knows it has much to share, but there were no other outsiders that we could spot.
The Adrigetto.
Lorenzo Canozi, son of Lendinara, painter and sculptor.

These sleepy backwaters of Italy, sitting on their once navigable canals and streams, could be easily missed. I would heartily recommend utilising the small regional train lines and dropping in on them - you'd be surprised at what sits behind the deserted train stations. Our day was not yet done, Fratta Polesine, the next town along the track was to be our second port of call for the day.

The train arriving at Platform 2...
Lendinara to Fratta Polesine.

Lendinara Tourist Board (though their info is not always spot-on!) http://www.comune.lendinara.ro.it/iat.html
Lendinara can be reached by train from Rovigo http://www.trenitalia.com/

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