Saturday, 29 April 2006

In the Guardian

A bit of a thrill. I occasionally put posts on the Guardian's 'I've been there' blogs. They're a wonderful resource - tips from people who have visited tourist destinations. One of mine actually made the printed page a couple of weeks ago.

So I'm going to recommend the same place here - the pasticceria Puppa, in Venice. Take the route up towards the Gesuiti and Fondamente Nove and you'll find it in Calle del Spezier. The window display is what first drew me - a fantastic, calorie-laden phantasmagoria. Chestnuts dipped in chocolate. Chocolate cakes. Cakes covered in chocolate. Cakes with chocolate chips. You're getting a pattern, I hope....

The inside is just as good. I got talking to the owner and pastry chef, Mr Puppa. He's a happy man, it's obvious when he comes into the shop with his broad smile and little white hat. He's proud of the traditional recipes he uses - and they taste very good. Castagnaccio, soft doughy cake made with chestnut flour, and budino, made with rice and egg custard, are two favourites. Then there are big cookie-like cakes with chocolate and nuts, as well as the confectionery.

I'd got rather used to Venice being expensive, but this shop has reasonable prices too. I made it a pretty regular stop the week I was in Venice.

The other good pastry shop I found was just off Campo Santo Stefano. There's a half way decent ice cream place there too, but to be honest, Venice just doesn't do ice cream that well. No, if I want gelato, I'm going to go to Rome or Siena where they really know how to mix it.

For you greedy people who want to know - Rome's best ice cream is in the shop on the Isola Tiburina, near San Bartolomeo, and Siena's is just off the Campo. Marron glace gelato anyone? Honey and almond?

Tuesday, 25 April 2006

What I hate about the Blue Guide

I have a huge collection of Blue Guides. I use them for work - planning Podtours - and for planning my own travel. Some of them go back to the 1950s or even earlier, but in terms of art and architecture, they're pretty reliable. (For hotels, opening times, admission fees, and so on, I use the web.) And they're very comprehensive.

But they're also soul-destroying. You couldn't sit down and read a Blue Guide, it would be like reading a laundry list.

The Blue Guide is really reliable at telling you what is there. You won't miss anything. In a picture gallery, it will tell you about every darn picture. Yes, it puts, say, a good Caravaggio in bold type and a Michelangelo with a star, but it tells you pretty much everything that's there. And if, like me, you have some wayward enthusiasms for particular painters, that's very helpful.

But it has no sense of humour. It has no feeling for atmosphere. (The Blue Guide doesn't wander about to see what might be interesting, or hang out in a bar to get the vibes; it travels with a list of sights to see and it takes a rest when it's seen them all.)
What I really miss, though, is that granted the Blue Guide knows great art when it sees it, it doesn't tell me why it's great art. Why am I looking at this painting? What makes it worth my time?

Time for an anecdote.

I was in the Bardi Chapel in Santa Croce when a schoolteacher started telling his charges about the paintings there. There are the Giotto frescoes of course but there's also
an altarpiece by 'the Master of the San Francesco Bardi"
in a quite different, Byzantine style.

"Well," says the teacher, "you have to appreciate that the different styles show different values. The Byzantine ideal is spiritual, ascetic - the flesh, passions, emotions, individuality, all get in the way. God is purely spiritual and the closer we get to God, the less individual, the less passionate, we become. And so here we see St Francis, without emotion, schematically drawn." I looked at the knife edge folds of the robe over his legs and thought, interesting.

"And then Giotto is basically a Renaissance man, a Florentine too, and for him, it's precisely the physicality of life, the emotions, the passions, which make us human. He looks for the spirituality within the physical world. So his figures are rounded, his faces expressive and individual."

That was interesting. I dare say some art historians and theologians might quibble but it made a lot of sense to me. And it's a markedly more sympathetic treatment than the 'Giotto seven out of ten, Master of San Francesco Bardi two out of ten" rating points given by the Blue Guide (Eurovision painting contest anyone?)

Eavesdropping provides many pleasures for the traveller - and an occasional education. But you wouldn't get that advice out of the Blue Guide either....

The little things that matter

Just back from a trip to Venice to research some Podtours, and I got round to thinking what is it that makes Venice so Venetian? - Other than the canals, of course.

It's lots of little things. For instance it's the coloured marble disks used everywhere to prettify the facades of houses, churches, palaces. You see your first marble inlays on San Marco but once you open your eyes, they're everywhere. My favourites I suppose are the 'telephone dials' on the Palazzo Dario. And there are little Byzantine carved roundels everywhere, too - eagles eating lambs, lions fighting, peacocks drinking out of elegant vases - all in pure white stone. The occasional sculptures, if you look out for them, are everywhere - even a camel in Campo dei Mori (and by the way, look at the mosaics in the atrium of San Marco and you'll see more camels - clearly the Venetians knew the Middle East well, as these twelfth century camels are realistic ones, not the usual spindly-legged things out of a medieval bestiary).

It's the sottoporteghi. Lots of cities in northern Italy have arcaded streets, but few of them have as many streets that run under buildings. In Venice, it's quite normal for a street to run 'underground'. Leaving a campo you dodge under the huge beams that support the building above; then after a few metres you're out of the tunnel.

 The sottoporteghi create the effect of surprise that is typical of Venice. The only panoramas are from the water - if you're walking, you're dodging into tunnels, round right-angled corners, down streets so narrow you have to walk in single file. Cities like Rome and Turin were rationalised in the Baroque - great streets and piazzas laid out, vistas created. That never really happened in Venice. So you're left with almost a fairytale idea of the medieval city, created spontaneously, unplanned, with a surprise around every odd-angled corner.

Well, that got me round to thinking about other cities that are - or were - defined by the little things that matter. In the case of London, big red buses have disappeared - at least, the iconic Routemaster has gone though arguably the new 'bendy buses' are bigger and they're still red - and so have red telephone boxes. Is that an act of cultural vandalism? I wonder. It's certainly stripped away a layer of what many - tourists, but also Londoners themselves - identified as typical London.

Sometimes it's a local building material or style that makes a place memorable. Painswick, in the Cotswolds, derives its entire character from the creamy local stone that is used in its buildings. On a day with thunderclouds building behind the church spire and a sharp ray of sunlight glancing off it, the stone glows almost white.

In Northern Germany you have the Backsteingothik - "brick Gothic" - towns, like Lubeck, where brick is everywhere. And here, too, it's little details like the stepped gables that give the city character. The use of local materials is one of those things that is disappearing as big building materials warehouses spread the same colour brick and the same concrete blocks everywhere - but it's the local materials that created the character of the place. Perhaps if local planning offices banned the use of non-local materials we'd get more distinctive modern buildings...

Local political structures had something to do with the way cities were built, too. For instance in medieval Italy, without the strong feudal structures of France or England, noble families erected tower fortresses inside the city - in Sam Gimignano, in Bologna, in Lucca, in Florence - to which they could retreat in troubled times and, I suspect, throw things at their enemies. At completely the other extreme you have the great Georgian cities - Bath and Edinburgh - with their lines of respectable, identical, tasteful terraces. These represent quite different values - rationality, reasonableness, a certain understatement and lack of ostentation - and without the increasing stability of British society in the eighteenth century, it's difficult to believe they could have been built.

But back to those little things... for Georgian houses, the boot-scraper is one of them. If a Georgian house doesn't have the little iron bootscraper next to the door, it's lost its soul. Like those houses where the sash windows have been replaced by PVC and flat glass.

And then there are signs. Road signs, street names, street furniture, signs of businesses. In Rome, if you look around carefully you'll find painstakingly carved stone plaques from the eighteenth century forbidding waste tipping in the streets. Montpellier has fine eighteenth-century street names carved in its creamy stone. Paris, of course, has the fine Art Nouveau metro railings.

We need to save all these little things. They're so often overlooked, in favour of more impressive sights. But it's the little things that really do make the difference.

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