Monday, 22 May 2006
But where are the best ice cream places?
One I'd heartily recommend is the gelateria on the Tiber Island. The Tiber island isn't very big and the main road crosses right over between the two bridges, and so it's pretty easy to find. They have some excellent flavours - one you don't see too often is marron glacé - and I believe they're now using organic ingredients. Very fine, and there's a nice small piazza outside the church of San Bartolomeo where you can sit down and consume your purchase.
In Siena, head straight for the Piazza del Campo, and not actually on the Campo but just off it there's a superb gelateria. One of the widest ranges of ice cream flavours I've ever seen. I'm just sad that no one seems to do an ice cream version of the famous Siene panforte. After all, chocolate, nuts, candied fruit, AND ice cream - what's not to like?
Venice is a bit poor on the ice cream front. Paulin's in Campo San Stefano is probably the best, though it doesn't have such an extensive range. To be honest, when I think of Venice I think of the 'moro' chocolate, nut and fruit cakes, or the nougat and caramelised nuts sold at the Christmas fairs.
And I never found a really good ice cream place in Florence. Pizza, yes; ice cream, no.
Thursday, 18 May 2006
On my last trip to Italy I was mainly working, but decided I would take the time to climb the Torre dei Lamberti, in Verona. I managed it all without taking a breather, and arrived in the belfry just in time to hear the Marangona ring ten o'clock. My ears were ringing for a while after that but it was a marvellous experience.
There are some good views from the top of the tower but nothing as good as this view right up the middle of it. And by the time I got here I had already climbed a few hundred stairs!
I rather like taking this kind of photo, trying to capture the geometry that lies underneath the surface. I don't always succeed, but I like this one - the rusty colours give it extra interest.
By the way, Verona is one of those go-ahead Italian cities that has an 'all in one' card for the tourist sights - though you can pick and choose at a couple of euros each, the card is a bargain because it gives you free bus transport for the day as well. When I was there it was 8 euros for one day, which is a bit of a rush, or I think 12 euros over two days.
Wednesday, 17 May 2006
For instance, London will fall when the last raven leaves the Tower of London. And Rome will fall when the last piece of gilding flakes off the statue of Marcus Aurelius. Or when the places for portraits of popes in Santa Maria Maggiore have all been filled up.
And Hildesheim will decay if the thousand-year rose tree that grows up the cathedral ever dies. Despite heavy bombing in the Second World War, the rose tree survived - and so did Hildesheim.
These are only odd legends I've collected over the years. I wonder if there are more? Were there similar legends in Abbasid Baghdad or in Constantinople under the Byzantine emperors? Or did every small town in Germany have one?
I suppose many of these legends are actually rather comforting. Whatever the vicissitudes or politics or even war, they offer a hope that the city can be prevented from falling, that everything will be all right if only we can protect the ravens or the rose.
Of course life's not like that. But how we wish it were.
Saturday, 13 May 2006
Yet one of the things that continually amazes me is the wealth of immensely striking industrial buildings that many cities contain. In London, of course, some of the old warehouses on the Thames have now been reclaimed as apartments or office space. Their high and narrow facades give the Thames frontage near Southwark its character - quite different from the posher areas down by the Savoy on the other side of the river.
In Paris, you have to go a bit out of the way to find my favourite - the old flour mills on the Canal de l'Ourcq, at La Villette. This is a funny area - there are some great museums including the Cite de la Musique, which last time I was there had an exhibition on Pink Floyd as well as a fine collection of Renaissance and Baroque musical instruments - and then there are cheap hotels and little ethnic restaurants and rather austere apartment blocks. But if you wander along the canal - still used by commercial barges - you'll find the impressive mill buildings, a fine nineteenth-century piece of architecture and quite unmistakably a mill, with high silo towers.
Another fine mill is the Molino Stucky on the Giudecca in Venice. I used to think I was the only person in the world to love this gothic extravaganza - but now it seems the Stucky has become fashionable, as it's being converted into the Venice Hilton. This rediscovery of industrial forms is happening everywhere – maltings, for instance, are now frequently being converted into houses or offices. Perhaps it’s the stark geometry of the industrial buildings that makes them so popular – there’s something a bit post-modern about their spareness and reliance on geometrical form rather than decoration for their character.
But perhaps one of the most fascinating industrial forms is the gasometer. Anyone who watches cricket will recognise the gasometer at the Oval, and I have a huge amount of affection for the one on the edge of Mousehold Heath in Norwich. But the most fantastic ones going are those in <a href=”http://www.gasometer.org/en/”>Vienna</a> – huge Gothic arcaded tanks, with bands of brick and stone looking like mad Italian castles. You can even take a tour inside them as their website shows.
Circular forms, of course, have always exerted their fascination, from the Pantheon in Rome to the central building in <a href=”http://www.masterworksartgallery.com/Piero-della-Francesca/Piero-della-Francesca-Ideal-City-Urbino-.html”>Piero della Francesca’s ‘ideal city’</a>. I wonder if the designer of the Vienna gasometers had seen this painting?
Wednesday, 10 May 2006
I've just been reading Richard Goy's book on Venice and it explains why the street system is so tortuous.
Venice didn't develop as a single contiguous city, but as a collection of islands each forming its own parish. If you'd been there around the year 1000 you wouldn't have seen a city, as you do now, with canals running through it - you would have seen mudbanks with scattered parish-islands.
Now each parish-island has quite a regular street system, usually with a main street running up to the church, and a campo in front of the church. But where these islands join up, the two different street systems have to make compromises of all kinds. So we find bridges at odd angles across the canal; dead ends; dog-legs and weird corners. Big streets running into little ones.
So I suppose I have to take back what I said about Venice being the medieval city par excellence. Perhaps it is - but it's not a paradigmatic medieval city. It's a very unusual one.
Thursday, 4 May 2006
Sometimes a walk is more than just going from A to B. Last time I was in Venice, I decided to do something I'd always wanted to do - I walked the entire length of the city from the railway station to the point of the Dogana, and on to the edge of the Arsenal. That wasn't just a walk - it was a kind of 'beating the bounds', a way of estimating the city's size, almost a kind of magic to bring the whole of Venice under my control. Not 'just' a walk then.
Thinking of this I was reminded of Richard Long's wonderful art. He's an artist who works with landscape as his material. His first work was a straight line in a grass field; a path going nowhere. Each of his walk realises an idea - some create sculptures, others poems ('textworks'). He joins up cairns on the Brecon Beacons, or walks across England carrying a stone each day from his start point to the end of the day's hike.
Richard Long is in touch with the magic nature of walking. It's an act of control - walking around a city's walls puts it in your power (I wonder if that's what lies behind the Biblical story of Jericho, which the Israelites walked round seven times, a magical number).
By the way, I'll be putting a pdf of the Venice walk up on the podtours website (www.podtours.co.uk) pretty soon, so if you feel like doing the Venice end-to-end walk, you'll be able to.
Wednesday, 3 May 2006
But we might be missing a trick. Country borders weren't set in stone within Europe until the late 19th century. And airports aren't always sited neatly for country borders.
For instance, depending on where you want to go in Slovenia, it might be better to fly into Graz (Austria) or Trieste (Italy) than Ljubljana airport.
The Venetian empire did cover most of North-East Italy at one point. But equally, it covered the Adriatic coast of Slovenia and Dalmatia - cities like Koper and Piran show strong Venetian influences. Equally, Robert Adam's tour of Dalmatia in the 18th century showed how Spalato (as it was then - Split today) could be seen as part of the Roman Empire, rather than a hinterland of Slavic culture. Perhaps heading east from Venice down the Slovenian and Croatian coast could make an interesting holiday.