Thursday, January 29, 2009

Alicante; home of the most modern archeology museum in Spain

The train trip from Barcelona to Alicante took us through a remarkably bleak landscape only alleviated by prolonged glimpses of the sea. It is hard to imagine how people survived here until the French and British arrived. After fighting the French for domination of a landscape that could scarcely support a celibate rabbit, the locals realized they could rent it out to the British.

We rolled past resort after resort development featuring acre after acre of high-rise atrocities all closed for the season, and hopefully forever. If the Israelis want to atone for their recent activities, which I doubt, they could visit upon the Costa del Azahar what they have visited upon the Gaza Strip and be praised for alleviating aesthetic suffering worldwide.

Alicante is a small town that doesn’t really have much going for it apart from being one of the last towns to fall to Franco and his militant thugs. Frankly, you can see everything of interest in a day and a half. Probably less if everything is open and you walk very fast.

This is the town's crest and it expresses the thing that Alicante is most well known for... that it has a castle on top of a cliff overlooking the town and the sea... for some time we wondered why it included a picture of a face... whether it was a very poor joke about being on the cliff-face... the sort of thing people found funny hunderds of years ago... Of course, it turns out that the cliff does resemble a face as you can see below -- although you might have to squint and use your imagination a little as it transpires that neither John nor I actually took a decent pic of it... (ss)

There is a delightful bit of old town full of perpetually crumbling two- and three-storey buildings scarcely wider that a two-door cupboard. They are variously painted in shades of white high-lighted with mismatched tiles or painted details the colours of which were chosen with no regard for their neighbours’ colour schemes. There is scarcely a street that goes in a straight line for ten paces, and not one that is level for any length.

We were surprised by the number of buildings that had been shut up for repairs or left to collapse – whichever comes first. Every street had a construction crew doing something in a charmingly amateurish manner. In one street, a man had a power tool that was plugged into a house a good fifty meters away. All the locals amiably stepped over the power cord as though it was just par for the course. Mind you, he wasn’t using the power tool but was, instead, playing a game of kick ball with one of the neighbourhood dogs. Delightful! However, there was a lot of serious construction going on, I got the feeling that the local worthies were trying to get as much new development in before someone whacked a preservation order on the place.
The old town is surrounded by the city centre which has a bland international feel and is full of the big brands that you can see anywhere from Melbourne to Chipping Norton or by local companies who have based their branding on them. It is best ignored or avoided. It attracts all the motorists who are frustrated by their inability to drive around the old town and take it out on the hapless residents of city by queuing up in traffic jams and constructively tooting their horns.

The old town and the new city are separated by a buffer zone of slightly run-down city. Here crappy little shops line the streets between elegant 19th century apartment blocks being rejuvenated for tourists who, given the current economic climate, may never arrive. There is also a beachfront woefully blighted by a marina that could happily house the Armada. It is full of modern pleasure vessels that lack all the refinements of boats of old and look like nothing so much as oversized plastic toys. Which, when you think about it, they are. Streamlined, high-power ego identifiers that are soon to become drains on over-stretched finances. Expect a sudden flurry of inexplicable sinkings and mysterious maritime fires. Kraken sightings, anyone?

We dropped our stuff off at the hotel that is one of those places that caters to business groups. It tries to dazzle you with lots of chrome, mirrors, marble and cutting edge floral arrangements in a bid to convince you of its elegance and sophistication. An effort that could only succeed on someone lacking even a modicum of both. But it did have free internet so we were happy.

We threw half our stuff on the floor, plugged the other half in and set out to have a look around. I had hoped to sit on the beach and drink beer but although the sun was up the temperature was lower than Iceland’s credit rating so we wandered about in the vain hope of understanding the layout of the place. As dusk set in we returned to the hotel and watched CNN in an attempt to lower our English language skills until it was time for diner.
We decided to go out for tapas at a place we had read about on the internet. Unfortunately, we hadn’t zoomed in closely enough on the Google map and wound up on the right corner on the wrong street. Disappointed we crossed town to look for Alicante’s main eating street - Calle Mayor. Somehow we managed not to find it.

We eventually settled on Los Penguins II. This is a tiny place that caters to locals either too lazy or too incompetent to cook for themselves. The décor did not try to impress and succeeded brilliantly. It was nicely homey in its feel with the television blaring in one corner and the radio competing for our attention in the other. The Spanish are Europe’s most avid television viewers. I can’t understand why as most of it appears to be crap. The radio sounds to be crap too but without pictures to back this up I will give it the benefit of the doubt. In its favour I must say that Spanish radio at least is not full of 80’s British Europop as Italian radio was. I think I heard Ultravox’s ‘Fade to Grey’ 1,000 times while we were in Milan.

The only patrons of Los Penguins II, apart form ourselves, were an ancient couple who left shortly after we arrived (the two events were unrelated) and three men who sat wreathed in cigar smoke and wine fumes across the room from where we sat, luckily, with our backs to the wall and near the exit.

I say luckily because one of the men, although not old enough to have fought for Franco and, obviously, too alive to have fought against him had the slicked-back dyed hair, creepy moustache, steely squinty eyes and ruddy healthy frame turning to fat of an ex-military type. Having seen a disgraced colonel in Istanbul I recognized the type as an ex-falangist. I became acutely aware of the Anarchist logo emblazoned on my jacket sleeve.

The owner seemed unconcerned and was very friendly if somewhat surprised to find tourists in his establishment. He rattled through the menu twice before realizing our Spanish was worse than he thought possible at which stage he switched to English which was likewise. In a feat of cross-cultural communication that would have done the U.N. proud we managed to order salad, paella and a bottle of white wine.

The salad was what you would expect in the off-season in a country that thinks meat is a vitamin. We fell upon it like Berbers on a baggage train. We had felt as though we were suffering the early signs of scurvy after five weeks in Europe without fruit and veg, or at least fruit and veg that hadn’t flown further than we had.

The paella was brought to us by the magic of microwave and, though a tad crunchy (Shiralee insists this is a local specialty), was remarkably good. I thought I detected a trace of truffle. The wine was perfectly fine as well. In fact we haven’t had a bad wine in Spain apart from the occasion(s) when I have inadvertently ordered sweet wine. Yuk!

Our host then suggested dessert. I declined but he was persistent. Shiralee, ever the ambassador, kindly accepted. It was great. It was a coffee-based thing. It made me regret, for the first time ever, having refused sweets from a stranger. Anyone under 18 should ignore this paragraph.

All up it cost us eleven Euros. I have seen more expensive hamburgers on Chapel Street! As we left the owner placed a little wickerwork breadbasket full of what appeared to be playing cards on our table and signed that we should take one. They turned out to have calendars printed on the back. It appears to be a local custom. We flicked through them trying to choose between football heroes and scenic vistas. My squeak of embarrassment when I discovered a card featuring the ‘money shot’ of a carelessly dressed woman amused everybody. Even the falangist colonel whom, I am sure, was plotting my death.

The next day we went and looked at a few of the…well few main attractions, none of which stuck in my memory. Mind you, most things were closed or not built yet. The tourist map we had was, frankly, misleading. It is merely disappointing, or not depending on your point of view, to discover that the Modern Art Gallery is just a construction site. It can be nearly fatal to blithely stroll passed armed security guards into a government building that is not a gallery despite what it says on the tourist map.

That night we managed to find the Calle Mayor. To our chagrin the only places that were open the desperate brightly lit establishments you wouldn’t normally enter unless you had forgotten to snack when the Spanish do. After wandering up and down the street a couple of times we moved to one of the side streets. We passed a little place that looked like a pirates’ lair. I was tempted to try it out but decided it would be best approached with a concealed weapon or two, preferably one of them nuclear. We eventually settled on a local bar that looked like it acknowledged the Geneva Conventions. It turned out to be a cozy little place and we settled and scoffed tapas and drank a bottle of white wine. After dinner we were in a cheery enough mood to try something we saw one of the locals ploughing her way through. Via my Spanglo-italian and the waiter’s competent English I ordered a glass each for Shiralee and myself. The waiter presented us with something we came to call ‘The Devil’s Mouthwash’. It was a clear liquid with a greenish tinge that fluoresced, alarmingly, under incandescent light and tasted like toothpaste. It also had an instant effect on our worldview and ability to walk. We made it home laughing all the way about the slipperyness of the marble pavements. In our defense I have to say that it had been raining and the pavements were slippery – just normally we would have considered them a hazard not a hoot.

On the way home we discovered one of the highlights of our stay. In the middle of a park in is a small building you would easily mistake for an information kiosk full of fish. It is a large, free-standing, aquarium inhabited by a collection of huge, lethargic pisceans of the kind you would eat if they weren’t so ugly. The best feature was a sub-marine nativity scene. Honestly, you can’t make up stuff like this.
We went back during the day to take a better photograph (night shot on the flickr site)... John is in the shot to prove that it really is a HUGE aquarium... and apart from the nativity pot and the fish, otherwise entirely bare.

Our last day was spent visiting the Archeological museum. It was all very modern and, well, not really interactive. It had data projectors, filmed re-enactments of ancient peoples standing around and chatting, and various really annoying sound effects. It is designed to appeal to children and is very good at what it does. There is enough stuff to spark your interest but not enough to bore you. The attempts to place things in context are often supported by some very clever visual effects. We liked it.

The only annoying thing is gaining entry. You eventually find the front doors only to be told by a guard that you need to go to the ticket booth back across the front garden. “What ticket booth?” you ask. The guard points you in the direction of an obscure little building. As you walk to the building you spot the ticket booth sign cunningly hidden behind another sign and shielded by a tree. Once there a young woman gives you a ticket. It is free if you are a teacher or otherwise employed in education. You take your free token back to the entrance. You are waved past the front desk only to be stopped by someone who tears your ticket. This was a recurrent theme throughout Spain even in free museums. One person insists on giving you a ticket and then another person has to check, bend, fold, spindle or mutilate it. It is a scam to create jobs. I’m all for it if it keeps food on the table and tourists on edge.

We also visited the bullfighting museum. There is nothing to say in favour of torturing dumb animals so I wont say anything about it at all. However, the matadors’ costumes are another thing. Dancing shoes, pink stockings, pastel colours with lots of embroidery, and silly little hats. What are they thinking? I reckon the bulls aren’t annoyed by all the barbs and silly cape waving. They just can’t stand the clothes. If the Spanish want to make this so-called ‘sport’ humane, all they need to do is dress the local egomaniac as a cross between Peter Pan and Liberace and make him dodge peak-hour traffic. That way we can all laugh at his misfortune and don’t have to feel sorry for either the antagonist or his victims.
That night we managed to find the tapas bar we had searched so vainly for. It is called Piripi and is the hang-out of choice of all cool and well-off Alicanteans. We ordered too much food but ate it all because it was hideously expensive. Nevertheless, it was very good and the service is a thing to watch in itself. A central semi-circular bar is surrounded by groups, families and individuals all apparently ordering things at random between drags on their cigarettes. Behind the bar a group of men, cut ham from the bone, pour drinks, slice bread, decant olives etc with the kind of organization airport flight controllers can only dream of.

Afterwards we decided to try out the ‘pirates’ bar’ despite being unarmed. It turned out not to be a seedy dive at all but was instead a student hang out. You enter by a precarious half-flight of stairs and ducking through pair of inaptly hung doors with a lintel low enough to brain a dachshund. Once inside anyone over 5’10” will is unable to stand upright unless they find a space between to roof beams. Anyone over 6’ just has to get used to stooping. It was very cute with graffiti covered walls, a bar that the staff had to crawl under to get out of and a lack of adequate seating. Students stand around sipping tea or spirits and practising their Albert Camus impressions. It had no name so you will just have to stroll around to find it. Good luck.

Monday, January 26, 2009

On not Ramblasing through Barcelona

Leaving Italy, we caught a night train from Milan to Barcelona under the impression that we would have compartment to ourselves. This impression was endorsed by the fact that we had paid a premium to do so (we thought). However, we wound up sharing a compartment with an Italian man and a Russian woman. This would have been fine except that the only person who managed to get a full night’s sleep was the Russian woman whose snores drowned out the sleep-inducing rattle of the train. (She was large and ebullient and the only thing bigger than her personality was her suitcase, which took up the entire floorspace of the car...SS) As they say ‘Live and learn’ or, in this case, learn to live without sleep.

We rented an apartment in the Barrio Gotik. It was very centrally located at the top of Las Ramblas and above a Hard Rock Café. Opposite was a park, and just in front the footpath acted as a Mecca for buskers. I would like to say I have nothing against buskers but that would be lying. Some, I am sure, are fine individually, but, en masse, they are a plague that should stamped on until they are dead as smelts (I don’t know what it means either but I like the sound of it). O.K. I’m being a bit harsh. In my favour, I cite the recent phenomenon where a couple of buskers whack one of those ‘relaxation’ or ambient music CDs into a sound system then both bash, pluck or plink away on home-made instruments in the pursuit of ‘world music’. I mean, really! Whale songs and a bit of repurposed twig and string does not music make. It makes a repetitive drone somewhere at the far end of the annoyance scale between bagpipes and ‘A Horse with No Name’.

On the upside, in the morning, I could look out the back windows (O.K. the only windows) of the apartment and watch the sun rise over the Mediterranean Sea while pigeons circled around the bell-tower of an old church two storeys below. Delightful. (The bit where the lifts broke down and we had to walk up and down six flights for the last 2 days of our stay, including lugging our luggage out... slightly less so. ss)

I have read Robert Hughes’ book ‘Barcelona’ but thankfully forgotten every word except that he mentions La Ramblas a lot. La Ramblas is the root source of the term ‘rambling’ ie: to wander aimlessly. The street itself is nothing but a wide avenue along which people with nothing better to do walk annoyingly slowly while looking at a ridiculously large number of living sculptures. I mean, really, what goes through peoples’ minds. ‘Hey honey, look at this guy. He’s doing nothing. Oh wow, that’s amazing. Let’s go look at this other guy, he’s doing nothing too!’

To make matters even more pointless not all the ‘sculptures’ model themselves on sculptures. We saw Edward Scissorhands, Michael Jackson and other fictitious characters. I got the feeling that if I stood still for five minutes some idiot would want their photograph taken with me. When, if ever, the sloth-like crowd became bored with the immobile beggars, they could go and look at small creatures freeze to death in the open-air pet shops that line the walk. I thought of calling the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals but realized they would have a hard time deciding which dumb animals – the pets, the sculptures or the audience – were most in need of euthanising. After one stroll down La Ramblas we decided there were far more interesting streets to get lost on and stuck to them.
We had hoped to see a lot of stuff in Barcelona but the weather and the festive season were against us. Australians have a reputation as fans of the long weekend. It is thoroughly undeserved – Australians have nothing on the Italians and Spaniards. We suffered closed museums, bars and galleries from Xmas in Milan to New year in Venice and Bologna to Epiphany in Barcelona. The epiphany we underwent was not to try and tour between the 23rd of December and the 7th of January. However, we did get to see the ‘Feste del Trio Reyes’ which is a big thing for everyone under the age of 12 in Barcelona, and a bigger thing for those older than 12 who have fond memories of freezing their arses off while watching an endless procession all viewed through the rose tinted lens of nostalgia.

It is a huge parade dedicated to the three magi who brought presents to the Christ child. At the head of the parade was a troop of horse-borne paramilitary folk, followed, delightfully I thought, by a phalanx of mechanized street sweepers. This was followed by every juggler, mime and living sculpture in the city finally earning their keep. They were interspersed with floats dedicated to the magi and seemingly immune of the problems with racial stereotyping.

The floats were bedecked with children who cast lollies into the crowd. There was one kid who had a really good arm and was, I am sure, targeting individuals. Luckily I was out of range because I was tempted to catch a treat and throw it back at him, just to see what would happen. It being Spain I decided it would probably lead to bloodshed and dancing and thus refrained. Anyway, the point is most of the sugar laden missiles fell well short of me. Nevertheless, I am sure a good many spectators went home with lollie-shaped bruises on their faces. As hard as it is for a skeptical old fossil like myself to admit, I enjoyed the whole thing. Especially one dancer who was obviously suffering motion sickness in her precarious crows-nest of a trolley. She blanched, sat down, gagged into her hand and finally got up to nervously to nobly carry on with the dance routine woefully out of time with her more cheerily robust colleagues. As I said, I enjoyed the whole thing immensely.

Of all the places we visited, two stand out particularly. One was a little tapas bar where we ate great food and drank fine wine. I’m sure Shiralee will fill in the details but I think she ate another rabbit.

The other place was the Frederic Marés museum. Marés was a collector. He was a collector’s collector. The amount of stuff he managed to get his hands on is simply staggering. I now believe that the reputation the Communists, Anarchist and Republicans got for stripping the churches during the Civil War is all down to Mares. The museum has walls of crucifixions, rooms of saints and warehouses worth of stuff both religious and secular.

The collection ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous. There is a gallery dedicated to objects made from human hair and not one of them is a wig. Between it and the room dedicated to fans, are a gallery of tools, a couple of walls covered in keys, his collection of risque photos, a particularly lame collection of time pieces, several generations of ceramic ware, two collages of cigar labels, a room of flower arrangements and religious scenes made entirely from shells and a couple of cigarette machines that look like 1:20 models of combine harvesters. And that is not the half of it. The man did not know when to stop. If anything came in multiples Mares collected it. He was obviously mad but it was a good kind of madness. Collectors everywhere should raise shrines to his long suffering family who put up with him and allowed such a collection to survive. It is a must see.
Speaking of must sees; the Sagrada de Famiglia is not one. If you admire the pictures you have seen of it, leave it at that. Up close, everything about it fails to live up to expectations. The best that can be said for it is that it is unique and thank God for that. It is also horrible. Individual aspects are interesting but, by and large, it is an example of something being less than the sum of its parts. The sculptures are cack-handed and should be destroyed immediately. The brightly coloured organic tile work is awful and at best distracts you from the dreadfulness of the rest of it. At a close view the whole thing looks like a much better building that has been left partially dissolved by acid rain.

The famous façade is nothing more than that. It has been half-arsedly, and noticeably so, tacked on to a gothic substructure. The so-called organic globules that cover the two towers look like fossilized pigeon shit except that the local pigeons have found far nicer buildings for their ablutions. It is awful. The interior is of noble proportions and commendably light and airy although most of that comes from the recent additions.

The recent furtherance of the design is an interesting, but abject, failure. It raises the question of how you complete the work of a megalomaniac. Obviously by adding more rubbish sculpture and extending the catenary arches well beyond the catenaries. And, by the way, what’s so innovative about catenary arches? Isn’t that the way most medieval cathedrals were built? I have seen the drawings and understand how architects can be tempted to believe that the whole thing must be completed before it makes sense. But I believe that once it is done people will realize it was a big mistake. The man was the Albert Speer of Catholicism.

Frankly the building looked its best in 1936. If they want a piece of evocative architecture they should complete it then drop bombs on it. It will make an interesting ruin. I have seen more evocative cathedrals in England. The building doesn’t stand comparison with work of Sinan. It’s about a subtle as Stonehenge. What’s more once you have seen it up close you develop a distaste for all his other work. Frankly, writing about Gaudi has put me in such a bad frame of mind I am going to stop now.
Another Gaudi building (see, we did give him a go!)

Oh, one last thing. We saw an excellent exhibition of Rodchenko’s works and a couple of other things but if you want to hear about them you will need a dinner invitation or have to offer one. (JB)
The Rodchenko show was actually in Casa Mila, another famous Gaudi building. Given that it cost 10euros to visit the Gaudi part, Rodchenko for free was a bargain! And it was kickarse show.
Mysterious slow slow and quiet dancing around central totems composed of handbags and puffy jackets...?
Museum of the History of the City -- beautiful building from the outside -- and has a lovely flag from one of the Armada ships (or something at least as long ago). It is also built over the original Roman wall and foundations which have been exposed on the bottom-most floor. However, it is rather expensive, they don't let you take pics and we'd seen far superior museums for free elsewhere... so not a must-see

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Red Bologna

Shortly prior to our arrival in Bologna we realized that we had booked into the wrong hotel. There are two similarly named hotels and we managed to book ourselves into the one on the outskirts of town. It was bitterly cold when we disembarked from the train so we caught a taxi. Our hearts sank as it took us away from the old city and into a bleak light-industrial zone. The hotel turned out to be fine, just unfortunately situated... but at least there was a bus stop only five minutes walk away.

We settled into our room which these days entails throwing our stuff into a corner and plugging in the rechargers for anything we don’t need to use immediately. We then availed ourselves of the bus service. I managed to buy tickets at the local tobacconist using a mixture of mime and the bizarre pidgin I have developed from all the Romance languages. My Italian sounds like a Frenchman speaking Spanish, my Spanish is akin to a consumptive speaking French, and I am afraid to visit France lest they mistake me for a Turk and deport me.

The number 52 bus got us into town somewhat more quickly than the taxi got us out (why am I not surprised?). We were deposited back at the train station and set off from there. Bologna is no more or less easy to get lost in than Milan. Here I must add some advice that you don’t find in the guidebooks. Italians are fond of dogs of all varieties from the little pocket-sized canine/rat crosses to things larger than the flats most Italians live in. Unfortunately their concern and responsibility for their pets does not extend to what comes out of them. When walking around an Italian city remember – if it’s brown, walk around.
JB hasn't mentioned the public statuary with which Bologna abounds. This is one of four sculptures in the main public gardens... as you can see, the lion is so surprised by its successful kill of a young camel that its tail has gone completely rigid... in another tableau, another equally rigid-tailed tiger takes on an anaconda... or maybe a boa constrictor...whatever, they both want the antelope corpse. There were also mermaids. After the gardens there's an enormous square, which also has sculpture... most notably this one of a young man attempting to stop pigeons from roosting on his sleeping friend. (SS)

Anyway, after tramping randomly up a couple of streets we found ourselves outside the Museum of Medieval History. It is truly worth a visit. The staff are friendly, the exhibits are interesting and include pieces from Aldrovandi collection, and, best of all, it’s free. All the places we visited that day were free... which was fortunate because over the next couple of days all the places we visited were closed. A curse on the festive season.

Having sated our curiosity we decided to sate our hunger. Eventually, we found an amusing little café/bar run by a superannuated punk and featuring pictures of Frieda Kalho on the walls. We tried, unsuccessfully, over the next couple of days to find it again. We trawled every street in the city, or so it seemed, to no avail. On our second last day we rediscovered it. It was about twenty meters from the main square. Mind you, everything of interest in Bologna is about twenty meters from the main square. Needless to say, it was closed.

As I have just suggested Bologna is a fairly small town that huddles around its main square like a puppy guarding its food bowl. The buildings in the centre are predominantly three or four storey structures that cover whole blocks. The upper floors are residential/business apartments. The ground floors are shops stepped back from the street and colonnaded. Most of the footpaths are paved with slick marble while the roads are cobbled. Both are liberally sprinkled with the mementos of dogs, and should be marked ‘Slippery when wet – messy always’. As it was snowing, raining or sleeting while we were there we spent our time doing a kind of slalom stroll – step, slip, dodge, step, slip, dodge, step, slip, yuk!

We were luck enough to find the old medical school that also functioned as the world’s first university or vice versa. In its day all the illustrious students or cash heavy donors were honored by having their family crest adorn the walls. This meant that those responsible for local heraldry had to stretch their imaginations to the breaking point and quite often well beyond. There are little plaster shields painted with bushes, buildings, bushes on buildings, buildings on bushes, swords, stars, burning bushes, bulls, black bulls, white bulls, half a cow, and in one case a leg. I could go on but wont. Check out the pictures either here or on the associated Flickr site.
The best thing was the anatomy room. A wooden ceiling bedecked with astrological symbols hangs over wooden walls bearing statues of various saints (I assume). At one end is a raised pulpit-like thingy with its own little roof supported by the statues of two flayed men. Tiered seating surrounds a pit with an hourglass shaped marble topped dissecting table. It is very cool.

For some reason that escapes me the allies bombed the university during the war. From what I have seen of Iraq and the Gaza Strip nothing much has changed. However, the Bolognese, or reasons I can understand perfectly, rebuilt it. Good on them!

We decided to head home and discovered that the Bolognese transport system is efficient and cheap but baffling like those arty bathroom fittings in pretentious restaurants. The buses do not run in circuits. Nor will the bus that takes you from point A to point B and on to point C necessarily return from point C to point A via point B. We returned to the train station and caught a bus with the same route number (52) as that had brought us from our hotel to the city that morning. We assumed that we could ride the bus for the whole circuit and just hop off when it came to our stop. It was not to be. The bus stopped in the middle of nowhere and we were informed that this was the end of the route. We pointed out to the driver that we had hoped to go to a place called Caladona(?) at the other end of the route ie: the point from which he had apparently come. He nodded and told us to wait where we were for the return bus that was due in about ten minutes. We patiently waited in sub-zero temperatures. Eventually we saw a bus approach. It was the same bus we had just gotten off with the same driver grinning like a monkey. We reiterated that we wanted to get to Caladona. He nodded. We climbed aboard and were driven back to the train station where we were again told that this was the end of the route. At this stage we realized that it is not the route number but the destination sign that you have to watch out for. This is confusing because the route maps at the bus stops suggest a bus of a given number will return along the same route. Anyway, we waited getting colder and increasingly disgruntled as a series of number 52 buses heading in the wrong direction arrived and departed until we gave up and caught a taxi.

The bus driver neglected to tell us that we had to catch the 52A bus to get back to Caladona. He also neglected to tell us that the stop for 52A was not near the stop for route 52 but was, for some unfathomable reason, located on the opposite side of the square in front of the station. We later discovered that we could have caught the 52A bus from the main square in the city. Which was frustrating because no matter which direction we walked the main square was where we always wound up - unless, of course, we were going to the train station to catch the 52A bus.

The main square is surrounded on three sides by shops and restaurants the fourth side is taken up with a huge cathedral. The lower half of the cathedral is made of grey stone and features the usual statues of saints etc. The upper half was made of red brick which lead me to think that the original architect was concerned with style while a later one was called in to bring the job back to within the budget.

There was a queue of people waiting to visit the cathedral while two men stood behind a barricade and prevented people from taking suspicious looking bags in. I don’t know what their criteria were but think it was just inconvenience. Thus one person would be singled out from a tour group, or couple would be split up. People with shoulder packs would not be allowed in while others with designer handbags big enough to hide a Humvee in would. I looked around for a sign saying ‘bagagli non Prada, passo nada’ but couldn’t see one. Shiralee checked out the cathedral. I stood around outside smoking and trying to look suspicious just to keep the bag guardians on their toes.

The next day everything was closed in preparation for New Year’s Eve. We took the opportunity to look at the architectural features of the town. There aren’t that many. But what Bologna does have is towers. The city is dotted with them. I can understand the logic of the towers in Venice; spotting in-coming vessels and all that. In Bologna it just appears to have been one-up-manship. There are two particularly notable towers – so notable they make really crap models, keychain thingies and T-shirts etc of them. They are notable because they both lean precariously. So much so they make the tower in Pisa appear the epitome of architectural rectitude.

Both towers were built by the Visconti clan. The first achieved a height of about 30 meters before it achieved a tilt of about 15 degrees. Seeing his symbol of potency was rapidly becoming an ad for renaissance Viagra, Count Visconti cancelled work on the tower and immediately started on another right next to it. The second tower achieved a height of about 45 meters before slumping to an angle of about 10 degrees towards the original tower. Mind you I doubt if we saw any old tower in Italy that boasted a right angle amongst it merits.

After being shut out of all the interesting places and tiring of looking at a bunch of variously askew ones, we decided a drink was necessary. Eventually we found a little bar that was so cute we wanted to adopt it. It appeared to be run by and for students. The young folk seemed a little nonplussed that two antediluvian creatures like us had managed to beach ourselves on their doorstep but they were happy enough to ply us with drinks and take our money. They sat around talking excited way young people do about important things like philosophy and haircuts or the philosophy of haircuts, and playing Led Zeppelin on the stereo. If this was an attempt to drive us away it was a mistake. However, when they switched over to Bruce Springsteen we decided to leave.

The main square was a hive of activity as the city was planning its New Years Eve bash. In Italy this involves drunken youths and fireworks – always a good mix. It also involved overly loud rubbish music and an enormous statue of a wolf wearing a dunce’s cap. We were tempted to stay and watch the festivities but as the temperature dropped and the rain started we decided to give it a miss.
New Year’s Day fairly quiet as the city recovered from the celebrations. No doubt nursing hangovers, treating burns and reattaching fingers. So we just strolled about commenting on the vast quantities of dog ordure and looking at closed things and trying to find that cute little cafe. One thing I noticed is every place city we have visited has shops dedicated to knives and catering to all your cutting and stabbing needs. They display huge ranges of weapons that would be banned anywhere else unless they were bolted to a wall plaque. What is it with Mediterranean’s and weaponry? In Turkey there were shops full of guns (hopefully fake) in Italy it’s knives (obviously not). It makes Australia seem very safe and tame.

On our last day we managed to visit an excellent museum in the Plaza Prodi. It is a large selection of the collection of Aldrovandi. The collection was an integral part of the world’s first university and had later been broken up and distributed to various other sites. Luckily, it was reassembled – most of it anyway – and is now displayed in what appear to be 18th Century display cases in a series of rooms all with ornate ceilings and edifying religiously themed murals on the walls. Unfortunately, but understandably, the lighting was very dim. This and the fact that the glass in the display cases was rippled made photographing most of the objects nigh on impossible.

The collection spans just about everything of interest to your average early natural philosopher. Rocks, plants, dessicated fish, a couple sets of testicles (at left), bits of creatures both real and chimerical and so forth all with meticulously hand written labels. There are original etchings and woodcuts from early publications including a couple really famous ones. There is the sea horse drawn as a normal horse with fins on its forelegs and a fish’s tail tacked on its rear. My favourite is of a fish that looks like a medieval monk who has been surgically enhanced with the limbs of a merman. You sometimes wonder whether the illustrators ever actually saw the subject of their illustrations or were just told about them over one to many glasses of wine at the local taverna.

Anther room is full of displays from the first university department dedicated to the study of childbirth. Not only was this department the first to study such a thing seriously but was also the first to, quite reasonably you would think, to allow women to attend lectures. They did have to enter by a separate doorway from the male students mind you. The display cabinets are full of plaster models of the various stages of childbirth and examples of various infantile abnormalities. They also house a variety of gruesome looking devices supposedly designed to assist the birthing process but probably account for a large number of the abnormalities on display. This room could be used as an effective contraceptive by merely showing the displays to any self-respecting young woman.
The last two room were full of anatomical models. Shiralee says they are not as good as the displays at La Specola, but if you can’t get to Florence these will do just as well. The displays are not fascinating solely for their accuracy and difficulty of manufacture but also for the morbidly touching details that have been added and the way the figures have been posed. Disembodied limbs are displayed in the middle of performing some action and framed in folds of cloth. A pair of wax hands appear to be sewing something. A human mouth screams from under its shroud. A pair of eyes frantically search the room probably looking for the screaming mouth they used to live above. Definitely not for the faint hearted. But those inclined to cruelty could have a lot of fun showing it to young children just before bedtime.
After that we visited the Museum of Zoology. The invigilator seemed surprised but not pleased that we had shown up. Only half the lights were turned on or maybe the rest just didn’t work. The displays are all run down, dust covered and shabby, and include some of the worst examples of taxidermy I have ever seen. Stuffed birds have lost their feathers, deceased monkeys have eyes missing and bits of wire poking out of their heads. An unfortunate pig looks as though it has been used as a football during an office party. Unidentifiable creatures rot in jars from which the preserving agent has leaked or was drunk during the same party. One butterfly case is merely a set of pins and labels accompanied by tiny piles of dust. However, some beautiful pieces still manage to survive seemingly despite the best, or worst, intentions of the curators; that is assuming there are any curators. Annoyingly, the money that could have been spent maintaining the collection was wasted on a thoroughly unintelligible contemporary installation in the foyer.

The theme of the displays is puzzling. They start out in the usual manner with cabinets full of creatures of the same species or from the same country but after a while the logic goes missing. In one display a bear seems to be fighting a group of rodents. One cabinet holds a pile of left over bits of mountain goats. Another display groups some weasels and a Chihuahua seemingly on the grounds that they are the same size and colour. There is a case displaying the front halves of a group of lions. In another a group of hedgehogs stares forlornly at a fallen comrade. It is weird.
As a public museum it is a disgrace, but if it you imagine it as the private menagerie of an eccentric collector it is wonderful. If I win the lottery I am going to make them an offer for the collection. My camera ran out of power half way through so you should check out Shiralee’s Flickr site to witness the full glory of it. We wanted to stay for a while longer but our train was due and we had to leave.
We also visited the very fine archeology museum -- which, as well as having huge amounts of stuff pulled out of the ground locally including wonderful collection of Etruscan things, was also hosting an exceptional temporary exhibition of Japanese woodcuts. Why oh why did we not buy the catalogue...? (ss)

More pictures from the Zoology Museum and Bologna generally:

Friday, January 16, 2009

Stoning Venice

I won’t write a great deal about Venice because much better writers than I have set the bar too high. If you want to understand the history and culture of the place, I suggest you read ‘The Stones of Venice’, ‘Death in Venice’ or ‘Men are from Mars Women are from Venice’. I will settle for a series of notes and sketches.

The best way to approach Venice would be from the sea in a small boat low to the water. We came by train via Mestre, which is a low scrubby desolate wetland of the kind your father used to drag you to because, despite its bleakness, it was a good fishing spot. The only difference is that someone built a factory on the low depressing wetland.

Never mind, the train heads away from Mestre so you don’t have to look at it for very long. Looking ahead you see the Serene Republic looking, well, serene like a child’s toy city standing on a mirror. No shoreline, no landscape… It is a magical sight.
The hotel we stayed at was a converted abbey. At least, I hope it was converted or else I am going to have a word with the Vatican’s accounts department. The hotel was about 50 meters from the train station and pretty much fronted on the Grand Canal. It was separated from the train station by an enormous baroque church that housed the world’s worst campanologist. The location was convenient but, unfortunately, was also one of the main tourist drags. But so is every street in Venice that is wide enough for two people to walk abreast.
After settling in we crossed the canal via the Pont Something or other and entered the state of permanent disorientation that is the back streets of Venice. London cabbies boast of ‘The Knowledge’ and claim it increases their brain capacity. Well, the people that deliver the mail in Venice must have brains the size of planets!

Anyway, the only way to enjoy Venice is to wander about without having a particular destination. That way you can be constantly surprised by beautiful buildings, quaint little canal-based micro vistas, crumbling churches and closed museums. It also means that when you hear the approach of tourists you can duck down the nearest side street – in most cases this will be a cul-de-sac, but never mind there is usually something to look at down there anyway.

Here are a few things for visitors to Venice to remember. Firstly, knowing where you are only defeats the purpose. Secondly, there is no such thing as a short cut in Venice. Thirdly, the streets are narrow and winding, and may or may not lead to a canal. Forth, the canals are smelly and wet and may or may not lead to a bridge. Lastly, you can sort of find your way about with a map by using the plazas and squares for a reference… or not.

Shiralee and I wandered about aimlessly for a couple of hours snapping off a couple of megabytes of pictures. When we finally decided to head back to the hotel we made the journey into a paper-chase-like game. Step one – find a church or plaza. Step two – look at the map and locate another church or plaza in the direction you are heading. Step three – head in that general direction. Step four – wander down some street/laneway that looks interesting. Step five – realize you are lost again. Step six – repeat step one.

On day two I was laid low by the remainder of the cold I had nurtured all the way from England. Shiralee went a wandering while I lay a bed suffering from the aches and pains and the attentions of the tone-deaf Quasimodo next door. Really, you would imagine that someone who got to ring the bells every hour on the hour would eventually get better at it! Maybe they let tourists have a go for a small fee. I don’t know, but every hour on the hour (between 7am and 7pm) there was the sound of a blind person parking a Cadillac in a room full of gas cylinders.
Whilst JB lay around feeling appalling, I heartlessly deserted him and stomped around vast amounts of Venice through squalling sleet and mini-tempests. My intention had been to go to the Ducal Palazzio Museum, but not even the arctic conditions prevented a queue of several hundred people forming before I got there. Surely these people should have been happily occupied taking photographs of each other posing in front of various famous landmarks like the other 82000 people in St Mark's Square? Anyway, all was explained when I realised that St Marks was not open for visits, it being a Sunday and therefore in use for various ceremonies. So I shuffled in with a crowd of worshipers and attended the first Mass I've been to since high school. .. and, I have to say, having a huge massed choir, a congregation of thousands, and vast golden mosaics covering every surface certainly makes a difference... Didn't stop me from sneaking photographs tho'... (ss)

That night we had a meal in what passes for a restaurant in the tourist drag. We got to overhear a British hypochondriac bore his mail-order bride about his bowels to the point where we were hoping she would kill him in his sleep (or any other time, it didn’t matter that much). I have never read a culinary guide to Venice and now understand why. The Venetians live next door to open sewers – what can you expect?

Our last day started with clear skies and fresh air. We bought day tickets for the Vaporettos and started out. I can recommend this without reservation. Buy a ticket, hop on a boat and see what happens. We were taken to the island of glass blowers. A look at the huge atrocities they decided to display on the shore-front was enough to convince us to hop on the next ferry off the island. I have seen ancient glassware dredged up from the bottom of the Mediterranean that is so fine as to make you weep. Murano glass makes you weep for an entirely different reason.
Luckily, the ferry we jumped on to took us to the Isle of the Dead. Ever since I was a romantically inclined youth, I have wanted to visit this island. It is striking from a distance. Dark cypresses look like stilettos aimed at the heart of God. Curves, corners and towers poke at heaven. Once you are there it can’t compete with Milan’s monumental cemetery. It is smaller for one thing and less monumental. However, we found Ivor Stravinski’s grave next to that of his wife. Ivor’s grave had been covered with tokens of respect. Weirdly enough, many of these were the business cards of audio-technicians – a little late, I thought.
The next port of call was the island of Burano. This isle was traditionally the home of Venice’s fishermen and lace makers. I can understand why they sent their glass workers away, but the fishermen do something worthwhile, if somewhat environmentally destructive. But I suppose you can’t hang a dead fish from your ceiling and impress your neighbours. Nowadays the island survives as a test bed for a paint company. Every house is a different colour from its neighbour. The affect is delightful. Sadly, apart from this, a very crooked bell tower and tatty (pun intended) lace work imported from China, the island has nothing to offer. However, the eccentric colour schemes kept us amused for a couple of hours.
The trip back was delightful beyond the power of words. But that won’t stop me. As the sun set the lagoon took on a shade of blue I have only seen in the plumage of parrots. The wavelets caused by the wake of the vaporetto caught the sun’s rays and flared the most gorgeous pink. On one side the buildings were roseate, on the other they were black silhouettes. Breathtaking.

There is always a ‘but’. Venice is cursed. In the way the ancient Greek gods cursed mortals. Venice cannot live up to expectations. Venice is a dream. It is also awash with tourists who turn that dream into a nightmare. It may seem hypocritical to disparage tourists when one is touring but the raucous voices of British and American visitors spouting inanities into their mobile phones or to one another is jarring. We heard people loudly discussing the most inane subjects, seemingly immune to the beauty around them. Maybe it is the fact that we can understand their language that makes it noticeable, and maybe I was unaware of all the garrulous Turks and French that surrounded me. But I doubt it. There is an arrogance certain tourists display that sits ill with any thinking person.

It is not just the visitors that dismay one. The streets of Venice are lined with booths selling utter rubbish. Everything is overpriced. The churches charge admission – even I know that this is called simony and is a venal sin. Maybe Venetian is the root of the word venal. Maybe it is just History balancing the books – the sack of Constantinople, anyone? I can sympathise. The city has a smaller population than Canberra and is visited by millions of tourists each year. Even in the off-season, St Mark’s Square struck me as the perfect location for testing modern weaponry.
Whatever, in hindsight I think we all have to admit that Venice has had its day. Instead of the World Heritage Foundation giving the Venetians money for flood prevention – maybe, they should spend the money on a huge party and we can all watch Venice sink beneath the waves with what little dignity it retains.