Sam Bowker: The Grand Tour Diary (2005 - 2006)

This is the archived journal of a 2005-2006 'Grand Tour' around the Eastern Mediterranean and along East Africa, written by Sam Bowker, whilst in search of his PhD topic.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Egypt - The Khan and the Photos

Dedicated to Tabbi for her excellent Uni results!

Much of my other time in Cairo lately has been spent exploring the Khan (souqs or market areas) with my knowledgeable Mum, and sorting out my photos. More on that last point later - there ought to be a few posts on the souqs alone!

We've been getting well-orientated across the bustling city centre, learning through Mum's great system of pointing and saying "Remember that." and "Remember that?". We've wandered into glorious historic Arab houses, restored and otherwise, down deep dark echoing cisterns, through the bustling tourist areas with touts who can banter in six or seven languages, and through the marble-cutting region lined with all manner of hand-made product stallholders. There's so much more I'm yet to see - I'm trying to take in as much navigation as I can so I can set out solo for days at a time. After all, the city hosts 20 million people, and when you're standing in it, it leaves you in no doubt of this fact whatsoever. It's loud and dusty and smells as complex as the traffic. It's vast and polluted and brilliant to see. I'm 100% certain that every time I step out into the centre I will find something to describe that we simply don't see in Australia.

One of Mum's favourite such sites is the Dyeing Workshop. We don't know what it's actually called. This dingy little courtyard should be on the World Heritage listings for sheer photographic potential - I took around 50 in twenty minutes!

It's just beyond a forbidding dark covered alley, and once there, you have to tread carefully around thick piles of grey, dusty detritus like broken chairs, planks of wood and scraps of newspaper. It consists of three related blokes in bare feet and old singlets messing about with four dingy bathtubs full of murky ink. They take stunningly clean (in contrast to their vicinity) lengths of soft white silk, and turn them into the most strikingly bold and shimmering shades of every colour imaginable. They hang these to dry on complex grids of bamboo overlooking the decrepit apartment blocks nearby, and they look utterly brilliant.

There will be photos here within a week. I can promise this because I have spent a lot of time on organising, spinning, labelling and editing them to do so. This has been a daunting task - prepare yourself - I have around 16,000 photographs to this moment.

Yes, I too think that's shitloads. Many of them are simply low-resolution museum labels and can be deleted as I transcribe them to the actual image. But that's the blessing of digital photography for you. I'm putting together a "Best Of" selection, aiming for a very managable number, and will make those accessible as best I can.

Tomorrow night, we will take an overnight train to Upper Egypt. (That's South, going up the Nile). Expect a post in a couple of days, as I doubt the ease of accessibility for internet up there.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Egypt - The Solar Boat

Dedicated to Antonio. Yes, all of you.

It's unusual to get two posts from me in one day, but after reading my Mum's coverage of the same day, I realised there's so much more I could and should have said.

Her posts as always are vivid and much more elegant than mine, but plenty of important vignettes remain for us both. I'd like to share just one more with you, in the detail it deserves.

The Solar Boat

When you stand at the base of the immense pyramid of Khufu, it looms overhead like a gargantuan stone steamroller. The actual shape of the structure becomes indistinct - it simply forms an arc against the sky which seems to reach an apex somewhere far away. Your eyes aren't accustomed to recognising the consistency of shapes at such a vertical distance, so the stone blocks (as tall as me) seem to be simply smaller as they reach further away. It's only when reminded that the stones at the highest point are the same size as the ones next to you that you can comprehend just how Massive this bloody thing is.

The sheer weight of it is visibly tactile from kilometres away.

From such a distance you can also see a strange high-tech pod, conspicuously parked between this pyramid and the Sphinx. It looks like a white (tinged with ubiquitous beige desert dust) coccoon from a Stanley Kubrick set. In fact, that's very much what it is.

It houses one of the most extraordinary things I have seen on the GT - the "Solar Boat". This is a cedar riverboat discovered by archaeologists in this exact spot in the 1950s. It was disassembled and secreted in a custom-carved stone pit, and concealed with the very same slabs of stone that were removed the make the storage area. It was a burial item of considerable prestige for a Pharoah. Not only is it larger than an articulated bus, it was made entirely with stone axes, flint blades, and held together with knotted ropes. This predates metal technologies - it's about 4500 years old - so there were no nails. Most amazingly, the original knotted ropes are on display, wound as thick as your thigh and bent into elaborate arches, hooks, and 90-degree twists.

Apparently others had subsequently been discovered, some even older still, but none are as well-preserved. It hovers in its white steel and glass cage, oars propped ready for deployment, as visitors follow a spiralling perambulation around it. The museum is clearly designed to effectively move masses of people through each day, but there was scarcely anyone there at the time. The Lonely Planet's guides don't give it more than a couple of sentences, but the standard of installation and design is mindblowing for a developing nation - I've seen plenty of Western museums with significantly inferior facilities.

The entire exhibition space is put together with virtually no text - if I didn't have Mum and Dad there who knew the background I would not have known much of the details. In sharp contrast to the attention to detail in the architecture and layout, only five or six vitrenes possessed small palm-card labels. These were in Arabic and English, written neatly on a 1950s typewriter, presumably at the time of their original discovery. There were no introductory panels, and the archival photographs of the restoration and excavation were self-explanatory in the manner of the best narrative signage.

It was a fantastic introduction to Cairo's museological capabilities. I'm looking forward to seeing how the infinately more famous Egyptian Museum holds up - my expectations are decidedly mixed.

Egypt - Return to Cairo

Dedicated to Mum and Dad

The "Flight into Egypt" was long, delayed, and tedious, so I'll spare the details.

It is excellent to be back with Mum and Dad again. The first day back was spent catching up with all the stories from the last few months of travel, as plenty of stuff has happened which isn't being Blogged. The collected souvenirs were unwrapped and explained, and the CDs of photos were downloaded to this computer. They'll be posted here when I have a free day.

Last night was an excellent evening of Polish food and culture with academics and archaeologists, at the home of two architectural conservators. A beautiful historic home, filled with wonderful objects, great conversation on all kinds of topics (especially Turkey and central European history) and brilliant food.

Today was a serious Egypt day - I tallied up six Pyramids, explored the entire inner sanctum of two, critically evaluated the Sphinx, and deciphered what I could of an elaborate hieroglyphics-laden tomb. Sensational stuff, and an utterly jammed-full day.

Tomorrow's looking like it'll be spent in the Khan and the Egyptian Museum. More on that later, after it happens.

(On a strange note, the three of us have just been watching Big Fish and noticed, in the credits, there was a song titled "Sammy, where have you been for so long?")

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Italy - Leaving Rome

Dedicated to Solo Travel

The sun is setting in Rome, the ruins are orange, and it's getting cold outside.

I've checked out of my second hostel, the Alessandro Palace, and partook in as many free cups of coffee as any respectable backpacker would. Last night, my new mates (as all my mates have been lately), celebrated our recent arrivals and imminent departures from Italy at a Chinese restaurant. As you do in Italy. In fact, it was the first Chinese food I've eaten in months, and likely to be the last for some time as well.

This morning was spent exploring the gargantuan Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a "national altar-piece" on the scale of New Parliament House in white marble. Laden with statues and freises harkening to the re-invented glories of Imperial Roman temples, it looks like a totalitarian version of our War Memorial in Canberra. It's very clearly designed to inspire awe from the outside - the layout of the interior museums seem like a secondary consideration.

The afternoon was dedicated to the small complex of the Capitolini Museums, just behind the massive tomb monument. The two palaces I saw primarily consisting of sculpture collections, with several very famous and impressive works amongst them. Excellent rooms of Roman portrait busts and interesting provenance histories, mostly summarisable as "Discovered in a drain, snatched by the Vatican, later proved to be too embarrassing for the Vatican to hang on to, ended up here in this secular Museum".

There were also a couple of diversions through Santa Maria Maggiore and an unexpected exhibition of Manet's prints and sketches.

But now, tis time to leave Europe. I have loved this experience of solo independent travel. I am absolutely keen on continuing these types of trips, and have been formulating plans for future travels. I am heading back to Cairo tonight, via Athens, and should arrive there around 2am their time. Once there, I shall be staying with my much-loved parents, and working out my movements for the next couple of months abroad.

They will feature Egypt and Libya in a big way, but might just include other parts of Africa.

Here begins my Flight into Egypt.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Italy - Still exploring Rome

Dedicated to James, political-social philosopher and practical debator.

The last couple of days in Rome have been so busy I haven't had time to blog. That may not be entirely true, but it's certainly been more fun to keep myself occupied on other events.

I wandered the streets on Monday, avoiding unanticipated police barricades across the city, and sought out two obscure little museums that happened to be open. The first, the Crypt of the Capuchin Friars, is a "bone church", a subterreanean passageway lined with chapels. These are adorned with the skeletal remains of about 4000 Capuchin Friars, dismantled and arranged into the arabesques, grotesques and architectural forms that you would expect to see in most churches of Rome. It was a very ominous place, macabre to say the least, but not as chilling as I expect a place like the Pol Pot museum in Cambodia would be. These people weren't murdered, they're just dead. Quite dead. There was a poem inside which I'll transcribe here in a few days time when I start uploading pictures from my base in Cairo, but for now I'd like to leave you with the words written on the floor of the final chapel:

"What you are now we once were, what we are now you will be"

Hopefully, that is, not ornamenting a pilgrimage site in a church. I can think of better things to do with my afterlife.

The other small place was the Museum of Souls in Purgatory. It sounds like a macabre day but it really wasn't meant to be - these just were the places open on Mondays in Rome. I went expecting a kind of Nick Bantock pseudo-fictional obscure tangent on reality, and sort of got that. It was hidden in a darkened room at the back of a gorgeous and intricate Gothic church, and consisted of hand prints burnt into bibles, textiles, and odd faces that emerged from ruins in burnt-out religious sites. Creepy stuff, much more atmospheric and spine-tingling than most relics I've thus far encountered.

The Fawlty Towers hostel has been excellent for socialising. I ran into the Minnesotan carpenter-poet and sadistic chess player James from Cinque Terre again by chance, and ended up spending this morning visiting the Galleria Borghese with him. Fascinating bloke. There's also been a few other interesting characters - Butch the Canadian Harley-Davidson rider with a brilliant sense of humour, Laura (also a Canadian) who has spent around a year working for a school library project in Ghana as part of her degree, and a religious bioethicist-artist from Ireland. Even the chance encounters out in the streets have been memorable, but I won't bore you with them here!

Today tackled three major galleries in the Villa Borghese area. The Galleria Borghese was a fantastic restored mansion of a 17th century Cardinal with a passion for collecting classical sculpture. The neoclassical marble pieces he commissioned from Peranesi were especially stunning, particularly his Paulina, his David, and the Apollo in pursuit of Daphne. Then there was the extensive Etruscan museum, and the major National Gallery of Modern Art, in which I took copious notes on the large map they provided. It's quite colourful now!

It has been a fantastic day. Tomorrow I plan to visit another series of major museums, particularly of archaeological subjects. (Because these things just don't EXIST in Australia!)

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Italy - Orvieto and Rome, Again

Dedicated to Laurence, who has missed out on St Francis Kitsch

Today has really been a travelling day, Perugia to Rome, broken with an excursion to Orvieto.

Why go to Orvieto? For the cathedral of course. That-s really the main claim to tourism for a lot of Italian towns (technically cities if they have a cathedral). It-s actually one of the best I have seen in Italy on the exterior - right up there with Florence. It-s covered in horizontal black and white stripes, creating a shimmering effect as you approach, much like the Siena Cathedral. The facade is seriously bejewelled. It has thousands of glimmering mosaic tesserae reflecting the sunlight, which as I arrived was at a steep angle and boldly contrasting the intricate surface textures. It was colourful, richly festooned (a word I don/t use often enough) with sculpture like Florence-s, and bore two magnificent chapels inside. One of these, the more famous, was by Signorelli. This chapel features a Last Judgement that was likely to have inspired Michelangelo, and it-s plain to see why, even though Michelangelo took a very different take on his composition.

I-m very pleased I took that little diversion, it really gave me something to write home about.

But on the most recent of recent events, I am writing from Rome again. Trevi Fountain definately works, huzzah! I seem to have, so far this evening, shaken off the -ghost of Anna- that followed me after she left when I was alone here. Let-s hope Rome renews itself to me this time... no offense Anna dearest! I-ll be focussing on the museums and galleries I didn-t want to bore Anna with over the next two or three days.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Italy - Assisi

Dedicated to any Saint other than Francis, with whom I'm almost saturated.

Today was one of very few daytrips taken on this GT, heading out to the city so great it has it's own saint, Assisi of Francis.

Once you've entered the walled centre, situated high up on a hill with a mountainous backdrop, stacked in layers of mighty fortifications, majestic basilicas, and picturesque stone residential towers, the city leaves you in no doubt whatsoever that "Francis Was Here". There are more religious kitsch vendors than I've seen anywhere since the Vatican. And more religious tourists too - not only the highly visible and interestingly attired clergy, but lay folk with clear interests. One group of American teenagers dressed in ghetto chic, leaning on the pedestrian barriers outside a CD shop, was discussing their distaste for the charismatic church session that some of them missed the previous night.

The various churches were stunning, and their pastel-toned marble palette and architectural forms seemed to inspire the basis for other residential architecture. It was all very harmonious and clean-feeling, a mix of the medieval heritage of Siena and some of the functionality of Canberra. I was wrapt in the ornate frescos on the supporting arches in the Lower basilica of St Francis, and spent a very long time developing a much more solid appreciation of Giotto's contribution to western art in the Upper basilica. His monumental church is actually a very interesting place on many levels - it is literally two entirely differently concieved churches plonked on top of each other. One of those places where photos will show you what it looks like, but will never give you a feeling of moving towards and around it in real scale.

A real GT moment of the day, one of several, was watching a powerful sunset over the Umbrian fields and farmhouses, behind the Basilica of St Francis, accompanied by yet another friendly anonymous cat, and with a massive gold bar of hazelnut-filled dark chocolate aptly branded "Zanzibar".

But now it is bloody cold outside and I am looking forward to eating my fill of hot mushroom rissotto and a suprisingly good DCOG red, whose name eludes me for the moment.

Off to Rome tomorrow, via another Cathedral town, Orvieto.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Italy - Perugia

Dedicated to the MBTIES

I'm in Perugia now, an Umbrian town loaded with medieval streets, Renaissance architecture, Etruscan ruins and darkened arched alleys lined with buildings that curve out into the street.

There is also a disturbingly obvious gypsy presence. They've been hassling a lot of people outside the major piazza beside the cathedral and marble fountain, but I've been able to avoid them. The climate is virtually Canberran - striking clear skies and warm in the sunshine, but chillingly cold at night and in the shady covered streets. There are virtually no tourists - it is unmistakeably low season - and the hostel is predominantly occupied by Italian speaking students, mostly from Africa. (Apparently Ethiopia has an Italian heritage link due to a former colonial occupation).

It's been one of those days were I really don't think I've been up to much, but when i itemise it mentally, it sounds like a very busy sequence. I've been deep down Etruscan wells and under middle-ages fortifications, (using escalators no less!), gaining an appreciation for Umbrian pre-Renaissance masters, and discovered a Raphael fresco in a tiny chapel within a labyrinth of stairs, twisting streets, and ramshackle residences. There have been lots of individual sites of note but those will be entered in my diary, not here.

In fact, the diary has been attracting a lot of interest lately from other travellers, so I'm looking forward to showing it to you sometime. It's beyond the stage where I can close it easily due to the amount of interesting ephemera it has digested, and has developed an acute and ornate horror vaccui (fear of empty spaces). You may now need a magnifying glass to read the most recent 50-odd pages.

I'm staying here for two more nights, and will use it as a base to explore Assisi tomorrow. Perhaps I shall backtrack to Urbino before heading down to Rome, as it was once a critically important cultural centre. Who knows?

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Italy - Cinque Terre

Dedicated to Acacia and Kim. Happy Birthdays!

The last couple of days have been spent in Cinque Terre. I arrived after an eight-hour series of train transfers, finding myself unexpectedly in a tunnel that turned out to be Riomaggiore.

I stepped out into the cold darkness, hearing the waves breaking distantly on the rocks beneath the cliff-top railway station. I was the only person leaving the train there that night. I was met as I left the tunnel by an old lady who looked for all the world like ''Grandma Death'' from Donnie Darko. With wild white hair going in all directions, slightly manic eyes behind large glasses, and a flowery overcoat, she proffered a scrap of paper reading ''15'' and insisted in very limited but friendly English that she had the best cheap rooms in Riomaggiore, with lots of people and beautiful women. What a deal... but I wasn't sure I could trust her. It might have been a brothel for all I knew.

The hostel was actually very good, an exercise in simplicity. The bathrooms left heaps to be desired (I simply didn't use them), but I had a room to myself the first night and the people were fantastic. The lovely Catrina and Leisel (the ''beautiful women'' mentioned by the eccentric Madam Ruso) were Australians working in London and travelling Europe, and Liam was an 18-y.o. Melbournian (familiar with LSC&PH) who has already tackled central Africa solo. He gave me a fantastic near-valueless Zimbabwe $500 note, wonderfully worn and exotic, and I gave him extensive written advice in his diary on travelling Turkey, including hand-drawn maps to the secret tunnels we discovered in Cappadocia.

The next day was spent trekking the world-heritage landscapes of the Cinque Terre. These are five tiny cliffside fishing villages surrounded by terraced fields for olives and grapevines. The Mediterranean was turquoise and flat, changing colours with the sun's movement, and the fields were highlighted with autumn colours. Bare earth lay behind the remaining red vineleaves, the brilliant yellow of the intermittent figs, and the blurring oranges of chestnut trees raged amongst deep green pine forests. Most striking were the silvery evergreen olive orchards, whose bases were wrapped in diaphonous orange nets like a collaborative installation by Christo and Andy Goldsworthy.

I was frustrated by the impressive-looking but functionally useless path maps, and ended up waylaid by another eccentric old Italian lady. They called me off the path I had found, after much searching, and insisted the town I was headed for for in the other direction. This was completely contrary to the map's advice, but she was insistent so I took her word. And yes, indeed, a sign was found later on saying this was the right way. However, the next town I found myself in was actually the one in the opposite direction to where I had wanted to go.

Such is Cinque Terre.

But the day's peregrinations were excellent, and so was the evening. Good quality DOCG Chianti and local fresh pesto on pasta I cooked myself, shared amongst the mates from the previous night, as well as several interesting Americans who arrived that day. We worked out difficult lateral thinking scenarios amongst all manner of conversation. I ended up playing chess made from toilet tissue scraps against a carpenter-poet from Minnesota until 1am.

Now, I am writing from Pisa, on my way to Perugia, where I expect to spend most of my final days in Italy before jetting back to Egypt. Pisa's tower is everything the postcards say it is, but more elegant than I expected. I was captivated by the stunning white marble cathedral and baptistery behind it - they were like the silver and bronze position holders in the Olympics. Always ignored behind the media frenzy around the gold medallist, but amazing achievements nonetheless.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Italy - Venice and Murano

Dedicated to John and Lisa's New Home. Congratulations!

Today was an expensive day, and will result in carrying more bags around than usual for the last few days in Italy. I'm sure Italy has wanted me to do this for a long time. It seems quite the local fashion.

But aside from that, it has been great fun and I'm sure it will make many people very happy. Today was primarily spent on boats of all sorts, hopping between islands and jetting down canals, taking heaps of pictures. I allowed a few hours to explore the nearby island of Murano, famous for it's glass production, and watched several factories at work. Always fascinating to watch objects being crafted by hand. Especially gorgeous objects.

Yesterday was occupied primarily by modern\contemporary art, which I needed like an aspirin to counter the excesses of pre- and post-Renaissance arts I have been exposed to in recent weeks. The Peggy Guggenheim collection was especially interesting in the flesh, and I spent some time chatting to the interns there. I seriously considered applying for such an internship well before leaving Australia, but I'm not sure now if it will be a real step forward for my career. It now feels like an expensive way to stay on much the same level. (But in Venice!)

But, Internet being pricey as usual around here, I must be off. The concert the other night was sensational, in case you're wondering. I'm leaving Venice tomorrow for La Spezia and hopefully Cinque Terre, but we shall see how that turns out.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Italy - The Fogs of Venice

Dedicated to J Ruskin

It has been yet another day of exquisite ornaments, regal palaces, swift gondolas, little bridges, atmospheric alleys, expensive food carefully avoided and outstanding artworks visually overloaded.

I have only a few minutes to scribble this little note, as I have to dash across the Campo (they have only one Piazza here) to a Renaissance church hosting a Vivaldi concert tonight. He's bigger than Megan Gale here, and that's saying something. He even has a dedicated merchandise shop - more Vivaldi paraphenalia than I know what to do with. They support their local prodigies here... Particularly Tintoretto, who I think is represented in galleries the same way as Al-Assad in Syria. The authorities won't take you seriously unless you can point to at least two of whis works in your collection.

The Ducal Palace (Doge's palace) was sensational, and I didn't realise it was possible to walk through the Bridge of Sighs. I thought it was like Vasari's Corridor in Florence that way - special permission must be sought in advance. HUGE rooms of gilt and ceiling paintings, inlcuding a 22m by 7m oil on canvas, contrasted superbly with the bare and obliante' like cells in the prison across the canal.

Sadly, I have commited a sin of Italian travellers, and fear that I cannot live with this secret. So let us speak of it now and seal our lips of it forever. I ate at Burger King.
I know you'll all damn me to whatever takes your fancy for this (I've seen a lot of H. Bosch today if you'd like some inspiration), but it was cheaper and better value than the measly ataglio scraps of dubious origin and possible antiquity. Plus the restauarnt was pumping and it is freezing outside.

Must be off. Forgive me!

Friday, November 11, 2005

Italy - Venice

Dedicated to the Grand Tourists of Yore

Who didn't have to cope with expensive internet cafes. $20 an hour in some places! Sheesh.

Venice has been a central point on the Grand Tour for centuries. I've even perused large texts on the singular role of Venice for Grand Tourists in the Uffizi Gallery. It was historically a base for artistic, cultural, diplomatic, sexual and international trade training for young European and particularly English aristocrats. I think I might need to set aside another couple of nights more than I had planned!

It's a very beautiful labyrinth, everything you have seen in the media is probably true. The postcard stands are laden with Carnivale images, the souvenir shops specialise in masks, marbled papers and bound books, Murano glass, laces, and objets d'arte of the most ostentatious European taste. Plus the usual romantic watercolours that pop up all over Italian cities - not to be disparaging of course.

It has been cold enough to cover my face in a fog from my breath, but the days are clear and brightly lit. I have learnt bridge etiquette, and how to rapidly locate myself on a wondrous little map. I also had a euphoric experience shopping in a supermarket for the first time in months. It was great! Heaps of sweet and realistically cheap Italian foods, in bulk and with immense choices available! I'm now well stocked for lunches, snacks and breakfasts.

I've also picked up a Museum Pass which gets me into heaps of places for only €10 total, and I've been planning much of my wandering around it. Most of today was spent in the vicinity of St Mark's Square, but I won't list all the places here.

Anyhow, must go. Much to do in very little time. Most the city is gorgeous at night, as I well know from being vaguely lost in it for three hours last night. Following locals can take you to interesting places, but sometimes it gets you stranded in the middle of nowhere...

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Italy - Ferrara

Dedicated to Lee, Judith, Onners and GP, who all left such great comments. Thanks guys!

There are no Ferraris in Ferrara. There are also no youth hostels any more.

The place I was going to stay at was centrally located and had a very nice little promo pamphlet. The door was sealed with a steel bar contraption straight out of the Dark Ages. Apparently, according to the nice people at Tourist Info, it closed for good last week. Since it's located on a road I've used frequently, I've had plenty of opportunities to kick the bars and feel vindicated.

Ended up in a nice enough, if isolated, cheap hotel along a medieval street lined with overhead archways and gorgeous doors. Around the corner from a gelati place. Thank you, closed hostel!

The main things I've checked out here have been the Castle Estense, the Cathedral, the associated Cathedral museum, a couple of palazzo (palaces of the wealthy, not always royal), and the major art galleries. That seems to be my usual list of must-sees for short stays in Italian towns!

The castle is right in the middle of the city. It's very much a fairytale castle style, with turrets, drawbridges, a green moat with little fountains, cannons, and dungeons where "two young lovers with their bodies on fire..." got decapitated. In fact, the lovers where the 20-year-old new wife of the ruler and his 20-year-old son. Guess who ordered the execution. In penance, he commissioned an altarpiece of the Madonna and child which doesn't look at all linked, except it's titled "The Decapitation Altar".

I'll spare you detailed descriptions of the other sites, but the contemporary art gallery's exhibition at the Diamante Palazzo (diamond palace, covered with pyramid-shaped blocks of marble to make the whole thing look like a cut jewel) needs to be noted. It was a biographic survey of Corot (I know he's not contemporary at all by Australian standards, but we're in a continent where buildings twice as old as our nation are common. And he's an important figure in early modernism).

They had brought together works from major private and public galleries across Europe and the USA, including major pieces which I had really not expected to see in the flesh. It was great to spot stylistic links betwen his works and the other members of the Barbizon school, and connect what was happening in the 1830s-1860s with his artwork to what was going on in Australia. The whole thing was in Italian, but I think I gained a lot from seeing it.

I'm off to Venice now. (I've been meaning to say that for a while!) Just need to book a hostel, train, and wait for it to come to me. But before I go, there's a few comments I need to post -

Onners! Thanks for all the comments, and for the offers of help in Rome. Sorry I didn't contact you before, but since I knew I was spending the week with Anna... Well, you know. I will definately be in Rome around the 23-24 November, as I'll be flying back to Egypt on the afternoon of the 24th. I'll give Slim a call, thanks again!

And in whilst Rome, Romans try to ignore gawking tourists, hold protests, dress up in designer labels and do the same to their boutique dogs, ride vespas and park improbably small cars in unlikely places. And drink coffee standing up. I think it should be be possible to build a cardboard copy of Rome in about a day. And despite recieved wisdom, most railways will go to Rome. Following roads will only get you there half the time.

The reason you're getting this on the Blog rather than as an email is because I can't find your email address on my online accounts. Could you please send a quick message to my gmail account, which is ? Cheers mate, look forward to seeing you back in Australia!

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Italy - Still in Ravenna, waiting for Ferrara

Dedicated to climatic intervention in sports

I have about an hour to kill before catching the train to Ferrara, so I thought I'd give you some more colour on what's happening in Ravenna. Yesterday's post, in retrospect, was probably more focussed on that hassle of the train ticket than the really interesting stuff here.

Last night I found the Dante Aligheri HI hostel, and I was almost the only person there. It was set up to be perhaps the warmest and friendliest HI place I've yet seen, with pool tables, foosball, and nice couches, but it was SO empty! Very late that night, when I returned to my room, I found the only other occupant. He was an unattractive little round middle-aged man with a respiratory disorder who barked questions at me in heavily accented English. He was very proud to tell me about the exports of his native town, 4km south of Parma, but I couldn't understand much of it.

This morning I checked out three Byzantine-era churches reknowned for their mosaics. (overview link here). The first, Battistero Degli Ariani (the Arian Baptistry), was a simple octagonal brick structure externally, and without any adornment upon the internal walls. The roof, however, was a magnificent mosaic of the Baptism of Christ, encircled by the 12 Apostles. Each face was distinctive and full of expression, and the predominately gold, green and blue tesserae scintillated as only mosaic does.

The next, in the same complex as the Museum, was the Basilica of San Vitale, a massive octagonal church with enormous flying buttresses and many restorations and expansions over the centuries. Outstanding portraits of the Emperor Justinian and his bejewelled courtesan, Empress Theodora, plus biblical scenes familiar and obscure. (And Mum - I got heaps of mosaic and inlaid masonry patterns for you, immediately seeing their potential as patchwork sources.)

Nearby, right next to the Basilica, was the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia. Much smaller, but with seriously intense and glassy blues and whites across the ceiling. Here's a site by the Ravenna tourist board which gives you complete 3-dimensional panoramas of the major buildings here, starting with this Mausoleum.

In all the churches I've visited in Ravenna, (excepting the one set up as a multimedia Social History of Ravenna interactive installation, astonishingly like the National Museum of Australia, right down to the fonts and colour schemes), they've played CDs of male choirs or soloists singing in Latin. It's a beautiful effect, and I'm surprised it hasn't been used more widely across the churches I've seen across Italy and Greece. One even played the music out into the courtyard, following you as you left the building!

Now, I must be off to catch the train. Ravenna has really warmed on me. Perhaps it this is largely due to the excellent start to the day, with far more breakfast offered by the hostel than usual. Plus about six serves of hot drinks ranging from thick hot chocolate, milky hot chocolate, and four styles of coffee. Oh yeah, I'm pumped!

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Italy - Ravenna

Dedicated to Cyclists

Turns out I'm not in Ferrara at all. I changed my mind late last night, as seeing the medieval sites of Ravenna (a former Byzantine capital and haven for the poet Dante, as in Dante's Divine Comedy) first means I don't have to backtrack later.

I almost succeeded in seeing all the sites in seven hours. I would have had ten, and been travelling on to Ferrara tonight, but a very confusing and annoyingly expensive hassle at the Bologna train station delayed me. Basically, they issued a bus ticket from the train station machine, and by the time I found someone who could help me find it, it had already left. Fortunately, the refund will be posted back to Australia (!?), and I publicly shamed an attempted pick-pocket while waiting around the station.

Ravenna has really struck me for the number of cyclists. They are everywhere! It's like an environmentalist's civic planning dream. There are hardly any cars around the central area at all. Oh, and the church mosaics I came here for are lovely, but I'm yet to see the best couple of sites. Gorgeous colours and precious stones as tesser.

On a final note - I did find the "real" spag bol in Bologna, and it was excellent. Salty and with few, if any, traces of tomato. Now I'm off to collect a photo CD, and see what Ravenna has to offer dinnerwise!

Monday, November 07, 2005

Italy - Bologna and San Gimignano

Dedicated to Granny, hoping that her knee operation went well, and a speedy recovery will follow.

This is an overdue post, as it has been surprisingly hard to find internet sources over the last few days. My handwritten diary has been receiving the full brunt of my adventures, now in increasingly tiny letters, so I'll just recap a few notes here.

I left Siena for San Gimignano with two girls I met along the way, a Queenslander and a Californian. They kept popping back into my life for the rest of the day. SG is a picturesque (a word that really starts losing its meaning after a few days in Tuscany) medieval village known worldwide for its towers. They aren't actually that pretty as individual structures, but the atmosphere they generate as you approach the town is very much the stuff of fairytales. The panoramic views from the top of the highest one are spectacular, but unfortuantely the lower floors have been dedicated to the art museum where they confiscate all cameras on entry, so I have no photos.

Follow the above link for more info - I need to tell you about Bologna!

This has been a damp experience, as it has simply not stopped raining since I arrived two days ago. Fortunately, this may be the world's best city for outdoor exploration on rainy days. The historic centre is characterised by beautiful porticos (pedestrian streets along roads covered by overhanging buildings supported by arches) which mean you can walk 40km without getting wet. That's the Guinness Book of Records statistic, which the guides will happily plug. These are the result of increased demand for accomodation within the medieval walls, caused by the influx of wealthy students from all over Europe. Bologna hosts the oldest University in Europe, the longest ongoing poor-student culture, and invented Spaghetti Bolognese (Tartaglia Ragu, I think it is called here. Parlo non Italiano.). Ever wondered why it's such a classic student food?

That being said, I'm actually having trouble finding it here. Sunday nights seem pretty dead here, so I'll try again tonight.

The whole city seems to be built in shades of terracotta, grey, red, and warm orange tones, very autumnal. I like it very, very much. The major church here - not technically the cathedral - Saint Petronio's Basilica, would have been the largest in Christendom had the Pope not intervened in the mid-16th century. (He couldn't stand the idea of being larger than his own in the Vatican. Size matters to Catholics). Construction was cut immediately and the facade is perpetually half-complete, and you can see the zig-zagged brickwork where they had to cap off the unfinished walls. Inside there's a very controversial fresco of Dante's Divine Comedy (he was one of Bologna's best and brightest graduates), which apparently was the target of threats from Al-Qaeda.

The hostel is another HI factory, but the best of it's type I've stayed in.

On to Ferrara tommorrow, then Venice. The sojourn back to Rome seems to be mapping itself out on recommendations from other travellers.

Two Blogs Worth Seeing

Dedicated to the very "First Decade of the New Millennium" trend of Blogging.

My newest family member, Elliott Lars Chamberlain, the son of my cousins Grant and Louise, has his own blog!

It's very, very cute and great solution for disseminating all the important baby news that the extended family wants to hear about. I'm proud to be showing it off here!

On another end of the scale, here's a travel blog (of sorts) definately worth knowing about. You might want to bring it to the attention of any friends of yours involved with events in Iraq.

It's the blog of the wife of the son of a friend of my grandmother's. (It's important that you know these things). They work for Reuter's and the AP, and the blog is a collaboration between the husband (based in Iraq) and the wife, who works directly with Australian media and posts her notes and stories from her husband on the blog. You won't normally find the blog stories in the papers.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Italy - Another day in Siena

Dedicated to Tabbi for that excellent Saddam Hussein forward!

If you also want it, you'll have to email me. Anonymous comments to this blog get to me, but unfortunately I can't reply to them if I don't know who you are or haven't got your email address.

Today started as another misty morning, surprised by the unanticipated arrival of a German cyclist in my room late last night.

I set out early-ish to do the things I hadn't achieved yesterday. Now the day is almost over and there's still a couple of things left, but I think I really should try to see more of Italy in the next three weeks.

There was a hefty Tuscan brunch in the Piazza del Campo, then a long trawl through the National Art Gallery of Siena (which sounds strange to Australians, but here if a collection housed is of national significance, it apparently becomes a National gallery). I have now seen the world's best collection of Sienese 13-14-15th century gold-backed religious artworks. And How. It took several stories of a converted palace to display them all, and I didn't find myself getting bored until the display changed into Mannerist wall panels. Beautiful pieces. If the catalogue reproductions had been as good as the originals I might have bought one.

This was followed by caffe latte and a very brief foray into the Torture Museum. (For a change of scenery, following all those saints getting mangled upon golden altarpieces...) I didn't get much further than the foyer, where they had a few gruesome objects and a comphrehensive catalogue. I read the book extensively, and although impressed by the pleas from various NGOs for the elimination of torture globally, I found myself trying to think of a reason to see the rest of the museum. I couldn't - knowing those contraptions existed was enough for me. Most of which, I was surprised to learn, I had never heard of before. Thus, I opted for the cheaper and infinately more comforting option of a gelati and long scenic walk.

It was a gorgeous walk, selected by combining a few tourist pamphlets. Orchards, castles, churches, fountains, alleys with archways, historic sites. Will get pictures online eventually.

The evening so far has been spent in the Siena Contemporary Art Gallery. The whole place is currently showing Guardami: Percezione del Video, a series of international video installations. It was my first shot of contemporary art for a while, since Istanbul I think, and I constantly found myself thinking "How would the people who painted those altarpieces react to these?".

I found it extremely stimulating to have experienced such a contrast over the course of the day, and that particular question was a good frame for approaching many works initially. Check out the website - there were some very well-known contributors too, like Bill Viola, William Kentridge and Bruce Nauman.

To do it justice I should describe several installations, but here, I'd like to just share one. Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller's Playhouse, 1997.

The set-up is for one person at a time. You collect a headset with earphones and enter a black-curtained room with a single seat. In front of you is a stage and red concert curtain, on the scale of a large dollhouse.

You hear the glossolalia of a audience shuffling and chatting, when a seductive woman's voice apologises for being late and invites you to sit. A spotlight appears on stage, and a tiny opera singer walks into view, projected upon a glass sheet using a technique that has been in use since the nineteenth century. It's very realistic.

She begins to sing...
The woman's voice appears in one ear, leaning over your shoulder,
"I love this song"
The song concludes to much laughter - it must have been a comic routine - and the audience begins slowly counting. The woman's voice joins in, getting louder.
At Ten! she begins a new song.
The audience murmurs, papers are being shuffled from the seats beneath you.
"What's she doing?", the unseen woman asks,
"That's not the right song".

There is a pause as we listen to the new song.

"There's a suitcase under your seat."
"It has everything you need."
The song continues...
"A car will meet you in the back alley."
More music...
"She knows there's not much time left", referring to the singer with an inaudible tilt of her head.
The song stops, there is a brief pause with applause before a new one begins.

"I'm going to go now, before the police arrive."
"Remember to return your headset."
More singing...
"I won't see you again. Good luck."
She leaves her seat, as a disembodied voice, and the singer concludes with flair. The entire audience bursts into wholehearted applause. Even I join in.

Without warning, the sound cuts off, while the opera singer continues to bow. An interrogating, almost nostalgic man's voice appears from your other side.
"Remember this theatre? When you came back here, the roof was leaking, and rats were crawling through the ruins. You sat in this box and watched her peform.
Right before everything went wrong that night."
The applause of the audience returns, and the singer leaves the stage.

Italy - Tuscan Food

How Good is Food?

Dinner last night cost me half my daily budget, but oh how I don't care.

Unfortunately, the detailed descriptions I wrote on a scrap of paper as I was eating are elsewhere, so I won't be able to tell you what the dishes were actually called in Italian.

The Ostello Castelvecchio was hidden up a steep and sharply-winding street some distance from the tourist areas. It's a member of the Slow Food movement, which I was pleased to discover. The place was almost empty, but it was relaxed and casual with a couple of locals eating as I arrived.

It was also the first three-couse restaurant meal I've had in some time, following many nights of takeaway, self-service or pizza ataglio.

First course - pumpkin ribbollini with hints of salami and parmesan. Outstanding, creamy and flavoursome. All courses acompanied by a good 2003 chianti, described in detail on the scrap.

Second course - vegetable souffle with the most intense tomato salsa, hot and crisp and soft on the inside.

Dessert - a trio of pannacotta, panforte (very much a local speciality - in fact all these dishes are, including the wine), and chocolate torte.

It was a well-deserved meal, and I've set aside the same amount today for a repeat performance elsewhere.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Italy - Siena

Dedicated to Dad for that excellent bag of emails

Siena is a gorgeous medieval town. It consists of red bricks and terracotta ceilings, with cobblestoned, twisting and sloping narrow streets, only a few cars, plenty of churches and absolutely no overhead wires. Several hidden little alleys are spanned with archways, food places are located by scent much more easily than by signage, and the whole place seems prepared for much larger tourist crowds than it's currently got. The skyline is dominated by cathedral spires and towers, and whenever the view penetrates beyond a few metres of shops or residential roads, you can see lush green fields and orchards stretching out for ages beneath an almost excessively blue sky.

I might stay here an extra day, since I've only just managed 3/4 of the major sights today. The hostel is good and cheap too - only €13 a night, with a private room with sink and view, and fresh sheets. For those of you who wanted the other half of the dialogue... unfortunately he turned out to be a lovely little old Italian man who was hard of hearing. I guess this made it charming but I kinda wanted to tell another story of throttling difficult concierges. Still, I'm not complaining!

I've explored the central city area, within the massive walls, and the Campo (piazza) where the annual Paulio horserace is held. (A very exciting and hotly contested event I first saw on Global Village on SBS... The Italian Melbourne Cup). I climbed the high tower in the centre of the city, and looked over vast seas of fog that shifted suddenly, giving spasmodic glimpses of red buildings beneath the clouds. The cathedrals (or rather, the Duomo and other big churches) seemed disembodied from the earth and just floating over the sky.

The Duomo (THE Cathedral) was made to rival that of Florence, and maybe would have if the Black Death hadn't cut through Tuscany in the fourteenth century. It is a striking black and white building, all horizontal stripes, with a very impressive interior in a similar colour scheme. The floors are inlaid images in marble, black, red and white like pulp comics, and the Library space was simply magnificent. High frescoes of the life of the Sienese Pope, and fantastic illuminated manuscripts for choirs. They would have weighed as much as my backpack, each. Most of the day was really spent in the museums associated with the Duomo and surrounding area.

One place, a church laden with relics of Saint Catherine (including a skull covered in writing that guarded the entrance), was laid deep under a massive hospital complex. Finding it took me way down through a labyrinthine network of tunnels, narrow stairs and small chapels. It was so dark and atmospheric that I tried taking a photograph of the largest altar. I can almost swear there's something odd in the picture that I didn't see when I took the photo...

But ghost stories aside, I'm off to get something for dinner. Last night was suprisingly difficult to find somewhere to eat (Tuscan food may be great, but finding a place worth eating at is damn hard!), so it was just a fine pizza ataglio in a bustling local takeaway. Since the tourist season seems over here, the trattorias were virtually empty, and thus just too depressing to consider. I've got a list of good things to try now, so who knows what I'll find?

BTW "DOCG" Chianti is great!

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Italy - Florence, a bigger and better post!

Dedicated to ditto

That was a cheap cop-out post, now wasn't it?

In the meantime I got some dinner (pizza standing up and gelati sitting down, reversed for a change), had a few minutes to sit back and relax, and now I'm feeling capable of taking on another museum! Bring them on, Florence!

OK, for real descriptions...

Since I basically missed out on the Palazzo Pitti yesterday afternoon, taking a ticket only for the oversized Boboli Gardens and pretty-too-pretty ceramics museum, I went back early this morning just to see the Granducal apartments and the Palatine Galleries. This was the serious art collection - all higgedly-piggedly old masters, several big names like Reubens, Raphael, Tintoretto, Lippi, and Botticelli, amongst dozens of others less familiar to me. All displayed in floor-to-ceiling manner, in keeping with the Royal Ostentation of the overall interior decoration.

(For colour, at this moment, a gang of presumably drunk Japanese teenagers dressed in puffy red jackets and baseball caps, like costume-party gangstas, have just waltzed into the internet cafe. They are singing "Heeeeeeeeeey, Hey Baby! Ohh! Ahh! I wanna knooo-oh-oh-oh,-oh-oh-ow if you'll be my girl!". They were just politely removed by the management).

I played my favourite Grand Tour Art Gallery game, sneaking photos of major artworks, throughout the Palazzo Pitti and got about 90 good shots, including overall room views displaying their strict colour schemes (white, blue, mustard yellow, green, red, etc). It was easier than initially expected, most of the attendants were reading papers or chatting to each other, and there weren't many visitors in the early morning. I experienced no queue to get tickets, but as I left I saw a good couple of hundred tourists waiting at the gates!

On that note, a similar fate seemed to await me at the Galleria dell'Accademia. The line for sophisticated folk with reserved tickets, like me, was actually longer than the line of the poorly organised plebs. The guy herding the convergence at the entrance was very much a bouncer who could speak three languages with great authority! As a Slushie I was impressed, but my odds of getting in felt slim. Fortunately, I maneuvered my way in nonchalantly with a group of Americans, and the bouncer didn't check my reservation. The bloke at the ticket desk did, luckily, so it was a wise investment.

Taking in the luxury of a six-minute wait where others hath taken days and nights, I explored leisurely to see what this place had to offer besides the obvious marble celebrity. There was a lovely group of Filippo Lippi's, Botticelli's and other colourful Florentine religious artwork in the first room, then a special exhibition of Medici-era musical instruments. Loved the antiquated ones in particular - I imagine you know what a dulcimer is, but how about a trumpet-mariner, a standing guitar with only one string that sounds like a trumpet? Or a hurdle-gurdle, a wind-up piano-violin-box that also followed me into the Uffizi? I also saw a guitar with piano keys, designed to let aristocratic women play without damaging their fingernails.

The David stands at the end of a long corridor defended by Michelangelo's unfinished "Prisoner" series - partially carved giants emerging from marble hulks that were destined to be part of Pope Julius II's tomb. Happily I knew this before I got there - it was part of my degree - but it was interesting to watch the various interpretations told by tour guides, and unfamilar tourists trying to work it out for themselves.

Out of respect for the crowds and professionalism of the staff, and not least for the six-minute wait, I took no photos of the galleries. Instead, I made notes in several colours on the back of my ticket stub (the third I've prepared so far), and drew a good sketch of a detail from the David. Not the bit most frequently reproduced on postcards, you with dirty minds out there.

After David (which I could spill more ink upon, but to what purpose, really? I thought it was superb), I checked out a forbidding room of plaster casts and working models for larger statues. The best thing was actually the very impressive icon and altarpiece collection located after David and in the upstairs galleries, which none of the guidebooks mention. I didn't leave much time to see these, but was very surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Wonderful golds, blues, silvers, and well-designed forms for display.

Dashing on to the Uffizi, lunch in hand, and it was only another six-minute wait to get in. Oh I felt so smug. Furthermore, just as I arrived, it started to rain. The poor queuing mob in the courtyard dispersed to the edges as rapidly as if someone had just pulled out a gun. It was funny once I realised what had caused the commotion.

The Uffizi. A Museum with all the superlatives I can muster. People legitimately queue for days to get in. A destination of pilgrimage and peregrination for art history fans. It was great, and big, and great.

I could double the length of this post by describing it in detail, so for your sake I won't. I now feel a more complete person for having seen a room of Botticelli's, including the Primavera and Birth of Venus. Titians, Lippis', Rembrandts, Reubens, Tintorettos, Carravaggios... So, so many I could name and describe... Loved the way each corner would unveil something I'd seen before plenty of times in books or in lectures, and the way the friendly, reassuring and only infrequently pompous audioguide would coax me out of each room to see the next. I studied a few of their guides in their three bookshops (Three!!) and was so contented to be able to spot an image, and mentally locate it upon the wall with others nearby. As I said in the last post, visiting this place after all the preparation I've put into it, feels like undergoing a second degree.

Wrapping up now.

Tomorrow I go to Siena, hopefully after seeing the Palazzo Vecchi early in the morning, and the Carmine Basilica for the Massacio frescos. The bloke at the hostel was odd on the phone. It took three calls to reserve the bed, apparently a double room but only at the dorm bed rate. He kept hanging up before he got my name. Finally, I was able to get him to record it, and the conversation went something like this:

"You need my name, or how can you know my bed is reserved?"
"Oh, Ok... What is your name?"
"Sam Bowker"
"I do not understand. What is your first name?"
"Sam. My name is Sam"
"You say your name is Markus?"
"No! No, my name is..."
"You do not know what your name is? How can you not know what your name is?"

Finally I got it recorded, I think, but it will be interesting to get there! I have not heard good things about the place, but everything I've heard could be equally applied to my current place. So long as the word "bedbugs" does not enter the descriptions, I'm happy.

Italy - the Big Museums of Florence

Dedicated to the Medici Dynasty and the clever chaps who invented the ticket reservation service.

It's been a massive day, so this post is inversely proportional to the amount of stuff I've been up to.

I only saw three places - the Uffizi (six hours! I feel like I've got another degree!), the David and the gallery that goes with it, and the Palazzo Pitti.

My god I'm buggered. Too much visual accumulation.

Better post later.