Wednesday, November 4, 2015

November 2nd – Homeward Bound

So, after 35 fun and occasionally exhausting days on the Silver Spirit, it was time to fly back from Rome to London. We had a great time catching up with old friends, making some ones, and seeing some fabulous sites.

Sadly, a fog-bound London wasn't quite ready for us, so we had a bit of an extra wait at Fiumicino Airport, but eventually we got home.

We now have a week in London, before we go to Seville for a month. Hasta La Vista!

November 1st – Searching For Caravaggio in Naples

Strong winds prevented us from anchoring in Sorrento, so instead we headed to the nearby port of Naples, giving us the chance to explore this crazy, chaotic city once more. Our (rather disappointing) encounter with a Caravaggio in Siracusa, proved to be our inspiration today, as we attempted to tick off the three Caravaggios that Naples can boast.

I get the feeling that Caravaggio would have felt quite at home in Naples – like him, the city is inspirational, crazy, dysfunctional, brooding, full of life and occasionally dangerous. When he was at the height of his powers, in 1606 (aged 35) he ended up killing a man in Rome in a brawl, and he fled south to Naples with a price on his head. He picked up a couple of commissions here, before heading for Malta to live under the protection of the Knights of St John (where he painted the two masterpieces on display in Valletta's Co-Cathedral).

But, Caravaggio couldn't stay out trouble for long, he got involved in yet another fight, and had to escape from prison to Sicily to paint the painting we saw in Siracusa a couple of days earlier, and the two masterpieces on display in Messina that we saw two years ago. By now, Caravaggio's restlessness and isolation were coming through in his artistic style, and he quickly moved on, back to Naples again. Here, it appears that he was attacked and badly wounded, before he decided to return to Rome to get forgiveness. Sadly, he never made it, dying on the road to Rome, of a fever (or possibly syphilis, or lead poisoning which could be an explanation for his volatile behaviour). So, possibly the greatest artist of all time, died sad and lonely at the age of just 38.

The first picture we saw, was his last ever painting, "The Martyrdom of St Ursula", undertaken on his final return to Naples after he'd been attacked and his sight possibly damaged. The painting was on display in the Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano, and is one of his more dramatic paintings – capturing the exact moment that the shocked St Ursula is hit by an arrow, coming to the realisation that she was just about to die. In the background is a poignant image of Caravaggio himself, with an anguished look on his face – you feel like he knew that his tempestuous life is soon coming to an end.

We then moved on through the frenetic Neapolitan streets to see our second painting, "The Seven Works of Mercy", on display in the church it was commissioned for – the Pio Monte della Miscordia. This was painted on his first visit to Naples, while he was looking to make some cash and contacts to put an end to his exile. While his genius and artistic skill is evident, to me, it seemed one of his least coherent works – a real jumble of figures and allegories. It felt like a reflection of his scrambled mind at the time, desperately juggling ideas and concepts in an attempt to get some mercy.

By now, we were on a Caravaggio roll, so we hopped onto the most crowded bus I've ever been on, and travelled up to the Gallery at Capodimonte, one of Italy's premier art galleries, to see our third and final work. At this point, we had a good news-bad news situation. This being the first Sunday of the month, it was free to get in – good news. But, only a part of the display was open, and not the part that included Caravaggio – very bad news!

We set aside our disappointment to whizz through an amazing collection of Raphaels and Titians (plus lots of other masters) – if this was just a small proportion of what was on offer, it would take days to take it all in. There's an old saying, "See Naples and Die", which isn't a reflection of its reputation for crime, but more that once you've seen everything that Naples has to offer, there's nothing left to live for.

Well, with one more Caravaggio still to see, we've haven't seen everything yet, so we'll have to come back before we die – but, as that other artistic genius Meatloaf said, two out of three ain't bad!

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

October 31st – Finding Greek Treasures From Trapani

It's odd to think that one of the very best places to find ancient Greek relics and sites isn't actually in Greece, but in Sicily. That's because, 2,500 years ago, Sicily was an integral part of "Magna Graecia" (Greater Greece), as various Greek city states set up thriving colonies on the island.

One of the largest and most significant of them, was the town of Selinunte on the western side of the island (about an hour from our port in Trapani), which at its peak in the 5th century BC, was home to around 100,000 people, and boasted a number of enormous temples. Sadly, the Selinunteans got on the wrong side of the Carthaginians, who sent over Hannibal to lay waste to the city in the 3rd century BC. The city never really recovered from that, and it was slowly abandoned, before being lost for good when a 5th century AD earthquake caused a huge tsunami to knock down whatever was left sanding, and cover it in a thick layer of sand.

That means that about the only relics of this once-magnificent city, are its huge temples, a few of which were reconstructed in the 1920s and 50s, to give us some idea of their monumental size and architectural sophistication. Even though they're all that's left, you can't help but be impressed by them – plus, being in such a peaceful seaside location surrounded by swaying grasses and wild flowers, makes for an incredibly evocative setting.

It amazes me that places like Olympia and Ephesus get star billing on the ancient ruin circuit, yet a place like Selinunte hardly gains a footnote. But, the great thing is that its lack of notoriety means that the site has been almost deserted whenever I've been there, so I've been able to visit the remains of what was once the biggest Greek temple of its time, in utter peace and quiet. And, it's when you're standing in amongst the scattered pieces of enormous columns, that you begin to reflect on the engineering skills of the ancients, as these 20-tonne blocks of stone were hauled into place and slotted together. A wonderful relic of the ancient Greek world.

In the afternoon, we had a quick exploration of Trapani itself. The city's not in bad shape for a place that was nearly bombed off the map in the Second World War – its historic centre is far more attractive than a place like Messina. Having said that, on a Saturday afternoon of changeable weather, it seemed almost deserted. But, we had a stirring walk around the sea walls and enjoyed the sun when it came out.

Yet again, Sicily has delivered. Beautiful countryside, amazing ancient sites and atmospheric cities – for me, it's the best of all of Europe's islands (apart from Britain perhaps!).

Monday, November 2, 2015

October 30th – Segwaying Around Malta

One of the attractions of Malta always used to be its collection of stylish (but chugging) old 1950s buses left over from British times. Sadly, in the last few years, EU emissions laws have meant that these old smokers have been phased out and replaced by more modern, but less characterful new buses.

So, seeing as Malta's transportation has been significantly updated, I decided that it was time to take the most futuristic transport possible – a trip on an electric segway. I had to admit to my group of novices that I have actually ridden a segway before (in Antigua) – a fact that I was trying to keep secret, in case I either turned out to be useless, or on the off-chance that I could look like a complete natural and start whizzing around like an old pro. As it happened, riding a segway is so intuitive that I immediately picked it up again and was immediately showing off – it was like riding a bike (so to speak).

Malta is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, with 400,000 people crammed onto this tiny island, whose roads are busy with over 300,000 cars; so that meant we needed to keep out of the way of the traffic-filled streets of the capital, Valletta. Instead, we merrily zoomed around the back roads of Malta, passing by fields of vegetables demarcated by dry-stone walls, old palaces from the days of the Knights of St John, and over to the impressive cliffs at Dingli.

The thing about segwaying, is that after 5 minutes, it feels totally natural – you don't really have to think about what you're doing, you just zoom along enjoying the views. At the end of it all, walking esseemed so boring – it's just so 20th century.

Malta is a place where there's history all around you – what a great place to go back to the future.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

October 29th – Siracusan Splendours in Sicily

I've always thought that Siracusa was the most attractive of all the Sicilian cities (and that's saying something on an island of so many gorgeous cities), and today confirmed that.

Not only was Siracusa one of the leading cities of the Ancient Greek world, a time when it was a genuine rival to Athens and home to Archimedes; but it also can boast an amazingly harmonious array of flamboyant baroque architecture, all carved out of golden limestone. That's because the city was able to turn a massive negative (being totally destroyed in a terrible earthquake in the 17th century), into a huge positive, by an ambitious re-building plan using the predominant architectural style of the time – baroque.

Actually, Siracusa is like two different cities – you have the oh-so-beautiful little island of Ortigia where all fabulous historical architecture, restaurants and boutique hotels are; and then, on the mainland, there's the mundane modern city of 170,000 people, concrete buildings and typically Sicilian chaotic traffic. Unsurprisingly, we concentrated our time in Ortigia.

After a 20th century of neglect and urban decline, Ortigia has undergone something of a renaissance in the last few years, as many of its grandest buildings have been cleaned up and restored. At the centre of it all, is its once-again gleaming cathedral, whose stunning architecture neatly sums up the island's most glorious high points. On first glance, it looks like a typical baroque confection – jutting columns, dramatic statues and curling scrolls – but, look a bit harder and you see that it's all based upon the enormous Doric columns of an ancient Greek temple – the columns stick out of the more modern plasterwork.

We also went to another church to see Siracusa's greatest piece of art – Caravaggio's brooding Burial of St Lucy. Sadly, the passage of time and insensitive restorations have left this masterpiece a little too dark to make out the action and sense of drama that is Caravaggio's hallmark. It all seemed a little too much like a big splodge of brown with some feint characters superimposed – we hope for better when we get to Naples.

The best way to explore Ortigia is to just wander at random through its atmospheric streets and narrow lanes. Once you're off the beaten track you also get to appreciate that the urban regeneration still has some way to go, in its array of crumbling old buildings and cracked pavements (which sadly boast a pretty good covering of dog mess).

But, Siracusa's wonderful combination of great food, great history, lively streetlife and stunning architecture has inspired us to come back here to this part of the world for longer. We think that September 2016 could be our month in Sicily.

Friday, October 30, 2015

October 28th – Olympian Excellence

The ancient Greek site of Olympia is probably just as interesting for its historical significance, as it is for the ruins themselves. It's once wonder-ful (it was home to one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the world) array of temples and treasuries have been repeatedly damaged by man (by the Christian Byzantines who didn't approve of pagan temples), and by nature (in a whole series of earthquakes, floods and mudslides).

What's left, is most impressive in its size – when you see the enormity of its scattered pieces of columns and then extrapolate upwards, then those ancient temples must have been amazing constructions when they were in one piece.

The most evocative part of the site is the old Olympic Stadium – where 40,000 spectators would have roared on the sprint races. To get connected with the ancient games, Tracy made me get down on the old starting blocks, and re-enact a sprint. Actually, I was quite impressed by the speed that my old bones got me up to, although after about 20 metres I was already puffing badly, so I sensibly stopped before I had the embarrassment of pulling a hamstring or just collapsing.

I then limped over to the site's museum to be re-invigorated by the quite amazing quality of the sculptures on display. Looking at the re-constructed sculptures from the pediment of the Temple of Zeus, it was hard to believe that these weren't modern copies, they were that perfectly preserved. Our guide explained that when the temple fell down, the statues would have landed in the soft mud that had engulfed the site, and so their soft landing meant that they were hardly damaged.

Without doubt, the highlight was the breathtaking sculpture of Hermes, whose polished marble had been sculpted by Praxiteles 2,500 years ago. In its subtle power and beauty, it was a similar feeling to standing in front of Michelangelo's David in Florence. In fact, the longer I looked at it, the more it reminded me of David – in the carefree pose, athletic build, and self-confident stare of Hermes. In fact, it was so similar, that I thought Michelangelo must have been directly influenced by Praxiteles's masterpiece. But the statue was only discovered on the site in the 1870s. It goes to show that genius is a timeless quality – two masters of their art, separated by 2,000 years, producing work of such incredible power.

Having left the room, I felt compelled to go back two more times just to get another glimpse of it – art doesn't usually have such an effect on a heathen like me. This was the embodiment of the Olympian Ideal, or at least the Ideal Olympian.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

October 27th – A Mountain to Climb in Nafplion

As you catch the tender in to Nafplion, the most noticeable thing about the town is that the steep hill behind it is dominated by an impossibly-situated castle, that looks like it's about to slide down the precipitous slopes at any moment. Every time I've visited the town, I've made an excuse not to climb up there, and always said, "next time". Well, today I ran out of excuses, and we made that epic climb.

So, we huffed and puffed our way up the 800 thigh-aching steps to the castle, all the time cursing those Venetian soldiers for even thinking of building a castle in such a ridiculously steep place. But, the tremendous views over the town and the sea (with the Silver Spirit looking serene in the background), were enough to keep us going.

As we climbed, it was odd to think that this little Greek town was one of the final battlegrounds between the great Venetian and the Ottoman Empires for mastery of the Eastern Mediterranean. Nafplion had changed hands twice between these 2 great rivals, before the Venetians decided to spend huge amounts of money on building this formidable castle between 1712 and 1715. But, this was to be the last ever overseas construction undertaken by Venice; because, just before they'd completed the huge complex of bastions and fortifications, the Ottomans attacked. Ridiculously, the Venetians had left a force of just 80 men to defend this enormous fortress (scarcely enough to even keep a look out over its long lines of walls), and the Ottomans won without a fight.

The fortifications started about half way up our climb, and we followed the snaking lines of crenulated walls up to the huge main bastions – the walls were so tall and thick, and the natural defences of the slope so comprehensive, that you think that the Venetians could have put up more of a fight. If the Ottoman attackers had been as tired as I was by now, there was no way that they'd have been much of a challenge.

As you'd expect, coming down was much easier, and we headed round to Nafplion's small beach on the other side of the headland. Here, sheltered from the wind, it felt like we'd reached paradise – if we'd thought to bring our swimming costumes, we'd have joined the bathers cooling off in those inviting clear blue waters. It was so warm that it was hard to believe that it was the end of October.

We then followed the path along the coastline back into town and went for a relaxing drink in the main square. Well, I say relaxing, but the incredible noise from loads of out-of-control kids (it's half term) screaming and shouting in the square while their coffee-drinking parents ignored them, took a little of the gloss off the serenity of Nafplion's location.

Nevertheless, this is a beautiful part of the world, and it's now been added to Tracy's list of places she'd like to stay for a month or two.