Monday, July 30, 2012

Pretty Prague

Pretty Prague ... what a spectacular city! Gorgeous architecture that amazingly survived the ravages of World Wars unscathed, a wonderful cultural heritage, a rich and interesting history, and an old town that delights at every turn.

It was once the seat of two Holy Roman Emperors and thus the capital of the Holy Roman Empire. It flourished under the 14th century reign (1346-1378) of Charles IV, with the legacies of the Charles bridge, the Charles University and the Gothic Saint Vitus Cathedral remaining to this dayIt was also important in the Habsburg monarchy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and after WW1 became the capital of Czechoslovakia. In 1989 after the riot police beat back a peaceful student demonstration against the one party government of communist lead Czechoslovakia, the Velvet Revolution saw the collapse of the party's control and a subsequent conversion from Czech Stalinism to a parliamentary republic. Czechoslovakia was dissolved in 1993, returning to Czech Republic and Slovakia. 

My previous visit here was spent organising events for the conference we are running, but this time we have more time to wander around and soak up the mood. These summer months allow the 'old town' area to take on a party like atmosphere as tourists and locals alike enjoy a beer and Czech music in the warmth of the summer sun. Since 1992 the historic centre of Prague has been included in the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites and there is an extensive list of museums, monuments and architectural landmarks to visit, so bring your walking shoes!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Lipari - a jewel in the Aeolian Islands

Last week we were running a conference in Lipari which is a spectacular island in the Aeolian Islands off the coast of Sicily. I have been to this island on a number of previous occasions and was so delighted to be returning as it has a beautiful calm and low key mood that truly allows one to relax into island life.

It is not easy to get to as one has to fly to Catania in Sicily, catch a bus 2 hours to Milazzo, then board a one hour ferry to arrive in the port of Lipari. Alternatively you can get a hydrofoil from Nalpes port which takes 7hours! However, this remoteness ensures the tourist numbers remain small which helps to retain its authentic Italian way of life. The surrounding water is absolutely crystal clear and several times during the week we hired boats to take us to swimming spots around the island - you can also swim off the beautiful beaches (rocks though, not fine sand like Australia), but hiring a boat gives a different perspective plus accessibility to swimming areas otherwise inaccessible.

The island has a very rich history of settlement by numerous groups dating back to 5th millennium BC and the Aeolian museum located on the site of the ancient fort houses a spectacular collection of painted ceramics, greek masks and pottery amphorae. It is definitely worth visiting as you explore this island.

An added attraction is undoubtedly the food - everyone knows Italian food is always good but here one eats enormous amounts of seafood caught daily in the surrounding waters - in particular swordfish and squid. Living here permanently you would be particularly healthy - huge quantities of seafood, walking as your main means of transport, and swimming in the clear Mediterranean ocean on a daily basis. Hard to imagine a better way of life! 

This boat is on the hunt for sword fish - with 'spotters' in the turret at the top, they inform the man on the nose at the front of the boat whose job it is to spear the fish - with no harness it is a job I would prefer to avoid!
On one of our boat journeys around the island, this BBQ boat pulled up for lunch to grill our fresh swordfish steaks!
The Aeolian islands were formed through centuries of volcanic activity which explains the rocky topography. A visit to the other islands in the group such as Volcano (where they have thermal mud baths), pretty Salina where they grow capers and make delicious Malvasia wine and Panarea, a lovely resort town is certainly worth doing. Famous for its continually erupting volcano, Stromboli is also an amazing place to visit. A few years ago we trekked the 3hour trek to the top of Mount Stromboli (you begin about 6.30pm so you get to the top after nightfall) to sit on the summit for 40minutes and watch the volcano continuously explode. It was an incredible experience as there are not many times in life where one has the opportunity to scale an active volcano! However you don't have to trek for hours to see this amazing geographical phenomenon as being in a boat in the waters at the base of the volcano once night falls will also allow you a great view.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Vasari Corridor, Florence

I was absolutely thrilled to be able to view the Vasari corridor in Florence last week - a bespoke tour that until recently, has been difficult to organise. Small guided groups that must always include a guard are shown through this enclosed passageway that offers a very interesting insight into the life of the powerful Florentine Medici family in the mid 1500's. It feels rather secretive as one passes through an innocuous door from a main passageway in the Uffizi Palace, leaving behind the tourists, the noise and the heat, into a quite calm corridor-like space, lined with artworks that span the centuries.

This corridor, commissioned by Grand Duke Cosimo de Medici in 1564, was designed by Giorgio Vasari and built in an amazingly speedy 5 months. Planned to celebrate the marriage of Cosimo's son, Francesco to Johanna of Austria it allowed the family to move freely between their offices in the Palazzo degli Uffizi and their residence in Palazzo Pitti on the opposite side of the Arno river. At 4.5mtrs wide and 10mtrs high, it is much larger than I expected, for this size was required so the Medici's could be carried by their servants on a litter at shoulder height. From the external it is almost disguised, blending seamlessly into the existing Ponte Vecchio, although the meat market which had previously occupied the bridge had to be removed to avoid the smells reaching into the passageway. It was replaced with the much more acceptable goldsmith shops which still remain to this day.

The passageway offered the Medici family a safe and secure route across town in an era when they felt insecure in public spaces.

In 1939 Benito Mussolini ordered the original windows facing the Arno be replaced with larger windows to offer a better panorama for a visit by Adolf Hitler, who was apparently suitably impressed. The Ponte Vecchio was the only bridge in Florence not totally destroyed by the Germans in WW2 and legend has it that Hitler ordered it be saved from destruction due to his fondness from his official visit.

The corridor snakes through buildings like a modern 'skyway', and at one point even passing into the little chapel of Santa Felicita, on the Pitti Palace side of the bridge. Protected from the eyes of the citizens of Florence by a thick timber railing, the Grand Duke's family were able to partake in church services in privacy by way of this corridor.

The artworks lining the walls are a collection begun by Leopold de Medici (1617 - 1675) and the entire collection is self portraiture by well known artists. Although not in the league of the main Uffizi art collection, (that is a tough one to beat!), I thought is was a fascinating niche collection by a very specialised group of people.

Walking in the steps of such an amazing dynasty whose impact upon Florence shaped the city into what we know today, was truly a wonderful experience and certainly worth going out of your way to organise a visit.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Beautiful Siena during Palio season

On Thursday, I arrived back in Italy to a summer sun in full force, and what a delight it is to be here! My sons are with me on this visit so on Friday we drove the short distance to Siena so I could show the boys this beautiful Tuscan town. I thought, after viewing the spectacular Duomo and Piazza del Campo, we would go to a favourite trattoria, "La Taverna di San Giuseppe", but little did we realise the (almost) week long celebrations of the famous Sienese Palio had begun! Perhaps if we had known this, we may have avoided the city as I am not one for hordes of tourists, but we had a fabulous day watching the centuries old tradition that is this Sienese event, so in the end, being unaware of its happening was an advantage.

This twice yearly horse race, run in Piazza del Campo, the beautiful piazza in central Siena, began in 1656, though in the early days it was performed on bulls and even donkeys. 10 contradas (local municipal divisions) are chosen from the 17 contradas that represent Siena. The very emotive tradition of contradas goes back 800 years, and each is depicted by a symbol and coloured flag flying from every home and municipal building around town. The Palio is a tradition of skill and cunning as each rider is given a horse chosen by a lottery, which occurs a few days before the actual horse race - and as the saying goes, "The fastest horse doesn't necessarily win the race" - a fact of life really.

Our visit on this day coincided with the lottery of the horses for each contrada, but in traditional Italian style this was done with enough pomp and ceremony to rival a royal wedding! People, perched on seemingly every vantage point in the piazza, were there to view the ceremony and with full sun and Italian heat, the spectacle was certainly worth viewing. We chose a table at a restaurant around the perimeter of the piazza, so had front row seats as the event unfolded and it was one of those memorable events of life!

The track is repaired after the morning race which decided the best 10 horses to race in the Palio. The timber fences seen here are temporary barricades for the race. This is a truly spectacular Piazza and centuries ago would easily have impressed citizens visiting this Tuscan city.
The crowd watches the parade of horses as it awaits for the traditional lottery to match each contrada with their horse
Outside the superb Sienese Cathedral with its distinctive marble stripes
Viewing the museum attached to the Duomo gives spectacular views towards the Duomo and across the whole of Siena

Pride in belonging to each contrada group is evident everywhere throughout the city