Saturday, September 29, 2012

Spectacular views from Vittorio Emmanuel Monument, Rome

Since my initial sighting on my first trip to Rome many years ago, I have always loved the Roman Vittorio Emmanuel monument, 'Il Vittoriano', in honour of the unification of Italy, even though I know many Italian citizens do not feel the same way. I adore the unapologetic massive size of the building, seemingly not just celebrating the Italy's birth as a nation, but shouting it at the top of their lungs! Italians often disparagingly refer to it as 'the typewriter' or 'the wedding cake' as its tiered structure and bright white marble lend itself to these comparisons, but I think they secretly love it, as it has become almost as much a symbol of Rome as the Colosseum is. Obviously it does not rival the incredible depth of ancient and historic monuments Rome possesses, but it commands such a presence in Rome that it is hard to ignore.

In all my previous visits to Rome I have only admired it from street level, however this time we went inside to capture the views this monumental building offers. On the first level, via a multitude of stairs, there is a bar serving light meals and drinks which is a very pleasant place to rest after the hours of walking one does around Rome and the views from this level are very good. However for a small cost, you can take a lift (added in 2007), to the top of the monument and the whole of Rome opens in front of you. 

The perspective you get of this sprawling city is truly spectacular, plus you get a understanding of how the ancient ruins and more recent monuments and buildings relate to each other. The layering and how each dovetails into the workings of a large modern city can truly be appreciated with this view. At this level, one can almost touch the two enormous and beautiful statues of the Roman victory goddess Victoria riding on the quadriga, which symbolise liberty and unity. In addition, it is the only way I have ever been able to catch a perspective of the roof of my favourite Roman building, the beautifully preserved Pantheon built by Emperor Hadrian in AD118-125.

The roof of the Pantheon is visible in the centre of this photo

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Venetian Rowing & a wonderful visit to the 'Arzana'

Learning to row 'Venetian style', that is, standing, facing forward and with a single oar that one uses to pull rather than push, was a definite highlight of our recent Venetian conference. Always on the look out for activities that offer our conference delegates something out of the ordinary plus very indicative of the locality, this one definitely met these objectives!

In an original wooden boat known as a Batela, our lesson began with a some instructions in a small narrow canal before heading out into the lagoon that surrounds Venice. We were assured that the flat bottom design of these boats makes it almost impossible to capsize, so proceeded with abandon to look like original Venetians in our endeavour (complete with the stripped shirt of the gondoliers - though I don't think I fooled anybody!) Like many things, it definitely looks easier than it is in reality but the experience was something we will remember for a lifetime.

Our wonderfully enthusiastic instructor Nan, an American who has lived in Venice for some years was really the rudder that kept the whole boat on course, but we eventually made progress and spent several delightful hours moving around the Venetian lagoon, albeit sometimes in circles, I have to admit! If ever given the opportunity to live in Venice for a length of time, this is definitely something I would love to master as it is hard to beat exercise that comes in the form of so much fun, laughter and when we were quiet, serenity.

Following this we were privileged to have an incredibly interesting tour of the 'Arzana', a museum dedicated to the preservation of the Batela, the original boat that has served as the mode of transport in Venice for centuries (basically the Ford motor car of this region). This museum is totally operated by volunteers and houses an incredible array of boats, including some original covered gondolas, plus equipment used in the making of Venetian boats that once proliferated in the canals of Venice. The Arzana Association acquired the old 'squero' which is an original building that accommodated this Venetian boat building and today is truly a 'living' museum - the passion of the participants is palpable and it was such a pleasure to spend time listening to their stories. 

With the influx of modern motor boats, this age old Venetian craft of the manufacture of wooden Batela is in danger of being lost and in essence the lagoon craft are the most identifiable image of Venice, so loosing this would be almost unthinkable! The Arzana association survive on the small contributions groups like ours give through visits (in addition to time & money from local enthusiasts), so if you are interested in Venetian rowing lessons or a group visit to the Arzana, contact - I am sure your visit will be very memorable!!

Yayoi Kusama's collaboration with Louis Vuitton

On an early morning walk in Venice recently I was stopped in my tracks by the wonderfully avant guard shop windows of Louis Vuitton. They are a collaboration of Louis Vuitton's creative director, Marc Jacobs with Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama and not just in the form of window dressings, but indeed a range of handbags, sunglasses, shoes and coats.

Yayoi Kusama, born in Nanago Japan in 1929, is known for her use of repetitive pattern, bright colours and playful forms. In particular she is known for her use of polka dots.

One could not help but be inspired, delighted and uplifted when viewing the windows, which involved seemingly sinuous tentacles brightly painted in red & white polka dots and in the midst, a single handbag. The 2nd window displayed no product at all, just oversized brightly painted polka dot flowers each with a central motive reminiscent of an eye with gorgeous lashes. The windows, thoroughly original and definitely eye catching, plus the resulting Louis Vuitton collection, are a very clever melding of consumerism and commercialisation with the sometimes lofty world of art. 

I still find myself smiling widely every time I look at these photos, and in the end if art is intended to produce an emotional reaction then this one has definitely achieved its result! Full credit to Marc Jacobs for his vision in keeping this brand fresh and young and to blurring the lines between art and commercialisation.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

"Via Ferrata" - Hiking in the Dolomite Ranges

For more than 15 consecutive years, we have operated a conference in the 2nd week of each January in the beautiful Italian town of Cortina D'Ampezzo. It is visually magnificent with the imposing Dolomite alps that surround the town covered in heavy quantities of snow and the town of Cortina filled with the passegiata (an Italian term for the parading of people) of sumptuous furs. Skiing reigns supreme!! 

However, just last week for the first time we chose to run a conference in this familiar area in the late Summer/early Autumn period, and it was every bit as beautiful and exhilarating (maybe even more so!). The Dolomite ranges offer a variety of Summer sporting activities, including many cycling paths plus a multitude of hiking trails from beginner to the more advanced "Via Ferrata". The "Via Ferrata", (which literally means iron way) is a series of walks in the Dolomite region which uses iron "protection" in the form of ladders, rope rails and steps to join otherwise inaccessible areas. 

The history of these iron "protection" formats goes back to WW1 where this border area saw significant fighting between Austro-Hungarian and Italian soldiers to control the highest peaks for artillery and line of sight advantages. The sheer scale of the ranges, the verticality of the Dolomite mountains and the extreme weather, meant enormous troop deaths on both sides. So to try to gain safer and quicker movement through the area, the Italian troops began to  fix permanent iron grips into the rock face and thus the first "Via Ferrata" was born.

Today these hikes are an updated version of this original idea and they offer awe inspiring views across these incredible ranges. We organised several hikes of which one used a "Via Ferrata" section, climbing 2275mtrs to Riffugio Nuvolau. As Australians, this is higher than the highest point in our country, (Mt Kusciuszko 2228mtrs) so the trickiest part for us was dealing with the "thinner" air, however we took it slowly, with multiple rest breaks, and all of the group completed the hike. Not knowing the hiking trails on these mountains, plus not being very experienced hikers, we definitely felt more comfortable with having 2 guides accompany us as their knowledge and expertise is enormous.

The slopes are steep - in fact I would say very steep, and the views across the valleys to Marmolada glacier and beyond are exhilarating - though like any of these things, the difficulty is relative - our guides obviously called this an "easy" via ferrata hike - but then again they were born in this area and ski/hike/climb/walk/run/cycle these mountains every day!! 

At the conclusion of our first ever "Via Ferrata" hike we had a fabulous meal waiting for us at Rifuggio Avereau - heartily consumed with good quantities of local wine! I fully intend to return at this time of year to accomplish more of these awesome hikes - in fact I am planning to organise a dedicated hiking tour to this magnificent part of the world.

The small dot on the top of the rock is a person and the ravine below the person is where we climbed up!  

Opera House in Citta della Pieve, Umbria

In our Italian village, Citta della Pieve there is a theatre which until last week, we had only seen photos of, as our visits had not coincided with its opening. Constructed between 1830 - 1834 to the design of Giovanni Santini, a well known Umbrian architect, this little gorgeous opera house underwent a 10year renovation beginning in 1990, by local artisans Antonio & Mario Marroni. So we were thrilled to be able to glimpse its interior recently when a local band was performing. It is absolutely delightful with beautifully intricate painting on the ceiling and upper walls and 4 levels of private balconies around the perimeter. The mood of the space is "Allegro", in the true sense of the word - lively and happy. If you happen to be in this area and there is a production performing in this gorgeous opera theatre, definitely visit as it is quite astonishing that a town of this size has such a jewel of a public space.