Saturday, 1 November 2008

Scenes from Ravenna

It’s hard to drive into a place when you haven’t got a map. The only thing I can find to locate from is the train station and it’s tough to get there when the streets are one-way but not marked as such. Finally we reach an information place to gather up leaflets and I am sent off on a scouting mission to find a suitable café.

On my travels I pop into the covered market to go the toilet and I get stuck. All sorts of things run through my mind; can I climb out of the window? Not really as I’m on the second floor. Could I phone someone? Who? My dad’s phone doesn’t work here and Him Outdoors didn’t bring his. I could ring the helpdesk and try and speak to someone at our hotel but I don’t know what the operator’s number is in Italian. And I don’t know any Italian to ask a question even if I get through. And what could they do in Rimini about me being stuck in a toilet in Ravenna anyway?

I think of shouting for help, but I don’t know what that is in Italian either. Eventually I pound on the door calling, ‘Help!’ I am trying to stay calm and not panic, although I can feel the stress level rising. There is much gabbling of things I don’t understand and then the door flies open to reveal a party of bemused tourists, in a queue that reaches all the way back down the steps. I hurry past and return to my parents.

I decide to abandon the coffee and go straight for a beer at lunch to restore myself. I accompany it with an insalata mare which consists of baby octopus, squid rings and all sorts of other fishy treats. Suitably fortified from further mishap, we set out to explore.

According to the Lonely Planet, “The city had been the capital of the Western Roman Empire ever since 402 when the ineffectual Emperor Honorius moved his court from Rome because Ravenna’s surrounding malarial swamps made it easier to defend from Northern invaders. However, the barbarians simply walked around him and marched into Rome in 410. Honorius was unable or unwilling to react, preferring to vegetate in Ravenna until his death in 423, and the city finally followed 50 years later.”

This doesn’t sound mightily inspiring but the city is famed for its mosaics that adorn its churches and monuments, eight of which are Unesco World Heritage Sites. I like the look of the buildings with their red brick and the contrast of the green or oxidised copper – was this intentional or did the architects/builders stumble upon the colour combination by happy accident? My top five tourist sites (and sights) are:

1. Basilica di San Vitale – the red brick façade which looks impressive in the sun but fairly nondescript otherwise, belies a “dazzling internal feast of colour”. Mosaics represent scenes from the Old Testament and apart from the cupola which is painted, everything else is indeed a dazzling vision of millions of little tiles stuck to every conceivable surface – that DIY project must have taken many a wet weekend!

2. Mausoleo de Galla Placida – a mausoleum constructed for Galla Placida, the half-sister of Emperor Honorius, although it’s unlikely she ever lay here – that’ll be “the ineffectual” Emperor Honorius again. The Lonely Planet says, “the light inside, filtered through the alabaster windows, is dim yet, supplemented by a single central lamp, is sufficient enough to illuminate the city’s oldest mosaics.”

The roof has a specific number of stars (four hundred and something) which represent something I’ve forgotten. It’s true that when they light up with sunshine they are something to behold. Apparently during the summer months you can tour these at night – I’m sure the effect will be very different.

3. Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo – this contains the largest surface area of mosaics from the Byzantine period, or some such spurious claim. Apparently the procession of 26 martyrs heading towards Christ in majesty with his apostles on one wall, and the complementary one of virgins on the other are typical examples of the Byzantine style. I like the three wise men bearing gifts and the boats in the Chinese harbour.

There is a school for making mosaics here which would be fun, but I wonder how difficult it is? Don’t you just sketch a picture (and let’s face it, none of them are particularly realistic) and then just stick some stones on? Like cross-stitch or paint-by-numbers, it’s very intricate and meticulous, but is it creative and talented? I suppose, as father says, you have got to draw the picture first.

4. Battistero Neoniano – the most ancient monument of Ravenna, this dates to the 4th or 5th century BC and is thought to have started life as a Roman bathhouse. It was converted to a baptistery in the 5th century. The image in the cupola depicts John the Baptist baptising Jesus in the River Jordan, the personification of which looks on. The concentric circle features the twelve apostles and there are eight little alcoves around the marble fountain, each with fabulous mosaics of their own.

5. Museo Arcivecovile – this is a small museum in the Archiepiscopal Palace with works from the old cathedral, which has been destroyed. The most impressive of these is the intricately carved throne of the 6th century carved by Byzantine artists and considered to be “one of the greatest ivory masterpieces of all times” according to their tourist literature.

Ravenna has heaps of festivals, none of which are in evidence when we attend. There is a Dante festival – he wrote most of The Divine Comedy here and is buried in a tomb with an eternally burning lamp. Florence supplies the oil for this as a perpetual act of penance for having him exiled (in 1302 – he lived in Ravenna until his death in 1321).

There is a festival of music and dance; one of authors “shows and parties with murder”; a Nightmare Film Fest; walks with mystery; jazz festivals; a festival for October or autumn featuring concerts, horror stories, fireworks and wine tasting; European heritage day with guided tours of archaeological excavations; a marathon in November; a Japanese festival featuring cinema, board games, cuisine, performance arts and origami; a wine festival promoting Sangiovese di Romagna; debates between philosophers and awards for publishing houses; and festivals for both bread and chocolate.

It would seem that it terms of pulling the tourists, there is always something happening in Ravenna – sounds a bit like Arrowtown!

Friday, 31 October 2008

Happy Halloween

A friend asked me yesterday, 'Halloween - yes or no?', to which I have to say a resounding yes.

When we were kids, one of my very best friends was American (actually, she still is, but we're no longer kids). She introduced me to 'trick or treating', of which I'm not a great fan - it always seemed a bit too like begging. But she also introduced me to 'Halloween candy', dressing up, outrageous decorations, lots of black and orange, playing ridiculous party games and scaring ourselves silly. I loved the Jack o'lanterns. I loved apple bobbing. I loved eating cream buns hanging from the ceiling by a thread with your hands tied behind your back.

As I got older I went through a New Age, pagan sort of phase involving lots of candles, ribbons and bad poetry. I communed with cats and tried to see the good in toads. I learned about masculine and religious oppression and I celebrated the female goddess worshippers; the medieval healers and midwives who were persecuted and hanged or burned at the stake for offending the patriarchal establishment.
One Halloween Him Outdoors took me up Pendle Hill, site of the infamous
Lancashire witches, ten of whom were hanged for witchcraft in 1612. It was dark and quite spooky. People trudged up there to light bonfires and join covens. I have only dabbled and never specifically tried to invoke the dark side. I don't know if I believe in a dark side and certainly wouldn't want to invoke it. I was scared of the people who believed they were conjuring with black magic.

So I no longer really know what to believe. But I enjoy so-called Pagan Festivals - like May Day, Yule, Candlemas, Midsummer, and, naturally Halloween. I worry that it is too easy to get too serious about such things however, and would like to remind you to treat Halloween responsibly and not to leave alcohol around pumpkins.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Brazil 0 - England 3

Do not adjust your set – it’s true!

This afternoon we went to see the FIFA U17 Women’s World Cup match at the Stadium in Wellington and England won. 3-0! It was excellent! Full match stats show a fairly even game (although Brazil had more possession, England had more shots on goal).

England played well and, although they were slightly lacking in pace and strength, they showed good skills and superb positional play. The tackles and tactics were equally impressive and, once they warmed into the match they played a mature and professional game.

Brazil’s keeper was stretchered off after an unfortunate collision and her replacement was beaten seconds after coming onto the pitch. Brazil had some good strikers (particularly their no 7, Thais) and demonstrated some of those silky skills for which their nation is famed (in response to the traditional clog and hoof variety of English football) but their defence wasn’t as formidable as ours and we scored more goals than them – note to the Phoenix; that’s how you win games.

Despite it being a Thursday afternoon, there was a great crowd at the ground (official figure was 10,795).

There were school kids on outings (what a great way to get out of school!) cheering and squealing with nary a thunder stick in sight. There were Brazilians banging their drums and shaking their booty. There were men in suits and ties skiving off work, desperate to watch some football and support their country. I hasten to add I attended with my boss’s blessing.

The top chants of the afternoon were:

  • We’re supposed to be at work
  • There’s only one Dan Carter (Danielle Carter scored the first and third goal)
  • Are you watching, Wellington?
  • It’s just like watching Brazil
  • Let’s all do the samba
  • You’re not drumming anymore

Add to this result the fact that Liverpool beat Portsmouth (under new manager, Tony Adams) this morning to remain top of the table and my football happiness cup runneth over.

Italian hilltop towns

San Leo is a beautiful little town with a massive fortress atop a rock. The town itself has cobbled streets, hills and steps, and a square with a fountain enclosed with shops and restaurants. The food is a delight in these wee villages and just what you think holiday cuisine should be – spaghetti al pomodoro e basilica and a bottle of healthy red wine (well, it’s full of anti-oxidants so they tell me).

From the fortress there are commanding views of the countryside, so you can see any potential attackers. There are parade grounds and turrets, narrow steep staircases, tiny rooms used for cells, small windows for firing ammunition and wooden doors with thick clunky bolts.

Various items are displayed: suits of armour, cannons and guns, used right up to the Second World War; medical apparatus and herbs as discoveries were made to heal and cure; and instruments of torture to harm and wound – even more thought has gone into this. Cruel spikes, heavy irons, sharp blades, evil spikes and barbs, stretching racks and wheels are all enclosed in dim, underground punishment cells.

Feeling ill, we have to be careful not to think about it too much or to imagine the pain. Back in the streets of the sleepy little village it feels an age away from such horrors and we sit against a sun-warmed wall eating gelati while a black and white cat slinks about our legs.

Tavullia is the home of Valentino Rossi, number 46 motorbike rider and, according to Sports Illustrated, one of the highest earning sports personalities in the world, having earned an estimated $34 million in 2007. You know this is his birthplace as soon as you enter the little town; there are banners everywhere and all of the trees sport yellow ribbons – it’s his colour, apparently.

There is a fan club with a shrine to the great (little) man featuring a bike, a leather suit, a whole load of photos and a guest book to sign. A shop sells every kind of Rossi-related tat imaginable – little figurines and helmets; clothing; mouse-mats; key rings; wallets; magnets; bedspreads; everything!

The local café has yet more photos and delivers cappuccinos to the table with 46 written on the top in chocolate and froth.

The speed limit here was recently lowered from 50 to 46kph, and there is one of those LED signs that flashes up your speed as you drive past. I stand and watch as grown men, who really ought to know better, steady their speed to make the sign display 46 as they drive beneath it.

San Marino – the guide books say, ‘Tis a silly place’, and perhaps it is. Lonely Planet suggests that, ‘you’re unlikely to ever see a greater density of kitsch souvenir stands’. Again, this may be true, but I really liked it!

Another catty comment remarks that it is like one of Rimini’s theme parks – indeed, there are local soldiers in this republic and a palace which they guard, albeit probably not particularly effectively. There are four of them and when we watch them shuffle out to change the guard, one of them nearly drops his dagger. I suspect they are students on a holiday job.

Tiny streets lead up (or down, depending on your perspective) through the republic to three impressive fortresses at the top of the hill. They jut out over sheer cliff faces, connected by ramparts that at times meander through verdant woods – these places are strongly fortified, alright!

There are battlements, heraldic flags, turrets and towers, doorways, gates, portals and secret passages aplenty. Sure, the cobbled streets swarm with tourists buying tat (we pick up a garish fridge magnet – we have a collection – and a replica San Marino football shirt) but there are also leather bags and belts that look like bargains.

This is the place to come if you are in the market for Murano glass and Carnivale masks; liqueurs and jewellery; candles and crossbows. Weapons are everywhere – it seems odd and slightly scary to see quite so many guns casually on display.

Montebello has apparently remained virtually untouched for centuries. When we visit it is slightly eerie: a combination of out of season, midweek, and miserable weather mean that it is deserted. The only signs of life are an old woman carrying a bundle of sticks, an old boy on a bicycle, and a cat curled up on a chair.

We are in search of coffee and there is something that looks like a café but it is on the uninviting side of empty. It’s incredible how unwelcoming closed shutters can be – there’s nothing quite like it. I think they’re delightful, but they can close up a town and make you feel like you don’t belong. I get a feeling that this is like a plague town – sealed and evacuated. Picturesque though it is, I can imagine zombies creeping out of the narrow alleyways and I am glad to move on.

Verruchio was apparently chosen as an ideal place to live over 3,000 years ago by early settlers who appreciated its strategic position, on top of a hill with great surrounding views. It was the home of the Malatesta family – the dynasty that ruled the Rimini area from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.

I have the best panini I think I’ve ever tasted – cheese, tuna, mayonnaise and tomato – simple fresh food and simply delicious. Once again there is no one on the streets and we have the place to ourselves. It is cold and begins to rain so we do some speed tourism, racing around the town from church to monastery to tower while our map gets soggy.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Fitness challenge

My good friend Jo Blick has taken up a fitness challenge and she is going great guns. I'm sure she is talking all about it on her radio show on More FM, but you can also follow her progress on-line. Honestly, I usually find weight-loss stories about as interesting as a wet weekend in Levin (i.e not very) but she is a great, and very amusing, writer so this is worth a look. The fitness challenge is a competition (as you might expect from the word 'challenge') and she is nothing if not competitive, so she's bound to do well. Go Jo!

I do wonder, however (and perhaps Jo can enlighten us), how they measure the challenge at the end. Please tell me it's not based on weight loss, becasue I know for a fact that weight loss and fitness are far from the same thing - witness skinny, stick-thin blow-away-in-a-puff-of-wind people, or gym poseurs with rippling muscles, who couldn't run a mile. According to the BMI measure, all rugby players are overweight and half of the All Blacks are obese.

I recently read an article in one of those No Idea type magazines (I was waiting to pick up my curry and it was the only thing on the table - I don't normally inflict such tripe on myself) about some ridiculous bint who once went to the gym and put on 5lbs and so stopped going. Heaven forbid she actually got some body shape and tone - far preferrable that she eat celery stalks and lettuce leaves and lack any energy to do anything interesting, but at least she would look THIN, which seems to be the pinnacle of achievement and the desirable setting for all women, if such magazines are to be believed, which they are apparently, judging by their sales figures. Rant over.

I also recommend Jo's short but succinct book reviews on the same site.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Long Weekend highlights

It is Labour Day here today, so here are the highlights from my long weekend:

  • Friday night drinks in the Malthouse - Yeastie Boys' Pot Kettle Black is on tap - Him Outdoors and I have a couple of pints each but it is now sold out. Sam and Stu have diligently gone to Invercargill to brew some of their latest release - to be called Golden Boy. I'll let you know as soon as I hear it's available, or check out their blog link above.
  • In the interests of keeping the holiday alive for as long as possible, we visit the Mediterranean Food Warehouse in Newtown. Not only can you get fantastic pizza (made in their wood-fired pizza oven), coffee, and gelati here, but you can stock up on a great range of pasta, olives, and chianti - we can keep eating the food even if we can't enjoy the culture.
  • The weather was rubbish so we got a video out and curled up on the sofa to watch Michael Clayton, a really enjoyable Saturday night film. George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson and Sydney Pollack are excellent - Tilda Swinton won an Oscar for best supporting actress and the film garnered another six nominations (in the top categories). It's a fabulous suspense drama and may sneak its way into my top 10 favourite films, but what would I leave out?
  • Despite the fact that the weather was still appalling, the hardy souls at the Waitangi Park Market were still selling their fresh produce. We battled with the wind and filled our canvas bags with courgettes, carrots, eggs, peppers, asparagus, lettuce, leeks, broccoli, spring onions and ginger for $20. We get to be healthy, green and smug all at the same time.
  • Went to visit my siter and her family for my nephew's first birthday. My other nephew has just learned to ride his bike without stabilisers and he was anxious to show off his abilities, so we went to the park to see his new-found talent. I remember riding a bike as one of those childhood achievements up there with swimming my first length in a pool and singing my first solo for the school choir. I also remeber my bike-riding progress was hindered somewhat due to the 'help' of my brother. Anyway, my nephew has no such hindrance and he's a little dynamo on wheels whizzing about underneath his safety helmet.
  • Our cat is starting to forgive us for going away for a month and is back to being as normal as it is possible for a pedigree Burmese to be, pouncing on our feet, curling up on our bed at night and purring. We missed him and it's good to have him back. Cats are what make a house a home and he makes our little flat into his own feline palace.
  • It was worth getting up in the middle of the night to see Liverpool beat Chelski at the Bridge. The Mighty Reds are now at the top of the table where they belong; long may it continue. I know I say this every year, but I really think this could be our season.
  • Not letting the name put me off, with my huge aversion to hills, we walked up Mt Climie in the Rimutakas. It's a pretty steep slog up a 4WD track (It's 860m and you start at 200m - the track is 6km so you can work out the incline if you can be arsed), but the views from the top are worth the effort. You can see out to the South Island - including the highest mountain in the Inland Kaikoura Range, Tapuae-O-uenuku which is capped with snow - and back the other way over the Wairarapa. It's sweaty on the way up, massively windy up the top, and I fall in a bog on the way down and lose both of my shoes, but it's actually a good day out - although I daren't mention this to Him Outdoors, or he'll make me do it again.