Tag Archives: art

• City of Graz – Historic Centre and Schloss Eggenberg

Visit: 4th/5th April 2017

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Graz – Austria’s second largest city – sits 150 km southwest of the capital. We travelled between the two via the Semmering Railway and spent one night in Graz after three nights in Vienna. After checking into a hotel near the centre of town we caught one of the city’s many trams to the suburbs, amongst which is located the Schloss Eggenberg.

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Although I had timed our visit to fall just after the building reopened for the spring its interior was unfortunately closed off because of an inconsiderate film crew. Graz is on the UNESCO list for its Baroque buildings, of which Eggenberg is apparently an example. It is described as the finest residence in Styria, the second largest of Austria’s nine states. But, as I say, we weren’t able to go inside and see what all the fuss was about.

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So we caught the tram back into the centre just as the heavens opened and the city was deluged with rain. Lacking umbrellas, we just rode until the downpour stopped, which meant a slightly longer-than-expected walk back to our hotel.

IMG_2347It meant we got to see more of Graz’s historic centre with its ornately-decorated medieval buildings. On reflection, it reminds me of three previously-visited World Heritage Sites:

  • The rebuilt historic centre of Warsaw – for the decorated buildings in what I’m going to describe as ‘autumnal’ colours
  • The city of Luxembourg – for its rapid changes in elevation and its prominent sleepy river adding to a pervasive sense of dampness.
  • Bern – for its squat pillars and arches – as in the ‘Swarovski’ building, above. And for being a fellow four-letter city.

About that elevation: the city is built on mostly flat ground around the river, but there is a steep promontory rising high in the centre. At the top is a clock tower, so the following morning we climbed the many steps to get a look at the view.

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The alien blob in the picture above is in fact not an apparition but a hyper-modernist arts centre. It looks hideously out of place, but I rather like it. Graz has always been an architecturally adventurous city, and it has clearly decided not to preserve itself in aspic – as is understandably (and rightly) the temptation at many World Heritage Sites.

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Shortly before leaving for the return journey I tracked down a local sight: this unusual double-spiral staircase in the regional government building, the Burg. There isn’t any practical purpose to building a staircase like this but it was a good way to show off the area’s wealth and impress visitors. We were certainly impressed by it, but were soon out of time. A relaxing trip on the Semmering Railway returned us to Vienna, where we stopped at the Belvedere Palace en route to the airport, and then home.

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• Assisi, the Basilica of San Francesco and Other Franciscan Sites

Visit: 18th February 2017

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After two nights in Rome Natalie and I got up early to catch a train 90 minutes out of the city into Umbria. Our destination was the hill town of Assisi, a site of pilgrimage for followers of the famous 13th century monk St Francis. From the station it is a ten minute bus ride up to the town, where we had a hotel booked in the centre. I had expected hordes of tourists (like us) but it was strangely deserted our entire time there.

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We started out at the city’s main church, the Basilica of St Francis. It sits at the far west end of the town and the promontory on which the town is built. Inside, the basilica is split into two floors, which I found unusual. We entered at the lower level, which is adorned with frescoes – some of them painted by the early Renaissance visionary Giotto di Bondone. I got told off for taking the photo below, but it gives you an idea of what I’m describing.

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In a crypt beneath the basilica’s lower level are the remains of St Francis himself. In case you are unfamiliar with his story, St Francis was a born to a wealthy family but renounced his worldly possessions in order to devote his life to God. He travelled around Italy to preach and went on to form an order of monks who would live a life of poverty as he did. That order is still going strong today, so you see monks and nuns frequently in Assisi.

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Assisi was once a Roman settlement, as the Temple of Minerva (the same goddess once venerated in the City of Bath) on the town’s main square attests. Like the Pantheon in Rome, it probably owes its survival to its conversion into a church, which is Baroque in style on the inside. On the outside we still have the original Roman front complete with tall Corinthian columns.

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From the main square we walked uphill, passing through a multistory car park built among Roman ruins. At the town’s highest point is a castle keep – the command post for the walls that surround the whole of Assisi. I was able to clearly make out the city of Perugia some 20 kilometres away.

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That evening we had a decent meal, though not as good as the previous night in Rome. I ate the local dish of roasted pigeon, which, as the waiter informed me, is meant to be eaten with your hands. The following morning we had to make our way to Perugia San Francesco d’Assisi – Umbria International Airport from which we were flying back to Stansted. There are no bus links between the airport and Assisi so were were reliant on an expensive taxi service. The silver lining was that our driver offered to detour via the Basilica Santa Maria degli Angeli, located 5km from Assisi. This was fortunate because the building contains a very interesting artefact and is one of the ‘Other Franciscan Sites’ mentioned in this World Heritage Site’s title.

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The artefact in question is in fact the very site at which St Francis is supposed to have received the word of God. It is a tiny frescoed church, barely large enough for a small group of people to gather in, housed within the more recent basilica. This was well worth coming to see, and – like the crypt in Assisi’s main basilica – felt like a very holy place, and in a different and possibly more special way than the grand cathedrals of Milan, Venice or Rome.

I enjoyed this WHS for its importance in the history of Christianity and its Roman connections, as well as the prettiness of the views over Umbria. We were lucky that it was so quiet when we were there, but I would recommend as a one-night excursion from Rome if you are interested in getting out into the Italian heartland.

• Historic City of Toledo

Visit: 10th/11th December 2016

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Toledo was the last WHS of my Portugal/Spain trip in December 2016. After touring Alcalá de Henares on my own I met Natalie at Madrid’s airport and the next morning we caught a coach from Spain’s current capital to its former one.

Toledo is a hilltop medieval city that bears witness (as so often in Iberian World Heritage Sites) to the meeting of cultures – successively the Romans, Visigoths, Moors and Christians, with Jews also present pretty much throughout.

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The city’s cathedral, above, was for a long time the centre of Spanish Catholicism. As the Protestant Reformation swept Europe in the 16th century the Catholic authorities sought to retain believers by commissioning artists to paint vivid scenes from the life of Christ. One of the most famous of those artists today was the travelling Greek painter known as El Greco. He lived in Toledo for 38 years and left a legacy of paintings that justify a visit on their own. El Greco is known for his use of shimmering bold colours that seem to burst out of the canvas, combining elements of Byzantine art with Western painting. In the El Greco museum there is a collection of Jesus and the 12 Apostles which I found really impressive.

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Toledo is defended on three sides by the Tajo river, much as Durham is by the Wear. We reached our hotel from the bus station by walking up the hill’s steep approach and then went out for lunch. Here follows a top tip: if you ever visit Toledo and enjoy informal but excellent dining, go to the newly-opened Mercado de San Agustín. It is a five-storey food court where you can choose from a range of options and get some really delicious tapas-style Spanish food. We enjoyed it so much we ate there twice. It was similar to the Time Out Market in Lisbon, where we had a great time in March 2015.

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Toledo is a maze of narrow alleyways – like Venice without the canals. Local vendors play on the city’s medieval past of course, meaning disconcertingly many shops are packed to the gunwales with swords and daggers for sale. On Sunday morning the weather had changed from the blue skies in the picture of the cathedral, above, to a total white-out caused by thick fog. We set off for a walk to the Jewish quarter and the city’s other cathedral.

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Natalie and I realised then that neither of us had ever been in a synagogue. We have been in plenty of churches and the occasional mosque (in my case only in Istanbul), but never a Jewish place of worship. So we took the opportunity to have a look around a former synagogue that is no longer in use here in Toledo.

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I liked all the columns and the gold, but it did lack some atmosphere due its not being in active use. Hopefully we’ll get to see a working synagogue eventually.

And that was really the end of the visit. We caught our coach back to Madrid and then the Metro to Barajas airport. My 10 day trip to Portugal and Spain that had begun with the laurel forests of Madeira had come to an end, with a respectable 8 World Heritage Sites visited. I only have a few more to visit in Portugal (in the north and in the Azores), but plenty left to do in Spain, which is a real gold mine. This trip saw me cross the 100 mark (I think that was at the Monastery of Batalha in Portugal), putting my total after Toledo at 104. With 1,052 in the world at the time of writing, that’s just another 948 to go!

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• Church and Dominican Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie with “The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci

Visit: 20th March 2016

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In the city of Milan there is only one World Heritage Site, and it refers only really to one painting – a faded Renaissance wall mural inside a former dining hall of a relatively modest church (by Milanese standards). But the mural in question is one of the world’s most recognisable images, painted by one of its most remarkable geniuses: Leonardo da Vinci.

Leonardo’s painting is notable for a number of its pioneering features. First is his application of the newly-discovered rules of perspective. During the painting’s restoration there was discovered a hole for a nail in Jesus’s temple, next to his right eye. This marks the centre of the scene, and the rest of the composition flows out along straight lines from this point. It is easy to take these rules for granted, but before the 15th century no artists abided by them, so pictures from before this time look unnaturally flat. The sense of depth in Leonardo’s mural is enhanced by the painting of a landscape through the window to the rear of the diners.

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Leonardo’s arrangement of the figures was also revolutionary. The Last Supper had been depicted before by other artists, but Leonardo heightened the tension and added realism by dividing them into four groups. Jesus has spoken the words, “I tell you the truth, one of you will betray me.” We see the Disciples’ reactions varying from the angry disbelief of Batholomew to the melancholy resignation of John the Evangelist (seated next to Jesus on His right side). The latter is sometimes mistaken for a woman, such as Mary Magdalene, but John is traditionally depicted with feminine features to emphasise his purity. Judas – the only man not surprised by Christ’s utterance – leans forward clutching his money pouch as Peter reaches toward John.

From 1495 to 1497, as he worked on his painting, Leonardo went to great lengths to ensure its perfection. He scoured Milan for men with particularly expressive faces whom he could use as models, and even went as far as to procure models for the figures’ hands, too.

Below you can see the context of the painting within the refectory – or dining hall – of the monks of Santa Maria della Grazie.

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Imagine the sensation they must have experienced when they walked into what had hitherto been a plain dining hall only to see it now ‘extended’ into the distance by Leonardo’s Biblical scene. It was as if they were now dining with Christ and the Disciples. For devoutly religious men of the Middle Ages this must have been an awesome experience.

Leonardo was experimenting with paint media at the time, and for The Last Supper he chose to use egg tempera. On the wall of the Refectory this did not prove durable, and signs of deterioration began to appear as early as the 16th century. The mural received numerous overpaintings over the centuries by well-meaning conservators, but it was not until the late 20th century that it was decided the best course of action would be to strip off all of the accumulated paint and expose the original brushwork of Leonardo. This, combined with delicate modern lighting, allows the viewer to appreciate it again in something like its original condition.

At the other end of the refectory is a painting by a different artist of the Crucifixion at Calvary. It is actually older than The Last Supper, but painted in a more durable medium. After it was finished Leonardo added tempera profiles of the donor and his family. These have not been restored, and they have all but disappeared as a result.

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Santa Maria della Grazie is located in the centre of Milan and is notable architecturally for having been extensively rebuilt by the architect Bramante – one of the leading figures of the Renaissance. We visited it on the second day of a weekend break in the city, having redeemed air miles to book flights from Heathrow out to the city-centre Linate airport and back home from the larger Malpensa.

The food was fantastic there. After touching down in Linate we rode a bus to a classically Milanese restaurant in the east of Milan. Here we ordered the city’s signature dish – a Saffron risotto. It’s not the most exciting of risottos, since it contains no chunks of meat, fish or vegetables, but it is loved by the Milanese for its subtle flavours. My second course was a homemade salami with lentils. The third picture above shows a particularly delicious Mortadella panini from the following day. If I had a café like this one near my house I would eat there every day.

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Milan’s most famous landmark is undoubtedly its Duomo, or cathedral. It sits right in the centre of the city and is at once recognisable for its audacious architecture. The cathedral is a bit of a mongrel in terms of architectural style, though the predominant one is Gothic. The space inside is immense, for it is the largest church in Italy (excluding St Peter’s in the Vatican) and the fifth largest in the world by area.

We went up on to the roof, where there is a reasonable view of the city. But Milan is no Florence, and the view is crowded with modern buildings that make it much less picturesque than its Renaissance-era rival to the south.

Nearby is the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II – one of the world’s oldest shopping centres. It contains all the fashion brands you’d expect in Milan, as well as a mosaic in the centre. The Milanese apparently believe that spinning on the bull’s privates provides good luck (although a friend of a friend who is from the city had no idea what I was talking about when I asked him about it!).

We saw a few other sites on our weekend in the city. I had read that some of the old churches were very interesting. The first one we saw, after Santa Maria della Grazie, was the former convent of San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore. Its interior is covered in frescoes, including a fairly uncommon depiction of a scene we all know well: Noah’s Ark.

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We also went to the Sforza Castle, built in the 15th century by the Duke of Milan, Francesco Sforza. The next Duke, his son Ludovico, was the man who commissioned Leonardo to paint The Last Supper. The castle these days is home to a number of museums and galleries, of which we went into one.

By this time the afternoon was drawing to an end and it was time to head off to Malpensa for the flight home. I bought a selection of Italian foods (mostly from Sicily, it later turned out) to eat on the journey or to use in cooking back home: blood oranges, green olives, capers, garlic and salami.