Taste the silence, drinking the ‘World’s Best Beer’ in Bruges

It’s hard to imagine that the small, sleepy town of Bruges (or Brugge to give it its more appropriate Flemish name) was once a major centre for international trade. Yet by the 14th century it was famous for taking English wool and turning it into some of the finest and most desirable cloth in the world. It was an immensely lucrative business and Bruges grew fabulously wealthy.

Just at it attracts tourists from all corners of the world today, at the height of Bruges’ power in the 15th century, goods from all over Europe passed through its port on the River Zwin. War and competition from other cities, particularly Antwerp, reduced Bruges’ influence and wealth; but its death knell came when the River Zwin silted up and ships could no longer reach the North Sea.

Oude Civiele Griffie, Burg, Bruges, Belgium

Oude Civiele Griffie, Burg, Bruges, Belgium

Belfort and Provinciaal Hof, Markt, Bruges, Belgium

Belfort and Provinciaal Hof, Markt, Bruges, Belgium

Canals and bridges and cobbled streets, Bruges, Belgium

Canals and bridges and cobbled streets, Bruges, Belgium

By the 1530s Bruges’ long, slow decline was complete, and something truly extraordinary happened. Bruges was deserted by its people and forgotten by the world. Houses were abandoned, industries closed down, the port was empty, the canals unused. Bruges became a ghost town. Bypassed by history, it slipped into obscurity.

Unimportant politically, economically or militarily, Bruges was saved the ravages of centuries of European conflict, preserving its medieval buildings, cobbled streets and canals until the present. Tourism is its lifeblood today and, bizarrely, it was tourism that saved Bruges from obscurity.

Early 19th century British tourists, on their way to view the battlefield of Waterloo, stumbled upon a medieval town frozen in time and barely touched by modern life. Word spread quickly and Bruges got the nickname of the ‘Venice of the North’. Its fate was sealed. Tourism has been growing ever since, and now a town of fewer than 120,000 people receives over 2 million visitors each year.

Bruges’ Golden Age has bequeathed posterity an historical treasure trove – its medieval centre has been an UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000. The best way to see it is to stroll through its narrow streets, preferably with frequent stops to sample some of the extraordinary Belgium beers on offer.

If you’re in Bruges it would be rude not to try the beer. There is said to be a different bar for each night of the year, and at least two of them serve over 500 different types of beer. Faced with so much choice, decision making is very difficult, if not impossible. We headed to the delightful Cafe Red Rose which specialises in Trappist beers (motto “Trappist beer … taste the silence”).

It was here that I sampled the beer considered to be the best in the world, the dark, strong and decidedly tasty Westvleteren XII. At a hefty €15 per bottle it really had to be tasty. It’s not easy to get your hands on a bottle, the monks who make it only produce 126,000 gallons of the stuff a year and demand is high. They refuse to make more simply saying, “We are not brewers. We are monks. We brew beer to be able to afford to be monks.”

Begijnhof, Bruges, Belgium

Begijnhof, Bruges, Belgium

Canals and bridges and cobbled streets, Bruges, Belgium

Canals and bridges and cobbled streets, Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Provinciaal Hof, Markt, Bruges, Belgium

Provinciaal Hof, Markt, Bruges, Belgium

Westvleteren XII is strong stuff, and we were a bit wobbly on our feet as we left. Back on the streets, we meandered until we came across the Sint-Janshospitaal Museum. This 800-year old hospital has a great permanent collection, including a number of Flemish Primitives, but had a special exhibition called ‘Bruegel’s Witches’. After drinking the Westvleteren, a bit of witchcraft seemed appropriate.

It was a fascinating exhibition (it runs until June 26th), less for the actual exhibits as for the story it told. Although the idea of witches had been around for centuries, it wasn’t until 1565 that the stereotype of a wart-covered ugly old woman with a black cat and cauldron took root in the popular imagination. This image was invented by Bruegel the Elder and is still with us 450-years later.

Beer, Bruges, Belgium

Beer, Bruges, Belgium

Sign in the Cafe Red Rose, Bruges, Belgium

Sign in the Cafe Red Rose, Bruges, Belgium

Canals and medieval buildings at night, Markt, Bruges, Belgium

Canals and medieval buildings at night, Markt, Bruges, Belgium

Belfort at night, Markt, Bruges, Belgium

Belfort at night, Markt, Bruges, Belgium

After that bewitching experience, we set off to sample some more Belgian beers and to indulge in some of Bruges’ fine cuisine before heading to France and the Loire Valley …

A weekend in medieval Bruges

Anyone who’s watched the expletive-filled Colin Farrell movie, In Bruges, about two hitmen hiding out in Belgium’s most visited tourist destination, knows that its medieval charms are completely lost on the film’s main protagonist. Ray, played by Farrell, says at one point, “At least in prison and at least in death, you know, I wouldn’t be in f***in’ Bruges … maybe that’s what hell is, the entire rest of eternity spent in f***in’ Bruges.”

When told that Bruges isn’t Ray’s ‘thing’, his gangster employer is incredulous: “It’s a fairytale town, isn’t it? How’s a fairytale town not somebody’s f*****g thing? How can all those canals and bridges and cobbled streets and those churches, all that beautiful f*****g fairytale stuff, how can that not be somebody’s f*****g thing, eh?”

Canals and bridges and cobbled streets, Bruges, Belgium

Canals and bridges and cobbled streets, Bruges, Belgium

Medieval buildings and canals, Bruges, Belgium

Medieval buildings and canals, Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

It’s a very dark, not very politically correct comedy, utterly out of place in an historic town like Bruges. Which is sort of the point, I suppose. Yet, even while Ray rails against the tedium of Bruges, the city provides a stunning backdrop to the film. The tongue-in-cheek tone of the abuse seems to be a matter of pride for Bruges’ inhabitants, who have adopted the film as their own.

Bruges really is a fairytale medieval town but it’s also small. Tourist numbers in the summer can overwhelm its perfectly preserved medieval centre. Ray was forced to spend two weeks in Bruges, most tourists come on day trips so don’t need to worry about entertaining themselves for too long. We were there for a couple of days and nights, and I can sympathise with him a little.

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Some late Spring sunshine had convinced us to hire a car and set off on a road trip for a few days. We were headed for the Loire Valley in France, but Bruges has been on our wish list for a while and helped break the journey. Spring is a good time to visit the town, flowers are blooming and, even on a weekend, tourist numbers aren’t so great that it feels crowded.

We arrived late and hadn’t realised that almost every restaurant in Bruges is closed by 10pm. I can imagine what Ray might have said about that. We’d been driving for hours and were feeling a bit desperate, but the hotel receptionist told us about a restaurant open until 2am. We thought it would be an overpriced tourist joint, but Christophe had excellent food and great service.

Markt, Bruges, Belgium

Markt, Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Medieval buildings and canals, Bruges, Belgium

Medieval buildings and canals, Bruges, Belgium

Medieval buildings and canals, Bruges, Belgium

Medieval buildings and canals, Bruges, Belgium

Medieval buildings and canals, Bruges, Belgium

Medieval buildings and canals, Bruges, Belgium

The next morning we set off to walk Bruges cobbled streets, winding our way alongside and over beautiful canals, meandered past ancient medieval buildings and through picture-postcard-perfect squares. In the early morning, with just a few dog walkers for company and the sun reflecting ancient buildings in the mirror-like canals, Bruges is extraordinarily beautiful.

The remarkably well preserved highlight of Bruges is the Markt, the old market place. It’s a vast open space surrounded by gabled buildings, the Provinciaal Hof palace and the most dominant structure in town, the 83-metre high 13th century Belfort. It’s fabulous, and largely pedestrianised, but by mid-morning it was busy with tour groups.

Medieval buildings and canals, Bruges, Belgium

Medieval buildings and canals, Bruges, Belgium

Medieval buildings and canals, Bruges, Belgium

Medieval buildings and canals, Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Markt, Bruges, Belgium

Markt, Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

The Belfort, and the 365 steps that take you to the top, inevitably feature in In Bruges. There is one excruciating scene when Ray is particularly unkind about an overweight American family’s chances of getting to the top of the tower. When challenged to go up and take the view himself, Ray responds: “The view of what? The view of down here? I can see that down here.” We decided to take his advice and stayed on the ground.

‘s-Hertogenbosch, the hardest place name in the Netherlands

I find Dutch incredibly difficult to pronounce. Even though it shares a common root with English – some words are exactly the same in Dutch and English – the pronunciation frequently leaves me baffled. Although I’ve been learning numbers thanks to my neighbour’s daughter, who chalked them on the steps leading to my apartment, Dutch is seemingly beyond my grasp.

I think the Dutch acknowledge this, even if they might not admit to it. Otherwise why would the virtually unpronounceable ‘s-Hertogenbosch be more commonly know as Den Bosch? Even I can pronounce Den Bosch. ‘s-Hertogenbosch literally means Duke’s Forest, and there was once a castle and forest here, and presumably a Duke.

Den Bosch station, Netherlands

Den Bosch station, Netherlands

Dragon statue, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Dragon statue, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Den Bosch, Netherlands

Den Bosch, Netherlands

We visited Den Bosch to go to the truly fabulous Hieronymous Bosch exhibition, organised to celebrate the 500th anniversary Bosch’s death. One of my colleagues mentioned that Den Bosch was a lovely town, with a unique canal system that goes underneath the town’s buildings. He recommended spending a bit more time there. I’m glad we did, it’s a fabulous place in a part of the country that attracts few tourists.

Even if there hadn’t been an internationally renowned exhibition of the town’s most famous son, Den Bosch would have been worth a visit. The centrepiece of the town is the fantastic medieval marketplace, a vast open space surrounded by traditional Dutch buildings and outdoor cafes. This is where Hieronymous Bosch lived as a child, and where he had a studio in later life.

Canals, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Canals, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Den Bosch, Netherlands

Den Bosch, Netherlands

Canals, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Canals, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Den Bosch, Netherlands

Den Bosch, Netherlands

Visible above the rooftops, and just a short walk away, the grandiose Gothic Sint-Janskathedraal towers over the town and sits on a large open square. A church was built here in the early 13th century, but was knocked down to make way for the cathedral, which would only be completed in 1530. Dying in 1516, Bosch never got to see it completed, although it was under construction the entirety of his life.

The cathedral has magnificent stained glass windows, something of a rarity in the Netherlands. A €48 million renovation of the building was completed in 2010, as part of the work 25 new angel statues were created, including one wearing jeans and using a mobile phone. Scaffolding has been constructed creating a tour of the exterior, on which you can see the new angels. Sadly it was fully booked.

Sint-Janskathedraal, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Sint-Janskathedraal, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Sint-Janskathedraal, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Sint-Janskathedraal, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Sint-Janskathedraal, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Sint-Janskathedraal, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Sint-Janskathedraal, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Sint-Janskathedraal, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Perhaps the nicest thing about Den Bosch is just wandering its narrow cobbled streets alongside its picturesque canals. It’s an atmospheric place. The canals are unusual, rather than winding their way alongside buildings like elsewhere in the Netherlands, they go underneath them. There is a boat tour of the canals lasting around 90 minutes, which was too long for us on this visit but will provide a reason to go back…possibly for the Bosch Parade in June.

Den Bosch, Netherlands

Den Bosch, Netherlands

Den Bosch, Netherlands

Den Bosch, Netherlands

Den Bosch, Netherlands

Den Bosch, Netherlands

Den Bosch, Netherlands

Den Bosch, Netherlands

Statue, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Statue, Den Bosch, Netherlands

On the trail of the weird and wonderful Hieronymus Bosch

It’s hard to imagine the visionary mind behind the immense creative genius that was Hieronymus Bosch. His artworks combine the surreal with the nightmarish, seemingly playful yet terrifyingly sadistic. If the symbolism of his work is hard to understand in the 21st century, in medieval Europe his meaning would have been instantly recognisable.

Statue of Hieronymus Bosch, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Statue of Hieronymus Bosch, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Hieronymus Bosch trail, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Hieronymus Bosch trail, Den Bosch, Netherlands

A man straddles the blade of a knife, forced to slide along it to enter Hell. A pig wearing a nun’s habit kisses a man. A monstrous bird-demon eats sinners and defecates them into a pit. Bizarre animals inflict terrible punishment on humans. A hunter is killed by a hare and eaten by hounds. Musicians are tortured on giant musical instruments. A pair of giant ears, pierced by an arrow, wield a large knife. All this, and more, set against the desolate and fiery landscape of Hell.

Those are all scenes from The Garden of Earthly Delights – a triptych depicting Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden; a central scene of earthly delights full of medieval symbolism and populated by bizarre creatures, giant fruits and naked people; and a final panel showcasing the horrors awaiting sinners in Hell. To say Bosch had an interest in the consequences of humanity’s moral failings would be an understatement.

It was paintings like this that made Bosch famous across Europe, and his visionary work had enormous influence during his lifetime. The most powerful monarch of the era, Catholic zealot King Philip II of Spain – he who dispatched the Armada against England, who attempted to crush Dutch independence, and who was the principle patron of the Inquisition – had one of Bosch’s paintings in his bedroom.

Sculptures from Hieronymus Bosch paintings, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Sculptures from Hieronymus Bosch paintings, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Sculptures from Hieronymus Bosch paintings, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Sculptures from Hieronymus Bosch paintings, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Sculptures from Hieronymus Bosch paintings, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Sculptures from Hieronymus Bosch paintings, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Hieronymus Bosch trail, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Hieronymus Bosch trail, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Interestingly, it was was Bosch who first painted (possibly invented) the concept of the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’. The idea that those who went to Heaven did so through a tunnel of light. Amazing to think this idea, so familiar today, was first popularised by a Dutch painter who died in 1516.

To celebrate the 500th anniversary of his death, a small museum in his home town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch managed against all odds to bring together the majority of his work in one blockbuster exhibition. For the first, and probably the last, time the majority of Bosch’s existing works came home, including twenty major paintings and numerous sketches. Light at the end of the tunnel, indeed.

Sculptures from Hieronymus Bosch paintings, Den Bosch, NetherlandsSculptures from Hieronymus Bosch paintings, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Sculptures from Hieronymus Bosch paintings, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Sculptures from Hieronymus Bosch paintings, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Sculptures from Hieronymus Bosch paintings, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Sculptures from Hieronymus Bosch paintings, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Sculptures from Hieronymus Bosch paintings, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Sculptures from Hieronymus Bosch paintings, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Sculptures from Hieronymus Bosch paintings, Den Bosch, Netherlands

So popular was the exhibition that we only managed to get tickets for a Tuesday afternoon. As we made our way to Den Bosch (shorthand for ‘s-Hertogenbosch), expectations were high. The exhibition was very busy but also extraordinary and beautiful. Almost better though, was the Bosch trail which turned this small, picturesque Dutch town into an open air gallery-cum-treasure hunt.

In fact, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that Den Bosch had gone a little Hieronymus Bosch crazy. Almost every shop had a Bosch-themed window display regardless of what it was selling. The range of Bosch-related merchandise on sale was mind-boggling in its infinite variety – we are now proud owners of one of the most complex jigsaws known to humankind.

Sculptures from Hieronymus Bosch paintings, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Sculptures from Hieronymus Bosch paintings, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Hieronymus Bosch trail, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Hieronymus Bosch trail, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Sculptures from Hieronymus Bosch paintings, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Sculptures from Hieronymus Bosch paintings, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Sculptures from Hieronymus Bosch paintings, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Sculptures from Hieronymus Bosch paintings, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Sculptures from Hieronymus Bosch paintings, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Sculptures from Hieronymus Bosch paintings, Den Bosch, Netherlands

It felt like the Golden Goose had landed and everyone was taking their opportunity while it lasted. I can understand it, ‘s-Hertogenbosch is hardly a name that previously had international recognition. That’s a shame, because it’s a lovely town with a medieval centre worth a day of anyone’s time…but more of that later.

Before and after, Hieronymus Bosch paintings and photos, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Before and after, Hieronymus Bosch paintings and photos, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Before and after, Hieronymus Bosch paintings and photos, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Before and after, Hieronymus Bosch paintings and photos, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Before and after, Hieronymus Bosch paintings and photos, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Before and after, Hieronymus Bosch paintings and photos, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Before and after, Hieronymus Bosch paintings and photos, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Before and after, Hieronymus Bosch paintings and photos, Den Bosch, Netherlands

* All photos of paintings by Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450–1516) courtesy of http://boschproject.org via https://commons.wikimedia.org

When in Rome, which was not built in a day…

Rome has been nearly 3,000 years in the making. Empires have come and gone in the process, bequeathing the world an extraordinary legacy. It has been one of the most important social, political and cultural centres of the western world for much of its existence. Something you can see just by walking around and taking in the wealth of history on display.

Yet today its history seems to be a burden weighing the city down. Everywhere you look there are historic buildings, ancient, medieval and modern, and many of them are in disrepair. Large chunks of Ancient Rome lie scattered and abandoned, too plentiful for all to be cared for equally. Graffiti, and not the good stuff, defaces many walls. The streets feel a bit dirty and littered.

Il Vittoriano, Rome, Italy

Il Vittoriano, Rome, Italy

Marcus Aurelius Column, Piazza Colonna, Rome, Italy

Marcus Aurelius Column, Piazza Colonna, Rome, Italy

Il Vittoriano, Rome, Italy

Il Vittoriano, Rome, Italy

Basilica Santa Maria del Popolo, Piazza del Popolo, Rome, Italy

Basilica Santa Maria del Popolo, Piazza del Popolo, Rome, Italy

The cost of maintaining all these buildings and cleaning all these streets is, no pun intended, monumental. The city itself doesn’t have the money, Italian state coffers are short of cash, bureaucracy and corruption deter private investment. The result is that neglect seems to hang like a shroud over parts the city. What is true in Rome is true elsewhere in the country.

This is only a small downside for tourists staying a few days, and for large part Rome is a patchwork of vibrant and beautiful neighbourhoods, home to extraordinary historic and cultural sights, connected by a web of atmospheric streets and lovely piazzas filled with restaurants and bars. Really, what’s not to love?

Stuffed full of monuments and monumental buildings there is one that seems to impose itself upon the city like no other. Surprisingly, it’s not the Colosseum. The giant white lump that squats impassively in the Piazza Venezia, and which seems to split opinions between revulsion and admiration, is the Altare della Patria or Il Vittoriano. It is clearly visible from any of Rome’s seven hills.

The Altar of the Fatherland, with its glaringly white marble, certainly seems out-of-place. ‘Flamboyant’ might be the kindest way to describe its architectural style; ‘wedding cake’ if you’re less kind. A medieval neighbourhood was demolished to make way for it. Although it was opened in 1925, there is a whiff of Mussolini’s Fascists about it. Unsurprisingly, it was in this piazza where Il Duce delivered his speeches.

Rome, Italy

Rome, Italy

Il Vittoriano, Rome, Italy

Il Vittoriano, Rome, Italy

Colonna Traiana, Rome, Italy

Colonna Traiana, Rome, Italy

Trajan Forum, Rome, Italy

Trajan Forum, Rome, Italy

Limoncello, Rome, Italy

Limoncello, Rome, Italy

Trevi Fountain, Rome, Italy

Trevi Fountain, Rome, Italy

The views from the top are dramatic though. Even if you don’t want to wait at the end of a long queue for the elevator to the roof, it’s worth the climb to get the views half way up. You can see the Colosseum, sweeping views down the river and, straight ahead, the Via Del Corso. In this city of winding streets, the Via Del Corso is as straight as a die – all the way to the Piazza del Popolo and the Basilica Santa Maria del Popolo.

A walk along the Via Del Corso, with side trips into the maze of streets on either side, offers a fascinating glimpse of life in Rome, ancient and modern. Whether its the towering Marcus Aurelius Column in Piazza Colonna, nearby Piazza di Monte Citorio, Piazza di Spagna with its Spanish Steps (closed for repair currently), or innumerable other streets and squares, this is a fascinating area.

Rome, Italy

Rome, Italy

Fontana dei Fiumi, Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy

Fontana dei Fiumi, Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy

People dancing, Rome, Italy

People dancing, Rome, Italy

Triumphs and Laments, grime writing on the River Tiber

Even in a city known for its grandiose and dramatic sights, there is no doubting that Triumphs and Laments is something special. In the heart of Rome eighty giant figures, depicting people and scenes from Roman mythology to the present day, rear up from the water’s edge of the River Tiber. Like shadows emerging from the darkness, they appear to have come alive and are parading along the river front.

She-wolf, Triumphs and Laments, River Tiber, Rome, Italy

She-wolf, Triumphs and Laments, River Tiber, Rome, Italy

Triumphs and Laments, River Tiber, Rome, Italy

Triumphs and Laments, River Tiber, Rome, Italy

At 550 metres in length and 12 metres in height, Triumphs and Laments is a monumental piece of public art. Perhaps the more so because it tracks the history of Rome by depicting moments of glory and tragedy from its past. One scene depicts the she-wolf that suckled brothers Remus and Romulus, a central part of Rome’s foundation myth. Later it shows Remus after he was slain by his brother.

Other figures include a laurel-wreathed Caesar; Roman goddess Minerva; Anita Ekberg, she of La Dolce Vita fame; controversial film director Pier Paolo Pasolini, murdered in 1975 for his communist sympathies; and Dominican monk, philosopher, mathematician and spy for Queen Elizabeth I of England, Giordano Bruno* (who was burned at the stake by the Inquisition for his beliefs).

She-wolf, Triumphs and Laments, River Tiber, Rome, Italy

She-wolf, Triumphs and Laments, River Tiber, Rome, Italy

Giordano Bruno, Triumphs and Laments, River Tiber, Rome, Italy

Giordano Bruno, Triumphs and Laments, River Tiber, Rome, Italy

La Dolce Viata, Triumphs and Laments, River Tiber, Rome, Italy

La Dolce Viata, Triumphs and Laments, River Tiber, Rome, Italy

Triumphs and Laments, River Tiber, Rome, Italy

Triumphs and Laments, River Tiber, Rome, Italy

The fascinating thing about the installation is that is was created by using a process of ‘reverse graffiti’ or ‘grime writing’. The dark silhouette-like figures were brought to life using giant stencils. Once the stencils were in place centuries of accumulated grime were blasted off the embankment with a high pressure water hose. This cleaned the walls leaving only the figures behind.

Reverse graffiti, sometimes called ‘clean advertising’, is a process that was pioneered by street artists. In one of those sweet ironies, a process that removes dirt from surfaces rather than adding spray paint still counts as graffiti and is illegal in many places. You’d think the authorities would want to encourage civic-minded street cleaning.

Triumphs and Laments, River Tiber, Rome, Italy

Triumphs and Laments, River Tiber, Rome, Italy

Triumphs and Laments, River Tiber, Rome, Italy

Triumphs and Laments, River Tiber, Rome, Italy

Triumphs and Laments, River Tiber, Rome, Italy

Triumphs and Laments, River Tiber, Rome, Italy

Triumphs and Laments, River Tiber, Rome, Italy

Triumphs and Laments, River Tiber, Rome, Italy

Triumphs and Laments, River Tiber, Rome, Italy

Triumphs and Laments, River Tiber, Rome, Italy

It would be fair to say that Rome’s river almost feels like it isn’t part of the city. It’s found 12 or 13 metres below street level and you have to walk down a couple of dozen urine-scented stone steps to reach water level. Triumphs and Laments is part of a wider effort bring the riverfront back to life, and to rejuvenate a neglected area of Rome.

Not that city authorities seem to be in much of a rush to help. It took over a decade for artist William Kentridge and TEVERETERNO, a not-for-profit initiative dedicated to revitalising Rome’s waterfront, to get the project from idea to reality. If a recent photo-journalism piece in The Guardian is anything to go by, there’s a long way to go before it emerges butterfly-like.

Triumphs and Laments, River Tiber, Rome, Italy

Triumphs and Laments, River Tiber, Rome, Italy

Triumphs and Laments, River Tiber, Rome, Italy

Triumphs and Laments, River Tiber, Rome, Italy

Triumphs and Laments, River Tiber, Rome, Italy

Triumphs and Laments, River Tiber, Rome, Italy

Triumphs and Laments, River Tiber, Rome, Italy

Triumphs and Laments, River Tiber, Rome, Italy

Triumphs and Laments, River Tiber, Rome, Italy

Triumphs and Laments, River Tiber, Rome, Italy

Like street art everywhere, Triumphs and Laments is a transitory piece of work. It will be left open to the elements and, slowly, over time will disappear from the walls. No need to rush to Rome immediately though, it’s estimated that it will take up to 5 years for the figures to fade from the cityscape.

* My old university tutor, John Bossy, wrote an excellent book about Bruno and his role as a spy for the Elizabethan court, Giordano Bruno and the Embassy Affair. It’s a book full of intrigue and double-cross, well worth a read if you’re into that sort of thing.

Let Rome in Tiber Melt

Like the Rubicon, which Julius Caesar so famously crossed in 49 BC, the River Tiber is forever associated with Ancient Rome in my mind. This is thanks to Shakespeare who, at the start of Anthony and Cleopatra, gave Mark Anthony the epic line: “Let Rome in Tiber melt and the wide arch of the ranged empire fall. Here is my space.” It’s a play I learnt by heart at school.

Mark Anthony makes a heartfelt expression of his love to the indomitable queen-cum-goddess Cleopatra. She, he is saying, is more important to him than Rome and the whole of the Empire, of which he is one of its three rulers. “Excellent falsehood!” is her response, leaving Anthony twisting and turning in the wind unable to grasp her capriciousness.

Isola Tiberina, with Ponte Rotto or Broken Bridge in foreground, Rome, Italy

Isola Tiberina, with Ponte Rotto or Broken Bridge in foreground, Rome, Italy

Isola Tiberina, Rome, Italy

Isola Tiberina, Rome, Italy

Isola Tiberina, Rome, Italy

Isola Tiberina, Rome, Italy

Isola Tiberina, Rome, Italy

Isola Tiberina, Rome, Italy

These words came to mind crossing the River Tiber on the Ponte Fabricio on our way to the Trastevere district. Rome’s great history seemed spread out before us as we walked to the Isola Tiberina, the small island that sits picturesquely in the middle of the Tiber. It’s a beautiful place, home to the Basilica San Bartolomeo all’Isola which dates from 998 AD, and a hospital established in the 16th century.

We’d spent the morning wandering around Rome’s former Jewish Ghetto, and were headed for lunch amongst the fascinating narrow lanes of the Trastevere. These two areas are incredibly atmospheric and shouldn’t be missed if you’re visiting.

Rome’s Jewish Ghetto is a place loaded with meaning. Founded in 1555, all Jews in Rome were required to live in this area, which was prone to flooding from the nearby River Tiber. Rome wasn’t unique, there were Jewish ghettos across Europe, but Rome’s ghetto was controlled by the Vatican and Jews had to swear loyalty to the Pope.

Jewish district, Rome, Italy

Jewish district, Rome, Italy

Jewish district, Rome, Italy

Jewish district, Rome, Italy

Jewish district, Rome, Italy

Jewish district, Rome, Italy

Life in the ghetto was made deliberately miserable, and it was renowned for its overcrowding and poverty. Surrounded by high walls and locked gates, the inhabitants lived in near isolation from the city around them, to the extent that they developed their own dialect. The walls of the ghetto were only torn down in 1888, the last in Western Europe.

The ghetto was largely demolished and little survives today. Slightly over 50-years later the Nazis would reinvent the Jewish Ghetto as part of the Final Solution. Europe’s Jews would once again be forced to live in crowded squalor, exploited by their captors before being sent to their deaths in the Concentration Camps. The medieval concept of the ghetto would have been well understood to all in the 1940s.

Teatro Marcello, Jewish district, Rome, Italy

Teatro Marcello, Jewish district, Rome, Italy

Near the Teatro Marcello, Jewish district, Rome, Italy

Near the Teatro Marcello, Jewish district, Rome, Italy

Today the area is home to an impressive synagogue and plenty of streets lined with restaurants. It is also right next door to the Teatro Marcello, an ancient Roman theatre. Crossing over the Tiber we headed to the Trastevere district, which is filled with enchanting cobbled streets and glorious piazzas.

We wandered at length through the area before having an al fresco lunch just off the Piazza di Santa Maria, home to the Basilica di Santa Maria. It’s an area with a distinct feel. In part that’s down to its working class history, but also because it’s reinvented itself as a trendy area of bars, restaurants and clubs. There’s a touch of London’s Hoxton about it, just with a backdrop of medieval buildings.

Trastevere, Rome, Italy

Trastevere, Rome, Italy

Trastevere, Rome, Italy

Trastevere, Rome, Italy

Trastevere, Rome, Italy

Trastevere, Rome, Italy

Basilica di Santa Maria, Trastevere, Rome, Italy

Basilica di Santa Maria, Trastevere, Rome, Italy

Musicians, Piazza di Santa Maria, Trastevere, Rome, Italy

Musicians, Piazza di Santa Maria, Trastevere, Rome, Italy

This is the area to come for good food, alternative cocktails and beers from microbreweries unknown to the outside world. It’s also where I bought a €3 ice cream from a street side gelateria, and was rewarded with the largest portion of ice cream I’ve ever eaten in one sitting. It was hot, I’m certain I deserved it.

This is definitely a part of Rome to be explored in greater depth the next time I visit … and not just because they serve huge ice cream portions for a ridiculously small amount of money.

Trastevere, Rome, Italy

Trastevere, Rome, Italy

Trastevere, Rome, Italy

Trastevere, Rome, Italy

Trastevere, Rome, Italy

Trastevere, Rome, Italy

Trastevere, Rome, Italy

Trastevere, Rome, Italy

Trastevere, Rome, Italy

Trastevere, Rome, Italy

We are against war and tourist menu, a Roman ramble

A hatred of war and the ubiquitous tourist menu don’t seem obvious bedfellows, but in a city as famed for its it cuisine as Rome, bad food should be taken very seriously. There are plenty of restaurants in Rome where the food won’t make your tastebuds sing, but with a constant supply of unsuspecting tourists to keep them in business. Luckily, there are also plenty that serve exquisite food.

We are against war and tourist menu, Rome, Italy

We are against war and tourist menu, Rome, Italy

I spotted this sign in the streets near our apartment in central Rome, a fascinating area where every corner turned seems to reveal more secrets. Walking through the cobbled streets we found our way to the incredible Pantheon, the city’s only ancient Roman temple to make it (almost) whole into the 21st century. A testament to Roman architectural ingenuity it has been in use for around 2,000 years.

Framed by the lovely Piazza della Rotonda, with its impressive Fontana del Pantheon, a fountain topped with an Egyptian obelisk, the Pantheon exudes antiquity. Once inside you can see the genius of the architects, this is a building of perfect proportions. The big hole in the roof acting like a giant spotlight. Not only that though, the Roman’s built the Pantheon’s dome using concrete…concrete!

Obelisco della Minerva, near the Pantheon, Rome, Italy

Obelisco della Minerva, near the Pantheon, Rome, Italy

The Pantheon, Rome, Italy

The Pantheon, Rome, Italy

The Pantheon, Rome, Italy

The Pantheon, Rome, Italy

Piazza della Rotonda, the Pantheon, Rome, Italy

Piazza della Rotonda, the Pantheon, Rome, Italy

A few short steps from the Pantheon is one of the glories of Christian Rome, the simply stunning Church of Saint Ignazio di Loyola. Not that you’d notice from the exterior of the building, which is similar to dozens of other churches in this town of churches. Step inside though and the splendour of Saint Ignazio’s reveals a ceiling that is almost beyond belief – and I’ve seen the Sistine Chapel.

The extraordinary frescoes painted by artist, architect and Jesuit brother, Andrea Pozzo, are not to be missed if you’re visiting Rome. It’s the sort of ceiling that will give you a sore neck from looking upwards, a sort of reverse ‘Text Neck‘.

Church of Saint Ignazio di Loyola, Rome, Italy

Church of Saint Ignazio di Loyola, Rome, Italy

Church of Saint Ignazio di Loyola, Rome, Italy

Church of Saint Ignazio di Loyola, Rome, Italy

Church of Saint Ignazio di Loyola, Rome, Italy

Church of Saint Ignazio di Loyola, Rome, Italy

Church of Saint Ignazio di Loyola, Rome, Italy

Church of Saint Ignazio di Loyola, Rome, Italy

Leaving the delights of church ceilings behind, we made our way through the warren of narrow streets and piazzas that make up this area. It’s a wonderful place just to roam, with every step seeming to expose another layer of history. There always seems to be a grand mansion, historic church or ancient Roman structure to attract your attention.

It’s remarkable how, even in a city as busy and noisy as Rome, you can often find yourself alone and in near silence in some of these back streets. They offer a respite from the busy main streets and homicidal drivers.

Finally we found our way to the grand Piazza Navona. The ornate fountains, baroque mansions and the imposing Church of Nostra Signora del Sacro Cuore belie the square’s violent and sordid history, when it was ancient Rome’s Stadium of Domitian.

The Stadium saw gladiator contests, was home to brothels and was also where the Christian martyr St Agnes was put to death. After the Barbarian destruction of Rome it became an impoverished neighbourhood, before being paved over and turned into a market. Wandering amongst the street artists, hawkers and hoards of tourists, you’d be hard pressed to imagine its history today.

Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy

Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy

Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy

Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy

Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy

Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy

Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy

Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy

Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy

Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy

Joining the unholy crush at Vatican City

If you didn’t arrive at the Vatican with faith you certainly wouldn’t leave with any. It must count as one of the least spiritual experiences I’ve ever had. Even starting at 8.30 in the morning, even with a nimble private guide trying to avoid the tour groups, the sheer crush of people made it almost impossible to enjoy a walk around the grand palace of the Vatican.

The Vatican City and St. Peter's seen from the River Tiber, Rome, Italy

The Vatican City and St. Peter’s seen from the River Tiber, Rome, Italy

The Raphael Rooms, Vatican City, Rome, Italy

The Raphael Rooms, Vatican City, Rome, Italy

Belvedere Torso, Vatican Palace, Vatican City, Rome, Italy

Belvedere Torso, Vatican Palace, Vatican City, Rome, Italy

Vatican Palace, Vatican City, Rome, Italy

Vatican Palace, Vatican City, Rome, Italy

That’s not even to mention the diabolical experience of the Sistine Chapel, which has just prompted me to invent a ‘Top ten most dystopian tourism experiences known to humankind’ list. A list on which it now claims top spot. The whole thing is ridiculous and unpleasant.

What should be a magical visit to one of the great artworks of the western world, by one of the world’s greatest artists, is blighted by the overwhelming number of people trying to do just that. Don’t even get me started on the security guards shouting at everyone every few seconds. “Silencio, Silence. No Photos. No Videos. Madam NO PHOTOS. Sir NO VIDEO.” On and on it goes, while all around people chat and take photos and videos.

I know it’s not in the nature of the Catholic Church to compromise with the modern world (contraception, anyone?), but they might want to consider giving up on what is clearly a losing battle against both human nature and modern technology. Either that, or they might consider that everyone’s lives would be improved if they restricted the number of people allowed to cram into the Sistine Chapel at any one time.

On the plus side, the Church authorities have left no stone unturned when it comes to capitalising on the experience commercially. Whatever the current Pope might preach about the evils of excessive wealth, his message has clearly not reached his employees in the Vatican. Capitalism is booming and, with more than 5.8 million visitors expected this year, shares in Vatican Inc. are surely a wise choice for investors.

That, I’m unhappy to say, is just about the most benevolent I can be about a trip around the Vatican. There are absolutely delightful sculptures and paintings on display almost everywhere you look, underlining the acquisitiveness of Popes past; but in such an unrelaxed environment there’s no time or space to enjoy them. At least they’ve had the common sense to ban the use of selfie sticks, but that is small consolation.

The wealth (of art) of the Church is on full display throughout the palace. Leaving one to wonder why, with all this wealth at their fingertips, more isn’t being done to address the causes and consequences of poverty in large parts of the world.

The four rooms painted by Raphael are exquisite, but you spend most of your time being jostled and having your toes stepped on; the 120 metre-long Gallery of Maps is extraordinary, less for the maps than for its fantastic ceiling; the Borgia apartments are fascinating for the salacious history of the Borgia Popes. It’s claimed that numerous illegitimate children were conceived in these rooms, and at least one murder was committed here.

Once we’d been expelled from the crush of the Sistine Chapel, we made our way with the crowds to the Basilica di San Pietro and the Piazza San Pietro. I know people wax lyrical about St. Peter’s, but I honestly thought some of the smaller churches we’d seen in Rome were far more wondrous. The crowds at least thinned out a bit in St. Peter’s, but the size and imposing grandeur left me cold.

Pope versus Gladiators in the battle of the souvenirs, Rome, Italy

Pope versus Gladiators in the battle of the souvenirs, Rome, Italy

Pope postcards, Rome, Italy

Pope postcards, Rome, Italy

This experience was made all the more poignant by my memories of visiting the Vatican in 1989 when, as far as I recall, there were no crowds. I was glad to get back out into the warmth of the Roman sun, and to be heading away from Vatican City madness. I doubt I’ll ever go back.

A weekend in Rome

Rome, the Eternal City. Those words alone conjure myriad visions of the ancient and the modern. Over 3,000 years in the making, Rome is a city that defies expectations: epicentre of the ancient world’s most powerful empire; home to one of modern Europe’s most vibrant cultural experiences. It’s a city to stimulate the senses and captivate the imagination, at least that’s what I’d read before leaving.

Altare della Patria, Rome, Italy

Altare della Patria, Rome, Italy

My main concern arriving late one Friday night was less the glory of Rome’s ancient splendors, than to survive the taxi ride from Fiumicino airport. The driver seemed determined to uphold the stereotype of Italian drivers as barely functional lunatics. We took one corner with such velocity and violence that I flew across the back seat and crashed into the door. The driver didn’t seem to notice.

The last time I was in Rome, I was 18-years old and travelling cheaply around Europe on an Interrail pass. I didn’t have money to take cabs in those days, and I’d begun to wish I still didn’t as we bounced over cobbled streets narrowly missing scooters and pedestrians. I particularly enjoyed the way he managed to overtake two cars simultaneously on a two lane road. My senses were officially stimulated.

The She-Wold, Romulus and Remus, Symbol of Rome

The She-Wold, Romulus and Remus, Symbol of Rome

Rome tourist tat, Rome, Italy

Rome tourist tat, Rome, Italy

Rome Italy

Rome Italy

River Tiber and St. Peter's Bascilica, Rome, Italy

River Tiber and St. Peter’s Bascilica, Rome, Italy

My last Roman holiday was more than two decades ago, and it’s a mystery to me why it’s taken so long to return. You could spend weeks exploring Rome and come away with only a limited understanding of this great city. Three days was enough to get a feel for it, and to know that once again I’d need to come back to investigate further. Although this time I vowed to be back in fewer than 20 years.

This is a city to explore on foot, a city full of  surprises where every turn of the narrow cobbled streets reveals more glories of Rome, past and present. Whether beautiful piazzas filled with cafes and restaurants; ancient churches, that look dusty and unloved from the outside, but which hide exquisite interiors; the Vatican City-within-a-city; or architecture that drags you back a couple of millennia.

Not that this means you don’t have thousands of other tourists for company to pull you back to the present. At times it can feel swamped with tourists. Rome is expecting around 25 million visitors in 2016, in part driven by Pope Francis’ announcement of a special Jubilee. The Vatican itself expects close to 6 million visitors this year, not that there’s any self-interest involved in all those ticket sales.

We spent our time wandering the atmospheric streets of the Jewish Quarter, Trastevere and the beautiful Tiber Island. We ate and drank our way around the historic area surrounding our apartment on the Piazza Santi Apostoli. An area that included the Trevi Fountain, Pantheon, Altare della Patria and Piazza Navona. There’s so much to do in Rome I barely noticed that I’d not visited the Colosseum.

Trevi Fountain, Rome, Italy

Trevi Fountain, Rome, Italy

Rome, Italy

Rome, Italy

Tourist tat and hot priest calendar, Rome, Italy

Tourist tat and hot priest calendar, Rome, Italy

Rome, Italy

Rome, Italy

It might seem odd to come to Rome only to skip its most famous ancient landmark, but my party had started the party early and visited the Colosseum the day before I arrived. Nothing lost, it’s been there since AD 80 and I figured it could wait until next time.