Sardinia’s Wild Heart Beats in Barbagia

The isolated mien of the island of Sardinia is compounded by its insistence on keeping to itself and shying away from mainland Italy. The Sardinians do not repose faith in Rome. Their grouse is that they have been sidelined, rather monstrously. A politician who doubles up as a tour guide, the vivacious Enza, told us about the political climate of her country as she drove us in her trusty old car through the winding mountainous roads of Barbagia. I was enamoured of that dramatic landscape. Villages with their bevy of granite houses and terracotta roofs sat comfortably in valleys that seemed to have been scooped out of limestone mountains. Swathes of green pastures were dotted by ponies and prehistoric stone towers, herds of cows ambled along the roads as if they were out for a stroll, and often rows of wine and myrtle orchards showed up, standing upon modest patches of land. Myrtle, the aromatic berry that stains your fingers a deep purple if you squish it, and which the Sardinians use to make a fine liqueur called Mirto.

In this primitive part of the country that derives its name from Cicero — the Roman orator had dubbed it the ‘land of barbarians’ because the Romans had tough luck here — the mountain people cleave to the Sardinian language even while it is slowly being replaced by Italian elsewhere on the island. Here where they make their living from the land, where milk and sheep’s cheese are staple diet, where gnarled olive trees add character to the craggy surroundings, where bandits still rule strong in villages like Orgosolo, and where shepherds chant songs around fires, it is not unnatural that carnivals exist and that they are a window into times past when pagan rituals were a way of life.

Shepherded by Enza and her cousin Giampaola to a museum in the town of Nuoro, we were introduced to the traditional black ensemble of men and women. The Museum of Sardinian Life and Popular Traditions turned out to be a small affair but packed with details that transported us to another world. I was repulsed, and at the same time, strangely drawn in by the theatrics of the carnival costumes. People in older times surely knew how to work their imagination.

Men dressed in sheepskins, cow bells and ominous-looking masks, enacting the eternal battle between good and evil. In the agrarian culture of Barbagia, it made sense that the carnivals had their roots in Greek rites dedicated to Dionysus, the god of vegetation. They signified the end of winter, and invoked the gods to bless the land with fertility. People indulged in sacrifices and orgies. They dressed like animals and danced wildly after drinking plenty of wine.

Emerging from the confines of an old world recreated within the museum, we found the town of Nuoro to be quietly photogenic. It sat at the foot of Mount Ortobene. Atop it stood a statue of Christ the Redeemer, as if keeping a careful watch upon the life of the few thousand inhabitants of Nuoro who live around its narrow streets in traditional stone houses. Because it was furiously cold that March, the usual windy conditions on the island exacerbated by the northwest wind called the Mistral that blows in from France, we winded up in a small café in Nuoro. I look back upon that moment and smile at one of those apparently trivial memories. Nothing earth shattering. Just four girls chattering over a cup of coffee each and the beginnings of a lovely friendship.

 

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Nuraghe, ancient towers belonging to the mysterious Nuragic civilisation 
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Nuraghe and chapel
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Orchards around Barbagia
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Myrtle
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Myrtle berries
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The Museum of Sardinian Life and Popular Traditions
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Fragrant rosemary shrubs
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Traditional costumes of women in the villages of Sardinia
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Dolls in traditional gear
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A child’s garb
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Mamuthones (men in black) and Issohadore (fellow in red) from the village of Mamoiada. The origins of these masked figures are unknown. The Mamuthones, in their vests of dark sheep fur and copper bells and grotesque wooden masks with giant hooks for noses, command a spooky presence. It is almost as if they are checked by the presence of the Issohadores in their red tunic, embroidered shawl and black bandolier. They walk together in processions that end at bonfires in the village that has had the Mamuthones and Issohadores for as long as it can remember.
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Boes and Merdules from a carnival in the town of Ottana.  The men in their white sheepskins, accessorised with plenty of cowbells, wear two kinds of masks. The Boes wear ox-like masks and the Merdules those of old, deformed men. These were part of rituals, meant to protect man against evil spirits. The Merdule served as reminders to man – to overcome his baser instincts and retain his human identity.
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Thurpos (meaning blind or crippled). In Orotelli, a town in Barbagia, men with their faces painted black and dressed in black overcoats, cowbells dangling from shoulder straps, roam the streets during its agrarian carnival. They are allegorical figures representing the triumph of the weak over the powerful, the eternal tussle between farmers and landowners.
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The Mamuthone in profile

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Streets of Nuoro

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The Classical Bandits of Sardinia

They live in Orgosolo, they say. But in the same breath they maintain that vendettas and violence have long vanished from the inland villages of Sardinia.

In the spring of 2015, around this time, a girl friend and I took a flight into Alghero. To land upon the island that sits in the middle of the Tyrrhenian Sea, surrounded by the Balearic islands, the Italian peninsula and Corsica, and yet is a world unto its own. A rugged land where the air is ripe with possibilities. Here there are no high-street chains for clothing and coffee stores, no concrete jungles to feel lost in, and certainly none of the big city lights. Pre-historic Nuraghi which are cylindrical stone towers dating back to the 1500 BC — preceding the Etruscan civilisation — show up instead upon miles and miles of green countryside framed by the limestone and bluish-green mountains of the Supramonte.

English novelist DH Lawrence described it as “belonging to nowhere, never having belonged to anywhere”. In this ancient part of the country, Barbagia, where the people lead rustic lives and shepherds make their living from tending to livestock in the wild interiors, the concept fits in with the precision and smoothness of say slipping your hands into the softest sheepskin gloves, that bandits should double up as heroes for the people in the villages. That the Codice Barbaricino, which is the Code of Barbagia, should be the mark of a life well lived, with honour. For, the right and the duty to preserve honour is everything here.

From Enza, who was in charge of shepherding us around the island, I heard about Graziano Mesina, a regular Robinhood kind of a figure in this part of the world. Mesina had decided to drop his former profession in favour of the tour-guide business. A bandit turned tour guide, heavens!

The next few words that issued from my mouth alarmed Enza and she decided that enough was enough. She would not have a pesky person broach difficult subjects. She said: “The people of Orgosolo eye all newcomers with askance. They do not talk about such matters at all. You see, they are protected by the bandits, and they in turn, protect them from curious eyes.” That screwed tight the lid upon the curiosity that welled up in this journalist old heart of mine. It takes a lifetime to wean yourself away from the only profession you have known all your adult life. And I was just starting to learn to keep my nose out of other people’s business.

In that village wrapped up in stories of bandits and vendettas — a local poet was shot in public as lately as 2007 as part of a vendetta — we sat in a large hall for a shepherd’s lunch. It was a rustic affair and one that was long–drawn, for whatever you do, do not under-estimate the appetite of the Italians. On rustic wooden boards, we were presented with fluffy rounds of pane, which is bread. We tore into the bread, pairing it with creamy ricotta cheese, pink slices of ham and pungent porcheddu (suckling pig roasted upon a spit). And sips of grappa, potent enough to make the nerves tingle and warm the insides with searing intensity.

I thought that was enough, till more appeared. Rosemary-flavoured sheep’s meat cooked with potatoes and pecorino cheese paired with pane carasau that was but a simple parchment of bread. Followed by refills of the local red wine. Our senses sufficiently doused in wine and grappa, we were treated to pretty desserts. They were fit for fairies to nibble on.

Suddenly the shepherds, four of them proceeded to a corner, huddling together with their backs to us. I was wondering about this strange sight when they broke into a song. The air rang with the resounding bass in their voices. The canto a tenore, a traditional shepherds’ song. The group of Germans behind us got up and danced in a while. The grappa and wine had done their job alright.

Now Orgosolo has more going for it than just its fame as home to the outlaws. Its hilly cobbled lanes are lined with old, dilapidated houses in pastel hues, their facades painted with political and Cubist-style frescoes. In the ‘70s, a Sienese school teacher and his students had sparked off a trend of painting political murals in remembrance of the Italian Resistance and Liberation from Nazism and Fascism. Now you can see these murales, telling stories in diverse styles. And if you have the time, why they will have a conversation with you.

Thus was I introduced to Sardinia. Through this small village that was once occupied by the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Byzantines and the Spanish. The village that has hospitality carved into its anti-authoritarian veins, where the bandits are shy despite their notoriety, where the men huddle together to sing songs that have been sung through the ages and where blood feuds are a cultural backdrop because this is where the people live and die, my darling, by an ancient code of honour.

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The road that winds past the Supramonte
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Villages in Barbagia
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Welcome to Orgosolo. I imagine he is a bandit.
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The shepherd’s lunch took place in a barn
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Shepherds with their suckling pig 
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Where they carve up the pig
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Enza pours us grappa
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Makes me faint with greed
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Pane Carasau
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Bread with ricotta, ham and porcheddu
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Pastissus. Thin delicate pastries, glazed with sugar, and filled with almonds
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Canto a tenore 
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Orgosolo on the map of Sardinia. The words above urge you to love the island for what it is, an oasis of natural beauty. 
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Streets of Orgosolo

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Cross-eyed with thinking? We women do think too much.
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Rural women go about the business of life

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Aunt Elisabetta, the sibyl of Orgosolo
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Vittorio De Seta, the director of ‘Banditi a Orgosolo’

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Bums. That’s my darling Enza.
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‘If the most difficult kids are lost, the school is no longer a school. It is a hospital that takes care of the healthy and rejects the sick.’ Lorenzo Milani, an Italian Roman Catholic priest and educator of children who nobody wanted to educate. 

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Cubism. Accident at work.
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On the left are scenes depicting Gaza and massacres visited upon by the Palestinians by the Israeli army. The right-hand side mural states, ‘We are all illegal aliens’, acknowledging the desperation of people who arrive in Italy, stuffed into boats, in the vain hope of escaping poverty.
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‘Felice il popolo che non ha bisogna di eroi’ — ‘Happy are the people who do not need heroes’.

Pest to Buda: The Road to Yesterday

From the busy bohemian affair that is Pest, Buda is a world away. It is as if the Danube which bisects these two cities injects the air with a change that is palpable as you make your way to the capital of medieval Hungary. The good Welsh folk would declare us tup to have opted for a walking tour on a morning that proceeded to get distressingly foggy and frigid. But we will run with Kurt Vonnegut here. That “bizarre travel plans are dancing lessons from God.”

There was drama on the square outside St. Stephen’s Basilica. A bomb scare. Police arriving officiously and dawdlers scuttling equally hastily. We had left behind the grandeur of old buildings reminiscent of the golden age of the Austro-Hungarian empire, caryatids and brawny males holding up doorways, ornate moldings, some Art Nouveau architecture spicing up the mix, when we came upon Freedom Square. Memorials laced with irony. For there’s the memorial to the Holocaust in the form of an eagle, representative of Nazi Germany, attacking the Archangel Gabriel symbolic of the victims, when you know that the Hungarians colluded with the Nazis. And then there is that of the Soviet liberation of the country during WWII, a stark obelisk with the commie star crowning it. There is American president Ronald Reagan too caught in mid-stride facing the American embassy, as an acknowledgement of his role in ending the Cold War (“Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”), leading to the welcome exit of the Soviet regime from Eastern Europe.

You know when not to talk politics I suppose even though the mind might be brimming with points you want to make.

What you do instead is gasp at the grandeur of the Hungarian Parliament which on the dreariest of days knows how to cut it even as you stand by the Danube and feel the icy fingers of the breeze pierce the barrier of your warm clothing, your feet doubling up as numb blocks that keep moving because they have to.

Sixty pairs of bronze shoes lined up along the banks of the river. Grisly memories of Jews shot along the banks of the Danube by the anti-semitic party that was ruling the city after the Germans had toppled the erstwhile government in the mid ’40s. Heartbreak. A city filled with heartbreak that time cannot wash away.

Just as we had crossed the Széchenyi Chain Bridge, Vee abandoned us. He could take the cold no more. We carried on, toiling up stone steps, buoyed by visions of warm cafés awaiting us atop the hill. It is a matter of gravity that when we did reach the top of the hill, dreams were shattered. What was this? An open-air bar called Budapest Terrace. The temptation to be a stick in the mud was overwhelming, to throw a proper fit. We exchanged that urge for steaming cups of hot chocolate. Shiver and sip, sip and shiver, nose tingling, cold misery threatening to bog us down. But misery did have the panoramic company of the Danube and the moreish flavours of the best hot cocoa I have had in years.

As dusk gathered beneath the dim lights of wrought-iron lamps, we tread uneven cobbles, coming upon bronze statues and listening to Alejandro, the tour guide, narrate medieval stories of ambition and greed, the arrival of Renaissance art in the palace when a king wed a Beatrice of Naples, the Ottoman Turks and then the Habsburg queen Maria Theresa. Vee joined us again after warming his insides with pálinka. He had carried a bottle for us to swig on. It did its job as did the combined glory of hearty goulash (which you cannot get away from here), fried potatoes and chicken paprikash at a traditional Hungarian eatery.

Then it was truly dark and I cannot tell you how exquisite Buda was. Ludicrous baroque beauty that renders all adjectives redundant. The Fisherman’s Bastion, St. Matthias Church which was the site of many a coronation, old Roman excavations in the basement of hotels, the view of the parliament from across the Danube. We let it all come together in deserted Buda on a freezing December night and weave a mesh of golden spell upon us then, this golden city called Boodahpesht.

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Imre Nagy, the Hungarian Communist politician whose attempt to win Hungary independence from the Soviet Union cost him his life in 1958. This national hero now stands upon the bronze bridge gazing at the Hungarian Parliament.
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The Hungarian Parliament 

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Jews who were shot in the winter of 1944-45 into the river by militiamen from the Arrow Cross Party. “…I heard a series of popping sounds. Thinking the Russians had arrived, I slunk to the window. But what I saw was worse than anything I had ever seen before, worse than the most frightening accounts I had ever witnessed. Two Arrow Cross men were standing on the embankment of the river, aiming at and shooting a group of men, women and children into the Danube – one after the other, on their coats the Yellow Star. I looked at the Danube. It was neither blue nor gray but red. With a throbbing heart, I ran back to the room in the middle of the apartment and sat on the floor, gasping for air.”  Reminiscences of a survivor.
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Castle Hill
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Fishing Kids Fountain
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Matthias Fountain depicting a hunting party led by King Matthias of Hungary
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Hungarian soldier on Castle Hill
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Goulash
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Chicken paprikash with spätzle
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 St. Matthias Church

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A look at St. Matthias Church from Fisherman’s Bastion
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Fisherman’s Bastion, a paean in turrets to the seven Magyar tribes who arrived in Hungary in the 9th century
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Yes, the Hungarian Parliament
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The unfolding of Budapest’s beauty at night, the perfect place to prepare for a hangover (those Pálinkas can pack a punch) .

 

 

Portraits from Pest

In the flat plains of Pest, which the Hungarian calls Peshth, we took over the city on foot. It drove our friend Vee up the wall, those long evening walks by the Danube when the fingers ached with a strange intensity, startled by the piercing cold of the night when even breathing seemed like a bad idea. Lights twinkled through the fog that sat thick upon Gellért Hill high above us as we crossed the Liberty Bridge, the bridge that looks like it was fashioned out of turquoise metal and ebullience. The kind of ebullience that comes with freedom, freedom from the Nazis. But then the smothering of that very freedom by the Soviet for at least five decades.

A saint stood high above that hill holding aloft a cross, a man who was stashed into a barrel and rolled down the hill by irate Magyars when he attempted to convert them to Christianity. For all his sins, Gellért Sagredo had the hills named after him, the very hills down which he was tumbled to his death. And a hotel too. Hotel Gellért of the splendid Art Nouveau façade and iconic thermal baths, a reprieve from the harshness of a winter’s evening. The baths of Budapest are like grand flourishes of the city’s past. There are said to be 120 warm springs simmering beneath the surface of the city which the Roman, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires lost no time in tapping, leaving behind a legacy that the city is quite so proud of.

The intense cold drove us back into the arms of Pest’s hipster heart – District VII. It helped that we had chosen to stay in a chic little apartment a stone’s throw from a sprinkling of Christmas markets, classical cafés and restaurants, strung with fairy lights most becomingly on frigid nights. The kávéház, the legendary cafés like Café Gerbeaud where you gave into a long-standing tradition bequeathed by the Austro-Hungarian empire and found yourself transported to the grand old cafés of Vienna. The glutton in you was hard pressed not to pleasure the gut at every stop. And oh, those vintage clothes boutiques where it was difficult not to sigh over the warmth and prices of sable coats, pieces of decadence that demanded deep pockets.

We sought warmth in local bars, the kinds where old men sit and drown their loneliness in glasses of whisky and we revived ourselves in shot bars where a pretty bartender handed out tulip-shaped glasses of aged pálinka, feeling the burn of it soothe the cold away with a dab hand, murmuring ‘come child come’. And then we wandered around District VII, letting its intriguing personality seep into us. The Jewish quarter secreted away into the district’s inner parts, the synagogues with their onion domes and Moorish exteriors making the jaws drop. Derelict buildings flanked a warren of cobbled streets that seemed to be a repository of rundown structures, often crumbling away beneath layers of gigantic murals which are infused with the spirit of the city and that of the artists inevitably.

Some of those ramshackle buildings that have been slipping into gradual disrepair since WWII have been converted into pubs. Ruin pubs. Hubs of underground culture. The oldest of the lot is Szimpla Kert. Set up in a disused stove factory, it is a place for the youth to hang out with cheap drinks, watch outdoor movies, buy fresh produce from farmers on Sundays… The layout was fluid. A sprawling space filled with themed rooms, one leading into the other, distressed furniture, winding stairs leading to more rooms, psychedelic lighting that kind of makes it seem right that a bicycle should hang over your head, that you should slide into a clawfoot tub to sit in cosy comfort with your lover and that there should be a disused Trabant car (East German commie car for the hoi polloi) standing in the garden, a remnant of grim times.

In that ruin pub, we sat on a swinging party night with a bottle of wine and took in our eclectic surroundings when there was a discordant note struck by carrots. Not a product of my imagination, no sir, though that would be a possibility given the heady wafts of weed in the air. A girl circulated around us with a basket of carrots. Did we want to buy some? Now how do you say no to carrots? It was a strange night that, wrapped up in the apple smoke of the hookah. It made me dream of Berlin and it also made me think that the more you travel, the more you see this underlying thread of similitude (this innate urge to break free) that seems to bring people and places together.

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Boscolo Hotel, a 120-year-old building
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New York Café, the traditional kávéház in Boscolo Hotel 
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New York Café 
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Shot Bars in District VII
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Because Pálinka will be your saviour
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Evenings along the Danube
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Liberty Bridge, the shortest one to connect Buda with Pest
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 Gellért Hill
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My two favourite photographs are this and the next
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A walk that shattered us
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Hotel Gellért
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District VII
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Architecture inherited from the Austro-Hungarian empire

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Carl Lutz memorial in the old ghetto dedicated to Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz who had saved the lives of over 60,000 Jews during WWII.
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Szimpla Kert

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Theme rooms at the ruin pub
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The Trabant that stands in the garden

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Inside The Ghetto

In the tiny bakery known as Boccione within one of the oldest Jewish ghettos in Europe, we queued up for a slice of Jewish pizza. The woman at the till, her hair tucked carefully into a plastic cap, doled out a rectangular piece of dense cake which tasted more like a biscuit as the moreish taste of raisins, almonds and dried fruits came together in a a perfect ménage à trois of sorts. Then the beauty of butter. Eternity is encapsulated often within the briefest of moments.

A few metres from us was the atmospheric restaurant, Nonna Betta, which declares that Anthony Bourdain could deign to eat only within its august interiors in Rome. It is charming inside Nonna Betta. White walls, old-world wrought iron brackets for its equally old-world lamps and extensive murals splashed across the walls that portray what life would have been like in the ghetto before the 1800s. We did not lunch at Nonna Betta yet I could not resist a peep. Instead we meandered through the Jewish quarter, nibbling on rich fruit cake, taking in the quiet alleys where Jews have lived for 2,000 years, history etched into the stones of the buildings with their peeling plasters, facades chipped away by the inexorable passage of time.

Shutters, ribbed and fastened against e’en the honeyed beauty of the sun on the December winter afternoon that we drifted through narrow passages beneath balustrades of marble, our minds lingering upon the kind of stories that those passages must nurse, forgotten tales of people taking flight from persecution. Then there were enclaves that must have been thronged by the poverty-stricken multitudes. The Carmel Temple that you see in the lead photo must have been the repository of dark thoughts festering within repressed souls who in the 16th century had been commanded by the pope to attend ‘compulsory preaches’. How did the adult Jews combat such decrees you think? They plugged their ears with wax, yessir, because who wants to be told what faith to follow. If some dared to fall asleep, they were kicked by watchful papal guards to wake up. Pieces of history that crept up along the walk through The Ghetto.

A piece from a 17th century poem by a certain Giuseppe Berneri captures the misery of life in The Ghetto and it goes like this:

The Ghetto is a place located next to the Tiber
On one side, and to the Fish-market on the other;
It is a rather miserable enclosure of streets,
As it is shady, and also saddening.
It has four large gates, and a small one;
During daytime it is open, to let people out,
But from the evening until morning has broken
It is kept locked by a porter guard.

This marks the end of my series on Rome that was punctuated by that on Florence and my mind is quite ready to exit Italy (do I hear hurrahs at this point?) and enter India where I am currently staying at my parents’ for another week before I fly back home to Adi (Though I cannot promise you that I shall not bring forth photos from Rome and Florence all over again for I have such fond memories tucked into every nook and cranny there).

The walk from the Colosseum to The Ghetto
The poplars of Rome
Avenues of stone pines 

Sights on Aventine Hill
Temple of Diana

Into the Ghetto

Portico d’Ottavia, a portico built by Emperor Augustus in 23BC
The Roman fish market was housed within the portico from the Middle Ages to the late 19th century.
Cobbled streets within the quarter
A Maremma strolls through the Ghetto
Pasticceria Boccione
Jewish pizza on the left
Dilapidated columns and remains of the past inside The Ghetto

Colours of the Night in Florence

Now wait, did you think I was done with Florence? You do know my proclivity for banging on about one place till I have flayed it to its core, right? Because the mind finds itself wedged between the atmospheric alleys of an old city, it refuses to let go of memories acquired under the half-light of twilight.

The old towns of Europe, they come alive under the warm yellow lighting ensconced within the vintage street lamps as you trod upon uneven cobblestones coating those old roads. You walk down narrow alleys charmed by everything you set your eyes upon because is it not all a living fairy tale? A pastel pink leather bag bagged within the leather shops where the smell of animal skin is pungent and thwacks the olfactory senses, looking into bookshops where tattered tomes line shelves in a language you sadly have no knowledge of except for the bits and bobs of local phrases you spritz your conversations with, let dusk turn frigid. Beat the sting of the evening air by pottering around the Christmas market that sprawls itself in front of the Gothic basilica. The Basilica of Santa Croce.

Nibble on potato cutlets smeared with hot melted cheese, slices of smoky speck ham, chomp on churros doused in chocolate sauce and then some piping hot bratwurst…take a breath from eating…listen to the man singing out his soul with a rendition of Cohen’s Hallelujah and then stare at colourful rows of candied fruit and precious old porcelain tea cups and dishes. If only you had space enough to lug them back home.

Gawking at the tall Christmas trees peppering the piazza around the colossal personality of the Duomo, a shy Cocker Spaniel pup hiding behind her master in his tweed coat and flat cap, the cathedral, campanile and baptistery lit up subtly because such extreme beauty of those reliefs carved out from coloured stones should shine only under nebulous lighting.

That is how we let it come to a grand end, in the shadow of the Duomo, you and I, humans humbled by the sheer superbness of it. Before we sit on the train that whisks us back to Rome.

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Romanced by Florence

I saw Florence once again through the eyes of my love. In it, I found inordinate pleasure.

That was another time it seemed when I had caught the train from Milan to Florence in the spring of 2016. Though it was not quite long ago. I had set out on a walking tour with a middle-aged artist with a long, gaunt face, dishevelled hair covered by a tweed flat cap, his ample girth covered by a capacious coat that had seen better times. He had drawled about the finer points of Florence which could not be missed by the most absent-minded person that ever existed. Mouths gaped open then at the sight of the Renaissance magnificence that reared its head in a cluster upon the Piazza del Duomo.

The wonders wrought by the compilation of bands of serpentine green, red and white stones by Renaissance architects Brunelleschi and Giotto. Sculptors of the likes of Ghiberti and Pisano whose doors retain their arresting quality so that Michaelangelo declared Ghiberti’s doors of bronze to be the ‘gates of paradise’. Those gates lead inside the Baptistery of St. John where the mosaic clad dome blinded me momentarily with its flamboyance in gold. So that when I had stepped outside and one of those street artists, a pot-bellied jocular Italian, had grabbed my hand while streaming out words in Italian, I remember feeling bewildered, amused and seized by the urge to swat his hands off mine. My blank expression made him break out into bits of English and the mixture of persistence and perseverance was difficult to escape.

But this was now and Florence had acquired an added sheen of romance. Adi’s jaws dropped visibly as we walked into the Piazza del Duomo just like mine had. Soon his face wore a hangdog look as he followed me up Giotto’s Campanile. A steady stream of climbers made sure that we had to keep climbing. By the end of it, legs reduced to a jelly consistency, my darling flatly refused to subject himself to the same torture up the Duomo. His excuse was the 5pm ticket slot we had. ‘It will be dark by the time we are up on the Duomo,’ he insisted. I felt benevolent. I relented. You have got to choose your battles after all. There was a long walk ahead. I had planned to make him walk up the hills that climb above the city. We lunched at a cutting-edge seafood restaurant where the salted codfish made me want to trill. The dopey fellow who took our orders and messed it up did not however make me want to trill. Balance was achieved.

We were soon wandering around the Uffizi, staring at the imposing Palazzo Vecchio guarded by the copy of Michaelangelo’s David and Bandinelli’s Hercules and Cacus. We stood at the spot where the Renaissance preacher Girolamo Savonarola had been hanged and burnt, shivered at the thought, and Adi wondered aloud at the Rape of the Sabine Women. You see, when the first king of Rome, Romulus, came to power, the Romans wanted to marry the Sabine women. But the ancient Italic tribe did not agree and the Romans abducted the Sabine women. There might not have been sexual violation thrown into the fray, yet the event was dubbed so. The plethora of stories upon stories that lie buried within the old walls of Florence makes the mind whirl.

We found curious quiet once we had crossed the Ponte Vecchio, the old bridge populated by rows of jewellery stores spanning the River Arno. A bylane led us up and up and soon we were on cobbled paths lined by elegant old villas and olive groves, an old chiesa, an old man stooping upon a walking stick to pick his way carefully upon the cobbles. The silence of it broken only by the occasional Fiat that swept by us with great speed. The Italians are supersonic on their Vespas and Fiats.

Adi wondered if we were lost. I soldiered on with a determined look that relayed more confidence than I felt. The road not taken was taking its own sweet time. Yet how beautiful it was as it gradually opened up to a road that snaked past the gardens of Boboli and offered up views of Florence below us, framed by an army of green and golden trees. Words are always inadequate to express the beauty of any moment.

Later, after we had watched lovers embracing by the medieval defensive walls of Florence, traipsed through alleys in which leather shoemakers sat crafting hair-raisingly expensive shoes, peeked into shut antique stores and upholstery studios, gobbled up cake and coffee at a charming coffeeshop, watched a couple of men stop in their tracks to gawp at a woman running in shorts, we had a leisurely stroll by the Arno. Dusk descended upon our shoulders in rosy hues and an old man bicycled along the river with his arms entwined about his lover. There it was, that incredible feeling of love and belonging. We were caught in the bubble where nothing else mattered but that we were there together in the midst of the impossible beauty of that ancient city called Firenze.

Adi turns his back on the Renaissance magnificence of the Piazza del Duomo rather grudgingly.
Florence Cathedral and Baptistery of St. John in profile
Giotto’s Campanile
The Duomo
Baked terracotta roofs of Florence

 Fishing Lab alla Murate
Salted codfish with onion relish in chickpea puree
Grilled shrimps
Hercules and Cacus by Baccio Bandinelli at the entrance of Palazzo Vecchio. Cacus, the fire-breathing giant, was slayed by Hercules for terrorising Aventine Hill before the founding of Rome. 
The Rape of the Sabine Women
Piazza della Signoria
Hilly roads that lead above Florence

Via San Leonardo 
On the southern outskirts of Florence
Chiesa di San Leonardo in Arcetri, an 11th century church from the pulpit of which Dante and Boccaccio had preached sermons.

In the distance stands Torre del Gallo, an ancient castle belonging to the Galli family of Arcetri.
The Tuscan atmosphere of our walk

Florence 
Former defensive walls of Florence
Antique stores
Upholstery studios
Leather shoemakers off the Tower of San Niccolò
 An alley opening up to the Tower of San Niccolò
Coffeeshops of Florence
Coffeeshop residents
A slice of chocolate cake to take the sting off incessant walks above Florence
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Amore
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The Ponte Vecchio on the Arno

Ambling Around Rome

I have been neck deep in eating, hence the absence. Hedonism in the new year. Indo Chinese and biryanis and street food and what not. All of that would be fodder for another post. I am in Calcutta at my childhood home which means that I am persevering to achieve Zen. A tall order given the frequent squabbling with my mother who remains the most headstrong woman I have ever known. But because I am home alone — something I ached for as a child when my parents refused to leave me to my devices as it would involve my racking up the phone bill to palpitating figures — I thought about reconnecting with my beloved bloggers. After all, I have left my passion for waffling on the phone behind. The passage of time. If this were a 13-year-old me, I would have shrivelled a person who uttered such ludicrous thoughts with deep-dyed contempt and scowls.

Back to our rambles in Rome because I have a truckload of photos to unload upon hapless you, the day we drove into the city from the airport we met a cab driver who lives in a small village near Rome. This large and drawling Italian, born in Rome with an invigorating love for the city, rattled out figures. For example, the dimensions of the Circus Maximus, the former stadium of ancient Rome that now looks like a serene and long vat of green and which 2,700 years ago could hold a 40,000-strong crowd to gawp at chariot races. Our mobile cache of facts was amusing and charming. It was a long conversation about the state of the world, his teenage daughter who has grown out of clinging to her dad for everything, her quest for learning Arabic, his experiences in Afghanistan when he served in the army, their move to the suburbs of Rome, his nonna who makes the best bruschetta for early evening snacks,… but the tip that we picked up was — climb the Altare della Patria that stands at the cobbled crossroads of the Piazza Venezia.

For if you take the combination of stairs and elevator to the top of the boxy monument in white marble built for Victor Emmanuel II (the first king of a unified Italy), you get a breathtaking view of the city. We stood on top of the monument for a long time beneath stellar blue skies and a caressing winter sun, watching people photograph sizeable (could be the pizza and pasta diet) preening Italian gulls with the Colosseum as a dramatic backdrop, photographed them ourselves, and then later retraced our steps to the Roman Forum where I remember jostling with crowds in the summer of 2016.

The road to the largest amphitheatre ever built in this world of ours is in Rome, as you well know. Yes, the Colosseum, and that thoroughfare is flanked by historic columns and arches, basilicas and ruins of former government buildings that must have held sway over ancient Rome. We walked below the many stone pines with their umbrella tops, past tall poplars standing like spare soldiers, sauntered past temples to various goddesses, peered at worn doorways above which murals faded away as if they could not be bothered to defy the ravages of time.

Via del Teatro di Marcello
Via del Teatro di Marcello
Campidoglio
Cordonata, the flight of steps to Campidoglio, Capitoline Hill, one of the seven hills of ancient Rome. In the backdrop of the piazza designed by Michaelangelo is Palazzo Senatorio.
Statue of Castor at Cordonata
Stone pines on Via dei Fori Imperiali

Monument of Victor Emmanuel II
Elevator to Terrace of the Quadrighe, atop the Monument of Victor Emmanuel II.
Inside the Monument of Victor Emmanuel II

A survey of the Roman Fora and Colosseum
Quadriga (chariot) at Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II
Stone-pine hedged roads of Rome
Via del Teatro di Marcello
Rooftops of Rome

Teatro di Marcello. Theatre of Marcellus.
The oldest surviving theatre from the 11B.C. It is dedicated to Marcus Claudius Marcellus, a young lad, and most importantly, nephew of Emperor Augustus. The boy died five years before it was finished – at the age of 19.
The crowds have melted away from the Colosseum 

Roman Forum
Basilicas of Rome
Soap bubble magicians
Trevi Fountain

A vine-clad palazzo

Waiting for the owner to emerge from the coffeeshop on a frigid and dull day
Inside one of the many palazzi in Rome
The festive spirit of the city

The Rome Diaries

We are back in Rome. Soporific Rome with her unbearable beauty that squeezes my heart with barely contained pleasure, ancient temples and theaters lurking around every corner. It is 4.30 in the morning and I am wide awake because I am just so and Adi is patting me to go back to sleep but I feel like pouring my heart out for it is brimming. From arriving in a boutique hotel in the old quarters of the city where Pope Julius II had wanted his architect Donato Bramante, the Renaissance master, to design the Palazzo dei Tribunali, the city’s justice system. It was an incomplete mission. The stone seats of the unfinished courthouse remain as a quiet reminder of the gap between aspiration and attainment. Every master must have a few tucked into his kitty of achievements.

We walked around in the evening after an afternoon spent drinking Champagne with tuna and cream cheese canapes. The hotel surprised us, throwing in a couple of flaky pastries, their hearts filled with apple and cinnamon, some profiteroles and chocolates, because it was in lieu of the six years we have been married. Eight years made up of frustrating, quiet, joyous, unsettling and delirious moments. For life is such a wonderful concoction of the drama and the dull. One cannot exist without the other and really it would be tedious with only the highs to ride. There are nudges of mortality from time to time with close relatives shedding their mortal lives behind, reminding us that ‘time’s winged chariot’ is ‘hurrying near’, undeniable and as tangible as this plush hotel bed I find myself in.

The neighbourhood around us is networked by medieval alleys aged by the stories of the giubbonari (jacket-makers) who worked in one, the calderari (coppersmiths) in another narrow cobbled one, the baullari (trunk-makers), the cappellari (hat-makers) and so on. You get the drift. The many workers who served the wealthy who lived in the palazzi in the area. At the end of our street lived Raphael once. I doubt the streets have changed much, the faded pastel houses and shuttered windows silent witnesses to the life stories of generations unfolding within.

At an intimate osteria we stopped for a spot of dinner. Fine, rich Merlot fished off the high shelves of the establishment by its owner with a bottle grabber and presented with a flourish to go with the carciofi alla romana which is stewed artichoke beloved of the ancient Romans, grilled seafood, creamy pasta and succulent chicken cooked in sweet Port, his craggy face wreathed with smiles as we thanked him for giving us a table meant for four. He had turned away customers even though we were about to finish up and he said, “No hurry, okay? Food is to be enjoyed. You walked in, I liked you both and I wanted you to relax.” A small place filled up with his relatives, their large families divided between the old and young tables.

Simple flavours married together with a dexterous touch. Italian food in an osteria tucked into the quiet alleys of Rome with its unassuming charm and modest menu, a beaming owner keeping an eye on his diners, dropping by to chat in bits,…then pressing our noses to windows of antique shops, armed with giant cones of gelato and swinging by that great Baroque masterpiece of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi at Piazza Navona, fingers freezing and nose tingling with the sudden icy winds that swept through the empty square. A few locals walked through the cobbled square. The crowds of summer have melted away. Vine-clad walls of townhouses towered above us in the alleys, festooned by canopies of fairy lights, as we passed in the shadows of the chiesas and returned to our hotel room to fall into bed with jasmine tea and exhaustion.

Carciofi alla Romana (stewed artichokes as the old Romans liked it)
Grilled seafood
Cacio e pepe

At Piazza Navona
Piazza Navona
Bernini’s fontana

To Gibralfaro

Moorish Spain is enchanting. You who have wandered through the grand gardens of the Alhambra and the steep cobbled alleys of Albaicín in Granada, the Alcázar in Seville or even the Aljaferiá in Zaragoza, would know what I am banging on about. For one, the Moors knew how to pick on the best views of the city – for them though it was a matter of survival so they chose the locations of their fortresses for their defensive positions. But I would like to believe that the hedonists in them marvelled at the sight of what they had accomplished. Those great gardens of pleasure, water trickling off pretty fountains wrought in marble, intricate columns that look like they have been punched out of geometric patterns with precision and passion…for some reason they remind me of the ‘stately pleasure-dome’ decreed by Coleridge’s Kubla Khan. You know, those ‘gardens bright with sinuous rills,/ Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree’. But then you might argue, ‘You daft creature, Kubla was a Mongol and his palace was in Xanadu, in another continent altogether.’ I merely refer to the lushness of the description concocted by Coleridge in his opium-induced dreams.

One of the Moors’ famed castles sits atop the hills of Málaga, surrounded by dense forests of eucalyptus and pine. My mission one noon was to walk up to Castillo de Gibralfaro before I took the train for Madrid with my husband and his colleague that evening. Of all the many unwise decisions I have taken during my solo travels – I have to confess there are many – Gibralfaro possibly topped it.

There is a route through the Alcazaba that takes you to the castle. I could not figure it out and naturally I took the longer trail after I got out of the Alcazaba. The plus point was that I got to make a pitstop at Plaza de la Merced, a square that was home to Pablo Picasso for the first three years of his life. The 20th century artist was born in a house here and took his first baby steps in this part of the world, so I had to go gawk at it even though the guard rattled out ‘no puedes entrar’ blended with sign language to inform me that it was shut for the day.

I passed through avenues of trees with silver barks, swishing in the gentle breeze that alleviated the heat of the noon, past old churches and villas that put me in mind of lavish courtyards, pitchers of iced teas and slowly rotating fans in cool, dark rooms, and trudged up a steep ascent. Small villages studded with white villas cropped up across the winding roads, and after what seemed like eternity, I arrived at Gibralfaro. During the entire duration of which I was passed by a dozen taxis and a couple of buses full of tourists as I huffed and puffed uphill, bullied by an unrelenting sun.

The views from the castle are spectacular beneath the midday sun, the pale shimmering waters of the Mediterranean holding you in its spell like an enchantress, loathe to release you. I walked its solid ramparts which towered above the port city and thought of what the Phoenician lighthouse might have looked like. For a lighthouse stood there before the Caliph of Cordoba built the castle sometime during the 10th century on that very site. Its name – derived from Gebel-faro orrock of the lighthouse’ – attests to it.  But the time that I spent in the castle ended on a whimper. Midway through it I looked at the watch and remembered I had a train to catch in an hour and a half. That and the husband’s wide collection of scowls made me whiz through the castle at remarkable speed before I made my way back to the hotel at an equally frantic pace – it somehow happened that I could not catch a bus during my way to the castle or on the way back.

At the end of it all, the palm-fringed beach near the hotel and a bottle of beer helped soothe my high-strung chattering when I met a startled Adi and his colleague. But the relief was this that I did get on the train to Madrid.

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Plaza de la Merced
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Picasso’s childhood home

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Gibralfaro
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From the ramparts of the fortress

 

 

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The drink that relieved my overwrought senses
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Train to Madrid