It’s been a little stressful here in Italy. The Airbnb apartment I rented in Venice that cost a fortune was a dump and I nearly slept under a canal bridge because the landlady didn’t answer the phone when I arrived at night in the rain without my suitcase because Iberia lost my luggage. The place was so ugly I’d stay out late just to avoid being there. Venice itself is beautiful at every turn, every canal, every piazza—all of which were enchanting– but I was perpetually lost and discouraged therefrom, thinking senility must be setting in. But in fact everyone is lost all the time in Venice and have maps clutched tightly in their hands.. The maps don’t really match the streets and anyway each street has at least two different names; compound this confusion with the addition of a district name and a piazza name to every wall. The map to the Venice Biennale was the worst of all because it had no street names at all so finding an art venue involved standing in the wind with two maps open trying to locate an exhibition.
My next adventure was taking a road trip through the back roads of Umbria and Tuscany. The idea was to take a leisurely sojourn through beautiful landscapes filled with vineyards and olive groves, Etruscan and Roman ruins and Byzantine churches in mountain villages perched like fortresses on mountainsides. But the driving part turned out to be stress central.
Signage in Italy could be a text for comedia del arte or more accurately, from Dante’s Inferno. Unfortunately you have to rely on signs every mile or so because Italy believes in rotundas—roundabouts—each one full of signs– rather than stop signs, lights and intersections. So while you careen around a roundabout you have to read signs to determine where you’ll go next.
It’s crazy difficult trying to find a village name on a sign post that has 25 or more arrow signs that MAY have the town you’re looking for or may not but it WILL have all of the following on the sign posts as well: library, police station, post office, five or six local hotels, a couple of restaurants, seven or eight Agriturismos, the cyclodromo, Iglesias Maria somebody, Monumento Antigua, etc all in a random stack with arrows pointing straight left or right. And as you’re a rolling vehicle at these rotundas you are trying to find the town you’re headed to while still moving. I often missed the right turn because the village I was looking for wasn’t listed or the town sign I was following—Firenze for instance– all of a sudden vanished on the next rotunda sign. I got so lost so often that it took me 12 hours to manage a four hour trip on my first day out. I was in such a melt down by the time I got near Siena that I managed to roll my brand new Fiat 500 rent-a-car into an Alfa Romeo as I was trying to read a sign.
The next two days were better—no accidents, only six or seven wrong roads…then I got to Rome where the Forum’s Audioguide blissfully rambles on about structures that are not in front of you. Hadrian’s Villa, however, took the signage prize by being first of all four miles from the bus drop off and then down many roads without any signs at all—except one at an intersection where the arrow pointed BETWEEN two roads and then another pointed on a road marked “Do Not Enter” After another mile the entrance was obscured by a big sign for a pizza joint named Villa something and Villa Adriana signs were nowhere to be found. Once into the Villa there were heaps of stones and remnants of huge structures but no maps, no signs and a rare description that was usually illegible or irrelevant. So much for signage in Italy.
Even as I left Rome I was a crying mess because the train to the airport had so many misdirection signs that I was trapped in an underground moving walkway under my departure gate and only got to my train by a fluke of realizing I was on some strange underground passage going God knows where without anyone else down in the Inferno. I ran to catch the train and made it to the airport only to find that Alitalia had overbooked my flight and I didn’t have a seat. I was directed here and there until literally five minutes before departure time when I finally get a seat on my booked flight to Israel….getting the seat only because a family was a No Show. I was more than grateful and whoopee got a seat in Business class which was a total pleasure…Mimosas before take-off, linen napkins, a wonderful meal and the utmost ministrations of a beautiful Italian crew.
Following my joyful two weeks of harvesting tomatoes and planting cauliflower at Tamera in the hot dry hills of southern Portugal I set off for southern Spain to discover Islamic architecture first hand. I’d seen picures of course but nothing prepared me for the magic of the architecture and gardens of Al-Andaluz, the Musim kingdom of the southern portion of the Iberian Peninsula.
Seville, a tangle of narrow streets and terrific tapas bars has a grand combination of Muslim and Christian structures, the Christians having coopted every Muslim mosque but kept the basic Islamic style so church after church afrer cathedral has Islamic towers that Muezzim used to call men to prayer five times a day and these brick monuments rose eloquently all over Seville. I climbed a couple and marvelled at the difficulty. Seville also lays claim to Flamenco and seeng a performance live in a tiny venue is almost shocking as the singer’ s mournful notes tear your heart out, the guitar keeps the dancers moving and the dancers passionately slam their sadness into brutal stomping that makes you know life for the gypsies who first made this dance and music live suffered greatly
The prize Muslim building in Seville is the Alacazar, a walled garden and many structures that Sultans and their harems luxuriated in The gardens are orderly fragrant filled with flowers and symmetrically laid out hedges and are filled with fountains…the Muslims having been brilliant engineers who watered the same dry hilly land that Tamera struggles to water but the Muslim had it down in spades–reservoirs aqueducts, pumping systems They watered the desert and made it a paradise for Allah who name is inscribed in plaster bas relief in room after room of the exquisitely decorated Alcazar Islamic design cnsists of geometric and floral designs of endless variety carved in wood on doors and on ceilings, laid in blue green ochre and white tile patterns on walls and carved in intricate detail in white plaster The interplay of these three materials in symmetrically designed rooms is beyond description, so beautiful. The only thing that kept me wondering was how the rooms were furnished…I can certainly imagine the caliphs strolling past pools and orange trees, roses and rivulets in their manicured gardens but how actually did their daily lives look like? More research to be done here no doubt before next semester’s Ancient Architecture course takes place
Next on the grand tour of southern Spain was Cordoba, a much more intimate city than Seville, all its streets barely wide enough for pedestrians not to mention little Fiats careening into plazas and around corners one foot away from a table where you are having wine or brushing right into a pair of harem pants in a souk full of Moroccan scarfs Every turn or two of a narrow cobbled street seemed to open into an open space filled with tables and umbrellas and people eating tapas and drinking wine or at least taking a stiff copa of rich strong coffee. Here I visited an ancient synogue and marvelled at an ancient Roman bridge across a lovely marsh bordered river, Here in Cordoba was a lesser Alcazar with finer gardens and many big reflecting pools than those at Seville, and here I came unexpectedly in the middle of a downtown street full of posh shops, a many columned Roman temple–a total surprize–something that has happened to me often on this adventure because I persist in not really consulting guidebooks with care. I prefer to turn a corner and voila there’s magic…and this temple certainly qualified. Best in show in Cordoba, however is the Mezquita–a walled Islamic structure with an anti garden court full of fruiting orange trees and fountains but whose interior is absolutely breathtaking–Inside is the largest open interior space Ive ever been in It is a veritable somnewhat dim liighted forest of matble columns topped with filigree capitals and red and white brick horseshow arches Everywhere you look the building seems to go on forever, to literally have no end and it was here that thousands prayed daily five times a day And here too is where Christian conquerors put images of Jesus and Mary and the Saints in chapels all around the walls of the building although they almost disappear for all their elaborate gold embellishments in the face of the slender marble feast of Islamic columns that surround and subsume them
Astonishingly to me is that the Christians chose to construct an enture white marble cathedral right in the center of the vast Mezquita mosque. It is a beautiful cathedral with mosaic flooring, an elaborate choir with two organs and a beautiful altar under a brilliant Romanesque dome full of light…and yet the low steady forest of Islamic columns is more vast, more compelling in the end for all the glory of the Christian Cathedral at its heart
And all of this prepared me for the grandest Islamic monument of all–the Alhambra in Granada…But before I share the experience of this treasure… let me lead you a bit around Granada itself.
Granada is splendid–in the mountains and often with snow capped peaks in the background. Every destination is up or down steep streets or often stairs and the streets often are paved in black and white stones in geometric designs–very lovely I visited the gypsy hillside where people started to live in caves ages ago and where the Flamenco began–now there are still caves but they have nice front walls and interior accoutrements–Sacromonte is the area and it looks over at the many buildings of the Alhambra
The other wonderful district of Granada is the Albaicin–which used to be mainly Muslim and Moroccan and which still has streets that look like Marakkesh souks. I stayed here is the Oasis Backpackers Hostel which is lovely–a terrace looking at the town, a central patio foyer with cascading philodendron and beautiful tiled floors and walls–It was probably someone°s mansion once. Here too I visited an amazing Hamman–a traditonal Moorish bath but far more luxurious that the people°s bath in the Medina at Fez—Here were hot, tepid and cold pools, tea, a steam room, relaxing areas and all tiled in traditional Islamic patterns–after an hour and a half of lazing from pool to pool to pool I had a Moroccan massage rough rubbing alternated with buckets of hot water splashed all over me and best of all some knd of magical soap foam that made me feel like a splendid dessert for the gods..
Of course Granada°s treasure is the Alhambra—way up a mountainside through a lovely forest that wasnt there at the time of the Caliphs
The Alhambra has many sections–the ancient fortess at the prow of the mountain and a pleasure palace –the Generalife Palace–with splendid gardens up another flank of the mountain. But the Nazrid Palaces are the most amazing structures. Room after room after patio after passageway after room is decorated with elaborate geometric designs–all different but rhythmical all in three media–carved wood, brilliant relief carved white plaster high on all walls and blue ochre white and green tile work on the lower walls I°d seen pictures but the experience of the art here is breathtaking and is often complemented by reflecting pools and fountains while outside there are beautiful gardens as in Cordoba and Seville.
Before I left Spain I decided on a decadent side trip to Ibiza where I had dreams of all night techno dance clubs and hours of dancing….well all this stops in September and I even missed the so-called Closing Parties at all the big venues…But I had a room overlooking the Mediterranean that was huge and splendid and I was delightfully surprized to find Ibiza has some amazing ancient architecture–old tombs from the pre-Christian and pre-Roman eras and a mighty fortress with Roman, Muslim and Christian structures So I°d come to play and wound up doing a little research even here in paradise. Plus I met a quirky dance music deejay producer–50, cooler than Tiesto and looking like David Guetta so wherever we went people treated him like a star–who shepherded me around the town in the evenings and with whom I finally danced to some house music and went to the last of the last Closing Party where we watched the sunset as the deejay played my favorite aria from Aida–Nessun d°essa It brought tears — the music, the sunset, the island all so very beautiful I even managed a beach day–a bit chilly and foggy but the water was clear and warm
So southern Spain–a feast