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Bergamo: Italian Addendum

September 19, 2015 Leave a comment
Not that I had a choice, mind you. The stairs were out.

I’d say the climb was worth it, but I used the lift.

The vagaries of modern-day cut-price flying being what they are, you will, on occasion, find yourself with hours to waste on a layover in some spot halfway between a distant departure point and home. That being the case, there are probably worse places to spend said hours in than Italy, and more specifically Bergamo. Having been dropped off by WizzAir (comfy and punctual) and having 13 hours before hopping onboard Ryanair (cramped and delayed), I was pretty happy to be no more than a short bus ride away from the medieval Citta Alta, with its massive walls and narrow streets.

Not that the Citta Alta is the highest place in the vicinity. It occupies a high point south of the Alps, overlooking the plains of Lombardy, but San Vigilo Castle stands guard from an ever higher point just to the west. There’s not much there to be seen now, but the views are quite spectacular, even on a misty day. If you’re not inclined to explore and climb your way to the top, there’s a funicular railway that’ll take you to the heights, but you’ll miss out on cobbled streets and horse chestnuts that pop and drop around you as you pass beneath. (That last one might be time-of-year dependent.)

I still don't know what the testicle heraldry is about. Also, three?

Chapel Colleoni in the foreground, basilica in the back. Inside there’s less to choose between them.

As pleasant as it is to sit in San Vigilo and enjoy the view, the Citta Alta is the main draw, and it’s worth your time to descend. Possessed by the Venetians for more than 350 years, Bergamo was their western outpost against the rival great Northern Italian power and was massively fortified as a result. The Venetian walls still surround the Citta Alta, and the winged lions of St Mark, symbol of the Venetian Republic, still stand guard over the fortified gates. Yet Bergamo itself is far older than the Venetian occupation and there are buildings in the Citta Alta that are closer to 1,000 years old than 500.

Perhaps the most impressive is the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. Dating to 1137 but built on the site of a 7th-century religious edifice, it’s not so imposing on the outside as the Cappella Colleoni, the massive tomb of the condottiere Bartolomeo Colleoni annexed to it, but the interior is spectacular, with tapestries and frescoes adorning that walls and further frescoes and other adornments stretching all the way to the roof. Not that the Cappella Colleoni should be missed either – it’s a masterwork in its own right, and Colleoni’s heraldic symbol of three testicles on the gates have been rubbed to a shine by tourists and locals seeking some of his luck.

A brief visit, a fond farewell.

One of the Venetian “lion gates”, with an elevated walkway approaching it.

The museums are nothing to sneeze at either – I didn’t make it to the art galleries lying outside the eastern gate, but the Piazza della Citadella contains both the Archaeological Museum and the Museum of Natural Science. The former has some fine relics of the millennia of habitation in the area, from the palaeolithic through the Celts and Romans to more recent times. The latter sprawls all around the piazza and has an impressive section on other cultures. Closer to the Basilica, the Torre campanaria di città alta or old bell tower is worth climbing, and its attached museum has a fine interactive section on the medieval history of Bergamo itself. Don’t expect much in the way of non-Italian language help though.

Beyond all of the attractions though, the beauty of Bergamo lies in the ability to wander the narrow streets of the Citta Alta freely, medieval buildings towering to either side and cobbles packed tight under your feet. Enjoy a gelato, or perhaps a beer or wine, and find a place to sit and soak in the atmosphere. And then, when the hours have spun past at last, descend though one of the Venetian gates into the Citta bassa and make your way to the airport. The final flight on that cut-price carrier may depress your spirits, but it won’t erase those hours stolen in the Lombard sunshine.

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Chisinau: A Sort of Homecoming

September 17, 2015 Leave a comment

 

Though I wouldn't ask him for the loan of a fiver.

A friendly face to welcome you to the National Museum.

 
Familiarities abound in Moldova. A small, agriculturally blessed nation, dominated by larger neighbours and currently wracked by a banking crisis that has revealed cronyism and corruption in the highest levels of business and government? It’s like I’ve returned to Ireland three days early. Add to that my overnight arrival in a former Trans-Siberian carriage, and there were multiple layers of déjà-vu to be had.

To be sure, Moldova’s situation is a lot more perilous than Ireland’s. If there was a boom here before the current crisis, it didn’t reach very far beyond the capital, and not even that far within it. And given the choice between Romania and Russia or the U.K. and the EU as dominant neighbours, I know which ones I’d opt for. (Though maybe swapping Romania for the U.K. wouldn’t be too bad. Can we arrange that?)

 

Though calling it a restaurant is a bit of a stretch.

The decor outside my hotel’s restaurant.

 
Chisinau, the capital, was more or less levelled in World War II, so Soviet Grim is the main flavour of architecture on offer, enlivened here and there by the neon, glass and advertising hoardings of late-arriving capitalism. Day to day life continues in the face of an economic straitjacket, but streetside second-hand clothing markets and museums that turn the lights on when you enter a room and off when you leave are evidence of a national frugality that’s as much a necessity as it is innate.

Outside Chisinau, there are rolling hills of grain and grapes – this is another land between two rivers, the Prut and the Dniester, and it’s just as fertile as the first Mesopotamia. That very richness, along with its position to the north of the Black Sea, has meant that armies have rolled back and forth across it since time immemorial: from the Scythians, Sarmatians, and Dacians all the way to the Ottomans, Nazis, and Russians. The Romans never made it so far, but their trade goods did, as museum finds show.

 

Also more sun than was really good for me.

The valley of Orheiul Vechi – a long walk either above or below.

 
The Russians are still here, in fact. Physically in the breakaway Transdniestr region, but in spirit elsewhere. Decades of Soviet rule is a hard thing to throw off, and while Moldova mostly looks to the west and Romania these days, Russia can be seen everywhere you look. In my hotel as much as anywhere – a former Soviet edifice, it had enjoyed a facelift in places, but the phones, lifts and food were recognisable from my time on the Trans-Siberian. I’ve already mentioned the Trans-Siberian retiree rail carriage that brought me into the country, on which the bedding for the overnight berths may well have survived the fall of the Berlin Wall, but there was yet more: the Military History Museum was more of a Soviet Military Surplus Museum, with a garden full of artillery and armoured transports.

I was here too briefly to get a good feel for the country, but I did manage to visit Orheiul Vechi, a bowl-shaped valley enclosing a winding river, where monks long ago carved out dwelling places for themselves from the limestone cliffs. The caves are spectacular, once the wedding parties that sometimes use them clear out, but the view from the rim of the valley is even more so. From here you can see many of the things that signify Moldova: agricultural riches, the remnants of ancient and overrun fortifications, quiet villages with working wells, and a monastery on a hilltop. Visiting there meant that I missed the Milesti Minci wine cellars (housed in miles of limestone caverns), but it proved a perfect counterpoint to Chisinau.

Unusually, I’m writing this while I’m still in the country, on a bus heading for the airport. A long flight awaits, with a half-day layover in Bergamo, Italy (from where I post this). So ahead of that, thank you to those who’ve been following this travelogue, and I’ll be back with a summary article some time soon.

Doing the Rounds in Reykjavik

July 21, 2013 Leave a comment

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It’s not all like this, but quite a bit is.

Reykjavik’s architecture is varied. The dominant material is corrugated iron, often painted a wild array of colours to distract from its utilitarian nature, but there are areas of the city where efforts have clearly been made to ignore the local climatic realities and try to be a bit more adventurous. Hallgrímskirkja, for example, is a massive concrete church, and the concert hall is a honeycombed glass confection on the waterfront.

One other thing to notice about Iceland in general is the water: hot water is easy to get on a volcanic island, but one thing that Iceland has in abundance is sulphur, so that hot water comes with a definite smell of rotten eggs. It doesn’t linger, but it’s hard to miss.

On this Saturday, Reykjavik was slower to wake than I was, possibly because I’d been earlier to bed than most of it. In an effort to save money, I was out gathering breakfast essentials, grateful that despite the grey clouds it wasn’t raining. When we were finally fed, we headed out the door, aiming to climb the steeple of Hallgrímskirkja and get the best view in the city. Unfortunately, we timed our arrival to coincide with a morning concert, so the church was put on the backburner.

Instead, we headed down the hill and across the Tjornin pond to the National Museum, where the next two hours were spent examining the history of Iceland. As Dr. P remarked at an end, the problem with Icelandic history is that the Scandinavians are so reasonable. Once the era of settlement and sagas was over, Icelandic history is mostly bereft of major conflicts, progressing to independence without a huge amount of fuss. (Icelandic readers may not agree, but that’s the impression given.) Still, the museum is well laid out and worth a visit.

From the museum, we followed Suðurgata past the Hòlavallagarður cemetery, which is beautifully overgrown, with trees planted not just beside but in many graves. At the end of this walk, we came to the 871±2 museum, where an entire longhouse is preserved (the name refers to the estimated date in which the house itself was built). Even more so than the National Museum, it’s a fascinating recreation of the earliest days of settlement on the island, though seeing the multimedia recreation of the longhouse blue-screen out on when Dr. P tried to use it raised a smile.

871±2 was just around the corner from the harbour, so once again we took a stroll by the water’s edge, dropping in on the flea market there and checking out the Sun Voyager sculpture (a symbolic viking longship) as we did. Then it was back up the hill to the Hallgrímskirkja, where once again we found our entry plans blocked, this time by a shiny vintage Buick the car of choice for the couple getting married within. Luckily, we had to wait no longer than fifteen minutes to effect an entry.

The view from the steeple of the church is easily the best in the city, and on a clear day you can see for miles. Sadly, the day was grey at best, and fuzzy around the edges. Still, it had been worth the wait to get up there, and on getting back to the bottom in the cramped lift, we found a massive queue, suggesting that our timing hadn’t been as bad as all that.

Iceland’s not a cheap place though, so instead of eating out, we did some shopping. Back in the apartment, we divided up the chores in the kind of equitable fashion that has marked our various travels together: Dr. P did the cooking and I did the cleaning. Afterwards, he got to snooze some more while I once again caught up on this writing and the escapades of the rest of the world. Outside, the rain came down heavy for the first time since we’d arrived, but luckily it was just a brief downpour.

There was one last task for the evening. The Kex Hostel was holding a 12-hour concert of indie performers, from noon to midnight. We’d already heard some of it as we strolled around the city. Now we were going to catch the end of it. After a short stroll down Baronstigur, we could follow the sound of music to the yard behind the hostel, where a crowd was gathered, bouncing along to a white-dreadlocked chanteuse belting out indie pop as though her life depended on it.

For the next couple of hours we enjoyed the scene. The crowd seemed to consist of Iceland’s entire population of hipsters, but perhaps they were enjoying themselves too much to qualify for ironic detachment. The highlight was the last act, a Hawaiian-shirted funk band with a full brass section, a bongo player in a fez and a wooly-hatted bandleader. The best way to describe how they sounded is to direct you to the climactic sequence of this video. Seriously funky stuff, and we barely noticed the return of the rain.

Still, at midnight it all had to wrap up, possibly to the relief of nearby residents. We grabbed a consolation pint in Dillon, but an early start kept us from straying too long. Time for exploration, in the manner of the Viking settlers of old…

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