Monday, 31 January 2011

Wien Meidling Bahnhof to Roma Termini

We boarded our train this Sunday evening at 19:29 for our night ride to Rome. Meidling is being used at this time apparently because the Sud-Bahnhof Wein is under re-construction, not surprised it was fairly old, 1950 vintage full of big staircases, no escalators and no elevators, try managing that with luggage. Meidling is modern, well organized and is also connected to regional train lines and the S-Bahn (subway). This being Sunday night, Vienna is fairly quiet, so we bought our dinner to go at NordSee which deals exclusively in seafood and fish, very fresh and so good. We got 2 tuna wraps and 6 giant shrimps with cocktail sauce, and then we got some nougat and nuts at a shop next door. Vienna has little to offer on a Sunday night so you have to plan ahead. The overnight train to Rome does not have a restaurant car but the Steward can bring you, wine and schnapps, beer, coffee, tea, juice and water. They will also serve continental breakfast in the morning.

Our suite on board the train is very comfortable and private, we have a small sit-bedroom, full bath with shower, towels etc. Lots of young Austrian soldiers on board tonight, they are probably going to Klagenfurt or Villach in southern Austria, very polite in their uniform. We will cross the border into Italy at Villach, which is a very small village with the sad distinction that it received more bombs in the final days of the Second World War than Berlin, incredible but true. The reason being that much of the German army retreating from Italy made a desperate last stands there to no avail. Then we enter Italy at Tarvisio Boscoverde, unto Venezia, Ferrara, Bologna, Firenze, Orvieto and finally Rome.

We had a great vacation in Austria like always but we are looking forward to coming home to our puppies Nicholas and Eleonora who will be two years old in February.

Vienna, Wein, Sunday

It is January and still cold in Vienna, -6C today, it was -10C last night, normal temperatures for this time of year. We went to the Opera and then later had a late dinner at the Café of the Opera which is open until midnight. Walked quickly to out hotel because of the cold down Kartner Strasse. Today, we visited the Albertina which is located by the Hofburg palace, there is currently an exhibit on native South-African William Kentridge, displaying sketches, animated film projections on various topic, like colonialism, the cultural history of post-revolutionary Russia, Apartheid. I liked the short film on The Nose from Gogol's writing.  See
From the Albertina view of the Hofburg (new palace wing)

Afterwards we visited a special exhibit at the old Imperial Library built by Emperor Charles VI now known as the Austrian National Library on the 100 anniversary of the Opera Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss, it was first premiered in Dresden in January 1911. The history of this opera which became an instant hit in Europe, beautifully presented in the great hall of the library.
Austrian National Library, Augustus hall, it is part of the Hofburg complex.

There are 200,000 books on the shelves and many more in the archives, all of which is being digitalized, many books are centuries old and very fragile. We saw a map on display from the 5th century of the Imperial Roman Postal system, showing the routes taken to deliver mail throughout the Empire. This is what I like about Vienna, there is always an exhibit, something going on that you have never seen.
Dome ceiling the apotheosis of Emperor Charles VI
The book shelves hide secret doors where more books can be viewed.
Door to the Office of the Director General of the Austrian National Library.

We are now relaxing at our hotel, tonight we take the over night train to Rome arriving at Termini tomorrow morning at 09:15am. Apparently the temperature in Rome is +15C. 

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Salzburg to Vienna

This morning we packed our bags and said our goodbyes to the Hotel Bristol Salzburg. I cannot say enough wonderful things about this hotel. Thank you to the staff, Mr. Muigg, the concierge, Peter, the Maitre d’hôtel, Ben the barman at Sketch, the staff of the Breakfast room, Marie-Anna at the reception and the owners and Manager. Who knows if we will be able to return to Salzburg in the future, given that my post in Rome is drawing to a close and I do not know what the future brings in July. However all our stays at Hotel Bristol were wunderbar, so danke to all.

The concert last night at the Mozarteum with Philippe Jaroussky had a surprise in that he did his 3 arias and then left, leaving the stage to les Musiciens du Louvre, who because Marc Minkowski was ill, was led by Thibault Noally first violin, they played Schubert symphony no.5, then at the end, Jaroussky came back to do an encore.
Though Jaroussky has a wonderful voice, what lacks is the acting part, it is not enough to have a perfect voice, one has to be able also to feel the emotions, last night it felt a bit flat. Could be the Jarrousky was not well he looked very red in the face, which is not normal.

Our best concert recital for me was with Thomas Quasthoff. 
Second best, the Hagen Quartet who played a piece by Schostakovitch, his string quartet no.8 composed in 1960 while visiting Dresden still in ruins from the Second World War. Third best for me was the Alban Berg piece written in memory of the young Manon Gropius who had died tragically.

During the Mozart Woche, you can go to 4 concerts a day, at 11am, 15:00, 19:30 and 22:00, all different with different artists and orchestra or ensemble, playing not only Mozart pieces but also Haydn, Schubert, Beethoven, Schostakovitch, J.S.Bach, Richard Strauss, Hugo Wolf, Alban Berg, Handel, Brahms and Holliger. So quite a variety but in a way all tied together in some fashion.

If you enjoy the study of music and its composition and how a composer came to write such music then this festival gives you a better understanding of musical compositions.

Another piece I really liked because it was so different of all other compositions by Mozart was his string quartet K.428 a later piece, apparently Mozart had a difficult time in writing this piece.

Speaking of Mozart, since the 28 January is the day after his birthday, we decided to do something we had never done, that is to visit his birthplace in the old town. The building is located on Getreide Gasse, it’s a 4-story apartment block. The family lived there for 20 years. It was an apartment building for well to do families. The family of Leopold Mozart lived in 4 rooms, with large windows and a storage room. They had a large kitchen and running water, a luxury fixture for the time. The ceilings were low which leads me to believe that they could not have been tall people, unlike today. The living room was used for meals, entertaining guests and family, you simply rearranged the furniture, which like most houses at the time was a simple affair.  There was another large room; the birth room, all births and all the activities surrounding it took place in that room. A sad fact of the time was that one out of every second child died within the first 3 years of life. Mozart’s parents lost several children at birth or a few months after birth, only Wolfgang and his sister Nannerl survived into adulthood. 

The Mozart birthplace is a well done museum; it presents factual information about the composer, his life and  family, it also debunks many myths about Mozart’s life. His parents were well educated, his father was highly intelligent, well educated and had a very good position, financially providing a well to do life for his family. Mozart’s parents had a happy marriage and a good life.
His mother was kind hearted and she often played referee between her husband and the musical genius son.
Both of them had a difficult relationship probably because they had their own ideas about things.

Mozart spent a third of his life traveling to various cities and he enjoyed it. He performed, as was the custom then for many Princes and Bishops, they had the money to pay for performances whereas the public did not. Neither he nor his sister Nannerl where displayed by his father as trained musical monkeys. Mozart left Salzburg because the Prince Bishop and the Church stifled the city’s artistic life with religious overtones, not to forget that Salzburg then was a city of 16,000 people. Times were changing and Mozart like all young person wanted to live in a big city like Vienna, were contract’s and commissions were more readily available and were he could establish himself as a musician and composer. 

Emperor Joseph II was a modern reformist ruler, he enjoyed music and someone like Mozart could and did well at Court. Mozart contrary to modern belief was wealthy, he had debts but in the last years of his life he did quite well for himself and did not die in poverty hounded by creditors.

Mozart was quite ambitious and he did suffer some disappointments in not always getting what he wanted but on the other hand he was very famous and appreciated by many at Court in Vienna and in Europe.
 Church of St-Peter where Nannerl Mozart and Michael Haydn are buried in Salzburg.

His burial was as was the custom then in a common plot, most middle class people where buried exactly in the same manner, no cross and no tombstone. It was sufficient for the Christian soul to receive the last rites and prayers and the body buried in consecrated ground.
Not to forget that only the aristocracy and the senior clergy, bishops and cardinals received a different treatment, with elaborate mausoleums and monuments built to honour them in death. Mozart though famous did not belong to that class of people and was not as a commoner entitled to such an honour.

It was not a pauper’s funeral, as some in Hollywood would have you believe. His wife Constanza remarried many years later to an aristocrat lived in Copenhagen for a time and then returned to Salzburg where her second husband died. Mozart’s two sons Carl and Franz were like their father adept musically and had good careers, one in Lvov and the other in Milan. They were known as Mozart’s sons and enjoyed the fame during their life time.

All the pathos we have today about Mozart started to appear in the mid-19th century with the romantic age and this is where all the myths and legends came from, of course the movie Amadeus does not help in this respect but it can be viewed like most movies as nothing more than a work of fiction and fantasy. I am glad we did this visit simply to get the real facts about his life and family.
 St-Michael Platz, entrance to the Hofburg Imperial Palace, Vienna.

Our train is now approaching Vienna West Bahnhof; we are staying at another great Hotel, Kaiserin Elisabeth on Weihburg gasse 3 by the Cathedral and the Hofburg, very central, quiet rooms and good service. Tonight we go to the Wiener StaatsOper, a first for me to hear Cosi Fan Tutte. We have only been to the Volksoper in Vienna before.
Vienna is very cold today at -10 C. I did not know it could get that cold in winter.


Thursday, 27 January 2011

Morning concert & a Walk in Salzburg

This morning we had another morning concert at 11 am at the Mozarteum, this time we heard Thomas Quasthoff, bass-baritone and the Freiburger Barockorchester with Gottfried Von der Goltz. The program was a mix of Haydn, Mozart, Franz Ignaz Beck and Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf. The Mozarteum is alongside the gardens of the Mirabell Palace, just 2 minutes on foot from our Hotel.
Mozarteum concert hall stage.

Thomas Quasthoff is 51 years old and he was a thalidomide baby, this terrible handicap does not prevent him from having the most wonderful clear, strong voice, beautiful diction and an enormous feeling for the music he sings. His eyes shine as he sings, you can see that he has a deep understanding of the emotions in the text and he knows how to transmit this message to the listening public. I had never heard him before today but I was impressed immediately with his voice and presentation. He is one singer who does not leave you indifferent. He also sings Jazz and modern, he has a good repertoire all around.
What a wonderful gift to have such a voice.
Monsieur looking at the program this morning before the concert in the Mozarteum.

Last night we went to the Grosses FestspielHaus, which was built in the 1960's for Herbert Von Karajan. The conductor was announced at the last moment, replacing a ailing Nikolaus Harnoncourt as
Herbert Blomstedt, a Swedish American maestro who started his career in 1954, so not a young man but a very gifted conductor in the grand manner.  The violinist also stepping in at the last moment was Christian Tetzlaff, he played from memory Alban Berg's Violin concerto To the Memory of an Angel, composed by Berg in memory of Manon Gropius, who died tragically at 18, she was the daughter of architect Walter Gropius. A very difficult modern piece, I was impressed with the talent of Tetzlaff, a young man who simply played beautifully and with such expression and depth of feeling.

To continue our journey today, Thursday, after the concert we went walking around this side of the river, where our hotel is located, first stop Schubert for men, on Dreifaltigkeit gasse 8, bought more clothes, see Then we went to a little café-tea shop, for a bite of lunch on Linzer Gasse. The waiter spoke German, English and Italian, very nice service. We continued on and visited the cemetery of St-Sebastian Church where most of the Mozart family is buried, including Constanza and her second husband Nissen, you can also see the tomb of the Christian Doppler family, (physicist) and Bishop Wolf Dietrich.  Amongst some of the famous people who lived in this small town at one point, not to forget that until 1950 Salzburg only had a population of about 50,000 people, today the population is 140,000, most of this growth happened in the last 25 years.  By the way today is Wolfgang A. birthday so I suppose it was fitting that we went to see his family's graves.
The Mozart family second home on Makart square across from our hotel. They lived in one apartment on the second floor, Leopold Mozart died in that house and his son Wolfgang A. lived there until he moved to Vienna. On the other side of the river just 3 minutes away by foot is the birth house where Wolfgang A. was born and the house where his sister Nannerl lived on University Platz.

We then walked back and across the Staats bridge to the University Church or College Church, which has been undergoing a lot of renovations since 2005.  The roof and the delicate plaster work inside around the main Altar had to be saved from collapsed after years of neglect. As donations continue, the renovation program will continue, much remains to be done. This is one of the most beautiful Churches of the baroque age in Europe.
The steeple of St-Sebastian Church on Linzer gasse.
The beautiful walled cemetery of St-Sebastian Church where most of the Mozart family are buried. Wolfgang A. died in Vienna and his buried there in an unmarked grave.

We then went to Demmel for a pastry and tea, Demmel of Vienna use to be supplier of cakes and pastries to the Royal and Imperial Court (K+K), the family sold the business in 1972 and it is now in the hands of a large restaurateur in Austria, its still nice. Finally we returned to the hotel, Salzburg has quiet streets, they are old narrow streets with no car traffic, only pedestrian. So it is perfect for walking and looking around.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Mozart Woche, Salzburg

We are this week at the Mozart Week Festival in Salzburg. This morning we attended at the Mozarteum concert hall on Schwarz Strasse. the performance of this Masque, an opera in concert form, Acis and Galatea by Handel and reworked by Mozart some 30 years after the death of Handel in March 1789. The idea was to update the work to suit the taste of the time.
26 January 2011 at the Bristol.
Mozarteum, Les Musiciens du Louvre & the Salzburger Bachchor

The players this morning were Les Musiciens du Louvre with Maestro Marc Minkowski and the Salzburger Bachchor, Toby Spence sang the role of Acis, Julia Kleiter sang the role of Galatea and Markus Brutscher was Damon and Mika Kares was Polyphem. All good voices, I really liked the strong voice and good acting of Mika Kares. Toby Spence had a strong clear voice and good diction as this piece was sung in the German version. Truly beautiful music done very well by all.

This evening we are going to hear the Vienna Philarmonic orchestra at the Gross Festspielhaus however there has been a change to the program as maestro Nicolaus Harnoncourt is ill and will not conduct, we do not know who has taken his place for this evening and Gidon Kremer who was to appear also decided to pull out because Hanoncourt will not be there. Obviously Mr. Kremer is more interested in his image than in the public who came to see him play. Obviously another silly prima donna who does not know who butter's his bread. The programme is Alban Berg and Mozart.
The Capucins Monastery and the Salzach river.

Swans on the Salzach river.

We had lunch at Café Bazar, always good, we also met many of the orchestra musicians who had come for a bite to eat.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Empress Marie-Thérèse Life Style

When I visited the Innsbruck Hofburg yesterday I never imagined living the Roccoco lifestyle of Empress Marie-Thérèse of Austria. We arrived in Salzburg today with fresh snow on the ground. The city is quite lovely in winter. We went directly to our hotel The Bristol Salzburg, see
we asked that they give us a different room this time, in the past we always stayed in the Tuscany Suite on the first floor. This time they gave us the Makart Suite on the third floor, I was not quite prepared for what we saw when we entered the room accompanied as is the tradition of this hotel by the Front Office Manager followed by the bellhop with the luggage. We will probably see the owner later on during our stay because, he always makes a point of speaking with guests. The welcome was quite warm since we are known and returning guests to this hotel. We even met our new bartender who at the Sketch Bar has replaced the irreplaceable Gunther. The new fellow's name is Ben, like the Pope.

The Bristol is a very special hotel and old fashion in all it does, this is what makes the absolute charm of this hotel and really puts it into a niche all its own. Nothing is ordinary here and our room exceeds all our expectation including the spectacular view.
Bathroom, window side

Bathroom shower side

A picture taken in May of the Bristol Hotel with the old Austrian Imperial flag.

The room itself is quite large 10 meters by 12 meters.

The bathroom alone is 6 meters long by 4 meters wide. I have never seen such a large bathroom done in Roccoco style, marble floors, larged marbled mirrors, crystal chandelier, enormous bathtub, a separate shower stall the size of an elevator, etc... not to mention the special soaps, the room itself is also magnificient.

You have a look for yourself, I am enchanted by this room, I could live here forever.
After undoing our luggage, we went downstairs to the Sketch bar to meet our new barman for our stay and had champagne to calm ourselves.
The view form our room, with the old city and the Archbishop's palace up on the hill.

Innsbruck to Salzburg with OBB train EC 165

Today the skies cleared in Innsbruck and the mountains all appeared, the Hungerburg is way up there and can be reached by cable car, from the city it looks tiny and I wonder how cold it must be up way up there, but the view also of the surrounding countryside must be spectacular. On the platform of the Train Station we can see the Alpine ski jump used for international competitions. On our journey I note that the pine trees on the mountain slopes look like green penguins, all huddled together with a dusting of snow. Little churches, small Alpine villages, old castles dot the countryside, it certainly has a pristine quality.

To get to Salzburg from Innsbruck we will have to pass through Germany at some point en route and then re-enter Austria to arrive at Salzburg.

Though Will had said no more buying of Tyrolean clothes, he did manage to buy himself this morning a shirt, a tie and a very nice yak and lambs wool sweater with an Elk stitched on the front. There are many stores where you can buy Tyrolean fashion, one good place is the Tiroler Heimat Werk, see
They also have all manner of things for the house in terms of Tyrolean articles, all good quality.

The sunshine is really pleasant and makes for an interesting contrast between the deep green of the pine trees and the snow peaks. We will arrive at 16:00, tonight there is nothing on the program. So we will probably have dinner in town. We just past Kufstein with its big fortress castle just above the train station. This is not an urban landscape it’s rural, snowy fields, mountains, trees and a few houses. Suddenly a ring on the cel phone to announce that we have just crossed the border into Germany, next Bavarian blue and white checkered flags.

A side note, I discovered when I was learning Italian that Munich in Italian is called Monaco di Bavaria or Monaco, that can be confusing because I would think of Monaco the Principality not Munich Bavaria. On our way to Innsbruck the train’s  final destination was Munich and it was announced as Monaco di Bavaria in Italian.

On our trip today we past many lakes and rivers, mountain torrents, none are frozen despite the snow all around us. It has not been cold enough consistently for anything to freeze.

In Salzburg we are staying at the family owned Bristol Hotel, which is one of three landmark hotels in that city.
It was established in 1900 and has been owned by only two families since. It was the favourite hotel of Sigmund Freud amongst many famous guests. We are waiting to see who has replaced Gunther our favourite Barman at the Sketch Bar of the Bristol. He told us he was leaving when we were there in May. He was going to Butler school in Amsterdam. He really was the perfect old style barman, knew every cocktail, knew how to mix them, would listen to the clients, put them at ease. Nothing was ever too difficult, always ready to accommodate. I know that the family was aware of how valuable he was to them, as he attracted returning customers. Will have to see who replaced him.
Across the street is the other hotel the Sacher, owned by the same family who owns the famous Sacher Hotel in Vienna, it use to be called the Österreicher Hof Hotel, both hotels are just a few meters away from the river and central to the concert halls and other activities.

During our final leg of this train trip in Germany, we go through forests surrounded by mountains and then as we re-enter Austria a more semi-urban landscape. The Austrian Railway OBB has in recent years rebuilt and modernized all train stations, making them a hub for train and bus travel. Salzburg Station has been going through a massive rebuilding program and it was still not quite finished when we were there last in May 2010.
A shopping mall and an hotel are often part of the Train Station geared towards the traveling public but also citizens of the city, a hub in other words. I often wish the Government in Canada would adopt this approach.   

Monday, 24 January 2011

Innsbruck, Tyrol Province, Austria

The weather is cloudy and snow flakes fall slowly from heaven like in a dream scene. Today we walked around the city, its a small town surrounded by the Alps, a beautiful mountain stream crosses the city, it is known for Olympic Skiing events, it has always been a important cross road in the Alps because the passes stay open all year long and are not blocked by snow. The Hapsburg dynasty purchased the Tyrol by fraud under Prince Rudolf 900 years ago, from that point on they continued to build and ruled for centuries of the great empires of Europe. They are still around and so are many of the institutions they created.

We visited the Tiroler VolksKunst Museum (Tirol Folk Museum) today, the Hofkirche and the Innsbruck Hofburg (church and Imperial Palace), all the exhibits are very well done and very interesting. Beautiful collections of Folk art and life, complete rooms or parlors with the famous porcelain stoves have been rebuilt inside the museum, they are all made of Ash, Oak and Pine wood, decorated with intricate carvings, the smell of wood still present, the rooms are 500 years old and give you a good idea of how life was then.

The Palace had one spectacular exhibition on Mountaineering in the Alps and the whole obsessions people have here with the mountains. There is also a special exhibit on water colours of the mountains and how artists used different hues to give the most authentic look at mountain scenes.

Look down any street and what do you see at the end of it, the Alps and eternal snow, majestic and domineering. This city is so peaceful and the people are very nice, we made some positive comments on the quality of the exhibits in the museums and the curators blushed and look all embarrassed. The city is very clean and tidy, people greet each other, its so civilized, it just puts you in a good mood. The Palace is devoted to the only women who ever ruled the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Maria-Theresa, a force of nature, she had 16 kids, she had vision and was both a ruler and a mother, insisting her children should learn a trade, just in case. She became a widow at 48 years of age and continued to rule with an iron grip.

 HofKirche, with the mausoleum of Emperor Maximilian, (1459-1519) he put Innsbruck on the map. He is to this day much admired in the Tirol. The tomb was recently restored and is quite beautiful. He is surrounded by bronze statues larger than life of his ancestors.

Courtyard of the VolksKunst Museum with a dusting of snow. It was previously an Episcopal palace.

Architecture of the 15th century in Innsbruck. Massive stone buildings.
In the green facade building Leopold Mozart and his son Wolfgang A. gave a concert.

One of the hundreds of artifacts on exhibit in the VolksKunst Museum, a crèche with a Tirolean theme.

There are also lots of excellent restaurants, most menus are in German only, but not too worry everyone speaks English and the waiters are happy to translate for you.

Fernando Martin de Bulhöes AKA St-Anthony of Padua

On Saturday afternoon I went to visit the Basilica of the Saint as it is known in Padua, with its many domes and cone like central dome with the giant gold statue of the Archangel Gabriel trumpeting into space. St-Anthony was Portuguese from Lisbon and was well educated, he came from an affluent family. His name at birth was Fernando Martin, he took the name Antonio upon ordination. 
Early morning light around 8am in Padua.

The basilica is part of a Franciscan Abbey and cloister. There is also a Chapel to St-George which is the funerary chapel to Raimondo Lupi whose family were Knights of St-George, next to it is the Scuola or Confraternity of St-Anthony, it is an order somewhat like the Knights of Columbus but more along the lines of the Rotary Club, a typical Italian concept.

As an aside, when you have a Franciscan Abbey, the Benedictine monks are never far. They have in Padua, an equally large basilica and cloister, the tomb of St-Justine and St-Luke the Evangelist with a beautiful Icon of the Madonna of Constantinople and the tomb of St-Mathias. It is sort of a rivalry between the two monk orders. 

So there I was visiting the Basilica of the Saint, while I visited, I noticed how this building resembles the Agia Sophia in Istanbul, in its architecture, it has a balcony level just under the domes with passageways between the arches, the height is dizzying. The floor is inlaid coloured marble each of the massive columns is surrounded with either an altar or a funeral monument to some noble person of the area. Side chapels are also ornate. The chapel dedicated to St-Anthony (1195-1231) is all in white marble and occupies a very large area to the left of the central main Altar, the visitors can walk around the altar, at the back is the tomb of St-Anthony marked by a large green marble slab that has been polished by the thousands of hands of the faithful who will touch it as they walk around. The walls of the shrine are sculpted marble scenes of the life of the Saint who died of dropsy at the age of 36 in Arcella near Verona. The main Altar of the church is also spectacular surrounded on 3 sides by sculpted walls of red granite in the style of the Ara Pacis of Augustus in Rome. At the very back of the church is the room of relics of the Saint, containing his original pine wood coffin with the original small tombstone, some of his priestly vestments and his cassock in which he was buried are on display. It has that pagan look about it the Catholic Church is so good at. 
The chapel to Saint Anthony all white marble, he is entombed behind the altar. Very far from what St-Anthony would have wanted for himself.

In the Basilica religious services are continuous with a 5 minute interval between masses to allow one group of faithful to leave while another group comes in, the services are packed. Organ music is continuous from service to service and this goes on from early morning to evening, with bells ringing etc. Given the enormous size of the Basilica it is very impressive to see so many people present and the continuous flow of the faithful and pilgrims, St-Anthony remains very popular. I have seen lots of Cathedrals, Basilicas and churches of all styles and am not a religious person but this sight really overwhelmed me.

St-Anthony of Padua, is my mother’s favorite Saint with Saint Francis of Assisi and she mentioned St-Anthony a lot usually referring to the little bread of the poor he is associated with. It remains one of my early childhood memories, les petits pains de Saint-Antoine. I was thinking of her while visiting and think that she would have liked to have seen his church in Padua. We returned on Sunday morning for a walk through again and I was as impressed with it if not more so.  We also visited Assisi this year but it is completely different and I did not have the same feeling at seeing St-Francis tomb, the setting is very different, though the two men lived at the same period and knew of each other since St-Anthony was also a Franciscan. Strange what will strike you sometimes.    

From Padova to Verona on our way to Innsbruck

We had made reservations with OBB Austrian Federal Rail System to leave from Padova at 14:08 to go to Innsbruck. We got to the station on time only to discover that the train was not listed anywhere, the personnel from Train Italia could not help, they had no information.
Finally after insisting that there had to be a train, we had tickets, one Train Italia Official told us that, yes there was a bus to Verona with the sign OBB on it. So out the station we go and start looking for this bus, No bus, what to do, we decided to take a taxi to Verona, the distance is short about 55 min trip all together on the highway, the cost 160 Euros extra. Our taxi driver was doing about 220 km per hour.
Verona Porta Nuova Station standing by the DB car.

What a pain, nowhere on the OBB web site does it explain where the bus is etc. It also fails to tell you that the famous bus leaves Padova train station 30 minutes before the actual phantom train leaves. On the other hand the web site of DB, the German Rail system tells you this. You see the train is in fact the express that goes from Verona to Munich via Austria. But then why are the Germans more forthcoming with info than the Austrians? It’s probably cultural.
 Austrian OBB locomotive pulling a German DB train. Verona Station.

Anyway all this to say is that we missed our train departing Verona by minutes, because in the Verona Porta Nuova station, this train is not announced either.
The information desk will tell you that all German trains leave from Binario 1 or 3 and the representative of the other train systems is on Binario 1. You figure it out, dear client, don’t you love it, unresolved issues about moving borders from the First World War some 93 years ago.

So finally we boarded the last train at 16:59 and left promptly first stop is Rovereto, which is a small town in the Dolomite mountains, next lovely Trento, then beautiful Bolzano also known as Bozen, this was part of Austria until 1918, all great wine country of the Alto Adige or Süd Tirol. On to
Bressanone or Brixen, Fortezza or Franzensfeste, the famous Brenner Pass which is the border between Italy and Austria way up in the Dolomites and steps away from the Alps and finally Innsbruck. We will arrive at 20:30 some 2 hours late. The unfortunate part is that we missed going through the mountains in daylight as planned, which is very picturesque at this time of year with all the snow high up in the Austrian Alps.  

Strangely enough our train has no restaurant car, no bar car, nothing to eat or drink, snack's are advertised and the prices of food and drinks are the same as Canada’s Via Rail, is there a conspiracy here? Probably. I did ask the conductor about this situation given that the entire train ride, if we went all the way to Munich would take about 7 hours. The conductor apologized and said it was DB Rail management who had decided at the last minute not to provide anything given that the train was almost empty.  Still to me that is irresponsible and probably contrary to safety rules. 

When we got to Innsbruck, our hotel is just across the street from the train station, The Grand Hotel Europa is a wonderful hotel, impeccable service, the rooms are ultra modern, with lots of facilities. The hotel itself is more than 140 years old, but the owners have take great care to maintain it and done it with great care and good taste. See

What impressed us the most was that the next morning we sent out laundry to be done at 8 am, it was back in the room all neat and clean at 10am, I can honestly say that never in 45 years of traveling around the world have I ever seen this. 

We met friends on arrival last night and went to dinner at a wonderful Tapas Bar called TAPABAR on Marktplatz, see great food and excellent Spanish wines.


Saturday, 22 January 2011

From Rome to Padua

Friday afternoon we left Rome Termini on the Silver Arrow high speed train built by Canada's Bombardier to Padua in the Veneto Province, this use to be the Republic of Venice until 1797 when that Corsican fellow Napoleon Bonaparte arrived with his French army.

A very nice comfortable ride on the train which stops in Florence and Bologna on its way to Padua. Padua in the Veneto is a renowned university city since 1244, a city of great men like Galileo and the poet Petrach, of great artists like Giotto and of course St-Anthony who despite being closely associated with Padua is in fact Portuguese from Lisbon and ended up in Padua by accident. Our hotel is steps away from the Papal Basilica where he is buried, a centre of high Christian pilgrimage. Padua being very close to Venice, its only 30 minutes away by train is a very nice stop on our way to Austria.  We could easily spend several days here, there is so much art and good food and beautiful things and because it is a University town, lots of good looking men, it deserves the mention Padova Citta d'Arte.

Our hotel is well located, Hotel Belludi is nice, clean and the staff are very kind and helpful. Our shower head in the bathroom did not work properly, they moved us to a far better room and gave us a bottle of Proseco as way of apology.

Last night we arrived at 8pm just in time for dinner and the hotel reception made reservations at a wonderful restaurant on the Prato, the menu was great, sort of new Italian cuisine, very well thought out dishes, good balance, beautifully presented. The wines are matched with the dishes. I had Tornedos Rossini, I have not seen this on a restaurant menu in 35 years, it was so good, the filet cooked the way I like it and it is topped with a slice of Foie Gras and shavings of truffles, I thought I was in Paradise.

Today we went walking around this beautiful city, we had a special reservation this morning to visit the  Scrovegni Family Chapel in the Roman Arena. The Scrovegni became very rich by lending money at usury rates, this of course is a major sin and those practicing it will burn in hell fire. So Enrico Scrovegni decided that he needed to atone for the sins of his father Reginaldo who had just died, wanting to save him from eternal damnation and save also himself since he too practice usury. It is interesting to note that Reginaldo Scrovegni appears in Dante's Inferno as one of the damned. So Enrico prayed the Virgin Mary and promised to build a chapel to her and get the painter Giotto, who was now accredited to the Pope as official painter to the Holy See, to decorate the Chapel, the work was completed in 1305, it is truly magnificent. The story does not tell if God forgave them their sins of usury.

The Chapel remained in the Scrovegni family until 1821 when it was purchased by the City of Padua. The chapel was in poor shape by then but worse was to come, the building was attached to the Scrovegni family palace and it was demolished in 1824, then the stucco covering the outside walls of the chapel was removed exposing for the first time the brick to the elements, the chapel is built in a former Roman arena from antiquity and the ground is water logged.  You can well imagine that in no time at all the frescoes covering the entire walls and ceiling started to show signs of mildew in the form of mushroom growth. Then in 1944 Padova was badly bombed by the allies, the surrounding buildings were heavely damaged and the chapel itself suffered from the tremor of the explosions.

In the last 50 years the Italian State and the City of Padua have spent millions of Euros to restore and save the building and the frescoes of Giotto, it was well worth it. You can see artwork 700 years old from the master who introduced to the western world modern painting concepts. In order to view the inside of the chapel you must reserve in advance and obtain tickets, it is a small space. Once you arrive at the site you will be brought inside a special room and watch a short film presentation, after 15 minutes in this room, a special door will open unto a corridor which use to be attached to the long gone palace and you can walk into the chapel with the guards. The reason why you spend 15 minutes in the temperature control room is in order to reduce the level of humidity from the outside and balance it with the levels found inside the chapel so the fragile frescoes are not damaged. No photos allowed and you can only spend 15 minutes admiring the artwork, a bell will sound and you must leave.  If you come to Padua, I highly recommend visiting the Scrovegni Family Chapel.

We then went for a coffee at Caffe Cavour on Piazza Cavour, again a great place for coffee but also for lunch, the menu looked great and had some really interesting Northern Italian dishes. So we decided that we would come back for lunch. We then went to visit the Baptistry of the Cathedral of Padua. The Baptistry is a round building and it is located next to the Cathedral as was the tradition in earlier Christian times to have such buildings outside a church where the person wishing to enter the Christian assembly would be first welcomed through baptism and later would come to the church proper by way of first communion and confirmation.
The round Baptistry next to the unfinished facade of the Cathedral of Padua.

The painter who decorated the baptistry is one Giusto De' Menabuoi, it is done in a Byzantine Venitian Style, absolutely stunning. At the very top of the dome is this huge Christ done in Byzantine fashion as master of the universe, solemn and majestic, surrounded by circles of angels and saints, below him stands the Virgin Mary as Queen of Heaven. The surrounding walls are covered with all the stories of the Old Testament, truly impressive. There is also another fresco where Christ sitting creates the world, here the universe is represented with all the signs of the zodiac and the earth is shown as it was then known. What I found different about this fresco, is that usually in Rome it is God the Father who occupies that role and not God the Son. But here De' Menabuoi simply works on the Christian concept that Father and Son are one and the same. The baptistry was built in 1100 built and painted by Giusto De' Menabuoi in 1370.
The wood horse in the Great Hall in the Palazzo della Ragione

We then returned to Caffe Cavour for lunch and had a cream soup of Anise and brocoli topped with grated Parmesan cheese, the main course was a paper thin omelette stuffed with shavings of zucchini and  Asiago cheese on a bed of arrugola salad. It was soooooo good.

After lunch we walked some more toward the Palazzo della Ragione (Reason) also known as City Hall, strange that the concept of reason would be associated with municipal administration, it was also used as a Hall of Justice, built around 1218, the ground floor has been a daily market place for the last 800 years and today the shoppers were there in large numbers. The great room on the second floor (218 meters long) has a fantastic wood beam ceiling that soars high above you and the walls are decorated with frescoes and various themes.  At one end of the room stands this enormous statue of a wood horse. The horse is so big 4 men can sit in its belly. It was built for a party by the Capodilista Family in 1466 and paraded through town,when the party was over the horse was returned to the Palace of the Capodilista and it was used in future years when plays on the siege of Troy were performed. Finally in 1837 the family gave it to the City and it is now in the great hall.
The many domes of the Basilica del Santo, (St-Anthony of Padua)

After all this walking we decided to head back to the hotel while passing in front of the Basilica of the Saint, I decided to enter, Will went on to the hotel. But that story is for another entry.

Monday, 17 January 2011

chicken, Prokofiev and humanist painting in Venice

You may well ask what on earth has chicken and Prokofiev have in common or paintings from Venice for that matter. Well it was the weekend, I decided to go and get a chicken for roasting with some sage. Again buying a whole chicken in Rome requires some attention, there are several varieties. Some are plump others look skinny, some are called Ruspante (free-range), other bio, some are produced by large companies and then sometimes local farmers sell to butchers directly. What you will see is a clear preference by shoppers for chickens raised in a yard and eating pretty much what they find on the ground, very old fashion. Chickens can like the many variety of tomatoes on the market and all have very different uses, so if you want to roast a chicken to eat you will buy that type description on label, for soup stock another type, I did find out that if you only want to make stock you cannot buy just any chicken and then throw the bones in a pot, the chicken raised for stock making is tough and can be fatty and not tender. So this time I made sure I bought the right type of roasting chicken, in this recipe I simply put a lot of sage leaves under the skin, a carrot and one coarsely chopped onion inside and simply rub some olive oil on the skin. Sage can be substitute for slices of truffle, it is really very nice.
Brunch at the restaurant of the Chiostro del Bramante, very good. In fact I can say after many years in Rome that they serve the best bacon and eggs in the city.

On Saturday evening we went to hear the orchestra of the Accademia Santa Cecilia under the baton of maestro Vasily Petrenko (34) and singer Ekaterina Semenchuk with the Choir of the Accademia performing the work Aleksander Nevsky by Sergei Prokofiev. This is the music of the film by Sergei Eisenstein. What a delight, I wish I could find the words of the work, so I could read what they were singing about, though there was an excellent synopsis of the story in the program.
the tall cypresses around the Mausoleum of Emperor Augustus and his family.

Then on Sunday morning we went to the Chiostro del Bramante on Via della Pace near Piazza Navona to see an exhibit of painting by great Venician painters like Titian, Tintoretto, Canaletto, Bordone, Pisanello, Veranese, Tiziano and Tiepolo. The Chiostro was built in 1500 by Donato Bramante the great rival of MichaelAngelo and the favorite architect of Pope Julius II. A little aside here, did you know that MichaelAngelo only actually designed the drum of the dome of St-Peter and not the whole church as is often said by guides. The Basilica took 100 years to build and MichaelAngelo was very old when he got involved.

Piazza Navona at 3pm on Sunday afternoon.

Piazza del Popolo at 4pm on Sunday.

Again a wealth of riches and very interesting with its mix of religious and lay subjects covering the period between 1460 to 1760, for Venice a period of great commercial wealth and power followed by a period of deep schism with the Papacy in Rome over the appointments of Bishops, creating an isolation from Europe for the Serenissima and finally slowly its eclipse and fall with the arrival of the French army of Napoleon. From Humanist painting to the  mannerist style to the baroque.  It complemented well the exhibition on Il Bronzino we saw in Florence a week ago. With the development of affluent and powerful families who wanted portraits of themselves, painters now had another outlet, previously the Church had a virtual monopoly on painters and what they could paint. It is interesting to see through the late Middle Ages to early Renaissance how taste changed. Technique and style also improved greatly, the exhibit was arranged in chronological order so that you could see the evolution, say between 1480 and 1523 quite a difference, refinements in the work and the subject, no longer the flat austere tableaux.
It is also nice to see painters getting away from the tedium of religious art, seriously how many Madonna and Child or crucifixion can one look at, after a while it all looks the same.

Another beautiful day in Rome.

Friday, 14 January 2011

comedy routine at the Fish market

Shopping for food in Rome can sometime lead either into long discussions on the merit of one type of tomato over another or in this case on the freshness of fish and seafood on offer. Today I went to ELITE one of the supermarkets in our area on Piazza Dalmazia (Dalmatia). They have a new fresh fish market and it is very popular, more so than the meat counter next to it.  This being Friday, there were 6 ladies of mature age waiting to be served. One lady being served was engaged in a long discussion with the fishmonger on the matter of how fresh the fish and seafood she was buying was, she wanted to know when it had arrived and if it really was fresh or previously frozen. The other ladies where all listening, as if this was a soap opera of somekind. The lady had already bought 2 kg of giant shrimps and one kg of clams and now wanted to buy this enormous fish enough to feed 6 adults easily. The seafood was the antipasto before the meal and the clams would certainly go into a pasta dish as a first course, the fish being the second course.

Buying food in Italy is serious adult business and it has nothing to do with the way we buy food in supermarkets in North America, you do not bring the kids, they would be at school or with grandmother or at home with the maid. You do sometimes see a father with one child but that is for quick errands.

All present at the counter were well dressed, going shopping is sort of a social occasion and you would certainly meet the neighbors, so it is important to create a good impression, even if you are only buying a head of salad.

So there she was arguing with the fishmonger, who was all smiles and assured her in a very courteous tone that is fish and seafood was guaranteed absolutely to be the freshest. The lady was not convinced, not to worry he says, I will prove it to you, here he pulls out his ledger of purchases. I was a little alarmed by this, since I was parked in a blue zone with no permit and I really wanted to get on with my shopping before the traffic police came, an illegal parking fine is 57 Euros in Rome. But then again it was 1 pm and lunch time so I thought, what is the likely hood of the traffic police showing up at this time of day, they are most probably off to lunch like everyone else.

So we all went through the ledger with the fishmonger and all the other customers, so that everyone be convinced of his honest intentions and the freshness of his merchandise, it all had been purchased that morning at dawn. The order paper was written in pencil with quantity, name of fish or seafood, weight and grocer's price.  I thought, gee how many countries in the world would a fishmonger or a butcher or a vegetable sales person go through this much trouble to convince his customers. Fish can be expensive, sole was 24 euros a kg, fresh giant shrimps was 20 euros a kg and so on. But it is very fresh and comes from local producers. The lady was finally satisfied, her fish was all cleaned and wrapped for her and the audience convinced that all was on the up and up.  At the same time you can see that a real rapport is established between the customer and the vendor. It's the same with my butcher, either at ELITE or on the corner store where I also go for that special cut. We also have our favorite ice cream (gelateria) store we go too all the time and get new flavors depending on the season or at the fruit and vegetable vendor who always has time to say hello. I also like to get advice at the wine store on what to buy and maybe get a discount in the proceed.

Be sure also that the fishmonger will ask the lady when she returns how she found the fish and was her family happy with the quality. My butcher, Armando, always asks me afterwards, so how was the steak or the lamb, you have to say more than it was good, you have to make a compliment and thank him for the service, it's all part of the experience of shopping.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Santa Pudenziana Titular Church in Rome

While walking down the road from Santa Maria Maggiore, one of the more important basilicas of Rome, I looked to my right and notice an old Romanesque bell tower, though I could not see the Church itself. I thought this was odd, walking a little further down the street I still could not see the church building though the bell tower was clearly visible and towering over other buildings in the area. I came to the street where the bell tower was and notice at least 30 meters below street level a church, it was very old, probably from the early Christian times in Rome. The name was Basilica of Santa Pudenziana, I was surprised first because the name was hard to pronounce and secondly I had never heard of this basilica, the building is not very big and looks neglected, you can access it by going down a grand staircase to the original street level to enter the church.  A nun was at the door and I noticed a plaque stating that this was the National Church of the Philippines in Rome.

This church is one of the Titulo meaning that it is amongst the very first Christian church buildings in Rome to be established in early Christianity. Underneath is the house structure of a man called Pudens, who he was is not totally clear but he had a son Praxedes who became a Saint. It is also known that the Bishops of Rome lived on the site until 311 AD when Emperor Constantine built them a residence the Lateran Palace next to what was to become the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and St-John Lateran, in 324 AD. Bishops Melchiade and Sylvester where the first ''Popes'' to live at the Lateran.

As for Santa Pudenziana, it appears that she never existed, her cult like that of so many Saints in the early church is the stuff of myth and myth making. Her name is taken from the man Pudens whose house was on the site but that is all we know for sure.  What is interesting is the tomb of Cardinal Lucien Bonaparte, who was responsible for this church because it is a titular church, only a Cardinal can be made responsible for it. Lucien Bonaparte was the great nephew of Emperor Napoleon I, like many Bonaparte, he came to live in Italy after the fall of his uncle.  Because he was a Prince from an Imperial house and his family is closely associated with Italy, he was guaranteed a Cardinal's hat.

Strange how Santa Pudenziana Basilica does not figure much in Christian tours of Rome, probably because it is too humble a place and does not fit with the triumphal and over the top agenda of the Vatican.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Lunch with Agnolo di Cosimo Il Bronzino

Today we took the high speed train to Firenze (Florence), there are trains to Firenze from Rome every 15 minutes. We were in Firenze some 90 minutes later. Currently at the Palazzo Strozzi there is an exhibition of the works of Agnolo di Cosimo Il Bronzino (1503-1572) who was the Official Court painter and poet of Cosimo I Medici (1519-1574), Grand Duke of Tuscany and Duke of Firenze and Siena and his wife Eleonora of Toledo, the daughter of the Spanish Vice-Regal Governor of Naples.
Eleonora da Toledo and her son Giovanni Medici who will become Cardinal at 17 and die of malaria at 19.

This exhibit is unique in its composition and presentation, it is both official State portraiture and religious art. Bronzino lived during the time of the Reformation started by Martin Luther and the Counter Reformation and Council of Trent, a dangerous time for everyone as the Catholic Church was out to persecute and kill its ennemies.  Art like everything else came under scrutiny, there were rules on how to present a topic or subject and how not too. Per example prior to the Reformation it was ok to present the Virgin Mary breast feeding the infant Jesus in a painting, this was part of Church teachings as early as St-Francis of Assisi and St-Benedict who wanted to present Jesus and the Virgin Mary in a more humanist form.  With the Counter Reformation, humanist thinking was out, this was now a taboo subject as the Virgin Mary as the Mother of God, was now seen as a Goddess, Christ had to appear as master of the Universe, Majestic and remote. Any religious painting of the Crucifixion had to show all the iconography as described in the Scripture, only showing Jesus on the cross with no background was labeled Protestant and thus forbidden.

Christ resurrection, a work rejected by the Church as too erotic.

Prince Guidobaldo della Rovere at 18 with his dog.

In Firenze there were lively discussions amongst the aristocracy and important families on such topics as Faith, Good deeds and Salvation, many books circulated in such circles.  Any departure from strict Catholic Church interpretation and teachings could see you dead, you could discuss but had to be very careful not to go too far or at least show proper deference to the Papacy. Bartolomeo Panciatichi and his wife Lucrezia Panciatichi were prosecuted by the Church for views thought to be reformist, Cosimo Medici intervene in their favor several times during the trial.
Firenze city scape with the Palazzo Vecchio high tower and a peek at the Dome of the Cathedral.

The Medici Family were bankers, owning the largest European bank in the 15th century and becoming a powerful ruling family, married into the family of the Emperor Charles V, with alliances in various Italian States, France and Spain which included the Kingdom of Naples and the Two Sicilies. They also had 3 Medici Popes during the Renaissance. They set the tone of discussions and played politics within the Church and the Papacy, using it as a tool for their own exercise of power.
Ponte Vecchio on the Arno river.

Bronzino was and remains for posterity an exceptional painter, it is difficult to think of another Fiorentine painter so closely associated with Florence and the Renaissance. His subects are alive, you think that they will speak, on the painting of Eleonora and her young son Giovanni, the texture of the fabric of her dress appears almost real, you can see the blue silk of her sons jacket shimmer. The pearls of her necklace and dress have this beautiful luster.  It is certainly this ability for realism that got Bronzino noticed by Cosimo I when he was barely 20 and still working with his teacher Jacopo da Pontormo. Many of Bronzino's early works were done with Pontormo but he soon developed his own style.
Ponte Santa Trinita viewed from the Piazza of the same name.

The exhibit was interesting because the curators Carlo Falciani and Antonio Natali took pains to present it with the historical context required for a more in depth appreciation of what is on display. Little poems were attached to the description of the painting for children and adults alike to read and bring them into an appreciation of the paintings from a less formal didactic approach. One room was devoted to the debate at the time on the supremacy of painting or sculpture. The act of criticism was second nature to Florentine artists of the generation of Bronzino. Artists were literate and engaged in dispute with other artists and critics. Reputation was founded as much on the respect of other critics and artists as upon patronage and economic success. Different points of views in this debate went on for many years amongst artists like Bronzino and patrons who would commission works for their palaces or family church and private chapels and would of course try to out do each other with more beautiful works. This exhibit on works by Bronzino is on at the Strozzi Palace in Firenze until 23 January 2011. I do not know if this is by coincidence but the Strozzi family were the enemies of the Medici in Firenze. Their palace reflects this image of status and importance by its massive architecture. The Medici died out as a family in the 18th century but the Strozzi family re-invented itself after 1945 having lost their fortune and are today owners of vineyards in Tuscany near San Gimignano.

We then went to lunch at a very nice restaurant, Trattoria 4 Leoni, Via dei Vellutini 1, Piazza della Passera, see , excellent food and very good service, good wine list. This being Firenze I had an excellent filet of beef, Will had wild Boar stew with Polenta, so rich, perfect for winter. As an antipasto I had a plate of typical Tuscan meats and liver paté, Will had a dish of Belgian endives with anchovies and capers dressed in melted Scamorza cheese. For dessert I had the pear tart and Will had a sorbet.
Excellent Tuscan beef.

After lunch we walked around Firenze and the Arno river and on to the Pallazo Vecchio, the official home of Cosimo I and his family. This enormous palace in the center of the city next to the Uffizi Gallery was almost deserted today, being winter there are few tourists and it is more relaxing to visit.
Palazzo Vecchio is the historical seat of the government of the City of Firenze. It was the Residence of the Priors and Gonfalonier of Justice in the Middle Ages, the Cosimo Medici's Palace, the administrative centre of the Grand-Duchy of Tuscany and later when Firenze became Capital of the Kingdom of Italy until 1871. Today it is the Town Hall of Firenze and what a magnificent town hall it is.
Wonderful freshly made Mandarin sorbet.

Then it was time to return to Santa Maria Novella Train Station for our return trip to Rome.
A beautiful sunny day in Firenze with a blue sky only like we have them in Italy in January.