Tivoli – Italy

Tivoli – Italy

Gardens of Villa D’Este and Villa Adriana Archaeological Site

Gardens of all kinds attract me like a moth to flame. Grand, monumental, historical, famous, botanical, natural or pruned to within an inch of its life, or beautifully designed small domestic gardens – each of these types of garden are places in which I find peace, joy and happiness.

Happiness is an Archaeological site to explore.

Tivoli, a small town about 30km from Rome, contains two UNESCO World Heritage sites – Villa D’Este, which has a very grand monumental garden, containing more fountains than I have ever seen in one garden and Villa Adriana (Hadrians Villa) which is an archaeological site.

Gardens of Villa D’Este

Visiting the gardens of the Villa D’Este was a most joyful and happy experience. I felt as if I had gone down a rabbit hole and entered an architectural wonderland. The garden is on several levels, covering around 4ha, with tree and hedge lined avenues, gardens with around 51 fountains, with hundreds of jets, water spouts and over 60 waterfalls (numbers not verified, but I can verify that there were more fountains, waterfalls and water features than I have ever seen in one garden.) Sculptures and cherubs abound, all making this garden feel like a giant fantasyland. Iris and roses were flowering profusely adding splashes of colour.

Villa d’Este was designed and laid out for Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este by Pirro Ligorio. Work on the Villa and its gardens commenced in 1550 and took 20 years to complete, and is a splendid example of a High Renaissance garden.

Wandering along avenues, and down stairs and paths, my exploration of the garden felt like a never ending journey through paradise. One of the more fantastical fountains is the Rometta Fountain which is meant to represent ancient Rome.

I loved the tree lined Avenue of 100 fountains, so called because there are around 100 carved fountain heads, through which water falls into a long canal.

The garden covers an area known as Valle Gaudente – the Valley of Pleasure. What an apt place to create a garden – my visit was a pleasure – although pleasure is only a small part of the experience. Emerging from the rabbit hole, back to my reality was a less than optimum experience.

Villa Adriana – Hadrian’s Villa

Hadrian was born in 76CE and was the Roman Emperor 117CE to 138CE, when he died. He is buried in the Castel Saint’Angelo in Rome.

He was responsible for building projects throughout the Roman Empire, with the Pantheon in Rome being his most substantial achievement. He was also responsible for the building a defensive wall, (Hadrians Wall) marking the northern limit of Roman Britain.

I have visited the Pantheon on numerous occasions and seen a few of the remains of Hadrians Wall. During the dark days of the plague, to assist motivating myself to get out of bed, I completed a virtual walk alongside Hadrians Wall, which during the course of the walk, provided extensive views of the wall.

How could I resist a visit to the ruins and archaeological site of one of the places Hadrian called home.

The Villa complex was built between 118CE and 121CE over 120 hectares. As befitting a Roman Emperor, it was opulent – clearly no humble abode – as the plan indicates.

Plan Hadrian’s Villa – Photo Credit Alamy.

The Villa was Hadrian’s retreat from Rome. Wandering around the site I could imagine the grandeur, despite the ruins. Reflecting Hadrians scholarship and extensive travels, the complex of seven classical buildings were based on Greek and Roman classical architecture. The pools, canal, baths and sculptures complete the “international” style of architecture.

The remains of the various water features and sculptures give a better idea of how grand this country retreat was. Makes my family’s country retreat, a bach at the beach on the Coromandel Peninsula in New Zealand, seem like a squalid hut.

The Serapeon of Canopus was supposedly an Egyptian style canal. There was a Theatre with a round colonnaded pool, baths and Hadrians swimming pool – the Poercile.

Above: Serapeon Canopus

In Hadrians day, there were extensive gardens – landscaped, wilderness areas and farmland. Today very little of the area contains gardens. There are large expanses of grass, numerous varieties of trees and shrubs, and some large areas of wildflowers, which on the day I visited were a glorious mass of colour.

My visits to archaeological sites have always proved to be a great learning experience. I research before I visit, and research and learn in more depth after a visit. The visit to Villa Adriana was no exception.

When I came to the end of my day in Tivoli, I was happy to be returning to Rome and its glories – if I had been returning home, the black dog would have not have only been breathing down my neck, it would have been perched on my shoulder.

Gujarat, India. Part 2

Gujarat, India. Part 2

Dasada, Little Rann of Kutch, Patan, Modhera and Ahmedabad

Dasada and the Little Rann of Kutch

Dasada is a small rural town, and a gateway to the little Rann of Kutch. The Little Rann is a salt desert, and part of the Great Rann. Despite its name, it is a very large salt desert of approximately 30,000 square metres.

I love camels. I was very happy to see camels, camels and more camels around Dasada. Camels alone, camels pulling carts, camels with beads around their necks, all looking as haughty and superior as only camels can.

The Rann Riders Resort, near Dasada is a perfect place to stay to explore the area, for many reasons. The resort is eco friendly. The owners very actively assist the local communities. They care about conservation and sustainable tourism.

My accommodation at Rann Riders was a Kooba house of the Bajania, which I loved. There were also Bhunga structures of the Rabari shepherds. There are other options, but I loved my little house.

A jeep safari, run by Rann Riders into the the Little Rann, proved to be a magical and inspirational experience. The people from Rann Riders have a superior level of care for the environment, and knowledge of the geology and of the wildlife which inhabits the area. I felt so privileged to see Asiatic wild ass – an endangered species. The birdlife would make the most experienced birdwatchers feel that they had died and gone to their heaven. My visit was not during the optimum bird watching time, but I still experienced the joy of viewing the few remaining flamingo’s in what was left of the wet season water.

Among the local people Rann Riders were assisting were the Mir, a nomadic people, who were living in temporary “homes” nearby. The Mir women created artwork with beads, and sold their creations by the roadside of their temporary dwellings. Rann Riders, on their website, acknowledge that, with the design intervention of some of their guests, (see below*) the Mir women were able to create jewellery, using their beads, which people would buy.

I shall never forget these beautiful women and children, and shall always feel so privileged to have met such resilient women.

Patan and Modhera

The drive from Dasada to Ahmedabad takes about 2.5 hours – or it would were it not for the need to stop and explore stepwells and temples along the way.

Stepwells are unique to India, and are subterranean water storeage and resource systems. These wells were constructed in Gujurat from around 600AD, and later spread to other parts of India. Stepwells evolved from pits in the ground to multi levels of elaborately carved sculptures – artistic and architectural masterpieces.

The Rani-ki-vav is a UNESCO World Heritage site at Patan, on the banks of the Saraswati River. It is constructed in the form of an inverted temple, and has seven levels of stairs, each level containing beautiful sculptures – said to be about 500 principal sculptures and many more minor sculptures. It was not difficult to descend down the levels and although the climb up was more onerous, I spent time on each level examining the sculptures, so really only ascended one level at a time.

Detail of a very small number of the sculptures.

The Modhera Sun Temple is a shrine dedicated to the Hindu sun god, Surya, and was constructed in the early 11th century on the banks of the Pushpavati River. The Temple is made up of three parts, Gudhamandapa – shrine hall, Sabhamandapa – assembly hall and Surya Kund – stepwell.

The temple is an excellent example of Solanaki style architecture, magnificently carved inside and out with gods, goddesses, birds and beasts and flowers. I could easily have spent more time examining these carvings in order to learn more about the gods and goddesses.

The Surya Kund contains several platforms and terraces, which include numerous small shrines. This stepwell was much easier to descend into, and particularly to ascend than was the Rani-ki-Vav. The Surya Kund would not provide relief from the heat as the Rani-ki-Vav does since the platforms and terraces are more open to the sun.

Modhera Sun Temple. Rear Shrine hall: Front Assembly hall.

Ahmedabad

Ahmedabad, situated on the banks of the Subarmati River is the largest city in Gujurat, is named after Sultan Ahmed Shah, who founded the city in 1411. Ahmedabad was an important business centre during the Mughal period, and was home to Mahatma Ghandi for several years. His home is now a museum, the Subarmati Ashram. Ghandi arrived in Ahmedabad in May, 1915. He started spinning at the Ashram in 1918. “The spinning wheel and hand-woven cloth or khadi gradually became emblematic of Ghandi’s economic, social and political ideals. He believed that the demise of handicrafts and cottage industries, in particular the art of spinning, had led to the decline of village life..” (Ghandi, Peter Ruhe, Phaidon – page 68).

The Ashram was far from serene, with large number of people viewing the interior and many more relaxing in the grounds on the river bank. Not a place for quiet contemplation

Ahmedabad is India’s first World Heritage City. A heritage walk through the old quarter of Ahmedabad showcases the various architectural styles, which blends Hindu and Islamic influences including Islamic monuments, and Hindu and Jain Temples. The carved wooden houses are unique, and athough one should not covet thy neighbour’s ox (or whatever), I certainly coveted these houses.

The streets in the old quarter provided the opportunity to observe day to day life in that area. People in temples and at shrines, women making bread, a woman ironing and cows and goats milling about.

I was a little startled to observe a palanquin, covered by fabric to ensure the occupant was not able to be observed, passing by. It reminded me that Ahmedabad has a large culturally significant muslim population. It occurred to me that if I had a palanquin when I was a teenager in a gossipy New Zealand village it would have saved me from those lace curtain twitchers in that village.

A palanquin passing by.

The Sidi Saiyyed Mosque is a beautiful building, built in 1573. It has an exquisite Tree of Life stone latticework covered window, the beauty of which adds to the architectural splendour of the mosque.

Having “collected” photographs of doors in many places I have visited over the years, I managed to add to my collection in Ahmedabad.

The Calico Museum of Textiles in Ahmedabad contains superb textiles dating back to the 15th century. It was founded in 1949, and contains a magnificent collection of antique and modern Indian textiles. Even a most unpleasant bossy attendant did not totally diminish the experience, but she certainly did not make a wise career choice.

The creativity and imagination which is invested in the making of Kathputti puppets and the narratives the puppet shows tell results in a visually exotic experience, even though not a word of the story was understood by me. The actions of the puppets occasionally gave some vague idea of the story, such as a snake being pursued, or retribution of sorts for a recalcitrant.

Kathputti puppets are made of wood and are very brightly coloured. They have sharp features, and “speak” in a high pitched squeak.

Attending the performance outdoors with a background of large trees, watching puppets and humans perform, was a fitting finale for my visit to Gujurat.

I hope that visiting Gujurat was not a once in a lifetime experience. There are a lot more stepwells to explore.

(**Note: One of the Rann Riders guests who provided the Mir women with design assistance and materials, and assisted with marketing, is Carole Douglas of Desert Traditions in Australia. Carole is a textile and arts expert who has been visiting Gujurat for many years. Her company organises small tours to Gujurat, (and other places) and can take textile and embroidery lovers to visit many artisans homes and businesses which tourists do not generally get to see. Desert Traditions believes in and practises sustainable tourism. Carole can be contacted at http://www.desert-traditions.com

Desert Traditions can also be found at face.book.com/deserttraditions and on instagram.)

Photo Credit – Carole Douglas of Desert Traditions.

Mosaics: Villa Romana del Casale – Piazza Armerina, Morgantina, Sicily.

Mosaics: Villa Romana del Casale – Piazza Armerina, Morgantina, Sicily.

Sicily has a rich and varied history due to the various civilisations which have occupied it in the past. In antiquity Sicily was settled by the Phonecians, the Greeks and the Romans. Ancient ruins are abundant, some still in excellent condition.

As a mosaic tragic, I was on the hunt for Roman mosaics, and so was very much looking forward to visiting Piazza Armerina in Morgantina to view the remains of a Roman villa.

The Villa Romana del Casale is an example of a luxury Imperial Roman Villa, containing late Roman mosaics dating from around 4th century CE. The mosaics are said to be among the finest Roman mosaics in situ, due to their artistic quality.

The site became a UNESCO world heritage site in 1997.

The mosaics are very well preserved due to being covered in mud, from landslides and floods over the centuries. All of the rooms in the villa contain mosaic floors, unusually even in the servant’s area and utility rooms.

The rooms with particularly interesting mosaics include the Ambulatory of the Great Hunt, The Room of the Gymnasts, and the Room of the Fishing Cupids. That is not to say that the other rooms are not interesting, such as the mythical scenes, including the Labours of Hercules, but the mosaics were similar to numerous other sites.

Ambulatory of the Great Hunt

The most impressive in my opinion was the Ambulatory of the Great Hunt, which is a corridor having a length of about 60 metres. Romans conducted these great hunts to capture exotic birds and animals, which were later shown at the Circus Maximus and the Colosseum in Rome.

The left side of the corridor depicts various hunting scenes. The animals and birds being hunted and captured are in Africa and are being loaded onto ox drawn carts to be transported to the port of Carthage to be loaded onto sailing ships.

The central part of the corridor shows a basilica, in front of which are animals being unloaded at the port of Ostia.

Towards the right of the corridor, a sailing ship can be seen in the Port of Alexandria, Egypt which has an elephant and a bison being driven on board. Animals such as dromedaries, tigers, hippopotamuses and rhinoceroses were also captured in the Nile Delta.

Tiger cubs are seen being captured in the final section of the corridor, along with a griffon lured by a bait inside a box. There is also a lion killing a wild donkey.

The far end of the corridor a girl is depicted holding an elephant tusk, representing India, a phoenix and a tiger.

The Room of the Gymnasts

In 1959-60 a mosaic identified as the Room of the Gymnasts was excavated. Over the years, the mosaic has been identified as the “bikini girls” – I prefer to describe them as the gymnasts. The gymnasts are engaged in various sports, including a jump with weights (the weights looking very much like the weights we use today), a discus throw, a cross country race and a game with a ball.

Room of the Fishing Cupids

This room was a dining room. The cupids utilise several different methods of fishing, and can be seen with nets, fishing lines, a harpoon and a fish trap. The sea is teeming with fish of different kinds, including what looks like a dolphin.

A villa and colonnade can be seen in the background.

I had arrived at the Villa much later than planned – it was seething with humanity. The mosaics are viewed from walkways, which were so crowded, it took a Herculean labour (the thirteenth labour of Hercules) to actually view the mosaics properly. It was beyond Hercules efforts to obtain photographs which could possibly do justice to the mosaic floors.

Moral of the story – get to the Villa early, and do not become distracted by anything – even a travelling companion falling down and breaking a rib. Just get a cab and go.

Capri

Capri

Chiesa San Michele, Anacapri

Churches in Italy never fail to impress. Architecture, paintings, sculpture, mosaics, history and so much more.

Chiesa San Michele has something I had not previously seen in the numerous churches I have visited. It has a ceramic floor of Majolica tiles, called the Garden of Eden. Dating from 1761 there are approximately 1,500 tiles showing Adam and Eve as they are expelled from the garden. Leonardo Chiaiese was the craftsman who created this masterpiece, depicting the serpent in the tree, the expulsion and some of the most glorious animals described in the bible.

Facade of the Church of San Michele, Anacapri.

To properly appreciate the entire floor, it is necessary to climb up to the gallery.

View from Gallery.

Having viewed the entire floor, I then descended down to the ground floor to examine the floor in detail. My favourite animal/creature I think was the unicorn, closely followed by the elephant, the camel and the owl.

There is, of course more to see in Chiesa San Michelle, but the majolica tiled floor is unique – the art and general decor is secondary.

Looking over the majolica tiles toward the altar.

Capri is so beautiful, has so much to offer historically and is so much more than just the blue grotto. This church was an unexpected delight.

Dead Writers Tombs, Mausoleums and Memorials Iran and Russia.

Dead Writers Tombs, Mausoleums and Memorials Iran and Russia.

I am attracted to the memorials of the dead writers who have had an impact on me.

Monuments, which do not claim any personal presence of the dead writer, can be very moving, or can make the visitor feel that the monument is less a memorial to the dead writer, lucrative as that may be, but merely a site to generate income, without a meaningful association to the dead writer. The latter for example might be a house where the dead writer had the slightest of links.

Iran

Iran has produced many inspiring poets, and the tombs of many of the Persian poets are considered holy by Iranians. In fact Iran is said to be the Land of Poetry.

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to visit several of the dead poet’s tombs in Iran.

Saadi

Saadi was born in Shiraz , and died there in 1291. Saadi is said to be one of the greatest poets of the classical Iranian tradition. Gulistan and Bustan are among his most notable works. When I visited, people were reading his poetry at the tomb. Restoration of the tomb was completed in 1952.

A carpet, bearing a poem from Gulistan, Bani Adam, can be found at the entrance to the UN in New York.

Hafez

Hafez was born in 1315 and died in Shiraz in 1389. He was a prolific poet and a religious scholar. Apparently his collected works, The Divan, are said to be found in most Iranian homes. People were reading his poetry at the tomb. His marble tomb is engraved with versus including “On the day of my death, give me a minutes time to set eyes on thee, Then from this world and life I shall be set free”. I wish I felt as philosophical about death.

Ferdowsi

The longest epic poem written by one person is the Shahnameh – the Book of Kings. It was written by Ferdowsi over a period of 30 years. Ferdowsi was born in 940AD and died around 1020, in Tus, near Mashad. His current tomb was built between 1928 and 1934 and remodelled in 1969.

My favourite part of the tomb is a frieze of life size sculptures depicting scenes from the Shanameh. I was contemplating, with revulsion, a depiction of Zahhak (a bad king) who had serpents growing out of his shoulders. To keep the serpents calm they had to be fed children’s brains. At this point, the Iranian guide, with a straight face, said “of course there was quite a brain drain during this period”. Of course there was.

 

Omar Khayyam

Omar Khayyam was born in 1048 and died in 1131. His mausoleum is in Nishapur, about 40 miles west of Mashad. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is a collection of hundreds of quatrains. It was first translated from Farsi to English in 1859. There are numerous quotes which I love, but with Covid-19 raging, “Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life” is one which resonates with me.

I was hissed at in the garden near the mausoleum. A group of elderly men took exception to something about me – maybe my headscarf was too far back. The rest of me, other than my hands and face were totally covered. I was hissed at once before at the Siwa Oasis in Egypt by a group of young men, when I inadvertently took my jacket off, and exposed my arms from the elbow down, so at least I knew what the hissing was about.

Russia

Russia has many famous writers. The memorials I visited were not architectural or artistic gems such as those in Iran, but I was very moved by most of them. I have enjoyed reading Russian literature for a long time and visits to the places where some of the books and poems I love were written were very meaningful.

Anna Akhmatova

Anna Akhmatova lived in rooms of the former Sheremetev Palace, in St Petersburg. These rooms now form her memorial by way of a museum. She documented the suffering and hardship of the Stalin terror and the Second World War. I felt the cold terror of a dawn knock on the door when coming up the stairs, I saw the candle holder, which would have illuminated the Mother of God Icon, and the icon. A couple of lines from her poem, Requiem came to mind “He was taken away at dawn, a candle flares, illuminating the Mother of God.”

After the visit, a friend recited the Requiem in the courtyard, which bought tears to my eyes.

Alexander Pushkin

Alexander Pushkin was born in Moscow in 1799 and died in St Petersburg in 1837.

There is a Museum and memorial apartment in St Petersburg, honouring Alexander Pushkin. I did not find the museum particularly inspiring. Pushkin only lived in the apartment in 1836-37 until his untimely death in a duel. The apartment is apparently an example of a nobleman’s residence of the 1830’s. I did not feel Eugene Onegin or the Queen of Spades. I did like his monument in the Square of Arts.

Alexander Pushkin

Pushkin married in Moscow in 1831, and took an apartment at No 53, the Arbat. There is a memorial Apartment at no. 53, but as he only lived there for around 3 months, I did not venture in. Arbat Street is one of the oldest streets in Moscow, and was home to writers such as Tolstoy and Gogol. It was the subject of a novel, Children of the Arbat by Anatoli Rybakov which is set in 1934, the period just prior to Stalin’s great purges. I found the novel chilling, dark and depressing, but essential reading to help understand the time. In the novel Arbat Street is the intellectual and artistic centre of Moscow.

 

Leo Tolstoy

Yasnaya Polyana is now a house museum, and a memorial to Tolstoy. It is in the Tula Region, around 200km from Moscow. Tolstoy was born there in 1828 and died there in 1910. His 13 children were all born there. Tolstoy’s unmarked grave is in a pretty glade, a short walk from the house through woods.

Leo Tolstoy’s grave.

War and Peace and Anna Karenina are long time favourites. Bald Hills Estate in War and Peace was modelled on Yasnaya Polyana. A visit to the estate, where those two novels were written between 1862 and 1869 was a moving experience. The simply furnished house, the huge library, and the idyllic park bought his books to life for me.

Boris Pasternak

Peredelkino Writer’s Colony is about 15km from Moscow. It is set among the most glorious silver birch forests and contains the house museum of Boris Pasternak. Pasternak died there in 1960. Most of Dr Zhivago was written at Peredelinko. The soviet authorities did not approve, and Dr Zhivago was not published in Russia until 1988. The novel was first published in Italy in 1957 and won a Nobel Prize for literature in 1958, which Pasternak was required to decline. Pasternak was “rehabilitated” in 1987, and his son accepted the Nobel Prize in 1989. While visiting the house, the first two lines of Lara’s Theme “Somewhere my love there will be songs to sing/Although the snow covers the hope of Spring”, came to mind, and reflected the history of the book. Sad that Pasternak died before the spring.

 

Mikhail Bulgakov

I shocked myself for being knocked out by Bulgakov’s novel, The Master and Margarita, written between 1928-1940, during Stalin’s regime. Bulgakov was born in 1891 and died in 1940. The Master and Margarita was not published as a book until 1967, in Paris, although a censored version was published in a Moscow magazine in 1966-67.

A memorial to him in Moscow is the Bulgakov House Museum, in an apartment in which he lived for a period. There is a mural of him, and the cat on a side wall of the apartment, and a couple of interesting sculptures at the entrance. It was closed when I visited.

Why was I shocked to be totally enthralled by the novel? The various genres have been described as satire, romance novel, farce, fantasy fiction and occult fiction, all of which I generally avoid. Thank goodness I did not avoid The Master and Margarita.

Who could not be knocked out by the description of Berlioz slipping onto the tram line “the tram car went over Berlioz, and a round dark object was thrown up on the cobbled slope…..it went bouncing along the cobblestones of the street. It was the severed head of Berlioz.”

Bulgakov was buried in the Novodevichy cemetery in Moscow.

Iceland Idyll – Further Travels of Gma and Lolly Girl

Iceland Idyll – Further Travels of Gma and Lolly Girl

Icelandic Sagas are enthralling. Dark and violent, vengeful. Myths and legends, or true stories of the Viking families who settled Iceland in the middle ages? They have been known as fiction, superstition and fantasy. It is said that truth can be found in the Sagas – that is Sagas were based on reality, but with mythical elements woven in to the stories.

Gma and Lolly Girl were idling about in London, Gma at Primrose Hill and Lolly Girl at Richmond. Iceland had been on our travel radar, and was far more accessible from London than from our antipodean homes. We were interested in the Sagas’, and were both reading a book written by Richard Fidler and Kari Gislason “Saga Land – the island of stories at the edge of the world.” The discussions of the Sagas, Icelandic history and the travel by the authors described in this book had us very motivated to visit Iceland.

Lets do it we said – so we did. Our only regret is that a week is not enough to do more than explore Reykjavic and areas close enough to visit on a day trip from Reykjavic.

Gma had booked a serviced apartment in the centre of Reykjavic, and was somewhat startled to find the city mapper app seemed to be taking us in a different direction than anticipated. Turned out that what I thought I had booked was not actually what I booked. The apartment was shabby, in a basement, smelt of cigarette smoke, and was basically a shabby room with a corner bricked off to accommodate a bathroom. A hovel in fact.

Lolly Girl was very good humoured, and didn’t seem too bothered, so after a minor tantrum on my part, and a good spray of french perfume around the hovel by Lolly Girl, we congratulated ourselves on saving so much money on accommodation by staying in a hovel, and set off to explore Reykjavic.

The architecture is varied. The buildings are constructed with reinforced concrete, wood or corrugated iron. My preference was for the corrugated iron. I loved the houses and shops in the central part of the city – bright and cheerful, some even sporting a turf roof.

The Harpa Concert Hall, designed by Iceland artist, Olafur Eliasson sits on the waterfront – a vision splendid, looking like a huge crystal sculpture, with its coloured glass facade. Sipping champagne at the bar, watching the light dancing on the glass panels and changing colour in different lights made me feel as if I was in a giant kaleidoscope. So entrancing was the view, more champagne was required before we were ready to leave.

A big disadvantage of staying in a hovel, is that we didn’t want to spend any time in it even to eat, which meant we were out hunting and gathering quite early for breakfast. An early morning coffee was elusive, even in Laugavegur, the main Street of Reykjavic. One establishment took our order, then we were told they didn’t open for another hour. It was not amusing. For a brief moment, I had a vision of seeking vengeance, Saga style, but I didn’t have access to an axe.

If we had turned left into Laugavegur instead of right, we would have discovered the most perfect breakfast place two shops down.

The hovel was just down the hill from the Hallgrimskirkja Church, which made it easy to visit whenever we wished – and to frequent the hot dog stand nearby. Lutheran churches have always felt quite austere and grey to me. Hallgrimskirkja was no different, but with soaring ceilings, long slim beautifully proportioned windows and a huge organ, the simplistic minimalism created a serenity often absent from the more ornate cathedrals and churches. The building is said to echo the shapes of cooling lava, and inspired by the basalt columns at the black sand beach at Reynisfjara, on the south coast.

There are a lot of waterfalls in Iceland. We managed to visit a very small number on day trips around the Golden Circle and the South Coast. They were awesome.

Although both Lolly Girl and Gma have spent many happy hours in thermal pools in New Zealand, we thought we should experience an Icelandic thermal pool. The New Zealand experience did not quite prepare us for our visit to the secret lagoon – Gamla Laugin. Clearly not a secret anymore judging by the number of people frolicking in the warm soothing water.

No hot pool we had visited in NZ required us to shower, totally naked, in a communal area. Deep breath, suck in stomach and go for it.

Lolly Girl escapes the naked scene before Gma. Gma emerges and collects a couple of noodles from the box beside the pool. Lolly Girl has a noodle, and is in deep conversation with a male swimmer. Male swimmer melts into the background when Gma arrives with noodles. Turns out that Lolly Girl had not noticed the huge box of noodles by the pool, and had approached the male swimmer with the line “oh, I say, do you need both noodles”. He clearly thought he was on to a good thing till Gma arrived.

The area around the Golden Circle and the South Coast contain most beautiful landscapes and are quite surreal in parts. Mountains, waterfalls, glaciers, lakes, spectacular beaches, historical sites, geysirs and boiling mud pools, crater lakes, wildflowers and birds. There were even trees here and there.

On the south coast drive, the most easterly point we visited was Reynisfjara, a black sand beach, with lava rock columns in the sea, caves and basalt columns. The Atlantic looked quite benign, although I felt it was treacherous, benign looking or not. Having read about people getting washed out to sea, I only timidly put a foot in the water. I had been particularly spooked by a story of a tourist, posing on a large piece of ice, shaped like an armchair, who got washed off the beach, floating away on the ice armchair.

The glaciers, as with other glaciers around the world, are receding. It was quite sobering to see how far the Solheimajokull glacier has receded over the past ten years. Little icebergs were floating on the glacier lake, and looked beautiful reflected in the water. An astonishing number of plants were growing in the barren landscape. A glacier hike was in progress, and 4WD trips on the glacier are available. A huge glacier could be seen from the road, behind a range of mountains – it looked like a cloud bank, rather than a glacier.

One of the highlights for me on the Golden Circle trip, was the visit to Thingvellir National Park. Thingvellir was the place where the Althing was established in 930AD. The Althing is the National Parliament of Iceland and is one of the oldest parliaments in the world. At Thingvellir, the Althing was an open air assembly representing all of Iceland, and assemblies continued there until 1798

The Althing, at Thingvellir plays a role in many of the Sagas, where details of the Assemblies, laws and legal procedures are discussed, and I was very interested to see the landscape referred to in these Sagas.

Very little remains of the Althing. However the Thingvellir National park is an area of outstanding beauty, circled on three sides by mountains, and it was easy to imagine the characters in the Sagas riding through this landscape to attend the Althing.

The park contains a rift valley, where the Eurasian tectonic plate meets with the North American tectonic plate, providing the unique opportunity to walk between two continents. Dramatic fissures and cliffs, rocky rivers, waterfalls and a lake add to the natural beauty of the area.

On our final day in Reykjavic we decided to hunt for puffins. To do this we had to catch a small boat, which takes its passengers out of the harbour across to some small islands, where hundreds, if not thousands of puffins would be seen.

The boat trip was not for the faint hearted. Along with our tickets, we were given anti seasick tablets. The sea was very rough and it turned out that all trips after ours were cancelled. The boat was broadside to heavy swell, so we were rolling about rather alarmingly – thank goodness for the tablets.

The puffin lady was very passionate about puffins, and showed us numerous photos of these beautiful birds on our way to the islands. Luckily she did. The only puffins we saw were a few landing on the water some distance away. The puffins landing were fun to watch – they can’t glide due to body size and small wings, so they belly flop onto the water, but we couldn’t see them in great detail. There were large numbers of birds nesting on the island, none of which were puffins.

Above – The Christina was our boat. Below – the non puffins.

A final walk along the waterfront, champagne at the Harpa, and dinner involving lobster, Icelandic lamb – the very best lamb I have tasted – and wine, we ambled back to the hovel, well satisfied with our experiences in Iceland.

Iceland proved to be a most interesting and exciting place to visit. A return visit is necessary, to visit more remote places. The captain of the Christina told us that in the summer he slept for only four hours a night, whereas in winter he sleeps eighteen hours a day. I feel that to properly experience Iceland, I should visit in winter. Then it wouldn’t matter if my accommodation turned out to be a hovel.

England – in search of Ancestors – Part 3.

England – in search of Ancestors – Part 3.

The Bridges name has a couple of origins.

I shall lay claim to the one which denoted someone from Bruges (Brugge), as being a more interesting origin. Apparently Bruges had extensive trading links with England in the middle ages. The spelling of the name was de Bruges, and dates back to around 1200.

The second possible origin is that the surname Bridges or Brydges, from early medieval times, denotes someone who lived near a bridge, or a bridge keeper. I was fascinated to discover that building and maintaining bridges was a feudal obligation in the middle ages. I hav not managed to trace my ancestors back to feudal times or to Bruges. I do hope I could trace them back to Bruges.

My paternal grandfather Frank, was born in London in 1880, and immigrated to New Zealand with his parents and 3 of his siblings in 1886. They boarded the Akaroa which departed from Gravesend on 18 March 1886, and arrived in Auckland on 28 June 1886.

Prior to immigration, my great Grandparents, Joseph and Sarah lived at 46 Lower Tulse Hill. Lower Tulse Hill became Tulse Hill, properties renumbered and is now part of the A204. In 1843 there was a continuous line of houses predominantly detached and usually with separate coach houses along the full length of Lower Tulse Hill from Brixton to the top of the hill. The area has been redeveloped at much higher densities since the 1930’s.

There are no 19th century houses remaining in that part of Tulse Hill. The area appears to be the home of rather deadly gangs, with numerous stabbings and shootings.

There was little left in the area which my great grandparents would have seen or been familiar with. I decided to walk to the Dulwich Picture Gallery, which having opened to the public in 1817, could have been visited by my great grandparents. I passed by Dulwich College, which was founded in 1619. The new college opened in 1870 so my great grandparents would surely have seen it.

The Dulwich Picture Gallery is a gem. It was designed by Sir John Soane. It has a very fine collection of old Masters. The Mausoleum and east wing galleries were damaged in 1944 by a German V1 flying bomb, and it has been refurbished. Despite damage and refurbishments, my great grandparents would recognise the building today.

So far, I have traced my line of the Bridges family back to my 6th great grandfather, John who was born in 1665 in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, England. My 5th great grandfather was also born in Aldeburgh. He moved to Woodbridge Suffolk where my 4th, 3rd and 2nd great grandfathers were born.

Aldeburgh – which I am told is pronounced “Orld-brur”, has a shifting coastline, and coastal erosion. It was once an important Tudor Port, and shipbuilders in Aldeburgh built the Golden Hind and the Greyhound, the ships that Sir Francis Drake sailed. The river Alde had silted up and the Port and shipbuilding had ceased prior to my 6th great grandfather’s time.

Aldeburgh was a fishing village in the years my ancestors lived there. It is now a seaside resort, and would bear little resemblance to the place my ancestors lived. There are a couple of buildings which my ancestors would have been familiar with. The 16th century Moot Hall, although closer to the shoreline than it would have been, would be recognized by my Aldeburgh ancestors, as would St Peter and St Paul’s church which has a tower dating back to the 14th century, with much of the rest dating from 16th century.

Aldeburgh Moot Hall.

Woodbridge, Suffolk is approximately 17.4 miles from Aldeburgh, and today takes around 26 minutes to drive via the A12 and A1094. It no doubt took a lot longer to travel between the towns when my ancestors lived there, but I can’t imagine such a relocation would have been particularly adventurous, even then.

My ancestors may have seen the mounds at Sutton Hoo, which is an archaeological site near Woodbridge overlooking the Debden River. They would not have known that these were Anglo Saxon burial mounds dating from the 6th and 7th centuries.

It was not until 1939 that the Sutton Hoo Treasures were discovered. Excavations unearthed a great ship burial of an Anglo Saxon king and his possessions. The ship was 27 metres long. The Treasures are in the British Museum, and include a helmet, one of the “Treasures” of the British Museum.

Helmet from Sutton Hoo Treasures.

There has been a tide mill on the River Debden at Woodbridge from around 1170. It was owned by the Augustine Priors for 350 years until Henry VIII confiscated it. The current mill was built in 1793, so my ancestors would have been familiar with the building. The Woodbridge Tide Mill was the last productive tide mill in England. It ceased operation in 1957.

Woodbridge Tide Mill.

My 3rd great grandfather was a Saltboiler at the time of my 2nd great grandfather’s birth in 1802. As the name suggests, a saltboiler boiled saltwater until it evaporated, leaving the salt. To obtain the wood for the fires, a saltboiler would travel about the area to collect the undercover wood from neighbouring villages and farms.

My 2nd great grandfather William, is said to have “immigrated from Suffolk as a wood turner and made good as a hat block maker”. (“Kenneth Simpson” North West Kent Family History Magazine Vol. 5 No 2, June 1989, page 8).

The family settled in Southwark, and lived at 8 Gravel Lane. William became a methodist preacher some time in the 1830’s. He began his own mission and installed a small chapel in an upper room in Gravel Lane.

William became involved in the sect of the “Peculiar People”, who believed in faith healing. Peculiar people appear in the bible apparently, and the modern translation of Peculiar People are “precious possessions and god’s cherished personal treasures.” (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Bridges_(preacher).)

It took me quite some time to identify Gravel Lane. It no longer exists by that name. I obtained old maps and by identifying the shape of the old Gravel Lane, decided that Gravel Lane was now Great Suffolk Street. I turned up at Great Suffolk Street and discovered that I need not have gone to so much trouble to identify the street.

The cafe in the extension to the Tate Modern looks directly down Great Suffolk Street. I had already seen the street from above.

Great Suffolk Street from Tate Modern

My ancestors would recognise little of Southwark today. That area was extensively destroyed by bombing during the second world war. 8 Gravel Lane would have been just past the white building in the picture above.

Gravel Lane, in their day, had a power station at the top of the street, which was the predecessor to the Bankside Power Station which was converted into the Tate Modern. Census returns and London City Directories for Gravel Lane disclosed that the male resident’s were generally engaged in various trades. The only woman in Gravel Lane listed in the City Directory for 1845 was a publican. My 2nd great grandfather was identified as a hat block manufacturer or engineer. Other occupations included commission agents, bookbinders, wheelwrights, basket makers, tripe dressers, porkmen, an oilman, upholsterers, grocers and plumbers.

The area contained a number of almshouses, including one in Gravel Lane belonging to the St Saviour’s Parish congregation. Mrs Vaughan opened a charity workhouse in Gravel Lane. One of the few buildings remaining in the area, which my ancestors would have seen are the Hopton Almshouses, in Hopton Road. The almshouses have been occupied continuously since 1752.

Early Gravel Lane

When my ancestors lived in Gravel Lane, Southwark Cathedral was still a parish church. It received cathedral status in 1905. The exterior would still be recognisable by them, as would some of the monuments in the interior. They would not recognise the gift shop, where many years ago I acquired 2 replica green men plaques, which now have pride of place on my art poles.

My ancestors probably walked past a house, overlooking the Thames where Christopher Wren lived, and in 1502 Catherine of Aragon took shelter. They would have seen St Paul’s Cathedral across the river. In my cover image taken from the Tate Modern, I suspect that my ancestors would only recognize St Pauls.

My ancestors would almost certainly have purchased vegetables at the Borough Markets. These markets are still trading on the site of the original borough markets. In 2014, the market celebrated its 1000th anniversary. When my ancestors lived in Gravel Lane the market was described as “a market for vegetables, noisy and dirty.”

Today it is a global market, with traders from many parts of the world selling their goods. The Borough Markets are a tourist destination and a must for shoppers looking for superb fresh fruit and vegetables, fish, meat and artisanal food and atmosphere. The variety of cheeses available alone make a visit memorable.

My great grandfather Joseph was born in Southwark. He married Sarah Wordley from Orsett, Essex in Essex in 1860. Sarah came from a long established farming family in Orsett, where several generations of her male (of course) family owned and farmed the same property. In his will, Sarah’s father left the furniture in the house to Sarah’s mother, but the house and farm went to the eldest son.

Joseph and Sarah lived in Southwark until some time between 1871 and 1881 (prior to the 1881 census) when they moved to Tulse Hill. Tulse Hill was obviously a step up in the food chain.

In the 1881 census, Joseph was described as a hat block maker employing 5 men and 1 boy. They and their neighbours had servants. The servants were variously described as cooks, housemaids, nurses, needlewomen and companions. The occupations of the male heads of households disclosed quite a different neighbourhood to that of Gravel Lane. Near neighbours included one whose occupation was “living on income from investments”. Others included solicitors, surveyors, architects, law book seller, bankers clerk, merchant tailor and my favourite, a betting man.

What caused Joseph and Sarah to emigrate to New Zealand in 1886? Their life in Auckland appeared to see them moving back down the food chain. One daughter died of tuberculosis 2 years after arrival in Auckland, aged 24. She had had TB for 3 years. Did they come to New Zealand for a better climate?

In 1889, the family was living in Vermont Street, Ponsonby. Joseph appeared in the NZ electoral roll for 1893, living in Vermont Street, Ponsonby and his occupation was an agent. Subsequent electoral rolls also disclose his occupation as agent or insurance agent.

The Electoral Act 1893 (New Zealand) gave all women the right to vote. New Zealand was the first country in the world in which women had the right to vote. My great grandmother Sarah, of Vermont Street, Ponsonby signed the 1893 petition presented to the New Zealand Parliament to extend the franchise to them.

Sarah is registered on the New Zealand Electoral Roll for 1893. Voting is not compulsory in New Zealand. I like to think that she did vote.

I have lived in London, and visited on numerous occasions. It always felt very familiar – not because of my ancestry, but because growing up in a former British Colony involved learning the history of England, reading books written by English authors and hearing half the population referring to England as home – even those who had left England as children.

Portugal – In Search of Ancestors – Part 2.

Portugal – In Search of Ancestors – Part 2.

Those of us whose ancestors emigrated to the new world in search of a better life generally have a very mixed ancestry.

My ancestors were predominantly from Ireland. I also have English, Scottish and Portugese ancestry. Searching for them, and travelling to the places they came from and researching what their lives may have been like, has been most enjoyable. Particularly the travel.

The Portugese ancestors are elusive.

I have been unable to verify where in Portugal my great grandfather, Antonio Joseph Thomas came from. One branch of the family say he was from Portalegre. A person bearing the same name as my great grandfather, was naturalized on 16 June 1886, in Auckland. That Antonio is stated as having been born in the Azores. His occupation at that time was a painter.

My great grandfather’s occupation was stated on his marriage certificate as a Labourer. At the time of my grandmother’s birth he was recorded as a painter, on her marriage certificate a house painter, and his death certificate recorded his occupation as a retired painter. His death certificate also recorded the name of his father as Antonio Joseph Thomas.

Antonio Joseph Thomas (Tomaz) is a very common name in Portugal, and sifting through the records available is as difficult as tracking down the numerous Irish ancestors who carried the same name as hundreds of Irish non ancestors.

Antonio was 16 when he came to New Zealand. He was said to have been a seaman who jumped ship in Auckland.  There are a lot of records of a seaman named Antonio Thomas, who worked on coastal cargo boats around Australia, before and after his arrival in New Zealand.

My great grandfather married my great grandmother, Matilda, in Auckland in 1880. The marriage record does not record his place of birth. Portugal was noted as his place of birth on my grandmother’s birth certificate, and on Antonio’s death certificate. So – Portalegre or the Azores.

My visits to Portugal have not been in an effort to trace ancestors. Not speaking or reading the language makes that impossible. Rather, it was to experience a part of the world my ancestors had come from. I had always enjoyed the thought of having Portugese ancestry, and was interested in visiting places and seeing things my great grandfather may have visited and seen.

I first visited Lisbon some years ago when I was working in London. I had booked a hotel by Eduardo VII park. When I gave the taxi driver at the airport the address he indicated that was a very bad choice. I should not, under any circumstances, set foot in that park, as it was a very seedy part of Lisbon. I should take a taxi wherever I wished to go. His taxi of course.

I thought the park was a very pleasant place, and my first explorations of Lisbon were on foot, and through the park.

Antonio would not have seen The Castelo de Sao Jorge as it is now. The ramparts remained in ruins after an earthquake in 1755. What I saw was a result of a complete renovation began in 1938.

Castelo de Sao Jorge, Lisbon.

The views over Lisbon and the Tagus River from the Castelo are magnificent. Perhaps Antonio enjoyed the view from the ruined ramparts.

Lisbon from Castelo de Sao Jorge

Antonio would have seen the triumphal arch on the north side of the Praca do Comercio.

Triumphal arch.

I did take a taxi to Belem. Not my airport taxi, and not because I was scared. With only three days in Lisbon, I needed to move about as quickly as possible.

Lisbon’s shipyards and docks were situated in Belem in the estuary of the Tagus River. The early Portugese explorers set out from these shipyards in the 15th-16th century. Antonio was a seaman. Did he embark on a ship in Belem when he left Portugal? If he did, he would have seen the Torre de Belem, completed in 1519. It was built as a fortress which guarded the estuary. It is a gem of a building, with openwork balconies and North African inspired watchtowers.

The Monument of the Discoveries was built at Belem to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the death of Henry the Navigator, who died in 1460. The eastern side of the monument has statues of Portugese great explorers, and the western side has statues of of those people who empowered the 15th century age of discovery.

Of those explorers commemorated on the eastern side of the monument, I knew about Vasco da Gama who had discovered the sea route to India, Ferdinand Magellan, the first to circumnavigate the world and Bartolomeu Dias, the first to navigate the Cape of Good Hope. Perhaps my Portugese ancestry is responsible for my restless spirit and need to travel.

St Jeronimos Monastery in Belem was commissioned by Manuel 1 in 1501. It was built to commemorate Vasco da Gama’s voyage, and to give thanks to the Virgin Mary for the success of the voyage. Vasco da Gama is entombed in the monastery. The monastery is a symbol of Portugal’s power and wealth during the Age of Discovery. It is a most pleasing confection of a building. Antonio would have been aware of this monastery if he had embarked from Portugal at Belem, but I doubt if he would have appreciated the architecture.

I love gargoyles. St Jeronimo has some wonderful examples.

I came across the Gulbenkian Museum quite by accident. It is situated north east of the supposedly dangerous Eduardo VII Park. What started as an accident turned into a magical experience. Think classical art including Egyptian, Greco Roman, Mesopotamian, Eastern Islamic, Armenian and Far eastern art, and so much more.

The museum is set in a park, and contains the private collection of an Armenian oil Magnate, Calouste Gulbenkian. The collection is outstanding.

I did not have enough time on this visit to spend much time in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, but I did manage to see Hieronymus Bosch’s “Temptations of St Anthony” triptych. Hieronymous Bosch is one of my all time favourite artists, and St Anthony was wonderfully gruesome.

There is an abundance of blokes on top of poles in Lisbon. There may have been a woman somewhere, but I didn’t see one.

I visited Portugal again a couple of years ago, this time with KT. I enjoyed revisiting Lisbon, and experienced a different Lisbon. KT was happy to accompany me on trawls of those parts of Lisbon which Antonio may have seen. She was also interested in the food and wine, and so I enjoyed much better dining and drinking experiences, although custard tarts are not up there on my list of favourites.

I had been very keen to visit Sintra. Lord Byron visited in 1809, and referred to Sintra in Childe Harolde’s Pilgrimage “Lo! Cintra’s glorious Eden intervenes in variegated maze of mount and Glen”. I wanted to see that glorious Eden.

KT and I caught a train to Sintra. We took so long to locate the correct railway station that by the time we got to Sintra it was nearly lunch time. Sharing the sites with the multitudes meant that the queues for entry to the palaces were were up to an hour long.

We headed to the Palacio Nacional da Pena which is situated in the hills of the Serra de Sintra. This palace is a fantastical colourful extravagance. It has domes, towers and a drawbridge. It is very brightly painted, yellow here, red there. It sits on a rocky outcrop, where once a castle stood.

The palace has an entrance guarded by a magnificent mythical gargoyle. Elaborate stone carvings and beautiful tiles add to the fantasyland feel of the palace.

I could not imagine that Antonio would have visited the palace. From what I have heard of him, even if he had, he would have had no appreciation for the art and architecture.

Our late arrival, and the hoards of people resulted in not having the time to explore other fabulous palaces, but we did see some of them whilst driving out to the coast. Monserrate was one of these.

The Palace of Monserrate.

KT and I caught a train from Lisbon to Porto. The lift up to the platform was very slow. I don’t do slow if there is an alternative. The escalator beckoned. While sailing regally up the escalator, suitcase safely tucked beside me, the suitcase decided it would prefer to stay in Lisbon, though not on its own. It flipped backwards and knocked me down with it. What followed was a most spectacular backflip. Two backward rolls later, I end up sailing feet first up the escalator. KT had the grace not to laugh at the sight of Gma coming up the escalator feet first.

Bleeding profusely, I arrive on the platform, with people flocking around suggesting calling an ambulance. The injuries were minor and I was not planning on missing the train to Porto.

Our hotel in Porto had been alerted to the arrival of the wounded Gma. An upgraded room was a great consolation prize.

If Antonio had visited Porto, there is much of Porto that he would recognise today. The riverside district, medieval Ribeira with its cobbled narrow streets would not have looked much different.

The Cais da Ribeira, with its bustling restaurants and bars is a perfect place to stroll along, eat or sit with a drink, watch the river traffic and observe people. The raised embankment which facilitates the riverfront promenade, would post date Antonio, so he would not have experienced the leisurely stroll KT and I had. I suspect he never experienced an icy cold gin and tonic in his life, let alone in Porto.

Gin and Tonic on the Cais da Ribeira, Porto.

I love ceramic tiles. I have been collecting them on my travels for years. Portugal produces blue and white tiles like I have never encountered. Porto is a tile lover’s heaven.

The Igreja do Carmo was built between 1756 and 1768 in the Rococo Baroque Style. It is adorned with blue azulejos tiles. The tiles pay tribute to “our lady” and tell the story of the church’s foundation.

The Igreja de Santo Ildefonso is a church built in 1739, but the azulejo tiles were only added in 1932. The tiles represent the life of St Ildefonso.

Igreja de Santo Ildefonso, Porto.

Portugal is known for its catholic culture. It is doubtful that Antonio was a catholic. His children from his relationship with my great grandmother, Matilda were not catholic.

Igreja Sao Francisco is a gothic style church with an opulent baroque interior, which appears to be covered in gold, due to the gilded wooden carvings. A particularly gruesome carving of the Martyrs of Morocco took my eye. Heads were being severed from the unfortunate martyrs bodies. Those already severed were rolling about at the feet of those yet to lose their heads.

One of the altarpieces represents the family tree of Jesus, showing his descent from the Kings of Judah and Israel. At the top of the tree is Jesus, with Mary and Joseph. The 12 Kings of Judah are connected through the branches. Jesse of Bethlehem is reclining at the foot of the tree.

Igreja Sao Francisco was deconsecrated in the 19th century. It has been said that the opulence of the interior became a bit of an embarrassment to an order who take a vow of poverty.

The narrow cobbled streets, churches, shops, merchants houses and cellars for storing port along the banks of the Douro river would have looked very much the same to Antonio as they did to me. Only the Dom Luis 1 bridge, which was completed in 1886 was built after his departure from Portugal.

I enjoyed looking at the graffiti around Porto. I wonder if there was a version of modern graffiti around in Antonio’s days.

Antonio, by all accounts, was not a very nice man. He deserted my great grandmother and their 8 living children in around 1900. He failed to comply with a court order requiring him to support my great grandmother, Matilda, for which he received a three month suspended jail sentence. He had several more children from another relationship. His descendants from that relationship say he was born in Portalegre, Portugal. They also say that he returned to Portugal in order to obtain money which was his share of of his father’s property in Portugal. If this is so, he may well have been in parts of Portugal I visited.

I am inclined to believe that the descendants of Antonio’s second family would know more about him than I do. They would have known him for longer than his first family knew him, and he may have shared more details of his life with them. They also may well have a different view of his character.

As more records become available, I may find out more about Antonio. I certainly plan to visit Portugal again, even if I do not.

Caucasus Part 3 – Armenia

Caucasus Part 3 – Armenia
Haghpat Monastery

Armenia has a lot of monasteries. Within 18 km of the Georgian border, we visited the monasteries of Haghpat and Sanahin founded between the 10th and 13th centuries. They are set on a mountain surrounded by rolling hills, very green grass, numerous varieties of colourful wildflowers, with views into the Debed gorge.

The serenity and beauty could only have encouraged the monks to eat, pray and love (the beauty of the landscape) and create a library.

The stone bas reliefs in the Armenian churches and monasteries seduced me from the moment I set eyes on the first ones at Haghpat. I have always regretted not buying a book I found in Yerevan, which contained a huge collection of images of bas reliefs in Armenia.

Bas relief of Kings Smbat and Gourgen holding a model of the church at Haghpat Monastery.
Sanahin monastery.

Even the services of Mrs Sour, a sullen, angry, anti Turkish and pro-Soviet Armenian guide, did not spoil Yerevan – although it certainly meant that her choice of restaurant and entertainment provided me with a prejudiced view of both. One meal, which was particularly disgusting, consisted of a lump of white stuff, optimistically called meat, and a mess of stuff called wheat. The entertainment that evening was dreadful. Singing so bad that it could not distract me from the food.

Hilary Clinton made my brandy tasting experience less than optimum. I had been looking forward to my late afternoon visit to the Yerevan Brandy company which produces Ararat, a cognac style brandy. A tasting had been arranged before dinner. Brandy tasting in the morning it not quite the same, but that is what we did.

Clinton was in Yerevan expressing concern over border clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan – and to taste brandy apparently. Hers was the morning slot we ended up with, and she got our spot. Perhaps her concerns would have been less concerned after brandy. I hope she enjoyed her pre dinner brandy.

Mrs Sour donned her anti Turkish hat for a visit to Sardarapat, a war memorial commemorating the place where the Armenians turned back the invading Turkish troops. Mrs Sour also provided commentary on the “genocide” of Armenians in Eastern Turkey. In fairness to Mrs Sour, on a later visit to Eastern Turkey the Turkish guide, though not sour, completely denied that a genocide had occurred. She said the Armenians had all started moving back to Armenia, and had died of illness on the way.

Sardarapat Memorial.

Mrs Sour had a bit to say about Mt Ararat. She stated that Ararat has always been considered by Armenians as their spiritual home, and that it should not be in Turkey. Mt Ararat loomed large on the horizon, and I had a perfect view of it from my hotel room.

Enjoying a glass of wine on my balcony that night looking out to Mt Ararat, I did a quick search and discovered that over the centuries Mt Ararat had been contained within many countries borders. It seemed that during the Bagratuni Dynasty around 9th century CE, Ararat was in Armenia, but was annexed by the Byzantines, and various others in the late 12th century for a century or so. The Ottoman Empire claimed it in the 1400’s. It wasn’t part of Armenia again until 1918 until 1923. The area had become part of the Soviet Union, and following the Treaty of Kars in 1923 which carved up the area, Ararat was placed in Turkey.

There is obviously something I have missed, because Ararat has only been part of Armenia for a very small period in the scheme of things. The passion seemed misplaced. On a later vist to eastern Turkey, I visited Dogubayazit, which is close to Mt Ararat. I discerned no passion about the mountain at all from the Turkish guide. Maybe the mountain should go to the passionate.

Geghard Monastery

This medieval monastery is sited in a canyon, and was carved out of rock from the top down. There are a number of churches, bas reliefs and tombs in the complex. The monastery no doubt attracted a lot of pilgrims as it was said to contain the spear used by a Roman soldier to stab Jesus and a part of Noah’s Ark. Lucrative indeed to have 2 relics. The hole in the centre of a dome allows a ray of light to shine into a church, which at certain times of the day would no doubt shine onto something significent would also have encouraged pilgrims.

Lunching in a garden near Lake Sevan, shaded by huge mulberry, apricot and fully laden cherry trees, I watched 2 women making bread in a floor oven heated by a fire. One woman rolled out the dough, threw it to the other woman who tossed it around until it was very thin. The dough was then slapped onto what looked like a large pillow, which was then placed against the side of the oven, leaving the dough to cook. The bread was delicious.

Lake Sevan is spectacular, perched 1900m above sea level and surrounded by stark volcanic highlands and plains. On its only island – now a peninsula – sits the medieval Sevanavank monastery, which is reached by climbing a long flight of steps, with wonderful views of the lake and snow topped mountains in the distance.

Sevanavank Monastery.

Yerevan boasts a singing and dancing fountain. I ventured out into Republic square in front of our hotel to view this one evening. I kid you not, the fountains really do dance. The music that night was from Aida, and the fountains did justice to the music.

Temple of Garni

This hellenic temple, dedicated to Helios was once a pagan temple. It was built in the 1st century CE, and collapsed in an earthquake the 17th century CE. It rose from the dead, being reconstructed in the mid 20th century.

St Gregory the Illuminator Cathedral Yerevan.

St Gregory, also called Yerevan Cathedral is modern cathedral, which was completed in 2001. It celebrates the 1700th anniversary of christianity in Armenia, and has beautifully decorated ceilings. This was the only church we visited which was a functioning place of worship.

Traditional Armenian hand made dolls.

Miss Sour became a little less sour, and ever so slightly animated when we visited the creator of these beautiful traditional dolls, in her home. Her home was in one of the Soviet style apartment blocks, one less than pleasant legacy the Soviets seem to have left everywhere they occupied.

The doll creator is a nuclear physicist, but now creates and exports dolls. She has won many prizes for her creations, and the dolls range in size from these small examples to almost baby sized.

The reason for Miss Sour’s slight animation became apparent while we were being shown the dolls. She had a platform and an example for her pro-Soviet views. She treated us to a tirade about how much better off Armenians were under Soviet rule. They had homes provided, education was free, as was medicine. There was full employment. The doll creator was an example. Educated and then employed as a nuclear physicist. No such roles were available without the Soviets, so in order to support herself the nuclear physicist created and exported dolls.

The Ruins of Zvartnots Temple

This temple, was constructed in the 7th century CE, destroyed by an earthquake in the 10th century CE, and partially reconstructed in the mid 20th century. While exploring these ruins we were captivated by the voices of opera singers from the Yerevan opera. They were singing among the ruins without accompaniment, other than birdsong from the numerous birds darting and soaring above us. A joyful encounter, listening to beautiful voices and looking across to Mt Ararat.

It would have been most interesting to talk to a larger cross section of the populations of each of the countries visited. Conclusions based on such very limited encounters are impossible to come to. Azerbaijan, a muslim country, felt quite different to Georgia, which is chistian. Georgia and Armenia are both christian countries, but Georgia seemed a great deal more joyful than Armenia. If Miss Sour is indicative, perhaps the Armenians mourn the break up of the Soviet Union and the Georgians do not.

Noah’s Arc

There are so many examples of Mt Ararat and Noah’s Arc in Armenia from ornaments such as these to the coat of arms which incorporates a silhouette of Mt Ararat. I saw few such symbols in Eastern Turkey. Maybe the mountain should go to Armenia. The people may then compete with Georgia for joyfulness.