Category Archives: Urban Art

Travels in Portugal, The Garrison Town of Elvas

Centro-Histórico-Elvas

Very close to the border with Spain is the fortress city of Elvas and after leaving the delightful city of Beja we stopped off there on our way to an overnight stay in Estremoz.

As it turned out my pre-travel research let me down rather badly on this occasion because this was a place that would have been good to stay longer but we found ourselves restricted to only an hour or so in what had become at this point a bit of a cramped and overly ambitious schedule.

We arrived around mid morning and parked the car close by to the impressive city aqueduct.  The Amoreira Aqueduct has a length of over seven thousand metres from its spring in the nearby mountains.  It is the longest and tallest aqueduct in Iberia. It is a truly impressive piece of sixteenth century architecture that was constructed to supply the frontier garrison with fresh water as the city wells became inadequate and one-by-one dried up.

Elvas Aqueduct

To reach the centre we passed through one of the many garrison gates that were designed originally to keep people out but were now easily accessible and we quickly discovered that we were in one of Portugal’s hidden gems.  Elvas is located in the far east of the country and of the Alentejo region and it seems that many tourists rarely consider visiting which is a shame because those like us who make the journey are rewarded with a fascinating town rich in history and beauty.

But wait just a minute because that would make it one of those Instagram destinations that I have previously complained about?

A border fortress city naturally required strong defences to protect the country and Elvas is among the finest examples of intensive usage of the trace italienne (a star fort) in military architecture, and has been a World Heritage Site since 2012.  A star fort is just that, a celestial shaped design which made it easier to defend and difficult for besieging armies to successfully attack it.

Elvas, it turns out is the biggest fortified town not only in Portugal but all of Europe. Inside the fortress town we walked through the ancient whitewashed streets, cobbled streets which were painful to negotiate in tourist sandals.  Along narrow passages lined by houses with blistered wooden doors,  Shutters thrown back like the wings of butterflies basking in the midday sunshine.  Sagging washing lines groaning under the weight of the dripping laundry.  The rich aroma of lunch time cooking seeping out from open windows.  Outside of the front doors pots of flowers in various stages of bloom and decay.  Fabulous.

Elvas Street 01

At the top of the town we arrived at the ancient Moorish castle which has had the benefit of considerable and extensive renovation and we paid the modest fee to climb to the top of the battlements and enjoyed expansive views over the plains of Alentejo and the neighbouring country of Spain.

Walking down from the castle we made our way to the Praça da República, which in Portugal is sort of the equivalent to the Plaza Mayor in Spain but rarely ever so noisy or busy and we found a spot in the sunshine to join local people for a lunch time drink and a simple lunch before it was time to move on.

Much too soon really, I would gladly have stayed in Elvas for much longer and an overnight stay but we couldn’t rearrange our schedule now so we returned to the car and headed in the direction of nearby Estremoz.

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Travels in Spain – Statues

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Travels in Spain, Valencia Old Town

Two years ago I visited the Spanish city of Valencia.  I liked it, I liked it a lot and said that I would like to return quite quickly so this year I did just that.

Here are some new pictures.  Click on an image to scroll through the Gallery…

I did mostly the same things so instead of repeating myself you can find my previous post about Valencia here.

Travels in Italy, Graffiti and A Load of Baloney

Bologna Grafitt1 01

My first impressions of Bologna were not especially positive I have to say.

We arrived in the late afternoon and after we had settled into our accommodation we walked the short distance to the city centre.  What a shock.  I can hand on heart say that I have never seen so much horrible graffiti anywhere else on my travels.  Not in Lisbon, not in Ljubljana, not even in Naples.  If I lived in Bologna I would open a spray paint shop and make an absolute fortune!

Should I have been surprised? Probably not, graffiti is after all an Italian word that has found its way into World-wide vocabulary. Bologna has a history and reputation for insurrection and disobedience.  Graffiti generally betrays anger and distress.

Everywhere was daubed with paint and mindless slogans and I couldn’t help wondering which part of a moron’s brain doesn’t develop properly which allows them to think that this appalling behavior is acceptable.  The famous colonnades and porticos daubed in paint, doorways disfigured and shop fronts vandalised.  It was bad, very bad and it made me feel sad, very sad.

So we walked for a while and eventually found a restaurant that served good food that filled our appetites and cheap house wine that stained our lips and after a hearty meal my mood improved and I looked forward to seeing the city in the morning.  We had walked nearly six miles today which wasn’t so bad considering the fact that we had spent almost four hours on the trains.

Bologna TowersIn the morning I have to say that the graffiti didn’t appear quite so bad, it seemed to get swept away by the bright sunlight that percolated through the colonnades, soaked up and washed away by the activity of the day but then the problem was beggars and looky-looky men on every street corner.  Later I looked in a mirror in the room to see if I had got a neon-sign on my head that said ‘please pester me’

Almost at the centre we came to the landmark site of the city – the two towers.  In the early middle ages there was a frenzy of tower building in Italy and nowhere more so than in Bologna and by 1400 it is estimated that there were as many as one hundred and eighty of them.

The tallest one remaining is called Asinelli (after the family that built it) and for a modest fee of €5 it was possible to climb the four hundred and ninety eight steps to the top of the three hundred foot tower. I can’t help thinking that what a shame they didn’t make it a round five hundred. I like round numbers.  It leans in an alarming way similar to the Leaning Tower of Pisa but this one is nearly twice as tall. In fact it is one of the highest towers in Italy, second only to the one in nearby Cremona which is about fifty feet taller.

Getting to the top was a bit of an effort, hard work with knees trembling, muscles straining and a heart ticking over faster than an Italian taxi driver’s charging meter but at the top it was all worthwhile with wonderful views over all of the city below and the countryside beyond.

Bologna Panorama

Back down at street level we walked the city and made our way to an area called the Quadrilateral which is a maze of streets dedicated to food.  Meat, fish, vegetables, bread and cakes, here there was Parma Ham, Balsamic Vinegar from Modena and cheese shops dedicated only to Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Here too was the speciality of Bologna called Mortadella which according to Wikipedia is a large Italian sausage or luncheon meat made of finely hashed or ground, heat-cured pork, which incorporates small cubes of pork fat and is flavoured with spices”

I bought some of course, it would have been rude not to and later we tried it back in the hotel room.

Mortadella let me tell you is what we call SPAM, it is just processed meat that is tasteless and nasty and is a curious pink colour as though part of an unpleasant medical procedure.  And this is supposed to be the gastronomic speciality of Bologna.  I can remember SPAM when I was a boy, it was horrible then and it was just as horrible now. It tasted like a bicycle tyre inner-tube.

We threw half of it away.  Well, almost all of it actually.

Mort translated to English is dead so I can only suppose that Mortadella means ‘Dead Delli’, I don’t think that I will ever try it again. Rather a disappointment I thought, this region of Italy is supposedly famous for food but Bologna has only horrible SPAM!

This is interesting however, how many times do we use an everyday phrase without really understanding where it came from?  Mortadella, or Bologna Sausage is so full of crap that this is where we get the expression ‘ A load of old Baloney’.

Bologna Mortadella

After the Quadrilateral we walked some more and found ourselves near to some canals. Apparently Bologna used to have a large network of transport waterways but these were filled in and paved over in a 1950s building boom. We found the one or two that survived the post-war reconstruction and inevitably it is called ‘Little Venice’

Other places have their own versions of ‘Little Venice’, London, Birmingham, Amsterdam, St Petersburg and Prague are examples, in fact almost anywhere with a little stretch of canal.

There is a Little Venice in Michigan USA and another in Bavaria in Germany and there is even one entire country that is called ‘Little Venice’.  The name ‘Venezuela’ originated from the Italian explorer and cartographer Amerigo Vespucci who led a 1499 naval expedition along the northwestern coast of South America.  When he landed he saw natives living in houses on stilts and using boats that were shaped like gondolas. He thought that the place resembled Venice so named it Venezuela, which means ‘Little Venice’.

Bologna Canal

By late afternoon our day was nearly done but before we finished I was determined to find the inevitable statue of Giuseppe Garibaldi and an especially fine statue it turned out to be and after we had found it we wandered back to the accommodation and ignoring the graffiti found history on every street corner with a time-line stretching from Romans through Popes, Revolutionaries, Communists and the terrorist Red Brigade.

Later we dined in the same restaurant and had pasta and house wine.  We walked nine and a half miles today.  I enjoyed the day in Bologna but I have to say that it is never going to get into my list of top ten of Italian towns and cities…

Naples, Palermo, Verona, Lecce, Bari, Padua,  Alghero, Lucca, Florence, Rome

 

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Travels in Italy, Balconies of Milan

Milan Balcony 1

Rather sad and neglected.  In Milan balcony flowers are not a priority it seems.

Milan Balcony 2Milan Balcony 3

Except for the modern business district…

Garden in the Sky Milan

Travels in Spain, Barcelona in Pictures

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Travels in Spain, Alternative Images of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

Sagrada Familia Sand Castle

Spotted on a nearby beach constructed by two children with the same imagination as Antoni Gaudi.

Travels in Spain, Body Art on the Streets of the Barcelona Gothic Quarter

Gothic Quarter 4Gothic Quarter 1Gothic Quarter 3

Naples, The Back Streets

Naples Backstreets 02

“To see Naples as we saw it in the early dawn from far up on the side of Vesuvius, is to see a picture of wonderful beauty. At that distance its dingy buildings looked white, rank on rank of balconies, windows and roofs, they piled themselves up from the blue ocean till the colossal castle of St. Elmo topped the grand white pyramid and gave the picture symmetry, emphasis and completeness

But do not go within the walls and look at it in detail. That takes away some of the romance of the thing.”

Mark Twain – The Innocents Abroad

Naples Backstreets 06Naples Backstreets 05

On this point I have to disagree with Mark Twain, the back streets are the romance of the thing!

Naples Backstreets 04

Naples, Walking The Back Streets

Naples Backstreets 03.jpg 

“I remember the back streets of Naples
Two children begging in rags
Both touched with a burning ambition
To shake off their lowly brown tags…”

Peter Sarstedt – ‘Where do you go to my lovely’

There is a famous phrase that claims ‘See Naples and die!’ which originated in the eighteenth century under the Bourbon regime when the city was added to the Grand Tour of Europe and meant that before you passed away you must experience the beauty and magnificence of Naples which at that time one of the most important cities in all of Europe.  This is where Horatio Nelson met and wooed Emma Hamilton.  Naples was capital of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies until Italian Unification in 1861 and was the wealthiest city in Italy, plundered then by Rome leading to economic decline and a hundred years of neglect.

Some, less charitable, now say that the city is so mad, dangerous and badly polluted that death might possibly be a consequence of a visit there.

But to be fair not everyone is so pessimistic and gloomy about Naples and in 1913 George Bradshaw wrote in his guide ‘Great Continental Railway Journeys”…

“Naples is a bit of heaven that has tumbled to earth.”

The dangerously psychotic cab driver with a personal death wish which included anyone else in his cab at the same time dropped us off at a taxi rank at the City Cathedral and gave us final walking instructions to our accommodation but when we got there we couldn’t find it and I immediately accused him of dropping us off in the wrong place.  Unfairly as it happened because as it turned out it was my fault that I didn’t spot the small plaque on the wall that identified the b&b which was inside a residential apartment block.

My heart sank, in pursuit of a bargain price had I made a massive mistake?  We were too early to book in but we left our bags and set off immediately into the back streets of Naples.

Not the sort of hotel front entrance that we normally expect…

Naples B&BNaples Backstreets 01

I liked it immediately.  I liked it a lot.  At the Centro Storico the warren of alleys with peeling sepia walls were vibrant, chaotic and gloriously dilapidated, the architecture was street stained, the locals loud and boisterous without any sort of volume control, the balconies were bannered with laundry and the driving was appalling.  This was a fabulous place, the beating heart of the city, raw, dirty, passionate, crumbling, secret, corrupt but above all welcoming.

But so dirty, so grubby, so full of street litter that I concluded that although Naples was notorious for crime that we were more likely to be endangered by grime especially as it is well known that refuse collection in Naples is run by Mafia gangs.

The cities of southern Italy are in complete contrast to those in the north, this is a completely different experience, there is no wonderful architecture, no magnificent art except mindless graffiti, here there is no Michelangelo or Leonardo de Vinci, no Raphael or Botticelli, it reminded me immediately of Palermo in Sicily and Bari in Puglia but like a warm mozzarella the city oozes history, charm and adventure.

Not nearly as gloriously grand as Rome, as fabulously splendid as Florence or as dreamily romantic or decadent as Venice but with its own unique character, gritty, grimy, raw and sweaty with a down to earth proletarian charm.

Naples Grafitti

Naples is a traditional South Italian living and working class city with shabby narrow streets, care worn but brightly colour-washed buildings that have ancient coats of paint which have blotched and blurred by successive harsh summers and the result is an artist’s palette, water colours leaking in the rain, everything running, flaking and fusing. The streets between the houses are deep grey gullies decorated by washing lines carelessly strung outside windows and across the pavements like tattered bunting as though in anticipation of an important carnival, dripping and swaying above little shops, street food vendors and small bars.

I was intrigued by the shops,  the greengrocers with outside tables weighed down with plump produce grown in the rich volcanic Vesuvian soil, the mini-markets with a cold cabinet display full of tempting hams and pungent cheeses, the cheap bottles of beer and the shop selling locally produced wine.  Especially the shop selling locally produced wine.  We bought some ludicrously cheap grape juice of course even though there was no way of determining its origin or its vintage or with any confidence whatsoever about its alcohol content or what damage it was likely to inflict on our livers!

Naples Balcony

We walked some more through the pedestrian zone, although the term pedestrian zone  I warn you should not be taken too literally in Naples.  There are generously spaced bollards at each end and if anything motorised can squeeze between them then this appears to be completely acceptable and a visitor certainly needs to have their wits about them when walking casually around these streets that’s for sure.  What makes it even more alarming is that the narrow, winding streets and high buildings make even the most clapped out moped sound like a Ferrari on a Grand Prix starting grid.

At three o’clock we thought our room must surely be ready but no, we had another thirty minutes or so to wait so we found a bar and ordered afternoon drinks and waited.  When I say waited I really mean I worried because as time passed by I was not so optimistic about the accommodation and how much trouble I might be in.

After a beer to muster courage we returned to our b&b, my heart beating fast enough to contribute to a marching band but I needn’t have worried because it was absolutely wonderful.  It turns out that this was once the house of a member of the Neapolitan nobility (a long time ago of course) and we were allocated a room on the front with a special balcony that had been installed two hundred years earlier to provide a grand view of the Cathedral Square outside.

I was so relieved that I immediately opened the bottle of wine and as we declared it completely acceptable considered our dining options for later.  After a short debate we agreed that as we were in Naples then it just had to be pizza.  It had to be pizza! Of course it had to be pizza!

Our room is balcony top right…

Catherdal B&B Balcony Naples