The Imperial Ramp in the Roman Forum

Fresco of the reluctant martyr sneaking out of the frozen pond to the warmth of the bath house.

In 1900 the archaeologist Giacomo Boni uncovered some intriguing remains in the Roman Forum: those of the so-called ‘Oratory of the Forty Martyrs’ and, leading off it, a covered brick ramp. These remains are usually closed to the public, and work on them is ongoing, but at the moment (until 10th January 2016) they are open as part of an exhibition.


From the street which runs alongside what would once have been the entrance portico of the great Basilica Julia (an opposite the modern public toilets), a path leads to the excavations. The Oratory, its walls covered in fragmentary frescoes, has been enlosed by a modern roof, walls and door. At first sight, you might think there is nothing remarkable about these, but signboards explain the enormous trouble that has been taken to reconstruct what might originally have been in place here: a roof which rises above the ground at the same height as the ceiling of the ramp, a door whose dimensions conform to those of ‘Golden Rectangle’, and an interior volume that, like that of the Pantheon, is exactly as tall as it is wide, so that a perfect sphere could be fitted inside. The room itself, today known as the Oratory because of its later use as a place of Christian worship, was originally constructed in the 1st century, at the time of the emperor Domitian, to form an entrance vestibule to the ramp, the covered walkway which slopes and winds its way gently up to the Palatine Hill, linking the Imperial palace and the Forum.


The ramp and its ancillary buildings were added to by succeeding emperors so that by the time of Hadrian in the 2nd century the complex consisted of the ramp itself, two separate vestibules and a grand porticoed atrium. The current exhibition has opened the ramp and the first vestibule, the Oratory of the Forty Martyrs, to the public.


The ramp is similar in its design to that inside Castel Sant’Angelo, the ancient mausoleum of Hadrian, which winds through the core of the building to the central sepulchral chamber. It is tall and narrow and barrel-vaulted, its walls and floor made of brick. It would have been possible to travel along its length on horseback. Rooms that open off it might have been used by the Imperial guard. They have been arranged to exhibit pieces of sculpture found during excavations. At the level of the first landing, on the right, are the remains of a latrine, built during the time of Hadrian and close to a staircase inserted under Hadrian’s predecessor Trajan to link the grand atrium or forecourt to the ramp. In the early Christian era, this atrium was turned into the church of Santa Maria Antiqua, and it is known that the staircase was still in use at that time. The ramp leads onward and upward, out into the sunlight again, to an elevated terrace from where there is a magnificent view of the Forum down below and across the rooftops, domes and bell-towers of the city. The continuation of the ramp from here to the summit of the Palatine is not open, and indeed excavations are not yet complete. It is proposed at a later stage to open it up and allow public access.

Interior view of the Imperial ramp.


The Oratory of the Forty Martyrs has interesting traces of fresco decoration. Each of the four walls was decorated with a dado of trompe l'oeil white drapery, above which are figurative scenes. On the wall on the left as you enter (the north wall) are the very scanty remains of the Forty Martyrs in Glory. You can still make out some of their heads, encircled with haloes, and their bright white robes, edged with purple like a magistrate’s toga. The east wall, with an apse at its centre, has the main scene. The Forty Martyrs were Roman soldiers of the Legio XII Fulminata, who had converted to Christianity. They were sentenced (in AD 320) to spend the night naked in a frozen pond, near which were warm baths, specially prepared to tempt any who might wish to recant rather than die of exposure. One of the company did so: the fresco shows him sneaking away from his companions to thaw his frozen limbs. His action left only thirty-nine faithful, until one of their guards came forward and confessed his Christian faith, taking the number back to forty again. To the left of this scene are large painted crosses, hung with jewels, and below one of them, a peacock, symbol of immortality. The south wall had scenes of monastic life (very ruined). The frescoes have undergone several restorations between 1969 and today. For this exhibition, they were restored (very beautifully) under the leadership of Susanna Sarmati.


by Annabel Barber. See here for Blue Guides on Rome.

Sabbioneta, Cryptic City

Detail of the theatre at Sabbioneta.

We came to Sabbioneta the small Renaissance city brought to its final form by Vespasiano Gonzaga in 1590, in the spring of 2015 to check it as a possible stop on a tour. Despite its World Heritage status, Sabbioneta is still little visited; we were almost alone as we explored its buildings and walked around its walls. Yet it is fascinating in itself as a time capsule of late 16th-century architecture, above all in the exquisite theatre, just a few years later than Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza but echoing it in style. It came as no surprise to find that it is the work of Vincenzo Scamozzi, who had finished Palladio’s masterpiece after his death.


The architect James Madge, who died in 2006, first visited Sabbioneta in January 1988, a day on which the fog of the Lombardy plain enveloped the city. As he walked around, buildings loomed from the mist and then disappeared, perspectives came and went, the length of the Galleria Grande seemed to merge into nothingness. It gave him the sense that there was more to Gonzaga’s creation than simply ‘the ideal city’ and he became fascinated by Vespasiano Gonzaga himself, ‘for whom architecture was a means to externalise a complex, often contradictory and passionate nature’. Why was Vespasiano so determined to create this small  (probably no more than 2,000 citizens), idealised city in a comparatively remote spot on the banks of the Po?


The result of Madge’s researches are Sabbioneta, Cryptic City, published by Biblioteque McLean (London, 2011). Madge begins by tracing Vespasiano’s background. His father had died when Vespasiano was only eleven months old, leaving the township of Sabbioneta as part of his inheritance. This was only a cadet branch of the family. Vespasiano was never to enjoy the wealth of his cousin Guglielmo, the head of the Gonzaga family in Mantua, with his thousand dependents and twenty residences, but his mother was from the ancient Colonna family and Vespasiano was profoundly conscious of his status as one of noble heritage and status. He was lucky to be brought up in the household of his aunt Giulia Gonzaga, a childless window of great learning who ensured he had the best education in the classics.


He was then sent off to the court of his uncle, Philip II of Spain. Perhaps it was because as an Italian he would always be an outsider, perhaps the hothouse aristocratic atmosphere of Philip’s court would have stifled anyone who was not exceptional, but Vespasiano’s achievements in Spain were always modest. There were some reckless charges in battle which he was lucky to survive, and he proved a capable diplomat, but lacked the éclat or presence to go further. His most senior posting, as Viceroy of Navarre, appears to have been largely honorary.


There were also problems in his intimate relationships. His first marriage proved childless and he was alienated from his wife: there were rumours of her infidelities. His second marriage, to the Spanish Anna of Aragon, did produce a daughter, Isabella, and a son, Luigi, but Anna appears to have suffered from deep depression and had withdrawn from Vespasiano’s life years before her death. Now came the tragedy of his life. Luigi, always sickly, died while still a boy, a terrible blow for a father who was so conscious of his noble heritage. A third marriage, conceived in desperation in the last hope of providing an heir, was childless. The Gonzaga-Colonna line was due for extinction. Madge analyses the poems that Vespasiano left. They were hardly of great quality but show him as solitary and unfulfilled, the women he addresses hopelessly idealised.


So this perhaps helps explain the impetus for a semi-private world of his own creation, a place where Vespasiano could act out the role of cultured humanist. Sabbioneta was a lifelong project, with its founder escaping when he could from his duties in Spain. He began in 1556 by creating a community from the existing township that he had inherited. Citizens would lose their privileges if they did not reside there, absentee clergy were summoned back to their parishes, a monastery was relocated within the walls and no local market was to be held outside the central piazza. Madge notes how the inhabitants soon took pride in the new town that was rising around them and their loyalty was reinforced by the benevolent rule of their patron. Vespasiano’s tolerance extended to a community of Jews, rare at a time when the Counter-Reformation was gathering strength (one can still visit the city’s synagogue). Though he kept his religious beliefs to himself, his range of contacts showed he was never closed to religious diversity.


This is not a guidebook to Sabbioneta, although Madge uses his architectural experience to trace some of the influences from the treatises of Leon Battista Alberti (whose masterpiece of Sant’Andrea in Mantua is not far away) and, through Alberti, back to the Roman architect Vitruvius. Vespasiano was steeped in the Roman world. He had himself presented as a Roman in the fine bronze statue of him by Leone Leoni (1588), originally outside the ducal palace but now crowning his tomb in the church of the Incoronata. Rome, as Madge puts it, ‘is immanent as a felt presence at Sabbioneta’. The city is aligned on an axis that leads southwards to the city, there are frescoes in the theatre of Rome as it was in Vespasiano’s day and his own seat there is placed in front of a fresco of his namesake, the emperor Vespasian.


Unlike Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico, the theatre in Sabbioneta is conceived as an independent building, probably the first of its kind. With its statues of the Olympian gods, frescoes of the emperors and of Rome, and a painted loggia of local figures (reminiscent of the Veronese’s frescoes from the Villa Barbaro), it is a wonderful place to visit. Nearby the Palazzo Ducale (Vespasiano was created Duke of Sabbioneta by the emperor Rudolf II in 1577) has much of interest, but perhaps one comes closest to Vespasiano himself in the private apartments of the Palazzo del Giardino. The frescoes here, by Bernardino Campi, show his fascination with Roman literature: there are scenes from the Aeneid and mythology from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Madge attempts to make connections between the preoccupations of Vespasiano and the subjects of the frescoes but it could equally be said that these are typical expressions of the 16th-century humanism. What is special is the Galleria Grande, 96m long. Originally Vespasiano’s collection of antique statues were spaced along the walls, but towards the end of his life, he took out the busts of famous commanders and refilled their niches with antlers and other ‘natural’ objects that he had acquired while visiting his patron, the emperor Rudolf in Prague. It shows that, even in his last years, Vespasiano was still intellectually inquisitive.


The theatre was inaugurated in February 1590 during carnival celebrations and a troupe of comedy players was based there over the following months. However, Vespasiano was ailing and he died in 1591, leaving the city to his daughter and her husband. Over the years that followed the city stagnated. The statues went to Mantua in the 18th century. The theatre passed from granary to warehouse, from barracks to the local cinema, before its restoration in the 1950s.


Meticulous readers will note that James Madge died in 2006 and Sabbioneta was not published until 2011. It is good that the book was rescued for publication, although the material, particularly that on Vespasiano’s life, might have been reorganised in a better chronological sequence. In his attempt to find the roots of Vespasiano’s personality, Freud is brought in to help, but it is hard to isolate Vespasiano’s inner traumas from the wider world in which he lived. In so many ways he represented the cultural elite of his day: tolerant, well-read, half-lost in the Classical world. Where this book has wider appeal lies in the generous selection of 16th-century humanist texts that Madge has brought together. Sadly the illustrations at the end are rather cramped but overall Madge does well to give an interpretation of Sabbioneta that explains why it came to be.


Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides.

Secret delights of Florence: the Bellini private museum

Archive view of the Arno looking west. Museo Bellini is further downstream on the left bank.

Almost the first house you come to on the peaceful Lungarno Soderini (which skirts the Arno as it flows downstream away from the centre of Florence) is the Museo Bellini, in a charming small building designed at the turn of the last century by the eccentric architect Gino Coppedè for Luigi Bellini, the most famous collector and antiquarian in a family still dedicated to this activity (and who still live here). A wisteria in the garden climbs all the way along the front across the little balcony. It was built specifically to house the Bellini collection, put together by generations of the family since the mid-18th century (and is connected to their residence by a spiral stair). The interior is filled with many precious works of art: paintings and sculptures; genuine, unrestored 15th- and 16th-century furniture; majolica and works by the Della Robbia, and small bronzes. The present Luigi Bellini tells of travels in Italy with his father when just a young child: while waiting outside a house while a transaction was underway he would open his bag and play with the small bronzes he found there.


The property is much larger than it appears from the river front: it stretches all the way back to Borgo San Frediano, and the rooms get older as the property recedes. The oldest part, Palazzo Soderini, dates from the 15th century or even earlier.

The atmosphere is unforgettable and it seems almost superfluous to name some of the treasures, or to be too fussy over the attributions (perhaps sometimes over-ambitious) and dates. But to give an idea of the diversity, there are paintings by Bronzino, Suttermans, Luca Carnevalis (a view of Venice), Guidoriccio Cozzarelli (two gold-ground panels with saints), and even a little private altar of the Madonna with the standing Child attributed to Fra' Angelico (the doors of the tabernacle are opened for you). But it is perhaps the Cupid and Psyche, thought to be by Rubens, which is the most striking painting of all. The painted wood sculpture includes two beautiful pieces by Francesco da Valdambrino, and there is a splendid collection of small Renaissance bronzes (some of them charmingly displayed in a 16th-century sacristy cupboard). There is also a painted papier-mâché bust of a female saint showing affinities with Donatello and a female bust in wood (which still has its real lace bonnet intact) probably by Neroccio di Bartolomeo Landi (this, together with other pieces, was purchased in an early 20th-century sale at Palazzo Davanzati).  A very fine polychrome stucco bas-relief of the Deposition is given to the hand of Bandinelli. The majolica comes from the best known manufactories in Italy and there is very rare early Hispano-Moresque lustreware.


The rooms are dimly lit, some of the walls lined with velvet, others with lovely tapestries, and there are worn carpets underfoot. The atmosphere is that of a treasure-trove of other days when collecting was an art performed by connoisseurs who, one feels, surely purchased objects for their intrinsic beauty rather than their monetary value.


NB: Visits to the museum are by previous appointment. T: 055 214031

or contact through


After the visit it is worth continuing along the Lungarno as far as the piazza in front of the church of San Frediano in Cestello (open 9.30–11.30 & 5-6.30): after rain the sound of the waters of the Arno as they flow over a dyke in the river are reflected off the bare façade. The interior is interesting for its late 17th- and early 18th-century painted decorations and a lovely polychrome wood statue of the Madonna (all described in Blue Guide Florence). From here there is a charming view of the humble houses and terraces of the district of San Frediano in the Oltrarno.


by Alta Macadam. Alta is the author of many Blue Guides to Italy. She is currently working on a new edition of Blue Guide Rome.


Cutting-edge mosque design in Albania

Albania, largely a Muslim country during the long Ottoman occupation, albeit with Christian and Jewish minorities, became an officially atheist state in 1967. The practice of any form of any religion was banned, cultic buildings were either destroyed or simply abandoned and allowed to crumble. In the early 1990s, during the turmoil that shook the Balkans and, further east, the Soviet Union, Albania came out of its seclusion, rekindling contacts with the West. Many people left the country in search of a better life abroad. The ban on religion was lifted but with no dramatic results. Twenty odd years of enforced atheism seemed to have smothered any feelings in that direction. Albanian society today can be described as largely secular. Sparsely dotted here and there, one can see old buildings with new crosses, replacements of those taken down; old mosques that have been restored; and a few new structures. The dearth of synagogues may be due to the flight of the Jewish community to Israel. On the whole, religious practice is very muted. Church bells, with their distinctive dry and sharp sound are rarely heard, muezzins seem to call the faithful only twice a day and even then their call is low key, almost apologetic and only lasts a couple of sentences. Not all villages have a mosque or a church: they are altogether pretty thin on the ground.


In the south, in the hinterland on a secondary road to Delvina from Saranda, in a small village that has no name since the practice of road signing is still in its infancy (adding an extra challenge to driving), is the mosque in the picture. It sits by the road and cannot be missed. It is not yet finished and the interior is still full of bags of cement while the surroundings need landscaping and a fountain for ritual ablutions. The style is interesting, though: it is new for Albania and for mosques in general. Other buildings of this sort tend to be rectangular and rather squat, with a dome covered in shiny material and a pencil minaret. They conform to a type that one can see in Turkey, for instance. Indeed, some of the new Albanian mosques are the bequests of the Turkish people. This one, with its stark outside, daring lines and imaginative architecture, is truly a departure from the standard model. It is small but better proportioned. The blue sky of the August sun (when the picture was taken) makes a wonderful background. The crooked minaret, asymmetric dome and new style windows are arresting. It will be interesting to see how the light plays inside. Albania has not been particularly noted for its architecture. Now, at long last, it is putting its name on the map.

by Paola Pugsley, author of Blue Guide Crete and three Blue Guide e-chapters on Turkey. A fourth, covering Central Anatolia, is in production. For the special reprint edition of Blue Guide Albania & Kosovo, see here.

St Francis in Florence

Trial by Fire before the Sultan, on loan from the Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

For anyone in Florence, there are only a few more days left to catch this important exhibition at the Galleria dell'Accademia (closes 9th November) dedicated to art inspired by Italy’s most famous saint. Unfortunately it has limited space and the crowds of visitors who come to the Accademia just to see Michelangelo's David produce an atmosphere anything but an inducement to a peaceful quiet study of the pieces on exhibition—but don’t be put off!


The first exhibit is an ivory horn which almost certainly belonged to Francis himself. Tradition says that it was given to him by the learned Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil, an extremely cultured man, whom Francis is known to have met on his visit to Egypt during the troubled times of the Fifth Crusade. Francis had sailed from Ancona in 1219 and was in Egypt that summer and managed to obtain an audience with the Sultan who received him kindly and with due respect in the presence of his most learned councillors. It was at this meeting that Francis walked across fire unscathed (trial by fire was recognized as a means of solving disputes), but the costly gifts the Sultan offered to Francis were all refused except this hunting horn, since Francis had seen its utility when in Egypt and decided he could use it when back in Italy to call his brothers to prayer. It became one of the most precious relics associated with him (today it is  preserved in Assisi). The silver mount was added some hundred years after the saint’s death.


A simple 13th-century bronze reliquary chest from Ognissanti in Florence, which once contained the habit Francis was wearing when he received the stigmata at La Verna, is displayed beside the horn (part of the habit, after many vicissitudes, is supposed to be that preserved at La Verna today). The V& A have lent a precious little 14th-century seal which depicts the vision of a Englishman, Aimone (Haymo) born in Faversham (Kent), who had a vision in 1222 of Francis lowering his knotted girdle to two fishermen in a boat (the scene is charmingly depicted on the seal). As a result Aimone became a Franciscan and his fame was such that he even succeeded Fra' Elia as minister general of the Order in 1240 and remained in Italy, where he died four years later.


The main part of the exhibition is naturally devoted to images of St Francis and this is an opportunity to see the numerous different ways he was portrayed from the 13th to the 15th century. One of the earliest and most important paintings, dating from c. 1230, is from Pisa showing Francis surrounded by six scenes of his miracles by Giunta Pisano (properly called Giunta di Capitino), who worked for the Franciscans for some 30 years. Dating from around 20 years later, the painting of St Francis with eight stories from his life is a well-known work from Pistoia (where the Franciscans were established by 1232), and has many similarities with the earlier panel. A series of paintings all dating from the mid-13th century show Francis surrounded by little scenes from his life. Another familiar mid-13th century icon of the saint is that first produced by Margarito d'Arezzo and five of these are displayed together: Francis is depicted standing in his habit with a hooded cowl holding a book, and showing the signs of his stigmata. This became a prototype and many replicas were made (as well as fakes) of this image. But the most striking portrait of St Francis is that by the great painter Cimabue, dating from 1280 and still preserved in Assisi: it shows the poverello standing and bare-headed in a simple pose holding a book bound in red. This is generally considered to be one of the most authentic portraits to have survived from this time.


After Francis received the stigmata from the Cross, painted Crosses naturally became very popular and were always in need to decorate Franciscan churches. Beautiful examples in the exhibition include one (c. 1236, now in Assisi) of the three still extant signed by Giunta di Capitino. Another one from Faenza is by a master named the ‘Maestro dei Crocifissi Francescani’ because he became so well known for Crosses like this one.


The rule of the Order sanctioned by Honorius III in 1223 specified that the friars should also be concerned with preaching to the Saracens and non-Christians. Some of the friars' travels through Asia as far as China, and the history of their encounter with the Mongols, are documented in the excellent catalogue. The Franciscans also have a centuries'-old role as custodians of Christian sites in the Holy Land (by 1348 we know that 20 Friars Minor were living in Bethlehem). On display from their museum in Jerusalem are sculptural fragments, antiphonals, pilgrims' lamps and ampullae for Holy Oil, and a crosier in gilded copper with enamel decoration. Inscriptions in Arabic have been lent by another Franciscan Museum on Mount Tabor in Galilee. But these pieces only underline how little we know in Europe about the Franciscans in the East.


Later works include an exquisite small Crucifixion painted by Ugolino di Nerio (from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York) and a superb large Maestà (c. 1320) by a painter who is known as the ‘Maestro di Figline’ from this work and which is here because it shows St Elizabeth of Hungary and St Louis of Toulouse (who is trampling his crown underfoot), both of them Franciscan saints, suitably dressed in the Franciscan habit. This comes from the small Tuscan town of Figline and is one of the most beautiful paintings in all Italy of its date. Another lovely painting on display, but dating from the late 15th century, is St Francis receiving the Stigmata by Bartolomeo della Gatta (from the little town of Castiglion Fiorentino on the southern border of Tuscany), which shows the saint in the presence of the astonished Fra' Leone, in a beautiful rocky landscape recalling La Verna with a barn owl looking on as the golden stigmata descend from the  Cross in the sky to end in bright stars (instead of the more usual macabre 'holes') on the saint's hands and feet. La Verna (described in detail in Blue Guide Tuscany and Blue Guide Central Italy) in the Casentino near Florence was where Francis received the stigmata in 1224.


There is also a room devoted to works made for Florence's great Franciscan church of Santa Croce. These include the little painted panels in gilded quatrefoil frames which were once part of a huge sacristy cupboard and which illustrate the life of Christ in parallel to that of St Francis. These are now preserved in the Galleria dell'Accademia itself, although four of them were lost to Munich and Berlin in the 19th century and only one has been lent for the exhibition (but it is the one which shows the Trial by Fire before the Sultan). Also here is the fascinating fresco which was detached from the first cloister of the church and is of particular interest because it includes one of the very first views of the Baptistery beside the old façade of the Duomo, but is here because it portrays the arrival of the Friars Minor in Florence in the winter of 1209 led by the first follower of St Francis, Fra' Bernardo da Quintavalle: the group of Franciscans are shown refusing charity from officers in the cathedral who have failed to recognize them. For this occasion the fresco has been given a new attribution to the little-known Pietro Nelli.


Arguably the most beautiful of all paintings of St Francis (which includes 20 stories from his life) has also been brought here from Santa Croce (the Bardi Chapel). Dating from the 1240s, it provided the most complete illustration of episodes in the saint's life before Giotto's frescoes in the upper church in Assisi, and includes the scene of him preaching before the Sultan and a group of Muslims in their turbans, as next to the more familiar scene of him preaching to the birds. Its attribution to Coppo di Marcovaldo, the most important painter in Florence before Cimabue, is now generally accepted, and seems more than ever likely now the panel has been beautifully restored especially for this exhibition.


by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence and many other Blue Guides to Italy. For details, see here.


To Austria’s Lake District by rail

Mark Dudgeon, Blue Guides’ rail expert, takes advantage of the summer weather to visit the Salzkammergut region of Austria.

Budapest’s Keleti railway station on a Thursday morning in late August: the migrant crisis overwhelming Europe is on stark display here. On the subterranean level, masses of hapless refugees calmly mill around or lie down in their family groupings waiting for something to happen, somewhere to go.

A rail journey to Austria would normally start here: Railjets run towards Vienna at two-hourly intervals in the daytime. But today, instead, a sharpish flit over to Kelenföld station - in the southern Buda suburbs - is required, to catch the early morning train from Debrecen (in the east of Hungary) towards Vienna. This train does not reach Keleti, the main international station in Budapest, but instead skirts through the city’s southern fringes, stopping at a couple of suburban stations en route.

The train arrives on time and is very busy, for it’s the start of a long holiday weekend in Hungary. Surprisingly, it’s not a Hungarian or Austrian train which rolls up, but a Polish trainset. On board, breakfast in the Polish dining car – an advantage on this train over the newer Railjets, which only have a cramped bistro section – makes the journey pass by very comfortably. At Vienna’s Westbahnhof station, there is more evidence of the migrant crisis. Two platforms are cordoned off and a group of around a hundred refugees is sitting patiently, cross-legged, in the middle, surrounded by police. Then a further contingent of a dozen or so police officers arrives and escorts them away.

From Vienna, the next stage of the journey proceeds westwards on the Austrian main east-west axis towards Salzburg, but only as far as Attnang-Puchheim, reached about 3 hours after leaving Vienna. This journey is operated using an OeBB (Austrian Railways) inter-city train, made up of refurbished early-1990s carriages, which used to be the mainstay of Austrian long-distance rail travel until the introduction of the Railjets a few years ago. OeBB has kept these trains in excellent condition, and many consider them to be more comfortable than the Railjets, having more legroom and feeling less cramped, with a mixture of traditional compartment and open-plan seating.

The scenery so far has been pleasant, rather than spectacular, but thing soon change on the Salzkammergutbahn, part of which runs from Attnang-Puchheim, for a distance of about 60 miles southwards and then eastwards, to Stainach-Irdning on the Graz-Innsbruck line. Now travel is on a regional express train, and about fifteen minutes after leaving Attnang-Puchheim, the train arrives at the first major station on the single-track line, Gmunden, which is at the northern tip of Traunsee, the second largest lake in this area. The lake is unfortunately not yet visible from the railway, since the station lies some way out of the town. The station is linked with the lakeside by the Gmunden Tramway, which, although short (less than a mile-and-a-half long) is the oldest tramway still operating in Austria. From the lakeside square in the centre of Gmunden, the full expanse of the eight-mile long lake unfolds, with the mountains providing a splendid backdrop to the south and east, whilst on the western side of the lake, just south of the town, lies the striking Schloss Ort, a castle with origins in the eleventh century.

Back on the railway, after another ten minutes, the lakeside is reached just before the station at Traunkirchen, and the train continues along the lake’s western shore all the way to its southern end at Ebensee. Traunsee is a popular lake for water sports, particularly sailing and water-skiing - and on any summer’s day the view from the train is of a lake dotted with the sails of yachts. The railway line then bears south-westwards along the banks of the River Traun, for about ten miles, until it reaches the town of Bad Ischl.

Bad Ischl lies at the centre of the Salzkammergut region, Austria’s lake district, and while being a significant tourist base, it does not at all project the feeling of being overwhelmed by tourism – it is a charming and bustling town in its own right. It lies at the confluence of the Traun and Ischl rivers, which loop round effectively transforming the town’s centre into a peninsula. By the mid-nineteenth century, Bad Ischl had become fashionable as a spa resort, and it was the summer retreat for many years of Emperor Franz Josef I, who was engaged to the future Empress Sisi here. Consequently, the spa town became very popular with Austrian and European aristocracy even before the railway arrived in 1875, and the centre contains many elegant imperial buildings.

From Bad Ischl, to the west lies the well-frequented lakeside resort of St Wolfgang and the Wolfgangsee, and beyond that, Salzburg; however, unfortunately, there is no railway line in that direction. The railway continues southwards towards to the sleepy town of Bad Goisern, and then soon a glimmer of the dark waters of the Hallstättersee – Lake Hallstatt – can be seen through the trees. The train now hugs the lakeside, but the opposite shore is only visible occasionally, offering the tantalising glimpse of the small settlement in the distance, hugging the side of a mountain. Then, after passing through a short tunnel, the train draws to a halt at the solitary platform which forms the station at Hallstatt, on the opposite side of the lake to the town it serves.

From the station, a short path snakes downwards to the waiting ferry. For as long as can be remembered, in a very civilised arrangement, the ferry meets each train, and the trains stop at the station only when the ferry operates.

Despite the innumerable images of Hallstatt in guide books and online, nothing quite prepares you for the beauty of the setting in reality. The view from the boat crossing the lake is probably the most spectacular, and this is not lost on the many camera-wielding tourists making the journey. The town seems to be precariously situated between the mountainside and lake shore, while the colours of its buildings are reflected in the dark, shimmering waters of the lake. The boat docks at Hallstatt Markt pier, and everyone disembarks right into the centre of town.

Hallstatt is small – the main street, which is almost traffic-free, runs for about 500 metres, north to south – and despite the throngs of tourists, remains considerably beguiling, not least because of the charm of its well-kept buildings, many of which are hundreds of years old. It is easy to find some tranquillity away from the crowds by walking behind and above the main street, looking down on the town; in a mini-Venice effect, the town becomes much quieter in the early evening after the many day-trippers have left.

Highlights of a visit to Hallstatt include the salt mines and the town’s ossuary. Hallstatt’s connections with salt mining go back many centuries; indeed the early European Iron Age, between about 800 and 500 BC, is referred to as the Hallstatt period. The entrance to the salt mines is reached by a vertiginous cable railway running up Salzberg, the salt mountain itself. Near the railway’s summit, Hallstatt’s own skywalk – 350 metres above the town – provides the inevitably stunning panoramic views. The ossuary, or Bone House, is located in the basement of St Michael’s church, and dates back to the twelfth century. It contains some 1,200 skulls, about half of which are painted; many are arranged in family groups. It came about ostensibly because of limited burial space in the town, and the historical prohibition of cremations. The last skull to be placed there was as recent as 1995, being that of a woman who died in 1983.

Just south of the town, a glacial valley cuts into the mountains, perpendicular to the lake. The town’s dwellings soon dwindle out into the open countryside, and there are plenty of reasonably easy, and little-frequented hiking trails leading to craggy rock faces, rushing streams, waterfalls and high bridges with expansive views of the town and lake below. More experienced hikers can take the trail up the side of the Salzberg to the high station of the mountain railway.

Back in Hallstatt, it is evident that this place is extremely popular with Asian visitors, so much so that a few years ago - initially much to the chagrin of local residents of the original town - China built a full-scale replica of Hallstatt in Guangdong province.

On the good boat Stefanie, sailing back to the railway station on its last journey of the day, the constant clicking of cameras and smartphones evidences tourists making the most of the last chance to take pictures of the unique setting. Then they make their way up to the station, and just a few minutes later everyone is whisked away by the last northbound train of the day.


From Vienna or Salzburg, Hallstatt is reached by changing trains at Attnang-Puchheim. A shorter journey is possible from Salzburg by a combination of bus to Bad Ischl, and thence train to Hallstatt.

On Saturdays and Sundays, a through train to Bad Ischl and Hallstatt leaves Vienna (Westbahnhof) at around 10:00, returning from Hallstatt just after 16:30.

The last boat to leave Hallstatt Markt pier for the railway station leaves promptly at 18:15 daily, which allows a same-day arrival in Vienna just after 22:00. In the reverse direction, a train departing Vienna just before 15:00 connects with the last train from Attnang-Puchheim to Hallstatt, arriving at 18:47. The last boat to the town leaves immediately after the arrival of this train.

The low platform at Hallstatt is on a curve and the train leans away from the platform, meaning somewhat of a climb to get on or off the train, and making boarding and alighting with luggage cumbersome; the path down to the ferry, although short (less than 100 metres), is steep-ish and also can be awkward with bags.

Hallstatt’s station is unmanned, but if you are ticketless, be sure to buy your train ticket before boarding from the ticket machine, which is unsigned and somewhat hidden away in the small waiting-room. It will sell you a ticket for any destination in Austria.

Pilgrimage pathways to and from Rome

Southern Lazio, through which the Via Francigena del Sud passes.

It is always good to meet up with old students from the International Baccalaureate history classes I taught in the 1980s and even more special if they have followed a path that interests me. So it was a real pleasure to meet with Simone Quilici, an architect who now teaches the management of cultural heritage at the American University of Rome.


Simone has been working on landscaping projects in the Lazio region and he gave me the latest edition of Le Vie religiose nel Lazio, ‘the religious pathways of Lazio’, a map and guide to ancient pilgrimage routes that leave Rome. The most important routes are along the Via Francigena, the ancient pilgrim way recorded as early as the 8th century that can be traced from as far north as Canterbury. In a document of 990 recording the journey of Sigeric, the archbishop of Canterbury, to receive his pallium, the cloth that symbolised his office, from the pope, there is even a note of each stopping place. Sigeric averaged 20 kilometres a day and this is the average distance for each day’s walking that the map shows and describes for the first 200 kilometres of the Via outside Rome.


Although the word ‘Francigena’ recognises that this is a route from France, the map also shows a Francigena nel Sud, which branches out into two parts south of Rome, one heading down the Via Appia and the other crossing central Italy towards Monte Cassino. Added to these is a Cammino di Francesco that starts at the 14th-century Franciscan church on lake Piediluco, northeast of Rome and takes about 150 kilometres in seven daily stages to reach its destination, passing other Franciscan sites on the way. It seems to involve quite a lot of climbing although none of the routes is described as more than ‘of medium difficulty’.


It is clear from the helpful descriptions of each daily stage that although the walks do not always escape traffic, there is a feast of archaeological treats along the way: the ruins of cities, aqueducts, medieval villages and a host of churches. These are, after all, very ancient roads that recorded the earliest conquests of Rome as well as attracting settlements of all kinds, monastic and secular, in the centuries that followed. So the fourth day out along the Francigena del Sud, a long day with some climbing and panoramic views, takes in the medieval town of Norma (where the famous Ninfa gardens are to be found), the adjoining Roman site of Norba, the 14th-century abbey of Valvisciolo, associated with the  Knights Templar, and the medieval centre of Sermoneta with its massive castle. The day finishes at Sezza, an ancient Volscan town, created a Roman colony as far back as 382 BC.


So these routes are much more than monotonous trudges dodging the traffic and the guide is an important initiative in publicising a region that tends to get neglected by visitors who stay only in Rome. It is much to be welcomed.


Le Vie religiose nel Lazio was published in 2014 by Touring Editore of Milan. At present there does not seem to be an edition in English but there deserves to be.


Reviewed by Charles Freeman. The places mentioned in this review are covered in detail in Blue Guide Central Italy. For more on Sigeric and his route to Rome, see Pilgrim's Rome: A Blue Guide Travel Monograph.


Five major London museums

Emily Barber, author of Blue Guide London, recommends five main museums: 

1. "V&A" - the Victoria and Albert Museum - for its architecture and varied content. It is also home to the National Art Library which is a peaceful place to read or study overlooking the courtyard. And the V&A houses one of best collections of jewellery in world. Blue Guide review, details and website »

2. National Gallery - as the best place just to wander and see some of the finest paintings in the world. Details »

3. National Portrait Gallery - where the galleries aren't too large so feel personal. The brilliant portraits are stunning as art and fascinating as history. Details »

4. The Tower of London - where the Norman White Tower still retains a sense of its impressive ancient past. The pure austerity of the Chapel architecture gives a peaceful sanctity (if there aren't too many tourists). The gems in the Crown Jewels are legendary. Have a chat with the famous ravens who are excellent mimics. Details »

5. Hampton Court - a perfect palace in gorgeous setting by river. It still conveys a sense of wonder as you approach and see twisted Tudor chimney stacks. The Stuart part of the palace has one of the finest 17th century interiors in the UK. Details »


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