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17.06.2012
16:22

381 years ago this June

On June 17th 1631, in the central Indian town of Burhanpur, a royal wife died in childbirth at the age of 38, after delivering her fourteenth child. She was Arjumand Bano, better known as Mumtaz Mahal, one of the many wives of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. Six hundred and fifty kilometres away in Agra, the bereft emperor began the building of a mausoleum to the dead woman’s memory, on the banks of the river Yamuna. Its name, ‘Taj Mahal’ is probably a corruption of Mumtaz’s own, and literally means ‘Palace of the Crown’. It was completed in 1643.

As Sam Miller tells us in Blue Guide India:

“We know that Shah Jahan had a close relationship with Mumtaz, that he favoured her above his other wives, and openly declared the strength of his attachment to her. This was unusual but not unprecedented. She came from a very powerful family, where women played an important role. Her aunt Nur Jahan was married to Shah Jahan’s father, Emperor Jehangir, and in Jehangir’s final years took many key decisions. Mumtaz’s grandfather, Itimad ud-Daula, was, under Jehangir, probably the most influential person in the Mughal Empire. He lies buried in another exquisite tomb in Agra, which in its use of minarets, white marble and stone inlay, prefigures, on a much smaller scale, the Taj Mahal.”

“For the Mughal poet Kalim, the Taj Mahal was a cloud, and for the Nobel Prize-winning polymath Rabindranath Tagore it was ‘a teardrop on the cheek of time’. The Taj Mahal has been admired since it was created, and although it was undoubtedly a memorial to the undying love of Shah Jahan for his wife, it was also a demonstration of the power, wealth and aesthetic values of the Mughal Empire. In the prescient words of Shah Jahan’s court historian, Qazwini, the Taj Mahal would be a masterpiece for ages to come, and provide for ‘the amazement of all humanity’. It was built to be visited. As one of its most recent historians, Ebba Koch, explains, the Taj Mahal was constructed ‘with posterity in mind: we, the viewers, are part of its concept.’”

Text © Blue Guides/Sam Miller

12.06.2012
16:27

Brooklyn Bridge: a New York landmark

As I write this, it is the anniversary of the birth of one of early America’s great engineers, John A. Roebling (born on June 12th 1806), designer of the Brooklyn Bridge.

When it was opened, in May 1883, Brooklyn Bridge was the longest suspension bridge in the world and an engineering wonder. It is still one of the most majestic sights of New York City.

Roebling had arrived in America in 1831 with a small band of German pilgrims, intending to set up an agricultural community. His talent for engineering soon emerged, however, and he became the country’s most successful producer of wire rope. His design for the bridge that would be built over the East River contained many elements that were new or untested on such a huge scale. His vision became reality, but at the cost of many human lives, including his own. While surveying the building works in 1869 his toes were crushed in an accident and had to be amputated. He contracted tetanus and died. Supervision of the construction passed to his son, Washington Roebling, and his able wife Emily. The foundations of the bridge are sunk deep in the riverbed. In order for men to work them, they had to have air to breathe, and this was solved with a system of caissons, huge diving bells filled with air and submerged in the water. The problems of compression and decompression were not understood in those days and many men suffered from the ‘bends’, including Washington Roebling himself, who was plagued by symptoms of caisson disease for the rest of his life.

Brooklyn Bridge was superseded as the longest suspension bridge in 1903, by the Williamsburg Bridge, also in New York. Today the world’s five longest suspension bridges are in Japan, China (two), Denmark and England. Brooklyn Bridge occupies 78th place. But it is still one of the greatest and most beautiful.

For more on the bridge, and on those who designed and built it, see Carol von Pressentin Wright’s Blue Guide New York.

Fixing the stays. Illustration by a worker on the bridge, 1883.

A Venetian Update

by Charles Freeman

My wife, Lydia, and I were recently in and around Venice, coming in and out one day by bus from Dolo on the Brenta canal and staying two nights in the city itself.

Since March Ist there has been a new ticketing system, IMOB, run by ACTV. In Venice itself, it is quite straightforward as you can buy a plastic card for the number of days travelling on the vaporetti that you want. You touch your card on a screen as you enter the vaporetto station and some stations have barriers through which you pass your card to open the barrier. However, there is nothing on the card itself to show its duration, or how long you have got left.

But then it gets more complicated. If you are taking a bus outside the city, you can also buy an IMOB card, for instance, at one of the tabacchi along the route. They prime it with the fare for the journey you want to make and then you ‘spend’ it on a screen on the bus. The trouble is that the card is identical to the one you also get in Venice. We bought cards for all the inland journeys we knew we were making in the same tabacchi and ended up with six identical IMOB cards between us.

I thought I had a system for sorting them into separate slots in my wallet so I cannot really explain how I binned our still-valid Venice vaporetto tickets and preserved our spent bus tickets. You have been warned.

Brave the IMOB Actv website at your peril–you will be even more confused by the system.

Much though we love Venice and appreciate that Venice only became Venice because of the rapacious commercial instincts of its people over past centuries, we still get annoyed by restaurants that lure you in with relatively cheap piatti, only to find extra service charges, large cover charges, charges of over 5 euros for a mediocre glass of wine, and, in one case, an espresso costing 5 euro, almost as much as a plate of pasta.

But perhaps the blackest of bêtes noires this time was the new museum ticket. Suppose you want to visit the Museo Correr, one of Venice’s most pleasant museums, and then pass on to the wonderful Biblioteca Marciana. The only way you can now do this is to buy a full ticket costing over 16 euros, which includes the Doge’s Palace–whether you want to visit that or not. The ticket gives you only one entry to each of five museums, so you would have to buy another 16 euro ticket if you wanted to visit the Biblioteca Marciana a second time.

Still, let’s be more positive. I had never been to the museum of Byzantine icons (Museo dei Dipinti Sacri Bizantini) next to San Giorgio dei Greci, the sumptuously decorated church of the Greek Orthodox community. I was overcome by a wonderful icon of the Noli Me Tangere scene, dated c. 1500.  It  was worth the 4 euro entrance in itself and there are other things to treasure.

Then we wanted to find somewhere off the beaten track to eat. Why not try the Giudecca? If you get off at the Le Zitelle stop, you can look in on Palladio’s Il Redentore, the church Venice built as a thanksgiving for relief from the terrible plague of 1577. The interior is so much more welcoming and harmonious than the cavernous San Giorgio, Palladio’s earlier commission. And then we sat down for dinner at I Figli delle Stelle, right on the waterfront and, far from the crowds, watched the sun set over Venice. There is something so satisfying about a restaurant that does not try to be pretentious but where they understand food and the time in which you want to enjoy it without harassment. Not difficult in many parts of Italy, thank goodness, but harder in Venice. I Figli specialise in regional dishes, have a good selection of local wines and the 100 euros for two, though not cheap, fairly reflects the quality of what they offer.

We were happily soothed by the experience.

N.B. Palazzo Fortuny is now fully and well restored but it only opens when they have a special exhibition on.

13.05.2012
16:32

Sixth-century church to reopen

Santa Maria Antiqua, the oldest church in the Forum, is at last due to reopen after extensive repairs and restorations. It houses some exceptional wall-paintings. See the following review in the New York Times.

Roman Aquileia

The ruins of the Roman colony of Aquileia, once the fourth largest Roman city in Italy, lie under and around the peaceful modern town and its splendid Early Christian basilica church. Where the amphitheatre once stood, citizens now hoe their vegetable patches and tend their sweet peas. It is all incredibly atmospheric. The town also boasts one of the finest archaeological museums in the country, full of exceptionally interesting artefacts, not least some exquisite pieces made of the Baltic amber for which Aquileia was once a key trading centre. It is easy to spend a full day and more here. The tree-lined walk along the quayside of the old Roman river port is not to be missed. Nor is the Sepolcreto, a quiet enclosure containing five family tombs of the 1st–2nd centuries. After seeing the museum, stop off for a glass of local Malvasia wine in the Attila Scourge of God (Attila Flagellum Dei) wine bar on the opposite side of the street. If you need somewhere to say, the simple, no-frills, friendly Aquila Nera is recommended. It is extremely good value and they offer a good dinner.

Detail of the tomb stele of a blacksmith
IN AGR P XXX: a grave enclosure measuring 30 feet in depth, with foot, exactly one Roman foot long

Springtime in Friuli

In April, around the perimeter walls of the star-shaped fortress-city of Palmanova in northern Italy, you can expect to see people out in force, armed with plastic bags, some even with scissors, searching the grassy banks for a certain plant. What is it?

The answer is “sclupit”, as it is called in Friulano. In Italian it is known asstridolo. In English it is the bladder campion (Selene cucubalus). The young leaves are gathered in spring and used to lend a subtle, slightly aromatic flavour to risottos, omelettes and pasta dishes.

The Union of Friuli Venezia Giulia cooks (Unione Cuochi Friuli Venezia Giulia) recommends a delicious seasonal recipe of ravioli filled with sclupit, ricotta and montasio cheese and served in a butter and asparagus sauce.

The picture here shows a sprig of sclupit resting on the editor’s annotated copy of Blue Guide Northern Italy .

For a full glossary and miscellany of Italian food, with over 2,500 Italian food terms translated (and pronunciation given), see the handy pocket-format Blue Guide Italy Food Companion. Don’t leave your hotel without it!

Northern Italy dining and accommodation recommendations

Following a trip to the Veneto region, not only rich in superb art, architecture and archaeological sites but also with some of Italy's best regional food and wines, we have a handful of new Blue Guides Recommended hotels and restaurants to share with you:

  1. Comfort and style on the Trieste water front: the Savoia Excelsior Palace Hotel.

  2. Good value, good location and clean in the centre of Aquileia's Roman remains and early-Christian architecture: theAquila Nera Hotel.

  3. Luxury and charm in Browning's Palladian Asolo villa: the Hotel Villa Cipriani.

  4. The best food of the trip in a spectacular setting on Lake Garda: Locanda San Vigilio.

  5. A reliable pizza in touristic Sirmione: Pizzeria Scaligeri's

  6. Verona's finest food and wine: Antica Bottega del Vino.

Note that our recommended listings on this website are by no means exhaustive - there are fuller lists in the books.  These recommendations will be included in the next edition of Blue Guide Northern Italy. Comments welcome as always.

Al Dente: Madness, Beauty & the Food of Rome

David Winner. Simon & Schuster, 2012

I began this quirky, genre-defying book one sunny May morning and by the time I had got halfway through it, I was really enjoying myself. I had had no idea what to expect but was prepared for either a fatuous trawl through Rome’s “eateries” or for rapturous gushing about dining all’italiana being so much more “vibrant” than the drab way we do it at home. Al Dente is neither. And as I read on, I found myself making a mental list of things to check out next time I am in Rome. The ice cream place near Termini station, the statue of St Catherine of Siena, the Villa Farnesina (apparently Raphael’s frescoes are surrounded by borders of lewd fruit; I had never noticed. But now that I come to check, I do see something tumescent above the head of Hermes…). Maybe I won’t go to the trattoria with the Che Guevara poster, where the owner hates the bourgeoisie and imposes a necktie ban. Hatred and prohibition sit uneasily on this good-natured book.

At least, I thought it was good-natured. It purports to be about food and Rome, and yes, it is about those things, but not only, and sometimes only tangentially. It is about history, about film (Fellini and Antonioni), about art (Raphael, Caravaggio), about religion, about human relationships. Winner’s previous books have been about football and I expected the tone of Al Dente to be blokey. It isn’t. It’s amusing without being ho-ho. And Winner writes exceptionally well, with a wonderful, unpretentious, effective use of language. I enjoyed the image of ancient Rome as a horse carcase slowly being eaten by a buzzard. But it was at about this point that the book started to go wrong.

It wasn’t just the strange and rather surreal encounter in Caffè Greco with the elderly Frenchman calling himself Marie-Henry [sic] Beyle. Were we supposed to interpret him as the ghost of Stendhal? It wasn’t clear. No, it was the buzzard: a Christian buzzard. Aha. Soon enough it becomes apparent that Winner has a bone of his own to pick clean. First we learn that Michelangelo studied the kabbalah and came from “tolerant, more secular Florence” and then that Dante’s best friend was a Jewish poet, as if we need to claim these two great souls as righteous gentiles before getting started. But hang on. Savonarola outlawed Florentine-Jewish money-lending in 1495, when Michelangelo was twenty. How tolerant is that and how secular was Savonarola? And is Blech and Doliner’s theory about a subversive message encrypted in the Old Testament figures of the Sistine ceiling pseudo-science or an avenue for fruitful new research? Or both? Winner doesn’t help us to decide. It begins to feel perilously as though a good idea is being stretched too thin over too few pegs. We need more support before we can tread confidently on this kind of ground.

And what happened to the food angle? Or for that matter to the beauty promised in the subhead? They got lost. The sudden descent into Jewish-Christian polemic turns what was elegant, idiosyncratic fusion cuisine into a kind of unwholesome stodge, over-boiled and half-baked at the same time. What’s the point of it all? Winner suddenly sees everything in terms of black and white and the nuances of all those Fellini films he loves so much are lost. Which is a pity, because nuanced history is always more interesting.

But let’s return to the positive. On the back dust jacket there is a short blurb offering up the work to the reading public and modestly hoping that it gives them “something to chew on”. It certainly does. And when the indigestion passes I’ll be left with the feeling that I took something away, something useful: an insight into human attitudes as well as insider knowledge of where to find the best tiramisù on the planet. Both of them very valuable things.

Reviewed by Annabel Barber, contributing author of Blue Guide Rome (10th edition) and compiler of Blue Guide Literary Companion Rome .

To see more details about this book, check the Amazon links below.

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