Travelling abroad

The Villa Aldobrandini, a superb example of Baroque architecture, stands in a dramatic and commanding position above the ancient town of Frascati, looking towards St Peter’s in Rome. It was built between 1598 and 1603 for Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini as a gift from Pope Clement VIII. Popes weren’t allowed to own property, so Pope Clement’s gift of this magnificent villa to his nephew ensured that it remained in the Aldobrandini family.

The Villa Aldobrandini dominates the town of Frascati

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Even though it’s early July, it’s dull and damp here in London and I’m in a ‘and now for something completely different’ mood with regard to blogging. So I’m taking you to the Villa Giulia, just outside Rome, once a summer residence for Popes and, nowadays, it is the Etruscan Museum with some spectacular objects dating from the 6th century B.C.

An eye-catching terracotta statue of Apollo, still retaining much of its colouring. 

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In June last year, I was at Streedagh strand in Co Sligo, on Ireland’s west coast, on one of Auriel Robinson’s wonderful SeaTrails walks. The walk covered a huge amount: local geology dating back 350 million years; prehistory, we examined an interesting Bronze Age Wedge tomb; 16th century history, hearing the story of the shipwrecks of three ships from the Spanish Armada which sank here in 1588; botany, walking over the machair grassland with its profusion of wild flowers; marine geology: marvelling at the fossilized corals, sea lilies and other creatures strewn in profusion along the shore; and 20th century history, seeing Mullaghmore harbour where the tragic murder of Lord Mountbatten, and three other people, two of them children, took place in 1979.

Murraghmore: looking towards Benbulben

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March 17th is St Patrick’s Day, the patron saint of Ireland and, this week, I’m looking at a couple of places in Northern Ireland which he visited. St Patrick, whose family was Romano-British, was born in about AD 370, somewhere in Western England between the Severn and the Clyde. His father, a Christian, was a man of some standing in his community and owned a small estate. When he was about sixteen, Patrick was captured by pirates, taken to Ireland, sold as a slave and became a shepherd. Six years later, he escaped and, eventually, found a ship to take him home.

St Patrick’s Protestant Cathedral, Downpatrick. The poet John Betjeman declared it Britain’s loveliest small cathedral.

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What must it have been like to be held in a prison where the gallows was always visible? Suppose that you had been condemned to hang and would soon be climbing those wooden stairs and feel the hangman put the noose around your neck. The very stones of the place must have smelled of misery and hopelessness – the thoughts jostled through my mind when I visited Downpatrick Gaol, now a museum, in County Down, Northern Ireland.

  1. The gallows in Downpatrick Gaol

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I have often wondered where the archaeologist Howard Carter, of Tutankhamen fame, actually stayed whilst excavating in the Valley of the Kings on the trail of Tutankhamun’s tomb in November 1922. I imagined a dusty tent, perhaps with a flickering hurricane lamp, and mosquito nets over an uncomfortable camp bed somewhere nearby.

 Howard Carter (1874-1939) Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

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The short but tumultuous life of the poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), one of the greatest of the Romantic poets of the early 19th century, shows him to have been a man of contradictions. He disapproved of matrimony – but married twice; he was a vegetarian (rare at the time), a republican and a Radical. He was thrown out of Eton for expressing atheistic views. But he was also intelligent and highly imaginative and has been described as ‘the poet of volcanic hope for a better world’. At his best, as in his sonnet Ozymandias, he is inimitable.

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) by Amelia Curran, Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

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If you visit Pompeii, you find the ruins of a sophisticated town, with a number of seaside villas depicting a luxurious lifestyle. If you visit the Ostia, on the mouth of the River Tiber, you will find  buildings which are impressive in quite a different way. This was once a successful commercial port with warehouses, shops and offices, as well as the usual urban amenities: bath complexes, public latrine, temples and so on.  It is well worth a visit.

The Decumanus Maximus, the well-preserved main street in Ostia Antica

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It wasn’t until I visited Bulgaria that I realized what a challenging history it’s had. It lies between the River Danube (with Romania) to the north, the Black Sea to the east, Greece and Turkey to the south and Serbia and Macedonia to the west. Historically, its borders have always been under threat and, over the centuries, they have expanded and contracted. 5000 years ago, they were invaded by the Thracians who came from Asia, bringing the Bronze Age with them. The Romans, coming up from the south, staked their claim to the country in the 1st century AD. In AD 300, the Emperor Constantine moved his capital to nearby Byzantium, renamed it Constantinople and Bulgaria, inevitably, became part of his Empire. By the 9th century, Bulgaria had converted to Greek Orthodox Christianity.

Nessebar: Greek Orthodox Church of Christ Pantokrator

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I’ve just returned from visiting ‘Yeats Country’, namely, Co. Sligo on the west coast of Ireland, following in the poet William Butler Yeats’ footsteps. Yeats had a very varied life; he was: a poet and a playwright; interested in theosophy and the occult; a co-founder of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin; appointed Senator in the first Irish Senate in 1922; a lover of Irish myth and folklore; and passionately involved with a number of women. Any of these would make an interesting post. However, today, I’m looking at places which stirred his imagination as a child.

W. B. Yeats (1865-1939) by George Charles Beresford

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