Travelling: sights and sites

Tuscany, Italy, last year. The first thing our guide to the Etruscans said was, ‘Everyone calls the Etruscans “mysterious” and it’s simply not true.’ By the end of the week, I thought: You’re wrong. Yes, thanks to archaeology, we can see inside their tombs; admire their grave goods, the amazing terracotta sculptures, and their famous black bucchero ware; and we know what the Romans thought of them. But, for me, the Etruscans themselves still remain fascinatingly elusive. This is why.

 Apollo, from the temple at Veii

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Ever since Roman times, the rich and powerful have built villas in the hills surrounding Rome to escape the summer’s heat. Some, like Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli, still survive. Others, like Castel Gandolfo, built in the 17th century for Pope Urban VIII as a summer palace, were built on top of Roman villa sites. And why not? The land was already levelled and useful top quality building material was there for the taking.

Castel Gondolfo Pope's palace

Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer palace

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Sometimes, what attracts me to a place is simple aesthetic pleasure; I just like the look of it. Take Kakopetria, a traditional stone village in the foothills of the Troodos mountains in southern Cyprus.

Kokopatria old church

The old church with its steeply-pitched roof

There’s nothing grand about it; it’s been there for ever and it’s remained much as it always was. I don’t doubt that the Cypriot Tourist Board has done some restoration but their work hasn’t been intrusive. They may have whitewashed it – several years ago; but real people live here, hang up their washing on the wooden balconies, and chat in doorways.

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One thing I love about travelling is suddenly seeing that unexpected something which sends shivers down your spine and makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up: the beautiful gardens of Ninfa in Italy; local fishermen dancing in an old waterfront warehouse in Crete; or a small ruined temple set amidst olive groves full of spring flowers in Turkey. And at Agrigento in Sicily, I saw the telamon.

Agrigento museum telemon

The telamon in Agrigento Museum.; c0mpare his height with that of the women standing by his feet.

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Some years ago I saw a rom.com where the American heroine visits London for the first time. She lands at Heathrow and takes a cab to wherever she’s staying – somewhere fashionable with a SW postcode. She peers excitedly through the cab window as Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament, St Paul’s Cathedral and Tower Bridge whizz by. I thought: where the hell is the cabbie going? Then the penny dropped: his circuitous route in the wrong direction had nothing to do with the real London; it was a fictitious ‘London’.

Alcazar courtyard 2

The Alcazar: the Spanish Royal family’s summer palace in Seville

I’d always felt much the same about the cigarette factory in Seville in Bizet’s opera Carmen. It must be fictitious. Bizet took his plot from a novella by Prosper Merimee and I doubted whether either of them had actually been to Spain. Merimée probably thought Seville sounded romantic and what was really important wasn’t the unlikely cigarette factory but the romantic toreador at the centre of the story.

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This is one of the first things that greets you at the Park of Monsters, a.k.a. the Park of Wonders or the Sacred Grove at Bomarzo, in Lazio, Italy. It is so huge that when you stand up inside the gaping mouth you have to reach up to touch its teeth!

2 Mask of Madness

The Mask of Madness

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What happened to the Roman temples and public buildings after the fall of the Roman Empire when they suddenly became redundant? The answer is simple: they were robbed for building materials.

C Castellana mosaic

Cathedral church of Santa Maria Maggiore, Civita Castellana: exterior Cosmati decoration (note the gold for added glitter)

Just think how much material there was to take! All over the Roman Empire there were thousands of temples, expensively clad in marble – some of it carved, and with marble or stone columns supporting pediments and roofs of dressed stone. And that was just the temples. Every Roman town would have had its forum, with colonnades, amphitheatre, public baths, and dozens of other public buildings, all made of expensively cut stone and marble.

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When I was a child, one of my favourite books was Adventures in Archaeology. I was thrilled by Schliemann’s discovery of Troy; Sir Arthur Evans’ of Knossus, and, of course, Howard Carter’s spectacular discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb. There was something very exciting about digging and finding something which has been hidden for hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of years. And I longed to see these places for myself.

And I confess to still feeling that same delight now I’m grown up – or, perhaps, not so grown up. So when I actually saw the spectacular Bronze Age horses and chariot burial which made World News in 2008 under the Karanovo tell in Bulgaria, I assure you that the hairs on the back of my neck stood up.

Karanovo horse burials

Horses and chariot burial

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