Even in a state of delirium, the beauty of Venice cannot be imagined nor made up.
Most of my posts seem to have an anecdote about something one of my teachers or about something I watched/read as a child and with Venice, it's no different. As a pretty nerdy, indoor kid, I religiously watched Discovery Kids every evening and one of the programs called "My beautiful home" is where I first heard about Venice.
"My beautiful home" saw kids from around the world take us around their house and their hometown and one episode took us to Venice. Young Marco, along with his friend, took us around the wonderful streets and canals of Venice while giving us narrative facts about his hometown of which the carnival was a highlight. What captured my attention, however, was when he mentioned that the city of Venice was predicted to sink very soon and I felt a sense of urgency at wanting to see this city at least once before it does. Years down the road, Venice was rumoured to sink by 2015 and I was not having it. How can this historic city sink before I get to see it?
I didn't care about the gondola rides or the bridge that promises true love nor did I want to feel like I am enacting a scene from The Talented Mr. Ripley. I just wanted to be another soul who passed through this historic city and its veins.
So when the Italian part of the trip was being planned, I had to squeeze in Venice for my younger self. She had held on for so long and she deserved to see it and sure enough, she wasn't disappointed.
There's no getting around it: Venice is expensive and it is FULL of tourists but that doesn't diminish its allure. What made it so special were the numerous musicians in every corner. Boy, the Italians can hold their notes! I probably spent more on tipping than eating in Venice but #NoRegrets. The street musicians were my personal highlight in Venice and even today, three years later, the videos of those musicians still put a smile on my face and takes me back to the exact moment where I stood and watched them.
More than a 'bucket list' item, Venice is an experience. I only spent one day in the city (less than 24 hours to be precise) and yet I am unsure as to if I want to go back? Rome is definitely a city I'd like to go back to but Venice, I want to be able to say that I did go there and leave it at that. I don't want it to become some vacation hot-spot for me, if that makes sense. I don't want to be that person who has a list of things to do and things to see in Venice. I just... I was just so happy to have fulfilled this wish for my younger self. For that matter, Italy checked off a lot of that! Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius was another such wish but more on that later. I'll hopefully write up something really soon on Pompeii too. But obviously, if the chance arise, I will probably jump at it to go back. I'd be stupid not to! But I like longing. I like drowning in memories and longing for what was. Chalk it down to being some kind of sufferer but I enjoy tormenting myself that way.
This is not to say that Venice was without its bad experiences too. We stayed in a less than delightful hotel in Lido because every other hostel or B&B were booked out for the weekend. We also had to pay 100 euro for a taxi to the airport because the water taxi, stopping at every stop at 3 in the morning, took too much time and catching the shuttle bus after that would've made us miss the flight to France. But as I always say, what is the point of travel without its ups and downs? You need a bit of the good and the bad for a really great story so now, three years later, I'm okay with it. Although you can be sure that I wasn't when I was handing over the 100 euro!
So here we are. These are the photographs that sum up my Venetian experience as well as what my memories of Venice looks like, embedded in my head. The only thing missing is the music.
"Memory's images, once they are fixed in words, are erased" Polo said.
"Perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice all at once, if I speak of it, or perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little".
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Shot in Film + Digital
Slovenia probably doesn’t feature in anyone’s list of their top 5 places to visit in Europe but I have to say that the country was exceptionally good to me. For one week, I either got myself a Börek or a falafel for about €2, endlessly walked those cobbled streets of Ljubljana, crossing the pink church or the canal in that wonderful autumn chill and life just seemed dandy.Read More
I am certain this was an instagram caption for one of my Slovenia pictures but I’ll state it here too: I didn’t know Slovenia had a coast until I was told by Mr. N at the Indian consulate. First things first: It was stupid of me to think that I could’ve made a day trip out of this. I probably should’ve spent a night here because I ended up paying close to a €100 on the way back since I missed the last bus and the train. And that’s a pretty standard price. If Europe has taught me anything, it’s that cab fares are astronomically high so unless you have all that dough to waste because you’re bleeding to death or are made of money, avoid them.
My first encounter in Piran? An elderly man who struck up a conversation with me on the bus inviting me to his house to stay. He said it had the best view of the entire coast and the bus driver didn’t disagree. Then I met a local artist who I ended up wining and dining with in his studio. Some local wine and vodka, grilled steak and we were set. He didn’t speak much English but he seemed happy with the company. Safe to say that he almost fell off his seat when he saw my SLR.
He ran across to an old trunk and stared digging up his cameras! He said that he could never find time to venture out and buy film so when I offered him an extra film that I had, he was so ecstatic, he have me one of the camera! A Voigtlander Best Rangefinder. But since it requires a 120mm film, I unfortunately haven’t gotten around to shooting with it as yet.
We were visited by a couple of his friends who I thought were just a tad bit shady. So far the conversation had been light and casual but his friends (a man and a woman) were rather persistent that I stay the night. It wasn’t that I felt fear of being killed or robbed but let’s just say that they seemed like they were planting some intentions into their friend’s head. I mean, you don’t need to speak the same language to get the gist of things. This push-and-pull conversation was what led me to missing my connecting bus to Ljubljana and setting me back by a good €100 which, if I have to be honest, is still painful.
I think Piran during the summer would be beautiful. I sat right below the walls of a church and had my lunch (bread and cream cheese. Sorry. It doesn’t get better than that) with the view of (what I think is) the Adriatic. A cool blue with a boat in the view. There was such a peaceful energy in that crisp autumn air and I couldn’t think of being there with anyone but by myself. More often than not, I truly do prefer solo travel. I do think that there are some places where I would love company for but so far, solo traveling and living has been lit!
The town of Piran is like any European town. By which I mean perfect cobbled stone laneways, picture perfect coloured houses and a sunset like no other. There are these amazing stairs that lead you right into the ocean if you want to take a dip and I have to confess, I really wanted to. But because I didn’t see anyone else, I just wasn’t sure. Had I been there earlier in the day, perhaps? It reminded me a little of Clovely Beach in Sydney with the concrete platforms perfect for lazing life away. And if you’re like Anakin and don’t like sand, it’s an added bonus.
Slovenia is definitely still a hidden EU gem so I would do what I haven’t done so far: I recommend ye visit!
In the meantime, let's let the photographs do the talking shall we?
I am going to write about autumn in Slovenia but in real life, I am in South east Asia where I am sweaty, hot and sticky. Bonus? The electricity is out. I would probably trade one of my kidneys right now to experience some Balkan autumn/winter because I miss the cold desperately. But self pity is not going to get me anywhere and besides, I digress.
So let’s go to Bled.
Growing up in the 90s, interior decor in my hometown consisted of framed posters of Jesus, a scenic picture with (or without) a biblical quote and sometimes, as it were in my case, jet fighters and war pictures. Basically, our house had all of them. One of them was what I like to call the Disney castle. An overhead picture of a castle surrounded by a perfect blue lake and pines. It was a cliche. But really, it was beautiful. It was picture-perfect, so secluded, so far away and so serene. And never did I expect to ever see something like that. Yet, I did. Kind of. Bled came pretty close to fulfilling this vision from a childhood memory (reverie).
Bled is one of the most famous and visited tourist spots in Slovenia. It’s not off the beaten track whatsoever but there’s a reason why there’s a list of “must-see” and “must-do” for every country. Repeating myself for the 983621383854000 time but: You’re kidding yourself if you want to be a new-age, non-touristy traveler because you’ll be missing out. For real.
The Bled lake is one large circle and the Church of The Assumption is within the lake. Fun fact: The church is the only island in Slovenia. Yessire, you heard it right here folks.
I guess because it was somewhat of an off-season, it wasn’t as crowded when I was there so I hired a bicycle and got around the lake. I completely forgot that the driving side in Europe was the reverse so I had a funny incident with another lady who was on a bike and coming from the opposite direction. But just as it is with most things, you get the hang of it. Riding through those perfectly crisp, red autumn leaves was satisfying to say the least. You grow up watching all those cartoons and TV shows where you have kids and parents getting ready for fall, raking those leaves, halloween and thanksgiving; all this amidst a perfect backdrop of trees turning red and orange. And there I was. All the moving images that I had stored away as a child came rushing back and it was (dare I say once more) magical. I parked my bike against a tree and sat on the edge of the lake for a while just taking it all in. It was fascinating.
I met Bobi further down the lake in a spot where he has been sitting for the last 27 years. Bobi was an artist working with water colours and he has been painting the scenes at Bled all this while. I sat with him, had a conversation and bought one of his paintings after which he offered to paint me at the back of the painting I had bought. File that under one of the best souvenirs. The view that he saw everyday, he called that his window.
I did a quick hike to the Lake Bled castle and by quick, I mean that it was barely 45 minutes and though uphill, it's not one of those where you break into sweat or something. The castle is of course, distinctly European and very fairy tale like but you need to pay to enter it. So I just decided to walk around it and get that top shot/top view of Lake Bled and the "island". Aside from that, there isn't much to do.
I saw a couple of boys who decided to take my place as I was leaving my secluded spot to smoke some pot. As you were boys, as you were.
Bled is about 2 hours by bus from Ljubljana. Further in is Bohinj which is within the Triglav national park, home to the Julian Alps and Lake Bohinj. I didn’t have enough funds for the trek in the alps but I did have the free time to walk around the park, the lake and for a quick sub-zero swim. It was a Sunday and there was silence all round. An empty church, two drunk boys on a canoe, perfect autumn colours, the snow-capped peaks in the distance and a never ending road inviting me to walk on further. I would have gone on but the last bus out of Bohinj was at 4:00PM, one which I would’ve narrowly missed had I not jogged back. Good for the cold if anything!
Bohinj is definitely much more impressive and I can't tell you how many pictures I took that day because this was autumn. This was the vision of autumn I've always had thanks to watching cartoon network and them American movies. There was no one around for miles so the quick sub zero dive was an invitation I accepted. Honestly, I don't think I lasted five minutes in the water but it felt like I was in there for an hour! IT WAS FREEZING!!!! I remember wishing I was near a bonfire. After a quick change, I got on the road again. After some initial jogging to warm up myself, I was on my way, my endless walk. I could see the Julian Alps in the distance and I wished and still wish I could've hiked my way around there.
Paris. Who wouldn't get excited at the prospects of PARIS? Who wouldn't want to be in Paris? This may be a first and probably (hopefully) wouldn't last but for now, count me in. I wouldn't want to be in Paris. Again. Not now. Not for a while. Maybe movies have romanticised it too much (I blame you Woody Allen), but Paris in the rain? Not my favourite. Not at all. Paris in the rain is wet, cold, slushy and uncomfortable. Did I mention 'wet'? Gael Pender, you lied and it was elucidated in the worst possible way.
Here’s the narrative for the fiasco that was France.
We paid €77 for one night (with that amount, I could've stayed a month in Montenegro). You could say “oh well, it is Paris after all” but no. That doesn’t cut it. St. Christopher’s just behaved terribly. The reception girl told us that if we paid it online, it would be much cheaper so we told her that considering we just landed in Paris and we don’t have a working connection, could we use their wifi? She said no. An extremely blunt no.
We had checked up airbnb’s prior to this but for reasons I still don’t know, payments weren’t going through. I had booked all the Italian Airbnb apartments with my card (from India) and I’m certain that at least one of my cards were working internationally but it turned out to be a bust. So were hers. So ultimately, St. Christopher’s it was and as soon as we checked in, we began looking for another place to stay. Oh. Here’s the kicker. The reception girl AFTER payment tells my sister that the wifi connection is the name of the hostel and there’s no password. Really? There’s really nothing much I can or could’ve done so the only way I dealt with my anger was to leave a trip advisor review. I’ll admit: every time I get a helpful vote on my review, I wear a smug smile.
The truth is, I think we just really needed to sleep. We had a nonstop Italian jaunt and after spending an hour on a water taxi from Lido to mainland Venice, paying €100 for a taxi from Venice to Treviso Airport (because while we would've only spent €10 each for the shuttle bus, waiting for an hour meant missing the flight to Paris) followed by an hour and a half from Paris Beauvais to a main Paris train/RER station, any kind of accommodation sounded heavenly. Of course, this also meant sharing a room with a character called L. E. V, a Russian/Ukrainian 'rapper'. There were two Canadian boys who took the bus from London and a lone Korean boy who spoke limited English. We later met Alberto from Mexico who we had a fine time talking to. In fact, compared to us, he seemed so innocent. He couldn't have been more than 25 and he got high for the first time in his life on this trip in Amsterdam. He had bought some weed from L. E. V and he had had intended to 'get high' so he could go to sleep and wake up in time to catch his flight to Thailand the next morning.
That evening we went by to the Louvre and the jardin des plantes and also walked along the Seine in the evening catching the first glimpse of the Eiffel. We also slipped into a tiny Asian restaurant and had our fill of food. We hadn’t realized through all this chaos how hungry we were.
The next morning, I was woken up by a loud blaring sound and what do you know, it was L. E. V. He was watching a YouTube video and rapping along. In his underpants. The Korean chap had just entered the room when L. E. V cornered him and told him that that guy in the video was him and then went on to ask the Korean whether he spoke English at all. The Korean chap was very intimidated and quickly left the room again. I’m certain L. E. V was on something! I refused to get out of bed till he left and I didn’t have to wait long.
So there. That was St. Christopher's Inn for you.
Meanwhile, somewhere between chatting to Alberto and listening to Russian rap, our housing fortune changed. We were scouring airbnb when we chanced upon Halina and decided to mail her telling her about our misfortunes and that we would pay her in cash. She pre-approved us and within the next 12 hours, we were ready to move in. She and her husband were the two sweetest people we had met (after Nicola's mother) and she got brownie points for leaving us Madeleine's in the room. Which I took upon myself to finish all. The apartment was high up in the sixth or seventh floor in Vincennes and it was so worth what we were paying (lesser than St. Christopher’s).
It seemed Paris was finally setting it. But we weren't prepared for the storm after the calm.
We went to Giverny and even though it was raining, we had a grand time. I took and a train and while walking towards the Eiffel, I was sending Debbie pictures and voice notes about Paris and how I wasn’t having the best time but hopefully it should be fine now. I said I’ll send her a message once I’m at the Eiffel and went that, feeling chirpy and happy, I was there. Right below Lady Love herself. Of course, it was raining and during the climb (yes, I climbed), I was drenched in both rain and sweat. I guess my raincoat didn’t help! In any case, once I was there at the top, it stopped raining and for the first time, I saw Paris in all its glory. The descend from the Eiffel Tower. I took pictures, I took videos, I took the mandatory Eiffel selfie and then got a call from my sister and it was decided that the Louvre was the meeting point. Quite surprisingly, I ran out of Internet data on my phone much to my dismay so I began to look for places where I could get top up. Here's something I learned in Europe: it is NOT easy to find recharge and top up stores as it is in India or even Australia. Perhaps in Australia I found it easier as I was doing it all online but in Europe, with the Indian cards being stubborn, it was a nightmare.
But the real disaster happened minutes later after I bought a punnet of strawberries. I walked the streets wearing black, eating strawberries, walking along the Seine and feeling very Parisian indeed. I took out my phone to take a picture of my Parisian moment when my phone blacked out. And when I mean blacked out, it blacked and blanked out. Clearly I had had much too many disasters by now to even panic so I continued walking along the Seine in the direction of the Louvre. I knew I would meet my sister there. Eventually. Also, not panicking helps.
This story however is linked to three unlikely Bangladeshi men.
To begin with, it didn't help that I bought a sim card word €15 from two Bangladeshi men. They seemed nice. Genuinely nice. My sister and I found their shop on our hunt for St. Christopher's Inn and I had initially wasted €10 buying a top up card for my lycamobile sim card sold to me by another Bangladeshi in Rome who assured me that it will work all over Europe as long as I have my phone set on EU roaming. He even changed my APN and that gave me a sign of assurance, Clearly, and evidently, he lied! I even tried changing the APN but it didn’t work.
The next day, because we were besides ourselves and mostly lost trying to navigate our way with an actual map when my app called Map (which works offline too) would give up on us, we decided that I might as well buy a new sim card for the sake of our sanity. So we backtracked and found ourselves in the company of the Bangladeshi man again. This time, he had his business partner with him, a younger chap who I thought might have a better knowledge about what sim card would work and what wouldn't. That's when he suggested me the €15 sim card but not before mentioning that recharging that for €20 would get me through a month in Europe. It was an attractive offer. Perhaps to good to be true, but I suppose we wanted to believe him.
In the meantime, my sister whose iPad crashed terribly while she was Berlin, decided to ask him if they fix iPads or if he might know where she could get it fixed (The Forence Apple Store was charging €400). Young Bangladeshi said “yes, we fix iPads too”. It would take a day and cost €100. I now feel that I should've dissuaded my sister instead of telling her that it's up to her because when she eventually got the iPad back a day after I left for Slovenia, it was in a state much worse that it was already in. She was nearly in tears on seeing it, she said.
My sister and I headed to their store again to see if anything could be done about my phone and that is when I enquire about the curious case of my data. What happened to lasting a month in Europe with €20? I asked. Their excuse was that using data in France was very expensive and I used too much. Sure. Thanks. Because using google map and whatsapp would finish a €20 top up over night.
The truth is both my sister and I were much too tired of these disasters (I should add that even her phone had gone dead for a night and came back to life the next day). Our only concern was to get me a new phone. And for €180 I bought a Samsung phone (just so you know, my face cringed as I handled the new phone because I am an apple person through and through). I also bought another top up card for €10 which later turned out to quite a waste of money because it was all exhausted by the time I reached Slovenia. Their assurance that I would be able to receive incoming calls was also a farce.
Young Bangladeshi said he came to France because "they don't lie". This was his main reason, he said. So on the pretext of him honouring his code of truth, we trusted him.
Maybe we were unfortunate. Maybe we were the exception. Maybe it just wasn't supposed to work out for us. But in all the ways that I had weighted the options, it's clear:
- Do not get yours a SFR SIM card. It's expensive and it's not worth it.
- Forget getting a sim card. Just stick to free wifi.
Seeing the current state of the world, I feel that I need to state that in saying Bangladeshi men, I am not racial profiling nor am I singling them out (and why should I? I’m from India which is a stone-throw away from Bangladesh). It just so happened that they were all immigrants (from Bangladesh). It also just occurred to me that we most definitely did get fleeced (am I right?). I think we instantly judged them on the basis of being ‘neighbouring’ countries and language (we were talking to them in Hindi) and took it for granted and thought that they WERE nice.
I would like to go back to Paris and erase my disaster but here’s the thing: even at a first glance, I didn’t fall in love with it nor was I enamoured by the prospects of it. This was my sister’s second visit and I think she still felt the same way and loved it. I just felt a little underwhelmed. This could possibly be for a multitude of reason. The first one being the damn rain. The second being that the only places I wanted to see in France (after Giverny) were Arles and Normandy and the third, I wasn’t even planning on stopping in Paris. Actually, the third reason doesn’t make sense. An unsolicited stop can and still be worthwhile. I don’t know when I’ll be in Paris next but I hope I can paint a better picture of it then next. And I mean that not just as a narrative but to also translate it in photographs because as you can see, there is no inspiration whatsoever in my Paris photographs. It's boring, one dimension and lazy and just all round terrible. Merde, I say.
What I do remember and take away is the kindness of Halina and her husband as well as a couple and a friend who spotted us lost on the streets (right out of Louis Blanc with our bags) and offered to drop us off. Their consideration smashed every story I had heard about the French snobbery.
I can still hear the bus conductor calling out ‘Amalfi, Amalfi’ and I fall back into a reverie whenever I look at the photographs from the few days spent in the Amalfi Coast. The trip to the Coast was a touch and go and it’s no point saying that I regret it because even a 100 days in the Amalfi Coast is not enough.
We stayed in Maiori and visited Positano via Amalfi. Getting around in the Coast was easier than we thought because the buses stopped in all the towns and bus tickets cost not more than €2. Maiori is about 45 minutes from the Salerno train station (the entry point for the Amalfi Coast) and sitting on the left side of the bus will give you the view you are most familiar with about the Amalfi Coast (I am all about that 'view-for-days' life so take my word for it because as luck would have it, I sat on the right side). A friendly elderly man sat next to me and he gave me one piece of information about the Amalfi Coast: cheramica, he said, is something that the Coast is well-known for. I didn’t understand him at first so he pulled out his iphone, pulled out a translator app, uttered ‘cheramica’ and voila! That’s technology bringing people together.
Full disclosure, if you have motion sickness, you really need to reign it in and work on the will power to the power of infinity. Salerno to Maiori wasn't terrible but Maiori to Amalfi and Amalfi to Positano, I will not lie, was a nightmare. What's worse was not getting seats. We were in Italy during the offseason (September) but I reckon all budget travelers think alike. But then again, in general, I think the Amalfi Coast will always be full of tourists. We stood all the way from Maiori to Positano and also half way from Positano to Amalfi. It really tests your balance because there are curves and turns every few seconds. This was where the Delhi metro experience came into use.
The bus ride from Maiori to Amalfi was a short 20 minutes and you are just blown away by the town of Amalfi. We had decided to do dinner at Amalfi because it was Positano that was our final destination. Why? Because Positano is said to be the most beautiful of all the coastal towns. For want of a better word, I was chuffed at the sight of Positano. Let’s put it this way: no photograph of Positano will ever turn out badly. We were terribly, terribly unlucky because we reached by mid-day meaning we were much too late for the boat ride. Can you imagine? A speed boat to all the nook and crannies of Positano? What an absolute miss. So that’s a lesson for you.
We spent endless hours in the local ceramic stores as well as their local boutiques. The sister back home was very lucky because we bought her an exquisite perfume from Positano. We bought it for her but we were jealous of her. I can't remember whether we had a gelato here but we did see see some cute gattos amongst more cheramicas. I think I really tried to make that phrase work for an Instagram post but I couldn’t. So there it is. Cats among ceramics.
What is possibly the most recognizable feature of Positano, apart from its view, is the Church of Santa Maria or Chiesa di Santa Maria Assunta. More accurately, its tiled dome which is quite a stand out feature. The church is accessible via the stairs that lead right to the beach. You get to a point where taking the right leads to the church and the left path continue further with its markets and then meets the beach. On the way is the Villa Romana and for those of us who like to read everything posted outside buildings, churches, monuments etc., it turned out to have a most interesting history. Vila Romana was said to have belonged to a freedman (emancipated slave) Posides Claudi Caesaris from whom the name of the town of Positano comes from.
The beaches in the Amalfi Coast are stone and pebbles. That was something I wasn't prepared for. I was imagining endless, white sandy beaches (damn you, Australia) but all I got was pebbles. Still, they make a beautiful sight from afar. And I'm sure if we had been in time for the boat ride, I wouldn't be whinging about the beaches.
The bus ride will show you several spots that can be explored in-between towns that brings me to something I believe in: that you must visit a place twice. The first time as the curious tourist and the second time, as an explorer. I imagine that had we stayed longer, we could've hired a Vespa or a car or taken the many hike trails and explored the region better. So here I am, just a girl asking destiny for another chance at a killer tax return to fund another trip to Europe. Not asking for much is it?
I don’t have any elaborate stories about incidents in the Amalfi Coast but I remember all the moments which aren’t that significant to write about. I don’t know if you understand what I mean… It’s not that the memories are personal but everything I felt when I was there, whether it was as a traveler or as a person, the overwhelming emotions where I felt both blessed and lucky… It’s not easy to put them into words. It’s those little things like watching an artist paint the seascape or visiting an open art show. I can’t sugar coat those things or create drama. They just were. And so was I when I was there. What I can say is this: the sunset in Positano was magnificence. That was theatre right there.
We stopped in Amalfi for dinner and it was as Italian as it gets with wine, spaghetti and a band serenading us with the most recognizable (Italian) tunes. Of course, we missed the last bus back to Maiori so we shelled out €40 for a cab (and I said a hallelujah because I made sure we had an ‘emergency fund’).
I woke up early to walk around Maiori and made my way to see see the view of the Torre Normanna restaurant built upon an ancient lookout tower. The inhabitants of the town were mostly elderly folks who always smiled and tipped their hats. I am sure I mentioned this in my Rome logs but Italians are wonderful. They are so helpful and friendly to tourists and maybe that’s what made Italy so worthwhile .
SEPTEMBER 28 - 29, 2015
Less than 6 kilometres from Rome lies the Vatican City. The dream of being in two countries at the same time was unconsciously achieved when I set foot in the street that took me to the Vatican museum. You will most likely walk down the avenue of trees and catch a sight of Castel Sant’Angelo along the Tiber River standing like an old guard as St. Peter’s Basilica shine at the back which will surely get your blood pumping. Technically, Castel Sant’Angelo does not fall within the Vatican City. The Vatican City is basically the St. Peter’s Basilica, St. Peter’s Square, The Vatican Museum and The Sistine Chapel. But this is probably one of the most powerful countries in the world, even minting their own money (they use the ancient Italian currency Lira).
I wasn’t aware that the Vatican had a King and that this made them just one of six remaining absolute monarchies in the world. This is also the reason why the Vatican cannot be a part of the European Union. The ‘King’ of the Vatican is mostly unheard of because the Pope plays the dual role (i.e. Of Pope and King). He also has a third role as The Holy See. The Holy See is the name given to the diocese of Rome. When the Lateran Pacts (sanctioned by Benito Mussolini) were signed in 1929, it allowed the Vatican to exist as its own sovereign state. The Holy See is the jurisdiction in Rome of the Catholic Church; the supreme body of government and is an episcopal (bishops) designation while the Vatican City is a diplomatic ground and home of the Pope. The seat of the Holy See is thus held by the Pope. So ultimately, while being the emblem of God on earth, the Pope also balances three hats – ruling, governance and diplomacy (It will take a while for those facts to settle in!)
The ‘pro tip’ for a Vatican visit is to join a tour group. A legitimate one that is. You can do it on your own but with a recognised tour guide, you get a fast-forward option right into the St. Peter’s Basilica after the museum and Sistine Chapel viewing. Otherwise the option is to exit after your museum and Sistine Chapel tour and then enter via a separate entrance for St. Peter’s. The Vatican was the only place where we joined a tour group and it was worth it. We were approached by a friendly young English chap, a tour operation for City Lights, and my sister even haggled for the price I think. Our tour guide was a lovely Italian woman who was extremely well-versed and articulate. A fact that stand out is her explanation of the Creation of Adam. The painting of God is within a shape of the brain, hence instilling thought in man. After so many years of looking at the painting, I only saw this then.
There is a lot of history and information attached and involved within the walls of the Vatican and I don’t think I was adequately prepared for it. I now wish i had bought a relevant book for this. The last one I read relating to anything Vatican was The Agony and The Ecstacy way back in 12th standard. It is the about the life of Michelangelo Buonarroti by Irving Stone.
Truth be told, I didn’t take many pictures. I was partly mesmerised and partly tired of pulling out my camera for everything and figured I might as well really take it all in; be in the moment. In any case, the Vatican is just one of those places where any photograph you take turns out to be ‘the one’. Left and right, up and down, you are completely encircled and drenched in art and it is an absolutely fascinating feeling. The main event, for me, was the Sistine Chapel, the home of the Creation of Adam and the Last Supper. You are asked to be as silent as possible and photographs are strictly not allowed. If you attempt, you will be personally asked to stop. You are only allowed for a limited time in this place that is both holy and a work of art. A binocular is a handy tool here. We were in a group with 2 elderly couple and friends from America and one of them kindly lend us his binocular which was of great help. It was the only chance I would ever get to be as close to the creation (that can be taken metaphorically in some many ways). The Sistine Chapel is used only during the conclave and for worship services.
Between 1600 - 1900, art went through a sort of censorship under Pope Innocent X, Pope Clement XIII and Pope Pius IX. Naked status, mostly the male figures, were covered with either a metal or a plaster fig leaf because nakedness was seen as damning.
I saw these sculptors and I remember being both amused and amazed. Amazed thinking about how that statue had survived for over 500 years and amused because of the leaf. This really happened. This was history quite literally coming alive and even a year later, I am still in a state of disbelief.
Surprising point for me during the museum tour? The Vatican's very unique collection of Egyptian antiquities.
Our tour guide was over once we were led through the ‘shortcut’ towards the St. Peter’s Basilica.
So there we were, facing the giant.
This was really a place fit for the man who symbolised God on earth. The famous window where the Pope addresses the masses were right about and out tour guide pointed that out to us before taking our leave (it’s not mandatory but it is good manners to tip her). The Pope is present to make an appearance every Wednesday. No matter where he is, what part of the world he is in, he apparently makes sure to be back in the Vatican on a Wednesday to greet the people.
The ceilings of St. Peter's is adorned with what looks like gold paint but it's not. It's real. There are also pot-hole look alike's placed on the floor, adorned in intricate designs possibly in gold. The purpose of these are to work like air vents or air chutes because of the Necropolis which is below/underground. Necropolis literally translates to the 'city of the dead'. Archeologically, they have been dated back to the 4th century and this is where St. Peter, one of the original 12 apostles is believed to be buried here. The Necropolis, however, is not open to everyone. You can try battling the Swiss Guards if you want to sneak past but that'll land you in the Vatican jail (which actually sounds pretty cool in one way). To be granted a tour of the Necropolis, you need to write a letter for permission which isn't given to everyone. College/school tour groups or important people would get first preference I reckon but it is advised that you still give it a shot (probably months or a year before your trip) as only 200 tourists are allowed per month. I imagine it will be worth it.
When I was in school, I had the privilege of being taught history by Mr. Matthew from grade 7 to half of 10. I call it a privilege because he made history come alive. You know those teachers who make a difference in the lives of students? He was one of those. I should add that in my lifetime, I had the pleasure to be taught history by three magnificent individuals: Mr. Matthew, Ma’am Phoebe and my father.
Mr. Matthew didn’t teach us like we were school kids. In hindsight, he treated us like adults. He treated us the way we were treated at University. I think most of my classmates weren’t fans of his class because of this. His teaching style was too alternative. He never opened the textbook when he came into the class. He would say “settle down” and begin his tangent. It was impossible not to be enthralled by him and fall under his spell. It was only a few minutes before the bell rang that he would sum up and say we just finished one chapter and if we went back to read it, it would all make sense. His classes were either facts not in our books, tales he had made up or real stories and one such tale was of his friend who visited the Vatican, saw Michelangelo’s Pieta and wept. I never ever forgot that story because Mr. Matthew was metaphorically explaining to a bunch of empty-headed 13 year olds that not only could art could make you feel emotions unlike anything but the work of these masters were unlike anything we could imagine. I always held that story close to me and when I finally saw the Pieta for myself, I understood why. I was back in that history class sometime in the summer of 2002. Michelangelo’s Jesus and Mary had raw emotion. Mary cradled Jesus, her son, as she first did when he was a new-born. Jesus was her son but he also belonged to the world which meant that she could never claim him to just be hers. As a virgin mother, she probably knew that their destiny, as mother or as son, was not going to be easy for either but it had to be accepted. Michelangelo’s Mary has an expression of serenity and to me, I feel that this is probably how she felt when that took him down from the cross. A sense of peace that he was finally past all the suffering and home with his father in heaven.
I refrained from photographing the Pieta. It was a moment in time I just wanted to remember. This is how I felt almost the whole time I was in the Vatican City if I have to be honest. It felt very personal and I didn't even want to share it on my instagram where I was uploading and updating every day. I post a lot from my past travels from time to time today but I refrain from posting anything from the Vatican because I feel like it's crossing a line with my privacy, if that makes sense. It's not about how I will never be able to capture it in photographs. Rather, it felt and still feels much too sacred.Until this log that is.
Michelangelo was commissioned by Pope Julius II to paint the Sistine Chapel and later by Pope Paul III to design and build St. Peter’s Cathedral. St. Peter’s was commisoned to several architects including Raphael before Michelangelo. Between 1506 to 1547, the plans were argued upon several times and it never took off. The original architect was Bramante and by the time Raphael and Peruzzi and Sangallo could do anything, there were now cracks in Bramante’s foundations. Michelangelo had to get through five Popes before his vison and foundation for St. Peter’s could take flight by which time he was already over 80 eighty years old. When Pope Paul died, he was succeeded by Pope Julius III and Pope Marcellus who both died in quick succession in 1555. Neither officially voiced Michelangelo as the official architect for St. Peter’s. But under Pope Paul IV and Pope Pius IV, Michelangelo carried on the work until 1564 when he died at the age of 88, completing only part of the dome. Pope Pius IV died the following year and the rest of it was completed by Giacomo della Porto on request of Pope Paul V in 1590. Many of the sculptures inside St. Peter’s is the handiwork of Bernini.
Michelangelo respected his predecessors while designing his version yet, the credit for the design and architecture as it stands today is completely and deservingly his.
No wonder man had placed heaven in the sky! It was not because he had ever seen a soul ascend thereto, or caught a glimpse of the vistas of paradise above; but because heaven simply had to be housed in the most divine form known to man’s mind or senses. He wanted his dome too to be mystical, not a protection from hear or rain, thunder or lightning, but of a staggering beauty that would reassure man of His creation… a sentient form which man could not only see and feel but enter. Under his dome a man’s soul must soar upward to God even as it would in the moment of its final release from his body. How much closer could man come to God, while still on earth? With his vast cupola he meant to paint His portrait just as surely as when he had painted Him on the Sistine ceiling.
Stone, I. (1961). The Dome. In The Agony and The Ecstasy. New York : Penguin Group. 749
Can you imagine if Pope Julius II and Pope Paul III accepted Michelangelo’s resignation when they offered him the commission of the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s? because he did. He objected saying that he was no artist and that nor architect. By trade, he was a sculpture. Yet, here we are today. Michelangelo accepted the commission of St. Peter’s as a homage to the God he believed it. It is said that he accepted no payment for St. Peter’s.
The church has come under fire many times in history for being too narrow-minded and not open to change, prosecuting scientists and inventors, denouncing them as heresy. In recent times, however, it has been plagued by something far worst: scandal (those stories of sexual assault) within the highest order resulting to the resignation of Pope Benedict (as well as health problems, allegedly). During a time when the church needed saving from itself, I have this sense of belief that they were given the answer in the figure of Pope Francis. I admire Pope Francis because of his ability to connect to both the young and the old, to religion and science, to the scripture and to logic and also to believers and non-believers alike. Some argue that he might be too progressive but I sense that he is aware that for the Church, for the Vatican as an institution to continue, it too must embrace the worldly changes. The Vatican is a symbol of faith and hope to millions around the world. And you get to see just that when you’re people watching outside at St. Peter’s Square.
SEPTEMBER 25, 2015
Claude Monet first drifted into my life when I was about 6 years old. My brother was a self-taught artist and he had stack of art books and I first fancied them because of the colours. They were pretty. Soon, I was inspired. I picked up names of a few artists (Monet being one) and techniques without knowing a single thing about them and that was that.
The second time Monet came into my life was when I was in boarding school. One of my best friends then had an older sister. Both the sisters were talented artists and thanks to our resident art teacher, the older sister researched famous artists from various ages as well as art movements. My friend, her sister, got a glimpse of the books and told me about it and soon, Monet became one of her favourites and in turn, impressionism. I was never a good artist but because of her interest and her enthusiasm, and me understanding what she was talking about, even if it was just recognising the name, we became overwhelmed with it and it became our thing because that’s how 12 year-old girls function. That year, during our summer break, I went to my local book store and asked them for books on art.
There are a few wonderful things about growing up in a small town that 97% of the world still don’t know about and one of those is finding treasure. That year, it was in the form of a magazine called The Great Artists (a weekly Cavendish Collection). I have never seen this magazine anywhere else in India except for my hometown even till today. I bought almost each and every magazine (still at home today) and even took some to school to share with my friend.
I felt like Lucy and these magazines were my wardrobe to the world of John Millias, Van Gogh and Monet. Apart from their famous works of art, the magazine wrote about the lives of these artists among other details. Those magazines taught me about the artists, their lives as well as the phases and changes art went through and how social and political changes were as significant as a beautiful face to serve as an inspiration.
The third time that Monet came into my life, he was persistent. I was studying in Melbourne and one day while taking the tram to Uni, a giant impression of the water lilies passed me by. Melbourne trams are always decked up especially for events or for ads and commercials so naturally, I was intrigued. Before the tram left, I got the information I wanted: The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) was hosting a Claude Monet exhibition (and there was a student discount on the tickets). Monet and I were finally destined to meet. So one Sunday in August 2013, I made the effort to look nice enough and went to meet him.
It was an exhilarating feeling and the NGV had curated it beautifully touching on both his artistic and his personal life. The waterlilies were there and the canvases were larger than I imagined. The main event of this exhibition however was a short film on Monet’s Garden; sometime I was unaware of. It was a short film on loop and I caught half of it at first so I sat through to watch it from the start. Over and over again. It was Monet’s Garden in Giverny caught in film from dawn till dusk. Just music, no narrative. I had never felt such a sense of longing, such a sense of attachment to a place I had only learned about. I carved out a big place in my mind for that film to make sure it stays on with me till I one day saw Giverny.
And in October 2015, I did. It was my turn to pay my long overdue visit to Monet.
“my garden is my most beautiful masterpiece” - Claude Monet
Because of the attachment that I felt at first sight with Monet’s garden, I am quite out of depth here to describe my emotions accurately. It was a very personal encounter and all I could say was that I felt blessed.
Giverny is a quiet little French village an hour away from Paris. Seeing as the main attraction there is Monet’s Garden, there is a bus that waits for all visitors. It was still a very rainy day but there was no way the weather was coming between me and Monet. I sacrificed Versailles for Giverny even before the trip began. In fact, my France itinerary had always been: Giverny, Arles and Normandy. Why? Because: Monet, Van Gogh and World War. And seeing as I had the most terrible time in France, I really need to make up for it. Soon.
But back to Monet.
Monet was a keen traveler and he put his memories to use while painting. He was also greatly influenced by the Japanese and this is evident in one of his gardens. There are two garden and one in simply called The Japanese Garden complete with a bridge. From the distance, everything about the scene felt unreal: the bridge against the willow and the burst of (autumn) colours? It wasn't possible that I was there in such a place. There were many visitors and tourists and my sister was there closely too but I was undeniably in a state of reverie.
He competed creating his garden in 1899 but continued to dedicate time in perfecting it himself even though he had several gardeners at his disposal. His garden also became his greatest source of inspiration of which the waterlilies play a centrifugal role.
“It took me a long time to understand my water lilies” he said and it isn’t hard to believe considering the number of paintings he dedicated to them. Sadly, he confessed destroying many as well. Every painting of Monet which depicts his garden is a vision of reality. I must confess that seeing the waterlilies felt very magical. They aren’t always said to be in bloom and on a day without rain, I can only imagine how the scene would be like but not even the rain was taking that moment away from me.
Every painting of Monet which depicts his garden is a vision of reality. He seemed to have studied the component of light and colour so well because the positioning of the flowers was also placed accordingly. The colours in his paintings were not made up or a conjuring of something he wished for. It was all in his garden. In fact, regardless of when you visit, which ever season it is, you will find the garden in bloom; a colour bomb. I am unsure if this was Monet’s plan or if it was an initiative by the Claude Monet Foundation. During his later years, the fact that his eyesight began to fail was a torment for Monet. Yet, he continued to paint what he could see and also partly with memory. Monet’s home has been cared for so well that you actually feel that you might catch a glimpse of him or his wife coming at you and greeting you.
It rained the entire time we were there touring the house and the garden. Typical French weather I am told. Yet no one seemed to complain or notice and for once, neither did I. At least half of the visitors and tourists including my sister bought an umbrella from the gift shop. Each had a Monet painting on it and in the rain, it was an apparition of moving impressionism art which in fact created a beautiful scene.
Leaving Monet’s house and Giverny felt as surreal as visiting it but my entire experience with Monet has been an encounter of coincidences and a moment I can recollect. So yeah... I wouldn’t have it any other way.
OCTOBER 05, 2015