“I fairly egged him on, as far as my powers in Italian permitted, so keen was I to see with my novelist’s curiosity how far he would go. The tenant had to be an American, he said. I was a Scot, I informed him, and I doubted that he would find an American to pour capital into his property with a tenure of only one year. He replied that the apartment was in a famous 15th-century building in which many famous lords had lived, which was true enough. So he went on, while I looked out the window, watching the baroque fountain playing in the fine October light of Rome. The theatrical figure representing the Nile, his great hand held up as if to ward off some falling masonry, seemed apt to my situation. ”Speak to me,” Michelangelo is said to have challenged his Roman statue of Moses; and indeed, the sculptures of Rome do speak.”
-Muriel Spark, The New York Times
Continue reading “Rome Pt. 3”
“In Rome I’m quite different, I said. There I don’t get so excited, so out of control, and I’m more predictable. Rome calms me down- Wolfsegg works me up. Rome has a soothing effect on the nerves, even though it’s the most exciting city in the world, but at Wolfsegg I’m always agitated, even though it’s so peaceful here. I’m a victim of this paradox, I said. In Rome I express myself quite differently, I talk to everyone quite differently. Gambetti once told me, I said, that whenever I returned from Wolfsegg I talked in a very agitated manner, but only when I’d been to Wolfsegg. On that occasion I had told Gambetti that my family was to blame, He said my thinking had got out of phase with its normal rhythm, what might be called its Roman rhythm.”
-Thomas Bernhard, Extinction
Continue reading “Rome Pt. 2”
“He looked at Ervin, full of expectation; then, when he said nothing, asked:
‘Have you thought about what I should do?’
‘Yes, Mihály,’ Ervin said quietly. ‘I think you should go to Rome.’
‘To Rome?’ he blurted out in astonishment. ‘Why? How did you arrive at that?’
‘Last night in the choir… I can’t really explain this to you, you’re not familiar with this type of meditation… I do know that you must go to Rome.’
‘But why, Ervin, why?’
‘So many pilgrims, exiles, refugees have gone to Rome, over the course of centuries, and so much has happened there… really, everything has always happened in Rome. That’s why they say, “All roads lead to Rome”. Go to Rome, Mihály, and you’ll see. I can’t say anything more at present.’
‘But what shall I do in Rome?’
‘What you do doesn’t matter. Perhaps visit the four great basilicas of Christendom. Go to the catacombs. Whatever you feel like. It’s impossible to be bored in Rome. And above all, do nothing. Trust yourself to chance. Surrender yourself completely, don’t plan things… can you do that?’
‘Yes, Ervin, if you say so.’
‘Then go immediately. Today you don’t have that hunted look on your face that you had yesterday. Use this auspicious day for setting forth. Go. God be with you.’
Without waiting for a reply he embraced Mihály, offered the priestly left cheek and right cheek, and hurried away. Mihály stood for a while in astonishment, then gathered up his pilgrim’s bundle and set off down the mountain.”
-Antal Szerb, Journey in Moonlight
Continue reading “Rome Pt. 1”
For a city of its importance, Birmingham is terribly good at hiding in plain sight. A show of hands amongst a randomly selected group of people from SE England would probably show that most had been to Amsterdam or Barcelona, but how many would have spent time in Birmingham? It has an abundance of quality Victorian architecture, yet it is Glasgow or Belfast that come to mind when we think of Victorian cities. It was the ‘city of a thousand trades’ at the start of the Industrial Revolution, but we are likelier to think of Manchester or Sheffield when we think of the coming of the factory age. Even in terms of pop music, having given us Duran Duran, Dexys Midnight Runners, ELO and Denim, Birmingham somehow lags behind Liverpool and Manchester as a pilgrimage point for music fans. Holidaymakers go for the Lake District, York, Bath or Oxford, and Brum keeps a low profile. We all know that it is the second largest city in the UK, and that it has more canals than Venice, but do we know Birmingham?
Continue reading “Birmingham: This is What She’s Like”
I once saw a quote somewhere by one of Austria’s post-war chancellors that “Austria has retired from world history, and is very happy about that”. Austria is not a particularly large country, but its erstwhile empire was very large and Vienna was a cultural metropolis and mixing-pot on the scale of London or Paris, and it has the buildings to match. The empire was finished by the age of the Manhattan skyscraper, but the buildings Vienna does have reflect the neo-classical ideology of Empire; everyone wanted to steal the clothes Greece/Rome, but as German-speakers the Viennese were also inheritors of the Gothic. The architecture, particularly around the lavish Ringstrasse that replaced the old city walls, is like a five-year-old unleashed on a pick ‘n’ mix with an unlimited budget. The familiar Hapsburg look of Herculean caryatids and green domes of oxidised copper is turned up to 11 in their capital; they were building a city for giants, on a heroic scale that seems almost comical to our eyes. But this city built for titans is now the capital to a small-to-middling country, and compared to our pressure-cooker global cities it has a paradoxically unpretentious, slightly soporific appeal that I find very appealing. It no longer asks to dominate world affairs; it is happy to rest on its laurels, and so it should be.
Continue reading “Vienna Innerestadt: Show of Strength”
Following the news in the summer of 2017, we hear that the infrastructure of Southern Europe is collapsing under the weight of boat people being picked up by the Mafia a few metres from the Libyan coast, we hear that Rome is imposing a curfew on running water, we hear of multiple arson-encouraged forest fires sweeping across nation after nation, we hear that activists in Barcelona and Mallorca are threatening direct action against mass tourism, we hear that Brits are missing their flights because of four-hour queues in and out of the Schengen zone; in short, we hear that there are too many people on the planet, all taking too many holidays in the same overcrowded places. With this year’s summer break I get the impression that we sacrificed world-class art, culture and iconic sights in exchange for being obscurist holiday hipsters, because in the little corner of Austria on which we took a punt we barely saw another foreigner in a week, and we came home happy with our choice. The Wachau valley is a 20-mile stretch of the Danube, roughly equidistant between Linz and Vienna, that is particularly pretty. It begins with Melk, a huge and celebrated monastery with a small town below, and ends around the medium-sized town of Krems an der Donau (‘an der Donau’ performing the same role as ‘upon-Thames’), with a string of picturesque winemaking villages in between. People who are seriously into their exercise like to cycle its entire length, and a boat down the Danube to Melk is one of the classic day-trip excursions from Vienna, but we spent a week in the Wachau to recharge our batteries and indulge in some slow travel.
Continue reading “Wachau: Steely Danube”
From Spain to the Spanish Netherlands. As I contemplate writing up this trip it dawns upon me that this is the first time I’ve blogged Belgium, and only my third visit to the country. Conclusion: I don’t get to Belgium half as much as I should. For so long Belgium was, to Britain, merely the butt of jokes in bad TV comedies. Yet the defence of this place across the water was what dragged us into World War I, and the swift Eurostar connection to Brussels means that these days we can go abroad and explore a relatively unfamiliar country without having to endure the awful experience of airports, and with a quicker journey time than we face going to Newcastle or Glasgow (although who knows what obstacles Brexit will place in our way). When Belgium was at its most unfashionable, Jonathan Meades made his celebrated film arguing that it was interesting because as devout Catholics, Belgians paired the same death-cult as Spain or Italy (where it is leavened by sunny skies and the blue Mediterranean) with perpetually grey skies that rain more than Yorkshire. My own great fondness for the place can probably be attributed, at least in part, to the fact that its brilliance is unsung, under-the-radar, and a wonderful surprise. The tourist goes to Venice in full expectation that he will find one of the most beautiful cities in the world, but what knows the tourist of Ghent? Until recently, not so much, but its greater accessibility these days seems to be waking Brits up to the fact that Belgium has the best beer, chips and chocolate on God’s earth, and much else besides.
Continue reading “Ghentlemen Prefer Blondes (and Dunkels, and Tripels)”