Posts Tagged ‘mosaics’

April 29 and 10, 2008

The (beautiful) mosaics at the Villa Casale were Roman, secular, and pastel. The (beautiful) mosaics at Monreale were Byzantine, Christian, and vibrant with color and gold. I loved them both, and I recommend seeing them both. However, it is easier to get to Monreale if you aren’t driving and don’t want to take a tour. The villa is somewhat isolated, while Monreale is just a short bus ride from Palermo. I visited Monreale twice, once with the tour group on the way to Cefalu, and once on my own when I returned to Palermo at the end of my trip. And while the mosaics are a sufficient reason for a return visit, Monreale also has a cloister full of fascinating columns and capitals. The tour visited in the morning, competing with crowds from three cruise ships, so I chose go back in the afternoon. It didn’t help much.

Monreale was commissioned by the Norman King William II, in 1174. At first sight it might seem overkill to build a massive cathedral so close to Palermo, where one was already under construction, begun in 1168. However, just as the Norman King Henry II in England was attempting to reduce the power of the church in opposition to that “troublesome priest” Thomas a Becket, William was contending with the archbishop building Palermo’s cathedral. William seems to have done better than Henry, and unlike Becket the cardinal escaped martyrdom. I find it interesting that we have Norman kings at both the northern and southern peripheries of Europe at the same time, although since the Normans were originally Vikings, perhaps it is not so strange. The Normans had wrested control of Sicily from the Moors (the same Moors then occupying the Iberian peninsula), and for a time Sicily was a flourishing example of multiculturalism. (But not for long.)

Monreale is definitely one of those places where pictures are more evocative than words (although my photos of the mosaics did not turn out well). However, I will mention that the entire interior is covered with Byzantine-style mosaics, 6,340 square meters of them, with a background of gold. Forty-two separate scenes depict key episodes from the Bible, culminating in a huge Christ Pantocrator above the main altar. Outside, the cloister is bordered by 228 slender, paired columns, all different, all with intriguing capitals carved with scenes from Sicilian history, and many with mosaic inlay. An Arab fountain is tucked into one corner.

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April 25-26, 2008
Now we left the east coast behind us and drove through the inland hills to Piazza Armerina for two nights in an agriturismo. The next day would star the mosaics of Villa Casale – one of my absolute must-see sights on Sicily (I just love mosaics). I looked forward to the agriturismo, too – not the kind of place you get to stay at if you only use public transport. Before we left Siracusa, though, Alfio had added a visit to the recently opened WWII bomb shelters near the Duomo. As shelters go, these weren’t at all bad, cleaner and less claustrophobic than the London tube, for sure. Originally caves, they featured a big cistern for water.

I had been a little concerned that our lunch stop might have been Noto: instead it turned out to be Caltagirone, which I had really wanted to see, but had thought too far for a day trip from Siracusa. Ceramics have been produced there for over a thousand years, but I didn’t want to shop, I wanted to see the Scalinata di Santa Maria del Monte, 142 wide steps leading up to the Chiesa di Santa Maria del Monte , each riser faced with hand-decorated ceramic tiles. And indeed, while the plates and vases in the shops were a little florid for my taste, the tiles were just right – birds and flowers and lions and horses and geometric shapes, each riser different. Before releasing us to find lunch, Alfio took us to see a huge “nativity”” (presepe in Italian). Think of a model railway layout, but without the railway and with the nativity scene as the centerpiece. This one occupied most of a church, and included numerous tableaux of people going about their daily lives – fixing meals, gathering firewood, catching fish.

Again, we were given only sketchy directions for places to eat. I headed straight for La Scala, listed in Lonely Planet and actually on the Scalinata, but they were only offering a tourist menu at 25 euro. I should mention that April 25th was a holiday, Liberation Day, both celebrating the end of WWII in Italy, and commemorating the war dead. On a different day I would expect to find a regular menu. Unfortunately, many places were closed because of the holiday, and I wasn’t having much luck when I ran into a couple from the tour looking equally hungry. Then I took another look at Lonely Planet and we found Non Solo Vino, almost hidden up a staircase, where I enjoyed an excellent piece of swordfish with fennel and orange. Apparently the antipasto buffet and spaghetti with clams were also good.

We couldn’t linger over lunch, though, as we were supposed to meet up with the group for a pottery demonstration. This was where I realized that one pottery demonstration is really much like another – I would have done better to visit the ceramics museum. I didn’t have time for that after the demonstration, but I did abandon the shoppers, which let me spend a little time in Caltagirone’s pretty public gardens, and take a quick peek at a religious festival that seemed to center on the cloak of S. Francesco di Paola.

We were staying at Torre di Renda for two nights, and ate dinner there both nights. My room, a double, was small enough I wondered where two people would put their luggage, and again I didn’t have much of a view. There were great views available however, looking across a valley to Piazza Armerina. I thought dinner good but not great – stronger on quantity than quality. The antipasto, as usual in Italy, was good, the pasta just OK (although since I’m not really a pasta fan, maybe I’m not a fair judge), then we had tough pork as well as tasty rabbit and potatoes. Dessert included both cake and tiramisu. Turned out that a group of 27 made unrealistic demands on the agriturismo’s hot water supplies, and some on this tour weren’t up to the challenge. Faced with the choice of a cold shower, getting up earlier or showering in the afternoon, I picked the latter, but I did miss my morning shower.

This trip had already included museums closed for renovation, and now the Villa Casale, one of my main reasons for coming to Sicily, was also partially closed for renovation! True, renovation is a good and necessary thing, (very necessary in the case of the Naples museum), but I was beginning to feel I had chosen the wrong year for the trip. I do hope that renovation at the Villa includes a new roof – the current monstrosity makes it very hard to take decent photographs, and must turn the place into a sauna in the summer. Still, the Villa is huge, and although some of the most famous mosaics were covered, I had plenty to admire. Built in the early fourth century, probably as the manor for a large estate, it survived the invasions of the Vandals and the Visigoths, and later the Arabs, but was buried by a landslide in the twelfth century, and remained hidden until the 1900s. The UNESCO listing for the site says simply: “the finest mosaics in situ anywhere in the Roman world”. Just stunning. While the “bikini girls” may be the most famous, a long procession of wild animals is even more arresting (it’s thought that the Villa’s owner may have traded in wild animals). In all, 37,000 square feet of mosaics await the visitor.

Almost anywhere would be an anticlimax after a morning at the Villa Casale, but Piazza Armerina wasn’t bad. I made a quick getaway from the group to be sure I could buy a panini before the shops shut. With a happy hour and another large meal scheduled for the evening I wanted a light lunch, which I ate on a bench across from the duomo. Exploring the town afterwards, I found several people from the group in a nice-looking trattoria, and was invited to join them for coffee and dessert. Heading back to the coach we walked into the first rain I had encountered since Herculaneum back on April 15th – and hail as well – but it cleared by the time we reached the agriturismo. Now, later in the year, I imagine people would spend the afternoon at the pool, but not in April. I admired the views, I went for a walk among the wildflowers and I caught up on my journal, but it was definitely a slow afternoon.

In contrast, the evening was lively. We all showed up with contributions for happy hour (I took olives, from the same alimentari as my lunchtime panini), and then took turns introducing our “buddy”. RS tours have everyone pair up on the first day and then check that our buddy is present when otherwise the guide would need to count heads. (Turns out that “buddy” is a dirty word in Sicilian!) I tried to graze sparingly on the assorted goodies, but getting through four courses after happy hour was a bit difficult. We had the usual mixed antipasto, followed by another pasta Norma, meat and very mediocre spinach, and my favorite cannoli.

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Mosaics in Madaba

October 27-28, 2009: Back at Al-Samariyeh bus station, having established that the going rate for a taxi seat to Amman was only 200 SP more than for a bus, I arranged to take a taxi. Then I waited a long time for it to fill up – the Beirut-bound taxis were more popular. We eventually left at 8:50, but since one of the passengers, a young businessman, had an appointment to keep, he persuaded the driver to speed and we reached the border at 10:00, going 140-150 kph much of the way.

It took the driver a lot longer to deal with the Syrian formalities than it did the passengers. I was amused to find that I wasn’t allowed to use the “women-only” line, and instead had to use the one for “diplomats”. Getting into Jordan was quite a performance:  besides completely emptying the car and the trunk, and searching under the hood, one of the guards lay down on the ground and the car drove slowly over him! Once again it took the driver longer to deal with the paperwork – he took about half an hour for each side of the border. I paid 10 JD for my visa, and didn’t even have to fill in a form.

Abdali bus station on a Friday, when it's a market

We shed a couple of passengers on the way into Amman, but the driver duly delivered me to a largely deserted Abdali bus station. As soon as the taxi fixer who appeared as I got out heard that I wanted to go to Madaba, and saw my backpack, he said “Mariam Hotel?” He was right. We agreed the price, I got into his car, and then he carefully stowed the pail of water he’d been using to wash it in the back. Turned out, he was only driving me a few yards, after which I was turned over to the real taxi. This driver had been written up in a book by a British journalist – he gave me a very dilapidated copy to read. He also told me that he had 11 children – Jordan’s birth rate is a bit lower than Syria’s, but still high (19.55/1,000 population vs 25.9/1,000, the US is 13.82/1,000 and the UK 10.65/1,000).

When he asked where I was from, and I said I had been born in England, he gave me a big smile, and told me that Jordanians loved the English – “so friendly” (given Britain’s history in Jordan I found this a bit surprising). But when I added that I lived in America, the smile disappeared. Since I had seen the same reaction frequently on this trip, I asked whether the election of Obama hadn’t improved people’s attitudes to the U.S. The reply? “Troops are still in Iraq, troops are still in Afghanistan, there’s been no progress with the Palestinians, he’s as bad as Bush”. Not much you can say to that…

Dolmen, once a tomb, near Madaba

The Mariam Hotel lived up to its advertising, although I hadn’t noticed that it didn’t have AC (but it did have a powerful oscillating fan). I ate a quick lunch by the pool, and then arranged a taxi to take me to see the Bronze Age (5,000 to 3,000 B.C.E.) dolmens that had been discovered by the owner of the hotel. You have to trek a good ways to see them, and I don’t think I trekked far enough to see the best. I did get a thorough education in the meaning of “stony waste”.

The key to the mosaic map at St. George's

Detail of the mosaic map

I spent the next morning indulging my love of mosaics. I mostly followed Lonely Planet’s walking tour, although I saved the pièce de resistance, the 6th century C.E. mosaic map of Palestine in St. George’s church, for last. This meant that all the tour groups had left town, and I had the church almost to myself. The map was both impressive and fun, with fish swimming in the River Jordan, and trees and ordered rows of houses occupying the land. Many early maps are hard to decipher, but this was surprisingly clear, after I reviewed the well-labeled replica outside, and located Jerusalem – the center of the world at the time. (For an excellent discourse on early maps, I highly recommend “The Fourth Part of the World”.) What most tour groups miss, however, are the equally good mosaics in the Archaeological Park. There are a lot more of them, too.

I took advantage of a free afternoon to visit the Madaba Turkish Bath – I figured that after six weeks of travel, I could use some deep cleaning. My hotel made me an appointment, and I had the place to myself – the hot tub, the steam room, and the marble slab where the female attendant scrubbed off the dirt.

Although the Mariam did meals, it looked like dinner was a buffet, and I avoid buffets even at home. I prefer my food cooked fresh (or at least the illusion that it’s cooked fresh!). I ate a couple of meals at the Ayola Coffee Shop and Bar – a good hangout with comfortable seating indoors and dirt-cheap falafel sandwiches – and my last dinner in town at the Bowabit Restaurant, with a good view of the main street below. At the Bowabit I enjoyed some good humus followed by chicken in a cream sauce and a large glass of red wine.

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