Last Images of Europe

Europe

Tomorrow we depart Europe for Thailand and afterwards, Australia.

Amongst all the experiences and images from the last 8 months, it is the cultural diversity and the history of Europe – embodied by The Renaissance era – which are the domiant mental souvenirs I take with me – rather than the scenes of utter bruality from The Ukraine which have dominated European news outlets this year. 

The Renaissance has loomed large during my time in this part of the world: the rebirth of European culture, in which Northern Italy played a major role. Commencing in the 16th century, The Renaissance was a time when artists, writers, and philosophers broke free of the old norms inherited from the Middle Ages and a suffocating, dogmatic Christianity.

This cultural revolution produced a welter of new ideas in the arts and a spirit of humanism.  Ironically, although it presaged the modern era, it drew its inspiration from the past – and in particular from the artists and philosophers of ancient Greece. 

These three paintings, all of them done in the early 16th century, capture the spirit of The Renaissance and its subtle yet unequivocal challenge to the existing norms. 

 

Portrait of a Lady, Sandro Boticelli

 

The city states of Northern Italy produced a welter of brilliant artists.

Born in Florence, Sandro Boticelli’s Portrait of a Lady portrayed a woman in a way never seen before: not as a kind of surogate version of the Holy Virgian Mary – as was normal during the Middle Ages – but rather in terms of femine beauty with clear elements of feeling and sexuality. Here was a radical new idea of painting: of displaying human beings rather than symbolic images. The detail, linear outlines and colours also spelled a break with the past. 

This is a beautiful woman whose beauty is something which we modern human beings can recognise. 

 

Portrait of an African Man, Jan Mostaert

 

Jan Mostaert was a little known Dutch painter hailing from the city of Haarlem. He was an outstanding painter in the technical sense but was not known for any originality. 

Mostaert’s Portrait of an African Man, is one of the earliest and the only individual portraits of a black African that has survived.

We do not know who this man is.

His rich clothes, gloves, and sword indicate his important status. The insignia on his hat and bag allude to possible Spanish or Portuguese origins. 

Whatever the case, this is a portrayal of a black man as someone with humanity and dignity and not a slave, a servant, or a curiosity. This is a man of colour with dignity and presence.  

This is a human being like you and me. 

 

Giovanni Bellini ‘The Lamentation of Christ’.

 

Bellini was a Venetian painter and here is one of his great masterpieces in its unprecedented portrayal of one of the oldest religious scenes in the world. Jesus, Mary and John are portrayed as real human beings with emotions rather than icons of an institionalised religion. In the drama of Christ’s murder and the intense suffering of Mary and John is a powerful symbol of the sufferings of the human race at large. In this sense the painting was timeless, relevant to the sufferings of human beings from whatever time period, place, religion or ethnicity.

Christ is a man who has suffered a terrible injustice and been arbitrarily executed. His fate and that of Mary and John is just as applicable to the human lot in today’s world as the ancient.

Here is the basis for our modern western ideas about ‘universal human rights’ and compassion for the world’s poor and oppressed. 

 

In these three paintings, the break with the Middle Ages –  dominated by the Papacy and crusades against the Moslems in the Holy Land and Spain, as well as against heretics within Europe – is unmistakable. A society and religion which has imposed a straight jacket on humanity for centuries is now being challenged by non violent means: art and ideas. 

This is the baggage I take with me as I depart Europe. 

Nothing to check in. No passport required. 

Light as a bird.  

 

Autumn Days

The Netherlands

 

 

 

 

 

The leaves changing colour, falling.

The trees soon to become skeletons, naked, silent.

Cool winds, short days. 

The sun, like candle light, casting long shadows; 

The feeling of life changing, time ticking away

On our lives. This time together

Precious. 

Winter on the way and in the nights, creeping in the darkness

The kiss of silence, eternal. 

 

 

 

 

 

Flags – Rotterdam, The Netherlands, October 2022

The Ukraine

Central Station, Helsinki Finland

 

I’ve never been into flags.

National flags I mean.  

The way I see it, they  too often symbolise nationalism of the bad kind. Narrow. ‘My country right or wrong’. That sort of stuff.

Sure, you might have good reasons for wanting to live in a country but it when it moves into something more than that, something emotional, fanatical, that when I sign off….

I’ve never been into flags because I’ve never been into nationalism.  

But today I admit that I’m a flag waver, a person who would be prepared to hang a flag from the small balcony of his third story apartment – except for the fact that the balcony has been netted off to keep the pigeons out.

If it wasn’t for the pigeons, I’d be hanging out a flag alright.

The Ukrainian Flag.

 

What a turnaround!

Until 9 months ago, if you had shown me a Ukrainian flag, I would have had no idea to which country it belonged (even though I’d spent a month in The Ukraine in the autumn of 2018).

I wasn’t alone in my ignorance.

If identifying the Ukrainian flag been a question in a popular quiz show I reckon few contestants would have been able to answer it correctly.

Today everyone in Europe knows that flag.

We’re all Ukrainians now.

Their flag is my flag.

Anti-flag me is now a flag enthusiast.

A flag waver if he got the chance. {Those damn pigeons!)

And the flag of Europe is now the flag of a Europe united like never before.

And that even anti-flag people like me have become flag wavers.

 

A farm in Flanders, Belgium

 

 

 

Mass protest in Rome

 

 

We’re all Ukrainians and Europeans now

 

Two Versions of Italy in One Day – Northern Italy, October 2022

Italy, Uncategorized

On our trip from the very north of the Italian mountains south to Bergamo – where we were due to get our flight back to Amsterdam – we took a bus to the city of Poschiavo, a town in the Italian area of the Swiss Alps, where we stopped for a couple of hours before taking the train to Tirano, a city in Italy and roughly half way to Bergamo where we had booked a place to stay the night. 

Poschiavo is popular a place for Swiss tour groups. I personally was disappointed with it. The people spoke Italian ….and yet it was not Italy. The old buildings had been ‘Swissified’; restored and yet ….sterile, devoid of the colour and character one experiences in Italy proper.  

Poschiavo:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Swiss Train to Tirano came with a tourist voice announcing all the attractions along the way and for me, completed the overall picture of the Swiss tourist industry completing the impression of tameness and control. 

The highlight of the train trip – lauded by the tourist voice – was where it went around in a complete circle shortly before arriving in Tirano…

 

 

The Old Area of Tirano and well, a very different city scape to Poschiavo……

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rituals – Northern Italy, October 2022

Italy

 

On the tops of high rises in the mountains there are often crucifixes or some other symbol of Christianity. One might assume that these are symbols of a culture and a people for whom religion is important.

Yet all the evidence points in a different direction.

As I read in an English language Italian website: polls show time and again that when asked about their religious belief, the Italians are amongst the least religious people in Europe (the highest being in Eastern Europe}. Striking indeed for the country home to the Vatican. 

And yet as one Italian explained to me: ‘the rituals are still important to us, we get married in a church and are babies are baptised there and we die there too.’

Coincidentally that was something we witnessed at Livigno when we left the small hotel where we were staying and descended into the main town to go to the supermarket. We had to pass the church on the way. Every morning its bells ring but on this morning we had noticed that the bells were ringing for an inordinately long time, the echoes filling the valley.

We found out why: there was a funeral. As we passed the church, we saw a procession of priests dressed in white tunics and long flowing purple frocks and behind then a large crowd of locals, dressed in their best clothes. The priest leading the procession held a kind of icon on top of long pole bordered by black cloth.

Later, on our return journey, we passed the open door of the church where an organ was playing and people were singing. It was a strange scene in the midst of endless mass of shops, boutiques, restaurants etc. – a reminder that once Livigno was a village and very poor one at that  – but also that rituals were still very much a part of Italian culture. 

And something which I as a traveller appreciated. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘L-‘ Northern Italy, October 2022

Italy

 

The driver of the taxi we got from the Bergamo airport into the centre of town was a young guy who spoke passable English.

He was friendly and talkative but that was probably a part of his tourist routine.

Still, he wasn’t worried about putting forth his opinions. I liked that. 

After going through the standard patter about Bergamo and its sights, he asked us where we were going after Bergamo.

We told him we had booked four nights in an apartment in the town of Edolo in the mountains of north east Italy and after that, didn’t know where we were going but we had an eye on another town deeper in the alps called Bormio.

‘Edolo’? 

Bormio?

Why do you want to go to those places?

We wanted to go walking, we told him.

It’s was as if he didn’t hear us. Possibly he didn’t rate walking in the mountains too highly.

There’s nothing there!

They’re dead those places!

You should go to ….

We didn’t catch the name of the place he thought we should head to besides the fact that it began with a ‘L’.

It was north of Bormio and deeper in the mountains, close to the border of Switzerland, and it was the place to go.

Warming to his subject, he began extolling its attractions: it was a skiing destination in winter and walking in the summer and autumn. There were lots of bars, restaurants, shops….it was really alive!

We didn’t say anything but each of us thought to ourselves: this place sounds like the last place we would want to go to!

But of course he was a young guy and he saw things very differently to us.

From our perspective, we’d come to Italy go walking and our preference was to base ourselves in in historic towns. It was a great combination: walking and history. And as far as history goes, there’s no country in Europe like it.

But of course being a young guy – and Italian – the taxi driver thought walking was boring and as for history – well, he had grown up with it.

It was the modern, the new, which for him was exciting.

 

We spent two days in Bergamo, four days in Edolo followed by 4 days in Bormio. Each place was an experience in itself: a historical experience. From the feudal era to the baroque in Bergamo, followed by the middle ages in Edolo – a small village nestled on the mountain side – to Bormio, a town with a maze of narrow side streets, open squares, grandiose churches and behind it, the mountains.

Beautiful Italy!

Europe’s greatest museum.

At the end of our stay in Bormio we ran into a problem.

We were deep in the mountains but were running out places where we could stay and walk.

Perusing our map, Livigno came up on our radar.

It was an hour on the bus and close to the Swiss border – and we had completely forgotten about the taxi driver in Bergamo.

But sure enough, the  ‘L-‘ came to mind after the bus descended into a long deep valley in between soaring mountains. We were a thousand metres above Bormio and the peaks here were heavy with snow.

But it wasn’t the mountains which got our attention.

It was the 8 kilometre long sprawl of chalets, apartments, boutiques, shops, supermarkets, bars, restaurants ….

‘L’ for Livigno.

 

This was not the place for us. This was anti-history. No character. Sterile. 

Getting off the bus and walking around aimlessly with our rucksacks (we couldn’t check into our apartment until 4pm) it was as if we were more lost than we had ever been on our walks in the mountains. And we were experts at that. 

I wondered why anyone on a ski vacation in this place would want to buy fashion clothes or watches or perfumes and so on? A ski vacation was not cheap. But I was missing the point. People liked to spend whilst on vacation.

And the taxi driver from Bergamo then? Did he save up all year whilst driving his taxi around the busy roads of Bergamo just to have a week or two in Livigno?

It took another day for us to put matters in perspective.

After that is we bought a map from a book shop and noticed an impressive network of walking trails on both sides of the valley.

Because this was a popular tourist destination, walking trails had been established especially to cater for summer tourists. Without that 8 kilometre long stretch of tourist town those trails wouldn’t be there.

Things came into view alright in more ways than one: this was a beautiful valley. We had fine weather and endless trails to follow. The history was now past tense.

The present was what mattered and yes, L had turned out to be a good recommendation. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bormia – Western Dolomites, Italy.

Italy

Bormia is a small town hailing from the Middle Ages located in the western Dolomites and not far from the Swiss border. In winter a popular place for skiing and in summer, walking. There are some fine trails which which are well marked. Being here in autumn, which is off season, we got a quite luxurious place for a discount price – with a spectacular view of the town and mountains. The walks are quite demanding with some long very steep slopes. Fortunately we have some good weather….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From Bergamo to Edolo Italy, October 2022

Italy

We took the bus from Bergamo to Edolo, a town in the mountains of north east Italy. The bus didn’t leave until 2.30 pm so we had to sit around in a park for much of the day. And when we got to the bus stand, it was very crowded. The ulimate denoument however was having to wile away the hours and then get on a bus driven by a total maniac.

He seemed to think that his bus was a car. I’ve never been in a bus accelerating so fast and then pulling up at the last minute centimetres from the vehicle in front. And once we left the outer suburbs of Bergamo, he pulled out all the stops. It’s been a long time since I have felt so uncomfortable – afraid – in a bus and over the years, we have done innumerable bus journeys.

Not only did this guy drive very fast, he also drove with one hand using to the other to hold his phone and talk – yell – to his various contacts – all the while with his foot planted on the accelerator. He went through red lights, swirved through corners and on two occassions, there were altercations with other enraged car drivers, when he was forced to stop before a bank up of traffic and they got out of their cars and threatened him. There were yelling matches and abuse, but it made no difference to his dangerous and crazy driving.

I was thankful when he got stuck on a mountain road behind a slow moving truck.

Finally in the last hours of the day we stopped at Edolo and I pretty glad about that for more reasons than one.

We got down with our rucksacks and took in the scene before us and everything seemed to fall into place:

Bergamo, Italy October 2022

Italy

 

We flew into the city of Bergamo in northern Italy because it was much smaller than Milan and was also handy for travelling to the mountains of north east Italy to go walking. 

Begamo was a surprise. Our accomodation, a small flat, was in a historic area of the city but as we discovered the next day, this was just a part of Bergamo’s historic areas. On the hill behind Bergamo is the old city dating from feudal times and on the other side of the main street was another area of baroque era buildings – there is no other country in Europe which comes close in terms of historic towns, villages and cities to Italy. Not to mention, the churches, art galleries and museums.