April 2014

Saturday 12th
Having been to Padua with a Travel Editions tour guided by Clare Ford-Wille last Spring, and having become even more mixed up in the world of art lectures in general, and Clare's gang in particular, a trip to Ravenna and Bologna, two places I'd never visited, was not to be missed. And we were again to have Barbara as tour manager - perfetto. The only ointment fly was that we were flying from and to Heathrow, an airport that's more than a bit uneasy for me to get to.

My cunning plan to ease the faff of having to travel to Heathrow at the crack of dawn was to stay in a hotel near the airport and hence get a bit more sleep. And it worked, I suppose. But the delayed evening train from Paddington to Hayes and Harlington station and it's smelly-food eating clientele was not a pleasurable start to a trip, and the Comfort Hotel was just about OK as a place to be asleep in.

Anyway, I got to Heathrow well early and had time for a leisurely coffee and cinnamon swirl before moseying to the gate and meeting up with Clare and Barbara and sundry art lovers from previous tours and courses. The flight was problem-free and was brightened up by one of the most snitty and ill-tempered stewardesses ever. For me she managed to rustle up a veggie croissant option (with cheese instead of pastrami) but boy did she make sure I was appreciative of this effort where others had had to go without. And another of our party, for example, was told if she couldn't eat the croissant because she was gluten intolerant then she wasn't allowed the juice that was packaged in with it, so there. Which was all very refreshing and Basil Fawltyish in this time of over-trained service-industry smarm.

In no time the coach had whisked us from Bologna airport to our hotel in Ravenna, the Hotel Bisanzo, and good job it was a small coach as a bigger one would've had to park several (narrow and) picturesque streets away. A free couple of hours and a food-finding stroll through the centre confirmed positive first impressions. I rather like Ravenna already. A verdict helped muchly by a tasty falafel panino and a mango and crema di mandorla gelato later, from a joint called Papilla.

Our first visit was to the Mausoleum of Theodoric (see above right), the 6th Century Ostrogoth ruler in these parts, where Clare did a fine job of explaining just what was odd and unique about it, apart from it's looks. In the bookshop here I was shocked and stunned to find a plush guidebook to the Abbey of Pomposa, visited on the Padua trip a year ago, but with no guidebook then to be found.  And then, in a change to our itinerary, we took advantage of the good time we were making by going to the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, and we ended up doing the adjoining church of San Vitale too, as we were told we couldn't do one without the other. But that was all good because it was all chronological, after Theodoric's Mausoleum, and a mosaic fest so breathtaking as to convert even the most wishy-washy mosaic agnostic (me). The crowds were probably thinner than they would've been tomorrow morning too, although the staff were astonishingly unfriendly and hasty to herd us. The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia is a sweet little space with thereby nicely-close views of the scenes and figures and decoration, all glowing and sparkling with fascinating details. The much huger church of San Vitale has bigger, higher and later mosaics, which Clare guided us around, with her laser pointer helping identify some very distant saints (see right). All very special. So, we got ahead of ourselves, meaning tonight's talk putting what we saw today in perspective, can now be tomorrow morning, leaving us with some rest (and typing-up) time this evening. A time of calm and tranquillity spoiled only by the damn amplified busker in the street below my window, murdering songs both bad and wonderful in that 70s macho-retro-rock style that is still so popular in Italy. I think I preferred him murdering songs that deserve to die, rather than attacking one of my favourites. 'Please do another U2 song that I've always hated!'

The Bistrot Ravenna, the restaurant chosen for our first evening meal, did a much better job coping with a vegetarian than the hotel restaurant on the Padua trip last year, with their repeated mozzarella and tomato salads. They provided some very edible curried couscous with vegetables, and the vegetable risotto starter was nicely cheesy and equally yummy.



Sunday 13th
The hotel passed the Fictional Cities patented breakfast test with flying colours. A choice of fresh juices, including two types of orange; a choice of pastries, some of them new to me; and a decent-sized pot of good coffee. I was also impressed by the large padded pad against the wall behind to bed, to facilitate sitting up and reading, and the fact that they provide an 'oral hygiene kit' (toothbrush and toothpaste), a puzzlingly unusual provision in European hotels, no matter how many stars they have.

Two baptisteries and a basilica today, with an introductory talk by Clare before we set out. The Neonian Baptistery (see right), named after a bishop, is part of the Duomo complex, which includes the bishop's palazzo which houses a museum. The Neonian Baptistery has the usual ceiling scene of the John the Baptist baptising Jesus, but the faces have been visible badly redone later. Beyond the ring of apostles are sweet scenes of thrones and little loggias and then alternating with the windows are some slightly bug-eyed carvings of apostles. The Bishop's Palace museum next door has some nice stony stuff and an amazing surviving ivory throne with attention-repaying carved panels. There's also the tiny and lovely Chapel of Saint Andrew, decorated with fascinating mosaics, of course.

A break for coffee and sundry (Sunday speciality) pastries was followed by the basilica of Sant'Appolinare Nuove, which has featured in so many BBC4 documentaries in recent months it was a treat to see the famous mosaics live, as it were, high up on the walls. They show evidence of when Theodoric and his Arian beliefs fell out of favour after his death. You can see where he and his family have been erased from the mosaic palace scenes near the entrance, with only weird disembodied hands and arms in front of columns remaining. The panel of the three wise men (see below), also added to diffuse the strength of arian elements and heighten its Catholicism, is justly famous and likely the bit you've seen on postcards and in books.

After a brief detour to see the last resting place of Dante, with it's highlight low relief panel portrait by Pietro Lombardo, we took lunch in the Piazza dell Popolo. The restaurant chosen by our bunch had a problem with speed and accuracy, so it was thought politic for me to just pick out the offending ham from my piadino (a local pitta-breadish panino) rather than complain about the heinous error. The sprumante di limone was lip-pursingly bitter and lemonish, though. It was our experience at this eatery that led to the coining of the following phrase, which still resonates for its timeless wisdom.


A short walk to the Arian baptistery, which had been allowed to keep the Arian imagery of its mosaics unharmed, with a much more boyish, small and beardless, Christ in the centre of the dome mosaic (see above right) somewhat dominated by a larger Baptist and figure symbolising the river Jordan. The building has a much rougher and more modest-looking exterior too.

An early afternoon finish, allowing me the opportunity for another gelato from Papilla (pistachio and lemon) and, after typing up this stuff, a bit of a rest. Returning to consciousness not long after 5.00 I took myself out for a stroll, characterised by church bells and well-dressed people carrying palm fronds. Found a couple of fine city gateways too, and a very nicely-stocked shop selling swanky chocolate. It had many Venchi bars but not my current obsession - the mandarin with salt and pepper flavour bar. So I bought some drugee-type things with pick-and-mix flavours including (my choice) coconut, pear and cinnamon, fruits of the forest and yoghurt, and ricotta and pear.

A talk introducing us to tomorrow's day in Bologna, which looks like being palate-refreshingly mosaic free, and then all off to the Ca'de Ven restaurant, a picturesque and historical joint. My veggie option main course of grilled vegetables was a bit boring, but the other three courses, including the pasta course, more than made up.


Monday 14th
A (mighty) full day in Bologna today. Off the coach we made straight for the Piazza Maggiore and a quick look in San Petronio, a big church, the art highlight of which is a huge fresco of The Last Judgement by Giovanni da Modena, with some notably gruesome fates depicted for those who haven't been good. A quick visit to the Oratorio of Santa Cecilia, an easily-missed treat of a fresco cycle, by Costa, Francia and Aspertini. Then over the road for a pre-booked appointment in the Palazzi Magnani, now a bank, on whose piano nobile is a fresco cycle depicting The Founding of Rome by the Carraci family. A rare remaining fresco cycle in a palazzo, it was unusual and impressive and inspired by many painters then working in Rome, like Michelangelo, an obvious influence on the supporting  trompe-l'oeil statues with putti between the panels (see right). Then back over the road to San Giorgio Maggiore and the rather fine Cappella Bentivoglio with it's Madonna and Saints altarpiece by Francesco Francia, looking so like a Giovanni Bellini, and it's Virgin and Child with Members of the Bentivoglio Family by Lorenzo Costa, looking the dead spit of a Ghirlandaio. Costa's Triumph of Fame and Death opposite, with various lunettes, complete this compact treat. Shame the rest of this unsmall church has nothing much else, art-wise. To the small church of Santa Maria della Vita to see Niccolo dell'Arca's amazingly survived and agonisingly emotional terracotta carved figures depicting The Pieta. We were then told by the guard that we had to go upstairs to see the fantastico terracotta figures up there, and lo - a tableau unknown even to Clare and a real surprise treat (see below).


A bunch of us tried out a new branch of a chain called Eatalia, open less than a week, and my margarita pizza with mozzarella bufala was most fresh and creamy. We managed to find a Venchi gelateria afterwards, and my coccio and cocco (coconut with white chocolate and nuts) and limone was very nice. The first visit after lunch was to the university's grandly panelled operating theatre and meeting hall. Then to Santo Stefano (see above right), which I'd been pre-warned was wonderful, and indeed this complex of four churches (there had once been seven) was a treat of small, bare, and ancient spaces, unusual and atmospheric and with some superb decorative brickwork.

San Domenico followed, the burial place of the saint himself, who died here in 1221, with his Arca sitting in a grand side chapel, and featuring figures and panels sculpted by the likes of Nicola Pisano, Arnolfo di Cambio, and Michelangelo. The latter responsible for just one small beefy angel and a couple of small saints. We were also let into the huge choir behind the altar to see the many and special intarsia panels set into the stalls all around.

After feeling a bit fresco-deprived, what with yesterday's feast of mosaics, I felt sated today, and indeed many of us had felt ourselves to be in fresco heaven. And sated is also a good word for the somewhat footweary coachful that were returned to our hotel in Ravenna and an evening free of tour commitment. A small party of us made for a small restaurant very near our hotel. It had no veggie options on its short menu, but after some negotiation by Barbara I had the asparagus risotto with clams and orange, without the clams, and some pasta parcels that came in a meat sauce or broth, without either of those. Good food, including the cooked pear in red wine with zabaglione stuffing.

Tuesday 15th
A fullish day before our flight. The coach took us first to Sant'Appolinare in Classe, just outside Ravenna, and not to be confused with the more famous Nuove one we visited on Sunday. Getting there comfortably before 9.00 we had the, pretty big, place to ourselves for our whole visit. This one has less interesting walls but a gorgeous grassy apse (see right) - you never seem to get both in Ravenna. This being the one with all the sheep. And rows of  lovely swirly marble columns separating nave from aisles. Having found a guidebook to the Abbey of Pomposa, visited last year, on our first day it was obvious I should find a Pomposa fresco mug (at a reduced price!) in the shop here. (A slight wrinkle in the design should have given me a clue - when this came out of its first go in the dishwasher the design was all flaking off. And not in a tasteful crumbling fresco way.)

Then on to Bologna, first to partake of elevenses and a comfort break, then to the Palazzo Poggi, once the home of the family of the same name before it became the Institute of Sciences and part of the University of Bologna. Its various phases mix in rooms with 16th Century frescoes below magnificent wooden ceilings, the rooms containing cases full of wax anatomical models and such like gruesome aids to learning.

For lunch a few of us accompanied one of our number to lunch with a friend of hers who lives in Bologna. By the time we sat down we only really had an hour - a most unitalianly short length of time for a proper lunch. The pasta we managed was perfectly cooked and sauced, though. Either ravioli with a fresh tomato topping or tagliatelle in a ragu sauce - of course it's not called a Bolognese sauce in Bologna!

Our afternoon visit was to be to the art gallery, the Pinacoteca, but upon arriving we were told that it was closed. There was no reason why this should be, as all the information available said that it should be open. This kind of thing is becoming more common, sadly, as Italy's parlous financial state has its effect on spending and staffing. But, improvising impressively, Clare and Barbara got us into the exhibition at the Palzzo Fava of works from the Mauritshuis, travelling about a bit before the reopening of that gallery in the summer. I had felt frustrated when I realised that this show was going to be on when I was in Bologna but that I wouldn't have the time to get to it, so I was a very happy bunny. The Girl with the Pearl Earring, one of my first and biggest favourite paintings, was saddeningly and disappointingly displayed behind huge bullet-proof glass panels and in an oppressive big new frame, but seeing the Fabritius Goldfinch and the Rembrandts, and various other small gems, was truly a treat.

To Bologna airport in our coach, checking in and going through security, were all pretty problem-free. Time enough for a last gelato (mango and stracciatella from Venchi) and some wandering and chatting. At the other end of an eventless flight, with disappointingly unrude flight attendants, one of our number left his ebook and glasses in the seatback pocket and had to embarrassingly walk back against the flow to delay the, nonetheless patient, flight staff wanting to head off. Lucky I remembered my seat number. Warm farewells and hugs by the baggage carousel, and then off home on the tube. It felt cold, and I felt tired. Greeted cats and partner, had some tea and a hot cross bun. Fast and deeply to sleep.

Venice // Florence // London // Berlin // Trips