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Friday, June 27, 2014

ROMAN REMAINS





When in Rome it is always fascinating to follow the lives of ancient Romans. We read and see so much of corporate grandeur that it is easy to forget that individual Romans were real people with families. Families who had a preference for staying together in life as well as in death. When the inevitable happened the remains were often kept in mausoleums so the living could gather in memory of the deceased.

The best preserved of these memorials is the Vatican Scavi underneath St. Peters, where the wealthy went to their eternal rest. But if you want to wander in the sun among the middle class and common people’s tombs, a visit to the Necropoli di Porto is a place to spend some time. That is, if you can find it and get reservations. The Necropolis is located between the airport at Fiumicino and the mouth of the Tiber River on Isola Sacra and is not well signed. The famous ruins of Ostia Antica are a few miles away. (The whole ancient port area is now part of an enormous archaeological project called the Portus Project. The website is www.portusproject.org if you are interested in knowing more.)




The necropolis, a true city of the dead, is across a canal begun by Emperor Trajan for a direct connection between the meandering Tiber and the sea. After the fall of the Empire the area was gradually abandoned as it silted up and became a malarial swamp. It was reclaimed in 1920 and much of the land was turned into market gardens.



We began our tour at the ruins of the Basilica of Sant’Ippolito, constructed in the 4th Century over an earlier complex of baths, only uncovered in the 1970s. The church continued as a place of worship through the 13th Century. The Romanesque bell tower was converted to a watch tower by Pope Gregory XIII in 1585. The church houses some of the artifacts discovered at the site.



It is a short walk from the church to the necropolis where the remains of  merchants, artisans and ship owners from Trajan’s port were to enjoy their sleep. The area is now protected by a chain-link fence and an on-site custodian but no actual remains are left, all lost long ago to the depredations of animals, antiquities hunters and archaeologists. Because the cemetery is so obscure not only are there no actual dead occupants, there were only a few other live ones wandering around when we visited.



The chamber tombs are rectangular, similar to little houses with door, thresholds, windows and terraces with couches for funeral feasts. Many face a cobbled road known as the Via Severiana that ran down the coast, now much farther away than in ancient times.



Outside some of the buildings are amphorae used to pour libations into the tomb.



The occupation of the deceased was often memorialized by a sculptured plaque showing activities such as those of a grain merchant or ship owner. One tomb has a mosaic of an African elephant, probably a strange sight to a member of the family visiting Africa.









Another tomb has a mosaic of the lighthouse and two ships, no doubt a welcome sight after a perilous sea voyage.



But the poorer could not afford such fancy memorials. They are buried in the ground under what looks like dog houses or little old-fashioned traveling trunks. Others only have simple tiles forming a peaked roof. 



It’s hard to imagine what the lives of these humble souls lives could have been like – sailors stranded far from home, dock workers or laborers, all long forgotten except for the occasional wanderer, like us, who briefly wonders who they were.



If you want to visit you can check out www.archeoroma.beniculturali.it. I would suggest actually calling them.

  

Friday, May 30, 2014

SPRING IN ZHUJIAJIAO



Shanghai can get pretty frantic with all the skyscrapers and crowds. If you are in need of a quick change of pace, a good choice is the quiet “water town” of Zhujiajiao, about an hour from the city by bus.

The area around Zhujiajiao was settled thousands of years ago, and the town itself has been around for about 1700 years, new in Chinese terms. Formerly a trading center for cloth and rice, it is now a getaway for tourists and locals who come to enjoy the peaceful watery setting.



When we last visited, it was so early in the spring that the bare branches of the canal-side trees were decorated with laundry instead of leaves. I especially liked the blue briefs that brightened up a view of pale sky, green water, white houses and red lanterns hung outside doorways.


The sun was still weak and the locals were well bundled up as they played cards beside the canals or waited for shoppers.






We began with the obligatory boat ride on the placid waters, boarding near the Fangshen Bridge, built in 1571 and restored in 1812.





We glided under a number of the 36 smaller spans as a sturdy woman propelled the the boat with a wooden pole.


The voyage came to an end when we disembarked near the town’s center for a stroll through the Kezhi Garden with its contorted rocks and old buildings now housing new craftsmen demonstrating traditional Chinese arts such as paper cutting, calligraphy and embroidery.





Later, we moved on to the main shopping area filled with tiny shops and a museum with displays about local culture including a kitchen and dining room from an upper-class family and wind-powered rice milling equipment. But lunch time was nearing and pots bubbling away presented some interesting choices.



Instead of dining canal-side, we decided on a restaurant for an opportunity to sit down and get warm. On the way we saw this plump-cheeked child:




Outside the old post office we came to a wonderful mailbox. It says “Letters” in Chinese and English. The box is supported by a writhing dragon with five claws on each leg. The Imperial dragon represents a long-gone phase of Chinese history but despite the current lack of Emperor or Empress to oversee the mail system, the lock on the box looks new. I thought about posting a card to friends saying “I’ll be here for a while.”




All photos property of author


  

Sunday, May 4, 2014

A DAY WITH EMPEROR HADRIAN


Rome is so filled with treasures that it is often hard to know where to start. Sometimes it is easier to concentrate on one artist like Caravaggio or architect such as Bernini (who is almost impossible to avoid anyway). The last time we were in the city we decided to give one day to a Roman emperor, Hadrian, who ruled from AD 117 until his death in AD 138.


One of the few emperors who still gets good press as an administrator, he was a great traveler and builder, particularly in Rome. We began with one of the greatest architectural triumphs of all time, the Pantheon. Despite the inscription over the portico saying that it was built by Agrippa, Hadrian oversaw its reconstruction after it was twice nearly totally destroyed by fire.

The concrete dome at 142 feet across is larger than the dome at St. Peters and still the largest ever built of that material. The only light comes from the oculus, a hole in the center of the dome 30 feet in diameter. We stood to one side watching the sunlight slowly make its way across the floor, illuminating clumps of visitors. What would Agrippa, who originally built the temple to commemorate his victory over Antony and Cleopatra, think of all the tourists now enjoying the sight with no interest in the gods he worshipped?
























When it was time to move on, we turned in the direction of the Vatican, crossing the beautiful Ponte Sant’Angelo, lined with ten Bernini-designed statues.

















The bridge was originally built in the second century AD by Hadrian as an impressive approach to his family mausoleum, now Castle Sant'Angelo. On this sunny day it was lined with fake artists selling prints as originals, and real artists industriously sketching or painting. I think Hadrian would be pleased with the admiration.                                                                                                                                   
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

The tomb retains its basic round shape despite the centuries of rebuilding. Originally it was surrounded by cypress trees and topped by a bronze 4-horse chariot, driven by Hadrian personifying the sun. The statue was replaced in Christian times by an angel in thanks for relief from a plague. The interior has Renaissance-era canons and cannonballs but is now devoted to art exhibitions rather than defense.




We had lunch on the terrace overlooking St. Peter’s and Rome; instead of thinking about Cleopatra and her lovers we thought about the passageway that leads from the Vatican to the Castle used by Pope Clement VII to escape marauders in 1527. The pope probably ate better food but our view unforgettable, as only Rome can offer.
  
 It was time to leave the heat and crowds for the countryside. Villa Adriana, Hadrian’s country retreat, near the little town of Tivoli in the hills east of Rome was the largest estate in the Roman Empire. Now it is a fascinating collection of ruins comprising the remains of at least thirty residences, baths, theaters, libraries, and stadiums. The park-like setting with olive, cypress and umbrella pine trees is the perfect place to wander on a summer afternoon.


Hadrian began building in AD 118, the year after he became emperor and, amazingly, it was completed in ten years. The architectural styles are a glorious collection of travel souvenirs of his thirty years of travels throughout the empire.

I noticed the modern address of the complex is Largo Marguerite Yourcenar 1, an odd address until I remembered Marguerite Yourcenar is the author of the unforgettable Memoirs of Hadrian, a fictional autobiography "written" by Hadrian dedicated to his grandson, Marcus Aurelius. In further memory of her genius, the small museum at the site was hosting an exhibition dedicated to her life and work. It was appropriately titled “Imagined Antiquity.”

One aspect of Hadrian’s life has caught the attention of a number of authors: his passion for all things Greek, including the youth named Antinous. Within days of the discovery of his body in the murky floodwaters of the Nile where he and Hadrian had been hunting, the emperor founded a cult to immortalize him. The city, Antinopolis, built where the body was discovered, is now just a footnote in detailed guides to Egypt, but many museums including the Vatican have portraits of him as a god or otherwise idealized. His fleshy body, full lips and lush locks are instantly recognizable. Hadrian’s obsession is the subject of another fascinating book, Royston Lambert’s, Beloved and God.





The Canopus, an area with a reflecting pool bordered by statues, is thought to be the emperor’s memorial to Antinous, and to me is the more evocative area of the complex. I could visualize Hadrian in deep mourning walking beside the waters to put the cares of running the empire aside to dream of what might have been. We should all be so loved!



Photos by Judith Works except for the two statues and the painting which are from Wikipedia Commons.
Painting of the Pantheon is by Giovanni Paolo Panini, 1691-1765

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

THE SACRED ISLAND OF MIYAJIMA





The ferry that leaves from a little port thirty minutes north of Hiroshima, Japan transports passengers to another dimension where the city’s memorials to the holocaust caused by the Atomic Bomb are left behind in spirit if not in physical distance. A first glimpse of what awaited us on Miyajima Island came in the form of origami paper cranes, symbolizing peace and memorializing the end of World War II. They were gracefully given out by smiling and bowing students at the ferry dock. We accepted the gifts with what was no doubt an ungraceful bow as we embarked on the short ride to a place where there are no births or deaths, no felling of trees, and tame deer – messengers from the gods – wander at will.




This vision of Shangri-La is home to the Itsukushima Shrine, dedicated to the three daughters of the god of sea and storms. Founded in AD 593, the current buildings date from the 16th century based on a 12th century design. The shrine’s most famous landmark, the great torii gate, appeared to float upon the hazy Inland Sea, a fitting mystical marker where the divine begins and mundane daily life ends.


My husband and I disembarked for a leisurely stroll to the shrine, ready to dissolve ourselves in the aura of peace and harmony the buildings generate despite the presence of other visitors sharing the experience. We walked along the waterside on a path lined with stone lanterns representing 108 earthly cares, passed through a granite torii gate firmly rooted to the land, rinsed our hands at the stone trough and entered an alternative universe. The brilliant vermillion lacquer of the buildings and passageways, matching that of the floating gate, was reflected in the blue sea. A sense of serenity enveloped us.   


In one pavilion a white-robed priest was conducting a ceremony while an elderly couple kneeled on a tatami mat. We wondered if the ritual was to memorialize an ancestor, Shinto shrines often being used for that purpose rather than Buddhist temples. Shinto is Japan’s oldest religion, in existence since time immemorial. Deities, called kami, preside over all the things, living, dead or inanimate. Their shrines, large and small, dot Japan.



As the tide slowly ebbed, the shrine’s feet were no longer in the water and the earthly concern of time passing returned. With never enough of it to experience everything, we reluctantly left the sacred precinct to see the ornate 9th Century Daisho-in Buddhist Temple set in a wooded area beyond the shrine before admiring the Goju-no-to five-story pagoda built in 1407. It is enticingly set in the modern village filled with shops, inns and restaurants a contrast to the otherworldly feelings generated by the temple.



We wandered along the narrow street to look at souvenirs like the typical remembrance Japanese visitors purchase – rice scoops of all sizes. Of course, Hello Kitty in every guise was waiting too. Better was the chance to sample the island’s specialty food, momiji, bite-sized cakes in the shape of a maple leaf and flavored with various unexpected ingredients such as eel. But the most attractive of delights tempting us were the tiny stalls selling grilled oysters fresh from the surrounding sea. Delicious!




For those lucky to have time enough to stay on the island, there are backpacker hostels and hotels including romantic and expensive ryokan. The prospect of staying to walk the trails or meditate by a stone lantern in a soft rain overlooking a mist-soaked sea made us add a return to the island to our never-fulfilled list of places we wanted experience for the first, second, or third time.




An overnight stay was not to be this trip. Body and soul temporarily nourished, we returned to the ferry landing to await the next boat back to reality. Two young women looked up from their bento box afternoon snack to smile and make the typical Japanese peace sign. The deer wandered over, not delivering messages from the gods, but to munch on any paper they could find including ferry tickets for the unwary (maybe used to take messages from us back to the gods).



A sleepy child accompanied us back to Hiroshima and reality.


All photos property of Judith Works
An earlier version of this story appeared in Travel Belles, www.travelbelles.com, http://www.travelbelles.com/2013/05/japan-island-miyajima/

    

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

EARLY SPRING IN THE SKAGIT VALLEY: DAFFODILS AND QUILTS



After what seemed like 40 days of rain the sun came out, warm and spring-like. It was the signal to take a drive an hour north of home to the small town of La Conner, located where the Skagit Valley meets saltwater in the form of the Swinomish Channel. The town was founded in 1867 and many of the original buildings remain. But instead of housing banks, churches, and butchers, they are clothing stores, art galleries, antique shops and restaurants. The town was also formerly the home of a large flock of wild turkeys but we didn’t see any this time. Word has it that they were sent to a rest home after causing a ruckus for too many years but disappointing the many birdwatchers who come to the area.


The nearby farmland is famous for bulb production along with other crops. The waterfront is lined with working craft to bring salmon, crab, mussels and oysters to the table.


Completing the picturesque scene is a red bridge which would not look out of place in Japan. It leads to the Swinomish Indian Reservation.


The annual Skagit Valley Tulip Festival was beginning without the cooperation of the tulips, but the enormous fields of daffodils were a delight.


Old farmhouses, some of which have been turned into B&Bs, stood in the fields framed by the snowy Cascade Mountains and the hills of the San Juan Islands. In a week or so, the whole valley will be a blaze of color as the tulips reach their peak.


Our mission was specific: to visit the La Conner Quilt & Textile Museum (www.laconnerquilts.org) to donate a quilt made in the 1930s. The timing was fortuitous - the Winter exhibit of crazy quilts had been put away the day before and a new exhibit of quilts from the ’30s had just been arranged for Spring.


The museum is housed in the three-story Gaches Mansion dating to 1891, recently restored. After the curator looked at the quilt she showed us around and told us about the quilts displayed on walls along with an exhibit of suzanis donated by a local collector.


The curator decided to use our quilt as a table decoration for the three-month long Spring exhibit, so now it has joined many others made by farm women gathered together around a quilting frame to gossip and stitch fabric scraps from feed and flour sacks during the dark days of the Depression.


When it was lunch time, we chose the Nell Thorn Restaurant and Pub to sit by the water watching sailboats head out for an afternoon’s pleasure and an eagle circling lazily overhead. Across the channel, are three structures in the shape of  Swinomish Indian hats used to welcome the paddlers of more than a hundred canoes from coastal tribes who gather every July to rest, share songs and tales of their journey across the sometimes treacherous waters.


In keeping with the theme of "eat local," we dined on wonderful tiny oysters and local draft beer. Deciding to feed our minds after our stomachs were satisfied, we headed for the Museum of Northwest Art (www.museumofnwart.org) to see works by Mark Tobey, Kenneth Callahan and Guy Anderson. A special showing of John Cole’s work took up much of the ground floor. Some of his work, particularly the figures of women, reminded us of Gauguin although the landscape paintings are on Northwest themes.


Later, we passed flocks of laggard Snow Geese who winter by the hundreds of thousands in the area. It was time for them to go north to their nesting grounds and for us to go south to our home, grateful a prized member of the family has joined its sister quilts to be enjoyed by other admirers.




photos by author.