“What about Milan during your holidays?” I asked The Family. It took some time to argue her around to this. She preferred the Himalayas. I don’t mind the Himalayas either, but my main argument was different. I had to get a visa for some work in any case, and the process of getting a visa is so tedious that I might as well plan several things together to make it worthwhile. The Family caught an important point instantly, “So you aren’t going to be here in May?” I told her I could be back after just a short business trip if she wanted.
I’ve spent only a couple of hours in Milan. That was just enough time to take a look at the cathedral, climb to its roof (featured photo), and walk around nearby. Now The Family and I took at look at what one can do in Milan if one has a few days. As always in Italy, there are Roman remains and impressive palaces, wonderful art collections and food. And then in Milan one has design and fashion. The Family was convinced. Now I have to make a plan for a four day trip. My first impression is that this is really short. What does one leave out and still get the essence of Milan?
I hope it is not too late to book a visit to Santa Maria delle Grazie to look at Leonardo’s Last Supper. If one goes to see the cathedral then La Scala and Galleria Vittorio Emanuelle II is nearby. Pinacoteca di Brera, Biblioteca Ambrosiana and Sforza Castle seem to be unmissable. Shouldn’t one also see the mosaics in Basilica di San Lorenzo? It is beginning to get complicated. Please wish me luck.
I think of myself as rooted in one place: but with tap-roots, like a banyan tree’s, spreading out in different continents. When I came back to India, a late spring and early summer in Europe was for a long time an annual affair. Lately, it has been less frequent, as another root samples eastern Asia.
It was still dark as I checked in for my flight to Munich in the chaotic airport in Rome. After passing through the usual barriers to travel that you meet inside an airport, I found a last cup of espresso. This helped to shut out the commotion of early departures, and reach a quietness inside. I find it useful to reach a balance before very long flights. Once you are cocooned inside the zones which envelope a passenger, all you have is yourself. Restlessness will magnify as you cross continents; just as quietness can deepen.
Leaving Europe, I recall conversations with a grand-aunt in the last years of her life, as her world became smaller and smaller: from continents to a widely spread out family, eventually to a single town, and then just a house with a garden, before shrinking to a hospital bed. The first time The Family met her, she’d laid out a silver tea service for us. Eventually our talk veered to a trip from Oxford up to Sweden where she found the tea service and her life in design. As she spoke of ferries and the cold air of the Baltic on the deck, I was reminded of my own trips across the Baltic: the first view of Helsinki, as I sailed past Suomenlinna on a summer morning, and, another time, pulling slowly out of Stockholm’s harbour and its islands in the long sunset of another summer. When I showed my mother the photos from that voyage, she talked about a Swedish movie made before I was born. Now, as the sun rose over the Tyrolean Alps (featured photo, and the one just above), I remembered the joy in my grand-aunt’s voice.
This spring was wet, and early summer had been less than warm around the Alps. The news had been full of the danger of the Seine flooding the Louvre. The aerial view of the Alps was not as crisp as it can be. The snow had retreated to the highest peaks, leaving meadows green, as always. But a haze hung over everything. A bank of clouds flowed down a river valley at one place. Elsewhere the sun glinted off the braided channels of water. Could it be the river Inn? My mind was like a paper cup; memories tumbled blindly from me. This year while travelling, I decided to be in constant contact with all my nieces. The youngest responded to my postings of odd locations around Portugal and Italy with complaints. Why no photos of the Coliseum? Not graffiti again! Is that collection of cubes really art? The only thing I ate that met with her approval was Tiramisu. I remembered this as I had my bland airlines breakfast.
In two hours I was in Munich. There was enough time to linger over a hefeweizen and a plate of weisswurst, before the long flight home, where the monsoon had set in.
In 1901 the Birra Peroni company started building an enormous brewery in a part of Rome just outside the Aurelian walls. Gustavo Giovannoni was the architect who designed the first part of what would eventually become a two-hectare complex of buildings making up the Peroni Brewery. In 1922 Peroni hired Alfredo Palopoli to design the stores and stables which would become the contemporary art museum called MACRO which I walked into in June this year. I’ve been meaning to write about it, but kept putting it off. Partly because I did not know how to talk about the experience.
I found the gallery exactly where it was supposed to be, but had a little problem figuring out where to enter. I came down Via Cagliari and turned into Via Nizza. There was a space at the corner where some people were hanging around before eleven in the morning of a Saturday. There was no entrance visible. I walked around to Via Reggio Emilia and saw a large gate which was closed. I walked back to the corner of Via Cagliari and Via Nizza, and asked the people who I saw there about the entrance. It is at the corner, but not visible from the road. You have to take a path through a little garden to enter the huge vestibule of what turns out to be the new block of the museum. It is very nice, once you find it.
The price of entry is the same as for most museums in Rome, but it seems a little steep once you find that the amount of art on display is not very large. I took it as a visit to an interesting house of mystery. The first part of the puzzle was to find out how to enter the galleries from the central atrium. I found the most exciting toilet in Rome (photo above) quite easily, between the cloak room and the museum shop. The constantly changing colour of lights in the toilet makes it a little hard to register the layout.
Odile Decq designed this, the new part of the museum. The entrance area is dominated by a red polyhedron, which was not in use. A ramp leads into it from near the ticket counter, and seems to be an obvious place to enter. It is not, and entry was forbidden. Eventually I took the lift from near the museum shop. This leads to three floors of interesting, but severely limited selection of, contemporary art. The one exhibit that remains in my mind after a few months was a series of photographs of an artist (whose name I did not note) of himself over the years. Viewed together, it is a stunning work which documents aging: the essence of the human condition. In my mind I put it next to a mental collection of Rembrandt’s self portraits over his own lifetime. The effect is similar.
I found that I’d walked through this space too soon, and entered the old part of the museum. This contains two wings around a courtyard. The courtyard holds Zaha Hadid’s design for Bvlgari’s stall at a trade exhibition. The courtyard connects through a ramp back to the new section. This segment is devoted to the Museum’s collection of Italian modern art. This is again a very small exhibition space, with well-chosen pieces. There was a small special exhibition on, and I sat through a couple of videos. In spite of this I found myself walking back through the contemporary art exhibits soon. I dawdled at the coffee shop, but was back on the street less than two hours from when I’d entered.
In the months between visiting MACRO and getting to write about it, I found an interesting master’s thesis by an architect. Interestingly, it articulated some of the concerns I had, but could not quite put my finger on. The architect has created beautiful spaces which could be used in innovative ways, but the lack of signage and communication makes it hard to use. As a result, you walk through the space without completely experiencing it, and come out feeling unsatisfied.
A market inside a nice Art Deco brick building in the Piazza Alessandria in the Nomentano district of Rome was an unexpected find. I’d wanted to write about it from the time I stumbled on it in June, but with one thing or another, never got round to it. The Nomentano district is just outside the touristy centre of the city. As a result you hear only Italian in its cafes and restaurants, and see casually dressed families with children comfortably ambling along the streets next to you, very pointedly ignoring your camera.
Walking through a small road, busy at 10 in the morning on a Saturday, I came across a brick building with iron gates sporting the wolf symbol of the city. I’d not researched this walk at all. But an open gate topped with a frieze of a wolf suckling Romus and Romulus is an invitation to enter. I looked at the building behind it, possibly a renaissance structure, and decided that the invitation in front of me was stronger.
Inside was a busy municipal market. I love markets. Walking through one in Italy is a special treat because the freshness of the produce is a constant reminder of how flavourful the local cuisine is. The Family and I have often joked that we would like to bring back two kilos of tomatoes instead of a bottle of wine from our travels in Italy. I loved the vegetable stalls with their golden pumpkins, the bright leafy greens, cucumbers and carrots (see the featured photo for all of this and more). The sight of Zucchini flowers in a market always remind me of boyhood lunches at my grandmother’s place where an occasional treat was batter-fried pumpkin flowers. This is probably unknown in many parts of India; certainly The Family has never eaten pumpkin flowers, and says she is not brave enough to eat flowers.
Many of the aisles were empty. I did not see any stall selling meats or fishes. Was I too early or too late? I looked longingly at the mushrooms: the yellow trumpets which the French call the Chanterelle stood next to dark brown mushrooms which could have been porcini, and a heap of the common white funghi. Mushrooms and cheese are always special treats for us when we visit Europe because these are two things which India does not have.
The next aisle had a stall which had huge cauliflowers and broccoli. I don’t think I’ve seen broccoli which is so large and bright green. I was tempted to buy some. Unfortunately my time in Italy was almost done, and, as a result, I had plans to eat out with friends on every remaining evening. I could still support farmers by buying fresh fruits. Spring had not yet yielded to summer in this market. I could pick up strawberries and cherries, so I did. The apricots smelt wonderful, so I picked up some. European spring and summer fruits are also special treats for me. Although they are available in India, they play second fiddle to local fruits. As a result, the variety and quality is much superior throughout Europe.
I walked out towards Via Alessandria, where some vendors had set up little kiosks selling clothes and bags. I passed by them and went on to look for some coffee.
Before I saw the little town perched on top of a dormant volcano, I always thought that Frascati was only a good wine. Make that a wine region, it is a DOC wine after all. So it is kind of silly not to think of Frascati in terms of a place. The first time I went there, and had dinner in a square overlooking Rome, I thought to myself, "How charming. I must spend some time here." I did, and it was.
The town has long been a refuge for well-heeled Romans looking for a quiet place when Rome becomes too hot. England’s Bonnie Prince Charlie, a pretender to the throne, is buried in the cathedral here. A lovely and always breezy square, Piazza di Rocca, has a wonderful view of Rome, and is lined with restaurants. It is named after the palace of the bishop, locally called the Rocca. There are lovely villas that you can visit, or you can just walk around the town, eat in its wonderful pizzerias, ristorantes, and sample the local wine. I wandered around the streets and occasionally stopped to admire cars (photo above).
Frascati takes its leisure very seriously. There was a night of music the weekend before midsummer’s night. I’d skipped lunch and wandered out to look for some porchetta and olives late in the afternoon. Amateur groups were already setting up in various squares. I found a cart with porchetta and stuffed tomatos, and sat down on a bench to enjoy the sun. The roads are steep, so you get enough exercise to keep the wonderful food from sticking to your ribs.
I met friends in Piazza Roma, where a large band was going through its repertoire of hits from the 70s and 80s. The band was good and loud. I enjoyed the sight of one of the apartment windows opening and a man leaning down to enjoy the music (photo above). As the evening’s light faded, we walked over to the tiny Piazzale Olmo where a little enoteca gives you the fresh white wine it makes, to have with food you bring along. We got some pizzas, and sat down with a couple of litres of wine to enjoy the classic rock being played pretty competently in this square.
Frascati is only half an hour from Rome by train, but its a very relaxed place.
Call me fussy. There is one thing I eat only in Italy, and that is ice cream. Not that it cannot be done well elsewhere, but because I do not want to waste my daily calorie count on a dessert that may not make me feel like I’m walking on clouds. But in Italy this caution is not needed. I will savour the gelati even if I eat it in a small cafe in a little village (as in the featured image).
Whenever I walked past this gelateria on Via Venti Settembre in Rome, I looked at the board outside which said "Founded in 1947", and reminded myself to come back for a taste. Eventually I managed to do it in the last week before leaving Italy. Unlike many gelaterias, the selection was not on show. I had to read through a long menu to make my choices. I take a long time to choose flavours even when I look at the stuff. Here I kept going back and forth over the menu and then decided on a really straightforward combination of sour lime and dark chocolate. Then, as the girl behind the counter was teasing this out into spectacular filaments, I suddenly asked her to add biscotti to the mix. As she combed and teased the mixture into a fantastic shape, I thought I should take a photo when she finished.
But when she did I just took it from her, sat down at a table and ate it all up without thinking of taking a photo. I also skipped lunch after that. I could do the same thing again. No wonder the place has lasted 73 years.
The Garbatella metro station (featured image) is definitely not on the tourist circuit. It is fairly deserted at a time when Repubblica, Barberini, Spagna, Cavour and Colosseo are bursting at the seams with tourists. This is the metro station for the interesting Roman district of Ostiense. Via Ostiense, which gives the district its name, is the old Roman road which connected the city to the port of Ostia Antica.
If you look up Ostiense in a tourist guide you will find only the Centrale Montemartini museum listed here. But when I arrived to visit the museum I found the place was full of spectacular splashes of colour: graffiti artists had been hard at work in the noisy area around the metro station. A pedestrian bridge takes you across the tracks from the station. As you descend, the brutal concrete of the stairwell is softened with bright graffiti (photo above). After one flight of stairs there is a little terrace from which one sees a brick building with a colourful mural across it (photo below). I learnt later that the building belongs to ATAC, the company which runs the public transport system in Rome, and the mural has been painted by a Berlin artist called Clemens Behr
The bridge was being used as an impromptu gallery for a group show of photography. On my way to the museum I’d looked quickly at it and told myself that I would come back to look more carefully. As I was strolling back, camera in hand, after photographing the nearby roads, a girl on a phone strode towards me. "Are you the official photographer?" she asked "I’ve been waiting." I’m quite happy to be mistaken for a professional, but I told her that I wasn’t. She smiled and said there was an exhibition of photos I might want to see. I replied that this is where I was headed. The exhibition had some very interesting photos. While I was looking at them, I heard the stuttering sound of a camera set on exposure bracket. The official photographer had arrived, and he looked nothing like me.
I must have read about the Centrale Montemartini some time. When The Blessed told me about a museum where Roman statues stand majestically poised against electrical generators from the thirties, it rang a bell. An added attraction was that it was not in the usual touristy regions of Rome, but in the grungy Ostiense Marconi district near the Tiber. So I accompanied my Rich Friend and The Blessed to the museum.
For us the easiest way to get to the museum was to take Metro B, get off at Garbatella station and walk the short distance to the museum. It does not look very special as you walk in.
The power station was opened in 1912, and initially produced 7 MegaWatts of electricity. A decade later another 9 MegaWatt capacity was added. In 1933 Benito Mussolini inaugurated the two diesel generators from Franco Tosi, which together produced 12 MegaWatts of electrical power. When the plant was decommissioned in 1963, it would have been producing significantly more power with the added diesel equipment from Brown Boveri. The building with its mosaic floor is an example of the transitional industrial architecture of the early twentieth century. Its conversion to a museum space was the first time such a transition was made.
The top level of the museum, called the Boiler Room, contains some of the art which I liked most. These included two mosaics: a huge hunting scene with deer, rabbits, a boar, dogs and human figures from the 4th century CE was found in 1904, and another which portrays the changing seasons. In one corner of this hall I found a emotional sculpture of the flayed Marsyas. He was a faun who challenged Apollo to a musical contest, lost, and was flayed as a lesson to others. This level is full of smaller sculptures which I found very moving.
The main Hall of Machines (featured image) is dominated by the two diesel generators. Here I saw two female figures in a dark igneous stone; they are called the Celian Hill figures, and date perhaps from the 1st century AD. One of them is named the Victory of Simmaci. The head shown above is a copy of the head of Agrippina the Younger, more easily identified today as the mother of Nero. The 3rd century marble head in the previous photo is unidentified, and was found in 1933 in Rome.
The entrance level of the museum is called the Hall of Columns, and contained some of the exhibits which surprised me the most. One was a statue of a person wearing a toga and carrying two busts in his hand. Apparently in the 1st century CE, middle class families appeared in public with busts of parents and grandparents, in order to emphasize their lineage. I could begin to understand why at this time the story of Marsyas would have been popular.
This level contains household and funerary objects. The slave-holding structure of the Roman empire becomes visible in the exhibits. The distinction between portraits of Romans and defeated barbarians is interesting to see. The marble sculptures are punctuated by beautiful mosaics. I was charmed by two marine mosaics from the 1st century BCE. Both of them were discovered in 1888 in Rome near Via Panisperma. The beautifully detailed execution allows you to identify the species. The subtle variations in colour needed for such detail requires immense amount of work to source and shape the tesserae required to execute these pieces. The cost would have been immense. The merchants who could afford to have such work installed in their homes would have been the Roman equivalent of today’s top industrialists.
We walked out into the bleak streets of Ostiense Marconi. The project to turn this into a district of arts and sciences has been stalled by global economics, and the huge contraction in Italy’s GDP.
It is hard to travel to Rome without encountering the chaotic central railway station called Roma Termini. Vittorio de Sica and Federico Fellini have both filmed the station. It also appeared briefly with George Clooney and Brad Pitt in Ocean’s Twelve. On previous trips to Rome I’ve always told myself that I would come back and photograph this awful monstrosity. This time I tried.
I’d thought that the grandiose and rather thoughtless terminal was built during the Fascist times. It seems that the history of this station is more interesting. The first construction was started by Pope Pius IX just before the storming of Rome and the unification of Italy, and finished by the new Italian government. The grandiose side wings were indeed built during Mussolini’s rule, but the rest of the plan (image above) was never completed. The front hall was completed in 1950.
On airport shuttles it is perfectly acceptable to let out your inner tourist. My phone was charged and ready to take photos. The last hundreds of meters as a train pulls into a major station are always terrifically photogenic in a way. The industrial landscape of merging tracks has a charm of its own. I arrived on a bright and sunny day, so the overhead equipment threw nice shadows on to the tracks. I was quite please at having taken the featured image.
Just outside the side galleries of the station are two tall towers. They look like something de Chirico could have painted. I managed to catch a photo as I passed (above). I would have liked to walk back and taken some from closer in. The towers surrounded by electrical wires and tracks are intensely photogenic.
The tourist information centre in the station is in one of Mazzoni’s galleries. The cafe next to it serves much better coffee than the shops in the front arcade of the station. I had my coffee and then walked into the information centre. The stairs climbing up towards the high vaulted roof is another thing one can photograph. There were people doing that. As I took out my camera and looked, two policemen came up to me and told me to stop. Italy is not as colour blind as Portugal.
From the main concourse one can still take photos that say something about how Mazzoni conceived of the station. The huge shadows on the marble walls (above) remind us of Mussolini’s delusions of grandeur which Mazzoni tried to transcribe into stone. Another example of this thinking is the difficulty of finding a toilet in the station: you either have to go up to the restaurant level and wait in a long queue, or go down to the metro level.
In other ways the station has improved tremendously since I was last here. There are ticket machines everywhere; they can be switched to English, and they are very easy to use. Since you can choose your train timing from a scrolling list, you don’t even need time-table information from the web. I walked out after a short stop at the three story high bookshop, Borri’s, which stands in the entrance lobby of the station. I’ve come back to it many times over the years, and I’m happy that it still continues to do business.