Sunday, March 19, 2017

Old houses of Grado

The old town of Grado is an island city in the north-east of Italy. The town is composed of about 30 islands out of which, only three islands are permanently inhabited. It is also called the Sun Island and the First Venice. This post is about visiting Grado.


If you are holidaying in one of the towns on the north-eastern Adriatic coast of Italy such as Lignano, Bibione or Caorle, you can visit Grado as a day trip, combining it with a visit to the Roman ruins of Aquileia a few kilometres away.

Islands of Grado

The town of Grado is on the biggest island and is connected to the mainland by a bridge. The other two inhabited islands are Schiusa and Barbana. Schiusa is connected to Grado by two bridges while to visit Barbana, you need a boat. The town also includes some villages on the mainland including the protected wildlife area of Valle Cavanata.

The beaches of Grado face south and it is known as the Sun Island because of its good climate. Like Venice but older to it, being a city of different islands, it is also called the First Venice.

Grado developed around 450 CE, as the sea port connected to Aquileia. Soon it became an important town and two big Basilica churches were built here - St. Eufemia and St. Maria delle Grazie. For a few centuries, Grado was the most important port in the north-east of Italy. However as the island city of Venice, 135 km to the south, became more important, Grado declined. In the 12th century, the Patriarch of Grado shifted to Venice. Gradually, Grado became a poor village of the fishermen.

St Eufemia cathedral

This church was built in 579 CE, at the site of an older and smaller church. It is a simple and linear building in red brick. At the top of its bell tower there is a copper statue of archangel St. Michael, added to the building in 1462.


Roman Ruins

Not far from the St Eufemia cathedral, you can see the remains of the floor and some walls of the Court Basilica church from the 4th century CE.


Old Houses of Grado

My favourite part of Grado are its old houses, many of them from the medieval period. These old houses and the narrow streets of the old town, give this town a special look that reminds us of its history. It is full of shops and restaurants for the tourists, many of them are located in the old medieval buildings.

Beyond the city you can see its port and its deep sandy beaches. The best time to visit Grado is in early July when the city celebrates its traditional Barbana boat race.


Along the sea, Grado has a nice walking area, the Lungomare.


Conclusions

Our first visit to Grado was brief, as we had stopped on our way to visit Aquileia. Thus, we were unable to visit much of this city. The parts we saw were beautiful, especially the characteristic old houses, the small squares and the narrow streets of the old town.


We did not have time to visit its beach. We also did not visit the other old church of St. Maria delle Grazie. So we are planning to go back to visit during the next summer.

Meanwhile if you are holidaying on the Adriatic coast in the north-east of Italy, do visit Grado, if you have some time!

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Thursday, March 16, 2017

Roman port of Aquileia

Two thousand years ago, Aquileia on the Adriatic coast of north-east Italy was one of the biggest cities of the world. Today it is a small town with a population of few thousand persons. This is how the wheels of history move, leaving behind ruins and stories. This post is about discovering Aquileia.


If you holidaying in a neighbouring seaside town like Lignano, Bibione or Caorle, visit Aquileia for a wonderful day trip. Aquileia is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Roman Town of Aquileia

Aquileia is situated in the north-eastern part of Italy, not far from the modern day Austria, Slovenia and Croatia. Before the arrival of the Romans, Celtic people lived here and called it Akylis. At that time it was an important centre for the trade of amber.

Aquileia became a Roman colony in 181 BCE. It was the Roman frontier-town in the north for launching military campaigns in the northern and eastern Europe. Around 58 BC, Julius Ceasar established here his command centre (the Circum Aquileie) and it became the capital of the whole region. Around 300 CE, the emperor Maximillian built a big palace in Aquileia.

Situated on the banks of river Natiso and just 13 km from the sea, Aquileia was an important port city controlling the local trade. Caesar visited it many times and a good road network connected it to other cities like Bologna and Genoa.

At its peak the city's population was one hundred thousand and it was one of the biggest cities in the world. However, by the fifth century CE, the western part of Roman empire were already in decline and thus, slowly Aquileia lost its strategic importance. Around 1,100 CE though the city had become less important, it was still a big Roman town and a new big cathedral was built here. In the medieval period, it passed under the Republic of Venice and then in 19th century, under the Austrian-Hungerian empire.

More recently, during the First World war, fighting took place in Aquileia. After the war, Aquileia became part of Italy.

Today Aquileia is a tiny hamlet with a population of only 3,500 persons. However because of its history, it is one of the major archaeological sites in northern Italy.

Roman ruins of Aquileia

Passing armies, wars, floods, earthquakes and the passage of time, have destroyed all the Roman period buildings of Aquileia. Some archaeological excavations have brought out the old roads and foundations of important buildings such as amphitheatre, forum and the port.


Cathedral of Aquileia

Aquileia has a beautiful basilica church from 11th century, built over an older church. The bell tower of the basilica is visible from far away. The facade of the church is in Romanesque-early Gothic style.


Outside the basilica, a column carries the statue of a she-wolf feeding two babies Romolo and Remo, the symbol of imperial Rome.


Inside, the basilica has a much older (from 4th century CE) wonderful original mosaic floor and beautiful frescoes on the walls. A transparent glass pathway allows the visitors to walk above the floor to see these mosaics and the frescoes from close, without damaging them. The frescoes from 12th century depict the life of saint Hermagoras, the first bishop of Aquileia.


War Cemetery

Behind the basilica a path connects this area to the ruins of the old Roman port. This area also has a military cemetery from the first world war.


The cemetery also has the tomb of Saint Hermagoras, the first bishop of Aquileia from 3rd century CE.

Candia Memorial

A round shaped monument called "Candia Memorial" was built in Aquileia in 1956. The stones and materials from a two thousand years old tomb, discovered in 1952 in the nearby Roncolon of Fiumicello, were used to build this memorial.


The funds for this reconstruction came from Marcello Candia who wanted a memorial in the memory of his father, Camillo Candia. Thus a two thousand years old Roman tomb was used to build a modern-day memorial. Marcello Candia was a rich industrialist of Aquileia, who later emigrated and dedicated his life to serving the persons affected with leprosy in Brazil. Therefore, apart from the Roman monument of Aquileia that is known by his name, Marcello Candia's name is also associated with the Marituba leprosarium in Brazil.

Conclusions

Today when you visit Aquileia, its magnificent ruins give some idea of the importance of this ancient town during the expansion of Roman empire. Yet, it is difficult to imagine that this far away, isolated place was one of the biggest cities in the ancient world.


For me, one of the most beautiful part of the visit to Aquileia was the mosaics of its Basilica Cathedral. Even if you can't visit it, you can admire this church and its mosaics and frescoes in a virtual tour on internet.

However if you are visting this part of Italy for some seaside holidays, do visit Aquileia and the nearby island of Grado.

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Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Dancing in Assam

Assam in the north-east of India has a rich tradition of dance, music and theatre. This photo-essay presents some of the classical and folk traditions of Assam.


People of Assam 

Assamese people are a mixture of different races and ethnicities. Over the centuries, people from central and north India, from the Tibetan plateau, from the neighbouring areas of China, Myanmar and Bangladesh, have all contributed to Assamese people and cultures.

Ahoms, who came from the neighbouring Myanmar in the 12th century and ruled Assam for almost eight hundred years, have been a strong influence. Neighbouring Bengal and Odisha, have also been an important influence.

Assam also has different indigenous groups such as Bodo, Mising, Deori, Rabha, Tiwa, Lalung, Khamti, Sonowal, Karbi, Naga, Dimasa and Singpo. It also has tribes from central India who were brought to Assam by the British during the past hundred and fifty years to work in the tea gardens (tea tribes).


All these different groups of people bring their cultures to Assam and thus contribute to the richness of the Assamese dance, music and theatre traditions.

Traditional Dance, Music and Theatre

Traditional performing arts of Assam are of two kinds - folk traditions and classical traditions.

Folk traditions are based in rural communities and are orally transmitted between the generations. Only over the past decades, written materials about some folk traditions have been developed.


Folk theatre can be on different themes - religious, satires related to daily lives, romantic stories and historical figures. Assam has different folk theatre traditions focusing on religious themes such as Ojapali, Kamrupia Dhulia, Putula Nach, etc. Another area of religious folk theatre is Jatra, which also has many variations in Assam such as Manai Jatra and Bhasan Jatra. Finally, there are dramatic theatre traditions that can be religious or non-religious, such as Paseti and Mothoni.

Classical traditions of Assam are strongly influenced by the Vaishnavaite teachings of Shrimanta Shankar Dev and his disciple Madhabdev in the 16th -17th centuries. Religious centres called Sattra established by the followers of Shankar Dev have developed cultural traditions. These revolve around the texts of Padma Purana and other Hindu scriptures. Classical traditions are governed by codified norms. These include Bhaona theatre, Gayan-Bayan singing traditions and Sattriya dance.

Traditional dances and theatre are accompanied by different musical instruments such as cymbals (Kartal, Khutital, Bhortal), anklets, drums (Joidhol, Deodhol, Nagara, Bordhol, Mridanga, Khol), flutes (Kali, Benu, Bonsi) and cord-instruments (Lautukari, Benu, Aktara).

During 20th century, Bhupen Hazarika, a multi-faceted Assamese artist with interests in folk music, dance and theatre, has been a significant influence in Assam, leading to a renaissance of the traditional art forms.

Classical Music, Dance and Theatre of Assam

Majuli island in Brahmaputra, not far from Jorhat, has the most important Sattra that carry forward the legacy of Shrimanta Shankar Dev.

The image below presents a scene from Ramayana from a Bhaona performance of a group from Majuli, showing princess Sita. All the female roles in Bhaona are usually played by men.


Popular folk theatre also uses masks in performances. The next image has a Krishna Putula for a theatre performance, created by master craftsman Debkanta Mahanta.


The next image presents Gayan-Bayan, the singing and story-telling tradition from a sattra in Majuli. These are sung by male monks from the Sattra and are accompanied by percussion drums (dhol) and medium size cymbals. During the singing there are also dancing movements using the drums.


The third image presents a Sattriya dance performance by Ms Shrutimala Medhi of Guwahati. Often the Sattriya dance is used to tell a story about Krishna and are like one-act plays (Ankiya Nat). However, the dance can also be abstract. The movements of hands (mudra) and feet (pada), as well as the different body postures must follow the codified dance norms.


The next image has a group of Cymbal dancers, a kind of Sattriya dance, where the dancers use medium size cymbals during their dance.


Traditional Dance and Theatre linked with Bihu

Bihu festivals linked with agricultural life are the most popular cultural events of Assam. There are three Bihu festivals – Rongali Bihu, Kongali Bihu and Bhogali Bihu. Bihu folk dance is the most popular dance of Assam.

During this dance, men are responsible for singing, music and dance. The music instruments used in the dance include cymbols, dhols (drums) and pepa. The men wear dhoti and gamocha. The women wear mekhla-chador dresses and one of their characteristic dance movement is that of bending slightly forward with hands on their backs, as shown in the next image.


Folk Music, Dance and Theatre of Assam

The first image has boys in the traditional dress of Dimasa (children of the river) tribe who are part of Kachari people. Their mythological stories are about Bangla raja (earthquake god) and a divine bird called Arikhidima.


This group was from Dima Hasao (sometimes called Hsiao) district of Assam. Their drum is called Khram.

The next image has dancing young women from the Mising (also called Mishing) tribe. This is one of the bigger tribes of Assam, spread over different districts. This dance is called Lotta Sohman and is accompanied by folk songs called Oi Nitom.


Karbi tribe is one of the larger groups of persons in Assam. This tribe lives in the hills across different districts. The next image has a martial dance called Chong Kedam performed by the men and women of Karbi tribe who carry swords and shields.


It is said that the Karbi tribe is originally from China and this dance is about their southwards journey when they came to Assam. During the dance, the male dancers show vigorous exercises.

The next image is also about the Karbi tribe and shows the young men in the Nemso Kerung dance. This dance is part of Chomonkan ceremony related to a funeral of elderly persons in the family.


Assam is also home to some Naga tribes. Next image has a group of Naga dancers from the Karbi Anglong district. Naga dresses have a dominance of black and red colours.


Assam has a significant number of Muslims and traditional Axamia Muslim communities are culturally integrated in mainstream. Zikra is the specific traditional music form linked with the Axamia Muslims, shown in the next image.


The Next image is about the Popular Theatre of Assam – from the play Sati Bahula directed by Lakhendra Gunnakar Goswami.


Assam shares the tradition of wandering singing mistrals called Bauls with neighbouring Bengal. Bauls are often travellers who carry their songs of devotion to the rural areas. Though close to Hindu ascetics, they also include persons from the Muslim Sufi tradition. The last image of this post has a woman Baul singer during the Ambubashi festival at Kamakhaya temple in Guwahati.


Conclusions

This is just a brief glimpse into the rich traditional dance, theatre and music heritage of Assam in the north-east of India. I lived for about a year and half in Guwahati, the capital of Assam, during 2015-16. This was a great opportunity to know and appreciate some of those traditions.

References: Folk Theatre of Assam, by Gitali Saikia & Sanjib Luchan Tamuli, Jansanyog, Directorate of Information and Public Relations, Assam, India

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Saturday, March 11, 2017

Discovering Florence

Florence is full of beautiful art and architecture, especially from the renaissance period. There is so much to see in the city, even if most people visit only the better known monuments in central Florence. If you have a little time, you can go around to discover some other treasures of the city. This post is about some of the lesser-known but wonderful places of Florence.


The image above shows an overview of the famous Old Bridge of Florence seen from the Michelangelo Square on the hill of San Miniato.

Michelangelo Square

Michelangelo square in Oltrearno (Beyond Arno river) is one of my favourite places in Florence. This square was designed by Giuseppe Poggi in the 19th century.

From the Old Bridge and central Florence, you can see the San Miniato hill and the Michelangelo square on the top. If you cross the bridge and walk along the Arno river, shortly after Poggi monument, you will come across an old tower of a water mill. Just behind the tower, you will find the a road and the stairs going up to Piazza Michelangelo.


It is not a very high climb and has a good road going right till the top, if you don't want to do the stairs. It is a huge square with a copy of the famous David statue by Michelangelo at its centre. From the square you can see beautiful panoramic views of Florence city as well as of the surrounding hills and the Tuscany countryside.


If you do not wish to climb the hill and you have some time, you can find a public bus near the Santa Trinità bridge, which will take you there.

All Saints Square

Not very far from Santa Maria Novella square, if you walk towards Arno river, you will come across Piazza Ogni Santi (All Saints Square). This was the area of the wool merchants in medieval Florence. In the 13th century this square was lined by washing tubs for wool-dyeing under the Humiliated Friars who had built the San Salvatore church and Monastery in this square.


The sculpture of a man fighting a lion in the All Saints square is by the well known Florentine sculptor Romano Romanelli. It was placed here in 1935, during the years of fascism.

Holy Trinity Square, Church and Bridge

Holy Trinity (Santa Trinità) bridge with its beautiful statues is a good place for a view of the Old Bridge and the river.

Near by are the tiny Santa Trinità square and the eponymous church. The square has a column with a statue of The Goddess of Justice. The Santa Trinità church has some wonderful paintings and frescoes - the whole wall behind the altar is covered with colourful frescoes.


Republic Square

Florence has many big squares where the narrow streets of the medieval town can expand and take deep breaths. The Republic square (Piazza della Repubblica) is another of these big open spaces, not far from the Duomo Square and Lords' Square. It is a market area.

The image below shows the Republic Square with the Christmas lighting. It is a good place to sit down, have a drink in one of the roadside caffes and to observe the local life. It also has a beautiful merry-go-round for children.


Following the Footsteps of Dante

Dante Alighieri born in 1265 CE is best known for his epic poem Divine Comedy. Dante lived in the Holy Cross (Santa Croce) area of Florence and is buried there. The beautiful Santa Croce square has a Dante monument and is dominated by the Santa Croce church, built in white marble and dark green granite. His grave is next to the church.


You can also walk to Dante's house on Via Dante near the Santa Croce church. It has a museum dedicated to him.

Annunziata Square

Our next stop is Annunziata square (Piazza Santissima Annunziata) along the Via dei Servi near the Duomo (Cathedral). On one side, the square has the Annunziata church (Basilica). If you have time, visit this 13th century church. It has a lovely Pietà sculpture by Baccio Bandinelli, who was a friend of Leonardo da Vinci and hated Michelangelo. It has also has different paintings by important artists.

Behind the church, a short walk away, there are the botanical gardens (Giardino dei Semplici) of the University of Florence.

Annunziata square has a bronze statue of the Grand Duke of Florence, Ferdinando I, by the sculptor Giambologna (who had designed the semi-circular arches of the St Peter's square in the Vatican city) and his student Pietro Tacca.


The square also has a fountain from 17th century in the Mannerism style, with a fantasy alien figure. I like the Mannerism style in sculptures, with their disproportionate bodies that look so graceful, and which probably inspired artists like Modigliani.

Finally the square also has the fifteenth century Innocenti Hospital designed by Brunelleschi, that now hosts an office of UNICEF. It is a beautiful building with some interesting frescoes inside it.

This square is also mentioned in the biography of famous Indian artist Amrita Shergil, who had stayed here for some time.

San Lorenzo Square and Church

If you walk from the Via dei Servi towards the railway station, you will come across the magnificent San Lorenzo church. This is one of the oldest churches of Florence. The seminary next door has a museum and the tomb of the St. Lawrence. The area around the church has shops, a bustling open air market and restaurants. It is a great place for its ambiance, to sit, relax and watch the life pass.


Conclusions

There is so much more to see in Florence, apart from the well known places mentioned in the tourist books. If you enter in any church or walk through the city's squares or its gardens, and you will find much to inspire and to admire.

I have been to Florence many times. Though I still love walking through its famous monuments like the Duomo Square or the Old Bridge, I also try to visit some of its lesser known places.


In conclusion of this post, above you can see an overview of Florence, Arno river and the surrounding Apennines mountains from the Michelangelo Square.

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Wednesday, March 8, 2017

A Walking Tour of Florence

Florence ("Firenze" in Italian) is famous for its architecture and art by master artists from the renaissance period like Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. This walking tour is for visiting the city centre in Florence.


The central part of Florence described in this post, is very compact and you can easily walk to all these places from the railway station.

Reaching Florence

Florence has two main railway stations – Santa Maria Novella and Rifredi. Santa Maria Novella (SMN) is the main railway station of Florence and is near the tourist areas explained in this post.

At SMN, take the exit on the left and then take the underpass towards Santa Maria Novella church across the street.

Santa Maria Novella church in dramatic white marble and black granite, is a very beautiful church. If you have a little time, take a look at the front part of the church with a lovely square.

  
Cathedral (Duomo)

The next stop is the Duomo square with its cathedral. Follow Via Panzani and then Via dei Cerretani for reaching the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral. It is just a ten-fifteen minutes walk.

The square has the octagonal baptistery, the cathedral and the bell tower. The whole square is very beautiful. To appreciate its beauty, visit it in early morning or late evening of a weekday, when there are less tourists.


Made of white marble with lines of black, dark green and pink stones, the cathedral is a rich and colourful wedding-cake like building, absolutely marvelous, full of amazing marble statues on all sides. You can spend a lot of time here looking at the different statues and admiring their art.

Entrance to the eight-sided Baptistery requires a ticket and often there is a queue to go inside. Even if you do not go inside, take the time to look at its solid brass doors with some amazing bass-relief sculptures.

On the right side of the cathedral, there are street artists who make beautiful portrait sketches and are really quick. You may wish to get your portrait done as a take-away memory of the Florence visit.

Compared to the rich sculptures and the colours outside, inside the cathedral is relatively simple. It is huge. Remember to look up to see the rich paintings on the inside of the dome. If you have time, you can even climb to the top of the dome (requires a ticket) for an absolutely marvellous view of the city skyline and the surroundings.

Lords' Square (Piazza della Signoria)

In front of the Cathedral, Via dei Calzaiuoli on the right side will bring you to the most famous square of Florence – “Piazza della signoria” (Lords’ square). The square has many things to see - the statue of Cosimo on the horse, beautiful Neptune fountain, Palazzo Vecchio (Old Palace) museum and the open-air Loggia with some beautiful sculptures.

If you have some time, take a closer look at the sculptures in the square. For example, in the Neptune fountain, look at the way the horses are sculpted – you can even see the veins on their necks.


Old Palace has some incredible frescoes and stucco work. It is an important art museum. For people who do not have the time to visit the museum, you can look at the museum statues displayed in the Loggia in front of Old Palace.


Uffizi Museum 

Uffizi museum is in the narrow street next to the Loggia. Along the street, on both sides you will find the statues of all the important historical celebrities of Florence including Macchiavelli and Dante.

Uffizi is one of the most important art museums of the world. It has an enormous collection of art masterpieces from Renaissance period of Italy. If you have read Dan Brown’s bestseller based in Florence, “Inferno”, you may already know about the masterpieces of this museum.

You need at least half a day to visit it. Usually there is a long queue of tourists waiting to go inside the museums.


The Old Bridge (Ponte Vecchio)

The Old Bridge on the Arno river is the next stop of this essential tour of Florence. Just behind Uffizi road is Lungarno, the bank of Arno river. Turn right on Lungarno and you will see the old bridge.

The bridge is full of shops selling gold and jewellry and is always crowded. I love the backside of the shops on the Old Bridge, painted in different colours, hanging over the river.


Walking along the river on Lungarno is another favourite past time for me. Seagulls and canoes, and the reflections of the medieval churches on the river bank, make this a magical place.


So my advice is that if you have some time, do not rush, take deep breaths and admire the incredible beauty of this place where nature and man-made constructions come together in a such a wonderful way.

Boboli Gardens and Museum

If you still have time, you can go across the bridge and continue for a short distance along that road to reach Boboli gardens and its museum that play a key role in Dan Brown’s “Inferno”.


However, Boboli gardens (require a ticket) are huge, are on a hill and the visit needs at least half a day (not counting the visit to the museum). If you like going up and down the hills, Boboli Gardens have some lovely statues and fountains.

Conclusions

This essential walking tour of central Florence takes you to some of the most beautiful artistic places in the world. If you have time, you can spend a full day in each of them to look at and appreciate their paintings and sculptures.

Around the places described above, there are numerous small medieval streets and other places to see including  different old churches. Many of these not-so-famous churches also have so many beautiful sculptures and paintings.

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