Posts Tagged ‘Italy’

The Prague CemeteryI’ve read a few books by Eco, now – The Name of the Rose, Foucault’s Pendulum, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana and now this. While I didn’t think The Prague Cemetery was as good as the first two novels in that list, it was much, much better than the third.

The premise of this book is quite daring – on several levels. Using a wide array of historically accurate sources, Eco creates a fictional character who almost single-handedly, it seems, creates the vitriolic anti-Semitism of fin de siècle Europe, which culminates in the Russian creation of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which then, of course, leads to the terrible events of the 1930s and 40s.

Daring, because the subject matter is so sensitive; and because Eco’s narrative pretty attributes it all to one man; and because, except for the main character, it’s all – apparently – historically accurate: all the other characters (with a couple of minor exceptions and conflations) are real historical personages, all the events really happened. Daring also, because the main character develops two personalities, whose diaries and notes form letters to each other.

(Fictional) Simone Simonini, inspired by his (real) grandfather’s anti-Semitism as expressed in a (real) letter to (the real) Abbé Barruel, embarks on a career as a dishonest notary; he becomes a cunning forger first in his native Italy (Piedmont, actually, as there was no Italy as we know it in the mid-nineteenth century) and later in his adoptive France. He gets caught up in various historical events – Garibaldi’s battles in Sicily, the Fourth French Revolution, sensational exposés of Masonic rituals – and all the while develops his plans to discredit the Jewish people by concocting a fanciful story of a group of rabbis meeting in the Prague cemetery to discuss their plans to take over the world by such dastardly means as infiltrating governments and banks, introducing freedom of speech and social reforms and promoting republicanism.

Many long stretches of the book are fascinating reconstructions of historical intrigues. The sub-plot regarding a false persona that was created through psychological trauma is very promising at the beginning, but quickly becomes little more than a foil for Simonini’s amnesiac search for his own history. The depth of his hatred for Judaism – and for Jesuits, women, Germans, the French, Italians – in fact everyone except himself – is also quite entertaining. The various guises and ploys, plots and actions that Simonini is involved with make him a very appealing anti-hero. The milieu of late nineteenth century history-making and hysteria is expertly recreated.

And when I was old enough to understand, [my grandfather] reminded me that the Jew, as well as being as vain as a Spaniard, ignorant as a Croat, greedy as a Levantine, ungrateful as a Maltese, insolent as a gypsy, dirty as an Englishman, unctuous as a Kalmuck, imperious as a Prussian and as slanderous as anyone from Asti, is adulterous through uncontrollable lust – the result of circumcision, which makes them more erectile, with a monstrous disproportion between their dwarfish build and the thickness of their semi-mutilated protuberance.

I dreamt about Jews every night for years and years.

A few facts make the narrative drag. The join-the-dots approach to constructing a plot means that the whole thing is rather meandering and it ends very suddenly. The double-narrative (actually, it’s a triple-narrative, as there is a Narrator-with-a-capital-N, too) doesn’t quite work; the mystery as to whether the secondary personality is a figment or a real person isn’t that mysterious. And lists – throughout his work, Eco cannot resist a good list, and they do start to seem like he’s showing off his impressive erudition.

We decided that the Grand Master of the Supreme Council of Charleston bore the titles of Brother General, Sovereign Commander, Master Adept of the Grand Symbolic Lodge, Secret Master, Perfect Master, Intimate Secretary, Provost and Judge, Master Elect of the Nine, Illustrious Elect of the Fifteen, Sublime Knight Elect, Chief of the Twelve Tribes, Grand Master Architect, Scottish Grand Elect of the Sacred Visage, Perfect and Sublime Mason, Knight of the East or of the Sword, Prince of Jerusalem, Knight of the East and West, Sovereign Prince of the Rose Croix, Grand Pontiff, Venerable Master ad vitam of all Symbolic Lodges, Noachite of Prussian Knight, Grand Master of the Key, Prince of Libanus and of the Tabernacle, Knight of the Brazen Serpent, Knight Commander of the Temple, Knight of the Sun, Prince Adept, Scottish Knight of Saint Andrew, Grand Elect Knight Kadosh, Perfect Initiate, Grand Inspector Inquisitor, Clear and Sublime Prince of the Royal Secret, Thirty-Three, Most Powerful Sovereign Commander General Grand Master Conservator of the Sacred Palladium, Sovereign Pontiff of Universal Freemasonry.

Umberto Eco

This was an entertaining and fascinating read, but it felt a little hampered by being tied to a range of historical events – albeit important and interesting historical events. So while this wasn’t my favourite Eco novel, it has restored my faith in him after the navel-gazing-fest of Queen Loana. I’m ready to read one of his other books, now – maybe Baudolino.

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Having failed, or rather given up, on our previous attempt to go to the Vatican Museums, we tried again on Friday the 4th of May, also known as Star Wars Day, also known as my birthday. We had a better experience this time. The queue was a lot shorter and moved more quickly.

As we passed into the lobby/ticket area, we had to go through a security check. Habiba, in typically pushy American fashion, got ahead in the line and through the check before I did. Despite the fact that there were dozens of people wandering around inside with backpacks of a similar size to mine, the guard told me I needed to go straight to the cloak room to check it in. He wouldn’t let me go and tell Habiba without leaving my bag by the X-ray machine.

We bought tickets and hired audioguides – each which required further queueing – and then we queued up to get inside and join the crowds of people slowly making their way through the museums. The layout of the place is a little strange: while there are lots of different ‘museums’ within the whole complex, each with its own distinct collection of artefacts and artworks, you don’t have much choice about what you visit. As a whole, the Vatican Museums are designed to be visited linearly; instead of going to Museum C, Museum F, Museum M or whatever, you mostly have to go from A to B to C and so on. The path branches in a few places, and there were several museums we didn’t get to – the coin and stamp collection being a notable omission.

We did, however, see various Egyptian relics, numerous Classical statues, a sprinkling of modern art, lots of frescoed chambers and – of course – the Sistine Chapel.

One of the other highlights was the Hall of Maps. This was a long room like a vast corridor; on one side were maps showing regions in the west of Italy, the maps on the other side showing the east of the peninsula. What I found really spectacular about this room was the ceiling. It was arched and decorated all along its great length with painted panels of various sizes divided by baroque frames and sculpted figures and designs.

The Sistine Chapel was packed with people, many in tour groups, standing around ogling the walls and ceiling, talking and taking pictures despite the attendants (who, I think, were mostly clerics) telling everyone to be quiet and the signs that prohibited photography. It’s certainly a sight to behold, but Michelangelo’s figures are a bit strange – they’re often overly muscular and tiny-headed, and the women have a pair of ugly lumps in the middle of their chest that are supposed to be breasts.

We were glad that we saw the place, but we were also glad to get out. It’s a huge place and no single visit can really do justice to it – and the crowds make it nearly impossible to enjoy. It’s also, understandably, quite dark in most areas, so it’s difficult to get good pictures. Once we escaped the mêlée, we had lunch at a touristy, but not too expensive restaurant across the road from the entrance. The queue for the Museums had diminished to practically nothing – which was a little annoying, especially given our experience a couple of days before. We cheered ourselves up with more ice cream from the Old Bridge Gelateria.

After that, we headed round the corner to St Peter’s Square and lined up for the Basilica. Unsurprisingly, this was probably the grandest and most ornate of the many beautiful churches we’ve been to on the trip.

And after that, we went for a walk along the Tiber, which is contained in a kind of manmade gorge, with wide paths on either side at river level. Looking down from road level we spotted an animal swimming about by the near bank. We went down for a closer look and found it to be a large rodent with a head and front teeth like a beaver, but a tail like an otter – I later decided it was a coypu. Habiba tried feeding it some of our food, but it wasn’t interested, although it was happy to climb up on to the foot of the wall right below us.

We walked along for a bit then headed back up to road level, through Piazza del Popolo and up Pincian Hill near Villa Borghese before heading back to Anne’s. For the previous couple of nights, Anne’s son had been away at a camp and she had taken in an extra couple of Couchsurfers, a pleasant pair of Dutch women. Dinners in the small kitchen were a cosy affair. They were gone by the time we got back.

And, the next day, we left Anne, got the tram back to Termini, took a very cheap (€4) bus to Fiumicino Airport (officially, Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport) and checked in for our flight to Gatwick. Up until getting to the airport, everything was mostly OK. I’d started feeling sick earlier in the day; I felt well enough to eat some lunch before going through the security check, but after, while we were waiting to board I threw it all back up again. I felt very nauseous on the flight and an attendant gave me sickbags – but I just rested and ended up not needing them.

In addition to all this, Habiba hadn’t realised that she would be able to have more than one check-in bag and one carry-on bag, so she had to pay extra for her third bag. It wasn’t the most auspicious start to a flight, but we got to the UK safely enough in the end.

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Arriving in Rome at around lunchtime, we had a bit of trek to our next Couchsurfing host, but, with some good directions, we had little trouble getting the tram out to the suburbs and finding Anne’s place. Anne lived with her young son and was another great host.

She had experience working as a tour guide and she mapped out a route for us that would take us to some of the sights in central Rome. So, later in the day, we went back and wandered by the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, St Ignatius’s Church, the parliament building, the Pantheon (unfortunately, this was closed for Labour Day – and we forgot to go back another time) and the Piazza Navona. The Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain were especially crowded – possibly more than usual because of the holiday, possibly not.

We went to a gelato place that was recommended by our guidebook – it was expensive, but I had a coupon for a free fancy ice cream from Habiba. We went to a restaurant for dinner on the same basis, but we didn’t manage to get in. When we reached the front of the queue, we were pointed to a small table next to the door that we would have to share with another couple. Perhaps naively, we said we wanted our own table. The man on the door proceeded to pretty much ignore us the rest of the time we were there. We went elsewhere.

We walked back to the main railway station, Termini thinking that we could get the tram back to Anne’s. A couple of trams came to the stop, but evidently they were terminating, as they didn’t pick any passengers up and the stop was blocked off by barriers. We walked to the next stop and found an area with people waiting for taxis and police and paramedics hanging around presumably waiting for situations involving drunken Romans. We weren’t confident enough to claim a taxi for ourselves and we realised that, it being a holiday, we wouldn’t be able to get a bus or tram after eleven o’clock. We decided to walk – which took about an hour, although it wasn’t hard to know where to go because we just followed the tram tracks.

The next day, we decided we would go to the Vatican. By the time we got to St Peter’s Square it was already afternoon and there was a massive queue for the Basilica that arced all the way around the square. We went round the corner towards the Vatican Museums – and found a similarly massive line. We waited for a bit then decided to give it up. We got ice creams from a place nearby, Old Bridge Gelateria. The cheapest cone was half the price of the tiny cup we had the day before (ie, €1.50) and they served a generous dollop of ice cream on top of it – even giving you two flavours.

After the sweet had stuff revived our spirits, we went to the Coliseum. The queue here was also substantial, although most of it was inside, so it looked deceptively short from the outside. Once we finally got into the amphitheatre, it proved pretty spectacular – it wasn’t bad from the outside, actually.

We did a couple of circumnavigations of it – one at a lower, one at an upper level. Then we set out for the nearby ruins of the Forum. The queue here was much shorter and we should have gone here first because you get one ticket for both the Forum and the Coliseum. We did see everything there was to see within the grounds of what is effectively a huge park, but most of what we did see was very pleasant – though not as breathtaking as the Coliseum.

The day after that, we took the train down to Naples – using our last day of travel with our Eurail pass. The train we wanted to take was cancelled (‘soppresso’), so we got there later than we intended. From the main station in Naples we took a local train – the Circumvesuviana – to the ruins of Pompeii. Here, we spent a couple of hours wandering round the ruined town. We didn’t get audioguides or even a map, so our visit was pretty aimless and, as there are almost no information boards anywhere within the grounds, we didn’t really learn that much. The most interesting part of the ruins was the villa near the exit, the Villa of the Mysteries, with its preserved frescos

We went back to Naples and headed for a pizzeria called Il Piazzaiolo del Presidente. Naples is, apparently, the home of pizza, and this particular restaurant is one of the most famous; Heston Blumenthal went there for tips on the perfect Margherita. The pizzas were good – and cheap, according to the menu. Two pizzas and two beers nonetheless managed to cost us €20.

The restaurant was in a part of town full of tall old buildings separated by narrow streets. Cars and mopeds sped down the streets, weaving through the pedestrians clustered by the shops. The shops were pretty touristy, selling fancy pasta and the usual range of souvenirs. The area reminded me a little of Paharganj in Delhi; although it was paved and much, much cleaner it had a similar grungy, bustling feel to it.

We spent some time walking around, down to the ferry port and the Castel Nuovo, to a big square, the Piazza del Plebiscito where the army was holding some sort of recruitment event, then round the corner to a Victorian shopping mall called the Galleria Umberto I. In the centre of this cathedral-like space there was a ring of zodiac mosaics on the floor. Even though I have nothing but contempt for horoscopes, I wanted to get a shot of the Taurus mosaic, but two women were standing on it for about five minutes taking pictures of each other. Habiba finally barged them out of the way and pretended to have her picture taken by me.

We then headed to the Duomo, or Naples Cathedral, another in a long line of beautiful churches. Habiba sat at the back while I explored and took pictures. After that, we went back to the station and got the train back to Rome.

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Getting to Venice from Paris was pretty much a full day’s travel. As usual, we went by train, first to Basel in Switzerland, where I paid for a couple of coffees with a €10 note and got two 2 Swiss franc coins in return, then to Milan and finally to Venice Mestre. This latter station is on the mainland, where as the iconic old city is on an island (actually, it effectively is an island) just off the coast.

We checked in to a cheap hostel (which called itself a hotel) near the station, witnessing a beautiful sunset display of light and shade in the sky, chatted to an interesting and talkative New Zealander, Edward, who was sharing our four-bed dormitory, and caught a train (along the lengthy bridge that connects Venice to the rest of the country) to Santa Lucia station to have a look round Venice at night.

We didn’t go far within the city and the dark, narrow alleyways were pretty quiet – a little eerie, even. The area next to the station was busier, though, with plenty of tourists and vendors – there various people selling the little balls that go splat on a surface then resume their shape and the helicoptery things that you catapult into the air.

The following day, we had made plans to look around Venice with Edward, but there was little sign of him when we went to breakfast – at a different hotel. Habiba saw him out of the window, but then he didn’t materialise. I went back to our hostel to look for him, but he wasn’t there.

We took a crowded bus into Venice and then a waterbus along the Grand Canal to Piazza San Marco.

We decided to go into St Mark’s Basilica and joined a queue. Unfortunately, after half an hour of shuffling along, it became apparent that we wer in the wrong line; we stepped across to the correct one. As we approached the entrance to the basilica, a French-sounding woman approached us (and apparently only us) and told us that packpacks weren’t allowed inside and that I would have to check mine in to a nearby cloakroom. I went to check this intelligence out and passed Edward coming out of the basilica. He explained that he’d come to the breakfast hotel that morning but hadn’t been allowed into the dining room because he didn’t want to have any breakfast.

Edward looked after my bag while we went inside. The inside was a spectacle of gold. Pretty much every bit of the ceiling was covered in mosaics with gold backgrounds. The floor tiling was interesting – circles and shapes that suggested 3D steps. One particular mosaic stood out: a lion with mad, anguished staring golden eyes.

We hooked up with Edward outside and started wandering around. We went back to the water and turned left past the Ducal Palace, passing over a crowded bridge that gave a good view of the Bridge of Sighs; when we came back the same way later the bridge was jam packed with tourists and tour groups all trying to get a glimpse of the famous bridge along which prisoners passed on their way to the cells.

We walked towards the castle walls and found them to be closed (it being Monday). We had lunch together – Habiba and Edward had surprisingly good value pizzas; I had a tasty but not so filling ravioli dish.

We headed to the Rialto Bridge and parted ways with Edward. Habiba bought some excessively juicy fruit that contained a ball of pips in their centres; I found them rather annoying to eat. Before we left, we headed to a souvenir shop that I’d seen the previous night and I bought myself a little aquamarine glass cat for €3.

The bus back to the mainland was less crowded, but still fairly busy. Bright and early the next morning we said farewell to Venice and took the train to Rome.

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