Monday, July 27, 2015

Summer is here, and life's a beach!

Our travels at the moment consist of driving down the hill to the beach. It's a one-minute drive but we need the car for all of our beach paraphernalia. We have had extremely high temperatures — 46C on the terrace and 44C at the beach — for several weeks with some wind but no rain. Can you get tired of cloudless blue skies? Over the last two months days we have missed only one day of swimming, because it was too rough. When the winds come from the south the water is flat. The downside of these winds is that sometimes they bring Sahara sand and it is much too hot to clean the house.

The village is becoming busier and busier. Right now there are a lot of French visitors. We like them as they aren't noisy at the beach or in restaurants. There are holiday makers from Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, the U.K. and Northern Europe. With all the hot weather the weekends are very, very busy with lots of day trippers. In a few days it will be like that everyday. There is no respite in sight with the hot weather, 35 degrees and higher the norm every day.

We don't have air conditioning so the house is becoming hotter and hotter. During the day we keep the shutters closed and in the evening open up to catch any puff of wind. Thank goodness our neighbor landlords, who are here only on weekends, let us use their pool. It is perfect right before bed.

Our noisy neighbours aren't too bad. They are trying to keep the one problem dog (of the four) quiet and so far the parrot isn't barking. They finally drained their pool. This has had some ramifications since the water went into the cleared land behind the houses. A few nights ago we heard horrible noises that sounded like someone clearing their very large nose. It was horrible and went on and on. We heard it again just before daylight. We had maligned our neighbor. It was the wild boar wallowing where the water had been.  

Life at the beach is interesting. Yesterday we watched the large navy blue customs boat come into port. This is the second time this year. It would circle a yacht out on the bay with nine or ten customs officers standing on the deck and then a couple of them would board the yacht. They did this with four boats yesterday but didn't seem to find what they were looking for before  zooming off noisily. Of course more and more people are arriving for their holidays and with the day trippers on the weekend the population increases tenfold.

Fortunately, in the last couple of days we have had slightly cooler temperatures — 27c to 33C. There are no malls to walk around to cool off, only the sea. A few of the dreaded jelly fish have been spotted as the water gets warmer and warmer. I was swimming backstroke the other day and got stung on my foot. Oh my it was painful for the first hour. I soaked my foot in vinegar for half an hour, washed it in very hot water, took an antihistamine and rubbed it with some cortisone cream. That did the trick. I  never thought I would say this but I'd love to see some torrential rain and feel a little chilly.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Milan: Sforza Castle perfect location for museums

The afternoon was becoming very hot as we made our way to the Sforza Castle. In the TV show The Borgias, Catherine Sforza bares her breasts from the castle walls, in an act of defiance towards one of the Borgia sons. It was originally built by the Duke of Milan in the 1300s but then destroyed a hundred years later. When Francesco Sforza  grabbed power and declared himself Duke of Milan, he quickly rebuilt the castle, this time with a seventy-meter tall central tower — the Torre del Filarete — flanked with large round towers. His successors further improved and embellished the structure.

In its heyday during the reign of Ludovico Sforza — nicknamed 'Il Moro' — the castle was transformed into a magnificent Renaissance residence. The duke turned to the great artists of his time, including Leonardo da Vinci to decorate the castle.

During the following centuries, when Milan was under foreign rule, the castle was neglected and mostly used as a barracks. The Torre del Filarete, which was used as a munition storage, exploded in 1521. During the latter part of the sixteenth century the Spanish added star-shaped fortifications around the castle, later partially demolished by Napoleon's troops.

After the Italian unification in 1861 the castle was heading for the wrecking ball when it was saved to house various museums. The present castle, with a square plan laid out around three inner courtyards, is dominated by its many towers.

The Rocchetta was the castle's stronghold and the last refuge in case of a siege. During the reign of Ludovico Il Moro, the residences around the courtyard were magnificently decorated with frescoes.

We viewed the collection of the archaeological museum, which contains prehistoric and Egyptian artefacts. The ground floor exhibits a wide ranging collection of ancient art. Highlights include a fourth century sarcophagus, the fourteenth century Mausoleum of Bernabò Visconti and the Pièta Rondanini, an unfinished Michelangelo.

The first and second floor of the Rocchetta house the museum of musical instruments and the collection of applied arts. On the first floor you'll find historic musical instruments such as a sixteenth century Venetian harpsichord, a glass harmonica and lots of hurdy-gurdies which were even used in symphony orchestras at one time. It was a massive collection of historical musical instruments which was really interesting.

We even walked out to the balustrades where we looked over the ever larger crowd of people that had come for the afternoon. No Sforzas or Borgias were spotted.

Next to the castle was Sempione Park, nicely landscaped with winding paths, open grassy areas, tall trees and a picturesque bridge across a central pond. It was especially popular on this hot day. Back in the 1400s the park was used as a hunting ground. At one time Napoleon built a peace arch and the area was going to be used as a parade ground but he was defeated and that never came to pass. Lots of people were gathering for a music concert. We would have stayed but it was time to return to the hotel to pick up our luggage.

After a final cup of tea at the hotel we walked back through the park in front of Milan Centrale. This park is full of African refugees who stay there overnight as they have nowhere else to go. There are sizeable numbers there during the day as well. It was always an odd feeling walking through these living quarters which were quite busy on this Sunday evening.

It was good-bye Milan as we headed off for Bergamo airport. Our 10:15 flight arrived early in Barcelona as Ryanair flights do. By two o'clock in the morning we were home. What a long day.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Milano: while visiting Last Supper we discover Leonardo's vineyard

It was our last day in Milan. We were quite excited because we had managed to get tickets to see Leonardo's Last Supper. These tickets aren't easy to come by as we found out months ago on the morning tickets were released for sale on the Internet. When we looked there were only a few single tickets left. However, we managed to obtain them in Milan on the phone. Only a few people get in at a time so we arrived at Santa Maria dele Grazie in plenty of time. In fact we were almost an hour early.

We set off in search of a coffee bar and spotted something called Leonardo's Vineyard, which we thought was a wine tasting place. It did have a cafe but inside we could see that it was a really charming spot. This was the House of Atellani. The palace became quite famous as it was part of the circle of the Sforza court. We had just enough time to go for a tour.

After many changes of ownership over the centuries the building came into the hands of the Conti family, who in 1922 restored it. The architect did modify the appearance by knocking down some walls but he also rediscovered part of the original frescoes. The facade was completely redone and incorporated four medallions with carved portraits of the Sforzas. The original stone structure preserved fourteen lunettes frescoed with the busts of the family Sforza.

The inside stone courtyard was very well preserved and you could close your eyes and imagine the Sforzas coming to visit. Inside there were rooms with original panelling, beautiful old furniture and wallpaper. Although we didn't see upstairs the rooms we saw were lovely.

The back terrace overlooked the garden. At the back of the garden was an extensive vineyard. The year was 1499, when to the surprise of many the vineyard changed hands: Ludovico il Moro gave it to Leonardo who had just finished the Last Supper. Then came the fall of the Duke and the vineyard was confiscated. Eventually, Leonardo regained his vineyard. It measured 8,320 square meters.

It was destroyed during World War II and no trace remained. But with the help of DNA and Atellani heirs the type of grape was identified, Malvasia, and part of the vineyard was replanted in time for Expo Milano 2015. We were very lucky to have chanced on this little gem.

Now we crossed the road just in time for our visit to the Last Supper. The group for our time slot was called and we were gathered together to go through two dehumidification areas before being allowed into the old Dominican refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Leonardo created the Last Supper between 1495 and 1498 on request of Ludovico il Moro. He depicted the moment after Jesus tells his disciples that one of them will betray him. The work shows their surprise with realistic facial expressions, lively poses and subtle lighting. Although the picture has been touched up and restored many times it was lovely to see the colors and the expressions. Although the building was bombed during the war, the wall with the Last Supper, which was sandbagged remained standing.

I took a peek in the church but it was closed for a mass. The part I did see looked like a theatre in the round. Later, when we passed the entrance it was totally locked up. In the same complex we toured Leonardo's sketches from some of his notebooks. It was fascinating seeing the drawings and notes of various inventions including war machines and flying machines.

After all this touring it was time for lunch, which we enjoyed sitting outside at a small restaurant filled with Sunday lunchtime locals. I enjoyed pasta again. I have never eaten so much pasta and haven't eaten any since.