Saturday, December 16, 2017

Italy | Venice | We Crociferi

From Kastraki I took the train to Athens, where I once again stayed at my Favorite Hotel in the city. I could not resist climbing the Hill of the Muses again for another view of the Acropolis and the Parthenon.
The Acropolis, topped by the Parthenon (click on photos for enlargements)
The Parthenon. Unfortunately it always seems to be under repair.
The Acropolis at night, from the balcony of my hotel. The Parthenon is not visible from this angle.
Then took an early morning flight to Istanbul. Would have loved to stop for some mutton kebabs at the take-out place next to my Favorite Hotel in Istanbul, but of course I cannot enter Turkey because of the recent Visa Snafu. So I caught a connecting flight to Venice. The plane left Ataturk Airport in Istanbul at 5:36 p.m. It was dark at ground level when we took off, but we emerged from the low, heavy cloud cover just in time to see the sun sinking halfway below the horizon, now banded with fiery reddish-orange light that gradually faded into a dome of deep cobalt blue. For the next hour or so we chased the sun westward. Several times it reappeared above the horizon only to sink again. We finally lost the race with the sun and arrived at the predictably named Marco Polo Airport in total darkness at 5:50 local time, for a flight of two hours and fourteen minutes. There is no line at Immigration and my portmanteau is the second piece of luggage to emerge on the conveyor belt.

Marco Polo Airport has undergone major remodeling since I was here last. A fifteen minute walk on a new sky-bridge ends at the dock where water-buses now leave for the island of Murano and Venice itself.  From the water-bus it is impossible to make out anything in the dark and the fog. After about thirty minutes the lights of Murano Island water-bus stop appear out of the gloom. A half dozen people get off and we continue on another fifteen minutes to the  Fondamente Nuove stop on the north side of Venice itself. I am the only person getting off. Most passengers are continuing on to the hotels around St. Mark’s Square, on the south side of Venice, which offer more convenient access the city’s more famous sights. During the day numerous water buses to the airport, outlying islands, and other parts of Venice itself all converge here, and the walkway, lined with ticket vendors and attendant kiosks selling selling water, snacks, and souvenirs is usually bustling with transients. Now the Fondamente Nuove is eerily quiet. I look up and down the 800-yard long fog-shrouded walkway and do not see a single person; it appears as if the city is  deserted. 

I veer off Fondamente Nuove onto Salizzada dei Specchieri (street of the looking-glass makers), which is also suspiciously, forbiddingly empty. After a hundred yards or the eight massive  Corinthian columns that make the facade of the Church of the Gesuiti (Jesuits) rear up out of the gloom on my left. Above the entablature carried by the columns statues of the twelve apostles and assorted angels appear out of the fog. I get the discombobulating feeling that they are gazing down in judgment at the lone wanderer on the street below. Not that I am the first to be put off by these statues. W. D. Howells (1837–1920), erstwhile editor of the “Atlantic Monthly” and author of Venetian Life (1866), observed that “the sight of those theatrical angels, with their shameless, unfinished backs, flying off the top of the rococo façade of the church of the Jesuits, has always been a spectacle to fill me with despondency and foreboding.” A later observer, James Lees-Milne, in his Venetian Evenings, noted: “To my mind these statues look more like lost souls about to throw themselves in despair to the bottomless pit, only prevented from doing so by the rusted iron bands which tie their loose limbs together and keep them in.” By now a surprisingly chilly and uncomfortably damp wind is gusting through the street, adding to my discomfiture. The tee-shirt and Mongolian cashmere sweater I had donned that morning in Athens are clearly inadequate.

The Salizzada dei Specchieri opens out into the Campo dei Gesuiti, a long narrow square likewise empty. On the left side of the square, abutting the Church of the Gesuiti, stands an immense white-walled five story building that was once a Jesuit monastery. It has been transformed into both living quarters for students and a hotel for the public. Veering off the square and through a portal I emerge into a huge courtyard lined by a colonnaded passageway. In the courtyard and passageway are huddled groups of people, presumably students, the first humans I have seen since arriving at the Fondamente Nuove. Lady Gaga booms from the sound system of a cafe off to the side, accompanied by a buzz of conversation and laughter. I am back among the living. 

The receptionist assigns me to a room on the fifth floor. You have to use your key card to use the elevator. After passing through three unmarked doors and wandering down several long corridors I finally locate my room in an isolated cul-de-sac. I cannot help but wonder if I have been purposely exiled to this out of way corner of the huge building, away from the younger and more livelier residents. If so, this suites me fine. The last thing I need is some noisy college students next door. According its website the We Crociferi has shared dormitory-style rooms, private rooms with bath, studio rooms, and small apartments complete with kitchens. It is not clear how many of these units it hosts, but the entire facility has 255 beds, all of them singles. The website is quick to point out that these single beds cannot be joined together. Perhaps this is a residual holdover from its days as a Jesuit monastery, and now an attempt to maintain some degree of propriety among the college students who stay here. Some on-line reviews, apparently from adult couples, grouse about the lack of any double beds in the rooms. Why these people find such a problem with a single bed is beyond me. If they want to couple they can do so on a single bed. I have done it more times than I can count. Then they can retire to separate single beds. Or they can just remain in the single bed, which may result in even greater intimacy, since you simply cannot roll over to your own side of the bed after coupling is completed. In any case, my room has three single beds, only one of which I will be using. As far as I know I will not be doing any coupling in Venice.

Room decor is minimalist; gray concrete floors with no carpets or rugs, and whitewashed brick walls. In keeping with its function as student quarters a built-in formica topped desk extends the entire length of the front wall. Study lamps on flex-arms light the desk area, there are no less than eight—eight!—electrical outlets, and the overhead lights are more than adequate. Actually this functional work space, often so sadly lacking in even much more expensive hotels, is the real reason I am staying at the We Crociferi.  As a bonus my room, although isolated, looks directly down on the Campo dei Gesuiti  and has a great view out over the roof tops of Venice, with the dome-topped 182-foot campanile, or bell tower, of the church of Madonna dell’Orto soaring up off in the distance.
The We Crociferi on the right, in daylight
One of three courtyard at the We Crociferi
Courtyard at the We Crociferi
Courtyard at the We Crociferi
Courtyard at the We Crociferi
Arcade at the We Cruciferi
The Church of the Gesuiti, to the left of the We Crociferi. The angels on the facade are less dread-inspiring in the daylight
182-foot campanile, or bell tower, of the church of Madonna dell’Orto visible over the rooftops of Venice

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Greece | Thessaly | Meteora | Kastraki

I am staying in the village of Kastraki, which is almost but not quite coterminous with the much larger town of Kalambaka. My hotel is .9 of a mile from the Kalambaka train station. I had intended to walk but just as I started off a downpour ensued. I had already gotten drenched walking to the train station in Thessaloniki but had pretty much dried my clothes with my body heat on the train. I did not want to get soaked again so I took a cab. My hotel, a small guesthouse, actually, is like many such places around here run by a couple who live on the premises. The on-line reviews said they “treat you like family,” which I definitely do not consider a recommendation. I prefer anonymous places with receptionists like those in “American Horror Story: Hotel.” It was one of the cheapest places in the village, however, so I thought I would take my chances with the dreaded “family treatment.” It turned out my fears were ungrounded. After checking in I came and went like a ghost and never saw the owners again for four days. 

The spires and peaks of Meteora loom over Kastraki. I am staying here because the village offers better access on foot to most of the Meteora monasteries than does Kalambaka. It is also much more quiet and laid back than bustling Kalambaka, which caters in large part to big tour groups. Indeed, zoning laws forbid buildings of more than two stories in Kastraki and any new buildings must be made from traditional local materials. This is an apparent attempt to keep out large hotels and maintain Kastraki’s ambience as a traditional Greek village.

On-lines guides rave about the cuisine in Kastraki and there does seem to be an inordinate amount of restaurants for a small village, but the tourist season has peaked and most now appear closed for the winter, even though it is only the last week of November. The one place I do find open at mid-afternoon serves only the most generic Greek grub at ridiculously inflated prices (the house wine, produced locally. is not bad at all, quality-wise, but at €5 a half-liter also overpriced). Fortunately the village boasts of a fine little bakery with excellent spinach and cheese pies and chocolate croissants. These sluiced down with a bottle of local red wine (€4.00 for three-fourths of a liter) make a sufficient repast, even after a long day’s hiking on the roads and trails out of town.
Kastraki from Great Meteora Monastery (click on photos for enlargements)
Another view of Kastraki
Another view of Kastraki
Another view of Kastraki
Another view of Kastraki
Another view of Kastraki
Small church in Kastraki
Massif behind Kastraki. The cliff face is dotted with caves and fissures that were once inhabited by solitary meditators, anchorites, recluses, and misanthropes.
Another view of the massif
Another view of the massif
Another view of the massif. If you look closely you can just make out the ruins of a hermitage in the exact center of the photo.

Church in Kastraki
Upper Kastraki
Valley above Kastraki

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Greece | Kavala | Muhammad Ali | Imaret

Muhammad Ali (1769–1849), whose Childhood Home, now a museum, I had visited earlier, was born in Kavala. He went on to became the Khedive of Egypt and the founder of a ruling dynasty that lasted to 1952. In 1817 he established in Kavala an Islamic college for the training of imams. Although called the Imaret, it was known locally as the Tembel Hane, or “lazy man’s home”, since those who attended the school were guaranteed free pilaf daily and were exempted from military service. According to local sources the Imaret also operated a soup kitchen which fed up to 1000 indigent people a day. The buildings of the Imaret have now been remodeling into the five-star Imaret Hotel. It is a little out of my price range: the cheapest rooms are $350 a night; suites are well over a thousand a night. Even so, the place is often sold out. Make your reservations well in advance. Guided tours are offered to those to just want to look around without actually staying in the hotel. 
Courtyard of the Imaret Hotel (click on photos for enlargements)

Courtyard of the Imaret Hotel
Courtyard of the Imaret Hotel
Cheapest room of the hotel ($350 a night) are located on this arcad

Another courtyard of the hotel
The second story of this building is a suite that goes for $1450 a night..
Washing facilites at the Imaret’s small mosque (no longer active). 
Swimming pool of the Imaret Hotel 
Looking out over the roofs of the Imaret Hotel

Monday, November 20, 2017

Greece | Kavala | Muhammad Ali

While in Kavala I wandered by the home of Muhammad Ali (1769–1849), who is often called the founder of modern Egypt. Muhammad Ali was born in Kavala and lived here until he was thirty. The house he lived in is now a museum. His family, who were ethnically Albanian, was involved in the tobacco business (one of the mainstays of the Kavala economy at the time) and his father was the commander of the local Ottoman troops. He himself entered the army and very quickly rose through the ranks, becoming Second Commander in the Kavala Volunteer Contingent of Albanian mercenaries that was sent to re-occupy Egypt following Napoleon Bonaparte's withdrawal in 1801. He quickly became the de facto head of Ottoman forces in Egypt and in 1805 the local ulema demanded that he be made the Wali or Viceroy of Egypt. It soon became apparent the Muhammad Ali intended to seize control of Egypt for himself, but Ottoman Sultan Selim III was unable to depose him. Finally in 1841, after he had attempted to seize Syria and parts of Asia Minor from the Ottomans, he was recognized as the Khedive of Egypt and his family made the hereditary rulers of the country. The last member of his dynasty, the notorious King Farouk, was deposed in 1952 by Gamal Abdel Nasser and other army officers.
Statue of Muhammad Ali in Kavala (click on photos for enlargements)
Statue of Muhammad Ali in Kavala 
House where Muhammad Ali lived in Kavala, now a museum 
Austere interior of Muhammad Ali’s house. I wish I had this room in my hovel in Zaisan Tolgoi.
Austere interior of Muhammad Ali’s house
While in Egypt a few years ago I wandered by the Mosque of Muhammad Ali, also known as the Alabaster Mosque. The mosque was commissioned by Muhammad Ali and built between 1830 and 1848. Located on the top of the Citadel, it is visible from most parts of Cairo and is now one of the city’s most conspicuous landmarks.
Mosque of Muhammad Ali
Mosque of Muhammad Ali
Courtyard of the Mosque of Muhammad Ali
Interior of the Mosque of Muhammad Ali 
Portrait of Muhammad Ali by Auguste Couder

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Greece | Thessaloniki | Galerius | Rotunda

After three months of semi-occultation in Zaisan Tolgoi, Mongolia, I flew from Ulaanbaatar to Istanbul. The plane left sixteen hours late because of a huge snow storm that hit Ulaanbaatar the night before. I was almost in a wreck on the way to the airport. The roads were horrific; cars were flying around like hockey pucks. Finally at one o’clock in the morning the plane took off. The flight to Istanbul took eleven grueling hours. Oddly enough for this flight, we encountered no turbulence,  not even over the Tian Shan. Because of the Recent Visa Flap I did not go through Immigration in Istanbul, but continued directly on to Athens. As soon as the plane began its descent into the city we hit severe turbulence. For the first time in years I was overcome by motion sickness on an airplane. I would have hurled that there been anything in my stomach to hurl, but there wasn’t. Luckily I had skipped the in-flight breakfast. That would have been really gross.

 I spent the night in Athens at my Favorite Hotel, located literally in the shadow of the Acropolis. The next morning I took the train north to Thessaloniki, where I intend to resume the Role of Flâneur that I was enjoying last summer. I am staying at the same hotel, in fact the exact same room I stayed in on three previous stays in Thessaloniki. The room is on the top floor, at the very end of the hall. It has to be the most remote room in the hotel. I figure the receptionist correctly pegged me as an incorrigible misanthrope who just wanted to be left alone. It is indeed quiet, and having checked in, I move in and out of the hotel like a ghost. The receptionist does not even see me coming or going, or pretends not to. 

From the hotel it is about a twenty minute walk east on Egnatia, the main drag through the city, to the huge monument now generally referred to as the Rotunda. I am particularly eager to see the Rotunda since it was built by the Roman ruler Galerius (c. 260 – c. 311). Galerius first came to my attention when I was in Venice and saw the statue of the Four Tetrarchs embedded in the southeast corner of St. Mark’s Basilica. It was then that I decided I had to further investigate his career in Thessaloniki. 
The Four Tetrarchs, embedded in the wall of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. It is not clear which one is Galerius (click on photos for  enlargements).
The Four Tetrarchs were the four emperors who ruled the Roman Empire from 293 to 313. The emperor Diocletian, sensing that he could not govern the vast Roman Empire by himself, had in 286 appointed his general Maximian as co-emperor, with himself in charge of the eastern part of the empire, and Maximian in charge of the west. Both assumed the title of Augustus. In 293 he delegated even more power by naming two Caesars or junior emperors, each of whom reported to an Augustus. The two Caesars were Galerius and Constantius Chlorus. The four made up a Tetrarchy, or rule by four. The statues of the Tetrarchs has originally stood in the Philadelphion, a square in Constantinople (Istanbul). During the sack of Constantinople in 1204 by the Venetians and Frankish crusaders the statues were seized as war booty and taken to Venice, where they can still be seen today.
The Domains of the Four Tetrarch
Galerius erected several monumental structures in Thessaloniki, including a palace, the ruins of which can still be seen, a huge ceremonial arch, sections of which still exist, and the Rotunda. Construction of the Rotunda began in 306. The round structure is eighty feet in diameter and ninety feet high, with walls almost twenty feet thick. Although damaged by the many earthquakes that have plagued Thessaloniki over the centuries it has never been destroyed. Historians are not quite sure why Galerius built the Rotunda. He certainly did not intend it to be a Christian church, since at the time the Rotunda was built he was violently anti-Christian. He may have intended the building to be used as his mausoleum, but he ended up being interred in Gamzigard, in what is now Serbia. Or he may have intended the structure to be temple to one of the Roman gods; if so, he never said which one. 

After Galerius’s death the building stood empty until 326, when Constantine, founder of Constantinople and defender of Christianity, ordered that it be turned into a church. Some Greek historians have claimed that is the oldest surviving church in the world. This seems unlikely. There are probably older Christian churches in Asia and Africa (the dating of old churches is a contentious issue). It may be the second oldest church in Europe, after the Cathedral of Saint Domnius in Croatia. It is certainly the oldest church in Thessaloniki. In the late fourth century a bema, or sanctuary, was added on the the east side of the building and a propylon and chapels were constructed on the north side. The interior of the dome was decorated with the mosaics for which the Byzantines are famous..

The building continued to be used as a church until Thessaloniki became part of the Ottoman Empire. In 1590 it was converted into a mosque and renamed Mosque of Suleyman Hortaji Effendi. A minaret was added at this time. After the Ottomans were ejected from Thessaloniki in 1912 the structure was reconsecrated as a church. It now serves as a museum, although the East Sanctuary is occasionally used for religious services.

According to an informant in the USA, drone footage of the Rotunda recently appeared, very briefly, in the TV show “The Black List”, starring James Spader. I have not seen the show myself. 
The Rotunda
The Rotunda
The Rotunda and eastern Sanctuary
The Rotunda and eastern Sanctuary
The Rotunda and eastern Sanctuary

Another view of The Rotunda
Interior of the Rotunda
Eastern Sanctuary in the Rotunda
Remnants of  Byzantine mosaics on the dome of the Rotunda