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Just Me Travel

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Category: Europe

EXPLORING BEAUTIFUL MELK ABBEY IS GUARANTEED TO BE SPECIAL

There are not enough adjectives to describe Melk Abbey. My first sighting of Melk Abbey, a Benedictine monastery, took my breath away and it took a while before I could…

There are not enough adjectives to describe Melk Abbey. My first sighting of Melk Abbey, a Benedictine monastery, took my breath away and it took a while before I could pick my jaw up off the ground. This beautiful, beautiful monastery (duplication not a typo) in Lower Austria should be on everyone’s European itinerary.

Melk Abbey is a masterpiece of Baroque architecture. It is Austria’s largest Baroque structure. Perched high on a cliff overlooking the old town of Melk and the Danube and Melk rivers, it sits within the Wachau Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The abbey you see today was built between 1702 and 1736. But Melk Abbey is 900 years of history – all evidently told in the abbey’s museum. Originally a palace, Melk Abbey was gifted to the Benedictine monks in 1089 and has remained an active abbey ever since. Today, Melk Abbey has 30 monks (ranging in age from 21 to 96 years); a co-educational secondary school with 900 pupils; and extremely well presented, minimalist museum; and a church that I can only describe as ostentatious.

From every angle, Melk Abbey is impressive. I lost count of the number of times I said, “Oh my goodness”. Swathed in ochre-coloured paint, Melk Abbey is just the most beautiful building to behold. You might have gathered by now that I fell in love with Melk Abbey. And the guided tour cemented my love.

The guided tour through Melk Abbey commenced with a meet and greet in the large outer courtyard, the Gatekeeper’s Courtyard. In this courtyard, you will find the oak wooden statue of Saint Coloman. The statue is 150 years old and the oak was sourced from the abbey’s forests. Saint Coloman was Austria’s first patron saint until 1663. He is still the patron saint of Melk Abbey and the town of Melk.

From the Gatekeeper’s Courtyard, it was through the Benedict Hall and into the Prelate’s Courtyard. In this latter courtyard were four vivid, contemporary frescos; replacing the Baroque frescos that were unable to be restored. These frescos represent the four cardinal virtues – Prudence, Temperance, Justice and Fortitude. The modernist style of the frescos caused some controversy as people tried to adjust to the move away from the original, and expected, Baroque style.

The fountain in the Prelate’s Courtyard is a copy of the Coloman fountain. The original, removed from Melk Abbey in 1722, now stands in Melk’s Town Hall Square.

Leaving the Prelate’s Courtyard through a narrow passageway, the Imperial Staircase leads up to the Imperial Wing.

The Imperial Wing was originally designed for the imperial court. Here, we find the Imperial Corridor and the imperial rooms (now housing Melk Abbey’s museum). A lot of ‘imperials’ happening here!

The Imperial Corridor, at 200 metres long, is impressive. The Corridor is hung with portraits of Austria’s rulers – from the first Babenberg Emperor, Leopold l, to the last Habsburg Emperor, Karl l. There are more portraits of Habsburgs because they ruled for longer.

The Melk Abbey museum, in the imperial rooms to the left of the Imperial Staircase, is extremely well set up and informative. It is minimalist in a positive way. That is, you get a good overview of the history (past and present) of the abbey, of its cultural, political and economic functions, but you are not left feeling overwhelmed; feeling as though there was too much to take in and, therefore, coming away none the wiser. No information overload here.

The museum comprises of 11 small rooms. The overriding theme of the museum is, “The Path from Yesterday to Today: Melk Abbey in its Past and Present”, with each room having its own individual theme. What follows are snippets of, in my opinion, interesting information taken from the guide’s explanations throughout the museum tour and my impressions.

Room 3 (“The Ups and Downs of History”) has a wavy floor, representing the ups and downs of life. The flooring is not the original Baroque because Napoleon was an unfortunate guest who burned documents on the floor.

Rooms 5 and 6 are a tribute to Melk Abbey’s contribution to the Baroque period. The Baroque period was a time in history of excess and all that glitters (gold, and more gold). “Heaven on Earth” seems to me an appropriate theme for this period. However, Room 7, with its, “In the Name of Reason” theme, represents new times and a sensible, frugal monarch. Joseph ll said the Baroque style was too expensive. But perhaps he was a little too frugal. Taking the Baroque style to the opposite extreme, he only allowed one coffin per church. The coffin designed to meet this requirement had a bottom that would open, allowing the corpse to drop through. Thus, the coffin could be used again.

Room 10 (“To Glorify God in Everything”) contains a 17th century iron chest used for secure storage and transporting the abbey’s most important documents and treasures. The chest has a convoluted locking mechanism, comprising of 14 locks that are still working.

The detailed model of Melk Abbey housed in Room 11 (“Motion is a sign of Life”) turns so you can see all sides unobstructed. There is a mirror on the ceiling to enable a view into the courtyards of the model.

The Marble Hall was a place to receive guests and dining hall for the imperial family. The name ‘Marble’ Hall is somewhat misleading as only the door frames are true marble. The ‘marble’ on the walls is faux marble. However, this is easily forgiven by the magnificent ceiling fresco that is complemented and framed by stunning architectural painting.

Magnificent views of the town of Melk, and the Danube and Melk rivers are to be had from the Terrace that connects the Marble Hall with the library. The Terrace also provides a great view of Melk Abbey church.

The library is the second most important room in any Benedictine monastery; second only to the church.

My favourite library to date has been Coimbra University library in Portugal. However, the competition between that library and Melk Abbey’s library would be a close contest. Both are stunningly beautiful. There is something uniquely special about the mix of dark wood and old books.

Melk Abbey library houses approximately 10,000 volumes, with manuscripts dating back to the 9th century. The uniformity of the books in the inlaid bookshelves is due to them all being bound to match. With internal balconies, wooden sculptures, a huge free-standing world globe, figurines and frescoed ceilings, the library is an entrancing vision. It also exudes peace and tranquillity; a place where I could easily spend hours just sitting and soaking in the atmosphere. I know I am waxing lyrical here, but I can’t help it. Melk Abbey library does that to me. No wonder Umberto Eco conducted his research on his book, The Name of the Rose in Melk Abbey’s library. But more on that later.

The upper floor of the library, reached by a spiral staircase, is not open to the public.

The guided tour ended in the library. I lingered to absorb the library’s ambiance before heading to the church on the recommendation of the guide.

My visit to Melk Abbey’s church, not part of the guided tour, was very brief as I am over what I can only describe as ostentatious, Baroque churches. Of note, however, is the Altar of St. Coloman. Here you will find a sarcophagus with, we are told, the remains of St. Coloman, the patron saint of Melk Abbey.

Photography was not permitted inside Melk Abbey’s museum, the Marble Hall, the library, or the church.

You don’t have to take the one-hour guided tour of Melk Abbey (except in the winter months). However, it is my opinion this would be false economy as the explanations provided by the guide throughout the tour were invaluable. The guide’s story telling brought Melk Abbey alive; revealing all its traits.

 

Melk Abbey’s literary connection is not just confined to the books in its historical library.

The Name of the Rose, written by Umberto Eco (1980), is a historical murder mystery (a medieval whodunit) set in an Italian Cistercian monastery in 1327.

But what does a story about murders in a Cistercian monastery in Italy have to do with a Benedictine monastery in Austria? The connection is Melk Abbey’s magnificent library. You see, the focal point in The Name of the Rose is the library where all the murders take place. Melk Abbey’s library is said to be Eco’s inspiration for the library in The Name of the Rose.

But the connection goes further than that. One of Eco’s main characters in The Name of the Rose is Adso of Melk, a Benedictine novice from Melk Abbey. The Name of the Rose is Adso of Melk’s story as he is the narrator. As way of introduction, Adso of Melk informs us he is writing his narrative, now an old man, at Melk Abbey. On the last page of The Name of the Rose, Adso of Melk tells the reader he is leaving his manuscript in the library of Melk Abbey.

 

In summary, make the effort to visit Melk Abbey. You won’t be disappointed. I guarantee it is something special.

 

Disclaimer: This post contains no affiliate links. All views and opinions are my own and non-sponsored. All photos are my own and remain a copyright of Joanna Rath.

 

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JOIN A PHOTO SAFARI – a unique way to see amazing Amsterdam

What better way to capture a city than through a photography tour or workshop with a local? That’s just what I did when I signed up for two photography tours…

What better way to capture a city than through a photography tour or workshop with a local? That’s just what I did when I signed up for two photography tours in Amsterdam with Amsterdam Photo Safari – the 6-hour walking night photography tour (5.30pm to 11.30pm) and the 5-hour walking day photography tour (11.00am to 4.00pm).

Ruud was my guide and tutor on both photography tours. Amsterdam is his home. I had Ruud to myself for both tours. This was simply luck of the draw as I had not booked private tours. As we walked around Amsterdam’s districts, he exposed this amazing city’s personality; opening up its beating heart and its multi-facetted soul. Ruud took me to places I would never have got to as a traveller. His knowledgeable stories brought Amsterdam to life for me. According to Ruud, “Every photo has a story and to every story there is a photo”. Not only did I feel I improved my photography skills from the guided tuition of a professional photographer who was an excellent teacher, but I discovered Amsterdam from a born storyteller. I found my time with Rudd increased my consciousness of my surroundings. Particularly in terms of what to photograph; what will make an interesting photo; and what will make a photo pop. Thank you Ruud.

Amsterdam house with reflections in windows

Buildings reflected in every window of a house in Amsterdam

Amsterdam Photo Safari cater for all skill levels. I describe myself as an amateur photographer with (now) intermediate skills. I firmly believe that no one is ever too skilled to learn new things. Ruud gave me the confidence to use manual focus (I have a DSLR camera); showing how it better captures a subject that is, for example, reflected in a window or puddle of water. He provided positive and constructive feedback. At no time was I made to feel inadequate.

Ruud’s focus was on me, my learning, my camera, my photography. I believe this was not simply because I was the only participant. Even had there been other participants, the focus still would have been ‘individual’. This was important for me as I was extremely annoyed (to say the least) on one photography holiday a number of years ago where the photography tutor was more interested in the photographs he could capture for himself than those of his paying guests.

Ruud was very keen on shallow depth of field; recommending I set the camera’s f-stop to f/3.5 (the lowest my camera will go). For those non-photographers, shallow depth of field is the immediate foreground in focus, for example a box of flowers or a bicycle (plenty of those in Amsterdam), and the background out of focus (blurred). My passion is travel photography and I doubted such shallow depth of field would suit my purposes. Ruud’s argument was that even though the background is blurred, it is still recognisable and produces a more creative photo. See the photos below for a visual explanation of what I am referring to. While I went along with Rudd, I thought I would never use such a shallow depth of field with my travel photography. I am also someone who wants everything in the photo in focus. So, to find myself using f/3.5 on my further travels through Europe, I surprised myself and silently thanked Ruud. I now have some pretty good, creative photos to add to my memories of the places I have been.

The sign of a good photography tutor is one who can work their way around any camera brand, no matter how unfamiliar they might be with different brands. Ruud’s camera of choice is a Sony, while mine is a Nikon. Rudd admitted he was not overly familiar with Nikons. However, I would not have picked up on this without him telling me. The only hint came during the night photography tour. I had my tripod (these can be hired from Amsterdam Photo Safari at a minimal cost) but had left my remote shutter release back in my hotel room (clever!). I couldn’t remember how to set the in-camera timer. Ruud wasn’t fazed by this. After a quick, unfruitful play with my camera’s dials, out came his mobile phone and an internet search quickly told us where the timer was. No shooting time or opportunities lost.

Given that I live in Australia, all my communications with Amsterdam Photo Safari was via email. Booking with Amsterdam Photo Safari was made so easy thanks to the prompt and detailed responses to my email queries. Payment was made through PayPal (no account required). I even managed to negotiate a discount with Amsterdam Photo Safari for booking two photography tours with them. Once booked, communication from Amsterdam Photo Safari did not cease as they kept me informed with who would be my photography tutor, the meeting place, time etc. Thanks Barry.

Barry went above and beyond, suggesting (unrelated to Amsterdam Photo Safari) places near Amsterdam worth visiting; one of which I added to my itinerary. I was not disappointed.

Comfortable walking shoes are essential. Even though we stopped for coffee breaks, to have the stamina to keep going was crucial. I have to admit, by 3.30pm on the day photography tour I was ready to sit down and not get up again.

I thoroughly enjoyed the night and day photography tours with Amsterdam Photo Safari. I got to discover Amsterdam from a local and learnt so much. My knowledge and understanding of composition and perspective and how to look for and achieve these, were significantly enhanced. But for me, I learnt the most on the night photography tour. Learning how to set up and use long exposure (an area of photography I was not familiar with – as evidenced by my inability to find the timer on my camera) has opened up a whole new genre of photography for me. The canal boats made an excellent subject for long exposure; with their lights making colourful trails across the photo.

Streaks of lights from a canal boat passing houses on a canal in Amsterdam

A canal boat passing in front of houses on a canal in Amsterdam becomes a transparent, colourful trail of lights through long exposure

 

I highly recommend Amsterdam Photo Safari.

Note:  Flexibility around Amsterdam Photo Safari’s tour hours was not a hassle. I needed to end the night photography tour earlier than designated as I had to ensure I did not miss the last tram back to my hotel. Additional time was simply added to my day photography tour the next day (hence my flagging energy?). Had I not been taking another photography tour the next day, I am convinced Amsterdam Photo Safari would have suggested something appropriate and mutually acceptable in the way of compensation.

 

Disclaimer: This post contains no affiliate links. All views and opinions are my own and non-sponsored. All photos are my own and remain a copyright of Joanna Rath.

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HOW BEST TO SPEND YOUR FREE TIME IN ROTHENBURG

So, how do you best spend your free time in Rothenburg? The short answer to this question is, WALK. Being relatively flat, Rothenburg’s Old Town is easy to walk around,…

So, how do you best spend your free time in Rothenburg? The short answer to this question is, WALK. Being relatively flat, Rothenburg’s Old Town is easy to walk around, despite the cobblestone streets. If you don’t stop to window shop, it should only take you about 15 minutes to walk from one end of town to the other.

But I am getting ahead of myself here.

Firstly, Rothenburg is the common abbreviation for this German town’s full name; that being, Rothenburg ob der Tauber. Translated, Rothenburg ob der Tauber means, “Red Fortress above the Tauber”. Red Fortress above the Tauber is an apt name. The town is situated on a plateau above the Tauber River. While ‘Red Fortress’ – translated from rot (red) and burg (burgh, fortified settlement) – is attributed by some to the red roofs of Rothenburg’s houses inside the fortification.

Red roofed houses enclosed by Rothenburg's fortifications

‘Red Fortress’ – the red roofs of the houses behind Rothenburg’s fortifications

 

Secondly, why visit Rothenburg ob der Tauber in the first place? With its medieval architecture, narrow cobblestone streets and intact fortification wall, Rothenburg ob der Tauber is considered one of the prettiest towns in Germany. It is a medieval town frozen in time and said to be the most perfectly preserved, medieval walled city in Europe. Rothenburg ob der Tauber is one of Germany’s last remaining walled medieval towns, reached via the ‘Romantic Road’ in the Franconia region of Bavaria in southern Germany. There are photo opportunities everywhere you look.

Rothenburg ob der Tauber is 1000 years of history in the making. It was one of the largest cities in the Holy Roman Empire; survived a siege in 1631 during the Thirty Years’ War between Protestant and Catholic states in the Holy Roman Empire (1618-1648); and stagnated in 1634 due to poverty and plague. It is this latter that preserved Rothenburg in its 17th century state. But this post is not intended to be a history lesson. However, it is worth pointing out that Rothenburg survived WWII substantially intact because its historical significance was recognised and acknowledged by the invading British army. What this post does focus on is a visualisation of Rothenburg ob der Tauber. Through my photographs, I hope to arouse your senses enough to step back in time and visit this beautiful town.

My time in Rothenburg ob der Tauber was on an optional day excursion from my river cruise when we were docked at Wurzburg, Germany. I chose this excursion because I couldn’t resist visiting a place where the Viking Cruise Documents used words like, ‘romantic’, ‘walled’, ‘medieval’, ‘preserved’, ‘inviting’, and ‘picturesque’ to describe it. I was not disappointed, and I immediately fell in love with this picture-perfect, medieval walled town. With its half-timbered houses, elaborate shop signages, and window boxes full of geraniums, every turn was a picture postcard moment.

It was a 1½ hour drive from where the ship was docked at Wurzburg to Rothenburg ob der Tauber. The drive took us along the ‘Romantic Road’. I can’t tell what was romantic about it because I slept most of the way. I believe it has something to do with being a picturesque countryside. I do know that each time I roused from my sleep it was to a view of a vineyard. Shame I slept so much!

Once in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, our guide gave us an orientation walking tour; taking us past St James Church, through Market Square with its 13th century Gothic/Renaissance Town Hall, past fountains, museums and amazing architecture, explaining the relationship between shops and their signage, and ending at St John’s Church (our meeting point for lunch).

With the orientation completed, we were left to spend our free time as we pleased. I wasn’t interested in the well-known Christmas shop. And I decided to take the guide’s advice and not try the local ‘delicacy’, a Schneeball, which he described as “horrible”. This is deep-fried dough shaped like a snowball and covered in either confectioner’s sugar or chocolate. In our guide’s own words, “you will choke on a Schneeball if you don’t take a drink of water with each and every bite to wash it down”.

I wanted to explore and photograph my own experience; to follow the direction of my feet. And I only had 1½ hours to do this in. After pointing my feet in the direction of what the guide said is the most instagrammed photo in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, I headed for the town’s fortifications.

Rothenburg's Plonlein (Little Square)

The Plonlein is the most instagrammed image in Rothenburg

I cannot fathom why this crooked, half-timbered house on Plonlein (Little Square) is the most instagrammed image in Rothenburg ob der Tauber; why it should be so photographed. I have read that it has featured in a number of movies and been the inspiration for others, but the town is full of much more interesting, charming architecture. If anyone can enlighten me, that would be appreciated. Or, better still, go check it out for yourself.

Taking the Kobolzeller Gate (built 1360) to the right as you face the half-timbered house in the ‘most instagrammed photo’, I climbed the few steps to the town’s medieval wall. Rothenburg ob der Tauber’s medieval wall, built in the 13th century, is 4 kilometres long and completely encircles the town’s historical centre. Walking along the wall, there are 6 gates and 42 towers to explore. With my limited time, I only managed 2 gates (up through one gate and down through the next) and a handful of towers. Despite all the tourists in town, I had the wall to myself – a very pleasant experience.

Coming off the wall, I proceeded to walk in a large circle that took me back to Market Square.

I was back in Market Square in time for when the clock on the 14th century Councillor’s Tavern performs its hourly ritual. Our guide had informed us that on the hour between 10.00am and 10.00pm two doors open on either side of the clock face. Out comes Rothenburg’s former Mayor, Nusch, and the Catholic General, Tilly, who challenged Nusch to drink a gallon tankard of wine in one go without stopping to save the town during the Thirty Years’ War. And save the town he did! It’s not the most interesting mechanical clock I have seen on my travels, but I did like the story behind it – the “Legend of the Master Draught”.

Rothenburg's Councillor's Tavern with mechanical clock in main Square

The “Legend of the Master Draught” mechanical clock on the Councillor’s Tavern

 

I have to go back to Rothenburg ob der Tauber:

  • to visit the gardens that replaced Rothenburg Castle which was destroyed in an earthquake in 1356;
  • to visit the Medieval Crime and Justice Museum;
  • to hike down into the valley;
  • to climb the Town Hall Tower to see the views for myself rather than just read about them;
  • to check out the interior of St James Church and its famous Holy Blood altarpiece;
  • to sit in a cafe in Market Square and people-watch;
  • and much more

I reckon this will take me 2 to 3 days (at least).

Rothenburg ob der Tauber, I will see you again.

 

Disclaimer: This post contains no affiliate links. All views and opinions are my own and non-sponsored. All photos are my own and remain a copyright of Joanna Rath.

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SHOES ON THE DANUBE – a holocaust memorial

  Dear Pip, It is from a cold, dark place that I write you this postcard. A place that reminds me of a horrific time in history – a time…

Caste iron shoes on the riverbank with Budapest in the background

Budapest’s holocaust memorial, Shoes on the Danube Promenade

 

Dear Pip,

It is from a cold, dark place that I write you this postcard. A place that reminds me of a horrific time in history – a time that should never be forgotten.

I refer to the holocaust memorial, “Shoes on the Danube Promenade” in Budapest, Hungary.

“Shoes on the Danube Promenade” was created in 2005. The memorial comprises of 60 pairs of life size, iron shoes stretching along a section of the Danube’s riverbank. Caste in the style of the 1940s, the shoes are in different sizes; representing the men, women and children this memorial is a tribute to.

“Shoes on the Danube Promenade” holocaust memorial is dedicated to the thousands of Jews (approximately 20,000) who were executed along the Danube riverbank during 1944-1945. They were shot by members of the Hungarian fascist and anti-Semitic organisation, the Arrow Cross Party. The victims were forced to remove their shoes, face their executioner, and were shot so that they tumbled into the river. The river would then carry their bodies away. This saved the Arrow Cross Party having the hard labour of digging graves. The victims were forced to remove their shoes because shoes were a valuable commodity and could be sold by the executioners.

‘60’ was not just a random number of shoes to include in the holocaust memorial. It reflects the 600,000 Hungarian Jews who died during World War 2, and the memorial was created 60 years after the war.

“Shoes on the Danube Promenade” is located on the banks of the Danube River on the Pest side of Budapest between two well-known landmarks, the Chain Bridge and the Parliament Building.

I deliberately set out to walk to this holocaust memorial after our tour guide pointed it out from the bus on the way back to our ship from our walking tour of Budapest’s Jewish Quarter. The memorial is unique; unlike anything I have ever seen. Even with all the tourists, I found the memorial poignant and haunting; a place for reflection and contemplation.

On my way back from the Parliament Building, I passed the “Shoes on the Danube Promenade” holocaust memorial again. Someone had put a white carnation in two of the shoes. I like to think it was the wedding couple who were being photographed nearby. That, on a day that was so memorable for them, they have taken the time to remember and honour those who so tragically had their memories taken from them. Perhaps they were remembering a family member.

I was profoundly moved by this holocaust memorial (more so than any other I have been to on this trip), and thankful for how fortunate I am.

Love,

Joanna

A carnation placed in a shoe

A carnation is placed in one of the memorial shoes as a sign of remembrance

Line of caste iron shoes on the Danube riverbank

Some of the holocaust memorial’s 60 pairs of shoes on the Danube Promenade

 

Disclaimer: This post contains no affiliate links. All views and opinions are my own and non-sponsored. All photos are my own and remain a copyright of Joanna Rath.

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THE SASSI DI MATERA – from national shame to cultural showcase

If you want to see a city reinventing itself, then now is the time to visit Materia – especially the revitalisation of the Sassi di Matera. Matera’s Sassi has a…

If you want to see a city reinventing itself, then now is the time to visit Materia – especially the revitalisation of the Sassi di Matera. Matera’s Sassi has a colourful history that has seen it go from the earliest inhabited city in Italy, to a place of national humiliation, to Italy’s pride. This history, all of which is still visible today, makes the Sassi di Matera a matchless tourist destination. Matera’s Sassi has been reborn and now is the time to witness that rebirth while Matera celebrates its recognition as a city of culture.

A brief history – from shame to gain

Italy’s southern city of Matera (along with Bulgaria’s, Plovdiv) is the 2019 European Capital of Culture. For this honour, Matera receives hundreds of millions of euros to develop infrastructure and present year-long cultural and art activities; activities designed to improve the quality of life in the city and to strengthen a sense of community. It is expected that being a European Capital of Culture will bring fresh life to the city and will enhance Matera’s cultural, social and economic development. It is an opportunity for Matera to showcase itself internationally and to boost tourism. An opportunity Matera needs in order to reclaim its dignity and credibility in the eyes of Italy and the world.

This is a chance for Matera to leave behind its reputation as the “Shame of Italy”. The object of this shame is the Sassi di Matera (literal translation from Italian, “Stones of Matera”). The Sassi are a prehistoric troglodyte settlement and people have lived in these cave dwellings since 7000 BC.

In his book, Christ Stopped at Eboli (published 1945), Carlo Levi put the Sassi di Matera on the world map when he highlighted the poor living conditions. He painted a picture of abject poverty. Malaria, cholera and typhoid were rampant in the Sassi. Families and their animals were living together under the same roof in dwellings with no natural light or ventilation, no electricity, water or sewers and there was a high infant mortality rate.

The Sassi became an embarrassment for the Italian Government. So much so that in 1950 the Prime Minister declared a state of emergency, and plans were put in place to move the Sassi’s inhabitants out. By 1952 the Sassi was empty; abandoned through forced removal.

After sitting dormant for a couple of decades, the Sassi started to go through a transformation; starting in the 1970s with artists and hippies rediscovering Matera’s Sassi. This urban renewal, and a younger generation expressing their desire to have the caves brought back to life, led the Italian Government to pass a law in 1986 to repopulate the Sassi; connecting water and electricity and subsidising restoration work in order to encourage the Sassi’s revival.

And the people did come – restoring caves as homes, hotels, restaurants and bars. But many are still uninhabitable.

The Sassi di Matera’s revival was further cemented in 1993 when listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site for being “the most outstanding, intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region”.

A new image of the Sassi is forming and the tourists are coming. The Sassi di Matera have been transformed and Matera is the 2019 European Capital of Culture.

My visit to the Sassi di Matera

The Sassi are carved into the limestone cliffs of a ravine gauged out by the Gravina River. My first sighting of the Sassi di Matera was from across the ravine. What I saw from this vantage point was a mass of caves clinging to the steep slope. On top of these caves is the new city of Matera – a unique juxtaposition.

My hotel room

My hotel room – a restored cave in Le Grotte della Civita

My second introduction to the Sassi was my hotel, Le Grotte della Civita. Sitting on the edge of the ravine in the most ancient Sassi area, Le Grotte della Civita consists of 18 rooms. All the rooms are individual caves that have been beautifully restored whilst retaining their original features. The furnishings are simple but tasteful, with much of the lighting provided by candles. Breakfast, served in a reclaimed cave that was a church, was typical of Southern Italy – breads, cakes, pastries, James, meats and cheeses. This was truly a memorable place to stay.

Church of Purgatory's facade

Carving on the facade of the Church of Purgatory

Church of Purgatory's door

Skulls decorate the Church of Purgatory doors

Matera has 180 churches; 40 of which are in the Sassi, including the Cathedral and the rock-cut Church of Santa Maria di Idris. My favourite was the Church of Purgatory. Completed in 1747, its recurring and only theme is that of death. The baroque façade of the church and its doors are covered with carvings of skulls, skeletons and crossbones. While a church focusing on death might seem a bit Grim Reaper-ish, it was actually fashionable at the time of construction, as death was not seen as the end but as the beginning of a new life.

Caves look like houses

The house-like facades are a deception as they ‘front’ caves

While the Sassi look like a mass of houses, the house-like facades are only that, as the ‘houses’ are dug well into the rock, thereby forming the caves Matera is famous for.

"Stacks on the mill"

Sassi caves on caves and roads on cave roofs

Houses in the Sassi are often built on top of other houses and many of the streets are built on the roofs of houses.

 

 

 

 

 

 

One would be forgiven for thinking the Sassi are a place of shadow and crampedness. But not so. The squares in the Sassi are sun-drenched open spaces flanked by cafes, shops, churches and restaurants. And great for people watching.

I took a walking tour with a local guide in the morning to get acquainted with the Sassi. This included learning the history of the Sassi di Matera, visiting a cave dwelling for a glimpse into past life and viewing one of the ancient Rupestrian Churches that date back to the Middle Ages. However, what I enjoyed most of all was just walking around on my own – exploring narrow ‘streets’, talking to the locals, checking out their cafes, and having all the time I wanted to take photos. You will need comfortable shoes to walk around the Sassi. And don’t forget, the Sassi are built on the side of a ravine. So, there are lots of steep steps.

Timeline:

2019: Matera is one of the European Capitals of Culture for 2019

2014: Tourism starts to take off. Most likely due to Matera being announced as one of the European Capitals of Culture for 2019. Matera has 4 years to prepare …

1993: The Sassi of Matera is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site

1986: Change in Italian law and people are encouraged to return to the Sassi

1952: Abandonment of the Sassi through the Italian Government’s forced removal of its inhabitants

Prehistory: (approximately 9,000 years ago) People first inhabited the Sassi

A bit of trivia for you: Mel Gibson’s controversial movie, “The Passion of the Christ”(2004) was filmed in the Sassi di Matera as too was Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “The Gospel According to St Matthew”. It would seem Matera’s Sassi makes for a great ancient Jerusalem.

  • Are you going to Galway (Ireland) or Rijeka (Croatia) in 2020? They are the European Capitals of Culture for 2020.

 

Want to take a self-guided walking tour around Venice?…

A Venetian Walkabout

5 Comments on THE SASSI DI MATERA – from national shame to cultural showcase

A VENETIAN WALKABOUT

It is possible not to get lost in Venice if you allow yourself to just wander, with the very occasional “Where am I?” moments. The secret being that Venice has…

It is possible not to get lost in Venice if you allow yourself to just wander, with the very occasional “Where am I?” moments. The secret being that Venice has got wise and everywhere you go there are strategically placed signs pointing the way to St Mark’s Square and/or to Rialto Bridge, both major landmarks.

Venice is flat. The best way to see it is to just walk. With my camera slung over my shoulder, my favourite walking shoes on, and my trusty guide book in hand, I let my feet and curiosity find the direction.

Over four days my feet lead me to some wonderful experiences as I amble through and explore four of Central Venice’s six districts.

Come walk with me.

Day 1: San Marco

Leaving my hotel

in San Marco district, I wander down alleys, cross some of Venice’s 400 unique bridges and watch the waters of the canals lap the doorsteps of antique buildings in various states of glorious decay. Over a coffee in Campo Santa Maria Formosa, I see canal barges loading the linen from hotels and learn from the waiter it is taken off the islands to the mainland for laundering so as not to pollute the canals. Taking in my surroundings from one bridge, I witness a gondola traffic jam and am thankful I am not playing tourist. Everywhere I turn I see evidence of Venice’s unstable foundations, with lopsided arches and leaning church bell towers. So much to photograph. I have fallen in love with Venice.

Venturing down a very narrow alley near Campo Manin, requiring me to manoeuver through crab-like, I come across an unusual building with the most elegant external multi-arch spiral staircase – the gothic Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo. The staircase, with its ascending rows of round-headed arches, is the only one of its kind found in Venice today. Closed to the public, I let my camera do the sightseeing.

Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo

Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo

Stumbling across Piazza San Marco for the third time within half an hour, I know it is time to experience a coffee at Café Florian, the oldest café in Venice. At a cost of €15 for my coffee, I know it is an experience not to be repeated.

As I wander around Basilica San Marco, marvelling at the brilliant mosaics, I wonder at the story of St Mark’s body being stolen by two merchants from Alexandria in Egypt and brought back to Venice, and of the miracle of his body reappearing after being destroyed by fire.

I experience a sense of excitement as I watch an ambulance race down the Grand Canal and disappear into a side canal. The excitement doesn’t come from the errand the ambulance is on but from the alien sight of an ambulance being a boat and not a van.

Day 2: San Polo

Wandering around Rialto Market and chatting to the stallholders, I learn much about the humble tomato; that there are 25 varieties of tomatoes in Italy and no self-discerning stallholder will sell you tomatoes until it is known what is being cooked. This is very important because the stallholder must advise on just the right type of tomato to use as they all have a different taste and must accompany the right dish. I have to admit my palate is definitely not up to Venetian standards.

Walking past San Giacomo di Rialto’s 15th century 24-hour clock and through Campo San Polo, I find the shop Tragicomica on Calle dei Nomboli, which my research at home before leaving for Italy told me it sold traditional Venetian masks. The shop is crowded – with masks – and I wonder how I am ever going to find that special mask with my name on it. After a lengthy chat with the artisan Mask Maker about the different types of masks and how they are made, I buy an authentic Venetian, papier mâché plague doctor mask, with its long beak-like nose.

Sitting in a café opposite Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, A huge Gothic church, I spend a pleasant hour just people watching.

Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari

Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari

Day 3: Cannaregio

Walking the length of Strada Nova, and more, I make my way to Campo di Ghetto Nuovo, the Jewish Ghetto. This small square is distinguished by very tall buildings unique in Venice. Confined to a very small area, as the Jewish population grew and needed housing, the only way was up. The Ghetto’s five synagogues, unrecognisable from the square, date back to the 16th century. Through the Jewish museum’s guided tour, the only way possible to see these hidden treasures, I discover three of the five synagogues on the top floors of buildings – the French, German and Levantine, each representing a different ‘school’.

Back in Campo di Ghetto Nuovo, I contemplate the Holocaust memorials depicting Nazi brutality to the Jews.

Before the long walk back to my hotel I have lunch at Gam Gam at the entrance to the Jewish ghetto; leisurely eating my way through kosher antipasto with falafel and delicious Italian bread.

With my feet crying ‘enough’, I take a traghetto (pedestrian transport) across the Grand Canal, alighting near Rialto Market. In a traghetto, it is traditional to stand as you are rowed across the Canal. Do I save any walking distance? Probably not but for about 6 minutes there I feel like a true local and know I have experienced something few tourists can share.

Holocaust memorials, San Polo, Venice

Holocaust memorials, San Polo, Venice

Day 4: Castello

Dominating Castello is the Arsenale, the old naval shipyard. Whilst largely disused today and closed to the public, the gateway remains guarded by large lion statues.

Heading back towards Piazza San Marco, as I cross Ponte Canonica, I see for the first time Venice’s most famous and only covered bridge, the Bridge of Sighs (Ponte dei Sospiri). This little Baroque bridge spans the canal, Rio di Palazzo, between the New Prison and Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace). From Ponte Canonica I have an uninterrupted view of the Bridge of Sighs for my camera to record the moment.

After a coffee and people watching on Riva degli Schiavoni, Venice’s most famous promenade, I take a tour that incorporates crossing the Bridge of Sighs. Walking across the Bridge, I sigh, just as the prisoners are supposed to have done when they crossed the Bridge from the interrogation rooms in the Doge’s Palace to the New Prison, knowing they would never walk back the other way. I learn Casanova is the most famous person to have crossed the Bridge of Sighs on his way to prison, from which he later escaped.

Bridge of Sighs, Venice

Bridge of Sighs, Venice

Venice beckons again. I need to finish my walk.

Where will your feet take you?

For more on Italy, read: “The Sassi di Matera – from national shame to cultural showcase”

18 Comments on A VENETIAN WALKABOUT

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