I visited Warsaw, in #Poland, for work in 2013, but made time to visit two of the city’s attractions on the weekend: The Warsaw Uprising Museum, and the Frederic Chopin museum.
If you want to learn more about Warsaw’s significant and historically important role in World War 2, the repercussions of which resonate with Warsaw residents even today, this is the only museum you need to visit in the city. Here, you can read about the story of the Warsaw Jewish ghetto (largest ghetto in Nazi-occupied Europe) created by the Nazis and see original landmines from the war in glass display cases. There’s also a fascinating video that was playing, of aerial film taken over the city just after the war ended. It showed how a city of 1.3million at the start of the war in 1939 was reduced to a few thousands condemned to living in the rubble of their bomb-ravaged city.
I then made it to Frederic Chopin’s museum where I saw things like a bronze cast of his left hand, his death mask, sketches of him made on his death bed. Granted, it was morbid, but someone actually made these. I think it was the custom for celebrities to have these things done in those days. I’m a big fan of his music, so it was interesting to stroll around the Museum house, reading interesting displays about his life and listening to audio recordings of his work.
Apart from work and visiting these two museums, I found the city unattractive. It has all the qualities of an urban centre in a coal-reliant country that lacks the proper investment in infrastructure and development. I thought it was brooding and formidable. Warsaw’s complex history of suppression and annexation, deceit and despair lingers over it like a dark cloud that it’s occupants seem unable to shake from their spirit. It seems the city and its people will need more time to rise out of their economic need and feel the air of prosperity around them. Not a place I’d visit again anytime soon even though its historical and cultural heritage was fascinating.
After Venice, Florence is one of the top five cities that I absolutely love, love, love. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is about the city that I love. The gentle light that spreads over the city bathing it in a soft yellow glow every morning and at the Golden Hour in the evenings? The first view of the stunning Duomo as you stroll round the street corner and see it for the first time? The sweet stickiness of a cornetto filled with jam that wedges itself into every molar in your mouth?
It helps that before setting off for a long weekend (3 nights) there with my brother, I went online to check out what we absolutely had to see and do. A friend of a friend happened to be renting out the decrepit one bedroom flat she’d inherited from her grandmother, located in the heart of Florence, complete with framed vintage pictures of horse-riders and their racing horses. The rent was just right and besides the double bed, we were told there was an extendable sofa-bed. Their neighbour, who didn’t speak a word of English, gave us the key and pointed to the bed in the bedroom, the coffee in the kitchen and the switch for what I presumed was the hot water in the oddly shaped bathroom, and then left. The bathroom was narrow and had the odd shape of a coffin – wide at one end and tapering into a narrow end at the other. It was papered with dull 70s design wall paper from floor to ceiling. The bathtub was clean enough and as long as there was hot water coming out of the small hand-held shower head attached to the tap, I didn’t care. We were in Florence. I didn’t plan on staying in much.
We woke up early our first morning and wandered out in search of a café for breakfast. A rather dark, poky, empty one hidden in the recesses of an alleyway caught our attention. Caffeine and one ham croissant later, we walked down a street that turned straight into the imposing, stunning façade of the Duomo, the most popular sight to see in the city that’s world famous for its architecture and art.
The 13th century Gothic style church with Brunelleschi’s 15th century dome has become the most iconic structure in Florence immediately associated with this great, vast city nestled in the Tuscan countryside. I have to admit, that a first sight of the church façade integrating white, pink and green marble together, is pretty jaw-dropping. The interior is imposing and beautiful, though stark by comparison. Vasari’s famous frescoes of The Last Judgement are a 16th century addition that definitely liven up the interior.
The Il Duomo di Firenze complex consists of the Baptistry and Giotto’s campanile (bell tower), along with the church. If we’d had more time in the city, we might have joined the long lines to get to the top of the campanile. But we didn’t, so we didn’t. As it is, we had to stand for about twenty minutes in line, early in the morning, to get into the church! I can only imagine how long the lines got later on as more tourists strolled in from their late breakfasts.
Don’t miss seeing the East doors of the Baptistry. The panels are in gold and represent the Gates of Paradise. This is one of my favourite things to see in the city. The scenes come alive in exquisite detail, with faces coming out of the panels in vivid scenes embossed on stretches of gold. You won’t be the only one queuing up for a selfie with the door.
My brother had downloaded a DK Eyewitness app on his phone, that indicated all the eateries in whichever area we were walking in, as well as their reviews and starred-rating. That’s how we came across the arched doorway of ‘Il Latini’ one evening for dinner. Sure, it was supposed to be a popular tourist haunt, but one that everyone assured we would love. It had lots of rooms inside and we were led to an available two-person table.
We ordered a la carte and in all, must have been there for 3 hours eating primi piatti, secondi piatti, dessert and the staff gave everyone a dessert wine and a plate of biscotti for free. We had no idea about the portion size when we ordered and asked for whatever was most popular. We ended up labouring through getting hunk after hunk of meat brought to us on a platter. True, it was succulent and tasty, but our bodies would take months to digest all of it! Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a little bit. But, vegetarians, be advised. This is NOT the place for you. This isn’t the place for a quick meal either. We thought we’d be done in an hour and a half tops. Nope! If you visit here, be prepared to slow yourself down to Tuscan time. It’s got a great communal atmosphere. You’ll find yourself chatting with others under the dried hams hanging from the ceiling, and laughing at the waiters who seem determined to make you eat as much as you can manage. Chalk it down to them wanting you to have the true experience of eating at a Tuscan family table, and you’ll be guaranteed to enjoy yourself at ‘Il Latini.’
The next morning, we decided to head to the world class, world famous Uffizi museum. It’s where Western classical artists go to have a religious experience. To get tickets at the Uffizi, without waiting in line for close to an hour, pre-book them online and join the much shorter queue which should take you inside within ten minutes. Yes, there is a LOT to see and I was struck by the rather modern 15th century renderings of some of the lesser known Italian artists using vivid colours in the style of Titian but combining them with modernist designs – favouring fine geometric design though picking romantic style subjects and scenes.
I didn’t know that Botticelli’s iconic ‘The Birth of Venus’ was in the Uffizi and was thrilled to see it centered in one of the museum’s vast rooms. This museum, of course, is THE place for fans of all the great Italian renaissance artists from Bellini and Piero della Francesco to Titian and Mantegna. I quite enjoyed Caravaggio’s Medusa which isn’t easy to spot, as it’s placed in a small room on your way out. After a couple of hours (hardcore fans will need a full day at least) of walking through corridor after corridor of greats (including Leonardo da Vinci, by the way) we got out, had a quick lunch and then kept on sight-seeing.
Which brings me to the Basilica di San Lorenzo. There are lots of churches you could visit in the city, but there’s only one that contains the grandest tombs of the infamous Medici family in the apse of the chapel – multi-coloured marbles and imposing grandiosity in one of the best ever examples of Pietra Dura style.
Then, there’s the Laurentian library designed by Michelangelo, in the church cloister. The library is an interesting study in the Mannerist architectural style that was popular in Italy at one time, both in its painting and its famous buildings. The red and white terracotta floor of the Reading room is supposed to demonstrate the principles of geometry. The library was built to house the Medici’s private collection of manuscripts and printed books, collected over centuries and was supposed to establish them as an academically-inclined, scholarly and educated family to extend their status beyond the power-hungry image they were known for.
If, after wandering around the city, you feel the need for a bit of space and greenery, stroll through the romantic Boboli gardens, which is littered with sculptures, walkways, grottoes and has a wide, landscaped terrace with a fantastic view over the city that’s great for scenic photographs.
The Ponte Vecchio is an arch bridge over the River Arno, known for having shops built along it in typical pre-medieval city style. If it wasn’t for the 1666 great fire of London, there might still be shops lining London bridge as well. We tried to find out how to gain access to the Vasari corridor, which is an aerial walkway built by the famous architect Vasari for the powerful Medici family so that they could walk safely from their Palazzo Pitti to their Palazzo Vecchio without the threat of assassination in the open street. It’s only open at certain times and through timed guided group tours, I read online at the time. Thanks to limited time, we gave up on that, but got to walk directly under it instead.
Not far from the Ponte Vecchio bridge in the city’s historical centre, is the Galileo Museum. I have to admit that I’m a fan of this guy ever since I learned that he was asked by the Inquisition to recant his scientific claim based on observation and evidence, that the earth revolved around the sun, instead of adhering to the religious view that the earth was the centre of the universe. He stuck to his view, inspite of being threatened, and was under house arrest until his death. The museum has Galileo’s main telescopes on display and a variety of other instruments both used by him and from the Medici’s vast collection of astronomic instruments. There’s also a great display of the prevailing theories and how the instruments work.
I can’t quite put my finger on why, but the Piazza della Signoria is probably the best square I’ve seen in all the cities I’ve been to. It’s an L-shaped ‘square’ (?!) in front of the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio, which was once the political hub of Florence. Among the most famous statues there are ‘Judith and Holofernes’ by Donatello and ‘David’ (a copy, but…still) by Michaelangelo. There’s a gorgeous fountain of Neptune…. Then there’s the rather odd Loggia dei Lanzi, that seems rather out of place with the rest of the area but makes for a very interesting little corner of the Piazza with Cellini’s ‘Perseus holding up the head of Medusa’ and ‘The Rape of the Women of Sabine’ by some guy called Giambologna. It’s like a parade of the grotesque on display in the tucked-away corner of a prominent place.
What I love so much about this Piazza is probably the great location for people-watching and the fact that it connects so many significant structures together in one place. The Palazzo Vecchio, which is now the town hall, the Uffizi and the Loggia. Then, there’s the fountain of Neptune in the centre of the L-shape. It’s not a massive fountain, like Rome’s impressive Trevi, which almost, sort of, arches across the street corner where its wedged in. But, I do love the theme of the Roman god Neptune and his nymphs coming out of the water and looking down and over the people in the street as they walk past. It’s just cool.
Now, let’s be honest. We’re in Florence, in Italy. So the chance of coming across bad gelato isn’t that high anyway. However, there are some gelaterias that are better known than others and the locals swarm there, swearing by the creamy texture of the ice-cream. The Vivoli gelateria in Santa Croce, is just one such place on a not-so-easy-to-find side street. It is narrow inside and a popular tourist and back-packer hang-out, with ice-cream lickers pouring out onto the sidewalks and just lounging in the side street happily licking away at one flavourful scoop before ordering seconds. Personally, I think locals choose their favourites based on their favourite flavours, which are exotic and even extreme, like the Cheesecake flavor or the radical stinky Gorgonzola (yes, you read it right!) flavor. And no, I didn’t try either!
All I can say is, extreme gelato aside, I cannot wait to get back to that city for a longer visit someday!
Note: These are just a few of the highlights from my trip in 2011.
I was in Istanbul for a 3-day work-related convention with Provention Consortium (now dissolved) in 2009, and stayed an extra day just to see the city properly. The convention hosts organized a dinner and riverside boat trip along the Bosphorus by night for the whole group. I saw Galata Tower and Dolmabache Palace lit up from the riverbank. But I wanted to see more of the historic city. The quickest way to do this was to sign up for a tour based on a hotel leaflet. The small mini-van consisted of me, a good-looking Asian girl in her early twenties and an older American gentleman with broad shoulders and a bit of a gut on him.
The girl turned out to be a niece of the owner of the Harvey Nicols department store empire. She was a spoiled, entitled, cliché staying at the Four Seasons hotel. The man turned out to be a contracted security agent working for the US military in Iraq, on R&R. He was cagey about who he was and where he was posted, and for good reasons. Security forces in Afghanistan or Iraq were required to take R&R and they often deployed themselves to Dubai, North India or Istanbul for short weekends for general drink and debauchery to let off steam. Home was too far away for a short visit, in most cases.
The guide was an archaeology student at the university. He knew good English and relied on tips. We visited the Aghia Sophia church, Grand Bazaar and Topkapi Palace. I also stood about 100 metres from the Blue Mosque, but on that day outside visitors weren’t allowed in so didn’t get to visit it properly. I bought a couple of Iznik bowls from Grand Bazaar that I absolutely love. A blue one and a Red-orange-white one.
Aghia Sophia blew me away. The church has large black discs suspended from the ceiling with golden Allahs inscribed on it. The original church structure is believed to date back to 325 AD during Emperor Constantine’s time and the current structure was rebuilt by Justinian. The church is made of white Marmara marble, yellow marble from Africa, gold and silver from Ephesus Greece and red porphyry columns that some speculate have their provenance in the Temple of the Sun at Baalbek Egypt.
In the 15th century, Mehmet the conqueror took over the church and its surrounds and converted it into a mosque, adding a brick minaret to the church. Later, 3 more minarets were added. The grand cavernous interiors strike you immediately as you enter and you can imagine the place once lit up in gold with the reflection of candlelight reflecting off of golden mosaics and silver candelabra.
Topkapi Palace was a sprawling set of buildings across landscaped lawns. Buildings included the Court of the Janissaries, Court of the Divan, the Harem, the Imperial kitchens, Courtyard of the Black Eunuchs, Apartments of the Sultan’s mother (the most important woman in the Harem) and Apartments of the Sultan himself. Of course, it’s the Harem that most captured the imagination and fantasy of the Western world once they became familiar with the term and adapted it into textual and visual representations that reflected their own perceptions of the Orient and the Other.
The Topkapi museums are interesting and include relics of St John the Baptist (part of his hand and skull!) and the infamous Topkapi dagger which has four huge emeralds embedded in the hilt and in a hidden part of the dagger. The Pavilion of the Holy mantle has relics of Prophet Mohammed (hairs of his beard) and is considered a place of pilgrimage.
As we walk briefly around the Old city, we are shown a few reminders of the Hippodrome that once existed here including the Egyptian Obelisk. The Hippodrome itself was built during Emperor Constantine’s time, modeled after the Roman circus and could seat 100,000 people. It was destroyed during the Sack of Istanbul during the fourth crusade and was stripped of its marble statues and seats. In the 17th century, it was quarried for stone that was used to build the Blue Mosque.
Next was the Grand Bazaar. I entered through a small, narrow, unassuming gate into the bowels of a rambling series of stalls and cafes. Lanterns, ethnic designed bowls and sacks of spice powders surrounded me. Men called out to tourists, begging for their custom. One doesn’t realize the size of the sprawling extensive maze that forms this bazaar. It has over 4000 stalls, cafes and restaurants under its series of roofs and rambles through a grid of 66 narrow streets all protected from the hot sun. Jewellery, copperware, brassware, carpets, silver, ceramics, bargain clothing, antiques and curios are all on sale. Try not to get creeped out by the thousands of evil eye motif curios following you wherever you go!
I understand why so many students of archaeology have to visit Turkey and Greece as a part of their basic training and understanding. Istanbul is just one city littered with archaeological gems and steeped in such a rich historic background of crusades and wars. One can understand why its still a geo-political hotbed of strife and unrest even today. Riots were threatening to break out as civilians striked in 2009 and bombs are going off across the country even today. Izmir has bad a bomb explosion only two days ago. Hard to imagine things were any better under the Ottoman empire which lasted well into the 20th century before the Sultanate was abolished in 1922 and Attaturk was elected President. There was a time when I would have considered another visit to Istanbul, at least to see the Blue Mosque close up and get to the insides of Dolmabache palace. Then maybe visited Capadoccia and Izmir. But the truth is Istanbul, though considered more modern and Westernized than the rest of Turkey, was still a city of men and for men. Sure, women walked around freely, smoked, wore what they wanted and walked confidently on their way to work but everywhere I went, I was still filled with the unease of a woman being stared at, sized up, evaluated and summarily dismissed. Women moved around, but felt absent from engaging with society. It was a Middle Eastern city after all. And I have no niggling urge to return to that rich, interesting city especially considering the long bucket-list of travel to other places I have yet to visit. My once in a life-time visit there is officially done.