La Spezia’s Our Lady of the Snow

La Spezia, the starting-off point for a visit to that stunning stretch of Italian coastline known as the Cinque terre and to Porto Venere, is an interesting city in its own right. From a small fishing village La Spezia developed into one of Italy’s major naval dockyards, which I was able to visit on a special open day in 2014. (See my post at ).

La Spezia has many other interesting sights including several churches:

Cristo Re dei Secoli (“Christ the King of Centuries”, cathedral), consecrated in 1975. The project was by Adalberto Libera. Unless you’re into seventies architecture give it a miss. I found it rather hideous and akin to a second-rate airport terminal although the view from it is rather fine.

Abbey church of Santa Maria Assunta (“Our Lady of the Assumption”, thirteenth century). It houses a considerable series of artworks, some of them coming from other suppressed religious institutes. They include an Incoronation of the Virgin by Andrea della Robbia, the Multiplication of Bread by Giovanni Battista Casoni and St. Bartholomew’s Martyrdom by Luca Cambiaso. Definitely worth a visit.

Santi Giovanni e Agostino (“Saints John and Augustine”, sixteenth century). It has a single nave with eighteenth and nineteenth century decorations.

Nostra Signora Della Scorza. Built in 1900 in the heart of the working-class neighbourhood Quartiere Umberto (Piazza Brin).

Museums: La Spezia is well endowed with these including:

Amedeo Lia Museum. Super collection of paintings from all ages put together by a private connoisseur.

Palazzina delle Arti and Museum of Seals (not the sea mammals but the ones you use sealing wax for). Interesting if you like this sort of thing.

Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (CAMeC). Not seen yet. Changing exhibitions.

Diocesan Museum. Fine religious art.

Ethnographic Civic Museum. Fascinating insight into disappeared local crafts.

Technical Naval Museum. Great viewing for anyone who loves messing about in boats and naval history. If you enjoyed London’s Greenwich Maritime museum the collection is a must and is located in a building within the military arsenal.

National Transportation Museum. This I haven’t seen yet. It’s evidently filled with old steam locomotives and other modes of transport like trams.

Notable buildings.

The castle of San Giorgio. I still haven’t managed to see this castle, perched on top of the city, when it is open. It houses the Ubaldo Formentini Civic Museum. A must-do on my next visit.

Other things to see.

Actually, the nicest sights of La Spezia are to be had just walking around this largely late nineteenth century city. There are superb examples of art nouveau buildings, a lively market (on Fridays), an elegant seaside esplanade and much else to look at and enjoy.

One of the places I liked most on our most recent to La Spezia was the not-even-mentioned Parish church of Our Lady of the Snows which is placed right in the centre of the city’s main shopping street, Via Garibaldi. I’d passed this zebra-striped church several times before but decided finally to have a look at its interior this time.

I was quite overwhelmed by the church’s beauty. Its architect, Ferrari d’Orsara, drew his inspiration from local Romanesque, Ravennan byzantine (especially San Vitale) and the plan of Rome’s Santa Prassede. Built to house a miraculous image of the Madonna, the church has three aisles which are covered by neo-byzantine paintings and finished with Verona red marble giving the whole ambience a beautiful sunset-like tinge.

The sanctuary is awesome and the dome’s mosaics are stupendous, transporting one back to Ravenna itself.

Amazingly this church was started in 1898 and finished just three years later. It’s remarkable that such a fine and complex piece of architecture could have taken so little time to complete whereas so much of Italy’s other architecture, whether religious or secular, has seemed to drag on for such a long time to be completed. Moreover, one doesn’t have to concentrate on mediaeval and renaissance ecclesiastical buildings all the time in Italy. There are wonders to be found that have been been built just a century ago. (For example, see my post onn the church of San Camillo, Milan at )

Although not on the list of major tourist sights to a Spezia I would rate the church of Nostra Signora della Neve as one of the most unusual monuments of fin-de-siècle church architecture. It’s a wonder – perhaps due to the miraculous image if the Madonna – that,whereas practically the whole of via Garibaldi was levelled by intensive bombing during World War II, the church remained undamaged. There may be some truth in divine intervention after all!

(The Madonna’s miraculous image)







Italy’s Largest (and most Beautiful) Lake

I was first entranced by Lake Garda and its shores more years ago than I care to mention when on a holiday trip with my parents.

I found myself again at Lake Garda in May 2007 on a “Mediavalle” day trip. Among the places we visited was the Vittoriale, Gabriele D’Annunzio’s villa paid for him handsomely by Mussolini to keep the main creator of a fascist ideology (and rival) in a safe place. I’ve written about D’Annunzio’s controversial figure as poet, novelist, philanderer, adventurer, soldier, aviator and sailor in my post at so won’t say much more about him here except to present a photo gallery of something of what we saw that day at one of Italy’s national shrines.

The “Grotte di Catullo” must have been an even more extravagant villa and was built in ancient Roman times. What remains of it today, although on a vast scale, is just part of the ground floor and the cellars. Here is a reconstruction of its original appearance:

Built towards the end of the first century BC the Grotte is the most important Roman villa in north Italy. Its attribution as Catullus’ villa is apocryphal: Catullus would have had a much more modest place – this Villa clearly belonged to a powerful Roman governor. That Catullus was much in love with the lake is shown by the poems he wrote about it:

The villa has been known ever since renaissance times when the great Palladio, who influenced so much of English classical architecture, came to study its remains.

The position of the villa, at the end of a thin peninsula thrusting itself into the depth of the southern sea-like expanse of this most beautiful of Italian lakes, is spectacular. A picturesque paddle steamer still plies the lake’s waters.

“La Divina” also had a villa here:

On the peninsula, too, is Sirmione with its fairy-tale castle

and equally fairy-tale ice-cream…


Away from the turmoil of great men and their works this swan gliding majestically on the lake seemed unperturbed by it all.

I wasn’t aware of this at the time but we would return to these magical places in autumn of the same year to celebrate a friend’s wedding. The friend had been involved in developing the Gardaland theme park – as if the wondrous lake really needed a theme park to attract visitors to this area…I found the wild life more interesting to watch:

Again, in 2013 we returned to the lake for an Easter holiday. It seems that Lake Garda has had an arcane hold on me ever since that schoolboy trip with my parents all those years ago, which is when these photos date from:

Italy’s Second Rome

Mosaic-making is the one art which can be said to be truly universal, From Sumerian and pre-Columbian civilizations up to the present day it has flourished and produced many exquisite masterpieces. Moreover, it is also one of the most durable of creations; where paintings have faded away and statues lost their limbs, mosaics have retained their original colouration and faithfully transmitted their vibrant glory to the present day.

Roman mosaics, with their different gradations of tesserae sizes and techniques, are spread throughout Europe and North Africa (where the finest examples can be found). From England’s Lullingstone Roman villa just outside London

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through Sicily’s Piazza Armerina


to the incredible examples in Tunisia (which we visited on our honeymoon)

surviving mosaics just show how universally their technique was spread throughout the known world.

Mosaics continued to be composed after the fall of the Roman Empire and some of the most splendid examples are to be found in Byzantine art, particularly at Ravenna (which we must revisit as soon as possible!) In Sicily, where we stayed in the winter of 2011-12, the superb examples in the palatine chapel of Palermo, Monreale and Cefalù are unbeatable.

Lucca, of course, has its own mosaic masterpiece in Berlinghieri’s work on the façade of San Frediano.

Lucca 1

After a lull during the Baroque era mosaics came back to their own again in the nineteenth century and it would be difficult to find a modern church in Italy without at least one example in its interior.

Aquileia is now a modest fishing village with  around 3,500 inhabitants situated in the Friuli Venezia Giulia region of north-east Italy but once it was Italy’s largest city with a population of over 100,000. Indeed, it was called the “Second Rome”. Attila the Hun laid it waste in 452 and its citizens fled to an island in the Lagoon to found one of the Mediterranean’s greatest maritime powers, Venice. Aquileia was rebuilt and became a Christian patriarchate in the 6th century. In 1420 the Venetians conquered it but later Aquileia was seized by the Austrian empire, within whose confines it remained until 1918 when it became part of the new kingdom of Italy.

Abundant traces of Aquileia’s rich history remain to this day and I was glad to visit it in April 2007. From Roman times are the remains of the main street and the port area, now to be found ten miles inland since the lagoon is slowly silting up. The archaeological area  is excellently documented.

In Aquileia’s ancient patriarchal basilica is one of the world’s largest mosaics dating back to the 4th century AD. It represents scenes from the Old Testament and is filled with Christian symbolism. For example, the story of Jonah being swallowed by the whale and subsequently ejected by the sea-monster  refers to Christ’s death and His resurrection after three days.


There’s a battle depicted between a cock and a tortoise explained by the symbolism of the cock singing at dawn as the light of Christ and the tortoise as the symbol of hell or Tartarus.


The depiction of fish and crustaceans is both delightful and accurate. The species depicted can be easily recognised on today’s fish stalls.

The fish is, of course, the well-known Greek acronym of ichthys, meaning Iesus Cristos Theou Uios Soter (Jesus Christ Saviour, Son of God). That’s why fish used to be customarily eaten on Fridays in Catholic families to symbolise Good Friday and Christ’s eventual resurrection three days later, i.e. on Sunday.

In 1998 the archaeological site of Aquileia, together with the remains of the patriarchal Basilica complex, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Behind the basilica is a small war cemetery. It was from here that the Unknown Soldier was taken to lie at the front of the Altar of the Nation (colloquially known as the “wedding cake”) in Rome’s Piazza Venezia.

Aquileia and its surroundings are lovely, if somewhat melancholic, places to visit. Their rich past and present desolation prompts one to musings on the transience of civilizations and peoples.

PS Our Serchio valley has its own Aquileja (spelt with a “j” instead of an “i” – perhaps same derivation from “Aquila” meaning an eagle?). It’s of course, in a very different environment among verdant hills far from the flat, formerly malarial, plains of Veneto’s Aquileia, but just the sound of its name evokes for me fond memories of my visit to what was once the largest city in Europe.

Seaview Trieste-Style

Described by “Lonely Planet” guide as “the most underestimated of Italian tourist destinations”, Trieste is a truly fascinating place to discover, not least because of its location at the crossroads of three worlds, the Italian Mediterranean, the Mittel-European Austrian and the Slavonic Balkans.

It was also James Joyce’s favourite place and Italo Svevo’s too (who was taught English by Joyce before setting out to our London borough of Greenwich to run a paint factory – but that is another story.)

Trieste could be described as Vienna-by-the-sea. Its impressive buildings do have a strong taste of classic Ringstrasse architecture.

But Trieste is also typically Italian with its narrow winding streets in the old town and its beautiful cathedral dedicated to San Giusto.

Trieste has the reputation of being the original caffé centre of Italy. When the Turks had to retreat from their siege of Vienna in 1683 they left behind a bag of….coffee beans and Austria and Italy were hooked on the dark liquid. Of course, if the Turks had won we’d still be hooked but then Italy and Europe would be full of minarets rather than campanili! The best place to drink il Caffè is, of course, the magnificently historic San Marco Caffè.

Just outside Trieste is probably what must be one of Europe’s finest preserved 19th century summer palaces: the Schloss Miramar. Thanks to contemporary drawings and designs the interior has been restored with all the original fittings and furnishings making a visit to the palace a truly time-warping experience.

Miramare was the scene of some of the most passionate and most tragic episodes in the history of the Hapsburgs. It was built by Emperor Franz Joseph’s younger brother the archduke Maximilian. This young man was one of the brightest sparks in an otherwise staid and stuffy dynasty. He reformed the Austrian navy, rebuilt Trieste port, went on several expeditions, issued liberal reforms and fell in love with Charlotte, a Belgian princess.


Still on his idealistic bent Max took up Napoleon III’s offer to restore the empire in Mexico. Despite his best intentions he failed to attract support from Juarez and his rebels and was executed at Queretaro in 1867 – a scene dramatically illustrated in Manet’s famous painting.

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Understandably Charlotte, now called Carlotta, became insane after the incident and spent much of her later life under care.  She died in 1927 having regained some of her sanity.

The palace was subsequently used by the emperor himself and his wife Elizabeth. Nicknamed Sissi, Elizabeth was a paragon of beauty with a highly fashionable sixteen-inch waist, and always kept her weight below fifty kilos. She was also Europe’s best female equestrian and adhered to a strict regime of exercises and walking. Sissi preserved her skin by sleeping with a slice of veal and strawberries on her face.  Her shampoo was a mixture of cognac and eggs and she took over three hours every week to wash her flowing locks. She would also take her bath in heated olive oil. Anybody tried it out there?

After producing a male heir in the shape of Rudolph, Sissi never again slept with her husband and instead entertained a sequence of handsome aristocratic lovers (including an English noble) within the velvets and brocades of Miramar’s love nest, well away from the stiff formalism of Vienna’s imperial court which she could never stand.


But tragedy did not end here. Her son, Rudolph, unhappy with his marriage to Belgian princess Stephanie, fell desperately for the baroness Mary Vetsera. Opposed to the liaison by his autocratic father he and Mary entered into a murder-suicide pact and their bodies were discovered in the family’s hunting lodge at Mayerling on 30th January 1889.

Actually the mystery has never been properly cleared up. Some say that Mary Vetsera died as a result of a botched abortion: she was just eighteen at the time. Others say that she shot Rudolph first. There is also a murder theory by a jealous third party. The facts, hushed up when they occurred, were never fully revealed and the Mayerling “incident” remains one history’s great mysteries. (Incidentally the wonderful Macmillan Ballet danced by London’s Royal Ballet takes another yet another slant on the story).

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As if the death of his son, the crown prince and heir to the throne, were not enough, Emperor Franz Joseph had to witness his beautiful Sissi murdered in 1898 by Luigi Luchesi, an Italian anarchist near Geneva. We visited Sissi’s tomb in the imperial Hapsburg vaults in Vienna way back in 1991.


Franz Joseph died in 1916. At least he was spared seeing the break-up of the thousand year old Hapsburg Empire. His son Charles succeed him but gave up the throne after World War One when the old empire was carved up between the newly emerging countries of Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and Yugoslavia. In 2004 Charles was, unusually, beatified by Pope John Paul II in spite of the fact that he had ordered the use of poison gas in the Great War against Italy. He is now known as “the blessed Charles”.

One would never guess all these tragic and often weird events wandering through the luscious rooms of Miramare (literally “Sea view”) and traipsing across the summer palace’s exotic gardens. I hope that in some way this beautiful setting gave solace to Austria’s last imperial family so often beset by calamity and recriminations.

All my photographs date from my last visit to these fairyland places in April 2007. I must return soon and find out more!

Grado: Freud’s Favourite Seaside Resort?

A disadvantage of living on a more or less permanent basis in Italy is that one can become a little lackadaisical about sightseeing. It’s almost as if one thinks “ah well I live here now so don’t have to cram in all my visits as I used to have to do when I could only spare a few weeks each year to come here.”

When does the exciting holiday finish and boring every-day life begin after one’s settled in Italy? I hope the holiday aspect has never completely finished for me – actually I’d call it exploration rather than holidaying. But the fact is that, in my first couple of years here, I completed quite a few “tour” trips. This was with a company called “Mediavalle Viaggi” whose web site is at

We didn’t have a car then so these trips were excellent ways of swanning  around Italy. We visited Naples, Caserta, Rome Lake Garda, and Verona, for example.

Looking through my photographs from April 2007 I found out that I’d been on a two-day journey to Grado and the surrounding area.

Grado lies north of Venice and has its own lagoon between the Isonzo River and the Adriatic. It’s divided into various districts: Borgo de foraIsola della SchiusaColmataCentroSqueroCittà GiardinoValle Goppion – ex Valle CavareraGrado PinetaPrimero. Until 1918 Grado was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Each district has its own characteristics, ranging from ancient historic centre enclosed within a former Roman military camp or castrum to modern seaside resort.

The beautiful lagoon has thirty islands in it and covers an area of ninety square kilometres. Among the islands are Isola Maggiore, where old Grado is located, and connected to the mainland by a bridge, l’Isola Della Schiusa and Isola Della Barbana, the scene of an important annual religious festival which takes place on the first Sunday in July when a flotilla of colourfully decorated boats filled with pilgrims reaches the island’s sanctuary.

Other parts of the lagoon are natural protected parks and are prime territory for birds and bird watching.

We stayed in a hotel by the beach. It was still too cold for bathing but it was lovely to walk down the extensive and deserted sands. I was in good historical company: Sigmund Freud (in one of his letters of 1898 he describes a two and a half hour journey through the most desolate lagoons to Grado’s beach where he was able to collect sea shells and urchins) and Luigi Pirandello were visitors to Grado.

Like so many other Italian seaside resorts Grado has a historic centre well worth visiting. There are two main churches: Sant’Eufemia with its baptistery and Santa Maria delle Grazie. These churches have conserved their old byzantine-Romanesque features and have some lovely features including delightful mosaics.

The old town is a quaint warren of narrow streets and, despite the inroads of tourism, still preserves much of its ancient atmosphere. The port area is great for messing about in boats.

Perhaps we should return and take further coach trips to visit more of Italy. Apart from the drastically early start for these trips – we met up at Bagni di Lucca at 5 am to start this one – it’s a pleasant way of seeing new places in convivial company without the hassle of car driving, parking and the rest of the palaver.

PS I am informed by Sigmund Freud authority Professor John Forrester, who kindly sent me a copy of the whole letter in which Freud mentions Grado  that there is only that one reference to Grado in his letters. I don’t think Freud, therefore, ever returned in spite of the nice shells and sea urchins he found there. Grado just didn’t appeal to him that much.