Sunday, 27 January 2013

Italy: The oneiric maze of Venice

 An open air museum of a unique atmosphere, with numerous churches and impressive monuments

By Kon Hans

The "water roads" (canals) of Venice (foto by Juana Escobar)

A drowned forest.  Fog.  A mask with a big nose is reflected in the calm waters.  A silent black swan emerges in the form of a mahogany gondola.  Memories and fleeting images.
It is rather difficult to describe with simple, plain words a city which is located somewhere between a hazy dream and the reality. The fact that an entire forest has been transferred from Slovenia in the depths of an Adriatic lagoon in Italy in order to build upon it the legendary city of Venice with its 118 islands, channels and bridges is just shocking by itself. Your nerve endings get overcharged with each and every picture you may encounter in any corner of this surreal and magical place. Beginning from the fact that the familiar Athenian yellow taxis are replaced with the vaporetto, specially designed small boats on which you may embark as they ride the water highways of Venice, up to the colourful washings hanging over the labyrinthine canals, all compose a world that looks like it came from a book of an ingenious author. To enter this fairy-tale world, you must forget of any guides or manuals of any sort, you need to get lost, to pour yourself and your soul in this wondrous maze without Ariadne's thread.

At the famous square

Basilica di San Marco (foto by Juana Escobar)
Piazza San Marco is the central or, rather, the only square in Venice, the rest are called campo or campielo.  Its extremely frequent appearance in almost all the postcards sent from Venice is justified: the unique Cathedral of San Marco with the impressive Clock Tower and the Doge's Palace offer an insuperable background to enjoy an authentic Italian espresso at the Caffé Florian.  Your visit both in the Cathedral and the Palace will confirm the nobility and richness of the once all-powerful Republica Serenissima of Venice, as well as its sinful past with the Byzantine Empire. Indeed, behind the Palace and uniting it with the prisons stands the legendary “Bridge of Sighs” – its stones still resonate the sighs of the condemned as they took a last glance at the serene beauty of Venice.

An old house in Venice (foto by Andromahi Doufexi)
Nonetheless, you need to know that this celebrated piazza has been transformed several times in a celebrated lake due to the tides, which particularly during the months of October to December flood many parts of Venice! Even so, after you enjoy your coffee you can begin your exploration starting from any point you wish; whatever bridge you choose to cross – there are around fifty and in about every 150 m. there is one – and in any small alley you wish to enter – the narrowest is only 65 cm. wide – you will undoubtedly encounter a picture of a uniqueness and a beauty you have seldom laid eyes upon. The Rialto Bridge is indeed such a magical example:  countless romantic souls have walked and continue to walk upon it and as they stand to gaze at the golden hue sunset, the strength and the warmth of their hearts as it flows out from their palms have transformed the parapets of the bridge into a shining mirror!

Campo Santa Marguerita is not only one of the centres of the night life in Venice, as many students congregate here, but also a great place to sit and relax in the sun. Here, many cafés and bars are named after colours, Caffé Rosso, Caffé Nero etc.  and here is also the perfect place to enjoy the famous spritz (white sparkling wine with Aperol: spritz al aperol or with Campari: spritz bitter).  If, after so much spritz you get hungry you can let your nose guide you to the small pizza-place at the campo where you can indulge in a tasteful slice of the exceptional pizza ai zucchini (with pumpkin).

Peggy Guggenheim Collection

Located within walking distance you will find a diamond of the ample cultural offer the “floating city” has to offer: the personal Collection-Museum of Peggy Guggenheim. An eccentric member of the prominent Guggenheim family, unyielding, romantic, and with an unconventional personality, she passionately collected painters and lovers. The collection includes some of the masterpieces of the last century, thus you can enjoy Picasso, de Chirico and Kandinsky in the impressive Palazzo Venier dei Leoni , the flamboyant Peggy Guggenheim's residence which has been transformed into a museum.  Afterwards you can enjoy a beautiful walk in the Fondamenta delle Zattere, where in some sunbathed terraces you will find authentic Italian ice creams to be waiting for you as you marvel at the sight of the large ships crossing the greatest water Avenue in Venice, the Giudecca Channel.

canal in Venezia (foto by Juana Escobar)
At the end of this promenade and at the point where the legendary Canal Grande meets Giudecca Channel there is another diamond yet to be found: the Basilica of St Mary of Health (Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute).  An impressive and imposing church, that looks as if floating on the water, stands there, proud, to remind to the Venetians the dark years of the Black Plague, which killed one third of the population of the city. In the heart of the temple a masterpiece of the Byzantine iconography is guarded with reverence, it is the exceptional Icon of Panagia Mesopantitissa, originating from Crete.

The Serenisima embraces with its eerie silence several churches, impressive palazzos and monuments. If you don’t have too much time to spend, then buy cards from the Tourist Office that give you entry  to the main attractions, as well as cards from the ACTV (Transportation Bureau) to move about without problems with the vaporetto. If, on the other hand, you do have plenty of time, which may prove difficult as the whole town is an open air museum, then don’t miss the psychedelic colours of the houses in Burano, the masters of the glass blowing crafts in Murano and the well-known Lido Beach to relax with an excellent mojito.

An invaluable source of information for the writing of this article has been Tiziano Scarpa’s book: Venezia e un pesce (Ed. Feltrinelli, 2003).

Published in KATHIMERINI ©, on October 26, 2012 (transl. & edited from greek, original here )

A canal in Burano (foto by Juana Escobar)
Another canal in Burano  (foto by Juana Escobar)
Colorful houses in Burano (foto by Juana Escobar)
Ponte dei Sospiri  (foto by Juana Escobar)

Another canal in Venice (foto by Andromahi Doufexi)

Venezia - Lido by night

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Spain: The red “Wine-paths” in La Rioja

Countless vineyards form a huge red heart beneath the sun in northern Spain

by Kon Hans

I admire the red color, the deep red, which flirts with the color of a ruby, such as when we lift up a glass of red wine letting the light to reveal to us this magical primeval color of the fruits of the land. There is a unique place, in northern Spain, between the mountains, that pays tribute to this color: with golden-red meadows and medieval monasteries, with a bright blue sky that embraces countless vineyards, forming a huge red heart pulsing beneath the sun; it is the birthplace of the excellent Spanish wine, La Rioja.

The Autonomous Community of La Rioja, is a region known even from Roman times for its favorable climate and its rich soil, suitable for growing all kinds of vegetables and various grape types that produce some of the best wines in the world. The entire region's economy is based mainly on wine production, which, in addition to the strong State subsidies and European funds, thrives on the authentic passion and pride of the locals for their land and its products. A myriad vineyards, lined up with blameless order and organization like Roman legions wait for the collectors, who come from all corners of Spain and the rest of the world not only for an extra payday, but also for a unique experience.


Even biggest in numbers, though, are the visitors and the “enotourists” since the State invests very efficiently a part of its revenue from agricultural and wine production in the ever developing “enotourism”. As witnesses to this investment stand huge, ultramodern and designed by well-known architects wineries, the majority of which you can visit, as part of “wine-routes” organized across the region, with specialized guides, providing a thorough and often interactive information on all stages of wine production and of course with the essential wine tasting at the end.

Some distinct examples are the Ysios Winery with the particular architecture of Calatrava, the historic and uncommon winery and hotel Marques de Riscal, designed by the renowned architect Frank Jerry, the futuristic wineries Darien and Antion and, finally, the impressive Cune, shaped as a giant barrel, of the French architect Mazieres. Your tour, however, amongst the endless vineyards and wineries will be incomplete if you don't visit one of the most important museums of wine in the world, the "Museum of the Wine Culture -Dinastia Vivanco" in the village of Briones.  There, in an area of 9,000 square meters, in five extensive display rooms that include a huge underground cellar, and an external garden with all possible grape varieties from around the world, the "Garden of Bacchus", all the fascinating wealth of the ancient art of wine production is thoroughly displayed.

Logroño, the cosmopolitan capital

The capital of La Rioja is the seductive Logroño, on the banks of the river of Ebro, a location in the famousWay of St. James, widely known as "El Camino de Santiago", which contributed significantly to the town’s tourist and commercial development since even the middle ages, whereas, in the historic centre, the myriad footsteps of pilgrims still resonate through the mists of time, as they passed by towards the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.
Nowadays, the tired pilgrims are replaced by cheerful tourists and visitors, as the historic centre is presently an impressive recreation zone, where the medieval buildings serve as an idyllic background for you to enjoy a “Copa de vino tinto” or “Blanco” (a glass of red or white wine) of excellent quality served with “tapas” of unique inspiration in one of the dozens of small bars and taverns, and with good prices. You should walk around in this rich and cosmopolitan city, with big evergreen parks and stone bridges reflected in the river, visit the beautiful Cathedral with the twin towers, and indulge in the authentic “riojana” gastronomy.

Besides Logroño, there are dozens of other villages and small towns in the area that is highly recommended to visit. Especially one of them, the magical Laguardia, on the border with the Basque country, is built on a hill, like a medieval Island, where all the vast sea of meadows spreads around you in all its glory, a nature´s impressionist painting with green and ocher, perforated by the fleeting shadows of travelling clouds. There you will lose yourself in the stone alleys and admire the medieval walls, the Tower of the Plaza Mayor, with the “clock dancers” and of course the Church Santa Maria de los Reyes of a unique beauty with amazing colors, which are kept almost intact. Moreover, you will find out that it is a suitable place for shopping whereas not only it produces wines of very high quality, biological and certified, but also a myriad of other local products are available such as the famed canned asparagus, various “wine-cheeses”, red peppers, various cooked pork meats, such as "chorizo", legumes and much, much more.

Finally, you need to make a mandatory stop at the village of San Vicente de la Sonsiera, where besides the scenic location, magnificent views and the beautiful alleys you will find a high gastronomy award-winning restaurant, the “Casa Tony”, featuring the local “riojana” cuisine in close relation with the delicious wine-culture that give birth to inspired culinary creations – do not forget to try the "orejas de cerdo" (pig ears!) with a nice red "Rioja" - for a marvelous farewell.

Published in KATHIMERINI ©, on December 1, 2012 (transl. from greek, original here)

 (All fotos by Kon Hans)

In Castilla, towards La Rioja...
Monastery in La Rioja region
Towards La Rioja..

CUNE Wineries
Museum of the Wine Culture Dinastia Vivanco - "Garden of Bacchus"
Towards La Rioja
Inside the Monastery

View from Laguardia

The Monastery