Posts tagged ‘history’

Edinburgh Impressions Part 1 (June 2012)

An Introduction

Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland, a rare green gem amongst European capitals.  A city that captures the imagination, and dazzles with beautiful monuments, medieval architecture, and stunning samples of the natural wonders that Scotland has to offer.


EDINBURGH CASTLE overlooking the city.

People started to congregate there in the Bronze age, but it didn’t become a city of note until the 16th century and boomed during the European Renaissance.

During the 18th Century the city became known as the Athens of the North due to the Greco-Roman style architecture in addition to the rise of the Scottish intellectual society which was leading Europe in many ways at the time.

These times have been commemorated on Calton Hill where the National monument was built and left unfinished in 1829.


FROM TOP National Monument on Calton HIll

BOTTOM Hollyrood Palace.

Taken from ‘Arthur’s seat’

The city started out rather small as most medieval cities do, and was secured by defensive walls around three sides.  This caused the city to go up rather than out and makes it seem almost unnecessarily ‘tall’ even today.

So why were there only walls around three sides? Well the fourth side was protected by a medieval, gravity operated, state of the art, sewage system.

That is, the waste was thrown out of every window, rains would wash it down the hill, and a big lake of rather rancid stench would form a barrier to keep invading forces out, and also the scared masses in.

In 1766 a competition was run to see who could design a solution to the now rampant problem of overcrowding.  The result is what is now referred to as ‘New town’ and resulted in the giant lake of poo being drained, eventually to be replaced by the current train station and for the giant ‘North Bridge’ being built over the top.

This enabled the city to expand and conditions to improve drastically.

Insert compensation joke here. Monuments of one of several Graveyards.

The result is a city of contrast from the old to the very old, and a mix of modern with the endeavour to not upset the look and feel of the city.  Nature has been preserved as well as any place in the modern world resulting in a city with a wonderful kaleidoscope rarely seen throughout the world.

Fast Facts:

Founded in: has had human settlement since the Bronze age

Became British in: 1603 when King James VI succeeded to the English thrown uniting the two kingdoms

Population: approx. 500 000

Number of pubs: over 600


Sicily- A Mediteranean cake of culture April 2011

So Sicily is basically a province of Italy.  Yes it is an island, but legally it is linked to Italy like any other area.

In reality however the people are a hybrid of various cultures making up a Mediterranean cake full of interesting ingredients.

Sicilian culture cake:

*Take one part Greek

*Take one part Roman

*Take one part Byzantine

*One part Germanic

*One part Arabic

*One part Norman

*Two Parts Italian

Mix in a football shaped island and leave to set in the Mediterranean.

Mt ETNA tallest volcano in Europe

The result of all this is what at first appears to be an Italian settlement.  Quickly however you start to see the differences in the nature of the people, the food, and the way of life.

Normal Italian food is of course, pasta and pizza.  There is an abundance of such food, but suddenly you start to see spiced rice dishes.  Saffron, nutmeg and cinnamon appear in a variety of dishes and baked goods.

The Arabic influence moved the food more than any other, there is also a seafood element that simply came from the geography and practicality of being on an island.

Perhaps the island Mediterranean thing also brought about a more relaxed approach to life as compared to the mainland Italians.

Some would say a little too relaxed which has led to the current crisis of over 30% unemployment, compared to the 25% in Mainland Italy.

But what does Sicily have to offer the tourist?

First thing that hits you is the impressive coastline.  Flat coastal settlements that go for miles are broken up as soon as you head inland.  Merely a few hundred metres will have you colliding into huge cliff lines that run the line of the coast and give you impressive views of the ocean and the settlements throughout.

As mentioned, amazing coastline!

The small towns and old forts planted precariously on top the huge peaks give the impression of a tough fight ahead for any would be conquerors.

Not too tough obviously as the island has been conquered by no fewer than four different peoples since the Romans were forced out in the 400’s AD.

Moving around Sicily, the history of these past conquerors jumps out at you.

In Agrigento, the ancient Greek temples speak of a time of total dominance.  The flat harsh landscape is broken up by various temples, some intact, some not so.

Agrigento Temple

The old temple of Zeus is in bad shape (it was so big that the foundations couldn’t support the roof!) but the grandeur of the temple is still apparent today.

One of the surviving ‘sleeping giants’ that stood about 7 metres tall gives a glimpse at its size.  There were over thirty of these statues all the way around the temple, ironically holding the weight of the roof that eventually collapsed.

When you climb to the ‘cliff side’ settlement of Taormina and you look down on the spectacle of Sicily whilst sitting in the actual seats of the Greek-Roman theatre, you find your breath escaping, and it’s definitely not the altitude.

A massive theatre carved into the side of the cliff, what amazing showcases were on display two thousand years ago?  What plays and events would have been seen by the Sicilian paying public with the most stunning views behind the stage?

The combination of Greek-Roman architecture and truly amazing nature is unique to Sicily.   But one thing that overshadows the whole lot is MT ETNA, the largest volcano in Europe.

It stands 3329 metres above sea level and towers over the local fertile farm land as it smokes away almost constantly over its snow-capped peaks.

The last significant eruption occurred as recently as August 2007.  Driving up the mountain now you can still see the rebuilding process going as the lifeless craters of volcanic ash still lay there, stretching off, far out of sight.

Waistland after the 2007 eruption of MT ETNA

Sicily is a visually spectacular, historically significant and very interesting part of Italy.  The people are as different from the mainlanders as they claim to be, whilst still keeping that charming Italian appeal and zest for life.

The infrastructure is still catching up, but if you can get a car to make up for the lack of public transportation, then you will see an incredible part of Europe that is more than worth the effort of getting to.

Matera- Spectacle and Chocolate Pizza – March 2011

Matera- The old city overlooking the gorge

After an impressive week in and around Naples I decide to spend some time off the beaten track.  I am to realise very quickly that ‘off the beaten track’ in Southern Italy can become logistically nightmarish.

I first heard about Matera in my guide book and was intrigued instantly.  Lonely planet refers to it in such words as, ‘you’ll feel like you’re in another world.’

It does say more than that of course, basically the quick history of the place is; the collection of ancient caves has been inhabited since prehistory, whilst in slightly more recent history, the city of Matera has sprung up on an opposite cliff overlooking the caves.

The caves were not abandoned until the Italian government deemed the 50% infant mortality rate (yes you read that right) as an international embarrassment and moved the people out less than fifty years ago.

The people were living as a family with farm animals and all in remarkably small areas, (hence the health problems).

This made the caves the longest continuously inhabited part of the world.

Now maybe you can see the rational for me heading five hours out of my little hub of Naples to check the area out.

My guide book tells me of a wonderful little hostel in the old city, carved into the mountain.


I go online….. hmmm problem, the Hotel doesn’t do hostel beds anymore, the cheapest bed is now about 30 euro a night.  At this stage, 30 euro is my entire day’s budget, not going to happen.

I can’t find any budget accommodation anywhere near the area…. What to do, what to do?

Through the most glorious of websites ‘Couch’, I not only get some free accommodation in the area, but I also get a great opportunity to meet some more locals.

There is a connecting bus to Matera that will get me in Saturday night at 19:00 hours.  I’m on it!

One thing strikes me as soon as the bus heads away from the west coast.  The terrain gets barren, quickly and the towns get smaller and smaller as time and distance move you along.

By the time I get to Matera I feel like I’m in some middle of nowhere town somehow scraping an existence despite its isolation.

I make the fatal mistake of not recording my host’s mobile number and when I am standing in the pitch black little bus stop (as compared to proper bus station) freezing away in the middle of nowhere, I have the realisation that perhaps I should be a little bit more organised.

What to do, what to do?

I decide that my host’s number recorded on my Hotmail account would be rather handy right now.

I look left down one very dark deserted street, I look right down another equally dark and deserted street.

‘Does anyone know where an internet café is?’  The stray dog walking past looks at me and shrugs its shoulders before scurrying along.


I send a few expensive text messages back to the UK hoping that some of my friends will have access to the internet and can access my e-mails to give me the phone number which will enable me to call my host and find out where she is! (gasp).

I’m in the middle of texting frantically with frozen fingers when a car horn alerts me to the arrival of one young Italian woman with a rather warm and comfortable spare seat.

‘Hello, I’m Katia, so sorry I’m late!’ She says.

Ah, my host!

I apologise for not getting her phone number and causing such a fuss as she hurriedly explains that she was waiting at the wrong bus stop (apparently there are three and the one where I was disgorged was the smallest and most isolated of the three).

Oh well, all is good as Katia takes me to the city centre to show me around.  She is shocked by my tiny pack upon hearing that my 30L day pack is my only luggage for a seven week trip.

Likewise she is shocked by my now red, frozen toes that are sticking awkwardly out the top of my thongs/flip flops/ jandels.

I tell her that I’m used to the cold on my feet and it’s time to explore!

Katia takes me to the city centre which is stunning under evening light.  A centre multi-coloured water fountain shoots off its display like a kaleidoscope as the stunning architecture of theatres, universities, churches and other nameless buildings beam down on top of me.

I am instantly stunned by Katia’s home town.

‘Wait until you see the Sassi,’ she smiles at me (Sassi= ruins/old town etc).

She’s right, I ain’t seen anything yet.

We gain just a little altitude as we grab an eye full of the spectacle of the old city.

I don’t know if words can describe it, and sadly my camera is woefully inadequate at picking up such beauty, particularly at night.

Basically, it’s like looking into the past (I know, you’ve heard that one before).  But it’s like a small ancient city has been sitting in the one spot untouched just for me to view at this moment.

It is breathtaking. Winding narrow streets, small stone ‘hut’ like houses.  The only thing missing is the markets with donkeys and maybe a Disney style monkey blowing raspberries at the local vendors.

I have decided within a half hour of being in Matera (minus the nervous time waiting at the bus stop) that the trip was well worth it!

Tomorrow will bring a good exploration of the old town as well as the caves and general panorama.

View from the caves back to the old city

For the evening there is a chance to meet some of Katia’s friends and family.

A quick introduction to her mother and American Dad, Family Guy, Simpsons watching younger brother is followed by some dinner and a quick drive out to see some friends.

A quiet stroll and chat with the locals is completed by about 1am and a long day comes to a close.

The next day is a leisurely start that takes us back to the old city by late morning.

I find it looks just slightly less spectacular in the day light, but the view of the whole area makes up for it tenfold.

The old city looks over a massive gorge as some caves on the opposite cliff stare straight back.  The gorge snakes its way off into oblivion, following the length of the extensive city before disappearing around a corner.

The caves, Katia tells me, where the sight of Mel Gibson’s film ‘Passion of the Christ.’  I’ve not seen the film and am in no way impressed by Hollywood, hence why such a socially relevant fact had eluded me.

I can see why the sight was picked however.  Ignoring the few TV antennas, and as I said earlier, adding a few donkeys and market stalls and you would be instantly transported back two thousand years.

One of the numerous caves

A day of exploring throughout the more than impressive area is broken up nicely with a traditional Italian meal (pasta, salad and coffee… IN THAT ORDER).

As often happens the evening follows the day, and after the amazing absorbing history, it’s time for some more Italian food!

Desert is of keen interest.  Nutella pizza!  Surprisingly good!

We then head out for a birthday bash.  In the park just behind a local school, Katia and I find a group of revelling Italians.

Her friends are already well on their way.  Cartons of beer and bottles of Dutch courage are abound and merriment is aplenty.

Birthday party, Italian style

I manage to meet Katia’s friends, forget most of their names, learn some Italian, forget some Italian, all in less than three hours!

That must be a record for me.

The night comes to a close when the birthday cake is unceremoniously elbowed off its tedious perch, splattering its tasty innards all over the rather grotty ground.

Summer is officially upon us! Well at least the summer daylight saving time has begun.  It seems odd with the temperature at a chilling six degrees.  But the end result is that it is now 3 am, not 2 am, so it is time to leave!

I bid farewell to my new friends and leave them to their party goings on.  A decent sleep is followed by a quick drive to the next town to catch a train.

My next destination is Sicily.  What awaits me is one car trip, three train trips, one ferry and one more train before getting picked up in Sicily.

I am to find the trip even more difficult then I expect…

City of Death -Pompeii -March 2011

In the heart of Naples is the central station (Garibaldi), from there you can take the Sorrento train out to the Amalfi coast.  On the same train you can stop off only twenty minutes from the city at two impressive sights.

First sight to see is the ancient city, yes you all know it… Ercolana.  Wait, I meant to say Pompeii didn’t I?

Not quite, that’s to be visited later in the day.

Ercolana was another smaller city that was destroyed by the same volcanic eruption two thousand years ago.  Where the lava flowed straight down and wiped out Pompeii, the ash cloud slowly settled on Ercolana over the proceeding 24 hours.

The end result of all this is basically that where Pompeii is grand in nature, Ercolana is less damaged and paints a more complete and disturbing picture.

When you arrive at the ancient ruins, you are shown a picture of the ruins as they stand today. On top of that, layers are superimposed to show you what the city looked like before the disaster.

One thing strikes you quickly.  The superimposed layer is rather minimal.  What we see here is remarkably similar to what once stood two thousand years ago.


Walking through the ruins you can almost see the people meandering around conducting their business, playing with their children, family pets playfully chasing each other.

Some of the houses have their garden areas still intact, and the plants have at some point grown back and are now obviously tended by somebody.  This gives the place an ironically organic feel.

The place is alive, no doubt about it, but you can walk around it in only an hour without much trouble.  I guess that is why it doesn’t have the fame of Pompeii.  Ercolana has about 300 000 people visiting it each year, Pompeii has close to three million!

By the time I leave the area, I am in awe, little did I know the best is yet to come.

Returning to the train station you will find with signage lacking in subtlety the way to the tourist office.  From there, a quick drive up the volcano and a tour guide takes us to the top.

Mt Versouvious, the cause of so much death.

The last eruption was a huge one back in 1945, but the eruption we’re focusing on is the one that happened two thousand years ago.

The view into the crater of the volcano is grand and interesting.  Looking out the other way you can look back to the starting point of Naples, sprawled out as far as the eye can see, nervously looking over its collective shoulder at the behemoth of an angry giant looming over her.

View from the Volcano- Far left, Sorrento-gateway to Amalfi coast. Far right -Capri Island

Looking a little to the left, and with a trained eye you can spy the tiny dot that is the ruins of Ercolano.  A further twist of the head gives you the spectacular distant sight of Capri Island, the bay of Naples and Sorrento, the gateway to the Amalfi coast.

What a view!

Looking down the valley, much closer to the volcano shows the ruins of Pompeii.  It even looks big from this vast distance.

That is my next stop.

Returning to the bottom of the volcano, a quick trip back to the train station and then another twenty minute trip away from Naples to ‘station Pompeii’.  Unimaginative title, but it doesn’t tell a lie.

A short walk and the grand ruins are before me.

I am speechless.  The sheer scale of this once great city is daunting.  How many people were here when the volcano hit?

They say that Ercolana was a ‘normal city’ for its time, absolutely tiny by todays standards.  Pompeii however was a thriving, rich metropolis more than ten times the size.

It takes two hours of constant walking to get a grasp of everything here.  There are masses of ruined temples, numerous houses, even relatively intact amphitheatres.

‘The’ volcano overlooking the once impressive ruins of Pompeii

But the one thing that cannot be missed is ‘the gardens’.

A small area set aside for gardening at the back end of the area houses a glass cabinet.  In this glass cabinet is something that will send a shiver through your spine and make everything you have seen a reality.

You so far have walked through the ruins of houses and theatres and even a brothel! But what of the people.

In this glass cabinet are the bodies of about a dozen former Pompeii residents.  All curled up in deathly stillness.  Clay statues sentenced to an eternity of still life.

One pained, deformed sculpture of humanity is an adult coiling itself over a child, similarly contorted in death.

An adult trying to protect its child

There are three other children laying down, almost looking serene.  Death must have been quick for them.  Thank goodness.

Two things have stuck in my mind, burned to my brain.  Firstly, one face of an adult, whilst a shell of clay like all the others, somehow has been imprinted more than the others.  You can actually see the sockets and mouth of this person, seemingly crying out in pain in the final throws of death.

Why was this one person in pain, whilst the others lay sleeping soundly?

The other image is one of the before mentioned children.  This child is laying on its back as any child in a crib would.  Now after two thousand years, some life pokes through the clay shell.  The child’s thigh bone can be clearly seen where the clay had crumbled away.

Eternal sleep

You feel obliged to observe this sight in silence.

They match firmly with another body that is closer towards the main entrance of the ruins.  A person laying on the ground, frozen forever in the too familiar formation of prayer.

Perhaps this person was begging for their family to be saved, perhaps they were trying to absolve themselves of the sins in this life before continuing on to the next?

We will never know.

Upon leaving the ruins of Pompeii and returning to the Naples, quiet reflection will come over you.  The beauty and spectacle of the sights from the top of the Volcano, sharply contrasted with the real life horrors the people faced two thousand years ago.

No matter how you reflect upon this, it is a day that will move you.  It is a day very much worthwhile.

If you choose to go, don’t miss Ercolana, and give the city and previous residents of both cities the time they deserve.