Monday, 25 February 2013

Bari and Saint Nicolas

And this time too, once through the tunnel into Italy, the sun comes out and the only snow is on distant high peaks.

The small towns that line Italy’s east coast all blur into each other in the driving rain

All day it rains, and turns into sleet after dark. Warnings of snow on the motorway signs.

In the morning, a cold wind blows around the port of Bari. 

Bari has always been a place of transit for me, a place to pass through, on my way to somewhere else. The first time I arrived there, I’d travelled by ferry from Durres, Albania, where I was living at the time, on my way to Rome, for a few days R & R as it was called, by the organisation I worked for.

It was high summer and very hot. In those days there was no large modern terminal building and I had to walk a long way just to get out of the port area. Or perhaps there was an easier exit and I’d just been misdirected. It was mid-afternoon, siesta time, the streets were deserted, the shops closed. The modern part of Bari is not especially beautiful but still, it looked that way to me, for I was in Italy! (I’d been hoping for months to go there) It also looked like a picture of order with clear, clean lines of architecture, after living in the chaotic jumble of ‘transitional’ Albania. It is one of those vivid memories of astonished well being, walking through the empty streets of Bari for the first time, in the gorgeous hot sunlight. Subsequent experiences of Bari have also been to or from ferry terminal and train station, going to Durres or arriving from there. I’d always had luggage, there was always a schedule and I’d never really had time to explore the old town.

But this time, heading to Patras, there was time before the ferry left, to explore. I found Bari’s old town, with its narrow streets, to be similar to Corfu town, if not as spectacularly lovely as Corfu’s Venetian alleyways.

In my wandering, I came across the Basilica of Saint Nicolas. 

After walking around inside, I followed a sign leading downstairs to the crypt. The sign said this was the resting place of the saint. Surely this could not be Saint Nicolas himself who was entombed here? Yet that’s exactly what it appeared to be. A dimly-lit hushed space, with the tomb behind an iron grille. I did not like to disturb the faithful in prayer in front of the tomb, so did not take a photograph, but I did manage one of the marble colonna miracolosa which was at the back, surrounded by a metal grille.

The story of the re-interment of the saint’s relics is that sailors brought his remains from Myra in Turkey, for safekeeping in Puglia, after the Muslim Turks conquered what we now know as Turkey. Legends abound, but one of them says that St Nicolas passed through Bari on his way to Rome and chose it as his resting place. Another says that ever since he was first interred at Myra, his tomb gave off a sweetsmelling liquid.  And that this continued in his new tomb in Bari. And at this point, it is no longer legend, for the liquid, it is said, continues to flow and is collected every year, on 9th May, the anniversary of the arrival of the relics in Bari. Apparently small bottles of it can be bought. I hadn’t realised this when I was there, otherwise I might well have been tempted.

It also tells the story of attempts by modern scientific researchers to find an explanation for this occurrence, but so far they’ve not managed to come up with a satisfactory explanation for the continuous moisture that comes from the bones. It’s wonderful I think, that there are still some mysteries that cannot be explained, for explanation all too often becomes ‘explaining away’ sweeping away the sense of wonder, and replacing it with the dull inevitability of cause and effect.

Inside the crypt, in the right hand corner behind the iron grating, stands the miraculous column (first mentioned in 1359) believed to have been erected by St. Nicholas himself when his relics were lain there by Pope Urban II on September 30th, 1089.

I’m not too sure exactly how the saint performed this miracle, but the account of the bringing of the relics and the positioning and the building of the basilica is full of visions and dreams of guidance. And throughout the centuries, many miraculous healings have been recounted, and still are today, just as the manna mysteriously continues to flow.

A couple of white oxen also figure in a legend, where they pulled the cart bearing the remains, and the place where they stopped became the site of the huge basilica we see today. These oxen are immortalised in stone, standing outside the basilica entrance, supporting the pillars. I felt a little sad that the oxen had no horns, but apparently the medieval masons deliberately left them off, because of possible associations of horns with the devil! 

I head back to the port through the honeycomb of small streets, washing flapping in the wind. 

In a snack bar just across the main street by the port entrance, I’m waiting for my order and look around me. First I notice a Mussolini calender on the wall. Then a picture of him. Then another. A clock with the face of Il Duce on it. Everything in fact on the walls are photos or images of him. I find this astonishing. I remember reading something recently about Berlusconi praising many of the things done by Il Duce. It seems that he is not alone. Or are all these images not so much iconic as ironic? I don’t know. The wind has a bitter edge to it as I cross the road and walk back into the port.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

And Snow Mountains

Travelling overnight by coach is nowhere near as comfortable as a couchette on a train, but I still enjoy it. I’m one of these people who can manage to sleep at least some of the time, and if it’s a question of spending two successive nights on coaches, I figure that if I don’t sleep much the first night I know by the second one I’ll be so tired that I will. 

I am heading to Greece by the scenic route. The first stage is the overnight coach to London. I had some time there before my connection left for Paris, thought I might be able to visit Tate Britain, not far from the coach station, but it was too early, the gallery doesn’t open till 10 and I needed to be back at the station by 10.30. So I walked to the river, along by the Thames, enjoying the bright sunshine. 

One of the trees overhanging the water has several boots tied to its branches. Is this an artistic statement or does it have some other significance? I don’t know. I also wonder how it was done, how people managed to climb up into the branches to put them there. Or did they tie the laces together and throw them up hoping for the best? This is a mystery to me.

The next part of the journey is to Paris. Everything feels different as soon as I'm in France. The sun is close to the horizon and the flat land has its yellow light spread across the cream stubble in the fields. There are rows of bare poplars with their delicate twigs. The sun goes behind a cloud which glows at the edge like a covered lamp, the opening of the cloud bag, dark blue against a light blue sky.

At Gallieni I have two hours before my next connection. But the coach, which I think originates in Belgium, is an hour late. I’m struck by the civility of one of the people working there. In London, a young man who had been smoking just outside the station was told in a very loud voice that he could not smoke there, he must put his cigarette out. He looked a bit bewildered by this and possibly had not noticed the no smoking signs. But here, at Gallieni, someone smoking is quietly told that it is not allowed, but if he wants to smoke he can go to l’autre cô the other side of the station. What a difference it makes, a little civility, politeness, helpfulness.

It’s almost midnight by the time the coach finally arrives. Once again, it’s a night journey. We reach Geneva as it’s beginning to get light. 

This is just a brief stop to drop off and pick up passengers. After Geneva it’s back into France, heading for the Mont Blanc tunnel.

We travel alongside the Alps. Snow-topped peaks haze into mist and cloud. The trees on the slopes look dusted with icing sugar. Sugar loaf mountains, draped with white blankets, with embroidery round the edges. 

Closer to these trees, they look like thistledown plants. They're not dusted at all, close up – every branch and twig is wrapped around with frost, rigid, emitting pale light. The mountains have snow seamed into every ledge and cranny of rock. 

We go into Chamonix, where snow lies thick on the ground, on the road, the pavements, the house roofs, the cars, falls and swirls on the couple of people walking in the streets. I suppose this is the real magnificence of snow, when it teams up with mountains and wildness. Some people find it irresistible. Can’t wait to get out there, with boots and jacket, ropes, crampons, ice axe, carabiner... I feel immensely lucky to be able just to glimpse these mountains without having to feel the cold of the snowy air, ice under my fingers.....

But because there is no wind, the cold is exhilarating. Just the slight swirl of snow when we get out at the French border, before going through the tunnel. There’s time to get a coffee from the machine in the small concrete building, a ridiculously diminutive statement at the foot of these vast and imperishable mountains, in this bitter weather that could sweep you away with one gesture of its snow-furred arm. The end of the line or so it feels, last outpost, before the mountain takes over. And so it would be, if the tunnel had not been built. I think of the only other time I’ve taken this route, Chamonix, the tunnel, decades ago, my daughter very small, chains fitted to the tyres, wondering if the road would be open, driving through thick snow. Coming out in Italy, no sign of snow, clear blue skies, another lifetime really so it seems now...