Europe in January 2017 – The Tenth Day

After the fortification of coffee, I wandered this morning to the Piazza della Repubblica, not to visit the Piazza but because just off said piazza is one of the churches we visited on our first evening in Rome, the Basilica di Santa Maria devil Angeli e dei Martiri (St Mary of the Angels and Martyrs). You may remember, dear reader, that when we visited the Basilica on the first night, my fellow travellers remarked that seeing at the fall of night did not permit the full beauty of the building to be appreciated.

They were so very right.

The walls of this unique structure were alive in the play of light, the columns of red granite that are featured within the vaulted space of the church vibrant in the light of day. The church, which I thought spectacular when I first saw it during the evening, was even more so in the light of day.

The meridian line in the floor of the Basilica of St Mary of the Angels and Martyrs.

Of particular interest to me, however, was the presence on the floor of the church what I learnt was a meridian line, installed at the specific request of Pope Clement XI and finished in 1702. The sun, shining through a hole in the building, falls on to this bronze line at solar noon each day, moving from one end of the line to the other from summer solstice to winter solstice and back again. During January, close the northern hemisphere winter solstice, the sun was close to the furthest end of meridian line that is away from the wall of the church building. It was a fascinating thing to take in.

I spent a couple of very pleasant hours in the Basilica, exploring the artwork and architecture of this magnificent building. I also enjoyed just sitting there taking in the ambience and quietude of the large open space, so much so that I managed to be there in time for the midday Mass (in Italian). After which I adjourned to find something to eat.

After lunch, a leisurely affair to be sure, I made the decision to explore one of the other things I found particularly appealing about being in Rome. I wandered from the area between Roma Termini and Santa Maria Maggiore, where I had dined, down towards what was once the centre of the life of Rome, the Foro Romano. Having read many a novel set during the days of Republican and Imperial Rome, including Colleen McCullough’s Master of Rome series of novels, the Roman Forum was a place that held particular appeal to me, and so, being in Rome, it was a natural for me to wander through the place that featured so often in those novels, and indeed in the public life of Rome.

A pleasant few hours were spent doing exactly that, all the while recalling some of the descriptions of the Forum, and trying to imagine what it might have been like to be in that space during the height of its significance. I doubt my imagination could capture the true nature of the space(s) of the Forum, but it was certainly fun to try.

After a few hours in the forum, I mad my way back towards the apartment for the last full night in Rome.

Europe in January 2017 – The Ninth Day

Today, dear reader, your intrepid travellers set out to ‘fill in the gaps’. You may remember that on Sunday, after arriving in Rome from Spain, we visited the Maria Maggiore, the Papal Basilica that is just a couple of blocks away from where we are staying. Well today, we set off to visit the other Papal Basilicas that are within the City of Rome.

The Portico of the Basilica of St Paul outside the Walls, featuring the Statue of St Paul

Our first stop was Basilica Papale di San Paulo fuori le Mura, St Paul outside the Walls. Our journey required this intrepid traveller to experience the Rome Metro for the first time which, while similar to that of Madrid, doesn’t appear to be extensive. That being said, the trains were clean on the insider, the stations were easily accessible, and the trains were regular.

Alighting at the Metro station that bears the name of the Basilica, we entered into what was, for me at least, the most beautiful of the three churches we visited today. It was large, broad, had clean architectural lines, and was very light, both in the colour of the interior, and the way in which natural and artificial light are combined so that the building is easy to be in. The famous portico at the front of the Basilica, in which stands a statue of St Paul, is a powerful space. It is and feels like a threshold space, the kind of space that allows the person to transition from ‘the world’ to a place a prayer simply by walking across the covered walkways, or through the paths in the manicured lawns.

The interior of the Basilica of St Paul outside the Walls, featuring the tabernacle that stands over the tomb of St Paul.

There were two features of the Basilica that particularly struck me: firstly, was the portraits of all the popes that run around above the columns of the Basilica (it was interesting, I thought, that only the current occupant of the Chair of St Peter has a light especially focussed on him). There’s a profound sense of history and continuity to be found in a feature like this; there is one place, the history of the Church stretches back to the very beginning in pictorial form. It can be hard to forget that the believer who enters a place like this Basilica is part of something that is, ultimately, beyond them and this particular point in time. It was, for this particular believer, a particular moving experience to be there.

The other feature of the Basilica I found particularly striking was the tabernacle that sits over the place that tradition believes is the burial place of St Paul (you can make it out in the centre of this photo).

Profile photo of the statue of St Paul that stands in the portico of the Basilica that bears his name, St Paul outside the Walls

With St Paul have featured so much in the transmission of the Christian faith during his time, it was a profound experience to be able to offer some prayers at his tomb, praying for the wisdom and grace to be able to continue that mission – and to inspire others to do the same.

Also of interest was the connection of the Basilica with a Benedictine foundation from the Abbey of Montecassino, and there is still a community of Benedictine monastics associated with the Basilica. Perhaps their presence was why this Basilica was my favourite of the three we visited today.

The second Basilica we intended to visit was the Archbasilica Papale del Santissimo Salvatore e Santi Giovanni Battista ed Evangelista in Laterano, popularly referred to as St John Lateran. This should have been a relatively easy task to complete: backtracking via the Metro for a couple of stops, and then a short walk. Alas, the Metro line that we had travelled along only an hour or so before and which would see us at St John Lateran relatively promptly was closed (and remains closed to the best of my knowledge). After quick discussion as our best options from getting from one Basilica to the next, it was decided that the 5km walk was probably going to be the ‘easist’ option.

The hour’s walking was fine, provided a little exercise in the midst of our journeying; the streets we had to walk along though played havoc with my ankle. The surface varied from bitumen, to old cobblestones, to nothing, to crack concrete, and possibly some more that I didn’t take in. The hour’s walk felt like a lot longer let me tell you, but when we arrived I felt the effort was completely worth it, because I was greeted by this magnificent facade:

The face of the Basilica of St John Lateran

This is the only Archbasilica in the world, and is so title because this church building contains the Cathedra of the Pope as Bishop of Rome. This is the mother church of the Diocese of Rome and, therefore, in one sense, the mother church of the Church around the world. Every year, the liturgical calendar of the Church celebrates the dedication of this building precisely because it contains the seat of the Bishop of Rome (just as every diocese should celebrate the anniversary of the dedication of their own Cathedral Church); it is a celebration of the unity of the Church that focuses on this particular chair, and the bishop who sits therein.

The chair of the Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis

For that reason, because of my responsibilities in our diocesan Cathedral, I was particularly moved to enter this building, and stand before the Chair of Pope Francis, the current Bishop of Rome, and wallow (it’s the only word that truly describes it) in the wonder that is God’s Church in the world. Despite all the things we have got so patently wrong across the millennia, the Church that is the Body of Christ continues to be about what it should properly be about: the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and all the many activities in the world that flow from that proclamation.

I am going to hope and pray that the visit to “the mother church” will inspire this particular believer to focus more on the unity of the Church, and the commitment to the mission that is the very reason for its existence.

The last Basilica to be visited today should be of no surprise – there’s only one left after all! Our journey towards the Basilica Papale di San Pietro in Vaticano, or simply St Peter’s Basilica required another Metro trip – thankfully on one of the lines still operating – and the a walk to the Basilica, all the while trying to evade the tour guides trying to sell you their particular expertise. It was heads down and carry on until we managed to run the gauntlet.

The facade of St Peter’s Basilica as seen from the Piazza

Entering in to the huge piazza, framed by Bernini’s colonnade, was like nothing I have every experienced before. This church, this space, which has been seen so often in movies and on television screens, now opened before, the colonnades like welcoming arms sweeping up all comers. I’m not sure what I was expecting when walking into the piazza, but I was expecting that.

After a few moments to gather ourselves, and having already decided that we were going inside, your intrepid travellers joined the line leading to the expected security checkpoint. Given the sheer number of people who were in the lines, it was moving rather smoothly, with little fuss, and with a great deal of friendliness among those who were all doing the same thing. Your intrepid travellers found themselves just behind a group of clearly American college students, and in front of a family from somewhere in Australia (the accents and slang gave it away) who were speaking at length about plans for one of the daughters’ pending wedding.

Which brings me to the only negative experience of the whole day, maybe the whole trip so far. As I mentioned, we were in the line behind a group of American college students. As we got closer the the ‘pointy end’ of the line, where barricades funnelled people to the various security checkpoints, another group of American college students sauntered up and joined them, exclaiming “thanks for minding our spot”. It was all clearly planned and orchestrated, and left me with a very sour taste in my mouth. Though sorely tempted to say something, I refrained because of my new found commitment to embracing the full diversity of the Church in all its many shapes, sizes and colours.

When we finally got inside St Peter’s, the sight that greeted me was awe-inspiring. The artwork, the architecture, the age of this building (which is the ‘new’ St Peter’s) is mind boggling, and when one realises that the building was constructed without the technology that would be used today, there is a clear sense that this wasn’t just a job, a task to be performed; those involved were pushed to achieve the very best of their abilities here because of what they were working on, and the purpose for which this building would be used for many centuries to come.

The Pieta in St Peter’s Basilica

As we walked around this magnificent building, a number of experiences stand out. The first was the visit to the Chapel of the Pieta, the wondrous sculpture by Michelangelo of Mary holding her son as he has been brought down from the cross. It’s a sculpture I have seen and read about and studied, but nothing can prepare you for coming face to face with it. The sheer size and complexity of Michelangelo’s work brings home the very human emotion of this poignant moment. This was a mother holding her dead child. This was the act of a woman who, though she trusted in God implicitly, was caught up the very real experience of holding the son she had borne and raised and now whose lifeless body was before her. And all that is brought out of the marble by Michelangelo and made present to those who view this majestic piece.

The second experience was the ability, yet again, to spend some time in prayer in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, bringing to mind all those who have asked for my prayers, who are in need of them, and who deserve them.

St Peter enthroned within the nave of the Basilica named after him

The third experience was the sheer size of the building. Though not the Pope’s official church as Bishop of Rome (see above) it is certainly the principal church for papal liturgies and ceremonies. The size of St Peter’s compared to other churches around the world is marked on the floor of the central nave: wherever you’ve come from to visit St Peter’s there is physical reminder on the very floor you can walk on of just how minuscule your own home cathedral is when compared to his particular church building. Little doubt is left about which is the greatest.

After leaving St Peter’s itself, we meandered through some of the many gift, book and souvenir shops both within the piazza and just outside the piazza (there’s an ‘international’ border there somewhere), before catching the Metro back our apartment. The day was capped by a meal with our hosts in one of the local eateries we’ve been visiting often during recent days (the coffee is excellent!).

Europe in January 2017 – The Eighth Day

Today didn’t start off as planned. That’s because late yesterday afternoon I began feeling distinctly unwell, and the situation didn’t improve much overnight. I think it might have been the hamburger I had for lunch in Firenze yesterday that did it.

All of which meant that today, instead of joining my fellow intrepid travellers on the planned tour of Benedictine sites, including the experience of travelling on the autostradas, I remained behind in Rome, spending the overwhelming majority of the day in the tiny apartment.

You should have no fear, gentle reader, the situation is much improved as I write the contribution, and tomorrow should see me fitting fight again and ready to sally forth to take on whatever the day has in store for the intrepid travellers.

Of course, once I recovered myself by late morning (I’ll spare you the details of how that came about!), I did think I should leave the apartment, if only for a little while, to a) get some fresh air, and b) perhaps have something to eat. As it turns out, there were three things that I would like to mention about today.

Firstly, since it’s only a few blocks away, I paid a return visit to Chiesa di Sant’ Alfonso di Ligouri that we had visited on our first afternoon in Rome. This is the church that houses the original Icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. The reason for my visit today was to bring to a successful conclusion the ‘secret mission’ that I had been entrusted with while here in Rome. To those who need to know, I would like to report: Mission Accomplished.

Since I had ventured out in the relative warmth of the day (it was a whole 8 degrees by this stage, pushing 9!) I decided that I might try to squeeze in one more thing from my personal ‘bucket list’ in the short time I had allowed myself to be out of the apartment. To that end, the second thing I should like to mention about today was the finding and visiting of the Chiesa di Santa Maria in Vallicella, also known more popularly as the Chiesa Nuova.

Why this particular church of all the churches in Rome? It’s a very simple answer.

The Chiesa Nuova is the principal church of the Rome Congregation of the Oratory, founded by St Philip Neri is 1561. The headquarters of the Roman Oratory are, in fact, right next door to the church. For many years, I have had a devotion to St Philip Neri, whose life story and his devotion to God, the Mission, and the Church have been sources of inspiration for my own ministry. I was presented with an original (proto)icon of St Philip Neri as an ordination gift.

The reason for the visit to the Chiesa Nuova is, therefore, a simple one: Philip is buried there.

Today, I had the opportunity to pray before the tomb of the saint who has inspired me for many years. It was the fulfilment of a long-held desire. And as I sat and knelt there in prayer before the tomb of St Philip Neri, entrusting to his intercession prayers for my loved ones who have died, the loved ones who are my family and friends, and many other cares and concerns, I felt a profound sense of peace and contentment with my life and with my ministry.

There, before the tomb of the one who has inspired me so much already, there was more inspiration that will, I pray, carry me forward for many years to come. It was a true blessing.

Having tarried in prayer so long in the Chiesa Nuova, I didn’t feel like walking back to the apartment. And since there was a taxi stand outside the church, I decided to splurge on a taxi back towards Roma Termini. Which brings me to the third thing I would like to mention.

Roman traffic and motorists have a certain reputation that precedes them. And my brief experience of walking around the streets since arriving in Rome (and even in Firenze yesterday) would seem to suggest that the reputation is well deserved. Travelling in the taxi the short distance today removed any doubt. It wasn’t that it was unsafe, or that the taxi driver didn’t drive safely, it’s just that there appears to be in Roman drivers a very loose association with traffic rules, road markings, and other general things that we Australians take for granted when driving on our roads.

Australians generally expect themselves and other drivers to abide the enacted road rules, with the threat of enforcement  by the various police agencies if too many people decide they don’t want to play by the rules. Not so in Rome: the police actively participate in the same loose association with the road rules as their fellow motorists.

And yet, the system works. Everyone seems to know exactly which rule is not being followed, and there is a large amount of hospitality shown between motorists. There may be a lot of traffic, and it may appear to flow chaotically, but it certainly flows.

The good news is that the taxi ride ended without incident, and I ended up back at the apartment just over the short time I had allowed myself to be outside.

And thus, dear reader, ends this particular day, and this particular entry.

Europe in January 2017 – The Seventh Day

As I mentioned at the end of my last post, dear reader, today was the day carved out for Florence, Firenze, to the city that is at the heart of the Italian Renaissance. And the city didn’t disappoint.

We were up early in order to be at Roma Termini early enough to catch the Freccisrossa high speed train to Firenze so as to give us a goodly amount of time in the fabulous city. The train journey was an hour and half, with speeds up to 250 km/h. Have I mentioned how much Australia could do with a high speed train service? Yes? Okay then, you already know my feelings on the lack of such back home.

Anyway, arriving in Firenze just before 10am, the first thing I noticed was how damn cold it was. Those who know me well know I prefer the cooler even colder weather, but believe me when I say “it was cold” I mean “it was COLD!!!”. Today was the first time I had to break out the jacket I purchased in preparation for the trip, and even then, with t-shirt, long-sleeve shirt, jumper, and jacket – not to mention the hand-knitted scarf – I was still cold. I suspect I would have adjusted eventually, but the difficulty of ‘central heating’ didn’t allow me the opportunity. I was constantly removing this or that piece of additional clothing when we went indoors, only to have to put it back on when we went back out. I suspect the biting wind might have contributed as well.

Leaving the weather aside, let’s return to the city of Firenze.

The first stop was the famous, and magnificent, Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, the Cathedral Church of St Mary of the Flowers, which houses the cathedra of the Archbishop of Florence. Popularly known simply as Il Duomo (“the Cathedral”), this is truly amazing building.

The facade of Il Duomo, Firenze

Like most of the major churches we’ve visited so far, this building is the work of artists whose names are well-known from art history lessons (the dome is the work of Brunelleschi), but these buildings are not simply works of art. They represent in their very construction and architecture a firm belief in the divine, and their construction naturally draws the eye of the individual up into the heights. I found it hard not to experience that same draw as I walked through Il Duomo, and I doubt I was alone today or, indeed, have been alone through the centuries.

My fellow intrepid travellers insisted that I should visit the Baptistery. Having been here two years ago, they suggested that I could go in alone and they would meet me back at the entrance in thirty minutes. I initially thought I probably wouldn’t need that long, but once I entered I was glad I had at least that long (more may have been better).

The ceiling of the baptistery is simply stunning, and I couldn’t help but try to imagine the place lit only by candles – hundreds of them perhaps – and the experience of new catechumens being brought into that space during the Vigil of Easter Night. It must surely have been mind-glowingly awesome, almost to the point of fear, to experience such an event.

The mosaic ceiling of the Firenze Baptistery

The photo doesn’t really do it justice, but the mosaic covered ceiling, set against a gold background, features the ‘heavenly city’ to which the catechumen is soon to be joined through baptism. There can be no escaping the significance of the ritual acts celebrated in this building – one only has to look up to be reminded of just how powerful they are.

As I exited the Baptistery and rejoined my fellow intrepid travellers, they had a knowing look on their faces. I was founding wanting for words to immediately describe the experience.

As any journey to Firenze requires we visiting two more places (or perhaps ‘institutions’ might be better). The first of these was the Ponte Vecchio, the old bridge of Firenze that pans the river Arno and is lined with shops. I have to confess that I had always pictured it in my mind’s eye as being something a little bigger – don’t ask me why, I just did – and so was a little surprised as just how ‘small’ it is. In reality, of course, the Arno isn’t that wide at this point, and the bridge has been around since medieval times. Given its history the bridge is the ‘right size’. Walking across the Ponte Vecchio, however, and peering longingly into the jewellery shops that now span it was certainly an eye opener.

The other ‘institution’ that we visited was the famous Firenze markets where if you wanted to purchase anything made of leather you would be overwhelmed by choices. The craftsmanship on display is truly amazing, and I made some small purchases along the way. I was sorely tempted to buy one of the many handmade briefcases…but just couldn’t justify owning one anymore. I did, however, find the famous Il Porcellino, the original, not the copy outside Sydney Hospital. Like all good visitors, I put a coin in the boar’s mouth for luck, and rubbed its snout in the hope of a return, one day, to Florence.

Il Porcellino in Firenze

After lunch we visited La Basilica di San Lorenzo, which apart from being one of Firenze’s basilicas is also famous for two other things: firstly, the connection of Firenze’s famous Medici family, including the burial place of many of them (including Casino de’ Medici, the father of the nation (of Firenze)), and secondly, the number of works executed by Donatello for the interior decoration and the church (which may be why he, too, is buried inside the church). It is another stunningly beautiful architectural work by Brunelleschi.

A return walk through the cobble-stoned streets of Firenze brought us back to the train station and our high speed Frecciarossa train back to Roma Termini, for some quick shopping and then a meal in our tiny apartment. A thoroughly enjoyable day visiting Firenze.

Europe in January 2017 – The Sixth Day

Today was a day for travelling, as your intrepid travellers were up bright and early – before the sun even! (which I may have mentioned isn’t difficult at this time of year in Madrid when the sun isn’t above the horizon until about 8.30ish in the morning) – in order to get to the airport in preparation for our departure from Madrid and our arrival into Rome.

Today was a day to say Adios, Madrid! and Buon Giorno, Roma!

Having made the flight with ease, and crossed the Mediterranean Sea courtesy of Alitalia, we arrived into Rome’s Stazione Termini, and then walk the very short walk to our next tiny apartment to be greeted – very enthusiastically – by Nicole, our hostess. The warmth of the greeting – which included a small plate of (very yummy) cakes – is probably down to the fact that my fellow travellers stayed in the very same time apartment when they spent a fortnight in Rome two years ago. But I’m just guessing!

After getting settled, we departed for a little stroll to a couple of local churches: the first was a little, insignificant number called the Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore, which is, quite literally, one block over from where we’re staying. It is an impressive building with a grand facade, and a traditional basilica-style interior, very open, very spacious, very Roman.

The sanctuary and baldacchino of Santa Maria Maggiore

The history and lengthy life is quite clearly written on the walls of the Basilica, and walking around the interior of the building it is possible to feel the prayers that have been said in that space for over 1,500 years. There is a real sense of connection with the story of faith that has gone before and which now finds itself being lived out in so many different ways.

Just down the road the Santa Maria Maggiore is the Chiesa di Sant’Alfonso di Ligouri all’Esquilino which houses the original 15th-century icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help (or Succour). Visiting this church – and this icon – has a particular significance for this intrepid traveller, since Mary, under the title of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, is the patroness of the diocese in which I serve. It was a wonderful experience to visit this icon, and to spend a few moments in prayer before the icon for my diocese and its needs.

But that was only part of the reason we visited Sant’Alfonso di Ligouri this afternoon: the other reason was as a scouting trip for the ‘secret mission’ I have been entrusted with while here in Rome. But more of that later in the week.

The third and final church we visited this evening – and one which my fellow travellers were keen to share with me – was the Basilica di Santa Maria devil Angeli e dei Martiri (St Mary of the Angels and Martyrs). Walking up to this building on the opposite side of Termini I was met with this facade:

The facade of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri

Nothing, however, could prepare me for what lay behind this rather non-descript, some might say ancient (they’d be right!) facade. I was dumbfounded once I walked into this remarkable and awe-inspiring building. It was simply beautiful, and large – so very very large. One of the architects who worked on this building, which was built inside part of the Baths of the Emperor Diocletian, was none other than Michelangelo himself.

I’m told that visiting this church during the fall of evening doesn’t allow the true beauty of be seen – God help me when we visit again during daylight, cause I was pretty much blown away by the sheer grandeur as it was. If, dear reader, I don’t survive another visit to this holy church, know that I have died a happy and contented man in having been able to visit this sacred place at all.

After these three churches, it was time for dinner, and then a return to our tiny apartment to sleep and prepare for tomorrow… Florence!

Europe in January 2017 – The Fifth Day

After yesterday’s infusion of culture we return to some ‘sight-seeing’ today, and the intrepid travellers sallied forth in search of something quintessentially Spanish: bull-fighting!

Our destination this morning was the Plaza de Toros in the suburb of Las Ventas.

The facade of the Plaza de Toros, Las Ventas

Having reached our destination, we were faced with an imposing edifice (as the photo shows) which fronted a large space dedicated to this aspect of traditional Spanish life that has been exported to many other places both near and far. Our visit included the Museao Taurino, which highlighted the many positive (?) aspects of bull-fighting in Spanish life, as well as the opportunity to walk into the ring (ruedo) itself.

Perhaps the strangest part of the whole experience was hearing the word “liturgy” used in connection with the event of a bull-fight. For the life of me I can’t understand how anything connected with the killing of a living entity could be linked to the word “liturgy”: ritual, yes, but liturgy, no.

The other thing that struck about our visit to the Plaza de Toros was the sheer lack of numbers. Granted we were there when the gates (literally) opened, and it seemed to be that a goodly number of a fellow visitors were from outside Spain, but I wonder if either a) the Spanish are moving away from this aspect of their history and culture, or b) they are so engaged with it that they don’t feel the need to visit the Plaza except when there is a “spectacular” (as each event is named). I don’t have an answer to the doubt, but I would certainly like to know.

After our visit to the Plaza de Toros, we ventured forth to the Ermita de San Antonio de la Florida (the Royal Chapel of Saint Anthony of Florida) which is known, and renown, for two things: firstly, the ceiling and dome frescoes are by non other than Francisco Goya (whose works of art we had also seen during yesterday’s visit to the Museo Nacional de la Prado), and secondly, because it is the place where he was buried, after being transferred from Bordeaux where he had died. A small building, Goya’s artistic treatment of the dome and ceiling transforms the building into something uniquely beautiful and transcendent. Following Goya’s burial in the building it became necessary for a replica (or parallel) version of the Ermita to built next door in order for the local parish to have a functional building in which to celebrate the liturgy of the Church.

Following the Ermita, we intrepid travellers walked back towards the centre of the city, stopping at a ceramic shop featuring works original and hereditary works from across several provinces of Spain (the store owner we spoke to was the fourth generation of his family to have worked with the various families whose works he was selling), and then a quick stop for lunch at the Mercado de San Miguel (as mentioned in a previous instalment.

For this particular intrepid traveller, this was followed by a return to the tiny apartment for some rest and washing, etc, before meeting up with my fellow travellers for Mass at one of the local parish churches (a Carmelite parish in the middle of Sol, believe it or not) and dinner to celebrate our last night in Madrid.

Tomorrow we fly from Madrid to Rome – but that, dear readers, is for the next instalment.

Europe in January 2017 – The Fourth Day

Having ‘done’ a few churches in the last couple of days – some good, some not quite so much – today was the day for the intrepid travellers to take in some more refined culture, and it was culture with a capital C.

Our first stop was to the Museo Nacional de la Prado, the famous national art museum that houses some of the great Spanish Masters, along with other wonderful works of art some of which I have ‘studied’ in the past (yes, there was a time in the dim dark past when I was involved in Art).

The facade of the Museo Nacional de la Prado

The several hours spent wandering through the various salas, organised in both period and style of the artists contained therein, was enjoyable, informative, and, I hasten to add, formative in the best sense of that word. Seeing the original works of art that may have been seen in books or presentations is a radically different experience when they are viewed in person, face to face (so to speak) with the work itself.

Coming from a country that has a history of white settlement that stretches back just over two hundred years, walking through a museum such as the Prado reminds me that Australia, in that context, is a relatively young entry on to the world stage. To see works of art that date back to before the arrival of white settlement to the continent that is Australia is jarring; and a reminder that history goes back a long way.

Of interest to myself in some parts of the Prado was the means to learn some of the history of Spain through the art on display. As I said, not enjoyable, but also informative and formative.

After lunch in the Prado, we sought out another Museo Nacional close by: the Museo Reina Sofia, which houses modern art. Although not a huge fan of modern art, I certainly didn’t want to be in Spain and miss the opportunity to see works by Piccasso and Dali, and their contemporaries.

The facade of the Museo Reina Sofia

There were plenty of the more honoured pieces of modern art to be seen in the Museo, along with some pieces that I doubt I will ever come to grips with (though, I would hasten to add that the nature of modern art allows for that very possibility anyway!). The one difficulty at the Museo Reina Sofia as compared to the Prado was the way in which the works were organised.

Rather than being by period, artist or style, the works are presented according to themes, so that works by Picasso and Dali – the ones I really wanted to see! – were distributed amongst works by other artists depending upon the theme chosen by those responsible for curating the current display. Such a decision is an entirely valid and would have made more sense to me if I were more attuned to modern art. That I’m not meant it was a mild source of distraction in an otherwise enjoyable meander through some interesting and some not so interesting pieces of modern art.

Having had our fill of culture for the day, we returned to our tiny apartment, for a light meal and then to sleep, ready for our last full day in Madrid tomorrow.

But that, gentle reader, will have to wait until the next exciting instalment.

Europe in January 2017 – The Third Day

On the third day of the January 2017 trip to Spain and Italy, your intrepid travellers arose (very) early in order to the catch the high-speed train from Madrid to Barcelona. This train, operated by Renefe, travels at close to 300 km/h, making the journey from Madrid to Barcelona just a touch over two and a half hours.

Leaving Madrid well before the sun had risen provided the opportunity to watch the sunrise from our train carriage as we sped along the Spanish plains towards the northern Mediterranean coast and the city of Barcelona.

Barcelona is, of course, situated in Catalunya, a part of Spain that has been seeking formal independence from the central government for many years. The Catalan people have their own dialect of the Spanish language (which description they may not like) and very proudly use that in preference to the more traditional Spanish. They are very close granted, but the presence of multi-lingual signs featuring two different dialects of Spanish makes it clear that the Catalunyans really do see themselves as different to the rest of Spain.

The primary purpose of our visit to Barcelona was to see the famous (and as yet incomplete) Basilica de la Sagrada Familia or to give the building its full name, the Basilica and Expiatory Church of the Holy Family. Designed by Antoni Gaudi, the Basilica has been under construction since 1882. It is often described as a wonderful of architectural design and construction but I have to confess that it did nothing for me.

The facade of the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia

The external part of the building looked like an unfortunate blend of old and new with one appearing to melt into the other at whim (though I suspect there was nothing whimsical about it at all). The external visage, when I first viewed it, was jarring to the point of distraction, and try as I might I could find very little ‘beauty’ in the facades I could see. Does that make me a philistine?

The interior of the basilica was slightly less jarring if only because there was no mix of old and new. The design was consistent throughout the main floor, a very open and modernist large church building. The use of colours, particularly in the stained glass, was intriguing, and certainly added to the ‘openness’ of the space, which could only be described as light, breezy. There were some architectural features that were very impressive, but my overall sense of the building is that it is more a work of art than a church designed for the celebration of liturgy.

Perhaps that’s the danger of a liturgist exploring a church building. I always tend to explore and assess the building on the basis of how it might be used for what the purpose it was constructed – i.e. for the celebration of liturgy.

And for me, the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia didn’t work liturgically.

After what I considered a disappointing visit to la Sagrada Familia we explored some of the Latin quarter of Barcelona, little back alleys and small streets, hidden plazas and buildings of significance, including the Catedral de Barcelona, a building that dates back to 1298. In comparison with the previous church, this building is particularly moving, with side chapels devoted to many a saint, a cloister that includes the provision of geese (yes, Bishop Bill, there is definitely some planning and plotting going on), and the cathedra of the Archbishop of Barcelona that has been occupied by the current and all past holders of that ecclesiastical office.

The Cathedral of Barcelona from the plaza in front

The Cathedral has new and old components, but the difference is that that they have been brought together in a more harmonious way. And there’s the rub; there was a consistency to what those responsible for the building have attempted to contrive. And it worked.

After exploring these two churches, it was time for a late lunch and then the trip back to Madrid via the high-speed train (we so need these in Australia!).

It was a long day, but a rewarding day, and well worth the effort make the trip to Barcelona.

Europe in January 2017 – The Second Day

The first full day in Madrid started early for this intrepid traveller, so early, in fact, that it started last night! Having adjourned to bed early in an attempt to “catch up” on sleep, I awoke at what I thought was 9.30am – and thereby had a momentary panic – only to discover it was only 9.30am on Tuesday evening. This changing time zones is for the birds!

Anyway, this morning saw me awake before the sun rose, which wasn’t difficult given that sunrise this morning was scheduled for 0836! Getting up, showering, have the heart-starter coffee, etc etc in the dark is usually reserved for very occasions when I have to be somewhere early in the morning, not on an “ordinary” day (though there was nothing ordinary about today even though we are in Ordinary Time).

Venturing forth from our apartment close to 1000, with the sun feeling more like 0700, our first stop was to find a place for coffee. We found a nice little place just around the corner – which isn’t difficult given the sheer volume of similar “nice little places” in Madrid – where we availed ourselves of the chance to use our rudimentary Spanish to consume some very strong coffee and some butter croissants. Thus fortified, it was off to see what could be seen.

We ventured along the Calle de Mayor towards the Palacio Real de Madrid, taking advantage of whatever possibilities we might discover along the way. One of those possibilities was a store that specialised in the sale of ecclesiastical goods of very superior standards.

The ecclesiastical goods store on the Calle de Mayor

Three liturgists walking into an ecclesiastical goods store should set off alarm bells. There was some simply stunning items to be found, and it would have been very easy to have purchased a few if not many of the items that were to be found therein. My Parish Business Manager will be relieved to hear the Parish credit card stayed firmly in the wallet – though there’s a few days left in Madrid, and I know where to find the store!

Leaving the ecclesiastical goods store, we continued our saunter along the Calle de Mayor until we walked up a little street and strode firmly into the Plaza de Mayor, a square featuring one of the most beautifully decorated governmental buildings I have ever had the pleasure to view. Unfortunately, the photo I took of this Plaza is actually a video and I can’t upload it at the moment – but I hope to do so when I return to Australia.

The Plaza de Mayor led us to the Plaza de San Miguel which featured the architecturally intriguing Mercado de San Miguel, the exploration of which revealed some mouth watering possibilities for our eventual lunch. There was seafood, paella, cheese, wine, beer, yogurt, and many other things in little stalls within the building, simply too much to have everything. Having a look around though proved appetising…

Leaving the Mercado de San Miguel saw us delivered within a few minutes to the corner facing the Palacio Real de Madrid and the Cathedral de Neustra Señora de la Almudena, the Cathedral Church of the Archbishop of Madrid. We stood on the plaza that separates the two grand buildings, and I was overcome by the sheer size of the Cathedral.

The Catedral de Nuestra Senora de la Almudena

That the main doors of the Catedral should face the courtyard of the Palacio shouldn’t surprise anyone in what was once considered the most Catholic nation in Europe. One can almost imagine the Spanish Royal Family leaving their residence and walking through the courtyard, across the plaza, and up the stairs into the Catedral. Almost. More on the Catedral a little later.

The Palacio continues to be the official residence of Their Majesties The King and Queen of Spain, together with their two daughters. That being said, it is also a place of national significance and is, therefore, open to members of the public, citizen and visitor alike, to wander through (the carefully laid out route). It is, as you might expect for a building dating to the late 1700s, a building of splendour, designed to project the power of the Crown (not the current possessor thereof) in architectural and symbolic ways.

Walking through the public and ceremonial rooms of the Palacio it is possible to see how the designers and builders have sought to fulfil the building’s function. It is truly a magnificent building, beyond price by any standard, and a building that has especial significance for the nation and people of Spain. That it is not a museum but a living and working building is evident as you walk through.

Palacio Real de Madrid

The Royal Chapel of the Palacio was ornate and, liturgically at least, a little overdone. Having said that, I wouldn’t mind being appointed chaplain to a Catholic king or queen and have the celebrate all many of liturgical rites in a chapel like that. Anyone know of any positions of the like currently vacant? No? Oh well, back to parish land for me!

After our tour of the Palacio, we stepped inside the aforementioned and adjacent Catedral de Neustra Senora de la Almudena. This is an interesting building, a mix of the old and the new that appears to jar when they meet. In other words, I don’t think it quite worked for me architecturally. I’m not sure how it would function liturgically, not having experienced the celebration of liturgy in that space, so I am left with the impression of having walked around the place.

The one part of the Cathedral that did work for me and which I found particularly prayerful and moving was the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, the walls of which were covered in mosaics of aspects of the Christian story in modern and very warm colours. The modern styled tabernacle at the centre of the rounded sanctuary was impressive both in size and beauty. I think that the reason this particular space worked for me was simply because it wasn’t a mix of old and new. Though old techniques were used to decorate the space, it was entirely modern in style. There was a symmetry to the space that couldn’t help but be conducive to prayer.

There were some interesting aspects of the buildings fabric which have definitely given me some ideas for the renovation of the Cathedral “back home” – I think someone should prepare the Bishop for both the changes and the price tag!

After our visit to the Catedral was over, we adjourned to the previously visited Mercado de San Miguel for some lunch, and the repast was was everything it promised to be. The Mercado is clearly popular with both locals and tourists – there was standing room only for many more people than us, but that too seemed to be the norm of lunching there.

The completion of lunch saw us doing some more wandering that ultimately led us to the successful navigation of the Madrid Metro system (which is very comprehensive and easy to use) to land us at Serrano, the upmarket shopping precinct of Madrid where all the big luxury brands have their outlets. Needless to say not many Euros were spent there, and then only for some light refreshments before the return trip back to our apartment.

Tonight, however, we dined out, walking up the small street outside our building to the nearby Plaza Santa Ana for dinner. Naturally enough, since we are in Spain, we opted for the tapas, enjoying a tasty meal and a bottle of wine in the outdoor setting of the plaza.

But now it’s to bed, because tomorrow sees us venturing forth to Barcelona! But more of that tomorrow…

Europe in January 2017 – The First Day

So the intrepid travellers departed Sydney at 1645 on Monday 9th January enroute firstly to Madrid and then Rome. After a fourteen hour flight to Dubai, an eight hour stopover in Dubai International Airport (which thankfully to some pre-planning on the part of one of the travellers included the opportunity to shower!), and then a further eleven hour flight to Madrid, it’s now 1645 on Tuesday 19th January.

Ain’t world travelling a crazy thing?!

As I sit and write this first part of the travelogue, we intrepid travellers are safely ensconced in the tiny apartment that will be our home while here in Madrid. It is good to have ‘stopped’ moving in once sense, and to have reached the destination.

But let me go back in time, dear reader, and share some of the highlights of the last God-alone knows how many hours…

The flight from Sydney to Dubai was the first time I had been aboard the Airbus A380 aircraft, the incredible two-deck machine that seems to defy all the laws of aerodynamics. But it flies, and flies quite comfortably.

I was a little miffed during the flight because the person occupying the seat in front of me seemed determined to recline his seat into my skull as soon as the captain had turned off the fasten seatbelts sign. Trying to eat one’s Mushroom Tortellini would have been a real challenge if the cabin staff hasn’t insisted he put his seat forward during the meal service. Thank goodness for Qantas cabin staff I say. It was a temporary relief however because back the seat reclined just as soon as the food tray had been whisked away by the aforementioned Qantas cabin staff. I guess I should have expected it during what was, after all, a night flight.

The arrival into Dubai was ahead of schedule, always something one wishes to hear in connection with air travel. The downside, of course, is that when you have to wait for a connecting flight it only means an extra hour in the airport terminal. Thankfully, there had been some plotting and planning surrounding our original scheduled seven hour stopover in Dubai, and we had purchased entree into one of the airport lounges (including the aforementioned showers) to while away our time in more luxurious setting. Can I just say: Best. Choice. Ever!

The availability of showers, a buffet breakfast (at 0230, it’s still a goer!), barista-made coffee, and the kind of seating that you just can’t find in your ordinary, run-of-the-mill departure lounge made the stopover not only bearable but downright enjoyable! A personal highlight during the stopover was experiencing the azan (Muslim call to prayer) as the sun was rising over the desert on which the Dubai International Airport sits. A very moving experience I have to say.

The airport itself is both large and architecturally stunning, an amazing use of space, material (including water – a precious resource in a desert country) that is functional as well.

The flight from Dubai to Madrid was also an interesting experience – another Airbus A380, another person sitting in front of me wishing to recline their seat into my forehead (this time during a daytime flight), and some wonderful cabin staff (this time courtesy of Emirates). There were entertaining additions to this flight however: passengers who seemed to think they could ignore the conditions of carriage, and then feel aggrieved to the point of being rude when cabin staff pointed out that the passengers would not be able to do just as they wanted. Go figure! Add in people complaining about not being able to have their choice of food, not having enough choice in the salad (or suggesting that what was advertised as a salad wasn’t in fact a salad – I can’t be sure), and there was plenty of entertainment to go around.

A momentary panic crept into this first ‘day’ when, having arrived in Madrid, I sought to retrieve my carry on bag from the overhead (being the good passenger and putting it there when I left Dubai!) only to discover it had gone MISSING! The momentary panic may have something to do with the said bag contacting both the medication which I have been prescribed to take AND my travel documentation (apart from the Passport which was safely in my hand!). The mystery of its disappearance was solved when the other passenger who took it ‘by mistake’ returned it to the aircraft and the Emirates cabin crew. Crisis averted, and the trip could continue.

Catching a cab from the airport to our little apartment was followed by a quick shopping trip, and then a walk to explore the nearby Puerto del Sol and, more importantly, to find a place for coffee. Which we found and enjoyed before returning to the apartment for an early night.

Stay tuned, dear reader, for further dispatches.