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Archive for December 2013

Amalfi, resting place of the Scottish patron saint….

amalfi Amalfi, in the Middle Ages, was an important, independent maritime state with a population of over fifty thousand. It’s now just pretty but very popular tourist destination. The main architectural attraction is the fabulous cathedral with its Cripta di Sant’Andrea (Crypt of Saint Andrew), housing bones of the Scottish patron saint, Andrew.

amalfi-cathedral outside Certainly this is a little known fact to most of the good citizens of Scotland and, if you were to ask the majority of Scots shoppers in Buchanan Street, Glasgow or Prince’s Street, Edinburgh, the current whereabouts of the majority their saint, you would be treated to looks of bewilderment; tell them most the remains are in Italy and you will be greeted to looks of incredulity.

cath inside In the early days of the Christian church, during the reign of Nero, Andrew lived in Patras, the current regional capital of Western Greece. After baptising the family of the Governor (not a politically correct action at the time!), he was crucified. The X shaped cross became the symbol of St Andrew and forms the Scottish national flag (the Saltire), later a part of the flag of Great Britain after the union of England and Scotland.

crucifix History has it that, in 357 AD, the bones were transferred to Constantinople from Patras on the orders of the emperor Constantine. When, in 1204, the French and Venetian attacked Constantinople, many relics (including the Shroud of Turin), were sent to Western Europe. The Cardinal of Capua, brought the remains of St Andrew to the town of his birth, Amalfi.

St_Andrew_reliquary Andrew is not just patron saint of Scotland but also of Russia, Romania, Barbados and Greece. Relics were important ‘magic’ in the work of Christian missionaries and the probability is that the all bones did not remain in Amalfi but some (certainly a tooth, a kneecap, an arm and some finger bones) were exhumed by the missionary monk, St Rule, who landed in Scotland, at the village of Kirrymont , now known as the city of St Andrews.

St_Andrews_Cathedral_Ruins The bones of the first Apostle eventually became a centre of European pilgrimage, second only to Santiago de Compostella in Spain. Sadly the remains were destroyed in the 16th century during the Scottish Reformation. It would be interesting to know just what parts of poor old Andrew still reside in Amalfi….. To add insult to injury, in 1879, the Archbishop of Amalfi gave a further part of Andrew, his shoulder blade, to St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh!

cath inside Bones apart, Amalfi remains one of the most pleasant towns on this spectacularly beautiful stretch of Italian coast and is a great base for exploring the surrounding towns and villages including lovely Positano.

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Carnevale di Venezia, a little (light-hearted and condensed) history.

One of the greatest parties in the world, certainly the most flamboyant in terms of color, cost and style, the Venice Carnival has not had the unbroken history most tourists ven1believe.

The word “carnevale” derives from the Latin for “farewell to meat” and refers to the Christian tradition of giving up meat-eating in Lent (the time before Easter). Naturally, it’s a great opportunity to overindulge in the days preceding Shrove Tuesday, Pancake Day, Martidi Grasso or Mardi Gras, whatever you want to call it, with plenty of merrymaking before the ‘suffering’ begins…. It’s a tradition celebration time in many parts of the world but, with the extravagant masks and costumes, Venice does it a little differently, with a great deal of style from the comic to the sinister, the bizarre to the beautiful.ven2

The wearing of masks for street parties in Italy long precedes Christian times. The Romans celebrated in the same vein, with even slaves being allowed to wear masks. A little like school uniforms, the mask was a social leveller offering little distinction between social classes (except the evident cost of the outfit! Sorry I’m a cynic). ven9

The tradition of masks in Venice can be traced back to the 1200’s but the heyday of the Carnival was in the 1700’s when, decadence really set in. This was possibly as a result of Venice´s loss of mercantile power and influence due to the rise of Dutch and British trade monopoly. What better way to forget your problems than in an orgy of vice, fornication, drunkenness, dancing, music, gluttony, gambling and general irresponsibility. Sounds good to me…..     ven3

After the dastardly French, under Napoleon Bonaparte, conquered Venice in 1797, the glory days of the Venetian Republic virtually ended, cash flow declined as did the carnival. ven4

Astonishingly fascist dictators and puritans have something in common, they’re all killjoys! The final death note of the carnival was in the 1930s when Mussolini banned it totally. ven5

Thankfully, Venetian businessmen, never ones to miss a moneymaking opportunity, revived the tradition in 1979 and the cash registers continue to ring more loudly every year. ITALY-CARNIVAL-VENICE

Whatever the history, the Carnival is one of the events that no tourist should miss, it´s spectacular. However beware…. trying to find accommodation in Venice during Carnival is more than a nightmare, it´s impossible. ven8

If you want to visit and I do urge you to go, use an experienced specialist tour operator such as Allegro Holidays (part of the award-winning Blue Danube Holidays Group), they will even help you rent costumes. For dates and prices, have a look at: http://www.allegroholidays.com/Carnival_in_Venice-Package-Independent.htm

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Grand Ball of Serenissima at the Venice Carnival 2014

Grand Ball of Serenissima at the Venice Carnival 2014

Venice Serenissima Ball 2014One of the most grandiose celebrations anywhere open to the public for those who do not mind paying the hefty entrance ticket of euro  333, is the historic Serenissima  (Republic of Venice) Grand Ball

The ball will take place on the main floor of an authentic  14th century palace located on the canal of Misericordia, with its elegant Gothic windows overlooking the canal. The palace will be illuminated entirely by candlelight to create the historic ambiance

This year the Grand Ball of the Serenissima is dedicated entirely to the great composer Giuseppe Verdi, one of the most popular opera composers in the world. His melodies  performed by first grade musicians and singers dressed in authentic costumes, will uplift your soul and spirit. Enjoy a gourmet your candlelight Gala Dinner with wines and cocktails.  There will be opportunity to sing along Verdi’s most famous arias. At midnight the ball culminates with a cavalcade of dances. Join in the mascaraed and forget who you are!  It is an experience of a lifetime.

We are at your disposal for historical costume rentals. For further details on Venice Carnival balls click here.

Christmas in Sicily.

 

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In common with many latin countries, the Christmas season really starts as early as 8th December, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, when people start decorating their homes. Those of us from North America or Northern Europe have always been used to christmas trees but, while they are now popular in Sicily, they were unknown until the U.S. liberation when the G.I.s brought a little bit of home to the Mediterranean!

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Traditional decoration, as in the rest of Italy (the presepi) and Spain (the belen) is the ‘crib’ or nativity scene. From simple home-made cribs to fantastic and intricate scenes in all the churches and cathedrals, the common theme is always the stable in Bethlehem with Mum, Dad, baby Jesus, shepherds, three kings and assorted domestic animals.

 

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One notable event takes place each year in Custonaci is the ‘Presepe Vivente’ where the locals re-enact the nativity. In many of the smaller mountain villages the locals light massive bonfires to ‘keep the baby Jesus warm’.

 

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As in many catholic countries, Christmas Eve is the main family occasion. Most families are large and meet up for a truly sumptuous dinner at home, enjoyed by everyone from small children to the great grandparents. The presents are exchanged after dinner, rather than Christmas day.

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Turkey is starting to appear fairly regularly but there is no special Christmas dish except, perhaps, lamb. In a country famed for its sweet dishes, ‘buccellati’ (large round biscuity cakes with almond, pistachio and dried fruits filling) are obligatory festive fare.

 

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For the next week, Sicilians carry on feasting with plenty of wine, conversation, family reunions and general partying. The highlight comes on New Years eve with the ‘cenone’ (big dinner), another family affair with tables groaning under the weight of food and bottles of Castelmonte Frizzante, a naturally effervescent Champagne alternative, similar to Spumante. Strangely lasagne (but no other pasta) is thought to be lucky eating but the mainland tradition of ‘lucky lentils’ is making inroads and thereby adding to methane gas emissions throughout the island!

 

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Don’t tell the kids at home but Sicilian children are on a double winner. Not only do they get presents on Christmas Eve, but La Beffana, an ugly old witch, comes and distributes sweets and gifts for all. This is a local alternative to the rest of Southern Europe where it is usually the Three Kings.

 

Sicily is an amazing place to visit at any time of the year. For me, Blue Danube Holidays, are the specialists with a mountain of experience of this charming island.