When we were planning this road trip through Andalusia, Córdoba had been near the bottom of his list and near the top of mine. But I can’t for the life of me remember why or what in particular I wanted to see. The road from Cádiz to Córdoba is part motorway, but you can skirt Seville and take the country back roads for quite a ways. The scenery is quite something with massive landholdings all the more notable for their lack of fencing. Popping next door to borrow a bottle opener would entail quite the hike. As we saw on the road to Ronda, the farmland is set with military precision in a patchwork of colours that would do any painter’s palette proud. I had read about the miracle wines of Jerez and that city, on the road from Cádiz to Córdoba, was on the list, too, albeit a late addition.

The miracle occurs in the wine cellar when, without any rational explanation, each cask decides, as though of its own volition, which type of sherry it is destined to be. The chemical composition of two casks laying side by side may be identical, but the trained nose of the vitner will smell out which solera it belongs to. ~ Andalusia in Focus

Denominazione di Origine

Sherry is the anglicised version of the Spanish Jerezand indeed since Sir Francis Drake nicked a few thousand barrels of the stuff from the port of Cádiz back in the late 1500s and took them home, Sherry has been a stalwart British matronly tipple. Until very recently, the only sherry I knew of was Harvey’s Bristol Cream and I was sure that it was British – but not so. For sherry to be sherry it has to be produced in the so-called sherry triangle between Jerez de la Frontera, Puerto de Santa María, and San Lucar de Barrameda.

I was offered a glass of sherry many lifetimes ago at a private do in Elm Park golf club in Dublin. I was in my 20s and was most upset that the butler could have mistaken me for someone older. In my world, only elderly aunts, and elderly maiden aunts at that, drank sherry. That sweet, sickly taste did nothing for me. But then I discovered the dry, white sherry – Fino – served chilled. Sherry isn’t restricted to creams or Fino, though. There’s also oloroso (medium sweet), amontillado (full-bodied), palo cortado (dark and strong), and the very sweet Pedro Ximenez and more.

Sherry and religion in Jerez

We hit Jerez on a Sunday, the one day that most of the bodegas are closed. Tio Pepe was an exception and I was all for taking a tour until I read on a poster at the ticket office that it was the most visited winery in Europe. For some inexplicable reason, I didn’t want to be just another tourist. So instead, we wandered off, thinking we’d fit in a tasting of our own over lunch somewhere.

As luck would have it, the church bells tolled just then and we followed the sound to find mass. I quite like my churches but as a practising Catholic, I resent being charged to go in and light a candle. I’d much prefer to leave a donation. Getting a squint inside while also getting mass was a double win. Iglesia de San Miguel dates back to the fifteenth century and is a solid testament to the craftsmanship of that era. The two carved gothic pillars that flank the altar are so intricately done that we were at the Gospel before I got over marvelling at the fact that someone carved these using a chisel. No electricity. No power tools. Just a chisel.

Iglesia de San Miguel Jerez

Iglesia de San Miguel Jerez

The Cathedral, too, is another gem, but it was closed. We had to make do with the outside. The city is on the ball though, and well up with the times, judging by the selfie-spot painted on the steps in front. It amused me no end. The city walls are spotted with holy paintings and some interesting statuary. I was particularly taken with one of what looked like a baby Jesus on a cross. After Cristos Negro with the real hair in Cádiz, I am beginning to wonder at the Spanish take on tradition.

Jerez Cathedral




Sights and sustenance in Jerez

Spain takes Sunday seriously, with many tourist attractions closed for the day. Still, Jerez is a wanderable city with plenty of interesting squares and buildings to marvel at. The place is heaving with restaurants and it’s difficult to decide where to go. We wanted shade and quiet and something to look out on to. Plus we wanted sherries and good food. And we got it all at Restaurante Antonio Centro on the Plaza de La Asuncion. Spanish is one of those languages in which I can make myself understood and understand quite a bit of what’s being said to me, too. It lacks inhibition. Hand gestures, facial expressions, shoulder shrugs, all beef up the conversation. Getting the recipe for the cold carrot starter was hilarious but I’m primed. We had what was undoubtedly our best meal so far in Spain – a notch or three above the usual tapas. And they’d no problem letting us taste the sherries till we found one we liked.



What we missed

Palacio del Virrey Laserna was home to General José de la Serna y Martínez de Hinojosa, the First Conde de los Andes, who acquitted himself well during the War of Independence, and was the last Viceroy of Peru and Spain in America. It only opens on Sunday from 11 to 2pm. The Alcázar (Moorish palace) tops the list of local sights and is probably a must for those interested in the history of the area.  It houses the last remaining mosque of the 18 that once stood in the city. For the best part of 700 years, Muslim rule on the Iberian Peninsula was strong. When Alfonso VI captured Toledo in 1085, the decline began. Córdoba would fall in 1236, and finally, in 1492, Granada was surrendered to Queen Isabella I. The   Christian Reconquista was complete. Fast forward some 500+ years and the Moorish influence is still evident in Andalusia. Those boys knew how to build.

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There’s been an air of expectancy around Cádiz for the last 24 hours. Neat stacks of folded chairs lined the streets and squares. Suited men and high-heeled women walked with purpose either coming from or heading to somewhere important. It was like the city was at a wedding but the bride and groom were nowhere to be seen.

We arrived at our hotel after about an hour of circling through the maze of one-way streets that might well have been pedestrian – it’s hard to tell. It’s a former Dominican convent with an amazing tiled cloister and an air of holiness about the place that makes even holding hands a tad embarrassing. After parking the car and the bags, we hit the town for a wander.

Hotel Convento Cádiz

Religious fervour in Cádiz

First stop was a glimpse at the sea and a stroll along the promenade. It reminded me of the Malecon in Havana so I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that the Bond movie Die Another Day was filmed along that very stretch of coastline, with Cádiz the city double. Then it was back into the melée to see if we could figure out what was going on. It was Friday. And a first Friday at that, but every church we passed had teems of people going in and out in a very Orthodox fashion – not at all RC like. Curiosity got the better of us at the Santa Cruz church, the oldest in the city, and a former cathedral. There was all sorts of singing and blessing and milling around going on – so very un-Catholic. Three huge processional floats were on display with people taking lots of photos. It reminded me of Malta.

Cádiz Cristo Negro Black Jesus

The priest and his entourage stopped in front of what looked for all the world like a statue of Jesus Christ – complete with long hair (which, I found out later, is very real). And he was black. I asked half a dozen people if they spoke English but no one fessed up. One man did confirm that it was Jesus… and a translation of a Spanish site tells me that it was commissioned by the Campe-Martíns and is a copy of a famous carving of Cristo de Medinaceli de Madrid. It is an amazing piece of work. But that didn’t explain all the fervour, as only half the people there were paying any attention.

Ageing beautifully

The city, said to be the oldest in Western Europe, has a lot to offer the energetic tourist. Our map showed no fewer than 68 places of interest. Dark narrow streets cut between high buildings open onto large sun-filled squares. It’s a great city to wander but I didn’t have the wherewithal needed to muster up enthusiasm for museums and the like. I had no idea Spain was so loud. Energy-sapping loud. The art of speaking softly or singly is one that hasn’t yet been mastered. One look at the long list and I had just one pick – the Central Market, to see the fish. And yes, it would give Pike Place a run for its money. The fish stalls are inside the great hall. The fruit and veg stands run around this outside, and the outer perimeter is the meat and speciality stalls. It’s all very, very orderly.


Cádiz Cathedral

Central Market Cádiz

At, on, and by the water in Cádiz

After that, it was on the Catamaran over to El Puerto de Santa Maria to find some sherry bodegas, some tiled buildings, and maybe even a beach. El P apparently is where Christopher Columbus sailed from, the second time he set out for America. The 30-minute boat ride was lovely (and a snip at €2.75). But it was the middle of the day, and it was hot. We forgot about the sherry, gave up on the tiled buildings, and headed for the beach.

Catamaran in Cádiz

Santa Catalina Beach Cádiz

Bull ring El Puerto de Santa Maria

We caught the No. 3 bus which was packed to the gills with beachgoers. It’s a great way to see the suburbs – and the bullring. The Spanish know how to do beaches. Entire families – three and four generations – had brought chairs and tables and umbrellas and were camped out with coolers of food and plenty of booze. It was bedlam. And deafening. And as we were leaving at 6 pm, they were still arriving. There are plenty of beaches to choose from – we simply decided by getting off the bus when everyone else did – at Las Redes along Santa Catalina beach.

Of course, we could have gone to any one of the many beaches on the Cádiz side, but we wanted the on-water experience.

Prayers and processions

Back it the city, there was definitely something going on. Our hotel – the convent – is right beside a church and there were hundreds in the streets waiting outside. We even had security on the door and had to show our keycard to get in. The processions had begun. We watched as foot by foot the massive statue of Jesus was edged out through the church door. It took 42 men to carry it, walking in drilled precision, swaying from side to side to keep it moving and balanced. This was just one of many processions from the various churches in the city that all passed through the main square. This was what all the folded chairs were for. Apparently, it was the 750th anniversary of the Diocese and reason enough to bring everyone out to the streets. It made watching the World Cup quarter-final between Croatia and Russia quite surreal. The penalty shoot-out played as the statue of Jesus carrying the cross filed by. God was definitely having a laugh.

Cádiz 750th diocesan celebration

Cádiz 750th diocesan celebration

Cádiz 750th diocesan celebration

And some trivia

Probably one of the city’s lesser-known famous sons was General George Meade. Meade’s father, who was Irish by the way, was working in Spain as a naval agent for the US government. His son George, who was born in Cádiz, commanded the Army of the Potomac, which defeated General Robert E Lee at the Battle of Gettysburg. There’s one for the next table quiz.

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Alcaidesa beach lunch

Gibraltar has been on my list of places to see for a long time, but faced with the thoughts of exiting the Schengen Area and having to go through passport control at the border (something that I believe can take hours) I settled for giving it a wave from a distance. But to do that, we had to take the long way around to from Ronda to Cádiz. I did my homework. I read the guide book. And it assured me that the village/town of Castelar de la Frontera was…

…an abandoned mountain village, which is gradually rediscovering its old identity.

Perfect, I thought. We’d seen a few of those mountain villages in the far distance travelling to Ronda from Cártama and seeing one up close and personal was just what we fancied. We headed over the Sierra Ronda, a winding mountain road with Shirley-Temple-curl style bends. Nothing too challenging but enough curve in them to give the gearbox some good exercise. And the views…. the views were verdurous.

Sierra Ronda

Mountain villages

When we finally stumbled into Castelar de la Frontera, I was suspicious. We’d been steadily climbing on our approach but had then started to drop like a dead pigeon. So much for our mountainous village! This bright new development didn’t have an old identity to rediscover. I wasn’t impressed. I wanted more to show for my 90-minute detour. Seeing other signs for a Castillo-something-or-other, we followed them and gradually began to climb again. This time, the bends were more like the ringlets on the head of a Irish dancer. It was bracing stuff. We turned a corner and saw what looked like an old Moorish castle perched on a mountain. Score! The new Castelar de la Frontera (7 km away) was built in 1960s, closer to the road, and with its own train station (Almoraima). This was the old one.

Castelar de la Frontera

Castelar de la Frontera

Castelar de la Frontera

The original Castelar de la Frontera dates back to the Bronze Age. It grew up to be a medieval fortress, passing back and forth between various rulers who vied for its vantage point. Around 1650 , a certainTeresa María Arias de Saavedra, who was the Countess of Castellar, took over the town that would later pass to  the Medinaceli family. There’s a fascinating read in the Telegraph about the late 18th Duchess of Medinaceli, who lived till she was 96, long enough to have lost count of the number of castles she owned in Spain.

[She] was nine times a duchess, 18 times a marchioness, 19 times a countess, four times a viscountess and 14 times a grandee of Spain — as well as head of a family whose members included three saints and two Popes.

Anyway, in 1973, it was acquired by the Rumasa Group, who had it for 10 years before the government nabbed it and decided it was some place worth keeping and looking after. As a ‘Historical and Artistic Monument’, it was a good investment. It reminded me a little of Óbidos in Portugal. Today, local artisans call it home and quite a number of the houses are lived in. Some are for rent and a few are for sale. Oh, lotto, oh lotto, where art though lotto! The view of the Guadarranque reservoir is velutinous.

Castelar de la Frontera

Castelar de la Frontera

Castelar de la Frontera

Guadarranque reservoir

Seaside towns

Hot and flustered and in need of food, we headed to the coast. I quite fancied a dip in the Med before hitting the Atlantic later in the week. We made for Playa de La Alcaidesa, driving by the manicured golf course and the glaringly white villas in this gated community close to Sotogrande. We’d skirted Marbella earlier in the morning, where ‘exclusive’ seemed to the real estate adjective of choice. In Alcaidesa, they seemed to prefer ‘modern’. Whatever. I’d only holiday there if someone else was paying. Way too much English being spoken.

The beach was open to the public. The restaurant was grilling fish. And while the sand was Hades hot, and the water gonad-shrinking cold, it was perfect. Just perfect.

We ate, we drank, we swam, and we slept. And then took the short cut through the mountains to Cádiz for an opening Wow! Puente de la Constitución of 1812 (aka La Pepa) spans the Bay of Cádiz, linking the city with Puerto Real on the mainland. What a stunning sight to be met with. Day 2 done and dusted.

Rock of Gibraltar from Alcaidesa beach

Alcaidesa beach

Puente de la Constitución

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I love a good road trip. Preferably one through places I’ve not been before. My experience in Spain has been limited to Madrid and Barcelona. This is my first time venturing further afield, to Andalusia. The original plan was to fly to Malaga, arriving about 8.30 pm and driving straight to Ronda. But given that RyanAir must have sold their on-time bugle, we figured there was a better than average chance the flight would be delayed. And it was. Fair play, Michael. Never one to disappoint.

For some reason, I’d expected the road to Ronda to be a narrow, climbing one with steep cliffs on both sides. Gorge and treacherous were my word associations. So rather than risk the night drive, we decided to stay in Cártama, a small town between Malaga and Ronda.

Racking up close to 11 pm, I was worried nothing would be open. I’d forgotten I was in Spain where people don’t get hungry till 10.30pm. We checked in, parked the bags, and hit the tapas. Apart from the fountain and the Lidl, I didn’t see much of note. The place seemed lively enough and the tapas were cheap and plentiful, as was the wine. Not a bad start. We’ll call that Day 0.

On the road to Ronda from Cartama

Day 1, we hit the road to Ronda. For all Spain’s passion and its palaver, this part of the country is quite uniform. There’s a military precision to its fields, its olive groves, its citrus trees. Windfarms stand sentry, their whiteness even whiter against the blue sky and the Van Gogh yellow of the cut fields. It’s picture-postcard stuff. I was glad we’d waited and not missed it all in the dark.

The approach to Ronda was less than inspiring. It wasn’t at all what I’d imagined. I’d been waiting for that audible gasp, that full-on America OMG, this is awesome… but I missed it. We’d booked into El Poeta, a gorgeous, fabulously furnished boutique hotel in the old town. The room wasn’t ready so we dropped the bags, parked the car, and went for a wander. Crossing the new bridge and looking down into the gorge, I could see what the fuss was about. El Tajo (the gorge) divides the new town (mid-fifteenth century) from the old Moorish town. Breathtakingly beautiful, particularly around 9 pm when the sun hits the sides. There are a number of vantage points, the best of which is probably the 1.3 km descent to the base.

Bridge at Ronda

Bridge at Ronda

With just one day to do the town justice, we picked four places we wanted to see and then put the guidebook and the map away and just wandered.

Casa Don Bosco

I mistakenly thought that this was St John Bosco’s home, but no. It was willed by the Granada family to the Salesians as a nursing home for elderly and ill priests. Once upon a time though, it was a single-family residence and if I had any one of my lives to live over, I wouldn’t say no to being one of the Ronda Granadas. The €2 entrance fee is money well spent. The tile work in the gardens rivals the best I’ve seen in Portugal. And the views from the winter garden… words fail me.

Casa Don Bosco

Iglesia de Santa María de la Encarnación la Mayor (Church of Santa María la Mayor)

I’ve been a practising Catholic for all my adult life and a regular Rosaryer. I’ve done my fair share of Stations of the Cross. But this was the first time I’d ever heard of the Marian alternative to the Way of the Cross (Via Crucis): Via Matris (Way of the Mother). But I think this was the Via Lucis (Way of Light) … with a Marian influence. It was all a little confusing. Nonetheless, it’s an incredible piece of work.   Some stations, in particular, are very expressive.

The massive chandelier with its 24 700 diamond shaped crystals (Who counted them?) competes for attention with ornate side altars and statues and colourful wall paintings with slightly different takes on the usual. The Last Supper, for instance, the rendition of the Last Supper is one I’ve not seen before – the servants are mainly women and Our Lord and the Lads aren’t sitting around the usual table. It’s all a lot friendlier. The €4 entrance fee includes a self-guided audio tour.

Church of Santa María la Mayor

Church of Santa María la Mayor

Church of Santa María la Mayor

Church of Santa María la Mayor

Plaza de Toros

The bullring, the Plaza de Toros, is reputedly the biggest in the world. Some 60  meters in diameter, it was the first stone ring built in Spain and one of the first where the matador met the bull on foot. It seats 4500 spectators and in its day has been everything from a concentration camp during the Spanish Civil War to a boxing arena. Tickets are sold for four main sections – No. 1 and No. 2 are in the shade, No. 3 is part sun/part shade, and No. 4 is all sun. It’s all very well done with a great museum in the walls around the ring. Did you know that a matador’s cape weights 5 kg? That’s 5 bags of sugar. Entry fee is €8.50, which includes a self-guided audio tour. Andalusia has a number of rings but some quick research assured us that this was the one to see.

Plaza de Toros Ronda

Ronda Bull

El Museo del Bandolero

The only museum in the country devoted to bandits, this quirky one-of-a-kind offers a fascinating account of the famous Spanish banditos and the Civil Guard formed to hunt them down. The last of the lot, Pasos Largos, was killed in 1934. Some of them were Robin-Hood-style good guys, but more of them were bloodthirsty vagabonds. The museum has an impressive collection of 495 books written about them dating from 1823 to today.  €3.75 will get you in the door and most of the exhibition is translated into English.

El Museo del Bandolero

Eating in Ronda

There’s no shortage of places to eat in Ronda but to get the real experience, venture off the tourist track into the back streets, into the Spanish neighbourhoods. Find a place that has a few old men deep in conversation or a group of young mothers with their kids running around. They’re the good ones. Most places do reasonably priced daily menus (The Hemmingway Café at El Poeta has some good gazpacho – how could I not have known that this cold soup originated in Andalusia?) and if you find a local bar, you can get your tapas for a €1 a go. With so many places to choose from and so few meals to eat, we split them up – with starters in one, mains in another, and dessert in a third. Hey, it’s Spain. No one is in any great rush to go anywhere.

Backstreet in Ronda

Throw the guidebook away and wander. Check out the doors, the doorknockers, the potted plants. Look up as well as down and over and across. It’s a great little spot – one not to be missed if you’re in the vicinity.



Casa Don Bosco Ronda

Church of Our Lady of Peace Ronda


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Monkfish in Venice

If you only had one day in X, what would you do? I put this question to people who have been places I’ve not been to before or don’t know very well. It tends to focus their thoughts and get them thinking of what’s memorable about their city. Of course, I only ask those of a similar mindset who enjoy doing the things I like to do. Spending my one day in Minneapolis at the Mall of America, for example, wouldn’t be my idea of a good time. Before going to Venice, we asked himself to give us an itinerary – to tell us what he would do with one day in Venice. This is what he came up with. First off, we were to take a waterbus from Lido to the San Toma stop on the Grand Canal and then walk to find the following:

  1. Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. Huge church with paintings by Titian.

  2. Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Via S. Polo, 3052, 30125  – Amazing guild hall completely painted by Tintoretto.

  3. After Scuola Grande di San Rocco, walk towards Campo Santa Margherita, 30100. On the way you will pass interesting tourist shops. At Campo San Pantalon, see if the church is open. If it is, on the ceiling is what is supposed to be the worlds’ largest oil on canvas painting. It covers most of the ceiling. Campo Santa Margherita has quite a number of relatively inexpensive places to eat and drink, especially along the right-hand side, if things haven’t changed. Try the Aperol or Campari spritz. (Campari is the more bitter one.) I felt most like a Venetian sitting on this square, sipping a spritz and watching the world go by. In the early part of the day there is also a market. Later on, there are decent enough restaurants with tourist menus, mostly on the left-hand side. There is also a very good gelato on the right.

  4. Continue walking toward Campo San Barnaba. There are more cafés and bars that are pretty good along this route. There is a popular floating fruit and veg market near the bridge across to Campo San Barnaba. And the square itself is another nice place to relax and watch people. [Note: The outside of this church featured in an Indiana Jones movie.]

  5. Ca’ Rezzonico, Dorsoduro, 3136, 30123  is one of the finest Palazzo’s and is open to visitors. [Note: I had the best monkfish ever, served in a white wine sauce with buttered spinach, in a tiny restaurant by a canal in Dorsoduro – Osteria da Toni.]

  6. Walk back toward the main campus building of the University of Venice, Università Ca’ Foscari, Dorsoduro, 3246, 30123. This route takes you through some quiet little streets and tiny pretty little squares.

  7. After leaving  Ca’ Foscari, continue on back towards S. Toma waterbus and go wherever you want. You can also take one of the gondolas that ferry people across the Grand Canal, and get yourself lost in the streets leading back to San Marco.

So, with only one day in Venice, that’s it pretty  much taken care of. And while you’re walking, keep an eye out for unusual doorbells. Delight in the ordinary.

Venetian doorbell

Venetian doorbells

How many Venetian islands are there? I asked myself that question and managed to name 6. Just 94 or so short of the actual total. Yes, there are more than 100 islands within the 340 square km that make up Venice. And one of them is Lido.

Last time I was here, we visited Burano, Murano, and San Michele. Those are the three I can remember. What time we had was spent in the six sestieri: Cannaregio, Castello, Dorsoduro, San Marco, San Polo, and Santa Croce. This time, though, we stayed on Lido, probably best known these days for hosting the Venice Film Festival. 

What to do on Lido

We spent most of our time wandering around, looking at the fabulous old houses and villas that line the back streets of the island. Many were once single-family residences and have been split into separate apartments or turned into small hotels. Some, though, seemed to have still retained their former glory. When I win the Lotto, I’ll be back with cash in hand.

Hotel Hungaria Lido

Hotel Hungaria Lido Villa on Lido

Villa on Lido

Canal in Lido

Where to stay on Lido

If your hotel doesn’t have a pool (ours did – Marea Le Ville del Lido) you could check out the beach. But it’s a tad strange. If you’re in the back row of cabins, your view is not of the sea but of the next row of cabins. I’ve heard tell that the front-row cabins go for as much as €1000 a month in the summer season. Madness. And there didn’t seem to be anyone laying around on towels, so cabin use may well be compulsory. I was happy enough with the pool, though. A lovely way to relax after a hard day at the Biennale or sightseeing.

Lido beach

Lido Beach

Where to eat on Lido

We ate out every night – easier than cooking in the villa, but that is an option. At first, we stayed on the main drag where the restaurants have a certain sameness about them. That said, I had the best liver and onions ever (Venetian style) at Ristorante Pizzeria Ai Do Mati (49, Granviale Santa Maria Elisabetta). Would go back again in a heartbeat. Of our two posh nights out, the first, at the Villa Mabapa, was excellent. Lovely setting by the sea. Beautiful view of the sunset. Excellent food. Unobtrusive service. And reasonably priced. The second, at the Hotel Villa Laguna, again on the waterfront but closer to the waterbus terminal, was almost as lovely, but twice the price.  Still, the cocktails were to die for, so that lessened the pain a little. If it’s pizza you’re after, I’d recommend Ristorante La Sfera and for those after-dinner tipples, you’d be hard pushed to beat the craic at Bar Lepanto.


Dinner at Villa Mabapa Lido

Dinner at Villa Mabapa Lido

Lido is a grand spot to visit and a nice place to stay in the summer as the heat is less oppressive than in the city itself. Were I going back off season – I’d be more tempted by a flat in Cannaregio, but given the weather, the pool was worth the money. 

Sunset on Lido

Biennale Venice

People travel to Venice every other year specifically to see the Biennale. Me? I just happened to be there when it was on. If it’s your first time (planned or spontaneous), here are a few tips. In a previous post, I mentioned the Giardini exhibition. Today, let’s visit the Arsenale. It’s possible to walk between the two, and while you’re walking, check out the free exhibits from a couple of other countries along the way.

The Arsenale itself has a long and interesting history. Begun in the tenth century, it grew to be the largest industrial complex in the world prior to the Industrial Revolution. Each building and area produced a prefabricated part of a Venetian ship or the armor, rope, and rigging that went into them. At its peak, a ship could be assembled in as little as a day. The buildings themselves have withstood the tests of time and are hauntingly beautiful. Not ornate, more evocative. It doesn’t take much imagination to conjure up a picture of bustling docks with navvies and uniformed officers wandering about, readying themselves to visit foreign shores.


Arsenale Venice

Arsenale Venice

Aresnale Venice

Perhaps even more intriguing though, are the myriad alleyways that lead off the walk between Giardini and Arsenale through the Castello Sestiere. Take the time to wander through the archways and discover the communities living on the other side. This is neighbourhood Venice. This is the real Venice. The place where people get on with their daily lives, for the most part uninterrupted by tourists. Signs remind us that we’re not in Disneyland or Temple Bar, we’re in a residential neighbourhood that deserves our respect.

Arsenale Venice

Arsenale Venice

Arsenale Venice

Arsenale Venice

Arsenale Venice

Today, the Arsenale complex is primarily used as exhibition space for the Bienniale. The main exhibition hall has lots of installations to see. Walking in through the curtain of hanging ropes, you can’t but wonder what awaits you inside. At this stage though, I was on sensory overload, so I’ll let this video do the talking for me.

The last of the installations in the main exhibit hall was quite something. I think what I was hearing was the sound of an avalanche. Not that I’ve ever heard an avalanche or would know what it sounds like, but I think this was it. I’ve seen the aftermath, I’ve no problem imagining what it could be like, but this was quite something. I’ve noticed shades of black before but never quite experienced so many shades of white. The light changes with the sound and the single sculpture seemed to move of its own volition. All quite amazing.

Biennale Arsenale

The Albanian Pavilion was very interesting. I was particularly taken by the doors, as doors intrigue me wherever I go and often feature in my posts.

Tirana’s Zero Space, where cosmos and chaos are fused with no predetermined contact point, is exposed in this installation through a sensorial experience created by composing elements that aim to include all the senses and guide the visitor in a journey perceiving the free space and true essence of the city. The public is therefore engaged with its sounds, shadows, lack of perception of the verge, but at the same time free to create the space and modify the physical configuration of the pavilion. Intentionally or not, the public becomes not only a spectator but also the protagonist creating a spatial form, growing cognitively into a tourist, or even more a citizen of Tirana.

Albanian Pavilion Biennale


But what I’d really come to see was the Irish Pavilion. I was curious to see what we’d installed, what angle we’d taken.  And while visually, I was a little disappointed, the substance was there. The recorded voice of a rural Irish architect recounting the importance of people and communities was quite sobering.

The exhibition charts historic data, documents contemporary life with photography and gets out onto the streets recording sounds and talking to people to build unique portraits of each town.

The accompanying newspaper was the icing on the cake. Nicely done, lads. Nicely done.

Biennale Irish Pavilion

By the time we got to the end, we were exhausted. We’d walked the bones of 8 km. And it was hot. Rather than walk the whole way back, we decided to take the boat shuttle to Arsenale Nord and then catch a waterbus. But he didn’t take us to where we expected to go. Instead, we found ourselves wandering through the entrance of the Arsenale, through the café, out the back through what perhaps was once Navy housing. We headed for the water and spotted a bus stop – Biacini. But this wasn’t a stop that is on the regular route; it’s one where you have to request a stop. Don’t waste the time we did trying to find the button – it’s on the pole immediately inside the ticket barrier to your left. For a few minutes there, we felt a little like castaways.

If you’re in Venice in the next few months, be sure to take the time to visit the Biennale. You won’t be disappointed.



People travel to Venice every other year specifically to see the Biennale. Me? I just happened to be there when it was on. If it’s your first time (planned or spontaneous), here are a few tips.

Take the time to do the Biennale justice

We just happened to be in Venice and noticed it was on. I was living in a flat in London eons ago when I first heard of the Biennale. My then flatmate arrived home from work, all excited that she was going. She was appalled that I hadn’t a clue what she was talking about. I’ve been carrying a vague notion with me since that it has something to with architecture and sculpture and it was the sculptures I expected but didn’t see. More than 70 counties have individual exhibits tied to an overarching theme – this year it is Freespace.

With the theme of FREESPACE, the Biennale Architettura 2018 (architecture exhibition) presents for public scrutiny examples, proposals, elements – built or unbuilt – of work that exemplifies essential qualities of architecture which include the modulation, richness and materiality of surface; the orchestration and sequencing of movement, revealing  the embodied power and beauty of architecture.

The map is pretty self-explanatory but even sticking your head into each pavilion is going to take time. Engaging with the interactive installations will take more. Reading the bumf will take more again. Think at least one whole day for Giardini and a good half-day for Arsenale.

Don’t overdose

Tickets for both main exhibition areas (Giardini and Arsenale) are valid for consecutive or non-consecutive days – if you overdose on Tuesday, you can take Wednesday off and come back on Thursday. Tickets are €25 with an extra €7 for a guided tour in English.

Dress appropriately

Wear comfortable shoes because you’ll have no problem getting in your daily 10 000 steps at one site alone. Don’t carry any additional weight – it gets tiring lugging bags and backpacks around – some exhibits (UK and Hungary) include climbing steps – lots of steps. Bring water, though. And there’s plenty of space to sit and enjoy, so if you fancy bring lunch, too. But there are cafés and such on site.

Remember to breathe at the Biennale

It can all be rather overwhelming. There’s so much to see and not everything will resonate or make sense. Don’t try too hard though – let it all wash over you and you’ll remember the bits that make an impression.

Swiss Pavilion at the Biennale

Swiss Pavilion at the Biennale

The Swiss played with perspective. Walking through this designed space with its small doors and massive doors, low countertops, and high countertops gave those of average height a good sense of what it might be like to be really tall or really short. At least, that’s what I left with. What they had in mind was to draw attention to the bland interiors of rental properties. Sometimes the obvious needs to be pointed out to me.


Russian Pavilion at the Biennale

The Russian exhibit was more of my style. It included a basement room of open luggage lockers, each with something significant inside, be it a photo of a famous person or a book or a hat. Each had a story. The piles of suitcases reminded me of something Maya Angelou said when I saw her speak in London all those years ago – about getting on the next train with as little luggage as possible. Of all the pavilions I visited, this is one I’d like to have spent more time in.

German Pavilion at the Biennale

German Pavilion at the Biennale – Wall of Opinions documents the voices of people who live with walls, in Cyprus, Northern Ireland, Israel and Palestine, America and Mexico, North and South Korea and the EU’s external border at Ceuta.

The German Pavilion explores the concept of walls, with an interesting series of opinions from real people. It also focuses on various plans by architects for replacing the Berlin Wall space… Another one I’d like to have spent more time at.

French Pavilion at the Biennale

French Pavilion at the Biennale

Many of the exhibitions invited audience participation, the French Pavilion being a case in point. I quite like the idea of rebirthing disused buildings and spaces.

Hungarian pavilion at the Biennale

Hungarian pavilion at the Biennale

As we wandered around, I tried to spot which pavilions have been built by the exhibiting country and which had been adapted from previous years. It was hard to tell. Except for Hungary. From the roof tiles to the mosaics, it was obvious that this had a Hungarian imprint. Inside, the exhibit focused on the public occupation of Szabadság híd (Liberty Bridge) in 2016 when it was traffic-free.

The bridge instantly turned into a restorative place, altering the understanding of liberty and autocracy, formal and informal, public and private in a city context. The placemakers were mainly Millennials, growing up after the political changes of the late 1980s, giving the historical place a dierent function. The event draws attention to a transforming post-social mentality into a new, entitled and free enjoyment of urban public space by recent generations. What happened on the bridge? The exhibition examines fundamental urbanistic issues based on the ideology-free occupation of the bridge. What makes a public space free? How does a city bridge become a symbol of freedom? How can we change our own identity by transforming our city? How an image of a tram route covered by yoga mats can challenge our view of public spaces? The exhibition aims to create an innovative viewpoint within the Hungarian pavilion, allowing for a liberating experience of new perspectives.

Australian pavilion at the Biennale

Australian pavilion at the Biennale

The Australians brought the outside inside in their exploration of the relationship between architecture and endangered plant species, a marked changed from the focus on the built environment.

Nordic pavilion at the Biennale

Nordic Pavilion at the Biennale

The Nordic exhibition was otherworldly and one of those that needed a little more imagination than I was bringing to the table.


Main exhibition hall Biennale 2018

The main exhibition hall in Giardini hosts with individual projects and exhibitions and is quite something.


Biennale main exhibition hall Giardini

The Biennale runs until 25 November this year. If you’re in Venice, with a day to spare, put it on your list. And if you’re going and know an architect who isn’t, pick up the leaflets and brochures available in most of the pavilions. There’s hours of reading in them.

Life on the water in Venice. So different yet so much the same. Watch teenagers pilot their boats through the Venetian canals, music blaring from the radio, and you think – all that’s changed is the mode of transport. See buildings rise out of the water, their concrete facades crumbling slowly, damp marks rising, and you wonder if they’ll last another generation. Get inordinately excited when you see the DHL guys make a delivery in their boat festooned in the ubiquitous company colours and you think – duh – of course, but how else would they do business. Spot the garbage boats pulling alongside the yachts and the crew toss their rubbish overboard and you think everything adapts. What topped it for me though was the cops and their radar gun checking boat speeds. And, when I stop to think about it, why wouldn’t they?

And yet life on the water is no different from life on the land except that it’s a little less steady. I don’t think I could ever tire of watching the hustle and bustle and what occasionally amounts to a traffic jam. I keep meaning to check if there’s an equivalent of rush hour. Is there chaos on Sunday when all those boats pull up for mass at the church in Salute? Is there an Audi equivalent in the boat world? What would I trade my 12-year-old Toyota for?  Would I cope with life on the water in Venice?

Viewing the city from the water is quite something. Seeing the hoards of tourists concentrating more on their selfie sticks that on what’s around them is comical. Hearing the chatter cast between the Gondoliers leaves me wondering what they think of it all. Were I living in Venice would I be happy with the daily onslaught? Or would I want everyone to stay home?

Life on the water in Venice

Life on the water in Venice

Life on the water in Venice

Life on the water in Venice

Life on the water in Venice

Life on the water in Venice

Life on the water in Venice

Life on the water in Venice

Life on the water in Venice speed trap


Tintoretto Scuola grande di San Rocco

Tintoretto. What a great name. With a great story. Of course, there’s always the chance it might not be quite true. I heard it from an Irish man who can spin a great yarn. Tintoretto was a nickname (meaning ‘little dyer’) for one Jacopo Robusti, who was born in Venice back in 1519. The way I’ve heard tell it, he considered himself the one true Venetian painter, as he was actually born in the city – the others were mere blow-ins. From what I’ve heard,  Tintoretto did something to upset the powers that were and there was no way in Hades that he would ever get a city commission to paint as much as a fence, let alone a church ceiling.  This was a tad strange, given that he trained under Titian himself and at the age of 20 was already considered a master.

When the bods at the Scuola di San Rocco were looking for an artist to paint their ceilings and walls, more than one hopeful showed up. From what I gather, Tintoretto was told not to bother. He wasn’t going to be the one hired. But he showed up anyway. On the day, he was the only one not carrying some rolled-up canvases under his arm.

Out of manners, most likely, the bods called him in and asked why he’d bothered to show up. They were commissioning just one small circle in the dome on the understanding that whoever got that commission would paint it all. Tintoretto, so the story goes, or at least the story I heard, calmly went over and pulled a string. Away came a cloth and behind it was the painting St Roch in Glory already painted. A real Blue Peter moment – and a classic ‘here’s something I prepared earlier’.

He stood before them and solemnly bequeathed his painting to the Institute in the name of God,  knowing full well that in the fine print in the Deeds of Foundation (or the Venetian equivalent) it had been written that nothing given to it in the name of God could be refused.

For the next 20 years, Tintoretto worked at painting the walls and ceilings. If you see nothing else in Venice, the Sala Capitolare in the La Scuola Grande di San Rocco is not to be missed. Words can’t describe the magnificence of it all. And my camera phone doesn’t do it justice.

Tintoretto Scuola grande di San Rocco

Tintoretto Scuola grande di San Rocco

Tintoretto Scuola grande di San Rocco

Tintoretto Scuola grande di San Rocco
His painting of the Crucifixion is quite something. You could lose yourself in it and not notice the time passing by.  And, if the paintings themselves weren’t enough, the wooden allegoric sculptures by Pianta that surround the room add a sense of otherness that is compelling.

Pianta Scuola grande di San Rocco

Pianta Scuola grande di San Rocco

St Roch is the patron saint of plague victims – and back in the sixteenth century when his type of miracle was often needed, the money poured in. Granted a special title of Arch-Confraternity by Pope Pius VI, it was the only one of its ilk to survive the fall of the Republic. Today, it has 300 members who continue its charitable works as well as look after its artistic heritage.

Admission €10. Waterbus to S. Toma. San Polo, 3052 – 30125 Venezia. Wesbite. Open 9.30 to 5.30 with the last admission at 4.30 pm.

Tintoretto Scuola grande di San Rocco

The Glory of St Roch