It’s not everyday that you are able to visit a church that opened in 553 AD and then, on top of that, are astounded by the artistic talent you see inside. That’s just what happened last weekend when we visited the Euphrasian Basilica (also known as the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of Mary) in Poreč, a city on the western coast of the Istrian Peninsula in Croatia that has been around for over 2,000 years. The basilica has been an UNESCO World Heritage site since 1997.
Our day began on a monumental note to begin with as we had traveled from our home in Pula to Dvigrad, the site of the ruins of a medieval castle, which were incredible in themselves, and that I will go into in a later post. We had also stopped in Kafanar and visited another chapel from the 15th century. How much better could our day get? Much, much, apparently.
Tucked away modestly on a street in the city of Poreč, the basilica has origins that go back to the late mid-4th century (That’s about 365 A.D.). Inside the basilica complex there are portions of the mosaic floors from that period that will astound visitors if they really consider the age and the complexity of the mosaic artwork. As someone who has dabbled in mosaic making, I was blown away.
First to create even the most rudimentary mosaic, you need materials. Stones, glass, grout, tools like tile cutters, pencils to sketch, rulers or some sort of plane to keep your pieces measured and in line. Today it is a quick trip to an art or hobby store for some supplies, then online for others as the materials can be difficult to come by. For those artists over fifteen hundred years ago, they would laugh at the relative ease we have acquiring materials. They’d be in awe of how they pop up on your doorstop a few days after you pick them out on a “magic machine.” Materials then would have had to have been carried by ship or by horse or mule through the elements. Or dug up from some remote quarry and transported to the city.
Then after the materials are acquired the artist can begin their work. Some of the people that made these mosaics had to travel great distances, overcome weather, hardships, and illnesses. The Byzantine masters had to cross continents or countries to begin their work. I’m tired just thinking of the days and circumstances that must have had to have endured just to even begin their projects.
While the earlier mosaics are astounding in themselves, the ones from the 6th century are jaw-dropping. When entered the church I felt a mixture of disbelief and awe. There is an arch of Christ with the inscription in Latin saying, “I am the true light” with all of the apostles around him. The one of Mary with Child sitting on a beautiful throne surrounded by angels is breathtaking. The gold tiles sparkled in the evening light and gave the basilica a glowing atmosphere. If you have ever been to San Marco in Venice, you can appreciate the beauty of what I’m describing, but consider this work was done by Byzantine artists four hundred years earlier. And in a small town in Croatia.
When I walked in, I heard a strange sound that seemed otherworldly. Then I realized it was a woman whispering her prayers as she sat on a pew in the church as she looked at the altar surrounded by the sixth century mosaics. I was moved in a deeply spiritual way that I can’t describe. That people’s faith in God so long ago had inspired them to create such beauty brought tears to my eyes. That someone today had such a intense spiritual connection to the church was inspiring as well to me as a non-practicing Catholic.
Croatia never ceases to amaze and surprise me. Knowing it was once a Roman colony, it shouldn’t really surprise me as much, but it does because the history here is so mind- boggling. And the prehistory as well.
I am constantly fascinated here by the places we stumble upon.
And glad I am lucky enough to call it my home for a brief time in my life.
Reflecting back on our recent visit to Bologna in May, it’s amazing to me what a feast of the senses this city was and that we almost didn’t visit it. You see when we planned our trip to Italy, we decided to visit Bologna only as a halfway point on our way to reach the picturesque towns of the Cinque Terre, the destination that seems to be on everyone’s bucket lists these days. In retrospect, what the Cinque Terre offered in scenic beauty, Bologna offered in dramatic contrasts and incredible history.
The city of Bologna is gritty, yet beautiful; it is emotional, yet festive, and it is inspiring, yet nonchalant. It is like taking a trip back to another century without losing any of the modern conveniences. It touches your soul like no other city I have ever been to. And it’s hard to explain why, but I’ll try.
Before we start I have to embarrassedly admit that I didn’t really know much about Bologna except that its name was a famous coldcut I had eaten frequently as a child of the 70s. (Yes, who from New Orleans hasn’t had a bologna sandwich with mayo on Bunny bread?) A little more research before our trip showed it was a foodie paradise in a country whose incredible food already tops the charts in most people’s hearts. It is located very close to Parma, where the famous Parmesan cheese and Parma hams are produced, and also near Modena, a city famous for its balsamic vinegar.
“It touches your soul like no other city I have ever been to.”
When we arrived and got lost trying to find our hotel, my first impression of the city was a little tainted by our lodging being so close to the train station. Graffiti strewn walls and a few homeless people gave the area a little bit of a shady character, although we never really felt threatened, even late at night walking back to our apartment. Still, I wasn’t thrilled. Look at the street name on the wall below: VIA MALCONTENTI. It was sort of my mood when I arrived.
However, the closer we walked to the city center, the more we were able to discern an interesting and eclectic montage of buildings of Venetian and Gothic architecture amidst a plethora of cafes and stores selling meats and cheeses. The churches were rough and mildewed-looking with a hint of fertile green that showed plants surviving in nooks and crannies of the ancient buildings. But despite the imperfections, the dramatic character was breathtaking in its detail.
Modern dress shops with windows filled with chic, colorful Italian fashions sat next to ancient looking churches and walkways with dramatically high porticos. Alleyways were dotted with ancient churches on one side and rustic cafes and food stores touting incredible Italian food on the other.
Bologna was the ancient church of Basilica di San Petronio juxtaposed against a designer men’s fashion store boasting dapper suits with snappy little pocket handkerchiefs.
It had a familiar “laissez le bon temps roulez” character that I recognized immediately from my hometown of New Orleans, but the impression was deeper, much older, and more dramatic.
People seemed very nonchalant and happy as they sat drinking espresso or Pignoletto, a local sparkling wine, with giant boards of proscuitto and cheese with tigelle, the local bread. The smorgasbord looked so good that we had to try it for ourselves.
And look at the shops that graced the alleyways by our restaurant — full of ham, proscuitto, mortadella and a multitude of cheeses and salamis. What a feast!
But a certain mystique that I quite couldn’t put my finger on at first permeated the atmosphere of the city. Maybe it was the giant fountain of Neptune, or “Il Gigante,” that stood defiantly in the square surrounded by Gothic buildings with messages chiseled in ancient Latin.
The imposing statue of the ancient sea god casts a shadowy image at night against the buildings from another century, lending a certain poignancy and the unsettling feeling of “deja vu” or being in another time period.
The statue of Neptune is almost 13 feet tall (4 m) and weighs almost 5,000 pounds (2,200 kg) and was built in the late 1500s. In this city of startling contrasts, the fact that the fountain of Neptune, a pagan sea god, was actually commissioned by the early Catholic Church in the 1500s shouldn’t surprise us. But the city was like that. Full of surprises. It was perfect, but not so much.
“It was perfect, but not so much.”
Maybe the mystique of the city came from knowing that the first university was founded in Bologna in 1088. And that the first anatomy theatre sat in the building near the square where pioneering physicians learned the mysteries of the human body. In the dark alleyways at night or as you walked under the shadowy grand porticos that lined the streets you could almost picture a doctor wandering back home thinking of the strange tissues or organs he had just seen inside a dead corpse found in a nearby grave. A little macabre, I know, but our modern medical profession was born with this knowledge.
Maybe the mystique of the city came from its two towers, Le Due Torri, defining symbols of Bologna that were built in the early 1100s which stood next to each other, one slightly leaning and the other definitely leaning. They are old and dirty and tipping to the side, but they survive from the 12th century and are over 900 years old. I mean, what would you look like at 900 years old?
And then you turn a corner and you are in front of a shop selling swank little designer purses.
And then there was the Basilica di San Petronio that looked half finished or stranger still, like is was created in two different epochs. It had the oddest looking exterior that I’ve ever seen in such a monumental church.
The bottom half of the church is made of marble and the top portion is made of brick. It is considered the largest brick church in the world and one of the ten largest churches in the world, according to Jacopo Ibello of the Heritage Times. The main reason for its fractured appearance, according to Ibello, was that the city ran out of money. He also said the city had plans for San Petronio to be the largest church in the world, larger than St. Peter’s in Rome, but these plans were sabotaged by jealous popes in Rome who financed buildings on either side of the church to stymie construction.
But its dual colored facade was a masterpiece in its own glory that contributed to the city’s imperfect perfection.
Inside the church was another startling find, one of the largest meridians in the world created by astronomer Giovanni Cassini in 1657. The 220-foot (67 m) line cuts through the basilica on an angle, aligned perfectly north-south, and the sun shines down through a hole in the ceiling on the timeline each day (barring cloudy weather) to show the date. Mike and I went back to the basilica twice in order to catch the dramatic moment when the light hits the line (see photo below). It felt like a miracle as the sun hit the line right at the correct date, May 14; but of course, it was science. The merging of the scientific with the spiritual was just one more thing I found fascinating about the city of Bologna.
But the fact this beautiful basilica that looks half-finished is the cultural center of the city is what I loved about this city of contrasts. It evoked a stirring emotion that was hard to place. A poignancy of feeling of knowing things can be leaning and unfinished and broken and still be beautiful. That the old can sit with the new, and that things didn’t have to match or be totally uniform to be beautiful and well-revered.
After all, the beauty of age, of wisdom, of discovery and of knowledge aren’t always beautiful in the “picture perfect” sense. We can look at the faults, the neglect, the disrepair and remember that life is not always about perfection but the strugglefor beauty, for meaning, for timelessness. It’s about the effort that goes into building things that may or may not last, but whose foundations are bigger and stronger than we are. The quest for knowledge that is dirty and messy, but can lead to enlightenment and discoveries.
And then there was this guy….
I took this video when we first stumbled upon this talented singer. We wound up finding him the next day singing in the Piazza Maggiore near the Basilica di San Petronio and spent a few hours sitting at an outdoor cafe listening to him. He brought me to tears several times with his emotional renditions of songs I knew. The songs he was singing were American or English ones, and he looked Asian, so I don’t know why I was so surprised when he started speaking in rapid fire Italian to the group of people gathered to listen to him. I mean, it was Italy. Why wouldn’t he speak Italian? But he sang in English so perfectly that I just expected him to be an American or an Englishman.
Like the singer and the metal sculpture by Nicola Zamboni in the photo above, these incongruities were what I loved about Bologna.
It was perfectly imperfect– a masterpiece of combining the best of all ages. It was a mosaic of sorts that picked up all the broken pieces of the centuries and put them together in such a way that they were whole and beautiful.
On a frigid, dreary day in Denmark at the end of March, Mike and I bundled up in our warmest coats and set out with our friend Carolyn to visit the Roskilde Cathedral in the city of the same name. Our first and foremost stop had been the Viking Museum nearby, but the cathedral was also a place we had looked forward to visiting. Although we knew the almost 800 year-old medieval cathedral was a UNESCO World Heritage Site, we didn’t realize just how captivating the place would be until we arrived.
First of all, the cathedral is a massive building that dwarfs you and immediately makes you feel like the peasant you are. Yes, it’s that big. One of the amazing things about this huge building is that more than forty kings and queens of Denmark are buried within the hallowed church grounds.
First of all, the cathedral is a massive building that dwarfs you and immediately makes you feel like the peasant you are.
Even the Viking King Harold Bluetooth (985 A.D.) who introduced Christianity to Denmark and his son Svend Forkbeard, who conquered England, are supposedly buried there. That’s a lot of Danish royalty (or royalty of any nationality for that matter).
The large cathedral overwhelms your senses and immediately makes you feel its timelessness, its history and gives visitors the realization of something bigger and more powerful than themselves. If you are Christian, you definitely feel the presence of God, but even if you are not, I’m sure you will feel a spiritual tug at your heart and soul.
The church is one of the first Gothic cathedrals in the 12th century to have been built of red brick, as this was a new medium for building whose use eventually spread throughout Europe. Like many older churches it has been reconstructed over several centuries. Different monarchs have added burial chapels and porches as well as other additions, so the building at present reflects the evolution of European architecture over the 800 years it has been in existence.
I feel like the Cathedral is so rich in history that there is no way I could do it justice in a blog post, so I just wanted to touch on a few areas of interest through my photos and urge you to read more about it. And by all means visit this place if you are ever near Copenhagen. You will be better for it.
The Viking Museum was wonderful, but this magnificent place had the three of us dumbstruck. We stayed there over three hours and we probably would have stayed longer if time had permitted. We kept wandering around with our heads turning in circles. I was getting a neck ache with all the looking up and down, and all around.
We also were trying to be careful not to step on all of the holy tombstones on the floors of the church, even though many of them were worn by centuries of church congregants visiting their place of worship. All three of us wanted to give the place the respect it deserved.
What’s also interesting about the cathedral is that it is still a working church which is used on a regular basis. While we were there, we saw a class full of students praying together around the altar. It was really lovely to see how the grand Gothic church still had a youthful presence.
The window below is from Trolle’s Chapel, named after a royal vassal, Niels Trolle. It was just one example of the incredible wrought iron grating throughout the church.
I have walked through many churches throughout Europe with some being much more ornate, some grander, some less so, but Roskilde Cathedral touched me in a way that some of the fancier ones didn’t. Have you been to a place, whether it be a church or just a field of flowers, that made you feel so small but so peaceful in your heart? That is how I felt in Roskilde Cathedral.
Who says you can’t climb a stairway to heaven? One of the first things Mike and I did after we arrived in Copenhagen was climb the stairs of the incredible Vor Frelsers Kirke.
First things first, “kirke” is the word for “church” in Danish and Vor Frelsers Kirke in English means “Our Savior’s Church.” Many of the Copenhagen city maps have the tourist spots in Danish (which is only natural) and if you go looking for Our Saviors Church, you are not going to find it on the map in English. However, if you are anywhere in or near the Christianshavn neighborhood, all you need to do is look up at the massive black and gold spire and you will find the majestic Vor Frelsers Kirke.
The spire has something magical about it that draws you in with its golden spiral staircase and the large gold globe at the top of it.
It has a magnificent presence towering over the streets of Christianshavn.
According to the church’s website, the red brick facade of the church was built in 1680 in the baroque style and consecrated in 1696. The tower wasn’t consecrated until 1752 and it’s imposing presence stands over 300 feet (95 meters) high. The wooden steps leading up to it are a little shaky and worn and lend to the excitement as you climb the 400 steps to the top.
The last 150 steps are outside and wind around the tower. The day we went there was ice on quite a few of them, so they were a little slippery, thus with the wind made the climb even more scary. Here are the different views of the city that you are able to see as you ascended:
This is not a climb for the faint of heart, but it is so worth it if you are able to muster up the courage and energy to attempt it. I did see some older people (older than me, that is!) climbing the stairs, so if you visit right before the church closes like we did and have the stairs pretty much to yourself, you could probably take your time to get to the top. It was one of my favorite things that I did in Copenhagen, so I highly recommend you get over your fear and go for it if you can.
Along the way up the countless steps there were some interesting sights to say the least to keep you occupied.
First, a few jailed stone cherubs. This fellow was about five feet tall, so he was pretty impressive:
An incredible mess of gears with a Ferdinand the IV emblem on it. I’m not sure what this was for (perhaps for the clock on the bell tower?), but it was very interesting:
A fluorescent array of teacups were also seen on the way up on a large shell-type display. Either that or somebody had a wild tea party the night before and left their dishes:
Before you enter the outside steps there is a large carillon, which is musical instrument consisting of a number of bronze bells, housed in the tower. We heard the bells chiming as we ascended and it was quite eery.
I found this church extremely inspiring thus I dedicated the whole post to it. I didn’t even see the incredible organ inside because the building was closing so we had to rush to the top then leave.
The photo below is Mike and I at the top of the tower with the incredible view of Copenhagen below us. If you visit Copenhagen, climb your way up to the top and be inspired.