Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio Diary

When I entered the large courtyard of the basilica in Milan, I thought that this must be one of the most beautiful Romanesque buildings I had ever seen. I reminded myself that I was looking at one of the oldest churches in Milan, built by Saint Ambrose in the fourth century over a cemetery for martyrs. Saint Ambrose had built four churches, then situated outside the walls of the city. A monastery was located there from 789, housing two different monastic communities who had each built a bell tower.

The current appearance stemmed from a 12th century transformation into Lombard Romanesque style. In 1528, The Peace of St. Ambrose had been penned there between the nobility and the populace. Kings of Italy and emperors of the Holy Roman Empire had been crowned there during Romanesque and medieval times. There was 15th century renovation carried out by Donato Bramante, who had served as architect of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. In August of 1943, the basilica was bombed, causing much damage to the apse and other areas. Restoration had worked wonders.

Standing in the atrium, I concentrated on the exterior. The red brick color of the Romanesque architecture was stunning. I saw a portico with arches supported by semi-columns and pilasters. The portico entrance included four blind arcades. The main portal hailed from the 8th to 10th century. One side of the atrium included upper and lower loggias. I looked at the pillars surrounded by semi-columns with lavish capitals adorned with lions, angels and vegetable motifs, to name a few. These were older than the Romanesque elements. I saw the two bell towers, one from the 9th century and a higher one from the 12th century. I gazed at the white marble Devil’s Column, which, according to legend, had two holes made by the Devil’s horns after he was unsuccessful at tempting Saint Ambrose. Tombstones from the former cemetery there also stood outside the entrance.

Inside, I saw a 12th century nave with two side aisles that had stunning arcades. The ceiling had remarkable 12th century ribbed vaults, and I saw galleries above the aisles. I loved the Romanesque brickwork of the pillars. It made both the interior and exterior dynamic. There was no transept. I noticed the Serpent’s Column, which was supposedly built by Moses.

I stared at the apse with its 13th century mosaic of Christ Pantocrator or creator of all. At the sides were scenes featuring the life of Saint Ambrose. A gilded domed ceiling caught my attention as did mosaics on walls dating from the 5th century.

The pulpit was for me perhaps the most intriguing part of the church. It hailed from the 12th century and boasted two gilt copper reliefs showing an eagle and seated man, symbolizing apostles John and Matthew. The base of the pulpit was the fourth century sarcophagus of Stilicho with amazing reliefs from the Old Testament. I also noticed Apollo riding a chariot.

Also, I gazed at the 10th century ciborium which was painted with reliefs showing Christ, Saint Ambrose, Saint Benedict and Saint Scholastica. It included four columns in red porphyry and a canopy. The Golden Altar, another highlight for me, dated from the 9th century. The front showed off masterful goldsmithing skills and was adorned with precious stones. Scenes from the life of Christ decorated this side as well. The back included a silver relief celebrating the life of Saint Ambrose. The bishop’s throne hailed from the 9th and 14th centuries. I imagined the kings of Italy seated on the throne during their coronation ceremonies. Wow!

The oratory contained the relics of Saint Vittore and Saint Satiro, who was Saint Ambrose’s brother. The San Vittore in Ciel d’Oro sacellum featured a chapel to Saint Vittore. It was adorned with 5th century mosaics, with the bust of San Vittore making an appearance. The walls were striking in blue and showed six saints. The tomb of Emperor Louis II, who passed in 875, was also in the church. The chapels contained paintings by Tiepolo and Bernardo Luini, for example. In the crypt were the remains of saints Ambrose, Gervasus and Protasus.

The six-room museum included artwork and objects related to the church. Some of the highlights were Saint Ambrose’s bed and a cast of Stilicho’s sarcophagus. I also saw mosaics and triptychs.

Finally, I left the basilica, still stunned by the Romanesque pillars with delightful capitals and sarcophagus from 400 AD under the pulpit as well as the golden altar with its precious stones. The Christ Pantocrater mosaic bewitched me. The museum, too, had been more than intriguing. I gazed at the exterior from the atrium, entranced. My next stop was the Church of Saint Maurizio, where I would be overwhelmed by beauty once more.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

Museo del Duomo in Milan Diary

When I visited the Cathedral Museum in Milan, I didn’t expect it to be so big. The museum measured 2,000 meters square, and there were 26 rooms. Set up in chronological order, the artifacts included stained glass windows, paintings, tapestries, architectural models, sculpture, bronze doors, goldsmithing artifacts and more. The museum, located on the ground floor of the Palazzo Reale, allowed me to see the various phases of construction from its foundation in 1386 to the 20th century. The museum dates back to 1953. Ten more rooms were added in 1960, and it was reopened in 1973. It underwent major renovation during this century, too.

Placed in the museum during 2013 after renovation was completed, the Treasures of the Cathedral are on display in two rooms and feature liturgical objects from the 5th to the 17th century. I saw the Cross of Chiaravalle, a masterpiece of Romanesque goldsmithing art. The Cross of San Carlo was another goldsmithing object that amazed. It was made in Mannerist style during the 1500s. The cross is even used in cathedral ceremonies new archbishops are inaugurated. La Pace di Pio V, dated around 1565, utilized lapis lazuli decoration on columns and a sarcophagus. The cross was studded with diamonds. Gold decoration added to its beauty. Il Calice delle Arti Liberali is a chalice placed on a copper gilded frame. Made in Milan during the 1500s, the chalice has enamel decoration.

Perhaps my favorite part of the museum was the section with the stained-glass windows. I was enthusiastic about having the opportunity to see stained-glass windows up close. These panels depicting scenes from the Old Testament had been created by artists from Lombardy, France, Germany and the Netherlands. I loved stained-glass windows, and they were my favorite part of the cathedral’s interior. I spent so much time staring at those windows when I was inside the cathedral.

The sculpture was another delight. The marble Late Gothic figures hailed from the first 50 years of the cathedral’s construction. There were also statues made of terracotta from the Mannerist and Baroque eras. A few of the noteworthy sculptures featured Saint Agnes, Saint George and Galeazzo Maria Sforza. The Sforza noble family had had a vast influence on the city’s development and politics. I also was amazed by the gargoyles. I was thrilled that I had the chance to see them close up.

A model of the entire cathedral comprised three centuries of work and was made at a scale of 1:20. Another model that caught my attention was an early 16th century wooden rendition of the cathedral, made by Bernardino Zenale from Treviglio. This model provided insights into the structural development of the various sections of the cathedral, such as the apse, transept and tiberium.

I found the objects in the museum stunning. I was flabbergasted by their beauty. I had expected a small museum of liturgical items, not such an amazing array of artifacts. I had learned how the cathedral had been constructed in various eras and about the main players in the history of the structure.

Leaving the Museo del Duomo, I was very satisfied with my visit and ready for the temporary Titian exhibition in the Palazzo Reale.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

Museo del Novecento Diary

When I looked at the Palazzo dell’Arengario, which houses the Museo del Novecento, I thought that the exterior was an eyesore as it was punctuated by a Fascist style of architecture. It was intriguing, nonetheless. The two symmetrical buildings each had three tiers. Arcades made an appearance as well as did bas reliefs. Even though construction commenced in 1936, the palace was not completed until 1956. During World War II, bombs severely damaged the edifice. In the early years of the 21st century, it was renovated. The museum opened in 2010. About 400 works by mostly Italian artists are on display in chronological order, decade-by-decade.

A spiral ramp takes the visitors to the first three floors. It may look like something out of science fiction, but I thought the ramp interrupted the space. I thought it was more of a hassle rather than a unique and innovative feature. In the Hirschhorn or Guggenheim, the ramp and the locations of the artwork complement each other. I felt that at the Museo del Novecento the ramp and pieces of art worked against each other, dividing rather than complementing.

The first painting that caught my attention was the large canvas called The Fourth Estate by Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo. It was lcreated from 1898 to 1902 in Divisionist style. This kind of painting utilizes individual points of color in a neo-Impressionist fashion. Depicting workers on strike, the painting gets its name from the working class that embodies the meaning of “the fourth estate.” Out of the crowd of demonstrators and into the light step three figures, two men and a woman holding a baby. They are walking toward the viewer confidently, not at all in a hurry. They are clearly there to try to reach a deal with their employer. But they are not panicked or nervous. They have terms and conditions that have to be met. The colors in the painting have a cold quality, but the light gives the group a vibrancy that makes them look powerful and in control of the situation.

Paul Klee’s artwork holds a prominent place in the museum.

Foreign artists represented included Georges Braque, Wassily Kandinsky, Henri Matisse, Paul Klee, Pablo Picasso and Piet Mondrian. Indeed, these works are some of the most significant in the collection. Klee’s Wald Bau from 1919 and Kandinsky’s Composition 1916 stand out, for example.

One section of the museum focuses on Italian Futurists, such as Umberto Boccioni, Giacomo Balla and Fortunato Depero. In fact, one room is dedicated to Boccioni’s works. I had visited a museum featuring Depero’s works in Rovereto a few years earlier, so I was familiar with the Futurist style. Born in Italy during the early 20th century, Futurism looked to the future rather than to the past. It praised modernity and technological advances. Industrial cities, cars and airplanes were often subjects of Futurist artworks. Depero’s creations certainly looked like they were in motion. I recalled some people depicted in one work as resembling machines.

The Novecento of the 1920s is well represented with a style that was inspired by ancient Roman art and Renaissance art, which are meshed together in an abstract way. Giorgio de Chirico’s surrealism is on display, too. In fact, his creations take up an entire room. Art Informel by Italian artists and the Azimeth group are featured in the museum, too. The last section follows trends from the Sixties to the Eighties with exhibits of Kinetic Art, Programmed Art, Pop Art, Analytical Painting and Conceptual Art. Lucio Fontana’s works take up the top floor. Take a look at his neon sculpture and you’ll realize what an artistic journey you have taken from the social realism of The Fourth Estate floors below.

A few works worth mentioning include Giacomo Balla’s Ragazza che corre sul balcone from 1912 and Umberto Boccioni’s Svilippo di una bottiglia nello spazio from 1913-35. Balla’s painting showing a boy running on a balcony is dynamic and vivacious as it shows spontaneous movement and the joy and innocence of childhood. The colors of blue, brown and green with white help to create the sense of motion that is central to the painting. Futurism is all about movement as opposed to the static and still life qualities of Cubism.

While Boccioni was also a Futurist, his bronze sculpture Sviluppo di una bottiglia nello spazio showcased a bottle on a plate in unique way that is reminiscent of a natura morta. This kind of still life was not at all typical for Boccioni’s style because of its lack of movement.

Another painting by Paul Klee

Amedeo Modigliani’s portraits were on display, too. He painted the Parisian art collector Paul Guillaume with one eye, for instance. In Arturo Martini’s sculpture La convalescente from 1932, the sick, young woman who is the subject of the work has been forgotten and abandoned. Her empty gaze and lost look practically ripped through my heart. It reminded me of when I was taken downstairs on a stretcher to have my gallbladder operation. The nurses left me on the stretcher in the empty space next to the operating room. I could hear the doctor trying to wake up the patient. At first she didn’t respond. He had to talk to her several times. For a few minutes, I thought that I had been abandoned and that the woman having the operation before me had died. I wanted to run out of there, but I was drugged and could hardly move. Finally, she regained consciousness.

One of the surrealist works by De Chirico

I particularly liked De Chirico’s surrealist works with vibrant colors. His I bagni misteriosi was inspired by a 16th century work by Lucas Cranach. Ever since I was a child, I have loved Klee’s abstract art. For me Klee’s art has a sense of rationality and logic that I often find absent in abstract works.

A painting with a theme of Chinese revolutions

On the third floor there are glass walls that provide great views of the Duomo Square and the cathedral as well as Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II shopping arcade. I stood in that room for a long time, surveying the passersby walking to and fro below me, gazing at the long line to enter the cathedral and the people having lunch at expensive restaurants on the square. It was nice to be up there, looking down at the crowds on that scorching hot May day.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, editor and proofreader in Prague.

Teatro alla Scala Diary

A theatre and classical music aficionado, I was excited to tour the La Scala Theatre in Milan, where operas and ballets were staged. Classical music concerts by two orchestras also took place there. A chorus called the theatre home, too. I bought my ticket for the tour online before traveling to Italy. I was not disappointed.

First, I gazed at the exterior. The neoclassical building emphasized functionality. It blended in with other buildings on La Scala Square. I had assumed the famous edifice would stand out with an exterior featuring much ornamentation. When the theatre was built, the square was nonexistent, and La Scala did not have a dominant location on the street. It was one of many buildings. Still, it looked elegant. I gazed at the decorated tympanum with bas relief and stucco adornment. I also saw half-columns and two sides of an interrupted balustrade along with decorated parapets.

Once inside, I had some free time before the tour so I walked through the Theatre Museum. I saw many busts of famous members of the opera ensemble, statues, paintings and musical instruments, such as a piano that Franz Liszt had played. There was a special costume exhibition there, too. I am afraid that I am not an expert at opera, so I was not able to recognize all the names of those represented in the museum. A legendary conductor that had worked magic at La Scala was Arturo Toscanini. He had put into place many reforms and had staged works by Richard Wagner, for instance.

Numerous operas by Verdi had been performed at La Scala, and Verdi had made a name for himself with Nabucco, staged at La Scala in 1842. Maria Callas had sung on that stage, her amazing voice filling the auditorium. Herbert von Karajan had conducted concerts at La Scala. I was familiar with his work. I had some of the concerts he had conducted in various places on CDs.

In 1965 Claudio Abbado made his debut. He conducted operas as well as concerts. Riccardo Muti first conducted there in 1981. From 1989 to 1998, he created productions of masterpieces such as Rigoletto, La Traviata and MacBeth.

Operas by Verdi, Giacomo Puccini, Amilcare Ponchielli, Vincenzo Bellini, Gioachino Rossini, Gaetano Donizetti and Karlheinz Stockhausen all had premiered at La Scala. The small museum was very intriguing and certainly a delight for opera lovers.

At the beginning of our tour, the guide told us about the history of the building. The city’s Teatro Regio Ducale burned down in 1776, and Milan needed a new theatre for operas. This edifice was constructed over the site of a demolished church called Santa Maria della Scala, from which the theatre got its name. The owners of the boxes at the destroyed Teatro Regio Ducale paid for the construction. It took two years to build.

Teatro alla Scala opened on August 3, 1778, staging Antonio Salieri’s opera Europa riconosciuta. The La Scale Theatre became an important meeting point for the upper class. At that time, there were no chairs on the main floor, so spectators had to stand during the performance. Also, there was no orchestra pit. Over 80 oil lamps provided light on the stage area while about 1,000 additional lamps were situated elsewhere in the building. Buckets full of water were stored in several rooms in case of a fire. Electric lighting was not installed until 1883. In the early days, the owners of the boxes decorated their spaces themselves, choosing various colors of wallpaper, for instance. In 1844, the boxes all were decorated in red. Today remnants of the original décor can be seen in some boxes. Some are adorned with ceiling frescoes or with mirrors and stucco ornamentation.

However, a casino was also located in the building during the initial seasons. There was a space in the theatre where much bartering took place. For example, people swapped horses. The voices in the foyer could be quite loud so that it was sometimes difficult to hear the performance.

Significant renovation took place in 1907. The seating area originally had 3,000 seats, but after reconstruction the number of seats decreased to 1,987. In 1938 movable bridges and levels were added to the stage, so it was easy to change sets immediately. The system was actually quite complex.

La Scala was badly damaged by bombs during World War II. The theatre was reconstructed and opened with much aplomb in May of 1946. More restoration work occurred between 2002 and 2004, and the ensembles had to perform elsewhere for those two years. Today the theater is divided into four sections of boxes and two galleries for a total of six levels. The backstage area was enlarged during that renovation. The new stage remains one of the biggest in Italy. (Looking at the stage, I was struck by how large and deep it was.) Architect Mario Botta had an electronic system installed next to seats so spectators could read the libretto in English, Italian or the original language of the production while watching the spectacle. This technological feature intrigued me.

In 2005 there were many problems with management. In 2006, during a performance of Aida, the audience was incessantly booing tenor Roberto Alagna. The actor left the stage and did not return. His understudy had to take up the role immediately. He didn’t even have time to put on a costume.

The interior style was neoclassical with gold and red colors dominating the seating area. Medallions and floral as well as animal motifs provided adornment inside. I was overwhelmed by La Scala’s beauty. We sat in the royal box for a short time and watched a rehearsal for Gioconda, which had had its premiere at La Scala centuries earlier. We weren’t allowed to remain there for long, but it was still one of the highlights of my visit to Milan.

Maybe next time I come to Milan I will be able to attend an opera or a classical concert at La Scala.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, editor and proofreader in Prague.

Galleria d’Arte Moderna Milano Diary

Walking through the charming courtyard of the gallery, I noticed that the villa was in Neoclassical style as was the La Scala Theatre, which I had toured a few days earlier. On the other side of the main street was a vast park. In part of the courtyard was a posh, crowded restaurant. The edifice had two facades, one visible to visitors. Statues and reliefs with a mythological theme decorated the facades. The second façade looked out upon Milan’s first English landscape garden.

Founded in 1903, the modern art gallery was initially housed in Milan’s Castle. In 1921 it moved to its current location, the Villa Reale. Built by Leopold Pollack from 1790 to 1796, the building was originally named Villa Belgiojoso and was used as a private residence. Later, when Napoleon’s adopted son lived there, many famous people gathered at the villa, which was notable for its lavish ornamentation. On August 6, 1849, the Pace di Milano treaty was signed there, making Milan part of Austria.

Austrian Field Marshall Joseph Radetzky von Radez, a Czech noble and Chief of General Staff for the Habsburgs during the Napoleonic Wars, even called the villa home for one year in the 1850s. At one point Radetzky was even knighted for his bravery. Johann Straus composed the Radetzky March after him. His troops appreciated his valor and fairness. He died in Milan during 1858.

When the various states merged into the Kingdom of Italy, the building was no longer used. It was nationalized in 1920 and was refurbished so the Modern Art Gallery could open there the following year. Still, the gallery had to wait until 2006 before they could use the entire building for their exhibits. Before that the gallery had shared the building with other institutions.

The permanent collection started on the first floor. The first six spaces covered Neoclassical art. The works of Antonio Canova were represented there. Two rooms were dedicated to portraiture, including the renditions of Francesco Hayez. His Portrait of Matilde Juva Brunea from 1851 was one of the gallery’s masterpieces. A luxurious ballroom and the Parnaso Room with its astounding 1811 fresco had come into being during Napoleon’s era. After gazing at these two luxurious spaces, I continued to peruse artwork from the Romantic, Divisionist and Symbolist periods. There was also a temporary exhibition of Italian designer Joe Columbo’s 20th century furnishings on that floor.

From the Joe Columbo exhibition
From the Joe Columbo exhibition

The second floor housed the Grassi Collection and Vismara Collection. The Grassi Collection covered both Italian and foreign works ranging from the 14th to 20th centuries. Eduard Manet, Paul Cezanne and Vincent Van Gogh were all represented. Oriental art was on display, too. The Vismara Collection showcased 40 works of art from the 20th century. The paintings and sculptures included creations by  Picasso, Matisse and Renoir.

Some significant paintings on display included Paul Gauguin’s Donne di Tahiti from 1891; Vincent Van Gogh’s Breton Women and Children from 1888; Giuseppe De Nittis’ Breakfast in Posillipo from 1878; Eduard Manet’s Portrait of M. Arnaud from 1875 and Umberto Boccioni’s The Mother from 1907. The sculpture was just as impressive as the paintings. A bust of a madwoman caught my attention. It showed not only unique facial features but also delved into the psychological being of the woman. Via the sculpture, it was possible to see into the woman’s soul.  Other busts were just as revealing. A small statue by Rodin was exquisite, too. A bust of Beethoven was very expressive and innovative.

One bust that captured my attention.

I was thrilled to see so many amazing paintings and sculptures and looked forward to my next stop at another nearby villa, which was devoted to modern art of the 1930s.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, editor and proofreader in Prague.

A bust of Beethoven

Gallerie d’Italia of Milan Diary

These three palaces, located on the Piazza della Scala near the Scala Theatre, displayed extraordinary artworks of the 19th and 20th century. In the 19th century sections, I was amazed at the vedutas of Milan Cathedral, the system of canals in Milan called Navigli and the Alpine scenes. I found myself thinking of vedutas I had seen in the Czech Republic, such as the masterful ones at Mělník Chateau near Prague.  

The landscapes from the second half of the 19th century gave me a tranquil feeling. I especially liked the landscape with a magnificent yet mysterious castle perched in the mountains. The painting of the Colosseum reminded me of showing that sight to my parents some years ago, watching them gaze with awe and amazement at the historic monument. That was one of the happiest moments of my life.

The paintings of Milan’s Duomo allowed me to appreciate the exterior and interior of that sight to an even greater extent. I recalled walking down from the roof to the ground floor of the cathedral. I had been worried I would fall because I had nursed a bad leg for nine months not long before my trip.

The bas reliefs of Antonio Canova were delights as well. They were inspired by the works of Homer, Virgil and Plato. I remembered seeing Canova’s works at the Borghese Gallery in Rome.

The Lombard painting of the 19th century showed Milan as a vibrant artistic hub and often told pictorial tales of a rapidly changing society. I saw works by Francesco Hayez and other Romanticist artists. Giovanni Migliara focused on ancient monuments.

Works representing Symbolism, Pointillism and Futurism also made up highlights of this museum’s collections. The historical paintings of fight for the unification of Italy profoundly expressed this political and social movement called the Risorgimento, which led to the formation of the Kingdom of Italy. Genre painting showcased people’s daily lives.

The Divisionism of Neo-Impressionist painting that separates colors into dots played a large role, too. The works falling into the Futurism category centered on technology and modernity, for instance. Often cars, airplanes and the industrial city figured in works of this nature.

A special exhibition displayed the Torlonia Marbles, a very significant private collection of Roman statuary with many busts. I loved how the busts, though dating back many centuries, brought out the character of the person sculpted.

The 20th century was highlighted as well. Five halls housed artwork from the 1950s to 1980s. Abstract art between the 1940s and 1950s stood out, too. The Sixties were emphasized with a focus on signs, words and images. Kinetic art also was displayed.

While I was most impressed by the landscapes and pictures of Milan’s cathedral, I gazed at each and every piece of art with awe and wonderment. This was truly a great museum.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, editor and proofreader in Prague.

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II Diary

This 19th century shopping gallery, the oldest in Italy, holds the distinction of being one of the first iron and glass buildings. It was also the first edifice in Italy to have electric lighting installed. The structure has four storeys and boasts a double arcade. It is located smack in the center of Milan, connecting the Piazza del Duomo with the Piazza della Scala. The roof is notable for its large glass dome over an octagonal space. It gets its name from the first king of the Kingdom of Italy.

The architect, Giuseppe Mengoni, had it built between 1865 and 1877. It was his claim to fame. Unfortunately, it also brought about his death. One day before the opening of the galleria on December 30, he fell while inspecting the structure’s roof. Four million people attended his funeral, showing their appreciation of his monumental design. Famous Italians were in attendance, too. For example, painter Francesco Hayez was present at Mengoni’s funeral.

The decoration of the galleria is noteworthy. On the floor, four mosaics depicting the coat-of-arms of Turin, Florence, Rome and Milan add elegance to the structure. The mosaics of the four major continents dazzle passersby near the dome. While I was walking through the space, I saw an Italian teenager spin around three times, standing on the bull’s private parts of Turin’s coat-of-arms. This was for good luck, I later learned.

The edifice was badly damaged in World War II but has since been restored to its former glory after solving some problems with its complex roof structure. In 2015, it was repaired in time for the Expo Milano event.

I was already familiar with this type of structure because, during my visit to Naples some years ago, I walked through its Galleria Umberto, a shopping arcade very similar to Milan’s building. The space in Naples opened in 1890 and is named after the then current King of Italy. The entire historic center of Naples, including the Galleria Umberto, has been recognized by UNESCO.

In the Milan galleria, there were shops selling luxurious goods, such as Gucci. Several cafes boasted stellar views of the Duomo. I made my way enthusiastically to a vast bookstore in the galleria and spent much time there perusing the wonderful collection of books.

Tracy A. Burns is an editor, writer and proofreader in Prague.

2021 Travel Diary

Bust of first President of Czechoslovakia, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk from TGM Museum in Lány

This past year my travel was once again marred by the dangers of the pandemic, and I didn’t want to take any unnecessary risks. I took day trips in the Czech Republic during the summer months, when the chateaus and castles were open. While I did not wander far from Prague, these trips did provide me with a fresh perspective of the world around me and of my own life. I tended to spend most of my time at home as a sort of recluse, and these trips offered me a chance to appreciate the world around me. Fears of getting coronavirus despite being vaccinated prevented me from gathering with friends in cafes. When I went on these trips, I traveled with a good friend, and that also helped keep me sane. We always went by car, which was much easier and much more comfortable than going by public transportation.

Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk
Czech soldiers during World War I

Our first trip in late May was to Lány, where the presidential summer residence was located along with its stunning park. I also visited an intriguing museum dedicated to the founder of Czechoslovakia and its first president, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. I had named my cat Šarlota after the first First Lady of Czechoslovakia, American Charlotte Garrigue Masaryk. (Šarlota is Charlotte in Czech.) I also paid my respects to the Masaryk family at the cemetery nearby.

Furnishings from the First Republic period
Panels explaining architecture and construction during the First Republic

The museum highlights, for example, Masaryk’s time as head of the government-in-exile in London and his trip to the USA to convince US President Woodrow Wilson to support Czechoslovakia becoming a country of its own. Masaryk abdicated due to poor health  after 17 years in office. His many accomplishments and problems during his tenure are well-explained in these exhibits. One section shows off the role of the Czechoslovak legions fighting in Russia as part of the French army during World War I. Intriguing information about society and sport during the First Republic are on display, too.

The Masaryk graves in Lány

Then we went to the cemetery, where simple slabs mark the graves of Tomáš, his wife Charlotte (who died in 1923), son Jan and daughter Alice. I admired the modest yet eloquent gravestones in a quiet part of this cemetery. I recalled watching a film about Tomáš’ son Jan, a prominent politician whom the Communists pushed out a bathroom window to his death. I had visited the scene of the crime in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs palace some years ago, when an employee showed me around. I recalled that Tomáš, the first president of Czechoslovakia, had died at Lány chateau, where we were headed next.

Lány Chateau
The park at Lány

Only the park was open to the public. I had fallen in love with this park during my first visit back in the summer of 1991, less than two years after the Velvet Revolution had toppled Communism in Czechoslovakia. Lány Chateau has served as the summer residence of Czechoslovak and Czech presidents since the state purchased it in 1921. From the late 17th century until 1921 it was the property of the Furstenberg family. In earlier days it had even been owned by Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II. Masterful Slovenian architect Josip Plečník had decorated the park during Masaryk’s tenure. A symbolic, spectacular fountain, two ponds, three small bridges, a cottage with fairy-tale decoration, beehives and Neo-Gothic Riding Stables all mesmerized me along with a greenhouse. Walking down the main chestnut-lined path, I saw better the beauty of the world around me as well as the beauty inside me. I tried to imagine Masaryk riding one of his beloved horses in the park or seated on a bench talking with prominent Czech writer Karel Čapek, one of my favorite authors.

Červená Lhota Chateau
Interior of Červená Lhota Chateau

We made the trip to the fairy-tale bright red chateau Červená Lhota, which used to be surrounded by water. Alas, there is no water around it now. I recalled my first visit, when I was entranced by the reflection of the cheerful-looking structure in the pond. I also recalled my first attempted trip to the chateau, more than 15 years earlier, when I mistakenly traveled to another village with the same name in an entirely different part of the country. I also recalled the four friends I had made the first time I was successful at traveling to the chateau, walking the 10 kilometers from the train station while talking about life with my friendly companions.

Interior of Červená Lhota Chateau

The chateau got the name Červená Lhota – červená means red in Czech – during 1597, when it was painted that color. Legend claims that the devil had kidnapped a lady at the chateau, and she had died. After her murder, a spot of blood could be seen under a window of the then white façade. Another legend says that her blood had covered the chateau exterior, and the red color was permanent. Perhaps the family best associated with the chateau is the Schonburg-Hartenstein clan, who owned it from 1835 for 110 years. Indeed, the interior took its appearance from the start of the 20th century, when this family was in residence. We saw mostly authentic furnishings, which is always a treat. The painted ceilings, superb artwork, elaborate clocks, beautiful tiled stoves, intarsia-decorated furniture and graphics collection all held my undivided attention.

Jemniště Chateau

Another week we traveled about an hour from Prague to Jemniště Chateau, a Baroque gem completed about 1725, though most of it burned down in 1754 and had to be rebuilt. Leading Czech Baroque painter Václav Vavřinec Reiner and legendary Baroque sculptor Matyáš Bernard Braun did some of the reconstruction. The Sternberg family took possession of the chateau in 1898, but it was confiscated by the Nazis in 1943 and then nationalized by the Communists in 1951. After the Velvet Revolution, the Sternbergs did get the chateau back, and some members of the family live there today.

Park of Jemniště Chateau
Jemniště Chateau from the park

The Main Hall was astounding with four portraits of Habsburg rulers on the walls, ceiling frescoes with mythological themes and a superb rendition of three allegories of the four seasons. In other spaces, I loved the Dutch Baroque furniture with colored woods. Saint Joseph’s Chapel featured remarkable frescoes.

Český Šternberk Castle in the distance
View from Český Šternberk Castle

Another trip took us to Český Sternberk Castle, which is, in my opinion, the most impressive of the three medieval castles in Central Bohemia, outdoing Karlštejn and Křivoklát. The exterior is imposing Gothic with a steep climb to the entrance gate. The interior spaces are decorated in various historical styles from Renaissance to Rococo. The castle dates back to the mid-thirteenth century, when Zdeslav of Divišov changed his name to Sternberg, the family that owns the castle today. When the Communists took the castle away from then owner Jiří Sternberg in 1949, he and his family still resided there, allowed to use only two small rooms. Jiří even gave tours of the castle. At long last, in 1992, the current owner got the property back.

Interior of Český Šternberk Castle
Knights’ Hall

The Knights’ Hall dated from around 1500 and features ornate 17th century stucco adornment. Life-size portraits on the walls showed generals from the Thirty Years’ War and King George of Poděbrady. Two 250-kilogram Czech crystal chandeliers amaze. This was the first but certainly not the last room where the eight-pointed Sternberg star had a prominent presence. The Yellow Salon featured its Empire wall painting of idyllic country scenes. The Dining Room showed off marvelous paintings. Dutch Baroque furniture with a floral motif graced another room. On the tour, we saw many renditions of battles – Sternberg owns 545 paintings of the battles during the Thirty Years’ War. Paintings by Filip Sternberg also are on display.

Karlštejn Castle from the picturesque main street

It was stupid of me to book a tour of Karlštejn Castle for a Friday afternoon. Traffic was hell, but there was nowhere to turn back. It was scorching hot. We walked up the steep road to the castle, gasping for air and needing a few short water breaks. Astounding Gothic Karlštejn Castle loomed above us. Its history was legendary. The castle was constructed for Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV in 1348, and the crown jewels of the Holy Roman Empire had been stored there until 1420. Throughout the centuries, the castle would never be totally conquered. Even a seven-month siege by the Hussites in the 15th century was successfully warded off. I had been to Karlštejn many times but not for some years. The Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary showed off beautiful 14th century frescoes. The walls of the small Chapel of Saint Catherine were decorated with exquisite frescoes and semi-precious stones.

Entrance gate at Karlštejn Castle

Gothic frescoes are by no means in short supply on the tour that included the chapel.  On one ceiling about 40 angels played various medieval instruments. The Chapel of the Holy Cross, the highlight of the tour, dazzled with its ornate decoration. Designed by Charles IV, the space featured semi-precious stones and 129 paintings of saints, popes, knights, emperors, martyrs, kings plus the Apostles and others. The legendary Master Theodoric, Charles IV’s court painter, created the impressive works. The gold ceiling was adorned with thousands of stars made from Venetian glass.

Blatná Chateau

Unlike Červená Lhota, Blatná in south Bohemia was surrounded by water, adding a romantic flair to the already impressive structure. It was first mentioned in writing during the 13th century. Renovation during the 15th century was carried out in part by famous architect Benedikt Ried, who was responsible for designing part of Prague Castle. The highlight for me was the Green Chamber with its exquisite Renaissance art. The Sternbergs feature in the story of this chateau as well. They took control of the structure in 1541 and added a Renaissance palace. During 1798 Baron Karel Hildprandt bought it and held onto it until the chateau was nationalized in 1948. The family was able to live there, albeit in two small rooms, despite the takeover. In 1952 they were forced out, though. When the Emperor of Ethiopia paid a visit to Czechoslovakia in 1959, he asked that the Hildprandt family be allowed to emigrate to his country. They got permission and resided in Ethiopia until the Soviet coup in the 1970s. During 1992, the family returned to the chateau and made their home at Blatná.

The chapel includes Gothic vaulting and thin, high Gothic windows. The cheerful yellow color of the Baroque Salon reminded me of the yellow kitchen in my parents’ home – a kitchen I would never see again. I loved the intarsia furniture in this space. An English clock’s decoration showed the four seasons. I also was captivated by an Oriental jewel chest with hidden drawers. I recalled my visit to the extensive ruins of Rabí Castle when I saw that structure rendered in an impressive artwork. The Painting Gallery featured a rendition of a vast landscape on a wall and a superb chandelier made of Czech glass. A map in a hallway amazed. It hailed from the 17th century and was one of only two copies in existence. I saw Prague’s Charles Bridge before the statues had been built on it.

Park at Blatná Chateau

In the Hunting Salon some furniture was made from deer antlers. Archduke Franz Ferdinand d’Este visited occasionally to go on hunting trips with the Hildprandt owner. In the Dining Room, I was drawn to the red-and-black chairs and the daiquiri green tiled stove. The 19th century Neo-Gothic furniture was impressive.  Japanese plates decorate a wall of another space with a Neo-Renaissance tiled stove and chandelier in Empire style. I noticed some Egyptian features of the Empire furniture. In other spaces an exotic landscape graced a tapestry and four paintings of Italian towns decorated a wall. A huge black Empire style tiled stove stood out in one space. In the Study of Jaroslav Rožmítl, I saw paintings of Adam and Eve plus renditions of saints George, Wenceslas and Catherine. There was an intriguing room with artifacts from Ethiopia that I had seen on previous tours, but for some reason, we did not visit that space this time. My friend and I were disappointed.

Děčín Chateau gate

We also went north to Baroque – Classicist Děčín Chateau, which had served as barracks for the Austro-Hungarian army, the Germans and the Soviets for many decades. The last Soviet soldier had departed in 1991. Its history dates back to the end of the 10th century. Děčín became a castle in the second half of the 13th century, though later it was burned down. In the 16th century the Knights from Bunau transformed it into a Renaissance chateau. The historical landmark gets its current appearance from the Thun-Hohenstein period. That family owned it from 1628 to 1932 and had nurtured a friendship with Franz Ferdinand d’Este. In fact, after Ferdinand d’Este and his wife Sophia were assassinated in Sarajevo during 1914, his children spent time at Děčín. Emperor Franz Joseph and his wife Sissy also stayed at the chateau three weeks after their wedding during the 19th century.  A 270-meter steep street gave access to the chateau. Blind arcades adorned seven-meter high walls flanking the street. There was an exquisite Rose Garden, too. A gloriette and statues of mythological gods added to the splendor of this section as did a sala terrena.

View from the chateau

The interior was vast and impressive. The library, which at one time was situated in the biggest hall, had held 90,000 books, but due to financial problems, the Thuns had to sell them. Since no one wanted to buy the entire collection, the Thun clan sold the books by the pound. Only 4,500 volumes of the previous collection have been returned. This huge space currently looked like a ballroom with splendid crystal chandeliers.

Rose Garden
Statue in Rose Garden

The exquisite Blue Room included two blue-painted walls with rich decoration, only uncovered during a 2001 restoration. A classical landscape showed people, boats, trees and temples. A large painting of the Thun family tree weighed 150 kilograms. Another room was decorated with floral motifs on blue walls. A wooden bed was made for women who slept half-seated as to not upset their elaborate hair styles. Also, people slept half-seated because they were worried they would die if they lay down on beds. A room showed off the paintings of Děčín by Karl Graff. The Chapel of Saint George was very impressive, too.

The house where my family lived for almost 50 years

In September, my last trip of the year, I spent two weeks in Virginia visiting my parents and four friends. I was constantly worried I would get covid as cases were on the rise. I tended to spend most of the time in my parents’ apartment for this reason. I wanted to go into DC to museums, but I chose to take precautions against covid and stay with my parents. It was the first time I had seen them in two years. That May they had moved from the townhouse where I had lived since the age of three. I missed the red, white and blue rug in my old room, the mahogany piano in the living room and most of all the sunny yellow kitchen where I had talked through so many problems over tea and muffins or scones. I felt as if I had not had the chance to say goodbye to the previous abode, and that rankled me. The thought of a stranger using my childhood home upset me. I liked the apartment, but my heart was back in the townhouse. Still, nothing could compare to the moment I stepped out of the taxi and saw my mother with her hands out, ready for a hug, for the first time in two years. That was one of the best moments of my life.

Šarlota on her cat tree
Šarlotka on her Prague castle
Šarlotka napping with her toys when she was 11

Yet, during that summer I had experienced one of the worst moments of my life, too. My 11-year-old black cat Šarlota suddenly lost the use of her back legs and had to be rushed to the emergency vet. She had heart problems and stayed overnight in the hospital. The next morning, I was on the balcony, trying to read but unable to concentrate, when the vet called. He said there was no hope. She had to be put to sleep. I was at the vets in an hour or less and spent about 20 minutes talking to Šarlota and petting her, explaining that she was going to meet Bohumil soon in Heaven.

I was crushed. After four horrible years, Šarlota had found me, and she had been so happy living by my side. She had been such a good cat, always thankful and appreciative of her rosy life. It was cruel for her to die after only six years with me, I thought. I spoke to her calmly and thanked her profusely for being my best friend. I will always treasure those 20 minutes. Her death was so sudden that her death still greatly pains me. Every day I almost burst into tears because she is not here.

Olinka

Four days after she died, I adopted a four-year old black cat I named Olinka Havlová Burnsová after Václav Havel’s wife, the first First Lady of the Czech Republic. Olinka’s history was tinged with sadness as well. About two weeks before I got her from a cat shelter, Olinka’s human, with whom she had a wonderful life, had been murdered at her home by a drug addict. For several days Olinka and her brothers and sisters had been alone in the house with the corpse. When the police came, they all ran away. Olinka was the first to come back to her previous territory, returning the next evening. The cat shelter where I knew the owner had caught her, and she had spent a few weeks there.

Olinka on Christmas Eve, 2021
Olinka resting while I read on the couch

The moment I saw a photo of her on the cat shelter’s Facebook page, I wanted to adopt her. When I got her, she was dealing with the death of her first mother, and I was dealing with the death of Šarlota. Now she is happy again, loves playing with all her toys, eating soft food and napping in one of her many beds. She also loves knocking everything off tables, so I have to be careful. Pens, notes and cases for glasses are sprinkled on the carpets of my flat. So far she has destroyed one alarm clock and one lampshade. She was just playing.

I wanted Christmas to be special for Olinka so I filled two stockings with toys. She was very happy during her first Christmas without her first mother, brothers and sisters. I am always astounded at how friendly she is. If a stranger comes in, she will go to him or her and demand petting. The only person she is not sure about is the cleaning lady who moves her toys in order to vacuum.

I so badly want to go back to Italy next year, to travel a little outside the Czech Republic, to wander through museums I have never visited before, to contemplate life in cathedrals, gaze up at the dome and be overcome with awe. I want to walk down picturesque streets for the first time, discovering something new at each corner. I plan on visiting my parents again, too. I hope the situation will be better in the USA whenever I do fly there again.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer and proofreader in Prague.

Italy – Puglia, Altamura
Puglia, Matera
Rome – Colosseum

Assisi

Puglia Photo Diary

During this terrible pandemic that is devasting Italy, I have decided to post some photo diaries of memories of Italy in its glory, as it was and as it will be again. My trip to Puglia with arsviva travel agency was one of the best vacations I have ever had. I was fascinated by the simplicity and elegance of the Apulian Romanesque style as I discovered churches and cathedrals in sleepy towns with picturesque, narrow streets. I loved the balconies of houses, adorned with plants or with architectural elements that I admired. Lecce was a Baroque gem. Its churches and cathedral were breathtaking, overwhelming with their beauty. Matera’s sassi quarters were so unlike anything I had ever witnessed – the sassi were some of the most intriguing sights I had ever set eyes on. Bitonto, Grottoglie, Canosa di Puglia, Ruva di Puglia, Barletta, Castel del Monte, Ontranto, Taranto, Trani – all these places and more became dear to my heart and filled me with so many perfect memories.

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Altamura, Cathedral S. Maria Assunta ceiling

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Door of Cathedral of S. Maria Assunta, Altamura

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Exterior, Cathedral, Altamura

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Interior, Cathedral S. Maria Assunta, Altamura

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Exterior, Cathedral S. Maria Assunta, Altamura

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Tympanium, Cathedral S. Maria Assunta

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Stained glass window from cathedral in Altamura

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Street in Altamura

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Balcony in Bari

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Balcony in Bari

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Cathedral of S. Sabino, Bari

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Church of Saint Nicholas, Bari

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Street in Bari

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Barletta Cathedral S. Maria Maggiore

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Cathedral in Barletta

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Cathedral S. Maria Maggiore, Barletta

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Cathedral S. Maria Maggiore, Barletta

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Cathedral S. Valentino, Bitonto

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Romanesque mosaic in 12th century crypt of Cathedral S. Valentino, Bitonto

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Street in Bitonto

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View from Canne de Battaglia, ruins of ancient town Cannae and site of famous battle, August 2, 216 when Carthingians with Hannibal defeated Romans. About 130,000 men took part, and 60,000 died, including 80 Roman senators.

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Cathedral S. Sabino in Canosa di Puglia

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Bishop’s throne from 11th century in S. Sabino Cathedral, Bitonto

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Exterior of Cathedral S. Sabino, Canosa di Puglia

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Stained glass window in Cathedral S. Sabino, Canosa di Puglia

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Castel del Monte

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Castel del Monte

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Castel del Monte

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View from Castel del Monte

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Grottaglie, Ceramics Museum at Castello Episcopio

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Grottaglie, Ceramics Museum

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Amphitheatre in Lecce

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Cathedral S. Maria dell’ Assunta, Lecce

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Cathedral S. Maria dell’ Assunta, Lecce

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Lecce, Cathedral S. Maria dell’ Assunta

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Stained glass window at cathedral in Lecce

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Church in Lecce – Sorry, I don’t remember which one.

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Church in Lecce

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Church in Lecce

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Roman theatre in Lecce

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S. Croce Church in Lecce

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S. Croce Church in Lecce

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Cathedral Madonna della Bruna in Matera

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Cathedral Madonna della Bruna in Matera

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Cathedral Madonna della Bruna in Matera

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Cathedral Madonna della Bruna in Matera

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View from Sasso Caveoso in Matera

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Sasso in Matera

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Sasso in Matera

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Sasso in Matera

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In Sasso Caveoso in Matera

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View from Sasso Caveoso in Matera

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Molfetta

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Molfetta

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Calm sea in Molfetta

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Molfetta, Cathedral S. Corrado, built from 1150 to end of the 13th century

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Otranto, Basilica S. Pietro

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Otranto, Cathedral S. Maria Annunziata

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Mosaic floor from 1163-1165 of cathedral in Otranto

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Interior of Cathedral S. Maria Annunziata, Otranto

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Rosette window of Cathedral S. Maria Annunziata, Otranto, from 16th century

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Ruva di Puglia

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Ruva di Puglia, S. Maria Assunta Cathedral

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Castle, Taranto

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Cathedral S. Cataldo, Taranto

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Cathedral S. Cataldo, Taranto

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Cathedral S. Cataldo, Taranto

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Cathedral S. Cataldo, Taranto

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Cathedral interior, Taranto

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Street in Taranto

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View from Taranto

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Trani, Cathedral S. Nicola Pellegrino

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Trani, Reliefs on door of cathedral, from 1179

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Trani, 12th century reliefs on cathedral doors

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Port in Trani

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Street in Trani

 

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

 

Sicily Photo Diary

As Italy suffers from the coronavirus, I am looking at my photos from past trips to that beloved country, remembering better days. This time I took a look at my photos from my trip to Sicily some years ago. This trip had special meaning for me because it was my first group tour. Previously, I had always travelled alone or with family members. I was so nervous! I went with the art and history-themed travel agency Arsviva that offers tours in Czech. It turned out I had nothing to be nervous about. The group was made up of wonderful people who made me feel like I belonged, even though I was the only foreigner on the trip. I even made three good friends. Our tour guide was spectacular, and her insights about each magical place made the sights even more special and bewitching. Unfortunately, my photos of the interior of the cathedral in Monreale were on an old Samsung phone, and they did not transfer to my next phone. Somehow two photos of Cefalu got lost in a phone change as well. I thought I took pictures of the interior of the church in Tindari, but I cannot find them. Anyway, here are some of my special memories of that exciting time one May:

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Agrigento

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Agrigento

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Cefalu

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Cefalu

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Mt. Etna

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Mt. Etna

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Church in Messina

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Tower in Messina

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Monreale

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Monreale

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Monreale

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Noto

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Palermo

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Norman church in Palermo

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Crypt of cathedral in Palermo

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Palace in Palermo

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Street in Ragusa

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Church in Ragusa

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Segesta

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Amphitheatre in Segesta

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View from amphitheatre in Segesta

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Selinute

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View from Selinute

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Grotto in Syracuse

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Theatre in Syracuse

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Amphitheatre in Taormina

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View from Taormina

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Amphitheatre in Taormina

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Amphitheatre in Taormina

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View from Tindari

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Roman ruins in Tindari

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Church in Tindari

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View from amphitheatre in village of Polina

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View from amphitheatre in Polina

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Amphitheatre in Polina

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On the way to the amphitheatre in Polina

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Villa Romana

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Villa Romana

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Villa Romana

 

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.