The Rape of Persephone

Of all the Greek myths that there are, this is one of my favourites. The rape of Persephone.

As soon as I saw this statue I was completely mesmerised by it. It is called the Rape of Proserpina or Abduction of Proserpina (Ratto di Proserpina) by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the year 1622. As he was Italian he used the Roman names of the Greek gods. In this post I will refer to Proserpina by using her actual Greek name: Persephone.

I know the story by heart as it’s one of my favourites, and as intense as it is, only a very intense piece of art could represent it the best way. Bernini did it. And majestically.

Hades and Persephone in one of the most beautiful and dramatic representations of this myth.

 

Who were Persephone (Kore) and Hades?

Persephone (also known as Kore, ‘young girl’ in ancient Greek) is the daughter of Demetre, goddess of corn and harvest. Hades was the god of the Underworld, therefore god of all the dead, good and bad, and god of all the precious gems and stones that are found in the the underground. He was lonely, very grumpy and very unlucky with women. Every attempt of seduction failed miserably. He never left the Underworld unless he had business to do or when he is overcome by sudden lust. Tired of his failed attempts he asks his brother Zeus to give him Kore as his wife. Kore (in greek means ‘young girl’) was a young joyous girl, daughter of Demeter, jealous goddess of harvest and agriculture. Zeus knew that by giving his consent he would have to confront the severe Demeter so he unwillingly gave the permission to his older brother to take Persephone to the underworld.

The coming of Kore to the Underworld symbolises the beginning of autumn and then winter, as the mother cried her daughter disappearance by shutting down any agriculture growth and prosperity on Earth. This fact prompted to her name changed into Persephone, which means ‘her who brings destruction‘ in terms of life and vegetation. Negotiations were made in such way that it was decreed that Persephone would spend six months in the underworld with her new husband (autumn and winter) and the rest of the year with her mother Demeter (spring and summer).

This piece of art is a delicate balance of violence and seduction, bodies binding together with excellent attention paid to details that give it an effect of firmness and strength.

Hades grip on Persephone’s thigh

Persephone’s desperation is remarkable in this piece of work as her eyes and tears portray the fear and anger upon being taken away from her mother, Demeter, and her home town to be dragged in the Underworld.

Persephone’s desperation is shown by her tears and features

The Witchcraft Sonora Market

Are you superstitious? Do you think you are followed by bad luck? Do you suspect your neighbour is trying to poison you? Harbouring revenge over your cheating wife or husband?
Then this is the right place for you then. The Witchcraft Sonora Market. Travel with me to one of the creepiest sides of Mexico.

Just walk with me as I take you to this colourful and creepy Mercado.

I was told about the obscure Mercado de Sonora, filled with occult things and cures for anything that ails you. So in my latest visit to Mexico City I decided add this superstitious stop in my journey. The travel team had already covered the must-see places and things in this gigantic metropolis so I was very keen on looking for the kind of things I like: the strange things.

It looks like a very big market place focused on esoteric items, the ideal place for those interested in mysticism, occultism and hidden wisdom (a term cherished by many).

It was creepy, for sure, but also very interesting and certainly a nice detour from the regular city attractions.

Vendors were friendly and invited us in easily, though they preferred to remain hidden in front of my camera. See photo below.

As we walked by the aisles, vendors asked us questions and offered us all kinds of solutions to our daily life’s troubles. Things like herbs, claws of garlic, water and essences spray, soaps, saints, skulls, ritual pamphlets, anything you can imagine, including the illegal trade of animals.

The Mercado Sonora is home to many religions other than Catholicism. Here I found a wide range of vernacular religions, sorcery practices and other bizarre faiths and convictions. Voodoo is no stranger here either, with all its incredible imagery and rituals.

It got more and more interesting as I walked through it. Aisled are stuffed with witchcraft items, potions, dolls and amulets.

This creepy market offers a wide range of items that serve to fulfil any macabre wish people harbour. The rich variety of products and shamanistic items will feed your imagination. There are stands with skulls, skeleton representations and dubious containers among other items.

People who believe they are being cursed or ill-wished come to Mercado Sonora to have a spiritual cleansing known as limpia. It is a very common practice and not only in Mexico. It’s a process which normally involves the use of incense, singing prayers and herbal items, either ingested or brushed upon the affected person.

 

Ostia Antica: Bigger and Prettier than Pompeii

There is nothing more beautiful than the ancient Roman port, now a ghost town, next to my house. Ostia Antica. A city that no one imagined existed beyond the river. An ancient city that surpasses Pompeii in beauty and size. Many places do not enjoy the appropriate recognition. When the ancient side of Italy comes to people’s mind as a travel destination it often reminds of places as Pompeii and the centre of Rome. Wonderful places indeed, but because they’re so obviously touristic they often eclipse more interesting and less spotted locations. One is definitely Ostia Antica, the Pompeii of Rome but simply bigger and better.

The Beauty of Ostia Antica

Just by reaching the entrance, the obvious true is that Ostia Antica is simply pretty.

True, Pompeii is popular, but the dust faded drawings and paintings leave the place fairly plain. The ancient ruins of Ostia Antica are filled with visible and neat mosaics, frescos, secret tunnels, plebeyan hourses, rich domus, beheaded statues and ancient buildings, turning it into the most impressive and stunning set of village of ruins in Rome.

Originally, Ostia Antica was the port of Rome.The Tiber river used to run along the north part until 1557 a.D. when a distructive flood dragged the river bed downstream. The coast was once very close to the town, while now is 3 km far from it, precisely almost in front of my house. See the trees? The river is just 2 minutes walk from there

It used to be an ancient military colony to guard the river mouth against invasion coming from the sea. And because of its unique location, right between the Tiber river and Tyrrhenian sea, it soon became from a military outpost, ‘castrum’, because of its squared citadel shape, it served as a naval base until the year 200 BC, when it became a flourishing commercial town and the main food supply for Rome.
Once Rome had significant dominion on the Mediterranean, the original military purpose of Ostia Antica became less necessary and slowly became the closest emporium of Rome. You get an idea when you watch closely the ground and you see the neat trail left by the four wheeled carts that carried goods between Rome and Ostia

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Some say that Ostia Antica was founded by Anco Marzio around the year 620 BC, the forth king of Rome, to benefit from its location next to the river (ostia in fact comes from ostium, which means “mouth”). By the 2nd century BC, Ostia Antica was a flourishing commercial center inhabited by almost 100,000 people, whose apartment buildings, taverns, and grocery shops are still intact. Oh well, almost intact.
Although Ostia now sprawls over 10,000 acres, around a main street that runs for more than a mile on a road that is still carved by the old carts.

Cultural Diversity

Another factor that makes Ostia Antica unique is how it gathered different communities all in one place.

As you walk along the main street, the Decumanus Maximus, your will the most significant remains of the city’s stone theater, warehouses, and and the oldest known Jewish Synagogue in Europe, discovered only in 1960 and dated from the year 100 a.D., unique and impressive, where still nowadays receives dozens of Jews every year in winter time.

An ancient Jewish ‘menorah’ symbolises a gathering Jews temple in the vicinity.

It was with Emperor Augusto and his successors that the city had its first theater, ‘anfiteatro‘, and an aqueduct

The splendid amphitheater is still used today for theathe representation and allegoric shows.

The famous faun. Fauns used to be “rustic” gods of woods and forests, they looked like men but with legs and ears of goats. Faun comes from the Greek word φαῦνος (fainis) which means goat or Latin word faveo, which means auspicious. Either way, it always meant something good as the Greeks favored the fauns as they were believed to guide humans whenever they were lost in the forests

Below is (was) a true fish tavern, notice the tables and oven on the back?

The guy below is Attis, this statue is located at his sanctuary near the Faun in the Campus of Magna Mater. He was the Frigian husband of goddess Cibele for the Romans, Rhea for the Greeks (mother of Zeus)

Attis was the consort of Cybele in Phrygian and Greek mythology.

A Collection of Mosaics

Something that you will not find easily in Italy is intact frescos and mosaics. Ostia Antica, thanks to the support of community and proper maintenance, has been able to keep alive its beautiful collection of mosaics throughout most of the town.

Mosaic of Venus and son Eros. In mythology mother and son were rarely seen separated, as she was the goddess of love and her son the trouble love-match maker.

A magnificent mosaic dedicated to the god Neptune or his Greek alter ego Poseidon.

In Ostia Antica you’ll find temples dedicated to many gods, the one below where I’m sitting is the temple of Ceres for the Romans, or Demeter for the Greeks, in other words the goddess of agriculture and wheat.

Psyche and Eros.

Public bathrooms of ancient times, or else known as latrinae. Our friends are showing us how ancient Romans used to share very easily this special moment of their day.

Our friends Luis and Eleonor gently posed as ‘ancient’ toilet users as a cordial gesture to this article.

And for those looking for mysterious tunnels, you’ll find a few ones hidden on the East side of the ruins

Ostia Antica is a delightful journey to our past worth exploring, diverse and unique in its kind. It’s big enough to give you an idea of what an old city looked like in its entirety. Pack yourself with water and enjoy the journey.

The Pending Coffee tradition

Italians are masters of many noble traditions, inventions and deeds, many of them taken from unnoticed customs in other countries where they did not receive much attention, evidently. True: we did not invent pizza, pasta, coffee. But we certainly invented the way the rest of the world conceives, serves and drinks coffee, starting from the linguistics of it (espressocappuccino, latte macchiato, etc) to the steam-driven espresso machine (first pioneered by Angelo Moriondo in 1884), to the more stylish brands (Illy and Lavazza, my favourite). If coffee has a spiritual home, this is it. Italy.

Today 🙂 let me delight you with some curious Italian coffee traditions: the pending coffee.

The Espresso-macchiato:  an espresso literally “stained” with a light amount of steamed milk. This is my friend Riccio’s favourite although she might have transitioned to the more tasteful marocchino, another great invention from north of Italy, which carries a mix of espresso, cocoa powder and milk froth.

In Italy, having coffee is a form of art: is a ritual that may be practiced more times in a day depending on the need, before a meal, after lunch, a work break, etc. Come to a bar and live the full coffee experience. A bar, normally very crowded and noisy coffee house, is where people gather to have coffee and meet friends, discuss politics and sports. It’s where they start their day and, at times, where it ends along with an aperitivo.

This is a typical bar in Rome, more specifically in Ostia Antica, my home town. Normally crowded, this bar is located right outside the train station. In a bar people normally have coffee and/or a quick digestive drink, accompanied by little snacks such as peanuts.

The barista, the man or woman behind the bar who prepares the coffee, is a key element to this tradition. He or she joins random conversations, debates, is normally friends with the regular customers. Coffee gives us morning boost, helps digest our food, avoid nappy desire and open the evening together with aperitivos. In few words: coffee rules our lives.

Cappuccino, my absolute favourite: 50% hot milk, 50% espresso with foam to the top usually had for breakfast. Traditional Italians would curse me if they knew I have cappuccino also after meals, even if I ate fish. I don’t care because it’s just too good.

But let’s go deeper into Italian culture and tradition and explore a very unknown term to most foreigners: a pending espresso. Else known as caffé sospeso (suspended coffeee) or caffé pagato (paid coffee).

What is a pending or paid coffee?

The caffé sospeso is a concept mostly unknown to rest of the world. A very old Italian tradition that enchants many because of its romantic simplicity: gifting an espresso to somebody.

Born in Naples during the Second World War, this habit came to symbolise solidarity in a very critic moment in Italian history. Those who could afford an espresso at the bar normally would pay for a second coffee to pay for a coffee many times they would pay for another one which would be left pending. This pending coffee would later be given to anyone who wished to have it (normally it would be someone poor or homeless).

In that very moment of our history, coffee became a sympathetic and philanthropic gesture that anybody who was happy made when entering a bar.

Precisely because a person was happy, he or she would decide to have an espresso at the bar and pay for an additional one to be assigned to anyone. In few words, an espresso was offered to a stranger, any stranger coming into the bar later on.

This person, aware of the tradition, would go to bartender and ask if there were any pending coffees.

Nino Manfredi on the most classic Lavazza Caffé ad of 1986.

Can you beat Brit food?

Traveling always gives me ideas and myths to break. Today I am going to break the British Bad Food myth. Just because I love food so much 🙂 and I firmly believe Britain’s got Good Food!

I went back on an exploration to my second favourite country in Europe, the UK, my home for few years. A trip down memory lane, basically, and as such an important culinary destination as well.

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At breakfast in Piccadilly Circus I found delicious coffee in these delicious mugs.

We all know that the United Kingdom is rightfully recognised for many contributions throughout history (did you know, for example, that printed press was invented in England in the 1534?) and for some obscure reason food has never been one of them. I remember friends complaining about the excessive amount of meat and specifically lamb in most menus, or the plain taste of fish and chips spots all around London. Often the subject of ridicule, even the locals sometimes seem to not appreciate their cuisine.

Tru that I’ve heard similar opinions on Canadian food and even the US, and while I might actually agree there, I prefer to stop and focus on the UK first.

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Fish and Chips on Notting Hill Street. Delicious half-morning snack on my way to the Brisiths Museum 🙂

I started thinking of what the reasons could be. Is it because Britain’s cuisine scene is saturated with a myriad cultures settling in and highlighting their flavours? Maybe because the most iconic dishes don’t have an understandable name that give an idea to an outsider or seem unfussy? Take the Yorkshire Pudding, Shepherd’s Pie. And my new favourite, the Guinness Pie. Unless you enquire about the recipe, you can’t know what they’re made of. The pressing presence of international cuisines does not mean that British simple sauces dishes should be overlooked, let alone mocked.

Why do people believe food in the UK is bad?

After done some research and asking around, the answer is: History, of course.

England’s monarchs were all different in tastes and dislikes. Kings. Often Queens. Britain saw an enormous change and addition to its fashion style and culinary creativity in the 16th century given the alliances built with European powers and eagerness to explore. In England this is particularly true and documented in many letters found at the hand of reform seekers. French sauces and the growing saffron in England became an inspiration.

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The famous English Breakfast used to keep me energised the entire day. Especially when I had to be at Heathrow the whole day working, this breakfast was THE way to do it. This one I had at Cafe Number 1 in Hackney.

Then we come to the Victorian age. While famous for bringing all sort of innovations and entertainment in the country, the Victorian age somehow threw a disapproving eye on exciting food especially if inspired from abroad. The traditional English Breakfast is in fact a Victorian invention mostly prepared and served in the upper and upper-middle classes, such as bankers.

Then the WW II came. Food rationing persisted for many years after the war’s end, giving the Brits an almost permanent greasy-pastry menu of dishes. Under the rationing period, many ingredients were unavailable and so substitutes of inferior quality and canned food took over and became wildly used.

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Canned peas. Simply delicious and malleable, you can eat these with anything.

The 1990s saw the emergence of reinventing things. Many chefs looked around and revitalised old recipes with new ingredients in an effort to bring in some culinary excitement and leave behind the old plain days. Plus low cost airlines made it easy for British people to eat better quality dishes and realised they could demand better quality from their home-country kitchens. More on the cuisine reinvention is found here.

I think that was the right move. The New British food, if prepared with the adequate ingredients and passion, is actually quite amazing.