Tianjin: the city with no past

It was a very hot day in Beijing and I wished to avoid the crowds and explore something new, different. Like Tianjin. The city with no past. Or almost…

Tianjin, the largest sea-coast city of northern China, is located in the northeastern area of Hebei Province and borders the Beijing municipality. As per population, Tianjin is among 4th or 5th place.

Tianjin has long served as an important port since imperial times and has, at various points in history, been occupied by colonial powers such as Italy, France, Germany UK, Japan and even Russia. Tianjin is also known for being the set for a religious rebellion against foreign Christian missionaries.

A wiped past

The reason why I wanted to go there was due its illustrious historical heritage… and somehow I found almost none of it. China’s rapid economic development drives to build, modernise and emulate Western cultures by clearing old city quarters to make room for banks, malls, office sky-scrapers, compounds.
This moves dramatically changed the history of the city. And it’s not just in Tianjin. If you go to Shanghai you can see the same cultural massacre taking place at rapid pace for the sake of modern development. Some say it’s because Asian younger generation don’t seem to understand the significance of preservation, while others say that maybe it is because of a Buddhist belief that says that the world is in constant change and therefore they downgrade the notion of permanence.
The Tianjin Century Clock Tower

Still, historical sites aside, Tianjin is blessed with variety of attractions, Tianjin is a good place to explore. The top ten attractions are Jinmen Shijing, are Gu Wenhua Jie, Dagu Emplacement, Huangyaguan Great Wall, Dule Temple, Haihe River, Water Park, Panshan Mountain, among others. And several natural scenes of beauty as well.

Tianjin today and what to see

Today, its colonial past can be seen in the Italian Concession district, which features avenues with European-style architecture. Although by no means a small city, it is known for being much more relaxed than nearby Beijing and is often ranked high up on the list of most livable Chinese cities.
The fancy Italian Style Town where many Italians used to reside. Today is Italian looking and filled and with delicatessen little shops.

It was once known as city with historical significance until it was desecrated by foreign invaders long before the foundation of People’s Republic of China. In fact, the city has been home to Italians, Germans, French, British and Japanese among others. Their presence marked the city profoundly, we felt no air of “old” or “ancient”.

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Unaddressed Costa Rica

Street directions are quite important, they are significant in order to get to places on time so that we won’t miss a movie, or a date, they’re important especially if you’re hungry and you want to get to the burritos place soon.

So what happens when you suddenly find yourself traveling to Costa Rica?

The first suspicion came up when I needed to pay for my hotel and the sales representative goes:

“Please send your payment amount to the following bank: HSBC, 15 N Subaru Autos, San José – Costa Rica”

After a few seconds I asked the person:
“Excuse me, just a question… What does the N stand for in the address?”
“N is ‘next to’, our bank branch is located next to the Subaru Cars Distributor”
“Ok…”

When traveling to a new place for many people can be a challenging experience even for the most experienced travelers. Where for many places the language barrier is one of the most typical brick-walls you can find, in Costa Rica you’ll find a complete different mindset when it comes to giving directions. According to the maps I carefully looked at, when you see street numbers that are clearly marked, such as Calle 15 or Calle 3, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they are likewise clearly displayed on the streets.

And this makes perfectly sense! While my bank transaction had to be addressed to Calle 15, it needs to put as reference the Subaru Cars Distributor.

When it came to pick the hotel, the issue became even more intriguing and peculiar.
The Hotel that my colleagues and I chose is Hotel Jade, and this is the direction indications to reach the place:

 

So, travel and driving directions in Costa Rica can be confusing and hilariously fun. Many foreigners are accustomed to road names and road signs, which in this case are all but non-existent.
As I came to learn, Tico (colloquial term used to refer to Costa Ricans) cultural tradition is to think of roads and streets as a pathway to a Final Destination, whose directions are explained with reference to a distance from a milestone.

One week mission in Costa Rica, good luck to me!

Cumae: The Door to Hell

Welcome to Cumae, the door to hell according to ancient believes. Located 25 km west of Naples, Cumae is ancient city of Magna Graecia on the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Founded by settlers from Euboea in the 8th century BC, Cumae was the first Greek colony on the mainland of Italy and the seat of the Cumaean Sibyl, the priestess presiding over the Apollonian oracle at Cumae.

The Legend

Once upon a time, when the Earth was flat and it finished right after Gibraltar, the Greeks used to rule it all. It was known as the Greek World. They believed to have only one ocean, called Ocean, they believed that thunders were the anger expression of Zeus and they believed that the Sun was carried by a chariot through the sky. They also believed that there were more than one entrances to the inferno, the kingdoms of the dead. Inferno back then had no bad or good connotation as Catholicism later made us believe, but it was merely the place were the dead As we said before, they had many fascinating believes, but let’s pick what we left last time: Greek Hell. It is possible to find it, dear Reader. Continue reading “Cumae: The Door to Hell”

The Park of Monsters

Once upon a time, a noble condottiero and patron of the arts, Sir Pier Francesco Orsini, decided to create the Park of Monsters in Bomarzo, a set of gardens filled with monsters and mythological creatures. The park of monsters. Sir Pier Francesco made it very clear and remarked that the garden and its creatures were not meant to be pretty, but to astonish and shock.

It all happened one rainy night, in the 1550’s… Sir Pier Francesco had just been back from a brutal war, the French-Spanish war fought in Italy, he had been held for random reasons, his friend was killed, and came home to find his beloved wife dead. Wrecked with grief, Sir Pier Francesco decided he wanted to create a park of wonders, filled with fascinating creatures and sculptures for which he would have an explanatory inscription for each. And so he hired the architect Pirro Logorio to help him with this creation. He was a very respected architect, he completed the Cathedral of Saint Peter after Michelangelo passed away. Sir Pier Francesco believed it took an unusual architect to build an unusual park of wonders. And this park, dear Reader, is truly astounding… The park is filled with bizarre and fascinating sculptures and creatures from mythology and other monsters for which only the accompanying inscriptions (and some imagination 🙂 ) provide any explanation.

Among the pieces are a war elephant

a dragon fighting a lion

Orsini loved Greek myths so it can be assumed that this sculpture is inspired by the tales of the Nemea lion and the Ladon dragon, both are two of the most famous Hercules Labours tales.

the Greek battle between two giants

Poseidon sitting in what looks like to be his temple at the bottom of the ocean

a house built on a tilt to disorient the viewer

The most iconic piece of the park is the Mouth of Hell, an enormous open-mouth screaming head inside which, on the tongue, stands a picnic table and enough seating for a few people. The accompanying inscription reads “all thought departs” (ogni pensiero vola).

As the park was not magical enough, I found the most unlikely creature that could ever be found in such place: a true Japanese cosplay girl dressed in a what I imagined to be an impala or wild sheep. She was accompanied by her own photographer and the environment actually suited her well 🙂

A Cats Town

One of the most beautiful medieval towns I have ever seen… If you look from far away, Calcata looks like a little drum of rocks. Nature, history, and a true cats town. Seriously, cats everywhere!

The town is filled with little alleys in a constant latch shape, often colored by naïf windows and curtains, theater masks, statues on the balconies, and flowers everywhere. In few words, it is the place that you reach by chance or because someone told you about it.

Season veggies beautifully displayed.

Short history of Calcata

History finds the origins Calcata from around the year 1200 B.C., with first evidences dated by the establishment of Narce, located behind the village of Calcata, which documents already in the thirteenth century BC, while the area was under the control of the Falisci ( exonym for an Italic people who lived in what was then known as Etruria). Then it was with Pope Adriano I (years 772-795 AD) that the name Calcata appeared for the first time. In late thirteen century, Calcata was owned a noble family from Anguillara which built its high walls.

Also, after 1527 AD, the Holy Prepuce of Jesus was kept here in Calcata until late 1800’s where it mysteriously disappeared.

After World War II, as it happened in many mountain villages, people left to bigger cities. As of 1970’s though, tourists, hippies and foreigners felt attracted by the isolated beauty of Calcata and so it was that hippies found their dimension, right here.

The unique pink store filled with hippie vibe.

Now there are only few people living there, no more than 70 in fact, and since the rocks where this lovely town is perched on is crumbling away, from the 1960s people moved to new settlement downstream of Parco Valle della Treja.

Cats of Calcata

You can love them or even, sometimes, detest them especially for their placid indifference to things of our daily life. But, undoubtedly, cats have their charm.

Spooky cat sign.

One of the things that make Calcata so famous is the outstanding presence: there is no corner, vase or low wall from where you cannot see a tail, a pair of ears and a pair of curious eyes. Photographers will find in the little alleys at least one willing cat to pose as a model. Cats in Calcata share the same territory with with some small dogs that roam the village, which happens when the owners open their doors to them or let them live outside. In few words, Old Calcata  has been secretly divided by both races without there being “dangerous” encounters.

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The Smallest Church Ever

I do not have knowledge of a smaller church but in Calcata I found a tiny church where no more than six people can get it:

Where to eat

I normally don’t promote places to eat or sleep unless there’s something really about them.

If there is one place you must stop for a bite in Calcata, is this: the Latteria del Gatto Nero (the Dairy Store of the Black Cat):

Here you can eat typical Italian treats, cheese, cold meats, pasta. Notice the cat theme in display.

If you calk only a little bit towards your right, you will find a quasi-royal gallery dedicated entirely to cats

The center of the town is reachable only by walk. Pretty little alleys, small stairs and doors… You can’t miss the elders checking on passing people and making comments about them.

Some of the Legends…

1. According to an ancient legend, the holy foreskin of Jesus Christ is kept in the church of Calcata. After the discovery of the sacred relic, the Church decided to grant a 10-year indulgence to the pilgrims who arrived in Calcata to venerate it.

2. In Calcata, isolation is absolute: they do not take cell phones, there are no social networks, no networks.

3. One of the most striking places is the Tea Room, where you can choose from 100 different varieties of tea.

4. The foreigners who populate Calcata are the descendants of the lords who bought the houses for little money after the evacuation of the village was arranged in 1935.

5. In very windy days you might be able to perceive a strange noise often attributed to a song of old witches.

6. According to ancient beliefs referable even to the ancient Falisci, Calcata would be the nerve center of primitive energies coming from the subsoil: hence all the rumors about witchcraft and occultism.

7. Stay in Calcata? You can. The village is full of small houses for rent and Air B&B rentals for a few days at a reasonable price. The most crowded period? Halloween, of course.

A Dying Town

Did you know that in Italy there are still towns where only a dozen people live? And did you know that there is a town that is slowly breaking town? This town, the dying town of Civita di Bagnoregio looks like a floating city in the sky for most of autumn-winter days..

A very lucky photograph I took on a very cold January day. This is why I say you should visit Civita di Bagnoregio both in summer and winter, for both seasons offer unique sights.

Perched on a pinnacle in a lushy green valley, the village of Civita di Bagnoregio is Italy’s ultimate hill town as well a dying town. The once self-sufficient citadel, has seen most of its residents moved elsewhere in these past few decades turning Civita di Bagnoregio into a dying place. The last of its lifelong residents have passed on, and the only work here is in serving visitors. But relatives and newcomers are moving in and revitalizing the village, and it remains an amazing place to visit. (It’s even become popular as a backdrop for movies, soap operas, and advertising campaigns.) Civita’s only connection to the world and the town of Bagnoregio is a long pedestrian bridge.

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In Etruscan times, it was a sizeable city above fertile valleys and winding streams in what is now the Lazio region.
But those streams ate at the plateau and eroded its clay and sand base.

In every earthquake, exposed tufa stone and parts of the city tumbled into the valleys
You can see the evidence today, in narrow streets that end abruptly at the edge of the cliff and in walls still standing.
The population today varies from about 12 people in winter to over 100 in the summer.

Life is simple in Civita di Bagnoregio and the locals, not used to tourists, continue spending their days doing what they did decades ago; going to the local butcher, buying fresh bread and sitting outside talking to their friends and neighbours.
The village is riddled with tunnels and caves; some may have been Etruscan tombs. Some are used as wine cellars and cisterns

Why is Civita dying?

The reason Civita is so unusual is that it is disappearing.
They call it “the dying city” because, gradually, over many centuries, erosion and earthquakes have tugged away at the tufa rock until only this small part remains.

As the sign says, Civita di Bagnoregio is “the town that is dying” due to its tuff structure slowly being eroded away by wind and rain.

Everywhere you turn, the views across the collapsed hillsides and wide barren landscape,as far as the Umbrian mountains, are breathtaking.

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.

A Secret WWII Bunker

Italy, one of my home countries, is a delightful treasure chest, filled with unexpected and surprising little spots that normally escape the eye of the mass.

It was the year 1937 when Benito Mussolini decided to start the construction of a bunker which would be unique in his kind. He probably got the idea from Adolf Hitler as he was coming back from visiting the Fuhrer around those months. In fact, after meeting in Munich, Hitler took Mussolini to a state visit; they toured around Germany and it is quite possible that during the visit Mussolini got a glimpse at Hitler’s underground bunker/art gallery, where he collected many pieces of art taken from all around Europe during the occupation.

I am standing right at the back door of the bunker.

The visit inspired him, and soon after Mussolini returned to Italy he began the construction plan of his own bunker right on Monte Soratte. The bunker would serve as a private art gallery and as a refuge against bombing.

Theories

They say that Mussolini chose this hill for several reasons andthese are the results I could gather around sources:

1- Mussolini himself thought the hill looked like his own head. In fact, it is not strange to hear it called Monte Mussolini.

2- Some friends who study energy and esoteric explanations to life have told me that Monte Soratte is a big bag of energy that serves as self protection: rumor has it the hill was targeted and bombed several times but due to its unique energetic field bombs never hit the ground but instead they all exploded at mid air. They say that it could probably be explained by the immense calcareous formation that leads to an infinity of natural tunnels that somehow dampened any sort of impact.

From afar you can appreciate the abandoned military stations

The bunker from afar.

And the actual town of Sant’Oreste, evacuated by the Nazis in 1943 to make it a secret refuge now it’s a lovely little town.

This is Sant’Oreste today

The town of Sant’Oreste

Mussolini probably had a typical Roman catacomb design in mind for its own bunker as the result is a classic hypogeal refuge. It’s chilly and creepy at the same time. The first thing that got my attention were the warning signs all over the place, both in Italian and German.

The tunnels are well constructed. They lead to an underground citadel where I found radio stations, hospital beds, control centre, cantine and more amenities.

Very old radio station located in the control centre.
Hospital section.

This place, a true piece of Italian engineering, was also exploited by the Germans: after the armistice in September 1943, the German Field Marshal Albert Kesselring settled in Soratte and forced the local inhabitants of Sant’Oreste to flee the area. He and his troops remained “secretly” inside the bunker for about ten months hiding in the many tunnels they found. He liked the place enough to continue some construction works and even added a restaurant decorated with fake windows for him and his troops.

One of the many war tanks you can find inside.


The bunker proved to be highly valuable as it served as unbreakable shield against the 12 May 1944 bombing carried out by two Allied B-17 teams departed from Foggia, Puglia, in the southeast of Italy.
At some point the Commander escaped but not before giving one last order: burn and bury the crates and boxes that contained gold stolen from the Banca d’Italia.

It is still debated whether such treasure really existed.

Today you can visit this chilly fascinating place very easily though not all tunnels are available for tourist visits.