One Hundred Days of Night: Darkness Arrives in London

National Theatre and Waterloo Bridge

I tell myself that we’ve been really fortunate with the weather lately. This time last year it was bitterly cold already and the leaves had already fallen from the trees. It is comparatively warm this year, falling only to 10°c today, but one thing we cannot escape is the arrival of the darkness.

Yet even that seems brighter to me. It doesn’t feel as dark in the mornings as last winter and here we are, only 3 weeks away from the winter solstice. I’m confused and unsettled, it seems that the world outside is so much brighter to me than the darkness within me.

Peeking out from behind the trees

It has been a crazy year and I wouldn’t even know where to begin. Perhaps it would help if I worked backwards but I want to start first with where I am but how does that make sense without saying where I’ve come from? Deep breaths.

City of London Boundary Dragon

My beautiful, vivacious, inspirational sister-in-law passed away in June. It was very sudden and very traumatic and we flew back to South Africa for the funeral. I spoke about it very briefly here but there was a reason for that, there is a reason for that. While I watch our family in South Africa pick up the pieces with a remarkable show of strength and witness my friends fall apart while I stand by helplessly, the simple fact remains that I haven’t even begun to process it yet. I said it so many times that eventually I realised it was the truth, my truth: I can’t believe it happened.

Playstation takes over the OXO Tower

I’m aware that one day it is going to hit me and that it will be both the best and worst day of my life but that day has not come yet. Right now I am noticing a change. I am overcome with gratitude and I am determined not to waste a single moment in this gift called life.

Bridges of London

I’m thankful for my friends. I can say with absolute confidence that I would not have made it through those first nights had it not been for the avalanche of texts, phone calls and messages for all of my friends, old and new. Stephen few out on the first flight available and I made the monumentally insane decision to be alone for four days. My friends got me through that. Since June, Skype and Whatsapp have been my saving grace and I get to speak to friends and family in New Zealand, South Africa and the US whenever I can. It is so important.

The Millennium Bridge

I’m thankful for friends and family in London. When the edges began to peel away from the corners of my world, I decided to go for grief counselling in August and September. The one thing the counsellor drummed into me was to fight my instinct to hide away from the world and to see my friends and family. I’m so glad she did that because I’ve seen people nearly every weekend and many other times since June and this has helped to fill that time with fabulous memories, not memories of a time filled with devastation and grief. I’m pretty thankful for my counsellor too.

Steps to St Pauls

I’m thankful for fellow expats who know how it feels to be a million miles from home. Meeting up with these women and forging friendships has been so important to me. Do let me know if you’re new in town and need a cup of coffee!

Rushing by St Pauls

I’m excited to be finally finishing my studies and to be free of deadlines and obligations for the first time since August 2010. I’m looking forward to a long break between Christmas and New Year where I will be sitting in my pyjamas for a full week and embarking on a 12 Doctor Doctor Who marathon. I’m also trying to decide whether to study further. I’m secretly dreaming of more hours in my day and not having to set my alarm for 6am on Saturday mornings. I plan to learn to speak Serbian, read a book a week, catch up on topics that mean a lot to me like feminism and human rights, go to the cinema more and write about brand new bands. I want to live every moment to the full.

Salvation Army

The photos in this post were all taken on a walk along the Thames Path from Waterloo Bridge to Cannon Street Station. I was lucky enough to be given a Nokia Lumia 925 to try our for two weeks and I was testing how its camera functioned at night. It was difficult at first to figure out how to use the camera properly but I figured it out around the City of London boundary dragon and was quite impressed with the results. Can you see Oxo Tower in the fourth photo? Sony Playstation hijacked the letters for most of November. My favourite photo is the fifth one where you can see Tower Bridge, Cannon Street Rail Bridge and the Millennium Bridge together.

Dinner at Leon

I treasure these walks at times like this. They allow me to gather my thoughts and process what has happened, even though I still have so much work to do there. What do you do to clear your head?

Bollards of London

Five Treasures of the Museo D'arte Antica, Milan

The Museo D'arte Antica or Museum of Ancient Art is significant both for the works it houses and the frescoes painted upon the ceilings and the walls. Located on the ground floor of the Ducal Courtyard in the Castello Sforzesco, we walked through the rooms that were once converted to barracks and dormitories by Napoleonic forces but have since been lovingly and carefully restored. It is here in the museum that we felt most strongly the connection between the Sforza family and the great master Leonardo da Vinci.

These were the five items that most inspired my imagination:

Monumento Sepolcrale di Bernabò ViscontiMonumento Sepolcrale di Bernabò Visconti

Room 2. The frescoes in this originate from the Spanish Age and depict vines, flowers and coats of arms. I was most impressed by Bonino da Campione’s marble Sepulchral Monument of Bernabò Visconti.  

Leonardo da Vinci's La Sala Delle AsseLeonardo da Vinci's La Sala Delle Asse

Room 8: La Sala Delle Asse. I know, the photo above doesn't exactly inspire awe but if you're playing along at home, you should open your mouth and say "wow" right now. That is an original Leonardo da Vinci fresco, currently being restored and taken in low light without a flash to preserve the works. The fresco depicts the leafy coverage of a forest and it flows down the walls into tree trunks. There was great excitement just last week when it was discovered that the works extend even further down the walls to what looks like the roots of the trees stuck in rock.

Sala dei Ducali Castello SforzescoSala dei Ducali

Room 11: Sala dei Ducali: This room was once a wing of the ducal apartments built for Galeazzo Maria Sforza and Bona of Savoy in 1468. The beautifully decorated ceiling features a Sforza coat of arms and you can just make Galeazzo’s initials above: GZMA.

Madonna del CoazzoneMadonna del Coazzone

Room 12: Capella Ducale: I must point out at this point that our tour guide was talking about lots of other interesting facts but I was transfixed with Pietro Antonio Solari's statue of the Madonna del Coazzone. This room is the Ducal Chapel which was turned into stables by Napoleonic forces.

Michaelangelo's La Pietà RondaniniMichelangelo's La Pietà Rondanini

Room 15: Sala Degli Scarlioni. I had quite underestimated how it would feel to see an original, albeit unfinished work of Michelangelo’s sculpture. I’d seen photos of Michelangelo’s David and thought I knew it all, even hanging back to let the other people see the Pietà Rondanini first. Naturally I was wrong and there was something startling about this unfinished sculpture. Our guide showed us the features of the previous, larger sculpture which Michelangelo decided to cut away, the face facing towards the left, the arm that remains suspended. In my mind’s eye, I compared the perfection of David and marvelled at the vision this man must have possessed to see this stone before him and create such permanent and enduring beauty. Sometimes it is nice to be wrong.

Our tour of Castello Sforzesco and Museo D'arte Antica was relatively short and the next time I blog about Milan, I will take you to the Convent of Santa Maria della Grazie, Milan where The Last Supper is located.

Do you like visiting museums and art galleries? Have you ever been truly surprised or inspired in one?

Milan's Sforza Castle: Stranger Than Fiction

Torre del Filarete Castello Sforzesco Milano
Torre del Filarete Castello Sforzesco Milano

I have a confession to make which long time readers of this blog might already have guessed: I am obsessed with castles. Nothing thrills me more than to discover that there just happens to be a castle in our next destination. Perhaps because his wife is a castle-obsessed eternal tourist, you may not be surprised to learn that my poor long-suffering husband (and most partners-of-bloggers are long-suffering) is kind of over them.

It was therefore serendipitous when we visited Milan as not only was there a beautifully restored Renaissance castle but Stephen was spending the entire weekend in Monza for the Grand Prix and I was free to explore to my heart’s desire.

Detail Torre del Filarete
Detail Torre del Filarete

I had another reason for wanting to visit the Castello Sforzesco (Sforza Castle in English). Cardinal Ascanio Sforza is my favourite character in the Showtime series The Borgias and I love the way the name Sforza rolls off the tongue. Ever fascinated by the history behind the show, I wanted to earn a bit more about the Sforza family.  Of course, this was not the first time that I realised that the truth in 15th century Italy was far more gruesome than the fiction of The Borgias.

Torrione di Santo Spirito
Torrione di Santo Spirito

In 1447, the citizens of Milan ousted the Visconti lords and destroyed their castle. It was on these foundations that Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan, decided to build his residence. On his death, his tyrannical and cruel son Galeazzo Maria Sforza became Duke of Milan but he was assassinated in 1476, leaving the regency to his 7-year-old son Gian Galeazzo. Bona of Savoy, the second wife of Galeazzo assumed the regency which simply did not appeal to Ludovico Maria Sforza, second son of Francesco and brother of Galeazzo. 

Following an unsuccessful play for power and subsequent exile, Ludovico took advantage of rivalries in Bona of Savoy’s court; engineered the execution of Simonetta, chief counsellor to Bona; kidnapped young Gian and finally deprived him of his duchy. With Gian stripped of his power, Bona of Savoy was obliged to leave Milan and in 1494, Ludovico Sforza became lord of Milan.

Ludovico may have been ruthless but it was he that invited artists such as Leonardo da Vinci to decorate the castle and is responsible for the ornate frescos that we can still see today. He is also best known as the man who commissioned Leonardo da Vinci to paint The Last Supper in the Santa Maria della Grazie which we also visited on this trip.

Piazza delle Armi
Torre del Filarete Castello Sforzesco Milano

Before we step inside the castle, I’d just like to take a moment to appreciate the exquisite structure of the castle itself. What we see today is primarily the result of extensive restoration works undertaken between 1900 and 1905 under the direction of Luca Beltrami. The Castello Sforza had seen significant changes under Spanish and Austrian rule between the 16th and 19th centuries but Napoleonic rule at the beginning of the 19th century proved disastrous to the castle. The outer fortifications were demolished, the Ducal Chapel transformed into a stable and priceless frescoes were covered in lime.

Torre del Filarete from Piazza delle Armi
Torre del Filarete from Piazza delle Armi

It was Beltrami who restored the beautifully decorated Filarete Tower, featured above, which is visible across the whole city of Milan. He based his design on 16th century drawings. He also restored the rounded corner towers Torrione di Santo Spirito (also pictured above) and Torrione dei Carmini whose upper levels had been removed by the Austrians who needed open space for their artillery.

Today the Castello Sforzesco is a quadrilateral built around the Piazza delle Armi. It is home to several art galleries and museums including the Pinacoteca del Castello Sforzesco, the Egyptian Museum and the Museum of Ancient Art which we visited.

Sforza coat of arms, inner curtain wall
Sforza coat of arms, inner curtain wall

What impressed me most about the fortifications of Castello Sforzesco was the intricate detail in the brickwork, mosaics and murals. I loved the decorative tile work featured above and the outer fortifications looked like fine lace to me. This really is one of the prettiest and best restored castles I have visited before.

Corte Ducal Castello Sforzesco
Corte Ducal

The Ducal Courtyard or Corte Ducal is beautifully kept and once again a place of calm and reflection. Napoleon’s dormitories and barracks are a distant memory a last.

Curtain walls Castello Sforzesco
Curtain walls Castello Sforzesco

Next: Five Treasures of the Museo D'arte Antica.  I’ll take you inside the Ducal Courtyard to the Museum of Ancient Art where we discovered treasures by both Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.

From Finsbury Tower to Holborn Viaduct

I’ve become obsessed with walking, there is no doubt about that. Rather than be upset when our exam centre was moved all the way to Moorgate, I was thrilled because it meant my only reasonable option was to walk to Finsbury Tower from Cannon Street Station and why not explore the area while I was at it? My first adventure in the area took me to the Barbican back in March when I posted Beauty in Brutalism: The Barbican Estate.

Sadly, I have written what will most probably be my last exam in Finsbury Tower as I have moved to a new course provider. (Okay, I'm not sad at all - I liked the area but I truly disliked my old course provider). Join me on my last walk from Finsbury Tower to Holborn Viaduct (of course, my walk should have been longer but somebody only got three hours of sleep the night before and eventually climbed on a bus).

The view from Finsbury Tower

The view from Finsbury Tower

The view from our fourth floor centre was pretty impressive and I wasn’t the only person to stand staring at the view and unwinding after my exam. In fact, I kind of had to wait my turn before I could do so.

Ant people on Bunhill Row, London. EC1

Ant people on Bunhill Row, London. EC1

I enjoyed watching the ant people down below. It was lunch time and people were just beginning to emerge from their offices into the crisp October sunlight.

The old gate to Smithfield Market, Lindsey Street entrance

The old gate to Smithfield Market, Lindsey Street entrance

It always amazes me that no matter how many walks and tours I take around London, I always make new, intriguing and fascinating discoveries. On this occasion I found the Smithfield Market which I had certainly heard about but had never actually seen.

Intricate Victorian design, Smithfield Market, London

Intricate Victorian design, Smithfield Market, London

Smithfield is officially known as London Central Markets and is the largest wholesale market in the UK. They begin trade very early in the morning and were just cleaning up and closing down when I walked through just after noon.

Roof detail, Smithfield Market

Roof detail, Smithfield Market

Holborn Viaduct

Holborn Viaduct

Coming out of the market, I turned to the south and suddenly saw a majestic red bridge ahead of me. Knowing that it was in the area, I asked a passerby whether this was the famous Holborn Viaduct. She said that she did not know as she too was not from the area but she did say that it must be.

Holborn Viaduct

Holborn Viaduct

Because really, what else could be so beautiful?

It turns out that we were both correct. This is indeed the Holborn Viaduct, a road bridge that links Holborn with Newgate Street. I must have walked around this bridge so many times but never across it or beneath it. The Holborn Viaduct was once a railway terminus but closed with the establishment of the City Thameslink service.

So there you have it, a pretty random post about random items I might not have discovered on any other day and certainly might not have blogged about.

Have you discovered any oddities in your neighbourhood lately? I’d love to hear about them!

On Bosnia, the War and My Reason for Visiting

Sometimes, as a blogger, we get it all wrong. For some reason, I thought that you, my lovely readers, wouldn't want to know about the break up of Yugoslavia and the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the early 90s. I thought that Emm in London was not the place to talk about war crimes and the atrocities committed during that war, of the genocide in Srebrenica. In any event, I wouldn't have known where to start. Do you start in 1992 when Bosnia-Herzegovina entered the war or with the battle at Kosovo Polje in 1389 or the atrocities at Jasenovac during WWII?

Be Careful - dangerous ruin - Mostar

Be Careful - dangerous ruin - Mostar

For the history of the Balkans is as complex as it is troubled and this was why I wanted to visit Bosnia-Herzegovina in the first place. Before 1991, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Kosovo were all one country known as Yugoslavia and a terrible war broke out when the state began to break up and the individual member states began to claim independence. Slobodan Milosevic and other Serbian nationalists adopted an ideal of a Greater Serbia and enacted great aggression against the other countries, especially Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, in their attempt to achieve this state. For their part, Croatian nationalists adopted a similar ideal of a Greater Croatia and pushed into Bosnia-Herzegovina in their attempt to bolster their state. Bosnia-Herzegovina was devastated.

Ruined building, Mostar

Ruined building, Mostar

Those of you who know me well might know that I have written at length about genocide and war crimes. To put it as succinctly as possible, I was beyond horrified following the Rwandan genocide in 1994, having barely noticed the events in the context of the break up of Apartheid and the voting in of our new government in South Africa. For thirteen years those impressions bounced about in my head and I finally began writing about it in 2006. It began with a determination to Never Forget, to learn from the lessons of the past. I then wrote about Rwanda, on my passion and the need to know. About five years ago, I began to study the genocide that occurred in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in Srebrenica. I wrote about my need to carry on learning and writing about this, despite the devastating effect it had on me.

And it has been devastating. In 2010, I visited Serbia for the first time. I went to visit my friend Maja who I had met online about a decade before when I was specifically looking for new friends from the former Yugoslavia. Maja is an amazing person, an open-minded individual who acknowledges the atrocities committed by Serbian forces during the war, who acknowledges the genocide. During my visit she took care to explain to me about the NATO bombing of Novi Sad, the bridges that were destroyed and the buildings damaged. She told me how Milosevic had known about the NATO plans but had not taken steps to evacuate buildings and thus minimise casualties. He wanted to polarise the people against NATO and succeeded.

Ruined house, Mostar

Ruined house, Mostar

Maja also showed me nationalist graffiti and xenophobic slogans on people's clothing. She told me how the war is being taught to children in schools, that they are being taught that Serbia were not aggressors and were simply trying to save Catholic Serbians (known to the rest of the world as Croatians).

That trip shocked me to the core. If children weren't being taught what really happened in the 90s then my overwhelming impression was that it could happen again. I don't say this lightly - I was distraught when I returned from Serbia and it took me several weeks to put that aside and reconnect with the amazing time that I actually had there.

The shell of the Old Clock Tower, Mostar

The shell of the Old Clock Tower, Mostar

I planned my trip to Bosnia-Herzegovina with the knowledge that this could happen to me again, that I could feel overwhelmed and that it would ruin my trip. I wanted to visit Bosnia and Herzegovina because of the war, because of its history. I felt that I couldn't share this because I, for example, know how I would feel if people told me they were visiting South Africa because of Apartheid. I'd hope they would see our amazing natural beauty, enjoy our culture and meet our people too.

I wanted to visit Mostar because of the bridge. Stari Most was destroyed by Bosnian Croat forces on 9 November 1993 - 20 years ago tomorrow. This was considered to be such a heinous act that the destruction of the bridge formed part of the war crimes charges brought by the ICTY against Bosnian Croat leaders. It formed part of a pattern of destruction against cultural, religious and historical landmarks across Bosnia; all of the mosques in Mostar were shelled too.

The following 30 second video shows the destruction of the bridge while the longer Mostar will give you much more detail about that period.

Likewise, I wanted to visit Sarajevo because of the war and because of the siege. At 1,425 days, the Siege of Sarajevo was the longest ever siege in modern warfare. It devastated Sarajevo which was once the most multicultural city in the whole of Europe and tens of thousands of Sarajevans were killed and injured during the siege. Many more lived a life filled with hardship, shortages, loss and daily terror.

It was also why I decided not to visit Srebrenica on this trip, because of the genocide. I have no doubt that I will visit Bosnia-Herzegovina again and I will go to Srebrenica to pay my respects but I did not feel ready to confront those horrors on this trip.

The tunnel museum, Sarajevo

The Tunnel Museum, Sarajevo

This is perhaps the post that I should have started with when I began to tell you about Bosnia-Herzegovina but it's certainly not the impression that I want to leave you with. I am not lying when I say that I enjoyed every single moment that I spent in Bosnia-Herzegovina, even the ones that moved me to tears. Bosnia-Herzegovina is incredible, the people, food, language, culture and scenery all make this a country worth visiting.

All of the photos in this post were taken in Bosnia-Herzegovina in May 2013, twenty years after the war began. But for every dilapidated ruin, there was evidence of improvement, rebuilding and regeneration. This is not a country that should be defined by its war.

If you'd like to read more about my writing on war, genocide, human rights and social justice, do visit A Passion to Understand. The blog has been somewhat neglected during my studies but I hope to dedicate some time to it next year.

Have you ever been truly moved by history or events? Have you ever taken a pilgrimage to explore that history?

Koski Mehmet Pasha Mosque, Mostar: The Best View of the Old Bridge

Koski Mehmet Pasha Mosque Mostar

The sign at the entrance said that it held the best view of The Old Bridge and we certainly weren’t going to argue. We stepped hesitantly into the courtyard of the Koski Mehmet Pasha Mosque, unaccustomed to entering the grounds of mosques and concerned whether I would need to cover my hair. It did not appear that this would be required unless I wanted to enter the mosque itself.

Dome and minaret of Koski Mehmet Pasha Mosque Mostar

I admired the dome and minaret of the mosque, newly rebuilt after the near destruction of the mosque in the Bosnian War. I could see the mosque across the Neretva River from my hotel room and have previously featured it in my post: Falling in Love With Mostar.

Market at Koski Mehmet Pasha Mosque Mostar

There was a market inside the grounds of the mosque and I would have been able to purchase a beautiful scarf to cover my hair if we’d decided to go into the mosque that day. But that wasn’t why we were there…

View of Stari Grad from Koski Mehmet Pasha Mosque Mostar

We were there to see whether the Koski Mehmet Pasha Mosque offered the best view of Stari Most, the famous Old Bridge in Mostar.

Stari Most Mostar

I have to admit that it does and this is one of four photos that I printed out and enlarged to remind me of my magical time in Mostar.

View from Koski Mehmet Pasha Mosque Mostar

This was the view looking away from the bridge and across the Neretva to the other side of Mostar. The sun was shining so bright on that hot May afternoon and we decided to continue our walk through the Old Town and market.