Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Travel: Duomo di Milano, Milan's Cathedral - Shock & Awe

Milan's great cathedral - Duomo di Milano - sits on its same named piazza, off centre in the city with numerous ring roads forming partial and wobbly concentric circles around it like a poorly drawn target. I'm not sure if the city realigned itself to the building or vice versa but to be honest, it's such a huge structure that it's possible that there are some kind of slight gravitational force at work - actual or perceived -  causing everything in Milan to orbit around it in some way. We - Nige, Pete and I - were certainly drawn towards it on our first visit to the city, just pausing to drop our bags at our hotel before jumping on a metro heading south into the city centre.

We emerged from our subterranean metro travels on the southwest corner of the square and immediately found ourselves surrounded by tourists, pigeons and hawkers. The tourists went around with their heads in the air or a camera super glued to their fingers, like a scene from zombie movie with people shuffling around brainlessly, the pigeons quick-stepping around their feet with very little grace and certainly no dignity as they pecked at crumbs discarded on the stone slabs. But the hawkers were the worst ... because they really had nothing to sell. There were two types; the first group would offer you a free bracelet of sorts, composed of some strands of twisted plastic, while saying 'Free-Free-Free' but of course once they tied them on your arm they would then ask for a 'donation' and becoming quite aggressive if you refused. The second group gave you 'free' birdseed to feed the pigeons (Why anyone would want to encourage the avian equivalent to the rat is beyond me ...) and then ask for some money to support their family, dog, cocaine habit or whatever.

Anyhow, one end of the square was taken up with the arresting site of the cathedral and although it looked large from a distance, it's only as you start walking towards it, brushing aside the hawkers and pigeons, that you realise just how enormous it is, with those entering and exiting through the doors and the sightseers on the roof pulling the whole edifice into perspective. We slowed to a shuffle looking at the building in awe - like the other tourists I had just disparaged -  then headed towards the entrance, still marvelling at the size of the structure.

The building was started in 1386 and took over 500 years to complete. It has 135 carved pinnacles and has over 3,000 statues, (or 2,000 or 4,000, depending on your source. I didn't count them myself you understand.) more than half of them on the roof. It is crowned with a gilded statue of the Madonna, put there in the 18th century by someone with a good head for heights, as it is 108 metres off the ground. The cathedral itself can hold up to 20,000 people at a push - literally.

The main doors are massive, detailed bronze masterpieces. They must stand, or hang, at least 10 meters high and seem to depict scenes from Christ's life in an almost Art Nouveau style. The hand polished calf of one of the figures - one of the soldiers scourging Christ - shone in the sun from too many tactile touches. The marble surround was equally impressive, depicting fruit, flowers and shells, with the odd cherub for good measure, all carved in exquisite detail.

But you enter by the side doors, past serious looking security personnel, and the contrast from the bright and dazzling exterior to the gloomy almost cavernous interior is disconcerting. It took many minutes for our eyes to grow accustomed to the darkness and the low lighting levels before we could start to look around without walking into something. The lack of internal lighting is obviously to help highlight the stained glass windows, which were vibrant, backlit panels in the murky gloom. Their light falling on the pillars and statues creating more pools of colour in the darkness. Everything from the exquisitely detailed floor tiles to the distant shadowed ceiling was a triumph of splendour and decoration. We wandered around separately from chapel to pulpit, statue to crypt, pointing each other in different directions to different features when we ran into each other.

I encountered poor old St. Bartholomew looking quite morose and serious, which was understandable considering he was wearing his own skin like a comfort blanket. He was allegedly flayed alive in Armenia and then crucified upside down. (There's somewhere I must mark it off my holiday destinations.) This statue by Marco d'Agrate dates from 1562 and seems to show a worrying degree of knowledge of what's under the human skin. One wonders was Marco often to be seen in graveyards with a spade, a scalpel and a sketchpad - digging, carving and drawing with equal enthusiasm.

Each of the separate chapels within the cathedral are masterpieces in themselves, housing paintings and statues of a quality to grace any art museum or exhibition. It is impossible to get your head around the magnitude of the task of creating this place, so I sat for a minute and took in the bigger picture of the whole space. The giant supporting pillars seemed like tree trunks in some petrified primordial forest, their canopies lost in the darkness overhead, or like the set of some Tolkienesque fantasy set in a mythical, troll ridden wood, as Nige put it. Looking up at the enormous entrance doors you could imagine the effect that opening these to let in the visiting bishop or cardinal would have had on an assembled crowd. The sunlight just seeping in through a tiny crack at first and then flooding the whole space with blinding brightness, as trumpets blared and psalms were sung ...

The poor peasants must have crapped themselves.

I left the others and decided to take the stairs rather than the lift up to the roof. After a brief interrogation by the two soldier standing guard at the entrance to the stairway who insisted on me emptying my pockets, I started to climb the well-worn stairs, which wound around the tower and up to the roof. I eventually got to the top, feeling dizzy and out of breath, leg muscles aching and cursing quietly at my lack of fitness for even the most basic of tasks. I leaned at the top of the stairs, wheezing and trying to catch my breath as sprightly 80 year old American ladies bounded past me and on to the roof, looking at me with a mixture of sympathy and disgust.

'Asthma,' I lied as one Italian lady took pity on me and gave me a drink of water and perhaps the last rites, as she seemed to be waving her hands over me in a religious fashion and speaking rapidly in Italian. Only then did I remember where I was perpetrating this deception and that the chances of a lightning strike were considerably higher up here regardless of any other outside influences.

She left me to it and I eventually regained my composure and started to take in my surroundings. The level of detail, even up here, was astonishing. Every nook, cranny and pinnacle had a carving of some description on it and I wondered had there always been access to the roof for the public. If not then this was all done for God to see - presumably. I remember seeing a documentary on early Irish Christian chalices once and the presenter asking some historian why a chalice would be so elaborately detailed underneath where no one could see it. 'Ah, but God would see it!' was his smiling reply, so maybe this was something similar. Or perhaps they were just showing off a bit, as only Italians can do.

I was also surprised that the carving varied so much - from saintly figures to gruesome, gurning faces, and evil looking gargoyles, this place had the lot. Then I caught sight of what looked to me like a stylised, almost Sheela na Gig-like relief on one of the archways I was about to pass under. It stopped me in my tracks - I was surprised that a carving of this type would be on this large cathedral in Italy.

Proper Sheela na Gigs are a figure of debate and conjecture as to what they represent. They are somewhat graphic carvings of a female figure that leaves little to the imagination. I had seen and read about them in various articles and books but thought of them as a mostly Irish phenomena. They are said to represent either; fertility symbols; a survival of pagan worship; a warning against lustful thoughts; protection against evil; or any number of other suggestions that have been thought up by historians over the years. The fact is, nobody seems to know for sure. What a similar figure was doing, flanked by two Pan-like characters with wings, on the roof of the Duomo I don't know. The figure was a little flowerier and less blatant than those I had seen back home but I still wondered what it represented and why it was here.

I suddenly became conscious of the fact that I was staring at a carving of a naked woman. This was reinforced by the tuts of a group of small, wizen English women who had to squeeze past me as I stood on the narrow walkway. I half expected a slap of an umbrella on the back of the head as they passed by but luckily it never happened and I moved on.

There were gargoyles to channel water on the side walls and plenty of other grotesque figures as I walked around. I wondered were these to ward off evil spirits, which seemed to me to be hedging your bets a little and tipping your hat towards paganism ... although maybe, like the Sheelas, we'll never know their real reason for being in such places. Or perhaps I need to read more about Gothic architecture.

The front section of the roof was quite crowded with people, many were strolling around carefully but there were plenty of sun bathers here too, lying on the large slabs of stone that made up the roof itself and taking in the rays. Maybe we hadn't travelled that far from our pagan, sun worshipping past after all? This probably explained the Ray Ban sign, not to mention the rest of the billboards, which could be seen from most vantage points of the roof. On a clear day you can supposedly see the Alps from here but today was a little hazy so the horizon just blended and blurred into a grey nothingness.
I stood and stared up at the Madonna statue that crowned the building, wondering once again how it was hoisted up. I was tens of metres above the ground and the statue seemed as high up again, its gold finish glinting in the hazy sunshine. You could see how it would be a beacon for the worshippers of Milan, visible and sparkling in the sunshine from most areas of the city, before it became the built up high-rise sprawl it was now.

The roof was becoming crowded now and after a final look around, I headed back towards the stairs to descend back down to street level. I was about to begin the easy, gravity-aided descent when I noticed that the walkway also wound around to the back of the church. All the visitors seemed to be heading to the front so I walked against the tide, past the elevator and around the back to the east side of the church.

It was quiet and empty here; no other souls seemed to venture in this direction, preferring the safety in numbers and Piazza view that the west end offered. This was a tranquil oasis right in the heart of the city. I looked out across the void to the balconies of the apartments on the other side of the street. They were almost touching distance from here, their pretty potted gardens had a wonderful view back across at the Duomo, which was as well decorated on this side as on the front. The only sound that could be heard was the occasional dentist-drill-sound of metal on stone, as the conservators worked overhead on scaffolding, and the barely-muted music from their radio, the sound of which seemed a little out of place here.

I spent ages on this side of the cathedral, by myself and lost in thought and admiring the scenery, from the carvings and detail on the building to the view over the rooftops. I turned a corner and caught sight of one of the building I hoped to visit - Torre Velasca. At 100 metres high this medieval looking building with its top storeys jutting out over the floors below, seemingly only support by diagonal props, towers above its neighbours. Built in the 1950s and resembling a siege tower or fortress, it didn't really blend in with its surroundings, as I looked at it over tiled rooftops. But as out of place as it looked I still liked how it stood there, perhaps defiantly shaking its fist in this direction. It could be quite an interesting place to live.

Time was marching on and I would soon have to find the others, so I headed once more to the stairs, on the way staring across at the beautiful people who occupied the balcony of the restaurant of  La Rinacente, one of the poshest department stores in Milan or Italy for that matter. No one looked back at me, they were in their own place of worship I guess.

Back at ground level I went looking for the others, my thoughts on pagan statues and sun-worshipers, wondering where we would eat and what to sacrifice to satisfy our hunger ...

A pigeon maybe ...

 (Visited 2009 - excerpt from a shelved project)

Friday, 4 September 2015

Beer: Irish Craft Beer Festival RDS 2015 - 30 beers, 5 Hours & 4 Glasses

Beer festivals seem to be coming a bit of a 'thing' for me. I look for them and forward to them in equal measure and count down the time leading up to one. I can't get to all of them, as time, money, family life and public transport seem to get in the way of my plans with increasing frequency.

But there are a few I try not to miss, and the Irish Craft Beer Festival is one of them.

It's not just the festival itself but also the trip there, the company and the general feeling of camaraderie that abounds at these events that appeals to me. This year I had managed to rope in three traveling beerites, so along with the almost ever-present Nige I had two other companions, which suited the beer ticker in me as if they were amenable to sharing, it meant that I would be able to quadruple my tastings.

We met at our usual starting point at the local train station and after a small flirtation with a mini-swarm of love-struck wasps and some well deserved abuse of Nige for, well, being Nige we were on our way. The train was relatively quiet considering there was a protest and a rugby match on - they weren't connected to each other by the way - and we arrived in Dublin city centre early enough to grab breakfast and for me to make my usual pilgrimage to Chapters bookshop. Breakfast this time was taken in Anne's on Mary Street, as two of our company wanted a 'proper breakfast'. So I had to forgo my usual coffee and toasted mozzarella ciabatta in favour of a 6 piece breakfast that would set me up for the day.

We decided to meet under The Spire and to catch the bus to the RDS from the top of O'Connell Street, so after dodging the usual fruit and fag sellers on Moore Street on my way back from a rushed trip to the bookshop, I was the first to arrive at our meeting point. I took in the sights and sounds of the city, admiring the pallette of colours that Dublin displayed regardless of the weather. Soon the others joined me. Unsurprisingly Nige was last to arrive.

We waited patiently for our bus and when it arrived we held back as a little old lady hobbled towards the steps. Well we didn't all hold back, Nige barged in ahead of her, oblivious to the world around him or distracted  by the thoughts of the festival. Who knows?

The bus journey was slow and uneventful until we reached Nassau Street and Judge Dredd got on and sat opposite me. Comic Con was also on in the RDS - in another hall - and as I looked closely around I noticed a few other attendees such as a baby dressed as Superman and few other characters I didn't recognise. Judge Dredd had a DIY outfit that wasn't too bad to be fair but he was upset that the holster for his Lawgiver had got ripped on a previous journey. He spent a worrying amount of time talking to a small Judge Dredd figure that seemed to be his mascot, promising it that he would get it a Lawmaster at the exhibition. I felt a twinge of envy as I thought how self conscious I can be but how uncaring this guy was about what people thought of him or how he looked. When we stopped at the RDS I wished him luck with his event and we headed our separate ways, as the beer festival was around the corner in the Industries Hall.

We were very early so there was no queue or hassle getting in, we picked up our glasses - 3 of us upgrading to the fancy stemmed ones, while Nige - naturally - refused to pay the extra 2 euro for the fancier glass. (It was the next day that I realised that the stemmed glasses were also bigger and that many stands were filling them to the top! This might have explained my fuzziness later in the evening, and for the next day or so...)

The layout this time looked better than last year's, with drink stands up the middle now as well as around the periphery. There was still a good deal of space for punters but perhaps a lack of tables? An area for live music was marked out in the centre of the hall and food stalls were set up out the back around a nice marquee with very cool recycled pallet furniture placed underneath for seating. The food offering had increased from last year too, with something to suit everyone I thought.

Some of the stands were still not manned so we did a circuit of the hall to get our bearings - and were struck immediately by the thought that we would not get to try everything, but with 4 of us at least we'd make a good stab at it!

My first stop was at White Gypsy to try the Cream Ale brewed by the owner Cuilan's son Dylan. It was served on nitro, which of course added to the creamy taste that reminded me of gooseberries and custard. A lovely clean beer and a good start to the festival. Proof that the brewery is in good hands for the next generation at least.

From The White Hag, the stars of last years festival, I tasted Meabh Rua Irish Bog Ale, which tasted of bacon and popcorn and was excellent, plus Beann Gulban Irish Heather Sour Ale - strong for a sour at 7.5% abv I felt but not noticeable on the tongue. The sourness came across a little too diluted for me but it was a fine beer. Their White Sow Oatmeal Chocolate Stout that was pushed through a rocket of fresh coffee beans was a tongue tingler of flavours with the coffee mingling with the dark chocolate flavour and backed up by a dose of full bodied goodness - a great breakfast stout if there ever was one!

Next I had Hillbilly Heaven from Mountain Man Brewing, based on their Sneaky Owl but aged on American bourbon oak. This had a light body and tasted of how old bookshops smell, that's not a negative but I did feel it was a little short in body for me, which was strange as I like Sneaky owl in bottle. Later I sampled their Vincent van Coff based on the same beer but with coffee and vanilla, I could get the coffee in this one and perhaps the touch of vanilla. I preferred it to Hillbilly Heaven even if it was subtle and, well, sneaky.

I tried Wicklow Brewery's St.Kevin's Red, which was a great take on a red ale. As in Kilkenny when I tasted their Weiss, I got the faintest taste of bacon from it along with bags of malt. It was very tasty indeed and I can only presume that the bacon-like taste if from the yeast strain. Perhaps German given the brewer's nationality?

Lagunitas Chicago-Style Fusion XXX Saison was an interesting one that I only sampled but although it was Saison like it seemed sweeter somehow, like honeysuckle scent with an edge of sourness. I meant to revisit it but sadly didn't get back to it.

Next I headed to Dungarvan Brewing Company as they had a two-part stout pouring from cask that echoed back in time to how stout was served before kegs and nitro arrived on the scene. I also needed to reaffirm that my palate was right when I had been given an off pint of cask Black Rock in Waterford the previous week that tasted slightly of cider vinegar. I didn't blame Dungarvan for this though, and wanted to get to their stand to try Black Rock as it should be served. The two-part pour stout was excellent, one cask was fresh and the other aged 9 months. It tasted of mild cocoa and had a lovely chalk-like finish that I really enjoyed. Also from Dungarvan I tasted Black Rock with added raspberries, which was also excellent with a liquorice flavour and chocolate mixing with the raspberries on my tongue. Their Seaweed Saison was great too, a savoury, almost salty beer that made me hungry for both more of the beer and food too. The Imperial Red was butterscotch in a good way with a hit of alcohol but was perhaps a tad harsh for me. Later I had the Strong Ale that lived up to its name! It was viscous with whiskey, molasses and treacle - and I loved it. A sipper I didn't sip!

Radikale's Curious Radical Brew was one I had earmarked as a must try when I saw what would be at the festival. It's a beer made with gin botanicals and not a hop in sight! It was gorgeously dry with cardamom and a backwash of peppery heat. More flavours appeared, lingered and faded on my tongue - this was an ongoing taste experience. An excellent beer again from Alain.

From Carlow Brewing (O'Hara's) I sampled the Barrel Aged Leann Follain on cask, which seemed to have more body and flavour than the bottled version I had sampled previously. This version was really good and I forgot to ask if it was a new reincarnation of the bottled version or whether it was just sitting around longer. Falling Apple Dry-Hopped Cider was truly bizarre, with a nice cheese rind quality maybe ... It was certainly hard to place but I did like it and it cleansed my palate and made me think of food again.

Out in the food marquee I headed to Jane Russell's stand to try the Merguez lamb sausage, while the others headed to a hotdog stand apart from Nige who bent the ear of a friend he had spotted, although I'm not convinced she wanted her ear twisted by him at this point of the day. My cuminated sausage was fantastic, served in a bun with just a little dressing. It, combined with the fresh air, restored my flagging palate and tired legs and I was ready to go again.

Rye River Brewing had promised a few specials so it would have been a bit rude not to try them. They had been getting a bit of stick because of their McGargles range, most of it unjust in my opinion, and I think they were keen to show everyone what they could do. They had done something similar at the Alltech Beer Festival earlier in the year.

Anyhow, their Keeping Red was excellent with loads of vanilla flavour, good cola and loads of body ... and maybe a little soul too. Francis McGargle’s Big Bangin IPA - to give it its full titlea new addition to the McGargles range, was certainly a great beer but I think I might be going off big boozy IPAs with their sickly sweet and sour barley sugar taste. The Watermelon Wheat was really good with loads of body and would be great with a barbecue on a hot summers day. Later I snuck back for a glass of the Azacca hopped pale ale, another lovely refreshing beer with a flavour that reminded me of Sorachi Ace.

At this point - feeling sociable, which is unusual for me - I left the others and went scouting for a few souls I knew from Twitter, or at least those whose faces I knew. I found a couple but also missed some notable figures. Who know? They could have been avoiding me!

I returned to my crew and we munched on the free crisps given out by Keoghs as we decided what to try next as time was running out and our train back to Carlow would not wait for four boozy guys who didn't understand the words 'Stop Drinking!'

I wanted to try Yellow Belly beers but as I was heading down to Lambert's in Wexford the following week I took a chance that they'd have something good on their so avoided their stand heading to Blacks of Kinsale instead.

Blacks have yet to let me down by producing a beer I don't like and their Sour Brown Ale didn't disappoint. Although I would have prefered it a little sourer, it had a nice bourbon cream biscuit flavour that worked well with its tartness. Strangely, I always get a wave of arrogance washing over me when I visit their stands and I'm never sure where it emanates from, perhaps it was wafting from the beer itself, with good reason! Sticking with browns I sampled Jester their Imperial one next which had a great spicy flavour with a cheeserind aftertaste and a good hoppy/alcohol burn. I hope they bottle this one!

On we went again and this time I hit the Northbound Brewery stand, as they had an Sticke Alt beer on tap. I have a particular fondness for this style since visiting Düsseldorf a few years back and was dying to try it. Before that I got a sample of their Kölsch, which was super fresh tasting with loads of biscuity malt. The Sticke Alt was excellent, tasting of biscuity cola with spice - perhaps cardamom - too. I brought back memories of Düsseldorf and the great trip we had made to the city one Christmas.

It was time for more food so I nipped out for a box of chips from a fish and chips place that I think promised seaweed salted seasoning but I might be wrong on that description as my notes and memory failed me here. I grabbed four forks and napkins and plonked them down in front of my ravenous mini-hoard, who greedily devoured the whole lot.

It was time for the last few beers so we split up. I headed to Rascals Brewing to try their Chardonnay Saison, which had been recommended by one of the Twitteratti. This certainly had a barrely quality (if that's a word) and was dry and tartish. The others hit Killarney Brewing and I got to try their pale ale and IPA, or so I was told ... Both tasted similar to me so I think they might have both been the IPA, with loads of red lemonade, lemon and grapefruit. They were 'both' excellent!

Second to last was O Brother Brutus DIPA, a big beer at 9.1% and showing every point of it, all barley sugar, blue cheese and citrus ...  and was a very good beer. Truth be known it was a bit OTT for me, which goes to prove I'm not the hop head I once was or that perhaps I was beered out at this stage. Last beer here was 8 Degrees Millennium - another huge beer at 10% but subtle in a way, with sugary sweetness, smoke and lingering alcohol burn. A great beer again!

We were failing fast at this stage so after 5 and a bit hours we left the festival and immediately and collectively decided that a shared taxi was in order. We hopped into a free one and headed back to the train station, giving the poor driver just a small amount of abuse on the journey there. We were at the station a little early so went for another beer in the bar. I had a Hop House 13. I couldn't taste it - and I'm not sure if that was down to my taste buds or the beer itself.

So after grabbing my usual coffee and free chocolate from Butlers we headed to the train and our journey home. A rainbow appeared on the way home, which suited our happy mood, and we then proceeded to annoy the people in our carriage by talking too loud and being 'those guys!'

The greed of having to try as many beers as possible had made me drink too much. Well that combined with me not checking the size of beers I was drinking, which knocked my internal alcohol measurement system off kilter.

Looking back now it's clear that craft beer - for want of better words - in Ireland is in great hands and great shape. Diversity, experimentation and enthusiasm stood out at this festival more than any other I'd been too and it bodes well for future ones!

My favourite beers? That's a tricky one but I think Radikale's Curious Radical Brew, Rye River's Keeping Red and Northbound's Sticke Alt stood out for me for various reasons amongst a few other crackers.

Roll on next year!