Blue Guide Travels in Transylvania: The Greater Târnava Valley was launched last week at a crammed reception in John Sandoe Books in London. Devotees of the shop will know that there is more floor space in it for books than for people—but luckily the afternoon rain gave way to clear skies and those who could not fit inside took the party onto the pavement. The author of this new Blue Guide, art historian and tour leader Lucy Abel Smith, spoke briefly about her book, which traces the course of the Greater Târnava river, visiting towns, villages, ancient manor houses, high pastures and castles along the way, knocking on doors in search of ever-elusive keys to museums and churches that harbour beautiful medieval altarpieces or works of exquisite stone carving. The Târnava river can be seen as a microcosm of Transylvania itself: it flows through lands that have been historically inhabited by the many peoples who have called this fascinating place home: Hungarian-speaking Székelys at its source above Odorheiu Secuiesc, Saxons at Sighișoara, Hungarians at Criș, Armenians at Dumbrăveni, Jews in Mediaș, Roma at Brateiu and Romanians at Blaj, the town that proudly asserts its identity as the cradle of the Romanian nation (Transylvania was joined to Romania in 1920, after the First World War).
Many thanks to John Sandoe Books for hosting the launch party. Lucy Abel Smith has a house in Transylvania, in the heart of the valley she writes about. She is the founder and organiser of the Transylvanian Book Festival.
In his book Sites of Antiquity historian Charles Freeman takes 50 sites and uses them to illustrate the development of the Classical World. But readers have asked, why those particular sites? His reply:
It was good fun picking out 50 sites that I felt defined the Classical world. I interpreted ‘classical ‘ quite widely, to take it beyond just Greece and Rome, so there was ancient Egypt at one chronological end and early Christian sites at the other. I hope this makes it a special book for anyone with an interest in these great civilisations.
Of course, it made sense to highlight sites I knew from having visited them. I have been to every one of the 15 sites featured in the Greek and Hellenistic sections. They are all interesting ones and many of them, such as Mycenae, Dodona or Pergamon, are in superb physical settings. There is no way a book can show off the extraordinary atmosphere they have and it would be wonderful if this book can inspire readers to travel to these places.
I know Rome well, which explains why I chose seven different sites in the city. The Pantheon must be one of the most extraordinary buildings of antiquity, not just in the fact of its survival but also as a feat of architecture: its dome is a semicircle whose diameter across is exactly the same size as the distance of the top from the floor. Amazing design!
I have other favourites too. I lead cultural tours and am always happy to include a visit to the city of Aphrodisias, with its wonderful display of excavated sculpture. And nothing can quite equal going inside a pyramid or seeing the temple of Abu Simbel in the early morning light. Sadly I never got to Palmyra before its looting and destruction, but have tried to give a sense of its importance as an opulent trading centre.
Annabel Barber and Hadley Kincade, my editors, chose a stunning array of illustrations but, in the best tradition of the Blue Guides, we determined to make this much more than a picture book. So we included the historical background to the cultures, plenty of site plans and explanations of a lot of the architectural terms. The aim was to make something special for anyone who is enthusiastic about the ancient world or who wants an introduction to its fascinating civilisations. I think we succeeded.
We were passing through Cagli and stopped there, drawn by the Blue Guide report of the La Gioconda which served us a wonderful lunch. It well deserves Ellen Grady’s accolade as ‘a fantastic little restaurant that will make you want to stay in Cagli forever’. Walking off our choices from the porcini menu, we discovered a treasure: halfway between the central square of Cagli, Piazza Matteotti, and the church of San Francesco, in the street named after the local 18nth century artist Gaetano Lupis, is a pretty 16th-century portico. There is a small oratory behind it. A fresh APERTO sign on the door entices you in, but in the first second as you enter, the oratory seems unlit. Then suddenly the altarpiece lights up, and there is this lovely painting by Timoteo Viti.
Viti was a native of Urbino, just a few years older than Raphael and a friend of both him and his father, although part of his training was in Bologna. He travelled widely in the Marche but collaborated with Raphael in Rome (in the church of Santa Maria della Pace) and this painting may reflect that influence. It appears freshly restored and shows Mary Magdalene reaching out towards the risen Christ. Between the two figures is the precious ointment mentioned in the gospels that was poured on Jesus by a woman, to the indignation of some of the onlookers. The woman is traditionally believed to be Mary Magdalene. Behind them is Jerusalem interpreted as if it were an Italian city of the day. The picture is enhanced by a richly-clothed Archangel Michael, the patron of the oratory, trampling on Lucifer and about to strike him with his sword. Opposite is the (4th-century) hermit St Anthony Abbot, with the pig that is a symbol of the medieval order of Hospitallers of which he was patron (the Hospitallers were allowed to support their work by raising pigs.)
It was a wonderful surprise to come across this painting and it should be included in the itinerary of all who visit this medieval town. As the oratory seems permanently open, one can visit it before or after lunch at La Gioconda!
by Charles Freeman, history consultant to the Blue Guides.