Bellinzona: An Architectural Jewel

Not far from Milan, right after crossing the Italian border and entering Switzerland, you can find Bellinzona, a city situated in the Canton Ticino. Nested between lakes and mountains, this small city is worth visiting for its three main architectural projects which have transformed its public face and brought a new approach to revitalization of historical architecture and the fusion of buildings with the natural environment.

Built on a hill, the oldest of three castles in Bellinzona, Castelgrande was mentioned in 590 by Gregor von Tours as “Castrum”. Between 1486 and 1489 the Sforza family from Milan extended the castle in order to repel the Swiss advancing from the north. Castelgrande has been restored between 1982 and 1992 and can nowadays be reached by an elevator from the city’s Piazza del Sole. Aurelio Galfetti, the architect in charge of the most recent restoration, combined modern architecture with a sense of Medieval pride, in order to create an “Acropolis of Light”. Aurelio Galfetti is one of the leading architects of Ticino’s local scene, and his transformation of the ruined remains of the Castelgrande in Bellinzona into a contemporary museum and culture centre provides us with a provisional resume for decades of architectural work. While Galfetti proposed a series of typological corrections to Bellinzona’s diffused townscape, he was also concerned in sharpening the public awareness of the genius loci and the town’s history, as well as with its future, of which the rebuilding of Castelgrande was a central point. Galfetti’s effort produced one of the most significant conversion projects since Carlo Scarpa’s legendary work on Castelvecchio in Verona. Galfetti had neither restored nor conserved Bellinzona’s ‘Acropolis’. At the most – as Neapolitan architect Francesco Venezia would say – he joined together pieces that form spaces in which light, objects and landscape carry a silent communication. He was concerned in the first place with transforming an extraordinarily damaged historical situation into an analogue reality that would be able to speak for itself again.

Piazza del Sole
The Square of the Sun, also known as Piazza Porta Ticinese, was built only in the XVIII century. The buildings that have marked the square were progressively removed starting from the 50s: the so-called island placed in the middle of the square was demolished first, then the houses close to the rock, and finally those constructions that concealed the city’s medieval walls. Today, Piazza del Sole can be viewed in its restored design carried out by architect Livio Vacchini. The linearity of the design, simplicity of access shafts and ventilation of the car park under the square, the dialogue instilled between the new architectural composition, the rock and walls recall, in a way, the city’s old spaces and size.

Lido di Bellinzona
It is Aurelio Galfetti, again, who transcends the proposed program creating a simple but ambitious infrastructure for the pools of Bellinzona. Thus, Galfetti uses all the factors involving the commission in order to design a piece of architecture prepared to take on future programs that complement each other. The route of access is embodied in a concrete structure, which organizes the built landscape and territory, through a pedestrian walkway raised 6 feet above the level of the river, connecting visually the empty valley of Ticino, the Castelgrande hill, the city, the mountains and the sky. All functional aspects of the pool have been resolved by subordinating them to a spatial vision, meant to merge the city with the river through a pedestrian walkway, a structure that provides the open expansion of a city character, a projected landscape, ready to accommodate new activities and functions.

Giulio Ghirardi 
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California parties (in the 60′s)

In August 2007, after ten months spent scrutinising balance sheets, I decided to reward myself with a three week vacation in California. I chose San Diego as my destination, a city that I used to love so much and that – aside from a couple of hit-and-runs in Rosarito Beach, Mexico – I almost never left. Given that, I couldn’t but do at least a short tour of Los Angeles. After ten days, I took a car with my two travel buddies: it was one of those long and rusty cars that you can rent in California for a few dollars, and drove straight to LA.

Before going back to San Diego, I decided to leave them alone for a while and moved to Claremont, a college town on the eastern border of Los Angeles county. With its seven elementary schools, one intermediate school and two high schools, Claremont was one of the most rated University towns in California and in the whole United States. David Foster Wallace used to teach Creative Writing in Pomona College, the oldest institution, before comitting suicide by hanging with a black belt. I have always wanted to visit an american school, and the fact that one of the most virtuos and controversial writers in the world was a teacher there, represented a good reason for me to come in.

Claremont was riddled with trees, something that mitigated the temperatures, although it was august – in 2007 the CNN rated Claremont as the fifth best place to live in the United States – and that electric blue light that only exists in California. But the feature that really struck me were the pictures of the old alumni that were hung on the walls of Pomona College. For a moment, I felt like in the Dead Poets Society movie, in the scene in which Professor Keating showed to his students the pictures of their predecessors while explaining to them the meaning of the expression “Carpe Diem”.

Several pictures portrayed some of the students of Pomona College back in the 60′s, during their parties and celebrations. Those images were shocking compared with the ones of today’s savage parties, the reason why american colleges are worldwide known: that made me smile! But my favourite one was the portrait of a boy, the male version of Tilda Swinton, who was entertaining some friends by playing his guitar. In some of them, probably, students were posing, but this did not subtract any beauty or chastity to the pictures, that immortalized people that today are fertilizer for soil, as Professor Keating said. That day in Claremont was a day that I won’t forget.

Antonio Leggieri – Image Courtesy of Claremont Colleges Digital Library 
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London’s East End

“If you are in London and want to feel cool, East End is your place”. September 2013: I heard a middle-aged lanky hippy whispering this sentence to a kid, while I was walking alone near Brick Lane. Before the 90′s, the East End was considered the suburban zone of London, its tatty and poor daughter, inhabited mainly by middle eastern butchers, bengali restaurateurs and indian barbers. After the 90′s, what was considered the homeland of the english working class changed its face.

Brick Lane, also known as Banglatown (one name, one reason), is East End’s most famous street and the emblem of this transformation: what used to be the seediest part of the town in the past is today a fashion and modern location full of pubs, art galleries, restaurants and small vintage markets. The Docklands Light Railway opened in 1987 to link the East End with the city, and the 2012 Summer Olympics Games signed this process of requalification.

In the last years, the East End has become synonymous of an area full of liveable neighborhoods. From the Whitechapel district – famous due to Jack the Ripper‘s murders – to Bethnal Green Road, the cross-cultural heart of London, the metropolitan fauna is a key element – from ‘chavs’ to hipsters, from businessmen to workmen – that creates a melting pot of different styles and cultures.

But there is something that has not changed: walking through the alleys and tiny streets, under flyovers not far from sparkling shop windows and new buildings, the air breathed in the 90′s has stayed the same. Not too distant from museums and new theaters, the working class houses and the abandoned offices are still there, with old rusted cars in front of them. If you turn the corner, you will see that integration sometimes doesn’t work, when for example, a white skinny boy with a rough cockney accent take out a clasp knife and thrust it into the thigh of an indian boy the same age. Then, you realize that sometimes neither the Olympic Games nor a commercial street can transform the real and ancient face of a place. East London will always have a rough, suburbian and dangerous soul that will never change.

Antonio Leggieri – Image Courtesy of Antonio Leggieri, Tim Rich and Lesley Katon, David Jones, Eric Parker, Hectate1 
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The last Inuit

Sometimes it doesn’t take much time to understand a population. In this way, Robert Peroni, the italian explorer who lives between Italy and Greenland, describes the Inuit – the last descendants of the native inhabitants of the Arctic: “They live hand to mouth, only the present exists for them. If they see three seals, they kill and eat just one of them, even if they remain without food. These people don’t know the occidental concept of accumulation”.

However, this happened ten years ago when, due to ecologists pressure, seal hunting was banished in response to the massacres caused by canadian poachers. This was the final nail in the coffin for the three thousand Inuit who lived in the archipelago of Ammassalik, in west Greenland. Struggled with one of the most inhospitable land in the world, in the middle of ices and fiords, deprived of the possibility of breed and hunt seals, the Inuit started to die. Not for hunger, but for depression. They started committing suicide, when alcohol and drugs were diffused in every level of the population.

If today the Inuit are not dead, it is thanks to Robert Peroni. In the last 20 years, this explorer, born in north Italy, created a foundation for raising money to give it to Inuit and transformed an old building into a small hotel, La casa rossa, in the city of Tasiilaq, with 140 beds for tourists, who are guided in their extreme tours by the Inuit. He also wrote a book, Dove il vento grida più forte, in which Peroni explains why occidental people consider the Inuit rough and archaic people, forced not to accept help from the outside. Peroni has been one of the few, maybe the only white man accepted by Inuit in their community.

In november Peroni, who is now 69 years old and is fighting against a bad disease, came back to Greenland, after having presented his book in Italy. When he is asked if the moment to take a rest has arrived and come back permanently to his place of origin, Bolzano, the answer is: “There is nothing left for me in Italy. It is between icebergs and mountains that I feel like home”. Peroni often remembers when the Inuit were happy, before the past difficult years. In these archive pictures, they have been photographed in the 60′s.

Antonio Leggieri – Image courtesy of the Biblio Archive of Canada 
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Cycling through Europe with Rapha

The bicycle has always had a special place in European cities’ imagery: from Vittorio De Sica‘s Bicycle Thieves cruising Rome in search of a stolen bike, to Queen‘s highly contagious Bicycle Race refrain; from cycling events such as Tour de France or Giro d’Italia, taking us on a tour of incredible European landscapes, to classic postcard pictures of cities like Amsterdam or Copenhagen. Europe is imbued with cycling culture and its inhabitants are well acquainted with the beauty and liberty found on two wheels. While masterpieces of film and literature such as Hopper‘s Easy Rider or Kerouac‘s On the Road could never have been conceived in Europe, wondering around the narrow, winding and utterly charming streets of its cities offers space for reflexion, contemplation and endless imagination.

Playfully engaging with this urban myth of a two-wheeled tour of European cities, Rapha has developed a series of special guides for cyclist. Rapha City Cycling Guide is a series of pocket-sized guides to eight major cycling cities of Europe, published in collaboration with Thames and Hudson. Amsterdam, Antwerp and Ghent, Barcelona, Berlin, Copenhagen, London, Milan and Paris are described in eight different guides, characterized by a mix of eclectic tips for soaking in the best of each city, ranging from local curiosities to major tourist attractions. Equipped with a set of detailed maps with cycling lanes and routs, each guide was illustrated by different artists, adding a touch of local charm to the publication.

While bicycles are steadily becoming the preferred means of transport in Europe, as well as across the Atlantic, with these guides it may also be worth considering a relaxing vacation on two wheels in the upcoming months. After all, just as John F. Kennedy once said, “Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of a bike ride”.

Rujana Rebernjak 
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Amsterdam creates addiction. But not in the way that the ten thousand youngsters, who every year visit the capital of the Netherlands, understand it. Its clean street markets, the graceful houses that overlook the canals and the endless comings and goings of old ladies and businessmen on their bikes clash with the libertine air of some of its neighborhoods and with the sense of perdition that in general is associated with the city. This creates a powerful contrast that floors tourists and that, sometimes, is not totally grasped during the first visit to the city. The desire of better understanding this cohabitation of lights and shadows generates again and again the craving of coming back here for discovering new marvelous features.

At night, when the city lights reflect on the water, Amsterdam becomes a fairy city. Then, when the lights of the 50 days long light festival are added, the city offers a sublime show. It was organized for the first time in 2012, and also this year (from December 6 until January 19), the light festival will transform Amsterdam into a sparkle of optical effects, that has been able to enchant residents and tourists, and that make the city become an illuminated jewel during the darkest month of the year. It has been organized in the respect of energetic sustainability and with the help of young talents: high tech art installations, that respect the environment and that have been created by international artists, who in this way can exhibit their own creations in the stunning showcase that is Amsterdam.

The best way to enjoy this show is on a boat, so that it is possible to admire the art installations while navigating the Amstel, while admiring some of the historical monuments of the city, such as the Werthein Park or the Nemo and Stopera Science Center. This is for sure the best trip to do in the city.

Antonio Leggieri – Image courtesy of Janus Van den Eijnden and Janet Echelman 
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French Flavour

Paris is the ultimate playground for the peckish, flavor-savvy and culinary curious. A world of tradition and creativity, many travel the globe for the chance to savour Parisian cooking.

For the ultimate foodie indulgence make for Guy Savoy, the three-star namesake restaurant of a French Master chef. There’s something about Savoy’s rich yet unique style – each dish develops as you devour it, taking you on a creative (and at time unexpected) culinary journey. Many of the remarkable dishes that make up the lunchtime degustation menu look like miniature works of art. Case in point, the carrot and lobster bisque hidden beneath a lace-like web of beetroot and flowers. With all the dishes constructed at your table, Guy Savoy makes theatre from food (and deserves a round of applause).

Similarly magnificent and history-drenched is Le Grand Véfour. Tucked away in an elegant corner of the Palais-Royal gardens, and once the coveted haunt of Victor Hugo, Sartre and Napoleon, this was the place to be seen during the Belle Époque and a site of political, artistic and culinary intrigue for over 200 years. The original interiors remain, with seats marked with the names of those who once called them their favourites (I had Maria Callas’, across the way from the spot once filled with Balzac).

And then there’s Angelina. Founded in 1903 by Austrian confectioner Antoine Rumpelmayer and named in honour of his daughter in law, Angelina has been the favourite meeting place of Parisian gourmets for over a century. The Belle Époque interior is the epitome of charm and refinement while their world famous hot chocolate (L’Africain – impossible to drink without a generous dollop of cream) and Mont Blanc (an intricate pastry made from a secret recipe) have attracted Coco Chanel, Proust and contemporary explorers keen to experience the Paris of yesteryear.

If you’re after a less formal, thoroughly French experience then Chez Janou, a mere amble from Place des Vosges, is for you. Always packed with clued-up, wine sipping locals, this time-forgotten venue serves up traditional provincial fare. Its real selling point is the chocolate mouse, which arrives at your table in a huge bowl, from which you serve yourself. Self-control, and booking ahead, is a must.

Or you could just wander the city’s ancient streets and flower filled gardens snaking on crepes, pastry or falafel (the pita falafel at Sarl Daphne is a must) and feel truly blissful. Food and France, what more could you want!

Liz Schaffer 
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The Art of Taking Tea

Few things seem more whimsical, luxurious or delectably enticing than a London afternoon tea. Fueled by a love of exotic blends, scones, unconventional cocktail accompaniments, overdressing and sandwiches I’ve uncovered five of the most beguiling afternoon teas you can enjoy in the English capital.

The Quirky Option
Tucked away behind the bustle of King’s Cross is a retro, art-filled and music loving venue that excels at being different. Drink Shop & Do serves up a Bellini accompanied afternoon tea that makes you wish you’d worn a few more of your grandmother’s pearls (and thought to curl your hair). It consists of simple sandwiches on vibrant bread accompanied by steaming sultana scones and homemade cakes that inspire you to be a domestic goddess. Homely, perfectly 50’s and wonderfully quirky (with wooden floors, a retro piano, cake laden counter and giant origami), this is afternoon tea with a DIY twist.

The Sweet Tooth Option
For a decadent, traditional and thoroughly friendly experience make for the Langham. This iconic London hotel, frequented by Oscar Wilde and a favourite of the BBC crowd, is ideal for those with a soft spot for the sweeter (or should that be finer) things in life. While being soothed by the melodic tunes of the hotel pianist you’ll dine upon glitter and rose adorned cakes designed to match the season and teas that are more than a little flavorsome.

The European Option
The Wolseley is an Art Deco hideaway that blends marble opulence, vintage elegance and a perfectly classic afternoon tea to create an Old World experience and keep the European café tradition very much alive. In this venue, watching loyal patrons pass a leisurely afternoon in their finery, hours simply slip away.

The Get Out of Town Option
Few things feel as fanciful as sitting by an open window, overlooking the fast flowing Thames, as the leaves begin to turn and you dine on macaroons the colour of a London sunset. Sinking further into a rich leather couch in The Bingham, a Richmond institution, you feel a million miles from the bustle of the city and, filled with lighter than air sandwiches and cheesecake that’s rather moreish, find it a tad difficult to suppress the urge to wander through water meadows. City meets country indeed.

The Designer Option
For something more fashion-focused make for the hallowed halls the Berkeley for Pret-a-Portea. Aimed at the London fashion set – who rarely conduct meetings over anything but afternoon tea (or cocktails) – this offering has a bit of a twist; the sweet treats are styled after key fashion looks of the season. Think Burberry trench cookies and Mulberry orange cake handbags – classic culinary bliss with a rather feminine feel.

Liz Schaffer 
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A Night in Antwerp

If one night in Autumn you find yourself in Antwerp, there are three things you can do. Before, though, leave your friend, your loved one or who ever else is traveling with you to the hotel and exit on the streets alone. Remember to put on a jacket: the North Sea with its storms is 56 miles away, which is not that far, and you’re indeed in the Northern Belgium – here, the least you can do is to protect yourself from wind and humidity. Don’t fear the silence: in spite of its 500.000 inhabitants, when the sun goes down Antwerp gets empty. You run the risk of feeling lonely and far away from home. Have courage. This is your night in Flanders and there are the three things to do to make it magical.

Visit the railway station. In Antwerp people call it “railway cathedral” for its majesty and aspect. Walk in its underground floors linked together with escalators and enjoy this masterpiece of modern architecture, in contemplation, as you were in a sanctuary. The railway cathedral, opened in 1905, is the fourth most beautiful station in world, according to the American journal Newsweek.

Go in search of hands. As the story goes, the name Antwerp derives from “Hand Werpen”, that is “throw the hand”, expression referred to the killing of the giant Druon Antigoon, who ruled these places in XV century, by the roman soldier Silvius Brabo. Brabo cut off the giant’s hand and threw it in the river Schelda. Since then, it became the symbol of the city. On the many monuments of Antwerp you’ll find hands everywhere, even in shops, shaped in chocolate candy. Go to MAS, the Museum Aan de Stroom, with the facade upholstered by hands of stone, and reach its top (this museum stays open until 10 pm). You will see the harbor, the majestic Cathedral of Our Lady and the Ferris Wheel illuminated.

Lose yourself in the streets of the inner city. In Grote Markt, the heart of Antwerp, you will find Silvius Brabo’s statue. You’ll find yourself surrounded by the houses in which, from XI to XII century, lived the local congregations, today occupied by shops and restaurants. Their fairy-tale fascination will add a magical touch to your lonely night in Flanders.

Antonio Leggieri – Images Stijn Hosdez, Sjoerd van Oosten & Antonio Leggieri 
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A Split Escape

Only recently finding its exquisite way onto the tourist map, the ancient Croatian city of Split has played an integral role in transforming the Adriatic Coast into an elegant, Old World, seaside destination. Attracting international model scouts keen to uncover the next local superstar (summer evenings in Split could easily be confused for a catwalk show) and tourists who stare wide-eyed at the city’s Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture, bustling port and labyrinth-like alleys, this city has plenty of charm.

Split – which is brimming with Roman walls, squares and temples – was built around the Diocletian Palace. The original inhabitants sough refuge here, yet contemporary visitors are now greeted by underground markets, fire twirlers and rather fine operatic performances. The Palace’s central square (Peristil Square) is best observed from the top of the steep and slippery Campanile, which rewards you with views of the rooftops, ocean and surrounding hills. The UNESCO listed palace has four monumental gates and houses, within its huge white stonewalls, a true culinary find – Hotel Peristil. Overlooking Peristil Square, this quaintly delightful hotel is highly sought after during the high season and offers up a truly Croatian breakfast and the best tuna carpaccio around. It’s a great place to watch the world stride elegantly by. Just beyond the hotel is the local fruit market, packed with nuts, honey and fruit in every conceivable hue. Equally picturesque – although slightly confronting on the olfactory front – is the fish market. Compact yet bustling, this venue offers a wonderful glimpse of what the city was like all those centuries ago. It’s also a stone’s throw from the Riva promenade, a huge street that winds its way along the waterfront and is lined with restaurants, jewelers, market stall and kava sellers.

Other Split wonders include Jupiter’s Temple, which has taken on the more modern name of St John’s church, two original Egyptian sphinxes and the city’s sandy beach. You could always while away the hours watching the bustling Port. Truly alive on a Friday and Saturday, this is the starting point for many of Sail Croatia’s exotic, sun-filled adventures.

If the bustle of the city becomes a little too much make for Marjan, a hill situated on the west of Split. A local oasis, here you can amble along tree shrouded walking paths (a mecca for joggers and cyclists) and gain a view of the city from the summit that completely justifies the ascent! This hill boasts an array of churches yet it devoid of houses – building here is completely forbidden in order to save the wild brilliance.

Historic and beautiful, Split really is one of the Adriatic’s most lively jewels.

Liz Schaffer, Images courtesy of Household Riot, Marcin Szala, Adrien Dubuisson, Sarah Sampsel, Tom Kelly, Athena Lao, Dworzec 
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