All posts by Paris Franz

About Paris Franz

Writer, traveller, perpetual student.

Photo Friday: The Mosaics of Aquileia

romulus remus

The Lion of St Mark, the symbol of Venice, is ubiquitous in Friuli-Venezia Giulia. There’s no getting away from him, it seems, even if he is looking a little weather-beaten in places. Yet there’s a quiet, unassuming town not far from the sea that has gone its own way when it comes to commemorating empires. In Aquileia Romulus and Remus reign supreme, reminders that Aquileia was once one of the most important cities in the Roman Empire.

aquileia mosaic

Aquileia was founded in 181 BC, a bastion against the barbarians to the north and the east. Its strategic position, for both war and trade, meant it soon became wealthy. It may be in ruins now, the port overgrown, the columns in the forum a poignant reminder of what once was, but you can still see something of that wealth today in the basilica, and it comes as a delicious surprise.

aquileia mosaic

The basilica, dedicated to the Virgin Mary and the Saints Hermagora and Fortunatus, originally dates to the fourth century, an ambitious structure erected after the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, when Christianity was legalised. The current building is a majestic Romanesque-Gothic hybrid, but that is not its main claim to fame. No, it’s the mosaic floor which takes your breath away. Rediscovered in the early years of the twentieth century, the floor consists of 760 square metres of mosaics. It is the largest Paleo-Christian mosaic in the western world, and the prime reason why Aquileia has acquired a place on the World Heritage List.

aquileia mosaic

The subjects of the mosaics are wide-ranging – animals, birds, fish and biblical scenes. In the centre are a selection of portraits, possibly of the donors who paid for the mosaic back in the fourth century. The colours are as fresh as they were nearly two thousand years ago – I’d say they got their money’s worth.

aquileia mosaic

What I love about Twitter

AKA #Hashtags are the new black

street art reka london I will admit it took me a little while to get the hang of Twitter. Then I heard it described as a ‘virtual cocktail party’, and the penny dropped.

Mingle, people. Mingle!

Yes, this introverted wallflower can network. Believe me, it came as a surprise. Thinking about how this unlikely turn of events came to be, I have narrowed it down to two elements, which have helped me, both as a writer and as a marketer.

An exercise in brevity

As someone who tends to the concise, the 140-character limit on Twitter is both a relief and a challenge. Waffly, padded writing is one of my pet peeves, and on Twitter there’s no room for any of that nonsense, even for those so inclined. At its best, Twitter keeps things short, sweet and to the point.

The challenge is to be interesting within the constraints of the format, to convey meaning clearly. Even if you’re not a fan of social media, I’d recommend Twitter, if only for the practice is gives in clarity.

Twitter puts the ‘social’ in social media

Twitter is not a broadcast medium. Its strength lies in its ability to allow interaction, to let people take part in chats and conversations. For all that it seems a vanity project – look at me, Mum! – Twitter works best when users promote others’ work, tweeting and retweeting and replying. It may seem unduly philanthropic, but people do reciprocate. And you do get to ‘meet’ people you might not otherwise have met.

Which means, as the aforementioned introvert, I’ve found it a great way to network. I’ve replied to people on Twitter that I would have needed to have downed a few stiff drinks to approach in real life, and even had them reply. It still makes me shake my head in wonder. So, there you have it. What are your favourite things about Twitter? I’d love to know!

The Mikhail Bulgakov Museum, Kiev

Ukraine’s been in the news lately for all the wrong reasons, so I thought I’d try to redress the balance a little with an account of a visit to the Mikhail Bulgakov Museum in Kiev. It’s time to re-read The Master and Margarita, I think!

mikhail bulgakov
Mikhail Bulgakov, 1910s (public domain image)

The house is elegant and well-proportioned, its creamy facade a throwback to a more decorous time. I step inside, to be greeted by a pair of matronly women who indicate I should leave my bag in the cloakroom, then point upstairs. I head up, confident I am following instruction. In this country with its exotic script I have become adept at understanding the language of gesture.

The museum, overlooking the winding slope of St Andrew’s Descent, is a time machine of sorts, its interior a snapshot of Kiev, circa 1910. The wooden floorboards creak, and the heavy furniture speaks of an era when things were made to last. I join a small group of people in what was clearly the living-room, the cabinets full of books and manuscripts and black and white photographs. One of the matronly women watches over us as we peruse the fragile exhibits, ushering us through to the next room when we’re done, and closing the door behind us. She isn’t a guide; she’s an overseer.

This house was home to the writer Mikhail Bulgakov, whose masterpiece The Master and Margarita wasn’t published until some 25 years after his death. The house was opened in 1991 on the hundredth anniversary of his birth, and I fancy he’d recognise it still. I can’t read the explanatory labels, but I don’t have to. Here I can feel the Kiev of his youth, the Kiev of sugar barons and students, onion-domed churches and green hill-sides. The sugar barons have gone, and many of the hill-sides have sprouted aesthetically dubious apartment blocks, but the students and the churches are still here. There’s a timelessness about Kiev, a little startling in a city where so much has happened, and so much of it bloody.

The Bulgakov Museum is just one of many old buildings clinging to the steep incline of St Andrew’s Descent, most of which have been converted into restaurants and cafes and art galleries. The street is given over to a market on many a weekend, its stalls selling everything from traditional Ukrainian costume to Soviet kitsch. If it weren’t so hot, I’d be tempted to buy an ushanka, the famous Russian fur hat, complete with ear-flaps and red star. It’s an odd item to be selling in Kiev in August, when the temperature soars and everyone is in their summery best. Looking at it makes me want an ice-cream.

St Andrew’s Descent leads down to Podil, nestled on the banks of the river Dnieper. Podil was the commercial hub of Kiev for a long time, and it has survived the city’s modern tribulations surprisingly intact, and looks much as it must have done in the nineteenth-century, with its narrow streets and its churches and its pockets of greenery.

I buy a bottle of water and sit on a bench in Kontraktova Ploscha, or Contract Square, and imagine what it must have been like during the trade fair that took over this square every year. Traders from far and wide across the Russian Empire set up shop, selling wool, silk, cotton and gems. It must have been quite the sight. Although one Prince I M Dolgorukov warned that, while Kiev was “a great, well-built city with many tasteful homes … Don’t come at Lent when the city is overrun with pilgrims, or during the Contract Fair when raucous Poles transform Kiev into a carnival.”



All Aboard – A tour of HMS Bulwark

HMS Bulwark

The Royal Navy is a popular institution, if the length of the queue outside the marquee is anything to go by. It is a fine spring day in Greenwich, and families, couples and singletons are out in their droves, eager to get a glimpse of the fleet’s flagship, HMS Bulwark.

The queue moves swiftly. Personable officers in jaunty hats (the navy does a great line in headwear) scan our tickets, and the security procedures are brisk and polite. The Royal Navy could teach airports a thing or two. And then we’re on a boat taking us out on to the river, the imposing shape of HMS Bulwark in front of us. It is the seventh ship to bear the name and it looks like it means business.

HMS Bulwark royal marines

Even with the mass of visitors, the vehicle deck remains a cavernous and chilly place. Groups gather round pieces of formidable looking equipment like the Beach Recovery Vehicle and the amphibious Viking all-terrain vehicles, their purpose explained by calm young men in camouflage. I knew Royal Marines were formidable, I just hadn’t expected them to also be rather sweet. There was no bravado, just straightforward explanations of what they do and how they do it. I am reassured.

Of course, they’re probably different after a few beers.

hms bulwark royal navy

We clamber up steep stairs and through hatches and end up in the operations room, a dimly lit space full of computer screens showing all manner of arcane data. When full, it can take about 80 people.

“You’d expect it to be noisy,” says the jovial Chief Petty Officer, “but it isn’t. Everyone’s focused on their work, it’s like a library.”

sea king helicopter cockpit

Emerging into the sunshine on deck, the warmth comes as a surprise after the chill inside. I peer at a landing craft suspended over the side by a winch and get to investigate a Sea King helicopter, which is surprisingly roomy inside. Though probably not with 14 fully equipped marines strapped in, I’ll grant you. And I can’t help but wonder how the pilots remember what all those dials are for.

sea king helicopter