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Part One - Ancona to Ascoli Picenza
When we told people we were going to Le Marche the usual response was ‘where’s that’? Most of them knew the famous towns, Urbino, Rimini (not really Le Marche I know but close) and maybe Ascoli Piceno but they’d visited them on days out from Tuscany or Umbria. It certainly isn’t the easiest place to get to or to get around if you don’t drive but it turned out to be so worth the effort. We flew to Bologna, we’ve done that so often that we know the road from the airport to the city by heart. I could write a novel about our various adventures on Bologna station like the day of a railway strike when the platform for the one operating train was switched four times. No great problem you might say but a platform change at Bologna involves running down and up two flights of stairs and a tunnel packed with people dragging huge suitcases and nasty little dogs. Do that four times in a quarter of an hour and you lose the will to live.
We chose Ancona as our first base in Le Marche mainly because we could get to a lot of other places from there. It has been an Adriatic port since the time of the Greeks and our guidebook described it as ‘vibrant’ but our first sight wasn’t inspiring, the bits around main stations seldom are plus it was raining hard. For once we had the good sense to get a cab rather than trusting the Google map ‘half a kilometre from the station’ fiction, (this has been true about twice, more usually it is spectacularly untrue). The city improved a lot as our taxi took us to the old town on the hill where we had booked a little apartment, I unpacked while Jim went in search of a supermarket and a couple of hours later we were well fed, a bit drunk and completely at home. I have fallen in love with almost every apartment we have rented, even the not-really-fit-for purpose ones, coping with violent bottled gas stoves, wobbly bottomed saucepans and no cutlery comes with the territory but the one in Ancona was very efficient with a wonderful view across a little piazza and down to the sea. Ours’ was one of several in an ex convent but we were off season and we had most of the building to ourselves except for one riotous night when a group of enormous Australian boys en-route for Croatia moved in next door with enough beer to stock a pub. We feared the worst but they turned out to be little lambs, drunken lambs I suppose by the time they'd got through the beer, perhaps they just passed out, but we were especially relieved as we had to get up very early to get the train to Ascoli Picena.
It took about a day to discover that Ancona was rather a fabulous place and two days before we started checking out property prices; - old fantasies never die. We didn’t need to do much dedicated sightseeing because every trip to the bus station or the supermarket took us through streets of medieval and Renaissance buildings, beautiful churches and bits of the Roman city revealed after an earthquake back in the 1970s. A lot more of the Roman city is still buried under the medieval streets and houses so the archaeologists can’t do much about it, one feels that they lost heart because the revealed parts are weedy and fragrant with cat pee but the little archaeological museum has a magical collection. We did make a special trip to the Duomo di San Ciriaco, (one of the many spectacularly odd saints in Le Marche), this involved climbing a lot of almost vertical streets and a scary set of stairs only to find the way blocked with barriers and tattered plastic tape. We were certainly not going back to so we climbed over, no one took a blind bit of notice. Twanging calf and thigh muscles were small prices to pay for the first sight of one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful Romanesque churches I have ever seen, glowing that morning against an unblemished blue sky. I almost didn’t want to go inside for fear of unseemly Baroque tarting up but there was none and we had the place almost to ourselves until a party from a cruise ship arrived having come up the hill the sensible way in a coach, how we sneered!
Inland from the old town is the (relatively) new one with rather elegant boulevards running down to the passenger port where the ferries from Croatia and the cruise liners come in. Most of the tourists in Ancona come off the ships, we saw the occasional big group looking bored to death and little groups who had elected to go it alone. I wonder if most of the 'cruisers' don't head off by coach to Urbino for a quick race around the town, you could just about do it if you're not too fussy about what you see, the smart ones stick around and go San Ciriaco. The little groups were always, irrespective of nationality, led by an alpha male with a guide book, as an alpha he naturally didn’t need to ask directions so by the time the group got to the old town it was usually lost, in a state of mutiny and making rude hand gestures behind the alpha’s back. The end of town nearest the port has a collection of very smart designer shops, presumably for cruise people who can’t wait to stock up on Prada, Gucci etc. Further up it all becomes more domestic, we got to know it pretty well, the squares are where the townspeople gather of an evening and the streets have all the useful stuff, the market and theatres and the best bars. One enormous square is the long-distance bus station, Italian city buses are a nightmare but I love the big, comfortable, air conditioned intercities, you pay your fare, abandon all responsibility and spend the journey looking at the scenery and making up stories about the other passengers.
Our first outing by bus was the short trip to Recanati, one of a cluster of exquisite little hill towns that survived the interminable Guelph, Ghibelline wars to become very wealthy through trade. Recanati did especially well because it had a big Jewish mercantile community and its own harbour founded by Frederick II on the site where Hannibal and his surviving elephants camped in 217BC. Until she was overtaken by Loreto she was the richest city in the area and able to employ the best craftsmen, masons and painters, it shows, Recanati is lovely. She has her own pilgrims because the 19th century poet Giacomo Leopardi lived there and so did Benjamino Gigli who had a modest villa (only 60 rooms, 20 bathrooms and a swimming pool) built just below the town. Another bus took us to Jesi, a fortified town on a hill overlooking the Esino river and surrounded by vineyards. The walls, Roman and 14th century are spectacular, we had plenty of opportunity to admire them because we had to walk round most of the wretched things before we found the way in. Jesi isn’t a big town by any means but it has an opera house, a decent art gallery, eight libraries and more bookshops than Hay on Wye. It is also ridiculously beautiful, rather as if it had been put together specifically to demonstrate the evolution of fine architecture. The old town is medieval with a Renaissance extension called Terravecchia and further, very elegant extensions made in the 18th century. When we finally found the gates and had recovered our good humour we climbed a winding alley into the main piazza, once the Roman forum. I had a particular reason for wanting to see this, one of my heroes Frederick II ‘The Stupor Mundi’ was born there in 1194. His mother Constance, the last Norman princess of Sicily was traveling from Milan to Palermo to join her husband, the deeply unpleasant Henry IV of Swabia when she went into labour. She chose to give birth under a canopy in the piazza so that the matrons of the town could witness the fact that the baby was truly hers. You have to admire that kind of moxie especially since Constance was 40, not a good age to be bearing a child in the 12th century and especially not a first child.
Loreto was not do-able by bus, by now we knew which nightmare city bus went to the station so we took the train. We went with mixed feelings, Loreto is one of the most important Catholic shrines in the west, only Lourdes attracts more pilgrims so we were expecting vast crowds, expensive tat and ecclesiastical bullying (Jim still hasn’t recovered from Assisi). The tat was there to be sure, we even bought some but it was off-season so most of the visitors we saw were pilgrims of one kind or another. A young man looking like Savanarola who we passed on the woodland path making his devotions at each of the shrines, parties of cheerful disabled American kids with their volunteer helpers, very elderly French folk with their very young parish priest and a Polish group who told us they all had relatives who had fought and died in Le Marche in the Second World War and were buried in the beautiful Polish Cemetery on the hillside below the Sanctuary.
The day didn’t begin terribly well, Loreto station is at the bottom of a very long steep hill up to the town. We arrived to find that we had just missed the bus and we would have to wait an hour for the next one. ‘However’ the nice man in the information office told us ‘You could always walk’ so we did. After a slog along a hot boring road we found a signposted path leading up through nice shady woods full of little birds, at intervals there were shrines and I realised that we were following the Stations of The Cross, I know how many Stations of the Cross there are and was a bit dismayed that we had been going for half an hour and were only at number three.
After a last unkind flight of stairs we arrived at the bastions protecting the town and the gates to the Piazza della Madonna and the fortified Sanctuary Church of Santa Casa. I suppose most people have seen images of Our Lady of Loreto, the Virgin Mary being whisked through the clouds on the roof of a little house, there are a lot in Italy because she is extremely popular and also the patron saint of the Italian air force. According to the story when Palestine fell to the Muslims in the 13th century, the house of the Annunciation and home to the Holy Family disappeared from Nazareth and reappeared in 1294 in a clump of laurels (laureto) near Recanati having been transported by angels. Most likely the house, which really is built from Nazareth stone by the way, had been dismantled and shipped to Dalmatia where it became part of the dowry brought to Italy by Princess Ithamar Angeli when she married. At all events the little house was a real prize for the Bishop of Recanti and his successors, pilgrims arrived in droves and generations of Bishops employed the best artists in Italy, Giuliano da Sangallo, Bramante, Luca Signorelli et al to enlarge and decorate the Sanctuary church.
It is mind bogglingly gorgeous and full of treasures, Napoleon would have had them away in 1797 had not canny Pope Pius VI smuggled the best to Rome hidden in wine barrels. In the middle of all the splendour, surrounded by Bramante’s marble screen is the humble little house itself with pilgrims and common gawkers like us queuing to enter. It is easy to be cynical about these things, I am as guilty as anyone but I was moved by the sight of the faithful pressing their hands against the walls, praying and sometimes crying. There was no ecclesiastical bullying, the priests were gentle and helpful with the old and disabled and there were no recorded voices telling us to be quiet and not take photographs. We were rather overwhelmed by the time we came out into the Piazza della Madonna so our good intentions of visiting the Pinacoteca came to nothing, I felt that my eyes might explode if they looked at any more gorgeousness. Instead we took a walk around the small, lovely town, had a pizza and then shopped. I wanted a medal of Our Lady of Loreto, there were none of her on the roof of the flying house alas but I did find one with an aeroplane on the back. (Speaking of flying saints I have to find a medal of San Giuseppe of Copertina next time we go to Le Marche. The poor fellow became famous for levitating at the mere mention of a Holy name, these weren’t little levitations either, sometimes he got stuck in trees. Eventually a special, presumably padded room was prepared for him at the Franciscan convent at Osima where he spent the last years of his life. If you see a painting of a Franciscan friar launching himself out of a window, that’s San Giuseppe).
Our last visit from Ancona was to Ascoli Picena, close to Abruzzo and a long way south. I can’t remember much about the journey because I went to sleep about five minutes after we got on the train and woke up in a vile mood that lasted for the whole of the walk from the station into town. If I’d been Jim I would have pushed me under a bus, fortunately he has a technique for dealing with vileness, first he ignores it, then he starts making determinedly positive observations so by the end you despise yourself for being so wretched. A large double espresso and the first view of Ascoli cured me completely, it has to be one of the most enchanting places in the world. The weather was perfect that day and the creamy Travertine marble and terracotta of the city positively glowed in the sunlight. We came first into the Piazza Arringo, a day’s worth of visits on its own with the Cathedral at one end and the main museums to the sides. The Pinacoteca Civica has among many other things a great collection of Carlo Crivellis. Fans of Renaissance art are apt to be sniffy about Crivelli, ‘provincial’ and ‘old fashioned’ are the descriptions usually applied to his paintings but I love their almost fashion plate elegance, their garlands of obscure fruit and veg. and their general oddness. The Ascolese obviously liked them too because he was awarded a knighthood in 1490.
From Arringo a short street leads to the Palazzo del Popolo with its 16th century buildings and the vast Gothic church of San Francesco. From here run streets where medieval towers sit beside Renaissance town houses and Romanesque churches (there are 17). One such street leads directly to the Tronto River and the Ponte di Solesta built at the behest of the Emperor Augustus. By and by we became boggled by the sheer quantity of things to see, gave up pretending that we would see them all and just wandered. The city has a rich cultural history, some fine scholars worked here, it had printing houses very soon after Venice and was known centre of fine craftsmanship. It seems that these things maintain, there are still workshops and they are not making tourist tat, in fact Ascoli has lost very little of her identity to tourism. We are going back.
On our last evening in Ancona we took a walk along the jetty that curves around the northern end of the port, some of it dates from Roman times and there is a handsome triumphal arch honouring Trajan on its landward end. It isn’t a particularly romantic jetty but there is something enormously satisfying about sitting on the Eastern outpost of central Italy and watching the fishing boats go out and the big ships come in from the Adriatic just as they have always done. There was a nasty looking sky coming in as well and sure enough the day we left for Pesaro it poured down.
P.S. There are more pictures on the Le Marche page - here.
It was still raining in a spiteful stubborn fashion the morning we got to our second base at Pesaro about 45 kilometres up the coast. Rossini was born there, he didn’t stay long, his family moved to Bologna when he was seven but he left a massive amount of money to establish a School of Music in his home town which has done rather well from its’ famous son. There is an annual Opera Festival which brings in thousands of visitors and his birth place has become a museum, there isn’t a whole lot there but they do a roaring trade in Rossini key rings, coffee mugs and pottery figurines.
Pesaro has a beautiful medieval old town, we weren’t staying there, and an area of rather spectacular Art Nouveau villas, we weren’t staying there either. Our hotel was built some time in the 60s and not much updated since. It might have been lacking in glamour but it was completely charming, run by several generations of the same family. Depending on the time of day either the matriarch and patriarch would be on the front desk, or one of their children or several grandchildren and a tiny great-grandson was generally toddling about the foyer being adored. Most of the other hotels along the seafront were flashy great gin palaces with casinos and private beaches, some of them were shutting up shop for the winter but ours’ still had lots of customers, mostly old Italian folk taking budget holidays. We watched them at breakfast filling plastic bags with ham rolls and cake to eat at lunch time. They make a kind of enclosed unit, avoiding eye contact as much as possible while they prepare their loot but having noticed us noticing them one of them told us ‘We come here every year. It’s like being at home only there’s the sea and it’s cheaper’. We've seen this done a couple of times before, once by a neat little tour group of late middle-aged, and middle-class, French people. I suppose that's what you get when you stay in such high class joints.
Against all odds the rain stopped by midday, the sun came out and we walked to the old town in search of food. This turned out to be more of a problem than we had supposed, there are dozens of snack bars in the centre but not many restaurants open for lunch. The first one we found was full of locals who all knew that if you wanted to eat any time that day you needed to shout out your order and get your own jugs of water and wine. Being English and repressed we sat for twenty minutes like a couple spare parts before we gave up and left, I don’t think anyone noticed we had been there at all. Eventually we came across another one, rather out of the way and not very busy, the food was good but I was completely distracted by the couple on the next table, a well turned out businessman type wearing a wedding ring and a svelte young thing who was not. There was a lot of eye contact, some tentative hand stroking and each was listening to the other as if they were revealing the secrets of the universe. ‘I bet he pays the bill in cash, he won’t want it on his credit card statement’ I said smugly, I was right but while I was busy being Miss Smarty Pants Jim had eaten most of the sea bass and all the razor clams.
Like every other city up this coast Pesaro began life as a Roman port and then changed hands many times during the fall of the Western Empire. It belonged to Byzantium for a couple of hundred years, then to the Malatesta of Rimini, the Sforza and finally the della Rovere who made it the administrative centre of the Duchy of Urbino and brought in all kinds of artistic superstars, Titian worked there and so did the writer Tasso. The cattedrale is a chronicle of all that history, the present building is 13tth century, done under Malatesta rule but below its’ floor is one dating from the 6th century when Pesaro was part of the Byzantine Pentapolis and below that another from the original 4th century Roman Palaeochristian basilica. If that were not enough, the cattedrale has a fresco by the very young Raphael.
The status of Renaissance Pesaro becomes very evident in the Art Gallery of the Musei Civici where there are works of amazing quality, many made for the city’s churches including Giovanni Bellini’s Pesaro Madonna painted in 1475 in Venice and shipped south for the Church of St Francis. Napoleon who had been systematically stripping the Le Marche churches of their art thought it was too big to nick wholesale so he had the crowning panel of The Embalming of Christ taken out of the frame and sent it off to the Louvre. It came back to Italy after he abdicated but never got further than the Vatican Gallery, Pesaro wants it back, good luck with that. We almost missed the ceramics museum because we all have blind spots and one of mine is decorative ceramics. (I put this down to my great aunt’s Meissen (type) Monkey Orchestra, nasty malignant little things that absolutely terrified me when I was small). However, we had paid so we went and it was wonderful. Pesaro itself is built from the rose coloured clay from the Foglia marshes and the same clay made the city a centre for the production of majolica plaques and plates some of them decorated with hilariously erotic scenes.
Urbino is a bus ride from Pesaro, long if you take the local service stopping at every tiny village, short if you get the direct that leaves from the station. The stop for the local was at the end of our road so that’s the one we caught and rather regretted that we had. Italy might be in love with cars but there are still plenty of people using public transport so our bus was dropping off and picking up about every five minutes. Eventually the road began to rise from the coastal plane and we could see the walls of Urbino above us. Having spent a couple of days walking a city without a single hill the climb from the bus station to the Piazza Rinascimento came as a bit of a shock however it was worth the pain. There is absolutely no doubt that Urbino is spectacular, largely due to the Montefeltro family who virtually rebuilt the place in the 14th and 15th centuries using the best architects and craftsmen. The Renaissance harmony of the walled city has never been disrupted, the rulers who followed the Montefeltro resisted the temptation to modernise overmuch and even the French troops who occupied it in 1797 seem to have been relatively respectful.
The Palazzo Ducale is a city within the city, a gigantic testament to power and wealth where The Galleria Nazionale delle Marche is housed in what were once the apartments of Federico Montefeltro. Overload is the danger here because there is so much, so many finely decorated rooms and so many paintings, we saw a group being taken around by a Museum guide absolutely determined that they should see every important work, the poor things were already stupefied and they had only done one floor. We made our own pilgrimage to the various things we wanted to see, (Uccello’s Miracle of the Profaned Host for example, a set of charming panels depicting an utterly vile story which the Museum guide carefully avoided explaining to her group) however we were really heading for the Sale delle Udienzi and Piero della Francesca’s Flagellation and his Senegallia Madonna. There are dozens of other works by Renaissance superstars in the Palazzo but the Pieros are the ones I would make away with. (No chance of that, since someone ‘borrowed’ the Flagellation security is ferocious) As we were leaving we came across a young couple in the vast, lugubrious Sala del Trono where the Duke apparently held his parties. Their tiny girl, a bundle of baby energy had been let out of her buggy and was crawling around the floor, chasing her daddy and shrieking with delight. I bet that’s the most innocent fun anyone has had in that room for centuries. Just to round things off we popped into the Chiesa di S. Francesco and found a painting of San Giuseppe of Copertina in full flight.
Gradara just along the coast from Pesaro is certainly not known for innocent fun, it is the setting for a true story of betrayal and death. The tiny township is exquisite but the beautifully restored castle is the real reason for visiting. Back in 1275 Francesca of Ravenna, an exact contemporary of Dante was married by proxy to Giovanni Malatesta. It was a political marriage to cement the relationship between Ravenna and Rimini and Giovanni was not good husband material, he was much older than she, a great warrior but a very cruel man even by the standards of the time. When he became governor of Pesaro he left his wife at Gradara castle where his handsome – and married younger brother Paolo lived. Inevitably he and Francesca fell in love and managed to conduct a secret affair for ten years before Giovanni caught the two of them in flagrante and stabbed them both to death. Dante immortalised the lovers in his Divine Comedy, (he was sympathetic but didn’t approve, he has them in Purgatory in the circle of the lustful) and over the years their modified story became the stuff of romantic tragedy in which poor Mrs Paolo never gets mentioned. We saw Francesca’s room and the very nail on which Paolo caught his cloak as he tried to escape through the widow and we saw the one occupied by Lucrezia Borgia when she was married to Giovanni Sforza, a match that nearly ended in another murder, his this time, not hers.
During the weeks we were in Le Marche the season was truly coming to an end, this is not so obvious inland, there are less visitors but life goes on. At the seaside there is a particular kind of finality about the end of summer, hotels and restaurants close down, the beaches empty and each evening a couple more bars along the seafront roll their shutters down for the year. We both have a taste for this autumn melancholia and did some very satisfying aimless wandering along the almost deserted pier and through a most unexpected part of town. Le Marche is one of few parts of Italy to adopt Art Nouveau with any enthusiasm and when Pesaro became a fashionable resort in the 19th century a lot of very elegant villas were built in the new style between the old city and the sea. Some are essentially conventional houses with art nouveau details, others like a house that once belonged to the owner of a local ceramic factory are as extravagant as a Gaudi with wrought iron and coloured tiles. (This is now a restaurant where I ordered unwisely and got a vast dish of iron plated crustacea requiring supernatural strength to open). Our favourite house was the Villa Ruggiero, a wedding cake in pastel green and white with architectural motifs inspired by the sea, the balconies held up by rows of lobsters and the facade a fantasy of seaweed and sea foam curving around the windows and doors. I don’t get house envy; not very often at least but I wanted that one in the worst way.
Coming home was miserable but efficient. Train to Bologna, out to the airport, bad food on the plane and hello England.
P.S. As above there are more pictures on the Le Marche page - here.
September 25th 2002
We are presently recovering from our holiday which as usual involved lots of treks up the very steepest hills we could find at the hottest possible time of day. I think we managed a personal best this year when we found a town which could only be reached by climbing stairs; a mile of them, a whole mile of absolute burning agony in the thighs and calves. The real joke is that when we got there the place was shut, and I mean shut. It being a Monday, the shops were closed, the museum was closed, even the public toilet was closed. We looked at the view (which was spectacular), managed to get something to eat in the only functioning cafe and went home. We know how to have a good time!
The apartment in Palermo was a great success although it bore very little resemblance to the pictures on the internet. It was in La Kalsa, one of the oldest parts of the city, first built by the Moors in the 9th century, unfortunately it is very close to the port and the whole area was bombed and burned out in WW2 leaving nothing but the roofless shells of what had been beautiful palaces. For 50 years people have been living in the decaying remains in tiny houses built into the ruins or cramming into the very few buildings left intact. La Kalsa was terribly poor and extremely dangerous and nothing much was done about it. The guide book suggested avoiding walking round the large open space as you might be shot at. Naturally we had to stay there. There was virtually no rebuilding in Palermo after the war because organized crime was controlling the construction industries and there was more money to be made from putting up vast, jerry built tower blocks outside the city. Thereafter the same people were ‘diverting’ virtually all the European funding intended for regeneration.
About 5 years ago Palermo got a crusading mayor who was elected on a reform and regeneration ticket. Palermo is slowly being restored or rebuilt. In La Kalsa those buildings and facades which can be saved are being incorporated into new structures. It will take for ever but it is happening and the parts which have been done are lovely. If this keeps up I imagine that in 10 years or so the whole historic quarter will become the Sicilian version of Butler's Wharf - a trendy place to live and full of up and coming young professionals. I’m not sure how I feel about that, happy for the city I suppose and sad because it will all get generic and at the moment Palermo is profoundly un-generic and, for all its squalor, there is a real community there.
Our apartment was in one of the rebuilt streets; part of a block running back from a pretty little Baroque church. The outside was 18th century, the inside was modern - well, sort of modern, in a 50s sort of way. We had some mod-cons though including a dish washer that was a bit superfluous since there were only half a dozen plates and two bowls. The appliances were a trifle diva-ish and needed coaxing and flattery to persuade them to work but the truly scary object was the stove which ran off Calor gas. I dare not use the oven, Jim had a try and looked very fetching with black, greasy soot on his cheeks and forehead. The rings also exploded and gouted flames in all directions whenever they were turned on, I got into the habit of keeping a wet towel handy and doing a few ‘Hail Marys’ before putting the kettle on. It became apparent after a couple of days that no one was coming in to clean or change the bed linen so there I was first thing in the morning sweeping off our balcony, watering the plants and hanging out the washing like a proper mama. It took me a while to come to terms with the household products which all had terribly energetic names; - Zip! Certo! Vattene! Boum! There was a note pinned on the wall asking us to leave 26 euros for the final cleaning. You've got to give the man credit for trying. One interesting thing was that if our place and the one next door were occupied and both, simultaneously, tried doing something extravagant, like watching the television, then the main fuse would blow and you had to go downstairs in the dark to reset the fuse board. There was a German family in there for a few days, we used to take it in turns.
At the end of our street in front of the church was a square with a couple of cafes (one specializing in fried tripe and spleen sandwiches - honestly) This turned out to be full of old boys spending the day arguing, playing cards and drinking. Not a woman to be seen. On the other side of the square was a sort of evening hang out for young men with motor scooters, they never seemed to be actually doing anything so presumably they were waiting to get old so that they could join the geezers. Beyond the square was a part of La Kalsa still waiting to be done, the bit where you were supposed to get shot at. It looked exactly like a Pirenesi, great ancient buildings with little shacks tucked into arches and full of exquisite children with larcenous souls.
After a couple of days we got used to it all and felt very superior to the tourists who having followed the optimistically titled signs to the "Centro Storico" in search of the Fine Art Museum had found their way into La Kalsa. The poor things were wandering about in a nervous state finding plenty of indigenous culture, unfortunately of the wrong sort, and wondering if they would get out with their Rolexes, Nikons and virtue intact. I'm sure they always did, but there were lots of cases of locals and tourists looking at each other and being equally puzzled by what they were seeing. We on the other hand were going to the market and pretending we were locals as we came back loaded with fruit, veg and bread; - naturally we didn’t fool anyone and especially not the geezers. ‘Buongiorno’ we would trill as we went past while they would laugh at us behind our backs all the while wondering what sort of idiots would come there on holiday; then they would go back to playing cards.
Outside of the areas around the main tourist sites very few people speak anything other than Italian and some of them only speak Sicilian. Mine is ok (Italian not Sicilian) but it is nice polite middle of the road Italian, Sicilian has all sorts of Arab and Spanish words mixed in and words are somehow run together and blunted off. We got by with a great deal of hand waving and the odd mime - a fear of mistakenly ordering spleen or tripe for dinner is a wonderful incentive to make oneself understood. We encountered very few English people and the ones we did come across were so ghastly that we took good care not to reveal ourselves (I know that we're contemptible but at least we are quiet about it and behave nicely when we're rumbled). We heard a nice young English couple arrive with their children to check into the "apartment" next door. They took one look and fled. This pleased Jim no end, "We don't have to put up with their precious children and the electricity will stay on." Nobody else turned up for the rest of the time we were there, not the owner to maybe see how we were getting on and, it goes without saying, not the cleaner, so we were left splendidly to our own devices.
We spent a few days just mooching about Palermo, visiting places we already knew and a whole bunch we had never seen before. The museums are wonderful, dozens of attendants reading newspapers and smoking under the ‘no smoking’ signs and the hideous practice of ‘making museums relevant’ hasn't found its way further south than Rome. No ‘children's trails’, ‘family activities’ or contextualised displays, all labels are very small, full of obscure information only written in Italian. The Archeological museum is very special and just crammed with great stuff including the sculptures from Selinunte which are spectacular but my favourite things were two Greek bronze helmets found in the sea with oyster and clam shells, bits of coral and clusters of barnacles growing on them. They looked as if they had been made for some marvelous court masque, for Neptune or a triton.
Sicily has never gone in for restraint; whatever has been built there has always been the most, the ultimate. The biggest and best temples, the biggest churches, the most lavish palaces. Baroque there is so beyond Baroque that one almost has to find another name for it, the churches have interiors in which every inch of available ceiling and wall are covered with writhing things; putti, angels, saints, assorted emblematic animals and twiddly bits. The really prestigious ones tend to be done out in a porphyry, cream marble and a kind of dark stone; I personally find this a truly revolting combination, reminds me of salami, tripe and boiled liver.
I can only assume that there are tax advantages to be had from marrying in September because there were weddings taking place at all times of the day and at every church and there are a lot of churches. Jim and I must appear in about a hundred wedding videos, we always managed to turn up just as the happy couple were emerging. All over Palermo there must be people asking ‘who the hell is that standing behind Uncle Francesco’? Sicilian weddings are very splendid, all the men wear sharp suits and sunglasses and the girls put on full evening attire and lethal high heeled shoes. There are always hoards of small over-excited children behaving very badly and not being told off and as soon as the service is over and the couple are signing the register everyone rushes outside to have a cigarette and talk on their telefoninos.
Female fashion is wonderful, girls of undoubted virtue wear stuff that would instantly mark them out as hookers almost anywhere else. Plunging necklines, off the shoulder numbers, lurex (in the daytime already), tight hipster pants with very high heeled pointy toed slingbacks. Much favoured in the underwear department are bras with transparent plastic straps which one assumes are supposed to be invisible; in fact they look not unlike particularly neat scar tissue. On the plus side there is no body fascism. At Cefalu we watched enormous ladies like Willendorf Venuses in lycra bikinis frolicking about in the sea and we were the only people paying attention. Evidently it is a normal part of life, you get wed, you get prosperous, you get meaty. Even the young-ish grown-up guys at the seaside had nice little pots and love handles to go with their hairy chests and gold watches.
It is possible to get around Sicily without a car but by God it taxes the ingenuity. Nothing daunted we spent many happy hours in the railway station decoding the timetables - trains marked in red run more or less all the time unless they have a star next to them in which case they do not for various complicated reasons. Green ones don’t run on Sundays or festivals, yellow ones only run on school days and we never did work out what the blue ones did. Planning a journey went something like this.... ‘Oh good, there’s a train leaving Palermo at 9.30 and we can pick up the connection to Trepanto at Termini....shit, the connection is a yellow train, it wont be running on Saturday’. ‘Ok, we’ll go on Monday, no, wait, the Monday red train has a star next to it’...and so on and so on.
Amazingly we got to most of the places we wanted to see. One day we traveled inland to Enna which is more or less at the very centre of the island. The little train trundled through the foothills of the Sicilian mountains; it is a beautiful, hard landscape, a hard land in fact. The Romans put it all under the latifunda system of huge estates and it never changed, Sicily was the last place besides Russia to abandon the feudal system. Here and there in the fields one can see the great houses which once belonged to the estate owning aristocracy, derelict mansions moldering away with the remains of gardens and plantations around them. Too expensive to maintain and too much trouble to demolish. The Risorgimento was supposed to have given the land to the peasants who worked it but somehow most of it fell into a few greedy hands and now the landowners all live very far away. Every now and again we stopped at tiny stations rather like the ones in Western movies - just a platform and a hut and no visible town or village. People got on and off but heaven knows where they had come from or were going. When we were riding home into a spectacular sunset I saw a man on horseback bringing in an enormous flock of sheep with his two dogs, he looked completely medieval and it was rather a shock when I realised that he was wearing trainers.
Enna is one of the highest towns on the island on a rock rising about 1, 000 meters from the plain. It was Greek and then Roman, the Goths had it for about ten minutes and then the Moors took it by infiltrating through the caves under the town (typical shoddy behaviour don’t you think) and built a great castle there. The Normans took it from the Moors and then Frederick II inherited the lot in the 13th century.
Enna Castle is Moorish/Norman/Hohenstaufen and fabulous. From the highest remaining tower you can see for ever and ever; - away to the east is Mount Etna smoking away in a sulky fashion, closer is the Largo de Pergusa, the very place from which Hades kidnapped Persephone. Closer yet is a great rock crowned with the remains of a temple to Ceres.The plains at the foot of Enna are littered with necropoli and the rock is honeycombed with caves in which lived the pre-Greek inhabitants of the area. Jim and I spent an age just gawping like stunned fish; we came back to Palermo with sensory overload and I still can’t quite get everything into order in my mind; just an impression of a huge sky and an immense space rolling back, wave after wave of hills and a feeling of time somehow looping back on itself. A person could get very peculiar if they spent too much time in Enna, we were only there for a day and look how peculiar I got.
There were other great days too. We climbed an interminable hill to the remains of a Roman town and found ourselves the sole occupants beyond the lizards and the butterflies, quite alone in the forum in a great silence looking out over an impossibly blue sea to an impossibly blue sky. One couldn’t paint it, no one has ever made a blue like that, even lapis doesn’t come close and in any case it would just look - impossible.
Anyhow my dear this is probably more than enough and I really should be doing lecture prep.
Once, long ago Siracusa was the most important city in the whole of the western Greek world. It began as a colony on Ortygia, a little island linked to the mainland by a causeway and sheltering a natural harbour. By the 5th century BC it had spread a couple of miles north onto the mainland with a vast residential area, markets, dockyards, arsenals, a huge necropolis, a zone of theatres and temples and the biggest castle in the Mediterranean, the fortification of which was redesigned by Archemedes. The whole world occupied the place at one time or another, the Greeks lost it to the Romans, then the Vandals had it, then Byzantium, the Arabs, the Normans, the Angevans and finally the Spanish Bourbons.
Ortygia survived the war but the city on the mainland was bombed to shit and most of the subsequent rebuilding was done by Mafia contractors thus concrete rot is prevalent and the pavements tend to be littered with chunks of travertine facing which fall off every time there is a heavy rain. Arriving at Siracua takes you through some of the ugliest stuff you have ever seen but once you are over the bridge and in Ortygia everything changes. I have never stayed on the island before, until recently there was almost nowhere to stay apart from one very grand hotel (imaginatively called The Grand Hotel) and a backpacker’s hostel in which one would not put a dog. For better or worse things are changing and now there are guest houses and apartment conversions. Ours was one of half a dozen in a little, ancient house on a street too narrow to get a car down. Next door was a restaurant which occupied most of the street in the evening, if we opened our window we were practically sharing dinner with the people on the nearest table.
The island is quite small, one can walk around the entire shore in less than an hour but it is extraordinarily diverse. The side that faces the bay has rather smart 19th century buildings in various states of faded grandeur and a shady promenade much loved by drug addicts. The sea facing side is rather different, the buildings are older and lower and the view is spectacular, looking out onto the Big Empty, aching greens, blues and purples in the daytime and utterly black at night. In between are a warren of streets rising up to the Cathedral square, crumbling baroque Spanish palaces rub shoulders with medieval houses with Arab arches and the remains of Roman buildings. The Cathedral itself is utterly bizarre, originally a temple to Athena Nike and one of the wonders of the ancient world. At some time in the 6th century the Christian Siracusans took down the cella, walled up between the Doric columns and added an apse to convert the thing into a church. It now has a baroque facade with any number of wildly gesticulating saints and putti but it still doesn’t feel at all Christian, it feels dangerous, pagan and very, very old.
Self-catering apartments always attract rather odd clients, people like us pretending that they are not tourists. Families, generally with armies of children and cheapskates (also like us) who don’t want to pay hotel prices. The Arethusa’s clientele seemed fairly typical until the second day when we heard large suitcases being trundled down the street and loud female voices speaking in Russian. Thereafter the ladies were returning to their apartment at about 5am every morning, drunk as skunks. They could be heard coming from several streets away, shrieking with merriment as they fell over, couldn’t open the front door, couldn’t manage the stairs and so on. Siracusa has a fairly active night life but it tends to shut down by 1.30. There are however big fancy yachts in the harbour and I thought the girls might be partying with the international glitterati. I had all sorts of fantasies about them until one evening when we were eating in the restaurant next door and the three of them issued forth for their night on the tiles. Far from being nubile Slav damsels, they were husky mature ladies, bleached to within an inch of their lives, very perfumed, very made-up and with much pleated cleavage and very high heels. They all looked like Lilly Savage.
Every morning we shopped in the market and came back with sensory overload. Four streets of colour and smell. The noise is indescribable, every stall-holder shouts, every customer shouts, riotous dogs hurtle about barking hysterically but the stuff! Tomatoes of every shape, size and variety of redness. Huge glossy purple-black aubergines, lilac aubergines and white ones tinted with an exquisite shade of pink like a baby’s fingernails. Vast squash selling by the chunk, peaches and nectarines for fifty cents a kilo, grapes for a euro a crate. Knobbly lemons, some kind of citrus fruit with intense lime green skin and cadmium orange flesh. (such a shock, my eyes never got quite used to them) White onions the size of soccer balls, green beans, purple and white beans, fresh young dandelion leaves, great bunches of parsley, basil, oregano, endive and stuff I don’t even recognise. Fish stalls with produce that was still in the Ionian sea the night before, striped fish, spotty fish, blue ones, steel grey ones, fish the size of whales, pans of clams squirting water and octopi doing what octopi do (didn’t buy any of those, couldn’t quite face having to kill them) Stalls selling nothing but spices and dried herbs, cheese stalls, ham and sausage stalls and a man with baskets of variously sized eggs with shells of adamantine hardness and glorious orange yolks.
No one buys without sniffing, pinching, squeezing or trying. A fellow grabs a peach from his stall, cuts a slice from it and thrusts it at you. ‘Here signora, these are the best in the market, came off the tree yesterday’. If you were canny you could probably eat very well without ever buying a thing. None of this would do for a person brought up on supermarket hygiene, the peach man has a fag in the corner of his mouth, the cheese man offers you a sample which he has picked up with his fingers but no one seems to be the worse for it. Going to the supermarket this morning was a bit of a let down, everything seemed sort of grey.
We also went to Taormina supposedly the most beautiful and romantic town in Sicily and the one featured in all the brochures. (I blame D H Lawrence, he lived there, so did Alistair Crowley but we don’t talk about him) It was certainly ravishing from a distance, perched a half mile above a glorious bay with Etna smoldering away in the background. We had expected it to be glossy, full of designer shops, a bit like Capri but it was much, much worse than that. Street after street of shops selling crap, Sicilian pottery, Sicilian lace, Sicilian produce, paintings of Etna by ‘local artists’ and endless tavernas specializing in Sicilian cuisine (boil in the bag Pasta Norma). Forewarned by our trusty guidebook we took a picnic which we shared with several charming cats in the Civic Gardens. We did get to see the Greek theatre which was truly spectacular but so full of tour groups that we were literally queuing to get around. We went home.
The great grace of Sicily is that there are only a few ‘must see’ sites as far as the tour operators are concerned and there are other equally glorious places to which few people go and you need to be only moderately determined to find them even without a car. All the buses for the province of Siracuse start from the bus station in town and the Rough Guide very helpfully tells you which number you need to take and how long the walk will be after you get off. What it doesn’t tell you is how to get back, not every ‘bus returns the way it went. After a while we learned that the best thing to do was to flag down any bus, going in any direction because sooner or later we would get home. We made a very strange discovery; no matter where we went or at what time of day, there were the same half dozen people on the ‘bus. A neatly dressed and very helpful old lady who told us where we needed to get off, a strange young woman with few teeth, a very loud voice and a comatose boy friend, a very overweight girl with a lot of pink make up, a gnarly little old man in a check shirt and a rather sinister middle aged fellow who smiled the whole time. When we pulled into the terminus they all got off and presumably took the next bus out.
One afternoon we set off to find the nature reserve some way out of town. A tiny river rises from the pool of Cyrene, (created from the tears shed by the nymph when her mistress Persephone was kidnapped) and runs a scant 5 miles to the sea. Around the pool is an ancient papyrus plantation, the original plants apparently the gift to one of the Greek tyrants of Siracusa from one or another of the Rameses of Egypt. The bus took us along interminable country lanes and the helpful old lady told us where to get off; (how did she knew where we were going)? Sure enough, a beaten-up wooden sign pointed in the direction of the landing stage for boat trips up the river to the pool. It was pure magic, the little boat with a silent boatman (yes, we did think it might be Charon; - we’ve read our myths) took us through a tunnel of huge trees up a clear river the colour of strong milkless tea and teeming with fish. There were herons and kingfishers, little moorhens and huge, absolutely black dragonflies. At the end was the pool surrounded with papyrus and with a tiny temple, overgrown and unguarded. I think that I have never been so utterly happy.
Naturally we did not want to come home and naturally the journey was grim. Our flight from Catania was delayed which meant that we had to do a coronary inducing sprint across Milan airport to get our connection. We needn’t have bothered because that was an hour late leaving and when we got to Heathrow we couldn’t land and had to circle aimlessly for another 45 minutes. The plane was full of people with tiny babies all of whom shrieked for the duration of the flight and when we landed it was raining. I’ve sort of got over it now, sort of.
When I told people we were going to Catania they looked at me as if I had announced that we were going to Clapham Junction for our holiday. The only reason tourists go there is to get somewhere else, there really are no ‘five star’ sights, no important museums, no great works of art or Greek theatres but the place is so bursting with life it is beyond belief. It isn’t especially old by Sicilian standards because Etna erupted for the umpteenth time in the 17th century and what wasn’t buried was destroyed by the earthquake that followed. Most people might have decided that enough was enough but instead they rebuilt the whole city in high Baroque complete with vistas, squares, palaces and millions of churches. At night, when you can’t see that most of it wasn’t finished and/or is falling to pieces it looks like a set for a very sumptuous Italian opera; (probably a Bellini, he was born here).
Modern guidebooks are snotty about Catania but back in the 18th century the city was a ‘must’ for Grand Tourists, I had read several descriptions of a certain Benedictine Monastery which shocked visitors because it was so wealthy and worldly. It belongs to Catania university now but one can just walk in. What a place! The whole facade is a riot of the ugliest putti in Christendom holding up the balconies, draping garlands over the doorways and gurning down from the water spouts. Inside they romp up the balustrades of the several grand staircases and round stucco panels depicting the more gory martyrdoms. The cells that belonged to the holy brothers are now small classrooms which gives you some idea of their size. What made the aristocratic Grand Tourists so po-faced apart from the extravagant luxury of the place was the worldly nature of the art collected by the brothers. (‘Three Venuses to every Virgin’ as one visitor observed). The refectory was famous for the exceptional quality and quantity of the food it served, we had to take that on trust but going by the size of the chairs made to accommodate the Benedictine behinds it was evident that the fellows didn’t stint themselves. I doubt any of the Tourists walked out in shock before enjoying Benedictine hospitality. They ate and drank enormously, lusted after the Venuses and then wrote nasty snide letters home.
The Duomo is dedicated to St Agatha, the patron saint of Catania and one of the senior saints of Sicily but no one seems to be especially keen on her. They are very fond of their elephant however, a dumpy mad-eyed four square little fellow with an obelisk on his back who stands right in front of the cathedral. On the night of the Italy/Germany game the city put up a huge TV screen in the piazza and the place was packed solid, I can tell you that passions were running very high and I feared for the elephant. Next morning he was garlanded with ribbons and flags, Lord knows what they would have done to him had Italy lost.
Catania might be short on five star sights but it has more life and oddity than any other place I have been. It has a famous food market the size of a village and divided into quarters. There is a fruit, vegetable and herb ‘district’, another for dairy produce and cured meats and streets of butchers, absolutely not to be visited by vegetarians or those who think that meat doesn’t bleed and comes in shrink wrapped portions. The fish section is the biggest of all and beggars description. The whole place is jumping by first light when restaurant chefs are down there getting the pick of the produce. Next come the regular folk with their shopping trolleys and finally, in the early afternoon, the bargain hunters after cut-price fish and veg. By 2.00 it is all over, the traders have cleared up and the market belongs to hundreds of cats hoovering up scraps before the cleaners come in.
Behind the main streets there is untold strangeness, from the central square the town looks relatively flat but there are actually innumerable little mountains and streets of steps where the builders had to deal with the lava deposits dumped by Etna. Each mountain seems to be a tiny town unto itself with a church, little dark shops and a bar or two and up and down the streets go fellows selling fruit and vegetables from Api trucks. One evening we had a drink at a bar in what turned out to be neighbourhood of tattoo artists; there were at least five studios up there. It would have been gauche to take pictures but I wish we had because this was real craftsmanship, nothing crude and none of your boring old Celtic patterns or Chinese astrological signs. One very striking girl had the most beautiful, delicate underwater scene across her back, complete with finely detailed fish, waterweeds and lilies like a fine Japanese print. Had we been staying for more than a few days who knows what foolishness I might have committed (I doubt that M Knight the tattooed lady would go down too well on the lecture circuit).
We had to go to Etna of course. Unless you take an expensive package trip the only way of getting any distance up the mountain is to take the Circumetnea railway for about a fiver. Being cheap people we naturally chose to do this. The trains are ancient, shabby and minute and stop at every single station between Catania and the last town up the mountain. They climb (like the Little Train that Could) through the suburbs, up through lemon and olive groves, pistachio plantations and chestnut forests before emerging (two hours later) onto amazing lunar landscapes created by the last big eruption in 1820. All along the line are no-name stations where women with shopping bags, geezers and kids climb aboard to travel to another no-name station.
It is a perfectly vile day, grey and spitting with rain. Work looms large and as usual I am trying to persuade my reluctant brain to get into gear. It doesn’t want to at all, what it wants is to watch day time TV. Fortunately I can justify doing exactly that this afternoon because I have a vast pile of post-holiday ironing to do, with a bit of luck I can spin it out for the whole of Doctors, Murder She Wrote and Monk. If I do Jim’s knickers and all the tea towels I can probably see Rosemary and Thyme as well although I don’t really care for that overmuch.
I am struggling with post-Sicily-itis, the usual malaise, I am still waiting for part of me to catch up. Maybe it won’t, maybe there is a lost little shade lurking under the trees at Motya waiting for me to go back and collect it. It was a pretty extraordinary couple of weeks, we don’t know that bit of Sicily at all, we have always worked our way east of Palermo, this time we went west to the bits the Phoenicians owned and it was very different. We started off with a couple of days in Palermo, I reckon we are about the only people who actually like the city, we are certainly the only English I know who have ever stayed there for any length of time. It is a hard old place and doesn’t beg to be loved but given a little time it reveals the most wonderful things.
There is a new gallery of ‘modern’ Italian ie. 19th century art there in a converted palazzo, it is quite the most beautiful art gallery I have seen in many a year and the stuff on display is incredible. Works by people one has never heard of because 19th century Italy was so cut off from the European art world on account of the political situation. Great history painting including a very dramatic and large ‘Sicilian Vespers’. Wonderful mythological works full of very cheeky babes and landscapes to die for, so saturated with light and colour that they positively glowed from the walls. Heartbreaking social realism stuff and marvelous bravura portraits. It made me realize how bored I am with French art and how utterly lopsided our view of 19th century art is. Needless to say we were the only people in the place and we were followed by many attendants who clearly suspected us of evil designs; - they were right, given half a chance I would have had several paintings away. As it was we had to content ourselves with the catalogue which is pretty good, weighs half a ton and took up quite a lot of our big suitcase.
We stayed in a bed and breakfast run by an enormous and very charming lady called Rosie. She owned a building occupying the whole of one side of a little square and lived in the upper floor with three gargantuan cats and a tiny, crazy dog like an animated scribble, all of them were rescued strays and clearly shared the belief that it was they who were actually the rescuers. She let out two apartments on the lower floor, ours’ was huge and furnished with agreeably elaborate and slightly fatigued stuff, I felt right at home and could have moved in on the spot. Just across the way was the Church of St Francis, one of the few Gothic churches left in Palermo. It’s obviously very popular because there were almost non-stop weddings there, the red carpet barely had time to cool down between brides. I’ve seen any number of Sicilian weddings but I’m still amazed by them and especially by the female guests, girls of impeccable virtue togged up in slutty dresses and shoes with killer heels.
We took the train to Trapani away to the west, not so very far but the ‘express’ which links the two cities is in fact a ‘stop at every station and hang about a bit’ so a journey with should take an hour takes two and a bit. Personally I don’t mind, I like Sicilian stations which always have a dog and several old geezers doing unspecified jobs, the trains are comfortable and hey! What’s the hurry anyway? Trapani is a nice, neat little Baroque town, one of the several along the west coast that have been processing sea salt since the year dot. In truth it doesn’t have a lot in the way of ‘cultural highlights’ unless one is absolutely addicted to down at heel Baroque churches dedicated to saints of whom one has never heard. The very best one was the Purgatorio which houses the Mysteries, these are the Passion of Christ done in the 17th century as life sized, full colour sculptural groups starting with Gethsemane and ending with the Entombment. The various groups were (and are) sponsored by the guilds in Trapani and are processed around the town at Easter. Being in the church was a curiously unsettling experience, the groups are so very lifelike in the half light that I found myself reluctant to turn my back on them.
The sea facing side of Trapani is a port from which ferries with romantic names go to North Africa, the Egadi Islands and north to Naples. Huge cruise liners pull in disgorging passengers intending to spend a day exploring the wonders of the city. My favourite was called ‘The Spirit of Adventure’, a misnomer if ever there was one; it should have been called Cosy Tours ‘cause it seemed to be patronized exclusively by English persons wearing unfortunate shorts, sandals with socks and Bill and Ben type hats. That was the men, the women favoured trousers with elasticated waists, sleeveless tops in order to display their sunburn and Bill and Ben type hats. They went about in groups of couples, always with one alpha male in charge of the map and a couple of other fellows offering advice while the wives walked a few paces behind keeping out of it; everyone knows that women can’t read maps.
As usual we took a little apartment in the old town so we could cook for ourselves thereby saving a vast amount of money. Italy isn’t cheap any more, it left off being cheap when they converted to the euro and now the pound is worth approximately one euro and a bit so constant eating out doesn’t half soak up the cash. The bit of the old town we were in was pretty much ‘neighbourhood’ so we had a good little multi-purpose shop to hand as well as a bakery. Our kitchen was a bit rudimentary but we managed and we only ate out once in the evening; I was determined to try the famous Trapanese fish couscous (your nightmare because the sauce was full of squid tentacles waving in a friendly fashion from the spoon) We were able to make our own picnic lunches as well; we got really slick at that. This is our method, first decant (white) wine into half litre plastic bottles and freeze them; they keep everything else in the picnic bag cool and by lunch time have defrosted sufficiently to be drinkable. Best to stick to low watt wine, drinking anything over 10% in 90 degree heat is a bit lethal and guarantees a sick headache.
We were getting about on public transport which is actually very efficient, the trains run on time albeit not at very convenient times and buses go to all kinds of unlikely places. We got to Marsala, a Phoenician town before the Romans took it. I liked Marsala except for the fact that everywhere one went one was being pressed to try the famous local wine, even at 9.30 in the morning. There is a huge archeological site there and a museum which has lots of Phoenician stuff and the remains of a Phoenician warship, a fabulous, deadly, elegant thing. Apparently they found cannabis in the cooking area of the wreck, we were a bit puzzled by this, you wouldn’t want your warriors and rowers to be a bunch of stoners would you?…’Row harder, there’s a Roman ship on the port bow’…’Oh wow man, chill, you’re really bumming me out etc etc’. This probably accounts for why the Romans got most of the Phoenician world.
Just outside Marsala is a lagoon with many small islands, the whole thing is a nature reserve now because the combination of warm water and high salination has produced a ‘micro environment’ wherein strange plants and fish abide. We were headed for Motya once colonized by the Phoenicians. To get to it we had to take a jaunty little orange bus that ran along a road lined with endless little mountains of salt and eventually to a jetty and a boat that took us out through the salt pans and past the windmills to the island. Some immensely wealthy English amateur archeologist bought the whole place back in the 19th century so that it could be kept intact and it truly is magical. Again there is a little museum of the finds from the various digs, amazing stuff, jewelry, ceramics, funerary objects and so on. Poor old Phoenicians, they did get bad press, mostly from the Greeks and the Romans who put it about that they were terribly cruel and practiced sacrifice of first-born children to Baal. It seems that they did not but I wouldn’t blame them if they had, I can think of a few first-born children I wouldn’t mind seeing sacrificed. Much of the island is covered by silent pine forests with pathways leading to the excavated sites. Lizards and butterflies apart, we had it more or less to ourselves for most of the day and it was heaven. What was not heaven was catching the wrong train home.
It happened thus wise; - there is but one track running through Marsala so trains go in either direction from the same platform. Our timetable said that there was a train to Trapani from Palermo at 16.00; fine, perfect. Nothing came at 16.00 but one did at 16.15 and we heard garble garble Trapani Palermo on the announcement and assumed that this was our train running late. It wasn’t, it was going in the opposite direction. It transpired that the train we had been expecting to catch only ran at the weekends. By the time we realized we were going the wrong way we were committed to staying on the train as it trundled its way through innumerable tiny stations in the mountains until we came to the only place where there was a fast connection back to Trapani. I have to say that sitting on a station five miles away from the nearest town with nary a soul to be seen is a pretty depressing experience. However, the train came in right on time and we fell aboard, almost crying with relief. I reckon that was retribution for us being such a pair of arrogant smart arses.
We both fell terminally in love with Erice, an ancient walled town in the mountains above Trapani. Yes, the Phoenicians built it and dedicated it to Astarte then the Greeks conquered it and dedicated it to Aphrodite, then the Romans rededicated it to Venus, then Byzantium gave it to the BVM who seems to have looked after it rather well thereafter. To get there one can take a cable car, about the best cheap ride in the world; slowly, slowly the whole of the coastline becomes revealed; the Egadi islands away to the west, the salt pans and the whole of Trapani laid out like toy town. From the topmost tower of the Norman castle at the very top of the hill one can see the coast of North Africa on a clear day. As the sun begins to drop to the horizon, the sea and the sky become magically opalescent and the salt pans throw off tiny shimmering rainbows. There are no level streets in the town so this is where we did our ritual climbing of very steep hills, thighs were twanging afterwards but it was worth it.
The place is so stupidly lovely that it is a magnet for tour groups which are decanted from their buses outside the town and marched into the cathedral and then straight through town to the main square where they are harangued for ten minutes and let loose on the shops selling vastly overpriced local ‘crafts’ and foodstuffs (a fancy bag of fennel seeds for 4 euros, I don’t think so)! The Trapanese tend to go there for a Sunday jaunt and to get away from the fierce heat because it is much cooler in the mountains. Despite this the place has managed to keep some sense of reality, in the morning little three wheeled Api trucks buzz up and down the side streets with cargoes of fish, veg and other necessities. At intervals the driver stops and parps his horn whereupon ladies emerge from their houses and engage in animated bargaining
Puglia, the heel of Italy is a place much visited by Italians, there are lots of beach resorts along the Adriatic coast but it doesn’t cater to international tourism. This is good, no crowds, no coaches, no shops selling souvenirs. It is also awkward, there are no decent hotels away from the seaside and no one speaks any English. However much trawling through the ‘net found us an adequate hotel in Bari for three nights and an apartment in an inland town for the remainder of the hol. Thereafter we were town-hopping by train, always an adventure when language is a bit of a problem.
Jim knows how to read local train timetables and got a whole bunch off the internet so that we could have a rough idea of what was possible. We were a bit worried about some of the changes we needed to make; one apparently had about a nanosecond to get from one train to another. No problem, we pulled into some tiny station, we all got off and transferred to another train waiting patiently while the one we had been on went trundling back, same process followed in reverse on the way home. I love the southern Italian local lines, they have tiny trains that amble along single tracks with all their windows open, stopping at an infinite number of stations all of which are manned by geezers built like tree stumps who blow the whistle, wave the flag and shift various levers. Each station has a dog, we saw enthusiastic apprentice dogs and very ancient retired ones sleeping the whole day. The best one was at Bari, he was a most officious fellow who hopped on the train as soon as it came in, made a quick inspection and flung himself off just as the doors were closing in order to race the train out of the station. The ticket man told us that the dog sometimes doesn’t get off in time but it doesn’t matter because everyone knows him and he gets put on the next train back. (I bet he’s allowed to sit with the driver)
Puglia is amazing, one of those places which has been conquered by just about everyone. The Greeks were there, the Romans, then Byzantium, then the Arabs, the Normans, then Frederick the Swabian, then the French and so on and so on. Everyone left something behind so the architecture is astonishing, so is the food. The province has always been rich on account of good agricultural land and important trading ports with the east. Even now the railway lines meander through endless miles of huge, ancient olive trees and across plains of wheat (Pugliese bread is amazingly good, one town even produces the only appellation controlle bread in the world, apparently the Shah of Persia used to get it flown out on a daily basis)) We started off in Bari in a hotel which was very well situated and clean but otherwise moderately crappy. I fell in love with the breakfast waitress, a tough blond who had honed simmering resentment into an art form. She was quite impartial, she clearly hated all of us and doubtless spat into our coffee before serving it, The day we left she actually smiled at us, it was quite terrifying.
Bari is a port city and very wealthy it would seem since the avenues of the 19th century part are lined with expensive shops. The old town was until very recently considered too dangerous to visit, a den of drug dealers and thieves. It has been cleaned up in the last couple of years and is a completely stunning maze of little medieval streets rather like Siena but not so twee and it is still full of local people getting on with their own business. We saw one woman sitting in the street hand-making a huge quantity of orecchiette, the local pasta. Right in the middle are two huge churches, one dedicated to St Nicholas of Bari aka Santa Claus, the other is the Cathedral. Both are beautiful, austere Romanesque with windows and door jams decorated in the most wilful and eccentric manner with climbing creatures, grotesques, vines, elephants and lions, the influence from the east via Byzantium is very strong here. Like everything in Puglia they were built with a particularly light coloured sandstone which becomes luminous at dusk. It was explained to us that this stone is very soft when first quarried so it could be carved very easily. Once the work was done the finished edifice was painted with milk, the casein in which caused the stone to harden for ever. How did they know this in the 11th century? Hovering over the old port is one of the innumerable vast castles built by the Normans to defend against the Arabs and each other, pretty well every town in Puglia has one, I’m amazed the buggers found the time to do anything other than build castles.
About 25 miles from Bari is a place called Trani which has another cathedral, this time built right at the edge of the sea. Stunning, a glowing creamy Norman building against a backdrop of the bluest sky in the world and a shimmering turquoise and purple sea. As is usual in September there were almost perpetual weddings. There was one at Trani and boy, was it something! It was a big affair, lots of very elaborately dressed people and two guys making video movies of the whole thing. They had built-in ‘video moments’; when the bride and groom had made their vows the priest pushed off for five minutes while the couple re-enacted vow taking for the camera, the photographer standing where the priest had been, right in front of the altar. In the meantime the guests were all milling about taking snaps, talking on their telefoninos and chatting. We were standing right by the stairs to the sacristry and when the priest came back (smelling of fag smoke) we could see that under his vestments he was wearing jeans and sneakers. Eventually the whole mob poured out into the square where hundreds of blue and white balloons were set loose. For the rest of the afternoon the newly-weds were trailing around the town being filmed in suitable attitudes against any number of picturesque backgrounds, their smiles becoming more and more fixed as the day wore on.
To this point we had undertaken no uphill hikes in the very hottest part of the day, I was congratulating myself on our good sense but pride cometh before etc etc. We went to Matera, an ancient, ancient town of cave dwellings. Now these are not nasty drippy, mossy caves, they are proper houses with pretty fronts which happen to be cut from the rock. Matera has a whole bunch of cave churches which are spectacular and the whole place has a most un-European air about it, Mel Gibson filmed The Passion of Christ there. We had to go of course but rock dwellings = mountains and much climbing, unbelievable slog climbing up vertical pathways and endless flights of steps, a real Via Doloroso and yes, it was hot. We emerged into the (relatively) new town dripping and exhausted to find everything shut. Eventually we found a teeny, cool restaurant and ate the best pasta in the world, it probably wasn’t but as we know, context is all.
We moved south and inland to Lecce which sits in the middle of the agricultural plains. All around are ‘Trulli towns’, trulli are strange conical houses traditional to the area, some are built in connecting clusters of three, four or five. Apparently they are now very desirable and trulli clusters are being snapped up as holiday homes, they are very sweet, rather like Hobbit houses but one can’t help but think they would be murder to furnish. Lecce was wonderland, the town is Baroque and I mean BAROQUE, once through the city gates one might as well be in a set for an opera. No surface is left undecorated, such riots of putti, such gesticulating saints and angels, such garlands and cornucopia, such marvelous monsters. The Cathedral square is a wonderful piece of flimflam, the cathedral is built on the proper east-west axis which screwed up the vista planning. Undismayed they put a false main facade on the south side although one actually enters through the west door. During the day the town is relatively quiet and in the afternoon as dead as a nit because everything in the south closes at 12.30 and does not reopen until 4. Around 6 the passegiata begins and the world and his wife come out all dressed up to wander about, eat ice cream, gossip and look at each other. We had a spectacular apartment right on main street, I loved it, we got in through a little port-cochere let into huge carriage doors and up a stone staircase to our own front door. We had a proper kitchen, a smart bathroom and two huge, beautiful rooms with vaulted ceilings and tiled floors. Our rooms were facing an inner courtyard so the monkeyshines out in the street never disturbed us at all. We had the great satisfaction of letting ourselves in with our bags of shopping and pretending that we really lived there.
On our last day we went to Otranto, mainly because Jim was craving some sea and because the cathedral has a particularly spectacular floor mosaic. It really was something else, done in the 11th century it is a triple tree of life with roots down the west end. It contains everything; Alexander the Great, King Arthur, Adam and Eve, the signs of the zodiac, the labours of the months and a whole bunch of extremely obscure iconography up by the altar. What makes it so wonderful is that it is so child like, everyone has great big feet and hands and googly eyes and Adam and Eve are clutching what look like bath sponges to themselves. The town was exquisite but it was here that we encountered a tour group for the first time. I think they were from a cruise ship and were Americans, mostly of a certain age, who were being shown the mosaics by someone who had evidently learned the English patter in parrot fashion. They exhibited the usual look of boredom and were restive and rather wanting their lunch (it was almost 12.30 after all). One fellow loudly asked the aged churchwarden if there was a ‘bathroom”. The old boy was mainly interested in clearing to place so he could lock up and he just gave a surly look and shrugged. It’s amazing how expressive a look of complete indifference and a shrug can be. Especially when he followed it up by just walking away.
I decided I would send a proper old-fashioned letter even ‘though you are now paid up members of the email club. We got back from Spain on Saturday; we were doing a recce for a projected tour so there was absolutely no question of sitting on any beaches (actually I would rather work down a mine than sit on a beach). We started off very, very badly in Madrid. I have been traveling for more years than I care to remember and I have never been robbed, well, this time paid for all! On the Metro somewhere between the airport and the hotel my back-pack got opened and my wallet containing the vital plastic, my passport and one or two other important things was taken. No idea how it happened, the pack was strapped tight shut but I suppose anyone trying to negotiate large suitcases through a very crowded underground system is distracted and thus an easy target. Fortunately Jim was carrying all our folding money and his credit cards in his money belt so we were not entirely bereft. Thus it was that our first afternoon was spent phoning Lloyds to block my cards (it was scarcely an hour since the theft but the dirt bags had already managed to rack up £500 on my credit card. I will get it all back thank the lord). Then we had to go and make an official denunciation at the local cop shop; - lots of fun. I was somewhat comforted by the fact that there were many other people waiting to do the same thing having been relieved of cameras, mobile ‘phones, wallets and so on. It was like the tower of Babel in there. I was pretty impressed by the system they have; there are ‘phone booths around the walls labeled ‘English’, ‘German’, ‘French’, ‘Japanese’ and so on and one labeled ‘Other’ (Venusian, Martian)? that I was sorely tempted to try. One is put through to an operator who speaks your language and gives you the third degree, ‘When? What? Where? and so on. This information presumably goes onto the central computer and is immediately relayed to the appropriate cop shop where it is then printed out (in quadruplet) and given a ‘crime number’ all one has to do then is sign it and have it stamped. Without your crime report you can do nothing.
Next we had to call the Consulate and report the theft of my passport and the following morning go out to said Consulate to acquire a temporary one. The staff there were most courteous and very kind as they relieved us of £100 to pay for my pretty primrose yellow emergency document good for only 3 weeks and the journey home. Not much of a bargain really. Were we down hearted? Actually I was because I was so angry with myself but I got over it, I hadn’t been hurt, I had done everything I could until returning to England so there was no point in fretting and I had the glorious experience of not needing to worry about my valuables ‘cause they were already gone! The experience did rather colour my perceptions of Madrid which is a vast place full of grand Baroque buildings and a few huge bombastic Fascist edifices. It has elegant plazas linked by ritzy shopping streets and whole clusters of bosky little alleyways that look really scary but are actually full of very chic boutiques and shops selling artisan food, whole legs of jamon serrano, giant chorizos and rich pates. (It is traditional where Jim works that when you have been on hol. you take back some typical local delicacy for the enjoyment of your colleagues at coffee time. Jim was very taken with the idea of bringing back a whole leg of jamon, complete with little trotter).
By day the city is a more or less sane place, people go to work wearing suits, little kids wearing smocks are taken to school, university students go about carrying their text books, pickpockets pick pockets and respectable matrons take coffee with their chums after doing their shopping. At night it is transformed, Madrid is a very Catholic city and no one knows how to party like a Catholic. Things start getting lively around ten o’clock. Most of the restaurants don’t even open until nine and even then they are pretty empty for a couple of hours. The bars are packed with folk drinking and eating tapas and the streets writhing with people, beautiful boys and girls, flamboyant gays, overdressed ladies and gents all seeing and being seen before they go on to one or another of the myriad night clubs that cater for every taste; - and I mean every taste. Some stay open until dawn and at the weekend there are traffic jams at three in the morning as everyone heads for the real late nighters. Each street has its own posse of harlots all of whom are completely ignored by the police as long as they don’t transgress the ‘no soliciting’ rule. The poor babes and babe look-alikes (you can tell which ones they are because they are much better looking) just have to stand there and wait for someone to approach them and yes, despite the highly revealing dress of all female Madrilenos you can tell which ones are the hoors. We counted 35 on one street, some of them were still on duty when we went out in the morning and I can tell you that daylight didn’t do them any favours.
I wasn’t looking forward to the Prado very much, our recent experiences in the Louvre had rather put me off ‘major galleries’ but it turned out to be wonderful. They don’t allow photography for a start which eliminates all that jackass behaviour and the whole place has been renovated and re hung fairly recently so it was airy and comfortable. In season I don’t doubt that that it is heaving but it was relatively quiet when we went so we got unimpeded views of everything. We had Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights all to ourselves for a glorious quarter of an hour. The whole collection is pretty damn good but there are two galleries of Velasquez covering more or less the whole of his career. Although they are truly marvelous paintings I can take or leave all those portraits of inbred Habsburgs with giant chins and pink noses but I have wanted to see Las Meninas for ever and it didn’t disappoint. I had to keep going back for another look because I couldn’t quite believe how wonderful it was.
With much wisdom we had lunch and a half bottle of wine before we tackled the Goyas. There isn’t a whole lot one can say that hasn’t been said about a million times before but they are extraordinary. Apart from the clothed and naked Majas there are the bizarre portraits of the Bourbon royal family, every single one of them looks like an animal (sheep mostly) togged up in lace, velvet and diamonds and so pleased with themselves. Presumably they thought they looked just fabulous in the paintings which leads one to believe that they were even uglier in real life. I suppose if you are of the royal house it doesn’t much matter what kind of troll you are because people will always be willing to marry their son or daughter to you. All the ‘Black Paintings’ from Goya’s own house are in one room and they are almost unbearable. I realise to my distress that my view of humanity grows closer to Goya’s with each passing year.
In the interests of research we dutifully visited each and every gallery in the city, we even went to see ‘Guernica’, my personal prejudices against which were rather reinforced by the fact that archive newsreel footage of the Spanish Civil War was being shown in a side room. Poor bloody people, so defenseless and still so brave and defiant while famous old left wing Picasso sat safe in Paris and recycled some tired clichés that somehow came to mean more than the actuality.
We arrived in Avila on Sunday, we were staying a little way out of town because we needed to be near the station for further excursions. Our hotel was rather hilarious in a grim way and had a vast subterranean breakfast room in which we were the only diners apart from a large group of French tourists. No matter how early we got down for breakfast les vieux were always there before us hoovering up everything edible to make sandwiches to see them through the rest of the day, they stripped the buffet clean of pastries, filled up their little bottles with fruit juice and one old gent even had a vacuum flask for his milky coffee. The poor waiter was sore perplexed, all he could do was roll his eyes and shrug helplessly. On our first afternoon we climbed the hill to the old town and discovered that it was the last day of Avila’s medieval festival. We had no idea that this was happening so it was rather a shock to go through the gates and discover it full of people dressed as knights, Saracens, lords, ladies, monks, varlets and wenches. The town square was a ‘medieval market’ and I have to say it was better than any I have seen. They were baking bread in huge stone ovens and cooking pigs on spits, there were stalls selling honey and marzipan, sweetmeats of the kind that put six inches on your hips just by looking at them, herbs and spices and enormous cheeses. Leather workers were making shoes, people were spinning and weaving and doing metalwork and there was no mass produced tat to be seen anywhere. We went back in the evening and it was pure magic. Around midnight a group of players performed in front of the cathedral, there was a beautifully sinister ‘green lady’ presiding over the events, painted eau de nil and decked with garlands of leaves. She had a drummer and a flute player and a couple of zanies playing tricks on each other and a hunchback in a leather mask. The star of the show was a handsome acrobatic devil who did amazing tricks with Diablos, sending them spinning high into the air and doing back flips before catching them. I thought the company were all wearing stilts because they were very tall but at the end of their show they went bounding out of the square followed by a crowd of enchanted children and I realized that they had on those spring-loaded leg extensions.
The next day street cleaners were seeing off the debris and all the stalls were being folded away, Avila was ‘back to normal’ which isn’t very normal at all. It really is the town that time forgot, perched on top of a great hill and still with its ancient walls and gates. They get tourists but there really aren’t a whole lot of concessions to them. There is however a whole lot of Saint Teresa. Boy did that lady leave her mark on the town, she gets coach loads of pilgrims visiting her convent, her house, the place she saw her first visions and her museum that contains everything she ever touched, and there are the Yemas de Santa Teresa, little yellow sweeties made of sugar and egg yolk, to be had everywhere. One can scarcely turn round without bumping into a statue of her, generally she doesn’t look a whole lot like the Bernini in Rome, I think she was rather a homely, dumpy babe in reality, maybe from eating too many yemas. Anyhow I now have a St Teresa holy medal to add to my growing collection.
I won’t bore you with descriptions of side trips to Salamanca and Segovia. Suffice it to say they were lovely, both built from sandstone the colour of gingerbread and somehow blessed with the kind of grace one cannot plan, it has to happen by accident. Last stop was Toledo, we stayed right in the middle of town, good in some ways but it did mean that which ever way one went from the hotel one had to climb absurdly steep hills either on the way out or on the way back. I loved it there, it has vast numbers of tourists but most of them just come for the day and follow the standard itinerary of Cathedral, El Greco’s house, the church with the Burial of Count thingy, the Trasitorio synagogue and the city gate that Charlton Heston came through when he took the town from the Moors. By evening they are mostly gone and the town belongs to its people again. Close by our hotel was the Plaza Civico, an informal gathering place for everyone at the end of the day. The benches were full of flirting youth or old folk meeting up for a gossip, some of them were so infirm they had to be bought by a relative who then came to fetch them home at dinner time. The square itself was full of kids of all ages rioting about having a great, mad time. It has been years since I have seen kids just playing in the street and being ‘common property’; if they didn’t have a parent in tow then someone else told them off or picked them up if they fell. Two strangers like Jim and me who sat there watching them would probably have been arrested on suspicion of evil intentions in England, as it was a teeny little girl toddled over to us, clutched hold of my knee and engaged us in scribble conversation and no one was remotely worried even when I had to grab her to stop her from toppling over.
Toledo was one of the centres for the fusion culture that existed in Spain before dogma and prejudice killed it. There are still Moorish buildings and the medieval architecture is a glorious mixture of Gothic and Moorish. The cathedral is simply something else, so vast and so amazing that there is no adequate response other than standing with one’s mouth hanging open like a stunned mullet. By the end of our second day I was bursting with sensory overload. One of our favourite places was an ancient convent, part of which is open to the public (who don’t go there except to see the burial place of El Greco) and which has a mad little museum guarded over by a very fierce nun. I don’t think any normal person would want to steal anything, most of the exhibits being a bit the worse for wear but I loved them all, all the Gesu Ninos, all the slightly bished statues of saints and reliquaries full of what were obviously rabbit bones. Best of all was a whole showcase full of little silver sandals of various sizes that presumably came from defunct Gesu Nino statues but were simply labeled ‘Baby Jesus’ Sandals'. The last room was full of ancient convent documents, letters from various popes, land agreements made between 12th century prioresses and Saracen land owners; absolutely fabulous stuff.
You will observe that I have barely mentioned El Greco, we saw several of his paintings in the Prado and I have a very limited appetite for that elongated rolled back eyeball stuff so we carefully avoided his museum, his house and all churches with ‘major’ altarpieces by him. (hard to do when he seems to have cornered the market in major altarpieces in Toledo along with all portraits of important people, saints and so on). We did see a couple but that was by accident and we didn’t hang about.
One thing I have to share with you (as the Americans say). The Lladro porcelain factory is just up the road from Toledo in Valencia so there are loads of shops selling the stuff. You can get it in England but it is generally small-scale rather mawkish figures of children, pretty nuns or cute animals. Selfridges sometimes has bigger pieces but nothing to compare with the stuff we saw. Best object by a country mile was Cleopatra’s Barge, it was huge, at least four feet long with a very sexy Cleopatra and about a dozen assorted attendant figures disporting themselves about. Absolute bastard to dust, some of the detailing was so delicate one would only have to breath too hard to break it. This item (limited edition naturally) cost several thousand pounds. Who the hell buys that stuff? How rich do you have to be to spend that kind of money on an object so magnificently useless and where would you put it?
By Toledo we were both fed up with eating in restaurants and generally too tired to be bothered to get togged up to go out. By great good fortune our hotel had a little roof terrace with a million dollar view over the town so we were taking picnics up there at lunch time and in the evening. (being decent coves we didn’t nick our grub at breakfast time). We, and the little lizards that lived in the walls generally had the place to ourselves, the odd visitor came up to take a few pictures but they never stayed long, perhaps the sight of the mad English put them off. Watching the buildings turn to gold in the evening light and the sky become first violet and then the most exquisite velvety indigo and seeing the sickle moon rise like a goddess’s fingernail paring over the city was something I shall remember for ever. On our last night we saw a perfect shooting star plunging to the horizon complete with a burning tail and that seemed like a very great gift. I made a wish, it was a good one but I can’t tell you what it was ‘cause then it won’t come true.
Journey home was as boring and nasty as these things generally are. The lady at UK immigration took away my primrose yellow passport and I was immediately a non-person. Can’t be without my passport ‘cause I have a group to take out in the middle of October so most of Monday was spent tearing about arranging a replacement (another £80). Now need another holiday to get over the last one!
Best love to you both
When I was an art history student Italy began in Umbria and ended at Rome and Florentine culture was the benchmark by which everything else was judged. I could bore for England on 15th century Florence and did for years. Then Sicily and the Italian south seduced the grown up me and it was a long time before I wanted to look north again. This summer we did, we went to the towns of Emilia-Romagna with a bit of Tuscany thrown in for old times sake.
Bologna seemed a good choice as a base, trains go from there to all the places we wanted to see and there is a hotel within walking distance of the station that we have used before and like a great deal. I like the city too, because it is built mainly in brick it feels far warmer and more intimate than her stone built sisters further south. Bologna attracts tourists but she is certainly not defined by tourism, she is prosperous, home to a prestigious University and she has her priorities in the right order. One Sunday morning we found the entire city centre closed to traffic for the Bologna half-marathon to the irritation of carloads of visitors and locals who were heading for the historical centre and were being held at the barricades. The streets were lined with people cheering on their local heroes as they headed for the finishing line in the Piazza Maggiore, some professional marathon runner came in first but it was a team of gnarled old men who arrived an hour later who got the biggest applause from the crowd.
Like a lot of other towns in the area Bologna is cycle friendly, everyone rides bikes, businessmen, students, fashionable youth and old ladies with their skirts tucked modestly around their legs. Small hysterical dogs shout at the world from baskets in front of handlebars and big dogs lope alongside their owners’ machines looking for all the world like the hounds accompanying horses in medieval hunting tapestries. Little kids get taken to school wearing enormous helmets and strapped into pillion seats on their mum’s bike. That took me back. My ma rode me to school the same way, she wasn’t very good on corners so we came off fairly frequently, I got some spectacular bruises but I never broke anything and I developed a stoicism unusual in six year old. Hardly anyone uses mega high-tech prestigious bicycles, most of them are pretty basic and some are downright disreputable. We saw a very elegant executive type exiting from the station, putting on his cycle clips and peddling away on an ancient rusty boneshaker with his laptop under his arm. Bike towns are great but they can be disconcerting, you need to get used to the fact that there are cycle lanes everywhere, sometimes with more space than that for pedestrians, and if you are inadvertently walking in one cyclists consider it their duty to sneak up on you from behind and ring their bells causing you to leap about to great comic effect.
We spent a couple of days reacquainting ourselves with Bologna and dodging bikes. It’s hard to know where to begin when describing the city, there are the things listed in the guide books, the Piazza Maggiore, the ludicrously butch Neptune statue, various museums and the vast Basilica di San Petronio, the third largest church in Christendom and a whole lot bigger than the ‘official’ Cathedral. That is somehow typical, San Petronio was built by the Municipality and not by the papacy and Bologna had managed to fight off any number of take-over bids from Rome before Pope Julius annexed it in the 16th century. To mark the victory he commissioned Michelangelo to make a huge bronze statue of himself for the facade of the Basilica but the minute his attention was directed elsewhere the city broke it up and sold the bronze as scrap.
There any number of ‘must sees’ the Dominican and Franciscan churches, the oldest University in Europe, good if rather idiosyncratic museums and so on but the best way to get a real handle on the place is to wander. The city is full of contrasts, Gothic mercantile and municipal buildings, warrens of medieval shopping streets, porticoed roads lined with the palaces of the great families that ruled the city at various times and the inevitable Baroque built when Bologna was under the thumb of the papacy. We have our own ‘must see’, the Abbazia di San Stefano, a complex of Romanesque churches on the site of an ancient Isis temple. One, the polygonal San Sepolchro houses the tomb of San Petronio and is supposed to be modeled on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem but the place was built using bits and pieces from the Isis temple and still feels pagan and rather odd. I think that the remains of old Petronio might be keeping some very lively company.
I know that eating out is a part of the holiday and heaven knows Emilia-Romagna has truly great food but the last time we stayed in these parts we spent a fortune in restaurants. Since our hotel room had its own little terrace we could have picnic dinners if we chose, we almost always did and not just because we are cheapskates. Getting togged up to go out for dinner is a pain when you have been culture crawling all day so we dined al fresco on a variety of imperial hams, cheeses, fat tomatoes and roasted vegetables while getting mildly drunk and watching the moon rise over the Bolognese chimneys.
Lunches were a potential problem. Time was when one was happy with a slice of pizza eaten on the go but them days have gone the way of staying in hostels and not minding sharing a bathroom with a bunch of other people. Accordingly our mission was to find good places for lunch that didn’t cost a fortune. Bologna has one in the shape of a tavola calda attached to Tamburini, reckoned to be the best food shop in town. If you don’t mind collecting your own cutlery and glasses, queuing up with your tray and maybe sharing a table you can take your pick of pasta, meat or vegetable dishes, have a bottle of water and a mezzo litre of wine for about what it costs for a decent sandwich and a cup of coffee in England. We found another, even better in the covered market at Ravenna where 20 euros bought more than the two of us could eat.
We both like Italian trains, people who have to be surgically removed from their cars find this inexplicable but rail travel has a lot going for it. No hunting for a parking, no traffic jams, no getting lost in one-way systems, no arguing over the map. Best of all you have time to look and when you are bored with looking you can read or take a nap; try that if you are driving! We used Bologna station so often that it eventually became a kind of home from home, it is huge and incredibly busy with lines going into the Veneto, all the way south to Naples and Bari and north to Milan, Aosta and beyond, just reading the departures board gives you itchy feet. The trick to using big stations in Italy is to avoid the ticket counters at all costs, people planning immensely complicated journeys or wishing to tell their life stories to the clerk use them and you can tell by the way customers hunker down that they are going to be there for a very long time. Instead you need to use the automatic machines, once you have mastered the procedure they are pretty efficient but are a magnet for panhandlers who materialise at your elbow asking for spare change. Since the machine has just given you half a ton it is hard to say no (it does get easier). Jim was approached by a well dressed middle-aged lady who asked if he had a euro coin, thinking she just wanted change for smaller coins he readily obliged and was a bit taken aback when she just made off with it.
Our first excursion was to Ravenna, I didn’t especially want to go, it comes third after the Vatican Museum and the Basilica at Assisi on the list of places where I most want to run amok and massacre the crowds. Jim had never been and he had true beginners luck because it was quieter than I have ever seen it, busy rather than writhing. I can’t say anything about the mosaics that hasn’t been said a million times and naturally they are what most people go to see, San Vitale, The Mausoleum of Gala Placidia and Saint Apollinare Nuovo are always packed but personally I love the town which has such a gaudy history. It saw the official end of the Western Roman Empire and it was the seat of Theoderic the Ostrogoth who managed to rule Italy successfully for 33 years and transformed Ravenna into a magnificent capital before it fell under the rule of Constantinople and became even more magnificent. Dante took refuge here after he was exiled from Florence; don’t be mislead by his great pompous tomb in Santa Croce Florence, most of him is buried in Ravenna where he died.
The journey to Prato was stupendous, the line goes into Tuscany through mountains straight from the backgrounds of Renaissance paintings, that morning there was a wonderful sky that changed from valley to valley, one minute a transparent, pure blue and the next obscured by rags of purple grey clouds hanging low enough to cover the highest hills. By the time we reached Prato the weather had grudgingly decided to be dry which was good but the town was absolutely shut which was bad. We should have known that being Monday and this being a small town nothing opened until the afternoon, It is a slightly dispiriting experience to be wandering about dead streets but we knew that the Santo Stefano Cathedral would be open and that gave us heart. Tradition has it that the cathedral owns the Sacred Girdle of the Virgin Mary, the one she let drop to Saint Thomas at her Assumption. (it certainly has someone’s girdle, you can see it at certain times of the year, we missed it by three days) The story goes that Thomas left it to a priest, one of whose descendants married a crusader from Prato who bought it home in the 12th century. This very sacred relic ensured that Prato’s little Romanesque cathedral became a place of pilgrimage and could afford the very best artists. Giovanni Pisano redesigned the transept and Agnolio Gaddi,. Paolo Uccello, Fra Filippo Lippi, Donatello. Michelozzo, Andrea della Robbia and any number of other Tuscan superstars were commissioned to enrich the interior with the story of the Girdle, the life of the Virgin and the lives of St Stephen and John the Baptist. The chapels behind the high altar by Uccello and Lippi are open again after being in restoration for years, they are gorgeous and we had them completely to ourselves.
On the exterior of the Duomo is a pulpit by Donatello from which the Sacred Girdle was displayed to the faithful, the one now in situ is a reproduction, the original is in the Cathedral Museum, saved from slow death by traffic pollution.
Between the castle and the Cathedral of St George stands a statue of Savonarola, one of Ferrara’s most problematic children who was born and attended university in the city. Fortunately for the Ferraresi he didn’t hit his preaching stride until long after he left, he went and bothered Bologna but it was Florence that actually knew him as he is depicted here calling down Hell, Damnation and the Wrath of God on the world. I doubt that he cared very much for the Cathedral on the other side of the piazza, it was built in the 12th century, there were various additions to the exterior but nothing after the 15th and the whole is such a riot of tricky columns, sculpted scenes and mythological beasts (Savonarola would have called them ‘vanities’) that it is hard to know where to look. The interior was completely buggered up in the 18th century but at least some of the removed sculpture was preserved in the Museo della Cattedrale.
On our first visit to Ferrara we got into the city later than we intended because we took the wrong bus from the station; it said it was going to the centre and it did but only after a long trip around the suburbs. We were not dismayed, it has happened to us before, we have extensive knowledge of the residential parts of several Italian cities. I wanted very badly to get to the Palazzo Schifanoia which is a tidy walk from the centre and as we slogged along in searing heat we realised that there was nowhere we might get lunch, should we turn back to town; (I hate turning back), or should we press on in the hope that the Schifanoia had a bar of some kind? We pressed on and lo! There in the gardens of the palace was a tiny restaurant run by a charming, laid back young man. At a rustic table under the trees we ate fresh spinach and ricotta tortellini in sage and butter, a generous tomato salad and knocked back a half litre of cold white wine and two dynamite coffees. It cost the princely sum of 22 euros and we were very happy.
The Schifanoia (it means ‘Escape from Boredom’) began its life as an Este country retreat and grew in the 15th century to become a grand palace with magnificently frescoed rooms. After the Este fell from power the place was systematically despoiled, first being used as a papal tobacco factory (I wonder if they called their pipe mix ‘Holy Smoke)? then as barracks by Napoleon’s thuggish troops. Not much was left of the interiors except for half of the great ‘Salon of the Months’ painted for Borso d’Este in the late 15th century by his Ferrarese artists. The pictures are based on Petrarch’s ‘Triumphs’, each scene shows the ‘triumph’ of the ruling god of the month, the appropriate astrological signs and figures taken from Egyptian astrology along with courtly scenes and labours of the month. They are breathtakingly lovely, the most wonderful synthesis of Renaissance learning, courtly romance and allegory.
The Medici tend to be seen as the glamour boys of the 15th century but the Este had a court quite as learned and magnificent and connections by marriage to every other great Italian family, the Gonzaga, the Sforza and the Borgia. They had brought artists of all kinds to their city while their own painters developed a style quite distinct from that of Florence. There are not so many examples of their work left in Ferrara, many were lost and frescoes were destroyed after the pope annexed the city and it fell under the heavy hand of the Counter Reformation. There is a decent collection in the Pinacoteca, if you are on the hunt for the familiar ‘greats’ this is not the place to go, a lot of the painters are scarcely known outside of the province but that doesn’t mean that they are not worth seeing. I fell in love with a winsome little Madonna in a Virgin and Child done by someone appropriately known as Maestro degli Occhi Ammicante, the Master of the Winking Eye,
There is a general air of comfortable prosperity in many of the towns of Emilia-Romagna, the whole region has been staunchly left-wing since 1948 and was the first part of Italy to see economic recovery after the war. Socialist Modena apparently has Italy’s highest per capita income but it certainly isn’t nouveau riche. It was a prosperous little commune in the middle ages and the ubiquitous Este got it in the 16th century and made it the capital of their Duchy after they were booted out of Ferrara. We visited twice, it was well worth a double dip but we had to return because our first visit coincided with a general strike. We had no idea this was happening until we got to Bologna station and discovered that virtually all the trains were being cancelled as we watched the board until 5 in the afternoon. By a miracle ours’ was running, not on time and from a completely different platform but it got us there. The first thing we encountered as we walked into town was a large anti-government demonstration with many banners. What we did not realise until later was that the employees of all the state museums were probably there and that said museums were shut. Never mind, God was not on strike (different union) and the Cathedral of San Geminiano was open, I would have gladly walked to Modena just to see that. The 11th century building is beautiful enough but the interior and the exterior are enriched with the most wonderful Romanesque sculpture. Everything is there, scenes from the Old Testament, creatures from allegories and medieval bestiaries, Prophets, Evangelists labours of the months and over a side door a scene from the Arthurian legends. Poor Jim, the Maestro degli Camera was working full time, ‘I want a picture of that, and that, and that and can you get me some close-ups of that’?
Close to the Cathedral is a produce market in a pretty little iron and glass hall. I am a complete fool for markets and this one was very special with fresh, gleaming fruit, vegetables and great bunches of herbs. There were stalls with bread, hams, cooked meat and every kind of Italian cheese from giant wheels of aged Parmesan to tubs of ricotta. Fish stalls with the tiny, delicate clams that make the best pasta vongole and are almost impossible to find at home and stalls with carboys of olive oil and more bottles of balsamic vinegar than you could count. This wasn’t a pretentious ‘gourmet’ market, it was just a market filled with food to die for and when we happened upon it, it was full of people shopping before going home to make lunch. Just across the road was a trattoria that was another reason to make two visits to Modena. We thought it might be good because it had dozens of bikes parked outside and was full of locals (half the demonstrators were there with their banners) and it turned out to be better than good. No menu, no fancy stuff but simple, delicious food properly cooked with not a microwave in sight (I could see into the kitchen) and guess what? It cost 20 euros for the two of us. By this time if we had to pay more for lunch we thought we were being stiffed.
That first visit coincided with the anniversary of Pavarotti’s death, he came from Modena and the place is justifiably very proud of him. Every shop had his picture in the window, his music was being piped everywhere and a free concert was taking place in the evening with tenor of whom we had not heard. I envied his nerve, it takes more front than Blackpool to do Pavarotti specially in his home town. We might have stayed for the concert but we were rather concerned about getting home. The strike was officially over but we had a pretty good idea that nothing would be running properly and it wasn’t. After much hanging about and sprinting from platform to platform we finally caught an intercity bound for Florence and stopping at Bologna. We only had local train tickets, the intercities cost a lot more so we spent the whole journey like naughty children hoping that the conductor wouldn’t catch us.
Modena is an elegant little town with porticoed streets and squares and grand buildings created by the Este Dukes. One of the grandest was a vast poorhouse built on the then outskirts of the city and this was transformed in the 19th century into museums, one of which houses the Este collections. The paintings are very grand, there are a lot of them and on the whole they were my least favourite things although there is a handsome Velasquez of Francesco d’Este whose daughter married James II of England. Far more extraordinary were the objects d’art and ‘curiosities’ I have to say that I have never seen such a mind-boggling accumulation of useless nick-knacks. Bronze table top sculptures made by Il Riccio, boxes inlaid with precious woods, plates so delicate and ornate they could never be used and an honest to God marble guitar, violin and spinet. The gallery catalogue assured us they had all been played, presumably by extremely strong people but you have to ask ‘why did they bother’? I suppose if you have everything else a marble guitar might be just what you need.
Downstairs from the nick-knacks is the Biblioteca Estense, I wanted to see the Bible of Borso d’Este, 1,200 pages of exquisitely illuminated text made for the Duke in the 15th century. It is absolutely stunning, the colours as bright as the day they were laid on and the whole thing stiff with gold leaf. The real book is incarcerated in a glass case but the library has a superb facsimile one can leaf through, you can even buy one if you have a few thousand pounds going spare. The Bible is the popular superstar but there is so much else, maps from the Age of Discovery including one of the New World made just after Columbus’ voyages and the thing I most wanted to steal, a copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy dating from a year or so after his death, written on velum and with wonderful, silly cartoon like pictures. Not grand or spectacular, it was made to be used and it obviously had been since the pages were worn around the edges. The little thing lay there in its display case and begged to be taken home, it fair broke my heart to leave it.
Coming home was the usual shock to the system, after days of doing exactly as we liked we were pitched into the real world at Bologna airport and the queues for Easy Jet. Lovely! I'll leave you with a picture of what we left behind, we'd just bought 3/4 kilo of 3 year old Parmesan before this was taken, I'm afraid West Hampstead doesn't really compare.
Dear R & R
My pa never had a good word to say about Naples, he was there just after the war so he didn’t see it at its best but his graphic descriptions of the place rather put me off and especially since no one else seemed to think well of it. Poor Naples was a place you went to for the Archaeological Museum and stayed for perhaps one night in order to go to Pompeii. The city was polluted, had the maddest traffic in the world and was apparently full of cutthroats and bag snatchers. Why then did we decide to spend a whole two weeks there? Sheer bloody mindedness and a kind of reverse logic, if everyone in the universe loves a place it is almost guaranteed that we will not, ergo if everyone hates a place there is a fair chance that we will really like it.
The taxi journey from Naples airport was interesting, the highway code seems to consist of ‘do what thou will shall be the whole of the law’ but there were no accidents, one or two hair raising moments but no actual crashes. We got used the traffic after a couple of days, pedestrian crossing lights where they exist are regarded by Neapolitan drivers as options and after waiting forever to get over a main road we noticed little old ladies, businessmen talking on their telefoninos and women with small children walking straight into the path of oncoming vehicles that always stopped in time. The trick is to show no fear and not to hesitate or turn back, it was terrifying the first time but we were soon jay walking with the best of them. (Don’t try this at home by the way, Jim brought the method back with him and nearly got knocked over on Mill Lane).
Our hotel was an unmodernised 50's monolith but ‘conveniently situated’ and very cheap, we had an enormous room fully fitted out in retro styling, except this was the real thing, and the parquet flooring had old burn marks where cigarettes had been stubbed out. The hotel wasn’t a bit romantic other than in a Cold War chic sort of way, it has a sort of Soviet feel to the architecture. but this is a place that is ripe for a make-over and was in fact perfectly clean and well run. The saving grace was the roof terrace, where you had breakfast, with million dollar views along the Bay to Vesuvius and a fabulous view of the Castel Nuovo.
One reason I wanted to visit Naples was because of Saint Gennaro, a saint of Lost Causes who has a special place in my heart. Apparently he was a bishop of Naples beheaded during the persecutions of Diocletian who proved his posthumous worth by saving the city from various eruptions of Vesuvius. His remains are in the crypt of the Cathedral along with a phial of his dried blood that miraculously liquefies three times a year. If it doesn’t something dreadful happens, anything from another eruption to the defeat of Napoli FC by Inter Milan. I read about him years ago and subsequently spent a fruitless couple of hours trawling around the shops in the Vatican trying to acquire a medallion of him. Unfortunately old Gennaro has never been held in high esteem by the Roman Church, they would rather like to sack him I think but the Neapolitans won’t stand for it. I was informed by a very superior person that the only places I might get my medallion were New York (he is big in Little Italy) or in the saint’s home town. Accordingly our first stop was the Cathedral, a multi-layered affair with one of the most ancient Christian baptisteries in the west, some lovely frescoes and much riotous baroque excess. Did I get my medallion? No, I could have bought a St Gennaro snow storm but that wasn’t what I had in mind. Never mind, he is a patron saint of Lost Causes so I have not given up hope.
We planned to spend a few days doing a serious culture crawl of Naples, to prepare ourselves we started each morning with a visit to a coffee and pastry shop close by our hotel. By eight o’ clock it was bursting at the seams with business folk getting their sugar and caffeine fix before starting work. Proper cappuccinos made with the whole fat milk necessary to produce a lovely dense froth, espressos strong enough to induce palpitations and melting brioches depositing powdered sugar everywhere. Customers didn’t linger, they were in and out in five minutes, rather less time than it takes the average English ‘barista’ to produce a cup of lukewarm gnat’s pee. The serious stuff began with the Archaeological Museum which is wonderful, the outside is downright shabby but inside it has so many treasures from Pompeii and Herculaneum that I felt like a child in Hamley’s gawping at one gorgeous thing after another. It is forbidden to take pictures but we have evolved a method for dealing with this, I distract the guards by looking as if I am about to take a snap of something in a remote corner of a gallery while Jim gets the pictures we really want.
We visited the art gallery at Capodimonte and got serious Madonna and Bambino overload, I have a fair tolerance for such things but by the hundredth pudding-faced Baby Jesus I had lost the will to live and needed a strong drink. We climbed to the battlements of the great Castel Nuovo built by the Angevans, the first of the foreign rulers of the city and a place where truly vile things were done in the name of maintaining order. We went to the Royal Palace which was pretty impressive in a Baroque kind of way but our favourite was the ex-monastery of San Martino perched above the town in Vomero. You take the funicular to get there, a ride to another world full of rather prim 19th century villas. At the very top of the hill is an open plaza looking over a tumble of roofs and terraces to the whole of Naples spread out like a toy, from the gardens of the monastery on the other side of the plaza there is a ravishing view of the Bay sweeping out to Capri. San Martino is quite something, nothing can match a rich 17th century monastery for truly ostentatious vulgarity but best of all it houses a collection of Neapolitan art which doesn’t get many visitors. The first time we went we had it to ourselves and spent so long that the attendants began to suspect we might have designs on some of the paintings (we did). When we went back a couple of days later they were convinced we were up to no good and we had an escort following us from room to room. We were mean enough to take a very, very long time.
The museums are wonderful but the city itself is the real star, it is noisy and grubby, squalid one minute and beautiful the next. One of the most ravishing Gothic churches I have ever seen sits like an exiled queen among a dark warren of tenements. Bits and pieces of the city’s ancient past appear in unexpected places, fragments of the Greek walls and whole Roman streets are buried just below the old town. Mediaeval, Baroque and 19th century buildings rub shoulders with each other in an amiable fashion and everywhere is teeming with people for whom this extraordinary place is just home. One of the things I love about Naples is that it isn’t a tourist venue, the days when it was the Bourbon capital of the South and a ‘must see’ on the Grand Tour were over well before tourism became a major industry. Not much has been prettified and tarted up for the sole purpose of bringing in the visitors, the city is there to be used. There is a very spectacular 19th century glass and iron shopping arcade, a not much smaller version of the Vittorio Emanuelle in Milan and full of smart stores and cafes. At night the place is full of little kids playing football, shouting at the tops of their voices and skidding about on the marble floor. Fabulous! Can you imagine that happening in Burlington arcade?
By the end of the week we had walked most of Naples, our aptitude for getting lost had taken us to some seedy quarters, usually in the dead of night but nothing bad had happened, no throat cutting or bag snatching.
We had found all kinds of oddities, Jim’s favourite was the private detective agency, obviously doing well because they had big advertisements everywhere. No doubt they deal with really boring stuff, status checks, errant spouses and the like in reality but we made up a lot of good stories about the Neapolitan private eye. We were getting about without a map and thought we were fitting in really well especially when an actual Italian lady asked us for directions to somewhere. Before we had chance to reply a passing geezer informed her in Neapolitan that it was a waste of time asking the ‘stranieri’. That told us.
We are now great fans of Italian ‘buses which have some funny quirks but are generally plentiful and run on time. We found out how cheap it was to take one to Amalfi and we did it a couple of times, not because we were so very fascinated by Amalfi but because the journey along the coast is transcendentally beautiful especially when seen from the seats of a lovely air conditioned coach. It was a bus that took us out to Pompeii when we finally got around to making a visit, I admit that the place is completely spectacular but so full of enormous groups that it is hard to get any feel for it. There is something soul destroying about gang after gang of people trudging about with guides relaying exactly the same information in every known language. There are a couple of quiet hours around midday when the morning groups have gone and afternoon ones are yet to come. We took our own lunch and ate it in the Arena of the Gladiators all alone except for some butterflies and two panhandling dogs, then it felt ‘real’.
Sunday is not the best day to be in Naples so we decided that a ferry trip to Capri might be fun. Everyone bangs on about the island and I’m sure that it was wonderful; – once. There was a queue for the funicular to Capri Town so we took the road, steep hill, blazing hot day, what else would we do? At least no one else was daft enough to try it so we were alone until we reached the town heaving with people. It reminded me of those English villages that have been colonized by the very rich, manicured and perfect with the kinds of shops needed by the wealthy and fashionable. The resident rich were nowhere to be seen, they don’t come out while the day-trippers are lurching about in the heat ogling the winter fashions in the windows of Gucci, Armani and Prada. We knew at once that we wouldn’t be eating lunch in any restaurant there so we found an only moderately over priced grocery and bought a picnic. According to our book we could find a path out of town that lead to the cave of the Capri Sibyl (I didn’t know there was one) and then around part of the island. What the book did not say was that the walk was more of a rock climb and extremely long. On the positive side the views were ravishing and we had them to ourselves, on the negative it was blisteringly hot and I was sweating so much that my false eyelashes floated off. Eventually we found the vertical path leading back to town and collapsed, stinking and repellent into a café where the resident rich were taking early evening drinks.
Not deterred we took another ferry trip, this time to Procida and that was a wholly different story. The island, far out in the Bay is a great favourite with people who like to mess about in boats but it has never been colonized like Capri and still functions as a ‘real’ place. The guide book (why do we ever trust the damn thing?) said that Procida was easy to get around, some of it is but the town and most of the things we wanted to see are on a hill so steep that the ‘buses can only go half way up. We climbed, and climbed and almost forgot burning thigh muscles as the winding road revealed one heart stopping view after another. Right at the top of the town is the Abbey Church of San Michele, we almost didn't go in because there was an entrance fee and the place had been rebuilt in the 18th century, when you've seen one 18th century Neapolitan church you have more or less seen them all but the abbey has a most romantic history. Procida was attacked over and over again by the Barbary pirates and finally by Barbarossa himself, the people of the island came together at the church and prayed to the Archangel Michael to save them and he obliged by hurling lightening at the Turkish fleets.
Under the church was a tiny museum which we visited simply because it was included in the ticket price. The first couple of rooms had the usual mish mash of discredited reliquaries and other bits and pieces but then we came to a library that contained a vast number of works on alchemy and magic, according to the information sheet we were given, the island was a notorious hang-out for practitioners of the various black arts and the monks of San Michele decided they needed to know what they were up against. (That was their excuse anyhow). We could almost see these books degenerating before our eyes because the room was in full sunlight and all the windows were open to the elements. (No fear of burglars because the church is built on the side of a sheer cliff and the windows open on to a 70 foot drop to the sea).
Down a flight of stairs from the library was the secret chapel of the Order of the Rosary, a penitent confraternity given to mortifying the flesh in various nasty ways. Too fabulous! Lots of gruesome frescoes and real skulls perched around the dado rail. Best of all were the processional coffins painted like fairground floats and with holes in the sides so that the saintly dead could be paraded about with their hands sticking out to be kissed. We were so long in the museum that the guy on the desk forgot we were there and we narrowly avoided being locked in when he shut up shop for the day. Back at the quay we ate a lunch of absolutely divine fish and caught the ferry back to Naples in the late afternoon sunlight. Bliss.
So, as pa said, the city was polluted, had the maddest traffic in the world and was apparently full of cutthroats and bag snatchers and we love it dearly. Naples is a tough old town and perhaps not one for folk who favour the pretty and the relaxing but is wonderful and we will be back.
Dear R & R
Our holiday was as mad as our holidays always seem to be. Despite our very best intentions we managed to walk about a hundred miles every day, generally up large hills in extreme heat.
We went first to Rome in search of a particularly rare and wonderful saxophone produced by some obscure Italian maker. This quest involved trawling around some of the less picturesque corners of the city of which there are a surprisingly large number. Since Jim is such a peach and never complains about being made to spend hours in front of Madonnas and Bambini I felt honour bound to trot along like a loyal little trooper but I was vastly relieved when he gave up after spending an afternoon looking for a music shop in the Roman equivalent of the Elephant and Castle roundabout.
Saxophones - or lack of notwithstanding, Rome was as wonderful as ever. We were staying just around the corner from one of our favourite places. A few years ago we discovered a cat sanctuary in one of the smaller excavation sites. Most of the Roman ruins have large feline populations so we took no especial notice of the ones at Torre Argentina although they were unusually healthy and rather friendly. One afternoon the gates were open and we went in to discover a sanctuary for cats tucked away in the catacombs (How appropriate!). The thing is run by a very determined lady and a team of helpers and volunteer vets who collect up feral kitties, give them medical help and injections and neuter them. The healthy ones go back to the sites were they were found and the old and disabled are given permanent lodgings at the sanctuary itself. Any pregnant cats give birth at the clinic and kittens are found homes; when we were there a couple were collecting three sweet little grey fellows who were to be carried away in a Mercedes to live a life of bourgeois comfort at Lake Geneva. We might well have come back with a few ourselves had not the quarantine laws made it impossible. As it was the determined lady extracted quite a lot of money from us and made us Friends of the Cats of Torre Argentina (for 'friend' read sponsor). Whenever we have been back in Rome we have, sooner or later found ourselves at the sanctuary, we have even signed petitions protesting the imminent eviction of the cats and their carers, we feel that we have a vested interest.
The whole excavation site is alive with cats, at night they are all mooching about among the columns hunting for moths, lizards and mice or keeping their tummies warm against the floodlights. (Jim remarked that the whole place was really a giant poo tray). There is a scrupulously observed hierarchy, the present boss is an enormous old tom with one eye and no ears, he's called Nelson of course, I think the fellow had a run in with a car at some point in his life because he is entirely lopsided and his back end is out of kilter with the front. This clearly bothers him not a jot and the rest of them treat him with considerable respect. We found him taking a stroll on the piazza outside the excavations one evening and I felt absurdly honoured when he permitted himself to be scratched in the area of his missing ears and delivered himself of a basso purr. Other people go to Rome to look at the art treasures, we go to look for saxophones and visit the cats.
A week later we took the express to Naples and found the city crazier than ever. All the improvements begun when we were there last were still waiting to be finished, the excavations for the Metro have been there so long that they have become part of the urban landscape. We visited some of our most favourite places in Naples but we (actually I -but I was owed after the saxophone hunt) wanted to visit some of the sites in the Phlegrean Fields theoretically reachable by public transport. Take the train to such and such say the guidebooks and then you can get a bus to Cumae or Baia or wherever. OK, the train is no problem until you get off at some tiny town which has no visible signposts or 'bus stops. Actually there are no 'bus stops, you fling yourself into the road in front of the oncoming vehicle and hope to Christ that it pulls up and that it is going in the right direction. You then take a wild guess as to where you need to get off and ring the bell at which point the driver may or may not stop. Sooner or later and generally by chance you find the excavations which are positively smothered in helpful signs in several languages. It was worth the effort, Cumae is quite something; -we visited the Cave of the Sybil but she was having lunch.
While waiting to hurl ourselves under the 'bus for the return journey we watched two carabinieri conducting a surprise 'stop and search' on cars coming down the road. There seemed to be no particular pattern to this, they ignored a couple of cars with distinctly shady looking types in them but they pulled over a poultry truck, a car full of teenagers, one driven by a dear old lady and a little Api truck full of scrap metal. In the meantime all the carabinieri's friends and relations were stopping by for a chat -'Hey Guido, working under cover then? how's it going'? 'Mezzo mezzo' says Guido flagging down another car with his machine gun.
Our most bizarre day was in Baia which, according to the guidebooks is the centre from which a number of archeological sites can be reached. Baia station turned out to be closed so we took a 'bus from the next stop up the line. ‘Does this ‘bus go to Baia’? we asked the driver. ‘Certo’ he replied, and it did but to the marina and not the town. Undismayed we got off and found nothing except a strip of houses and beach restaurants, since it was Sunday the one shop and single bar were shut. Fortunately the restaurants were open since Jim was now badly in need of lunch and was rapidly slipping into foo-foo land. The closest place had a giant neon lobster on the roof and from the outside looked reassuringly shabby. It turned out to be very flashy -you know, proper table cloths, proper glasses, ice bucket holders by each table and linen napkins in rings and about a hundred waiters with waistcoats and bow ties. To do them credit they were not visibly deterred by our appearance, disheveled bordering on deranged and rearranged a table set for six for the two of us. They were slightly put out when I ordered just two plates of pasta but I needed to get something into Jim in as short a time as possible so a put out waiter was a minor consideration.
Shortly thereafter the place began to fill with very smartly dressed families out for Sunday lunch, a set meal consisting of plate after plate of every known species of marine life, oysters, clams, lobsters, crabs, squid; - I'm surprised that there was anything left alive in the Mediterranean. Our spaghetti had just arrived when an enormous group of people exploded into the room; a boy and girl who had obviously just had their first communion and about seventy adoring relatives, parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents and small cousins all togged up to the nines. The Donatella Versace look is very big in southern Italy; - blonde hair, dark tans, heavy lip liner and two inch fingernails, plunging necklines, five-inch heels and massive jewelry (and that’s just the men! - sorry, if I hadn't said that you would have). There was much faffing about as the matriarchs rearranged the tables, settled the old folk, allotted seats to everyone, changed their minds, did it all again, took photographs and gave presents to the sanctified children. In the meantime all the men rushed out onto the terrace to smoke cigars and use their telefoninos. By this time Jim had recovered somewhat but was completely bewildered to find himself in the middle of all of this lunacy. The last thing he remembered with any clarity was being ushered to the table in a virtually empty restaurant and he came back into focus to find himself in a Fellini movie. We finally got to pay our bill about two hours later giving us ample time to observe. Having survived this we felt able to survive anything and actually managed to find one of the places we had set out to visit, admittedly it was just about to close but we got there damn it.
Only slightly less bizarre was our day searching for the villa of Poppea, just outside a little town called Torre Annunciata. The guidebooks all agreed that this had once been a luxurious Roman resort but was no longer a nice place and that it had one of the highest crime rates in Italy. Of course this ticked all the boxes for us. The station turned out to be in remote part of town where there was absolutely nothing, no bars, no cafes, no signposts. One expected balls of tumbleweed to roll down the street at any minute. A characteristic of some of the locals seemed to be that they would answer any question put to them but often fail to elaborate on the answer - thus "Is this the way to the excavations'? would get you a 'Yes' but not 'You need to take the first turning to the right'. In order to determine that you have to ask 'Do I need to take a turning'? to which the response will be 'Yes'. You then have to ask 'To the right or the left' and so on. Unless you know this you are stuffed. Having asked a helpful man if we were going in the right direction we set off with great enthusiasm, half an hour later we were still in the armpit of nowhere with not an excavation in sight. Further enquiries sent us back in the direction from whence we had come and eventually we discovered that the turning we should have taken was about 50 yards from the place we had started.
Fortunately we had brought a picnic and we tucked ourselves into a corner of the site to eat. About five minutes later two minute kittens appeared like elves from a bush, poor little souls were hypnotized by the smell of our food, I suppose I don't need to tell you where most of our ham and cheese went. The villa which has truly fabulous wall paintings is only a couple of miles from Pompeii but it was almost deserted, we were there for three hours and saw only one disgruntled English couple and two large, homely American girls. The English had just encountered the southern syndrome, the lady enquired at the ticket office if they had any guide books to the site and had been told 'No' - just that, 'No'. ‘Where’, she asked me, ‘did you buy yours’? 'At the information centre' I told her. And where was the information centre? 'Just beside the ticket office'. Quite reasonably she wondered why they hadn't told her that to which the only answer was 'You didn't ask'.
The American damsels who had been walking about as if they expected to be lunged at, robbed and ravished at any second evidently decided that as Anglo-Saxons we could be trusted with their camera and take their pictures as they posed against various parts of the villa. They then took it upon themselves to warn us that Torre Annunciata was such a bad dangerous place that the concierge at their hotel had insisted that they should be ferried to and from the site by the hotel limo. They'd come from Sorrento in the hotel Mercedes and doubtless paid handsomely for it. At the duly appointed hour their limo re-appeared to ferry them home, I expect the driver had spent the hour or so they were there hanging out with some of the local villains, they didn't ask if we would like a lift to safety so we walked back to the station and caught the train.
Naples itself was a bit of a rest cure by contrast to what we'd endured in Rome. We were staying in Spagnoli, the part of the city built by the Bourbon kings of Naples in the late 18th century. It was constructed in an attempt to solve some of the city's housing problems and consists of narrow streets rising steeply up the hill towards Vomero. It looks extremely picturesque but it has always been a very poor quarter and has been a no-go area for tourists for years. Recently the lower streets have been cleaned up somewhat and a couple of interesting hotels have been opened. Ours was an ex-convent, tiny and rather charming, our room had a balcony which was about two feet away from the window opposite. Although we were never formally introduced I got to know the family in that apartment quite intimately. The main drawback to the area is not the crime, rather it is the motor scooters. Everyone over the age of 14 can drive one so every evening the streets are full of youths on their bikes, sometimes several youths per bike all screaming up and down and playing chicken with each other. We figured out that this was training for dealing with the Naples traffic in adult life. This part of the city is still a neighbourhood. At the far end of our street was one of the local markets with marvelous fruit and vegetables and stalls of fresh fish. There are bakers selling millstone sized loaves of that coarse bread made with olive oil, shops with the best mozzarella in the world and every kind of ham and shops selling lethal pastries guaranteed to give you cardiac arrest. None of them are remotely smart, they're just shops full of people gossiping and buying a few slices of this and that.
Spagnoli rises from the Via Toledo, once the grandest street in Naples and lined with aristocratic houses, they are still there but now they have shop fronts carved out of their ground floor facades. Around six in the evening the Via Toledo becomes a kind of theatre with everyone out shopping, window shopping or just strolling about eating ice cream. There are teenagers horsing about, groups of incredibly beautiful young women looking like Egyptian queens and young men looking at the young women. Couples with babies in strollers and a toddler or two, mothers out with their daughters, whole nuclear families of gnarled old ladies and gents with their children and grandchildren and quantities of very fit gay men. You really cannot say that there is a big gay scene in Naples because it isn't a separate thing; words like 'tolerance' are irrelevant; gay couples were behaving like couples and no one paid the least attention. Every evening around seven a transvestite of mature years came around selling contraband cigarettes at the cafe where Jim and I had our pre- dinner glass of wine. Tourists apart no one twitched an eyebrow and s-he would kick off his enormous sling-backs, lean a hairy forearm on the bar and have a chat with the owner and his wife.
Had I money to throw about I might well have come back from Naples with more stuff than you can imagine. The old town has a wonderful jumble of shops, a whole street selling nothing but musical instruments (yes, we did look for the saxophone and no, we didn’t find it), streets where hardware shops display mops, buckets and toilet seats next door to antique emporiums and sellers of religious artifacts of all kinds. One steep little street has nothing but workshops specializing in self-assembly figures intended for the very elaborate crèches constructed at Christmas. The bodies are made from wire wrapped with heavy cotton twine; you can bend them into any pose you like and you can buy ceramic arms and hands, legs and heads to attach to the body and then you can dress them up! How fabulous is that? They had a wide variety of faces on offer, sad Virgins, maternal Virgins and astonished Virgins, old saints, young saints, anguished saints, magi, angels, the lot. You can also buy several sizes of Baby Jesus along with oxen, donkeys and assorted sheep and camels. Sadly Jim has a low tolerance level for such things and was unwilling to part with his hard earned cash, probably just as well, a fully populated crèche would take up most of our flat.
We came home with immense reluctance and a pile of dirty laundry which I was obliged to attend to myself since my mum was off to a family wedding two days after we got back. I have to say that negotiating streets full of Neapolitan youth on motor scooters is a piece of cake compared with getting my mum organized and onto a train. Fortunately I have experience of this and know in advance that her leg will pack up the minute we get onto the station concourse, that she will not need a wee until the exact moment she should be getting onto the train, if there are two exits from the toilets she will always take the one at which I am not waiting and that I will have hefted her case onto the luggage rack before she needs to check that her pension book is indeed packed in the inside pocket. She inevitably decides that she absolutely does not want to go two minutes before the train leaves and my last sight of her is always of her looking miserable through the window as the train pulls out. Of course when she gets where she's going she has a hell of a good time, forgets about me and doesn't want to come back.
I shall stop now or else I will have to pay extra postage on this plus you are probably bored beyond human endurance.
Very fondest love to you both,
Best give your selves time to rest after reading this one, it will be exhausting! We have just returned from our recce of Calabria, we were expecting it to be a tough call because with a few exceptions the province isn’t exactly geared to tourism although it can only be a matter of time. Jim had done his homework on the bus and train timetables and discovered almost nothing resembling straightforward connections. Getting around the edges of the province is relatively easy, the main train lines and roads follow the coastal plains but anything even a short distance inland involves using local buses and trains; that’s ok except that their timetables seldom connect with those of the mainlines. Since raids by Saracen pirates forced the Calabrians to settle in the mountains about a thousand years ago an awful lot of what we wanted to see was inland. Sensible people would have abandoned the whole idea of Calabria by public transport but we are not and have never been sensible and were determined to give it a try. It didn’t go exactly to plan but that didn’t matter because it was so worth the effort .
We flew into the little airport at Lamezia and took the train north along the coast to our first base at Cosenza, a spectacular ride along the Violet Coast with the Tyrrhenian sea on one side and cloud covered mountains on the other. The journey involved a change, Cosenza might be the regional capital but because it is inland it only has a branch line served by tiny, two carriage trains. Nevertheless its station is bigger than King’s Cross with immensely long platforms and a vast, deserted concourse housing one scruffy little bar and a kiosk selling lottery tickets. We were staying in the new town, not the really new town which consists of depressing tower blocks but the bit that was only ‘new’ by comparison with the old town. (Pay attention here). We were too tired to do much exploring on our first evening and the clouds that had been threatening rain ever since we arrived finally delivered themselves of a spectacular storm. It was hunger that drove us out and dumb luck that directed us to a restaurant of the kind you always hope to find but seldom do. Truly wonderful, simple food properly cooked with no messing about.
The next morning we set out armed with the world’s worst guide book surely written by someone who had never actually set foot in Calabria. There was an information office but it was shut (on the whole of our trip we found only one that was open and that was because the guy had dropped in to pick up his post) so we had to follow our noses down the rather smart shopping street of the ‘new town’ and over the bridge into the centro storico and another world. From the river the streets rise so sharply that they become steps climbing up to the lovely Cathedral, through the elegant Piazza XV Marzo and on to the vast Norman Castle on the highest hill. It is all such a marvellous jumble with houses carved out of much older structures, grand doorways that once opened into palazzos and now open on to nothing and dark passageways leading under buildings to emerge in tiny, sunlit squares, each with its own dilapidated church. It was garbage collection day when we visited, the trucks can only get up a couple of streets so the men have to heft the rubbish bags up long flights of stairs. The young men do this, the old guys drive the trucks and block the traffic while they swap gossip with their mates.
That evening we went around to the ‘bus station to enquire after our next day’s transport to Rossano which was not so very far away. The information office was manned by a leathery old party smoking a truly vile cigar, after consulting a pile of dog-eared timetables and making a couple of ‘phone calls he told us that there were two buses out per day and one bus back and the early one (at 6.15) was cancelled tomorrow. That would have been fine except that the return bus left Rossano before the out bus got there. So much for that. After some discussion over dinner we elected to visit Paola, the home of Saint Francesco di Paola, worker of many miracles. Next morning when we went back to the information office to check the ‘bus times our friend the cigar man greeted us with ‘So you’re not going to Rossano then?’.
A small sum of money bought us one of the most exquisite rides in the world as the road wound out of Cosenza through mountains and deep valleys covered in ancient trees and bathed in sunshine. Unaware of the fact that the Sanctuary of San Francesco is rather a long way out of town (thank you rotten guide book) we asked to be let off the bus there. We might even have visited the sanctuary but we were high up the mountain in the clouds so it was cold and generally uninviting, we took a road down instead expecting to reach the town any minute. We didn’t and eventually came out on an immensely long stretch of seafront with no town in sight, bad news since both of us were desperate for a pee and a cup of coffee. We were saved by a very charming young man who was taking his dog for a walk, Argo, the dog in question was a bandy legged English bulldog with half a mile of lolling tongue. The charming young man conducted us to the station, not so very far but evidently too much for poor Argo who was snorting like a defective traction engine by the time we got there.
Reaching the centro storico on foot would involve (according to the young man) about two kilometres of steps but we are people who don’t think we are having a good time unless we have climbed at least one impossible hill. As it turned out there were not two kilometres of steps but even had there been Paola was worth the climb, the road led to a rather lovely Baroque gate beyond which was a ridiculously beautiful collection of ancient houses and churches. Perhaps in the season it is crammed with visitors but we were pretty much the only foreigners there and at one o clock everything shut and the deserted streets were taken over by grey tabby cats. Lunch in a restaurant specialising in local food was rather spectacular and made huge because the proprietor, disappointed by what he considered to be our pathetically frugal meal (‘You don’t want dolce! What’s wrong with you’?) insisted that we try free samples of all kinds of fabulous wickedness. Jim couldn’t have any so, not wishing to offend I was forced to eat his share as well as my own. What a saint.
The next morning we left for Vibo Valentia, we were staying at a bed and breakfast in Vibo Marina which as it turned out was nowhere near either Vibo Valentia or Vibo mainline station. It wasn’t exactly convenient but I loved that B&B, we had one of the several little bungalows nestling in a lush garden high over the marina, every evening we ate a picnic dinner on our little veranda, watched the sun setting behind the moored yachts of the extremely rich and envied them not a bit. The old rogue of a cab driver cheated us and took us on the scenic route from Vibo mainline but actually did us a great favour because he pointed out the local station and assured us that, contrary to appearances trains did actually come there. It was as well he told us because the place was apparently abandoned with a boarded up ticket office and a kind of elephant’s graveyard of defunct rolling stock on the other side of the track but there were train timetables on the wall and bus times to Vibo Valentia taped to a window. The train, all two carriages of it came as promised and puttered us off to Tropea, The town, one of the tourist attractions along the Violet Coast is famous for it’s sweet onions and every shop was selling strings of them, jars of stuff concocted from them and all kinds of dreck made in their image. They also do another special ice cream that everyone has to try, although we didn’t feel in the mood so we didn’t. The streets were full of people taking pictures, not really surprising because the place is stunning with an unspoiled 17th and 18th century centre, a lovely Cathedral and some Gothic churches. Best of all it is perched high above a sea shimmering with every possible shade of blue from aquamarine to indigo.
Next day we took the bus, from outside the station, up to Vibo Valentia on another road up from the sea around hairpin bends, each offering another spectacular view. The city is very ancient and rich in Greek and Roman remains but our main reason for going there was to visit the archaeological museum housed in the Norman castle (yes, before you ask it was on top of a very steep hill). We were quite alone there, I doubt they get huge numbers of visitors even in the season and I think we were the first that day, probably that week. From the castle ramparts we could see across endless miles of mountains, a view that can’t have changed much since the castle was built. Below us in a meadow was a flock of goats half hidden in the flowers and the air was busy with swifts. It was magic, I have not recovered yet.
We didn’t have the best introduction to Reggio, home of the Riace bronzes which have inspired almost as much dreck as the Tropea onions. The day started well enough, the excellent lady from the bed and breakfast gave us a lift to the mainline station, the train came on time and it was rather reassuring to us pathetic townies to be arriving in a big city with real shops and real traffic jams. We were standing outside the station with our map trying to work out which of the buses ran closest to our hotel when a helpful soul told us that the road we needed was just the other side of the square. Indeed it was, it was also two miles long and our hotel was at the other end at number 1. Worse, when we got to number 1 it wasn’t our hotel. That was at number 1E, still further on at (need I say) the top of a hill. By the time we got there I was meaner than the proverbial junkyard dog and cursing Jim, Reggio, the luggage and life in general. Fortunately the hotel was serene, cool and lovely and after a litre of mineral water so was I.
Reggio has had mixed fortunes since the time it was Rhegion, one of the most important colonies of Magna Graecia. It was invaded any number of times after the fall of Rome and slipped into a long decline, revived in the 18th century and was then almost destroyed by an earthquake, rebuilt and then leveled again in 1908 when every ancient building in the city was badly damaged or completely destroyed. The Gothic Duomo is actually a reconstruction finished in 1928 and rather spectacular, beautifully detailed on the exterior and brightly painted inside. Dirt poor and depressed for a lot of the 20th century Reggio survived and is now a busy port and a rather wonderful, cosmopolitan city with some really good art nouveau buildings and a spectacular Lungomare facing Sicily with Mount Etna visible across the Straits of Messina. It’s the ‘best in Europe and second best in the world’ we were told but we didn’t have the heart to ask which is the best. The seas here are the stuff of legend, according to Homer Odyssius encountered Scylla just up the coast and when the weather is right there is the Fata Morgana, a mirage of a gleaming white city; we didn’t see that but we saw just about everything else.
I was amused by how much I was enjoying the city just because it had smart shops and cafes, a theatre and museums. I thought that living in London had given me a jaundiced view of such things but obviously I have a deeply buried craving for urban dynamics. In the morning the pedestrian shopping street the Corso Giuseppe Garibaldi was packed with people going about their business. By one o clock it was deserted (Reggio may be cosmopolitan but it is still southern) at five everything opened again and a little later the Corso was full of folk out to see and be seen. Understated chic is not much favoured even among the young, the point is to dress to impress especially if you are a woman. Such amazing shoes, such sharp-cut clothes, elaborate handbags and so much bling (Gianni Versace was born just up the coast from here which explains a lot I think) We looked like bums, everyone knew we were English before we opened our mouths.
The night before we left town we treated ourselves to a fancy meal. Big mistake. We should have been warned by the décor of the restaurant, best described as Graceland chic (fibreglass ‘stone’ walls, awful paintings, glass tables, red table linen and gold place settings complete with little tatted mats on the metal leaf shaped bread plates). The owner, an Italian version of Abigail from Abigail’s Party presented herself at our table and reeled off a list of the dishes on offer. Now Italian is a second language in parts of Calabria, older folk especially still speak dialect and when Italian is spoken it has a distinctly Calabrian twist. In addition our hostess was speaking so fast that we were catching one word in every ten so ordering was a bit of an ordeal. The food was ok but had ideas above its’ station and Abigail, with the air of granting us a special privilege insisted on filleting our sea-bass at the table. We watched horrified as she reduced a perfectly beautiful fish to a shapeless heap of flesh. The lesson learned was that gilding lilies improves them not a jot, it just makes them more expensive. We had eaten and drunk much better in inexpensive trattorias despite the incendiary nature of local food (red chilli peppers, very rude to behold and great at unblocking the sinus).
The last leg of the expedition took us to Gioiosa Ionica around the toe of Calabria, a journey into a different landscape. The coastal plain is wider and there are miles of glorious beaches, inaccessible a lot of the time unless you are prepared to cross the railway tracks and the highway. There is a lot of haphazard development, everything from trailer parks to collections of holiday homes, still deserted when we were there because the season had not begun. At a station about half way to Gioiosa dozens of South East Asian guys crowded onto the train, workers on the construction projects around the coast, It was end of shift and they were going home to one or another of the little towns along the line where there are now Hindu and Sikh communities. It seemed strange to us that an area with such chronic unemployment would need to import workers but we were told that young Calabrians didn’t want those kinds of jobs and tended to go north in search of something better.
When the season is in full swing Gioiosa Ionica is probably a fun place to be but the season was three weeks away when we arrived and the place was as dead as a nit. We could see that the town was gearing up, the beaches were being cleaned, the beach bars refurbished and the first council estates of sun beds and umbrellas set out but nothing was actually open. Our hotel was a much longer walk from the station than our map led us to believe, so far in fact that we had both decided that it didn’t exist and we would have to sleep rough but eventually we spotted it tucked away in a grove of trees. The nice fellow who checked us in told us where we could park our car and we explained that we had no car. ‘How did you get here’? he wanted to know. ‘By train’ ‘By train! And how did you get from the station’? We told him we had walked at which point he looked at us with great compassion. We were clearly mad. In the picture below the hotel is behind that clump of trees in the middle.
As it turned out the nice fellow who checked us in was also the nice fellow who cooked dinner, washed up, served in the bar and laid out the breakfasts. Not an arduous job because we were the only people staying there. The place was a cross between a motel and Butlin’s circa 1955 with little chalets surrounding a courtyard. The dining room was the size of an aircraft hangar, in front of that gardens complete with kiddie’s swings and see-saws, a pizza oven (cold) an outdoor bar (closed) and beyond the gardens the beach waiting to be cleaned. No doubt for the whole of the season the hotel will be packed with Italian families and have dozens of staff working flat out but while we were there it was an event waiting to happen. We ate dinner in the aircraft hangar surrounded by acres of empty tables, ours’ was beautifully laid with snowy linen and complete with a candle. It was most surreal.
The walk to the station was no shorter the next morning but we were no special hurry, the sun was out and the sea looked gorgeous, we even held hands like a couple in a Saga Tours brochure. We were on our way to Gerace, a perfect medieval walled town perched high above the sea and our only concern was that its’ nearest station Locri was not so very near, ten km. away to be precise. The Calabrian gods were kind to us that day because there were buses parked in the forecourt and the man in the bar (you would never, ever call him a barista) told us that the one we needed would be leaving in ten minutes. Every time we had taken a bus I had been awed by the drivers who negotiated their large vehicles through twisting, blind cornered mountain roads with absolute panache. The road to Gerace was a case in point, a climb so steep that it could only be done as a series of hairpin bends, each with a sheer drop to one side. Our driver was not only a master of his art he was also a kindly man who made sure that we knew where to wait for the down bus and what time it came.
The town has a large coach park outside the walls so it must get a lot of visitors in season but that day there were very few of us there. Because it was Monday morning most of the shops were shut and it was as quiet as an enchanted town in a fairy-tale. It is a fairy-tale kind of place anyhow with narrow, cobbled streets climbing up from the city gates between ancient stone houses to the astonishing Cathedral of the Assumption. The Normans had Calabria more or less under their control before their cousins up north made their bid for England and were already suppressing the Greek Orthodoxy wherever they found it and building Latin churches. Robert Guiscard began the one at Gerace in 1045 and parked it right on top of an extant Byzantine foundation. They may have been a bunch of opportunist thugs those Normans but they made some wonderful buildings, the Cathedral of the Assumption is one of them, huge, beautifully proportioned and austere. There was no one else there but we found ourselves whispering, it seemed disrespectful to speak out loud.
We did not visit all of Gerace’s 19 churches but close to the Cathedral is a square in which there are three that collectively bear witness to the history of the town. A tiny 10th century foundation from the time when Byzantium still held Calabria, another Norman church and the 13th century Chiesa di San Francesco, built after the Angevans took the whole of the south and bought their new-fangled Gothic architecture with them. The fellow in charge of San Francesco evidently wanted us gone so that he could lock up so we went in search of food. This posed some problems, there were places but none were open for lunch because in a town the size of Gerace most people go home. Eventually we happened on a small trattoria where the youth in charge seemed to be completely thrown by the fact that we wanted to eat. The food cooked by his ma was really good, it was certainly freshly made because we were the first and only customers for lunch. A few of the youth’s chums came to hang about outside while we were eating and it made us wonder what it must be like to be a young person in these tiny southern towns. Great until you hit adolescence I would think and maybe all right thereafter if you could afford a motor scooter but otherwise what was there to do?
We had planned to stay three nights at Butlin’s but I was worrying about the journey back to Lamezia, It was stupid really because the trains had not once let us down but we really had to get our flight because I was teaching the day after we got back. We felt very guilty about abandoning the nice fellow but decided to go back to Reggio for our last night and take the intercity train to the airport. To our great joy we were able to stay at the same hotel, run by a family of the kindest and most charming people you could wish to meet. Neither of us was exactly looking forward to going home but we had been on the move for a long time and were exhausted so the prospect of not traveling was rather attractive. We left Calabria on a beautiful vibrant day and arrived in London on a chilly, damp one and neither of us has settled since. We’re going back soon. Watch this space.
Sorry about the rather odd email sent on Saturday. I didn't realise how knackered I was until I dozed off half way through writing it, I have now recovered.
As promised/threatened we have been back to Calabria, the lure was too great and we had the unfinished business of wanting to see Rossano. We flew to Lamezia and revisited Cosenza first, then to Rossano and finally down to Crotone from where we were able to fly back to London. Of course, as you know, the way we travel is never less than exhausting. One particularly testing town, found by Jim need I add, called Corigliano Calabro had vertical streets I swear and the day we went it was very, very hot. We had the classic public transport experience, me wondering if it is going to work, Jim feigning confidence. Fortunately he is usually right. It seems so unlikely that entirely empty stations with no staff, no timetables and weeds growing along the edges of the platforms are ever going to see a train despite what the internet information says. They always do, more or less exactly to the minute a daft little two carriage Calabria Railways train trundles in with curtains flapping out of the windows (open windows are the air conditioning). A conductor may or may not come to sell you a ticket, mostly not, we made a lot of really cheap journeys!
The bus stops are even less promising, sometimes it is hard to tell that they are bus stops but the bus always comes and if you can't locate the stop you can always hurl yourself into the road flapping your arms. This was how we managed to escape Corigliano which besides requiring goat-like agility was more or less shut by lunchtime. And I mean shut. I ought to have more faith, we were heading down the hill with more hope than expectation when a bus appeared, we ran for it, it stopped and took us back to the railway station rejoicing. The only time we were let down was when we ordered a taxi to take us to Rossano station; (inevitably six miles out of town), it didn't come, we headed for the bus stop, you can guess the rest.
Our longest stay was, naturally, in Rossano, which repaid all our efforts and is probably one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful places on earth. There are actually three Rossanos, the old town on top of a hill, Rossano Basso, the new town at the bottom of the hill and Rossano Marina; - use your imagination. We had an apartment in the old town, the most wonderful maze of steep streets full of wonky old medieval houses, the occasional decaying palazzo, beautiful Byzantine churches and masses of tiny shops selling everything you could possibly need from knicker elastic to Calor gas and from riotously knobby fruit and veg (approach the chilli peppers with caution) to mahogany coloured cured ham. If you want a filled roll you walk into an appropriate shop and ask for a panini with whatever you fancy and the man behind the counter slices the ham, cheese etc and assembles it before your eyes, it costs a euro.
If Rossano were in Tuscany or Umbria it would be infested with tourists and wealthy foreigners would be standing in line to buy holiday homes, (god knows property is ridiculously cheap) but Calabria (apart from the Sila mountains) isn't on anyones 'must visit' list. Too backward, too hard to get around and most Italians still believe that the place is full of bandits and run by the N'draghetta and the Catholic Church. No getting around the fact that the Calabrian mob has its' fingers in all the port cities, Gioia Tauro is notorious as the port of ingress for cocaine and is probably best avoided but, as several people told us, the problem isn't actually a southern one because the modern mobsters have huge influence in government and in the northern industries and mostly live up there or abroad anyway. There is a real groundswell of protest against the political and economic mistreatment of the south among educated folk. Oddly enough one can access the internet almost everywhere, we had a reasonably coherent conversation with a young guy in Crotone who told us that he and many others believed that ideas exchanged through the social networking sites might generate some kind of salvation.
We flew home from Crotone airport where three flights a day go to Milan Linate. What a hoot! Jim had been irritated by the peculiar schedule of the airport bus, three trips a day at ridiculous times. All was revealed, those were the times of the flights and even then we were the only outbound passengers on the bus.
The terminal was the size of a Sainsbury's local and had nought but one tiny bar and a newspaper kiosk. The security staff seemed to know all the passengers except us, 'Oh signora Pacetti are you off to visit your daughter? You've left your keys in the tray again'. We had booked seats but no one took the least notice, ours were occupied by a dear old lady and gent who beamed at us so sweetly we couldn't bring ourselves to eject them. The plane was due to leave at 12.30 but they had everyone on board by 12.00 so we took off, why not? Clearly Linate is used to this because they had a landing slot ready for us. When we got to Milan we found ourselves surrounded by English; - most odd after 9 days of struggling with the Calabrese.
There, I have bored you sufficiently, so