11.11.11 the Armistice 100th Anniversary

This was an event worth participating in. In the week before, we drove through Yorkshire to see all the villages decorated with knitted, yes knitted, poppies, hundreds of thousands of them. At Fountains Abbey it was raining too hard to walk to the abbey, so we went to Ripon Cathedral instead. Again there were knitted streams of poppies flowing through the nave, but in the transept was quite another memorial. Mud brought from the trenches had been spread out, and as it dried, ghostly figures of soldiers were emerging.

The portraits of soldiers raked in the sands on 30 beaches were amazing, given that at ground level it would be impossible to see how the works looked. When the tides turned, all the images  were slowly erased.

In Newcastle city centre I was impressed by the crowds, thousands of people, many hundreds of soldiers, two bands and a long marching procession. The only way I could see any of it was to stand on a litter bin to see over the 8 deep crowd. It was moving, and I felt proud of all my fellow Geordies.

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A weekend on impulse in Poland

I’d never heard of Wroclaw, but with amazingly cheap Ryanair flights from Newcastle, and a promising guide book lent by a friend, we decided to go.

First impressions were not good. The airport bus took us through depressing suburbs of ugly soviet blocks of flats, but the hotel was fine and we tried a self service restaurant nearby for our evening meal. This was a good idea because there was nothing in English, but we could see the food on offer. Payment was simple: the plates were weighed and we paid accordingly.

The next day, having mastered the trams, we discovered what a truly lovely city Wroclaw is. The lovely old town is surrounded by a moat. There are fine buildings, museums and churches everywhere, and prices are ridiculously cheap. The number 2 tram took us to the outskirts, to the Centennial Hall, which when it was built in 1913 was the biggest (concrete) dome in the world. In its time it has played host to Nazi rallies, soviet propaganda, and a gathering of intellectuals including Picasso to tell the audience how wonderful communism was.

Next to it is the Museum of Contemporary Art. It looked as if a Henry Moore sculpture was suspended in mid air, and indeed it was, being put into position for an exhibition which opened the next day. We were invited, and enjoyed the champagne and canapés (Poles obviously don’t only eat sausages) as well as the terrific exhibition.

Will we return? Yes!

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Storm Ali: a nightmare journey home

I had no idea when I left Venice’s Marco Polo airport that there was a violent storm sitting over the British Isles. Even when the captain told us that it would be a bumpy landing in Edinburgh, I thought nothing of it, and caught the airport bus to Waverley Station.

What greeted me there was a mass of people and a departures board with the word CANCELLED written across every section: in other words, no trains at all were running. What to do? I joined a lengthy queue at the one information point, but when I reached the front I was told that there was no information, and it might be as well to find a hotel for the night. Easier said than done. Of course everything I tried was fully booked, and to make matters worse the station closes overnight. I had visions of roaming the streets alone with nowhere to go.

Feeling hungry, I went into M&S for a sandwich and asked the boy on the till if he had any suggestions. “Why not try the LNER staff office round the corner?” What a godsend! I left the crowds milling around outside and was soon in the capable hands of  Kevin Conroy  who thought it would be a good idea to try the outlying villages for accommodation as there was nothing left in Edinburgh. Finally he found their last room in a pub in Currie, and told me how to find the taxi queue to get there.

It was miles away, but I had a warm welcome and a comfortable night, no thanks to the station who could have given support and help to the estimated 4,000 stranded passengers.

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Speaking at a Book Club: weird but wonderful!

Yesterday I found myself in the strange situation of being an invited speaker at an American book club in Italy, talking to a group of strangers who knew more about my life in Italy than I do.

I was invited by the excellent librarian Caralyn at the US Army base in Vicenza. She had read an article of mine and had traced me via the Internet, then persuaded all these good people to read my book before I arrived to field their questions, though in truth they didn’t need me there because whilst I tried to remember which character they were talking about, or where a certain misadventure took place, someone in the audience could always supply the answer.

Their hospitality was boundless. A member with as I thought the exotic name of Aleesha (actually Alicia) had gone to the trouble of baking a mud cake to commemorate my near- death experience of a mud cure in chapter two. I was presented with home made jam, and a ridiculous tee shirt from a gym in Vicenza, as well as two Vicenza mugs for my tea addiction.

It was a very hot evening. I drank at least a gallon of water and offered tips about where they might like to visit, or warnings about what not to do, like never take a mud cure, or drive with Jack Daniels as a companion.

I loved hearing that they had laughed out loud at favourite bits of my book. In fact they have inspired me to do two things. One is to try to make an audio book, and the other is to keep on writing and add to the five more chapters languishing in the memory of my computer.

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Torrential Storm stops Padova Shakespeare Festival

We’d learned our lines (from The Merry Wives of Windsor) and Falstaff had bought a very bushy beard from a joke shop. Just as two years ago we were performing an excerpt from Shakespeare in his own language amongst lots of Italian thespians, we were at it again.

The trouble was, it’s an open air theatre. Every evening we’ve been here has been balmy, bar one. What a pity – there were miniature lakes everywhere and no chance of laying cables across them. I’d been looking forward in my role as Mistress Quickly to hitting Falstaff with a carpet beater and hurling at him some of the best insults in the English language.

So we packed up our costumes and did what all Italians would do in similar circumstances: went to a trattoria and had a jug of prosecco and a very good meal.

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Able was I ere I saw Elba!

I remembered this palindrome from my school days as we caught the ferry from Piombino to Portoferraio.  It had been a long rail journey, not made any easier by the ticket inspector admonishing us for having a ticket for Piombino instead of Piombino Marittimo (which I didn’t know existed, and which was in any case the same price.)

Elba turned out to be a wonderful place for a holiday. It’s a small island, only 17miles long, and very mountainous. The roads have hundreds of hairpin bends around precipices and far too much traffic. We took local buses which are too long to take the corners. A toot at a blind bend was all that saved us from head on collisions, but we loved, in retrospect, the adventure.

Our hotel was perfect: family run, and with its own private beach, and garden. All the meals were cooked on the premises and eaten on the lovely terrace overlooking the sea.

The Napolean connection is everywhere, even though he was only on the island for 300 days. His two villas are worth a visit, especially the hunting lodge with its strange arrangement of the original quite modest house sitting on top of a grander classical base, a later addition.

The highest mountain has a cable car, the cabanovia, which is no more than a metal basket holding two people standing up. It leaves its terrified passengers suspended over rocks and forests, but they’re rewarded with views to Corsica in the distance, and the nearest town, Marciana, has the best restaurant on Elba to reward intrepid travellers.


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Italy through the eyes of a 10 year old.

I’ve just spent the week of half term with my lovely grand daughter Matilda (whom my Italian friends all called La Bella Ragazza.) It was a week of non stop activities, from running ahead of me in the maze so that it took me a further 20 minutes to reach the central mound, to climbing cobbled streets in intense heat, and having endless stamina for all that Venice has to offer, including the campanile of San Giorgio where we were deafened by the bells at 4 o’clock.

I keep a visitors’ book, and it was interesting to read the 3 pages she wrote, with her top five experiences. The best, apparently, was the visit to the deepest pool in the world at Montegrotto. The prospect of breathing underwater for an hour with heavy complicated equipment was more thatn she could bear, but she turned a disaster into a triumph and did free diving to an amazing depth of 12m, and I watched it all though a glass tube which runs through the middle of the pool. There was quite a crowd watching as she swam through the bubble rings created by her instructor Nico. Then of course she had to learn how to make bubble rings herself.

I somehow feel she’ll be back!

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Amazing Roman Engineering: bridges, aqueducts and fortifications.

Coming from Hadrian’s Wall country, I’ve always appreciated the phenomenal engineering skills of the Romans, but after my recent week in the south of France, I am even more impressed. On our first day we went to a Roman settlement with ruins of villas, streets and shops. There was even a 2000 year old motorway service area equivalent on the main Roman road between Cadiz and Rome. The whole town, Oppidum, was surrounded by ramparts which must, centuries later, have influenced Vauban when he fortified many French towns.

Nearby is an extensive Roman quarry where the sheer scale of the operations is breathtaking. So much stone was removed that it created a microclimate, reaching the water table, and locals used the area to create irrigated allotments for kitchen gardens in use right up to the middle of the last century

The next day we went to the Pont du Gard. This carried the water along a carefully calculated gradient from Uzes to Nimes, and like the Forth Bridge, had a constant team of workers maintaining it, mainly descaling the lime deposits which threatened to clog the “canalisation” of the upper level. It’s possible to walk through this channel and see this at first hand. The bridge is superb, intact and impressive.

Of course Nimes has its own amphitheatre, and Roman remains are everywhere. Interestingly, the Route Courbet runs through this area of Roman remains which he painted, and many of his paintings are now in the Museum Fabre in Montpellier, including “Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet” where the artist is depicted meeting his patron.

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Three cheers for Easyjet after cancelled flight!

The weather in Italy this month has been variable to say the least. We’ve had sunshine, warm enough to sit on a bench with a book, followed by torrential rain and even snow.

We had a guest for the weekend and enjoyed a great Saturday in Venice before the weather broke again. Of course we had no idea that the Beast from the East had a second coming in England. Our guest left for her plane at teatime, but found her flight was cancelled because there had been no flights out of Gatwick.

Easyjet made alternative arrangements for everyone: some had onward flights with connections, whilst most were given a hotel room and meal at a local pizzeria. The next day a bus took them to Milan for a flight back. In the end, I think she quite enjoyed the experience.

This is the second time I’ve been impressed by the way Easyjet looks after its passengers. Long may it continue!

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A Magical evening at La Fenice in Venice

Venice is at its best in winter, once the carnival is over, with mists and empty alleyways. The highlight of my recent few days there was an evening at the aptly named La Fenice (Phoenix) theatre, rebuilt after it burnt to the ground, and not for the first time. We arrived in all our finery to compete with all those fur coats and evening gowns, the sparkling chandeliers, mirrors and gold decorations. Tickets cost an arm and a leg, but for a once in a lifetime occasion it was fabulous.

We had a tiny box which seated four people, and we were on the front two chairs. The production was the Barber of Seville, a familiar opera, but our enjoyment greatly assisted by having subtitles in both Italian and English.

Proseccos in the interval gave the perfect opportunity for people watching, then back for the second half, where the conductor had an active comic role in discussing the music with the performers.

With a magical walk back through a subtly lit St Mark’s Square where the fabulous buildings seemed ghostly and unreal, we almost danced our way home on the Vaporetto.

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