Having been away from Italy for the whole of winter, it was a pleasure to return to familiar haunts. We swept up the accumulated drifts of dead insects and cobwebs, noting with relief that the flat had survived another winter, and set off to see if anything had changed in the village.
Sadly, family run businesses continue to close, but one green grocer’s shop has now been taken over by two sisters and turned into a trattoria. Naturally we had to give it a try. It seems that the noisy drinking crowd from the wine bar on our corner, which had closed, had decamped to the bar in this trattoria, so it was busy with a lot of familiar figures as well as some new ones. These newcomers looked like a bunch of pirates, wearing exotic printed scarves around their heads and all of them with earrings and wide boots. Just to add a final touch of authenticity, the lively group sitting at the table next to us had a parrot with them. It perched on their shoulders, or on chairs. As it was on a lead, it also went for little walks across the floor. As far as I know, it doesn’t speak Italian or anything else, but it does offer baci (kisses) which I declined.
The food, incidentally, was very good, and great value. My tortellini stuffed with cream cheese and wild herbs in a walnut sauce was scrumptious! My minder had roast pheasant, what appeared to be the whole bird, so we took the remains back with us to make an excellent risotto the following day.
Life in Italy continues to be full of surprises.
During a recent visit to see my sister in Australia, she announced that we were going to the Blue Mountains to stay in an old colonial hotel, the Carrington, in a time warp of Edwardian stained glass and heavy brown furniture. It was a delight. In the heat of February we had afternoon tea indoors rather than on the verandah, and were entertained whilst eating our sandwiches, scones and cakes, by a pianist who looked strangely familiar. At the grand piano sat a rather scruffy individual in a very stained suit, his tie covered with the remains of many meals. He smiled, to reveal buck teeth, and his shoulders were decorated with drifts of dandruff. The crowning touch, on closer inspection, was a distinct whiff of something unpleasant.
His repertoire was amazing. He knew songs from the great days of musicals, the classics from Mozart and Chopin to great opera arias, and would play requests of anything from any era.
The sniggering as we compared him with the great character created by Barry Humphries, Sir Les Patterson, ‘Australian Cultural Attaché’, gave way to admiration. He was a modest kindly man who had seen better times. Could Barry Humphries have been inspired by him to create his memorably odious character? We could hardly ask!
I soon realised when doing my homework before we set off that it was Kyoto rather than Tokyo which was the place to visit, and set about booking tickets for the bullet train to get us there, congratulating myself on finding the means to do it with a 22% tourist discount. I had the sense to find a hotel near the station, luckily, as finding the way around with hardly any signs written in our alphabet was very difficult.
The bullet train was quite amazing. As we waited on our precise spot on the platform, a squadron of women dressed in pink overalls boarded the train with mops and buckets with precisely 2 minutes to clean it. They energed, bowed to the passengers, and we had precisely 2 minutes to get on. We left absolutely on time and sped past a snow clad Mount Fuji.
Our hotel offered free shuttle bus trips to several tourist sites, a help when time was short and getting around was a challenge. We took the bus, along with a Korean couple, to a village 10miles north of Kyoto and the driver (no English) indicated to our eventual surprise that he was not picking us up and we had to find our own way back. We didn’t let it worry us and set off to wander the streets and view the temple and the bamboo forest. After about 2 hours it began to rain and we started to think about returning to Kyoto, but how? Eventually we found a tiny tourist office and they explained how to find the local station with trains back to the city.
Kyoto station, as we had realised when we arrived on the bullet train, is enormous. Trains occupy the bottom 4 floors, then there are another 12 floors above. It is a marvellous piece of architecture, totally unlike any staion I have ever seen, with an escalator swooping through the upper floors through a chasm. It took some time to find our way out.
The sense of adventure on our holiday in Japan was like no other: quite exhilarating!
It felt very odd arriving late at night in Tokyo when my body said it was lunchtime. Of course it was impossible to sleep, so we spent the our first hour trying to understand the rather threatening appearance of the lavatory. It has so many flashing lights, pipes and buttons that we hardly dare to sit on it, and in common with most public ones, has a permanently heated seat. (And so have the seats on the metro. It makes for an uncomfortable journey on a crowded train.)
The space age bathroom fits, I suppose, with the obsession with health and cleanliness which is evident in all areas of life. I have never seen so many people wearing face masks, both outside, where you might suspect it’s to avoid the worst excesses of pollution, but also indoors when meeting people at security at the airport, for instance, or on a reception desk in a museum. It all looks as if we’re part of some gigantic operating theatre.
It’s common practice to offer customers hot cloths to wipe hands and face before dining in a restaurant, but there are hand disinfectant dispensers at the entrances to almost all buildings. You wonder whether the Japanese of the future will learn to build up resistance to bugs and viruses.
But travel broadens the mind, they say, and life would be very dull if all people had exactly the same customs. At the moment, I’m enjoying Japan very much, but am surprised at how many contradictions there are. Watch this space!
It’s a long time since I saw my sister who lives in Australia, so it’s time for a great journey to the other side of the world. As I’ve always wanted to go to Japan, we’re going there first en route. Well, I know it’s not exactly on the way, but after the promise of a trip to Japan for my birthday when instead Bill bought tickets for New York (perfectly good, but not the same) this time, it’s all booked.
It seems a lot more complicated that I imagined. When I began diligently reading guide books, I discovered that Kyoto looks far more interesting than Tokyo where we were planning to stay for 5 nights. Instead, I’ve now booked for the bullet train and a night in Kyoto, but I’m not at all sure that I can negotiate the complexities of Tokyo station, or finding the correct place to stand on the platform when the train only stops for seconds – literally – and the numbers are only written in Japanese.
Thoughtful friends gave us books on Japanese for Christmas, and they provided a lot of fun trying to speak essential phrases, (not sure how useful “Don’t touch my moustache” will be!) as well as working out how to order dishes in restaurants. We’re determined to be independent, so will go out of the hotels for meals. Interestingly, our hotel is near the Tokyo Tower which is an exact copy of the Eiffel Tower, but nowhere near as high as the new Sky Tree which we won’t be investigating.
I’m looking forward to the museums, shopping, modern architecture, shrines and palaces and the food. It will be the most challenging adventure we’ve ever had, but luckily once in Australia we can recover and relax.
If you were to drive through the tiny village of Vanzo and blinked, you would miss one of the most beautiful villas in the Veneto. It is the home of Count and Countess Giustiniani who are descended from a 17th century Doge of Venice, and who live in a white Palladian-style villa designed by Longhena who was the architect of the Salute Church on the Grand Canal in Venice.
I found myself there recently, invited for lunch to discuss the history of the family and villa so that I can write an article about it. We ate in the kitchen, the former wine cellar but now a lovely characterful space with brick columns and a huge fireplace, as well as a resident snake which curls around a pipe for warmth in winter.
The main rooms are frescoed, and in particular the winter garden room is stunning because it is painted as if you are in a loggia, looking though to a series of conical hills, clearly the Colli Euganei, extinct volcanoes about 10 miles away.
The gardens and avenue of lime trees take up a lot of time and effort. Count Lorenzo says they get up at 5 am in summer to work on the rose beds before the heat of the day.
Now they’re thinking of opening their home to the public. It will be a treat to visit, especially since visitors will get a personal guided tour including prosecco!
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.
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!
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.
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.