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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A Prize Trip to Paris, and thoughts on Alchemy and Museums.

How wonderful to travel to Paris courtesy of a bit of my recent writing, and even better to travel unexpectedly first class on Eurostar. We travelled in luxury, then onward in somewhat less comfort on the Metro. (Where these days Parisians seem so much more polite. I was offered a seat on almost every trip – or maybe it’s because I’m looking older.)

On the first evening we walked to a local bistrot, L’Alchimiste, which was busy, full of atmosphere and with very good food. To my astonishment I found myself explaining the meaning of alchemy to the young couple at the next table, as well as to our waitress. I suppose these days knowledge isn’t necessary when you can look anything up on your smart phone.

However, the meal was thoroughly pleasant, and I especially enjoyed a tuna steak in honey and fig sauce, and their tarte tatin. In fact, I am revising my recent low opinion of Paris. The inhabitants seemed nicer and the food better.

A couple of observations on the negative side: several small museums which looked promisingly quirky in the guide book have recently closed; and the visit to the Musee des Arts Decoratifs annoyingly charged full price (€11) when more than half of it was closed for renovation, including the parts we had really wanted to see. Only when we had paid did I see a small sign on the desk indicating this, and the assistants certainly didn’t inform us.

I need to write to the Museum Director!


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Baden Baden: swimming in snow and darkness

I have always liked spa towns, not so much for the spa treatments, but because they invariably have fine architecture and lovely parks.

On this year’s drive back from Italy, we decided to take in the ultimate European spa town of Baden Baden, and stayed amidst the (slightly faded) grandeur of the Baderhof hotel which was where the Czar and Czarina used to stay.

It was trying to snow as we arrived, and getting dark, so not worth exploring the town until the next day. However, the thermal baths awaited! We donned the towelling dressing gowns provided and went to the indoor pools, one of which was the temperature of a hot bath. From this pool there was a small entrance to the outside, hung with plastic strips. Even though it was snowing, I swam through into the darkness. Presumably they had assumed nobody but a mad Englishwoman would want to swim outside in such awful weather, so they hadn’t turned the lights on.

In the steamy darkness I couldn’t really make out where the edge of the pool was, nor where it became shallower with steps. The result was that I grazed my knee and bumped an arm, but it was worth it. How magical it felt!

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The Olive Harvest in Italy

I’ve learnt a new Italian word :frantoio. It means not only the millstones used to crush the olives, but the place where they make olive oil.

In the picturesque village of Valnogaredo in the Euganean Hills there’s a 17th century villa, and in what was once the barchessa there is now a family owned olive oil mill, small, but producing oil of excellent quality. I arrived to talk to Paolo, the owner, and learned a great deal in one short hour.

I was surprised that both green and black olives are crushed together rather than separated. In fact, some varieties produce both colours on the same tree. The olives are gathered after a machine has gently shaken the tree so that they fall on a ground sheet, and are processed within 24 hours.

An oil which is designated as extra virgin has to meet specific criteria including acidity, flavours and oxygenation. I thought it had to do with a first or second pressing, but no.

This year’s harvest has been poor because of the spring weather, so the ancient granite millstones are not in use this time, and the oil is being extracted by centrifugal force. It emerges from the machines in a steady stream of golden green, and tastes fantastic when it is newly produced, as I’ve described in a longer piece I’ve written for Italy Magazine.

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Tourists who don’t understand Venice

People never fail to amaze me. A couple of months ago I agreed to show some people I’d never met before around Venice, as it would be their first visit. They were very nice, pleasant company, and well educated, and yet….

I could hardly believe  their complaint about getting a taxi from Marco Polo airport to their hotel the day before. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take them there.

“Can’t you take us to the hotel?” they asked.

He just pointed at the water in the canal, they said, and said he could go no further. They then spent the next two hours wandering around trying to find where they had booked.

You’d think everyone knows that Venice has no cars, and that if you’re planning a holiday you might check out where exactly the hotel is. You’d also think that people would realise that it would be pointless to get a taxi there, but either travel by boat to the nearest point, or by bus to the terminus, which is of course where the taxi dropped them off.

On a brighter note, we had a lovely day ‘doing’ the main sights of Venice and had a great lunch on the Zattere watching the boats go by.

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Venice Biennale

I’m always reluctant to pay the €30 entry fee to see cutting edge or politically correct art at the two sites of the Biennale, so I try to find interesting free venues which are often better. This year is no exception. There are two quirky shows, both with a West Indian theme, which have fascinating stories.

The Stephen Chambers exhibition at Ca’ Dandolo next to the San Toma Vaporetto stop has the added advantage of admitting you to a palazzo on the Grand Canal not normally open to the public. It tells the story through portraits in a faux naïf style of the uninhabited tiny island of Redonda and its imaginary court.

The Frank Walter show is the work of an artist and self taught eccentric who lived on Antigua, the first black man to manage a sugar plantation. He came to Europe to study the latest technology but met such racism that he returned and ended up living as a recluse in a ramshackle hut without access to roads, running water or electricity.

Both shows are fascinating, lively and life enhancing.

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All’s Well that Ends Well (Apart from Chaos at a Bavarian Market)

My car was a write off after the autostrada accident, and I had to wait anxiously for the verdict as to who was responsible for the crash. (Knowing Italians, I suspected that the easy explanation would be that I’m foreign, not used to the roads, and with a steering wheel on the wrong side, so it must have been my fault.)

However, the Albanian lorry driver was found guilty and now has a whopping fine and 6 points. Meanwhile, I’ve bought a new car.

To my surprise, Bill decided to do the whole long drive again in his car, probably wise rather than dreading the drive next year. In June, we reasoned, the weather would be gorgeous (it was) and the driving on motorways in Italy quieter on a Sunday.(True).

We stayed at a favourite hotel in Bavaria, but couldn’t park there because we saw a notice about a market in the main square the next morning. Leaving the car in the next street, we didn’t return to it until after breakfast, only to find that the market was there too, and the car was surrounded with boxes of vegetables and racks of clothes. Luckily I remembered the German for “I’m sorry”.

How to escape? We wheeled away the clothes and heaved crates about, helped grudgingly by the market traders, and finally set off again to reach Battaglia without further incidents that evening.

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“Incidente” in Italy. Lucky to be Alive.

Our Grand Tour across Europe was later this year because of finding a care home for my mother, so we eventually arrived at the end of April. We expected the weather to be glorious, but it was the worst we have ever experienced. Throughout France, Germany and Austria we had sleet and snow, and on top of the Brenner Pass we followed a snow plough for about 25 miles.

People were in a hurry after the delay, but we drove steadily down towards Verona and changed drivers. The Venice-Milan motorway is always busy but this was exceptional. After once attempting to overtake a lorry, and being flashed and tooted at, I decided to stick to the slow lane, surrounded by huge lorries but just doing a steady 50mph. Naturally, I was concentrating very hard.

Out of nowhere the car was hit on the rear corner which sent us spinning left, to be hit squarely in the side by a huge lorry. The impact sent us through another 90 degrees to end up facing oncoming traffic roaring past on either side. Terrifying. An absolute miracle we were not hurt.

The lorry driver wanted me to sign an agreement, claiming that I had a lapse of concentration, but I insisted on calling the carabinieri who took photos and notes, then insisted I had to pay a ‘ caution’ of €312.50 because I couldn’t find my driving licence. (It turned up later, of course). It will be refunded, but I confidently expect endless form- filling to get the money back again.

My car was towed away and we went with the breakdown truck. Sandra and Riccardo, ever helpful and supportive friends, came to collect us and carry the contents of the car (lots of boxes of ‘Cose Inglesi’) back to Battaglia. The car is awaiting an insurance assessor, parked there at a cost of €7 per day. They think the repair bill will be more than the value of the car so it will have to be scrapped.

After that nightmare we count ouselves lucky to be alive, and the Canale Fiorito Market was a great success. Continue reading

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