Another discovery in the hills

I thought, having lived in this part of Italy on and off for 8 years that I knew all the local interesting places, but this afternoon I discovered another. The Santuario at Monteortone, only about five miles away, is half hidden in the hills near Abano. It has a very tall campanile and a lovely former convent with Venetian Gothic windows, a cloister and frescoes.

We parked near the church and went in: a lovely cool building after 30 degrees outside. Then we followed the path to the convent next door and were rather surprised to hear a jazzed up version of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons coming from inside. There was a wedding reception in the cloister, with lots of tables and people eating and drinking, children running about, and the head waiter wearing a captain’s cap which he changed for each course, next a red sequinned trilby and finally a top hat. We chatted to the guests for a while, then strolled into the gardens following a home made sign that said to the ‘ mostra presepe’.

Round the back of the convent, up some crumbling stone steps, was a strange sight. Six guinea pigs on a triangle of lawn were nibbling away against a miniature backdrop of mountains and chalets with tiny people and animals going about their lives. As we stopped to look more closely, an old man approached and started to explain that it represented life in the Dolomites. But there was more to come.

He produced a key and unlocked a door into the hillside. He let us into an air raid shelter used in the last war when the convent was turned into a military hospital. But this long tunnel was full of nativity scenes made by local people. They were all lit up, many with moving parts, and it was quite magical.

Italy never fails to surprise and delight!

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The Saving of a Crumbling Castle

On the fringes of my Italian village is the enormous Catajo castle which has almost sleeping beauty status, having been neglected for 100 years. It went up for auction recently but there were no takers, presumably because however cheap it was, the repair bill would be 10 times more.

And then along came the prince in the form of Sergio Cervellin, a multi-millionaire and the Italian equivalent of Sir James Dyson. He was driving past in his Rolls Royce and was struck by the castle, coming back later for another look. Reader, he bought it.

I went to meet him last week to talk about his plans to restore it and open many more of its 365 rooms to the public. The gardens have been cleared and fountains are working again, the inner courtyard has stone masons at work, and two blocks of toilets are being installed inside large raised boxes so that they don’t damage floors, walls or ceilings. He reckons that the full restoration will take 10 years, and it will surely attract masses of tourists with its important frescoes, only half an hour from Venice.

Mr Cervellin doesn’t intend to live there. When I asked why he bought it, he simply replied,” To return it to its former beauty.”

It is a wonderful act of philanthropy: in England he’d surely get a knighthood.

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Loreto and the Flying Holy House

The strange – ridiculous – story of Loreto intrigued me so much that I had to go to see it. The home of the Virgin Mary miraculously found its way to Loreto carried by angels, and landed in an olive grove. 200 years later a fantastically sculpted white marble cube was created to house the little building, and then over it the great architects of the following centuries -Bramante, Sansovino et al – vied with each other in the construction of a glorious domed basilica. Loreto was set to become an important pilgrim site.

We were there in time to witness one of the outdoor blessings in the Piazza della Madonna. First came a long procession of wheelchairs, each invalid carrying a bouquet. Then came all the nurses dressed in white, about 50 or 60 of them. Boy Scouts and girl guides preceded the bishop under a golden canopy.

With such a story of a flying house, there’s no wonder that Lindbergh took an image of the Madonna of Loreto with him when he flew across the Atlantic in 1927. She had become the patron saint of aviators.

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A Midsummer’s Night in Padua

A Shakespeare festival in Padua? Someone had the brilliant idea of imitating Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park and allowing anyone who wished to recite Shakespeare for 400 seconds to mark the 400th anniversary of his death.

I asked naively whether they had any speakers in Shakespeare’s native tongue. After a few minutes’ thought, the reply was,”We do now!”

Bill and I agreed to do a bit from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and the next problem was how to turn him into a donkey. The joke shop on Percy Street provided the answer, although I suspect that the enormous ears were really for bunny girls at a hen party.

The outdoor theatre at Palazzo Zuckermann was perfect, with bats zipping about, and spotlights highlighting ancient terracotta walls. The evening was great fun, with all sorts of speakers, some even attempting (heavily accented) English. There was a curious graveyard scene from Hamlet where Yorick’s skull was inexplicably represented by a pair of white baby shoes. Othello sounded as if he might have spent a few months in London’s east end. But of course the piece de resistance was Bottom and Titania’s scene. We were commended by the director as the best act, and posted on Facebook.

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Quintessential England

This weekend, staying with friends in a tiny village in Swaledale, Yorkshire, we drove to Easby, a hidden corner near Richmond where there is a large ruined abbey ( courtesy of course of Henry VIII) and the little church of St Agnes.

In the best tradition of English culture and concern for those in need, this little church had opened its doors for a day of baroque music (viola da gamba and lute) with refreshments provided by the parish -home made cakes and scones, and tea. This ancient church has frescoes ( though not strictly speaking, as they were painted on dry, not wet, plaster) which amazingly predate Giotto. They are not as colourful as Giotto’s, but certainly portray the stories and emotions of participants in Christ’s life very movingly. The musicians, Pellingman’s Saraband, played beautifully, telling us that the occasion was informal. We could eat and drink, come and go, knit, read the Sunday papers, and enjoy the music.

Nobody instructed us to put money in the buckets by the door in aid of Macmillan’s Cancer Charity, but of course we all did. I imagine the day must have raised hundreds of pounds for a very worthy cause. Well done, everybody.

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The Genius of Fortuny

I knew Fortuny was a talented man: an inventor, artist, photographer, designer…but I didn’t realise until this week that he was a genius.

We had an appointment to see the Fortuny showrooms and private gardens on Giudecca in Venice. When we rang the bell, the door clicked and we stepped into an art nouveau world of shimmering material and floor-to-ceiling bolts of cloth. Beyond was an enclosed garden, the workshop walls covered with jasmine and an avenue of box hedges led to the private pool with views of the amazing architecture of the Stucky, a former gigantic flour mill and now the Hilton Hotel.

I love the fact that the machinery for weaving and printing Fortuny’s sumptuous fabrics is secret, only known to a dozen or so people. He used designs from Morocco, Portugal, Egypt and created patterns based on geographical features like islands. One design was copied from the Gesuiti Church in Venice, so that’s where we went next, to see what inspired him.

The interior of the baroque Jesuiti Church is a sea of blue and white designs, on the walls, the pillars, the pulpit, and the altar steps. At first glance it looks like painted marble, (or even expensive wallpaper!) but on closer inspection you can see that it’s all made from millions of tiny tesserae, even imitating folds of material draped round the pulpit, or a folded carpet on the floor.

This will become yet another article for Italy Magazine. Venice never fails to delight and surprise!

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Not one, but two BBC interviews!

To the BBC’s Pink Palace this morning to record an interview about life in NE Italy compared with life in NE England. It was specifically to discuss the link between the boatyard of the North East Maritime Trust in South Shields and the Museum of Inland Navigation in Battaglia, my home in Italy. Recently, two members of the Trust have been staying in my apartment and discovering the local canal life, and the differences between their traditional boats and ours.

The interview was wide-ranging, with questions about how I came to find Battaglia and what my life is like there. They were particularly keen to know whether Italians know about the forthcoming referendum, and what I felt about it as a part time resident of the EU. As a result of this discussion, they then asked me to participate in a debate about the Referendum, which will be broadcast next Thursday when I’ll be back in Italy.

It’s a pity I won’t hear it, but on the other hand, it’s always a bit embarrassing to hear your voice on the radio!

(In case you’re wondering, I’m voting to leave, which quite surprised the BBC. I love Europe, especially Italy, but I do not love the EU with its corrupt politicians and waste of resources, its failing economy and inability to manage the immigration crisis.) I wonder if we remain in Europe whether we’ll eventually have to join the euro currency, and the Schengen Agreement? Nobody has told us, and I do not want us to do either of those things. Sovereignty overrides everything!

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Feminists Have Lost their Way

Funny how the girlie magazines are making such a fuss about high heels at the moment, with the sacking of a receptionist at PWC for wearing ‘flats’, and bare-footed film stars on the red carpet at Cannes, whilst the much more important question of the victimisation of Muslim women – having to cover themselves and obey domineering male family members – continues without comment.

This week a blonde Iranian model was forced by the morality police to re-dye her hair black, and cover herself. Seven leading models there have been arrested for promoting western values.

But none of the ‘quality’ papers mentioned a current exhibition of a photographic competition in London, won by an Iranian, which shows the deformed faces of women who had acid thrown at them for some slight such as seeking a divorce after years of domestic abuse. These photos shock. Are we all too timid, too afraid of being accused racist, to be outraged?

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Putting the Canal Museum on the Tourist Map

The Museum of Inland Navigation in Battaglia Terme is going from strength to strength, and deservedly so. The collection is unique, and beautifully displayed.

A couple of months ago, they developed an audio guide, and asked me if I’d do one in English. Of course I agreed, and tackled the script in the original, but made it a bit less dry and more enthusiastic.

When I turned up at the museum to do the recording, the place was besieged. 30 German hikers had arrived to look round and with their noise we certainly couldn’t do any recording. However, we adjourned to the Municipio and completed the recording in an empty office.

I’m always willing to show English tourists round the museum, but now they can hear me even when I’m not there!

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Diary of a non event

I was half hoping that the Canale Fiorito Festival might be better organised this year, given that I had actually been allocated a space (number 23). Typically though, when I went the previous evening to see where it was, (a spray-painted number in the road) the sequence went 20,21,22,24. An official I accosted said I could use space 22, but previous experience told me this meant trouble.

However, the festival was not to be. We arrived in pouring rain next morning and unloaded all my boxes of English things. Filippo brought me a table, but unlike previous years when chaos reigned, it was suspiciously quiet. Eventually we found out that it had been cancelled because of the weather but those who wished could stay. The entire numbered road was empty of stalls when in other years there were 30-40 along the canal.

Bill had driven the car away once we’d unloaded, so my friend Clare and I stood in the pouring rain wondering what to do. We gave up.

But all was not lost. I had a text message from my friend Paola who loves English bric-a-brac. In the afternoon she brought several friends round to the garage and they left clutching packets of tea, jars of marmalade, pieces of Wedgwood, plates and cutlery, so everyone was happy whilst waiting for the weather to change. Ironically the next day it reverted to its usual cloudless perfection.

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