Thursday, 26 April 2012

Addicted to Stationery

Dear Lord, what is happening to me, stuck up in my mountain eyrie? I missed National Stationery Day (April 24th)! OK, so I'm not in the UK at the moment, but really that is absolutely no excuse for a stationery addict like myself to let the day pass unrecognised.

I love stationery, I have particular notebooks that I like to use, but being a penniless scribbler in Spain I have had to forego those for a while now. Stationery in Spain is EXTORTIONATE! Even the most boring, bland, basic notebook (spiral bound, wide lined - you know the kind) can summon a 5 euro note from my purse. I have had to resort to said notebooks, but purchased from the Chinese bazaar where I can get three for the aforementioned paper currency. It is a sad state of affairs.

For my travel journals, written usually on a train or in bed in a random hotel, I like the ones from Paperchase. They have wipe clean covers (handy when you slop your coffee over it) and pockets in them, ideal for saving your entrance tickets, beer mats, postcards and other paraphenalia one picks up whilst travelling. I have one left...only to be used for a big journey I think. My sister bought me a rather fancy number at Christmas to record travel details. It is Italian, with a leather thong to keep the book from falling open and pages becoming crumpled, and has sections. This is a bit of an issue, it means I have to organise my thoughts and my thoughts like to be unconstrained. I have used it, and it did make me remember to note down important things like hotel names and has its uses.

When I write my books, I write with an ink pen. A Parker. I like to use blue ink. This posed a problem when I almost ran out. I could not find them anywhere in my area - it would have meant a journey to the city, just for cartridges. A timely trip to Italy saw my ink levels restored to a safe measure when we stumbled across an old fashioned toy and stationery shop in Spoleto. The ink wasn't expensive either, as long as you do not count the air-fare.

My ink pen has had a little rest; the second of my City Chronicles travelogues, A Little Bit of Italy is with the editor, but soon the pen shall have to spring into action to complete the trilogy. I shall give it a little service and replenish my ink stocks (though Spoleto may be a stretch too far this time). I have already purchased the spiral bound notebooks - planning will start next week for Crossing the Bosporus. In the meantime I need to find a reliable, reasonably priced ink source...wish me luck.

Stationery, both good and indifferent, ready for the next book

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Inter-rail across Europe

2000 – the year before the introduction of the Euro and the serious political attempt at multi-culturalism and homogenisation – the year a friend and I purchased Inter-rail tickets and set off on a whistle-stop tour of central and eastern Europe. We had spent many hours planning our itinerary, poring over train timetables and maps of Europe to determine the best route. By best route we meant the quickest way to travel across Europe and see as many cities as we could in the fifteen days available to us.

We concentrated on central and eastern Europe as we wanted to experience some of the countries that had sat behind the Iron Curtain before the final vestiges of Communism were swept away. In hindsight we were ten years too late, the Berlin Wall having fallen eleven years previously, but the past is not so easy to erase. Our inter-rail passes took us to some of the most wondrous European cities – Amsterdam, Bratislava, Brussels, Budapest, Kraków, Prague, Vienna and Warsaw – where spires, canals, statues, architecture and artwork came together in a cultural melting-pot. The flavours of each city combined to produce a sumptuous feast highlighting the best Europe has to offer.

Train travel is one of the best ways to travel across Europe. Train lines criss-cross the continent and the added bonus of an inter-rail pass is the flexibility it allows you. Itineraries can be changed if a day more or less is desired in one of the destinations or you want to take off on a flight of fancy! Trains are a more social way of travelling (forget the British reserve), talking with your neighbours on a night train as you whizz through the shrouded European countryside can be an interesting and enlightening experience.

I really enjoyed my first inter-rail experience, I have memories that I will always cherish and the train journeys are an integral part of them. Since that first journey I have undertaken two more, one covering parts of Italy and the other a trip from Bulgaria to Istanbul. My train journeys have not come to an end; plans are being made for more inter-rail in Europe in the near future. There’s a vast continent to explore and I’ve only just started.

You can read about my train travel and experiences in City Chronicles: A Tale of Nine Cities which is available now from City Chronicles: A Little Bit of Italy and City Chronicles: Crossing the Bosporus will be out later in 2012. 

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Futurism and Florence

Established in Italy at the turn of the twentieth century, Futurism was a contrast to the Romanticism that had gone before. The Futurists emphasized and glorified contemporary concepts of the future – speed, technology and industrialisation. They embraced the modern world. F.T. Marinetti published his Manifesto of Futurism in 1909, first in an article in the Italian ‘La Gazetta dell’Emilia’ before it was taken up by the French paper ‘Le Figaro.’ Marinetti wanted no part of the old world and tradition,
“Let’s break out of the horrible shell of wisdom and throw ourselves like pride-ripened fruit into the wide, contorted mouth of the wind! Let’s give ourselves utterly to the Unknown, not in desperation but only to replenish the deep wells of the Absurd!”

There was no artistic programme in the manifesto, just a battle cry against the vanguard, a threat to remove Italy “from its smelly gangrene of professors, archaeologists, tour-guides and antiquarians. […]We mean to free her from the countless museums that cover her like so many graveyards.”

And what has this to do with Florence?

As with the Renaissance of the Middle Ages, Florence was the birthplace of the Futurist movement, and in particular the Piazza della Repubblica, or Piazza Vittorio Emmanuele II as it was then. The cafés  of the piazza hosted meetings between the intellectuals and literati as they drew up their manifestos, published articles, pamphlets and books - Caffé Gilli, Caffé Concerto Pazkowski and Caffé Guibbe Rosse.

The cafés are elegant reminders of a bygone era and you would find it hard to imagine fights breaking out in them (though Caffé Gilli on its website claims none happened within its walls!), but fight the Futurists did. In 1913 a room in the Caffé Guibbe Rosse became the main office of the Lacerba Group of Futurists. The Giubbe Rosse website promotes its part in the movement as a “workshop of ideas, projects and passions.” The presence of the Futurists peeved the Chess Club who also used the café and who protested. A poem was circulated highlighting their concerns:

Giubbe Rosse è quella cosa
che ci vanno i futuristi
se discuton non c'è cristi,
non puoi più giocare a dam...

Giubbe Rosse is the place
Where the futurists go
If they start a discussion it is inevitable
You cannot play chequers anymore..

It was not just the Chess Club who were unimpressed by the Futurists at Giubbe Rosse, and the café is not ashamed to admit that “…pandemonium reigned. Tables were overturned…” when Futurists and members of the Vocianist Group came to physical as well as ideological blows.

The battles are over; Futurism went into decline though its influence can be seen in works of Art Deco, Surrealism and Dada-ism. The cafés are proud of their part in the movement. You don’t need to be able to hold court on the tenets of Futurism to pay a visit, but an appreciation of their contribution is beneficial, when you dine or take coffee there.
Piazza della Repubblica
Picture courtesy of Roland Geider, via Wikipedia and reproduced under GNU Free Documentation License.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Siena - The Piccolomini Library

Siena, a medieval town in Tuscany, is not only the home of the infamous Palio races but of a cathedral (duomo) that would grace any of the larger cities of Rome.  Charles Dickens described it as “picturesque inside and out.”[1]  The façade of the cathedral is a mixture of Gothic and Romanesque styles with ornately styled pinnacles and gargoyles sitting atop a polychrome marble base. What is surprising about Dickens’ comments on the cathedral is that he does not mention what is to my mind the cathedral’s main attraction – the Piccolomini Library.

Situated on the left hand side of the nave the library was built in 1492 on the order of the Bishop of Siena, Francesco Piccolomini, later Pope Pius III, to honour his uncle Pope Pius II and house his collection of manuscripts and books. Pius II, Enea Piccolomini, was Siena’s favourite son and the frescoes that line the walls tell the story of his life. Ten frescoes in total, painted by Pinturicchio and his assistants, are amazingly detailed and the vibrancy of colours is as if they had been painted the day before.

Each of the frescoes is labelled with a Latin inscription, taken from the pope's biography by the humanist writer Giovanni Antonio Campano. The scenes depicted are:
1. Departure for the Council of Basel on a white steed
2. Oration as envoy before King James I of Scotland
3. Crowned poet laureate by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III
4. Subjugation to Pope Eugenius IV
5. As Archbishop of Siena, presenting Eleanor of Portugal to Frederick III at the Comollia gate in Siena
6. Nomination as cardinal by Callisto III
7. Election as Pope Pius II
8. Presiding over the Congress of Mantua, at which he proclaims a crusade
9. Canonizing St. Catherine of Siena
10. Reaching Ancona, where he would wait in vain for the Venetian fleet before setting out on Crusade against the Turks
The first fresco shows not only the young Enea Piccolomini but storm clouds and a rainbow. These natural occurrences were rarely, if ever, shown in works before this time.

The illuminated manuscripts of the cathedral’s sacristy sit beneath the frescoes. The intricate and exquisite detailing of the pictures and decoration on each page is truly delightful to see.
 The ceiling is covered with painted panels of mythological subjects, painted by Pinturicchio and his assistants between 1502 and 1503. The three main frames show The Rape of Proserpine, the Piccolomini coat of arms and Diane and Endymion.

The vibrant colours of this room, with its captivating artwork can mean that the visitor almost misses the Three Graces that stand in the centre of the room.  These pre-Christian  figures and the mythological scenes, grotesques and putti on the ceiling have led to some criticism of the pagan content of a room in a cathedral. But that would to be miss the point of the room – to home the manuscript and literary works of Pope Pius II who was, after all, described as a humanist pope. Pius II was proof that humanism and religion could sit together and the Piccolomini Library remains as a testament to this.

If you visit Siena’s duomo do not forget to take in the beauty of this room – the Piccolomini Library.

[1] Pictures from Italy, Charles Dickens

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Venice – the ethereal city

It is the city of mirrors, the city of mirages, at once solid and liquid, at once air and stone.
Erica Jong      

My first view of Venice had been through the grey haze of a damp day as islands shimmered like mirages in a weakening sunlight and we bumped our way across the lagoon. Lido had unravelled before me, before the boat slipped into the Grand Canal and reached Venice’s shores. With rain an intermittent companion I had spent time in the beautiful, elegant, ostentatious and inspiring churches, palazzos and galleries of a city that boasts wonderful architecture and works of art. When I had left Venice that first time, with rain drumming incessantly on the hood of my jacket, I had moved along the canal to the train station with the once magnificent palaces watching my progress from behind shuttered eyes.

I arrived in Venice this time by train, passed over the water as men in boats sped or paddled their way from island to island. The sky was a vibrant blue and the sun warmed the stones. I was to enjoy the labyrinthine charms of this ethereal city bathed in bright light. Herman Melville had said he would rather be ‘in Venice on a rainy day than in any other capital on a fine one,’ and inclement weather has its advantages to enjoying this city, lending an air of mysteriousness as you wind through it narrow streets, but the sun too has its benefits. It offers a contrast of light and shade as you move out of its brilliance into lanes so narrow people struggle to pass each other comfortably. Sunlight dapples the waters of the smaller canals.
One of the smaller waterways

We wandered the streets of Venice through every single area of this wondrous city. We captured the essence of a city brimming with history from the walls of its buildings, the bridges and the interior of its smaller churches. It is romantic either in that soul-searching way or as you walk, holding hands along an empty lane and steal a kiss on a tiny bridge.  Crumbling palazzos sink into the water whilst others stand proud at the waterfront boasting their imperial heritage. Through the Porta della Carta of the Palazzo Ducale we could see the ceremonial staircase guarded by the giant statues of Neptune and Mars. We sat near the Palazzo, on the steps of a waterway to eat our lunch, watching the sleek, black elegance of the gondolas as they pushed their way out into the Grand Canal and the more proletarian water-taxis that darted about dropping off their passengers in a rush to obtain more.
Gondola ride

Venice is a beautiful city that deserves time to be taken on it. Time to wander its unsung, narrow winding streets and lanes as well as visit and admire the magnificence of Saint Mark’s and the Palazzo Ducale, the art of the Galleria dell’Accademia, the view from the Rialto bridge or sup a Bellini in Harry’s Bar. Venice is a conundrum of a city floating in a lagoon of dreams. It deserves your attention.
The Grand Canal towards S.M. della Salute

The Bridge of Sighs

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Food and Travel

Food and Travel - the two are inextricably linked. Travelling on an empty stomach is just not the done thing, which means stopping off at a boulangerie, trattoria or tapas bar is a necessary pleasure. I try and eat where the locals do - it is invariably cheaper and more authentic than the tourists traps and more expensive alternatives. That is not to say that I do not push the boat out every once in a while and dine in style.

I havejust been writing about a fantastic meal I had in a trattoria in the Ghetto area of Rome in  my soon to be released book, City Chronicles: A Little Bit of Italy. Family run, with delicious and varied courses it was a gem of a find and when I'm next in Rome I'm going to visit it again (I hope it's still there!)

My love of food is not limited to just eating it, I like the art of cooking as well. I have a short article with a recipe for Spaghetti Bolognese in April's Munaty Cooking magazine. It may be a departure from the traditional recipe from Bologna but I haven't had any complaints - so far!

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Ferrara on Two Wheels

Wanderlust Travel Blog of the Week
The plains of the river Po are flat, gloriously flat for one who currently lives half-way up a mountain. The only blips on the horizon are the Colli Euganei, a ridge of hills that run across the Venetian – Padova plains. Percy Bysshe Shelley penned a poem from there, “Lines Written in the Euganean Hills” describing the plain thus:
            Beneath is spread like a green sea                                          
The waveless plain of Lombardy,
Bounded by the vaporous air,
Islanded by cities fair;

Ferrara is situated on the River Po – that makes it flat. That makes it an ideal town to cycle around. And many do, in fact a random piece of writing I came across said that Ferrara has more bicycles than any other town in Europe. I’m not sure the writer had been to Cambridge, but regardless of whether that is true or not there are lots of bicycles. We hired our bicycles from Pirani e Bagni by the railway station; a very reasonable €7 for the day. They are wonderful old bicycles – the kind I rode to school. You sit up on them, none of that unflattering hunching over the handlebars (think bottom cleavage and dangling bellies), instead you ride upright, gliding along the road.

We had a map. We found the centre. The medieval castle, the cathedral with its gargoyles, lions and griffins, the town hall which was a scaled down version of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, all with statues of men long dead – we found them all. We chained our bicycles and wandered around to take photographs and make closer inspection.
Estense Castle 

Girolamo Savonarola - Domenican friar who became a leader of Florence, later executed for heresy.

Detail from the Cathedral

The town hall

The university library was ‘discovered’ by Stefano after we had remounted – he has an uncanny ability to find libraries without seemingly consulting with anyone or thing. I sniffed a book that was on the ‘new’shelf whilst Stefano and a librarian took charge of the photocopying of prefaces. The librarian gave me a funny look. Perhaps the odour of thousands of books on a daily basis removes the desire to sniff a new one; his heart cannot have been in his job.

The church and cemetery of San Cristoforo alla Certosa was another port of call. Cycling along the cypress lined lane towards the extensive brick edifice, sun warming our cheese salad piadine that sat in the basket that hung from my handlebars, we could have been in the countryside.  Everywhere we went were stands for our bicycles. Our brand new padlocks seemed an expense not worth bothering with when you considered the age of the bikes, but we duly secured them. Secured them and then wandered among the graves and memorials of the long and recently dead, trying to work out their history, why some lived for 94 years and others only 7 days.

Cobbled streets and bicycles – not a good combination. Half-way along a cobbled street and I understood why there were no other cyclists. My own bottom may be well-padded but the bicycle seat wasn’t. I’m not sure whether it is worse for a boy or a girl – it hurt us both. I wanted to get off but had an inkling that if I did I would neither want to get back on or be able to walk. We continued to jiggle along.

The map we had in our bag. We consulted it once and it worked, so why we ignored it the rest of the time I’m not overly sure. We headed out along a road that others were going down and then the cyclists thinned out and the cars became more numerous. We followed a wall. It had a sign – Military Area, Keep Out. Well, the longer Italian version with the same message. We kept following it until we came to a roundabout. Unsure of our position we…plumped for turning right. We were following another wall – one that looked medieval, that turned out to have been the old city wall – in which direction we knew not. Finally we asked for directions. We had ‘gone adrift’ in the words of Stefano, taken with the tide to become castaways in the ocean of motorcars. We found a cycle lane and started to ride, free of other cyclists and traffic, free of cobbled streets and places of interest to stop and look at. We cycled with abandon.

Stefano continued to cycle with abandon even when we had re-entered the town and other cyclists were sharing the lane. I followed him as we cut a swathe through the torrent of cyclists coming in the opposite direction. I continued to follow him as, weaving across the lanes he turned to talk to me, whilst oncoming cyclists took avoiding action and I shut my eyes in anticipation of a coming together. Luck rode with us that day - no mangled wheels and handlebars facing the wrong way. Stefano wants to get a tandem next time we go out on a ride. ‘Okay,’ say I, ‘provided you sit at the back pedalling and I steer.’

Cycle around Ferrara, it’s what the locals do and if they do it it must make sense. It saves on shoe leather. It is flat and so is not a strenuous activity (for those who like an easy jaunt) and you can store your increasingly heavy bag (if like me you pick up leaflets, pamphlets and cannot pass a bookshop without buying something) in the basket on the front. 

Bike hire: Pirani e Bagni, by the railway station +39  cell. 339 2814002 /  0532 772190     
Ferrara website: (available in 7 languages)

Wanderlust Travel Blog of the Week

Traditions in Rovigo

Tradition is alive and well in Italy; not only are old traditions maintained but new ones have been established. During my week in Rovigo I made note of a few:

A Baby is Born
When a baby is born a display is hung from the gates, door, balcony or window of the house, to announce the safe arrival of the child. Blue designates a boy and pink a girl. In Grignano Polesine there has been one of each born this week. It makes me smile when I walk past the houses, the families are proud of their new addition and without spending extortionate amounts of money share their joy with the rest of us. This is a tradition that I know is alive and well on the shores of Lago Maggiore as well as in the province of Rovigo. Friends of the family have displayed their news in a similar fashion. Long may it continue. 

Graduation Announcements
Not an entry in a newspaper or a family party but posters displayed around the town to greet this news – and enlighten the public as to elements of the graduate’s past. Some of them are not for reading by ‘la Nonna ed il Nonno’ highlighting sexual encounters, perhaps an interest in light pharmaceuticals and other risqué episodes. They usually have at least one caricature of the graduate professionally drawn.  Friends and family add their tales to the poster. It is an amusing reflection on the person’s life before the serious stuff starts – trying to earn money!

Attendance at Mass
This is a tradition that is dying out. The church bells continue to ring, urging those of us still in bed (albeit lying under a crucifix, rosary and the watchful eyes of a saint or two that have adorned the walls since the grandparents married) to get to church, confess our sins, ask for forgiveness, give thanks and then (in most cases) promptly go and do again what we had just apologised for. It was Palm Sunday when I was in town, and more people attended church than normal – such is the call of Holy Week. Men, women and children left church still clutching their palm fronds. They will probably dry and brown on a forgotten shelf in the pantry.

Looking After the Dead
Death is quickly dealt with in the south of Europe. Within a maximum of two days the body is buried or cremated, but they are not forgotten. November 1st, All Saint’s Day, Day of the Dead, call it what you will, it is a day when only the deceased who no longer have living relatives within the vicinity (and vicinity can mean 500 miles or more)are not visited. Picnics sometimes are held in the graveyards as time is spent remembering those who have departed, though that tradition does appear to be on the wane, graves are tended and flowers arranged. The cemeteries are a riot of colour. But it is not just the first day of November that is a day for visiting. As we cleaned the memorials to departed grandparents and aunt, cleaning the fake flowers that add colour when we are not around, and adding fresh, we may have been in a florist’s shop. There was colour everywhere. Very few memorials were flowerless. The nun’s memorial had flowers – and she did not have children to come to tend to her. Ancestors are an important and continuing part of the lives of living. Look to the future by all means, but do not forget where you come from.

From birth to death and all that lies in between the Italians have traditions. Life is a cycle and it is celebrated.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Rovigo – Italy in One Town

Shadows distorted by cobbles, windows shuttered against the heat, suited men eating ice-cream outside the gelaterie – a typical Italian setting. This is Rovigo, a town in the northern province of Veneto just eighty kilometres south-west of Venice, and it is an archetypal Italian town. It is only March so the heat is not typical. I have left the southern shores of Málaga, Spain for the north of Italy and the temperature has soared to 29˚C; hence men eating ice-cream. They eat the ice-cream, as Italians do most things except driving and drinking coffee, unhurriedly. Nonchalantly leaning against the walls of the ice-cream parlours, savouring the pistachio or fragoli flavours they watch as others cycle home.

Rovigo is on the Po plain, the land is flat and cycling is a popular method of getting around. All ages - students, middle-aged and old – ride on their old fashioned bicycles, sit-up and begs we called them, with baskets front and back, through the town and on the roads out into the countryside. The train station is surrounded by bicycles chained to railings or simply with the padlock through the wheels. No showy, shiny bikes here, just plain, useful bikes. And so it is that the air of the Piazzas Giuseppe Garibaldi and Vittorio Emmanuelle II is punctuated with the tringing of bicycle bells and the soft whirr of wheels rather than abrasive horns and squealing brakes.

Piazza Giuseppe Garibaldi is an elegant square lined with palazzos whilst the eponymous hero is captured in bronze astride his horse.  In the Piazza Vittorio Emmanuelle II, behind the portly figure of Vittorio Emmanuelle himself, is a column topped with the lion of San Marco, the symbol of Venice. The lion was installed in 1591 in honour of the town’s association with the Republic of Venice, only to be removed in 1797 by Napoleon’s troops. Twenty years after the unification of Italy, in 1881 the lion was returned to its rightful place, in the largest piazza of Rovigo. Colonnades, a fourteenth century loggia and a war memorial in the far corner and the square has all that one would expect.
Piazza Vittorio Emmanuelle II plays host
 to a local artisan food market

The remains of the town’s castle, on the edge of a small park, consist of a tower and part of the gate-house tower and walls. The towers lean, quite precariously. Lintels above doorways rest at a quirky angle. Started during the time of Rovigo’s inclusion in the House of Este, the whole was a fortress designed to withstand the attacks of neighbouring republics and provinces and now serves as garden ornamentation. Ornamentation that I would be a little wary of sitting under; I don’t think that anywhere near the money spent on keeping the tower of Pisa upright has been spent for the same purpose on these towers.

Rovigo's two leaning towers
No Italian town is complete without a church or four and one of Rovigo’s is definitely worth a visit. The Rotonda, officially known as the Church of Madonna del Soccorso, is a small church sitting behind the larger church of St. Francis. It was built (1594 – 1606) to house a miraculous image of a Madonna with Child carrying a rose. It is not round but octagonal and surrounded by a portico. The walls are completely decorated with 17th century paintings by local and Venetian painters and also house statues of key saints and bishops in niches. It is an intimate church that felt comfortable rather than claustrophobic, despite its size.

But Rovigo is not just a place of history it is a modern, vibrant town with wi-fi hotspots in the piazzas (sitting under the monuments is optional), designer clothes shops and swishy looking coffee shops. 
Garibaldi provides a seat from which to utilise the wi-fi hotspot

Rovigo, with a taste of everything Italian – piazzas, ruins, colonnades, leaning towers, churches, coffee bars and gelaterie – is Italy in a microcosm.

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