A TRIP TO ITALY

I BARBUTI (THE BEARDED ONES)

I’m spinning through the Lombardy countryside on the way to Milan surrounded by the green of European spring. Spring green; the acid green of fresh stalks and new leaves; the green that, for those born in lands of seasons, fulfills some deep need. Lombardy, so called because it is the land of the Longobardi, or long-beards, descendants of the Winnili people of Southern Scandinavia who moved gradually South until by the end of the 6th century they were masters of all Italy north of the Po. Barbados is also a land of the bearded but not of the long-bearded. In the Middle Ages the Lombards struck pay dirt by revolutionizing the existing loan industry, which was in the hands of non-Christians, the loaning of money for interest being condemned by the Papacy and prohibited by Canon Law. By inventing pawning, where interest is included in the repurchase price, the Lombards circumvented the law, escaped Papal censure, and reaped the rewards. ‘Lombard Street to a china orange’ was once a common expression for heavily weighted odds. Later, banking competition would increase when the restrictive Canon Law was repealed. But by then the entrepreneurial Lombards were planting rice, inventing the risotto and manufacturing shoes. In Poland and Russia a pawnshop is apparently still called a ‘Lombard’.

Off to EXPO 2015 an event that has its origins in the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, moving from city to city every five years. There’s the same special, friendly ambiance that you find at the World Cup and the Olympics. The theme in Milan is ‘Feeding the Planet’ and food is something the Italians know about. 145 countries are exhibiting, including Nepal and the Sudan; but not Australia, which has blown its dough on a new pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Peccato, because Sudan and Nepal are here to be fed while I thought feeding the world is what Australia did or would like to do. Never mind, I’ll drown my disappointment in the Italian wine pavilion and sit around the albero de la vita while it conducts Roberto Cacciapaglia’s Oceano.

 

Evening at Milan EXPO

Evening at Milan EXPO

Into my favourite Milanese restaurant, La Bagutta, for lunch. What pleasure to be greeted as ‘Signore e Signora’ and not ‘You guys’. The restaurant has been here in via Bagutta since 1924, when it moved from Florence. It still serves classic Tuscan cuisine in the charming garden and the network of salons decorated with caricatures of the winners of the Premio Bagutta, an annual literary prize.

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Paolo takes us out to Vigevano and to lunch in the Piazza Ducale, possibly the most beautiful piazza in Italy. But Honeybee is not here for the piazza or lunch but the shoes. In the 1950s the factories and workshops clustered around Vigevano were producing 30 million pairs of shoes a year. Volumes are down but Vigevano still remains the capital of Italian shoe production and Honeybee makes for the ‘outlet’ of one of the major manufacturers, exiting with the knowledge that her collection now exceeds those of Paris Hilton and Imelda Marcos combined.

 

Piazza Ducale, Vigevano

Piazza Ducale, Vigevano

We’re moving on to Sicily tomorrow and I’ve decided to grow a beard; a chap can’t just lie around the pool doing nothing for two weeks! It’s been on my bucket list for a bit. Honeybee is surprisingly supportive; ‘It will hide a multitude of chins‘, she tells me. I’m not contemplating a Hell’s Angels beard or a full set of dundrearies (1) or Piccadilly Wipers, just a neat, clipped affair to give me that professorial air; a Hemmingway or a Sean Connery would do nicely. But what if I can’t? I’ve failed at so many things; I even failed milk at school. Having to abandon the project after a few weeks would be really humiliating. O the ignominy! The indignity!

SICILIAN VESPAS

We’ve rented a house near the hill-town of Chiaramonte Gulfi in Ragusa Province. It is buried somewhere in a grid of unmade roads flanked by fields of olive, citrus and fichi d’india studded with poppies and surrounded by dry stone walls. Google maps is useless and it takes longer to find than Toto Riina.

Albero Limone

Albero Limone

Albero Limone, when we find it, is charming; an old stone farmhouse which Ian and his wife Jenny have restored and extended with taste and restraint, set in a lovely garden with pool. The elegance of the pool surroundings has not been compromised by a safety fence, mandatory in Australia. I suppose there is a possibility that my mother-in-law may fall in the pool and drown but I’m willing to take that risk in return for a nice, uncluttered poolside.

Albero Limone

Albero Limone

There are great clumps of lavender in the garden and the honeybees (apini) are busy. It seems so long since I’ve had the pleasure of hearing the comforting drone of bees. I don’t think I’ve seen a bumblebee (bombini) since I was a child. Sylvia Plath, whose father was an authority on bees, wrote ‘The Bee-keepers Daughter” shortly before she took her life:

In burrows narrow as a finger, solitary bees
Keep house among the grasses. Kneeling down
I set my eyes to a hole-mouth and meet an eye
Round, green, disconsolate as a tear.
Father, bridegroom, in this Easter egg
Under the coronal of sugar roses
The queen bee marries the winter of your year.

Emily Dickinson also wrote of the bee:

Partake as doth the bee,
Abstemiously
The Rose is an Estate
In Sicily

A plump and furry bumblebee docking carefully into the yellow trumpet of a hollyhock. Wouldn’t that be a fine thought to take with you when the Boatman comes to row you across the river?

I’m in a coma; have been for some time. There’s something about the Sicilian countryside, the thin, waving arms of the olive trees, the sun on the pale stones, a hawk cruising in circles in the blue sky and the bottle of wine at lunch under the pistacchio tree that induce fatigue. I came loaded for work with pen, paper and paints, but I’ve been drifting in and out of this coma, hardly able to separate dreams from reality. The hum of Honeybee’s hairdryer brings me, momentarily, back to life. A cloud the size of Africa is about to blot out the sun so I’m going inside for a glass of chilled Frapatto, the colour of a tart’s nail polish.

Plenty of time to reflect on serious issues while lying around the pool. Jesse shows me Woody Allen’s interesting reincarnation plans:

In my next life I want like to live my life backwards. You start out dead and get that out of the way. Then you wake up in an old people’s home feeling better every day. You get kicked out for being too healthy, go collect your pension, and then when you start work, you get a gold watch and a party on your first day. You work for 40 years until you’re young enough to enjoy your retirement. You party, drink alcohol, and are generally promiscuous, then you are ready for high school. You then go to primary school, you become a kid, you play. You have no responsibilities, you become a baby until you are born. And then you spend the last 9 months floating in luxurious spa-like conditions with central heating and room service on tap, larger quarters every day and then voila! You finish off as an orgasm.

Chiaramonte Gulfi is a typical Sicilian hill-town with 8,000 inhabitants and 11 churches. We cross the roofless pizza oven of the central square and dive into the cool and dusty interior of the Chiesa Madre, where Madonna and Child, under a blood red canopy and surrounded by gilt sunrays and angel faces, overlook an altar designed for a Busby Berkeley musical. I love it! This is idolatry at its highest level. Baroque art, the Catholic Church’s counterblast to the Reformation. Not fifty metres from the church is Da Majore, a former macelleria, now a restaurant specializing in a pig-inspired cuisine, which allows for a wide variety of dishes, for the pig is the most versatile of animals. Lamb and chicken will never inhabit a successful sausage. The food is perfect with a pleasing absence of rocket and cherry tomatoes, but the cantina, where we go to choose our wine, leaves Jesse and I weak at the knees. From a cornucopia of amazing wines at absurdly low prices we select a 2007 Prunotto Barbera (18 Euros) and a 2008 Masi Amarone (45 Euros).

Chiaramonte Gulfi - daytime

Chiaramonte Gulfi – daytime

Chiaramonte Gulfi - at night

Chiaramonte Gulfi – at night

The two jewels of Ragusa province are Modica, an UNESCO world heritage site, and its smaller neighbour, Scicli. Scicli is overlooked by hills of tunneled limestone once home to its ancient, troglodytic people which may explain the height impairment of the present population. Modica, largely rebuilt after the earthquake of 1692, is home to a very particular type of chocolate. The story goes that the Spanish introduced the cocoa bean sometime during their occupation of Sicily in the 16th century along with a recipe for chocolate obtained from the Aztecs. Modica chocolate is made at low temperatures without the addition of butter and other fats. As the sugar does not melt completely, the crystals remain. Personally, I’m too accustomed to Cadbury’s to even pretend to enjoy it. The thing about Modica and Scicli is that they are both vibrant communities rather than Baroque museums and art colonies like Ragusa and Caltagirone.

There are fields of olive all around us, the trees randomly, and therefore attractively, disposed with no thought to the economies of mechanical harvesting provided by planting straight lines. Each tree, as old as the temple columns in Siracusa, has its own character. There is beauty in the contrast between ancient trunk and main limbs and the thin pliant, fruit-bearing branches, which rise at the end like an Australian sentence.

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A Sicilian friend tells me that the current rush of tourists into Sicily, and particularly into the province of Ragusa, is entirely due to a bald Italian policeman. Commissario Montalbano is the principal character in a televised crime drama that has attracted audiences worldwide since the first series appeared in 1999. The stories unfold in Vigata, a fictitious town, a pastiche of various locations from a variety of towns in the province. By chance we are in the Mezzaparola restaurant in Donnalucata, and after a misto arrosto di pesce and a bottle of Grillo we motor on to nearby Punta Secca where Honeybee can pose by the Inspector’s apartment overlooking the beach.

Ispettore Montalbano's apartment at Punta Secca

Ispettore Montalbano’s apartment at Punta Secca

UNDER THE VOLCANO

I’m taking my mother-in-law back to her home in Adrano, a small town on the slopes of Etna. The road from Catania to Adrano is Hellish, the hard shoulder strewn with litter, the weeds as high as an elephant’s eye. It is a road of shrines with frequent bunches of flowers, sometimes in a vase or even with a small marble tablet, marking the spots where a son or husband failed to make the sorpasso. What were the circumstances in the 18th and 19th centuries that allowed the citizens of Adrano to build elegant houses and fine churches when now there are insufficient funds to collect the rubbish and efface the graffiti from the park walls? The town resembles Ramadi, the Iraqi town torn apart in American Sniper; was it filmed here? Many of the houses on the outskirts remind me of Osama Bin Laden’s depressing compound in Abbottabad. My mother in law’s apartment is typical; armchairs the size of elephants, pictures of Saints and Popes, china figurines and photos of grim looking ancestors.

On the other hand this is real Italy, a town without hotels, tourists or Michelin starred restaurants, a town where people are courteous and look out for each other, a town without traffic lights or visible pedestrian crossings where the roads are a shared space between people and vehicles. The Café Europa serves the best granita di mandorle and brioches in all of Italy and if you become depressed by the immediate surroundings you can always look up and see the big, white diamond of the volcano against the blue sky.

I’m in one of the most important places in town, the Tabaccheria. For those who remember the days when smoking was an elegant pastime, when one could enjoy the aroma of smouldering nicotiana tabacum in peace, relax watching a curling column of rising smoke from a Passing Cloud, feel the solid comfort of a silver Dupont in your hand or inhale the burst of sulphur from a freshly struck match; for all of you I attach these images of Murattis, Chesterfields and Camels, glorious names from a freer past. Now that the display of cigarette brands is prohibited in Australia, pictures like this will soon be harder to find than dirty postcards in a Seminary.

Vietato ai minori di 18 anni

Vietato ai minori di 18 anni

Not much for the young to do in this town except work on a scratchy, listen to the partita on the radio, drink 15 espressos a day, lean on your Vespa on the street corner, shave your head or get a new tattoo. No wonder love, inexpensive and absorbing, is treated seriously. Here, on the walls of the park, written in spay-paint by an Italian Cyrano, is this pitiful tale of the unparalleled agony of love rebuffed, of a suit declined:

Vaffanculo, Tere’
Non credete nell’amore
Tutto questo per te
Ricordi … vorrei dimenticarti ma non riesco…Ecco!!!!
Ci sei riuscita. Addio e’ FINITA
Ti ho dato il mio cuore
Me lo hai ridotto cosi, verde come il veleno…Distrutto
Sei una falsa, ipocrita, bugiarda e stronza!

Go xxxx yourself Teresa. You don’t believe in love.
All this for you
Memories…I would like to forget you but I cannot
You have succeeded. Goodbye IT IS OVER
I gave you my heart
You have reduced me to this – green, like poison……Destroyed
You are false, a hypocrite, a liar and a bitch!

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I would like to meet the young author, buy him a drink, counsel him, tell him how, even after 50 years, irritating scar tissue will continue to remind him of the pain he felt when he wrote those words.

In spite of its cold winters, the culture of Sicily is focused on keeping cool, hence the polished granite floors, the metre thick walls of Albero Limone, the permanently shuttered windows and the cult of the gelato. And so, on our last night, Matteo drives us 19 kilometres to Bronte for pistacchio ice cream. I go to sleep under a particularly harrowing crucifixion in painted terracotta.

And so we leave Sicily, careful to obey the parking regulations for pedestrians……

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A WEDDING IN SARDINIA

We are staying at Sa’ Manda, an agritourism resort where tomorrow Simone and Eleanora will be having their wedding dinner. Soon after we arrive Andrea and Marta pick us up and we go to dinner in the nearby seaside town of Alghero, so called on account of the amount of algae in the water. Here is another ancient and attractive town that has lost all self-respect, a whore ravished daily by coachloads of modern day Visigoths. In the narrow streets of the centro storico the Algherese have retreated into their kitchens and opened their street front sitting rooms to diners and the seekers of souvenirs. On the seafront, music from the lower ranks of the Eurovision Song Contest serenades the clientele of the vast pizzerias. After a long search we settle into Mirko’s small parlour, which he has refurbished as a Trattoria and have a perfectly respectable Fregola con gamberi.

The English do nice weddings; Ladies in big hats, men in morning suits, flower-stuffed village churches in the Cotswolds; but the Italians also do it well, perhaps in a less choreographed, more intimate way. It is Andrea’s elder brother, Simone, who is getting married and the next morning we witness him on his knees as the family anoint him with rose petals and bless him before we go to the Chiesa di Santa Caterina in Sassari’s centro storico. There’s no communal hymn singing but Simone’s zia Adriana fills the vast knave with a voice so clear and pure that I’m reduced to tears and on the verge of conversion to the Catholic faith. There’s applause as Simone and Eleonora emerge into the sunlight to be showered with rice and confetti (still legal in Italy) before we all go to dinner at Sa’ Mandra.

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I cannot begin to tell you how grateful I am to be part of this large and generous Sardinian family and very honored tonight to be sitting at the table with the senior uncles. Porcetto allo spiedo stillato con gocce di lardo and a glass of Santa Maria La Palma Cannonau. Heaven. Like every other special occasion in Italy the wedding dinner coincides with an important partita, this time the European Cup Final. Guests consult their i phones between mouthfuls of capretto con finochietto selvatico and waiters are sent off to bring back the latest score. The match is between Juventus, a Torinese team, and Barcelona, but it is not a match between Italy and Spain, it is a contest between Turin and the rest of Italy and when the final whistle blows with Barcelona the winners, our waiter strips open his shirt to reveal an Intermilan jersey, demonstrating to the assembled diners his pleasure at his rival city’s loss.

After dinner the dancing begins. Uncles, aunts, friends, mothers and brothers all on the floor clapping, hopping and twisting, forming snaking conga lines to Chubby checker and Pat Boone but mostly to the romantic Italian music of the 70s.

LA MAREMMA

Campiglia Marittima, another un-spoilt hill-town, where Ann has kindly lent us her house, an ancient building which she has restored in her inimitable style, respecting its simple period style while discretely incorporating all the necessary mod-cons. The town is quiet with only the occasional tourist, mostly of the serious, bearded variety working on small watercolours. In the central piazza two cafes compete for our breakfast and aperitif business while, underneath Ann’s house, Rosy provides the sort of home cooking that makes cooking at home unnecessary.

La casa di Ann

La casa di Ann

Near the town of Venturina, a 10 minute drive from Campiglia, is the spa of Il Calidario with its natural warm springs. We spend the morning in and out of the outdoor thermal pool and the afternoon we are bathed, roasted, steamed and massaged in the indoor tepidarium designed to resemble the Etruscan baths that once stood here.

 

Il Calidario, Venturina

Il Calidario, Venturina

Along the thin, umbrella’d littoral of the Alta Maremma are a series of stazioni balneari and Alex has directed us to her favourite (shortly to become mine). At Bagno Skiuma, which I doubt I could ever find again, we rent umbrella and deck chairs on the largely deserted beach and toast and soak until lunchtime when we sit down to spaghetti alle vongole and sorbetto al limone in the restaurant. A bottle of Antinori Scalabrone and I collapse in a coma on the beach for the rest of the afternoon, but the lunch was so outstanding we return the next day for a bis.

We move to Vada where Alex, in festive mood having put to bed another Business Plan, takes us to dinner at La Barcaccina on the sea front where the water is as flat and calm as my mother’s gravy, which is not, fortunately, on the menu. An outstanding meal of crudo di mare and a superb orata al forno accompanied by Champagne, a chilled Pinot Nero from Alto Adige and a vintage grappa, which seems to have aged better than me. Alex, you should write a personal guide to the food and wines of La Maremma; no one could be better qualified.

Bagno Skiuma

Bagno Skiuma

Alex takes us to Castiglioncello, which is remarkable for a number of reasons but all with roots in the beauty of this rocky promontory pointing out into the Tyrrhenian Sea with its sandy beaches and forests of pini marittimi. In the mid 19th century the Macchiaioli, a school of Tuscan painters who painted in macchie (patches of light and shade) and alla prima like the Impressionists, found inspiration in Castiglioncello. Later Luigi Pirandello, the Bulgari family and Lucchino Visconti all built villas here. But it was in the 1950’s, the Dolce Vita years, that Castiglioncello became a summer escape for Vittorio Gasman, Marcello Mastroianni, Alberto Sordi and other stars of Italian cinema. During the economic decline and the tangentopoli scandal of the 1980s the resort fell on hard times but is now, happily, experiencing a revival.

At Dai Dai (literally c’mon c’mon), a wine bar famous for its bite sized choc-ices, I spot a framed painting of Moana Pozzi. The subject is angel-winged and seated, with breasts bared and a bunch of red grapes covering her business parts. Blonde, beautiful and smart, at 20 she was the lover of Prime Minister, Bettino Craxi, who helped her get a job in a children’s show on television. That same year (1981) she performed in her first hardcore porno movie Valentina, Ragazza in Calore. In the ensuing scandal she lost her job in television but became the first Diva of Italian Porn and launched the Golden Age of the Blue Movie. Apart from her film fans, she won respect from other Italians as an informed and eloquent pundit on talk shows and for her (unsuccessful) bid to become mayor of Rome. She died in France at the age of 33 in mysterious circumstances. At the top of the painting the words Beata Santa appear; they point to the gradual Beatification of this remarkable Mary Magdelene, who with the approval of the Italian people, continued to sin until the very end.

VERONA

Verona, still beautiful, but much changed since we lived here in the 1980s. Since then it has become the fourth most visited city in Italy, but whereas the tourists are spread thinly over the much wider areas of Rome, Florence and Venice, here they are clustered in the small centro storico. I raise my arm to point out a church tower and 20 or 30 Japanese tourists follow me into the Piazza Dante. The number of tourists taking pictures in the Piazza Erbe makes it inevitable that my image will shortly be appearing on 10,000 screens from Copenhagen to Kobe. Glacial, white Scandinavian legs gleam on the pink marble pavements. In the Via Mazzini, many of the old independent shop owners have sold out to international chains. The windows of Guelphi e Barbotini, once the most elegant of bookshops, are now filled with unremarkable ladies underwear. The ferramenta, which once sold artists’ pigments and raw alcohol for your alembic or home made limoncello, now sells handbags.

We are staying in an apartment in I Filippini, overlooking the river. The apartment is very pleasant with floor to ceiling mirrors everywhere, presumably to give the sensation of non-existent space. Nothing is more horrible than waking up next to myself. In the corridor I see four of me turn into the tiny bathroom as if in one of David Copperfield’s illusionist tricks. Honeybee goes to look at our old house around the corner in the aptly named Vicolo Satiro (Satyr’s Alley), but I sense the onset of depression just thinking about it.

Lunch with Honeybee and Andrea at the beautiful Osteria Ponte Pietra. We eat on the terrace overlooking the fast-flowing Adige and overlooked by envious tourists on the bridge. We start with cappesante and tartare of crustacians followed by coda di rospo. As I raise my glass of Lugana I can see a crocodile of tourists sweating up the steps of the Roman Theatre on the far bank, which somehow seems to improve the taste of the wine.

With Andrea at Osteria Ponte Pietra

With Andrea at Osteria Ponte Pietra

View from Ponte Pietra

View from Ponte Pietra

Our last night in Italy. We are with Paolo in the leafy suburbs of Gallarate, a few kilometres from Malpensa airport, when we fall upon hidden treasure, La Tana del Lupo. Weeks after our return home I still look at the bill in disbelief. A glass of Prosecco, antipasti of grilled anchovy and scamorza cheese fried in breadcrumbs, two superb risotto dishes and a plate of Dublin Bay Prawns flambeed in Cognac. A selection of cheeses and fresh figs, a bottle of excellent Pinot Noir from the Alto Adige, Limoncello, friandises and coffee. 3 covers, 65 Euros! I’m having it framed.

 

(1) After the side-whiskers worn by Lord Dundreary in the play Our American Cousin, the play Abraham Lincoln was attending when he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth.

2 thoughts on “A TRIP TO ITALY

  1. Under the Volcano – “those grim looking ancestors” – surely there is a picture there of you and me there -John? or is it just those who have passed? Or who dont live in the antipodes…?

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