TALES FROM THE NORTHERN HEMISPHERE

NEL BLU DIPINTO DI BLU

After the engines had stopped and the seat-belt sign turned off, the cabin suddenly fills with music. They are playing Volare and the lady sitting next to me begins to sing along. I join her for the few lines I know because it’s that sort of song. ‘Ah, Modugno!’ she sighed and I guessed she was recalling all those Italian summers by the sea that the song evokes, although the blue mentioned in the song has nothing to do with the colour of the Mediterranean. While Volare will always be associated with singer/song-writer Domenico Modugno, it was in fact the brain-child of his lyricist partner, Franco Migliacci. Franco’s inspiration came from seeing reproductions of two of Chagall’s paintings, Le Coq Rouge and Le Peintre et La Modelle, both of which decorated the walls of the café where he was working on a new song. The first mentioned painting shows a man suspended in mid-air, a familiar feature of Chagall’s work, while the second depicts the painter with half his face painted blue. And so we have a song about a man who paints his hands and face blue before being swept up by the wind and flying away in the infinite sky. Like many great additions to the world’s cultural inventory, the qualities of Volare were not immediately recognised by the experts in the field and it was only reluctantly and belatedly included among the entrants of the 1958 San Remo Song Festival, which of course it won, going on to become the most played to air Italian song of the 20th century.

Volare is only one of the entrenched and unvarying traditions of ‘la stagione al mare’. As soon as the school holidays begin, mothers traditionally take their children to the sea, maybe to a second home in Forte dei Marmi or perhaps to a rented apartment or hotel in Alassio, while their husbands enjoy a brief period of freedom with their mistresses before their own official holidays begin and they join their families at the sea. In summer the beaches from Ventimiglia to Rimini are covered with uniform lines of deck chairs and coloured umbrellas; newly painted pedalos are dragged to the shoreline and small beachfront restaurants offer that classic seaside dish, spaghetti alle vongole, best taken with a bottle of chilled Grillo and followed by a sorbetto al limone. Each year the stabilimenti balneari find new beaches to exploit as the tide of tourists increases (up 24% in 2017). Puglia, Basilicata and Calabria are the new holiday Klondikes and already on a sunny weekend it’s standing room only on Puglia’s Gallipoli Beach.

Santa Teresa di Riva, on the Sicilian coast between Giardini Naxos and Messina, is a new and still pleasant addition to the stock of summer destinations, called into service to cope with the overspill from the stampede of tourists that has ruined Taormina. The people of Santa Teresa are courteous and friendly, there are no souvenir shops, parking is easy and the waters are free of jet-skis, kayaks and wind-surfers, while a sharply shelving and shingled beach deters families with young children.

The Bar Vitelli

High in the Nebrodi hills, which rise steeply behind the town, is the village of Savoca and its Bar Vitelli where Michael Corleone asked Apollonia’s father for her hand in marriage in The Godfather.

From the village, or better still, from the terrace of the very charming Ristorante Gelso Nero, there are lovely views out across the Mediterranean. Let us hope that the Mayor of Santa Teresa will preserve its charms by resisting any attempt by Ryan Air to establish direct flights between his town and London, Moscow and Dusseldorf. One way of choosing a holiday destination may be to list all resorts then eliminate those that are visited by cruise ships or served by cut-price airlines.

View from the Gelso Nero

Even from sea-level the shoreline of Calabria is visible across the Straits of Messina, although sometimes, in the evening, a haze melts sea into sky and the mainland disappears altogether. Before the Atlantic Ocean breached the chain of mountains joining present day Spain and Morocco five and a half million years ago, you would have been looking over a dry valley. The breach triggered the most spectacular flood in Earth’s history, creating the Mediterranean. Originally seen by the Romans as a series of smaller seas, with names taken from neighbouring coastlines and islands – Mare Tyrrhenum, Mare Balearicum and so on, later they would refer to the whole sea as Mare Magnum and later again, Mare Nostrum – Our Sea! In the second half of the 3rd century AD, when Roman ownership of the sea was beginning to be questioned, Solinus, a geographer, became the first to use the term Mediterraneum – the centre of the world, as indeed it then was and to some of us, still is.

Woody Allen used Volare to book-end his 2012 film ‘To Rome with Love’ to good effect and Luciano Pavarotti’s version of the song still leaves me feeling I’m high on drugs, but my special Volare moment will always be the time I heard it on 17th July, 1994. I remember the date because it was the day of the World Cup final between Italy and Brazil and Honeybee and I were in a night club on the island of Capri. It was a particularly fun evening; the American Ambassador to Italy was there with a large party to celebrate his birthday and we were on the island with a group of friends to see an exhibition by Veronese painter, Pippo Borrello. It was while the orchestra was playing Volare that a message was passed to the band-leader, who, after examining the content, immediately stopped the music and made this brief and tragic announcement: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I am sad to tell you that Italy has lost to Brazil on penalties’. Knowing how the Italians love their soccer I expected the mood of the evening to darken and that we would now be listening to a grim selection from Cavalleria Rusticana. But, turning immediately to face his band, the Maestro raised his arms and launched his musicians straight back into the song they had briefly abandoned …..

 Mentre il mondo pian piano spariva lontano laggiu’
Una musica dolce suonava soltanto per me
Volare oh, oh
Cantare oh, oh, oh, oh
Nel blu dipinto di blu
Felice di stare lassu’
Ma tutti i sogni nell’alba svaniscon perche’
Quando tramonta la luna il porta con se’
Ma io continuo a sognare negli occhi tuoi belli
Che sono blu come un cielo trapunto di stelle

And everyone clapped and cheered and it was the very best of evenings.

 

VOLUBILIS

The fruit of that grand and tragic love affair between Anthony and Cleopatra consisted of a boy, Ptolemy, and twins – Helios (the sun), another boy and Selene (the moon), a girl. After their parents were defeated at Actium by Octavian and had taken their own lives, the children were dragged to Rome in golden chains as evidence of imperial insuperability. There, in an act of extraordinary charity, Anthony’s former wife (and sister to Octavian), saved the children from further public humiliation by taking them into her household. The fates of Ptolemy and Helios are unrecorded, but we know that Selene matured into a well-educated woman, whose loyalty to her captors was rewarded with Roman citizenship. Another contemporary, political prisoner in Rome, Juba II, King of Numidia, had also become Romanised, in spite of his father’s defeat at the hands of Julius Caesar and the appropriation of his Berber kingdom as a Roman Province.  In a bizarre turn of events, while Selene enjoyed the patronage of Octavia, Juba was befriended and supported by her brother, Octavian and was at his side at Actium. Notwithstanding Juba’s involvement in the defeat of her parents, Selene married Juba and the couple were dispatched by Octavian (now the Emperor Augustus) to develop and govern Mauretania, the far South Western reaches of the empire. Their mission began around 20BC with the founding of the city of Caesarea (now Cherchell in present day Algeria) and continued westward to Volubilis, an existing city of Phoenician and Berber origins, which became the capital of the Kingdom of Mauretania and therefore, some say, of modern Morocco. Its position on a ridge at the base of the Zerhoun mountain provides the visitor with fine panorama of a Roman city with its temples, agora, basilica and triumphal arch.   Although only partly excavated, the exposed mosaics are as fine as you will see anywhere and the small museum contains some interesting artefacts as well as spotlessly clean lavatories. It is a column from Volubilis that serves as a monument to Yves Saint-Laurent’s life and achievements in the Majorelle Gardens in Marrakech.

Our guide points out a farm in the plain to the South, the property of the de Villepin family, one of whom, the effete and snooty Dominique, was prime minister during the Chirac presidency. The lower slopes of the hills to the North are covered in olive trees, and local production of oil has survived for thousands of years, for no fewer than 85 olive presses were found during excavations of Volubilis. Every souk has its mountains of green, yellow and black olives although the oil is somewhat bland and not a patch on the green and peppery Tuscan variety. More suitable for pouring on the body than a salad, as I found out the next day at a Hamman where I was oiled, scraped and sandpapered and then sluiced down like the orlop deck of the Victory after a particularly sanguinary amputation. I’m not sure how many layers of skin were removed but my sun-tan had disappeared and my entire rib cage was visible as if through an x-ray. Retiring to an adjacent room for a massage, I was handed a tiny envelope containing two small eye patches joined by an elastic band; talk about ‘invisible panty line’! Anyway it was just enough to save me from six months for indecent exposure. Again, I was copiously lubricated, this time with Argan oil, before the masseuse got to work on my recumbent skeleton. Now, I’ve always thought that ‘argan’ was Arabic for ‘engine’ but Honeybee says no, argan oil is produced from the kernels of the small, brown nuts that grow, along with goats, on the argan tree.

Argan nut and goat tree

Apart from olive oil, grain and Barbary lions, Mauretania’s other main export to Rome was the purple dye extracted from the gland of the spiny Murex rock-snail. A Phoenician myth tells us that it was the pet dog of Tyros, mistress of Tyre’s patron god, Melquart, that bit into a shell, covered its mouth in purple dye and made the Phoenicians rich. The 1636 painting by Peter Paul Rubens depicts the same myth but substitutes Herakles for Tyros as the dog’s owner, reflecting Rome’s desire to replace Phoenician gods with their own. Tyrian purple dye, produced by the Phoenicians as early as 1,500 BC, was prized for the intensity of colour and its resistance to fading. On account of the vast number of shells needed to produce a small quantity of dye and because of the difficult and lengthy production process, the dye was fabulously expensive. Someone with nothing better to do has calculated that it takes roughly twelve thousand shells to produce 1.4 grams of dye, just enough to colour the border of a single garment. In re-establishing the ancient Phoenician process of manufacturing Tyrian purple dye using the spiny Murex shells that thrive among the intertidal rocks at Essaouira on Morocco’s Atlantic coast, Juba helped make Mauretania one of the wealthiest of Rome’s client kingdoms.

Following Juba’s death in 23AD, his son, Ptolemy, inherited the kingdom but, like many a second generation, not his father’s aptitude for hard work and frugality, although he continued to display the same level of loyalty to Rome and was rewarded for such with an ivory sceptre and triumphal cloak. Acquiring expensive wardrobe tastes, Ptolemy began wearing togas and cloaks in Tyrian purple in defiance of Roman sumptuary laws, which decreed that only the Emperor could use the dye to border his toga and bed sheets and to brighten the guest hand-towels in the Tepidarium. Invited to Rome in 40AD by the unbalanced and bloodthirsty Caligula, Ptolemy was assassinated on the Emperor’s orders. Was Caligula merely piqued at Ptolemy wearing the full Murex or was he concerned that sporting the Imperial purple was a sign of his guest’s political ambitions? Anyway, that was the end of the Kingdom of Mauretania, which was thereafter divided into two separate provinces. Volubilis continued to thrive until 285AD when it fell to local tribes. Ptolemy is still remembered as the first man to die for fashion.

 

THE LAST LION

After Chefchaouen, a Wedgewood maze of souvenir shops, the road South takes us through the Rif Mountains and, after Fez, to Ifrane, a pleasant town surrounded by a forest of pine and cedar, home to the miniature Barbary ape. Built by the French in 1929 as a resort, the town centre is distinguished by a fine sculpture of a Barbary lion, chiselled from rock by an Italian POW in 1945. Barbary lions once roamed the deserts and mountains of North Africa from Egypt to Morocco. Thousands were shipped to the Coliseum and other Roman amphitheatres to be fed on a tasty diet of Christians and gladiators. Later they were sought after by private and public zoos for their size and magnificent black manes and finally polished off by 19th century hunters. The kudos of shooting the last Barbary lion goes to an anonymous French hunter who, it was thought, had extinguished the species in 1922, although reports of subsequent sightings suggest that the Barbary lion may only have become extinct in the wild as late as 1956.

After Ifrane we continue on over dusty plains where the main mode of transport is the mule or donkey – small, miserable creatures on spindly legs, hung like men, sometimes almost invisible under a mountain of hay or an owner, sitting side-saddle and tapping its skinny buttocks as he jogs along.     It’s mid-summer, time, according to our guide, for the dreaded chergui, a fierce East wind that can shrivel a field of plump olives into a crop of desiccated peas in minutes. At Ouarzazate we pass a series of vast movie production studios, their lots crammed with ersatz temples and colossal Egyptian gods in painted polystyrene. On a bank of sand dunes stand the plywood and plaster walls of Jerusalem, once defended by Orlando Bloom against a crowd of turbaned extras in the 2005 epic ‘Kingdom of Heaven’. The studios are a major source of foreign income for Morocco, but more important for its future is what lies beyond the studios – the world’s largest solar power plant, designed to provide 52% of the country’s energy by 2030. On the Mediterranean coast, improvements to the port of Tangiers will soon make it one of the twenty biggest ports in the world. Clearly not all the country is moving at a mule’s pace, perhaps because Morocco benefits from the very best form of government – benevolent despotism. Hearing that another major project was behind schedule, the despotic but immensely popular King Mohammed VI immediately cancelled holiday leave for all management personnel. Now there’s a thought.

The lives of some authors rival their writing in interest; Byron, Hemmingway and DH Lawrence spring to mind. Gavin Maxwell, Scottish aristocrat, naturalist, explorer, secret agent and racing driver was another. His book ‘Ring of Bright Water’ (1956), which tells how the author raised otters he had brought back to Scotland from the reed marshes of South Iraq, established his literary reputation, while ‘Lords of the Atlas; Morocco, the Rise and Fall of  the House of Glaoua‘, published in 1966, provides a riveting portrait of Morocco’s recent political history. The Glaoui were one of several Berber tribes that, for centuries, had struggled for dominance in the High Atlas. Their fortunes improved in 1893 when they were rewarded for saving the Sultan from a blizzard with the gift of a 77mm cannon, which was used to immediately subdue their rivals. For supporting the French Protectorate T’hami el Glaoui, son of an Ethiopian concubine, was made Pasha of Marrakech and given control over the South’s olive and saffron trade and the region’s salt and mineral mines, making him one of the wealthiest men in the world. Guests at his palaces in Telouet and Marrakech included Maurice Ravel, Colette, General Patton, Charlie Chaplin and Winston Churchill. In spite of owning hundreds of slaves, he was a personal guest of Churchill at the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953. By then the end of the Protectorate was in sight and in 1955, after restoring the previously exiled Sultan, the French withdrew, leaving El Glaoui to his fate. They didn’t shoot Morocco’s last great Southern leader, but when he died in 1956 the mob looted his palaces and lynched his henchmen. His reputation as a traitor remains intact and the verb glaouiser (to betray) has become part of French political jargon.

Kasbah of Telouet

We are in the High Atlas mountains, travelling the narrow road built by the French Foreign Legion in 1936 and since largely unrepaired. At eight thousand feet, on the corner of a desert plateau and surrounded by giant peaks we reach the Kasbah of Telouet, once El Glaoui’s fortress palace, now a crumbling building of red stone, pisé and green roof tiles. The Chinese silk panels and the rugs from Rabat have all gone. From the same balcony where I’m told Churchill once watched Berber horsemen show their skills, I can see the nearby village of Telouet, full of descendants of El Glaoui’s slaves. The field where the horsemen once rode for Churchill is now a dusty football pitch.

2 thoughts on “TALES FROM THE NORTHERN HEMISPHERE

  1. Fascinating John.
    I regret not going to Volubilis when I was in Morocco. Is it still called by that name?
    Waiting for the next instalment x Ann

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