THE GOD OF WINE

If I am lucky enough to be in Vienna in the autumn then Theo will take me to the leafy suburb of Grinzing and we will settle into a heuriger to share a carafe or two of Gruner Veltliner, the local wine that’s as tart and green as a Granny Smith. A heuriger, or tavern, will indicate that it is open for business by displaying a bush (buschen) of pine twigs over the door, a practice once common in England (where the bush was of ivy) and now only remembered on the occasional pub-sign, but not however that of The Bull and Bush, which refers to Henry VII’s siege of Boulogne in 1492 and is a corruption of Boulogne bouche (blockaded). It was the Romans that introduced this most ancient device of the wine-seller into the far parts of its empire which is enshrined in the proverb, still current, that a good wine needs no bush. In Rome it was vine branches rather than pine twigs or ivy that were pinned over the tavern lintel in honour of the grape and in reverence to the God of Wine.

Wine’s origins are only conjecture but it seems likely that someone, perhaps somewhere in the Caucasus and several millennia BC, took a sip of the juice of a bunch of rotten grapes and experienced a brief moment of euphoria or perhaps a longer period of drowsiness. It was this mind-changing quality of the fermented grape, interpreted as divine, that made wine originally part of ancient religious ritual; it continues today in the Eucharist. As viticulture spread West people began to celebrate wine’s heavenly qualities and its blood association with libations and religious orgies, either creating a specific wine divinity or extending the responsibilities of an existing deity to include the grape vine. Robert Graves in The White Goddess tells us that the vine was sacred to Osiris and that the golden vine was one of the principal ornaments of the temple of Jerusalem.

When the vine cult reached Greece during the last period of the Bronze Age (1600 and 1100 BC), it came complete with its own God, Dionysus, his mystic history linked to the spread of the vine-cult. Dionysus had no contemporary apostles to record his past life and arrival in Greece but by all accounts he was a foreigner, almost certainly from Thrace (an area now comprising south eastern Bulgaria, Northern Greece and European Turkey).

The Greeks took to wine like ducks to water, excited by the fact that it superseded all previous intoxicants. Possibly on account of climate and certainly because of their skill in producing totally airtight amphorae, they became master winemakers with the vintages of Lesbos and Chios the most highly prized. The Pramnian from Lesbos, mentioned by Homer in The Iliad, became the most famous wine of antiquity and, like most other Greek wines, it was sweet, thick and tangy (from the resin smeared on the inside of the vats) and drunk diluted with water. Dionysus has long departed and no great wines are produced in Greece today, but if you can force down a glass of the omnipresent Retsina it will provide a clue to the taste of those ancient wines.

There were life-style adjustments to accommodate the new cult of the vine, for wine is a civilising agent and set the Greeks apart from the beer drinking barbarians, a thought endorsed thousands of years later by Martin Luther when he said ‘Beer is made by man, wine by God’. Symposia, (cheese and wine parties) became common while everyone, in a gruesome fore-runner of the ‘Trivia Night’, played Kottabos, a game where reposing diners flicked the lees in their wine cups at a target (a small statue on top of a bronze standard) while uttering the name of their lover.

As the importance of wine grew, not least because of its value as an export, so grew the profile and following of the Wine God. Hesiod, writing between 750 and 650 BC provided much needed details of the God’s origins, claiming Dionysus to be the son of Zeus and Semele, the daughter of Cadmus, King of Thebes, making him the only Olympian with a mortal mother. Semele’s death was quite spectacular; persuaded by Hera, the jealous wife of Zeus, to demand the true identity of her lover, she was allowed a brief glimpse of the God before being consumed in his divine fire while, in the same instance, Dionysus was snatched to safety by his father. As a son of Zeus he became the half-brother of Hermes, the God of silk scarves and expensive costume jewellery. Not destined to remain in Olympus Dionysus roamed Earth teaching oenology and good humour for his other name was Charidotes, Giver of Charm.

Eternally youthful, dressed in panther skin, crowned with vine leaves and grape bunches Dionysus carries the thyrsus, a wand bound with ivy and grape vines and topped with a pine cone, which he wields like a bandmaster’s baton as he leads his thiasus, his inebriated, dancing retinue, lead by goat-footed Satyrs under the leadership of purple-faced Silenus, his mentor and the model for every drunken lecher from Gargantua to Falstaff and followed by a rabble of dancing, intoxicated Maenads. Wine is best enjoyed in company.

The worship of Dionysus followed the classic theme of seasonal death and rebirth, the God most active in springtime when the trees and vines burst into life and the whole world is intoxicated by desire. The Dionysian Mysteries used wine, dance and music to liberate the participants from the prison of everyday pre-occupation. Not much has changed in three thousand years except that the celebrations are now continuous and secular. The Wine God was popular because his religion embraced those marginalised by Greek society – slaves, foreigners and women. The dances and ceremonies performed by masked Maenads are believed to be the first birth signs of drama as an art form.

Dionysus was the God of Wine and Wine-making, of Religious Ecstasy, of Fertility (Priapus was a son), of Pleasure and, latterly of the Theatre; but he was not the God of Drunkenness, which was the lot of Silenus. The Greeks were well aware that the dangers of denial were equalled by the dangers of excess. In this piece of dialogue from ‘Semele or Dionysus’, a 375 BC play by Eubulus, , Dionysus says:

Three bowls do I mix for the temperate: one to health, which they empty first; the second to love and pleasure; the third to sleep. When this bowl is drunk up, wise guests go home. The fourth bowl is ours no longer, but belongs to violence; the fifth to uproar; the sixth to drunken revel; the seventh to black eyes; the eighth is the policeman’s; the ninth belongs to biliousness; and the tenth to madness and the hurling of furniture.[17]

 

It was only a matter of time before the wine cult spread North from the Greek settlements among the coastal towns of Southern Italy and eventually Dionysus moved to Rome and changed his name to Bacchus. The Romans proved even better wine-makers than the Greeks whose wine soon went out of fashion after the first of the great Italian vintages, the Opimian which appeared in 121 BC, followed shortly after by the Falernian. By the time Augustus began ruling the Empire in 27BC vines were growing in the North of Italy and Rhaetic, the ancestor of Soave, became the Emperor’s favourite wine. In Rome the Dionysian orgies became the Bacchanalia, which unfortunately got out of hand because they are known from measures taken by the Roman senate to repress them in the third century BC.

There are no longer any temples dedicated to Bacchus, no statues to touch in the Forum, although he is still visible in the World’s major art museums in the form of paintings by Titian, Velazquez, Delacroix, Poussin and Caravaggio. Most representations of Bacchus record the moment he came upon Ariadne, abandoned by Theseus on Naxos, made her his wife and set her among the stars.

I can understand the economy of having a God of Everything but He is far too serious, much too busy to assist in those minor, instinctive, every day issues which seem important to us at the time. And so it is Bacchus that we turn to when opening a bottle of 86 Sassicaia, praying that the cork stays firm, that the wine has not lost its freshness and that it cements the conviviality of good company.

Although he may have briefly pointed the tip of his thyrsus in the direction of Bordeaux and the Cote D’Or, The God of Wine is the God of Italian wine. I feel he is at home in the organised pandemonium of his adoptive home, more comfortable among its trailing vines than between the clipped and manicured rows of French vines or in the soulless wineries of the New World.

When pleasantly astounded by the unexpected we say ‘O My God!’; the Italians still say what they have always said, ‘Per Bacco!’

 

MY WEEK

Mundaneday
Gymday
Cleanersday
Binsday
Stephen Fryday
Footyday
Glumday

September 19th

Monday is always a bad day for me as I suffer from post-natal depression, or rather, I have been subject to mild and occasional attacks of what I prefer to call accidie for as long as I can remember. Depression is a clinical condition treatable with medication and psychotherapy; accidie (or acedia) is the debilitating effect of ennui, treatable by exposure to excitement or a cold shower. Accidie is transitory, temporal; depression can be lasting, sometimes permanent. Depression sufferers are often unaware of the cause of their misery; those afflicted with accidie know exactly what drives their mental lethargy – boredom, melancholia induced by reflection on the human condition, nostalgia for a real or imagined past and lovesickness.

It was at school while studying the perennially lovesick Elizabethan lyricists that I first heard the term mentioned, a master using it to describe the despair over unrequited love included in the verse and drama of John Lyly, Sir Thomas Wyatt, John Ford, Thomas Nashe, William Shakespeare and others. From the mid 16th century and well into the 17th melancholia was a full-blown epidemic. Some scholars point to the war with Spain and an uncertain political and religious climate but, more likely, melancholy, along with a lean and pale demeanour, was a fashion of the time and helped set off a well-cut ensemble of cloak, tights and doublet in lamp black. Much of its popularity can be attributed to the tradition that Aristotle claimed melancholy to be the most desirable human condition, providing intellectual powers. This lasting concept was largely based on Cicero’s writing  ‘Aristotle says that all geniuses are melancholic’ and reinforced by Plutarch’s  ‘Aristotle, declaring that the great natures are melancholic, such as Socrates, Plato and Hercules, records that Lysander too…..was afflicted with melancholy’.

The term, accidie, originally from the Greek akedia – lack of care (for life and one’s self), has long been out of fashion as doctors invent new terms for the endless varieties of mental illness they identify. It first arose in the 4th century CE when early Christian monks, hermits and ascetics followed the example of Anthony the Great and set up cenobitic communities in Egypt’s Nitrian desert.  Among the Desert Fathers, as they are known, some failed to adhere to the stringent asceticism and solitary life, neglecting their religious duties, generally ‘letting themselves go’ and becoming the first sufferers of accidie, a sin listed   among Evagrius Ponticus’ 8 patterns of evil thought compiled in 275CE. Two centuries later Pope Gregory I combined Evragius’ sins of sorrow (depression) and accidie (sloth) to give us our standard list of Seven Deadly Sins. Knowingly or not, he had, rightly, eliminated depression as a sin.

Whereas depression, aka the Black Dog (an expression associated with Winston Churchill but already in use in the 18th century), is a most dreadful illness, accidie has its supporters. ‘Melancholy’, wrote Victor Hugo, ‘is the pleasure of being sad’. ‘Depression’ added Susan Sontag ‘is melancholy minus its charm’. Beaudelaire, an accidie sufferer if ever there was one, tells us that he ‘can barley conceive of a type of beauty in which there is no melancholy’. Hamlet suffered from accidie. Some say Sherlock Holmes was bi-polar, but he definitely suffered from boredom, as did Graham Greene. The English author has been labelled as manic-depressive, but Paul Theroux, who knew Greene, describes him as ‘an authentic melancholic’ in his article for the New York Times, ‘Damned Old Graham Greene’. Greene’s ennui was such that he rarely spent more than a few weeks in one place, constantly moving between his properties in Antibes, Capri and Paris. Sex as well as travel, rescued him from the old ennui, and he maintained a wife, a stable of mistresses as well as paying the odd visit to a prostitute, a habit likened by a friend to ‘paying someone to let you beat them at tennis’.

The actor George Sanders was another victim. Famous for Shere Khan’s patrician drawl in The Jungle Book, George ended it all by swallowing 5 bottles of Nembutal in a hotel on the Costa Brava. He was 65 and world-weary in spite of marrying BOTH Zsa Zsa AND Magda, two thirds of the notoriously glamorous Gabor sisters. ‘Dear World’, he wrote in a suicide note, ‘I am leaving you because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck!’

September 20th

It must have been sometime between 8 and 8.15 when I woke up. I always have a good stretch on waking but this time I was startled when my left hand encountered another body in the bed, which was a surprise because Honeybee is usually well gone by 8 am. Imagine my shock when I found the body belonged to none other than Scarlett Johansson, wearing nothing but diamond studs in each earlobe and a dash of Mitsouko behind each ear; not even a small residue of polish on a toe-nail. Shock gave way to puzzlement as I began wondering how she had got in; I‘m fairly sure I never gave her a key. ‘How?’ I asked. ‘Under the flower pot’ she replied. Of course, she would have known that’s where keys are kept from her considerable film experience. Most people only know the public Scarlett, the Hollywood Star twice voted ‘Sexiest Woman Alive’ by Esquire magazine. Here with me she can do what she enjoys best, curling up on the couch in one of my old sweaters, watching the footy with a Tim Tam and cup of tea. I next remember waking up again around 11. Scarlett had gone, leaving not so much as a faint whiff of Mitsouko on the pillow. Lying there I realised I had narrowly escaped a very unpleasant scene. If Honeybee had decided to go in late to the office there would have been hell to pay. I spent an hour cleaning up, searching for dyed blonde hairs and stray items of La Perla underwear, but all was clean. Then I moved the spare house key from under the flower pot and hid it under the watering can. That should put a stop to Scarlett’s dangerous games!

September 21sti

Have just finished reading ‘Good Sense vs Doom and Gloom’ a review in the Financial Review of Johan Norberg’s book ’10 Reasons to Look Forward to the Future’. Being occasionally despondent as I contemplate the inevitability of decay, I am always interested in some hopeful news.  So what is Mr Norberg offering to cheer us up? Life, he says, is getting better, a fact not generally understood because journalists find calamities more sensational reporting than good news. Poverty, worldwide, he says, is diminishing with only 10% of humanity subsisting on less than $2 per day; 68% of the world’s population now has modern sanitation; better nutrition and the spread of education has raised the IQ level in America to an average of 118. So why, I ask, are so many Americans trying to elect Donald Trump to the White House? Violence, it seems, is down, the homicide rate among hunter-gatherer societies being 500 times what it is in Europe today, probably thanks to the CCTV camera. This is a mathematician’s view of the world. Norberg ignores the rise of greed and selfishness that came hand in hand with increased prosperity; the proliferation of retirement villages for abandoned parents; the decline in human contact as the virtual eclipses the real world. In her book ‘Acedia & Me’, Kathleen Norris sums up pretty well why many do not believe in a better future. Advertising ploys, she says, engender dissatisfaction with our highly structured, multi-tasking lives. We are oversaturated with data but receive little real information. ‘In this hyped-up world, broadcast and internet news media have emerged as acedia’s (indifference’s) perfect vehicles, demanding that we care, all at once, about a suicide bombing, a celebrity divorce and the latest advance in nanotechnology.’

The future’s not what it used to be.

September 22nd

Saw such a good film on TCM, ‘This Time for Keeps’, made in 1947 and starring Jimmy Durante and Esther Williams, the ‘Million Dollar Mermaid’.  Esther carved gracefully through the water without the aid of the oxen shoulders developed by today’s aquatic stars and still managed to look ravishing in a bathing costume that covered only slightly less than a burkini. There are stories that she and Johnny Weissmuller once dated – what swimming champions they might have produced! Once his career as Tarzan and Jungle Jim was over, Johnny, winner of 5 Olympic gold medals, could be found greeting punters at the door of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas in the company of that great boxing champion, Joe Louis. How are the mighty fallen in the midst of battle!

Now, back to the film and a word on its very impressive location. I’d never heard of Mackinac and had to resort to Google to learn that it was an island in Lake Huron, a beautiful holiday resort, its centrepiece a stunning Victorian Hotel with a veranda like the keyboard of a giant grand piano. It’s also in Michigan, a state which doesn’t normally get a good press, being often depicted in permanent winter, the natives in caps with flaps, speaking slowly with Swedish accents while shovelling snow from their shop fronts; solitary men sitting on camp stools fishing through holes in the ice. It sounds like the sort of climate that would produce a hefty number of accidie sufferers. But no, in her book ‘The Geography of Melancholy, Tara Isabel Burton tells us that it’s not nature but cities that evoke melancholy. The countryside may alter its complexion as seasons change but it remains basically in situ. Nature attracts Romantic poets like Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron and Coleridge whereas the melancholia sufferers are urban writers like Beaudelaire, Graham Greene and the late, lamented Jeffrey Bernard who wrote the Low Life column in The Spectator. After his death in 1997, a collection of his articles was published under the splendid title ‘Reach for the Ground – The Downhill Struggle of Jeffrey Bernard’, a catalogue of the writer’s drunken but insightful meanderings in that one time capital of melancholia – London’s Soho. Cities alter permanently each day; what you loved about your neighbourhood in your youth almost certainly will not be there in fifty years’ time, not even if it’s a 12th century monastery if you live in Aleppo. I’m not sure about this argument, I’m pretty sure I could find some writers who felt aliens in the bush. I would agree that there are certain cities that induce melancholy. I can think of Perth (Australia), Eboli (Italy) and Ashford (England). Lille (France) used to be sad but has cheered up recently. Burton cites Lisbon, a city that even has a word, ‘saudade’, to describe nostalgia for its past, a sadness that apparently finds expression in fado. Istanbul, the author claims, is depressed over losing its former greatness and, like Portugal, has a name (huzun) for this sense of loss. Big mistake of course, changing the name; Constantinople had a much more solid ring to it. I cannot say I found Trieste depressing although I admit the name does sound a bit like the French word for sad. We are off to Tasmania next week; must remember to pack the Prozac.

September 23rd

A ferry ride into the city aboard the good ship Sirius. Broad of beam, she bustles around Sydney harbour in her cream and olive livery. It’s not a lively crowd she ferries from Neutral Bay to Circular Quay, mostly people quietly on their way to work; men and women in dark suits concerned with interest rates and the unexpected downturn in sales, talking only into cell-phones.  Sirius’s workmates join her as we nose into her No 4 berth; Golden Grove, Lady Northcote, Friendship, all names of ships of the First Fleet, names that won’t be forgotten in 100 years (unlike those of Olympic swimmers) their origins lost in time, but still powerful enough to form part of the great litany of ships whose names alone are a history lesson. Argos, Nina and Pinta, Lusitania, The Pelican, Kon Tiki. Once a famous name like Cutty Sark would help sell a brand of whiskey; now ships are named after products, forcing sailors to winch up spinnakers bearing the names of radio stations or software companies. Damn shame.

September 24th

A bottle of really heavy Australian wine last night has left me very slightly hungover this morning. Ah, the wrath of grapes! My suffering, however, was nothing like the hangover described by Sir William Connor writing under the pseudonym ‘Cassandra’ for the London Daily Mirror between 1935 and 1967, the Golden Age of the Press, the days before Dirty Digger Murdoch replaced bona fide journalists with hacks and hackers.

 A hangover is when your tongue tastes like a tram driver’s glove. Your boots seem to be steaming and your eyes burn in their sockets like gooseberries. Your stomach spins slowly on its axis and your head gently swells and contracts like a jelly in a tideway. Voices sound far off and your hands tremble like those of a centenarian condemned to death. Slight movements make you sweat, even as you shiver from the deadly cold that is within you. Bright lights hurt your eyes, and jeering, gibbering people from the night before seem to whisper in your ears, and then fade with mocking, horrible laughter into silence. The finger-nails are brittle and your skin hangs on you like an old second-hand suit. Your feet appear to be swollen, and walking is like wading through a swamp of lumpy, thick custard. Your throat is cracked and parched like the bottom of an old saucepan that has boiled dry. The next moment the symptoms change, and your mouth is stuffed with warm cotton wool. When you brush your hair you are certain that there is no top to your skull, and your brain stands naked and throbbing in the stabbing air. Your back aches and feels as though someone is nailing a placard to your shoulder blades. Knee joints have turned to dish water and eyelids are made of sheets of lead lined with sandpaper. When you lean on a table it sways gently and you know for certain that you are at sea. Should you step off a kerb you stumble, for it is a yard deep and the gutter yawns like a wide, quaking trench. You have no sense of touch and your fingertips feel with all the acuteness of decayed firewood smeared with putty. The nostrils dilate and smell the evil air. You believe that you are in a horrible dream but when you wake up you know that it will all be true. Your teeth have been filed to stumps and are about to be unscrewed one by one from your aching jaw. You want to sleep, but when you close your eyes you are dizzy, and you heel over like a water-logged barrel crammed with old, sodden cabbage stalks in the Grand Junction Canal. When you read your eyes follow each letter to try to spell the words, but in vain – no message reaches you empty, sullen brain. Should you look at a simple thing like a tree, it will appear that the bark is gradually crawling upwards. Lights flash and crackle before you and innumerable little brown dwarfs start tapping just below the base of your skull with tiny, dainty hammers made of compressed rubber.

O Death, where is thy sting?

September 25th

And Lo, it was the Sabbath, and I was sent forth unto the laundry to fetch a bottle of wine for it was the Feast of the Father and our firstborn was coming to lunch. And he came not alone, saying ‘Behold, this is my new companion and her name is Dizzi, which meaneth she that causeth men’s heads to turn’. Verily I say unto you she was a peach, but I was silent on the matter lest I be named cad. And our firstborn laid a gift at my feet and it was a set of Philips Screwdrivers from Bunnings and the price-tag showed they had cost $2.85. I waxed wrathful, saying ‘Is it not written “Honour thy Father and thy Mother”? Are you not clothed by Armani? Do you not drive a Series 3 BMW?’ And our firstborn wept with remorse and my wife comforted him, cursing me and saying ‘Verily, thou art an abomination among men, you know not of the financial burdens that beset our son.’ What man can compete with a woman who serveth up the honey and when she handeth out the vinegar, who can equal her? And we sat at the table and it was laden with the good things of Mosman, with corn and bread and meat in abundance. And I said ‘Is this not a standing rib roast which costeth an arm and a leg? I would have been pleased with a shoulder of lamb from Coles.’ And my wife answered ‘Go thy way, O Simple One! Know ye not by now that of all manner of mannah a standing rib roast is our son’s favourite?’ And I replied saying ‘Is this not MY day? Are we not celebrating the Day of the Father?’ And then the Heavens erupted and there was much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. And afterwards there was silence for seven days and seven nights.

MAY IN SICILY

Pleasant town, Modica; less touristy than the provincial capital, Ragusa, while still containing an adequate quota of fashionable Baroque churches. Once the capital of a corn-rich province that stretched as far as Palermo, it was the Modican corn merchants that fingered the corrupt Roman governor, Gaius Verres, causing Cicero to sharpen his stylus and begin one of the most famous cases in legal history. The town, mostly built in the early 18th century following an earthquake in 1693, spreads up the steep sides of a valley. Our apartment, near the floor of the valley, is in one of the narrow alleys, surrounded by balconies, roof-tops and washing drying in the sun. Pigeons coo and homeless cats roam the passageways and stone staircases.

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Modica and Franca’s shoes by night

The town comes alive at 9 am, traffic humming, bells ringing, roller shutters rattling up to reveal butchers and bakers and pasta makers. One o’clock and the town is silent as everyone except us disappears indoors for lunch and siesta. Life returns in the late afternoon when the shops reopen. Later, at dusk, the cafes and gelaterias become busy while swallows dart about reducing the mosquito population.

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We are sitting having the traditional summer Sicilian breakfast of granita di mandorle and brioche. An illegally parked car attracts the attention of a smartly dressed policewoman who gives three sharp blasts on her whistle to warn the driver, who is having a hurried cappuccino and cornetto con crema before work, that he has ten minutes to move his car or be fined. I believe this civilized attitude contributes much to the calm and laissez faire attitude of the Modicani drivers, for here you may close your eyes and cross the road anywhere in the middle of rush hour without injury and without causing anyone the slightest irritation.

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The Police keep a low profile

 

Outside the town they are harvesting hay in fields surrounded by olive and citrus. Sirocco gusts disturb the tops of bulrushes clogging the ditches; bougainvillea and prickly pear cactus hang over dry-stone walls. The walls are everywhere, criss-crossing the hillsides, delineating property and propping up ancient terraces, some perfect, some crumbling and neglected.  Wall building in this region began in the 15th century when the land-rich Cabrera family allotted plots of land to local farmers in exchange for a portion of their produce. The stones, dug from the fields to improve cultivation, were used as property boundaries and to separate animals from fruit and cereals. Ragusan dry-stone walls are particular in as much as the top of the two parallel walls are crowned with a row of semi-circular stones.

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On the road to Scicli

 

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On the road to Ragusa

At Al Molo, a five-star fish restaurant in the coastal town of Donnalucata, I look up from my plate of grilled red mullet to see a poem inscribed on the wall by Claudio, the restaurant’s genial proprietor. It’s called ‘U Muru a-siccu’ and it’s in Sicilian dialect and I can’t understand a word. Honeybee tells me it’s a dialogue between the poet and the walls, as if they are possessed of souls. Well of course they are; each stone is chosen, placed and shaped by an artisan; they are individual, beautiful and, yes, soulful. By contrast, your i.phone, your microwave oven and your black SUV with its darkened windows and six airbags have no soul. Nor does the internet. I’m not sure whether Henry Ford and Tim Berners-Lee  have really done planet Earth any favours. Am I a Luddite? Well I’m not going to smash my i.phone, I need it to call up an Uber.

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At the Castello di Donnafugata

Incidentally, those prickly pear cactus that seem so Sicilian, were actually imported from Mexico by the Spanish in the 16th century, presumably as pot-plants and decoration as the peeled fruit is only mildly interesting in a melonish sort of way.

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The beauty of the prickly pear

 

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Impossible to imagine the landscape without the prickly pear

TANTI SANTI

Sunday morning and I’m awoken by a salvo of cannon fire and a peal of bells. Is it Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture? No, it’s the festival of Santa Maria delle Grazie, the nearest of Modica’s hundred or so churches to our apartment. We hurry to the church to find the priest beginning the first of a day-long series of al fresco masses in the piazza.

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Al fresco Mass

 

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In the evening the Madonna is shown to the people

 

 

The Catholic religion is never far away in Sicily; there are shrines everywhere and rare is the home, shop or office that does not display a crucifix, a picture of a past or present Pope, a local Saint and the odd plaster statue of Christ or the Virgin Mary.

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Holy section of local supermarket

There’s bound to be a few Saintly ceremonies when you consider that, over time, the Catholic Church has made Saints of approximately 10,000 of its followers. 2013 was an exceptional year for recruitment with Pope Francis canonizing no less than 813 former citizens of the Southern Italian town of Otranto, beheaded by Ottoman invaders in 1480 for refusing to convert to Islam. No surprises then, when, a week later in the town of Adrano , we witness the single celebration of three Saints.

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A trifecta of Saints – Filadelfo, Alfio & Firino

I do love all this ceremony but I can’t help thinking that the world would have had a more peaceful history if Constantine had persevered with the Roman Gods and not made Christianity the state religion. I may be wrong, but I don’t think the Greeks or Romans went to war to force foreigners to worship Apollo or Mars or Athena, but for purely political, defensive or territorial reasons. Anyway, I’m not sure the Romans took their religion all that seriously; how could you when you learn that your chief deity, Zeus, had seduced Leda, wife of the king of Sparta, in the guise of a swan? On the other hand look at the wonderful art and architecture this so-called pagan religion has inspired. Having a series of specialist Gods who are experienced in the area in which you are seeking help seems very logical and in keeping with modern consulting practice and I really like the idea of having a God of Wine.

MAFIUSU

‘The expression mafia and derivatives such as mafiusu, mafiuseddu denoted outstanding beauty, grace and excellence. A beautiful woman, a fine fruit were mafiuse.’
Francis Guercio, ‘Sicily, the Garden of the Mediterranean’ Faber & Faber, 1938

It is well over a century and half ago that the mafia took root in the Borgo suburb of Palermo with the admirable objective of providing redress for the oppressed in exchange for money or favours. As we all know, it quickly developed into a uniquely criminal organization dealing in illegal drugs and extortion. And yet Francis Guercio concludes that, as a result of a campaign by the Mussolini government in the mid 1930s, the mafia ‘had ceased to be anything but a terrible anachronism.’ This is not so. You cannot come to Sicily today and ignore the mafia, even if, as is likely, you will never have any direct dealings with its members. While Toto Riina remains incarcerated for the murders of those heroic Magistrates, Falcone and Borsellino, one cannot help being reminded that the piovra still winds its tentacles around Southern Italy and in particular Sicily, both the best and the worst of Italy.

  • In the Nebrodi National Park in Catania province the Mafia set fire to petrol-soaked rags they have tied to the tails of cats. The cats, fleeing in terror into forest, set fire to the undergrowth. The objective? To replace the burned trees through a Mafia controlled re-forestation company. An attempt is made to assassinate Signor Antoci, the Park’s director, when he tries to stop the Mafia renting grazing land in the Park, a long-standing practice used to skim off millions in EU farming subsidies.
  • During a religious procession in the Calabrian town of Oppido Mamertina the statue of the Virgin is diverted and taken in front of the house belonging to the local mob boss, where the statue is made to bow as a mark of respect to the resident ‘man of honour’.
  • In Palermo, police trap four criminals following a robbery and car chase but are prevented from arresting the culprits by local residents and onlookers.
  • Public and official outrage follows the televised interview between journalist Bruno Vespa and Salvo Riina, son of the assassin of magistrates Falcone and Borsellino and author of a book extolling the paternal qualities of his father, where the interviewer is accused of providing a marketing coup for the mafia. Many independent bookstores refuse to sell the book.

 AL MARE

Here, on the coast of Ragusa province, we are at the most Southerly point of Europe, where the Ionian Sea meets the Mediterranean. The nicest beaches are between Pozzallo and Santa Croce. At Donnalucata in May we have the beach to ourselves. We arrive early when the fishermen display last night’s catch

Although over 5,000 refugees have arrived in the nearby port of Pozzallo since the new year began, I hear and see only signs of welcome among the Sicilians. Scores of the North African fishing boats that succeed in making the dangerous crossing are piled on the beaches awaiting incineration.

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Refugee boats dumped on the beach near Pozzallo

L’AMORE

In spite of the chaotic politics, the graft and the refugees, what graffiti there is tends to be uniquely concerned with l’amore: 

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‘I want to hold you in my arms, protect you from everything and everybody and never let you go!’

 

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‘Let my white soul become inky black to give to you.’          Quite dark, that one.

 

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‘Love is….’ a whimsical question on a wall near my mother-in-law’s apartment. I’m pretty sure it’s not her handwriting.

 

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‘Either I love you or I kill you’!!! Andrea. Hmmm…

 

UNDER THE VOLCANO

We are staying in an agritourism hotel in Schettino, a small town on the slopes of Etna. Our dinner order, chosen from a menu dominated by frozen products, is taken by the sour-faced proprietor and served by a waiter from the cast of The Munsters. The pillows in the bedroom are fashioned from railway sleepers and a gurgling water system keeps us awake all night. But all this is forgotten in the morning when we open the blinds, look up and see Etna, cloud-free in a brilliant blue sky.

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Cloud-free Etna

We drive clockwise around the volcano, through Adrano, Bronte and the medieval town of Randazzo. Broom and wild flowers blossom among the lava deposits and small vineyards border the road, separated by dry-stone lava walls.

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Broom grows where the lava deposits are more recent. Those are minor extinct volcanos in the distance

Until recently the wine produced here was for local consumption only; now it is to be found in the best restaurants from California to Tokyo. Near the little village of Passopisciaro, Franco and Gianni show us around their immaculate vineyard and let us taste their wines made from 90 year old Nerello Mascalese vines. Their red Calcagno wines are so good that I have to exercise all of my feeble willpower to spit out rather than swallow these splendid wines, but we do have a long road back to Modica.

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Calcagno vineyard at Passopisciaro

We are on the sea-front in Giardini Naxos, the sun is sparkling on the Ionian Sea and it is time for lunch. Honeybee inquires after a good fish restaurant from the proprietor of a sports goods shop who is watching the passing traffic from his doorway.

Shopowner : Buon giorno, Signora! You have come to the right person for I can direct you to a trattoria where you will eat well and pay little.

Honeybee : We are looking to enjoy some seafood.

Shopowner : Beppe has the freshest seafood in all Naxos and his Spaghetti ai Ricci (pasta with sea-urchin) is a culinary miracolo.

Voice from within : There will be no ricci today because your cousin was playing cards all night and failed to take his boat out.

Shopowner : Don’t listen; Beppe always has ricci. He mixes the urchin-meat with a little cream and parsley, adds a whiff of peperoncino and a pinch of salt and ecco, un piatto da morire!!

The speaker joins the tips of his forefinger and thumb, purses his lips and rolls his eyes to heaven in an expression of ecstasy before giving directions to the Trattoria del Marinaio

Honeybee : Are there any vegetarian dishes, my sister is a vegan?

Shopowner : (Glumly) Ah, I have heard about such people; Beppe receives guests to his table from many different countries.

Honeybee : I expect there will be an insalata of some kind…

Shopowner : (shrugging unhopefully) Perhaps, Signora. Now don’t forget to ask for Beppe and tell him Carlo sends you.

Voice from within : Beppe will not be there; his mother finally got a bed in the hospital in Messina and is having her legs treated this very afternoon by Professore Bontempo. Beppe will be taking her the flowers he bought yesterday from that ladro’s stall in front of the Comune.

Shopowner: In that case Carmina will be doing the cooking!

Voice from within : Carmina cannot boil water; in any case I saw la troia disappearing on the back of Franco’s Vespa the moment Beppe was out of sight.

Shopowner: Ahhh.. so.. perhaps the restaurant will be closed….. mi dispiace, Signora. Buon pranzo e buon proseguimento. 

Overlooking Giardini Naxos is the once charming town of Taormina, already, in early May, awash with souvenir shops and crowds of tourists. The best time to visit Taormina would have been in 100 BC, although I remember it being still relatively unspoilt in 1972. It certainly made an impression on a neighbour of mine because he named his daughter Taormina after she was conceived there sometime in the early ‘60s. Fortunately the honeymoon wasn’t in Broadstairs or Tossa.

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Giardini-Naxos from Taormina

We are in the delightful hill-town of Chiaramonte Gulfi, which went to sleep in the 17th century and has never woken up. At least not until tonight, because in huge letters in the main Piazza we see AVE MARIA’ in neon lights announcing some religious festivities in the Duomo. It is also guest chef night at ‘Da Maiore’, a restaurant with a menu designed entirely around the insides and outsides of the Nero dei Nebrodi, a breed of Sicilian pig noted for its sausage-filling qualities.

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Gianni choosing a sausage necklace

Glasses of Frappato and Grillo and sumptuous antipasti of arancini, gelatina (pig), coppa (pig), salami (pig) and proscuito (pig) are served in the well-stocked wine cellar before we sit down to dine. The guest chef is Emanuele Fanitza of the Ristorante Letizia in Nuxis (Southern Sardinia), and he demonstrates how he makes tonight’s primo of fregola con ragu di salsiccia (pig), finocchietto selvatico, basilico e zafferano and secondo of maialino al forno (pig) while Honeybee takes notes. Enthusiastic wine growers get up to tell us about the wines we are drinking (Cerasuolo and Nero D’Avola), followed by a producer who elevates his olive oil into the culinary stratosphere -‘L’olio e il direttore d’orchestra d’un piatto: puo’ esaltare un cibo o puo’ distruggerlo.’ Quite. After a waitress tells us how she won a scholarship to a Hospitality College based on her thesis on salame, the chef of Da Maiore, splendid in foot-high toque, grabs the mike. Next to a lover’s lips there is nothing an Italian likes more against his or hers than a microphone. Unless you are Jamie Oliver, I guess a chef doesn’t get much opportunity to sound off, being stuck in the kitchen, and this was his moment. Anyway, his topic was the dessert, nougat ice cream on a bed of melted Modica chocolate, which gradually expanded into a discourse on world gastronomy until someone yelled out that the ice cream was melting, and everyone laughed and it was as convivial an evening as you are ever likely to enjoy.

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Differing fashions in Sardinian and Sicilian tocques

OPERA DEI PUPI

In the souvenir shops of Sicily, amongst the fridge magnets and ceramic pots and tiles from Caltagirone, a visitor cannot help but notice the displays of brightly plumed and armour-clad marionettes.

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Gift shop in Donnalucata with souvenir Orlando

Their story begins back in the 12th century with The Song of Roland, an epic poem recounting Charlemagne’s campaign in Spain against the Moors, the defeat, in 778, of his rearguard and the death of its Captain, Roland, during the army’s retreat through the pass of Roncevaux in the Pyrenees. History tells us that it was the Basques who destroyed Charlemagne’s rearguard, but such was the fear of Islam at the time, for propaganda purposes the defeat was attributed to the Moors. The fear dates back to the Arab and Berber invasion of Aquitaine and France in 732, which advanced as far as Tours before being stopped by a Frankish army under Charles Martel. It was a decisive victory but a half century later, his grandson, Charlemagne, was still defending Christian Europe from Moslem armies and, when he died in 814, Spain was still firmly in the hands of the Saracens.

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Theatre quality Orlando

Seven hundred years later Moslems from the East were on the march. In quick order, the Turks defeated the Venetian fleet at Lepanto, conquered Serbia, Bosnia and the Crimea, marched into Hungary and Germany and captured, as mentioned earlier, the Southern Italian town of Otranto, decapitating 813 future Saints. These events reignited public interest in the story of Charlemagne and his Paladins – the twelve Peers of his Court – and their struggle against Islam producing three great Chansons de Geste:  Matteo Boiardo’s ‘Orlando Inammorato’, Torquato Tasso’s ‘Gerusalemme Liberata’ and Ariosto’s ‘Orlando Furioso’.  All of these poems employ the same characters, most notably Charlemagne and Roland, although the latter’s name has been Italianised as Orlando while his sword (Durendal in The Song of Roland), has become Durindana, a name once given by Sicilian barbers to their razors before the arrival of the electric shaver.

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Orlando Furioso, the most important of these three epic poems (and the longest at 22,000 words) tells how Orlando, a military hero in the service of Charlemagne, falls in love with Angelica, Queen of Cathay, becoming mad with jealousy when he is rejected in favour of Medoro, an African Prince. This heroic tale of fantasy, love, war, magic, bloodshed and chivalry, derived from Carolingan, Celtic and Classical sources, has been mined by Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron, Virginia Woolf and Stephen King. Ingres painted Ruggiero rescuing Angelica, Handel turned the story into an opera and Harry Potter rides a Hippogriff. Chivalry unfortunately disappeared when the horse, from which it took its name, ceased to be a means of transport. Now, even those minor, chivalric manners, such as holding a door open for a lady, are almost extinct, condemned as benevolent sexism. Sad, really really sad.

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You can overdo these things

Sicily, under Spanish rule at the time Ariosto was writing, was also prey to Moslem aggression, especially from Khair-ed-Din, better known as Barbarossa, and his Barbary pirates and it was probably in this era that Paladin stories became popular and people began decorating their carts with scenes from Frankish romantic poems depicting the fight against  i mori, i turchi, i infedeli, i saraceni, e i pagani.

‘Childish pastime or serious art form?’ questions Francis Guercio. Either way, the practice continues today and the latest fashion collection of Dolce and Gabbana, both Sicilians, is based firmly upon cart-art.

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Childish pastime or serious art form?

 

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Dolce e Gabbana handbag

 

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Cart-art fashion for the well-heeled

While Ariosto was writing Orlando Furioso, a new form of street theatre began to appear in Renaissance Italy, based upon the impromptu interaction between a number of stock, masked characters, which included Arlecchino, Pantalone, Colombina, Scaramouche and Pulcinella, the Lord of Misrule, who can still be seen on English beaches in summer under his Anglicised name of Punch. First called commedia all’improvviso and later commedia dell’arte, it flourished in the North of Italy where the weather is cooler and they welcome a bit of comedy, whereas in the South, especially in hot and sultry Sicily, the people’s preference was for Baroque melodrama, occasionally enlivened with aspects of commedia dell’arte.

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Agramante on display in Marzamemi

In was in the middle of the 19th century, after writers Andrea da Barbarino and Don Giusto Lodico produced popular versions of stories from Orlando Furioso (never previously accessible to the common man), that l’opera dei pupi took the form that we still see today – marionettes performing from a repertoire of Paladin stories that concentrate on duels, battles and jousts between the Knights of Charlemagne and the warriors of Islam. More popular in the regions of Palermo and Catania and more frequently shown in the cooler seasons, l’opera dei pupi represents a living link to actual and legendary medieval events. If you do catch a show you may find that Orlando, aka Roland, is also called Anglante or the Count Rinaldo or… Montalbano! I knew the good Inspector came from noble stock.

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Saints day festival in Adrano

CODA

Time to go home. My mother-in-law’s postman neighbor, Matteo, grasps me in a bear-like hug, squeezing the life out of me, and plants a kiss on both cheeks. Is this what it’s like to be a woman? But isn’t this what RLS was on about in his foreword to ‘Travels with a Donkey’- friends. So I’ll take Matteo back home with me, even though he drives me crackers with his Facebook posts. We will also be taking Adriano with us, a new friend, a Modican and a man with the rare gift of being able to communicate with both the young and the old.

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Perbacco!! did we really spend all that money? Can’t be! Well, you did buy all those shoes. No other option; back to work.

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Brother, can you spare me a dime?

 

 

 

THREE DAYS IN ALSACE

A quick trip to Versailles to see my friend PJ. To fly directly from the heat of Southern Sicily to cool, green France is to emerge from the caldarium and plunge straight into the frigidarium. Versailles has changed little in the two years since I was last here although I see less people that look as if they might be able to trace their blood-line back to Asterix, or Joan of Arc, or a sergeant in Napoleon’s Grande Armee. France, like England, is becoming more and more a multi-cultural society. Retail is changing too, moving to the Commercial Centre at Parly 2, and leaving the streets in Versailles to cafes, restaurants, hairdressers, Yoga Classes and real-estate agents. Some types of shop that were once present in every French high street have disappeared altogether; let us mourn the departure of la quincaillerie, la mercerie, le cordonier and la droguerie.

Much to PJ’s pleasure, a falcon has nested on the tower of the Cathedral and has been busy reducing the pigeon population, while four charming squares that once housed Louis XV’s extensive collection of courtesans, popularly known as Le Parc des Biches, are slowly being restored, making pleasant little apartments for young couples and offices for software designers. It was good to be the King!

 

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Le Parc des Biches

 

There is one shop that has been around for a long time and still thrives in many French towns and that is Nicolas, the wine sellers, established in 1822. The shops are managed and staffed by wine experts and the wines are displayed by region, which makes sense when one considers there are over 50 wine producing grape varieties in France. Before the dubious gifts of the internet and the website, Nicolas published an annual price catalogue of its wines, collected now for their illustrations and for the frustrating knowledge that in 1963 I could have bought an 1868 Chateau Lafite for 70 Francs instead of wasting my money on cigarettes.

 

Nicolas 1963 Catalogue with illustrations by Dubuffet

We visit an exhibition of paintings by Impressionist painter, Gustave Caillebotte, at Monet’s house in Giverny. It’s an overcast Tuesday in mid-May and the place is swamped with tourists. The last time I came here thirty years ago I had to ask a museum official to turn the lights on. I’m told that the house and gardens receive over seven hundred thousand visitors annually; odd that they all turned up today. We decide that Caillebotte’s paintings are, at best, deuzieme rang impressionism and the painter only a talented amateur whose Paris city scenes work best. I’m not too upset at not being able to get into the house; I don’t have to queue to get into Gayle and Jim’s splendid replica of Monet’s yellow dining room in their house in New Hope, Pennsylvania. The gardens are in full swing, full of irises and azaleas, although it is too early in the year for the water lilies.

 

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The garden at Giverny

 

PJ and I are taking a three day excursion into the East to see how the cuisine of Alsace is standing up to the invasion of the pizza, which is spreading across Europe quicker than the cane toad. We shall also be checking on the wines, always at the mercy of the politically correct, the depressed and unhappy, watchful members of watch committees and the League Against Dancing on Tables. Alsace, as I remember it, is grande bouffe country, plates with small mountains of champagne-soaked choucroute studded with various parts of the pig, substantial cheeses, wedges of Black Forest cake with lashings of whipped cream and decorated beer mugs with little lids. If there’s a fruit or berry grown locally the Alsatians will turn them into pure alcohol – plums, cherries, bilberries, pears and even the fruit of the holly. Copper alembics bubble away in every village. White alcohol has been around for centuries; the French have been writing poems and singing songs about it since the Middle Ages; it’s a sacred part of their culture; it’s part of a happy life; that’s why it’s called Eau de Vie.

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Eau de Vie distillery in Val d’Ajol

 

Our route takes us South East, through Troyes. We follow the Seine past Mussy (where they produce the very thin sheets of wood used for the round containers of REAL Camembert cheese), passing through endless green fields and forests as thick and lush and uniform as Axminster carpets, until we reach Chatillon sur Seine and its museum. The tourist hordes are still stuck in the car park in Giverny and we have the place to ourselves to inspect the extraordinary cache of Bronze Age and Classical Greek jewellery and artifacts found in a nearby Celtic settlement and necropolis at Vix. The prize piece is a 1.6 metre high bronze Krater, the largest known metal vessel from Classical Antiquity. It was found in the tomb of the so-called Lady of Vix, a Celtic Princess living around 500 BC.  Kraters were used by the Greeks for mixing wine and water, as presumably the wine was undrinkable by itself. We must give the French the credit for changing all that.

From Chatillon we continue in a South Easterly direction. We pass Colombey Les Deux Eglises, once home to General de Gaulle, and the Abbey of Clairvaux. I read that its founder, Saint Bernard, would not sit in a chair if it had previously been occupied by a woman; no wonder he gave Peter Abelard such a hard time. North of Dijon we turn due East until, just South of Besancon, we reach Ornans, a postcard town astride the river Doubs, famous as the birthplace of Gustave Courbet.

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In 1849 the painter, after attending the burial of his stepfather, produced the massive painting ‘Burial at Ornans’. In complete contrast to the artistic conventions of the day, Courbet paints the scene as it was, no heroic posing, no classical landscapes and allusions. The critics, accustomed to the great Romantic works of Gericault and Delacroix, were appalled. The painting, said Courbet, ‘was the burial of Romanticism’. I must say, I do prefer the exuberant romance of Delacroix’s ‘The Death of Sardanapulus’ to the grim realism of Courbet’s funeral of his stepfather. But never mind, the Impressionists will soon be along to cheer things up again.

From Ornans we drive due North, crossing the Combeaute river and passing through Fougerolles, famous for the quality of its Kirsch and griottines (cherries soaked in eau de vie), until we reach Val d’Ajol and La Residence, a 19th century mansion on the outskirts of town. I do enjoy these hotels, so particular to France, where the dining is more important than the accommodation. Cuisine regionale, genereuse et soignée, alternant simplicite gourmande et gastronomique… says the brochure and we are not disappointed. Not only are the products locally grown, the menu even supplies the name of the farmer, fisherman or cheesemaker responsible:

Asperges Blanches, oeuf fermier de Monsieur Mangel en caisson parfait;
Millefeuille au chevre de Madame Galmiche;
Filet de truite de Monsieur Parrain farci aux ecrivisses;

A Givry 1er Cru and a glass of kirsch to water the parched throats of the weary travelers….. and so to bed.

The next morning we set out across le Massif des Vosges the thickly wooded, elevated spine of the mountain range. In the foothills we make a brief stop in Plombieres Les Bains, where all is quiet. The sickly inhabitants of the hotels and boarding-houses are toying with their dietary lunches before soaking their gout in spa water. In a small, neglected courtyard we finally locate the plaque   commemorating the meeting in1858 between Napoleon III and Cavour during which the French Government promised its support for Italian unification.

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Historic plaque in Plombieres les Bains

 

Near the summit we lunch in Gerardmer by the lake with tarte au myrtilles for dessert. The myrtilles (bilberries) are the small, wild type soon to be eclipsed, says our host, by the plumper variety from shrubs being imported from Canada. I’m not sure whether this is progress; I doubt, from a taste point of view, that fat is better than small and wild; are not fraises du bois so much tastier than their bigger, cultivated sisters? The pillagers in Thomas Love Peacock’s poem, ‘The War Song of Dinas Vawr’ disagree:

The mountain sheep are sweeter,
But the valley sheep are fatter;
We therefor deemed it meeter
To carry off the latter.

Down from the mountain and travelling East, the village names begin to sound more Teutonic. Every town and village has its own particular activity or product, meriting at least a week of annual celebration. We pass announcements for a Fete du Chevre, a Fete des Cerises, a Fete des Asperges. In Munster, which produces the world’s smelliest cheese, there is la fete du fromage. How bad does the cheese smell? Comme les pieds du facteur, says PJ.

At the entrance to Colmar, the birthplace of Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, stands the second replica of the sculptor’s ‘Liberty Enlightening the World’, aka the ‘Statue of Liberty’, the first being in mid-Seine on the Ile aux Cygnes. But we have come to visit ‘Unterlinden’, a former 13th century Dominican convent tastefully converted into one of the most amazing museums in the world. There are works by Picasso, Dubuffet and Manet, but most come to see the Isenheim Altarpiece that was installed in the early 16th century in the Monastery of Isenheim, located on the outskirts of Colmar. The altarpiece, which combines paintings by Matthias Grunewald and bronze sculptures by Niclaus of Haguenau leaves one breathless.  Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of Grunewald’s art to see; many of his works were lost in the Baltic Sea when they were being shipped to Sweden as booty, looted by the army of Gustavus Adolphus during the Thirty Years’ War.

In the little village of Osthouse, some 40 kms from Strasbourg and perhaps 20kms from the banks of the Rhine, we stop at the charming Hotel ‘A La Ferme’.

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Hotel A La Ferme in Osthouse

 

The hotel’s restaurant, L’Aigle D’Or, is a five minute walk away. It’s asparagus season, the fat, white variety with the purple tips that we eat plainly with melted butter. My entrée of cabillaud is superb, easily the best cod I’ve tasted since the beginning of the Cod Wars in 1958. We drink well; a glass of cremant to settle us in, then a chilled Pinot Noir from local producer Jean Sipp, a glass of late harvest Gewurztraminer with desert and, finally, a glass of Vieille Prune, a digestif of such transparent purity I’m almost reduced to tears. After dinner we walk back to the hotel through the dark, deserted streets singing, quietly, so as not to wake the good villagers.

‘Chevaliers de la Table Ronde goutons voir si le vin est bon…. ‘

Next morning we visit Haut Konigsberg, a pink, sandstone castle on top of a lonely spur of the Vosges Mountains. Interest in the castle, beautifully restored in the first decade of the 20th century, is eclipsed by the amazing view across the Upper Rhine plain to the dark band of the Black Forest on the horizon. Somehow the 700,000 visitors at Giverny have managed to follow us. Here they are in the gift shop, buying plastic helmets, daggers and crossbows, postcards, snow-globes and tea-towels with recipes for choucroute garni. And, of course, the ever popular fridge magnets. I buy one for my mother-in-law even though, combined, her present collection could lift a small, family saloon.

We descend the other side of the mountain to visit Kaysersberg, yet another pretty village of painted, timbered buildings and cobbled streets.

 

Rural Alsace has grown rich from its wines, its agriculture and the pretty villages and now from tourism. Imagine the economic benefit to a town from a 2 hour visit by a single coach load of tourists. The Alsatians are canny too. In an old folk-tale a stranger appears while a local innkeeper is cooking a chicken. The innkeeper insists the stranger pay him for taking pleasure from the smell of his roasting bird. The stranger agrees and tosses a coin in the air, letting it fall to earth. ‘There’, he says, ‘the sound of my coin hitting the ground is the correct fee for smelling your roast’. Touche!

Last stop, Franco-German Strasbourg, a most elegant town and astride yet another lovely river, the Ill, which flows into the nearby Rhine.

I think her rivers are one of the things I like most about France and we have crossed so many on this trip – the Seine, the Marne, the Doubs, the Meuse, the Saone, the Ognan, the Ill, the Rhine. There’s a long queue to get into the Cathedral so we hitch a ride back to the car.

 

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Strasbourg transport with Bubble & Squeak driver

 

We are on the autoroute now on the long sweep West towards Paris and home. Every sign we pass conjures visions of French history: Verdun, bloody fortress of WWI, Varennes, where Louis XVI’s flight ended and then Valmy, where a windmill marks the scene of Kellerman’s victory over the Prussians, France’s first victory in the Revolutionary Wars. On 21st September 1792, the day after the battle, the First Republic was born. The legacy of 1789 lives on. France’s present generation of sans culottes, the CGT, are forming up at the barricades again, closing the oil refineries, calling for airport and railway employees to strike. I slip out of the country, back to Sicily, before the final blockades are in place.

 

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‘La Bete’; 35 years old, V8 and 5 litre engine under the bonnet

 

Why do we travel? To cross rivers and mountains, to feel the sense of adventure? To experience strange cultures, to lie in the sun? ‘We are all travellers’ says Robert Louis Stevenson in a foreword to ‘Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes’, ‘all too, travellers with a donkey: and the best that we find in our travels is an honest friend. He is a fortunate traveller who finds many. We travel, indeed, to find them. They are the end and the reward of life. They keep us worthy of ourselves; and when we are alone, we are only nearer to the absent. …Of what shall a man be proud if he is not proud of his friends’.

APRIL IN ITALY

I love Italy. Whatever one may say about the odd retail hours, the museums closing on Mondays and the general traffic chaos, the people are confident of their Italianness. And why shouldn’t they be, seeing that they can trace their very beginnings back to Aeneas, son of the Trojan Prince, Anchises, and the Goddess Venus? After escaping the Greeks, years of travel and a lengthy and tragic affair with Dido, Queen of Carthage, Aeneas and his fellow Trojans settled in Latium where his descendants Romulus and Remus founded Rome. Aeneas was later recognized as a God (Jupiter Indiges) an honour unlikely to be bestowed upon Kevin Rudd or Tony Abbott. No need to apologise to the Latin tribes who were (sometimes forcefully) Romanised; no need for a referendum to redesign a flag that they feel no longer projects their current image, no need (since Il Risorgimento) to change the country’s name. No need to constantly rewrite history to adjust to political climate change; what could possibly be better than Virgil’s version?

I love Milan; the world capital of style is bright, efficient and beautiful. Retail thrives and the Milanesi, rich or poor, dress as smartly as their purse can spare. The people are thongless and grunge-less and I see no instances of gym-wear being worn as street-wear. Everyone over the age of 20  sports a proper pair of shoes. Speaking of clothes, isn’t it strange how a young woman’s first romantic feelings are often accompanied by a desire to knit? In the first flush of love, Honeybee chose to make me a cable stitch pullover, which was pleasing to look at with its naïve, artisanal appearance, but un-wearable on account of the sleeves, which were only suitable for someone whose knuckles scraped the floor when he walked upright. Worried that I might die from exposure before reaching the altar, Honeybee abandoned her knitting needles and patterns and presented me with a rugged pullover made from the mooring ropes of Norwegian trawlers. Too heavy to be worn by a puny accountant, it lay, impregnating my undies with the smell of tar and smoked herrings, at the bottom of my tallboy for several years until I was allowed to buy my own knitwear.

We are staying in a delightful penthouse apartment just off via Torino, some 200 metres from the Piazza Duomo. In addition to the essential rooms we have a shrub-filled terrace, a tastefully furnished conservatory and a good selection of books on Renaissance art. The owners, who occupy the rest of the roof, are charming and spend a good deal of their spare time sewing coloured beads onto baskets, which they sell through a network of immigrant hawkers (vu’cumpra’) sending the proceeds to a village hospital in Ghana. Bravi!

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Honeybee in the conservatory

A stroll with Franca through the charming quarter of Brera to the Pinacoteca. Art students throng the courtyard and stairs but inside we have the place to ourselves or rather us and ten thousand Madonnas and Child. There must have been a law in the 15th century limiting artists to this one subject. Only occasionally does a dazzling Raffaello or distinctive El Greco stand out. The early Christian martyrs are also well represented – pale Sebastians studded with arrows, Catherines on a variety of wheels. Thankfully, a civic-minded Milanese has left the museum his collection of more recent works and we can forget divine motherhood and bloody martyrdom for the peace and order of Giorgio Morandi and the metaphysics of Giorgio De Chirico. What did grab my attention in the Renaissance department was the painting of St John the Baptist by Francesco del Cossa, together with this piece of prose by British writer Ali Smith from her novel ‘How to be Both’:

“It is a feeling thing, to be a painter of things: cause every thing, even an imagined or gone thing or creature or person has essence: paint a rose or a coin or a duck or a brick and you’ll feel it as sure as if a coin had a mouth and told you what it was like to be a coin, as if a rose told you first-hand what petals are, their softness and wetness held in a pellicle of colour thinner and more feeling than an eyelid, as if a duck told you about the combined wet and underdry of its feathers, a brick about the rough kiss of its skin.”

The display of apt quotations on art by contemporary writers was the idea of Pinacoteca Director, James Bradburne, former curator of the Palazzo Strozzi, brought in to spruce up the gallery as part of Prime Minister Renzi’s campaign to modernize Italy’s museums in general. Ali Smith’s novel deals in part with the imagined life of Francesco del Cossa and his allegorical frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara.

Although some cannot move 200 metres without the help of Trip Advisor, it should be avoided at all costs, depriving as it does the tourist of the pleasure of discovery; you are also unlikely to find someone with the same tastes and priorities as yourself among all those anonymous reviewers. I’m an off-season sort of chap really; always have been. So nice travelling to an out-of-season destination: February in Venice, April in Sicily, August in Paris, December in Verona; marvelous! Not all that keen on the presence of other tourists when I’m sightseeing, especially groups and the earnest ones wearing sandals made out of military webbing and bits of rubber tyres. There’s much pleasure going in the opposite direction to the heavy traffic as there is in being an hourly rather than a seconds and minutes person. No need for a second hand on your watch; you can always use your i.phone to time an egg.

We have shifted to Southern Sicily and to the charming city of Modica. Our rental car is a Citroen Picasso. It’s roomy and comfortable and drives nicely; it has a clunky, boxy design, presumably from the artist’s Cubist period. Modica is only a short drive to the sea and we make for Marzamemi, an old fishing village of Arab origins. In the 19th century the village was the site of a functioning tonnara, where great quantities of tuna were caught and processed. The deserted, crumbling slaughterhouses and the black, rotting tuna boats are a little unsettling but not enough to put us off enjoying a fritto misto mare and a chilled bottle of Grillo on the sea-front terrace of La Cialoma.

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Ristorante La Cialoma, Marzamemi

Further along the coast we stop at the Isola delle due Correnti, where the Ionian Sea meets the Mediterranean and then a little further on at Portopalo. Here, near the harbor, lies a graveyard of wooden fishing boats, some burnt hulks, others, stripped and paint-faded, awaiting incineration. On the ground, among the rocks and under the hulls, are the flotsam and jetsam of their passengers – a plastic bottle, a shoe, a torn and grubby headscarf. These are the boats that have survived the journey from North Africa with their cargo of refugees. The nearest Italian landfall to Libya is the island of Lampedusa, but for those boats that miss it, Portopalo is where they end up. At the immigration centre near the port some of the latest arrivals are playing football in the sun; you can see why they call it ‘the world game’.

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Refugee boats awaiting destruction at Portopalo

While Sydney continues to congratulate itself on its fine dining and gourmet food shops it still cannot produce a crunchy baguette, a tasty tomato, a punnet of ripe, unblemished strawberries or a decent salame. Try asking a butcher for a corn-fed cockerel or a capon and he will merely point to his row of uniform, trussed and glad-wrapped hens. If you are planning trippa alla Livornese and ask for tripe the odds are he will throw his hands up in horror. Honeybee has found an excellent salame di suino nero.

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Note the essential high fat to lean ratio

The salumista also sells a tasty salame d’asino or donkey meat sausage. Like its pork brother, it is suspended for a several months in a cool cellar to mature, hence the expression ‘hung like a donkey’.

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Sausage for donkey lovers

‘I know nothing more noble than the contemplation of the world’ said Flaubert and there is no activity more conducive to rumination than the shelling of 2 kilos of peas.

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Meditation time

Occasionally available in Sydney, ready shelled and at scandalous prices, fresh peas in Italy are a cheap and popular delicacy served with pasta or as a piatto unico and occasionally, in Sicily, popping up in the sticky centre of an arancino.

Mind you, I’m not all that partial to some Sicilian dishes. Pasta col macco (overcooked pasta in a soup of dried broad beans) and the little pastries filled with a mixture of ground meat and chocolate called ‘npanatiddi I can live without. Not that I’m opposed to the addition of chocolate to meat dishes, after all lepre in dolceforte (jugged hare) can be tasty, but the appeal of ‘npanatiddi has its roots in ancient efforts by the monks to conceal the consumption of meat during Lent, and old customs die hard on this island.

A morning stroll through the quartiere of Santa Teresa in Modica Alta. This is a charming area of quiet, narrow streets and tree-shaded piazzas. Nespoli, bougainvillea and rose hang over garden walls; old men the size and colour of walnuts sit talking and not talking outside cafes. It’s warm and peaceful and it beckons like the waters of Lethe. Many houses are for sale and I’m tempted but I’m not ready just yet and we start walking down to Modica Bassa.

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Modica Bassa

On the balcony of an apartment just below the Duomo they are filming an episode of the detective series ‘Inspector Montalbano’. The Inspector’s (actor Luca Zingarotti) appearance on the balcony is received with the same degree of enthusiasm as Giuseppe Garibaldi’s. There is a rattle of applause and cries of ‘Bravo Luca‘, while Honeybee melts into a damp spot on the pavement.

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Honeybee asking Montalbano if he wants her phone number

One thing that England and Modica have in common is the same patron Saint, St George, a Syrian-born soldier in the Roman army, executed on Emperor Diocletian’s orders for refusing to recant his Christian faith. England’s most visible association with the Saint is the sign ‘The George and Dragon’ attached to various pubs sprinkled across the country; it’s a very different story in Modica. We are here on St George’s Day, April 23rd, for Modicani the most important feast day of the year. Marching bands parade along Corso Umberto I, families clog the gelaterias and there is an antiques fair in the Piazza Corrado Rizzone displaying, inter alia, old car radios, 45rpm records, rusting keys, coins, second hand books and ceramic jelly moulds from Caltagirone. At 5 pm a crowd gathers outside the massive doors of the Baroque Duomo of San Giorgio in Modica Alta. With cannons booming and the bells of every church in Modica ringing out, the doors open and through the red and white smoke of Roman Candles, an equestrian Saint George is borne out into the sun by his red-coated disciples. Preceded by a band, San Giorgio is then paraded through the town until, near midnight, he is carried back to the Duomo and tucked away for another year.

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Saint George’s Day in Modica

 

TWO PARISIENNES

1.      Bonjour Tristesse

When I knew Mademoiselle Bonjour in the early 1970s she was at what the French discretely call ‘a certain age,’ meaning that period when it would be foolish to ask and dangerous to guess a woman’s years. But if she was no longer young, her hair carried only traces of grey and she was tall and slim and wore her clothes of classic chic with that air of nonchalance peculiar to ladies of bonne famille. She was definitely BCBG. I thought at first she was a widow as she almost always wore black, occasionally offset by a tasteful Hermes scarf but always relieved by her smile, even if it was a trifle sad. She seemed as if she had an interesting past, an acceptable present and no future.

Bonjour Tristesse, as I called her, always maintained an air of grace and patience. I imagined she had suffered some great misfortune, perhaps a lover who had died, for she had never married. Unlike some French ladies in similar circumstances who let it be known that they wished to be called Madame to hide the indignity of advanced spinsterhood and to escape any embarrassment on Saint Catherine’s Day, she accepted her title of Mademoiselle with equanimity.

Mademoiselle Bonjour was second in command of the typing pool in the Paris office of Ernst & Young, run by the formidable Madame Alprand, a horn-rimmed lady from Alsace. We would bring our work for typing to her, grinning at the improbability of the greeting preceding our request for her services – “Bonjour, Mademoiselle Bonjour”. Her soft brown eyes regarded us with infinite tolerance.

But what appealed most to our childish sense of humour was to hear her telephone the periodic order for fresh stationery supplies. The proprietor of the company providing the office materials had the unusual surname of Monsieur so that the initiation of the order began with the absurd “Bonjour Monsieur Monsieur, voici Mademoiselle Bonjour”.

These small pleasures came to an abrupt end. Mademoiselle, it seemed, was leaving to be married to an American that she had met during the liberation of Paris. We learned that his wife had died and he was returning to Europe to pick up the pieces of that long ago romance. I pictured the victorious armies descending the Champs Elysees, the American Captain, waving from his Jeep and later slipping into conversation with the young French woman that such times make easy. Or was it a chance encounter as both sheltered in some doorway to avoid the last desperate rounds of German sniper fire?

We never knew if the American took his new bride back to the US. Somehow I didn’t see her in some leafy, Wisconsin suburb, playing surrogate mother to a pair of overweight college boys, backing the Pontiac station wagon into the supermarket car park on a Friday afternoon. I hoped Brad or Dexter or whatever his name was, moved to Paris and that he and his new wife are enjoying a Lapin au Moutarde together at Le Petit Zinc, walking in the Jardins de Luxembourg on a Sunday morning and climbing the stairs to an apartment that looks over the city he helped liberate and where he rediscovered a love that had lain hibernating in some mid-western state for close on thirty years.

2. Une Infirmiere Extraordinaire

If you were very ill and very rich and you were living in Paris in the 1970s you went tout de suite straight to the Hartmann Clinic in Neuilly, the city’s most prestigious private hospital. If, in spite of the unparalleled care provided by the Hartmann, you still failed to make the cut, it is likely that the last face you saw in this world would be that of Monica Clothier, the Angel of Neuilly. It wasn’t just Monica’s professional competence and discretion that ensured she was the nurse de choix for the rich and famous but her role as a nurse of the old order, smartly starched, knowledgeable about her business, firm, exuding confidence, discreet and gentle, unfazed by power and authority.

You don’t have to be French to be a Parisian. Monica’s roots were in rural Australia, an unlikely qualification, but she was a life-long expatriate and her name, with its hint of Gallic ancestry, had a classy ring to it. Mon (names with more than a single syllable are anathema to Australians) suited Paris and Paris suited Mon, although it was in London that she established herself as a legend among the ailing aristocracy, for it was there that she nursed Lydia Lopokova, one of Diaghalev’s great Ballets Russes dancers and wife to John Maynard Keynes. And when Elizabeth Taylor was stricken with Maltese Fever on the set of ‘Cleopatra’ and the actress was shifted from the Dorchester to the London Clinic, Mon was there to make sure she survived to grapple on and off set with Mark Antony (Richard Burton). She turned down a request to nurse Maud Kerr Smiley, sister of Ernest Simpson (ex-husband of Wallis, Duchess of Windsor), on learning that her duties included potty training the resident pug; but these brushes with the famous in London had given Mon an education in and a taste for the better things in life as well as an ability to mix easily in high society.

Mon and her friends, Jude, Barb and Bill, a sheep farmer from the Riverina, were the first Australians I had come across. My idea of Australians had been formed watching the films of Chips Rafferty; Bill with his laid-back air and sardonic wit fitted my expectations exactly. Unlike most visitors who ooohed and aaaahed, Bill was unsmitten by the charms of Paris; an exquisite souffle was only grudgingly praised (‘not bad, but two farts and it’s all gone’) and he remained unimpressed by the chapel–like tombs in the cemetery of Montmatre (‘a bunch of dunnies’); a poetry recitation in the Lapin Agile failed to keep him awake. Imagine my disappointment on finding that my first four Australians were the exceptions not the rule.

Mon lived in a modest 6th floor apartment in the Rue de Saussure in the 17th, leaving her the wherewithal for the important things in life such as her Chanel shoes, Louis Phillippe blouses, Gucci classic handbags and a Courreges dress that the couturier seemed to have designed with Mon in mind. Her favourite shops were Petrossian (caviar and foie gras), Laduree (chocolate macaroons) and Fauchon for her hors d’oeuvres when entertaining at home. There, in Sausage Street, as she called it, she would relax with Point de Vue and listen to the BBC on her large black transistor radio, a gift from the Empress Catherine who had once recovered under Mon’s care from the trauma of marriage to Jean-Bedel Bokassa, reputed cannibal and self-proclaimed Emperor of the Central African  Empire.

Work came first in Mon’s life. Under her touch popular French comedian Coluche recovered from his ailments as did car manufacturer Monsieur Peugeot, film director Anatole Litvak and actor Gregory Peck. When the Duke of Windsor became terminally ill, it was Mon who was chosen to make his last months comfortable, moving into Le Bois, the Duke’s Paris residence (now leased by Mohamed al Fayed and destination of Princess Diana on the night of her death). Before he died the Duke allowed Mon to photograph him at his most informal and presented her with a mint set of never to be issued coins of the (British) realm bearing his likeness as well as a selection of his silk cravats with the monogrammed feathers of the Prince of Wales that he wore in the evenings. Years later Mon would stay again at Le Bois, this time to see off the Duchess.

Karl Lagerfeld chose Mon to look after his mother at the Chateau de Penhoet, his country home at Grand Champ in Brittany. She appears, discreet as usual, facing away from the artist, in one of Lagerfeld’s sketches for “A Fashion Journal” published in 1986.

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Mon, drawn by Lagerfeld in Penhoet’s kitchen – 15th August 1976

When Nelson Bunker Hunt, perhaps enfeebled after failing to corner the world silver market, suffered a heart attack, a private plane was equipped as an airborne clinic and with Mon as his ‘flying doctor’, he was flown back to Texas and turned his attention to horse racing. In 1975 she was at the bedside of Aristotle Onassis, nursing him until his death and providing his wife, Jackie, with the red rose she tossed onto the casket as it was lowered into the ground. Did he have Mon as well as Jackie in mind when he remarked that “If women didn’t exist, all the money in the world would have no meaning”?

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Jackie leaving the Hartmann Clinic with Mon and her bodyguard George Sinas           (The Telegraph March 17, 1975)

Mon was too self-sufficient and content with her life to ever contemplate marriage, choosing her lovers with the same deliberation as she did her Camembert. The last was an eccentric English Lord I introduced to her, who charmed her with gifts of monogrammed hand-towels stolen from the washrooms of the House of Lords.

 

 

Like many with the task of repairing the health and welfare of others, Mon disregarded her own, smoking with the elaborate flourishes of a 30s debutante, finishing her long days and the climb up the stairs with a glass of champagne. She died alone in her apartment in Sausage Street in April 2008. Her friend Nicole, Comtesse de Demandolx organized the memorial service. Her ashes are in the Pere Lachaise cemetery, surrounded by Chopin, Moliere, Edith Piaf and Oscar Wilde, leaving her, as always, in the very best of company.

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Mon et moi, Paris, November 1980

 

 

THE BELKNAP EARRINGS

I sometimes wonder if everything on this earth, tangible or intangible, is in some way connected. But that just shows my ignorance. Of course they are. But when Honeybee fishes in her jewellery box, holds up a tortoise shell earring and says “Shall I wear the Belknap earrings tonight”? I might be excused for wondering what could possibly be the connection between a piece of cosmetic jewellery, a volcano in Oregon, an Assiniboine Indian reservation, a 20th century warship and a young French woman. In point of fact the connections, in my mind anyway, seem endless.

The young French woman was born in Oued Zem in Morocco as had her parents and her grandparents, but they were not Moroccans: they were Pieds Noirs, settlers of French ancestry, bound to the Maghreb but not of it. On the morning of 20th August 1955, soon after the girl’s thirteenth birthday, the family’s Moroccan housemaid, who, until then, had been consistently punctual, failed to appear. In fact, no Moroccan gardener, housemaid, cook or driver reported for work in the European quarter of Oued Zem that day. Just as their absence was being discussed among the French settlers over fences and in cafes, a horde of Berber tribesmen, incensed at the French Government’s deposition of their Sultan, Mohamed Ben Youssef, were swarming down from the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, armed to the teeth and intent on mayhem. Although the attack had been long premeditated, the Berbers’ blood was at boiling point when they reached Oued Zem and they tore into the settlers with alarming ferocity. Scores of men, women and children, including patients and staff of the hospital, were killed and mutilated before the French Air Force, elements of the Foreign Legion and the guns of the settlers ended the assault. Seventy Europeans lay dead but the French girl and her family had survived. Fearing further atrocities, the girl’s father sent his whole family to safety in France, while he continued working as an engineer at the nearby phosphate mine in Khouribga. The family’s point of repatriation was Grenoble, where the father had bought the splendidly named Cafe des Abattoirs and the apartment above it, and it was there, in 1961, when I was learning to ski and drink wine at the University, that I first met Monique. She was a fellow student’s girl but our friendship lived on long after their romance was exhausted.

In December of 1989 Monique was married and living in the South of France with her husband Claude, a moody Police Inspector stationed in Toulon and their two daughters. Valerie, the eldest at 17, was a petite, petulant airhead who had reached her cultural and intellectual climax listening to pop music in a pink bedroom full of comic strip romances. Carole, two years younger, was quieter, deeper and cleverer. They lived in the business end of the Azure Coast in a town whose economy, since the sixteenth century, had relied upon ship-building and which was therefore pleasantly free of tourists. At this time Western Europe  was busy handing over ship-building  to the far North and the far East and the little port suffered, but it recovered and is still tourist-free, still a pleasant place to sit and drink a pastis by the little port. Agreeable too to take the ferry out through the mussel beds, past the Charles de Gaulle and her battle fleet anchored in the roads and into the harbour of Toulon, lying under the imposing canopy of Mount Faron where, in 1790, a young artillery officer called Napoleon Bonaparte halted a British invasion. I’m not going to reveal the name of this oasis of urban normality in the unlikely event this blog goes viral and I can no longer find a place in the café by the port.

I was at work in Verona the day Monique rang to tell me that her eldest daughter had run away to Italy with an American sailor. I would have viewed this as a Godsend but her mother was distraught. Valerie, it seems, was in Gaeta, a port just north of Naples and Monique needed to see for herself that her daughter was safe. Some days later I met her off the train and we set off on the long drive to Calabria during which she explained the events leading to Valerie’s elopement.

That summer the USS Belknap, flagship of the 6th Fleet, had paid a courtesy call on the port of Toulon, staying for nearly two months. Home to France’s navy for centuries, Toulon was used to playing host to sailors and the ship’s crew would have enjoyed the sea-front restaurants and night life. There was also much to see outside of the port. There was the nudist paradise on the Ile du Levant, the ever fashionable St Tropez and Tahiti Beach and the impressive Mont St Valerian where Cezanne received much of his inspiration. Although Toulon itself had no restaurants worthy of even one Michelin star, Bandol’s La Reserve (speciality: gratin de langouste) and La Veille Auberge Saint Nicolas at Hyeres (speciality: Bourride) merited single stars while Les Santons at Grimaud (speciality: goujonettes de St Pierre au Champagne), only a short drive from Toulon, had two. In the late 80’s there were also some more modest establishments that had escaped the excesses of Nouvelle Cuisine and had not been seduced by the prospect of turning themselves into a Pizzeria or taking up a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise, places where one could enjoy an assiette de crudites, pied de porc panee and a pichet of Cote de Ventoux. But I know for a fact that two sailors, Craig and his friend Don and most likely many of the Belknap’s crew, preferred to lunch and dine at McDonalds, for this is where Valerie had been working during the summer, there being no universities offering courses in dress designing for Barbie Dolls.

Monique explained to me that the USS Belknap and the rest of the 6th Fleet were permanently based in Gaeta, that the sailors were allowed to rent apartments on land and were not obliged, under normal circumstances, to sleep aboard. A helpful Officer on the Belknap had provided her with the address of the apartment which Valerie was sharing with three members of the Belknap’s crew and, as dusk settled, we arrived at the appointed place. After three sharp knocks and ten seconds of silence, the door was flung wide and we were confronted by a stocky man in vest and shorts, the biceps on his Popeye arms lavishly illustrated in designs that must have taken the tattooist the best part of a day to achieve. Craig, who I later discovered to be Valerie’s abductor, looked inquiringly at Monique and me, but before I could properly explain our mission, a piercing screech echoed down the corridor. I was familiar with this blood-curdling cry; it meant Valerie had seen us and sure enough, restrained by two other young men in vests, she demonstrated her lack of enthusiasm for our visit by directing a flood of high-pitched Gallic abuse at us. Deeply regretting my decision to come to Gaeta and motivated by a cowardly wish to avoid any sort of confrontation, particularly physical, I seized a brief moment of quiet to suggest that Monique and I would go away and come back in an hour. I proposed that on our return I would invite everyone to dinner and hopefully we could all discuss calmly whatever we had to talk about. Happily the Americans, understanding the potential gravity of the situation, quickly agreed to the proposal. Although petite Monique had the cojones to make things difficult for them with their officers on the Belknap. She was also the mother of a teenage daughter that one of them, at least, wished to marry.

And so it was that Monique and I strolled the streets of Gaeta. I believe that wherever you are and in whatever circumstances, there is always an ounce of interest and perhaps even enjoyment to be squeezed out. The delay in the next encounter with Valerie and her sailor friends probably brightened my mood, but even so I remember pleasure in that evening walk, getting a feel for a place that normally one would never have thought of visiting, looking out for a likely restaurant to take Valerie and her matelots. Mercifully, retail in the streets of Gaeta had not yet been confined to real estate, seven-elevens, dentistry, nail-refurbishment and Thai massage and among the hardware, fruit and vegetables, between a café and a salumeria, we came across an interesting looking jewellery shop. As is often the case with a fledgling enterprise where the proprietor manufactures his or her own product, there was a limited stock, but the craftsmanship was evident and I chose a pair of earrings. This was a serendipitous purchase for someone else’s pleasure, the very best kind of shopping. The earrings were tortoiseshell with a silver clasp and had an ancient, perhaps Etruscan look to them. They were also reasonably priced. Any fool with bottomless pockets can acquire exquisite objects.

When we returned to the apartment after an hour or so we found a sullen but calmer Valerie while her American escorts were now smartened up in jeans and T shirts. My suggestion that we eat at one of the restaurants I had recently earmarked (piatto del giorno, spaghetti marinara) was brushed aside in favour of the sailors’ local Pizzeria. There, while Monique and Valerie chattered away in French, Don, the most agreeable of the three sailors, told me about the voyage he had made with the Belknap just two weeks earlier. He told me how they had anchored in heavy seas off the coast of Malta in a rendezvous with the Soviet cruiser Slava, how President of the United States, George Bush, had come aboard and how he and other Belknap sailors had visited the Slava, exchanging Soviet caps and watches for Zippo lighters with the Russian sailors. Don, as it happens, had witnessed a historic moment. Gorge Bush’s meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev, taking place just weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall confirmed the final lifting of the Iron Curtain that had divided Europe for 40 years and set in motion the discussions that would deal with the changes it was already triggering. By the end of the meal, Valerie, realising her mother wasn’t dragging her back home, and with five thousand francs in her pocket, was mollified. We said goodbye to Craig and his two shipmates. As I shook hands with Don, he said “Don’t worry, I’ll look after Valerie.” Craig and Valerie announced their engagement and with these assurances Monique and I went back to our hotel and, in the morning, left for Verona.

Valerie never married Craig. She married Don and, when his tour of duty on the Belknap ended, became a Navy wife living in Norfolk, Virginia. Later there was a daughter, Samantha, and then, tragically, Don died in a car accident. After lingering for a while in America Valerie returned to France, settled in Avignon, and found herself a new partner. Monique was pleased to have her daughter near her and she delighted in Samantha. But she had misgivings about Valerie’s new lover who she suspected was abusing her granddaughter. With her characteristic, head-on style Monique weighed in with the accusations, in spite of denials by all concerned, including the child herself. Her next two years were a nightmare. Valerie refused her access to her granddaughter; legal proceedings were instituted. Monique’s very sanity was called into question, aided by statements from her now ex, Claude, whose testimony as a policeman bore considerable weight with the judges. My own testimony formed part of the defence’s effort to prevent Monique spending the rest of her life drowsy with Bromide in some depressing institution. Precious savings were diverted into the pockets of rapacious lawyers. Time was wasted and health jeopardised, but, like many a crisis, it slowly evaporated. It had taken its toll; there was no conclusion, but it was over.

——

The earrings, the volcano, the Indian reservation and the USS Belknap are all named after Rear Admiral George Eugene Belknap (1832-1903).

The USS Belknap: a guided missile cruiser of 8,957 tons, launched in 1964 was the flagship of the US Sixth Fleet based in the Mediterranean from 1985 to 1994. She returned to her home port of Norfolk, Virginia in 1995 and was destroyed by F-14 bombers as a target ship in 1998. It took 29,000 pounds of bombs to sink her.

Valerie still lives in Avignon with her two children. She now has a new partner. She and Monique are friends again.

THE GODFATHER

It was 1982 with the war in the Falklands in full swing when Honeybee sailed into my life. At the time she was showing Argentinian colours but no sooner were her grappling hooks in place than she ran up and broke out the dreaded skull and cross-bones of her native Sicily. Within a short time of being boarded I had agreed to accompany her to the island to meet her parents. I felt uneasy as we set out – I was already married.

Honeybee’s parents, Giovanni and Liliana lived in Adrano, a small town in the Province of Catania supposedly named after the Emperor Hadrian, better known for his brave but useless attempt to keep the Scots and their dreaded bagpipes walled up in their own land. In a repetition of this folly, Hadrian’s mad architects had perched the town dangerously close to the crater of a bubbling volcano. This fact troubled me less than the knowledge that the town also lay within a “Triangolo della morte” so named when the number of mafia assassinations in an area exceeded the total of World War One casualties in the entire Ypres Salient.  In winter the family lived in a bleak, tiled, modern apartment with AD 138 plumbing.  The summer months they spent at their simple country house in the shadow of Etna and it was there that we stayed the first night.

In the morning I went looking for Honeybee’s father in the garden. As I idled among the olive trees I saw a man, lupara casually slung from his shoulder, approach Giovanni. After five or so minutes of earnest talking the visitor disappeared amongst the trees. Later, wondering whether my future father-in-law was “connected”, I asked him about the visitor. He’s the man from the insurance, said Giovanni, going on to explain that the premium insured his country house against robbery in the winter months when the family lived in town. Keen to demonstrate what a smart Inglese accountant his daughter had found, I pointed out that there wasn’t much to steal so why not cancel the insurance. What could possibly happen if you don’t pay the premium, I asked. He would burn the house down, replied Giovanni, not even bothering to look at me.

Later that day I watched Honeybee and her parents work in the garden, an acre or two of vines, pistacchio and olive trees, tomato plants and herbs. Everything grew well in the rich volcanic soil watered by Giovanni’s elaborate irrigation system, which consisted of a complex network of pipes and cement aqueducts radiating from a huge concrete container. Under Sicilian laws dating back to 10 BC, the water supply was in private hands and Giovanni periodically paid for the tank to be refilled. Contrary to all known laws of sound economics the cost of the supply was based on the amount of time the owner kept his valve open rather than the quantity of water delivered. At those times when drought reduced the flow to a miserable trickle Giovanni was paying at the same rate as for Arabian crude.

It was the time for harvesting Giovanni’s crop of ripe tomatoes and producing the annual stock of passata, a staple of the Southern Italian diet. The whole family helped in this day-long process of pulping and bottling the fruit and boiling the filled bottles in oil drums. As evening approached and the job was complete Giovanni prepared to dispose of the gallons of juice that had been produced from the pulping process. Still eager to impress, I ignored his instructions to dispose of the liquid and set about, straining, bottling and corking the juice.  Giovanni and Liliana had already retired when I set out my twenty or so newly corked bottles of tomato juice on the kitchen table.

I was awake early the next morning and looking forward to pouring out a glass of tomato juice for each member of the family to taste with their small cups of bitter coffee when Cristina came into my bedroom. “I think”, she said “that you should stay in bed for a while. There’s been an accident and Mum wants to clear up before you see it”. With no further elaboration, Cristina went off to help. I lay in bed for ten minutes until, overcome with curiosity, I tiptoed down the corridor and peeped into the kitchen. It was a charnel house: Adrano Incarnadine! It was a scene from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The ceiling and walls, the furniture and appliances were covered in a red tide of tomato juice. Still standing on the table were the empty silos of the juice bottles, their fermentation-powered corks and contents fired into the four corners of the kitchen. I crept quietly back to bed.

Sunday morning. Time for the dreaded  passeggiata – the weekly ritual stroll through the town after church to collect the cannolis for Sunday lunch, to display a new Borsellino, to exchange gossip and, in our case, for Honeybee’s parents to show off their eldest daughter’s newly acquired fidanzato. The family’s most precious commodity was at stake. I refer of course to their honour not their daughter. The penalty for letting it slip that I was actually already married would be disastrous. I saw my body being spewed in a soup of liquid cement into the foundations of the new football stadium in Catania. I wondered what my mother would make of the mysterious parcel containing a wet mackerel she would find on her doorstep.

Honeybee took her father’s arm and set off across the roasting Piazza. Liliana and I, her hand resting on my arm, followed. Every few minutes we would stop for the family’s friends and relatives to inspect me. Men in oversized caps and polished grey winkle-pickers would size me up. Ladies in black quietly discussed me in Sicilian dialect, glancing at me doubtfully as if seeking confirmation of some outrageous claim my future mother-in-law may have made as to my prospects. As a mature Inglese living on the mainland I was instantly accorded the distinguished title of Dottore. The title of Dottore (or Dottoressa for a lady) is given to anyone in Italy with a university degree. The term can also be used merely out of respect or even as flattery or sarcasm leaving me unsure as to how they were employing the title. “Just call me Doc” I said to one neighbour clutching a parcel of pastries but my attempt at humour was met with stoney-faced incomprehension. Titles being so important in Italy, a person is often addressed solely by the badge of his or her profession. “Buongiorno Ingegnere” – Good morning Engineer, you may hear. The late Gianni Agnelli, President of FIAT and Juventus Football Club, was known simply as “L’Avvocato” – The Lawyer. I savoured the prospects of returning in a few years to be hailed as Commendatore, in Sicily, a title commanding more respect than a Dukedom or a capo di tutti capi.

The next day I was taken to visit Giovanni’s fruit grower friend.  In honour of the Dottore Inglese we were ushered into the salon where dust-sheets were whipped off to reveal a hideous suite of gilt and velvet baroque. Perched on the unforgiving horsehair I savoured bitter coffee and the unbearable sweetness of cannoli. I remembered instantly how Eli Wallach had died in The Godfather Part III. Swooning from the onset of diabetes I was introduced to the youngest member of the family. His mother spoke to me in Sicilian dialect. I looked around for translation. “She asks, said Honeybee, if you will consent to be the child’s Godfather”. I nodded gravely and extended my right hand for the boy’s lips. I was a made man.

 

Jekyll & Rawhide

Like many children in London’s immediate post-war years I sought refuge in a fantasy world. Not uncommonly for the age, my own alter ego was a cowboy. More uncommonly, it has remained with me to this day. Even now, more than half a century later, I can still recall that evening in 1949 when Gene Autrey’s Wild West Show came to the Olympia in London and I secretly assumed my second identity as the fastest gun in the West. In a lull between an Indian attack on a stagecoach and some target shooting by a lady in buckskins, Mr Autrey made an announcement. A gun-belt and six-shooter would be given to the boy on whom a revolving spotlight came to rest. I still cannot think of many things that I have ever wanted more than that gun-belt as the searchlight circled the venue, but in what proved to be a grim pattern for my future, the spotlight failed to rest on me.

Learning to smoke

Learning to smoke

From that night, wearing a pair of rubber Wellington boots with spurs, plastic chaps, check shirt, cowboy hat, holster and cap pistol, I would ride the lonely ranges and ghost towns of London’s bomb-sites. As time went by my costume and arsenal improved. My father’s Sam Browne was surgically altered to produce a more substantial gun rig and bartering on the bomb sites produced a collection of .303 shell cases for added authenticity to the cartridge belt. A putty knife from my father’s tool-box doubled as my Bowie knife and my guns became more realistic as the toy armaments industry improved its products. Today, except in America, you would be hard pressed to find the quality of toy replica Peacemakers and Navy Colts that I, and my gunslinger friends, carried in the late 1940s.

 

The Lemon Drop Kid at 10

The Lemon Drop Kid at 10

I was not alone as I rode the gritty canyons of South London. Whole posses of kids, each jealously guarding his chosen identity, would kill, be killed and be instantly reborn in the never-ending battle against Indians, cattle barons, corrupt railroad magnates and anyone in a black hat, On Saturday mornings, armed to the teeth, we would gallop to the local cinema for a feast of Western movies. There, occasionally dodging shots from the pistol packing kids in the rows behind, I got to know Johnny Mack Brown, Buster Crabbe, Lash Larue, Roy Rogers, William Boyd, Buck Jones and Tom Mix of the white horse and the silver spinning guns.

No Christmas stocking was complete without my Buffalo Bill Annual, no week went by without the latest Hopalong Cassidy comic. No Western movie went unseen. And there were a lot to see. In 1949 there were 97 western films to digest and in 1950 the number rose to 130, a peak year after which there was a steady decline as the western moved to the smaller screen, where, in 1955 there were no less than 23 series dedicated to the West. No small wonder my eduction suffered. I still re-watch all those old westerns but half the pleasure is now trying to remember the more intense enjoyment experienced when I first saw them.

I was pleased to find, on my first day at Prep School, that an enlightened Head Master had named the various groups or “houses” into which the students were divided after certain Indian tribes. I was less pleased to find I was an Objibwa as I knew this tribe from the Western Great Lakes Region to be farmers and gatherers and allies of the French. My request for a transfer to the more dashing and romantic Deerfeet was rejected. As an Indian I was puny from post-war under-nourishment and known as “Sand in the Face”

But it was the cowboys I loved most of all. The long pull on the whiskey jug for breakfast; the hat kept on in the bath tub and the amazing capacity of the cowboy’s saddlebags, which could hold a frying pan, tin plate and cup, coffee, chewing baccy, jerky, whiskey, ammunition, a bag of coin, as well as new hat, frock coat and silk waistcoat for visiting Kitty at the Long Branch.

Inevitably I fell in love. I knew Calamity Jane was really Wild Bill’s girl but nevertheless I wrote to Doris Day, her current screen persona, and received a signed photo of Doris from her Burbank studio. That was really the extent of our affair. Many years later, while driving through Beverley Hills, I passed her house, but it was all too late.

I was untroubled by the often historical inaccuracy of the films. The fact that Indians were palefaces with make-up did not concern me. This situation was changed overnight by the legendary Sam Goldwyn who was reported as saying to his Casting Director “You need Indians?…You can get them right from the reservoir”.

It was not until many years later that I was to see the real West and the reality the myth had become. From the town centre of Taos in New Mexico I took a mini bus to my hotel on the outskirts and found myself sitting next to a native American. “Where to, Charlie?” said the driver.  “Take me to the reservation” said Charlie from under his blanket, and after a short drive we arrived in the middle of a Pueblo. The dwellings or hogans, as they are called, were the same windowless adobe huts with entry via the roof I had seen in my Buffalo Bill Annuals, the only change being the odd television aerial sprouting from a roof. Wondering how they kept the rain out, I reached inside my jacket to feel the comforting presence of my pearl-handled Derringer, snug in its shoulder holster. I need not have worried. My former enemies, who had left some of my best mates scalped, castrated and staked out in the desert to die, now seemed bored and lifeless.

At 50 as Rooster Cogburn with Diamond Lil De Rham, owner of the Silver Slipper. Lil was lightning fast on the draw and is famous for having read the entire works of Shakespeare while riding shotgun for the Overland Stage

At 50 as Rooster Cogburn with Diamond Lil De Rham, owner of the Silver Slipper. Lil was lightning fast on the draw and is famous for having read the entire works of Shakespeare while riding shotgun for the Overland Stage

None of my three wives shared my passion for cowboys although my second wife did show some interest in Lash Larue and would, on occasion, agree to do the housework wearing only a pair of black leather chaps. The heroes of today’s post-Pokemon children are Space Explorers, swallowing a pill for dinner and popping into a chaste Perspex coffin for a night’s sleep. 

I know it will not be long before a faster gun comes to town and I shall be forced to decide whether to hand in my badge and hang up my guns and make a decent woman out of Kitty at the Long Branch, or marry that new schoolma’m from back East. But I think I’ll just drift South and end my days mowing down scores of endlessly expendable, pyjama-clad Mexicans until the inevitable conclusion. Watched by Rosita, my unfaithful but beautiful Mexican spitfire, I will die in a hail of bullets in some adobe cantina. But, as a suddenly repentant Rosita cradles my bloody head in her lap, begging me to tell her where the gold is hidden, I will think of the worse fate that awaits my alter ego, shuffling along with his walking frame in some retirement village. I know he will be thinking, as he sits watching Dancing with the Stars, of the philosophical words of the greatest cowboy of them all “It’s better to die on your feet than live on your knees”.     

 

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.