Well, I`ve had a break from blogging. I did a lot of travelling and got involved in two big writing projects. Since my request to have more than 24 hours in my day was refused something had to give.
The image above is the one created by Louise Macdonald for my next travel book which should be available in less than a month. It is called “Coffee, Chianti and Caravaggio”. Some of the little subtleties Louise has incorporated will be much clearer in the physical print book that will be produced. The striped effect with its colours comes from the flag of Italy. The dissolute image in the top right is an excellent reproduction of Caravaggio`s famous painting of Bacchus,the god of wine. In that way she has captured both the wine and artist references in the title. Elsewhere she is showing images of the Amalfi coast, Venice, Liguria and, in the centre panel the roads that lead to Rome. The advance interest is encouraging and suggests it may have an even better launch than my last travel book “Coffee, Castanets and Don Quixote” about four great cities of Spain.
This book is not a travelogue or substitute for a Lonely Planet guide. As far as possible I wanted to create for the reader the experience of looking from a balcony over the blue sea of the Bay of Naples to Mount Vesuvius, driving past the sulphurous, bubbling and hissing gate to the Underworld at Campi Flegri, eating exquisitely fresh dorada in a beach restaurant in Portofino and the many interesting and entertaining encounters you get visiting cafes in Florence, Rome or tiny Alassio.
Here are two excerpts from the book. The first one comes from the chapter Tuscany, describing my first visit to Italy with my teenage son, Malcolm
` We did not for a moment think we had “done” Florence but we had already had a full day and wanted to get back to our peaceful estate and perhaps a game of tennis. On driving out of the covered car park I looked both ways and pulled into the street, suddenly noticing as I did so a young woman on a scooter whom I had come close to hitting. I don`t know yet whether she had suddenly pulled out from somewhere, whether she was in a blind spot or what, but she yelled at me and waved a fist as I turned. The incident shook me and restored the total caution and alertness of my first day in the country.
We headed back but somewhere took a wrong turning and found ourselves in a small town we had not expected to be in. We could find no signs either that told us where we were or how to get back to anywhere we recognized. I stopped the car in a quiet street and looked at the map with Malcolm to try to identify where we could have gone wrong. Malcolm noticed a woman coming along the street with her shopping and suggested we ask her. I agreed that was a good plan as long as she spoke English. Malcolm delicately asked if all my years of interest in Italian opera had taught me nothing that could be of any use. I wondered. I knew how to say “your tiny hand is frozen” and “women are fickle”. Neither seemed helpful. I thought further. I could manage “when the stars were brightly shining”, “on with the motley” and “no, I am not a clown.” Malcolm looked unimpressed and the lady was coming closer. Suddenly I remembered “dove sono” from Mozart`s Marriage of Figaro. That means “where am I?” That was better. From Rigoletto I recalled “pari siamo” meaning “we are the same.” I leaned out of the window and established she did not speak English. I said “dove siamo?” She gave us a name which we could not immediately find on the map. From somewhere else I remembered “ah, che voglio” which was something about “I want”. I said “voglio Pontassieve” since we knew how to navigate from there. She smiled, nodded and then burst into floods of Italian for which my operatic knowledge was no help at all. We caught “rivoltare”, ”sinistra” and what sounded like “semaforo”. That was accompanied by typically extravagant hand gestures. We nodded and said “grazie”, each of us hoping the other had grasped a little more than we knew we had. We decided “rivoltare” did not mean she was revolted by us since she kept smiling. More like a suggestion to turn round. “Sinistra”,I felt sure meant left or on the left. The word “semaforo” puzzled us. We felt it unlikely that anyone was practicing semaphore signalling in the main street of wherever we were. Malcolm wondered if it could mean some other kind of signal like a traffic light. This was such a good idea that I felt sure we had to turn round, go to the traffic lights and turn left. I turned the car and drove in the direction she had pointed. We prayed for traffic lights and, there they were. We turned left and noticed a sign ahead. We approached it and, sure enough, we were on our way to Pontassieve. “Maybe opera`s not so useless after all,” Malcolm generously admitted.
The second passage comes from the chapter The Company in Venice, describing my first visit to the city, this time travelling alone.
Almost everything about Venice is hard to believe. The approach to it alone is unlike that to any other place I have ever visited. I arrived at the airport from which a water taxi awaits to take you to your destination. You step in and all around are the waters of the lagoon, the broad natural inlet from the Gulf of Venice, protected by the narrow necks of land known as littorale. I looked around in vain to see any sign of the legendary home of Titian, Tintoretto and the empire that had ruled the Mediterranean. The crossing of the lagoon on the map had looked so short that I had expected it to be not much more than a long paddle. But as the water taxi got under way no buildings were in view. We set off on this great ocean, as it seemed, as if saying goodbye to reality. That sensation grew as in the distance I saw the first towers of San Marco, Santa Maria della Salute and The Campanile rise hazily, shimmeringly, from the water. They looked insubstantial, unsteady mirages rather than buildings of stone. Gradually more detail appeared as if Titian were painting it in as we approached. Eventually, within sight of the landing by the Doge`s Palace it almost resembled a city in which people could live, but far more ornate, colourful and imaginative than any real settlement. It was quite late and I wanted to check into my hotel but first I took one stroll past the Doge`s Palace into Piazza San Marco, St. Mark`s Square, to see the renowned basilica. In the broad square in front of it were the expected crowds of pigeons and on the far side the long line of porticoes leading to shops selling every item of fashionable living. The Basilica San Marco itself is so dreamlike that the sense of the unreal that had come over me on the lagoon appeared to be confirmed. Set in a great western city it speaks of the orient as do spices and perfumes or the poetry of Omar Khayyam or the music of Scheherezade. That, of course, is appropriate since St. Mark, the city`s patron saint, was from the Middle East. Legend has it that he replaced the original patron, St. Theodore, when in 832 Venetian sailors brought the Apostle`s bones from Alexandria in Egypt. The great empire once ruled from The Doge`s Palace beside the Basilica stretched far into the Levant where the navy of this small city could deter even the might of Turkey under the sultans. Needing some reassurance that at least my hotel room was a reality I took another vaporetto to the Lido where reality was in plentiful, maybe even excessive, supply. My room was huge with two functional beds that looked more like army surplus than art nouveau. There was no bedding when I went in. There was a mattress on each, both of which looked as if children had used them as trampoline practice and one appeared to have been chewed by some creature. I was not wholly convinced the creature was not now inside it, bedding down to start a family. The porter appeared to visibly stagger when I told him I thought this was a dump and wanted a better room. His mind was suddenly wiped clean of the moderate command of English he had shown and he resorted to Italian exclamations with hand gestures which suggested that any tether he had ever had had reached its end long ago. Tasks such as finding another room in this fairly small hotel could not be expected of him. I suspected he was in line for a substantial bonus if he could persuade anyone to occupy this slum. I went down to reception where the perfectly pleasant young woman appeared to be fully ready for my request. In fact, there were rooms in the adjoining hotel which was also owned by the management and within seconds she gave me another room key, assuring me that the porter would bring my luggage. I found my way round to it and thought it quite acceptable. My luggage quickly followed, delivered by the same porter who now greeted me with smiles and a return of his mastery of English, entirely restored by his expectation of a tip which did not materialise.