Monday, 18 October 2010


Travelling as a tourist is like being on a low-carb diet... you take in so much rich-flavoured stuff, so many new details, and it's all intense and complex, so that you long for bland, normal, quiet, peaceful times.

Our last day was a non-stop process of change and mid-level stress, everyone is very tired now. Up early, onto the top deck and freezing winter air and rain to see the ship glide back into Venice. Astonishing. Back down, grab some breakfast in the cafeteria, empty the cabin, put the hand-luggage into a temporary left-luggage place, do the final admin, find somewhere to sit, collect friends who we will travel home with, buy bottles of water, wait, wait, try to hear the announcements which are perfectly audible in Italian and muffle in German, French, Spanish, English etc. Go back and get our hand luggage. Eventually file out, past an embarrassing line-up of token staff - a chef, a waiter, a cabin steward, a waitress, a bar-steward, a customer-services person, a tour guide.... how humiliating, how pointless. They have fixed grins, wave wanly at us. They are from Brazil, India, Colombia, Philipines (worrying about the super-typhoon about to strike their country)...

Through the perfunctory exit gates, find our luggage waiting neatly for us, take it to left luggage, wait in the rain for the free shuttle bus, get to Piazzale Roma, try two different ticket offices for an airport-bus ticket. Lead our little group into the Cannreggia for a coffee and lunch... over that glass bridge, watching the waves punch up and down in the gale. The rubbish bins are stuffed full of broken umbrellas. The thalidomide man (with no body below the hips) is not there this morning as he was last Sunday. We find a coffee (lucky when all the cafes are looking for lunch customers). The owner is Chinese. Then we go out to another place nearby for lunch: pasta with seppia or bolognese, fegato or escalopes, salad, lovely local white wine, and it's all very nice despite being cheap and touristy. We chat to other diners - Americans. Pay, get back to the Ple. Roma, back on the shuttle to the ship terminus, find our left luggage office closed. Try getting in. Upstairs, huge crowds assembling as we did a week ago, waiting to board for their cruise..... ha! what we could tell them!!!!

Go back down, find another way in, get the big bags and back onto the shuttle to Ple. Roma. Then queue for the airport bus. Phew! Twenty minutes takes us to Marco Polo. I manage to scavenge some acorns from under the extraordinary fastigiate oak trees growing by the bus stops... like those Lombardy poplars but oaks.

The plane is delayed. Andrew is searched coming through the security gate and because I distracted him by picking up his case, he loses some cash in the trays. When he goes back they say they put it in the Third World box. Then our doctor friends is fleeced in the shop - they give him change for a 10 euro note when he had handed over a 20. No argument, but I feel better that other people can lose money through not paying attention too. We find somewhere to sit. The sun comes out as we climb the airplane steps.... (it has been raining and cold all day). Someone says, it was waiting till we left. If only we had such influence!!!

We finally get airborne just a few moments late. The whole of Europe is covered with one huge cloud mass a nd we are just above it all the way. I talk to the cabin crew about radiation damage and how our capsules can help. One used to work for an eminent eye surgeon and has heard of John, the consultant in our little group (who just lost 10 euros). The cabin staff are pleased to learn about Juice Plus, and take my leaflets with alacrity. As we leave the plane at Gatwick, an old friend, Elaine Calnan, who is godmother to my daughter, is there - she was sitting just behind us on the flight and we didn't realise.

A friend is there to meet us and bring us home... The house smelled a bit damp when we walked in, boo. But it all looked so calm, and peaceful. Travelling as a tourist is a crazy thing to do, especially in planes. It's easy enough in some ways, miraculous in fact, hurtling through the air or over oceans at great speed and in carefully costed comfort, but it's all stressful and exhausting and there is not enough human contact, or real experience. It can't be right.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Ižmire, Constantinople, Dubrovnik

Izmir and Constantinople

Fantastic harbour, boats skimming past, skyline pricked by minarets and radio masts, so exciting.... the dark skies, cold wind and pouring rain are less inviting. Still we are venturing out in a moment and will have a look at what we can, and I think resolve to come back and see it all another time.

Yesterday we were in Izmir, a place proudly proclaimed as Turkish, but it wasn't so long ago that I read the novel 'Jericho' which starts with the massacre of the Greeks in Smyrna as it then was, and so I find I do not share the sort of touristy-ecstasy about the new democratic republic. though I am glad the people have reclaimed their homeland. And what a story this chunk of the world can tell, from Hittites to Moses, Alexander, St John, Romans, saints, castles, churches, mosques, etc etc. This is a rather rapid and garbled paragraph, sorry – I am really tired!

We opted for a bus excursion to see the house where the Virgin Mary died (in the care of St John), and Ephesus. It turns out the authenticity of the House rests on the vision of a German nun in the 18th century, who had a dream..... surprisingly her description was found to be vry accurate and so bishops and historians and popes etc all said it must be true. The original House had been destroyed by earthquakes and has been rebuilt, in the rather surprising shape of a church. No photography allowed, no speaking, just a non-stop reverent line of pilgrims filing through. Oh well. The source provides delicious water just down the path, a wall holds thousands – millions – of prayers written on paper, the coffee shop does a brisk trade, the loos (our first experience of a real Turkish lav) were disappoingly european in style and not the croucher type, and the whole place is guarded by policemen with automatic machine guns, nice at a holy place, but probably sensible.

Then back into the bus and to the huge site of Ephesus. This is a disappointing place because of the crowds, and the very broken (white marble) pavements which force you to watch your footing all the time and so it is hard to look at the astonishing rubbly remains of this vast Roman city. To my mind Epidavros near Corinth offers a far more peaceful and imaginative account of how things were... archeaologists and historians will hiss at me, but, there it is. Our guide was a nice man, a gentle Muslim evangelist, who gave us an interesting document showing how Jesus and Mary are recorded in the Holy Koran, but his English was execrable and he darted off into the crowds almost as soon as we got into the site, and so we made our own way down. At the end we bought a freshly-pressed pomegranite juice, and some delicious fresh figs, and chicken doner wrap for our lunch, and admired a dark woolly Bactrian camel, and waited for all the rest of the group to join us. The imprecations from the tat vendors are forceful, but my goodness they work hard for their living.

Anyway, overnight we sailed through up the Aegean and through the Dardanelles into the Sea of Marmara and thus into Istanbul..... we tried to see the land on either side as we came through the straits, but it was too dark. And today, in the pouring, drenching, road-flooding rain we set off to explore the city.... amazing place. We needed a ten lira note to buy our tram tickets, but only had a twenty, so I braved torrents of water and deep puddles to get into a bank. The elegant assistant looked at the 20lira note as if it was completely counterfeit... she checked it though a machine a few times, held it up to see through it, looked at me as if I was a leper, took it away to consult her colleagues. They stood and discussed it for about three minutes – it seemed longer – and long enough for such a simple transaction. Eventually and with great pain, apparently, she changed my note for two tens. We got our tram jetons, hopped onto a crowded no 38, and trundled into the city. Mentioning the crowds – although we saw mostly men all day, I must say I never felt anything but very safe, even in the bazaar later on.

First we went to the Basilica Cistern – with all those reused columns and the huge cathedral space created to hold the city's water supply – marvellous, even the solemn fish swimming round in the dark. Medusa's head, seen once upside down and once just as a prop to a column, is a salutary reminder of how a culture can be discarded... the workmen who heaved her into place could not have worried that they might be turned to stone just by looking at her.

Then into the Hagia Sophia – queueing first for what seemed like hours in the rain to get to the ladies' loo first... the disable loo was firmly locked, by the way. Why are public loos built with so few booths for ladies? And why do ladies take so much, so much longer than men....? Well, I know why, but I have yet to meet a female who doesn't loathe queueing to pee. Loathe!

The Hagia Sophia has the advantage (for the time-strapped tourisit) of being both a very ancient church, and a mosque, and a public space. If the cathedral builders of Europe had seen this, in say 1200, or 1300, they'd have fallen down and cried. The height, the width, the holy acoustic, the marvel of it. We wandered around, feeling blessed to be there.

Then we headed for lunch, were tempted into a corner cafe by the sight of two women in traditional dress sittting on the floor in a window cooking pancake things on a curved griddle.... We had delicious food there, a mixed Ordervre (sp!), pancakes filled with spinach or potatoes, and yogurt drink, and tiny delicate honey cakes for a pudding. Yum.

Then we went to the bazaar, crowded, filled with bling and handbags and ceramics and garden lamps and shoes and silk and jeans and crowds and musical instruments and coffee and shawls and towels and napkins and nougat and turkish delight and more of all of it, retail, wholesale, trolley loads of it coming through, and everyone working very hard, and having a great time. Our friends bought their Christmas presents, I bought two pairs of baggy pants and we got a special selection of Turkish Delight vacuum packed to bring home. Tram back, plod through more puddles and rain, fail to get a seat at the internet cafe because all the Indian and Brazlian crew members from our vast ship were queueing up to contact home too.... and here we are now, back in our cabin, filling in time before our wretchedly late supper sitting (8.45pm sit down, eat about 9.45).

We went up on deck to watch our departure from the quay... the light was fading fast and it's quite murky outside, and damp. Coming back inside the ship where it's dry and light, well that is nice but the air is all dry and artificial.... we can hear the engine throbbing somewhere deep below us. The cabin 'TV' has only the ghastly BBC World News, which is still mostly showing only endless loops of happy Chilean miners and their President. We know from our tiny taste of Turkey today how many real things are happening in the world, however small, however insignificant.... and it makes this thumping poverty-stricken endlessly repetitive capitalist blurb which gets pumped out round the globe under the once-hallowed name of the BBC all the more shameful.

Tonight and all tomorrow the ship is heading back to the Adriatic. We get to Dubrovnik for a short stay on Saturday... when I hope to put this offering up onto the blog.

OK - here we are in Dubrovnik, rain held off most of the afternoon, we had a brilliant sunny day on deck yesterday, and a wonderful lunch in the old town just now. >Prety tired, very happy, almost too much to take in now. I found two new custoemrs during this trip - both thrilled to find Juice Plus which they realise will help them with their various problems. I also found new ideas about how to take my business forward, very helpful.

Andrew was v pleased to go up the cable car here, we could see for miles along the coast, fantastic views. Have to get back to the ship pretty soon now, pack and put the cases outside the cabin ready for disembarkation in the morning back in Venice. My God, it has gone so fast. Not sure this blog had as many laughs as I like to put in, but it is a record at any rate. I notice too that my creative juices have flowed every time we came ashore and dried up completely on the ship which is all plastic and bling. The cities we visited are so poignant, working hard to attract tourists, polite about how rude tourists can be, rich with their own history. Strange to think we will be back home tomorrow night.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Storm, Tiredness, Greece

Maybe I attract this bad weather... anyway we had some sort of storm most of yesterday, got very wet in pretty Bari and sailed through grey and grumpy seas all day and most of the night. The ship is so huge you hardly notice it.

The interior of the ship is most like an extended fairground, so although it is large it is also crowded and garish, with eyeball-scorching decor, and barely an inch wasted in terms of money-grabbing opportunities. The bar, the next bar, the chocolate bar, the casino, more bars, shops, art gallery, photo walls, excursion desk, etc. Not that we didn't expect it, but being inside all the time is wearing and the air is all filtered and dried out, so you get thirsty and buy yet more of their bottled and expensive water. I wonder if maybe water is the most profitable thing on the ship. The food is salty too, so guess what.......?

We saw the show before supper, two athletic guys doing impossible balancing acts, balletic but very tough - black leather trousers and a few camp poses, but astonishing strength and a stand-up ovation at the end. One did some Olympic style gym stuff while on a pair of flimsy scarf things hanging from the top of the stage, what Andrew called 'running up a pair of curtains'.

We are still on the late sitting for our evening meal, which means we assemble at 8.45 and eat about about 9.30pm which suits the Italians but all us Northern Europeans are wilting a bit, especially as we get up quite early in order to go on the excursions. Andrew and I did not book up for the trip to Olympia today, we will come back another time, and today we are spending an hour or so in Katakalon, which is a little modern cluster of shops etc on the shore beside the 19th century harbour. The ship sails at 12.30 so there isn't long and we thought we'd prefer fresh air to a coach trip. Another cruise ship is in today, the Saga Ruby, looking small and old-fashioned and rather sweet.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Conference and Embarkation

The Juice Plus conference ran smoothly - an intense experience sitting listening to amplified speech or instant translations on headphones... a bit like being in the UN, I suppose, as we had about 11 nationalities there ranging from Finnish to Mexican. The company is getting more and more excited as the research data piles up in support of eating fruits and vegetables, and the scientists use our Juice Plus capsules for constant data. The ordinary press picks up the stories too, so the background in which we work is visibly changing, in our favour. Anyone reading this who wants to be in at the beginning of a business success better join fast! Ask me for details.

We heard one great story from the company's early days: they wanted the endorsement of a top athlete in America and went for a man known as 'the juice' because of his initials. It was OJ Simpson... they made a video with him, 10,000 copies ready to distribute at their first conference, all the literature printed ready to go out... then the news came in that he had murdered his wife. They were initially told he hadn'tndoneit and it would all be ok, but of course, at the moment he was supposed to be on the conference platform, half the audience left the hall to watch TV as he was led away in handcuffs ..... wearing a Juice Plus teeshirt! Ooops!

Anyway, that was then and this is now. We are the leading company, with more research, more government support, more endorsement than any other food supplement and our directors are understandably excited.

I want to add one shocking detail.. we spent the last morning in Venice for a walkaround and there saw a beggar on the pavement, whose entire body below the hips was not there. He had one arm as a stump, so I think this was a thalidomide victim. He was 'standing' on the pavement, looking as if he was really in a hole in the ground. His work, so to speak, was to beg for alms. I find it hard to get this image of him out of my mind.

Last night we set off on our cruise on the Costa Serena, a huge great box of a ship, nearly 4000 passengers and 1000 crew. It's like a glam holiday camp, all glitter and sparkle. Our cabin is on the inside, ie no porthole. We have been assigned the second sitting for meals, so we ate last night at about 9.30 - too late, and we will try to change to an earlier sitting. Maybe the cafeteria will be a better bet, but last night it was pizza only, for all the kids aboard.

Leaving Venice from the height of the top deck was stupendous... it was a clear sunset evening, so the views were wonderful. Still, I think ships of this size should not be allowed anywhere near the city... Do you remember the Jupiter Ship in the film 2001? It's like that. Dwarfing everything.

We sailed down to Bari during the night, and here is it raining quite hard. We are in a little cafe, with a marvellous boney plain square Norman castle across the road, and the town very plain and ordinary but built of glowing golden-white stone. The pavements and steps are like rivers. Shoes wet. But who cares?

No idea when we can get online again, it is v expensive on the ship like £10 a minute or something. So I hope to post again soon. Please put your comments on here.

Saturday, 9 October 2010


Didn't post yesterday as I was at the Juice Plus conference which was full of wisdom and interesting things.
It finished tonight and I am really tired.
Just had a brilliant meal in a local osteria (cuttlefish risotto, black as black).
We are off tomorrow on our cruise io Istanbul. Posting may be difficult if not impossible for the next few days, but I will try.
I have a marvellous story about OJ Simpson to tell you, so will try to get that up.
Now too tired to say more except that it is exhilarating to be in the company of world-class people, winners, champions, exceptional achievers.
I feel at home with them but of course it is competitive to some extent and I am not sure what I can bring to the table.
Anyway, Venice has proved to be a marvellous place to live and work, and I am feeling so grateful and happy.
PLEASE post your comments for others to read. I have had some emails but of course they are private..... I hope you are enjoying this blog.

Thursday, 7 October 2010


Came back to the flat from the internet cafe and managed to get this to open up! Ha!


Now, all the rich knobs in Venice hated the heat of the swamp and the marsh and the mosquitoes, and they yearned for somewhere cool and with solid ground under their feet for the summer, and once they had collectively conquered the interior region and held it safe from their various enemies, they hit upon the little inland city-port of Vicenza as a place to send their families for the holidays. They built up a gorgeous urban environment with palaces, churches, squares and markets but they had no defence at all when one of their own arrived to tell them how to build, embellish and improve their new palazzi. The architect who set their blood racing was Palladio, who created in Vincenza a series of urban show-off set pieces, and various country villas dotted about on the estates around the town, and these buildings were so beautiful, so correct, so brilliantly modern, so stylish and perfect that they formed the basis for architecture ever since. If you visit Vicenza, nestled into the nearest hills to the Serene City of Venice, you can easily walk round and see most of Palladio's buildings externally, and some internally, with some marvellous signposting and excellent self-guided walk brochurery.

The extraordinary thing is that the first building you go to see (called the Teatro Olimpico) was the last of his designs – he never lived to see it complete. It was commissioned by a body of men who must have been completely extraordinary in themselves – they were (I guess) all rich and powerful, and learned, and took Hercules as their exemplum... nothing could be achieved without work! They called themselves the Accademia and they thought they should spend all their money on anything to do with antiquity – literature, statuary, art and of course architecture. So they asked Palladio to make them a theatre and gave him an awkward little bit of land with an old prison on it... He was already experienced in creating temporary theatre buildings for special events, and had a huge amount of knowledge of the Greek and Roman theatres. Also he was genius at working on difficult sites, and he'd been thinking of what he wanted to achieve with such a commission, so in no time he had knocked up the basic layout... a wooden amphitheatre or 'cavia' of elliptical design, and a proscenium and stage 'scena' of triumphant classical proportion and ornament. There were of course some large elegant entry rooms for the building where the accademicians could meet and listen to music and lectures, but it was the theatre itself which was to blow everyone away. We went in via a 'new' passageway which brings you straight into the side of the auditorium/cavia - and it is a breathtaking experience....

The postcards on sale do not do justice to the experience of seeing this important space – the first covered theatre in the world – I will post my own photos in due course. But the seating is original, the stage wide and close, the 'orchestra' available for seating and the whole space just astonishing. The scena is sort-of based on a Roman triumphal arch with three main entrances and two more at the side. It is decorated with Corinthian columns and dozens of statues... these were originally to have been 'the Virtues' but after Palladio had died, the Accademicians had themselves plastered all over their marvellous theatre. They had to pay for their own statues, and some could only afford recycled ones, so although they were all stoutly male, some do appear to have rather feminine attributes (boobs).

The first performance (in 1580!) was of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, for which the costume designs etc remain. The set was designed by Palladio's rival Scamozzi, who hated him, and shows seven streets leading away from the stage – the city of Thebes in fact. It was such a marvellous design, and so fragile, that it is now regarded as an artwork in its own right and has been left there. It is all absolutely astonishing, especially when you think that London was groping towards a few comparatively temporary wooden theatres at the time, the Globe, the Swan, etc. This Olimpico at Vicenza is still a marvellous working theatre, with a breath-taking stage and orchestra pit, excellent acoustics, terrific history and it must really rank as one of the greatest and most influential buildings in the world. Go and see it!!!

Andrew asks me to record that we had lunch nearby in a little bar which claims to be an osteria and spuncioneria. We don't know what that means, but they serve a terrific menu of polenta or pasta with various fillings of fish, prawns, porcini etc. The address is Pitanta, Contra Santa Lucia, 8, Veneto. Bravo!

We walked round for a few more hours, looking at Palladio's marvellous exciting buildings which still give you a thrill. Vicenza claims him as their own, but recently had to agree that he was actually born in Venice and ran away at the age of 16 to escape an apprenticeship agreement. No-one really knows how or why he died, or much about his life, but his fantastic buildings have led to the town being made a World Heritage Site and it is definitely worth a visit. If you don't already like architecture, then you might start to take an interest when you've been to see all this stuff. We are definitely coming back, to see the villas this time.

We also recommend a quick visit to the town's Natural History and Archaeological Museum which is exemplary if very quiet... however it has some shocking examples of taxidermy, some very very very ancient pots, bones, skulls, etc., some excellent 3-D models of geological formations such as limestone caves, and the biggest fecking stick insect I have ever seen. I had no idea such things existed in Europe and I will walk past hedges with more care in future. This one is evidently called Ph. acanthopus Burmeister and is about as big as a big man's trainer.


Annoyingly, we are not able to get our freebie online service tonight in the apartment, and I hoped to load today's exciting bulletin from a memory stick onto the pc at the internet cafe, but for some reason it doesn't work. The staff are all Indian and presumably speak good technical Italian but not English. So I am stumped for the time being and will try to get our Palladio story up in the morning.

For now I will just say that Vicenza is the city of toilets a la Turque, that is to say, squatters, which are ok if you have been regularly to yoga.

This is a slightly squalid posting, I think, especially when what I want to say is radiantly wonderful about the architecture and amazing life story of Palladio, who one way or another changed all our lives, even though he died in 1581 or thereabouts.

I will have to get my blog updated tomorrow. We had a great day though. My conference starts on Friday (tomorrow) after lunch so that will be the end of my free time in Italy. Two days of work, then onto the cruiseship to chunter round to Istanbul. Then it really will be hard to get the blog done....

Wednesday, 6 October 2010


We just walked back into our apartment at 6.30pm to see a marvellous sunset out across the Veneto plain. In fact the weather has been gorgeous today, like a fine mid-summer day in England. All the Venetians are wearing wool, black leather, thick sweaters, scarves, everything smart but all in grey, black and brown. We on the other hand are wearing light summer clothes, bare arms, basking in the heat.

Today we went out to Torcello, one of the 'remote' islands in the Venice lagoon, partly to see Venice's oldest building (church of St Maria dell'Assunta) founded 685AD and barely altered since, so reaching back into Byzantine history and with some marvellous early mosaics. We knew it would be a complicated journey, requiring three different boats, but actually it was hilarious – the pontoons getting more and more crowded as service after service failed to arrive. No-one really seemed to mind as our morning slipped away.We could easily have gone for a coffee or a stroll and still come back to the same queue. One group were a bit anxious, asking how long it would take them to get to the ospedale, but otherwise a kind of ancient Italian resignation settled over us all, whatever nationality we were.

Eventually we clambered onto a low busboat, and headed out past the station and along the Canale di Cannaregio, missing the Fondamente Nuove and going straight out to Murano. There on advice we waited for the second stop (Pharo), and changed to a ferry going to Burano. There a stolid man on a motorised wheelchair waited in line, and it took lots of heaving and shifting to get him up all the precipitous ramps and steps and onto the boat. Bravo! The third boat took a bit of time to arrive but by then we were in a calm, quiet, natural looking part of the lagoon, with most passengers heading off into the brightly coloured streets of Burano and just a few of us heading for Torcello. It was such a short trip we could have swum, almost. Our path into the island was a plain, modern, brick causeway with wild meadows behind a wire fence, and a solitary beret-wearing accordionist who struck up a jolly medley of songs as we walked past. We passed the Devil's Bridge (ancient and recently restored – no handrail at all!) and two restos, but went on to the church. There a horde of children scrambled and shouted and played under some trees, perhaps on a school outing. We paid our 5 euros and went into the church – well worth all the hassle or fun of getting there, with wildly coloured marble floors, grey marble pillars (some bound in iron to keep them from splitting), and the two stupendous mosaic walls – one with Mother and Child in huge isolated beauty, and facing them a terrific Judgement Day. Here (just as with the Giotto in Padua yesterday) we could see the rich and wicked being tormented and harried by devils and dogs, poked and prodded down into the fires of hell, while on the other side of the design the saintly and good were lifting up their hands in praise – or it looked like they were applauding.

We had thought we would eat at Locanda Cipriano, which was recommended, right by the church and museum, but it seemed empty and expensive so we went back to the Osteria del Ponte Diavolo – where we had a life-memorable lunch in the garden for 28 euros. Fabulous setting, service, atmosphere and food..... a salad, freshly made rolls, a tagliatellini with shrimps, tiny mussels, clams, and herbs, and then a little mould of the local salt cod stuffed with a puttanesca sort of sauce – olives, tomatoes, rich and strong. Perfect perfect meal.

Getting back to Venice meant standing most of the way – but the light was wonderful, the company on the boats amusing, the water as calm as the lake in Regents Park. We disembarked at Fondamente Nuove and wandered around the Cannareggio part of Venice – far less touristy and with real people doing real things. We had an ice-cream and a glass of acqua con gaz by the Rio di Misericordia in the Campo di Mori, watched a guy reloading his lovely Rolleiflex camera, wrote some postcards.

Then back to Piazzale di Roma, onto a bus (no 4 takes us a smarter way home), into the PAM supermarket to get some stuff for a salad tonight, and then into the flat and that sunset. A marvellous day. The sky outside - just 30 mins later – is streaked pink and orange against pale blue. Fantastic.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010



There is a strange quality to the ground in Mestre. I keep noticing small patches on the pavement where there seems to be nothing underneath. These gaps could be where paving slabs have gone, or next to manhole covers... at any rate places where the most recent covering has broken away. There is just a dark space there, a kind of gap. Andrew suggests it's because the place could be built on sand, which would be one explanation. But in any case, it adds a slightly disreputable or unstable element to the place. I have not noticed this effect in other places.

During the night there were times of torrential rain, coming from the south. It woke me every now and then and I got up to close the windows leading to the two little terraces which face over towards Venice. I also heard those mosquitoes again, and each time I put on my small greenish bedside light, I found I could see nothing of them, dead or alive. In this region of Italy, it is possible to gety malaria or West Nile Fever from mosquitoes, as I discovered when I tried to give blood following our last trip here a year ago. I had to wait several months before they would let me donate. I found out, at that time, that my blood group is the very cheerfully named Be Positive group (B+).

So we had breakfast and – checking as well as we could the weather – went to Padua by train. Tickets come from an efficient machine and cost 2.35 euros each, one way. Cheap! At Padua we got a special city ticket and went straight to the chapel with the Giotto frescoes. Getting in is an art form in itself.... All bags of any size have to be checked in.t You get timed tickets (and if you miss your slot you have to pay again for a new one), and you have to gather outside a special air-lock room at least 5 mins before your entry, in groups of 25. There you see a video showing you what's inside, while the air you breathe inside this airlock is acclimatised so as not to damage the precious artworks. Then they let you in and it really is breathtaking.... every square inch covered with radiant images of the lives of Christ and of Mary and to some extent the donor/patron. He is seen kneeling in a prime position right under the Cross, giving his chapel to the Virgin to make up for any shortcomings his father (or he himself) may have clocked up in their careers as bankers and usurers. The blue is pure lapis, the images wonderful, the seven sins and the seven virtues edifying, the framework of all the images made to look like marble... It is a wonderful thing and worth all the hassle. Outside is the remains of an oval Roman amphitheatre, now a garden.

We couldn't see the Mantegna in the church next door because it was shut from 12.30 till 4 or something despite the signs saying it was open all day. The town is lovely, arcaded, full of students, fashionable shops, nooks and crannies, cyclists, trams, cobbles, churches, churches, churches, museums, useful signposts, markets, cafes, etc. The sun shone, we walked. We tried to eat in the open air but were too late and had to go inside... panino for A and salad for me, all good. It's a nice place to stroll around. We couldn't get into the big palace in the middle because it was completely shut... restoration work, which was not mentioned when we bought our day ticket, so that was a shame. It's a stunning building, with the markets around and beneath it, and apparently with a single massive room upstairs on the first floor, full of treasures.

But we wandered through parts of the university, came to the Duomo (cathedral) also shut till 4pm despite being 'open'. That sent us into the Baptistry next door – and Wow! what a treat. A small square nave with a fine circular dome, and again every inch covered with images of the divine Lives.... This surely was the inspiration for the Giotto chapel, but never a word of this one mentioned there! A sign said, take no photos but everyone was snapping away. It is gorgeous.

We walked on, down to the shrine of St Anthony of Padua, with Donatello statuary around and about. This is a marvellous building, with the most marvellous tomb and shrine inside it, full of white marble friezes, false perspective and a steady line of pilgrims walking round it and – laying one hand on the green marble back of the tomb – praying quietly for the health and wellbeing of their friends and family. It is truly lovely, and even to unbelievers like me a place worth going to see. I loved it.

Just as we went into St Anthony's church we had a text from Lucie in London to say her contract at work has been extended to March, something she has been worrying about, so we felt grateful to St Anthony for this benevolence. In the shop through the tranquil cloister, we looked at the serried ranks of models of the saint, and of other demigods. There is a vast amount of stuff for sale there. I liked the many snowstorm St Anthony, of course, but finally decided to buy a special very very tiny piece of cloth, held in a card, which not only had a picture of the saint, but an inscription which explained that this cloth had – very reverently – been brought in contact with the tongue of the saint, this organ having survived absolutely uncorrupted for nearly 800 years, which is a miraculous sign of course. I like the idea of the tongue of this stalwart young Christian from 1200AD or so, being a living wet warm pink organ readily pressed into service against sheets of cloth which can then be cut up into truly miniscule fragments (by nuns, presumably, or orphans), so they can be sold to pilgrims like me.

We admired the grand Donatello statue in the piazza outside the church, got a rather chic icecream for Andrew, waited for a tram and headed back up into the city. We wanted to see inside that Duomo of course, which had been shut earlier. It was another shocker – a huge white empty space, with giant cruciform columns topped with rather Deco-looking Corinthian capitals. Michaelangelo had a hand in the original design of this cathedral but it had some alterations later. Now you could be forgiven for thinking it a North German Protestant church, apart from the smell of incense. The altar steps are modern, like Clarice Cliff in marble – wonderful.

Tired, we came home via that tram and a fast train, picking up some fruit for supper. While I have been writing this Andrew has put some local saltcod and a stuffed aubergine together for supper bought at the Co-op in Venice yesterday. Delicious. It has got dark outside, with a lovely sunset. We have Radio 4 online, which is so much, so hugely much better than BBC TV World, so it is all quiet and calm and we are happy. Tomorrow Verona perhaps, or Trieste, we haven't decided. We wish you were here, too. It is being a lot of fun. Padua would be a great place to stay, convenient for Venice and with great character of its own.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Piranesi and Dinsdale

Venice and Thoughts

We had planned to go to Padua today but a quick check in the guidebooks showed us that several places would be shut because it's Monday, and since Padua is smaller than Venice the effect would be disproportionate. So we switched and went back into Venezia instead.

We walked round to the train station.... I could see my ghostly schoolgirl self hurtling through this place in about 1962, on a schooltrip to Greece by boat-train. Now the station is bigger and modernised, but the old architecture and old concrete is still there. I dimly remember being nudged into excitement as we went through – 'We're nearly there!' Then we went across that magic bit across the lagoon and to my childish mind this was one of the great crossing points of my life up to that time. The ricketty old couchette train glided and almost flew across the still and calm morning sea into the magnificent station, and then we emerged onto those amazing steps and saw water, water where a road would be in any other city. It was stunning then and still is today, when our journey was on the top of a nice modern double-decker train, with ergonomically designed seats and electronic communications. The station at Venice still has huge rippling bronze columns and mosaic ceilings in keeping with its Deco styling. It is really magnificent.

We bought vaporetto tickets (16 euros each for 12 hours use and great value). We nipped into the church beside the station – like a migraine inside, all swirls and nonsense – and then onto a No2 vaporetto to go to San Marco. We hadn't planned to go the long way round – but the waterbus took us first to Tronchetto, and then along the Giudecca Canal, so we saw the sun shining on the Venice's southern face, and took a longer view. At San Marco and hopping ashore, we turned east and wandered along to Arsenale, the huge medieval (and still secret) naval base, where there is at the entrance a fantastic collection of statues of lions of various ages...the symbol of Venice, of course, and here clustered round a marvellous formal iron-fenced portal in gnashing, smiling, superior, wonky, simpering white stone variety. We wandered on, through alleys and squares, over little bridges, peeping into shops and boutiques, listening and watching. We held hands a lot too.

We stopped for a decaf coffee, and used the loo, which the proprietor had to buzz open for us. We saw a lady in a wheelchair passing along sedately enough, but we wondered how far she could actually go before she came to a bridge or more water. Still, she smiled as she went back and forth. We heard a gondolier serenading his passengers... or maybe it was a singer accompanying them as there was accordian music and I guess you can't gondol and play squeezebox at the same time.

We wanted an internet cafe and found one, as you may know, not too far from Santa Maria Formosa, which is in a delightful piazza of complex shape, with fruit stalls and artists, and various palaces and arcades around. Very nice and not too crowded. We posted up yesterday's bulletin and then found lunch – disappointing compared to yesterday's meal but tasty and filling... it was lasagne, and some sort of 'Milanese' escalope but really it could have been shoe-lining. We don't often choose bum places but this wasn't great. It was however full of happy-looking Chinese diners. Venice, it must be said, is full of Australians, West Indians, Chinese and Japanese visitors as well as Russians, Americans and N Europeans.

We went back across the main canal to San Giorgio Maggiore to see the Piranesi exhibition – and WOW! if you haven't had a look at his work then do! He started off in Venice and learned to do etching, then went to Rome in about 1740 and learned engraving and discovered all the antiquities still lying about the place and devoted the rest of his life to studying them and passing on the good news about how they were all built in a series of realistic but also fantastic engravings and designs. Sadly he only managed to see one of his own designs brought to fruition, but modern technology has created (for the first time) items he claimed to have found in various Roman and Pompeii ruins – urns, tripods, altars, etc – and whose whereabouts then and now is a mystery. Here we see lions morphing into crocodiles or columns or griffons or tortoises.

He also made a huge portfolio of fireplace designs... he had beeen friends with Robert Adam with whom he spent happy hours measuring, surveying and drawing ruins - and learned that fireplaces were popular in England – and crucially for his free spirit – realised that there were no fireplaces in antiquity so he was FREE to design them however he wanted.

The exhibition ends with a fascinating coda – a series of photographs commissioned from a modern artist called Gabriele Basilico who was sent round to take pictures of the very same Roman antiquities which Piranesi recorded. The effect is remarkable because a lot of the buildings are almost the very same. Whatever impressions we had that P had fantasised and embellished his views is utterly crushed... the tumbling, wild, phantasmagorical landscapes must have been true and maybe still are. It is odd how very 'externalising' Basilico's photos are... you get all these facades, while Piranesi somehow had a kind of psychological insight into his buildings... With Basilico all you get is the outside, with Piranesi anything might happen, in or out. The attendant in this part of the show was utterly delighted to find we were English. He said “England 64 Nobel prize winners, Italy 6”. Quite.

Back to Piranesi... Especially when looking at his fantastic/imaginary prison designs, I thought he must have been doing drugs of some sort and was pleased to find Coleridge and de Quincy thought the same thing. The gallery also had a literally fantastic video show put together by a French artist called Gregoire Dupond, using the hellish images from the Prison Engravings, and with computer animation taking us on a sort of 3-D journey through the buildings. I also liked very much Piranesi's engineering drawings, which are analyses of how the Romans built their bridges etc – as much stonework UNDER the ground or water as visible above it, if not more. Fascinating.

One of the truly inspiring things about this show is the marriage of the old art with absolutely up-to-the moment modern artistic technology – the video made in France, the 3-D replicas of the urns, tripods, altars and a magnificent fireplace, done by Arte Factum in Madrid in lovely materials (bronze, porphyry, marble, some plated in gold or silver), and so on. And another thought is how fantastically restrained Robert Adam was when he came back to Britain. I grew up visiting Kenwood all through my childhood, and thought the library was a bit of a romp in colour and swaggery, but it's NOTHING compared to what his friend Piranesi dreamed up.

Julian Mannering (in Faversham) has a very lucid way of comparing 'Old France' with 'New France' but the same idea could not really be applied to Venice which is one continous stream of repair, revival, research and renewal. There are modern grotesqueries, including all the tat shops, but also some stupendous and loving work on the buildings and the people themselves seem all of a part with it. They seem to say 'We ARE Venice'. However, nothing, nothing could have prepared us this morning for the sight of a cruise liner nosing its way into the Giudecca Canal heading for the terminal at Tronchetto. It was VAST, towering over everything in the landscape, taller, wider, more massive. Do you remember in Monty Python that huge hedgehog which appeared over the skyscrapers growling out 'Dinsdale, Dinsdale'? This monster ship, like the Starship Enterprise, did a sort of peekaboo act round the corner of the buildings. It was horrible, shocking. 'New Venice' with a vengeance.

Now we are back in the flat, having bought some stuff to make supper – pasta and spinach and garlic. I am thinking back to the middle of last night, when a mosquito woke me up. I was wondering whether it had actually flown all the way up here, ten stories high to the top of this block of flats, or had it come up in the lift? We will never know.

A final thought. As you know I like writing this blog, and have thought of it as 'writing'. But my chosen reading for this trip is Virginia Woolf's 'A Writer's Diary' (been on my shelf for about 40 years and never opened, shame, shame, just like Dorothy Wordsworth's Journals which are rivetting). So now I have to take a smart step backwards and concede fully and completely that this is not writing, it is journalism. Not the same thing at all.

Going to Venice

Sushi turns out to be the ideal snack to take onto the plane for elevenses/brunch... Easy and neat to eat, delicious, filling, nutritious. Buy it in Boots before you head to the departure gate. Costa coffee at Gatwick is fabuloso, don't even think about Pret a Manger where the coffee (last time) was so bitter I actually tried to complain, but the sweet manager was Polish and powerless.

We left England over Cuckmere, fleetingly visible through amazing layers of clouds. France was uneventful though the Rhone looked magnificent and the Alps were paradisical, absolutely stunning with the pale sun shining on their southern slopes and the snow almost incandescently bright.

Venice Marco Polo is so smooth, so efficient. We were out and waiting for our bus in about 20 minutes. I admired a fastigiate oak growing between the concrete platforms of the car/bus access to the side of the airport... every branch turning straight up, so it looked more like a poplar than anything else. Can these grow in England?

We took the local bus into Mestre, the directions from our landlord seemed fine till we got off the bus and descended the spiral staircase as directed... and found ourselves not outside the apartment but in a stinky public carpark with no signage and a nasty atmosphere. We wandered about. A smart old lady told us which way we should go. We found the flats... and waited. Eventually a shambling young man appeared – I typed 'mad' just now instead of 'man', and that would have been right. He spoke very very very quietly. Was almost completely unintelligible, couldn't believe we had no car (though he had sent directions for the bus), took ages to let us into the building, could hardly bear to get into the little lift with us, seemed like something out of Kafka.

But, the apartment is very nice, on the 10th floor of an almost-Deco style block, with a terrace looking out to the north and west, and Venice itself visible from the kitchen window on the other side of the building. It smells a bit of tobacco, which is disappointing, as we had specified non fumato. I didn't want to be left alone with him in the flat, so Andrew stayed with him to be shown the switches etc and I went slightly nervously down into the street to find a bank and money to pay him. That all went ok, and in fact going away from the carpark we had come through, the area improves.

Eventually Fabio went away, and we went out to find the bus across to Venice... there is NOTHING to live with here, no salt or pepper, no washup liquid, no oil, empty empty. Being Sunday there are no shops open round here either, so we hoped to find some basics in the city. Which we did – Andrew remembered there is a brilliant Co-op right by the Piazzale di Roma bus station, where we could choose from wonderful shoppy type things, with locals all around us and no other tourists to be heard.

By then we had wandered, marvelled, sat in a cafe and asked for chocolate (no, only in winter), ice-cream (sorry none left), water (sorry we only have tonic). Never mind, we enjoyed ourselves anyway and liked the foraging sparrows. We walked some more, up this bridge, over that. Here is a prison, here a row of lanes with lots of laundry hanging up, here a proper boatyard and quietness, here a building with magnificent chimneys opening up to huge vents, and here we are back in tourist land. It strikes me that one reason Venice is so attractive is that despite its great sprawling size and colossal engineeing history, it is all rather small-scale. People walking by always look in proper scale next to the buildings and the bridges.... It is intensely human, in fact. In that respect it is like Blenheim Palace, another colosssal work which manages to create a series of small spaces in which you can feel comfortable. This is an aspect of its architecture which I have never seen discussed, but it is a charming and satisfying quality which is rare enough.

We ate eventually in a place offering Sarde in saor (fresh sardines fried and then pickled in mild vinegar), and then Fegato (liver) for Andrew and Seppie (inky cuttlefish) for me. Rich, delicious, filling.

So, the shopping, then catching a bus back to Mestre – speeding across the lagoon to the mainland in the twilight, with Fangio at the wheel apparently. Quick, this is where we get off. Down those spiral stairs and through the carpark again (less scary at night, strangely, because it's lit), up in the tiny lift and here we are. BBC Worldwide on the telly, a fantastic carillon of bells from the startlingly modern church half a mile away, and the roar of traffic outside. 'Who wants to be a millionaire' is pretty much the same in Italian as it is in English except they talk more. I am bushed.

Tomorrow we can breakfast on prickly pears and toast and apricot jam, and cheese. Then walk to the station, catch the local train to Padua, and be Shakespearean. We spotted an internet cafe round the corner earlier on, so I will pop in there in the morning and post this. Annoyingly the flat does not have Wifi, though Fabio said it did, before we left. Still for 380 euros we have this eyrie for a week, clean and quiet, and reasonably conveniently placed near Mestre station. After all, most Venetians live here and not in the shining city.

Loading this onto the blog today (Monday) I want to add this.. that our landlord is like some young professor of astrophysics - unworldly, shambolic, eccentric. But without that blazing intelligence.

Today we are in Venice, not Padua as planned, because there many places are closed on Mondays whereas here most things are open because of the huge tourist industry. It is mild, sunny, peaceful. We found this internet cafe with lots of difficulty.. For future reference there are quite a few around Santa Maria di Formosa, but they mostly shut very promptly at 1pm. This one stays open, thank goodness. We need our lunch now.

Saturday, 2 October 2010


Are you the same as me, loaded with a kind of nameless anxiety which strikes before any trip? I am roaming round the house, ostensibly packing, but not being very effective. Had to go to the shops, several of them, to buy - what? something, anything. On one level, it's practical questions I ask myself: have we got enough shampoo, do we need sunblock? But at another, I know I am worrying about whether I will survive this journey: will I come home again safely. Travelling is hazardous. It is not natural to whizz along at hundreds of miles an hour, 37,000 feet up in the sky. We travel for pleasure, work, education, swank, fashion, consumption, wilfulness. But I believe there is a widespread and smothered fear about it all. Why else do we (the public) rush to the cafeteria on any ferry the moment we're aboard? It's primal fear which does it, pressed down out of sight. The merchants love it of course, and supply us with a huge array of stuff to spend our money on - food, trinkets, gadgets, clothes, accessories, print, more of all of it, almost all unnecessary. It takes our mind off what we're doing, or about to do. All worries about gravity, accidents, incompetence, terror, etc. can be swished gently away. We spend and relax. But only sort of.
So we fly to Venice at dawn....