An Italian Adventure: when spur of the moment decisions lead you into the unknown …

A few years ago my adult daughter decided that it would be nice for us to spend a few days somewhere warm around my birthday (October), and share some “mother and daughter” time. She tried searching on the ‘net for a cheap break away in southern Europe, but became frustrated when time after time she reached the final page only to find that the holiday was unavailable on those days or for that price!

Eventually we decided to take pot luck and take a cheap flight from Stansted airport to Lamezia Terme International Airport with Ryanair. No, neither of us had heard of it either. The airport is located ten minutes outside the town Lamezia Terme in the boot of Italy so we figured that from there we should be able to go to the Calabrian coast and find somewhere warm to hang out in for a few days. Armed with a small bag each containing not much more than a change of underwear, some lire, a toothbrush and an Italian phrase book, off we went.

Arriving at the Italian airport we thought it would be easy to find someone in the terminal who spoke English and who could direct us to a nice hotel on the coast. Wrong. Not only did there appear not to be an information desk, nor did anyone speak English. Out came the phrase book. After much pointing and tentative attempts at speaking Italian, we finally decided upon a little place called Tropea on the coast where we led to understood we would easily find somewhere to stay. We were given a phone number of a small hotel and directions to get there by catching a bus and two trains. It meant changing in Rosarno, otherwise we’d end up in Villa san Giovanni, the terminal to Sicily!

We caught a local bus to the town of Lamezia Terme and found the railway station where I purchased two tickets to Tropea and even managed to work out from a very complicated diagram which platform the train would depart from. We headed to Platform 3 and waited …. and waited …. I headed back into the station to confirm that we were indeed waiting on the correct platform. We were, but it appeared that the train was running late. We were a little concerned as by now it was getting quite late and at this rate by the time we arrived in Tropea everything would be closed.

Eventually a train arrived and on we got. Our seats were reserved so we made our way to our seats in one of the old-fashioned corridor trains with separate compartments (think “Orient-Express“) and found ourselves in with an Italian couple and another English guy who was heading over to Sicily. Our main fear was in missing the stop at Rosarno as we couldn’t see very much from on the train and many stations seemed to be unlit. Still if we did miss it, we could always carry on to Sicily: it would be as good a destination as anywhere else.

Rosarno was one of the larger stations though and well-lit. We said “ciao” to our new friends and went to find out where the train to Tropea left from. Fortunately we didn’t have to wait long, but even so it meant that we arrived in Tropea at close to midnight. Hoping for a taxi outside the station, we were once again disappointed. Nothing. No taxis, no signs and no staff on duty. Sighing we went back into the station to look for a telephone followed by what could only be the town drunk on his bicycle – don’t ask me how or why it is that we always seem to attract the town drunk, but we do! A most bizarre conversation took place with him slurring away in Italian and my daughter telling him to get lost in English. I left them to it.

Getting through to the hotel on the number we had been given was not a problem, communicating with them was, as no-one spoke any English. Trying to decipher what the person on the other end was saying and then looking it up in the phrase book was a slow process. Finally we understood that the hotel was full, but the manager would send a taxi to pick us up and take us to another place with a room. At this point we were trying to fix a time and the chap kept repeating “ora” which I thought meant hour so I kept on repeating “dodici” (12 as in midnight). Found out later that ora also means now!! Duh!

We were picked up to find that the town centre was only about a ten minute walk away (but it was pitch black outside the station and we had no idea of the direction the town lay in from the station) and we were taken to an Irish Bar / Nightclub which apparently had rooms on the second floor. On being given a double room, we made several trips back to reception armed with phrase book to ask for items such as “blanket” “toilet roll” and “check-out”? It wasn’t five stars, but it was very cheap!

Finally we fell into bed, long after the witching hour, and lay there listening to the boom, boom beat of the disco below and the rhythmic thudding of a bed against our wall, completely out of sync, accompanied by various gasps and groans. After 15 minutes of this, in silence and embarrassment, we both suddenly yelled out in stereo “for goodness sake get on with it”, and broke into waves of hysterical giggles. Needless to say we didn’t bother going to bed until at least 2 a.m. on the following nights.

PS Our Italian did improve over the course of the next 5 days (well it had to really) and we also learned that German was widely spoken (lots of German tourists there) so were able to get by a bit with that. I got quite used to going into a nearby coffee shop every morning and ordering a “un tè con latte e un caffè nero” only to discover on the last day that the owner did speak some English when he greeted me with “Good day, would you like the usual?” I must have kept him amused all week with my hesitant Italian.

Walking the Right Bank Passages in Paris

I had come across references to “Les Passages” in a Paris guidebook and decided to take a closer look at them during my last visit to “The City of Light”. So on a very wet and chilly spring day I set off on my Passages Walk. Between the late 18th and early 19th centuries the Right Bank included a network of 140 covered passageways – the fashionable shopping arcades of the time. In a city without sewers, pavements or sheltered walkways, these arcades allowed shoppers to stroll from one boutique to another protected from the filth of the city streets. Today there are fewer than 30 left, some well-preserved with their original mosaic floors and neoclassical decoration. It was time to check them out and find out what it was like living in 19th century Paris.

Galerie du Passage Véro DodatStarting from the Metro station Palais-Royal I headed east on Rue Saint-Honoré towards Place Colette and then turned left into Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau to enter the Galerie du Passage Véro Dodat. This is one of the prettiest and oldest passages, built in 1823. It has mahogany panelling and an old-fashioned floor of chequered black and white tiles, Corinthian columns and gas globe fittings (which have been converted to electricity). There are 38 identical boutiques with narrow arched windows surrounded by gilt edging including the beautiful window display of musical instruments in Luthier. Don’t forget to look up at the ceiling either as you will be rewarded with beautiful gilt framed 19th century murals.

metro comedie francaisRetracing my steps towards the Louvre I took a detour through the Louvre des Antiquaires as it had started to rain heavily. It is a most extraordinary store of antiquities on three levels, with goods ranging from Eastern carpets to Baccarat crystal and delicate Sevres tea sets to incredibly ornate porcelain decorated grand pianos. A very interesting complex to while a way a few rainy hours, but definitely not a place to take children! Being a little too expensive for my pockets (and anyway, where would I put that enormous baby grand?) I exited onto Place Colette and retraced my steps towards the Comedie-Francaise (interesting metro design) next to the Palais-Royal with its Revolutionary history (another story entirely) and entered the Jardin du Palais Royal where elegant 18th century arcades (1786) surround a very peaceful garden. Although not strictly passageways they are considered to be the prototype of what was to come. Continue reading Walking the Right Bank Passages in Paris

Strolling around the Île de la Cité

I once read somewhere that “life is too short not to go to Paris as often as one can” but must admit to not having adhered to that having only been there three times in my life. The “City of Lights” or “La Ville-Lumière” as it was then called, comes from the fact that Paris was the birthplace of the Age of Enlightenment and it was famous as a centre of education and ideas throughout Europe. The city’s early adoption of street lighting probably also contributed to its “City of Lights” tag.

Le quai des Grands-Augustins depuis le Pont-Neuf

My previous visit had been during the dull days between Christmas and New Year when everything seems flat. Leaving London Waterloo on Boxing Day seemed like a good idea at the time. Paris put on her usual glittering party frock and despite the bitter cold and wet weather the OH and I enjoyed a few days walking along the banks of the River Seine and exploring the usual tourist sites that we had both seen (though not together) in our late teens; eating expensive steaks and drinking expensive wine and taking rather bad photos (I blame the weather – too damn cold to take off the gloves)

Café EsmeraldaSo in 2010 when the opportunity to spend five days in Paris in early spring arose it was not to be sniffed at. Once again we took the Eurostar (this time from its new terminal in St Pancras station) to ‘gay Paree‘, hoping for a somewhat warmer welcome. As the OH was to be “au conference” pretty much the whole time it gave me an excuse to wander aimlessly and have a look at the hidden parts of Paris. There is nothing better for me than to venture into districts I have not been in and to look more closely at those I had. So armed with a good map, several metro tickets, camera and notebook, off I went to explore. Continue reading Strolling around the Île de la Cité

sLOVEnia – then and now

I step out of the bus into the bright light and look around. In front of me is the railway station; a good example of Austro-Hungarian architectural style. Across the busy dual carriageway is a tree-lined park with minor streets and avenues leading to the old city centre. Nothing looks familiar: I look around hoping that some kind of recognition will take place, but I have no memory of this place – neither the station nor any of the streets.

Ljubljana Railway

Usually when I return to a city my memory clicks into place as smoothly as a child’s jigsaw puzzle. Not today though. I sigh. The smells are all wrong, the noises are wrong and the colours are definitely wrong. As the sun burns down on my skin and the noise of the buses and cars fill my ears I remember the last time I stood in this spot…

I stepped out of the lorry and into the gloom of a wet late autumn afternoon. The driver clasped my hand, grinned and bid us goodbye. A part of me was relieved to have reached this little border town of Ljubljana in northern Yugoslavia. The journey through the Austrian Alps with its hairpin bends in torrential sleet and rain, was not the most relaxing, but as the heavy rain ran down the back of my neck and soaked through the shoulders of my jacket I craved the warmth of the cab. We headed to the information booth inside the railway station to try to find a room to stay the night. Camping was definitely out of the question.

Doorway

A grey-haired woman in the booth gave us directions to a house nearby with a room to let. When we reached the address we looked up at the multi-storey building in dismay. Its concrete façade was black in the rain and the huge solid door seemed quite forbidding. Jon raised the heavy brass knocker shaped like a fish and let it fall. The noise was like a gunshot and startled me. After an interminable while we heard the sound of a key being turned in the lock and the door slowly opened. A diminutive grey-haired woman dressed in black stood before us, unsmiling. We asked her about a room for the night, speaking hesitantly in German and miming laying our heads on a pillow. A brief movement of her head indicated for us to step inside. As we stood dripping onto the tiled hallway floor we heard her locking the door behind us. I shivered: this did not feel good.

The woman beckoned us to follow her up the wide staircase with intricate wrought-iron balustrades to the second floor where she unlocked a drab brown door and waved us inside. The room was huge with high ceilings and a large sash window on one wall. Despite the size of the window the room was very gloomy mainly due to the still falling rain, but also the furnishings – a very large old-fashioned dark brown wardrobe dominated the main wall, twin metal beds with thin brown blankets faced the window, with a small worn rug between them on the brown linoleum floor. The only decoration was a dull painting of a castle in dark browns and greys in a dark wooden frame. My heart sank – but at least it was dry – and cheap.

Not wanting to go back out into the storm, we heated some soup on our little gas stove glad of the warmth it gave out and then climbed into our sleeping bags to keep warm. It was not a great night for sleeping. The rain lashed down onto the windows, which rattled in their sashes. The beds were hard and uncomfortable and someone in the next room had a hacking cough. Eventually an overcast dawn broke through the darkness and we could get up and get on our way. The rain had stopped and a watery sun attempted to shine, but the wind was blowing from the Alps and was tinged with snow. Standing at the side of the main road to Belgrade we shivered in this grey unwelcoming communist country…

Then was October 1973 and we never did get that lift. By mid afternoon we abandoned our vigil and returned to the station to get a train through to the capital city of Belgrade and on into sunny Greece. Neither of us wanted to spend another damp, cold night in Ljubljana.

cafe culture

Now is June 2012: a cloudless azure blue sky, the sun caressing my skin and the light so bright it makes my eyes hurt. Walking into the centre of the city I find it to be filled with charming cobbled squares, baroque churches and brightly decorated art nouveau architecture. It is vibrant with pavement cafés lining the riverside and young people sit and drink their coffee and beer. A lot has changed in this region in the intervening years – Yugoslavia is no more and Ljubljana is now the young capital city of Slovenia and even the station got a face-lift in 1980 and the only grey-haired lady appears to be me!

Life is cheap in Africa

Born into the family of a civil servant in the affluent suburbs of Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia he was a middle child and as such suffered from middle child syndrome. Squeezed in the middle unsure of his niche in the world, he became a loner.  As a young man he was drafted into the artillery in the Rhodesian army where he learned that having a beer or three helped him overcome his shyness. He was once chased by an angry hippo and had to hide in a tree until it forgot about him. He never knew before how fast a hippo could move. He rolled his first car and arrived bloody and disorientated on the doorstep of a young white woman who probably saved his life. He gained a third eye.

Drifting south from his land-locked country he found himself in Cape Town where he had not one, but two oceans to play in. He learned to sail. He dreamed of taking his boat, the Jenny Wren, across the Atlantic to South America in the Cape to Rio race.  He was a romantic dreamer.

He married in haste and divorced just as quickly. He started a new love affair with cheap red wine and a young abandoned mother. He had a brief sojourn to Europe where he soaked up the history of the ancient Greeks and Romans, but was less impressed with the Britons. He missed the warmth of the African sun on his face and returned with a new wife and child. His return to South Africa coincided with Mugabe being given his country through the Lancaster House Agreement. His country changed its name and the place where he was born no longer existed.

A few years later Mugabe took away his birthright and he became very bitter about the loss of his beautiful country. His manic drinking consumed his life and slowly, but surely, his friendships died. He hit a blue period and the bottle took away his job, his wife and his children. He almost sank without a trace, but fate wasn’t ready to release him yet.

With nothing left he abandoned the coast and retreated to a  family farm close to his elderly parents and tried to restore his fragile health by meditating under the fragrant orange trees and reading tomes about alternative religions. Sipping gins on the terrace he cast aside his other dreams and headed once more for the city of gold, though there was nothing particularly golden about his life there. Work filled his day and most of his nights as he battled with depression and the meaning of life.

The local township inched closer and closer to his boundaries with marauding bandits breaking in to his house – again and again. Disturbing one such person he was shot in the lung whilst giving chase. An inch away from puncturing his heart. With the surviving lung he dragged his lifeline out of the corridors of the hospital to have a cigarette, even though this resulted in a paroxysm of coughing.

By now the drinking had stopped. He had realised that there was no future in the bottom of a bottle, if indeed he had a future at all. Smoking was much harder to give up and with only one lung, breathing. not to mention life, was becoming a struggle. In the country everything rose – bills, food, petrol, crime. Everything that is except for his salary.

Then on a late summer’s evening whilst in the kitchen feeding his beloved Ridgebacks, something good to come out of Rhodesia, his luck finally ran out. A round of bullets sprayed through the window hitting him in the chest and killing one dog outright. He slumped to the floor, bleeding profusely and fumbled for his phone to call a neighbour for help.

As he lay dying beside one fatally wounded dog and the other one injured, he watched the rest of his life slowly leak away across the kitchen floor, helpless and alone. He was fifty-six.

They took his phone, his computer and a small amount of cash.

Life is cheap in Africa.

R.I.P. my anti-hero who died 28 February 2006.