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Italy doesn't disappoint!

Primavera nel Mezzogiorno


Escursione ai Laghi della Lombardia

by Anne Scragg

It is 2 months now since we returned from a glorious 5 weeks in Italy. Friends have asked me what the highlights of the trip were for me and for once I am stumped. There was simply so much that was memorable.

The two back to back tours (Primavera nel Mezzogiorno and Escursione ai Laghi della Lombardia) have resulted in a sensory overload and when asked for specifics, my brain rebels, choosing instead to present me with a kaleidoscope of images, sounds and smells. To combat this, I have decided to put pen to paper hoping that my years of experience as a report writer will bear fruit. However, readers, do not despair. This will not be a plodding account of each day’s events. Nor will I wax lyrical about every experience down to the last plate of pasta. What I simply plan to do is share with you a selection of my experiences that will hopefully explain my cerebral confusion.

First, an observation about kaleidoscopes. I don’t know if it is just my perception but it seems there is more “calm” at the centre than at the extremities of a kaleidoscope. At the centre of mine is a sense of being grounded in a place for which I have had a long affinity, in the company of friends and family. These friends of course included Beniamino, whose love and knowledge of his homeland profoundly underpinned our experience in a way that is hard to explain. Perhaps it was the ease with which we formed connections with the locals (including his family) and the fact that we always ate and drank superbly while under his tutelage. All I can say is that if any of us really wanted something specific in Italy, no effort was spared to obtain it. As an example, one of our party was keen to acquire a particular style of cameo cufflinks. From Amalfi to Lake Como the quest was on. With drivers, guides and Beniamino firmly on the trail, success was finally achieved in the tiny lakeside hamlet of Varenna. Tolkein couldn’t have done it better.

Spiralling out from the centre of the kaleidoscope are a myrial of reflectors, or mirror images, some of places, some of people. Paradoxically, some are sounds, tastes and even tactile sensations. Please bear with me. I can assure you this was not an LSD trip! Ah, here I am sitting in an aeroplane looking down on Rome and we are right over the hole in the roof of the Pantheon. Not far away is the Colosseum. Could one have a better introduction to the eternal city?

My next image sees me firmly on the ground gazing at the absolutely stunning interior of the Jesuit Church of Sant’Ignazio with its fantastic fresco stretching triumphantly across the ceiling of the nave. For sheer spiritual uplift, this was the most magnificent of all the churches we visited and believe me that’s saying something.

Now, still in Rome, I am sitting on stone steps opposite the Pantheon devouring a piece of the most delectable pizza I have ever eaten with juice oozing through a paper napkin onto the cobbles by my feet. Bliss. A bright flash of intense yellow – yes it’s limoncello and it’s sitting in front of me at an outdoor café as I look across the piazza at the stone steps leading up to the 9th Century Cathedral in Amalfi. Its façade is an Arab-Sicilian riot of stripes, arches and coloured mosaics framing the medieval bronze doors, the first to appear in Italy.

My eyes now turn to an image of contrasting greens, mountains, forests and valleys with tiny hilltop villages and the occasional castle perched high on the hillsides. There are few people about and virtually no tourists and I can smell the herbs growing wild around my feet. This is Basilicata, the fabled land of swords and kings, Beniamino’s homeland and the location of his book “The Passage of the Frog and the Wild Strawberries of 1942.” If I look closer at the image I can see the ruins of an ancient Roman villa standing in the middle of someone’s farm. No wonder the local farmers ploughing their land curse the stones under their feet; there are historical sites everywhere.

As I turn my eyes, the landscape becomes very different, bordering on desolate, with eroded hillsides and valleys stretching for miles like some sort of alien landscape. This was the forgotten part of Italy to which political dissidents were exiled during the fascist era in the 1930’s. The famous writer and philosopher Carlo Levi was one of these exiles and we are now in Aliano, where he spent many years. It is a haunting and strangely beautiful place but not one where one would want to linger.

What is that noise? It’s the shrill sound of a “cucu”, a brightly painted terracotta whistle in the shape of a rooster. Formerly good luck charms given to engaged couples, “cucu” souvenirs are now to be found in abundance in shops and stalls in the ancient city of Matera. “I sassi” (the caves) at Matera are something I will never forget. People have lived here in thousands of caves in rocky hillsides for at least 9000 years. One cave’s ceiling is often the next cave’s floor. It is the third oldest continuously inhabited place on the planet (after Aleppo and Jericho) and it is truly amazing.

Now I am putting my tired feet in the warm waters of the Adriatic Sea. I am in Otranto in Puglia. I am looking up at the Castle of Otranto so famously described by Horace Walpole and also at Beniamino who seems determined to capture on camera every awkward position I find myself in as I remove the silky sand from my feet. Where am I now? It could be a film set but no, it’s Alberobello. I am looking at a whole village of trulli – the characteristic white-washed conical roofed houses of the area. Built originally as a tax dodge because they could be rapidly dismantled when the tax man called, they are now sought after as dwellings, shops and restaurants. Some have pagan or religious symbols painted on them. They are deliciously different and like the rest of the tour party I find them totally captivating.

Moving my gaze I now see a wedding party emerging from a church in Lecce, a city rightly known as the ‘Florence of the South’ and I can see real confetti – a hail of sugared almonds descending on the newly married couple. Beniamino has explained the origin of confetti to me and now I am seeing it right in front of me. I am never going to touch that horrible paper stuff again.

What is that white marble slab doing on the table in the middle of this room with its ornately carved wooden walls and ceiling? I am sorry to have to tell you that it is the Anatomy Theatre in the oldest university in the world at Bologna (1088AD). The theatre is one of the rooms in the complex known as the Archiginnasio. The coats of arms of hundreds of graduates are emblazoned across the walls and ceilings of the old palazzo in a highly decorative and triumphant recognition of their accomplishment – much more spectacular than the rolls of paper presented to graduates today.

Where else should you eat lasagne? In an elegant little restaurant in Bologna of course. This is the home of the ragu Bolognese and believe me, it leaves its imitations for dead.

My next image is of the ornately carved façade of the Duomo in Milano and the roof with its golden statue reaching up to the heavens. The building is floodlit against a dark and starry sky and it looks like something out of the movie ‘Frozen’ (a film I have endured with my grandchildren). This church deserves its famous reputation and stands alongside The Last Supper as an absolute must-see in Milano. I can hear the guide telling us to “turn around” to view Da Vinci’s magnificent painting. After passing through a series of hermetically sealed rooms with a controlled atmosphere we were instructed first to view a rather fine but “flat” painting and then to turn to view what is an absolute masterpiece – it quite took my breath away.

I can hear Mozart and see tiers of gold and crimson – it’s La Scala and a stunning performance of Don Giovanni. How will I be able to endure the performances of amateur operatic societies again? Of course I will but….

I am now looking at cobbled squares – large ones, small ones, all gorgeous and framed by a harmonious collection of houses, shops and of course bars and restaurants. Balconies and colourful flowerpots are everywhere. From the south to the north of Italy the historical town centres are magical.

And now a twist of the kaleidoscope brings me to images of the enchanting northern lakes. Garda is first and here I see the café at Sirmione where Maria Callas enjoyed her glass of lemon juice each morning. She had a home here and what a place to have one - a stone’s throw from the spectacular Roman baths of Catullus on a promontory overlooking the majestic lake.

I can hear violins now and not just ordinary ones! We are in Cremona, home of Stradivarius and I am watching my musician sister who is glued to the spot looking at a glass case housing the beautifully decorated Heller violin. I smile as I recall the demonstration concert where an armed guard stood no more than two metres away from the performer.

Ah – Lake Como, a place I had often frequented in my dreams. The reality was all that I hoped for. The Villa Balbianello where “A Month by the Lake” and “Casino Royale” were filmed was stunning, with lush greenery, garden statues and fabulous terraces looking out over the lake. If only I could win Lotto.

It is a small jump across the lake to Bellagio where we stayed in the Grand Villa Serbelloni – a magnificent chandeliered belle epoque hotel alongside the charming village. I don’t want to shift my gaze just yet – I can see myself looking out over the lake from the hotel terrace sipping an Aperol spritz. Am I actually in heaven?

Reluctantly my eyes move to a picture of a different lake – Maggiore and the celebrated lakeside town of Stresa. The shore is lined with elegant hotels. We see the hotel where Ernest Hemingway wrote “A Farewell to Arms” while recovering from his injuries in the Spanish Civil War. The Borromean lakes are shining in the sun and one of them is the famed Isola Bella with its palace and gardens stepping down to the lake like a ship. I can hear the strange cry of the white peacocks that roam through the gardens keeping a wary eye on visitors.

It is all becoming too much. My eyes and ears are protesting. How can you fit so much into just a few weeks?

I linger for a moment on the button which will turn my kaleidoscope off. I didn’t see Helen Mirren or George Clooney (although I did see his villa) but what I did experience will remain with me for my lifetime.

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