Welcome to Italy (Gail Wylie)
In 1942 my father, an Emergency Commissioned Officer with the rank of Captain in the Baluch Regiment of the Indian Army, was captured at Tobruk, after the Allies surrendered. He, and other officers, were given the choice of POW camp in either Germany or Italy. He chose Italy. The Italians, taking charge of them, said ‘Welcome to Italy. Your camp will be on the beautiful island of Capri and we will look after you well.’
They soon found out that this was not altogether true. Having reached Italy, and sitting on a train waiting to be taken south, they were told that their camp was to be in Fontanellato, a small town in the north of Italy near Piacenza. Sitting in their compartment, somewhat despondently, they became aware of an Italian man tapping on their window. He said that he would go and get them a bottle of wine for their journey. My father asked the other five to hand over the small amount of money they’d been given, and then handed it all to the man on the platform. Off he ran. Time passed. Doors began to be shut, orders shouted and the train made its final preparations for departure. Despondency turned to irritation that all their money had now gone thanks to my dad trusting one of the enemy. Just as they had given up all hope, the Italian was seen rushing down the platform. He got to their compartment window, handed in two bottles of wine, returned all their money, and with a shout of ‘Buona Fortuna!’ the POWs realised that perhaps choosing Italy hadn’t been such a bad idea after all.
Italy’s Forgotten Frontier (John Fisher)
Aquilea, Trieste and Gorizia in North East Italy have been fought over many times in the past. But Friuli Venezia Giulia is now at peace with itself and looking forward to autonomous independence, as John Fisher discovers
‘Take your time, Christine, keep looking at me.’ Two hundred metres high up on the ramparts of Gorizia Castle, overlooking the Slovenian border, it is difficult for the large lady from Alabama to concentrate, getting stuck in the ever-narrowing stone-walled corridor. And getting stucker.
Our Friulan guide, Barbara, half-Italian, half-Austrian, shepherds Christine to the safety of the downwards-spiralling staircase with a few minor scratches as souvenirs. The rest of the group claps. ‘It’s becoming a problem, Barbara confides, people in the Middle Ages were much slimmer than they are now.’
Here, and in the nearby towns of Aquilea and Trieste, the borders of the Roman Empire, the Hapsburg dynasty and the edges of modern Italy itself were all decided.
The Veneto Plain is not the obvious choice for a short break. But if you love Italy and have done Rome, Florence and most of Tuscany it’s a rewarding and often surprising region to visit. We flew into Venice and did what most people do: took a taxi to Piazzale Roma where all the cars and buses drop off their Venetian passengers.
But instead of following the crowds and stumbling awe-struck towards the heart of La Serenissima we caught the next train, north-east to Udine. A couple of hours later we were warming up in the four star Ambassador hotel, looking forward to a pre-dinner talk about the local fresco painter Tiepolo.
We were joining a ‘study tour’ group of mainly English people and a few Americans. You travel with a small group, 10-20 or so, with an interest in art, architecture or culture in general. You have a local guide who is also a trained historian or fine arts expert of some kind. This means what you see along the way is constantly put into context .You really get under the skin of the local people and their history.
Our travelling tour-leader, Barbara, was dressed like a spy with her coal-dark gabardine of secret flaps and her impenetrable sunglasses. She spoke English well, in the main. But she gave herself away when you least expected her to. On the first night she welcomed everyone to Italy and invited everyone to do a brief tour of the old town before bed. She commented that the excursion would be ultimated at half past ten. And she was right.
The following day we set off due South for Aquilea by coach. The Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, had made it the second largest city in the Roman Empire, after Rome, to be a strategic stronghold against the Barbarian hordes who were becoming increasingly aggressive during the second century AD. Constantine, the Holy Roman Emperor, was a frequent visitor some 200 years later to bolster morale. But after the fall of Rome in 476 AD, Aquilea was abandoned. Nowadays it’s purely an archaeological site. Aquilea’s lasting legacy is its basilica, home to Europe’s largest mosaic floor, based on the biblical story of Jonah and the whale, and now a Unesco World Heritage Site,
Barbara told us that Mussolini was so impressed with the military ambition and scale of Aquilea that he excavated and partially restored many of the buildings in the 1930s. Experts pointed out later that many of the historic stones were simply lined up in neat rows, for his soldiers to walk through during ceremonies, with no care taken to replace them in their original positions. ’Never mind, said Barbara , with a sly smile, he’s dead now. Let’s go for an ice-sweet!’
About half an hour from Aquilea is the modern town of Grado. As you approach the lagoon it’s a dead ringer for Venice’s little sister, with indistinct, dirty yellow buildings rising up eerily from the murky waters. But the vision fades pretty quickly as your eyesight adjusts. Grado is a modern, working conference town with a few high rise hotels, a small marina and a concrete esplanade. We did get our ‘ice-sweets’ though. But we made our excuses and left within 20 minutes of arriving.
The next day we headed for Trieste on the Slovenian border. Now the capital of the autonomous region of Friuli Venezia Giulia Trieste has been at the crossroads of geographical and intellectual dispute since Roman times. It was part of the German-speaking Hapsburg Monarchy for 600 years and then in 1918 it was ‘returned’ to Italy as part of the post-war political settlement.
During the 1930s it was a melting pot of European art and literature. You can still visit the famous literary café Tommaseo on the seafront where Italian novelists Svevo and Saba, German poet Rilke and Ireland’s James Joyce slugged it out, metaphorically speaking, while the Second World War loomed large.
Barbara, an Italian with Austrian grandparents, was quick to point out that people around here are neither Austrian nor Italian but ‘Friulan’ and that they have a distinct language to prove it, not just a ‘diabetic’, as she put it.
Gorizia was our final day out in the Veneto Plain. Driving through the town, on our way to the castle, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in the respectable orderliness of Vienna or the Tyrol, not Italy at all, with its wide boulevards and traffic processing at a courteous speed. The medieval castle was fun with its views of Slovenia and wonderful music museum.
But the real story of the Friuli region lay in Gorizia’s First World War museum, telling the horrific tale of how 700,000 desperate Italians died here defending Italy’s forgotten frontier, largely ignored by history. Looking out over the flat, featureless plain and the low, grey clouds you felt both sad and glad that they had been remembered, if only by us.
Escaping Jordan (Dennis Walder)
A few weeks ago my wife and I were in an SUV travelling down the King’s Highway through the Jordan desert towards Petra. We could see beside us the narrow railway that T. E. Lawrence and the Arab League blew up in 1917. The previous day we had glimpsed the Promised Land.
The timing of our visit had been determined by my work for the Open University. I’d been asked to chair a ‘revalidation’ panel for the Arab OU’s MA in English Literature, to take place in Amman. At the last minute, because of the impending Coronavirus crisis, the two-day meeting was transferred to Milton Keynes, from where my panel and
I communicated by videolink with our Arab colleagues and their students in Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi and Jordan. Cancelling the add-on holiday that Mary and I had booked would have meant substantial loss. So we went anyway, eager to see the sights, especially Petra.
Suddenly our driver’s phone bleeped. We overheard a stream of Arabic. He turned to us. Petra was closed, he said, a note of panic in his voice; and so too all other tourist sites in the country. And the airport would be closing soon as well.
We said turn round and go back as fast as you can. While we sped on back north to Amman, I struggled with my mobile to rearrange hotel bookings and a flight home. ‘Do not worry,’ said Ali, always obliging. ‘You stay with me. Learn Arabic.’
We stopped at a roadside refreshment centre for mint tea. A busload of German tourists were milling about. One of them held out his hand to me, pinching finger and thumb. ‘We missed it by so much,’ he said. ‘Us too.’ At first I could not get through to the Embassy or our travel agency, but eventually the Embassy responded. No, they did not repatriate under these conditions, best for us to keep on trying our travel agent. It took several calls for them to find us a flight via Istanbul – all direct flights were already full – departing at 2 a.m. on the day the airport was due to close.
We gathered in the hotel lobby the next night with a handful of other guests and our suitcases, ready to depart. Suddenly our driver sent me a voice message. He was circling the hotel, but he wasn’t allowed to stop and pick us up, there were police outside. We saw the hotel doors being sealed, and people began rushing about the lobby questioning each other and the staff, until we were told that there had been a suspected C-virus case earlier among the guests, and so the hotel was now in lockdown.
As the minutes ticked by, increasingly desperate at the thought of being trapped for weeks, if not months, we sought further information. Could we leave? No, we had first to be tested for the virus, and had to wait for the results. How long for? Four to six hours. Too late for the flight! Don’t you think it would be best to just get rid of us? This was considered amusing.
A young Kenyan hotel worker from the Dead Sea resort grinned at me. ‘It’s life,’ he said. ‘Take it easy, huh?’ His flight was due to leave in less time than it would now take to get to the airport. Then suddenly we found ourselves being herded down to the hotel basement where, beside the pot plants and Spa and Massage signs, tables were hurriedly set up, and several figures in all-over white protective gear, goggles and floppy blue socks appeared. They gestured us to approach. Thin sticks were stuck up our noses – if you must sneeze or cough, please sideways – and then the doctor said Go!Masked and gloved up, we rushed through a side exit – only to be halted by a stern figure in military uniform. Back to the lobby, until at last the doctor’s authority was accepted, and we were hustled out and into a waiting ambulance, which tore off at speed, siren blaring, luggage (sprayed with disinfectant) with our driver racing behind us. At the airport our conspicuous arrival led to further questioning, officials with mobile phones arguing with each other for more long minutes, until another doctor was called, who checked our temperatures, looked into our eyes, and decided we were healthy enough to be let loose at last. We caught our flight with seconds to spare.
The next day we found out that our test results were negative. We will be back, Inshallah!
Desktop Traveller (Peter Giles)
I have a friend who, like me, used to be a seafarer, a lifetime ago. His wife plans holidays: Antarctica, Alaska, India, the Seychelles and Galapagos. A lot of flying hours!
Tesco is the furthest they’re allowed to go at the moment. Although my friend is content with his new-found sedentary life, his wife says,
“It’s alright for you; you’ve been everywhere.”
What about me? Do I yearn to travel, or does my innate laziness and dislike of airports and long flights result in my preferring to simply relive and, perhaps, write about past travels?
Martin invites us to curate our own past and write about our travels. I sit at my desktop, try to relax, and think . . . .
It was 1965 or 66. I was an 18 year old deck apprentice on a British cargo ship. We loaded on the east and west coasts on the USA, on charter to an American shipping company. Most of it was military cargo for Vietnam – Saigon and Da Nang – but there was a small part-cargo for Japan . . . .
My wife interrupts me.
“That’s no good. Martin wants you to write about Italy; not Vietnam, Japan, America, or anywhere else.”
She’s right of course. It’s Learn Italy, not Learn Vietnam. OK . . . .
In recent years, Janet and I have been to Venice, Florence and Sienna with Martin. We’ve seen wonderful architecture; amazing art galleries and museums; beautiful churches. There were talks in the hotel bar in the evening about the next day’s visits. We had wonderful convivial meals.
And, hopefully, we’ll be going back (next time Città di Castello, in October?).
But it’s the other kind of travelling that I want to write about; the kind that I will not be doing again.
Italy featured in that too. I remember a long voyage from Japan to Italy with a full cargo of 20 ton steel coils: it was 1969 and I was 22 years old; Genoa was a real seaman’s port, with many waterfront bars. We had a great time! I should explain: having gone away to sea exactly one month after my 16th birthday, this was the environment in which I grew up. For us young seamen, a night ashore in the sleaziest part of town was the height of excitement. It didn’t matter that people we met were, shall we say, disreputable: that was part of the attraction. For ease of reference, I shall refer to the establishments visited as “waterfront bars.” But this simple term doesn’t do them justice, and they weren’t always directly on the waterfront: to find them (and, in my day, seamen had an uncanny knack for this) you often had to negotiate dark cobbled streets and small alleyways with flashing lights at the end, places where no truly civilised man would venture (I hadn’t in those days heard about risk assessment). We were of course invincible; just think of it as a sort of clubbing for seafarers. With today’s containerships and fast turnarounds in port, I doubt that such places still exist; if they do, they couldn’t possibly be the same.
A few years earlier, I’d joined an oil tanker in Puerto Marghera. I caught a taxi into Venice for a night out with some shipmates. Can you believe it! In spite of the wonders that surrounded us, we were disappointed: no waterfront bars. The next day we sailed out past the landmarks of Venice. But I don’t recall paying them much attention. I can only remember being terrified of having to stand my first watch at sea, alone on the bridge: it was my first trip as a watch keeping officer; at the age of 19, I’d been promoted to third mate in the last year of my apprenticeship. Back then, there seemed to be more British ships than any others and a huge demand for British ships’ officers – hence the early promotion. Globalisation has put an end to that; these days you’d be lucky to find a British officer on a foreign going cargo ship or tanker.
I was once on a ship that went to Naples, but I can’t recall which ship it was. Again I was disappointed, and for the same reason. But surely, you ask, in Naples of all places, land of the Camorra, there must be enough entrepreneurial spirit to provide dodgy entertainment for sailors ashore. Well, if it was there I didn’t find it (and I was an expert!).
At the age of 20, with a brand new second mate’s ticket, I joined an oil tanker trading regularly between the Isle of Grain (in the lower reaches of the Thames, where there used to be an oil refinery – now a container terminal) and Civitavecchia, not far from Rome. We took full cargoes of fuel oil in both directions, without ever understanding how this could make any economic sense. By this time, I was resigned to Italian ports having no waterfront bars (my visit to Genoa came later). But did it occur to any of us to visit Rome, perhaps as an alternative to a night ashore? No it did not. We’d walk ashore in the evening, have a few beers and a pizza, then go to the fairground (Civitavecchia is a seaside town). On one visit I won two goldfish on the rifle range. They spent their first night on board in a wash basin in the deck officers’ washroom; I then found a suitable tin bowl in the ship’s hospital and secured it to the desk in my cabin. The goldfish were fine for a while, but passed away during heavy weather in the Bay of Biscay (I assumed that sloshing about in the bowl didn’t suit them).
I have a vague recollection of visiting Ancona or Brindisi (or possibly both) during these years, but the details have gone.
Many years later, after I had properly grown up, I made two business trips to Italy: the first to Livorno, the second to Reggio Calabria. It was 1987 and I was now a shore based ship manager. My company was taking over the management of two Dutch flagged vessels which had been bought by our principals. This involved changing them from the Dutch to the Bahamas flag; renaming them; putting entire new crews on board; carrying out flag state and classification society surveys; provisioning them, carrying out minor repairs etc. On both occasions, I travelled from the UK with our engineer superintendent, Miodrag, Mio for short, an enormous and very tough looking man from Montenegro. New crewmembers arrived from different locations: officers from the old Yugoslavia, arranged by Mio; ratings from the Cape Verde islands, organised by a manning agency in Rotterdam. I was grateful for having Mio with me: not only was he an excellent marine engineer and a great help with the multitude of jobs that had to be done, but he also helped me to get rid of the incumbent Dutch officers who were reluctant to leave. They had an ongoing pay dispute with their employers, the previous owners of the ships. On both vessels, while I told them that my principals were now the owners, that they should leave immediately and seek redress with their employers back in Holland, Mio was at my side, towering above the rest of us. I’m sure it was his menacing presence that finally persuaded them to go.
But on our second trip, to Reggio Calabria, Mio surprised me with another side to his character. We had to change planes in Rome, with a few hours to spare. Mio insisted that we get a taxi into the city. Coming from nearby Montenegro, he had visited Rome on many occasions. We only had time to visit one famous place: Mio chose the Pantheon; I still have the image in my mind of light pouring in through the 8 m diameter oculus at the top of the dome.
Perhaps a future trip with Martin will take me back to Rome. Right now, we’re just looking forward to Città di Castello and the wonders of Piero della Francesca. October isn’t far away; let’s hope that by then we can get there.
Problems on the School Run (Hubert Allen)
Nearly 80 years’ ago my parents shared the familiar problem of getting their kid to and from primary school. When World War II began, his childhood eye and ear injuries prevented my father from joining up. He (and my mother, until burdened by three children) had been teaching in Tanganyika, Now he was transferred to the Administration and stationed for three years as a District Commissioner, far to the south on the border of Portuguese Mozambique, several hundred miles from any school for English children. However, there were several schools for expatriate children in Kenya. My father’s parents had retired to Nairobi, where his sister had been working as a librarian; and so – although elderly – they could be close at hand for their grandson in any emergency. So from January 1940 permission was obtained for me to attend a boarding primary school there.
For those first three years, while I was aged 8 to10, whenever it was time for me to go back to school, one of my parents would drive me down to Provincial headquarters in the small port town of Lindi, where they could put me onto one of the little Dutch cargo vessels still plying up and down the African coast; if there wasn’t any convenient sea passage, the Government Treasury would grudgingly pay my passage on an “Empire Flying-Boat” (a civilian ‘Sunderland’) which worked its way to and fro every week up the coast from Durban to Mombasa, and thence lake-hopping to the River Nile and so to Cairo. I needed to travel only as far as Mombasa, whence I could join a teacher and several other children on the overnight train to Nairobi.
On one occasion, early in 1942, we arrived at Lindi to find that neither steamship nor flying-boat would be available in time for me to catch the school train. However, the very same day there staggered into Lindi harbour the last vessel to escape from Java, in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). She had been strafed by Japanese aircraft, which had destroyed the navigation gear. However, the crew had managed to cross the Indian Ocean by dead-reckoning, until they made landfall at Lindi – where they were able to obtain some food and fuel, but would have to proceed northwards to Mombasa, in order to make repairs.
So my father asked the captain if I might hitch a lift, suggesting that my Swahili might be helpful. However, only a few hours out of Lindi the steering-gear went wrong too, and we had to moor close to an uninhabited coral islet, while the engineers struggled to get things fixed. We were there for over a week – and out of radio contact, so that no-one knew what had become of us all. Naturally, my parents were worried sick. However, I was having a marvellous time with the Dutch crew, all missing their families in Rotterdam. With them I explored the island and the wonderful life of the coral reef around it. However, we were all on very short rations, although there were plenty of coconuts, and the crew managed to catch some fish.
By the time the ship at last staggered into Mombasa, I was nearly a fortnight too late to join the school party; but the helpful Dutchmen took me to the railway station and found some kindly passengers, who agreed to take care of me. There were roast pigeons on the menu in the restaurant car, and the passengers laid bets as to how many this hungry little boy could eat. Apparently I managed thirteen!
Yes, the school run can indeed be a headache for one’s parents.
An International Date Line Problem (Hubert Allen)
In the 1970s and early 1980s I was Director of Training for the International Union of Local Authorities (IULA). One year it staged its congress at Manila in the Philippines. It fell to me to direct our secretariat, so I saw very little outside our hotel – although I rather wished I could have visited an establishment I saw from my taxi, offering “Antiques Made To Order”…
Among the delegates were several mayors and city managers from Latin America; and they all travelled together, crossing the Pacific by air. Their flight took off from California on a Saturday evening and arrived in Manila the following morning; on the way, of course, it crossed the international date-line, so that when they touched down in the Philippines it was already Monday!
Most of us simply thought this amusing – but not at all! That Sunday happened to have been Whit Sunday – Pentecost – which is a “holy day of obligation” for all devout Roman Catholics – a festival on which every good Catholic must attend Mass. Now I don’t suppose all of those South American mayors were particularly devout; but – much more importantly – very many of their voters were: so it could have been disastrous for most of them if any of their political opponents had been able to show that they had neglected to attend Mass at Pentecost!
On the second evening of the Congress the Mayor of Metropolitan Manila (our host city), treated all the delegates to a grand banquet, to be attended by President Marcos himself. Of course the seating plan for a function like that is worked out weeks in advance. On the table of honour IULA’s current President (then Hans Koschnick, the Mayor of Bremen, in Germany) was seated on one side of Marcos and our Secretary-General the other side; and facing them were our host Mayor with on either side two of IULA’s Vice-Presidents: Tom Moody (then Chairman of the U.S. Conference of Mayors), and the senior South American – at that time the Mayor of Caracas, in Venezuela.
Everyone was standing at their places before President Marcos arrived, when I saw our Secretary-General beckoning frantically. I hurried over to him and he explained that the Mayor of Caracas – and all his fellow South American delegates – had gone off to a special meeting with the Papal Nuncio or the Vicar Apostolic – anyway the senior Roman Catholic cleric in the Philippines – to get absolution for missing their Pentecost Mass! As there was no time to make fresh arrangements, the Sec. Gen. told me I would have to take the place of the Venezuelan mayor and sit next to our host for the evening – the Mayor of Metropolitan Manila. And that Mayor was the President’s wife, Imelda!
I did not enjoy that meal. Everything was very grand and beautifully served, but Imelda reeked of very expensive and rather nauseating perfumes; and the main course was mostly sea-food, which disagrees with me, so that I simply had to pick at it and eat a few rather overcooked vegetables. And the dessert wasn’t delicious tropical fruit, but some terribly rich confection, simply slathered in bogus cream and chocolate sauce. I was afraid Imelda would be affronted by my failure to enjoy her choice of menu, but I needn’t have worried, because she was interested in one thing, and one thing only – and that was Imelda Marcos! I’d never have believed anybody could be so pompously vain and self-satisfied. She hardly spoke to me at all, of course, because I was of absolutely no importance; but she didn’t really have any conversation with her eminent American neighbour either: she just talked at him, or at me, or anyone else within earshot, telling us all how marvellously she personally was remodelling “her” city, and how cleverly she had identified the world’s outstanding experts to make her city a model for every other city world-wide… It was unbelievably boring! Moreover, every time she gestured, Tom Moody and I had to dodge the enormous hoops on the shoulders of her sumptuous gown. The evening seemed to go on and on and on, with interminable speeches by Imelda and her husband, just briefly interrupted by some modest words of thanks from IULA’s own president. I was so glad when it was all over.
And next day we learned that the Latin Americans didn’t yet feel sufficiently confident, and so they had arranged for their leader – the Mayor I’d had to replace at dinner – to fly on round the world, with a stop-over in Rome, so that he could get a special dispensation for the whole lot of them from His Holiness the Pope himself…
The Pregnant Virgin (John Coles)
A few years ago my family rented a house in Tuscany for our summer holiday. It turned out to be a couple of miles from a small hilltop village called Monterchi. That name will always recall to me one of the most transformative cultural experiences of my life. The village is pleasant and unassuming but it has one remarkable offering: a tiny museum with pretty well only one picture, the Pregnant Virgin by Piero Della Francesca.
This masterpiece has a spacious room all to itself. On the day we visited the windows were open to the Tuscan countryside, the scents of summer and birdsong. Otherwise, silence. We were alone there (and I stayed longer than the rest of the family). A perfect setting for Piero’s painting of the statuesque, calm Virgin, eyes not looking outward but down to her swollen womb, possessed by the miracle of the birth to come. Her right hand is placed over her stomach at an opening in her once brilliant blue robe. She is framed by a curtain held open by two angels who do look straight into our eyes and proclaim to us the enormous significance of the scene. But the central figure of the Virgin is still, silent, enraptured. The peace is inexpressible.
Attempts to describe the experience of looking at art or listening to music often speak of “transcendence”, of being taken beyond the normal physical world, of feeling life at a different level or in a different sphere. That is the best way I can describe the effect on me of seeing that picture in that situation. If words could describe the experience we wouldn’t need the picture or the music. But they can’t.
How rare it is to see art in such circumstances. The more crowded our London galleries become, the bigger the blockbuster exhibitions, the less I want to go to them. Admittedly, in my case I have to run the gauntlet of uncertain rail travel for some hours in order to get there and back. But the experience of jostling with crowds of people with their cellphones and being surrounded with chatter would be a deterrent in any case. Nowadays, I would rather seek out a gallery in the provinces and see things in peace. For me, it is as important to be free of distractions when I am looking at a picture as it is when listening to music. I well remember the painful experience of trying to see a newly acquired Van Gogh at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It was impossible. There was a long queue of mainly young people who were not waiting to look at the picture but waiting to have their photos taken alongside it.
Piero’s fresco was originally done on a wall of the Church of Santa Maria a Momentana in Monterchi. I don’t know the process by which it was removed, restored and placed in the little museum. It is hard to imagine that if the painting had been in France it would not now be in the Louvre, along with the 36,000 other objects on view there. Nor in England would it be available to see in a small village. Italy seems much more ready to have a number of its treasures dispersed through the country, one of the things which makes travel there such a delight.
I believe Monterchi is on the Piero della Francesca “trail”. There are indeed several other masterpieces close by, in Arezzo and elsewhere. But in my view it would be a great pity to see his Monterchi picture in distracting company. Go at opening time and you may be well rewarded.