Thursday, 24 July 2014

Rome and Sorrento

The WiFi in this hotel is incredibly sporadic, and I'm currently sitting in a very plush lobby writing this, so it will be short and sweet.

I don't have much of note to say about Rome that wouldn't end up being a rant about the place, although on the positive side, I do love the Protestant cemetery (Keats's grave is like a little oasis of peace) and I ate very well indeed whilst I was there. However, Rome is not the place for me, and in a place so filled with things to worship, I sort of feel like it's got no soul.

So - I was hoping I'd have a plethora of pictures to share with you, as my mother has arrived in Sorrento, and brought with her my SD card reader ..... but it doesn't get picked up by the tablet, so you're all going to have to wait until the end of August to see proper pictures, and then there will be so many of them, you won't know what to do with yourselves and will feel like there is a superfluity of images ..... which is kind of how I feel after a few days of wandering around soaking things in!!!!

I've taken a few snaps on the tablet of my hotel, so here you are - these will have to see you through! Tomorrow it's my Mother's birthday and we're off to the Opera in Naples, courtesy of my father.






 

Saturday, 19 July 2014

A view from Siena

*Written in Siena, although posted on first day in Rome*

When I was planning my grand and glorious tour of Italy, there were certain places I knew I had to see. Ferrara and Venice were high on my list, but a central pin was Siena. Also in the planning was the ever central question of how long to stay in each place. It turns out that five days in Siena, when you are on your own, don't drive and it's too hot to contemplate a stuffy bus trip anywhere, is just a bit too long.

Right - that's my little moan over. At the time of writing this (Friday 18th July) I have stumbled across a little café, quite uninspiring from the front, but with a large garden with a view of he surrounding hills, and I have regained my equilibrium, happy in the knowledge that I could probably stay here for hours. [And I did ... the café does an excellent cold pasta and there is a beautiful smell of warm plums, which drop from the trees all around].

Siena is utterly captivating as a town, built as it is on a hillside, and therefore practically everything seems to be at a slight slant. The centre is a mass of windy streets that all lead to the Campo or the Duomo, whilst the city outside the old walls spreads out before tapering off into fields with the odd, grand looking, villa in the distance.

The Duomo is the centre piece of the town - a massive construction of black and white marble, with the outer façade so intricately designed that it could double as a wedding cake. On Tuesday I spent most of the day wandering around it, accompanied by an Oxford friend who happened to be holidaying a little ay away with the rest of her family. It is easy enough to spend hours inside the Duomo. The inside is highly decorated, with some hugely impressive marble pavements, depicting various Sybil, scenes from Siena's history and geometric designs. Siena was hugely important in the late middle ages through to the mid 1550s. Self governing for quite some time, until the area got mixed up in the wars of the 1540s and 50s and ended up under the governance of Florence and the Medici.

Perhaps this is why the Duomo is so spectacular, but the building also suffered from the times, and an extension to it was never completed, due to quite a large part of the population being wiped out by the plague in the 1400s (sorry - bit vague on dates, all this is from memory). They left the intended extension standing though, and it makes an unusual addition - and one you can walk up to the top of - yet more steps!!!

Not as many steps as in the tower of the Campo however - I climbed them on a very hot morning and thought they might never finish. Up and up and up, with no breaks and just when you think you've reached the top because you're face to face with a massive bell, you find there's three more levels. But the view! Suddenly you're high above the muddled twisty streets and can see for miles. If they let people up when the Palo happens, it must give the most fantastic perspective on that hectic race.

Before the surge in heat to the mid 30s of the last couple of days, I did venture out to San Gimignano - again a must see on the itinerary. A bus ride of just over an hour will get you to this lovely town. Again, built on the side of a hill and populated with many towers. I seem to have been following the trail of numerous Maggie Smith and Judi Dench film during my time in Tuscany, and here was no different. I got into (I think) great trouble for taking a picture of Santa Fina in the Church (the Italian probably along the lines of 'I've told you once young lady, don't do it again or I'll have you thrown out ...!') San Gimignano feels like it's got everything - an old fort, some medieval fountains, its own saint, beautiful frescoes and the Templar were there at some point too!

Back now to the present and my last day in Siena is proceeding better than I thought it would. I can be no bad thing to have a few lazy days, for Rome will be packed with things to do. I'm even having breakfast in the Vatican, although the Pope won't be joining me - he's got better things to do). I don't think there's any Maggie Smith films to emulate in Rome - I'll just have to be Audrey Hepburn instead. It's a hard old life.

*Post typing up note* As much as I was looking forward to Rome, I am feeling slightly overwhelmed by the scope of the place, and also a little annoyed with myself that I think I got stung by the taxi driver .... protest he said - protest my foot! I attempted to go out and prove to myself that it was all fine, got a little lost, couldn't find Shelley's house (but have at least located his grave) and felt just generally annoyed at myself for being so pathetic. So, I've booked myself on a tour to Tivoli and it's grand palazzo's for Tuesday, so it's only tomorrow I've got to plan. The Protestant cemetery is near a church of the order of Malta and a few Roman ruins that might not be as packed as the Coliseum, and then I'll try to go up to the other side of the city to visit the Villa Borghese. It will still be really hot, so lots of visits to cafés will be imperative too!!! 

 

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Florence

I write this sitting on a little terrace overlooking the Arno. Four bridges to my left is the Ponte Vecchio and the reams of tourists passing over it. It's fiercely hot, although not as high as it could be, and there's a thunderstorm expected in a few hours. I'm making the most of the sun whilst I can - and hoping the rain doesn't follow me to Siena.

The last fours days have passed in a riot of architecture, art, colour and a hell of a lot of walking. I bought the Firenze card before I came, which gives access to 72 places over 72 hours. I don't think I've seen all of them, but I've certainly not been idle!

Arriving in Florence, I had a bit of a blip when I got to the hostel I'd booked. The street felt quite lonely and far out of the main city, and I didn't think I'd feel safe going out in the evening. I'd arrived earlier than check in time, so decided to go to the Pitti Palace to prove to myself I was just being silly, and spent an hour or so wandering around, enjoying the splendour. Of course, when I found myself tearful in the main courtyard, I reminded myself that this was a holiday and if I was miserable now, it wouldn't get better, so I returned to the hostel and used their WiFi to find a better place. And only had to pay one night for cancelling.

The Hotel Consigli, right on the Arno, and a ten minute walk from the main centre, is lovely. And it has a very affectionate bulldog. Perfecto!

So, what have I been doing these last few days? I won't give you a blow by blow account - three days of 'and then I went to ...' could get a little boring. But I've found some new favourites to share, like the Palazzo Vecchio, Santa Maria Novella, Palazzo Davanzati and the Bardini Gardens. I've climbed more stairs than I would normally do in a month. Endless stairs, particularly to get to the top of the Cupola in the Duomo ..... all 463 of them. And back down. The view was worth it though. Art hides itself in the oddest corners too - I've stumbled across Ghirlandaio's on random walls, walked into rooms filled with amazingly vibrant Della Robbia's and all sorts of other hidden gems. I've taken far too many pictures, and I suspect that I will come to forget where the picture was taken - but the ceiling was beautiful, or the art needed capturing, or the food needed to be seen to be believed. Memory is good, but cameras are for sharing.

Speaking of views, I got up to Fiesole for a bit, and it was wonderful to see all of Florence laid out below me. The same could be said of San Minato too, which I went to today (Sunday) and then spent a lazy half an hour or so in the rose garden reading, whilst all the church bells chimed out, reminding people it was time for mass. .... except that I appear not to have got there. Sitting on the terrace earlier, I saw that the church I visited was nestled in some trees just below the one with the great marble front. So perhaps I need to walk back up those infernal steps.

There have been disappointments too - the main Cuomo, so beautiful on the outside is an ugly place once you get inside, and seems designed just to shunt tourists from one side to the other, no time to sit down, and barely any place to do so anyway, for the nave is roped off. It did protect me from a thunderstorm - a massive crack of thunder sounding right over my head just as I entered. I suppose I should have taken it for a sign! San Casciano, a small village half an hour away, was not what I expected either. I'd decided I wanted to go there, because it is supposedly where a small part of My House in Umbria was shot - a wonderful film with Maggie Smith. It is a lovely little hillside town, and has excellent views of Chianti country, but I couldn't find the specific bit I was looking for (which was probably right under my nose) and so I left.

I've not mentioned food, and I'm struggling to get into a proper rhythm. I have always been a pasta fan, but here the portions are huge, and I always fancy a second course, and then can't finish it. The night I had bistecca Fiorenta - which was as big as my head - will be forever remembered because I could barely eat half of it.

Note to self - you don't need to have two courses, and you don't need to have pasta just because it's there. Now, if I could just remember that.

Now I've got to walk up those blasted steps again and make my way to San Minato for real this time ......

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Stage one - Viarregio

If the weather had stayed like it was for my arrival - wonderfully sunny, hardly a breath of wind and a fab 27 degrees, I might have been content to sit on the beach for a whole two days.

The wind and the rain, however, had other ideas, with Monday seeing huge clouds being chased in from the sea around lunchtime and a massive rainstorm overnight. Today, Tuesday, I decided to go to Lucca - a short train ride inland - a lovely little city, ringed by a stone and earth wall, with a couple of churches which are gems and the birthplace of Puccini.

I've been to Lucca before, when my parents and I were staying in Montecatini. It was there I showed off my only Italian, asking 'Dove casa Puccini?' only to find it was directly behind me and covered in scaffolding.

I had no plan, so merely meandered around streets, into churches, up bell towers (the last part of which was interesting to say the least. A practically vertical ladder, with an up draft, a down draft, my hat clamped on my heat and my skirts choosing this moment to do a Monroe impression. Did I say it was windy? It was very windy.

A sharp prolonged shower found me disoriented under an umbrella, and I almost gave up on finding the statue of Puccini, but a quick lunch and the return of the sun found me newly determined to find it, and in the end it didn't prove so difficult. The Puccini museum also turned out to be open, and it was fascinating to wander about the second floor of a house, where his grandmother had lived, and where he himself had been born. No pictures were allowed, sadly, of the wonderfully painted walls, although I did manage to sneak a picture of the costume from the second act of Turandot - I'll add it here when I finally get a USB card converter!

Returning to Viareggio, I almost missed the train (not another for an hour) because of the Italian habit of having convoluted conversations with the ticket officer, and then I tried to be brave and sat outside a bar, trying to look glamorous, in the howling wind. The fact all the locals had jumpers on finally persuaded me I was being silly, and I have since retired to the hotel bar.

Dinner is at 8 - tomorrow I head for Firenze!

Saturday, 5 July 2014

The start of the holiday - a brief note

I don't suppose that famous travel writers like Jan Morris or Paul Theroux would start writing about their travels by announcing they were spending the night in a Premier Inn .... however it seemed to make sense to me.

The Gatwick bus from Oxford isn't the most exciting way to travel (except when the driver forgot to raise the suspension leaving the South terminal) but, hey - it's got to be better than hitchhiking.

So I'm all set - apart from stupidly leaving the SD card adaptor at home. Dixons will be paid a visit in the morning!

Now I'm off to dinner - the next time I post, I'll be in Italy. I very much hope it's warmer, and sunnier, than here!

Sunday, 25 May 2014

#GetGoveReading

I suppose I should start this with an apology: I am writing this off the cuff, and will probably be far from eloquent and facetious in many of my statements. Having heard the news that Michael Gove has revamped the GCSE English syllabus and axed 'Of Mice and Men' (amongst other things),  a text I studied myself at 16 and loved, I feel compelled to protest and I can't confine myself to a tweet or two to express that protest.

I have long disagreed with the policies of this politician, who seems to be on a one man mission to make the life of a teacher as hard as it can be, and put children off really getting under the skin of their subjects. It's just occurred to me that this might be linked to University fees ..... put people off learning at an early age and therefore solve the problem of trying to fund those who cannot afford to go themselves. Then we can put fees up to five or even six figures.

I digress (and there - if you hadn't noticed - was my first facetious comment).

I have always been a voracious reader, a regular in my school library. Little Women and Anne of Green Gables were my favourites when I was young (as would be evidenced by the fact that my name filled the little cards we had to use to sign things out, and the following shameful picture taken in the Uffizi gallery - that's Anne's House of Dreams - I can tell just by the orange band at the top)




I always had a book in my hand. I could go out for dinner with my parents and their friends and be relied on not to play up because I'd just disappear into the page when I got bored. Sometimes it was hard to get me to stop reading.

I remember the first time I read 'Pride and Prejudice'. I was 12, and distinctly unimpressed with the look of it when I got it for Christmas. But I started it, and I was hooked, and then quickly devoured more of the Austen canon (although I do remember stopping halfway through 'Mansfield Park' because I couldn't recall the plot or who these annoying people were. It remains my least favourite of Austen's work.)

What I didn't do, probably because I was too busy gobbling Agatha Christie mysteries, was pick up Dickens or George Elliot. I doubt I would have stuck with either of them if I'd been forced to read them. My GCSE texts revolved around 'Macbeth', 'A View from the Bridge', 'Of Mice and Men' and the poetry anthology of OCR - which I still have actually.

I wasn't particularly academic when I was at school - university properly opened the doors for me on that - but I loved English and the worlds it took me in to. I wish we had been able to read 'To Kill a Mockingbird', I think it would have been fantastic. I envy every student who was able to read it and discuss it's themes. I honestly can't think of any other book that so brilliantly shows the struggles of growing up and learning how to be tolerant of those around you, no matter their personal circumstance. I certainly can't think of a British author who has done so that we could use to replace this seminal book in literary history (prove me wrong, please do - it's depressing to think others haven't picked up Harper Lee's themes and run with them).

Charles Dickens is brilliant - I love him - but his writing is hard to grasp, and he often goes into great detail about topics that aren't central to the story and which were probably filler to get him to the end of that week's installment in the literary review for which he wrote. The political meeting in the early stages of 'Nicholas Nickleby' springs to mind. If he were writing now, his editor would probably tell him to tighten things up. 'Middlemarch' is a doorstop of a novel - a brilliant social commentary on the changes facing a small English community, but how many 16 years olds are going to relate to it, find things that speak to them and encourage them to think? I didn't read it until my second year of university.

I do agree with the department of education's thoughts that Shakespeare should be included ... I've been shocked to learn from my nieces that they weren't studying any of his plays. But we remove the modern playwrights at our peril. Social commentary comes in many forms and Arthur Miller is one of the best at holding a mirror up to our actions. We all should read more plays; pick them up like we do a novel, and not wait for a trip to the theatre to learn about their greatness.

Twitter is going mad on this subject (hence my title of this post). Susan Hill surprised me by saying 'Set books. Point is they shld study the BEST, the great books, not the easy ones. They shouldn't be studying me.' But who gets to decide what makes a book great or the best - Michael Gove? Don't let that man anywhere near the Booker prize. And I don't think I found 'Of Mice and Men' easy. Yes, it was short, but then I was able to go away and read other things, widening my experience and enabling me to have conversations with adults, which opened up other literary doors for me. 

The thing that concerns me the most in all of this is that it feels as if one man, and one man only, is deciding how the next generation is going to turn out and destroying any possibility of diversity. If the 'classics' are being rammed down people's throats and putting them off exploring other literature because they are too drained from ploughing through 'Oliver Twist', how are we to encourage them to explore and find other things to read that they will love and re-read and pass on to their friends to read.

Setting a syllabus is a hard task, and there is no right or wrong answer, but it surely deserves more consideration and discussion. There is so much written every year on the fact that GCSE's and A Levels are getting easier. Perhaps they are, although my nieces would vehemently disagree with that suggestion. But the mode of response by those who have the responsibility to address the issues seems to be panic - rushing around like headless chickens, trying to find a quick fix and hope that it will work.

Let me tell you Mr Gove, this will not fix the problem. It will damage the literary groundwork that is so useful for young people to build their love of literature upon. This isn't about universities and higher education, but this policy will surely have a harmful effect on admissions for humanities subjects. But we won't know about that for a few years, and then it'll be too late.

So - if you are a parent of a young child or you know one who trusts your judgement, go out and buy them a copy of 'Of Mice and Men' or 'To Kill a Mockingbird' or any other book you loved when you were their age and give it to them to read. Broaden their horizons before their school years get narrowed to the vanishing point on the line of perspective.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

A plethora of exhibitions

This blog post is a test of many things. Firstly, I'm trying out my new piece of tech, in preparation for Italy. Second I'm testing the ability to talk about exhibitions, something I'm planning on continuing during the MA. Thirdly I'm hoping to test the link up to Facebook I *think* I've set up, but have no idea if it actually works.

I'm a keen exhibition attendee, and there have been a few in recent months that have captured my imagination. The fact I'm still thinking about two of them months after I saw them is testament to their power (and also my excuse if things seem a little hazy!)

On one particularly busy Saturday last year I went to both the 'Elizabeth and Her People' exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery and then dashed next door to the National Gallery for the 'Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900' exhibition. It is hard to imagine two exhibitions that are quite so opposite in theme, and it was certainly fascinating to contemplate the latter exhibit in parallel with the former.

The Elizabeth I exhibition was very intimate, curling back on itself and with 'peep holes' allowing reflection back and forth between the rooms. The Queen's image was closely guarded and very few of her portraitists actually saw her - most copied images that had been 'approved'. This led to a highly romantic view of the queen, particularly in later years. It wasn't just the queen that was a primary focus - as the title suggests, there was a close look at her people - both those close to the crown and the more general depictions of Elizabethan life. There was an amazing rapier, at least a meter long. Beautiful in its craftsmanship, but undoubtedly very difficult to wield.

Sometimes I find myself disappointed with an exhibition - there sometimes seems to be a lack of something ..... often I can't put my finger on it, but with this I knew exactly. Given the fact that it was in the NPG, I could not fathom the reason why Elizabeth I's coronation portrait was not part of the exhibition. It's just upstairs, and would have been a stunning addition to a collection that was so focussed on the importance of image and its dissemination to the masses. Perhaps it couldn't be moved, but the omission glared and I kept wishing for its inclusion.

The Vienna exhibition, in contrast, totally blew me away. I had no expectations (which I suppose helped) and I wandered around drinking in the variety and scope this exhibition had to offer.

Vienna was in the grip of a cultural war around 1900 - the old and the new fighting each other for supremacy. It was a lush exhibition. The old style of portrait executed so well by Ferdinand Georg Waldmuller and then Klimt - pushing on to the scene with informality and brilliant colour. Both those artists deserve a closer look  as well as Auchentaller, who produced a painting in 1912 of a young woman so sharp that it could be a photograph. It's hard to convey precisely what about this exhibition thrilled so much, but a great part of it was the thrill of the new and undiscovered.

More recently, I went to the 'Turner and the Sea' exhibition at the National Maritime Museum. Turner is prolific, and the variety of works that were gathered together were staggering. The battle of Trafalgar being one of his largest canvases, and an event that was an important part of the national psyche. Britain, being the sea fairing nation it was (and is) naturally produced artists who found inspiration in the watery depths. Other artists produced some beautiful works, but when Turner was pushed by his contemporaries he then went the beyond the boundaries and produced something new. It's a fantastic exhibition. I just wish I'd bought the catalogue!

I'm always on the quest to see art I'm not familiar with or great collections that important families have acquired over the decades. Tomorrow I'm off to Hughendon - home of the great Benjamin Disraeli. I'm sure there's going to be some wonderful treasures in store!

Friday, 4 April 2014

Literary festival part deux

Writers, if they are to be really successful, should be excellent verbal story tellers as well as able to paint pictures with their written words. I'm not sure if there are writers with subjects more opposed than Sebastian Barry and John Julius Norwich, but after hearing them speak, I am utterly convinced they share the gift of the gab (as the Irish might say) and the ability to keep their audiences spellbound.

Sebastian Barry's writing is deeply embedded in Ireland and the chaotic world of his family history; his drunken grandparents, his actress mother and poet father. He grew up thinking this chaos was all perfectly normal (as John Julius Norwich grew up believing it to be perfectly normal to have a mother as wildly charismatic as Diana Cooper). He's passionate about his heritage and answered every question Joan Bakewell put to him with an intensity of thought - even if he meandered down an avenue which had nothing to do with what he'd started to talk about. He read a section of his new novel 'The Temporary Gentleman' and I was completely blown away - not necessarily by the writing (which was dynamic and brilliant), but by his wonderfully dramatic delivery. As he read the description of a boat sinking having been torpedoed, the audience held its collective breath as the words tumbled about our ears and we were all transported to that sinking skip. I don't think I'll ever read one of his novels in the same way again and I'm convinced he should do public readings more often.

John Julius Norwich is a different type of storyteller, but just as captivating. He reminds me a little of a clockwork toy - wind him up and off he goes! He spoke for almost half an hour with hardly any interruption from his 'interviewer' Paul Blizzard, charting the intricate relationships of his family history and the locations his parents found themselves during World War II. He interrupted himself at one point to ask permission to read an extract of one of his Mother's letters. 'You do what you want John', Paul Blizzard chuckled, 'It's your show!' It really was. And his impersonations of Winston Churchill are spot on - not overblown, but done by someone who really knew him. Affectionate, but with an acknowledgement of the ridiculousness. 'Darling Monster' sounds like it will be treasure trove of letters, and will further serve to fuel my passion to continue the trend, rather than relying on email at all times.

The day was topped off in rather grand fashion with Philip Pullman, who introduced the music that has informed his life, played by the Orchestra of St John's. The pieces he chose were:

- Mendelssohn: Octet, 1st movement
- Shostakovich: Piano Concerto No 2, 2nd Movement
- Mozart: Void Che Sapete
- Bach: Italian Concerto BWV 971, 1st Movement
- Monteverdi: Si Dolce Il Tormentor
- Hellmann: Away we trot
- Beethoven: Song Er schwur es mis brim
- Debussy: En bateau from Petite Suite
- Brahms: Sextet Op. 18, 2nd movement
- Schubert: Heidenroslein; An Sylvia
- Ellington: Take the A Train
- Tchaikovsky: Serenade for strings, 4th Movement

Mostly familiar composers, but many pieces I'd never heard. I will look them up again though, and a trip to YouTube might be well worthwhile.

Philip Pullman never talks much about his own writing process, but he did reveal he had to work in silence (so much so that he had a shed built in the garden when his son took up the violin) and he is in the middle of a long awaited companion piece to the 'His Dark Materials' trilogy called 'The Book of Dust'. I can hardly wait.