2015 Grateful 30

Are tattoos to bodies what graffiti is to walls and buildings? I’m not sure. There’s been a lot in the press lately about tattoos and how they colour our judgement of a person who sports them. I’m not sure how I swing on that one, so perhaps this is why I found myself more attentive than usual this week to the tattoos worn in Budapest. For the most part, I don’t give it much thought, except to wonder why anyone would tattoo their face – that’s beyond me. But a couple I came across were particularly fascinating [and this doesn’t count yer man who had Ferencváros italicised across his chest…].

The first was on the décolletage of a young girl of about 18: a blue owl about 6 inches high, with its wings extended to her shoulder blades. It was beautiful, but I wondered how cool it would be when fashion became an issue. A statement that blue would certainly limit your colour pallette although, on reflection, a blue sky goes with everything. But how does she cope with the world staring at her chest all the time? That would freak me out.

The second was a gym-body in his mid-thirties. On the front of his left shin, he had a knee-high pair of hands clasped in prayer. On the calf, he had the beatitudes, in English, although he wasn’t speaking English. I’ve seen crosses and all sorts of religious emblems before, but never a full transcript of the beatitudes. And were I to stereotype him, it wouldn’t have been as a churchgoer but then you don’t have to be religious to appreciate the beatitudes.

But each to their own. I flirted briefly with the idea of getting a tatt when I was in Hawaii one year, but I didn’t. There was nothing original in book I leafed through. And if I was going to mark myself indelibly for life, I wanted it to be with something that no one else had. And that would require more thought than I’m prepared to give it.

In TIMG_0315 (600x800)uscany recently, the graffiti was just as strange, ranging from clever witticisms to painted anguish. For a while it was as if I was reading instructions on how to live my life. I should have come to Tuscany years ago.IMG_0233 (800x600)

I’ve often wondered what goes through a  mind before the spray can or the paint brush or the stencil is lifted? Do they have a design, a plan, a burning need to share? Do they know how a few random words on a wall might impact a life?

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This one in Palma had me thinking for quite a while. I actually went back a second time and a third time to see if I could decide if it was the work of one person or two. It took me back in time to my trip to the Holy Land and the graffiti on the wall in Bethlehem. The sense of hopelessness jumped off cement and stopped a few others in their tracks, too.

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This one, in the walled city of Lucca, the furthest place from Planet Shit you could imagine, had me laugh out loud at first. And then, later, as the heat got to me and I passed it a second time, I had visions of a collective suicide and that sobered me up. Goes to show though, that even in paradise people are miserable.

This week has been a different one. I’ve been (and am) in a strange mood, not sure which end is up. I’m not depressed, down, or dispirited in any way – and for that I’m grateful – really grateful. I’m actually fine. It’s just as if my people plug has been pulled and while I can happily relate to one or two, anything more leaves me completely blahed. I’ve been crowded out. It’s taking way too much effort to be sociable. It’ll take another week of this horrible 32-degree weather before I can blame it on the heat (and don’t you dare tell me to be grateful it’s not minus 32 – that I could live with). Perhaps in this heat-induced lethargy,  I’ll start thinking about my tattoo.

There’s more to Parma than ham and cheese

The city of Parma, without the ham and the cheese, is more than just eggs. That said, it takes a little getting used to as from first glance, it’s not the most inviting Italian city that I’ve been to. But that said, it’s a grower, and there are some serious sights to be seen.

IMG_0255 (800x600)Top of my list is the Teatro Farnese – billed as the prototype of the modern playhouse. Work started on this in the early seventeenth century and it was apparently built in just one year, although it wasn’t inaugurated for ten – something to do with changing schedules of visiting dignitaries. The stage is massive. The seats are stadium-style, and the floor space can actually be flooded for special effects. But what’s most enthralling about it is that it’s entirely made of wood. Wood everywhere. Carved, ornate wood that looks other-worldly when the sun hits it. Even the bits that look like marble are wood. I know it was purely my imagination, but I could have sworn I felt the air stirring with faint rumblings of the masses as they waited for the curtains to rise.

parma 2Next up would have to be the D’uomo – the cathedral – with its magnificent depiction of the Assumption of Our Lady painted by Correggio in the sixteenth century. And, quite surprisingly, even given how little I know about art, this gobsmackingly gorgeous piece isn’t listed among his most famous works in any of the bios I’ve read of him. And if this doesn’t rate, then the rest of his stuff must be out of this world altogether. Quite cleverly, portraits of church elders were used as the faces of prophets – no better way to a man’s wallet than through his vanity.

sun-on-christ-smallIMG_0303 (600x800)Third up would be the Baptistry. This is somewhat of an astronomical marvel. On the feast day of St John the Baptist, the sun (if there is any) hits the baptismal font in some way reminiscent of what goes on at Newgrange and other ancient sites. On various dates of the year, the sun hits certain figures  on the fresco-covered walls. Beginning on 25 March and until about 10 April, what sun there is strikes a painting of the Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan. All quite astonishing and once again has me asking – how, back then (it was completed in 1220) could they do so much with so little and today, with all our progressive technology, we slap up buildings that don’t stand the test of time. Mad.

And it’s not all happening inside, either. The carvings on the outside walls tell stories and are well worth taking the time to read.

IMG_0309 (800x600)IMG_0285 (800x600)IMG_0243 (800x600)It wouldn’t be this part of the world if it didn’t lay claim to a famous composer. Verdi grew up about 20 miles from the city of Parma and has been officially adopted as one of its own. There’s a massive monument to him that’s IMG_0241 (600x800)worth a look-see but bear in mind that it’s only part of the original – the rest having been ‘sacrificed to expansionism’ (?) after the War. It’s down by the rather impressive Piazza Pilotta, which is living testament to the damage done by war. What isn’t there says as  much again as what is.

I can’t quite decide why it took me a while to warm to the city. But I did. And I’d go back. It’s very walkable and has lots of surprises. Home to one of the oldest universities in Italy, it has a culture that has been earned. Perhaps it’s more a university town than a tourist mecca and perhaps it was the absence of large swathes of tourists that made it seem a little ordinary.

IMG_0236 (800x598)It was given by Pope Paul III as a gift to his illegitimate son Pier Luigi Farnese back in the day when cities were given as presents. Parts of it still have the ability to transport you back in time and have you stepping aside for imaginary horse-drawn carriages carrying ladies in hooped dresses and parasols. Definitely one to put on your list, if you’re in the vicinity.




Twins, wheels, and hammers

I lived with a chap once who would throw up at the smell of Parmesan cheese. He hated the smell. Absolutely detested it. And this was back in a day and a place where Parmesan cheese came out of a shaker, already grated.  Every time I smell it, I think of him. Weird.

De Wimmen told me once that France would be wasted on me as I didn’t drink wine, eat olives, or appreciate cheese. I’ve grown up a lot since then.

But for years, Parmesan was something I added to stuff – to pizzas, pastas, salads. It was never one of those cheeses I ate chunks of. But in Milan last year, an Italian friend introduced me to the joy that is real, aged, Parmesan, and I was converted. So much so that when I was in Parma (after seeing the Parma ham production facility) I tagged along on a study tour of a Parmesan cheese facility, one of 161 in the region.

IMG_0385 (800x600) (2)Did you know that Parmesan cheese is only made in the morning?  Milk is collected from the farms twice a day from cows who are fed an all-natural diet of grass and hay. Nothing else. [Oops… doesn’t that mean they’re locked up all the time? Or muzzled? Not good.] The evening milk is collected in the evening and left to sit overnight to let the cream rise to the top. The next morning, when the morning milk arrives, it’s added to the now-skimmed milk from the previous evening. (It takes 16 litres of milk to make 1kg of cheese.)

Some fermented whey is added to the new mix as it is heated in massive cauldron and starts to acidify it. To this is added rennet (an enzyme that comes from the stomach of a milk-fed calf or goat – who knew?). Rennet coagulates the milk and so it begins to curd.

IMG_0368 (800x600)Now, imagine the whisk in your kitchen on steroids and you might come close imagining to the massive one that cheese makers call a spino, which they use to break up the large clumps of curd into much  smaller pieces. All the while, the milk is still cooking. When it gets to a certain temperature, the heat is removed and after an hour or so all the little curds sink to the bottom – and so the cheese begins to form.

IMG_0384 (800x600)This goo is removed from the liquid using a wooden paddle and wrapped in muslin in the shape of a large wheel [I suspect I missed a step and the goo is actually put into stainless steel moulds – which I saw lying around – but I wouldn’t swear to it. Our guide had a fab handbag draped over her arm and I was a little distracted.] There is enough in each cauldron to make two wheels so they’re rather appropriately, if oddly, called twins. The twins are then literally hung out to dry – to rid themselves of excess liquid. What’s left in the cauldrons (whey) is used for the next day’s cheese and what’s not needed goes to feed the local pigs, which will soon end up as Parma ham. There’s a certain holistic something to that, don’t you think?

IMG_0369 (800x600)When a lot of the excess liquid has dripped away, the wheels are moved into round wooden forms and branded with date of birth, origin, etc. (I love this traceability stuff.) They’re turned a few times as the liquid continues to drain and the cheese is still soft. A piece of plastic with the words Parmigiano Reggianno is slotted between the cheese and the edge of the wooden frame and thus the cheese is branded – name, date and serial number. Oh if only they could talk.

IMG_0383 (800x600)These wheels are then put in tanks of sea-salted water where they sit for more than three weeks (about 25 days). While they’re here, they lose about 4% in weight with the average end weight being about 42 kg. From there it’s off to the curing room where they stay for a whole year. But they receive constant care and attention. Every 10-15 days or so, each wheel is brushed, wiped and flipped.
IMG_0401 (600x800) (2)After a year, the cheeses are tested. Each one. An in-house expert takes his hammer and taps the cheese. His trained ear can tell if there are any pockets of air or abnormalities. (Imagine that conversation in a pub – so, what do you do for a living?) And if it’s not 100%, the rind is removed and it’s striped – i.e., it gets stripes. This shows it’s a decent cheese but not IMG_0400 (800x600) (2)good enough to be branded as Parmigiano Reggianno and will retail at slightly less than the real thing. So if you’re being sold  Parmigiano Reggianno  without a rind… be careful… it ain’t the real thing. [And the rind is edible – so no more throwing it away.]

I never knew that you could invest in cheese wheels. Buy a load of them and wait 12 months in the hope that the price goes up. You rent the space at an ageing facility and sit it out.  I bought some at the facility for €13/kg. At the airport it retailed at€35. Same bloody cheese. Perhaps it’s worth looking into.

IMG_0390 (800x600) (2)IMG_0398 (800x600) (2)PS. Lactose intolerant? Apparently if the Parmigiano Reggianno  is older than 30 months, you’re good to go. It’s safe to eat.

PPS. Cheese = milk, whey, rennet. Therefore ricotta is not a cheese. Amazing what you learn.





Counterfeit ham

I’ve heard of fake Gucci bags, fake Rolex watches, fake tans, but fake hams? This was a first for me. In Parma last month, I had the chance to join a guided tour of a Parma ham facility and I jumped at it. I wanted to see just what puts the Parma into Parma ham, a brand so precious to the producers that they spend about €1 million each year on protecting it.

IMG_0321 (800x600)Parma ham as no additives. The only thing that touches it, other than human hands, is salt – rock salt. When it comes in to the facility, it is trimmed of excess fat and given that distinctive shape. It’s then stamped with its birth date – the date it entered the facility and then given a metal seal saying which slaughterhouse it came from (a little like a passport).

IMG_0328 (800x600)Not alone does it have an ideal shape, each ham has an ideal weight – about 15kg. The mind boggles. The production process takes time with each ham getting lots of personal attention in the way of salt massages. It’s salted, rinsed, cold-stored for a couple of weeks, and then salted, rinsed, and stored again. It goes from a cold phase to a warm phase (tempered) and is washed and dried and cured. Each stage can take a couple of weeks and through the whole process (which can take 6 months) it loses about 36% of its original weight.

IMG_0345 (800x600)It’s manually greased with a mix of pork fat, rice flour, and black pepper, to soften up the outside. What a job. And then it’s aged. To be a Parma ham, it has to be at least 12 months old, with 16-18 months being the most popular age. And before it gets the final stamp of approval, it’s manually controlled. It’s quickly pierced in five places with a wooden skewer which is then immediately smell-checked. This is a skill, believe me. And I can’t imagine how it works as a chat-up line. So, what do you do for a living?

IMG_0350 (800x600)Once it’s passed the in-house quality test, the powers that be are called in and if it meets with their approval, it gets the final seal of authenticity. These large hunks of ham can have as many as five seals, just in case some time down the road, they are sold as smaller pieces – if they don’t have the seal, they’re not Parma ham.

IMG_0335 (800x600)The facility I visited had a 70 000 piece capacity. The building, with its isolated elevators and clearly numbered cold storage rooms, was state of the art. The open windows in the drying room begged the question as to why. Apparently, Parma production facilities are located in a particular geographic area where the winds from the sea meet the mountain air and it’s this wind or aromatic air (the Marino wind) that gives the meat its flavour.

Retailing at about €25/kg, it has shelf life of about a year. And only the hind legs of the pig are used and those pigs are usually from North and Central Italy, not from the south or Sardinia.

I think I overdosed on it all though – as by the end of the week in Tuscany, I’d had enough. It’s only now, a month later, that I can face it again. And I’m on the lookout for fakes, ready, willing, and parmed to report any fakes

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The price of popularity

Driving in Italy was quite the experience, not least because my Italian is worse than my Hungarian. Figuring out the caveats that came attached to parking places was a nightmare. Working out how to use a parking meter (I’ve never had to enter my licence plate into one before) was only possible with the help of a street vendor.

IMG_0415 (800x600)IMG_0421 (800x600)I had my heart set on seeing Cinque Terre – the five villages on the Italian Riviera that belong on a chocolate box. They’re perched at seemingly ridiculous angles on the cliffs and beg the question as to how the builders got the materials up there to build. I’d taken advice and decided to park in the first of the five, Riomaggiore, and then take the 20-minute train journey to the last one, Monterossa, stopping off at Vernazza, Corniglia, and Manarola on the way back. You can get a stop-off train ticket that’s valid for 6 hours which gives plenty of time to see what has to be seen.

So we drove to Riomaggiore, down to the village, and parked, only to be told that parking was for residents only. We hadn’t passed any public parking on the way in and so, with frustration levels mounting, we drove on to Manarola. There we found a public carpark about 15 minutes walk from the village and figured that was as close as we’d get.

It was April. And yet the trains were jammed to capacity with the ‘kids-in-college-time-to-travel’ brigade that numbered Germans, French, Americans, Australians, and Canadians in their midst. Bedlam. And having wasted time trying to find somewhere to park, the train schedule meant that we were doing the Japanese thing – hopping off, running round for half an hour and hopping back on.

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The highlight of Monterossa is definitely the huge statue of Neptune that hangs off the cliff face. It’s quite spectacular and worth the faffing around. The villages have sold their souls to tourist tat but they’ve also managed to retain some of their other-worldly charm, with tiny churches and cinemas and houses that defy gravity. The boutiques sell high-end Italian-made clothes that play to the vanities of wealthy tourists. Local artisans do a steady battle with the Made in China/Turkey souvenirs that seem to be a ‘must-have’ for today’s tourists, and the artisans appear to be winning.

IMG_0479 (800x600)Of the five villages, my favourite was Corniglia. To get to the top you need to climb 33 flights of steps – a total of 382 steps in all – and come back down them again. It’s ancient. With its narrow, cobblestone streets, quaint buildings, and tiny piazzas, it’s a gem of place borrowed from a world where time stands still.  I discovered muscles I never knew I had and was feeling them for days afterwards. But it was worth it.

IMG_0521 (800x599) Manarola is quite sweet, too. Lots of mad stairs climbing up alleyways to nowhere and windows appearing randomly, calling to mind the sanity of those who built the place. All five villages have something to offer and six hours is ample time to wander around, but if you want to really enjoy it, go off season. At the height of the melée, it’s like Grafton Street on Christmas Eve or Times Square on New Year’s Eve. And the villages weren’t built with tourists in mind.

IMG_0531 (600x800)IMG_0523 (600x800)Another option of course is to walk from village to village – lots of up hill and down dale – a natural roller coaster. But again, there were plenty of walkers, too, so if it’s a solitary sojourn you have in mind, it ain’t likely to happen. That’s the price of popularity.


A world behind walls

Other people’s opinions and impressions can have a marked effect on me. It depends, of course, the weight I give them and how they’ve done in the past. Not having the luxury of travelling for long periods of time, instead snatching a few days here and there, time is always at a premium. So how to spend that time requires thinking about.

When I said I was going to Tuscany, the one place that was repeatedly recommended by friends and acquaintances was Lucca. Way back in 1902, Hilaire Belloc, a writer, had this to say:  ‘The neatest, the regularest, the exactest, the most fly-in-amber town in the world, with its uncrowded streets, its absurd fortifications… everything in Lucca is good.’ And most of that still holds true – apart from the uncrowded streets, one of the side-effects 0f cheap and easy travel. It was busy. Very busy. And again, I found myself giving thanks that we’d come off season – not that there is an ‘off season’ in Italy. I can’t imagine the hell it would be at the height of the summer.

The tall Renaissance walls (all 4200 metres of them) that surround the medieval city hold all expectations at bay. If you hadn’t done your homework and realised that the town was really inside the walls, you could lawfully pass it by. Needless to say, I hadn’t done my homework, but the intrepid MI had.

IMG_0102 (800x600)The narrow, cobblestoned streets, soaring church spires, and buildings dating back centuries are all so well preserved that it’s like stepping back in time. Probably the most impressive piazza is Piazza dell´Anfiteatro, which sits on the site of an old Roman amphitheatre, accessible by four arched entrances. It’s a hive of activity with numerous bars, cafés, and restaurants making it an ideal spot for people watching.

IMG_0107 (800x600)IMG_0097 (588x800)The city’s understated elegance is mirrored in the brass mail boxes and ancient intercoms. With about 90 000 residents, it’s somewhere I wouldn’t mind living for a while, if they could fit me in. Most of the locals travel by bike and I’m sure they get royally pissed off at having to navigate the hoards of tourists that descend on the city every day. Mind you, though, if ever a nation was predisposed to patience, it has to be the Italians. They seem to take everything in their stride, no one in a rush to go anywhere. The narrow streets give way to even narrower alleyways with the view skywards impressive enough to cause a few run-ins and stubbed toes, as tourists stumble into each other and over each other trying to take it all in.  I’ve never fully appreciated the Tuscan colour palette before and how the sun bounces off the golds and yellows and oranges that make up the mix. What artistic talent I have wouldn’t fill the smallest of canvasses but had I any, I’d have been in heaven.

IMG_0124 (800x600)IMG_0166 (600x800)IMG_0140 (800x600)Trees pop up in the most unlikeliest of places and after an hour or so you realise the truth of the old adage – in Lucca, you really never know what’s around the next corner. Narrow alleys open on to wide expanses, the courtyards of which are crisscrossed with shadows of church towers and steeples. Its history was a tumultuous one. Once a centre for textiles, silk, and banking,  Lucca managed to stay independent of Florence and even had its own currency. The kings of Bavaria and Bohemia seized it at various stages, and the Noblese from the nearby cities of Genoa, Verona, and Parma traded it back and forth over the centuries. In the early 1600s, it was taken over by an oligarchy and managed to steer clear of trouble until Napoleon captured it in three centuries later. It had a good run.

IMG_0135 (800x600)IMG_0142 (800x600)IMG_0122 (800x600)What stuck me most, though, was how laid back it all is, despite the crowds. You can move from a bustling street to an empty square in minutes. The hundreds, if not thousands, of steps make perfect perches for those who want to spend some time enjoying the sun. When it all gets too much, take a break. Or even when it hasn’t gotten too much, take a break anyway. There’s very little that can’t wait.
IMG_0130 (800x283)In July, there’s a massive music festival and the line-up this year is impressive. I’d travel back to see the Dublin lads from The Script, and maybe take in Paolo Nutini the night before and Billy Idol the night after. What a few days that would be. Spoiled for choice. No matter when you go, if you’re in that part of the world, it’s a city not to be missed.
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Auto correction

If I’m already in a bad mood, auto-correction on my phone has been known to drive me over the edge, into a world where I even irritate myself. I know that it’s nigh on impossible to proofread my own work as my eye sees what my brain thinks I’ve written. That I can accept. But to read back over a text I’ve sent and see errors not of my making – that does my head in.

In Milan, in the D’uomo recently, my camera died. The lens stuck open and wouldn’t close. I’ve had it fixed twice and given its age and mileage, it owes me no favours. So I bought a new one. No research (not that I’d have done any anyway), no clue of what I wanted, other than it had to be smaller and have a bigger zoom. I went with Canon again – a little number that apparently would do everything my G9 did except offer me a viewfinder – something I never used anyway. And, he said, it was smarter.

I’ve come to dread that word – smart – especially when applied to technology. Smartphones my arse. They do the dumbest things. A smart camera was something  I could without. The bells and whistles do nothing but confuse me. I played around with the features and found one that distorts – I tried it out in Pisa.

IMG_0039 (800x600)The famous tower, probably the first and only thing that comes to mind when you hear mention of the city of Pisa, took 800 years to complete. It stood straight for the first five years, when it had only two floors, but as more were added it started to lean. It’s part of the Piazza Dei Miracoli (field of miracles), which is also home to the amazing D’uomo, the interior of which has a much bigger wow factor than what is arguably the best known tower in the world. Rumour has it that to demonstrate that the mass of an object has no effect on how quickly it falls  Galileo Galilei dropped two cannonballs of differing mass from the tower. This has yet to be confirmed though.

IMG_0031 (800x600)IMG_0029 (600x800) (600x800)Anyway, back to my smart camera. Too lazy to read the instructions (which were in Italian anyway), I played around with the settings and whatever I did, the display screen kept showing a straight tower. Auto-correction taken to a new level. And even what little tilt it did show was in the wrong direction. Piazza Dei Miracoli  indeed. I finally gave up but, when I uploaded the photos, what I was seeing on the screen wasn’t what came out on my laptop, begging the question as to whether my laptop is really smarter than my camera. It was enough to drive me to drink… but I was driving.

Pisa was my first taste of tourist Italy. There are a number of ticket combinations you can purchase that will take you up the 294 steps on the north side and down the 296 steps on the south side as well as into the Baptistery and the Camposanto and the museums. But I wasn’t in the mood for a climb and have long since lost the urge to do things just to say I’ve done them. Thankfully, entry to the cathedral (D’uomo) is free as I object in principle to paying to go into a Catholic Church considering I’ve been a lifelong member. [Tip: You have to get your admission ticket in advance though and enter at your allotted time so if you go, do that first before you wander around.]

IMG_0069 (800x600)IMG_0068 (800x600)IMG_0067 (800x600)The black-and-white marble is something else. Stunning. Galileo also spent time here apparently (he studied at the University of Pisa so it makes sense), as rumour has it that he developed his pendulum theory by watching an incense lamp swinging from the ceiling in one of the naves. The frescoes are spectacular and the whole place has a genuine feeling of sacredness, something missing from so many churches today. But it wasn’t the marble or the frescoes that did it for me… it was the statues of two lions at the base of the pulpit. They look as if they are in agony. I was mesmerized.

IMG_0078 (600x800)IMG_0081 (600x800)I don’t remember ever seeing a marble statue being so real. I’m not sure whether it was the combination of the open mouth and the huge eyes, but it took very little, if any, imagination to feel the angst. I rather fancied that it was guilt at killing the antelope – but did that make sense? To be guilty about what, in your very nature, you are? To apologise to the world for how you were born? To have to seek permission or validation or public sanction to feel as you do?  Now there’s a distorted picture.IMG_0026 (800x587)



Exposing style

‘I’ll come around and pick you up’, he said, in a to-die-for Italian accent. ‘Ten minutes. Be ready.’ ‘Okay’, says I. ‘I’ll go down and wait on the street so you won’t have to park. What’ll you be driving?’ ‘I’ll take the Ferrari,’ says he.

IMG_6769 (800x600)Nothing like waking up in Milan and getting straight into the thick of a rather stylish way of life. I’m not that into cars … usually. I’m more of the ‘does it come in any other colour’ rather than ‘how fast can it go in 60 seconds’ type. But I’m sucker for old cars – cars that were made as cars should be made, ones you can sit in and feel the road beneath you and hear the revs as the speed notches up. And while a 18-year-old Ferrari doesn’t go any faster than a normal car, it sounds like it’s racing. From the low-slung leather seats, it’s like looking up at the world from beneath – a wonderful feeling. And not a bad way to have a quick tour of the neighbourhood.

I’ve been to Milan a couple of times, and each time there’s something new to see and more to learn about this lovely city. I had no idea that back in the early 1900s, the streets we were driving on were actually canals. In old paintings, Milan looks a lot like Venice. Neither did I know that Monte Stella, a hill in the city park, is an artificial hill, made from the debris of buildings bombed during WWII and the last remnants of the old Spanish Walls that once surrounded the city.

IMG_6771 (800x600)Given my complete lack of interest in soccer, other than the mighty Békéscsaba Elóre, it’s not all that surprising that I didn’t recognise the famous San Siro football stadium for the mecca it is for many. Home to both AC Milan and Inter Milan, the former having it all to itself until 1945, the stadium seats more than 80 000 … now that there are rules and minor inconveniences like Health and Safety regulations. Back in the day, it could take 100 000 on a good day. There are talks though that each club might well be building its own stadium – going down the 45k-seat, branded route that has turned international football into a multinational business. The stadium sits on prime real estate and the surrounding parks are the focus of many a developer’s fantasy. And what a loss that would be to a city where greenery is still fighting its corner.

IMG_6774 (800x600)For all its style, though, Milan has still retained an undercurrent of contrariness that sets it against societal norms. One gem of a building near Lotto, a squat to all intent and purpose, has been occupied by a group of people whose mission, as emblazoned in graffiti, is to ‘occupy, assist, and produce’. It’s now home to Libreria Don Durito, a revolutionary library that has been on the go  for ten years. The best Google Translate can do to explain its rationale is:

Fantasy and irony. As Don Durito we want to preserve the fantasy and a laugh even when the government launched a military offensive against us. Every day when we open the windows of our library we know why we are here; because we resist and build libraries, occupied spaces, popular universities and why we are still here reading and to read, to do slam poetry, to play and sing, to break the loneliness of the people, to be together in cord tied between mates, siblings .

What a wonderful mission, cause, raison d’être, whatever you want to call it. That’s something I could happily sign up to.

IMG_6780 (800x600)As if that wasn’t surprise enough, when I ventured inside the D’uomo, I found a sculpture by Tony Cragg, a British artist whose work I quite like. It is probably the last place in the world that I’d have expected to see a piece of his on display. He says, of his work, that it’s ‘very often about the structures that lay beyond, behind, and underneath the things we see’. This piece is part of a celebration of ExpoMilano 2015, which opens for six months in May and is expecting to attract millions to the city.

Expo Milano 2015 is the Universal Exhibition that Milan, Italy, will host from May 1 to October 31, 2015. Over this six-month period, Milan will become a global showcase where more than 140 participating countries will show the best of their technology that offers a concrete answer to a vital need: being able to guarantee healthy, safe and sufficient food for everyone, while respecting the Planet and its equilibrium. In addition to the exhibitor nations, the Expo also involves international organizations, and expects to welcome over 20 million visitors to its 1.1 million square meters of exhibition area.

Perhaps I might be one of them.


Bourbon Tunnels

‘Don’t ever say you’re dying of hunger; you have no clue what it means.’ That little gem gave me something to think about: those throwaway comments I make without thinking, the idioms I use without thought or reflection. It would be a difficult world if I had to weigh every word I spoke against some measure of propriety. Admittedly I try, but I don’t always succeed. Thoughtlessness is a very human thing.

IMG_6135 (2) (800x600)In the Bourbon Tunnels (Tunnel Borbonica) in Naples last week (the city’s No. 2 tourist attraction according to Trip Advisor), I heard tell of a man who had scribbled his name on a wall as a 10-year-old child during the War and was tracked down when the tunnels were excavated. He was one of the hundreds of people who lived underneath the city during WWII. Many, some 540, still lived there in 1946, their homes above ground destroyed in the bombings leaving them with no place else to go.

IMG_6123 (2) (800x600)I climbed down the 91 steps, 25 m beneath the streets of Naples and toured the network of tunnels that served as hospitals and homes during the War. Originally a waterway, the canals were filled in with soil  to allow people to live there. The walls were waterproofed. Toilets (cubicles with holes in the ground for the working-class folk and cubicles with ceramic seats for the rich – great to see that the class divide wasn’t dented by the bombs) are spread throughout and remnants of a life that spoke of hardship and necessity are on display. Bed-frames, kids toys, perfume bottles, cooking utensils, all rusted and worn, paint a picture of what life must have been like in these interconnected caverns with their 10-m high ceilings.

With an average temperature of 15 deg C, and 90% humidity, it wasn’t the healthiest place to live, but considering the alternative, for many there was no choice. Graffiti on the walls proclaim noi vivi – we are still alive,a poignant reminder of how good we have it today and how little most of us know of hardship. Cut-off from the outside world, the only way they knew that the bombs were dropping on the city above them was when the electricity died and the lights dimmed. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like – not claustrophobic in the classic tunnel sense but more like being in a prison, all the while telling yourself that you were safe and yet unable to go outside and taste the air.

IMG_6113 (2) (800x600)The tunnels were originally built in the 1850s at the behest of King Ferdinand II as a military passage for troops linking the Palace to Via Morelli. He feared a revolution and wanted an escape route. But just two years after the excavation began, the Bourbon dynasty fell and excavation ceased. Linked to the underground aqueducts, they came in useful during the War as air-raid shelters and semi-permanent homes for many.

Trip Advisor reviews rate this the No. 2 attraction in Naples. Was it worth a visit? Certainly. Would I rave about it? Yes, as I have a war-thing going and thoroughly enjoyed it. It was almost up there with the shelters in Malta.  But No. 2? C’mon lads. What about the majolica, or the Charnel House?


Back by popular demand

Modesty aside, I think I have a fairly decent vocabulary. I can’t lay claim to knowing every word in the dictionary but I could make an educated guess at the meaning of most. Yet I’d never heard of a charnel house. Char I could do, but charnel?

IMG_6153 (800x600)IMG_6154 (721x800)Last week, in Naples, I visited a massive charnel house and didn’t even know I was in one until I’d left. Back in the day, when cemetery space was in short supply, it was common practice to bury bodies for a  few years to let them decompose and then dig them up and move their bones to a charnel house where they’d take up far less room. In Fontanelle Cemetery, Naples, a 30 000 square metre cave in the hillside was once home to eight million of such bones. Today it’s thought that the remains of about 40 000 lie here but for the life of me, I can’t imagine how anyone could count.

IMG_6195 (800x600)The original inhabitants had been relocated from cemeteries in the city in the sixteenth century to make room for those who insisted on being buried in their local church grounds – now there’s a different take on eviction. With the Great Plague of 1656, thousands more were added to the displaced. A century later, a great flood washed many of the bones out onto the streets  (has a movie been made of it yet I wonder?). In the nineteenth century, it was officially named a pauper’s cemetery and its  last big influx was provided by cholera victims of the 1837 epidemic.

IMG_6161 (800x600)IMG_6172 (800x600)IMG_6178 (800x600)The bones are anonymous – rows and rows of skulls sit atop stacks of femurs and tibia, and stare back at you. I fancied I saw holes in some that suggested bullet wounds but it might well have been damage done in transit. It is one of the strangest places I’ve ever been – and I’ve been to a fair few cemeteries in my time.

IMG_6174 (800x600)Some have names carved into boxes but these may not match the bones inside. Apparently a cult took shape in the late 1800s when it was fashionable to adopt a skull and give it a name, a name that was often transmitted to the adopter through a dream. They would come to pray to their skulls and make offerings in the hope of having favours granted. The cult of the  anime pezzentelle (abandoned souls) lasted into the late 1960s when the city’s Cardinal Ursi had enough. What might to those involved have seemed like caring for people in death who had no one to look after them in life, was branded a fetish and the cemetery was closed. It was renovated a few years ago and is now open to the public. Back by popular demand ….

IMG_6199 (800x600)It’s hard to find though so if you’re in Naples and curious, take Line 1 metro to Materdei. Walk down the hill and around the corner to the left. Half-way along that street there are steps going down even more. Take these to the bottom and turn left. When you get to the small piazza, hang left and the cave is just past the church (worth a visit – a lovely change from the ostentation of the bigger city churches) on your left. Free entry. Open 9-4pm.