Italy, Amore Mio

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I first fell in love at the age of eight and am still in love thirty four years later. A childhood romance blossomed into a full-blown affair and then settled into an on-off relationship for the rest of my thirties. Despite many break ups and betrayals, this has been the love of my life. Therefore, on this Valentine’s Day, I dedicate this story to Italy, for it is Italy that has been my one, true, constant love.

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Italy is somewhere that transcends being merely a country. It is a dream. Romantic, idyllic and breath-taking are but a few of the myriad words used to talk about Italy. Fellini’s Dolce Vita encapsulates this as the film moves between reality and dreams, much as those feel about Italy. Don’t get me wrong, I have many a time fallen out of love with Italy. And yet, like those sailors, I find myself drawn to her shores year after year.

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I first came to live here as a child, attending school in Milan. At that point I fell for pizza, pasta, foccaccia and gelato, as any self-respecting eight year old does.  Unable to shake off Italy’s spell, I returned to study at the University of Siena, where I spent lazy days in the Piazza del Campo, sipping on cappuccino and watching the world go by from the outside cafes that lined the square. I returned to live in Rome where I embraced the true dolce vita lifestyle, enjoying long nights out and days spent wandering this open museum of a city.

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Lucy Loves Travel: ‘A Company for All Seasons’

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What if there were a way for you to guarantee a one on one with your friend ‘Mona’ in Paris? Or an up close and personal with your friend ‘David’ in Florence?  An opportunity to stay in some of the best hotels and eat at some of the best restaurants, but all without paying a premium price? I have the solution: Welcome to Lucy Loves Travel’s winter collection.

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Travelling better is also about understanding when it is best to travel. If you have the luxury of not being constricted by specific vacation times, perhaps it’s time to indulge in luxury travel at more reasonable prices.  Why is it that ‘out of season’ has been so ‘out of favour’? Isn’t it time to think outside the box, or in this case, outside the season? In Victorian times, the winter months were peak season, as the Vitamin-D-deprived English would escape to the south for some winter sun. There they would line the beaches of Nice on the Promenade des Anglais, or wander through Florence with their ‘Baedeker’ in hand.

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Europe for and by the locals; authentic Europe. That is what most want to experience. And there is no better way to achieve this than by travelling at a time when the cities are ‘taken back’ by the locals. When cities once more empty out, the cruise ships are back in the Caribbean and you can get a table at the best restaurant in town. Enjoy guided tours whose routes are dictated by more than where the most shade is. Tours where a quick photo of a famous monument is no longer an oxymoron. Fewer people, temperate climates, a slower pace and a general feeling of relaxation; these are but a few of the reasons to travel in what has traditionally been known as the ‘off-season’

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There has been a lot of press about the explosion of mass tourism and this is largely to do with people going to see things at exactly the same time of the day as well as in the same weeks and same months. The cruising market has exploded in recent years and cruise ship passengers, for instance, are constrained by the ship’s itinerary, which often sees them in cities early and leaving the city by mid-afternoon. This is because port fees are expensive and cruise ships have to get to their next destination, thereby requiring passengers to be back on board by 5 or 6pm. For precisely this reason, it is often better to visit a city’s most famous monuments in the afternoon, or, even better, to visit when the cruise ships are not in town at all.

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Is Travelling Just a Tall Tale of The (Roman) Emperor’s New Clothes?

You can’t go to Paris without seeing the Eiffel Tower. No trip to London is complete without visiting Westminster Abbey. Going to Rome isn’t the same without seeing the Colosseum.  Why? Said who? There are many inhabitants who have happily spent a lifetime in these cities without setting foot inside the Colosseum, the Abbey and actively avoid being within view of the Eiffel Tower. Indeed Guy De Maupassant went so far as to have lunch every day in the Tower restaurant as it was the one place where he didn’t have to see the Tower. And this doesn’t just extend to cities and their monuments; it also includes choosing where to visit in each country. Many ‘have to’ go to Madrid if going to Spain or ‘can’t miss’ Athens if off to Greece. This isn’t to say that these places are without merit, my question is more to do with the decision making process behind visits to such places.

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Sometimes I feel that, much as with the Emperor’s new clothes, we are all somewhat faking it in travel. For every ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ there is a part of me that wonders how much this is really true or are we expressing what we feel we should be expressing. Personally I find it hard to feel great amazement for anything when I am in a crowded room, hot and bored as the guide drones on in my ear.

 

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A tale of two cities

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As the storm clouds gathered over Barcelona this morning, they were an apt metaphor for what was to come. By the end of the day, the gloomy sky was still in evidence, but the violence meted out by the National Police has become the real storm brewing.

In football terminology, football being the true lifeblood of this city, this was a game of two halves.  I saw a polling station in Barceloneta which remained peaceful through the day. The voters queuing up, were watched by four local police officers (Mossos d’Esquadra) who stood at a distance doing little other than chatting among themselves. The mood was upbeat. Initially there had been some technical issues (these were widespread at polling stations across Barcelona) resulting in the crowd chanting ‘votarem’ (we will vote). However shortly after, the polling station opened and those who were first to vote were greeted by applause and cheers when they exited, having cast their vote.  Returning here at various points throughout the day, I didn’t witness any violence and there were no Guardia Civil officers in evidence. Indeed, when a patrol car of the Mossos d’Esquadra passed through the throng, doing nothing to prevent the vote, they crowd applauded the car.

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This morning I saw another neighbour, Maria, heading out and she said she had absolutely no interest in voting. Whilst she said she always voted normally, she said she would not be voting today as she did not believe in the legitimacy of the vote nor was she pro-Catalan independence. Chatting to a lady who was waiting to vote in Barceloneta, her feeling was that the pro-remain people who had attended a march yesterday, were largely from other areas and not ‘true’ Catalans. And yet, Maria would call herself a ‘true’ Catalan. Such divisions are rife in Catalonia.

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A Catalan Calamity?

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Plaça Jaume , home to Barcelona’s city hall and government offices, was quiet this morning; the calm before the storm perhaps. There were a few anti-independence supporters, bedecked in the Spanish flag. One of the flags had a bull on, as if to reinforce the point; bullfighting, never much beloved by the Catalan, was outlawed here in 2011, but the bull remains a potent symbol of traditional Spain. Behind them the buildings remain covered in signs pleading for democracy. The majority of people in the square were various media outlets, waiting for the news. Most nights in my square, I hear the 10pm ‘call to pots and pans’ (‘cacerolazo’) and up and down my street posters for the referendum are put up and taken down in quick succession.

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Speaking to my elderly neighbour, Carmen, she is unsure as to whether she will vote. She says she will decide when she wakes up. Her granddaughter and daughter-in-law are insistent she should and that she should vote ‘yes’ i.e in favour of independence. She remains unconvinced. She seemed to be favouring the ‘no’ campaign. She asked what would Catalonia do if it really did ‘leave’ Spain? Foreign companies would go to other cities. Would the region be able to support itself? She added, ‘I’m Catalan, but what’s my nationality? Spanish. And who’s counting the votes? Pro-Indepenence people, that’s who. The vote is against the constitution and I don’t agree with it, however, I will vote as my family wants me to’. In contrast, for another younger neighbour separation can’t come fast enough. His concern is more about what will happen to Catalans’ money given the seizing of the Catalan finances by the Spanish government which the government says is to prevent any public money being used to pay for the referendum. My younger Catalan friends tend to be pro-independence and pro-referendum. Indeed, a majority of Catalans are pro-referendum which they see as being pro-democracy.

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Stuck between a Brexit and a Cata(lan)strophe

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Outside my flat the bells of Santa Maria del Mar have just tolled, a helicopter hums above and below there is the din of the square: people’s laughter and cups clanking on the metal tables. The sound of the helicopter has become almost as habitual as the ringing of the bells since not only the Barcelona attacks, but in the lead up to the referendum on 1st October. Last night the bells were drowned out by the sound of pots and pans being banged throughout the city, a ‘cacerolazo’ in support of the referendum and as a gesture of defiance towards the Madrid government.

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September is always a particularly patriotic month for the locals, as it is the month during which Catalans commemorate the fall of Hapsburg-supporting-Barcelona to Bourbon-supporting -Spain on 11th September, 1714; incidentally those same Bourbons who today are still Spain’s royal family. It is also the month where they celebrate ‘La Mercè’, the city’s patron saint. These events provide a platform for the ‘Leave Spain’ voters who turn out in their droves, or rather, in their fluorescent green t-shirts emblazoned with the word ‘Sí’ translated into ‘oui’, ‘yes’ and ‘ja’ among myriad other languages, to ensure that all understand the message being conveyed. At such events the mood tends to be upbeat, something helped by the numerous ‘Estrella’ beers being downed and food bandied about. One thing common to all Spaniards is their ability to turn any event into a quasi fiesta.

 

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Fear of Flying

 

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We all know the acronym, FEAR, False Expectation (or Evidence) Appearing Real. In order to achieve anything in life we have to be brave. I encounter a lot of fear among the people I take travelling which therefore makes their decision to come on trips braver still. In reality the world is safer now than it has ever been before. However, whilst crime has been declining, our perception of crime has been increasing courtesy of the internet, 24-hour streaming news and social media. As I often point out to the people I take on tour however, the reason something is in the news is because it is something different to the norm and therefore unlikely to happen to them.

The current American election and potential UK exit, the so-called ‘Brexit’, from the European Union have something in common, other than being largely about two men whose egos and ambition are matched only in size with their improbably sized mops of hair; fear. The reason many are dashing for the exit in the UK is fear: fear of being overrun with migrants; fear of being told what to do by the Germans, or god forbid, the French. On the campaign to stay side, the politics of fear are being employed to suggest all kinds of doomsday scenarios should Britain leave. Over the pond Americans are voting for Trump because he plays upon their fears over immigration and worries about future hypothetical terrorist attacks. Never mind that Americans are more likely to die from being shot by each other than in a terrorist attack perpetrated by ‘outsiders’. Never mind that in the UK, migrants constitute a small percentage of the population and largely contribute rather than take out of the system. The false reality is the one we virtually inhabit and given that we spend more and more of our time online it is the one which appears the most real.

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No place like Rome

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‘La Parolaccia’ in Rome, is a restaurant made famous for the fact that its waiters swear at and verbally abuse the clientele. I can’t decide what is more astonishing: the fact that people will pay for this, or the fact that they are able to tell a difference between this and other ‘customer service’ in Rome.

The Romans are a proud people. In fact, to call oneself Roman is to call back on seven generations, many of whom could well still be living above one another in one of the main high rise buildings dotted throughout Rome. However, it is this ‘first’ generation who regularly hurl abuse at each other over the ‘cortile’ whilst all the while the tourists wander by marvelling at the “beautiful courtyards, so peaceful” seemingly immune to the sounds of the blaring televisions and histrionics of daily life. Churches with enforced silences abound whilst outside ambulances scream by.  This is a city of contradictions. The Rome of ‘Roman Holiday’, ‘La Dolce Vita’ and, more recently, ‘La Grande Bellezza’ is the beautiful backdrop. Romans themselves take back their city from the tourists by spraying it with graffiti. Rome has often been described as an open air museum, but this is like the Breakfast club invaded the museum.

Rome, the eternal (ly) noisy city where a conversation is an act in a Shakespearean tragedy, where the audience of passers-by need not cross the street to hear the intricacies of any conversation. ‘All the world’s a stage’ and if the accent makes the language difficult to discern, the players thoughtfully add in subtitles in the form of gestures. Beware the unwitting tourist armed with their ‘lingua de Bocaccio’, the purest form of Italian; Roman dialect is a series of grunts and words more masticated than the victim of an encounter with a lion in the Colosseum. Given the adventurous lives of the ancient Romans (and I refer to their conquering of each other rather than countries) it should hardly come as a surprise that La Parolaccia is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the swearing and abuse. And even here, the earnest Italian scholar may find themselves a little confused when listening to expressions such as ‘mortacci tuoi/tua’ a phrase almost impossible to translate into English, but which basically insults your antecedents; a very Roman way of abusing someone.

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A ‘Crap’ Article

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No, not my being self-deprecating although you may well think it an apt title upon reading, but rather an article about the Catalan obsession with, well, crap or ‘caga’. This comes particularly into mind at this time of year as I am surrounded by ‘caganers’, ie crappers. Visiting the stands at the local Christmas market in front of Barcelona’s cathedral you are greeted by the usual suspects: Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, but you will also see stands upon stands of caganers. The most traditional caganer is the one wearing his red cap, however, now you can see anyone from the Pope to Obama caught in a compromising position (and no, not the same one Clinton was caught in). Literally, the figurines are all crapping and a pile of poo behind them is  included on the figurine.

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It could be said that the Catalans have a bit of an obsession with crap. The most famous (or nowadays infamous) avenue in Barcelona, the Ramblas is the riverbed of the Cagallel, literally stream of shit, in reference to the sewer that it once was. And as Robert Hughes mentions in his book on Barcelona, ‘the pleasures of a good crap are considered in Catalunya on a level with those of a good meal; “Menjar be i cagar fort/I no tingues por de la mort”, goes the folk saying: “Eat well, shit strongly, and you will have no fear of death”. Quite.

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Driving (near)Miss Delhi

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As we hurtled the wrong way down the dual carriageway it became clear that whilst in India they do still drive on the Left, they also drive on the Right. In India it is not a case of ‘as the crow flies’, more a case of ‘how an Indian arrives’. In this particular instance the service station was located on the other side of the dual carriageway and rather than have to proceed to the next turn off and then turn around, our driver employed the ‘drive now think later’ attitude in crossing onto the other side, following the maxim that ‘might is right’. Such assumptions of immortality are natural to all drivers on Indian roads and as a consequence bus drivers in India are heading straight for Nirvana. A joke in India tells of a driver and priest arriving at the Pearly Gates. The priest isn’t admitted, but the driver is, with the explanation that whilst the priest was doing his job everyone was sleeping, but whilst the driver was doing his job, everyone was praying.

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On my first visit to India I remember the bus drivers almost permanently driving on the wrong side of the road and with no seat belts; however, the driver did stop at every Hindu shrine along the way to pray. Given the fact we made it, it is hard to argue which is the more compelling case to be made. Insurance policies are largely regarded as unnecessary in a country where the overwhelming majority of the population is Hindu, with an accompanying belief in reincarnation. Indians must have found the Bond film title ‘You only live twice’ truly baffling .Why worry about your present life when you could be lucky enough to come back as a cow in India? Cows are considered the sacred mother god and are to be seen scattered across the streets of most of India, including lying in the middle of the traffic as 1.2 billion Indians go about their daily business. One of the most fascinating things to do in India is drive or walk around in order to see every aspect of human practices carried out by the side of the road. From the constant brewing of chai to washing in tubs and defecating in the fields, it is there to be witnessed by all who pass by.

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