Lago di Como & Monza: Lakes & Pains

Whilst staying in Bergamo, I thought I should take a look at some other places in Lombardy, to get more of a grasp on the region. In the City, Lombard St leads to the Bank of England and attests to their having got around. The image I had of Lombards was one of industrious, sober and particularly go-getter Italians; the distant origins of the original Lombards are more Germanic than Roman (although the centuries, as well as the internal migration of the jobs market, will have blurred the boundaries considerably). So, where else to go? The other local towns at the top of my wish list (Mantua, Cremona) are not particularly close to Bergamo. There are plenty of important cities, and most of them have an important antique church at their heart, but many of them sounded slightly sad for a summer holiday; working towns that are resolutely industrial or, what is worse, deindustrialised. All roads lead to Milan, with its iconic Duomo, Leonardo’s Last Supper and all that is bustling, metropolitan and chic, but seeing Milan on a day trip sounded like a folly on a par with trying to see all of London in one afternoon. There are, of course, the Great Lakes, and whilst I expected these to be saturated with mass tourism, moneyed Russians tucking into freshly caught rainbow trout and coach trip folks paying through the nose for defrosted pizza, the good thing about arriving with low expectations is the increased likelihood of their being exceeded…

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Bergamo: Have Your Polenta and Eat It

In the aftermath of a vote that saw the English give their capital city a bloody nose for hogging the benefits of globalisation, and for spending far more time in Paris or Amsterdam than we do in Birmingham or York, what better way to react than by swapping the 1950s for the 1450s and running off to the place I spend 50 weeks of the year dreaming about? It being the height of summer, we settled on Bergamo as the place in Italy that would give us the best chance of not boiling to death; it is around an hour north of Milan, and the last major city before the Alps. As Italy’s economic engine and the most prosperous of the twenty regions, Lombardy is a hugely important part of Italy and yet this was my first visit; ancient old cities and picturesque landscapes are comparatively thin on the ground, and Bergamo is something of a rarity in giving good value for both.

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Urbino: The One-Eyed Man is King

That the British are world leaders at painful longing for things which never actually existed can be evidenced by the evergreen popularity of King Arthur, the scourge of the Romans and leader of a fabulous court at Camelot. Merlin, Morgan Le Fay, the island of Avalon, the Knights of the Round Table; because this stuff never existed, it can represent anything that you want it to. Mythology tells us how we would like to see ourselves. Urbino would be a sort of Italian Camelot, were it not for the difference that it was a real city, run by a real man, that can still be visited today and still looks remarkably similar to how it would have appeared in its semi-mythical heyday. 

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Ascoli Piceno: Old Marble Giants

To get to Ascoli Piceno, you have to really, really want to see Ascoli Piceno. By public transport it’s an awfully long trek from any airports, and it’s in a fairly secluded spot within Italy that entails a significant detour from any of the well-worn routes. Yet its history is very old and very proud; Roman Asculum was the capital of Picenum (after the Piceni, contemporaries to the Etruscans and Sabines whose town is much older than Rome). Emperor Augustus boasted that he found a city of brick and left a city of marble, and quite a lot of the marble came from around here; so much of Ascoli’s city centre still consists of this luminous, ethereal white stone and at night-time the effect is dramatic. Perhaps because it was a sleepy outpost of the undynamic papacy for so long, its links to the classical world are as palpable as anywhere in Italy. Wander the oldest quarter and you will find streets named after Apollo and Pompeii, while the streets themselves do not follow the medieval norm of snaking, twisting alleys; the town has never deviated from the grid street pattern laid out by SPQR. Today Ascoli Piceno is a low-key, provincial town with a fairly small centre, but one that had fascinated this Italoholic for long enough that I was finally roused into making the journey and seeing for myself. I am happy to report that the effort was well rewarded.

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Pt. III: The Stones of Paris

Sometimes you don’t realise the value of a place until it comes under threat. Paris is handy for Londoners and I’ve nipped over on the train a few times, but never thought of it as one of the places closest to my heart. I may have considered it a little too like London; important as the former capital of a huge empire but expensive, crowded, and rushed in a way that leaves its inhabitants irritable, and such a magnet for mass tourism that Venice seems unspoilt by comparison. The other main Eurostar option is Brussels, a rather strange city and gateway to the lovely old towns of Flanders, and I got to thinking of myself as more of a Belgian type. Then came November 13th, when men from the ghettoes of Brussels rained down terror upon Paris, presumably chosen because the republic is secular, so many of its great men were at odds with monotheism, and the Parisians were only ones to put their money where their mouths were and print Mohammed cartoons. Suddenly Paris was a symbol of free speech and European civilisation. I turned up at work the next morning and in hurt, fury, and an impotent wish to show love to our French regulars, I printed out a huge French flag and made a display of Voltaire, Flaubert, Zola, Queneau, Houellebecq et leurs amis. Aux armes, citoyens!

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Battersea: Some Hope (And Some Despair)

It is testament to the vastness of London that however many years you have been here, there will still be pockets of the city that are unfamiliar to you. Whilst visiting Tate Britain or Millbank I have often glanced over the Thames, with no little distaste, towards the enormous glass shapes past Vauxhall that blight the South Bank, but never actually ventured into the area. Battersea Power Station is the unmissable, cathedral-sized landmark for this quarter and presumably most of the land was still industrial until deindustrialisation. With the escalation of our housing crisis, the Nine Elms district has come under greater scrutiny as the ground zero for what Londoners have taken to calling “deposit boxes in the sky”; new-build flats which are marketed and sold, for fantastical prices, to speculators in Hong Kong or Singapore, whom we are told leave the flat empty but are happy to see a greater return on their investment than they would receive from any bank. I thought it might be an instructive, if monstrous, experience to go for a walk around here.

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Hyde Park Corner: War, what is it good for?

Christmas is traditionally a time for seeing loved ones, taking stock and counting one’s blessings and/or electronic goods. In the twenty-first century, where houses suddenly cost millions of pounds and the steady job is a historical relic, we tend to feel that we have drawn a short straw. It can therefore be instructive to compare our lot with 100 or 200 years ago; before we exported our conflicts to hot, poor, faraway countries where we got robots to do the fighting for us, and when I would have been at significant risk of getting myself killed in the industrial scale carnage of either WWI or the Napoleonic Wars.

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