From Spain to the Spanish Netherlands. As I contemplate writing up this trip it dawns upon me that this is the first time I’ve blogged Belgium, and only my third visit to the country. Conclusion: I don’t get to Belgium half as much as I should. For so long Belgium was, to Britain, merely the butt of jokes in bad TV comedies. Yet the defence of this place across the water was what dragged us into World War I, and the swift Eurostar connection to Brussels means that these days we can go abroad and explore a relatively unfamiliar country without having to endure the awful experience of airports, and with a quicker journey time than we face going to Newcastle or Glasgow (although who knows what obstacles Brexit will place in our way). When Belgium was at its most unfashionable, Jonathan Meades made his celebrated film arguing that it was interesting because as devout Catholics, Belgians paired the same death-cult as Spain or Italy (where it is leavened by sunny skies and the blue Mediterranean) with perpetually grey skies that rain more than Yorkshire. My own great fondness for the place can probably be attributed, at least in part, to the fact that its brilliance is unsung, under-the-radar, and a wonderful surprise. The tourist goes to Venice in full expectation that he will find one of the most beautiful cities in the world, but what knows the tourist of Ghent? Until recently, not so much, but its greater accessibility these days seems to be waking Brits up to the fact that Belgium has the best beer, chips and chocolate on God’s earth, and much else besides.
Andalucia is Spain’s, and Europe’s, most southerly point, in touching distance of Morocco. It is probably inevitable, then, that we romanticise, exoticise, and Other the hell out of it. Carmen the gypsy femme fatale, Don Quixote tilting at windmills; Spain signifies the crazy, the exciting, the dangerous. Here we the Spain that people think of when they imagine Spain, as opposed to the cities around the Pyrenees and Atlantic that are not so different from the rest of Europe. It was the last stronghold of the Muslim Moors who called their Iberian empire Al-Andalus, after the Vandals that swept in when Rome fell, and the eight centuries of Muslim rule have left their strongest flavour here; the spices in the food, the beautiful craftsmanship of the mosques and palaces, the iron railings in front of the windows that separated the female and male domains of indoors and outdoors, and perhaps the cultural practices that just don’t happen in Bremen or Birmingham; flamenco, bullfighting. As much as Spain is friendly, cosmpolitan and as plugged into the modern world as anywhere, one wonders if the ghosts of the exiled Moor, the fact that fascism clung on here until the late 70s, or the strong presence of Counter-Reformation Catholicism makes this a land of contrasts between the sunshine, the gaiety, and something more sombre. See what I mean about Othering?
Deep within the inner cloisters of the Rockafeller Monastery, Don Draper and Roger Sterling furrow their brows and put their brains to work, as they attempt to formulate their order’s position on the Arian heresy. Was Christ entirely divine, entirely human, or somewhere in between? Just around the corner, crowds are gathering in the Madison Square market; Neil Simon and Billy Joel have written a new mystery play about the crucifixion, and it receives its premiere tonight in a production by the Stonemason’s Guild. Podesta Clinton says a short prayer before heading into the Palazzo Pubblico to face the city council; her rival faction have demanded that she walk across twenty yards of glowing hot coals tonight, that the city may find out whether God is on her side. Outside the city walls in the tiny hamlet of Williamsburg, Lena Dunham fretfully waits out the long hours in her convent cell. The mother superior has placed her in solitary confinement for inappropriately touching a new novice sister. Still, she is better off than her friends Marnie, Jessa and Shoshana, who were all married off to cloth merchants, sent away to cope with the biting winters of Antwerp, and died in their mid-teens during childbirth. Such is daily life in San Gimignano, the Medieval Manhattan.
And so to Italy, for a ridiculous third time this year (I might as well get it the obsession out of my system now, anyone paid in sterling won’t be able to afford it for much longer). Travelling around so many Italian cities, where the churches are often the only sights to be seen, I have ended up acquiring a real taste for the art, and felt the need to revisit the undisputed capital of the renaissance, Florence, which I had only been to years ago when I was young and unschooled; hence a tour of Tuscany. I didn’t know a lot about Pisa, beyond knowing that it shares a river with Florence and a vague recollection that it was an early maritime republic, but it houses Tuscany’s major airport; we were flying in and out of here and it seemed sensible to take a quick look around the city before dashing off. What we found was one of the great architectural set pieces of Italy, quite self-contained and sat apart from the rest of a lively young city; both are worth your while.
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…
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.
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.