Tag Archives: Italy

One Year of Faces: Part 2

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One Year of Faces: Part 1

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On the 23rd of this month Richie and I celebrated one year on the road! 365 remarkable days! If there’s one thing that has characterised the experience for us, it’s the people. As a tribute to the places we’ve been and the friends we’ve made, I offer a gallery of faces: each one beautiful and unforgettable in its own way.

These are people with whom we’ve couch surfed, Wwoofed, played, partied, wept, worked and dreamt. Thank you, each and every one of you, for the inspiration you’ve offered us; the chance to mingle our life journeys with yours.

Thank you… شكرا… спасибо… σας ευχαριστώ… gràcies… 谢谢… tak… merci… მადლობა გადაგიხადოთ… תודה… grazie… ຂໍຂອບໃຈທ່ານ… با تشکر از شما… mulțumesc… ¡gracias… teşekkür ederim… diolch i chi… Ake Issrebeh Moulana… tanemmirt…

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Blues in the night

The rain comes down and we do not run for cover: not Richie, Giovanni nor I: we’re in the garden planting plugs of capsicum, aubergine, tomato and cabbage into beds that have humped backs like camels and are as hairy as Cousin It. The shawn grass we’ve piled on top of the beds shields a treasury of seeds: garlic, onion, spinach, alfalfa, buckwheat, corn – a cocktail of life… pure vegetal goodness

Richie tears a packet of borage seeds open with his teeth, prodding the tiny specks into the earth with soily fingers – here, here, there, over there. He scatters a pile of seeds underneath the leaf beat plants that have remained in the soil since last summer and are as thick and mutinous as an oasis of miniature date palm, seed heads drooping like sprays of dates on the stalk.

The sky is caught between smiling gold and the blackened blue of bruising. The lights in the village are shaken by the thunder until they burn a furious shade of cocktail-peach.

There’s lightning on the mountaintop and I’m cackling because Giovanni is laughing loud and it’s nice to be in the garden, planting plants, and letting the rain soak our backs. Before long we will be inside drying off, packing our bags for Greece, sending one last wave of emails rippling out across the globe.

In twenty four hours Richie and I set sail for Igoumenitsa, and that will be the end of Italy, for now.

On our last night in Busso Giovanni promises to cook two bunches of agretti that he bought at the market the previous day. From a sealed plastic tupperware container in the fridge he produces two small inferior black truffles to show me; he and the dogs found them early that morning on their pre-dawn excursion. There’s every hope, I tell myself, that the scaly black eggs will arrive on our plates this evening, shaved over a mousse of polenta or a creamy risotto blanco.

A bottle of white wine is in the fridge chilling. There will be four of us tonight, like there was on the first night we were here, when Giovanni prepared a meal of sautéed wild chicory (prised from the lawn at the edges of the driveway), dressed with lemon juice and olive oil, served with fried eggs and shaved truffle, and fried polenta bread cooked on top of the stove in a cast iron pan.

Giovanni’s friend arrives with broad beans. He plonks them unceremoniously on the table. We’re invited to eat from the pods. They’re delectable: crisp, bitter and green. We snap-unlock the seams of the pods and throw the skins onto the table. “Good mulch,” says Richie, chewing reflectively while he gazes at the growing mound of skins: white and wooly on the inside, apple green on the outside. Broad beans will be one of the first things we plant in our garden, when we have one again, along with asparagus, artichoke, basil, strawberries, and agretti. Wonderful agretti! Pride of Italy!

When we arrive at Giovanni’s on the 24th of May our bodies are in Italy but our minds have set sail for Greece. We’ve stayed overlong in Italy, or so Richie keeps telling me. By my account, we’ve stayed exactly the right amount of time – neither too long, nor too short. Italy had been good to us.

As we pull up in front of Giovanni’s imposing stone farmhouse on the outskirts of Busso, I realise there’s still one experience I’m holding out for: Italian home-cooked food.

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Discovering Molise…

In spite of its central position in the country, and proximity to Rome, few people who visit Italy have ever heard of Molise. One of the smallest and most sparsely populated provinces in Italy, Molise is home to 400,000 residents, and one third of the country’s endemic species of flora and fauna, including small populations of wolves, bears and chamoix. Its three national parks encompass an area of 3,350sq km, making Molise a green and pleasant place to escape the noise and congestion of Italy’s major cities.

When Richie and I arrived in Italy on the 12th of April we had never heard of ‘Molise’, and when we exited the country on the 30th of June, we’d spent a total of almost half our time there.

This is the story of how we ‘discovered’ Molise…

After seeing the high standard of work Richie was turning out for his Permaculture Diploma, Angiola, our host in Rome, suggested we visit Molise to stay in her family’s villa, explore the countryside, and make some suggestions in the garden. We weren’t sure if we were being invited to have a holiday, or to implement a permaculture design. Either way, the enticement of free accommodation in a restored stone stable was enough to tempt us into the heart of the country – to the very navel of Italy.

In Campobasso, Molise’s capital, we were met off the bus by Angiola and her sister, Maria-pia. Angiola was on her way back to Rome but invited us to stay as long as we wanted, so long as we spent the first few afternoons of our visit helping her sister and brother plant 200  pomodoro (tomato) plants in the garden.

The variety of pomodoro that Maria-pia and Michelangelo favoured was a native of Montagano (the the closest village to where we were staying), and was without doubt “the best tomato in the world.”

Unfortunately for Maria-pia and Michelangelo, not even “the best tomato in the world” will grow to a ripe old age if the conditions for living aren’t right. On arriving on the scene in Faifoli Richie and I were greeted by the sad spectacle of over two hundred pomodoro seedlings wilting with stage fright under a relentless blue sky in a dry barren patch of recently rotovated earth. It was tomato genocide!

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Rome Revealed

I like Rome. The people are daggier than in Florence and an air of lusty decay hangs over the city. Paint peels, horns blow, and people grow green things on their balconies in defiance of acres of concrete, stone and asphalt. As I stepped off the bus in Piazza Vescovio, a green elliptical square in the north of town, I sensed that Rome is a city that is content with its place in life. After millennia of growth, expansion, flourishing and revolt, it’s happy to sit back and let the party come to it. And why not? It deserves it.

Angiola, our host, met me off the bus in Piazza Vescovio. Richie was arriving a few hours after me, fresh from a stay on a Tuscan farm with a fellow permaculture enthusiast, Elena. Angiola had a largess and charisma that matched her native city. Scriptwriter, filmmaker, art historian and heir to a crumbling farm estate in Molise, Angiola was magnificent.

After falling in love with Angiola I fell in love with the bedroom she was offering us: large, eccentrically furnished and abundantly serviced with chairs and desks – this was going to be an ideal place for Richie to finish his fourth diploma project and for me to catch up on my Florentine reading: Vesari’s The lives of the Artists and Mary McCarthy’s Stones of Floerence and Venice Observed.

Like all travellers who have spent long months living out of a suitcase, I luxuriated in the novelty of unpacking my ‘things’; finding spaces in the cupboards and drawers to lay my threadbare garments, whiffy hiking boots, journals, books, writing materials and precious MacBook.

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The Tao of Travel (Part 1)

 “It is not necessarily at home that we best encounter our true selves. The furniture insists that we cannot change because it does not; the domestic setting keeps us tethered to the person we are in ordinary life, who may not be who we essentially are.”

– Alain de Botton The Art of Travel

Richie and I have been on the road for 115 days: long enough to begin observing the natural cycles and rhythms of our journeying – the emotions, the needs that arise, the types of experiences that we enjoy, and the edges of our personalities that rub uncomfortably and bring us into conflict with ourselves and one another.

As well as being a joyful process, travel is painful. The frequency with which we find ourselves in difficult and unfamiliar situations puts constant pressure on our ability to respond in open, loving and creative ways. Decision-making in particular is a fraught exercise, with wills and egos doing battle to win supremacy. Essentially, what we want is the same thing: to be happy and not suffer; and to find a route overland from England to Australia that will hold the most abundant opportunities for self growth and good times.

So far, we have met the challenges of the road with greater and lesser degrees of grace and good humour. In my experience, how willing we are to speak truthfully to one another about our fears and hopes, and how willing we are to address unhelpful/inharmonious behaviours and habits of mind, has a direct and proportionate bearing on how quickly we are able to return to a space of grace, goodwill and openness.

Finding ways to make long-term-travel meaningful and sustainable – in every sense of the word – is a challenge. We know we’ve found the right balance when we can raise our eyes to the horizon once more and smile at what we can’t see is coming… every moment like this is a joy and a homecoming. Releasing the ego’s grip on the self and surrendering to the intuitive wisdom of the road – the dao – or whatever it is you want to call it, is a rare and fleeting thing, but well worth it for a look in on an adventure of a lifetime.

Lessons from the Roads no.1
One of the most frequent patterns I’ve observed in myself over the last 115 days is the frequency with which I fall in and out of love with the process of travel. Disenchantment follows hot on the heels of elation, and no sooner have I convinced myself that I want to be a gypsy for life, than I begin to feel that life on the road is repellent to me, and must be brought to a speedy conclusion.

The initial phase of disenchantment usually coincides with our departure from a cherished place and our arrival in a new, unfamiliar location, or, being brought into contact with a particularly unwelcome reality or set of circumstances – for instance being deprived of a comfortable place to stay or a good square meal.

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Stones of Florence

“In the smoke of the twilight, on a milk white steed,

Michelangelo indeed could have carved out your features.”

– ‘Jokerman’ (Bob Dylan)

It took me five days to befriend Florence. Not because it’s an unfriendly place, or difficult to like. It isn’t. It’s just that sometimes it takes a few days to warm to a city, and for a city to warm to you. You can break yourself on the history, artwork and culture of a place, and still the city demands more. It’s waiting for you to let your guard down, to catch you unawares. When all the dust has settled on the ‘sights’; when you’ve queued for hours; busted your guts to get an uninterupted view of ‘Primavera’; and still possess an open and curious mind, then and only then, will you be worthy to walk the stones of Florence…

Even in the rain Florence is lovely. Within two hours of arriving I found myself strolling beside the Arno, umbrella in hand, watching pewter clouds empty their contents over heads that didn’t seem to mind a bit. It’s a charmed life being a tourist in Florence.

My stroll along the Arno brought me to the courtyard of the Uffizi where I came, unsuspecting, on the sculptures in the Loggia de Lanzi: an open air museum. Wreathing in and out around the bases of the statues I wondered how the tourists and school children clustered grape-like around the feet of the Titans could carry on such casual chatter while rape, battle and subterfuge were going on above their heads.

On day two I hit the ground running. It was the national week of culture and entrance to state museums was free. Within the space of three days I’d checked the Galleria dell’Academia, Uffizi, Medici Chapel, Museo di St Marco, Bargello, Basilica di Santa Maria Novella and Santa Maria del Carmine off my extensive list of ‘things to do and see’.

Like God on the seventh day (except this was my fifth), I rested: I ate breakfast, read in bed, did an hour of meditation, caught up on my journal, washed my hair…

By afternoon I couldn’t take it any more: as long as Florence was ‘out there’ and I was ‘in here’, I couldn’t be happy.

I slung my camera, my city map, my notepad and my reading book into my bag, grabbed the umbrella with no handle that I’d pulled from a bin in Padua, and took to the streets, in search of life and colour. I wanted perspective. I wanted height.

I made for Piazzale Michelangelo, but not without stopping at my favourite gelateria on the south side of the Pont alla Carraia: pistachio and tiramisu mousse (in honour of you Kay, and Holly).

The bus to the lookout was approaching. I jumped on to save my legs, relishing my place by the window, watching as scenes of city life dropped away – the Via Romana and the gate to the city; the long green gauntlet of lime trees marking the route to the lookout; the vast ochre and dun villas lining the Viale Niccolo Machiavelli; and the cool green olive gardens on either side of Viale Galileo.

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Venice: between heaven and hell

If the devil is Venetian, wears storm-trooper boots, black sunglasses and operates via Couch Surfing, then Roberto (alias) is his name.

Roberto was our ‘fall back’ option for accommodation in Venice.
“Call me,” he said in response to our Couch Surf request, “in case of emergency, if you get stuck, or if you really can’t find a room.”

Within a day and a half (and a lot of rain) of arriving in Italy the conditions that Roberto had described had indeed come to fruition: we were stuck, it was an emergency, and we couldn’t find a room (that we could afford).

“Who should call him, me or you?” I asked Richie.
“You do it. You’re the one who wrote to him.”

Despite having a rather fearsome profile on Couch Surfing (think Sid Vicious crossed with Che Guevara) Roberto was gracious about letting us stay. He met us at Venice’s St Lucia stazione and took us back via a circuitous route to a squatted university building where a ‘happening’ was underway. He introduced us to his friends and gave us a running commentary on the history of the building; its apotheosis as a squat, and the reasons why Venice’s grand buildings were being systematically sold off as luxury hotels.
“There’s more tourists here than residents. We’re outnumbered 3 million to 60,000,” he told us flatly.

After the ‘happening’ at the university we were frogmarched to a bar on the other side of town where an anarchic bunch of rabble were loitering alongside the canal, drinking beer and listening to heavy metal music: more leather than the Fez tanneries and more dogs on leads than Miami beach.

It was not long before Jason wandered over and started talking to us… again. He’s joined us for drinks at the university, impressing us with his distinctive appearance (he wore what can only be described as a leather cape) and intriguing persona: part Ezra Pound, part Mick Dundee. His mother was Australian but he was born in Venice.

“Nice Irish accent,” Richie scoffed once Jason had excused himself to search out a cigarette.
“It’s no Irish, it’s Australian. Watch the pen. He’s got my pen. I bet you he’s going to pocket it. You can’t trust writers!”

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Hossin’ it to Venice

Richie and I have been known to attempt rash and zany things, especially whilst on the road. A whiff of adventure, a challenge, a dare, and we’re off, scheming of ways to reach B from A; testing the mettle of our spirits and the imperviousness of the soles of our hiking boots.

If they were made for walking, what’s the point in standing still?

It was during a particularly low moment during our stay in Barcelona that we decided to intercept Richie’s parents on their 18-day cruise of the Mediterranean. We were lonely and could do with a merry rendezvous. On the 14th of April Kay and Steve would be disembarking the Queen Victoria in Venice. Why not surprise them there, and spend a memorable 6 hours walking the streets; lagoon water lapping at our toes and the taste of gelato in our mouths.

Reaching Venice on the 14th left us with a window of 4 nights to get from Figueres (in the northeast Spain). We considered flying, then thought better of it. Why not hitch?

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Dogs in Heaven

Dino and Amanda are the type of hosts that every Wwoofer dreams of: fun, sociable, passionate and accommodating. What’s more, they cook great food and live in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited!

Right from the beginning, when our Wwoof Espania membership came through in the post and long hours were spent pouring over the host list, I knew I wanted to stay with Dino and Amanda at Can Col. They’re Wwoof profile said it all: “young couple living in a 17thcentury renovated farmhouse in the lower Pyrenees… surrounded by woods and silence for many miles around… we make our own bread, pasta, game sausages, pâtes, marmalades and jams… and we grow our organic vegetable terraces from which we eat all year round.

After arriving in Figueres, we were met off the train by Dino, Amanda and their two dogs, Rita (mother) and Lucy (daughter). It was a wonderful reception full of tongue kissing (from the dogs) and excited yelps (from the dogs also).

Dino (Italian) and Amanda (Catalan) spoke brilliant English, and it was nice to be able to talk freely about their lives, as well as our adventures on the road.

After several peaceful miles driving through fertile valleys we began the ascent into a rugged uninhabited mountainside, covered in a forest of holm oaks, chestnuts, walnuts and wild apple trees. Great ridges and crusts of limestone jutted out like stern eyebrows.

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