Friday, June 12, 2015

Taking Italians to London

Two years ago we started a Christmas tradition by pledging a trip to Barcelona with Beppe's parents. They are not widely travelled, and left Italy for the first time only ten years ago, when they visited Lourdes and the South of France.
Their second international trip was to Australia for our wedding, so while not frequent travellers they have travelled further than most.

Barcelona was a great success: we were able to structure our days around the many things there were to see, as well as duck home for an afternoon nap for Nina, and quiet time for everyone else. The mediterranean air of a port city was familiar to them, and the dialect of Catalunya was surprisingly close to their home dialect of Sicilian.

Emboldened by this experience we pledged a trip to London, taken this last week.
My in-laws are lovely people, who have always put the happiness of their children before their own, and are devoted grandparents always available to babysit. That said, taking them to London was hell.

I don't want to dwell on the negatives here, on reflection it is easy to understand them clinging like drowning and forlorn sailors to what they knew, but London is a special place for me. It is the closest English speaking major city and a paradise of all the things I find comforting and homey, and when there I want to revel in the crappy gossip magazines, Sunday roasts, and all the other bad/good food I crave when I'm sick of Italian food.

After working years in tourism I've seen the same thing many times before. Ironically the English are particularly given to touring the Italian countryside, distancing themselves as 'others' to the locals, pointing out the cultural differences with alarm and ridicule.

While in London we made sure to do all the touristy things, and many slightly offbeat things as well.
Perhaps the most interesting thing travelling with a small child is the different perspective they have on what they see and experience.
On this trip to London, I think Nina first came to grips with the fact she speaks two languages, perhaps due to seeing her Nonni outside of Italy for the first time. She would sit and patiently translate things for them, keen to name in Italian the things she could see.

While we visited the Tower of London, and saw the crown jewels, Nina had picked up a pebble from the moat, and declared it a treasure more beautiful than the others. When she spotted actors in costumes, they were all princesses, and a close encounter with one had her burst into tears of awe.

With the start of each day she declared our planned trip of boats or museums or markets to be boring, but admitted at each close of day that they weren't, at least if the museums had dinosaurs, the boats had pirates or the markets had gelato.

She and I had a day off to explore the local playground while Beppe took his parents to Portsmouth to see the Victory, a model of which his dad had spend 2 years making when he started his retirement. Another day we visited the Observatory at Greenwich, of relevance to his father who had worked years in cartography. I was most happy to find a work by my favourite contemporary artist; Yinka Shonibare OBE, a large model of the victory with African dutch wax print cottons as sails, set in a corked bottle.

We went to Camden and took a narrow boat tour through canals and tunnels to Little Venice. The narrow boats, once working barges are in most cases full time homes, and are so lovely. When we're older and Nina's off exploring the world, I could imagine touring Britain on one of these, stopping in small towns along the way.

Back at Camden markets we lunched among the many international food trucks, and Beppe's mum was thrilled to find Italians cooking Italian food. This may well have been the highlight of the trip.

We were able to catch up with a couple of friends who live there, Mudlarking with Australian Kathryn, searching for 17th century clay smoking pipes on the banks of the Thames, discussing life and business rapid fire over dinner and drinks with Lisa.

One of the best things we did in London for the whole family was visiting the London museum, a free museum packed with artefacts and narratives from the history of the city. While the British museum would be fabulous to visit, it focuses more on global histories, and we weren't in London to learn about the Egyptians.

Napoleon said of London that it was one big market, and even today there is a constant rush of commerce, people are always shopping and always eating. We came home with surprisingly few souvenirs. A couple of books for Nina, a vintage silk bobbin and an old typesetter's ampersand.

I don't know when we will return to London, it may well be when we're ready for that slow coast on a narrowboat.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Venice dead Islands- Part 2

Day Two in Venice was really what the whole trip was about, and it started at a party in Darlinghurst.

My lovely friend Cassandra works in the art world, and her party was filled with arty types. I never know what to say to artists, I love art, but I don't know art, and I had all those 'am I talking to someone famous and I don't know it' anxieties. Yes, I later learned, I was.

I started chatting to a man in a beautiful shirt who quickly introduced his wife. She was a writer who had lived in Florence for a few years, and had amazing knowledge of the city. She mentioned that they would be traveling to the Biennale in Venice, and I mentioned my itch for exploring the islands. Fantastic! She was in!

Once back in Florence I started putting together a boat trip in Venice, signed up a few other people, and after much, much research we found ourselves all boarding a boat- an old Venetian Bragozzo with a friendly local named Paolo and heading into the lagoon.

Paolo first took us into the arsenale- the military shipyard where boat makers still ply their trade and a large part of the Biennale is exhibited. We had a sneak peak of a chinese artists' huge phoenix sculptures in the wet dock, and Paolo explained with much grimacing and head shaking about the lagoon flooding system, Mose, currently being installed amid much controversy and bribery scandal.

We then headed to our first dead island- the fort of Sant Andrea, at the mouth of the lagoon and designed to protect Venice from invasion. The cannons were only ever fired twice, Paolo explained, when the fort was opened, and then on Napoleon, who quickly turned around and entered the lagoon through the 'back door' canal south of Lido. 

Now home to a colony of goats, the fort is an interesting monument of stairs and sneering gargoyles, and is still the first sight of Venice for the cruise ships and anyone else entering by sea. 

On our return home we watched the 2005 film 'Casanova' and were thrilled to recognise the fort as the scene of a duel between the protagonists. 

We then headed to Sant Erasmo, the 'orto' of Venice, where fruit and vegetables have been grown for venetian tables since the time of the doges. They also have a particular purple artichoke gown almost exclusively on the island. You could be forgiven for thinking you were in any other Italian country town and we strolled around, revelling in the peace and space and green that venice is so not famous for. 
Back in the boat, we skirted the island of Lazaretto Vecchio, which from the 1400's to the 1800's was a leper hospital, plague hospital and quarantine station, so basically all human misery in a nutshell. Recent excavations have unearthed, amoung thousands of skeletons, that of a suspected vampire which had been buried with a brick in her mouth, the preferred 16th century method to keep a vampire down. Spooky.
                     picture source:

Moving right along, we traversed the wetlands of the lagoon, low grassland half submerged, where migratory seabirds were getting ready for nesting. We arrived at the island of San Francesco in Deserto, once home to Sant Francis of Assisi, now housing only four Franciscan monks.

Here we pulled up in a quiet canal, with signs extolling us to contemplate and not to sunbathe, and Paolo prepared the best seafood picnic I have ever eaten. He had made Sarde in Saor, curry prawns and a squid and ink pasta, all of it better than any restaurant in Venice.
 The sun came out, we lounged around, and after coffee and biscuits we left the monks to their reverie and headed to the most populous of our destinations, Torcello, once the thriving centre of the lagoon and home to thousands, now with a grand total of 10 inhabitants. The longest continuous settlement of the lagoon, Torcello has risen and fallen since the 3rd century, leaving behind a large church and little else- the building materials were scavenged over centuries for nearby Burano.

Burano and Murano are popular for tourists, and we have visited both previously. This time we cruised through the main lagoons in the centre of the islands, marvelling at the pretty houses of Burano and the glass warehouses of Murano. Once a thriving global business the now slide softly into the sea, surviving on selling trinkets to tourists.

Some islands we passed were nothing more than empty shells- once the sites of monastries and convents, Napoleon had torn them down and the Austrians had constructed military barracks. Paolo had as much sneer for the Austrians as he had for the more recent management of Venice and the lagoon.

And then we were back in Venice, with all the noise and bustle of the major water routes. We said goodbye to the lovely Paolo, squared our shoulders and entered the thronging crowds. If you're heading to Venice, and want to get in touch with Paolo, drop me a line and I'll pass on his details.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Venice dead islands Part 1- Poveglia

Perhaps my first excursion into an abandoned industrial building was when I woke early one morning and broke into the abandoned gasworks on the wrong side of the tracks in Bathurst. I was 18, and with my flatmates and the neighbour boys we went over a fence and under another and we were inside amongst the concrete, steel and broken glass that sat silent in the dawn light. Somewhere I have pictures that tried and failed to capture what was so fascinating, but I think it was the added ingredient of my churning, guilty conscience that added to the beauty. There were machines of inexplicable function, graffiti, a rope noose hanging from a beam, and a 3 metre promotional rocket, with ‘cooking with gas’ stamped on the side. 

Since then I have rarely trespassed into dilapidated industrial zones, but I get a thrill passing the lacy ironwork of old gas tanks, closed up warehouses get me swooning, and I dream of one day overseeing a loft conversion of a warehouse or sub station. 

Which leads me to Venice. Industrial decay is not the first thing that pops to mind for most when thinking of the floating jewel of a city, but since Napoleon’s invasion, and subsequent takeover by the Austrians, minor islands that once housed monasteries and convents passed from places of contemplation, to military installations, and then to ruin. 

Day two of this adventure had been a long time in the planning, but on our first day there we found ourselves, just Beppe and I, with a boat and nothing to do but satisfy our curiosity. 

It was an article about the uncertain fate of the island of Poveglia that had revived a mild curiosity about the lagoons islands, and we set off to find it. Poveglia had a spotty history of occupation and destruction, passed a period as a quarantine station, a plague hospital and then an asylum for the mentally ill in 1922, which was then abandoned in 1968. 

Legends abound around the maltreatment of the inmates of the asylum, including crude lobotomies performed by the hospital director, who later threw himself from the imposing bell tower to his death. 

The island has at least two plague pits filled with the remains of at least 100,000 people who died on the island, and is considered cursed by Venetian residents and has been described as the most haunted island in the world. Naturally I wanted a look.

We approached the island through the proscribed canals, marked by regular pylons in the shallow lagoon, passing the newly refurbished San Clemente, now a luxury hotel, and the completely ruined San Spirito. I had expected to find an impediment to our visit- fences or some sign of authority, but we tied off on the quay and started looking around with just a little trepidation. 

The first room we entered was filled with old laundry machines, the metal rusted but the uses evident; washing machines, steam mangles and drying racks, in the room next door the imposing barrels of two autoclaves. I only knew what these were thanks to a visit to Sydney’s quarantine station. An elegant wrought iron stairway led up to a roof level, where the flapping curtain of the asylum building stopped my heart for a moment. 

We picked our way through ruined rooms in the main building, heaps of plaster and reeds fallen from the ceilings, hospital furniture overturned as if thrown about by phantoms, most probably by thrill seekers less respectful of the past. In one room piles of rusted bed frames, in another roof tiles lay deep on the floor, caved in by the creeper that now provided a green canopy overhead. 

The kitchen still held the bones of the exhaust hood and the heady, overturned range. We didn’t dare brave the staircase, and we didn’t press on past the first few buildings, as creepers blocked the paths and we were not brave enough to alter the location at all. The air was ominous, and we came back out onto the quay euphoric, happy to find the boat hadn’t floated away. I realised then I had been holding my breath. 

I didn’t see any ghosts, but it was a fascinating visit to a singular island. The moniker of ‘Island of the damned’ is a bit unfair. 

I do also have to mention lunch. We found a trattoria in the village of Malamocco on Lido, and toasted our adventures over sard in soar and the local seafood pasta, which tasted even better with the relief of surviving Poveglia. 

We returned the boat to Venice, surprisingly without incident (did you know boats don’t have brakes?) and found our way to the local bars for a couple of much deserved Spritz.  

Tuesday, April 14, 2015


A couple of days until Pampert is ready, and we've hit the Rue du Gran Cru through the most prestigious wine region in the world, Burgundy. Rather than thousand euro wines, I have my eye on another prize, the Vide Grenier signs out by the road, indicating local flea markets. 

It seems a delightful Sunday tradition through France, and every fourth town seems to be holding one. I was aiming for one down past Buaune but we struck gold just outside of Dijon. A very odd collection of bric a brac, the markets contain everything from clothes and books to furniture, sporting equipment and tools. Specific furniture and clothing 'vide' are held at other times, but we're after the portable treasures. 

Haggling is part of the experience, but for the most part the prices asked were much less than we would expect, and the haul below came in under 25€ total. 

We have: 
A 50s fishing box with seat
A cleaver
A jaffle iron
Nesting spice tins
A wall hanging jug
A salt shaker 
A cocktail shaker. 

We also picked up some playmobil toys for Nina, in the box at a fraction of their usual price, corset stays and a loom shuttle. Also, this: 

Sunday, April 12, 2015


The trail for Pampert parts and repairs took us from Nimes to Lyon and then to Dijon, where our very good  and most lovely friends Chiara and Daniele live. Chiara and Beppe go back to high school, and they made it to our wedding in Australia 8 years ago. When we decided to head their way it was immediately comforting to know we were heading for a harbour, and we are so thankful that they were happy to see us despite being between family and work visitors.

Dani is a mathematician, and had been hosting a conference, so that first night we were eating with some of his collegues. 'Gosh,' I said, 'have you  always been good with numbers?' I received a somewhat condescending look. 'We don't actually work with numbers anymore,' said the mathematicians 'its mostly symbols and letters.'

As well as being awesome people themselves, they have a 5 year old son, who taught Nina swordplay, and a 10 month old daughter, who is the smiliest, happiest baby I know.

Since the accident we had all but decided to head home, sell Pampert, and get on with something more productive than gallavanting around Europe. To be amounst friends in the heart of Burgundy is just what we needed to put our mood right.

Honestly, I don't have much to share about the history of the town. Something something Phillipe le Bon. The town is a wonderful size, with a large pedestrian area in the centre, lots of imposing, large-roofed buildings, and a ton of cafe's with tables taking up most of the pavement. I really got a sense of how much better things are financially in France compared to Italy. I had always generally preferred the Italian confusion, but France, for the most part, is so clean.

Between phone calls and trips between mechanics and smash repairers, Chiara showed us around the market and city centre, and took us to one of the mustard shops. Mustard is huge here- I really should stop being surprised wien a place that gives its name to a product is actually amazing at said product.

A few lovely days, wine, cheese, company, and we're entirely recharged, and Pampert is due back Tuesday, when we'll hit the road for home, slowly threading our way through the heart of France. Thanks for the messages and concern friends, we're doing alright. 

Friday, April 10, 2015

Easter in Arles

For a too brief period this week we achieved Pampert perfection.

Having stewed over the failure of three in the bed with nowhere to roll over, and the disaster of an ear infection far away from home, we were more than a little concerned with our planned 3 week trip through the south of France and down the coast of Spain.

I managed to cut down Nina's old cot mattress to fit the only remaining floor space in Pampert and we crossed our fingers that she would tolerate the new arrangement. A short 8 hour drive later we were in the Camargue region of France, in a camp ground just outside of St Gilles, a short way from Arles.

The Camargue is famous for it's salt, it's white horses and the most dedicated mosquitoes I have ever met. Horse-riding was what we baited Nina for in the car trip on the way up, promising that she'd meet some lovely four legged friends. (I want a poo-ney, she says, repeatedly)

On our arrival the manager congratulated us on our good fortune to be in the area for easter- Arles was having  it's annual easter festival! The camp ground was right next door to a manger and some lovely white horses, but no Poo- neys. We found them a little way down the road and Nina had a great time with her new friend Juli.

A grown up trail ride was leaving too, so I joined up and we set off. We had passed through the region 6 years ago, and turned our noses up at the line of horses threading their way through the marshes. 'Tha's not a real horse ride.' I remember saying back then. This time though I did and it was lovely. Still early spring, the group was small, the horses fresh and the marshlands seemed unspoilt and wild. We scared up pairs of ducks every couple of metres, watched eagles and hawks and herons and storks fishing. In the distance an ungainly flamboyance of flamingoes took to the air. (Is that not the best collective noun for anything ever?) The horse, Ninu, was lovely and responsive, and the national park was breathtaking.

The capital of the Camargue region is Saintes Maires de la Mer, where the three Saint Maries are said to have come ashore and spread Christianity in Europe. They were helped by a local woman who became Saint Sarah, the patron of the Roma who hold an annual pilgrimage and festival here.

Its a nice town but I found nearby Aigues Mortes (literally Dead Waters) to be a much more interesting and beautiful town. A fortified village at the mouth of the Rhone, it has a lovely atmosphere and doesnt seem to get quite as much traffic as Saintes Maries. And it has a pink lake, with pink flamingoes.

The next day we did head into Arles, where we saw markets, merry go rounds, and a dozen roving street bands, one of which had a fantastic dancing band leader. We ate paella at the Cafe de la Nuit, the old haunt of Vincent Van Gogh, and stopped to say hello to every horse that we could find.

The festival is mostly about bullfighting though, which occurs in the Roman arena in the centre of town. No way were we going to watch a bull be tormented and tortured to wild applause, and as we skirted around the arena the sight of a poor dead bull being carted off reminded us what most people here were celebrating.

The nights we slept well, with Nina delighted with her little bed, and as we ate beakfast surrounded by daisies, we considered staying a few days longer. Coulda woulda shoulda.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Pampert takes a tumble

Easter Sunday, and we so cunningly decided to make it a travel day, when everyone else was in the company of family, the restaurants were full, we'd be the only ones on the highway, heading south to Spanish sun as fast as our little wheels would take us.

On leaving the campground we decided to route through some minor towns before joining the highway, as Nina had some postcards to mail and I needed a coffee. (By the way, the French do not make a good coffee. I asked for a cappuccino, which I was sure had to be fairly universal, and I received a beverage made with instant coffee, powdered milk and whipped cream. And A STRAW! I've learned since to request a cafe au lait with extra lait).

We found mailbox, coffee and pastries (By the way, the French do make a bloody good pastry) and we're patting ourselves on the back at our good fortune when disaster struck.

I was driving, at about 30 km/h, when a rapid series of bangs made me look in the mirror to see our dear Pampert bounce up and over, grinding to a halt on her side. One of those moments that are so surreal it doesn't even register.

I stopped the car and it became apparent that we had lost a wheel, which was resting 10 metres back. A few passers by helped rock it back up, and we got it off the road without trouble. I had to inform Nina of what was going on.

'Pampert is a little bit broken'.
She put a hand on each cheek and wailed her longest phrase to date. 'Oh no Mum! Pampert e broken, our holiday e finis!' with a certain melodrama that comes of her being both Italian and my daughter.

It doesn't bear thinking about what would have happened had we been on the highway. But for a snap decision and a coffee addiction we would have been.

As well as the wheel, the door was jammed shut and a slight bend in the towing arm, as well as superficial damage to the body. Poor Pampert!

Then something really amazing happened. One of the guys who had first seen us stuck around for a half hour, eventually leaving us his screwdrivers, while another, Jose, went home to return with a toolbox, and spend the next 2 hours trying to fix the wheel and the door with Beppe, both of them speaking a rather inefficient mix of Spanish, Italian and French.

After doing what he could, he invited us home for a coffee before we set off to limp towards a camping, and we couldn't say no. His wife welcomed us in, and the invitation turned into an insistence that we stay for Easter lunch, despite them having 5 kids under 10, including 2 sets of twins, and his father for lunch, and our non existent French making conversation impossible.

We got by with sign language and hand gestures as the guys spent all day long trying to fix our little camper and Yvette helped to look up local mechanics and hotels. Nina had a ball with the twin babies and a seven year old, Cassandra, who was her adopted sister by the days end.

Jose is himself Portuguese and insists the French would not have stopped, but I don't know if that's true. Thank goodness for busy-body know-it-all stranger who will spend their entire Easter helping us sort out our problems and open their home to complete unknowns, with whom they can't even communicate. I'm sure there's an Easter message in that there.

Since then we've spent every moment trying to get parts and find a shop that can do some repairs. We have a new towing arm, and new door hinges, and have limped up to Dijon to stay with friends until we can get the door to close properly. We need a panel beater or at the least a drill. Fingers crossed we find something before the weekend.

So far 2 out of 2 Pampert trips have been a bust, so we are mightily discouraged. But things could be worse, and we have an excuse to visit friends, so its not all bad. If we can get things sorted out we will be taking an easy, lazy week to travel back home to Florence through the south of France. Things could be worse.