Thursday, 26 June 2008

Off to Tuscany (10)

One of the things I find very charming about "my" part of Italy is how old folks cling stubbornly to the rural life in the villages in which they are born. Even if they move away to work in their youth or middle life, they long to return to the old village to end their days.

As a consequence, some of the hill-villages are like old folks homes, with fitter neighbours looking after those less fortunate than themselves.

Sometimes, when I have passed through a village such as this one, Aiola, all sweaty and weary from a long hike, the old folk have appeared at their doors, clucking their tongues at the state of me and offering ice-cold drinks.

On Sundays, the winding roads up to the hills are often packed with cars as families make the weekly trek to see to their old parents and grandparents in the villages. It's an Italian way of life

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Off to Tuscany (9)

In addition to the memorials and shrines to victims of the Second World War which I have mentioned in previous articles, there are, of course, more conventional religious shrines.

This lovely shrine, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, is at the edge of the forest near Codiponte, a village which was once on an important pilgrim trail in the middle ages.

The church at Codiponte is over a thousand years old and was the seat of a bishop - the ruins of his palace still adjoin the ancient church building.

I don't know who looks after the shrine, but it is always in lovely condition. It's an ideal place to rest after a long walk through the woods, before pushing on to the cafe for a nice cold beer.

Sunday, 22 June 2008

Off to Tuscany (8)

In a previous article, I have referred to the many monuments and memorials scattered through these hills which bear testament to the bitter fighting which took place here at the end of World War Two. The partisans in these hills had risen, not just against the German occupiers, but against their own government.



On this lovely little bridge, near Monzone, a local padre and his brother were executed and a memorial plaque records the atrocity.

One blazing hot summer day, myself and a basking lizard sat here on the stone parapet and read the very moving inscription, put there by his erstwhile flock, which tells of the gratitude of the padre's parishioners and names him as a true martyr.

Friday, 20 June 2008

Off to Tuscany (7)


Here is village and gorge of Equi Terme, which lies in the next valley to Casola. As the crow flies, it's about three kilometres from my village, but I am not a crow and the route by road or footpath is more than twice that distance.
Nevertheless, I frequently visit Equi to bathe in the water of the river, which is blessed with sulphuric salts and other health-giving mineral deposits.
Italians have visited Equi for the purposes of "taking the waters" for centuries. In fact, the first triumvirate was plotted here in 56 B.C when Julius Caesar met Pompey Magnus and Marcus Crassus at Equi, whilst pretending to take the waters. Later that year, they sealed their agreement at Lucca and divided up the Roman world between them.
It's quite entertaining to lie in the soothing mud, with the warm water flowing round you, and contemplate these earth-shaking events, now irrelevant in the flow of time.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Off to Tuscany (6)

From medieval days right up until fairly modern times, village life was very communal in Italy and the hard tasks of everyday life were lightened by the companionship of fellow-villagers.
Here is the Old Bagno in Casola, where the women of the village used to gather to do their washing in the clear running water of a spring which was fed through the cistern.
One can easily imagine the gossip and laughter which went on around these ancient stone slabs, to the accompaniment of the slapping and scrubbing of the soapy clothes.
There is a wall opposite and no doubt the village youths gathered there to exchange banter with the young girls assisting their mothers. At a re-enactment I attended one night at a village fete, that is exactly what happened and the night ended with couple slipping off, hand-in-hand, in the dark.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

At O'Connell House, Singapore

Over 40 years ago I used to visit O’Connell House in Singapore whenever I got the chance. It was meant to be a place where sailors could drink beer in peace without importuning disturbances from locals. No beggars or prostitutes were allowed in, but itinerant traders turned up now and again. I suppose that they must have bribed the staff to allow them to pursue their dodgy business.


One day I was sitting by the pool with a bunch of guys I had met from a German ship. We were drinking beer and swapping stories, enjoying the cool breezes which lapped across the water. A trader approached and offered to sell us an “Omega” watch at a “discount price, especially for you, today only”.
We all knew, of course, that it was a “clockwork orange”, a fake of local manufacture. Sometimes there were even spelling mistakes in the words cut into the back.
“Is this watch waterproof?” asked one of the Germans.
“Of course, sir, genuine Omega”.
At that, the German threw it into the pool, saying:
“Now I’m going to dive in there and get it. If it’s stopped, you’re going in after it!”
The trader immediately ran off, leaving his tray of “Omega” watches behind him.
The German tipped them all into the pool.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Off to Tuscany (5)

As I said in my first article about Casola, the village was once very important in medieval times and it still retains many medieval features. In fact, I am amazed that it has not attracted film companies as a film set. Anyone out there interested? Get in touch, the villagers would be most interested and co-operative.

The archway featured in this picture is just one of many such gems of ancient architecture in the narrow streets of the village.
At night, the "film set" is even more impressive and my wife and I love to walk around it, soaking up the atmosphere of a bygone age.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Off to Tuscany (4)

Here is the view from our front windows. The building in the chestnut forest is the old convent, the home of Catholic Nuns until early in the last century.

It fell into disrepair when the nuns left but has now been restored by a Swiss/German couple who hold seminars and health clinics there.

The nuns were a self-sufficient Order who harvested their own crops and produced all the necessities of life. They kept livestock and had vines and olives. The crumbling terraces which they cultivated can still be seen.

Various types of edible fungus can be found in the forest, too, but you have to be very careful with identification - some species are poisonous

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Off to Tuscany (3)

The nature of the countryside around Casola is Alpine.
Here is a view of Pisanino, the greatest of the mountains in the range, the Apuan Alps.


The village in the foreground is Argigliano, the next village to Casola, about 2 km away.


Pisanino is snow-capped in winter and is not to be trifled with. Many climbers have lost their lives on its slopes and partisans successfully hid out there during the war.

Relics of Mussolini's "guard posts" can still be found, scattered around the mountains and hill-slopes, reminders of grim times in the history of this part of the world.

There are also many monuments, recording atrocities committed by both sides.

Sunday, 8 June 2008

Off to Tuscany (2)

Here's a picture of our village, Casola, which was once a very important staging-post for the mule trains which passed through from the Florentine hinterland to the coast and the north of Italy.
The forests around the village are mainly chestnut and millions of the nuts are avilable, free for the gathering, in the autumn. They roast beautifully on the top of the woodstove or may be ground up to make many Italian delicacies, including a very tasty "bread".

Saturday, 7 June 2008

Off to Tuscany

On June 7th we are off to our house in Tuscany and will be absent for three weeks. I may leave a few articles pre-scheduled to appear during my absence but, in general, I shan’t be able to keep up my daily blog during this time.

Our house is in Casola, a medieval hill-top village in Lunigiana, the northernmost district of Tuscany, an area as yet unspoiled by mass tourism. The house was built in 1567, at the time when Cosimo I was Grand Duke of Tuscany, and was originally the dwelling of a miller, who ground chestnuts into flour in the adjacent mill.
The mill is still in very good order and condition, even the massive millstones being intact, though the water supply which powered it has now been diverted elsewhere. We use the building to store logs for our woodstove, on which I frequently cook a mean chicken stew.
Here’s a picture of our house, so that you can imagine us there while we are away. As you can see, the bottom storey through the arch was used as a stable (I use it as a wine-cellar) and the living quarters are located on the upper floors. I shall post one or two other photos of the house and village to appear while we are away.

(A full description of the house and how I came to buy it, including descriptions of the pitfalls and legal procedures, is given in my booklet “How we Bought our House in Tuscany”, 24 pages, many illustrations, price £2 inc P&P, by contacting my email address in the left-hand column.)

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Bar Talk 2

Sitting in the ship’s bar one night, surrounded by philosophers, Dick McGill expressed the opinion that, were the oceans to be drained, the major shipping routes of the world could be traced by the litter of beer cans on the ocean floor.
“You’re full of shit” opined a particularly subtle and suave listener “beer cans don’t reach the bottom. They reach a level where the water is so dense that they can’t sink any deeper”.
Visions of millions of beer cans, suspended beneath the waves, swam before our eyes.
“No they don’t” said another Einstein “because they would fill up with water as they sank and then they would weigh more.”
“Yes, but the water which filled them would be from the surface and be less dense, so they would pop.”
“Nah, there would always be some air trapped in them and so they’d float at a certain level.”
“How the hell could they float if there was no water left in the ocean?”
Deep silence reigned for a moment then someone said:
“Whose round is it?”

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Bar Talk 1

When I was at sea, I was witness to some deep philosophical conversations in the ship’s bar between watches. For instance, I remember once when, by way of comparison, a raconteur referred to something as being “rough as a badger’s arse”.
Later in the conversation, another participant used the expression “smooth as a badger’s bum”.
“Now hold on a minute”, says Hexham Hawkins, “a badger’s bum is either rough or it’s smooth, it can’t be both. Now which is it?”
Much debate followed until someone said:
“Has anyone here present ever seen a badger’s arse?”
Mrs O’Gorman’s Boy took his pipe from his mouth and said:
“Sure and I have seen a badger’s arse.”
Then he replaced his pipe and lapsed into his customary silence.
We were all astonished by this utterance for we all knew that Mrs O'Gorman's Boy lived his life in a state of profound silence, being content merely to witness the folly of others.
In fact, everyone was so amazed to hear a word from that sphinx-like presence that he was not pressed to give any further information.
To this day, therefore, the question has remained unresolved and I burn with curiosity.
Can anyone out there enlighten me?

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

A Visit to The Maltings

The Maltings is in South Shields town centre and is one of three pubs wholly owned and supplied by the Jarrow Brewery. Eventually, I shall get round to writing something about the other two, which I have already visited.

The pub was once a night club and I went there a few times in a previous lifetime when I was young and wild. As with all nightclubs, however, which I find disorientating with their flashing lights, thumping music and shifting sea of faces, I have no abiding memories of the interior layout, so it was no surprise to me to find that I couldn’t relate my past experience to the present set-up when I finally entered the building.

I say “finally” because I turned up mid-afternoon to find that the pub doesn’t open until 4 p.m. Returning at the appointed hour, I found the place to be singularly empty, having just opened for business.

I was quite impressed with the mock-Victorian d├ęcor. Of course the woodwork was all veneer, but it had been very well done and might well have fooled a lot of folk at first glance. There were many replica momentos and old pictures on the walls to entertain visitors and soft background music was playing. I suspect that, at livelier times of the evening, the music might become less unobtrusive, however!

What certainly pleased me was the layout of the place. Although there was only one bar to serve all, definite areas had been screened and partitioned off, each with a different character. Some areas had traditional bar furniture, but others were like the foyer of a “class” hotel, with leather couches and armchairs to lounge in. I decided to settle in one of these very comfortable plush areas and read the newspapers which the bar provided. There had just been a beer festival and the remnants of the remaining two guest ales were being offered at knock-down prices. Having sampled all of the Jarrow Brewery’s own brews in the past (as I shall review on another occasion), I opted to try the guest ales.

The first was EASTWOOD GOLD AWARD, from a brewery in Elland, Leeds. It was a medium-dark brew, very clear and bitter with good “legs”. There was a definite taste of hops in the aftertaste: very palatable indeed. I cannot say the same for the second brew I tried. In fact I had to send it back, it was so cloudy. Actually, though the barmaid claimed “it had been like that from the beginning”, I don’t think it fair to name the brew as it MUST have been badly cellared, NOBODY makes beer as bad as that and stays in business!

So, while the pub gradually began to draw in its first customers, I sat and drank another pint of the Eastwood Gold, which was every bit as good as the first. I shall have to return to The Maltings some evening, to give it another try when there is some “atmosphere” about the place.

Monday, 2 June 2008

Dr Johnson's Party at the Devil Tavern (Wot, him again?)

The old Devil Tavern stood next to Temple Bar and was the frequent haunt of the great and the good in 17th and 18th century London.
Dr Johnson, that literary despot “with the mountainous belly and the rocky face”, once held an all-night party there to celebrate his friend Mrs Lennox’s first novel and the engraving shows him arriving at the tavern.
Sir John Hawkins, who was present at the beano, reported that “The supper was elegant; Johnson had directed that a magnificent hot apple pie” should be served, along with coffee and tea.


The Doctor then proceeded to congratulatory speech-making and at “about 5 a.m, Johnson’s face shone with meridian splendour, though his drink had only been lemonade, but the greater part of the company had deserted to the colours of Bacchus and were with difficulty rallied”.
The guests, however, were not the only ones who had been beaten into submission by the good Doctor’s discourse as “the waiters were all so overcome with sleep that it was two hours before a bill could be had, and it was not until near eight” that the tormented company staggered out into the street.
Quite a party – don’t you wish you’d been there?

Sunday, 1 June 2008

The Pilau Bukom "Officer's" Club

I wonder if there are any old sailors out there who remember this venerable institution? It was located on an artificial island off the coast of Singapore.

The island was an oil refinery and the Club was essential to tankermen who had only a few hours in which to drink themselves insensible before their ship sailed.
The Club was staffed by “Servants” (they called themselves that) who fondly remembered the British Raj. Many had left in disgust when independence was granted to the sub-continent and swore that their lives had been ruined by Ghandi, Nehru and such “upstarts”. Mostly they were fierce turbaned Sikhs, former Indian Army NCOs complete with curled moustachios and swagger canes.
The only beer on offer was Tiger Beer, which invariably gave me the "ring of fire", so that I was never off the toilet for a couple of days after each visit. It never occurred to me, of course, not to drink the stuff – “Jack Ashore” must have his beer!

The photo shows myself (with the whiskers) and Chunky Marshall in deep contemplation, possibly watching some fool throwing himself fully-clothed into the pool to cool off. This was a regular occurrence and generally led to the offender being ejected by the Servants.
Another “entertainment” was provided by bogus "veterans" who would produce long testimonials, signed by their erstwhile “Commanding Officer”, declaring them to have been a true and loyal servant to the Crown etc etc etc.

We usually gave them a couple of Singapore dollars to get them to bugger off before the Servants caught them and gave them a savage whopping with their swagger sticks.
Occasionally, when the ship was delayed for some reason or other, we would have time to go into Singapore itself and visit the Anson Road, in pursuit of more dubious pleasures.
We used to go to the aptly-named Paradise Bar. When I die, I hope to go there again.