Sunday, 8 December 2013

Thinking Out of the Box at the Kobe Biennale

Coming hot on the heals after our visit to the Venice Biennale several months ago, Jules and I thought that we would tackle the local version with the Kobe Biennale. Kobe is probably our favorite major city in Japan, being sandwiched between water on one side and mountains on the other and this event is just one of the many festivals that regularly occur in this scenic location. Having suffered the devastation of the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995, the city has over the years done remarkably well to rebuild itself not only structurally, but also more importantly as a community. Today it is once again a major tourist destination competing admirably with both Osaka and Kyoto and being essentially a seaport, it remains the starting point for many cruise ships visiting the Kansai region. In fact it would be the dockland area that would be the starting point for the Kobe Biennale, but the event would become a magical mystery tour that would take us through much of the city.

The Biennale was one of the more positive things that emerged following the 1995 earthquake, when art was recognized by the community as a means of healing both the heart and the mind. Art was seen as a way of bringing vitality back to the city by promoting its cultural connections with the past and to provide a creative vision of its contemporary future. So from humble beginnings, the event continued to grow to become quite a significant event on the Biennale calendar, of which there are now around 150 across the globe. However, what makes the Kobe Biennale particularly unique is that a large part of it is displayed in and around shipping containers, of which there are many in this huge port area. So this is where Jules and I began, by moving systematically from one container to another to experience a myriad of works including installation pieces, paintings by featured artists, examples of traditional Japanese calligraphy as well as displays and workshops from various local art schools.

While the exhibition was now in its last week (it runs from October 1 – December 1), it was good to see that it was still attracting a sizable local crowd who were certainly entering into the spirit of the event and finding it to be a positive uplifting experience. While our experience at the Venice Biennale represented the serious side of the modern art world, here it was far more relaxed. Maybe it was the novelty of using shipping containers as miniature galleries that often forced us to be at close quarters with other patrons or simply the open-air venue that promoted a level of conversation and laughter that is rarely seen in more austere traditional galleries. No matter what the reason, everyone appeared to be enjoying the creative endeavors of the mostly Japanese artists whose works were on display and clearly the original mission of the event was being fulfilled.

Having spent a couple of hours moving in and out of shipping containers, Jules and I eventually hit the streets with map in hand to head out to find some of the other venues. There remained much to see with locations spread throughout Kobe. You could even board a boat that would take you along the coastline to view sculptural works from the water, however with time pressing, we opted to tackle much of the remaining exhibits by foot and initially headed over to one of the main shopping areas that follows the railway line through the heart of the city from Motomachi to Sannomiya. Here nestled between antique shops, trendy boutiques, cafes and old vinyl records shops were small temporary galleries housing several or sometimes just one significant work of art. While the works at each venue were interesting, I must confess it was just as much fun finding them. From there we made our way to more traditional venues such as the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art and the Yokoo Tadanori Museum of Contemporary Art.

It was getting dark by the time we emerged from the last gallery and a blister was forming on my toe from all the walking we had done throughout the day. The event had been much bigger than we had imagined when we began and we had by no means seen it all. However, we had seen enough to be impressed. As an art event, it certainly couldn’t be compared to the Venice Biennale, but what it had lacked in international representation or status, it had made up through its energy and enthusiasm. There was a justifiable pride in what the event had to offer and it was clear that it is going to be around for a good many years to come. The city of Kobe had certainly embraced its artistic heritage and through their Biennale, it had ensured its commitment to all forms of visionary and creative expression.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Gigantor…Alive and Well and Living in the Suburbs

If you were a television kid like me in Australia in the late 1960’s, you would well remember the introduction of the first animated cartoons that arrived from Japan. Of course we didn’t realise that they were from Japan at the time, only that the characters looked unusual (typically portrayed with large wide doe eyes) and the overall style of the animation was distinctively different from anything eminating from America. Little did we know that these animated shows would become the forerunner of what we now recognise as the ‘Japanese anima’ phenomenon. For me the standout series at the time was ‘Gigantor’ (debuting in Adelaide, South Australia on October 28 1968), which told of the adventures of a 12 year old boy who was able to control a somewhat portly looking 50 foot jet propelled robot in a fight against evil throughout the world. My friends and I just loved this series and couldn’t wait to catch each episode. Although the series only lasted for several months, there were plenty of re-runs to keep us entertained, until eventually the show disappeared from our screens.

I had almost totally forgotten about Gigantor until reading about the existence of a life size statue of the animated character somewhere in the suburbs of Kobe. It seems that Mitsuteru Yokoyama, the artist who had created ‘Gigantor’ (or ‘Tetsujin-28’ as he was originally known in Japan), had grown up in Kobe and had remained somewhat of a local hero due to his efforts in breaking into the American market and eventually worldwide with his popular animated cartoons. The statue had been built to honor him and his most famous animated character in 2009, and coincided with the 15th anniversary of the great Hanshin earthquake (1995). It was hoped that the Gigantor statue would act as a protector against such disasters in the future, while also providing a means of revitalizing interest in the local region.

So after Jules had done the necessary research, we headed out of central Kobe on the local train to the suburb of Nagata in a kind of pilgrimage to the TV memories of my childhood. When we arrived, we could see that while ‘Gigantor’ might be a very distant animated memory in other parts of the world, here he remained very much alive and a respected attraction to this region. Posters, stickers and billboards could be seen throughout the railway station with signage directing us to Wakamatsu Park where the metallic mega-hero could be found. He was in fact pretty hard to miss standing a full-scale 18 metres or 59 feet tall and in full action pose. Amazingly enough and despite his vintage as a super hero, he was still attracting some interest, with small groups of visitors keen to have their photo taken posing beneath his giant robotic legs…so of course, I had to as well!

While Jules had little recollection of the animated adventures of Gigantor, for me seeing him once again brought back plenty of happy childhood memories. It was good to see that the character was being appreciated within Japan as a significant aspect of their emerging post war culture. Television shows like Gigantor, The Samurai, Astro Boy, Kimba the White Lion and Marine Boy certainly enabled generations of the 50’s and 60’s to gain a new appreciation for Japanese aesthetic through the medium of television and in some way, programs such as these possibly helped to heal some of the old wounds of the past. I was interested to read that Twentieth Century Fox had bought the rights to the Gigantor franchaise and that a script for a movie had been developed before Yokayama’s death in 2004. Since then the project has remained shelved, but maybe one day Gigantor will once again take to the skies and a new generation will be able to follow his exploits. If so, you can expect an avalanche of visitors to see the big metal man of Nagata and I guess that’s exactly what the local businesses are hoping for.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Exploring Himeji Castle Undercover

While enjoying an overnight stay in Kobe, Jules and I finally decided to visit famed Himeji Castle. We had been meaning to explore this historic landmark for quite some time but with the castle currently going through a massive five-year restoration project and covered in scaffolding, we weren’t quite sure what we might actually see. I had seen the castle from a distance in all its glory just a few months after our arrival in Japan while passing through on the bullet train and in hindsight we probably should have visited then before the work had begun. Still, the opportunity to view one of the truly great historic buildings of Japan could not be missed and so on a delightfully sunny autumn day, we took a comfortable 40 minute local train ride from Kobe to Himeji to see it close up.

Also known as ‘The White Heron Castle’ because of its distinctive white walls and a roofline that resembles the spreading wings of the heron bird, Himeji Castle remains quite a remarkable example of fourteenth century architecture. Although the building has undergone a number of major restorations during its long life, it has successfully managed to survive wars, fires, bombing and earthquakes and unlike other castles in Japan, remains almost perfectly preserved. Not surprisingly, the castle was designated a national treasure in 1931 and granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 1993 (the first landmark in the country to do so). It remains the most visited castle in Japan and has provided the setting for a number of major movies including the James Bond film 'You Only Live Twice' (1967) and 'The Last Samurai' (2003).

As Jules and I exited the train station, we could see a huge box like structure on a nearby hill, which we knew was Himeji Castle because of the painted representation on the outside of the scaffolding cover. Memories of our visit to Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany flashed back, where we were also prevented from viewing an historic castle due to renovations. As we got closer, the sheer scale of the restoration work became increasingly evident although what also became clear was that the scale of the grounds would still provide plenty for us to see. Also there was the added bonus of tourist numbers having been greatly reduced, which would make our tour around the castle far more leisurely than what would normally be the case.

As it turned out, our Japanese hosts had also made every effort to compensate for all of the restoration work by providing a very unique perspective on the castle exterior. They had sensibly installed a glass sided exterior elevator to take visitors to the top of the building from which you could descend by stairs while viewing architectural details at close quarters as the restoration was continuing. This allowed us to see the meticulous work that was proceeding by artisans who were using traditional building methods to repair plaster walls, woodwork and thousands of ancient roof tiles. While much of the exterior work appeared to be coming to an end, there would still be at least two more years of work to be done as attention now turned to the interior.

While Jules and I would have loved to have seen Himeji Castle without the encumbrance of scaffolding and coverings, we certainly did not leave disappointed. We had been provided with a unique close-up perspective of the exterior of the main building that others would not normally experience. The grounds were magnificent and we were able to venture inside several outer buildings to gain an insight into the lifestyle of those who lived there during ancient times. We admired the sheer scale of the stonework that had been pieced together like a giant jigsaw puzzle, on top of which ancient builders had created one of the most beautiful buildings in Japan. Likewise, we knew that with all of the work that is currently being undertaken, this piece of Japanese heritage would soon be uncovered to once again be admired by visitors for many centuries to come.

Monday, 14 October 2013

The Power of a Big Rubber Duck

The world of fine art is very often regarded as a very serious business these days, with works being carefully analysed for their aesthetic qualities or metaphorically peeled back like an onion in an effort to interpret their deep conceptual meaning. However, occasionally an artwork comes along that defies the temptation to enter into intellectual hyperbole and instead simply makes the viewer smile. Such is the case of the ‘Rubber Duck’ installation sculpture project by Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman that has bobbed up in many of the world’s harbours and waterways, creating great interest and excitement in its wake. Having read about the arrival of the forty foot yellow duck in Osaka, Jules and I felt duty bound to head down to the Aji River where the work was on display for the Aqua Metropolis Festival.

When this fun, over scaled floating sculpture was conceived, the artist set about to achieve the goal of "spreading joy around the world" by tapping into this highly recognizable symbol of childhood memory. Since its creation in 2007, several scaled versions of the design have visited 14 major cities of the world and been enjoyed by millions of spectators. It’s now regarded by the artist as somewhat of an endearing global ambassador, stating that “the world is our global bathtub” and that we all have a responsibility to “take care of each other in this bathtub of the rubber duck”. A bold sentiment indeed, but if any man-made object had the capacity to achieve that goal, it would certainly be the disarming nature of this giant Rubber Duck.

By the time Jules and I arrived at the Osaka docks, the mighty Rubber Duck was working its magic by luring thousands of locals out of their apartments to view the piece. I couldn’t imagine many other artworks that would have quite the capacity to generate such a crowd on a Sunday afternoon. Nor would such a work have anywhere near the same impact in a traditional gallery setting. This is what public art is all about … generating public interest by engaging viewers with a common sense of enjoyment, if only for a fleeting moment.

One of the elements that allow this piece to work so successfully is its scale. While it is nowhere near as large as a building, it somehow manages to rival a city skyline in a way that we humans are unable to do. Maybe because it’s a small object enlarged, that it somehow appears even bigger than it actually is? Certainly its colour and smooth form are in stark contrast to the grey tones and sharp edges of our man-made world. Like all other significant Pop Art pieces, the ‘Rubber Duck’ is highly familiar yet upon first viewing we are suddenly thrown by the completely different context in which it is presented. Much like the ‘Mouse that Roared’, it demands attention and it certainly gets it! For the Japanese there is also one other major factor that allows the ‘Rubber Duck’ to have such public appeal … it’s cute!

It’s appearance in Osaka had certainly set a happy tone amongst the crowd who also enjoyed some of the other public art works on display, each possessing their own particular sense of humor. Jules and I were particularly amused by a piece devised as a public toilet with an enlarged replica of the famous ‘Peeing Boy’ statue of Brussels (‘Manneken Pis’) placed on its roof. Crowds would wait patiently until a patron entered the toilet, inevitably causing large jets of water to spray from the statue into the river and at that point the cameras would click to great amusement all round. However the day belonged to the big ‘Rubber Duck’ who had once again proved the power of its presence and that in the world of public art, size does indeed matter.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Life's a Beach at 'The Lido'

Having visited Venice only a year ago, Jules and I were keen to venture a little wider in our exploration of the island as well as other popular spots close by across the water. On our previous trip we had skirted a number of intriguing looking islands on the way from the airport and were keen to take a closer look this time around. One such place was Lido (more often referred to as ‘The Lido’), the largest of the islands that surround the main island of Venice and one that is so easily accessible by Vaperetto (local waterbus). The island itself is actually a very long thin sandbar that acts like a protective buffer between Venice and the Adriatic Sea, but over the years it has grown into a substantial town that has forged it’s own unique identity. So in mid-August and with 35+ degree temperatures, it didn’t take too much to convince us that a trip on the water to what is essentially a beach resort, would be a very good idea.

After a short boat trip we walked through the most modern Vaperetto Terminal in the Venice area to step into a world that was substantially different than the place we had departed from. No longer were there old crumbling buildings and narrow canals, but rather well kept homes, wide streets and cars! This might not seem particularly unusual, but when you compare it to Venice it was. While traffic had been imported via the ferry from the mainland, it seemed that the preferred mode of transport here was actually bicycles. This gave the town a nice relaxed feel, as they were clearly suited to an island of this size. We however, chose to use foot-power to make our way across to the opposite side of the island to inspect its celebrated white sandy beach (quite unusual for Europe). Here swimming and sunbathing had been taken to a highly organized and business-like level, reminiscent of the shores of Positano. While neat rows of colour matched umbrellas and sunbeds lined one side of the beach, the other side had rows of huts of varying sizes and luxury that were all available for hire. This was totally different from the laise-fare style of beach bathing we were used to in Australia. Obviously Italian sun worshippers were not merely satisfied with the clear waters and sandy beaches, but also desired resort style creature comforts to accompany them and were more than happy to pay for the privilege.

While the water was certainly tempting, we decided to bypass the beach in an effort to seek out one of Venice’s hidden secrets … The Lido Market. Jules had on a previous day asked a local whether there was a regular street market in Venice, only to be assured that there was none to be found. However, this didn’t deter her and she eventually discovered that Lido was the place to go. So after a bit of searching we finally managed to find it on the north-western bank of the island, set quite a distance away from the main part of the town. It was almost as if its location and the lack of information about the market was a cunning ploy to keep the tourists at bay, as there seemed to be very few foreigners to be found. Yet, what they were missing was one of the biggest and best street markets Jules and I had ever seen in Europe. The location was so picturesque and it had a terrific atmosphere, with excited locals stocking shopping bags full with all manner of produce and goods. We too picked up a few things, but in the end we simply couldn’t resist the smell of the spit-roasted chickens. So when the market was all but over, we sat contentedly on the bank that faced back toward Venice happily devouring our chicken accompanied with fresh baked bread … hard to imagine a better lunch!

As we headed away back toward the town, we couldn’t help but notice some of the impressive villas set back from the streets. Lido was certainly a grand old town and it reminded us very much of some of the places we had visited along the French Riviera. Not surprisingly it is often referred to as ‘The Golden Island’ and has over the years developed into a much preferred holiday spot for those who are happy to remain at arms length from the crowds and commercialism of central Venice. It does however attract it’s own audience toward the end of August when film buffs invade Lido for the annual Venice Film Festival, which remains the longest running and one of the most prestigious in the world. In a couple of weeks the festivities would all start again with George Clooney in town to launch his latest movie, so no doubt Jules would have liked to have stayed a whole lot longer!

Lido had proved to be quite a surprise in many ways; such a contrast to the familiar scenes of Venice, to be found just a kilometer or so across the water. We thought that if we ever returned to this part of the world again we would certainly consider staying here, as it seemed to offer something just that little bit different. Enjoying yet another day of glorious summer weather, it had certainly been the perfect place to spend our last full day in Italy and it had provided us with yet another truly memorable experience. It is not surprising that the term ‘Lido’ had become a byword for the relaxed lifestyle of a watery resort, but as Jules and I found out, it turns out ‘The Lido’ is a whole lot more than that!

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Palace of Creativity at the Venice Biennale

Given the decision of whether to spend our final few days in Italy in either Rome or Venice, the choice wasn’t difficult. Having avoided Venice previously because we believed it was a tourist trap, we had recently become enthusiastic converts having finally discovered it just a year ago. It turned out that Venice actually was a tourist trap after all, but oh what a trap! This city is so wonderfully unique that it simply can’t be resisted and so once again we were more than happy to take the bait. There was also another important reason for visiting once again and that was because this was the year of the renowned ‘Venice Biennale’. Occurring on every odd numbered year, this major exhibition attracts the world’s foremost contemporary artists and in the world of visual art it simply doesn’t get much bigger than this. As an art teacher, the Biennale is something that is generally read about but seldom experienced first hand, so the opportunity for me to visit would certainly be an added bonus.

With its origins dating back to 1895, the Venice Biennale has continued to evolve and now involves numerous countries from throughout the world presenting works based upon a selected theme. The theme of this years Biennale was ‘Palazzo Enciclopedico’ (The Encyclopedic Palace) ... “the desire to know and understand everything, a desire that recurs throughout the history of art” and not surprisingly the interpretation of that theme would vary enormously as we were to discover. With each country displaying their contribution in either the central exhibition halls or in their own purpose built pavilions spread over two sites, the exhibition would take many hours to view. So Jules and I prepared ourselves for a very big day and joined one of the queues that form early each day throughout the duration the Biennale (June to November), resulting in an attendance that regularly tops 300,000.

We began in The Giardini (The Gardens), which provided a leafy environment quite unlike anywhere else in Venice. Here, set amongst the trees is the large Central Pavilion as well as 30 other permanent national pavilions, each different in size and design. The grounds were spacious and on a warm summers day Jules and I enjoyed just wandering between venues in anticipation of what the next country might have to offer. Of course we patriotically sought out the Australian pavilion and while being a little confused about the work on display, we were particularly impressed by the contemporary nature of the exhibition space itself, complete with a retractable roof. We were also interested in the way each country chose to mount their exhibition. Some presented several artists who each interpreted the theme, while others simply chose to display only one large-scale work. Several other pieces combined elements of performance, with other works encouraging the interactivity of the viewer. Jules became involved with an installation by Russian artist Vadim Zakharov that consisted of a shower of gold coins falling three storeys high through the floors of the pavilion to the basement below to form a large pile of money on the ground. From here, only woman viewers (this is were Jules comes in) were invited to pick up a handful of the coins and place them into a bucket to be manually cranked back up by a man to the top so that the coins could shower down once again. Fortunately an umbrella was provided so that Jules could avoid being stoned to death by the force of the falling coins but otherwise it was all good fun, visually interesting and somehow managed to combine a vaguely cryptic social message.

Later we would head over to the second major site at The Arsenale (the original Venetian arsenal built in the 12th century) where the creative output continued. Here the works on display were even more adventurous with several exhibits combining film and audiovisual elements that often jarred our senses. While many of these were popular, we much preferred the more contemplative pieces such as those displayed in the Indonesian pavilion (their first ever contribution to the Biennale) that included a mystical piece by Albert Yonathan Setyawan entitled ‘Cosmic Labyrinth: The Silent Path’. Here under subdued lighting, a simple ceramic form had been repeated then positioned on the floor to create a visually evocative sculptural installation that perfectly reflected both its culture of origin and the title of the piece. Jules on the other hand was drawn to the sight and aroma of the floor installation of Sonia Falcona in the Latin American pavilion entitled ‘Campo de Color’, that consisted of hundreds of clay pots filled with colourful spices. I also particularly enjoyed viewing all 50 chapters of the ‘The Book of Genesis’ by Robert Crumb (one of my illustrative heroes) and I had to admire the way in which he tackled such an unlikely subject matter, taking him four years to complete the illustrations.

We had begun the day at 10.00am and walked out of the final pavilion at 6.00pm … it had been a marathon day, but one that was quite unforgettable. Like most art exhibitions, you are not expected to like all of the works that you encounter. Each has its own individual resonance and that’s what makes viewing contemporary art such a fascinating experience. The art works that we had viewed throughout the day had impressed us, inspired us, amused us, unsettled us, shocked us, entertained us and confused us, but they certainly didn’t disappoint. I had written copious notes on a small pad and had taken many photographs (it’s wonderful that the Biennale allows you to do that), so there was plenty for me to take away from the experience and eventually share with my students. The Venice Biennale had been a celebration of creativity that I was thankful to have experienced at least once.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

A Pilgrimage of Faith and Food

Umbria is a fascinating region of Italy that continues to attract visitors from all over the world for all sorts of reasons. For Jules and myself, it was its inescapable beauty and of course its great food and wine, but for others a journey to Umbria is much more of a religious pilgrimage. Indeed, the Christian faith here remains one of the most potent symbols of the region, evident in its incredible number of churches and its wealth of paintings and frescoes created during the peak period of the Renaissance. Of course, in the end all these factors begin to somehow overlap once you visit some of its major towns. Whether you are a Christian or not, you cannot fail to be impressed by its aesthetic contribution to the arts, while the link to the religion of gastronomy is also pretty hard to avoid. This was certainly our impression when we visited two of the more famous sacred towns of Umbria located not too far away from our home-base of Spoleto.

Assisi was about a 45 minute train ride away and offered us an opportunity to visit one of the prettiest and most significant religious towns in the country. As the birthplace of St. Francis and home of the Franciscan Order that he founded, Assisi is regarded as the most visited Catholic site outside of the Vatican. Upon our arrival we could see the old township of Assisi sitting high on the hill, distinguishable by the rows of arches that form the Basilica. In 1997 the walled city was hit by two devastating earthquakes, causing considerable damage to its historic buildings, requiring much repair work to be done in the preceding years. As we entered through the giant arches and made our way up the hill, we could clearly see the dedicated efforts of artisans in bringing the town back to its former glory. While the restoration is impeccable, we thought that it had tended to take away much of the patina of age, giving the town an almost ‘theme park’ quality. This feeling was further accentuated when we caught sight of coach loads of visitors descending upon the town and with that, the inevitable array of tourist stores that line its streets.

I’m not quite sure what the collective word for nuns is … Google suggested a flap of nuns, a convert of nuns, a gaggle of nuns and even a Whoopi of nuns! Whatever it is, there certainly seemed to be a lot of nuns in town visiting the various sites. It’s was clearly apparent that in the world of saints, St. Francis was indeed a superstar, attracting many faithful followers through his love of nature and animals. However, he is actually only one of the seven saints associated with Assisi, so there was plenty here to attract the nuns. Groups wearing the habit of their denomination could be seen wandering the streets throughout the town, admiring the churches, soaking up the history and picking up the odd souvenir. While we didn’t linger quite as long, Jules and I also weaved our way through the lanes, working our way upward to eventually reach the medieval castle called Rocca Maggiori. From this imposing building we were rewarded with the best vantage point to admire the town and the beautiful surrounding countryside.

Like most Umbrian towns, Assisi prides itself upon its homemade pasta, locally produced olive oil and truffles. There are also some particularly nice locally made wines and beers. However, the Franciscan monks have generally been reluctant to get themselves too involved in its production, leaving that enterprise to the Benedictine monks down the road in the nearby town of Norcia. Here, in the birthplace of St. Benedict, the monks have long been supported by their production of wine and beer and over the years they have developed some rather refined skills in that area. More recently they established a commercial brewery to produce a beer called ‘Birra Nursia’ that continues this centuries old tradition. In the name of research, we managed to sample a drop over lunch and it was certainly comparable with the best Belgian beers.

Norcia is much smaller than Assisi and has nowhere near the tourist traffic. It is located in a beautifully picturesque hilly location, which was easily accessible to Jules and I by bus. While for some a pilgrimage here means a visit to the birthplace of the Benedictine Order, for Jules it was the lure of the town’s reputation for cheese and pork products. The area is also well known for the quality of its truffles and the hunting of wild boar, which eventually finds its way into prized sausages and salami. The products produced here are so popular that they are shipped far and wide, providing a very sustainable industry for the towns folk. In fact the two major laneways in the old town are lined with little shops referred to as ‘Norciarias’ that are crammed with cured meat products hanging from their rafters and the overwhelming smell of cheese emanating into the streets.

In the centre of the town is the main piazza where a statue of St. Benedict takes pride of place and at one stage, we stepped into the town hall where several photos from the 1800’s reveal how little the town had actually changed over the years. I imagine that going back even further it would have looked pretty much the same as it did in the 13th century when the original monastery was first built and indeed why should it change! This is a sleepy little town with long established routines and traditions providing a lifestyle that would be difficult to improve upon. From the point of view of outsiders such as us, it seemed that the town’s folk had managed to get it right a long time ago. They had recognized that the secret to a good life could be found by simply providing sustenance for the spirit and for the stomach and who can argue with that!

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

A Close Shave in Spoleto

If you have to shave, you can’t beat a shave from an Italian barber! This is something that Jules has heard me say often over and over. However, I must admit that the statement was actually based upon my one and only experience of having my then youthful stubble shaved by an old Italian barber back in Adelaide over 35 years ago. This satisfying and somewhat precarious experience with the cut-throat razor was so memorable that I have been espousing the qualities of the Italian barbering profession ever since. This all came to mind once again when we were walking through the market square of Spoleto and spied a traditional Italian barber shop or ‘barbiere’ as they are called in Italy. Here was the perfect opportunity for me to once again experience the deft hand of a master barber and hopefully confirm what I have been spouting about for all these years.

After a few days of cultivating my now graying stubble, I was all ready to tackle the ‘big shave’ when Jules and I headed into town to visit the local barbiere. Jules was there to not only see what all the fuss was about, but to help with the Italian language, as mine can only be described as rubbish! However as she soon found out, she was about to set foot into one of the few strictly male domains left in town. As we walked into the shop, it was like stepping back into the 1950’s with a couple of old-fashioned barber chairs placed on a decoratively patterned terrazzo floor. In one of the chairs there was an older gentleman having the finishing snips to his haircut by the elderly barber, who was immaculately presented in the white coat of his profession. Along the back wall was a row of low-slung tubular steel chairs in which a couple of similarly older men were reading their newspapers. As we parted the string tassels that hung over the doorway, everything appeared to stop. Newspapers were lowered as it became clear that not only was this new customer a stranger to town, but he was also accompanied by a woman!!

With all ears listening, Jules explained in Italian that the scruffy looking character standing alongside her was actually her husband who desperately needed a shave. With a half smile, the barber pointed to the waiting chairs and said ‘un momento’. At this stage I thought that it might take quite a bit longer than a minute considering that there were two other customers also waiting, but I was wrong. It seems that the old guys reading their newspapers were actually just in the shop to hangout, get away from their wives and/or generally observe the comings and goings of the town. A foreigner visiting the barbiere seemed quite amusing to them and would obviously provide something different to talk about over the pasta at lunch.

With the previous customer completed and the necessary small talk over, it was now my turn step up. However, I had forgotten that here they were running on Italian time, where everything appears to work in slow and casual motions. So as I waited, there was a leisurely sweep of the floor, careful dusting of the chair and a timely re-organising of the tools of the trade, all done at a pace that belies the fast paced world that most non-Italians now live. For me this was somewhat reassuring, as I sensed that the same slow and careful approach might also be applied to the use of the cut-throat razor and that was fine by me! All in good time I found myself sitting back in the chair and having my face lathered up with a soft hog hair shaving brush to form a thick foamy beard. Then with the raise of an arm, much like a conductor would do when about to signal the initial notes of a symphony, he began. After the first few swipes of the razor I could clearly tell that here was a professional at work. The angle of the blade, the steadiness of hand and the lack of hesitation suggested years of experience. My stubbly bristles were quickly erased as he confidently maneuvered his way around the contours of my face with the sharpest of blades in hand. With a final soothing balm applied, it was all over and as I felt the smoothness of my chin, it felt just as smooth as I had remembered it from all those years ago.

While it had been a little intimidating at first, the barber and his customers had quickly gathered that we were visiting his little shop as a gesture of admiration for his skills and they were very patient to indulge our curiosity. Although our Italian small talk was somewhat limited, we were gushingly complementary to him for his handiwork … bellissimo! He in turn had asked where we were from … ‘Australia’ we replied … ‘ah Australia’ he said, although it probably could have been Mars as far as he was concerned. Anywhere outside the ancient walls of Spoleto would likely seem like another world to him. While I would have liked to explain to him about my motivation for visiting, it would have been undoubtedly lost in translation. So in the end I will just have to be satisfied in being able to reiterate to anyone who’ll listen … you simply can’t beat a shave from an Italian barber!

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Our House in Umbria

In 2003, author William Trevor published a novella called ‘My House in Umbria’ that was later produced into a tele-movie staring Maggie Smith. The film was highly successful and received a host of Emmy awards. However more significantly, the spin-off from all this publicity was that it suddenly resulted in a much greater awareness of Umbria. Up until then this relatively small region of Italy had tended to be overlooked, being somewhat overshadowed by nearby Tuscany, which had provided the idyllic setting for so many popular books and movies. The fact is that Umbria was always just as picturesque as Tuscany and to anyone other than the Italians, it had tended to remain a hidden treasure. Having spent a little time in Tuscany a few years ago, we were now keen to discover a little bit more about Umbria for ourselves. So Jules set about finding a little house where we could base ourselves while exploring the region and also allow us to experience just a taste of Umbrian life.

The most obvious choice was the regional capital of Umbria, Perugia. As we were to discover later, it is a very picturesque old town that sits high on a hill, with an impressive array of grand buildings and chapels overlooking the beautiful Umbrian countryside. Its central piazza is wide and impressive with a large central fountain in the centre that looks much like a very large wedding cake. Perugia is essentially a university town that attracts students from all around the world and as a result it is quite large with more modern suburbs stretching out from its centre. While it certainly had some appeal, we thought that it might be a little too big for us and as it turned out it was. We were looking for a town that was smaller, a little more intimate and with the original classical architectural features you would expect in this part of the world but with some of the more modern conveniences. Somewhere that was a bit like us … with a love for good food, fine wine and a healthy appreciation for the arts … in other words, the perfect Italian town! Not surprisingly, Jules with her exhaustive research managed to find just such a place … Spoleto!

Having selected the town, the next trick was trying to find the best place to stay. Fortunately Jules managed to find a little gem! Set on several acres and tucked away on the hillside overlooking the town was a rustic little house that was simply advertised as an ‘artists retreat’. From here we could enjoy the stunning views and find a touch of isolation in the Italian countryside, while still being within easy walking distance to the town … perfetto! It was only shortly before our arrival that we learnt a little more about the significance of this particular house which would further add to its appeal. It turns out that it had once been the residence of the celebrated American abstract artist Sol LeWitt who had moved to Italy during the 1980’s. He had clearly been attracted to this town not only for its beauty but also by its progressive acceptance to modern art. During the early 1960’s another great artist Alexander Calder had set the trend by building and donating an enormous sculptural piece entitled ‘Teodelapio’, which still stands like a large black sentinel in front of the railway station. Later in 1967 the progressive American designer Buckminster Fuller also visited to supervise the construction of what he called the ‘Spoletosphere’, which was a work based upon his theories of geodesic dome construction. Over the years many other modern sculptures have appeared in and around the town, often providing a stunning contrast to the backdrop of classical renaissance architecture. Of course Spoleto’s association with the arts has not just been limited to the fine arts and it certainly was way ahead of it’s time during the 1950’s in establishing a world renowned music festival that still continues to draw big crowds to this day.

So it was with much anticipation that we finally arrived in Spoleto in the height of summer, although you wouldn’t have known it looking at the green shades of the countryside. The house and the town was everything that we had imagined. Both had the type of character and beauty that only seems to come with age and having witnessed numerous significant passages of history. The elevated views of the town were quite something, as were the outlooks provided by the walking trails at the back of the house that took us up through the woods to the tiny town of Monteluca. Another well worn track led us down toward Spoleto itself, where we would cross the 13th century aqueduct (an engineering marvel in itself) and past the imposing Rocco Albornoziana Fortress, both of which look particularly evocative at night under lights.

In the town the excitement of its annual music festival had subsided and life was now settling back into its regular laid back mode. At this time of year there were far fewer tourists and those who did come were quite happy to just marvel at its celebrated frescoes or wander the streets photographing the many picturesque laneways. For Jules the attraction was, as always, the food. There was an outstanding range of restaurants where the local pasta specialty ‘strangozzi’ could be washed down with a deep red Sagrantino wine from nearby Montefalco. She particularly enjoyed the freshly carved ‘porchetta’ on baked bread, as well the overwhelming selection of cured meats. This is also the home of the prized black truffle, which seemed to be added to just about every dish, much like we would use salt or pepper. Naturally the gelati also figured prominently during our many walks around the town, although we never did manage to work our way through all the flavours.

Some days we wouldn’t even leave the house, but would be quite satisfied to just live the life of ‘would be Italians’. Inspired by freshly bought produce and some newfound knowledge about cooking truly authentic Italian dishes, Jules would enthusiastically take to the kitchen. I on the other hand, would head for the garden to paint, inspired by both the setting and the creative energy that the house itself provided. Our time in Spoleto would be all too brief, only three weeks, but so eminently memorable. We will no doubt reminisce about the time we spent here for many years to come and I suspect that we will not be able to resist the temptation of referring to the place in which we stayed as ‘our house in Umbria’.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Capri and Cool Breezes

While there is no doubt that the Amalfi Coast has one of the most spectacular coastlines in the world, it’s really all about the water! So clear and the colour of Persian Blue, everyone who visits in the heat of summer are overcome with the immediate urge to either get in it, get on it or enjoy the cool breezes that come off it! Along the coast, thousands crowd tiny beaches while slightly off shore, hundreds of boats take to the water to enjoy Amalfi’s waters. We had already been out to sea once since arriving, but we were keen to find another excuse to further enjoy the Mediterranean, so what better way than to take the boat over to the renowned island of Capri that lay just over 30 minutes away.

Having been on board quite a tiny craft a few days before, we were quite surprised by the size of the boat that would be taking us over to the island. Clearly its large capacity was an indication of the amount of people that normally head over to Capri during the summer months, so we began to brace ourselves for the type of tourist onslaught that is normally reserved for major Italian holiday hotspots. Fortunately, in the end the boat was well below capacity by the time we departed Positano, so we could position ourselves nicely along the gunwale to enjoy the views and of course the cooling sea breezes. As we powered along, we skirted the three small rugged looking islands collectively called ‘Li Galli’ that apparently have a history dating back to ancient times. It was here that mythical sirens were said to lure sailors with their beauty and lilting voices, causing boats to be shipwrecked onto the rocks. More recently the islands have became famous for being once owned by Rudolf Nureyev, proving that not only was he a great ballet dancer, but also had a keen eye for breathtaking real estate.

As we approached Capri, I must admit to being slightly under whelmed. Despite its reputation as one of the playgrounds of the rich and famous, it provided nowhere near the same visual impact of Positano and other towns along the Amalfi coast. When I made this remark to Jules she reminded me that what I was actually looking at was the port and the real town of Capri was to be found high up in the hills above. The port itself was all that we were expecting with hordes of tourists and tacky souvenir shops. Queues seemed to be everywhere … for the funicular heading up the hill, for novel open-top taxis, for tiny buses that tour the island, for boat trips to the famed ‘Blue Grotto’ and for other boats heading back on the water to get away from all the chaos.

As recently experienced hikers, we thought that we might provide the exception to the rule by actually getting to the town of Capri by following the 20-minute walking trail that leads you up the hill. Amazingly, we were pretty much by ourselves! So by the time the other visitors below had reached the head of their queues, we were already there, a little puffed but fitter for the experience. Just as it was below, the town was very busy but to be fair, it was a whole lot nicer. There was clearly a touch of sophistication here with narrow alleys filled with quaint Italian buildings converted into all manner of high end shopping. Restaurants were abound, each proudly displaying photographs of the various high profile celebrities who had previously dined there. Considered to be somewhat of a fashion centre, Capri boasts an extensive range of boutiques for the style conscious, as long as you are prepared to wear either white, off white or a pale shade of beige as these colours seem to be the official uniform of the well healed.

Like many such places we have visited in the past, Capri had everything but seemed to lack something! It was like looking into a glossy picture book world that wasn’t quite real ... a little too manufactured for our liking. What we thought might suit us better would be the nearby Anacapri, only a short distance away. This is often unfairly considered to be the down market version of Capri and over the years has tended to live in the shadow of its more famous neighbor. So being a little too far to walk, we boarded a bus for one of the most hair raising 10 minute trips of our lives. With narrow winding roads traversing steep cliffs and with an almost vertical drop below, there were quite a few audible gasps from the passengers. It seemed that disaster was imminent with every turn, possibly resulting in a repeat of the final scene from the movie ‘The Italian Job’ … but somehow we made it!

Anacapri had a totally different atmosphere from where we had just been. It was much smaller, with far less crowds and was decidedly less pretentious. We sensed that in all the hype that revolved around Capri, such smaller towns had all but been forgotten, yet as a community they were desperately trying to jump on board the tourist bandwagon having seen its obvious economic benefits. It was quiet and gentle in comparison; an ideal place for a gelato and a pleasant stroll before heading back to the chaos of the port.

Indeed by the time we had made it back by late afternoon, the scene was even more manic than we had experienced earlier. Day-trippers such as us were by now all converging back to the boats and clambering to get themselves back to the mainland. So there was a slight sense of relief when our boat (much fuller than when we arrived) finally upped anchor and began to set sea bound for Positano. It had been an interesting and enjoyable visit, despite all the crowds. Jules and I were glad to have experienced Capri, as it is one of those much talked about places that we felt had to be seen. As we bounced along on the afternoon swell, holding our hats and admiring the coastal view as our boat pushed into the wind, we knew that this was one of those travel episodes that would remembered as much for the trip as the destination.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

The Walk of the Gods

I’m not sure whether it’s our recent desire to experience the great outdoors or the thought of those extra kilos we have put on while tasting the local cuisine, but Jules and I have found ourselves doing quite a bit of hiking of late. We are certainly not seasoned trail blazers by any means, but the challenge of a good climb, the possibility of some scenic views and the promise of a beer at the end is normally enough to get us interested. Such was the case when Jules suggested that we might like to tackle the much talked about trek from Positano (via Nocelle) to Bomerano, which goes by the intriguing title of ‘The Walk of the Gods’. Now, we have both been traveling long enough to be a little wary of grand titles given to certain walking trails … sometime the hype can overshadow the actual trek. However, as we had already experienced some of the breathtaking views from the cliff tops overlooking the Amalfi coast, we looked forward to this particular walk in anticipation of the amazing sights it might offer.

With seemingly endless days of 30+ degree temperatures, we knew that we would have to begin the walk quite early in the day … a feat easier said than done when you’ve slipped into holiday mode! However, with the mountains above Positano still in shadows, we began the initial climb to Nocelle. We had been warned that this part of the walk would possibly be the most testing, as it consisted of a very steep series of steps winding up the cliff face. Well, when I say a ‘series’ of steps, what I really mean is an ‘awful lot’ of steps! It was a few days later, with our muscles still feeling the pain, that we found out that the actual total number of steps covering the 400 metres upward was over 1700! It took us 45 minutes and was a very testing way to begin. So with a certain degree of satisfaction, we sat down for a minute in a small piazza in Nocello, guzzling water and looking back down toward Positano that sat far below.

Our initial plan for the 7 kilometre walk was to see how we felt after an hour or two and if the going was getting too tough, we would simply turn back, but having come this far we just knew we would have to press on. Although we weren’t right at the top of the mountain range we were pretty close, on a trail that seemed to thread its way along the very edge of its rocky ridges. Occasionally the track would dip back into dark leafy valleys then emerge once again to reveal spectacular views of the Amalfi coastline and beyond. Gradually we began to see more walkers, but they were all heading in the opposite direction than us! It seemed that they might have been more aware of those steps from Positano to Nocelle than we had been and had chosen for the more favorable down hill option to finish their journey rather than at the start.

As we pressed on, we came across the occasional deserted stone ‘rustico’ and wondered whether some folks might have been totally seduced by such an amazing outlook, only to forget about the problems associated with inaccessibility of the location. True, the views did seem to get better and better the further we progressed and we could well see the temptation to build up there. Even when the trail turned inland on the final stretch, we could see evidence of small dwellings carved into the cliff face itself, looking like something straight from the days of the ancient Aztecs. Those who had somehow managed to eke out an existence at these lofty heights had over the years carved staggered tiers into the hillsides on which grapes, olives, lemons and corn seemed happy to grow.

After four hours of walking and a little leg weary, Jules and I finally wandered into Bomerano. Unlike the tourist towns down by the coast, this was by comparison a sleepy little place. It was well into lunchtime by now and most of the businesses were closed. All was quiet except for a few old men sitting on chairs in the piazza, discussing life as Italian men do, while watching the young men set up what looked like a small performance stage for the evenings entertainment. Jules and I bypassed them all and headed straight to the pub to enjoy the coldest glass of Peroni Beer we could buy … boy, did it taste good! With drinks in hand we also took up a seat overlooking the piazza to observe the scene and to contemplate our hiking achievement.

As we savored our icy cold drinks, we observed other venturers preparing to tackle the trek in the reverse direction. By now the heat of the day had well and truly settled in and although we didn’t envy what they were about to physically endure, we knew that they would be amply rewarded for their efforts, as we had been for ours. ‘The Walk of the Gods’ had well and truly lived up to its grand name and reputation as one of Italy’s great walks. However, at this point we were more than happy to conveniently take the bus back to Positano where it had all began.

Friday, 26 July 2013

The Captain & The Coast of Amalfi

With anticipation and a touch of car sickness, we finally arrived in Positano. It was so good to leave the grime and congestion of Naples behind us and to break out into the countryside to eventually catch sight of the spectacular coastline of the Amalfi coast. Even though the narrow winding roads had some effect on Jules’ stomach, she was more than pleased that getting there had gone so smoothly. The place she had chosen for us to stay was not in Positano itself, but sat high on the cliffs facing the picturesque township, so it appeared to us daily much as it does on countless post cards, only better!

It was of course the height of summer, so we were anticipating huge crowds when we eventually made it into town. However, to our surprise it was relatively quiet, as foreign and Italian visitors alike had by that time taken up their position on the neatly lined rows of sun beds along the beach and most of the charter boats had already set off for the day. So, while local restaurants prepared their tables for the lunch time trade and the local shops owners hung out there tourist tempting trinkets, Jules and I wandered around the narrow streets taking it all in. It is hard to imagine such a picturesque coastal spot, with pastel coloured buildings staggering their way up the cliffs to overlook the azure waters of the Mediterranean. Having provided a backdrop to such movies as ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’ and ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’, Positano has developed a worldwide reputation as the place to visit to experience a true Italian summer.

With memories of driving the coastal roads still fresh in our minds, we decided that the only way to see the rest of the Amalfi coast was by water. So the next day we booked ourselves onto one of the many smaller charter boats that head down the coast daily for a touch of swimming, sightseeing, eating and drinking… all the ingredients for a perfect day! Our tiny wooden boat was captained by Salvatore, an old Italian seafarer who was as tanned as an old sandal and with a cheeky sense of humor that comes with having one of the best jobs in the world! As we chugged along the coast, Salvatore would regale us with tales about the various coastal features and significant buildings we were seeing along the way. When he wasn’t doing that, he was handing out drinks or entertaining us with his repertoire of classic Italian songs. When he sensed that we were getting a little hot, he would drop anchor at a picturesque spot so that we could cool off in the crystal clear waters. One of these stops was at a secret ‘grotto’ where we could swim inside a cave to view the jade green waters. This spot was nowhere near as famous as the ‘Blue Grotto’ on nearby Capri, but it also didn’t have the tourist traffic either, so we could totally enjoy the experience alone.

Although we had been slowly meandering down the coast, it was early afternoon by the time we reached the actual town of Amalfi. This was quite a bit larger than Positano with a harbour bustling with boats, coaches and cars transporting tourists to and from the various scenic spots surrounding this famous town. It all seemed a little too hectic for us and at that point we knew we had made the right choice in basing ourselves near Positano. Salvatore also thought it was a bit too busy and as he was starting to think about lunch, he chose to turn the boat around and head back a little way up the coast to a tiny spot called Santa Croce Beach. Here we would enjoy a wonderfully traditional Italian meal complete with enough courses to see most of our small band of fellow sailors strung out on the deck like beached whales for the return journey home.

Today’s lunch was indeed bigger than normal with the addition of yet another course to the menu compliments of Salvatore, who had managed to catch a large fish (around 3 foot long) earlier in the morning and had brought it to the chef to cook and share. While each course just kept on coming, Salvatore managed to pace himself nicely, after all he was used to such banquet meals, indulging in them almost daily. In between explaining various dishes, how to eat the large local lemons and introducing himself to fellow diners, he managed a few mouthfuls of each course, then nicely broke it up with a glass of vino. This probably explains why he was in such fine singing voice on the way home as he stood at the stern of the boat steering the rudder with his foot. He had clearly had yet another great day and so had we!

In Captain Salvatore’s little wooden boat we had experienced all that the Amalfi coast had to offer compacted into just one day. Through his conviviality, the scenery and the sea air (not to mention the food and wine) Jules and I had momentarily tasted ‘La Dolce Vita’ and I’ve got to say it wasn’t half bad! It may sound a little cliché, but there is something in this intoxicating mix that repeatedly entices Italians, foreigners and romantics of the world back here each summer.