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’.