Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Bellissimo Bellagio

If this post seems a little disjointed in places, maybe a little breathless, please accept my apologies in advance. The thing is, even a good two months after I left Bellagio, and despite having been to some pretty amazing places since (I'm writing this, in fact, on the return flight from Bermuda, about which more to come), just thinking about my time there has got me nearly as giddy with excitement as I was when I was there. What started as a casual suggestion by Matty, aka My Eldest, that while in Italy I try to fit in a visit to Sarah, his old school friend and my erstwhile drinking buddy and now a successful bar-owner and restaurateur - "You can't go to Italy and not see Lake Homo, Mother!" - turned into an unexpected joy, and saw me fall completely in love with the place. I'll try to keep things eloquent, but if I use the words 'gorgeous', 'super', 'fabulous' and 'amazing' even more than usual, please indulge me this once. I'm also really struggling to just think how to distil into words the wonderful experience I had; how to do justice not just to the place but to the people, the sights, the good times. I think what I'll do is try to cover some of the broad themes of what I want you to know about my time in Bellagio, a tiny jewel of a town on the shores of Lake Como in the very north of Italy, and then fill in some of the detail later or as I go along.

Let me begin by telling you about how beautiful Bellagio actually, let me begin by telling you how beautiful getting to Bellagio is. Once out of the grey suburbs of Milan, the view from the train is of countryside, then soon after of the Alps, and then within only about half an hour, of beautiful Lake Como itself, its lush wooded banks and calm water framed by the mountains beyond. The closer view of this which greets you on arrival at Varenna-Essino, the nearest station to Bellagio, is breath-taking (I let out an involuntary 'Oh my God' as I stepped onto the platform) and even the station itself is attractive, set on a hill above the town amid neatly planted flowerbeds. From there it's only a short, downhill stroll to the lakeside ferry terminal; the journey to Bellagio takes just fifteen minutes, all of them pure joy as you admire the candy-coloured villas which punctuate the lush greenery. Finally, as you dock at the little jetty right on the front street of the town, you're greeted by the sight of a neat row of chi-chi boutiques, pretty cafes and elegant hotels, all with more than a hint of a slightly older, much more refined world, cocooned from the dirt, violence and vulgarity of modern life.

Bellagio is essentially made up of little more than two main streets – the one on the lakefront, the other a few dozen metres up and away on a slight gradient – linked to each by a half dozen or so narrow salite, flights of gently graduated cobbled steps. The front street widens out at one end into a town square of sorts, off of which runs a road to the Lido; the upper street has a church at either end and leads to a small park. Both streets and most of the salite are peppered with shops, both practical and decorative, and places to eat and drink from little gelaterias to gourmet restaurants, and that's about it. No cinema, no supermarket, and certainly no fucking Starbucks. It's simply gorgeous.

Also absolutely gorgeous, and a major contributing factor to my having such a great time, was the Hotel Bellagio where I stayed. Recommended and booked by My Eldest (the booking part during a hilariously camp three-way phone conversation between Matty, Mario at the hotel and myself, conducted for my part from outside La Rinascenta in Milan during a ten-minute time out from the spritz bitches), the Hotel Bellagio far exceeded my expectations given the price and was a truly delightful bolthole for my two nights. Having heaved my suitcase up the 28 steps of salita Grandi to the reception (I couldn't grumble, as in fairness I had been forewarned of the climb), I was checked in and escorted to my fourth floor room. To save the €30/night difference in price I'd opted for a 'side lake view' rather than 'lake view' room, so I was thoroughly chuffed when the first thing I noticed on entering the room was the amazing view. On a top-floor corner of the building, from one side - through the fabulous, electric windows - the view was of the town and its terracotta rooftops, and from the other, with the remote control shutters raised, I could see a very substantial way out across Lake Como even if, admittedly, it was side on. No matter, it was a spectacular vista, jaw-droppingly beautiful, and perfectly set off by the cool, neutral decor of the room from whence I stood gawping.

The gawping didn't last long, however, as Sarah was enjoying a rare day off and had requested the pleasure of my company for afternoon drinks (it was way too early for aperitivi but she'd wangled some anyway), conveniently choosing Bar Rossi at the foot of my salita. "I'm not sure I'll recognise her," I'd told Matty, having not seen her for a few years; "Don't worry, Mother," he'd reassured me, "for one thing she hasn't changed a bit, and for another, if you just look for the girl effing and blinding loudly in English you'll find her." How right he was, for there at a pavement table, cursing away in finest Anglo-Saxon, was a completely unchanged Sarah, sipping cocktails in the glorious sunshine with a couple of friends...I needed no persuasion whatsoever to join this happy group; a Campari and Soda was ordered and the fun began.

Sarah's friends – who for the record, I now firmly count as being also mine – were Siobhan and Grant, a British couple who over the course of many years holidaying in Bellagio had become good friends with Sarah and her Italian boyfriend, Aurelio (who joined us after a couple of hours, by which stage we were all approaching two-thirds cut). You'll all have met friends-of-friends with whom you instantly just get along, and this was certainly the case with Siobhan and Grant. I've rarely met a couple so simultaneously chilled-out and warm-hearted – within fifteen minutes of my sitting down they'd invited me to join them for dinner that evening – and the four of us got to talking about any and everything from the best of Bellagio, to engagement rings, to Take That, to handbags...the usual sort of stuff, made all the more congenial by the beautiful weather (my arrival coincided with one of the hottest and sunniest days of August) and an uninterrupted flow of cocktails and nibbles. Siobhan and Grant excused themselves after a while to return to their flat to rest before dinner; Sarah and I should have done likewise but instead pushed on through until it was time to go for dinner (and in fact a little after it was time to go for dinner) and wove our way tipsily straight to La Punta, a gorgeous lakeside eatery boasting sweeping views across Lake Como. Dinner was a highly congenial affair, our party made up to seven by Siobhan and Grant's lovely, funny daughter, her best friend who was lucky enough to be holidaying with them, and Aurelio, a surprise addition given that he had been due to work that night. The food was heavenly (my main course of a delicious veal chop in sage butter was made possible only by Grant generously sacrificing his after I – trying to show off my Italian – ordered fish by mistake!) and was washed down by bottle after bottle of superb wines including a Greco di Torro and a Brunello. Afterwards we staggered, somehow, back into the town, and drank cocktails into the wee small hours first al fresco at Bar Florence on the lakefront and then, after they'd chucked us out, at Sarah's own gorgeous bar, Aperitivo et Al. I completely ignored my own long-standing 'note to self' that I am not the same after three Martinis, and had four, all delicious, before excusing myself while I could still stand and see and making my way over the cobbles to the hotel and bed.

Next morning, I woke feeling far better than I deserved to given the previous night's excesses and after breakfast at the Bellagio (meagre pickings, but made thoroughly enjoyable by the lovely views towards the lake from the breakfast terrace) I headed out to explore the town. This took all of, oh, about eight minutes, but I did bump into a very hungover Sarah and made arrangements to drop by her bar for a drink later. I killed a couple of hours most enjoyably watching Sex and The City re-runs on the flatscreen in my hotel room, made all the more special by the gorgeous aroma of wood smoke wafting up from the forno a legna of the pizzeria several floors below being heated up for that evening. I made my way to Aperitivo et Al, where Sarah's staff made me very welcome, and decided to stop for lunch; my salad of rocket, parmesan and tomato was a perfect, fresh sharp foil to the hearty rusticity of my pizzochero, a fat, flat buckwheat pasta served with grana di Pardano (a hard cheese not unlike pecorino) and cabbage. Sarah warned me that this might cause 'rumbling' later, My Eldest having managed to set off a gas alarm in a rented apartment the last time he partook of this particular dish of roughage! On this basis I decided it might be wise to stay outdoors, so I took a long stroll along the front, past the town square and down to the Lido where I sat happily finishing Jessica Mitford's first volume of memoirs until it was time for aperitivi. For these I returned first to Bar Rossi (where, recognised from the day before, I was greeted like an old friend) and then moved along to Bar Florence, idling away the time writing postcards and speaking at length on the phone to Alyn who I wished intensely had been there to share the beauty of the day with me.

Dinner time was approaching and so I headed back to Sarah's bar; she was intending to join me for dinner at Aurelio's restaurant, custom at the bar permitting. For a Tuesday night it was unexpectedly busy, and thus so was Sarah, but I happily settled down at a corner table with a whopping glass of Muller di Alto Adige to wait optimistically for a lull. I love people watching anyway, but it was truly fascinating, and rewarding, to see Sarah in situ; charming her customers in several languages, not least her impressively fluent Italian, talking knowledgably about the many wines on offer (also all on sale to take away at bargain prices, if ever you're passing, plug plug) and managing the team and kitchen to ensure that everyone was kept happy. I certainly was. Fortunately, within a couple of hours the pace slackened and Sarah was able to get away; we didn't have far to go, as Aurelio's Trattoria San Giacomo is directly opposite the bar, and the patron had reserved us a much-in-demand pavement table. The setting could hardly be more gorgeous; right at the top of the salita, overlooked by the tall houses of the upper street, the Trattoria is a tiny, bustling place with about a dozen tables inside and half as many again on the terrace, all of which people happily wait their turn for either in Sarah's bar or seated on the top-most steps of the salita on brightly-coloured cushions taken from a huge wicker basket outside the restaurant. As for the food...oh, the food! I mean, I've had some pretty spectacular meals in my time, but this was truly something else. My starter of fusilli with speck and saffron was a rich, buttery, savoury bowlful of bliss, golden yellow from the strands of the rare precious spice stirred through it; our shared main course of tagliata di manzo – beef sirloin – was a melt-in-the-mouth mountain of gently seared rare beef served simply on a pile of rocket under which was a mouth-watering heap of steamed, buttered vegetables; and pudding, Marguerita's Chocolate Cake, made to Aurelio's mama Marguerita's top secret flourless recipe, was the kind of ambrosial pud that were I to ever find myself on Death Row – God forbid – I would order by the kilo for my last meal on this earth. Add to this a bottle of very good Italian red wine, the attentive service of Aurelio and his team, and the warm feeling that one gets from being the owner's very welcome guest, and it all made for one of the most enjoyable, delicious and memorable meals I've ever had – seriously. And I should also mention that during the course of all this, Grant dropped by to invite me for a farewell coffee at Rossi next morning: I had truly joined 'the Bellagio set'. After a nightcap across the road, I went to bed feeling I couldn't have been happier had George Clooney dropped by from his villa across the lake and tucked me in himself.

Waking the next morning I couldn't help but feel intensely sad that I was leaving that day, such was the extent to which I had fallen for Bellagio. But, there was no time for moping, as I had my coffee date to look forward to. I scoffed some breakfast (pocketing a couple of bananas for the train back to Milan later) and checked out of the hotel, taking myself and my suitcase down to Bar Rossi where Grant, Siobhan and after a little while, Sarah, all gathered to say arrivederci. Stories were shared, photos taken, and contact details exchanged, all with a pledge that our first time together in Bellagio wouldn't be our last. I boarded the boat to Varenna feeling really happy and loved, albeit sad to be leaving – for now. Finding the ticket office at the station closed for lunch, I made my way (as instructed by the notice on the locked door) to the Bar Albergo Beretta at the foot of the hill, where as well as buying my return ticket to Milan I enjoyed a slice of excellent pizza and a couple of ice-cold beers for all of about €9. When word got out among the staff – including a very-hot-indeed barman – that there was an inglese on the premises, it seemed that everyone came out to my table to chat, practise their English, ask me what I thought of their town and country and generally make me feel more welcome than I ever have in restaurants charging a ton a head. It was just so typical of my whole Bellagio experience and completely took the sting out of my departure.

My Italian adventures were drawing to a close but, as I mentioned to you before, my experience of Milan second time around made up for the disappointment of the first. Arriving at about 4pm and having checked in once again to the Hotel Ariston, it having served me so well before, I headed out to the shops and this time, joy of joys, they were actually open! First stop was Armani Manzoni, where in addition to admiring the beautifully conceived layout and displays I invested in some gorgeous evening trousers; I stopped for aperitivi al fresco at the Armani Caffe, which while looking a little tired and unloved compared to the rest of the building serves a mean Martini. From there it was on to Moschino, where to my own astonishment I was able to hold a conversation entirely in Italian regarding a cape from the A/W 08-09 collection which Andrew is lusting after and buy a t-shirt for Alyn, including requesting a style and size! I then moved on to the Dolce & Gabbana men's store, a surprisingly austere but nonetheless very beautiful warren of marble-floored, mirror-walled rooms over four floors housing their complete collection and a surfeit of chisel-jawed staff with nothing much to do (I also checked out the Martini Bar but finding it practically empty, didn't stop for long.) I filled a very exciting couple of hours checking out all these temples to high fashion that I'd been denied the pleasure of exploring just a few days before, and it was every bit as good as I'd hoped it would be. While London may boast some of the finest shopping in the world, even the designer flagships of Bond, Sloane and Mount Streets have nothing on the sheer glamour of the Quadrilatero d'Oro. Finally,on the way back to the hotel, I stopped by the beautiful Pasticerria Fratelli Freni and picked up a half-dozen marzipan fruits, from the finest and most, well, fruit-like selection I've ever seen, for my soon-to-be brother-in-law who loves the things. Hungry from all the retail excitement, I dined at Pizzeria Naturale, an organic, bio-dynamic pizzeria on Corso Genova, where despite suffering from the combined heat of a wood-fired oven and no air-con, I thoroughly enjoyed my pizza Valdostana and half-bottle of Corvo di Sicilia. I left the next morning, walking the short distance from the Ariston to the station to catch the express train to Malpensa and feeling much more sympathetic towards Milan than after my initial bum-note visit.

During the journey home – again taking in a couple of hours in heavenly Zurich Airport – I reflected with immense fondness on my fortnight in Italy, but most particularly on my time in bellissimo Bellagio. Since getting back, Siobhan has been in touch to say that there's a possibility they'll be fitting in a little visit next April; if anywhere will give you odds, you can bet your bottom euro I'll be there too.

Friday, 24 October 2008

Taking It Milan-easy

I hadn’t originally planned on visiting Milan next; I’d intended for it to be my last stop as my flight home was booked from there. I’d had an idea to move on to Venice after Florence, but when further research (which somehow I fitted in between all my Forster reading and art ogling) failed to find my two key travel requisites of 1) sensibly priced travel at sensible times and 2) a good central hotel, at least for the first night, I decided to save Venice for another time and look at other options. Before I’d left London, My Eldest had made the tantalising suggestion that while I was in Italy I fit in a visit to Bellagio, on the shores of Lake Como, to see his good friend and my sometime drinking pal Sarah – and a quick look at train timetables showed that Bellagio could be reached with ease and in hardly any time from Milan. Figuring that a weekend in Italy’s – some would argue the world’s – fashion capital would be rather more exciting than a weekend in a sleepy lakeside village, I decided to stop for a couple of nights in Milan en route to the Lakes; within a few clicks my hotel was booked and train times confirmed, and I was on my way.

Although marred as far as Bologna by two noisy brats belonging to parents who seemingly couldn’t have cared less about my discomfort, the train journey provided some beautiful views, firstly of Tuscan countryside, then the hills of Emilia-Romana and on into the clear green plains of Lombardy. Approaching Milan though, things aren’t so pretty, as scenery gives way to the grey urban sprawl that one would expect from what is, first and foremost, an industrial city. I hadn’t expected much of Milan architecturally anyway; no-one I’ve spoken to who’s been has been able to muster much enthusiasm for its aesthetics, instead extolling the virtues of the city’s two main attractions (certainly to me) of its world-beating shopping opportunities and vibrant social scene. So that was all I was expecting to do: shop and socialise.

Things started well when, having reached the Hotel Ariston by a combination of the Metro (as grimy as Rome's, but fast and cheap) and tram (fabulously rickety and retro) I found that it lived up to its description of being bright, central and modern. My single room was small but very comfortable, and being high up on the sixth floor had what I guess a creative travel agent would sell as 'Duomo glimpses'; I could just see the uppermost spires of Milan's wedding cake of a cathedral. I made that my first port of call; although I'd taken the tram from Duomo station to the hotel to save lugging my suitcase, it was only a very easy walk from the hotel so I wandered up via Torino and across the piazza to see inside. It wasn't amazing, to be frank; while from the outside the Duomo is pretty spectacular, its immense peaked roof a mass of over 100 spires and many hundreds of statues all topped with a golden Madonna (of the blessed Virgin variety, not Ciccone, though that would be fun...), inside it's rather gloomy, austere and repetitive although it does boast some impressive, monumental stained glass windows and the jewel-laden crypt (and corpse) of the 16th century zealot San Carlo Borromeo.

I moved on to my kind of place of worship, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele. Adjacent to the Duomo and accessed by a soaring, ornate archway, the Galleria comprises a vast cross-shaped arcade rising up four storeys to a beautiful domed glass ceiling. While certainly classy, it's an odd hotch-potch of shops; of the four prime corner spots at the centre where the two promenades meet, one each is occupied by Prada - the original 1913 store, no less - and Louis Vuitton, while the others are a McDonald's and a Mercedes-Benz store. Elsewhere there's a Gucci store which boasts the world's first Gucci Caffé, a Tod's, and various high-end outfitters, but there's also a dozen or so very run-of-the-mill book stores, CD shops and mobile phone retailers which detract from the Galleria's cachet. Largely however, what shops there were was academic, because with very few exceptions (Prada among them, joy of joys) everything in the Galleria was closed for a holiday. Slightly perturbed but still determined, I set off for the famed Quadrilatero d'Oro or 'Golden Square', the rectangular block of streets delineating one of the world's most exclusive shopping areas where the scores of designer flagships offer up goodies unavailable anywhere else in the world.

First was via Manzoni, home to the Armani megastore; occupying an entire block and housing not only every one of his lines from Emporio Armani down but also the Armani Caffé, florists, bookstore and chocolatier, as well as Armani/Nobu and a nightclub, Privé, with Armani Hotel coming soon: Closed. Then the length of via Montenapoleone, home to the likes of Ferragamo, Etro, several more Prada boutiques, a massive Gucci...closed. Left down via San'Andrea, for Ferre, Trussardi, Moschino, Chanel...Closed (and in the case of one of the only two shops, along with Prada, that I'd really wanted to see, the bonkers upside-down, Alice In Wonderland palazzo of Viktor & Rolf, closed down!) I'm guessing that by this point you can probably guess what I found on via della Spiga, destination address for the Dolce & Gabbana world flagship? Yes, all chiuso, to use an Italian word I learned the hard way. Surely there were other things to see and do, I hear you cry? Well frankly, not really; turning up in Milan on the weekend of Ferragosto (August Bank Holiday, if you like) is the fashion-lover's equivalent of seeing Pompeii on the only day it's up to its ass in molten lava. Window shopping is all well and good as a time-killer, but when you're in Milan with time on your hands and a platinum card burning a hole in your pocket only to find all the shops shut, well it's like that moment in every Indiana Jones movie where he gets his hands on the priceless treasure only for it to explode/melt/crumble to dust.

Gutted, but wanting to get something out of Milan, I ambled back to the hotel to consult my trusty guide books as to what else might be worth seeing, and was pleased to find that there were few points of interest nearby. The church of San Sebastiano on via Torino provided an enjoyable few minutes admiring its barrel shaped interior, and I was intrigued by the black-and-white columned confines of the piazza dei Mercanti, the mercantile hub of medieval Milan where trade has been carried out for over seven centuries (except, one assumes, during bloody Ferragosto...) By now it was time for some food, and just the right time of day to try out Milan's famous aperitivi culture. As with cañas in Madrid, so too do Milanese bars give away some tucker with early-evening drinks, but on a rather grander scale, and just across the corner from my hotel I chanced on Pan e Vino which offered a choice of drink (I plumped for a nice large glass of Gavi di Gavi) and all-you-can-eat from a heaving buffet of mostly meats and salads with some bruschetta, pasta and fresh fruit for good measure, for just €8. Now it's a well known fact that 'all you can eat' are my four favourite words in the English language, so you'll see that suddenly Milan was seeming a lot more attractive. Several platefuls, enjoyed at a terrace table, later, I waddled back to the hotel for an early night, pledging to sample the nightlife the following night.

Day 2 in Milan started well with a superb brekker in the hotel; although only the usual self-service continental type affair of cold meats, cheeses, pastries, fruit etc, pretty much everything on offer was organic and of very high quality, including some delicious jams and breads and, oh heaven, Twining's English Breakfast in the tea caddy. Fortified, I set out to explore some of Milan’s notable, non-retail based sights and in the course of a few hours walking took in a great deal. I began at the church of San Ambroglio (Ambrose), where the mummified remains of Milan’s patron saint are on display, along with two faithful crusaders, in an eerie, subterranean spot-lit glass sarcophagus. Together with some other interesting statues and chapels and a peaceful, high arcaded cloister, it made for a worthwhile visit. From there I went on to the church of Santa Maria della Grazie, home to Michelangelo’s Last Supper, but not having thought to make the absolutely essential advance booking to see the same (as far as supper bookings go you've got more chance of getting a Saturday table at The Fat Duck) I had to content myself with a nose round the nave.

Fancying some greenery, I skirted the Parco Sempione, which perfectly fits the part of ‘blissful oasis in the heart of the throbbing metropolis’, on the way taking in the landmark Torre Branca (I’ll take Wallpaper*’s word for it that the views from the top are great, my head for heights not being one of my stronger characteristics) and the looming medieval fortress of Castel Sforzesco. From here I strolled along via Dante – comparable to Oxford Street with its big mid-market stores, almost all closed, of course – coming out pretty much back where I’d started on piazza del Duomo. Here I was at least partially able to satisfy my urge to shop, as I found that La Rinascenta, whose ubiquitous paper carrier bags had caused me to write it off as being some sort of naff high street chain, was in fact a very swish department store, and my enjoyment of roaming the aisles of designer delights was dimmed only slightly by the unwelcome attentions in the fragrance hall of easily the most aggressive phalanx of spritz bitches that it’s ever been my misfortune to encounter. Running the gauntlet has nothing on D&G Light Blue vs. Dior Homme Higher Sport in this gaff, I’m telling you.

Dodging over-keen, over-tanned scent salespeople is hungry work, so having been impressed with my first visit, I took myself off back to Pan e Vino for the aperitivi buffet (the selection on which, pleasingly, was different from but just as generous as the night before) and having filled my boots decided to check out the night-time scene in the Ticinese district just a few blocks south of the hotel. It’s a funky, trendy, slightly edgy area, very much like London’s Hoxditch and indeed Chueca in Madrid but without either’s abundant gay scene (the two gay bars on my map in the area being, yup, chiuso). There were a whole list of places I’d wanted to check out, bars both gay and straight (the Dolce & Gabbana Martini Bar being right at the top of the list) and clubs likewise (Armani Privé, as well as some of the grittier gay clubs) but a little online researching found that – AGAIN! – they were all either shut or, in the case of the gay clubs that were open, required the purchase of something called an Arci-Gay Card, a kind of all-in-one membership card that allows the bars to circumvent licensing and gender equality laws to be open all hours and strictly men only. A good idea if you want to be able to cruise for sex pissed at 3AM without any risk of your sister walking in on you, but bad for the international gay jet-setter only in town for 48 hours. Grr.

Oh look, I’m going to stop boring you now with all these dull descriptions of places I didn’t go; if you’d wanted to know what the outsides of places in Milan looked like you’d be on Google Earth, not reading this guff. I had a much more successful time in Milan, which I’ll tell all about in due course, on the way back from Bellagio – and Bellagio is an altogether much more exciting story.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Gay Ol' Nights in Florence

I was bursting with excitement as I sank into my vast leather armchair of a seat on the 12.50 Eurostar (no relation) to Firenze Santa Maria Novella. On my first (and to date, only) visit to Florence, with the family in 2007, I'd seen pretty much all of the city's star sights thanks to my sister's expert organisation and so on this visit I was looking forward seeing 'the rest', and to being at liberty to do so at my own pace and not, as had been the case last time, with mum in tow (love her as I deeply do, seeing Florence in intense June heat with a short-legged 70-year-old is not necessarily an experience I would recommend). Coffee in hand, I got stuck into A Room With A View, the first half of which is set in Florence, and in just an hour and three quarters and seven chapters, I arrived.

I took a cab from the station and a few minutes later was dropped outside the Pension Orchidea, a Rough Guide recommendation I'd booked before leaving Rome. I couldn't have wished for more Forster-esque location: the Orchidea occupies the first floor of a twelfth century palazzo in a cobbled street just behind the Duomo, Florence's immense, breath-taking, technicolor cathedral. The rooms are basic but perfectly fine for a short stay, and the Italian-American owners have done wonders at making the place homely - when I found that there was English Breakfast tea included in the selection of help-yourself-anytime drinks in the lounge area, I practically wept with joy. Best of all though was the location, right in the centre of the city within easy walking distance of just about everywhere, and so I set out on foot for my first destination.

Now, while Florence's top three attractions are undoubtedly the Duomo, the Uffizi gallery and Michelangelo's David, for a fashion and footwear junkie such as I the fourth has to be the Salvatore Ferragamo Shoe Museum. I'd not been able to persuade the family to go last year - funnily enough, they were more interested in seeing Botticelli's Birth of Venus than Eva Peron's slingbacks, the Philistines - so on this visit it was right at the top of my itinerary. Tucked away in the basement of the Ferragamo flagship store and company headquarters on the heavenly shopping stretch that is via Tornabuoni, the museum (€5 admission and worth every cent) is a compact but fascinating collection of sketches, photographs, lasts and of course shoes, spanning the eighty-odd years history of this (sadly deceased) shoemaker to the stars. Here the hand-whittled lasts of the shoes of Hepburns Audrey and Katherine; there original artwork from Ferragamo's iconic Art Deco-style ad campaigns; here photos of Sal himself ministering to the tootsies of Marlene Dietrich; there, Judy Garland's very own, sky-high rainbow wedges in a glass case. After about an hour of pure camp cobblers, I sashayed out onto the street and into the boutique thinking I might invest in a slice of Ferragamo glamour all of my own, but compared with Marilyn Monroe's original red rhinestone-encrusted stilettos, the conservative if beautifully crafted men's collection could only be an anti-climax.

Taking a left onto Lungarno Corsini (factoid: the embankment streets are all called Lungarno something-or-other from lung'arno, literally 'Along the Arno', the river which bisects the city), I strolled down to the Ponte Vecchio, the only one of Florence's bridges to survive the Nazis' bombings when they retreated from the city in 1944. It's a remarkable structure, with its higgledy-piggledy piles of shops and alleyways, famed now for its myriad jewellery shops all seemingly peddling the same eye-wateringly sparkly and buttock-clenchingly expensive gew-gaws which everyone comes to gawp at but never, it seems, to buy. I did, with a long-term view to perhaps popping the question to a certain young man, actually pop in to look at a very nice platinum and diamond ring, but when told that it was a replica of the rings designed by Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston for their ultimately doomed marriage my interest quickly waned. From there I ambled back to the hotel via the Piazza della Signoria, half-ignoring the statuary for which it's best known to instead make a bee-line for the plaque marking the spot of the Bonfire of the Vanities, so brilliantly and evocatively described in Sarah Dunant's novel The Birth of Venus which I'd recommend to anyone who's been to, or might like to visit, Florence.

After a couple of quiet hours spent reading my Forster and enjoying some Japanese nibbles and beers from the Asian grocers I'd been delighted to chance upon on via S.Egidio, I headed out for some supper at Trattoria da Benvenuto (it translates, sweetly, to something like 'The Welcome Inn') where I enjoyed juicy marinated sardines followed by roast rabbit and veggies, washed down with the house red which, at €2 for 250ml, was a bargain in a city where it's perfectly possible to eat extremely well, and likewise reasonably cheaply, but very rarely the twain in one place. (A footnote here about restaurants; I had hoped to re-visit the wonderful Coquinarius on via dell'Oche where as a family we'd enjoyed a couple of superb meals last year (their pappardelle with rabbit ragu is worth a visit in its own right), but alas like so many small businesses it was closed for most of August and scheduled to re-open, frustratingly, two days after I was due to leave!) Replete, I thought I'd check out the scene, but a quick flit to three of the bars on the list found them all pretty much empty (in one I was in fact the only punter, even at 11.30) so I called it a night, moseyed back to the Orchidea and snuggled under the covers with Edward Morgan.

Next morning I was up early and, wanting to live out Chapter 2 of A Room With A View, 'In Santa Croce with no Baedeker', headed to the church of Sta. Croce where Miss Honeychurch has her memorable encounter with the Emersons. Whilst externally the church is almost as elaborately beautiful as the Duomo, Forster's description of the interior - "But how like a barn!" - proved highly accurate, the high beamed ceiling and sparse decoration indeed resembling a farm building, but I was nonetheless quietly wowed by Michelangelo's tomb and the Giotto frescoes so highly praised by Forster's Mr Eager and berated by old Mr Emerson. I moved on to the Bargello museum, home (ostensibly) to much of Italy's finest sculpture as well as collections of bronzes, pottery and miniatures but usually overlooked by most visitors in favour of the city's other show-stoppers. While there are some beautiful works in the collection - I especially liked Giambologna's statues, and particularly his Ocean - a couple of things niggled. Firstly, the published entry fee, like at the Colosseum in Rome and as would prove to be the case elsewhere in Florence and beyond, was bumped up a few euros by a non-discretionary extra charge for a 'special exhibition', which in this case proved to be some bronzes and statues which whilst admittedly impressive, were almost entirely taken from the museum's permanent collection. Secondly, one of the museum's main draws, Donatello's androgynous bronze David, was being restored and consequently face-down in a special frame in the room it usually occupies, and while I know conservation is part and parcel of a museum's role, there are plenty of places in Florence where I could see a gorgeous young man's firm behind without it costing me €7. Finally, the Bargello's famous Michelangelo room, which on paper has one of the most comprehensive collections of his work throughout his life, was remarkable on my visit less for what it contained than for what it didn't; many plinths were empty due to the works being either on loan, under restoration or indeed in the 'special exhibition' across the hall. Had any of this been pre-advised at the entrance I might have though twice about visiting, but on balance it was a worthwhile experience and one I'd recommend.

Continuing the Forster trail, I took a stroll through town to Lungarno della Grazie where, at number 2, Forster located the Pension Bertolini and, within, the room with (or more specifically, without) a view of the book's title. While these days the building is a smart private hotel rather than the simple pension run by a Cockney where Forster himself stayed with his mother, it was still great fun to see the building and idly speculate, looking up, as to which of the windows looking out onto the Arno and beyond might, had fiction been truth, have belonged to the room occupied by Lucy and Miss Bartlett. After lunch at a large, noisy but reasonably priced brasserie, I crossed the river to the district known as Oltr'arno - what we might call in English 'T'other side of the Arno' - to visit Florence's second biggest gallery after the Uffizi, the Palazzo Pitti. This was a revelation. Every single ornate, gilded room in this spectacularly well-preserved palace yielded something noteworthy, from masterpiece after masterpiece by Titian, Rubens and Raphael to sculptures by Canova, and from the sumptuous draped and flocked interiors of the royal apartments to the odd, and oddly fascinating sight of Napoleon's bathtub. While the Gallery of Modern Art, housed somewhat incongruously in the same building, contained very little of interest, the main floors more than made up for this and I was so fascinated that I was more than happy to kill time, waiting for the spectacular lightning storm which had blown up outside to subside, by going round the entire collection twice.

That night, after having given into temptation and just this once foregone fine Italian cuisine for a McDonald's (which I at least ordered in Italian, if that counts) I decided to give the scene another try - it was Friday, after all - and was greatly pleased to find that Thursday night's near-total desertion had been an exception and that Florence's gay community was alive, well and drinking. Starting off with a couple of beers at the trendy, friendly café-bar Piccolo (busier outside in the smoking area than the smoke-free inside: welcome to Italy!) I moved onto the creatively-monikered Y.A.G. Bar which was pleasingly packed and noisy, with a big video screen showing mostly British and American pop acts allowing me to have the unbridled joy of throwing shapes to Girls Aloud and Whitney Houston while the Florentines watched aghast. Unable to find putatively the scene's most popular club, Tabasco, the tiny street given as its address not appearing on any of the maps in my possession, I rounded off the night with a quick visit to the dark 'n' dirrrty Crisco, a men-only joint very typical of the late night gay scene on the Continent complete with 'Ring Bell For Entry' sign, a peephole for the doorman to size you up through, a nose-bleed techno soundtrack and very, very old, grainy porn (had there been sound I would have expected 1920's clipped vowels and the odd "What-ho Albert! Steady on as you penetrate old chap!") showing on a big screen. There, I was befriended by a group of Italian lads who taught me some choice Italian phrases in return for my help with English profanities, but I turned down the invitation from one of them to put words into action and instead heeded Miss Bartlett's advice to Lucy on their last night in Florence, to "Go to bed at once dear. You need all the rest you can get."

In the morning I left for Milan.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Rome, where you want to...

First things first: thank you all for your immense patience in awaiting this very long overdue update on my various travels, trials and tribulations over the last month or so. Without further ado, here goes; as there's a lot to get through I've broken it down into bite-size, city-by-city chunks so that you can savour a morsel in your tea-break, come back for another nibble at lunch, and savour the left-overs of an evening...or just skip straight to whichever bit you think will be most (or at all) interesting, or simply will feature you! To get things started: Rome.


The first leg of my Italy trip started fabulously with perhaps my most hassle-free flight ever. For the first time, I flew from London City Airport having scored a bargain fair with Swiss via Zurich, and believe me it is a joy. Half an hour from home by DLR, London City is what, I can only imagine, it must be like flying from a private airfield; no queues at check-in or security and a spotless, quiet and really rather luxurious lounge from which every gate is just a couple of minutes stroll. It was also my first flight with Swiss, and both the chocolates and the Teutonic stewards were delicious. I killed the couple of hours transfer time at Zurich airport browsing the swanky boutiques on its mini-Bond Street shopping stretch and enjoying a beer and a baguette (which I impressed myself by managing to order in German, a language I hitherto hadn't known I spoke) in one of the stylish bars, before boarding my onward flight and arriving at Rome Fiumicino just an hour or so later. Next it was all aboard the 'Leonardo Express' for the €11, forty minute train ride to Termini station, and before you could say 'Benvenuto a Roma' I was checking into the Hotel Massimo d'Azeglio on via Cavour, right next to the station.

Having settled into my very comfortable and pleasingly large room, I headed out into the Rome night to see if the hotel was as central as it appeared to be from the map. It certainly was; a five minute stroll down via Cavour and a side-street brought me to the spectacular-by-night sight of the Colosseum and its neighbour, the charming Arch of Constantine. The area was alive with people, tourists staring up at the centuries old structure open-mouthed, lovers canoodling on the grassy hillocks nearby, photographers snapping the spotlit ancient monument in its hulking nocturnal glory and plenty of police keeping it all safe and salubrious. I was suitably awed as I walked around the perimeter, taking in the vastness of the near-2000-years-old edifice and enjoyed a camp moment remembering Audrey Hepburn whizzing round the same path on the back of a Vespa in Roman Holiday.

First site seen, it was time for a sight of the scene and so I flip-flopped off to Coming Out, a large and busy cafe/bar on the nearby via San Giovanni in Laterano. A few doors away I found the delicious (in every sense) Ice Cream Bears, a gelateria owned and run by, you guessed it, a couple of hulking bears whose creamy goodness attracts a cuddly, hairy clientele. Although the only two de facto gay venues on the street, the bars in between cater to the overspill and on a balmy evening like this the crowd, mostly a diverse selection of boys but with a fair few girls, pours out onto the street and drinks and gossips the night away in the shadow of the Colosseum - a quite remarkable experience. I finished off the night - wanting to get some beauty sleep ready for sightseeing on the morrow - with a flying visit to Hangar, an altogether darker and heavier three-room affair on via in Selci just a couple of minutes from the hotel. there's much to recommend Hangar, not least a rather horny (in both looks and mind) clientele, but the clincher for me was the novel payment system - on the way in you're given a card on which the bar staff write down what you've had, and you pay on the way out. This was the bar's last night of business before closing for the summer break so I was glad to have had the experience while I could!

The next day, after a good night's sleep and a very good breakfast, I embarked on a day's sightseeing that would ultimately nearly kill me with its length and breadth. Against all warnings not to try to do too much of Rome in one day - it wasn't built in one, after all - I started early, and finished late, taking in many of the most famous sites and wearing out a pair of flip-flops in the space of a few hours. I began with a walk across town, heading for the Pantheon and on the way taking in a couple of fountains, the Tritone by Bernini and the iconic Trevi (which I completely chanced upon, surprised as many must be by its odd location at the back of an otherwise unremarkable civic building at the junction of three minor shopping streets!) Before seeing the Pantheon's spectacular if utterly bonkers and strangely proportioned interior, I enjoyed an eye-opening caffe machiato at La Casa del Caffe Tazza d'Oro - it translates, deservedly, as 'The Golden Cup'. Next I moved on to the Vittorio Emanuele Monument, also known (variously) as The Altar Of The Nation and the Vittoriano. This vast white marble bulk, topped with mighty equestrian statues (most notably of the King after whom it is named and putatively exists to honour) is - how can I put this?- not exactly universally popular, but it has its attractions. One, a free exhibition on the history of the Italian army, rather thin on the period 1939-45 but otherwise interesting and staffed by real Italian soldiers. Two, it's a pleasingly cool escape from the Roman heat and offers a comfortable way to reach the top of the neighbouring Capitoline Hill . And three, atop it all there's a pretty reasonably priced canteen serving delicious salads and juices (my caprese was heavenly) and from which the panoramic views of Rome are picture perfect.

Refreshed, I moved on to the Capitoline, arriving in the piazza Campidoglio. I skipped the museums around the perimeter in favour of taking in the buildings' exteriors and descending the cordonata, the gently sloping ramp designed by Michelangelo and flanked at the entrance to the piazza by his statues of Castor and Pollux (and being nudes, one can see their Pollux very clearly...) From here I went on to the Colosseum, still as magnificent by day as by night but once inside I wondered whether the 45 minutes I'd spend queuing was worth the fairly limited extent of what's inside, and from there - where, to be honest, I should have called it a day - I pushed on to the Palatine and the impressive ruins of palaces of Caesars past, and the Forum (I'd like to report that a funny thing happened on the way, but alas not). The latter was, despite my increasingly severe, self-inflicted Ancient Rome Fatigue Syndrome, simply magnificent, still - despite the ravages of the centuries - sufficiently complete as to give one a real sense of what life day-to-day, with its triumphal arches, temples, mausolea and senate chambers, could have been like.

By this stage exhausted, I limped back to the hotel and after a very pleasant siesta, set out again on foot for the Spanish Steps, which I approached from their top end and descended (picturing myself as Jude Law, or perhaps Gwyneth Paltrow, in The Talented Mr Ripley), weaving my way through the youthful, noisy crowds to the designer label heaven of via Condotti then up via del Corso to the piazza del Popolo which I found, in its dullness, rather disappointing. I doubled back down via del Corso to a quiet piazza where the restaurant, deli and bar Gusto appears to be taking over every available space and so they should in my view, given how delicious were the gourmet aperitivi served with my Campari and soda - my 'Italy drink'. Fairly full, and wholly knackered, I opted for a simple supper, an excellent pizza Diavola and very boozy Tiramisu at an anonymous restaurant near the hotel...and so to bed.

Worn out by that day's excesses, the next morning I slept in and then after a leisurely late breakfast set off by Metro ('grimy', I jotted in my notebook) for the Vatican. The piazza at St Peter's, so famous from years of televised appearances, was immensely impressive, beautiful for its symmetry and scale (even though the fountains were, sadly, inactive) but I have to say that I found the basilica itself, and the vast, labyrinthine Vatican Museums, to be bordering on the obscene. I am not irreligious, but I really do fail to see how when there is so much suffering and poverty in the world, so much preventable sickness and death, and much of it in nominally Catholic third world countries, that it can be right for so much wealth to be hoarded by a church. I left as quickly as one can when there are near on twelve miles of corridors all of it strictly one way, and returned for a quiet afternoon of reading and blogging (NB: Italy has an anti-terrorism legislation, strictly enforced as I found, that requires anyone wishing to use internet or cheap telephones in internet cafes to produce photo ID, a passport or driving license. Odd!) I went down to the hotel bar for 'Happy Hour' - i.e., more Campari & soda with more free nibbles, then headed across the road to the tenth-floor roof terrace of a sister hotel to watch the sun set over the city.

The rest of the evening was nothing if not flattering. Firstly over an excellent dinner of saltimbocca a la Romana, washed down with a very nice Verdicchio, I was approached at my pavement table by a not-at-all unattractive man who after very little initial preamble invited me home with him for sex - I declined, having not even tasted my veal yet and really rather wanting to. Then, having moved on (unaccompanied!) to Coming Out, I struggled to avoid the predatory gaze and subsequent advances, entirely unwelcome but wholly understandable, of a travelling Belgian. Nice to know I've still got it in me, so to speak.

Booked on a train to Florence the following afternoon, I nonetheless wanted to get some value of the morning if I could, so I strolled a few minutes from the hotel past the pretty fountains of the piazza della Republica to two noteworthy churches; one, Santa Maria della Vittoria, which houses Bernini's famous sculpture of Saint Theresa in Ecstasy (in, not on, please note, but from her face it's hard to tell) and the modest but beautiful basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli which fronts the remains of the Diocletian baths or terme from which Termini station gets its name - not, as I and no doubt you would have thought, from its being the end of the line. Churched out, I had just enough time to pop to the international bookshop for a copy of A Room With A View - my 'guide book' and source reading for Florence, my next destination. I was able to board the train feeling that I had really seen Rome, not just the main sites but some less obvious ones too, had savoured its food and wine, and experienced life as it's lived by day and night. Exhausting it may have been, but new relationships always are, and I think this was just the start of what will be a life-long love affair with Rome.

Next instalment coming, ASAP!

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Queens of the Valencia Scene

OK this has, I'll grant you, been a long time coming, but I've at last found time to sit down and write up the last leg of my Spanish adventure. Ironically I'm doing so as the first leg of the Italian tour comes to a close - tomorrow I leave Rome for Florence - but the sooner I'm up to date the better so here goes.

I left Palma late on Friday evening, a little emotional but nonetheless excited about my next destination and all the more so for knowing that I'd be met there by Dougie who is at pilot school in the city for the next couple of months. Things didn't start well; I had a run-in with a vile German at the airport which left me ridiculously upset (I had the temerity to walk faster than him in the line to security and upon realising that his aggressive Teutonic expletives were falling on uncomprehending ears, he barked at me in English, "We are not here for fun!" "Fuck you matey, I am here precisely for fun," thought I, but kept schtum lest it turn into a new European conflict...) but all was soon forgotten when hardly as soon as we'd taken off we were landing again.

I called Doug as soon as I was off the plane and arranged to meet him at my hotel, the Melia Plaza, in an hour; I'd barely had time to dump my suitcase and utter a 'wow' at the vastness and loveliness of my room when there was a knock on the door and Señor Colman arrived. All residual sadness over thoughts of Fritz and anger over the German at the airport disappeared at seeing my long-lost dear friend, and we raided the mini-bar and caught up over beers while enjoying my spectacular view of the Plaza del Ayuntamiento below.

Despite having been in Valencia for two weeks already, Dougie had not yet made any forays onto the scene and so, like two naughty girls who've just been released from the convent, we headed out into the balmy night. All that we knew - from my trusty guidebook - was that the scene centred around calle Quart, and a moment of sheer hilarity ensued when we stopped at reception to ask where we might find said calle: the receptionist being busy, we asked a little bespectacled security guard, whose descent into uncontrollable giggles and knowing winks outed him as being on our autobus. 

Delighted to find that it was just minutes from the hotel (how I have such luck with these things I don't know - the same's happened in Rome but that's not for here!) we clip-clopped along à la Carrie and Samantha and after a couple of fruitless sashays up, down and around Quart we landed upon a packed and stylish café bar called Trapezzio where we downed drinks and eyed up boys until it abruptly closed around 1.30AM. Pleading first-night-in-town ignorance to one of the barmen as to where to go next proved beneficial: a flyer boy was summoned with a wave and thrust free passes to Deseo 54, the hottest night in town, into our greedy little hands.

A short taxi ride later we found ourselves at Rojo Vivo, the club where Deseo takes place, and a few generous-ish tips early on ensured that as the club rapidly filled up to shoulder-to-shoulder capacity, we alone never had to wait for a drink at the bar. Not being chemically enhanced as the vast majority of punters (mixed, but more gay by a long way, and generally beautiful) seemed to be, it was nothing short of miraculous that we managed to last until...oh I guess about 6.00AM when we finally admitted that we'd had basta and taxied it back to the Plaza.

Next morning - alive but for the grace of the gay gods - we strolled through Valencia's beautiful sunlit streets to the Plaza Santa Catalina, home to Valencia's hulking and not-really-very-pretty cathedral. We sat down to an al fresco tapas brunch at La Sardineria, a very gay-friendly place specialising in (no prizes for guessing, folks) sardines but also offering a wide range of tapas classics both fishy and otherwise, and chewed the (metaphorical) fat while enjoying the array of delights the cute Latino waiter brought out, among them huevos revueltos con jamon - that's yer actual scrambled eggs and ham, don't you know - and patatas bravas. Suitably nourished to brave the challenge, we paid €4 to climb the cathedral's impressive octagonal bell tower, El Miguelete, and - arriving at the top somehow not dead from exhaustion and altitude sickness - we were both impressed at the sweeping panoramic views over the very handsome city way below us (our smiles in the photo here may be because of this, or may perhaps have just been down to our relief at having made it to the top without falling to our deaths from the winding, vertiginous, rail-less stairs up!)

After a detour via the architecturally impressive, canary yellow wedding cake that is the Estacion del Norte to buy my ticket to Barcelona the next day, and having taken in the spectacular, Roman amphitheatre-style bulk of the bull ring, we were ready for more sustenance and headed for Bar Pilar on calle del Moro Zeit, reputed to be Valencia's best tapas bar and famous for its clochinas or baby mussels. The reputation is well-deserved; our clochinas disappeared in a matter of seconds, the calamari was, we agreed, the best we've ever had, and even a plate of whole baby squid in garlic, the result of a clumsy linguistic cock-up on my part and served when we were already pretty full, were delicious.

While Dougie went home for a little siesta (these midgets do tire easily...) I headed to IVAM, Valencia's contemporary art gallery, and although the building is a peaceful, calming temple of minimalism, the art within - echoes here of my MACBA experience in Barcelona - was disappointing, the work of one featured artist (Vicente Colon) consisting entirely of black scribbles. Three rooms of it. Undefeated, I took a long route back to the hotel taking in the outskirts of the city and a visit to the gorgeous shop of Paquita Ors on calle de la Paz. Doña Paquita Ors, a qualified pharmacist and expert in all things dermatalogical, is Spain's answer to Estee Lauder. Her appearance is utterly bonkers - do please have a look at her picture on the website - but she is absolutely revered by the cognoscenti who make up her clientele, and her two delightful assistants took great pleasure in helping me choose a cologne which (if you can catch me for a sniff you'll agree) has all the makings of a new signature scent.

With Doug reappearing, rested and refreshed, it was time for dinner and earlier in the day we'd booked a table at Basilico, owned by friends of a friend of Dougie's, on calle Cadiz in the soon-to-be-supercool neighbourhood of Rustafa. This turned out to be undoubtedly one of the highlights of my whole trip to date for many reasons. Firstly, we were greeted like old friends by Arif, the chef, and his partner (in life and business) Alex, and an extra pavement table set up for us. Arif is a suave, worldly hunk of a man, not unlike George Michael in his sexy days before he turned to dope and went to seed, and Alex is six foot two of Gallic gorgeousness, charm and sang froid. The menu was intriguing, not the Italian one might expect given the restaurant's name but in fact a combination (please - we'll have no 'fusion' on this blog thank you very much) of Mediterranean and Asiatic influences accompanied by a short, interesting wine list.

For starters, Doug went for the seasonal salad with goat's cheese crostini and red onion jam, while I opted for steamed dim sum (which were yum yum); for our mains, I took Alex's recommendation of the teriyaki salmon, marinated for hours until rich with flavour then poached to just done-ness, served on dressed egg noodles, while Doug went for red curry prawn noodles which he ooh-ed and aah-ed over with all the enthusiasm he normally reserves for Argentine barmen. We washed it all down with a bottle of crisp, chilled Rueda, a Chablis-ish Spanish white, all the while being fussed over like VIPs (which of course honey, we are) by Alex and chatted to as often as kitchen lulls would allow by Arif. Portions were so generous that dessert was out of the question, but we did manage (between us, not each) some chilled vodka, super-duper espresso, a Martini and a mojito (the cocktails on the house, bless you Arif and Alex!) all of which took us and the Basilico boys well past closing time. If ever you go to Valencia - and I do recommend that you do - go to Basilico; I really loved it and everything about it.

Full not just of food but of energy too (probably down to the espresso!) Dougie and I again hit the scene, this time with Arif in tow; much to our delight, he had decided a few hours out would let off some steam after an exhausting night in the kitchen, so the three of us hopped in a cab up to Quart and hit Venial, a sprawling club and bar where it seemed at least half the folks from Deseo the night before had rocked up to get down (and perhaps get off) to the commercial dance soundtrack. For a breather (and to see if we could marry Dougie off to a sexy Spaniard) we popped round the corner to the dark, cruisy and fabulously named Nunca Digo No - 'I Never Say No'! - where Arif, so my new best friend, and I, married men both, propped up the bar while Doug went off to explore some of the 'darker' reaches of the venue. His exploring didn't last long; the lights went up not long after our arrival (it was only 3AM, after all) so we tottered back to Venial where we watched the stage show (men and a lady come on in sportsgear - men and a lady dance in sportsgear - men and a lady remain in sportsgear...thrilling stuff!) and giggled and drank for a while longer before we decided to call it a night and head for our beds.

By Sunday, Dougie was quite the broken flower so I was left to my own devices and filled my last few hours very pleasurably. I began by taking the bus across town to the Ciutat de les Artes y Ciencias, the spectacular complex of futuristic white buildings all but one designed by Santiago Calatrava to house the city's performing arts and science spaces. As I walked around taking in the exteriors of the rib-cage like Umbracle, the perforated drum of the Science Museum and the spaceman's helmet housing the concert hall, I sipped on a chilled horchata, every Valencian's favourite summer drink made of tiger nuts and tasting not unlike delicately salty soya milk. Returning to town for lunch, I pigged out, at Sagardi, on gourmet pintxos, a sort of tapas-for-one to which you help yourself from the bar and pay - by an honesty system - when the cocktail sticks each is pierced with are counted up at the end. My time slowly running out, I was simply delighted beyond words that with just enough time left to enjoy it without rushing I chanced upon a vast Tintin exhibition at the Centre for Contemporary Culture, my absolute love of the boy detective meaning that I wrapped up my visit on a massive high.

I left Valencia with a smile on my face and some memories to treasure; I was delighted to have a chance to share them with Matthew and Xavi, the lovely friend who had invited me to dinner at his flat in Barcelona when I first arrived and who insisted I join him again on my return. My last few days in Barcelona were less packed but just as much fun as the first few; I enjoyed the Fundación Joan Miró more than any gallery I've been to this trip, and I rounded it all off with a mega-crawl of the scene on my penultimate night, revisiting some old favourites (including Dietrich, where a shine was taken to me by the Dutch squash team, still in town after that week's Gay Games!) and discovering new ones, notably Museo which was chic but unpretentious. I left Barcelona - and, for now, Spain - full of emotions, full of new experiences and lessons learned, all of which I'll sum up in a post of their own. For now it's on with the travels; hasta luego Spain, and ciao Italia!

Friday, 25 July 2008

A Pilgrimage to Palma

A few months ago during mum's house move, I came across a large packet of air mail letters, mostly typed, sent over a period of about four years from my grandmother, in Cala Mayor, Mallorca, to my parents, her son and daughter-in-law. All but a very few of them typed, and all on featherweight air mail paper, the letters painted a vivid picture of a life lived joyfully, animatedly, frugally at times but always well, and brought back many memories, fallen into abeyance in the 20-odd years since her death, of a woman who I remember as being beautiful, loving, forthright, awkward at times but more often than not very sympathetic and who above all else loved her two sons and their four children intensely.

Christened Helena, her letters were always signed 'Fritz', the nickname by which all the family knew her, coined (by herself, if I recall) on account of her having a strong Eastern European accent - she was Czechoslovakian by birth - which most people mistook for being German. In Spain, she came to be known as Elena, or more specifically, Señora Elena, and it was from Elena Wright that she would meticulously mark the back of each envelope as having been sent. She also naturally put the address of her apartment, and so when I initially decided that my first trip would be to Spain, I considered including a visit to Mallorca, and to 279 Avenida Joan Miró, in my itinerary. A little online research found that there were quick and convenient flights from Granada to Palma and then on from Palma to Valencia, which although expensive were sufficiently affordable to make the decision final. I booked a cheap hotel which looked, from the website, to be near the apartment (or rather, near where the apartment was - it could easily have been redeveloped since the 1980s) and packed a couple of my favourite letters, ones which gave the most detail about Fritz's day-to-day routine, the things she liked to do, eat or see and with whom, so that once there I would be able better to visualize what her life on Mallorca might have been like.

I arrived early afternoon, after a short and punctual flight from Granada, and my first observation was how huge the airport was for a relatively small island. I quickly realised that of course it would be this big, and busy; even in 1980, Fritz wrote of the island's dependence on tourism and how a bad season for tourist income could affect prices for residents in the shops as businesses sought to recoup their losses, and this vital visitor income has obviously been nurtured in the intervening decades. She wrote too, in a letter from 1982, of how the flight options to and from the island were improving; sadly it was only in the very last couple of years of her life that a new charter airline commenced flights from Palma to Bournemouth which would have vastly eased her journey to our house in a remote village in Dorset. As it was, she would fly from Palma to Gatwick, and make her way from there, her suitcase crammed with cigarettes for my dad (always the wrong brand, always!), cuttings from her beloved spider plants to give to all and sundry, and gifts for my sister - who carries her name - and me. Today she could fly, or at least connect with flights, to pretty much anwhere in the world from Palma de Mallorca, with every budget and charter airline under the sun.

Finding a total dearth of public transport information at the airport, I got into a cab (perhaps recklessly given that I had no idea how far Cala Mayor was from the airport and what the fare therefore might be!) and about twenty minutes later pulled up at the hotel. It was quite old and a little unloved, but I noted that it did at least have a pool, and air-conditioning, and best of all was very close to 279 Avenida Joan Miró. After a quick shower, I headed out to see if Edificio Delfin, as the block was called, was still there; as I walked along the winding road, past the royal family's summer palace, Marivent (her proximity to which I'm surprised Fritz never mentioned in her letters), a luxury hotel, a few private houses and a parade of shops, I was disproportionately nervous, not sure what I would find, or how I would feel. I needn't have worried: Edificio Delfin at 279 Avenida Joan Miró, Cala Mayor, is still very much there, and I felt elated.

I started off by taking a walk round the outside to take a look at the building. The paint's a bit flaky in places, and it's certainly not the most modern block on this particular strip, but it's neat and tidy and fabulously located, just up a path to the beautiful beach of Cala Mayor. Fritz was for two years the president of the residents' committee for Delfin, and I liked to think that the building's current good condition might still in some small part be due to her diligence and vigour in the role. At the foot of the building there's a parade of shops and cafés and, catering to the tastes of Brits abroad, a kebab shop (just up the road there's an Irish pub too). Fritz's apartment was on the 6th floor, and counting up from street level that would have been the top floor. No wonder then that she was able to indulge, as she wrote to my mum in one letter, in what she called 'free sunbathing', safe from neighbours' prying eyes. (Both Fritz and her late husband were keen naturists and she never lost her enthusiasm for it).

I identified the back door to the building which Fritz wrote of as being her shortcut to the beach; to avoid the tourist rush she would swim first thing in the morning, "Just sling over my bathrobe and grab a towel and grab the lift to the 2nd piso [floor] and out of the back entrance de Delfin and [in] 2 minutes run into the water. Then, I swim like a mad satellite or pescado [fish] and back again to my pad..." I would dearly have liked to go inside the building, just to see what it was like - maybe 'grab the lift' from the 6th floor to the 2nd - but alas repeated attempts to get hold of the portero came to nothing so I had to content myself with the exterior. Wanting to live a little of Fritz's life - and hell, wanting some respite from the heat - I went back to the hotel, grabbed my swimmers and returned to the beach, where for the next hour or so I too swam 'like a mad satellite' and reflected on what bliss it must have been to be able to do so every day. I had dinner at the nearest 'proper' restaurant to the flat and on enquiring found that it had been in business for over thirty years, so may well have been frequented by Fritz when she wasn't dining at friends or hosting a dinner herself as was very often the case.

The next day, after watching Hugo Chavez's one hour late arrival in a motorcade at Marivent from my balcony, I did as Fritz used to and hopped on the bus into Palma, the island's capital. While Cala Mayor was as well served by small shops and the like then as it is now, for serious shopping, window or otherwise, Palma's where it's at. On the way we passed the cinema at Terreno where Fritz used to go with her 80-something friend Nessie: "Only 10 mins on the bus and it [shows] English films as well as foreign, sometimes quite good. Sometimes!" This wasn't one of those times, the only English-language offering being Kung Fu Panda, but I was nonetheless pleased to see where Fritz used occasionally to enjoy going of an evening. I found Palma to be an absolutely beautiful city, rich in architecture, blessed with wide, shady streets and full of all sorts of interesting shops large and small, cafés, galleries, restaurants and bars. The port area is très chic; Palma actually feels unspoilt by tourism, rather it thrives on it and values its visitors.

That afternoon, I enacted the most enjoyable part of my 'pilgrimage' - lunch. Above everything else, be it her socialising, her spider plants or the business and scandals of the Delfin Residents' Committee, Fritz loved to write about food, and her love-hate relationship with it. She was - not unlike a certain grandson of hers, you might say! - on the one hand obsessed with her weight, watching every pound, but on the other hand singularly unable to resist the many foodie delights that Mallorca had to offer. In almost every letter she makes reference to a lunch she's given, or a dinner she's been invited to; the best hosts (or worst offenders, depending on how Fritz saw it at the time), were Hubert and Jacques, her gay neighbours. Always referred as The Gays - capital T, capital G - Fritz adored them with a liberalism very rare for a woman of her background and generation and indeed, for the time. The Gays were Dutch and spent half of each year in the Netherlands and half in Mallorca, and would always return bearing edible gifts and especially the smoked mackerel Fritz loved. The particular meal I chose to recreate, however, was one that she described in a letter as being typical of any encounter with 'the natives': "A chunk of Mallorceen [sic] bread with half a kilometre of sobrasada, and ensaimada full of nata (cream)." I had no idea what sobrasada or ensaimada were but soon found out; the former is a spicy sausage/paté hybrid rather like squishy chorizo, and the latter a very light pastry resembling a cross between a Danish and a choux bun dusted with icing sugar. I found a café which had both on the menu and for full authenticity ensured that their sandwiches were made with Mallorcan bread, a very light, very crusty slim baguette. As I ate my delicious meal, I wrote postcards to the family, reviving if only as a one-off the tradition of an 'H Wright' writing from Mallorca.

With just a couple of hours remaining before my flight to Valencia, I returned to Cala Mayor for a last stroll around Fritz's streets and a final look at Edificio Delfin. I tried the porter's bell a couple more times to see if I could get inside but it was obviously not meant to be; instead I ordered a beer at the bar across the road and watched the world go by like Señora Elena used to do. This little corner of an island that she loved, indeed from what I saw, the whole island, is thriving and vibrant and I can see why she would have been so happy here. Exiled from her country of birth, Fritz settled as a refugee in England, met, fell in love with and married my grandfather, had two sons - one my daddy - and had a few years of happiness before being prematurely widowed, after which she sought, and found, some comfort in sunnier climes. Halfway between my hotel and Fritz's flat, there was an old people's home, or Casa de la Tercera Edad. I couldn't stop myself from wondering whether, had cancer not taken her life in only her late sixties, Fritz might today be one of the elderly ladies sitting on the terrace in the shade, having tea brought to her by white-uniformed nurses. Then I got to thinking whether, if she had lived, she would ever have been able to recover from her adored eldest son's own terrible, premature death which came only a decade after hers.

And then I snapped out of it and realised that this is the danger of revisiting the past; we start to wish that it was the present. I'm so pleased and proud that I made the trip I did, and I will always cherish Fritz's beautiful, funny, eloquent and at times salacious letters. But wondering what might have been...that way only sadness lies. The past is history; the present, well that's for living, and my present is taking me to my next stop - Valencia!

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

I've Andalusian Enough

I'm tiled. Not just a little bit tiled, but really, really tiled out. I couldn't be any more tiled. And no, sharp-eyed readers, that's not a repeated typo; I'm referring to the fact that after a week in Andalusia I have seen more mosaics, Moorish azulejo tiling and marble floors than anyone needs to see in a lifetime.

To put this into a historical context: Andalusia, Spain's Southern-most region (and fuck me its hottest region too, but more of that in a while) was over a period of roughly seven centuries, from the 8th to the 15th AD, fought over in the most brutal fashion possible by Moors (Muslims) and Catholics and conquered, reconquered and then conquered again by each religion until the Catholics finally triumphed, for good, in 1492. As a result, the architecture of the region is an at times fascinating mish-mash of styles, not just typical of the two cultures' constant efforts to assert their supremacy through building, but also of the various centuries they span. Add to this already heady mix the architectural legacy of the significant Jewish communities which existed in the region until their expulsion by the Catholic conquerors at the end of the 15th Century, and you have quite a melting pot of styles. But, there's so much of it, with seemingly every city, town and village boasting its own 'spectacular' site, that one can have too much of a good thing - as I found.

Things started well, in Cordoba, just an hour and forty minutes from Madrid on the high-speed AVE train (a great way to travel, fast, spacious, spotless and punctual - Virgin Trains, look and learn...). Although initially shocked at the scorching 43º heat on the afternoon I arrived, I wanted to make the most of my time so after a siesta and a cool shower in my lovely room at the Tryp Gallos Hotel, I slathered myself in factor 40 and headed out into the old town. One of Cordoba's must see sights (according to my 'Top 25 Sights in Andalusia' book) is the Juderia or old Jewish quarter, and this attractive jumble of winding, cobbled streets lined with whitewashed houses is certainly very pretty and, because of the shade afforded by the narrowness of the roads, comparatively cool. There's much adornment with azulejo (blue-enamelled) tiling, and the old synagogue is one of very few still existing in this region and thus a poignant sight (and site). There isn't however a very great deal to do in Juderia once one's seen it, and so I moved on to Cordoba's real crowd-pleaser and UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Mezquita.

This was one of the most spectacular things I've ever seen. There can be no starker example of the religious conflict I referred to than this: the Mezquita is, essentially, an enormous, elaborate cathedral built bang slap in the middle of an enormous, elaborate mosque, as if somehow the cathedral fell out of the sky. The sheer scale of both structures, which come together, incongruously, to form one, takes your breath away (and indeed triggers expletives - at various points I muttered a 'Fuck me!' with sheer astonishment only to remember that I was in a house of God/Allah and really ought not to swear). There's also the visual splendour of it; the ceiling of the mosque section is supported by well over a thousand pillars which in turn support red and white striped arches (Wally would have a field day hiding here) and then the cathedral ceiling soars up into the sky like a rocket launch pad amidst it all. Finally - and of course - there's tiling, of incredibly intricacy, in the mirhab, marking the direction of Mecca, adorning the walls, ceilings and floors; it's spectacular craftsmanship and it saddened me that the Catholics had to go and build the treasury, holding their undeniably impressive stash of cathedral gold and processional gew-gaws, right next to it.

After lunch I went out to explore the newer part of Cordoba, to the north of the city, but found nothing to excite apart from the occasional pretty church, square or civic building. I did however discover something very important for anyone travelling in Spain in the heat: El Corte Ingles, the department store chain (Spain's Debenhams) has the best air conditioning of anywhere at the entrance to their stores, so if you're about to drop from heat or just need to cool off, head for there and pretend to be browsing. This took me up to dinner time and, wanting to put Cordoba's reputation for fine tapas to the test with minimal walking, headed back to the restaurant-lined streets of Juderia. There, in a very attractive taberna, and for only €15, I enjoyed a fantastic six-course menú de tapas which among other treats included salmorejo, an Andalucian speciality consisting of a sort of thick, creamy gazpacho topped with crispy bacon bits and diced onion, and fritos de la huerta, Spanish tempura, gorgeous, salty little strips of battered peppers and onions that frankly, I could live on if it wouldn't make me fat(ter).

The next day I got up early-ish and headed for Cordoba's other big tourist draw, the Alcazar (no, not they of Crying At The Discotheque fame, it's a place). This former palace and prison has a history both illustrious and dubious: while on the one hand it can claim to be the palace from where the discovery of America was planned, it was also the seat of the Spanish Inquisition (which nobody expected). Although largely empty, there are some impressive tapestries and original furnishings to be seen, in addition to which there are - you guessed it - mosaics aplenty both inside, in Roman form, and outside, in the beautiful gardens where azulejo abounds. Fancying a spot of lunch before my late-afternoon train to Seville, I picked a little restaurant with an interesting and reasonable lunch menu and ordered consommé to start and callos con chorizo y patatas to follow. I wasn't exactly sure what callos was, but I like chorizo and potatoes so figured I'd like callos too, but this was to be my first culinary bum note of the trip. For while many of you may feel that I talk a lot of tripe, until my main course arrived I'd never eaten tripe, which is what callos turned out to be. Still, I soldiered on - I was ravenous - and it wasn't actively unpleasant; slithery, chewy, rather like the fat on pork belly but tasting of not very much at all. A lesson learned and one word of Spanish I'll never forget!

My stomach full - albeit of, er, stomach - I boarded the train to Seville and forty five minutes later disembarked in Andalucia's capital city where it was a positively wintery 38º. I hopped in a cab to the hotel, the Tryp Macarena, and was delighted to pull up a few minutes later at a beautiful, palatial building in the Moorish mudejar style where I was very warmly welcomed by a receptionist who complemented me on my Spanish! Whether he'd taken a shine to me or whether it was simple good luck I don't know, but my bargain room, booked online, turned out to be vast, practically a suite, with a separate lounge area, marble bathroom and - best of the best - a balcony overlooking the old city walls and the minor basilica across the road. I could cheerfully have holed up there for the next two days but that not being the point of travelling, headed out on foot to the Barrio Santa Cruz, about twenty minutes along narrow cobbled streets with a huge church seemingly at the end of every one. The Barrio is, like the Juderia, Seville's old Jewish quarter and while certainly very attractive to look at I didn't find it to be especially different to the Juderia. Still, it was a 'must see' ticked off the list and after a couple of beers I headed happily back to the hotel to consider what to do for the evening.

This question resolved itself when I popped out of the hotel for a stroll and to phone mum. Remember that minor basilica I mentioned? Well, it's designated a basilica because it houses a particularly magnificent and ostensibly mystical image of the Virgin (Our Lady of The Macarena since you're wondering, and no, I didn't ask if she knows all the dance moves) which, on certain Sundays in the year, the devoted like to parade through the streets of Seville, dressed in all their finery, carrying processional staffs and crosses, wafting incense and cheering, all accompanied by a brass band. One of those Sundays, you've guessed it, happened to be this one, and so I crossed over the road and joined the crowds to watch the parade - and the band of the 2nd Seville Sea Cadets, *sigh* - go by. This was enormous fun, as well as quite moving, and best of all the next evening when it was on the TV news I saw that I'd been caught on camera!

Monday morning I headed to Seville Cathedral, considered one of the most impressive in the world and its third largest after St Peter's in Rome and St Paul's in London (the Londoner in me loved discovering this fact). It really is magnificent, housing some 40-odd chapels of varying degrees of opulence, an unfeasibly intricate and immense gilded high altar, the tomb - putatively, there's much debate about this - of Columbus, and the Giralda or bell tower, accessed by 34 ramps and a final flight of stairs which in spite of my fear of heights I pushed myself to climb. I'm glad I did, not just for the sense of achievement but for the spectacular aerial views of the city it afforded; Seville is just as beautiful from above as from below. From there I walked on to the Plaza de España, an immense crescent-shaped pavilion and piazza built for the less-than-successful Ibero-American Fair in 1929. It's extremely beautiful on the whole (LOTS of tiling, natch) but it's sad that parts of it have been allowed to fall into disrepair while others, now used as local government offices, are maintained. Feeling the heat - 41º, I believe - I walked back only so far, taking in a couple more monuments including the bull ring, then took the blissfully air-conditioned bus back to the hotel along the riverside, taking in the views of the vast park and landmark buildings erected for the World Exhibition (EXPO) which Seville proudly hosted in 1992.

I went on to have a fantastic evening. I started off with a couple of glasses of chilled fino and some delicious tapas in a fairly swankified bar opposite the hotel, where I got into a fascinating conversation with the barman about the correct temperature for serving sherry at. I read my (Spanish) newspaper, let the muzak wash over me, heard the church bells ringing, with the sun still shining all the while, and really did feel at that moment that everything was right with the world. Then, as night fell, I ventured back to the Barrio Santa Cruz and discovered to my delight that what by day I'd felt had little to distinguish it from the Juderia was by night a buzzing, vibrant, exciting place to be, where young Sevillians ram every tapas bar, spilling out onto the terraces and eating, drinking and chatting into the wee small hours. I found a terrace table at what looked like a fairly hip joint, ordered a beer and some tapas and sat back and drank in the atmosphere; it really was a moment. I rounded off the night with a visit to Isbillyya, a water-front gay bar and club which although relatively quiet when I arrived at around 1AM was packed and banging by 2. The out-and-out highlight of my night was the drag flamenco show; Andalucia is known as the birthplace of flamenco, and I'd seen some out and about, but this was truly different, being both technically accomplished (I'd say) and hilariously camp at the same time. I also met a very friendly - and non-predatory - local with whom I was able to have a good old chat and clear up a few words and phrases I'd been struggling with (callos not among them!)

Next morning, with a train booked for later that afternoon, I visited the Reales Alcazares (Royal Alcazar - this one, unlike Cordoba's, earns the title Real by virtue of its still being the residence of the King and Queen of Spain when in Seville) and while it's certainly very impressive, it was filled with yet more bloody tiling, predominantly mudejar, yet more arches and yet more tapestries. Despite feeling a complete Philistine I just couldn't muster much enthusiasm for it, but I did love the extensive and very pretty gardens which to be honest I felt were the real attraction here. Fruit was out on some of the trees and, unable to resist the temptation to set up the line that's coming, I got my gums round the King of Spain's plums. That, frankly, was worth the €8 entry fee alone.

OK you've been very patient to read this far so I'll try to be brief about my next stop, Granada. In fact that won't prove too difficult, because I've very little to say about the place, or at least very little that's positive. I didn't like the hotel much - it was badly in need of modernisation - and the sights just didn't win me over. The Albaicin, the old Moorish part of the city made up of labyrinthine streets lined with shisha bars, craft shops and cafés, seemed to me to resemble nothing more than a giant Camden; my inner snob came roaring out and I all but fled what felt to me like a horribly smug atmosphere of crusty/hippiness that in 2008 seems retrograde and incongruous. The Alhambra (and dear God am I going to get shot down for this but here goes) didn't impress me much either; despite being Spain's most visited monument by quite some way, this gigantic hilltop complex of palaces, fortresses and gardens is arduous to trek round, poorly signed (for €13 entry fee they could at least provide a free map, but no such luck) and compared to, say, the Mezquita, not as deeply rich in history as it thinks it is. Back in the city I did very much enjoy visiting the Capilla Real, the stunning final resting place of Ferdinand and Isabel, Spain's most famous rulers in history and conquerors of Andalucia, but other than that and coupled with a horribly touristy feel to the whole city, the best thing frankly was getting on the plane out.

The plane which will take me to Mallorca, the Balearic island where my paternal grandmother lived out the last few years of her life and in whose footsteps I am hoping to tread.

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