29 October 2012

Island escapism: Ventotene

Balcony view, Ventotene
I am sitting on a shiny-tiled seaside terrace in the sunshine, with the wind rustling the pot plants beside me. Across the sparkling, frothing blue water is a rocky, green-topped island, and distant beyond that, Ischia in the mist. At the foot of the cliff below me is a curving beach of dark sand. Several smoothed rock outcrops stick out of the waves nearby; one has a flight of steps carved in the tufa and another has a clump of Roman ruins on its top. I've just eaten a marvellous slice of courgette-topped pizza from an Aladdin's cave of a bakery, and I am contemplating the imminent ferry journey home. I don't want to leave and it's not just the choppy sea conditions which are deterring me. I am on the little Italian island of Ventotene and I want to stay here. If not indefinitely, then at least for several more days, to relax into the island's rhythms.
It is late September, the end of the tourist season; the islanders are friendly and there is a cameraderie among visitors. We exchange happy smiles and greetings, sharing our luck in being here and knowing this secret.
Inside the prison, Santo Stefano
Ponza, the largest of the Pontine islands, is a summer resort for modern-day Romans, while the more southerly Ventotene is a little jewel with a more select appeal. There is not a great deal to do, but sea, boats and ruins make an appealing combination and this is a great spot for escaping the modern world.
The picturesque and craggy island I am looking at from my balcony is Santo Stefano. Until fifty years ago, it would have been a sight to have provoked a shudder. This was one of Italy's prison islands, but the large Bourbon-era prison building was abandoned in the 1960s; its crumbling ruin can be visited on guided tours.
Ventotene itself was a prison, though a gilded one, two thousand years ago, when Rome's first emperor, Augustus, sent his daughter Julia into exile here. The scanty ruins of the elegant imperial villa can be visited (guided tours only) on the headland above Ventotene's modern port, where ferries dock. Around the corner is one of the island's best sights, a Roman port carved out of the island's soft rock. Arched caves dug by Romans to store goods – deliveries for the villa, perhaps – are now used by fishing and diving businesses.
Zuppa di lenticchie, Ventotene
Past a little three-wheeled ape truck selling local produce, a pretty yellow-painted zigzag lane is the pedestrian's way up into the heart of the island's one settlement. Its large square, Piazza Castello, is the hub of activity – such as it is – on Ventotene. Locals track across the square on foot or on little motorised scooters, greeting acquaintances. With official residents numbering 700 and winter residents considerably fewer (200-250, I am told) no-one is a stranger here. In the piazza you can sit with a morning coffee and croissant – as I did after disembarking a 7.15am ferry – or an afternoon drink, or an evening meal of local specialities, such as seafood and zuppa di lenticchie (lentil soup). 
As I walk the few yards between the piazza and my hotel after dinner, I see a woman swimming alone in the cove under the hotel as a beam of moonlight shimmers over the waves. In the far distance a cruise ship passes by, lit up like a Christmas tree, crowded with ten times as many people as this green little island. It slips gaudily over the horizon and I sit back on my balcony, hearing only the wind and the waves. I know where I'd rather be.

Fishing boats in the harbour
It is possible to reach the Pontine islands in a day from the UK, by catching an early morning flight to Rome. From Fiumicino airport, take the Leonardo Express train into Rome's Stazione Termini, then change to a local train heading south, checking timetables and buying a ticket to Formia. Alight at Formia, walk downhill to the port, catch an afternoon ferry and you could be enjoying a late afternoon drink in the island sunshine. On Ventotene I stayed at Villa Iulia, at €50 a night.

13 September 2012

Dancing Satyr - a poetic tribute

In 2003 the recently-restored bronze statue of a dancing satyr was displayed in Rome. It had been discovered a few years earlier in the sea off the coast of Sicily. There were stories that the local fishermen had been aware of the statue for years, repeatedly discovering it in their nets and then discarding it in the sea, until someone realised its value. The statue was probably one of a group which would have decorated an extravagant garden - it may have been one of the lesser pieces -  and was presumably lost in a shipwreck.

After queueing to see the statue, one of my visitors was so impressed that he went away and wrote a sonnet. The statue has now come to the UK and it can be seen until December in the Royal Academy exhibition Bronze.

Satiro Danzante

by A.R. Hammond

So here it is: "a green-bronze naked figure
Roman or Greek, life-size, from off the coast
Of Italy". A Satyr, lacking most
Of arm or leg, alas. But still some vigour
Survives of that wild revelry or dance -
Arched torso, twisted head and windblown hair -
While from that lustrous face two white eyes stare
As if they wake from Dionysian trance

To see those other forms, in glass and paint
And plaster, which through after-ages stood
For art: tormented sinner, martyred saint,
Starved prophet - all our suffering for the loss
Of innocence. And ever - for our Good -
That broken, blooded, body on the cross.

The statue can normally be seen in its own museum in Mazara del Vallo in western Sicily.

11 September 2012

Mozia Charioteer

The statue at the British Museum
Last week I popped into the British Museum to see an old acquaintance visiting from Sicily: the Mozia Charioteer. Normally this statue resides in a small and quaint museum on a marshy island along the western coast of Sicily. The Youth, or Charioteer as he has been labelled, has been honoured this summer with a placing in the Parthenon gallery of the British Museum. Although he usually lives in obscurity, the Charioteer is an important survival from the ancient world. Previous theories suggested this was the work of a leading Greek sculptor commissioned by the Phoenicians who lived in the island city of Mozia/Motya. Now it is thought the statue could be a thoroughly Greek work looted by the Phoenicians. Their downfall left the statue on the abandoned island site. Later the island was bought by a British exporter of Marsala wine, Joseph Whitaker, who began archaeological excavations.  The little museum is named after him.

The statue will leave the British Museum later this week. If you want to visit the Charioteer in his ancient home, the island makes an atmospheric day trip from nearby Marsala or Trapani (the nearest airports are Trapani and Palermo).

> More about Mozia
> The Charioteer at the British Museum
> British Museum blog 


30 August 2012

Posting packages from Italy

If you want to send a package from Italy - perhaps you have bought too much stuff on holiday - you'll find it can be surprisingly straightforward and fast. This week I sent a big box of books from Venice to London on Monday and they arrived today (Thursday).

The easiest way to do it is to buy a standard yellow box (scatola) from an Italian post office. They come in different sizes, with security tape and a space for writing the destination (destinatario) and the sender (mittente). I think I paid around €3 for my box.  I put my books in an old pillow case to keep them together and added the destination address to the top of the box in black marker pen.

At post offices in Italy you are usually expected to take a numbered ticket from a machine (for servizi postali) and wait your turn. You'll need to fill in a form detailing what is in your box. For Europe this isn't too demanding, though I did have to guess the number of books I'd packed. If your box is going outside the EU, you'll need to complete further customs declarations.

 For the EU there are two options for sending parcels. The standard service takes 10-15 working days. Quick Pack Europe, an express service, takes 3 working days. Between Italy and the UK there wasn't a big difference in price between the two services, so I paid €50.42 for Quick Pack Europe. As promised, the books have turned up within three working days. At a cost of approximately £39, this seemed a pretty good service.

> Prices for Quick Pack Europe
> More about the service (in Italian)

16 August 2012

Sant'Erasmo - a secret summer refuge for Venetians

Venice in August can be stiflingly hot, and the central areas are overrun by daytrippers. If you are staying in Venice and want to get away from the city, you can do as the Venetians do and head out into the lagoon.

 The green island of Sant'Erasmo is one of the secrets of the Venetian lagoon. A long, thin farming island which once separated the lagoon from the sea, this is where a lot of the fruit and vegetables in the Rialto market are grown. On sunny weekends and holidays, Sant'Erasmo is also a refuge for Venetians. Arriving in their small boats, they moor next to offshore mudbanks and along Sant'Erasmo's beach. Last Sunday there were hundreds of boats bobbing about as Venetian families paddled, swam, walked their dogs in the shallow waters and set up vast picnics on trestle-tables under home-made awnings. Those in need of a shot of coffee or a pizza queued up in their swimming costumes in the bar-restaurant behind the beach. Among the convivial crowds, it was as though the whole of the population of Venice had decamped to the island to enjoy themselves.

You don't need your own boat to join in. A regular ferry, the 13, connects Sant'Erasmo with Venice, though this stops some distance from the beach and restaurant on the island. Even better is my favourite summer boat service, the number 18. This summer-only 'bathing' service connects the Lido with Murano via Sant'Erasmo - and it stops right by the action on Sant'Erasmo, at the Torre Massimiliana.

Last Sunday we took a panoramic cruise down the Grand Canal and out to the Lido on the number 1, changed to the 18, and alighted at Sant'Erasmo. After visiting a free art exhibition in the restored fortress we strolled along the lagoon shore and back, seeing wading Italians and lagoon birds foraging for lagoon delicacies. Past tomato and squash plantations and vineyards, a crowing cockerel, and picnicking Italians, the walk showed my visitors a really different side of Venice. A pizza and tiny glass of wine at the restaurant tables under trees, enjoying the sea-breeze, then it was time to catch the next 18 - its jetty being used for diving practice and fishing - on to Murano. A stroll around the touristy glass-making island and then the express ferry back to Venice ended a good day out on the lagoon.

A trip to Sant'Erasmo is a great way to escape the tourist crowds. Check the boat timetables when you're planning your day out, especially if you want to use the panoramic 18 route, as this ferry only runs a few times a day.

A guide to Sant'Erasmo and the other lagoon islands can be found in the Italy Heaven Guide to Venice.

> Sant'Erasmo
> ACTV (for ferry timetables)

15 July 2012

Titian's house in Venice

'Titian' garden gate
The artist Titian (Tiziano Vecellio) lived near the Fondamenta Nuove, on the northern shore of Venice. He entertained friends such as the writer Pietro Aretino in his renowned garden, which  backed onto the lagoon. His view, on a clear day, would have stretched as far as the Dolomites, the stretch of the Italian Alps nearest to Venice, where he was born. In the winter from the Fondamenta Nuove the mountain tops are frequently visible, capped with snow. Presumably, like many artists in Venice, he felt nostalgic for the mainland, for he included mountain imagery similar to his birthplace in his paintings.

Although every history recounts the tales of Titian's home by the lagoon, the cityscape has now changed, with the Fondamenta Nuove, a broad paved canalside, constructed in 1589. And it seems that there is in fact some uncertainty over exactly where he lived. This part of Venice is now quite built up, and as usual in Venice houses were added to, altered and adapted over the years, so any house that is still standing may not resemble its original form. The general agreement is that, while the approximate location of Titian's house is known, the original building is gone. There are, however, a couple of plaques claiming to identify Titian's residence, and a little courtyard named after him, though few tourists explore this far.

To find 'Titian's house'
From the Fondamenta Nuove, by the vaporetto stops, turn down Calle de le Tre Crose. This brings you to Calle Botteri; close by is a garden gate bearing a stone inscription in Latin identifying the house of the artist (Titianus Vecellius). The actual building bearing a plaque is further 'inland' behind this gate. From Calle Botteri work your way around walking down Calle Cordoni. Next turn  right along Ramo de la Carità or Ramo del Cristo into Corte de la Carità (the site of La Frasca restaurant). Campo del Tiziano is just off the Corte to the right, with a small well-head at the end. A plaque on the wall, as well as the name of the courtyard, claim Titian for this spot. The plaque reads: "Tiziano Vecellio lived here for 45 years and died here in 1576". If Titian's garden really stretched all the way from here to the present-day Fondamenta Nuove, it is no wonder it was so admired.

You can take a look inside one of the properties on this square - or consider buying - here: http://search.knightfrank.com/RSI120106

Campo del Tiziano. The plaque is on the right-hand row of buildings.
> Titian at the National Gallery
> Titian 2012

Campo del Tiziano is close to the Northern Shore walk from the Italy Heaven Guide to Venice.

25 May 2012

Venetian walls

In the last few weeks I've been exploring (and re-exploring) lots of Venice's hidden corners, while writing an e-guide to the city. There is always something new to see. Today, after visiting the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista (open to the public on occasional dates) I noticed this old poster in Sotoportego de la Laca which advertises the local elections of 1975. The manifesto of each party would have been displayed below.

Another, much older, piece of history can still be glimpsed on a wall in Dorsoduro. This fragmentary German street-sign, if genuine, must date to the Second World War German occupation (or possibly even the Austrian occupation a hundred years earlier). It was shown to me several years ago; since then it has got increasingly illegible but you can still just about make out the word Platzkommandant.

And here's another piece of wall-history - a plaque erected by Gabriele D'Annunzio, patriot, pilot, poet and eccentric when he was in Venice between daring airborne assaults on Austrian territory during the First World War. He declares the Austrian shell to be a sign of the shame of this 'perpetual enemy'. This monument can be seen in Campiello Albrizzi.

There are a number of cannonballs in Venice dating back to the 1849 siege of Venice by the Austrians. This one is embedded in the church of San Salvador, near the Rialto.

These curiosities and many more interesting and hidden spots in Venice are featured in the Italy Heaven guidebook, along with directions for walks off the beaten track.

15 May 2012

Museums night in Italy (Notte dei Musei)

On Saturday night (19th May) Italian state museums and archaeological sites will be open free from 8pm to 2am, with special events taking place. Highlights include night-time visits to the Villa d'Este at Tivoli, readings from the classics in the archaeological museum in Venice, and music at the Uffizi gallery in Florence.
You see a list of participating museums and search for events by region at http://www.beniculturali.it/mibac/export/MiBAC/sito-MiBAC/Contenuti/MibacUnif/Eventi/visualizza_asset.html_305741442.html
It's a good way to save money and to see sights in a completely different way.

Also taking place this weekend is the Sensa festival in Venice (see What's on in Venice).

21 April 2012

Rome in 2012 (at 2,765 years of age)

The 21st April is Rome's official birthday. Founded, according to long-standing legend, in 753BC, the city is now 2,765 years old.

I have just returned from a week in Rome and noticed some big changes from the time, ten years ago, when I lived in the city. It is still an amazing place, with ancient history on every corner. There seemed to be more cars on the streets, which can only be a bad thing in a city already notorious for its traffic chaos. There were also fewer scooters in use, though perhaps that was a consequence of the bad weather during my visit, and many more bicycles.

Most noticeably, the city has become more modern and - like the rest of Italy - vastly more expensive. I had booked my trip to coincide with the Settimana della Cultura, when Italy's state monuments and museums are opened to the public free of charge. But even this countrywide initiative wasn't enough to drop the cost of visiting the Forum, Colosseum and Palatine from €12. Perhaps that's not bad value, considering the importance of the three combined sites and the cost of their upkeep. But I remember with nostalgia the days when I would take a short cut home through the middle of the Forum, which was open free of charge. Now it is open only from a couple of entrances at a high price, this historic heart of the city is no longer an integrated part of Rome, just another tourist sight. (And the enclosed site now means a long detour for pedestrians).

The Ludovisi Throne in Palazzo Altemps
One of the major differences in Rome is the kind of tourism. Of course there were always tour groups in Rome. But in 2012 the proportion of tourists visiting as part of a group seemed to me much larger. At the principal sights, the Forum, Colosseum and Vatican Museums, there were huge queues, with independent tourists queueing for as much as forty minutes to gain admittance, while big tour groups were ushered past. (For the Forum and Colosseum, I would highly recommend purchasing a Roma Pass for fast-track admission). Meanwhile, Rome's other wonderful museums, off the tour-groups' itineraries, were nearly empty despite the treasures they contain and despite the offer of free admission. While it was nice to see marvels like the Ara Pacis with no crowds, it was also very sad to think of these sights being overlooked, and perhaps underfunded, due to the changing nature of tourism. On a sidenote I was curious to see tourists queueing to pay the reduced price of €8 to see contemporary exhibitions at MAXXI, while all the town's unique heritage museums were free.

I used to think that central Rome was large enough to absorb any number of tourists, but that was before so many of those tourists were in groups of twenty-plus people. And with the increase in cruising holidays, the daily influx will increase. I came to the conclusion that nowadays, to visit the big sights is a necessary but arduous experience. But once you have competed with the crowds for the day-trip destinations, you can enjoy the city's other attractions at your leisure. Take the time to wander through the lanes of the centro storico, visit the smaller (and cheaper) museums, search for out-of-the-way antiquities and you will have a much more enriching experience.

Puntarelle and fiori di zucca in the market
Rome has been spending money. The dilapidated towers and picturesque creeper which adorned some of the centro storico's little lanes have gone, to be replaced with restored masonry and bland facades. A couple of my personal favourite spots had lost much of their charm. It was actually a relief to see the Tritone fountain in Piazza Barberini looking much as it has always done. Big restorations are still underway elsewhere, and while some of these are welcome, I suspect some of the Italian fondness for over-reconstruction is also at play.

Another big change is digital photography. Everywhere I went, tourists were photographing away with indiscriminate abandon. In St. Peter's there was no-one praying, no-one consulting guidebooks, no-one even  standing and looking around. Just a sea of illuminated LCD screens held up in the air. Italian teenagers were queueing to rub a statue's holy toe, as ever, but now they were filming themselves and presumably planning to stick the experience on Facebook. It's very different approach to travel. The weirdest thing I saw was a Russian woman groping the statue of the Dying Gaul in the Capitoline Museums, while her boyfriend took a photo of the act.

After living in Venice, it was a huge pleasure to return to a city with cheaper, better and more reliable restaurants. These are more expensive than they used to be, and slicker, with more foreign menus and a less leisurely approach to service - but the food is still excellent and we enjoyed great meals at some of the same restaurants I have been visiting for ten years. Local specialities such as fried artichoke and pasta cacio e pepe still fill the menus, and you can eat good filling food at reasonable prices.

Mostly, despite the changes, Rome stays the same. The city is still mellow and beautiful. There are still queues for the best coffee in Rome at Sant'Eustachio, still flowers on Caesar's memorial, still political poems taped to the statue of Pasquino.
House of Augustus, on the Palatine
Among this trip's new highlights were the Lux in Arcana exhibition at the Capitoline Museums - decipher a letter from Michelangelo, study the seals attached to Henry VIII's divorce request - and the frescoes in Augustus's house on the Palatine hill. One of my favourite moments was in the marvellous Palazzo Massimo alle Terme (a well-organised collection of Roman sculptures, mosaics and wall-paintings). On the top floor is a remarkable display of Roman interior design; the wall-paintings from several Roman villas. Peering into one  colourful bedroom, an older Italian lady beckoned me over with a "Pssst! Signora!". She wanted to point out her favourite painting - "che meraviglia!" - and informed me that of all the sights in the entire world, this floor of this museum was surely the most beautiful. She certainly had a point, and to see these sights, free of charge and with only a handful of visitors, was quite remarkable.

My latest tips for Rome, after this trip:

  • Stay long enough to avoid the crowds and visit Rome's fabulous museums 
  • Take a good map and guidebook and get off the beaten track
  • Buy a Roma Pass to minimise queueing at the Forum and Colosseum
  • Stamp your ticket before boarding the Leonardo Express train between Fiumicino Airport and Stazione Termini - the conductor was the nastiest official I've ever seen in Italy, and was enjoying victimising foreign tourists with demands for €50 per head fines
  • If you're on a budget, visit during next year's Settimana della Cultura

I will be adding fresh restaurant and museum recommendations in the near future.
> More about Rome

18 March 2012

Effigy-burning in Venice

On Saturday I was walking through the district of Castello in Venice when I saw this poster:

In Venetian dialect 'brusa la vecia' means 'burn the old woman'. Then, alongside the handsome gateway to the Arsenale I saw this effigy suspended in the sunshine:

A spot of online research reveals that the custom of burning the effigy of a hag is widespread in northern Italy, or at least in the northeast, where it most commonly takes place at Epiphany (6th January). I did find one reference to the tradition of celebrating 'Metà Quaresima' - half-Lent - in a similar fashion:
> Festivals of Italy

Even a local Venetian friend wasn't very well-up on this event, though making the good suggestion that it resembled a pagan 'farewell to winter' celebration.

So I turned up in the evening and found a very local event - mostly families from the local parish, standing and chatting or dancing with children as a man sang Italian standards with a microphone over recorded music. Punctually at 7:30pm, without much fanfare, as the singer emoted through Te voglio bene assai, the dangling figure was ignited and proceeded to burn merrily as the onlookers clustered around, with fragments of burning material spiralling up above our heads.

Then the effigy burned away, a female singer took over on the little stage with a song dedicated to a local little girl, and the little crowd returned to chatting, drinking an ombra and eating the snacks provided. One possibly inebriated old man in a woollen hat swayed as he blew kisses to the singer. There was an announcement about 'again this time next year', and the drama was over.

So if you are in Venice halfway through Lent in the future, I'd suggest heading to the Arsenale to see what you find.

21 February 2012

Venice Carnival 2012

Today is the last day of the 2012 Venice Carnival. After freezing weather in Venice a couple of weeks ago, the temperatures improved for Carnival and there have been some lovely sunny days. Crowds flocked into town at the weekend - as many as 100,000 per day to enjoy the atmosphere and admire all the costumes on display.

One of my favourite aspects of Carnival is walking around Venice and seeing random costumed carnival-goers, like passing an elegant eighteenth-century couple on a historic canalside. It's like going back in time to Venice's past.

As usual, there were some inventive costumes and many traditional ones. My favourite was a man dressed up as Van Gogh (right), complete with sunflowers and chair. A group dressed as an eighteenth-century tribute to Wedgewood were pretty good, too. Today, for the last time, the costumed participants (competing for a prize) will be parading in St. Mark's Square in the sunshine.

In 2013 Venice Carnival will be back, taking place 2nd-12th February.

> See Carnival 2012 photo gallery
> More about Venice Carnival

18 February 2012

Venice against cruise ships

There was a party atmosphere on the Zattere waterfront in Venice yesterday afternoon. Stilt-walkers and people in Carnival costumes gathered around, along with Venetians of all ages clad in their dark winter coats. Chatting with friends, stopping on their walk, accompanied by their little dogs. There was music, mulled wine and a convivial atmosphere.

But there was a serious theme underlying the Carnival gathering. This was a demonstration, one of many planned for this year, against the giant, monstrous cruise ships churning up the waters in central Venice. A stall manned by volunteers handed out information leaflets detailing the damage these ships are doing to Venice's historic buildings and to the fragile eco-system of the town's lagoon.

The numbers of huge cruise ships is growing each year, and so is the size of the vessels. Some days in Venice, with six or seven cruise liners moored close to the town centre, 30,000 people may spill off their cruise ships, filling up the narrow lanes of the ancient town. 2 million cruise ship passengers visited Venice in 2011. This is in addition to the tens of thousands who arrive for the day by train and coach. Venice has a population of under 60,000, which gives you an idea of the impact this daily invasion has. Occasionally the ships are even moored in front of residents' homes.

The excesses of tourism which turn Venice into a Disneyland - picnicked on, shambled through, littered then abandoned by evening - are a major problem. At present these protestors are not addressing this complex issue, but focussing on a simple one: the presence of ships in the lagoon. They are not even asking that ships stay away from Venice, just that they moor in the sea outside the lagoon.

Local politicians and government ministers have been warned by UNESCO and have accepted  there is a serious threat to Venice from cruise ships, and the current project is to build a vast new canal, deep enough for these monsters of the deep, right through the southern lagoon, giving them a new route to their moorings in western Venice. This would prevent them cruising through the city canals and keep them away from the sensitive waterfront of  St. Mark's, but it would obviously take a long time and cause further immense damage to the lagoon environment. What residents would prefer is for the ships to dock in the sea outside the lagoon, and to ferry their passengers in by smaller boat.

Many times I've walked along the waterfront in Venice as a cruise ship is passing by, its cheesy music and commentary jangling out, its movement causing the stone paving to shake underfoot, and heard tourists saying in horror 'It's just not right!' or words to the same effect. If you see a cruise ship sailing past the heart of Venice, you will understand immediately how wrong it is, even without knowing the physical damage they are doing. The ships are totally disproportionate to Venice's scale, and it is patently demeaning to a great art city to have these floating palaces looming overhead, passengers peering down at the monuments as they sail out of town - often with minimal contribution to the city and not having had the time to appreciate it.

At the demonstration yesterday we were waiting for the cruise liner MSC Magnifica to leave town. The Comitato No Grandi Navi (No big ships) has vowed to greet every ship's arrival and departure with banners and protest. Despite the costumes and mulled wine, as the ship began to move, its delayed departure failing to daunt the crowd, the mood darkened. 'It's moving! It's coming!'. Sirens wailed and whistles blared. A protestor with a megaphone shouted out the statistics, detailing the damage and sheer consumption of the ship.

There were at least a hundred protestors, despite the fact it was a working day, but the cluster on the waterfront seemed pitifully small compared with the might of the ship, carrying thousands off for their low-cost winter cruise.  Thanks to the megaphone and banners, though, the Venetians made themselves heard. One or two of the passengers lining the rails waved hopefully, then as the message they were hearing sunk in, they stood like silent little dark shapes, thousands of them, high above us, watching.

In Italian and English the message was clear: "You are too big for this city. Go away. You are destroying this city. Destroying palaces, destroying homes. It's not a postcard, it's a town." Some protestors just stood, others raised their hands in the classic Italian 'cornuto' gesture of hostility. The two largest banners read: "Grandi navi fuori della laguna" (Big ships out of the lagoon) and "Big ship you kill me". There were chants of "Fuori, fuori" (out, out).

As the ship sailed out, past St. Mark's, heading for its next port, the little knot of residents began shifting, shaking hands and preparing to move on. The stilt-walkers picked up their chariot - a large cardboard boat - and prepared for a procession through the city, handing out leaflets and raising awareness of their campaign.

Spotted near the Rialto Bridge

Earlier this winter I wondered if this would be the year that Venice rose up against the impositions and damage caused by excessive smash-and-grab tourism and by the crippling weight of cruise liners. There is a groundswell of opinion stirring, but with fewer residents each year, and lots of money at stake for a powerful minority, it may be too late to save the city from becoming a Disneyland. I found it heartening, and very touching, to see this humble stand against one of the most damaging influences on Venice. The recent disaster off the island of Giglio has been in everyone's mind - there was a protestor dressed as Captain Schettino - along with reflections on what would happen if one of these ships were to veer off course in Venice. The residents may, in this one matter, have their way, though frankly it's hard to see any  satisfactory solution in the foreseeable future.

In the meantime, while port authorities, politicians and the cruise industry debate, the residents of Venice have pledged to keep up their campaign. So if you are planning to cruise through Venice this year, expect to see banners and protests. It's not personal. Just a group of people wanting to save their home and preserve its heritage. If you, too, love Venice, you can read more, follow the latest news and keep up to date at the following websites:
> UNESCO calls for restrictions on cruise line traffic in Venice following Costa Concordia disaster
> Venice in Environmental Peril - Dominic Standish's blog

12 February 2012

Inspector Montalbano locations

The BBC series Inspector Montalbano (made by the Italian TV company Rai as Il Commissario Montalbano) is full of stunning Sicilian locations, from sweeping views to picturesque corners and lanes.

The original Montalbano books, by Andrea Camilleri, are set in fictional locations. Montalbano's imaginary  town, Vigata, is loosely based upon the real coastal town - Camilleri's hometown - Porto Empedocle, and Montelusa, the nearby big town, is based upon Agrigento, famous for its Greek temples.

However, the TV series moves the setting eastwards across Sicily, and it is mostly filmed in the south-eastern swathe of Sicily which is renowned for its architecturally-appealing Baroque towns (listed by UNESCO as heritage sites), some of which can be seen in sweeping overhead shots in the opening credits, including Scicli, Ragusa, Noto and Modica.

Town hall, Scicli - Montalbano's police station
In this article I'll list some of the filming locations for the TV series. Travellers who want to follow in Montalbano's footsteps won't find all the locations in one place, but you can find typical Montalbano atmosphere and scenery (minus the corpses) in any of these attractive Baroque towns. Within easy reach of Catania Airport, they are quite close together and linked by public transport, so it's relatively easy to spend a few days travelling around the area. This is a great destination for a cultural touring holiday, even without the Montalbano connection.

Regular locations

A lot of the locations are in the lovely little town of Scicli. Montalbano's police station, seen in many episodes,  is, in real life, the town hall of Scicli. It is in the pretty, central Via Penna. The mayor's real-life office (the Stanza del Sindaco) is used in the series too, as the Questore's office, and it can sometimes be visited by the public. The Questura (police HQ) building supposedly in Montelusa is also in Scicli, in Piazza Italia.
Piazza Duomo, Ragusa

In more recent episodes, Piazza Pola in Ragusa Ibla, off the main street, becomes the site of the Inspector's police station. Look out in TV episodes for the nearby Circolo di Conversazione, an elegant one-storey building. Ragusa is a picturesque town on two hilltops, surrounded by deep valleys, and it is featured heavily in Inspector Montalbano. The cathedral square Piazza Duomo, a long sloping piazza with a flight of steps leading up to the cathedral, can be glimpsed frequently.   Individual buildings and lanes close by are often used as the setting for Montalbano's investigations and house calls, and viewers will also notice and admire the famous view over Ragusa Ibla, the old town on its hilltop, with flights of steps and a road in the foreground.

The restaurant San Calogero which Montalbano visits often - and where he introduces colleague Mimi to future wife Beba  in Gita a Tindari / Excursion to Tindari -  is really La Rusticana in Ragusa Ibla, where the cast of the TV series have signed the walls.

La Rusticana restaurant, Ragusa Ibla

Punta Secca
Montalbano's home, with its balconies overlooking the beach, is at Punta Secca,  a small seaside settlement with a tall lighthouse, which stands in for fictional Marinella.   'Montalbano's' house is a B&B, helpfully called La Casa di Montalbano, so if you book well ahead you can actually stay here. The little square where the building is located is now rechristened Piazza Montalbano. Along the seafront is a restaurant where Montalbano occasionally enjoys a seafood and pasta lunch on the terrace.

Castello di Donnafugata
Castello di Donnafugata, near Ragusa
In the pursuit of his enquiries a disapproving Montalbano sometimes has to call upon aged Mafia boss Balduccio Sinagra in his sumptuous residence. In fictional Vigata the Sinagra family are the local Mafia clan. In reality the Castello di Donnafugata belongs to Ragusa town council, and is open to the public (and well worth visiting). It's outside the town and can be reached by car or very rare trains. The grounds also serve as the location for a horse race and a seduction in La Pista di Sabbia, and Montalbano finds a couple of corpses in the maze in Gita a Tindari / Excursion to Tindari.

Locations in individual episodes

Ragusa -  In Gli Arancini di Montalbano / Montalbano's Croquettes the detective calls in at a cafe in Piazza Duomo to see his housekeeper's delinquent son. The public park in Ragusa Ibla, the Giardino Ibleo, stands in for a hospital garden in another episode.

Alley, Modica
Alley, Modica (pictured) - On our Sicilian trip we were pleased to come across this spot in Modica, identified by an information board, not long after seeing the episode when Montalbano arrives here looking for a suspect and is served a barrage of foul-mouthed abuse by a little old lady.

La Pazienza del Ragno - Cava D'Ispica - Investigating a ransom case, Montalbano turns up in the rock-cut tombs which are a feature of the Monti Iblei area of Sicily, around Ragusa. A set of these caves can be visited in the archaeological park at Cava d'Ispica.

In Il Cane di Terracotta / The Terracotta Dog Montalbano discovers a pair of long-dead corpses in the Grotta delle Trabacche, another tomb site, located near Ragusa.

La Forma del Acqua / The Shape of Water and  La Pazienza del Ragno - Fornace Penna, Sampiero - this atmospheric ruined brickworks by the sea features in a couple of episodes.

In one episode Montalbano drives into Piazza del Duomo in Siracusa and visits the town hall.

Modica: Ponte Guerrieri - the terrifying road bridge crossing a ravine in the opening credits is this viaduct at Modica. We crossed it in a bus on a rather alarming journey, which continued with the bus swooping down hairpin bends into the town.

Scopello - the stunning bay in the north-west of Sicily is used as a location for Il Senso del Tatto

Other filming locations include Ispica, Donnalucata, Santa Croce Camerina and Tindari.

See the filming
New episodes of Montalbano are still being filmed, so if you are visiting the Ragusa area you may be lucky enough to stumble upon filming for new episodes of Il Commissario Montalbano.

Plan a holiday
>  Sicily destination and tourism information

9 February 2012

Montalbano on the BBC

Ragusa Ibla , a view frequently used in Montalbano
The BBC's decision to show an entire series of the detective drama Inspector Montalbano is great news for lovers of the programme, as well as for lovers of Sicily. Based on the colourful novels of  Andrea Camilleri, the RAI TV series Il Commissario Montalbano is hugely popular in Italy and has already been exported to other countries around the world. You can buy DVDs on Amazon with English subtitles produced for the US and Australia. The BBC has already showed two episodes in the past year, to whet viewers' appetites.

The TV series is filmed around south-eastern Sicily, mostly in the Baroque towns listed by UNESCO.   Principal filming locations include Ragusa, Scicli and Modica. These are picturesque small towns which show the very best of Sicily, and it is no wonder that the TV series has encouraged tourism in the region.  I toured the area last year and you come across Montalbano wherever you go - take-aways advertising the 'arancini of Montalbano', photographs of actor Luca Zingaretti and occasionally an official information board describing a film location. When we saw some filming in Scicli, we were thrilled, then disappointed to learn it wasn't for new Montalbano.

The detective drama is highly entertaining, with lots of colourful Sicilian characters, local dialect, beautiful scenery and convoluted plots. Like the original novels, the TV series captures the infuriating and bizarre aspects of Italian - and Sicilian - culture. From Montalbano's love of food  - check out the meals he enjoys alone at home - to the perpetually unfaithful spouses, the predatory women, corrupt politicians and incompetent professionals, this is an Italy which will be familiar to everyone who knows the country.  Some of the characters and situations are so hilarious you'd think they must be exaggerated... but perhaps not. Frequently the detective and his team are left with  'the Mafia' as the opposing, faceless protagonist. Montalbano is a decent man who sees the best and worst of his fellow Sicilians as he investigates baffling crimes, and makes excuses on the phone to his long-distance girlfriend Livia. Through his eyes the viewer can really enjoy the breadth, drama and humour of Sicilian life.

Shop sign in Modica
You can watch the first episode of Inspector Montalbano on BBC4 on Saturday 11th February 2012, and again on Wednesday 15th. DVDs are also available on Amazon.co.uk, as are the original novels by Andrea Camilleri.

Pour yourself a glass of Nero d'Avola, enjoy the TV show, and maybe you'll start daydreaming about a holiday in Montalbano territory.

> Montalbano locations in Sicily

> Ragusa
> Scicli
> Noto
> Siracusa

23 January 2012

Thinking about summer

This is a good time of year to think about the summer, and temporarily forget the cold while indulging in a spot of escapism. I've added a couple of new articles to the Italy Heaven website as well as a few bright and sunny pictures.

The best seaside holiday destinations
Amalfi Coast

There are so many good seaside resorts in Italy - and so many coastal towns now featured on the website - that it can be hard to know where to start when you're planning a holiday. This new page is a selection of some of the best, with a range of destinations that should suit all tastes. I've been updating the Cefalù page with photos I took during my visit, and I think that it could be one of the very best seaside holiday destinations in Italy, as it has a lot of charm and offers so many different things to the visitor.
> Italy's best seaside holiday destinations

Weird and wonderful places in Italy
I've seen some strange and unusual places in Italy, and there are others I'd love to visit (the underwater Roman city at Baia, the island of Pantelleria, the open-air war museums in the Dolomites). Here are some destinations where the scenery and atmosphere are truly striking, and where you'll find some unique accommodation too:
Weird and wonderful destinations

3 January 2012

Italy in 2012 - where and when to go

Latest news
The coastline of the Cinque Terre was hit by floods in October 2011, which severely damaged both the resort of Monterosso and the picturesque village of Vernazza (featured on the home page of Italy Heaven). The other resorts in the area will be open for business as usual this year, though walkers would be well-advised to check latest updates or telephone ahead to ascertain the state of footpaths. While there are hopes that the main coastal trail will be open by Easter 2012, the damage to the settlements may take longer to repair.

Festa della Bruna, Matera
On a brighter note, L'Aquila, ruined by the cruel earthquake of 6 April 2009, is slowly pulling itself back together. Some restoration projects are already finished, and work is continuing to bring life back to the historic town. Hopefully before too long L'Aquila will return to tourist itineraries and visitors can do their bit to revive the local economy.

Where to go in 2012
Every year more tourists visit Matera, in the Basilicata region (reachable from Bari Airport). This is somewhere I'd suggest visiting before visitor numbers grow still further. At present the town is well equipped for classy tourism, with some excellent hotels and B&Bs housed in the town's famous caves. This is one place where tourism has had a beneficial effect, bringing the abandoned cave districts to life without the damage of excessive development. Although it is hot in summer, a good time to visit is the start of July, when you can witness the remarkable and colourful Festa della Bruna, a deeply-felt festival which takes over the town.

If the cave attractions of Matera are just too developed for you, a completely undeveloped version can be found in Sicily. The pretty Baroque town of Scicli has a ruined church on a hill, and rows of abandoned cave dwellings in cliffs which intrepid visitors can explore. Rejuvenation projects are at best making slow progress here. You won't find much in the way of tourist facilities, but the town has an excellent hotel (Hotel Novecento), a cave-restaurant, a couple of small museums and some fine architecture.

Modica chocolate
Scicli is one of the Baroque towns rebuilt after a devastating Sicilian earthquake in 1693. The towns - Scicli, Ragusa, Modica, Noto - of the Val di Noto, along with ancient seaside port Siracusa, are incorporated in a UNESCO listing for their cultural importance. Charming, small-town Sicily at its best, these towns are on the up, with some good B&Bs and hotels, increasing awareness of tourism and excellent food at reasonable prices. Local specialities include the marvellous chocolate of Modica.  A new airport due to open at Comiso, near Ragusa, will really put the towns on the tourist map, so I'd recommend visiting while you can. Fans of Inspector Montalbano, a fictional detective featured in a popular TV series – of which two episodes have so far been aired by the BBC - will recognise the scenery of the towns.

La Maddalena
Italy has great beaches all around the mainland and islands, but many of the most renowned are on the island of Sardinia. Somehow Italian and un-Italian at the same time, this island has popular seaside resorts such as picturesque Alghero, the art and culture of the capital Cagliari, some fascinating towns and archaeological sites for explorers leaving the beaten track, and of course the famous turquoise seas surrounding Sardinia and its small offshore islands. Visiting the archipelago of La Maddalena (easily reachable from the airport at Olbia), I was impressed by the lovely unspoilt beaches - and by how empty they were in September, with the weather still hot.

One of the most interesting exhibitions of the year in Italy will be the display of historic documents from the Vatican's secret archive at the Capitoline Museums in Rome. The Lux in Arcana exhibition runs from March to September 2012 and is likely to include letters from Mary Queen of Scots and Henry VIII among its treasures.

When to go
As Italians mostly holiday en masse in July and August, when the country's resorts are packed, expensive and uncomfortably hot, I recommend visiting Italy in May, June or September for the best holiday experience. Earlier or later in the year can be good too, especially for cultural and city breaks, or for travellers who don't mind slightly lower temperatures.

Ragusa Ibla

2 January 2012

Best of Italy 2011

Here are my personal Italy highlights of 2011

Most luxurious hotel

Best off-the-beaten-track accommodation

Hotel Novecento, Scicli

Most frightening experience

Walking right around the rim of Vesuvius

Best views (and best exercise)

Amalfi Coast walking holiday with Exodus

> See a view

Best ruin

Castello Eurialo – an ancient Greek fortress outside Siracusa

Best meals

A tie between La Rusticana in Ragusa and Sicilia in Tavola, Siracusa

Best antipasti

Buffet at the Antica Trattoria Pizzeria in Olbia

Best ice cream

Olive-oil flavoured gelato in Ragusa

Best beaches

La Maddalena islands, Sardinia

Most surprising city

Cagliari - from beaches to art to flamingos

Best sighting

The Pope in a boat

Creepiest spot

The Ipogeo Celtico, a mysterious underground chamber in Cividale del Friuli

Best tourist trap

Grotte di Nettuno show caves, Alghero - actually worth a visit

Best tour in the footsteps of a fictional detective

Visiting the Montalbano locations in the baroque towns of Sicily

Naughtiest moment

Sneaking in with a private tour to see some of the best - and rudest - frescoes in Pompeii

and finally:

Top destination

I've spent time in lots of amazing places this year, but my award for top destination goes to Scicli, for its off-the-beaten-track charm, fine architecture, atmospheric hilltop churches and ruins, and mellow atmosphere.