EPISTLE VI —————————- October 2011-December 2011 ——————–
I : Let The Games Begin
II : Onto Ancona
III : The Black Madonna
IV : Crossing the Sibbilini Mountains
V : Enter Mr Underwood
VI : Ciao Calcata
VII : From Heart to Heel
VIII : The Apartamento at the End of the Rainbow
IX : Phorcys’ Cove
X : Olympia at Last
XI : Marching to Parnassus
XII : Poems from Parnassus
XIII : Coronation!
XIV : Meet the Olympians
XV : Hometime!
I guess all great quests begin with a wee kick up the ass, something to energize the mind for the trials ahead, to harden the spirit & to fortify the body. For me it came last Saturday with a right royal kerfuffle with the bouncers of Edinburgh. Three weeks previously I’d arranged with the hip young manageress of the Tron Bar to put on my Tinky Disco in their basement. Unfortunately, for the night in question she had been replaced by a dragoness of a manageress, fortified by a proper nob-head of a bouncer. Thus, when vodka-soaked Luke & an unshaven Victor Pope arrived pushing their gear in a supermarket trolley to set up, I was suddenly confronted with ‘you’re not the right clientele’ & rudely shown the door.
This wound me up, & I just had to wipe the smug grin off the bouncer by knocking his steaming mug of tea out of his hands & practically ordering him to attack me so I could save future punters from his neanderthal nobiness. He refused, however, & so I had to begin the awkward task of telling folk the gig was off. One of these was my lovely new ladyfriend, the Mary to my Shelley, who I noised up a mile or so away from the Tron. Unfortunately our return to town passed right by the Tron, & when a riled Burnley lad on a few bevvies feels hard done by, he’s always gonna have a pop. So I rushes up to the bouncer, gives him five seconds to apologise, slow-counts down, then gives him the gentlest tap on the cheek. That was the final straw for his infantile mind & in a flash there’s several bouncers giving me armlocks, punishing my pressure points & calling the cops.
Luckily my bird & her mates, along with about twenty bystanders, were eager witnesses to the heavy-handed steroid-addicts & on the cops# arrival, the bouncers were told, in no uncertain terms, that if they wanted to prosecute me, they’d all be coming too! A triumph for people power I believe! During all this it was funny to see folk arriving for the Disco only to see me cuffed up in the back of a cop-car. Mi bird was magnificent, mustering the troops & annoying the cops, & even bantering with my ex, Glenda, who’d arrived on the scene, saying, ‘I bet ya glad ya dumped him now!’ Priceless!
A free man again I raved it up for a couple of days then set off on my new mission. This time it’s the Med & I know it’s just gonna be buzzin! For a start, I’ll have a couple of companions. There’s the erstwhile Victor Pope, long-term buddy & benevolent housemate, who’s coming to Italy for the whole month. He’ll be a bit like Byron’s Hobhouse, while Paul, who joins us after 10 days, will be the groups’ troubadour. At Brindisi, in SE Italy, Victor flies home while me & Paul will then sail onto Greece. There the Byronic parallels continue. I’m 35 at present, the same age Byron was when he went to Greece to help them fight in their great War of Independence against the occupying Ottoman Turks. Unfortunately, before the action began, Byron contracted malaria & was bled to death with leeches by his doctors, a fate I hope to avoid!
Whereas Byron was funding an army with the proceeds of the sale of Newstead Abbey, I’m living off fifty quid a week Working Tax Credits, but I believe my own mission is rather more noble. While in Greece, I have a number of objectives, of which the principal ones are;
1 – To compose the latter portions of my 12-year epic poem, Axis & Allies, on the slopes of Mount Parnassus.
2- To drink the waters of the Helicon Spring
3 – To finish my book on the Homeric Question, which includes identifying the site of Odysseus’ palace on Cephalonia (which I’ve already done this summer in the National Library of Scotland)
4 – To DJ Tinky Disco at various party bars across the country
5 – To Visit Olympia in preparation for next year’s London Games, where I shall write Victory Odes
6 – To Visit Hissalrik – the site of ancient Troy – in NW Turkey (it’s not that far from Thessalonika, our departure airport)
As journeys of a thousand miles begin with a single step, I was helped up Leith Walk by Victor & his plus-one bus pass. I was carrying weight, including a bag full of Charlie’s clothes he’d left at my pad last year before our soiree round the Raj… after buying me a ticket to India it was the least I could do to drop ‘em off back down the capital. I left Victor at Waverley, jumped on a couple of trains & pulled into Burnley by 11PM for a couple of beers with my Dad. I’d told him I’d told the bouncers while they were trying to inflict pain on me that I’d told them I was from Burnley & they couldn’t hurt me & could the gay bouncer please stop rubbing his cock up against me – which brought a flourish of Lancashire pride to our father-son bonding session. It was one of those family moments, I guess, for he’d just found out my sister’s pregnant with her second kid.
After a morning with my wee niece Becky & a couple of hours with my best mate Nicky & his wee lad Lei-Bau, I caught, for the first time, the mega-bus from Burnley. I’d bought it a couple of weeks back for a bargain quid, & awaited my London-bound course with excitement. What I was presented was a mad-cap ride round West Yorkshire, via Keighley & Bradford, before ending up in Halifax – only twenty miles from Burnley – two & a half hours after setting off. We finally got moving, via Huddersfield, & arrived at East Midlands Parkway in the October blackness of 9PM. There, I changed onto an inter-city train & finally chugged into Saint Pancras at 11PM. A mad amount of travelling for the price of a king size can of Iron Brew.
Waiting for me in the megalopolis were Victor & Charlie, passing on the Damo-travel-companion baton over a beer. After giving Charlie his clothes, I bid him adieu with a hug & hiked off with Victor down to Holburn where we caught a bus with his free Scottish plus-one pass. The driver was completely baffled by it & let us on, & not long after we were in Stratford, under the shadow of the new Olympic Stadium, a rather apt poetical moment considering my forthcoming odyssey to the home of the Olympics in Elis, Greece. It was midnight by now, & we set off along the dark roads to Leytonstone, picking up cheap beer from dodgy Turkish 24 hour shops – I mean if you could get two bottles of wine for a fiver after midnight in Edinburgh, my world would be a better place.
At the 491 Gallery Cliff was his usual sparky self. He’s had a mental summer, getting arrested on ketamine while pushing his mate’s baby in a pram. This completely jeopardized his illegal status (he’s over run his visa by 10 years), but somehow I think he’s got away with it & the sword of Damocles that’s been hanging over his head for so many years has suddenly dropped to his shoulder & knighted him Sir Citizen!
So it’s now Wednesday afternoon, & me, Victor & Cliff are about to record a one-off live album in among the bohemian surroundings of the Gallery – a fine way to kick off the tour.
The internet is becoming an increasingly useful life-tool. In a recent murder case down Bristol, the police analyzed the victim’s neighbor’s browsing habits & struck gold. He’d been looking up body decomposition, google-earthed the location where the body was found (before it was found) & checked the police website every hour! In the same age, & yet another world entirely, I was working out the best way to get both me & Victor to Stanstead for free. Not wanting to risk a ticket check at the airport rail station, I thought I’d use last time’s methods & walk the 5 miles from Stanstead Mountfitchett, which is an easy to jump from Tottenham Hale on the Cambridge stopping service. However, google earth kindly put a rail sign over a village called Elsingham, only three miles from Stanstead. With the plan resolved, the next day we set off at 7AM & with the London bus drivers still baffled by Victor’s bus pass, & armed with our new knowledge, we got from Leytonstone to Stanstead completely free, enjoying the fresh Autumnal walk from Elsingham to the airport through English greenery & fine hedge-row roads sporting splendidly thatched cottages.
We’d arrived early at Stanstead, & our loitering brought down the cops on Victor Pope – it was a funny, heart-thumping moment as I’d just stolen a continental plug adaptor from Boots! It was also cool to come across as the decent citizen for once & not the terrorist-tramp! Finally on the plane, Victor began to verbally imagine all the ways we could die on a plane in some effort to exorcise them, finishing it with the fact that despite Ryanair having never had a crash, each flight counts down ominously & inexorably to the moment when they will – & were we on that flight, perhaps? Nob-head! His ritual anxiety was confirmed when he looked at his phone to discover the tune playing at that time was called Death. Very Final Destination! The flight itself was rather uninteresting – a yellow-blue no frills cruise through the clouds, interrupted only by the occasional trolly-dolly.
Arriving in Italy was a sensation. The plane followed the forked jade lightning bolts of the River Po until they converged on their Adriatic estuary & we were out over the open waves. The coast disappeared behind us into the mists, then reappeared as we banked back again, crossed the coast line & descended over the rooftops of Rimini onto the tarmac of Ausonia! The airport is just on the outskirts of the city, & a wee (free) bus ride later we were in the centre of town, my Italian flowing essato! Another couple of (free) bus rides later we were in the central piazza of Verruchio, an ancient hilltop site complete with castle & wonderful views of Rimini & the Adriatic. I’d googled it a few days ago while researching my theory that the Etruscans were originally the Trojans, & was delighted to discover it was only 17k from my litological mission’s starting point. Once there, we bought some salami, cheese, bread rolls & beer & camped at the foot of the castle in a tranquil slice of greenery, the street lights of the Rimini plain twinkling below a full moon, chatting about life & the adventures to come.
The next day we set off south ‘a piede’ (on foot), heading for the castellated mountain of San Marino. We had to descend a steep valley & the hike up the other side was real nasty. Still, the journey was a pleasant one, helped by the one euro litre of wine which I’d started at breakfast. It’s the traditional juice of poetry & when gushing about my verteux mind, & when set off by the catalytic Italian sunshine, all hell breaks loose on my written page.
San Marino is the third smallest nation in Europe – after the Vatican & Monaco. In return for housing Garibaldi’s army during the Risorgimento (the unification of Italy) it has maintained its independence. It consists of 60 square kilometers of lovely hills & valleys, housing 30,000 citizens, from which its small army is drawn. Its main town is perched on a mountain top; a clean palace of beige brickery, undented fortifications & narrow streets.
The views are awesome, from the Rimini plain to the east, the Apennines rising to the west, & the serried rows of hills rolling north toward Venice (a wonder at sunset). Me & Victor camped once more at the foot of the fortifications, then strolled about town, checking out all the guns, swords & crossbows you can buy here. The British government knows its citizens are beer-swilling barnpots, & such an easy access to death-dealing equipment would bring the nation to its anarchic knees. The Italians are a much more sophisticated race & can be trusted with these implements of carnage.
Here’s a plaque I found in the town, commemorating Garibaldi, which I’ve translated to the best of my abilities;
Ordine Del Giorno (Militi) S Marino 31 Luglio 1849
Noi siamo sulla terra di rifugio e dobbia il migliore contegno possibile ai generosi ospiti. In tal modo avremo meritata la considerazione dovuto alla disgrazia persecuitata. I vi scioglo dall’impegno di accompagnarmi. Tornate alle vostre case.Ma ricordatevi che L’Italia non deve rimarere nel servaggio e nella vergogna.
We are on the land of refugees & the best behaviour possible of generous hospitality. Through such manners they have merited the consideration that must disgrace persecutors. I urge you to commit to the company. Return to you homes. But remember that Italy must not remain in service or in shame.
The next morning was a windy un,’ propelling us back down to the pleasantness of the plains. This involved a bus ride down the chicaning road system of San Marino. Reaching Rimini, we jumped the train a few stops down to the resort of Misano Adriatico. Post-season, the place is a ghost town, full of boarded up windows & shuttered hotels. The Adriatic herself was a raging wave-world & not appetising at all. Still, the turquoise stirred the soul as that night, a hundred meters inland, we found an abandoned farm house to camp beside, whose owners had kindly stacked a pile of fire-wood for us to use. It was another nice night, drinking wine & chatting with Steve – it’s funny how after 15 years of friendship we can still chat as if we’d only just met!
The next day brought us down to Ancona. Our first train was an express & we were cobbled by a conductor. A quick ‘siamo poete inglese’ (we are English poets) later & we got off at the next stop scot free. This was Catholica, from where, an hour later on the next train, we reached Pesaro. Having another hour to wait we hit the splendid central piazza, where the Italian version of a flea market was kicking off. One guy was selling VHS tapes of films he’d copied off the telly – something the British would just not do! From Pesaro we caught a nice stopping train (no conductors) & followed the line south, just a few meters away from the sea. Eventually the hilly headland of Ancona appeared & here we are, waiting for a bus to a place a few k away which looks nice on the map. My instinct was earlier confirmed by an elderly English lady who is resident here. Have I stumbled upon another Tuscany perhaps?
Good morning from a poet in the City of Poets. I am currently sat in the glorious central square of Recanati, a great old town perched on a hill between the sea & the Apennines. It gets its nick-name from a famous poet called Giocarmo Leopodi, a romantic-era soul who died at a Burnsian 39, yet left behind a very impressive body of work. I’ve never heard of him before & am looking forward to visiting his museum & the local bibliotequa to study his works.
Getting here from the Ancona has been a joy., tho’ Ancona itself – a port – was jam-pack’d full of undesirables… nasty-looking Arabs with red eyes & wobbling about on beer. Luckily, Sirola a few miles away, was perfection itself. Most of the Adriatic coast-line has been identical, a not very attractive mix of hotels & bars along a seemingly endless stretch of sand. However, Sirola’s beaches are gorgeous, nestling underneath the backdrop of a great Beachy Head style promontory, & difficult to get too. We spent two nights there, the second of which was encomfortablised by the acquirement of mattresses from a couple of caravans from a nearby, closed camp site.
Drinking wine to the roar of a driftwood fire, we witnessed each night the rise of a blood-red moon. Between these two moments I sat on a chair by the turquoise waves, working on my book about the Homeric Question (I’d charged my laptop at a guy’s work-hut by the beach) – a sublime office indeed! There was an interesting human touch – a guy in his middle 40s was the local beach boy, & grew angry when speaking of his wife, an Englishwoman who’d left him with their kids over in Penzance where he used to work. He made a sad figure, slumped over as he told me his tale.
But every broken parent begins with the excitement of having a child, I guess, & so onto Loreto, whose cathedral contains, after the Vatican, the most serene & startling interior of a church I have ever seen. Great frescos & paintings cover every wall & alcove, tapering up into the Sisteenly painted Dome. Underneath is a wee chapel, whose walls are said to have come from the very chamber where Mother Mary was born, & transported here during the Byzantine era. Inside is the famous Black Madonna, a new version (1921) of an ancient idol, which is said to make pregnant a woman who prays to it. The cathedral itself forms one side of Loreto’s main piazza, with a Papal palace forming two others, all observing a glorious fountain & creating an amazing picture for the mind to recall. The rest of the city is typically Italian, narrow streets & sleek boutiques, far from the likes of Rotherham, Barnsley & Luton. Yes! This is indeed a glorious nation!
Sonneteering is something akin to stargazing. As the Galilean telescope discovered the moons of Jupiter, so does the sonneteer discover new forms of sonnet. My latest invention came about from a couple of hours studding the works of Guicarmo Leopardi in the library at his home town of Recanati. Armed with my new sonnet form, I decided to head to the Monti Sibbilini mountain range. A bus ride, a train & another bus ride later (all free) we had entered a world akin to the English Lake District, climbing 700 meters to the university town of Camerino. It was a fine, spacious city, with commanding views & an air of high intelligentsia. About a hundred meters below the city Victor found us an old farm house, where we pitched tent, lit a fire, drank booze & chatted once more into the night, the soft silhouettes of the mountainscape rising across the valley before us. The next morning we were off again, & what a day. We followed a steep & narrow, tree-shaggy valley ever & ever upwards to Castelsanteangelo sul Nera. It is a lovely spot, with crystal clear river water & the fresh air of altitude. The wee town nestles at the foot of a triangular defensive wall system which pyramids up the slopes. After stocking up on spam & bread we set off on our hike up a hill, & were lucky to be picked up by a middle-aged couple from London!
They were quite surprised to find out we were from Burnley, but were lovely sorts & we were connected by the town of Thiruvanamali, where their daughter had set up a school & I had translated Thirukural. They dropped us off at the Castelluccia, an amazing wee town at the center of this extremely flat plateau. Above it, covered by clouds, towers Monte Vettore, which at 2476 meters is almost twice the height of Ben Nevis.
Bidding our countrymen adieu, Me & Victor continued our hike, crossing the mountain-circled plateau, then climbing a not too steep road. As we went, tho’, the rains came, & believe me there was no shelter at all. We finally hit the ridge, however, where a rifugio (hostel), tho’ closed, gave us a little shelter to eat our lunch out of the mountain winds. Not far beyond that the road finally began to drop & we were rewarded with views of the valleys below us, stunning in autumnal glory, & thro’ a break in the clouds, the Gransasso itself, a mountainous 3000 meters. In WW2, after a coup had deposed him, Mussolini was imprisoned in a hotel near the Gransasso, but was famously rescued by Germans in gliders.
The walk into the valley was beautiful, the rains had stopped & the road was lined with berries & apple trees. Then the rains came back again & we finally reached this wee village, soggy as fuck! For shelter we entered this 1930s style bar, ran by the elderly, but adorable Dora. She made us feel very welcome, as did her wee squat customers, four oldish guys who just sat & played cards & didn’t even buy a drink. From there we made a futile search for a B&B, & were forced to camp in the dark a few k downhill – a very uncomfortable night on hard ground & nippy with dampness.
Despite the amazingness of the previous day, the next morning we called off our further mountain adventures & resolved to get back to the coast. While waiting for a bus at Arqua del Tronto, I got chatting to this 87-year-old man -Tony – who had an amazing tale. During World War Two he & his family had hid a certain Jack Macshiel from Glasgow, who had found himself on the wrong side of the Gustav Line. For seven months he avoided the Germans & the story was a stirring start to the day.
The bus we then caught provided us with the first sting of the tour – our tickets were 2.70 euros each. Still, it’s not bad considering we’ve been on the road ten days! The bus took us to Ascoli Piceno, an industrial city at the foot of the mountains. While waiting for the train out of there we met 26-year-old Danilo Battistelli, a handsome architecture student who I had my best Italian conversation with I’ve ever had, by the end of which he was offering to put me & Victor up for a couple of nights. We told him we would return after we picked up Paul from Pescara airport (Wednesday). Talking of which, we are now only 20k from there, a little premature, but happy to be in a town called Pineto. We camped on the beach last night, cooking hot food for the first time with some pans we found back at the farmhouse in Camerino. It was mackerel, eggs & what turned out to be yoghurt, creating a new dish I’ve coined ‘Fishyogegio.’ The yoghurt was supposed to be milk (Victors bad Italian at the supermercato), whose true identity I discovered this morning when, after stoking up the embers of last night’s fire & looking forward to a good cup of tea, on pouring the milk into the pan, it all congealed! Still, I guess yoghurt is a good way to start the day. This continued with us trying to find an apartment or hotel for a night or two to clean up, but everywhere is closed for the season. The place is lovely, but I guess touristy, & despite there being several hundred empty rooms all around us, all are closed.
Instead we’ve camped in the palatial grounds of a nearby hunting lodge, complete with an overgrown tennis court & just ripened orange trees. Close by is a bar where I am writing this blog, recharging the laptop & having a jolly good rest from the mountains.
The last time I wrote a blog me & Victor were all set for a salubrious night’s nobility, camping in the grounds of a stately hunting lodge. Unfortunately, the owner’s daughter came back & discovered that, as I’d moved the chairs from the porch that her mum had hidden the key to the house under one of the pillows on the chair, she couldn’t get in! Cue a wee bit of pandemonium & fast-thinking Italian chat from me, & before you knew it the police had been called, but a few moments later the key was found, & a few minutes after that me & Vic had packed up the tent (in the dark) & were out of there before the police could arrive. We ended up back on the beach for a pleasant enough night.
From there we jumped trains down into Pescara, a solid enough city, with glorious long golden beaches & a relaxed vibe. After watching the Manchester derby, we headed out of the city & up into the hills, to Loreto Alfrunti. My word, what a lovely town, a royal ruby set in a world of olive trees – the place is famous for its olive oil I guess. The first night we camped, & the second night we squatted a very cool old house, which gave us our first proper beds in two weeks – much to Victors home-comfort seeking delight.
Also in the town we met an English ex-pat, who recently sold his house in Bolton & entered the property market in this region of the Arruzzo – the new Tuscany apparently. He was a likeable chap & was from Rawtenstall, near Burnley. Indeed, in his lifetime he has been the last stall-holder on Padiham market & even taught at my old secondary school – Gawthorpe High – as a supply teacher. He was half-Italian &, at the age of 47, had gone off in search of his roots, whose Italian language is laced with a very thick Northern English accent. It was chuckling to see him teaching some Italian toddlers English in the local library, who now think ‘but-tee’ is the proper word for a sandwich!
And so for the arrival of Mr Underwood. Me, Vic, the Bendrix & him had all been a part of Saraswati – my band in Edinburgh. A couple of days back we’d gone down to Pescara airport & camped a mile away in some lush countryside. Then Paul arrives on a late-night plane & we went off back to base full of high spirits. These were hardly dented by the arrival of the Carabineri, who told us to put out our fire & turn the music off, checked our passports & left us to it. ‘Benevenuto in Italia’ I told Paul, & meant it.
Yesterday we caught a coach from Pescara to Rome (15 quid), foraging through the glorious scenery of the Apennine ridge; a mix of hilltop towns, castles, narrow ravines & soaring peaks. I’d took my shoes off as I got on, to dry off mi socks a bit – but the guys sat behind me told me to put ‘em back on – I guess that’s two weeks on the road for ya. However, things are now looking up. I’ve took the guys to Forte Prenestina – a great hippy instruction in the Roman suburbs. There are about 20 regulars who sleep in the old barracks; plus bars, stages, arts spaces, studios & the such like. We are staying in the dormitory here, for free, & by catching the nearby number 5 tram we’re in the centre of Rome in 25 minutes.
After writing mi blog this morning, we proceeded to have a lovely walk around Rome, basking in endlessly cloudless skies. Tramming it into town we hit the Colosseum, Circus Maximus, strolled up to the Vatican on the west bank of the Tiber, checked out the Holy See, had a picnic on the Spanish Steps (where I discovered Paul is a dead ringer for Keats), tossed coins into the Trevi Fountain before tramming it back to the Fort & some well-earned comfort & rest.
The cyclic nature of the world is not in question, it’s how it works that is the mystery. Scientists say that every seven years, a quarter-length of Saturn’s circuit around the sun, we have completely changed our atoms. Thus seven years ago it was a different me who first arrived in Calcata! Now this place is something else, the most beautifully preserved medieval town in Europe, capping a great crop of volcanic rock, surrounded by thickly forested ravines where the birds swoop & swirl across the great space of air betwyx town & valley-side. It is famous in Catholic circles for being the home of the foreskin of Jesus, hidden in the nearby caves by a knight fleeing the 16th century siege of Rome. I came here back in 2004 & wrote a beautiful poem called the Language of Flowers. As I was 27, peaking I guess with the ladies, I’d flown one girlfriend into Rome, took her to Calcata, then dropping her off at their airport met another lady off the next plane in. Those days are over now, & being in my mid-thirties all that kinda nonsense is over. A case of sewing your wild oats, I guess, & a poet playing with his Muses.
Roll on seven years & I’m here again with Victor & Paul. We got here from Rome on a train & a bus (paying a euro each in total) & they both immediately fell in love with the place. There is a certain magic to the wee town & its citizens, & our arrival could not have been timed better. Twenty years ago the town was practically deserted, but suddenly a bunch of hippies & artists moved in, opened galleries & restaurants & the place is now thriving. I’d met an American here last time, the dance teacher of Greta Garbo among other famous Hollywood dignitaries, who I was sad to hear had passed away last year at the age of 88. I’m not surprised, tho’, he was smoking & drinking wine like crazy when I met him. I got the news by popping round to his house to borrow the same guitar that I used to borrow, from another American, Pancho. Being American he’d instigated some Halloween festivities in the town a few years ago, a festival not normally celebrated by the Italians, but one they have taken to like crazy in this wee pocket of the world.
Pancho told me to see Bruno, the long-haired owner of the only bar in town, where we were intercepted by an English photographer called Stephen, who took charge of the situation & led me off through a world slowly Halloweening up with ghoulish decorations. At Bruno’s the magic of Calcata kicked in, & an hour or so later, being passed around from house-to-house & person to person, we had a fuckin’ gig for Halloween in the piazza! The Saraswati reunion was on! Our main help came from Terril, a thirty-ish New Yorker who’d shacked up with an older Italian guy called Oswaldo.
She found us guitars & a place to practice in this Dutch ladies theatre-cum-gallery complete with a beautiful grand piano on the stage. Waiting for the gig we spent our days lazing outside the 2,500-year old Etruscan caves we were camped by. I’d even found a bed & moved into one of them, while a much larger affair had been turned into something like a Hobbit-house, where we cooked on an open fire, the smoke billowing from a chimney somebody had hewn from the rock.
It was time for the gig itself. The warm up was cool, watching the kids in fancy dress trick or treating while I consumed copious amounts of red wine: you can get a litre of the stuff – that’s a bottle & a third – for 65p. After blagging guitars off the main band – a cover-chomping rockathon all in the English tongue – we went on stage to about 3000 people, who were all wandering through the narrow streets or bustling in the main piazza.
Somehow we pulled it off, with Victor dancing about like a hippy-Bez, blowing wild notes through his melodica. Up front Paul rattled confidently through a great set which had the piazza jumping, driven on by a drummer – Allessandro – who’d joined us half way through the set. It was there that I felt another of those cycles grow to a close. I guess I began my singing career on the streets of Burnley when I was about 8, plucking up the courage to knock on some old granny’s door to sing a rendition of ‘Halloweens coming.’ Roll on twenty-odd years & I had to do the same again, only this time the crowd was 3,000 rowdy & random Italians.
At the end of the gig a few folk even gave us cash – which as I write today is proving hard to spend. It’s All Souls Day, y’see, & Halloween derives from All Hallows Eve. To the Protestant traveler that means all the shops are shut & the restaurants are charging £30 for a seven course meal. Not expecting this, after we raved it up last night, including a wicked djembe session where I tamborined myself into wine-soaked bliss, we came back to our caves & gorged all the food, except for a bag of pasta & an apple.
Improvising, however, in proper Bear Gryls style, I cooked us some nettle-pasta, beefed up with the apple. Honestly, it was pretty tasty, spiced up with pepper & oregano it went down a treat. It was at this moment that Victor showed his middle-class roots, & had already made his mind up that anything with nettles in just had to be awful. I dont think he realised that up until about 100 years ago, nettles were an important part of the British diet. Anyhow, he sampled one pasta tube, declared the whole thing tasteless & plumped for a ten-pound chicken dish later in the day… which was so meagre & unsatisfying for him I even gave him a quarter of my later-day takeaway pizza to fill him up! He should have had the pasta methinks!
After a lazy night by the fire, listening to Vivaldi & the rustling of wild boar, we set off yesterday morning on our mission to get to Brindisi. Travelling like this is a bit like playing Monopoly, rolling the dice & seeing where you end up. Our first few rolls were quite low. We had three hours to wait for a bus out of the rural district which Calcata studs like a ruby-stone, so I took the chaps on a walk through an old stomping ground to Mazanna Romana.
The journey is a lovely, yet at times quite steep, 4 kilometers through the greenest forest, pass’d the ruins of an Etruscan temple, across a swirling river & up into a delightful piazza where we bought our lunch. A wee siesta in the sun later we rolled another low number & got dropped off by the motorway. From there, however, we rolled four doubles in a row – a bus to Saxa Ruba, a train to Rome, a metro under Rome, & then a bus ride 60 k or so south to Frosinole, where we took a hotel (with a hot shower = bliss!) for the night. The whole journey cost us a euro each – the Romans have this rule that a one euro ticket lasts you 75 minutes, which got us from Saxa Ruba all the way onto the Frosinole bus. Cool stuff.
Woke up this morning to the sun shining for the seventh day in a row. After catching a cable car thing to the old town of Frosinone, perched invariably on a hill, complete with magnificent views of mountains & plains, we are in a bar doing with free wi-fi uploading our blogs. Later today we’re heading to Cassino, for another trip, for me, down memory lane…
Last night me, Vic & Paul arrived in Brindisi, a charming port city, full of white buildings & polished streets that glimmer in the street-lights. The waters of the harbour are a creamy affair & the place is a rare idyll on this often soul-sapping Adriatic coast. Yet my feet were still moving, & with Greece only a boat ride away I urged the boys to head for Hellas. Unfortunately Vic was having none of it. He flies out of Brindisi next week & didn’t want to risk any fuck-ups & would prefer a nice comfy apartment by the sea than fannying about up Greek mountains. So we’re staying, & are heading down to Lecce in an hour or so to find a nice spot on Italy’s heel.
It took 5 days to get here from Frosinone. Our first port of call was Cassino, & the abbey of Monte Cassino that towers over the town like a drunken headmaster hovering over your homework. You can catch a bus up to the top which rewards you with the most amazing views of the mountainous country all round. Indeed, in the Second World War, the Germans held this vital strategic point for six-months against all the might the Allies could throw at them, leading to the inevitable bombing of the 1000-year-old abbey. This only served to provide the Germans with more cover, & despite the Italians rebuilding the monastery to spec, the barbaric act still sticks in a cultured man’s throat.
After a night’s camping we walked back down the hill, so high up it seemed we were human gliders, with the views changing awesomely as we twisted & turned our way down the serpentine road. At the bottom we carried on our journey, crossing the Apennine spine of the country, pausing at Venafro for lunch under great gargants of rock, before racing through Campobasso to get to Termoli. We were now back on the Adriatic, not far down the coast from Pescara, on a lovely beach beneath the castle & walls of old Termoli, which jut into the sea like the QE2. The rest of the place is funky as fuck – lots of cool bars & a lovely gentle slope down to the sea.
Waking to the waves we continued our journey – but the train-jumping gods were against us. It’s not easy when there’s three of you / with big bags / setting off from starter stations – & we had to wait three hours at first stop out of Termoli… a ghostly place where I spent a couple of hours trying to hitch a ride for us, which though unsuccessful I enjoyed immensely thanks to the copious amounts of wine I’d been drinking. Swallowing my pride I relented to the lads wish to buy a ticket – which at a fiver equaled everything I’d spent up to this date on travel – a grievous blow! This got us to Foggia, an uninteresting city, & somewhere we had to get out of to find a decent camp-site. So getting on the next train, we were kicked off at the next stop again – which was essentially a big industrial estate. As we trudged past the gloomy buildings & along the motorway Paul wasn’t happy, but cheered later on when I led him to where the karmic gods had brought us. About 2k from the station lay the small village of Incoronata, & two k after that the sanctuary of Incoronata. Lo & behold, on arriving we were offered genuine Catholic hospitality & given a room with hot showers for a couple of nights. Albeit we had to share it with Antonio, a wee, balding funny middle-aged Italian man, who was so adorable I wanted to take home with me!
The gods really were working in our favour, for the Sunday was a miserable day of rain, wind & thunderstorm as a weather front came racing over Italy. The boys rode it out in a bar – part of the commercial bullshit that lay outside the sanctuary. It was like being in Puttu-pathi all over again, where a place of great spirituality is surrounded by tat-sellers trying to make a fast buck. Still, the lads were happy, & spent the day drinking like Brits abroad – in the meantime I found a quiet chapel to write my book on the Homeric Question – quiet that is until a load of school kids poured in to do Mass. It was funny watching them watching me watching them & I quite enjoyed the Mass – lots of praying, singing & handshaking & the solemn tones of a priest who probably doesn’t believe in God.
From Incoronata we headed south on the trains once more, passing through a massively flat plain & the city of Bari before arriving in Brindisi, where this blog began. Then, an early start got us down to Lecce, the gateway to the coastal beaches of the Heel, where I’m now writing this in the salubrious city library.
Tonight there will be a parting of the ways. My erstwhile, & long-suffering travelling pal, Victor Pope, will be heading home to Auld Reekie, where he’s gonna gorge on Indian takeaways while playing his x-box non-stop for at least a week. Tomorrow morning he’ll be catching the 6AM flight to London Stanstead from Brindisi, just as me & Paul should be watching the sun rise up over the Ionian islands, off the shores of the Greek mainland. In honour of his services to companionship, I’d like to present his version of recent events;
Cioa mi amica,
From our sewer we made our way to Leche, still itching slightly from all the mosquito bites. In Leche we found a library for internet, similar simplistic south American / African style buildings surrounding us. Then we decided it was time to hit the beach for one of the towns circled on the map by a guy we met in Calcata as a nice place to go. It was pleasant enough. Kind of another dead seaside resort, all modern but pretty enough little apartments and bars. Kind of a little Italian Costa del shite. Damo went in search of a cheap place for a few nights but once again bore no fruit. However there was a little uninhabited Island just off the coast and thoughts of a romantic Robinson Cruso type excursion excited Paul and Damo. So who was I to poop the party (dubious as I was)? However, doubts arose in Paul’s mind when a number of the locals gave him worried looks, bringing up the caboniari and the predicted nasty weather. After some deliberation we felt it wiser to set up camp on the mainland.
After a brief walk up the coast we found a quiet patch of beach and pitched the tent. But it wasn’t quiet for long. Pretty soon the heavens opened and we were bombarded by a torrent of tiny wet fists beating away at us and Damo’s attempt to make pasta on a fire fueled entirely by a grass skirt type thing (decent wood being in short supply). Miraculously he pulled off a reasonably edible dish and we retreated to the tent to scoff it down in relative comfort. But pretty soon the fear of God and nature was on us once again as sky splitting roars blasted from the brooding clouds, accompanied by fork lightning, the very spears of Zeus striking barely off shore in all directions (including, bizarrely enough, horizontally). This was too much for Paul to resist and he rushed into the torrent to tempt fate and admire the wrath of the Gods in all its glory. He didn’t have long to wait. Barely a few yards from him a lightning bolt struck a tree and he nearly fell back into the tent pale as a sheet with eyes as wide as saucers. Was this the end? The next bolt was so close it shone bright red and I swore I could feel the heat from it. We quaked in the tent with the reapers seethe swiping barely inches from our heads until finally, after the longest half hour of our lives, the storm swept over. But what a rush! I was almost jealous of poor Paul.
In the morning we decided to walk the twenty K to the next town. It was all going swimmingly until, just as we hit some beautiful, pixyland forestry the heavens opened once again. Shivering briefly under a tree we managed to blag a lift of a kindly woodsman who took us a k or so down the track. But it was out of the frying pan into the fire as a desperate scramble up some wet rocks was required to get back to the road. Nature may be beautiful but it’s also the most indiscriminate and merciless killer on the planet. But finally we arrived in Santa Maria al Bagro, wet, exhausted and badly in need of a B and B. Although it seemed as though our luck was finally turning. One of the first buildings we came to was an estate agent with apartments available. Damo worked his dubious magic and pretty soon we had a whole villa for 225 euros for five days. I say villa, the place is a fucking mansion. Massive kitchen, three bedrooms, Bathroom, two showers, living room with TV, garden, washing machine…..WASHING MACHINE!!! Finally we had struck the gold at the end of the rainbow. Damo had finally delivered on his promise, and the previso for me joining him on this insane quest in the first place, with days to spare. All was, for the time being at least, forgiven. I would end my “Holiday” in style with an actual Holiday. But hey, as Bill Hicks once said, life is just a ride.
Today has been luxuriously spent sunbathing, reading, cooking (full English of course) and chatting with a delightful local Hippy who sent Damo and Paul on a whitey and told us all about Belesconi finally being ousted a couple of days ago. So it seems we had arrived at quite a historical time. And the madness isn’t over. Our estate agent has apparently sorted us out a gig for Saturday night with a local musician in the nearby town of Nardo. One last date on the Saraswati grand tour of Italy and hopefully the fuel for one last blog. But until then,
Cioa per addesso,
Cheers man! Since he wrote the above blog, I spent a day wandering the coast & woods of Portoselvaggio, a small national park just to the north of Santa Caterina, where we were staying. It was saved from hotel developments by the martyrdom of a local politician about 20 years ago, who got a mafia bullet to the head for her troubles. It a beautiful place, from the rocky shores to the hoary woods, including grottos where Neanderthals etched crude hieroglyphics into the rock 10,000 years ago. On the walk, & my first real solitude for a month, I got stuck into Axis & Allies, which is coming along nicely to its concluding stanzas.
Just as our timing at Calcata could not have been more perfect, so was our arrival in this part of the world. It was the Festival of Santa Maria over the weekend, which is essentially a celebration of new wine. On Friday we noised up some noisy young neighbors, who were having a wee party a few villas up from us. On Saturday we played our second gig in two weeks. This time we were driven by cool-as-fuck Antonio, the sassy middle-aged boss of the estate agents, up to the nearby town of Nardo. En route we popped into a wine shop, for nibbles & a spot of wine-tasting, then arrived in the central piazza. There, Antonio opened up a small-ish room stuffed with instruments, for us to have a wee practice. The place is dedicated to Luigi Stifini, a famous local musician who invented Pizziche – a mesmeric, foot-tapping traditional acoustic music with amazing gypsy undertones.
During our jam the daughter of Mr Stifini – perhaps 65 years old – turns up & starts jamming along with us on a ukelele. Funny as fuck! Then we wandered thro’ the beautiful narrow, baroque streets of Old Nardo to a local bar ran by some cool young ‘uns, where the Pizziche music was in full flow. This was enhanced by two very cute, young Italian birds who were dancing a wild, spontaneous, sensual & elegant whirl of movements & hand gestures – total quality. Not long after we played a few numbers, with the crowd loving it & the musicians joining in. Then the table of covered plates was uncovered to reveal a veritable banquet, the highlight of which was horse-meat stew, which had been cooked for a full nine hours by our ukelele playing Madame, sending my palette into the realms of culinary heaven.
Yesterday was a quiet one – watching the grand prix & a dubbed Spartacus among other things, washing clothes & generally mentally preparing for our movements on. I really can’t wait… for several months through the summer I was researching Homer in the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh, & for the past month have been assembling the information & turning it to cohesive & readable prose. In the next few days I shall be in Cephalonia, which island I have good reasons to suspect houses the site of the palace of Odysseus, in a place nobody has ever conjectured before. My month in Italy has been more of warm-up… practicing my Italian, enjoying the sunshine, preparing notes, tossing off a few sonnets & tryptychs, seeing a few new places, etc. But Greece is a different prospect altogether, a quest in the real sense of the word, beginning soon with a voyage across ancient waters. Interestingly enough, Spartacus was also once in Brindisi with his slave-nation. He had paid some Phoenician sailors to ferry them all to safety, but they had reneged on the deal. I’m just hoping the same thing won’t happen to us with our ferry company!
Hello from Argistoli, the capital of Cephalonia. It’s a lively wee place; pastel houses perched on low ground beside a lagoon, like some Norwegian fjordside settlement. There are 15,000 souls here, & with it being Saturday night the grand piazza is filled with teenagers, while the muter sort stroll pleasantly around in circles along the clean Ionian streets. My first glimpse of Cephalonia came several dawns ago. I was on the Brindisi-Patras ferry & awoke to see a slim, silvery shard capping what appeared to be black hills slightly less inky than the night behind. Then colours started to increase in vividity & before long the whole rugged, mountainous Ionian archipelago was passing our boat on either side. “I’ll see you soon, I muttered into the sea-breeze,” & it is a promise I have kept.
Me & Paul berthed at Patras, a pleasant port city stacked against a mountain, & soon discovered that as the Greeks imported basically everything, the prices of food were proper steep! I think their current economic crisis must be down to all the plates they smash at weddings! My first day in Greece was spent basically sleeping off my lack of sleep on the ferry, plus the hangover from my last 5 litre bottle of cheap Italian red.
We’d camped a few k up the road in a lush spot of greenery, & then waking early carried on our walk. After a few more k we came across a bus station which whizzed us toward our first target – Killini. We almost made it, jumping off the bus on a motorway, then hiking a few more k before setting up camp & building a fire just as dusk. Next morning, as we strolled toward the port, we were picked up by a friendly port official who patrols the waters finding rafts full of Africans. At the port we discovered we had seven hours to wait til our boat – but this was cool as the beer was cheap & we chilled out in the ruins of medieval Glarantza, just beside the harbour, with wonderful views of Kephalonia rising like a supervolcano from the waves.
The ferry crossing was perfect – the sun set into the waters & cast a pink arm around the shoulders of the Kephalonian mountains, an island which grew ever larger as we steamed to its shores. We docked at Polos, a charming town, & camped on its beach for the night, cooking on an open fire, the sea lulling us into a soft sleep. Then yesterday morning, after stocking up on water & supplies for a couple of days, we set off out on our adventure. I’d told Paul that I was searching for the Cove of Phorcys – the old man of the sea – described in book 13 of the Odyssey. It was the final piece in my jigsaw & finding it would be fucking braw! Paul was more interested in the treasure that Odysseus hid in the back of the cave, & so joined in my enthusiasm!
Our walk was delightful, the road soon turned to an earth-track, pickled with goat herds & the lovely chiming of the bells around their necks. On our right stretched the island-peppered sea, with Ithaca ever growing closer, & more detailed, to the north. On our right a long chain of mountains stretched north & below us the road twisted & turned until, with a flash of spaciousness, I saw the cove itself. It fit the description Homer gave perfectly, which was further enhanced once we pitched camp & scouted out the beach. Half-way along was a proper cave, which Homer had described as the Cave of the Naiads, & all round us every box was ticked; the wild olive tree, the overhanging cliffs, the mountain slopes, the beach big enough for a boat, etc. What amazed me more was the strange petrified dragon of a rock formation that commanded one of the headlands. Phorcys was said to be the father of sea-monsters, including a dragon & the gorgons, those hideous ladies who turned things to stone. One can imagine an ancient Greek seeing the curious ‘statue’ & immediately thinking of Phorcys.
That night the Milky Way showed her unpolluted face & we gazed on a TV screen of stars, high over the sea, energized by our find. That brought us to today. Faced with high mountains & impassable coast-line, we walked back to Poros, only to find there wouldn’t be busses til Monday. So, we set off walking, popping in on a Mycenaean tholos tomb on the way – a sort of underground brick beehive 3,500 years old. Not long after I flagged down a van & we were picked up by overfriendly Kirriokos, a 40-ish year old guy who was intrigued to discover I was on the trail of Homer’s Ithaca. Amazingly enough, this very evening in Argostoli there was a series of archeology lectures, one of which covered a Mycenaean dig which supported one of my theories. Getting the VIP treatment, he drove us to Sami, where we paused at the monastery of wild olives, high up & tranquil with gorgeous views. Then he took us the classical-era citadel (where I think Odysseus’ palace is), stopping off to eat some delicious wild red fruits on the way. Then he drove us to the other side of the island through Kephalonia’s hinterland – a true marvel of nature, all lush greenery ringed by mountains – passing a church built over a river (after a miraculous saving of a young boys life) & dropping down into watery Argostoli.
En route he fed us & bought us cappuccinos in the town while we waited for the lectures to begin. These were mostly in Greek, & Paul left after one, but I stayed on, working on my book in an academic setting. Behind me were 20 young Canadian archeology students who had been digging on the island, who gave their teacher a rapturous applause when he stepped up to deliver his lecture. On my part, I got a few tit-bits here & there, & am ready to deliver my findings to the local newspaper first thing Monday… wish me luck