Where Venus Rose from the Waves

The name itself evokes beauty – Portovenere, the port of Venus – and indeed it is a goddess-like place. Embracing an arm of the immense golf dei Poeti, the gulf of poets with views on one side towards the fantasiose rocky coastline of the Cinque Terre and on the other looking across to the highest of the Apuan Alps, Porto Venere is a place to return to again and again and never be disappointed.

Porto Venere takes its name from an ancient temple dedicated to the Goddess Venus This temple has since been built over by the little church of Saint Peter which stands at the end of the promontory leading to the harbour as if to wish every departing sailor a safe journey and to welcome home all those who have risked the often perilous Tyrhennian sea.

There is yet another connection with Venus in Botticelli’s exquisite picture of the goddess’s birth, now in Florence’s Uffizi gallery. At the right side of the painting you can see part of Porto Venere bay with the islands of Palmaria, Tina and Tinetta which form a little archipelago facing it.  The lovely Venus is none other than Simonetta Vespucci, the girl who lived next door to Botticelli when he stayed there and with whom he fell inexorably in love. Considered the loveliest woman of the time, Simonetta tragically died of typhus in 1476 aged just 23. Botticelli immortalised Simonetta in one of the world’s most iconic and gorgeous paintings.

Here is that painting and my thoughts on it:

THE BIRTH OF VENUS

 

The zephyrs blow: she rises from her shell

while flowered maidens wait with cloaks unfurled.

Within her eyes a thousand heavens dwell,

between her thighs the heart of all the world.

 

It is a gentle sea and winds drop sprays

of leaves on little lapping wavelet crests

and buds and reeds bend to love-circling days

as slender fingers cover perfect breasts.

 

Her gold-spun locks enfold like breeze-tinged foam

until long hair entwines her pubic mount;

those lovely arms entice lost lovers home

to arcane planet’s mantle-hidden fount.

 

Meanwhile, the bay and olive grove awaits

to squeeze sweet juice that always satiates.

 

On this visit to Portovenere we climbed to the top of the Doria castle, surely one of the most formidable defences built by the Venetians. We had the place practically to ourselves, far from the increasing crowds of tourists visiting this heavenly part of the Italian coastline. The views were magnificent and the sea so blue!

We visited the church of San Lorenzo, the patron saint of Portovenere and saw the miraculous log which was cast on the shore filled with sacred treasures and reliquaries.

Byron was just one of the poets who fell in love with this area. One could add Shelley, Montale, D. H. Lawrence, George Sand, the painters J. M. W. Turner and Arnold Boklin, Baroness Orczy, she of the ‘Scarlet Pimpernel’, and Dante himself who describes the coastline in his Divine Comedy (Purgatorio Canto V)..

Our hungry stomachs beckoned us to a charming little osteria on one of the caruggi or narrow streets which characterise Porto Venere where we enjoyed an appropriately fish-based meal. It was, indeed fish Friday, my wife is born in the sign of Pisces and the waters around us are fishermen’s paradise.

Another type of beauty beckoned us as we returned to our starting point – a rally of vintage cars ranging from Bugatti to Bentley to Bristol. Their sinuous curves showed me the entrance towards yet another beautiful chamber in the paradise that is Portovenere.

 

You can see more of Portovenere in my post at

https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2017/01/28/venus-harbour/

 

 

 

 

The Dormouse’s Den

If one takes the Via Brennero on the Lima’s other side from Bagni di Lucca one comes across this shop.

‘La Tana Del Ghiro’ means ‘the dormouse’s den’ and has only recently opened for business. The subtitle ‘dal campo alla tavola’ means ‘from the field to the table’ so the food is surely guaranteed free from those debilitating and polluting transport costs which shamefully characterise so much of the foodstuffs we buy today.

It’s a place that sells local agricultural products and also has a restaurant. At the moment the Tana is just starting but the proprietors have assured me that by the summer they’ll have plenty of food stocked which comes from our area. This includes olive oil, honey, potatoes, jams, cheeses, maize flour, vegetables, fruit, pickled vegetables inlcuding onions, crostini sauce, tomato puree, chestnut and wheat flour and mushrooms.

The restaurant is only open for evening meals on some days but the ambience looks promising and certainly what will be served will be both genuine and local.

I gather one thing ‘La Tana del Ghiro’ won’t serve you with is dormice. Although popular with the ancient Romans I’m glad these delightful furry creatures, which spent a large part of their lives sleeping, won’t be on the shelves!

Do phone up the Tana before going there for a meal. Its phone number and email are:

Tel. 0583 805864 – latanadelghiro@hotmail.com

Chinese Checkers

Recently I posted on Ai Weiwei’s exhibition in Florence (see https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2017/01/08/east-meets-west-or-does-it/). This reminded me of our visit to the Shanghai museum last November. After our visit to Tibet we had a little time left in Shanghai and decided to spend it in various ways.

First, we soared by a very fast lift (elevator) to the top of the Jinmao Tower. It’s truly spectacular architecture with wide views over the city:

Jinmao means ‘golden prosperity’ so it’s truly a monument to China’s present golden age, at least as far as industrial production is concerned. The tower, which in some respects echoes New York’s Chrysler building of 1931, dates from 1999, has eighty stories and is 1,380 feet tall. It’s not the tallest skyscraper in China, however. That record is held by the nearby Shanghai tower which surpassed it at 2,073 ft. in 2015 and is the world’s tallest building as far as usable floor space is concerned.

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(Jinmao tower on left, Shanghai tower in centre)

However the Jinmao tower was tall enough for us and it has an amazing hollow centre which contains one of the highest internal atriums in the world.

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Its’s incredible to think that twenty years ago all this area of Shanghai was largely occupied by marshland and paddy fields .

Second, we visited the old town which is a shopper’s paradise especially if you are buying tea. It’s also the best place to eat delicious Xiaolongbao (Shanghai dumplings).

We could escape from the urban bustle into the peaceful atmosphere of the Yuyu (happiness) gardens which are highly characteristic of this part of China with its pavilions and rocks. The gardens have a long history and were started in 1559 during the Ming dynasty by Pan Yunduan, the governor of Sichuan province, as a present to his aged father Pan En who had been governor of Shanghai. It was truly wonderful to find this haven in the heart of Shanghai’s megalopolis.

In the centre of the gardens we attended a fine open-air concert:

Third, we ventured on the extensive Shanghai metro system to reach the fabulous Shanghai museum, perhaps the finest repository of Chinese art in the world. The museum’s architecture is most original being based on the shape of an ancient bronze cooking pot called a ding. The building is round and set on a square base echoing the traditional Chinese idea of the world as having a round sky and a square earth.

Visiting everything in the museum, which was opened in 1993, seemed a daunting task at first. The exhibits on its five stories, however, were well labelled and beautifully displayed. The sections were classified according to themes and materials used: bronze,

(Noticed the Ding on which the museum is architecture is based in the last photo?)

sculpture,

ceramics,

jades,

paintings,

calligraphy,

seals, coins, furniture

and minorities

.I was particularly touched by the Marquis Yi’s ceremonial bells (bhianzong) given to King Li as a ‘thankyou’ present for some land given to him after a good fighting record. How do we know? Yi’s name and the Chinese for thankyou are inscribed on the bells. These carillon-like bells are still playable after over two thousand five hundred years! This is what they sound like:

Our visit to the Shanghai museum was a wonderful extra to our adventures in China and Tibet. In the evening we had a scrumptious last supper on Chinese soil at the chic Astor House Hotel once favoured by such celebrities as Einstein, Bertrand Russell and Chaplin:

Next morning we were off to the airport on the fastest train in the world: the Maglev (magnetic levitation) travelling at speeds above 400 kph.

Undoubtedly we shall return soon to this part of the world for there is so much more to see and explore and it’s all changing so fast just like our train journey to the airport.

Which reminds me: if you are craving for Xiaolongbao there are some delicious ones to be had in a Chinese eatery (Ni Hao) just round the corner from the Palazzo Blu in Pisa.

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Our Christmas 2016

“Pasqua con chi vuoi ma Natale con i tuoi” is a familiar Italian adage meaning ‘spend Easter with whom you like but spend Christmas with your own.”

Our own are us two, our cats and ducks (and two goldfish to be on the complete side) and that’s the company we spent our Christmas with.

First we opened our presents (which are strictly either utilitarian or chocolaty).

Then Sandra set busy preparing Christmas lunch.

After the hors d’oevre which consisted of home-made bread crostini with salmon and liver pate a la fiorentina:

we plunged into scrumptious oven-baked lasagne:

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This was followed by quails and a variety of vegetables including fennel and mushrooms. Delicious!

We finished off with mince pie and cream.

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After a little festive rest after lunch we went for our traditional Christmas walk with two of our cats Carlotta and Cheeky. (Napoleon is over seventy cat years old so we made an allowance for him).

The evening finished with us watching the Moscow ballet production of the ‘Nutcracker’ as performed at Lucca’s Giglio Theatre (see my post on that at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2016/12/08/nuts-about-ballet-in-lucca/ )

The Christmas period in Italy has been so mild that it hardly seems winter at all – rather a harbinger of spring. I wonder if winter will really make itself felt later on, however…

 

Our Christmas Eve

How did we spend our Christmas Eve?

First we travelled over the pass from Benabbio through Boveglio past Colognora to Collodi and thence to San Gennaro where we visited the marzipan (mmmmm) crib in Palazzo Bocella done by the students of the management and catering school there.

Next door there was more to see in the wonderful Romanesque parish church including this exquisite sculpture of an angel by Leonardo da Vinci executed when he was still a pupil of Verrocchio. It’s Leonardo’s one surviving sculpture and was only identified as by the master at the end of the last century.

Remember the angels Leonardo painted for Christ’s baptism for his teacher Verrocchio and which you can see in Florence’s Uffizi?

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There are lots more to see in San Gennaro’s pieve including an ancient  wooden statue of San Gennaro himself:

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A beautiful pulpit:

And marvellous capitals on the columns.

Then back to Collodi with its literary associations and that giant Pinocchio on the way out.

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Then past ‘Caspita’, the Chinese shop by the roundabout at the end of Viale Europa, for some last minute shopping.

Then for an evening meal (it’s traditional in Italy to eat fish-based courses on Christmas Eve) at Da Pinzo in Ponte a Moriano. Our course included a delicious plate of farfalle with salmon:

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and bacalà (cod) with capers and potatoes:

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Then, leaving the car at Ponte a Moriano we climbed into the navetta (shuttle bus –‘ literally ‘little ship’) for Midnight Mass with the best music around at the Convento dell’Angelo once belonging to the Passionist fathers but now Maestro Kuhn’s Montegral singing finishing school.

This was the programme of the liturgy:

 

The convent has become our traditional Christmas Eve venue. For more on Montegral see my posts at:

https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/12/25/its-christmas-day/

https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/12/25/reaching-the-holy-grail/

Then back home at around 3 am and a good sleep before Christmas day!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unitre Christmas Lunch at Borghesi’s in Bagni di Lucca Villa

Our Unitre (University of the Third Age) Christmas lunch was held at the Borghesi restaurant in Bagni di Lucca Villa a few days ago.

I’ve already written about the opening of Borghesi restaurant and bar in my post at

https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/05/31/a-great-day-for-bagni-di-lucca-villa/

and described a meal there at:

https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/10/22/bountiful-borghesi/

but have not yet mentioned how good Borghesi is at catering for larger parties.

Despite the fact that the well-loved front part of the restaurant with its floral frescoes no longer forms part of Borghesi the space remaining is ample enough.

This was our menu:

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The antipasto was very good, especially the fried artichokes.

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The vellutata ai funghi (smooth soup with mushrooms and little bits of toasted bread with herbs) was excellent and went down a treat.

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The maccheroni, (large edge-frilled pasta squares, not to be confused with the English ‘macaroni’ tubes) made with chestnut flour and ragù sauce, was also highly delectable.

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The secondo, arista al forno (Tuscan pork roast) with patate duchesse (duchess potatoes i.e. potatoes mashed with egg yolk, butter and cream), was equally delicious.

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(The pomegranate pips were not just Christmassy – they were a homage to Matilde di Canossa in her anniversary year – if you’d like to know more read my posts on this great lady at:

https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2016/06/26/divided-between-body-and-mind/

https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/10/25/who-was-matilde-di-canossa/

https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/11/15/borgo-a-mozzanos-matilde/

The dessert, which consisted of crema portoghese (a sort of crème caramel), was accompanied by castagnaccia (chestnut pancake) and ended a very enjoyable Christmas lunch which, at twenty euros a head (including wine, coffee, bread and cover) was very good value.

Visitors from across the big pond are often surprised at how rather smaller Italian meal portions are. But does one really want to depart from a restaurant with a bloated feeling? Each of the five courses was well proportioned and accompanied (of course) by good wine, bread and focaccia. We left the restaurant comfortably replete.

I have no hesitation in recommending Borghesi for even the larger groups (booking, of course, on tel 0583 86514). Its standards of cooking have improved even further and the week-day fixed lunch at ten euros has to be of equally good value.

I do hope that the Borghesi will open out the back of their restaurant so that summer diners may have the option of eating under sunshades as in another well-known restaurant in Bagni di Lucca Villa.

Congratulations to Borghesi for having reached their nineteenth month of good quality catering in Bagni di Lucca Villa.

 

 

A Perfect Day

What’s the definition of a perfect day?

First, perfect weather like we’ve rarely had it this so late in the year.

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Second, perfect company: people you really feel at your ease with.

Third, a perfect walk to appreciate the beauties our blue planet can offer to the entire cosmos of creation.

Aren’t the winter beeches and silver birches fabulous against that cerulean appenine December sky!

Fourth, perfect food. And, since it was also the feast of the Immaculate Conception, our host wittily quipped it’s also the feast of the immaculate confection.

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The bignole came from a patisserie I’d never suspected of producing such wonders. It’s called Da Pino and it’s located at Calavorno, a place one usually sweeps through in search of more romantic locations. I savoured their chocolate truffles and also their cherry liqueur bomba. Truly it’s a mouth-watering explosion of flavour. Be careful though: the cherry has its pip like all true cherries. So don’t get too stoned eating them…

Finally, a bustling Christmas mercantino di Natale at Fornoli where one meets half of one’s little world of friends.

That’s my definition of a perfect day:

 

 

Hills unfold blue waves:

The sun on my face breaths love:

Contentment of life.